How A Single Egg Contributed to A Father's Nervous Breakdown
A play about a simple egg and how it reduced a father to a blithering fool.
- They rented ten acres of poor, stony land and launced into chicken raising.
- "It was an egg that reduced my father to a trembling, weeping boy."
- "What could be keeping that train?"
They rented ten acres of poor, stony land and launced into chicken raising.
I discovered that one of the stories in Sherwood Anderson's short story collection, “The Triumph of the Egg” was written about my father.
Not really, but it was almost uncanny in its resemblance to my dad and his experience with chicken raising in the 1940’s. (My father even owned a restaurant like the main character in the short story.)
Father was no more successful than Anderson's protagonist, and my father suffered from the same painful feelings of insecurity and in spite of his best efforts, he was not ‘good enough’ to be a success at anything he tried.
And when success continued to elude him, he resigned himself to his lot in life and no longer dreamed of a better life for himself or his family.
I had to write a play inspired by Sherwood Anderson's short story,”The Triumph of the Egg” ; I’d sneak my father in the literary ‘back door’ and make it his story as well.
Although my mother was not a school teacher like the woman in Anderson's story, she was a lot like my mother. It could be said that she was 'a lot' like many of the women in the 1940’s where one’s husband came first-no matter what hairbrained ideas he might have at any given moment. (Women couldn't afford wild ideas, they had to think of their children's welfare first.)
Play: The Egg: A Tragedy
Time: Late Thirties
Scene opens with HOLDEN KETTERING in chicken yard. (Stage Center) Holden is seventeen. Holden is dressed in overalls, straw hat on head. He carries bag of chicken feed.
My father, by nature a cheerful, kindly man worked as a farm hand up to the time he was 34 years old.
On Saturday evenings he drove into town, drank several glasses of beer and
visited with farm hands. At ten o’clock he drove horse, and himself home.. He was quite happy with his position in life.
My father had no notion of trying to rise in the world. My father by nature…
(VIOLET, Holden’s mother comes on stage. Violet is carrying books in her hand. )
Not by nature Holden, by design.
(Violet walks over and to book case and begins to put them in)
Father liked to sing songs, tell jokes. He had no notion of trying to rise…..
Your father wasn’t happy. He was just waiting for a purpose in life.
I gave him that.
At thirty-four, he married my mother, a country school teacher.
He was thirty-five years old when you came into the world. It was spring,
A time of growth and promise.
Father had no notion of trying to rise in the world. But
after I was born, something happened to my parents.
They became ambitious.
Delivered of you, I became large with plans and dreams.
You would rule over men some day. Your father would rise from poverty to greatness like Abraham Lincoln.
Violet opens book.
"From log cabin to White House."
The American passion for getting up the world took possession of them.
For the first time Holden acknowledges his mother. HE TURNS TOWARD HER.
Mother put down that book! It smells of chicken feathers.
Violet continues to leaf through the pages.
My mother induced father to give up his place as a farm hand, sell his horse and embark on an independent enterprise of his own.
Violet puts book back in case.
Frederick, come in here. I want to discuss something with you.
They rented ten acres of poor, stony land and launched into chicken raising.
FREDERICK ENTERS. His is around 45, and is balding. He is a little pudgy.
What is it, Vi?
I, on the other hand, am a gloomy man inclined to see the darker side of life.
Out in the chicken yard.
I attribute it to the fact that what should have been joyous days of childhood was spent on a chicken farm.
Strange boy, that one.
What do you mean?
He was sitting down on a tree stump in the chicken yard staring down
one of the hens.
It’s the heat. It hasn’t rained in a week. It’s make anyone ‘strange.’
Frederick slumps down in SOFA.
I’m discouraged, Vi. We’ve had the chicken farm for about ten years and I’m more in debt now than I’ve even been in my life.
I think most philosophers must have been raised on chicken farms.
I made more money as a hired farm hand!
Consider if you will all the many and tragic things than can happen to a chicken.
It’s born out of an egg, lives for a few weeks as a tiny fluffy thing such as you see pictured on Easter cards. It then becomes hideously naked. It eats quantities of corn and meal, it gets a disease called Pip, cholera, and it stands looking with stupid eyes at the sun.
Becomes sick and dies.
Every cent I can scrape together goes for some cure for chicken diseases.
Wilmer’s White Wonder Cholera Cure worked wonders for keeping the mosquitoes away. It didn’t do much for the Cholera.
I’ve been thinking of a plan.
A few hens, now and then a rooster, intended to serve God’s mysterious ends, may struggle through to maturity.
The incubators won’t hatch. We can’t even afford the chicken feed.
We won’t let this gets us down, Frederick. The only failure is giving up.
The hens lay eggs out of which come other chickens and the dreadful cycle is made complete.
I’m nearly forty-five years old, Vi. Too old to start over.
I won’t listen to that! You’ve got your best years ahead of you. We’ll just have to put our thinking caps on and come up with something else.
Violet begins to pull different books from the shelf.
Let’s see, how can we use the raising of chickens for experience to get into another line of work?
Small chickens just setting out on the journey of life look so bright and alert and they are in fact dreadfully stupid.
Frederick looks toward Violet.
I wish you wouldn’t consult your books Vi. The last time you did that I got into the chicken business.
I don’t understand where we went wrong, Frederick. Raising Chickens for More Than Chicken Feed assured us that fortunes could be made out of poultry farms.
Chickens are so much like people they mix one up in one’s judgment of life.
Violet put the book back, pulls out another.
What can we do with all the eggs the hens lay?
Make a giant-size omelet? We could feed all of Bidwell.
Most philosophers have been raised on chicken farms.
Frederick, that’s it!
I’m not buying any more chickens, Vi.
We’ll go into the restaurant business!
Oh, no! She’s hatched another of her plans.
Restaurant business. What do I know about the restaurant business?
What is there to know? People have to eat. I can cook. You yourself said my blueberry pie could be world famous.
I don’t know…
You need only two of the twenty-six letters of the English Alphabet
To answer her father.
It’s risky, Vi. It’ll take time to find a suitable place we can afford to buy.
The fourteenth and fifteen letter. They’re next to each other for
There’s an empty store building opposite the railroad station in Bidwell.
I discovered it when our last batch of chickens failed to incubate and
I checked into it. We can get it for a song, Frederick.
When I think about it, it just may not be a bad idea. We would just feature short orders, no big menu items and with your famous pies…people would be sure to come.
FREDERICK GET UP AND GOES OVER TO TOP OF BOOKSHELF.
He takes down glass jar with a deformed chicken in it. He holds it
(almost lovingly) I his arms.
And then they’re always my Grotesques.
Not those, Father.
I’ve always suspected that people would be interested in them.
Frederick you know how I hate those things!
The grotesques are valuable. People like to look at strange
And wonderful things.
Not In a restaurant!
LIGHTS DIM ON VIOLET AND FREDERICK.
Let me tell you a little about father’s grotesques. On a chicken farm where hundreds of chicken come out of eggs, surprising things sometimes happen. Grotesques are born out of eggs and out of people.
It doesn’t happen often, perhaps once in a thousand births.
A chicken is born that has four legs, two pairs of wings, two heads or what not.
The things do not live.
The fact that the poor little things could not live was one of the tragedies
of life to father. He saved all the little monstrous things that had been born
on our chicken farm. They were preserved in alcohol and put in its own
This is our big chance Holden. I feel it in my bones. It’ll be hard
work, but we’re used to that.
We’ve got a new president now and he’s assured us that the only
thing we have to fear is fear itself.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was not raised on a chicken farm.
We’re down, but we’re not licked. I believe in our American
Success is for anyone who wants it badly enough. Our
Restaurant is going to make money because your father
and I will not accept failure!
A restaurant, Mother. It will be too much work. At your-----
It’ll take about a month to get in shape. I saw that there were rooms
Upstairs that can be converted into living space for boarders.
….time of life.
There’s the passenger train that’ll bring in customers. The
Travelers will be tired and want something to eat and a place
Who knows we might even be able to sell them an egg or two.
I don’t ever want to see an egg again.
You’re far too pessimistic, Holden. You’ve got to see the bright side of life.
(Looks toward father)
Look at him, Mother. Cradling those…grotesques as if they were
something alive and precious.
When we open the restaurant he’ll forget them Holden. He’ll have
other things to fill up his mind. Just you wait and see.
He’ll not forget Mother. He’s preserved them in alcohol.
"It was an egg that reduced my father to a trembling, weeping boy."
LIGHTS UP ON RESTAURANT AREA CENTER STAGE. A small radio on a shelf is playing “Boo-Hoo” (Boo-Hoo Edward Heyman, Carment Lombardo and John Jacob Loeb, c. 1936)
True to mother’s words, we opened in a month. He did all the work himself, put in shelves of canned vegetables, and dry goods. When the work was done, he painted a sign on which he put his name in large red letters.
Below his name was the sharp command, “Eat Here”.
It was seldom obeyed. We were getting some customer’s but not enough to cover expenses.
If father just hadn’t gotten an idea to get up in the world!
LIGHTS DIM ON RESTAURANT AND COME UP ON LIVING AREA.
Frederick and VIOLET are seated on couch drinking coffee.
I’ve finally figured out why I can’t make the restaurant pay.
It takes time, Frederick. Our trade is beginning to build. Only
Yesterday I sold six blueberry pies.
The place isn’t fun!
I beg your pardon?
I’m too serious. To really get ahead in the world a person’s got to be cheerful.
You’re taciturn by nature, Frederick.
My nature isn’t imprinted on me like a Zebra’s stripes! I’ll become jolly
if it kills me! There’s nothing to Vi. I’ve just got to smile when
I don’t feel like it. Do it enough times and it’ll begin to feel
I’ll entertain my customers; tell stories---maybe show them a trick or two.
Frederick freezes in posture suggestive of a Magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Lights UP back on restaurant.
Holden begins to swab counter.
For two weeks this notion of the Jolly Innkeeper invaded our house. Mother smiled at the boarders, and I, catching the infection, smiled at the cat.
We smiled a lot before something happened that forever ruined father’s
plans to become a successful restaurateur/entertainer.
Holden walks over to end of counter where there’s a basket of eggs.
It was an egg that reduced my father to a trembling, weeping boy at
My mother’s knee. An egg.
Holden picks up an egg and turns it over in his hands.
The thin-shelled ovum of a bird.
Holden puts egg back in basket. LIGHTS DIM AND VI AND FREDERICK BECOME ANIMINATED.
I’m going to start tonight, Vi. I feel reborn---fresh out of my shell.
They’ll be young people waiting for the train and I’ll show them
what I can do.
Frederick gets up and goes to door.
(Ala George Burns)
“Say goodnight, Gracie.”
“Say goodnight, Gracie.”
LIGHTS GO DOWN AND THEN UP ON RESTAURANT. JOE RHODES A YOUNG MERCHANT FROM BIDWELL IS SEATED AT COUNTER DRINKING
A CUP OF COFFEE.
FREDERICK ENTERS THE RESTAURANT. He sees RHODES, and becomes frozen in fright. Frederick is suffering from stage fright.
Rhodes notices Frederick staring and he clears his throat. He’s embarrassed. He signals HOLDEN.
I’ll have another cup of coffee, Holden my boy. And what about one of
Those five-cent cigars?
Holden pours another cup of coffee and takes cigar from case and gives it to him.
I’ll glad you’re here, dad. I’m beat.
Holden takes off his apron and hang it on hook. He waves to his dad and goes out the door.
Frederick put the apron on that Holden has taken off and then over and takes his place behind the counter.
I’m waitin’ for the evening train. My dad’s on it. It’s was supposed to
have been here by now.
Frederick thrusts his hand over the counter.
How do you do! I’m Frederick Kettering.
Frederick points to sign over door.
That’s me, proprietor. I own the place.
Joe Rhodes takes hand his offered hand and shakes.
I’m ah, just waiting for the 11 o’clock from Mineral Wells.
Frederick stands like an announcer on a radio program.
Well! Yes, Ah Good Evening, Friends----and what of it?
Frederick laughs. Rhodes shakes his head in puzzlement.
It’s the announces in “The Cuckoo Hour…then Knight says,
“Good evening, fellow pixies, this is Raymond Knight, the
Voice of the Diaphragm e-nun-ciating.”
Oh. Well, I don’t have time to listen to radio much. The store keeps me
If you don’t have the store closed by when that show comes on,
you’re in deep trouble.
It’s a comedy show, isn’t it? I’m not real crazy about comedy.
RHODES picks up paper on counter. He starts to read it. Frederick panics. He goes over to the egg basket and brings it over. He sets it down next to RHODES.
You heard of Christopher Columbus?
I beg your pardon?
RHODES puts down paper.
Christopher Columbus, the 15 century navigator who discovered America!
Oh, that Christopher Columbus.
It’s wrong to teach children that Christopher Columbus was a great man
when he cheated at the critical moment.
RHODES looks at his watch.
Okay, he thought he discovered India when he landed in America.
but that was a common mistake at the time.
I’m talking about his famous egg trick! The one taught at school.
When he was told by Spanish couriers that a problem was too difficult
To solve, he challenged them to stand an egg on end.
I don’t remember no egg trick.
They tried and tried. It can’t be done, they said. Old Christopher
then took the egg, lightly cracked the shell at one end of the pole
and it stands on end.
Now, I’m going to show you how to stand on egg on its end----without cheating!
This I gotta see!
Frederick takes an egg from the basket. He rolls the egg between the palms of his hand
You see it’s the warmth of my hands and the gentle rolling movement
That gives the egg a new center of gravity. It has something to do
With the electricity in the body.
I’ve handled thousand of eggs. No one knows more about eggs
Than I do. Now, watch this!
Frederick stands the egg on end. It falls over. Frederick picks up the egg and begins to rub it again. He tries to stand it on end, and it topples over.
Rhodes picks up paper. Opens it.
It’s a certain feeling you get in the palm of your hand when the egg
Is ready. Aha I think I feel it. I think I have it! Mr. Rhodes kindly direct your attention this way please.
Frederick is so intent upon his trick that he does not notice that Rhodes has not looked up from his paper.
FREDERICK STANDS EGG ON END.
Rhodes looks up a split second after the eggs falls on its side. He does not see it.
The egg is on its side.
You missed it! I had the egg standing on end. I swear it!
I believe only what I see now. The egg is supine.
Frederick picks up egg and begins to rub it again.
I’ll have to do it again.
Frederick begins to rub egg again.
Rub it long enough, it might hatch.
What was that?
I said you might have to start over---from scratch.
"What could be keeping that train?"
Frederick rubs the egg too hard. It breaks. He doesn’t seem to notice. He takes another egg out of the basket and begins to rub it.
Rhodes picks up paper. He’s lost all interest..
I did it once. I can do it again! It’s the heat of the body and the
gentle rolling of the egg back and forth.
Are you watching?
Rhodes puts down paper. A deep sigh.
When Frederick thinks the egg is right he gently tries to balance it on one end. The egg falls over.
Pshaw! You’ve given new meaning to the showman’s term “to lay an egg.”
I tell you I had it standing on end! Why can’t anything happen when it’s supposed to? If you had just been looking at the right time, you would have seen it.
Everything in this world----the universe depends on timing. My wife, Violet
is a school teacher and she always tells me that great men are great because they were born at the right time in history.
It’s the timing. Being born at the right time.
Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin in a place called Stinking Spring Farm and look what happened to him.
He was shot.
He was president at the right time in history. It’s all in the timing.
Rhodes looks at watch.
Speaking of time. What could be keeping that train? I’m to meet
my father. He’s coming in from Mineral Springs.
Frederick claps his hands together.
Well what else can I show you?
Nothing! Please, I’ve seen enough.
Frederick reaches under counter and takes out two jars of GROTESQUES. He
puts these in front of Cane.
Say look at this. Vi made me put them out of sight.
How would you like to have seven legs and two heads like this little fellow.
Or this one---came into this world with two pairs of wings.
I agree with your wife. Those things have no place in a restaurant!
You don’t find them interesting?
Not in here, for God’s sakes!
Rhodes starts to get off the stool.
I need some fresh air. I going outside to wait for father.
Frederick quickly come out from behind the counter and grabs his arm. He ‘sits’ him back down.
No, sit down! Here let me freshen your coffee. And I’ll even get
You in a cigar. On the house.
I’ll just put these things away. The timing is wrong.
Frederick laughs----he’s is a little out of control.
Frederick puts grotesques behind the counter. He pours Rhodes coffee and gets a cigar from the case. Rhodes smells the cigar, and then puts it in his pocket.
That’s rightly neighborly of you. Thank you.
Frederick takes out a pan, fills it with vinegar and then takes jug from beneath the counter and puts it in front of Rhodes.
And now for your entertainment, I’m about to perform another trick.
Please don’t bother, Mr. Kettering. I’m all tricked out.
This is one you’ll be glad you saw.
Frederick around and turns on HOT PLATE.
I’ll heat this egg in this pan of vinegar, then put it through the neck of a
bottle without breaking the shell.
Any moment now---the train….
When the egg is inside the bottle it’ll resume its normal shape and the shell will
become hard again.
Maybe it jumped the tracks.
When I’m done I’ll give you the bottle with the egg in it. People will want to know how the egg got in the bottle.
But don’t tell them! Keep them guessing. That’s the way to have fun
with the trick.
Frederick takes out the egg and attempts to put it through the neck of the bottle.
Looks like I jumped the gun. The water wasn’t hot enough.
I’ll take your word Mr. Kettering. I know the trick will work because
you say it will.
Ha, there. It might be hot enough.
Frederick takes the egg out of the water. He burns his finger.
TRAIN WHISTLES SOUNDS IN THE DISTANCE.
I hear the train! The train. The blessed train!
Frederick is now in state of panic.
Wait! Just a moment more. The shell has to be soft, just soft enough
to get through the neck of the bottle.
Frederick tries to force egg through neck of jug.
Almost got it.
Frederick is sweating now. He pushes and the egg BREAKS.
You’ve got quite a mess there Mr. Kettering.
Rhodes get off the stool and heads for the door. He looks back at Frederick who is now just staring in space. He is a broken man.
I’ve got to go. Thanks for…...the show.
Rhodes exits hurriedly. FREDERICK PUT HIS HAND UP TO PROTEST, HE SEES THAT IT IS HOPELESS, AND HIS HAND DROPS WOODENLY TO HIS SIDE. HE IS IN DESPAIR.
LIGHTS UP ON CHICKEN YARD AS IN PLAY OPENING. HOLDEN IS SEATED ON THE LOG.
After that, father was a broken man. He sold the restaurant. He never raised another chicken, or ate another egg.
He returned to his tactiturn nature and lived out his remaining years
taking odd jobs, talking to his neighbors, and occasionally going into town for
his glasses of ale and visiting with the farm hands.
It was as if he was trying to force all his hopes and dreams inside the neck of a bottle and when they didn’t fit he lost his will to succeed.
There goes my literary son with his literary similes. Your father was done
in by an egg, Holden.
LIGHTS SLOWLY DIM.