The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Contractor opens with three naked poles, the basic framework for a large tent. The workmen drift onstage slowly, shivering and preoccupied with food; the audience sees that it is early morning and cold, the beginning of the working day. Ewbank hurries them along with a few choice insults. His two concerns are that the lawn will be damaged and that the workmen will upset a house full of guests by relieving themselves in view of the windows. The audience swiftly gathers that he is not only the boss but also (for the first time in his working life) the client. The tent will showcase a first-class wedding reception for his daughter, who is marrying “above” her family. The men go through the “ritual of touching forelock,” but Ewbank’s fussing makes little difference to the rhythm of their work. It is punctuated already by bursts of patter (and sly jokes on the boss’s discomfort) by the two Irishmen, Marshall and Fitzpatrick.

Paul lounges onstage, hands in his pockets. While the truck is unloaded, he lingers, offering to help. Ewbank ignores him; his daughter, who enters briefly, is clearly more a favorite. When the family leaves, the men revert to type, snatching breathers and mouthfuls of food, mocking Glenny’s stammer, discussing wives and daughters, making up limericks, and playacting at “work.” Nevertheless, work proceeds methodically; side-poles are erected, then canvas shackled. The latter, Bennett points out, is all new: clean and white.

One by one, all the inhabitants of the house are drawn to the work. Old Ewbank wanders in, showing off a piece of rope he made in his craftsman days. Act 1 reaches its peak of physical activity when the men all crawl under the canvas and, pulling in unison on the “guys” (ropes), raise the tent. Paul reappears and settles to work. The walling is hung, and battens for the flooring are laid out. Mrs. Ewbank makes the men a pot of tea. At the end of the act, Paul sits, abstracted, in the empty tent while the men take...

(The entire section is 821 words.)