Review: The Joyous Season, A Play by Philip Barry

I am not at all sure where to start with this review, readers. The story here is an older one – it was first published and performed in New York City on January 29, 1934. As you can see, despite the title, it missed the holiday on which it was set by a couple of weeks.

The Joyous Season is a play written by Philip Barry, who wrote The Philadelphia Story* which was later turned into a film*. Without The Philadelphia Story, Katherine Hepburn’s career would have sunk. She forbore being paid for her part in the play to finance it in the hopes it would do well, at which point she would be paid and her acting career put back on track. Barry’s play was a success and did exactly what she hoped; without him, she would never have made it back into Hollywood.

With that background explained, let us see if I can summarize the story of The Joyous Season:

John Farley and his siblings – Martin, Ross, Terry, Hugh, and Monica (known as Monique) – are expecting their sister Christina at their Boston manor for Christmas. Waiting along with them are Martin’s wife, Edith, and Terry’s husband, Francis. It soon becomes clear that all is not right within the Farley household: Terry is at Francis’ throat, Edith micromanages her husband’s life and is far too socially conscious for anyone’s taste. Ross has come back to the family after spending his heart and his money to advance communism, Hugh is trying desperately to fit in with high society, and Monica…is having trouble sleeping. Trouble she shouldn’t be having.

As this is the Great Depression, the entire family is living together in the Boston mansion purchased from Edith’s family before the Farley’s patriarch passed on. Therein lies the rub: Mrs. Farley, with her husband’s help, left “any piece of real property” that might be held by the two of them to Christina upon their deaths.

The fun part of this is that Christina is a nun.

Lillian Gish as Christina

In fact, she is a Mother Superior in her order (it is never named) and she has been trying to get a house to start a school in Boston. John is worried she will choose the house they currently live in for this, something she could easily do, since both the house and the family farm – Good Ground – are the only two pieces of “real property” their mother owned before her death. Having gotten comfortable in the Boston house, believing too that he has to keep the family together, John naturally does not want this to happen. So he enlists his siblings along with his brother and sister-in-law into talking Christina into taking Good Ground over the Boston house.

Unaware of this dilemma, Christina is looking forward to coming home to see her beloved siblings. However, she is disturbed to find that instead of the “wraggle-taggle” brood she left behind, her family is either biting and snarling at one another or desperately clinging to things they don’t actually want. Looming over all this is her desire to go home to Good Ground, but her fear and concern for her family trumps this as she comes to realize what she wants may not be what she and they need.

I read The Joyous Season years ago and fell in love with it. Not long ago, I finally bought a copy available on Amazon here*. Unfortunately, in spite of my best efforts, I couldn’t find the play available to download for free online. Believe me, I tried; although The Joyous Season is in the public domain and can be copied, it is not on Project Gutenberg. None of Philip Barry’s works are, which means one must go to other sources to acquire them.

The copy one may purchase through Amazon is taken from an old library book. A college library, in fact; the photocopied pages show check marks, highlighting “ghosts,” parentheses meant to underline pertinent points, and one or two hand-written notes I have not taken the time to decipher yet. Given the fact that I regularly search out discarded library books, I have no issue with these notations at all. More than that, however, I am just happy to have this play in my hands. It is a beautiful story.

Philip Barry, like yours truly, was a Catholic. He was a New Yorker where I am a Virginian, but we have enough in common that reading his play made me feel right at home. That is probably because there is enough Irish to go around betwixt us that even decades after his death I can read this play and smile with recognition at how “Irish” the Farleys are. My family is much the same in many pertinent ways – even some of the phrases that the Farleys use are familiar to me since I have heard them my whole life from beloved family members.

Others, including the song “The Wraggle-Taggle-Gypsies-O,” are new without being strange. They just carry over from a different clan, as it were, or weren’t that popular with my particular extended family. Not all Irish are the same – we just have enough culture to understand one another well enough to decide whether or not there is reason for offense. 😉

Christina is a lovely character and the ideal of a nun for certain. She is positively saintly, yet at the same time, quite human. Like anyone who has a deep love of home and her family, she thinks that returning to her childhood home will allow her to come back to her childhood. Finding her family has become “respectable” therefore throws her for a loop, making the decision between the Boston house and Good Ground far more difficult than it would be otherwise. She loves the farm, but she also loves her family, and they are clearly not happy in the Boston mansion. Ought she to follow her heart’s desire, or do what she knows is best for her family?

After Christina, and in a surprising twist to those who know me, my favorite character in the play is Ross. Of course, as he himself admits, he no longer believes in communism by this point. Like his sister he felt called to help humanity, but he chose a rather different way to do it and it has reached a clear dead end. Ross admits it has left him “empty,” and he’s not sure he will ever recover that same spark and desire to help others since he sank so much of his heart and soul into communism.

I rather agree with Christina about his ability to find it again, because like her and Ross, I have been in the same boat. Not as badly as Ross, thank God, but I have been there. It is no fun at all. Perhaps another reason I like him so much is that, in contrast to the rest of his siblings, he has no pretensions about the house and refuses point blank to try to sway his religious sister one way or another. He has come home in more than one way and is the most receptive to Christina’s aid, which she gives out in an understated manner that doesn’t sway her siblings in the slightest.

That is one of the other beautiful things about The Joyous Season: it is subtle. While it does not shy away from Catholicism, it hardly beats a reader over the head with it, either. The Farley’s Faith is there even when they have forgotten it, and while the fact that they have forgotten it IS part of the problem, it is not the whole.

Most of the problem is in themselves. They are each pursuing things they ought not to because of some inner blindness to which they have succumbed, or because they have lost a hope or reached for the wrong one. Having married Francis for his “beautiful violence” about practicing law, Terry now berates and fights with him because he has decided to teach it instead. John is trying to keep the family together, thinking that is what his father wanted; in reality, he is chasing security financially and emotionally by keeping his siblings close.

Martin allows his wife to push him whichever way she decides to go, while Monica has found herself attracted to a man who isn’t hers. Hugh is probably the worst off of the lot. Having reached the age of twenty-four and decided that parties and drinking are the best things in life, he is headed down a path of dissolution if something doesn’t set him straight.

The play is rather ambiguous about Hugh’s fate. He does not seem to find redemption here, really. Neither does Martin’s wife, Edith, but they don’t actually need it for the finale of the play to be accomplished. This is probably because the rest of the family is closer to falling off the cliff’s edge than either of them are, and when the others are straightened out, Edith and Hugh may, too.

Looking back, I think that’s the real beauty of The Joyous Season. It doesn’t preach or browbeat; rather, through the lens of Faith it reaches into the characters’ motivations and untangles them. Christina’s lively Faith and the generous love she has for her family is what is needed to find out where her siblings have gotten lost or have trapped themselves. It is also what is needed to pull them back gently so they can see the bigger picture. While this is most noticeable with Terry and her husband, it is no less true of the other members of the family.

This happens to all of us, whether we have Faith or not. We all get so focused on what we have to do, what is expected of us or what we expected of ourselves and the world, that we end up caught in a web of our own making. Not all of us are so lucky as to have a Christina-type person arrive to head us off at the pass – though if we are open to it, we might find one to help us put the pieces back together later on. Christina ends the story with an appeal that mimics Auntie Mame’s*, telling them to “follow their stars” rather than “lean on each other” to the extent they had before the play begins. The best way to do that is to rediscover not only their Faith but their faith in each other and in life itself.

While religion plays an important part in the tale the aim is not conversion for the audience (though what a happy event that would be!). The point of the play is how easy it is to become lost when one loses one’s minor faith as well as their religious Faith. For when one loses one’s Faith, they often lose faith in themselves or in life itself, whereupon they focus on the lesser things in the world because they have ceased looking at the bigger picture.

For someone with Faith, having faith in life means having faith in the Giver of that life. Having faith in oneself means having faith in what He gave to one in the first place, and so long as these beliefs are not taken to extremes, they are healthy. When they are lost, as they can be occasionally, that is when true unhappiness strikes.

Ah, but I have run too long on this discussion, readers. If I have not been able to convince you to look up the play yourselves with this review, then I suppose it simply was not meant to happen. For my part, I am satisfied with my purchase and the knowledge that a publisher is keeping the play in circulation. Losing it would be a sad thing indeed! Thank God, that does not seem likely to happen – not yet, at any rate.

Oh, and before I go, here is another version of “The Wraggle-Taggle-Gypsy” for the road. Enjoy!

The Raggle Taggle Gypsy (Trad) – Clip Seamróg

*These are Amazon affiliate links. When you purchase something through them, this author receives a commission from Amazon at no extra charge to you, the buyer.

If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com. Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth, while her poetry appeared in Organic Ink, Vol. 2. She has also had stories published in Planetary Anthologies Luna, Uranus, and Sol. Another story was released in Cirsova Magazine’s Summer Issue in 2020, and she recently had a story published in Storyhack Magazine’s 7th Issue and Cirsova Magazine’s 2021 Summer Issue. Order them today!

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2 thoughts on “Review: The Joyous Season, A Play by Philip Barry

  1. Pingback: Historical and Research Favorites | A Song of Joy by Caroline Furlong

  2. Pingback: Bulletin: Some Black Friday Links | A Song of Joy by Caroline Furlong

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