Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1057
Beggar on Horseback begins in a run-down, inexpensive apartment rented by a young composer named Neil McRae. Since Neil is in the habit of leaving his door unlocked, Dr. Albert Rice, Neil’s friend, walks in. He is no sooner in the room than Cynthia Mason, Neil’s neighbor, walks in. After a brief conversation, she realizes that they share a mutual interest in Neil, who has been forced to give private music lessons and to do hackwork at night to make ends meet. He has therefore had to postpone completion of the symphony on which he had been working. When Neil returns, he tells them that the family of his only music student, Gladys Cady, is coming for tea. He invites Cynthia to the party, but she declines.
Gladys arrives, accompanied by her mother, father, and brother, Homer. Cynthia’s father is a well-to-do businessman who is constantly talking on the telephone. While Gladys shows Neil some cloth samples for a dress that she plans to have made, Mr. and Mrs. Cady question Albert about his family. Mr. Cady then suggests that Neil forget about writing “highbrow” music and start giving the public what it wants so that he can make more money. Before leaving, Mrs. Cady asks Neil to play the piano for them the next time they come over, and Mr. Cady invites Albert to play golf with him.
After the Cadys leave, Albert takes Cynthia aside and tells her that Neil is wasting his genius on the “hack” orchestrations that he has been writing. He goes on to suggest that Neil marry Gladys so that he will be financially secure and have time to write. Cynthia reluctantly agrees. Before he leaves, Albert gives Neil a sleeping pill. Neil then confesses to Cynthia that he loves her, but she informs him that she is moving uptown the next day to room with a friend. Disheartened, Neil, who is now groggy from the effects of the pill, proposes to Gladys over the phone, drops the receiver, and passes out.
The expressionistic part of the play begins as Neil begins to dream. He is roused by the sounds of a jazz orchestra across the street, which, at his command, begins to play a jazzy version of the wedding march from Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin (1846-1848). Gladys and her family appear, dressed up for a wedding, although in an exaggerated fashion. Albert, acting as minister, informs Neil that he is getting married. While Albert conducts the ceremony, a trainman walks by (the wedding is occurring in a train station) yelling, “Wolverine to Monte Carlo.” Gladys and Neil are married as the lights dim.
When the lights come up again, Gladys and Neil are married and living in a mansion (suggested by a series of white columns). As in the beginning of the play, the Cadys pay Neil a visit. Despite Neil’s insistence that all he wants to do is write his music, Cady declares that Neil is going into business the next day. Before long, other guests begin to arrive, all of whom are invisible. The scene turns chaotic as Neil stumbles among the guests and the butlers’ invisible trays. Upon request, Neil begins playing the piano. He plays a song that reminds him of Cynthia, and she enters through a window. While he is telling her how unhappy he is, Neil’s music changes to jazz, which Neil ends with a crash.
Neil begins his first day at work by going to the Ins and Outs Department in search of a pencil. He soon finds himself bogged down in red tape, going from office to office and signing requisition forms. Then, because of a suggestion Neil made that saved the company millions, Neil is made head of his department and rewarded with several bonuses.
Back home in the mansion with the white pillars, Neil adamantly refuses to take dancing lessons, in spite of Gladys’s entreaties. Gladys reminds Neil of all that her father has done for him, but he accuses Cady of having ruined him. When she tears up the manuscript of his symphony, he flies into a rage and stabs her. He also stabs Mr. Cady, Mrs. Cady, and Homer. The scene ends with the entrance of six reporters, all dressed alike, whom Neil invites to his trial.
The second part of the play opens in a courtroom. The jurors (Neil’s dancing instructors) talk among themselves about how much they admire the judge; Albert plays a newspaper reporter. Dressed in a robe that barely hides his gold clothes, Mr. Cady sits in the judge’s stand. The ensuing trial is turned into a parody. Gladys appears and talks her father into giving her ten thousand dollars so she can go dancing. Judge Cady responds to Neil’s threat to take his case to a higher court by raising his stand three feet into the air and reversing the lower court’s decision. Miffed, Gladys takes Albert dancing. Since Neil believes that his music is the most important circumstance in the murder case, he defends himself by playing his symphony. Unfortunately, because Gladys tore up the manuscript, he cannot play the music correctly, and the result is noise. Eventually Neil is sentenced to spend the rest of his life working at the Consolidated Art Factory.
The next scene is a nightmarish distortion of the predicament of the commercial artist. Neil, along with the world’s greatest poet, magazine illustrator, and novelist, is confined to a cell where he is forced to churn out an endless number of commercially successful songs. Tired of compromising his artistic principles, Neil tells the tour guide that he is quitting, and Mr. Cady threatens to execute Neil. Neil is so determined to be free that he and Cynthia choose their own executioner. As they face the encroaching darkness, the Cady family is heard in the background.
When the lights go on again, the realistic part of the play resumes. Cynthia, who is at Neil’s side, tells him that widgets would be worse than any form of poverty. Neil agrees, but he is trapped in an engagement to Gladys. When Gladys phones him to ask for a postponement of their engagement, however, Neil convinces her that they are not suited for each other. Cynthia then asks, “Want me?”
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 344
Connelly and Kaufman employ simultaneous dialogue to accentuate the differences among characters and their lifestyles, which are diametrically opposed to one another. In the beginning of the play, during Neil’s party, Neil introduces Cynthia to Mrs. Cady at the same time that Mr. Cady is making business decisions over the telephone: Clearly, Mr. Cady differs from Neil in that his primary concern is not with making new acquaintances. Later, the Cadys quiz Albert about his family’s social connections while Gladys asks Neil his opinion on the cloth samples that she is showing him; in this case, Connelly and Kaufman emphasize the trivial preoccupations of the Cadys by comparing their conversations.
The playwrights’ use of simultaneous dialogue in the realistic section is an accurate depiction of the way people talk at parties, but this same device is employed in the expressionistic scenes in a wonderfully exaggerated way. When the Cadys make their first visit after Neil and Gladys are married, all four of them speak simultaneously to show that they are all self-centered individuals who are a family in name only. In the courtroom scene, Connelly contrasts the inane chit-chat of the ushers with the serious charges that the prosecuting attorney is making against Neil.
The playwrights also comment on the shallowness of the Cadys through the costumes and props used in the expressionist scenes. For example, the dress that Gladys wears after her marriage to Neil is a mockery of the dress that she had worn to Neil’s apartment. Mr. Cady, who had to “sacrifice” a day on the golf links in order to attend Neil’s party, is shown wearing his golf clothes throughout the expressionist scenes. The playwrights ridicule (through exaggeration) the importance that rich people place on the trappings of wealth. Checks not only make up a bouquet that Gladys carries but also turn into the cloth that Gladys intends to use for a dress; the waiters in the fancy restaurant where Neil and Gladys dine give them menus which are three times the size of ordinary menus.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 51
Sources for Further Study
Kellock, H. “Beggar on Horseback.” Freeman 8 (March 5, 1924): 617-618.
Lewisohn, Louis. “Beggar on Horseback.” Nation 118 (February 27, 1924): 238-239.
Maggowan, Kenneth. “From the Four Corners of American Art.” Theatre Arts 8 (April, 1924): 215-228.
Nolan, Paul T. Marc Connelly. New York: Twayne, 1969.
Young, Stark. “Beggar on Horseback.” The New Republic 38 (March 5, 1924): 45-46.
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