The Wax Cradle
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The Wax Cradle

Louisa May Alcott is best known as the author of Little Women, but this is the true story of her life challenges.

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The Wax Cradle

Louisa May Alcott is best known as the author of Little Women. What is not so well know is that she lived a life quite apart from her main protagonist (and some say alter ego) Jo March. This is a serious look at her life.

Author:    Jo J. Adamson


       Louisa May Alcott is best known as the author of Little Women. What is not so well know is that she lived a life quite apart from her main protagonist (and some say alter ego) Jo March. “The Wax Cradle” is a drama that reveals the complex relationship between Louisa and her father, Bronson. On the one hand, Louisa feels a deep love for the kindly scholar; on the other hand, she feels resentment for his failure to adequately provide for his family.
       Louisa’s life is fraught with poverty, hunger and cold. Louisa hates poverty more than anything and as a young girl, she swears that someday she will provide for her sisters and mother. Louisa goes from a rebellious girl to a seasoned (and somewhat cynical) spinster as she lives a life that is never completely free from want or pain.
       In 1862 she goes to Washington to serve as a Civil War nurse. While there she contracts typhoid fever. She is given calomel, a drug-laden with mercury to cure her fever. She recovers from the typhoid but for the rest of her life suffers from the debilitating effects of mercury poisoning. Louisa regards her father as a failure as a provider and determines that she will do whatever she has to do to feed and clothe her family. She writes penny dreadfuls for money and eventually pens a book that becomes a Best Seller.” 
       Although happy for the income, she takes no pride in her novel that is inspired by her growing up in a family of girls. She regards her writing as “moral pap” for the young.
       As the years go by she becomes bitter and disenchanted. When her father suffers a stroke, she is by his side constantly. When Bronson dies, Louisa loses her will to live. She dies two days later at the age of fifty-six.

The Wax Cradle

The Wax Cradle

A Play about Louisa-May Alcott 

and her father, Bronson Alcott


Jo J. Adamson


 Copyright 1990/91 

by Jo J. Adamson

All Rights Reserved

CAUTION: Professionals and amateurs are hereby warned that THE WAX CRADLE is subject to a royalty.  It is fully protected under the copyright laws of the United States of America, the British Commonwealth, including Canada, and all other countries of the Copyright Union.  All rights, including professional, amateur, motion picture, recitation, lecturing, public reading, radio broadcasting, television, and the rights of translation into foreign language are strictly reserved. The amateur live stage performance rights to THE WAX CRADLE are controlled exclusively by Drama Source and royalty arrangements and licenses must be secured well in advance of presentation.  PLEASE NOTE that amateur royalty fees are set upon application in accordance with your producing circumstances.  When applying for a royalty quotation and license please give us the number of performances intended and dates of production.  Royalties are payable one week before the opening performance of the play to Drama Source Co., 1588 E. 361 N., St. Anthony, Idaho 83445, unless other arrangements are made.  Royalty of the required amount must be paid whether the play is presented for charity or gain, and whether or not admission is charged.  For all other rights than those stipulated above, apply to Drama Source Company, 1588 E. 361 N. St. Anthony, Idaho 83445.Copying from this book in whole or in part is strictly forbidden by law, and the right of performance is not transferable. Whenever the play is produced, the following notice must appear on all programs, printing and advertising for the play, “Produced by special arrangement with Drama Source Co.”Due authorship credit must be given on all programs, printing and advertising for the play.

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Playing Time Approximately 60 minutes.

CAST LIST (With brief descriptive notes)

BRONSON ALCOTT:(Louisa’s Father).  Bronson is a self-defined scholar.  All his life he has been a searcher of truth; he prides himself on his self-education.  He holds the friendship of Thoreau and Emerson in very high regard.  Bronson finds his daughter, Louisa impulsive, opinionated and she contrasts sharply with his Victorian definition on what a woman should be.

ABBA ALCOTT:  Wife of Bronson, and mother of Louisa.  Abba is like Louisa in temperament; she spends her entire life trying to mold herself into the ideal Victorian woman.  She confesses to Louisa that she is  “”Angry nearly every day of my life.”” Abba tries to curb and suppress that anger at the expense of her mental and physical health.

LOUISA ALCOTT:  Author of Little Women.  Louisa turns to the pen for one reason: to put food on the table and help support her family. When success finally comes (after years of work) she eschews it.  She feels guilty for having written books for money and feels that her father’s philosophy and plain domestic journal narrative is morally superior to her own writings.  Louisa is caught between docile femininity and the inner life of her heart and soul.

CHARLES LANE:  Friend of Bronson Alcott.  Lane and Alcott hope to establish a moral kingdom in the purity of New England.  Lane is a houseguest of the Alcotts’ and is nearly successful in breaking up the family unit.

ELIZABETH ALCOTT:  Sister of Louisa.  Elizabeth dies of scarlet fever.

ABBA-MAY:  Youngest daughter of Alcotts’.  Louisa disapproves of Abba-May because Abba-May speaks her mind.

ANNA ALCOTT:  Eldest daughter of Alcotts.  Anna devotes her life to sacrifice and duty.

SILAS BOSLEY:  A neighbor of the Alcotts.

HOMER:  Neighbor

Amanda: Young guest of the Emersons. The Wax Cradle

Act I Scene 1


              We see a skeletal frame of SUMMER COTTAGE.  This may be stylized and need not be strictly representational.  It is important however, that there are NINE UPRIGHT JOISTS to form the corners.  

The rafters to the gables should be curved and suggest an Egyptian influences.  There is a pail of nails, hammer, saw, level, etc. scattered around the floor.  A sawhorse table U.L.C.  It is early morning sometime in the early l800’s.  The house may dominate the stage since most of the scenes  (with lighting & set changes) will take place in it.

As lights come up we hear the soft whistling of Bronson Alcott.  Alcott enters.  He is dressed in brown linen and wears a wide hat.  He comes to the cottage, takes off his hat and hangs it on a nail.  He goes over to work table, locates some nails and begins to pound them into the wood.  

The work is a labor of love.  After a few moments, he rises, stretches and then goes over to the water bucket where he gets himself a drink of water.

Homer and Silas (Bronson’s neighbors) approach.  They watch Alcott drink and then greet him.

Homer: Refreshing yourself, Mr. Alcott?

{Bronson turns to the sound of his voice.  His neighbors are a source of pain and discomfort to him. It is with effort that he converses with them.}

Bronson: Indeed!  The dew is not yet off the red clover and it’s already getting hot.

Silas: Oh, it’ll be a scorcher to be sure. Tell me Mr. Alcott, how is your school progressing?

{Bronson puts the water dipper down.  He squares his shoulders, steeling himself for what is sure to follow.}

Bronson: You know very well that I have no school.

Silas: But you have a few children.  Have you not?

Bronson: I’ve three lovely and very bright daughters for students. My dear wife, Abba is soon to bless our home with another small life.

Silas: You’re teaching only your children?

Bronson: Mr. Bosley, since you’re determined for me to tell you something you obviously know, I’ll oblige you.  I have six students.  My own daughters, Anna, Louisa, Abba-May, Beth, the son of my friend, William Russell, and the Negro child.

{Silas sets on the floor near cottage entrance.}

Silas: Ah, that’s too bad.  Real shame, isn’t it Homer? Mr. Alcott being such a scholar and all.  Why the folks around here never seen him without  a book in his hand.

{Homer sits beside Silas.  Homer takes out a cob pipe, and lights it.}

Homer: We never could understand where you found time for your school.  Makin’ a living out of the New England soil is a full time occupation at best.  A man just can’t sit around all day while his crops fail and his family pines.

Bronson: There are other occupations a man may be better suited for.

Silas: Perhaps.  But when one is ‘occupied’ stirring up trouble by teaching the unteachables, well. {Silas turns to face Bronson.  He will say it.} Them blacks have no place in our schoolroom.

Bronson: {Measured} Where is their place, Mr. Bosley?

Silas: Where it’s always been Alcott!  In the fields. And here’s another thing.  It’s been rumored that your house may be one on the Underground Railroad. Don’t you go harborin’ any of those Negroes, hear?

{Alcott walks over to him and stands beside him.}

Bronson: I teach whoever comes with a free spirit  and will to learn.

Silas: What could you teach those primitives, Alcott? Your method of teaching is a mystery to most  of the white children in your schoolroom.  

{Silas and Homer laugh.}

Bronson: A mystery to the parents of your charges perhaps.  But given the opportunity, children are free to grasp the most sophisticated concepts. Children thrive on love and affection.  “”The  young heart pines and dies or lingers out a  morbid existence when bereft of its needed sympathy.””

Silas: Kids go to school to learn something, not to be loved to death.

Bronson: Mr. Bosley, why have you come here today?

{Homer, sensing a quarrel jumps in.}

Homer: Why Silas and I came by to see what you were buildin’.  Isn’t that right, Silas? We were told in town that Mr. Alcott was buildin’ something peculiar.  Beggin’ your pardon, Mr. Alcott, but that’s what they said.  

{Silas drops his eyes from Alcott’s unwavering gaze.}

Silas: Yeah, that’s right.  We were curious to see  just what it was that took you away from your books. 

{Alcott looks from one to another.  He decides to bear no grudge.}

Bronson: Mr. Bosely I’m indeed blessed among men!  Reverend  Emerson has commissioned me to build him a summer cottage.  Last month Thoreau, Emerson and myself  went over to Walden and cut some hemlocks for columns.

Homer: {Turns around and looks at the structure} So that’s what’s this is!  A house for Emerson.

Bronson: Not just a house!  But a blissful retreat where he’ll  be able to retire in the summer months and pursue his creative genius.

{Homer and Silas exchange looks.  It’s obvious that they do not share Alcott’s high regard for Emerson.}

Silas: Ralph Waldo Emerson is an atheist.

Bronson: You’re wrong, Sir.  Mr. Emerson is a believer  of the most devout kind.

Homer: I was just a young man when he gave that sermon that stirred up the people.  He told them he could find no ‘inherent grace’  in the observation of the Lord’s Supper! In order to be a good minister, he said, it  was necessary to leave the ministry.  Now, what kind of man of God would say a thing like that?

Bronson: A God of man.

Homer: Pshaw! You’re beginning to sound just like him, Alcott.  {Homer rises.} It’s a good thing you ….trancontinentalists  stick together.  No one else could understand you.

Bronson: {Evenly} Transcendalists.   The transcendental law is the moral law through which man discovers the nature of God as a living spirit.

{Silas joins Homer.}

Silas: Yeah, well.  I’ll bid you a good morning, Alcott.  There’s been enough hot words exchanged today for a notable rise in the temperature.  Let me just say this and I’ll take my leave.  For my way of thinkin’ you’re a radical fool!  Your fruitland experiment should have convinced you of that. You can’t go around tryin’ to change the natural state of things by seekin’ A Utopia.  They don’t exist, Alcott, and there’s no way you can… {Silas touches a part of the structure.} … “”build”” one either.

{Silas and Homer turn and walk off the stage. Alcott looks after the departing figures.  He is pensive, and a bit sad.  He picks up the saw to resume his work, but his heart is not in it.  He puts down the saw and look out into the audience.}

Lights go down slightly.

Bronson: “”As I walk’d through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where there was a Den, and I laid me down in that place to sleep; and as I slept I dreamed  a Dream.””

{Alcott goes down C.  As he continues his recitation of Pilgrim’s Progress, Charles Lane, Anna (Thirteen) Louisa (Ten), Abba-May, Elizabeth (Eight) and Abba file in.   Each person will carry a chair, which they’ll place around the table.  The girls and woman are dressed in long skirts and tunics.  The men wear trousers of drab-colored linen.}

Bronson:  “”I dreamed and behold I saw a Man clothed with  rags, standing in a certain place with his  face from his own house, a Book in his hand  and a great Burden upon his back.””

{Bronson takes his place at the head of the  table.  Abba is to Bronson’s left, and Charles Lane sits to Bronson’s right.  The family pantomimes eating. Charles Lane speaks as if continuing a conversation.}

Charles: Yes, our way has gone wrong.   We’ll indeed be fortunate to make it through the winter.

Bronson: Do not dismay, the Lord will find a way.

Charles: The Shaker community has been successful where we have failed. 

{At the mention of Shaker, Abba looks up from her eating. She is distraught.}

Bronson: The winter will hold no deprivation for them.

Charles: Perhaps if we were to follow their example….

Abba: {Her voice breaking from strain} We share all tasks.  We do not eat meat or  wear cotton garments. Surely, this is concession enough.  

Charles: {Sharply} Animals should not be slaughtered for man’s subsistence or be forced to labor for him!  Cotton, I need not remind you dear lady, is produced by slave labor.

Anna: {Timidly} But we have the oxen.

Charles: {Addressing Anna} A reluctant compromise.  Your father convinced me that we have to have the oxen to break the hard soil.

Abba-May: {Wistful} I dreamed last night it was Christmas.  We had  presents under the tree and we wore velvet frocks.  How I would love to feel velvet against my skin!

Anna: We mustn’t talk of such things.   Let us be grateful for what we have before us.

Charles: {Sanctimoniously} Spoken like a true pilgrim.

Abba: Our way is not unlike the Shaker community.   Surely the experiments that you and Mr. Lane have been involved in for the last year have not been in vain.

Bronson: We’ve differed from the Shakers on several important principles.  For example….

{Abba interrupts.  It must be obvious that she does not want to hear what Lane has to say.}

Abba: More bread Mr. Lane?  I baked it only this morning.

{Charles shakes his head.  He speaks directly to Bronson.}

Charles: The Shakers do not believe in the institution of marriage.  The men and women live separately and the children are cared for in nurseries run by those most qualified.

May: But who would be more qualified than the mother?

Elizabeth: The shakers have no mothers.

Louisa: Don’t be dense.  Every child has a mother, somewhere.

Elizabeth: Well, I don’t like the children there.  They  are not happy, and they look at us funny.  


Charles: {To Abba}  Mrs. Alcott, I do wish you would discourage your  children from entering a discussion about things in which they know nothing. They’ve not the slightest idea what we’re discussing and their contributions only cloud the issues.

Abba: {Steely} They’ve visited the colony on several occasions, Mr. Lane.

Charles: Of course.  But they brought to the Shaker Community little minds that are, well, forgive me Mrs. Alcott, but minds that are ‘influenced’ by an environment that fosters  an unusual dependence on parental values.

Abba: {Voice shaking with anger} We’re a very close family, Mr. Lane.

Charles: {Condescendingly} I understand this, Mrs. Alcott, but nevertheless, this closeness is the mark of dependence rather than an indication of self-reliance.  For example: in the several months I’ve been here, I’ve observed a strict adherence to ritual; celebrations of birthdays and the like.  Might it be better if you attempted to sever  some of the emotional ties so that you’d be less encumbered by them?

Abba: Better for whom Mr. Lane?  {Abba stands.  She faces Lane.} Say it,  Mr. Lane.  Say what has been gnawing  at your innards since the morning you came!

Bronson: Abba you forget yourself!  Mr. Lane is our guest.  I brought him from England to share our hopes and plans for a new life. 

Abba: {Mollified}  I apologize, Mr. Lane.  I forget myself.  {Abba turns to the children.}  All right children, dinner is over.  Go to your room.

{The children get up from the table and then file out. Anna first and then Lousia-May and her little sisters. }

Abba: Lousia, read to the little ones before they sleep.  It comforts them.

{Abba sits back down.}

Louisa: Yes, Marmee, but I’ll make up a story for them.  They’ve had enough lessons.

{Louisa looks pointedly at Lane.  The children exit.}

Bronson:  I feel obliged to apologize for the heated words of my wife. Abba works long and hard hours.  She is quick to temper.

Charles: I hold no grudge against the good woman,  Bronson.  My concern at the moment is for you.  “”The more of a mind we carry into toil”” the better. Human nature is divine, Bronson.  I need not  remind you of that fact.  A family man is a divided man. You must be prepared to serve God with your total personality.

Bronson: {Addressing Abba} My wife and daughters are more important to me than anything on this earth.

Charles: I hoped our experiment would have been more successful, but under the circumstances, it does not seem possible.

Bronson: Could these ‘circumstances’ be the loyalty I owe my wife and daughters?

Charles: “Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world.”

Bronson: All my life I’ve been a searcher of truth.

Charles: You must seek that truth with a clear mind and unfettered spirit!

Bronson: My God, I’d give my life to know the truth!

Charles: {Leans toward Bronson} Forsake earthly pleasures, Bronson.  Devote yourself to a higher good.  Your vision is focused on your wife and children.  Renounce them and you’ll take in the universe.  You’ll be able to understand what Emerson  meant when he became a transparent eyeball.   “To be brothers to be acquaintances master or servant, is then a trifle and disturbance.””

{Abba looks toward Bronson.  Their eyes lock.}

Bronson: I cannot!

{Lane looks to one and then the other.  He sighs.}

Charles: The decision is yours.  It’ll come as no surprise when I say I’m solely disappointed in the outcome of Fruitlands.  Moreover, my involvement here will soon come to an end.

Bronson: You’re not leaving!

Charles: I can do no more.

Bronson: I implore you, stay.  Conditions will improve with the spring and new crops.  In the meantime, God in his infinite wisdom will give us courage and fortitude to struggle on!

Charles: I don’t need to tell you, Bronson, that my interest in the Shakers is more than that of an impartial observer.  I observed them at close hand, and I’ve offered advice and counsel when the occasion warranted it.

Bronson: They’ve spoken to me of your endorsement and assistance.

Charles: They’ve asked me to join forces with them.

Bronson: Your value would be immeasurable.

Charles: They’ve requested that I convey their desire to have you join them.

{A beat as this sinks in.  Abba’s face is crestfallen.  She jumps up and runs from the room.  Bronson starts to rise to go after her, but Lane put a restraining hand on his arm, and Bronson sits back down in his chair.}

Bronson: To join the Shakers would destroy Abba.

Charles: Follow your inner dictates, Bronson.

Bronson: I must have time to think!  The winter weighs heavily on my soul and my girls crowd around me like hungry sparrows.  

{Charles rises.}

Charles:  Next week I take my leave.  If you decide to disown your family you’re welcome to join me.   But you must bring to the Shaker Community only the garments on your back.  Your emotions must be uprooted.  They are strangling you, Bronson.  Your fealties must be to the Shakers!

{Bronson does not respond.  Charles stretches.}

Charles: I’m weary.  I’ll bid you a good night.

Bronson: I will  remain.

Charles: It’s late Bronson.  The fire has died.

Act I  Scene 2

          Chairs are rearranged and Bed rolled in.  Sawhorse table is dismantled and an End Table placed by bed.  The space of the summer cottage may be utilized bedroom of Alcott’s house.  When the summer cottage space is used it is backlit to show frame.  When it serves as rooms in the house, Flats can be used for walls.  As lights come UP we see Alcott in bed.  Lousia-May sits on chair facing him.  Two weeks have passed. The light is stark, cold, suggesting winter darkness.  A time of futility and despair. Alcott stares into space.  He is a burned out man who is determined to take to his bed and follow the death of his dream.  Lousia is writing in her diary.

Louisa: December 28, l843.  It’s been three weeks since Mr. Charles Lane returned to England.  It is less hectic around the house but there is much sadness.   Marmee hasn’t smiled since Mr. Lane  left, and father has taken to his bed and not  spoken but a few words in all that that time.  {Louisa chews on her pencil.}   As for myself, I try very hard to be the kind of daughter Marmee and father would like to have.  But it’s very difficult.  I run when I should walk, straddle my chair, pester Mr. Emerson, speak without thinking first, and am often vexful.  Father says I should try to be more like Beth.  I should fill my head with love and quiet meditation.  But alas, my head remains  full of disobedience and active thoughts.

{Abba enters as Lousia writes.  She carries tray of Vegetable Broth. She brings it over and sets it on bedstand next to Bronson.  She smiles at Lousia as she takes a chair beside her husband.}

Abba: I take pleasure in seeing my little girl at her journals.  Keep it open child, and when I’m well, I’ll peep into it and comment upon your thoughts.

{Louisa closes journal.  She is self-conscious.}

Louisa: I tell my journal things I can tell no other.

Abba: “”Remember, my dear girl, that a diary should be an epitome of your life. May it be a record of pure thought and good actions, then you’ll indeed be the precious child of your loving mother.””

Abba: {Referring to Bronson.}  Has he spoken today?

Louisa: He has said nothing.

Abba: I’ve got some nice broth, Bronson.  It’ll  make you feel better

{Bronson looks at broth as she begins to spoon it into his mouth.  Louisa watches her mother for a moment and then takes her writing case and exits.  Abba is not aware that she has gone.}

Abba: There, that’s what I like to see.  It’s really  not so bad once you get the habit… {Abba’s voice breaks.  She fights for control.}  …of eating.  You just can’t give up like this, Bronson!  It’s not like you to quit when the journey becomes difficult.  You always said that the Lord will take care of us.  But here you lie, beaten and devoid of faith because you discovered your Utopia could not exist on earth. {Abba puts down the broth.} It was a good plan, but it was an unrealistic one.  You’re ahead of your time, Bronson.  It’ll  be some time before the world recognizes your true worth. {Abba sighs. She is in despair.} I’m tired Bronson.  I cannot go this alone.  How can you understand that I’m at the end of my rope!   I cannot feed the children on Goethe and Hegel. They must have food in their stomachs and clothes on their backs before they can afford the luxury of fine thoughts.  I weep for the barrier that has come between us.  Your dream dies and you take to your bed as if you would follow the death of that dream. {The bitterness creeps into Abba’s voice even though she makes an effort to keep it out.}  I do not have that option, dear husband.  There are the girls to think of.  It would seem you’ve decided to leave us because we got in the way of your divine right to know the contents of your soul.  {Abba leans forward until she’s inches from Bronson’s face.}  My God that I would have such a choice!  {Abba knocks the broth to the floor.  She is not aware of the accident.}  Did you really believe that I didn’t know what was on Mr. Lane’s mind from the first day he set foot in this house?  What a hold he had on you, Bronson! You were like one possessed.  His theories became your gospel.  His aspirations your dreams.  I watched him worm his way into your mind day after day until you became an extension of his vision.  No, I won’t deny that I was relieved when he left, but I’ll tell you this.  If I knew where to find him: I’d get down on my knees and beg  his return.  I’d cook his meals, mend his linens, and wash his clothes if it would bring back the light in your eyes.  I’d surrender my place in your home so that you might again take up your pilgrim’s journey in search of the truth in your soul. { Abba, her rage spent, is tender again.}  I’ve little to give, my dear and gentle philosopher, save my devotion to you; but I would relinquish my right by your side if Charles Lane were here to take my place.

{Abba rises.  She touches his face gently and then turns to go. Bronson speaks.}

Bronson: I want no other.

{Abba turns around.}

Abba: What did you say!

Bronson: You, Abba.  From the first time I saw you at your father’s house I knew you’d be the one I’d spend the rest of my days with.  Without you, I’m a skeleton without living tissue.  

{Abba sits down beside him.  She takes his hand in hers.}

Abba: I, too, am devoid of substance without you at my side.

Bronson: I learned, Abba, that there is nothing more precious than a kind and loving family.  A house where peace and joy abide.  “”Tis a Holy spot —a consecrated Hearth –a temple wherein to God himself enters and there abide his angels.””

Abba: {A gentle reminder} A consecration that requires your presence, Bronson.

Bronson:  I’ll not leave you again, Abba.  My Utopia will hereafter exist in the heart and mind.  There are mountains to climb before I go to my final rest!

Abba: Many summits, Bronson.

Bronson: They laugh at me at the village.

Abba: You’re a noble philosopher.

Bronson: They joke about old man Alcott.  Speculate when he’ll settle down to a trade like a normal person.  Fancy words, they say, do not put food on the table or wood in the fire.  I’m past forty, Abba.  I’m not a child with his dreams rolled up in a checkered knapsack setting out to conquer the world.

Abba: Some day they’ll appreciate your true worth.

Bronson: In my youth I dreamed of a new Eden.  A paradise on earth where men would be free to follow the dictates of his own conscience.  I had to come near death’s door before I realized that I was looking in the wrong place for my paradise.  I looked inside my own heart and I found, you,  Abba.  Your truth; your unquestioning goodness.  

{Abba gently reproaches him.}


The Wax Cradle

Author: Anthony Giordano

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