The Breakers

by Olivia Kan-Sperling

Illustration by Eliza Macneal

published April 17, 2020


A proscenium play: Newport, Rhode Island. The set has lots of neo-baroque curlicues. Also metal pipes and gears, perhaps serving specific functions, perhaps equally, confusingly, ornamental. The inside of the house like a cross section: like a painting in a frame that discloses what goes into building this house. Maybe: a complex water filtration system. Tunnels through which small animals scurry, larger tunnels in which servants loiter in silhouette. Train tracks that go ‘round and ‘round the stage, with a miniature train. A drawing room with a huge window that takes up most of the back wall: a view onto a churning sea lashed by rain. Probably it is a screen looping an animation with the realistic physics of a scientific simulation.

Girl in expensive dress: pale-pink silk with cream rosettes. She paces in front of the window, looking all around. She sighs and sinks into a nice chaise longue center stage. She rings a silver bell. A whirring of gears as a complex mechanism springs into action, one that runs around the frame of the scene. It spouts tea, milk, and sugar into a small porcelain cup which she holds up imperiously (accomplished through exaggeratedly well-articulated sounds of WHIRRING, SPLASHING, PLOPPING).


ADA: Dear Diary.

Today is my fifth day at the Breakers. Mama has a migraine; Papa is away. Rain and thunder. Very tedious for July. There is the party soon and Peter and all the rest will come down. Love, Ada.

She shifts to lie on the chaise longue the other way. The rain BREAKS at the window. The light outside dims until the view is barely perceptible, mostly black, and the electric candles on the walls begin to emit a soft orange glow, POPPING alight loudly. She falls asleep. The house creaks and sighs in the loud wind. The TICKING of a grandfather clock, the clock striking midnight. A young MAID comes out of the woodwork. She wanders around straightening things, taking away the porcelain teacup. She kneels in front of Ada and replaces all of the rosettes with rosettes of another color. She takes a candy from a glass bowl and eats it while looking at the audience.


WELCOME TO THE BREAKERS. Night, with a dim spotlight on MAID, who is sullen or maybe a little bit evil.

MAID: Hello (or Hullo, etc.) and welcome to the Breakers. This is a brand new house built in 1893 by architect R. M. Hunt. Before, there was another house called the Breakers on this land, owned by a tobacco manufacturer and racehorse owner. Sadly, it quickly and mysteriously burned to the ground in 1892.

She gives more boring history on the house, most of which can be read about online or elsewhere, or listened to on TRACK TWO of your self-guided audio-tour device, which is provided by the Newport Preservation Society in partnership with TEXTRON SYSTEMS. We thank them for their sponsorship of this event.

As I said, this is a brand new house. We have an intercom. We have freshwater and saltwater in every lavatory, plus soapy bubbles in six colors. If you press this button here, a complex and modern system will spring into place which allows you to positively shoot items such as black currant scones with whipped maple cream butter from the kitchen all the way up to the morning room. Unfortunately, it is a drafty house and sometimes the scones will get cold on their way up. This button here releases the smell of fresh rhododendrons into the room. This is Mrs. Vanderbilt’s favorite smell.

She looks.

Thank you. Please do not touch anything.

She fades back into the woodwork. Ada thrashes about on the chaise longue: a bad dream.


METALLIC INTUITION. The sky lightens to a dull gray. Five MEN come into the room, each in a black waistcoat with a gold chain. They stand and sit in pleasing group portrait arrangement. Recall that Ada is still sleeping on the chaise longue. They look at each other and say each other’s names appreciatively while lighting each other’s cigars, or maybe the house lights the cigars.

MAN 1: Cornelius

MAN 2: Charlie

MAN 3: Henry

MAN 4: William

MAN 5: John Jr.                

MAN 2: It’s good to see each other    

MAN 3: Hum hum hum.

MAN 1: Ho ho.

Puffing on cigars. This next part flows up and down, sometimes overlapping. They make whole arm gestures without bending a wrist, but not much facial expression, putting hands on waistcoats and resonating with each other.

MAN 4: When I was a little boy –

MAN 5: Mm yes I was a little boy once too    

MAN 2: I looked out at a sea just like this on Long Island

MAN 1: Or somewhere else, I don’t really remember

MAN 2: The sea was moving just like this

MAN 3: It seemed bigger though

MAN 1: I was smaller

MAN 5: When I was out West–

MAN 4: I remember the sky. It was terrible –– all yellow at the top, or was it red, I can’t remember, they have a different kind out there

MAN 3: Different kind of air there

MAN 1: Blooooood red

MAN 2: And the grass moving just like the sea back home

MAN 5: I was afraid when I was out there

MAN 3: My papa told me

MAN 2: But when I first saw one of those big machines I thought, wow

MAN 2: Choo chooooooo

MAN 1: From coast to coast, hand over hand

MAN 5: Hand to mouth to all the way over here

MAN 2: Choo chooooooooooooooo.

MAN 3: Hummmm.

Contemplative puffing. They leave together, patting each other on the back.

MAN 1: Have you seen the Times? … We’ll have to keep an eye on what’s happening in Missouri …

MAN 2: and Kentucky …


MORNING. The rain fades to a drizzle. The candles go out. The sun breaks pink and yellow on the ocean. Sound of birds CHIRPING and QUIET WHIRRING of gears. Ada sits up, disoriented. The doors SPRING open on Mrs. Vanderbilt, the MOTHER. She isn’t walking, but standing on a wheeled platform that moves her on a circuit around the room, like a model train. Talking past one another:


ADA: Mother

MOTHER: It’s a bit bright in here, isn’t it?

ADA: Did you hear the storm?

MOTHER: Your father left last night on business

ADA: I couldn’t sleep

MOTHER: You’re up early

ADA : I––It made me feel very strange. I had this dream––um. Like the water, like it was coming in. Through the window. Really fast and sudden, you know, breaking through the window,

They are moving about absentmindedly, circuiting through the room in slow semi-circles, without making eye contact.

MOTHER: Did you hear the storm? It’s not natural, for July. Our third day of rain.

ADA: Or maybe the window wasn’t there? And everything was under water. All of the candlesticks, and the grandfather clock, and the newspaper with today’s news, and the cushions with the Chinese silk, and me.

MOTHER: I know it’s irrational but well I don’t like being here without your father,

ADA: And you, and Annie, and all the pots and pans in the kitchen. Swimming up and down and every direction. And–

MOTHER: It’s irrational, not natural, I…

ADA: And well anyways I accidentally fell asleep here.

MOTHER: And your Father, well. (Gesturing to the paper) It’s all in there. Some… something or other on the tracks in Kentucky or Missouri or someplace.

ADA: Peter is coming down today, you know, he’ll be here by noontime. I don’t know what I’ll say…

MOTHER: Forgive me. I must go tell Annie to prepare the éclair-making machine…

By now, they have successfully switched sides of the room, trading positions without crossing paths, and exit through opposite doors in a flutter.


An INTERLUDE in which the MAID enters and does hopscotch and cartwheels insolently in the empty room.


COURTSHIP SCENE. Ada enters. She looks out the window pensively. The sea is calm. A loud and wistful SIGH. Her SUITOR comes in on a train. He flings his suitcase offstage, where it makes a RUBBERY BOUNCING sound. Nothing but naturalism as they chase each other frantically around the chaise, hiding beneath it, sitting and standing, scootching closer and farther, placing hands awkwardly on pleats of skirt and then withdrawing them, fiddling with tassels, and patting absentmindedly:

PETER: My dearest darling!

ADA: I’ve gotten your letters

PETER: I sent them // Just for you

ADA: Yes I know <3

PETER: I want you to marry me.

ADA: It said in your letters.

PETER: Yes I know <3

PETER: I came here on a train

ADA: I’ve been looking out the window …


ADA: OH, Peter! // I am changed since last spring, you don’t understand all the new things that are happening in the world, and all the things happening in my head, you just simply can’t understand!

PETER: Oh, NO Ada, it is you that doesn’t understand! I’ve seen the tracks laid down. I have seen the backs that lay down the tracks. I am a man of business. I do not have the time. I am changed since last spring.

ADA: I do not want to go on a train to see the tracks, I want to go on a steamboat to see the ocean and Monte Carlo.

PETER: Monte carlo, Monte Carlo! No time for that! Mon-tee car-low is not where the sausage is made, Ada!

ADA: I don’t care for making sausages!

She runs off crying. He runs after her.


CHAISE LONGUE MONOLOGUE. Mrs. Vanderbilt comes in from the opposite door to the one she has recently exited from, apparently still speaking:

Yes, and the ice room must all be in order otherwise we won’t have any sorbet Saturday.

She peers through the window as a silent steamboat passes. She sinks onto the chaise in talking-cure-patient pose. As she speaks, the storm builds silently behind the window. From nervous to agitated, her hands moving with a lot of wrist:

It’s something about the cushions – these cushions. They’ve given me so much trouble. This couch is teal. Well it’s a chaise longue. Anyway, a very very hard color. I thought it would be nice because of the ocean, you know? And I really do like it, I like the ocean. But I didn’t know what to put on it in terms of cushions. Jane Monroe has such nice cushions, they have tassels. So but then – until Mr. Curtis came and he had just the most lovely silk, from China, he said. I thought they were so perfect, and really a bargain too. But they’re so. Uncomfortable. I’m not sure – they’re too slippery. Do you think so?  And. And.

Suddenly: a loud PEAL of thunder, a lighting change, she CRIES out, arms aflutter. Then collapses unconscious in A POSE.


MAIDS’ CHORUS. One maid melts out of the woodwork and stands in the room. Then another. One or both of them say:

Humm humm la li la

Then another. And another. And another. And three more. Now, there are very many:

Hummm humm la di dum.

Now, they do a dance, pair by pair, rhythmic stamping and clapping, stepping back and forth and up and down and do-si-do-ing. The storm rages on... Cartwheels and hopscotch. No sound but their shoes and hands against each other. The wordless crescendo of cheerleading. Except they are saying words (Lines are distributed among the ~14 actors. Some should be said all together, some individually, some overlapping, to build a rise and fall of voices and rhythms):

HALF OF MAIDS: Humm hum la li la

OTHER HALF: Fum fum da di da

MAID 1: la di daaa

ALL: one two three, one two three

MAID 2: one two

MAIDS 3-5: one two three

MAID 6: Pine

MAID 7: Plaster

MAID 8: Platinum

HALF OF MAIDS: Pine Plaster Platinum

MAID 6: Pine Plaster Platinum

OTHER HALF: Plaster Plaster Platinum

MAID 9: Up and a down and a

MAID 9-11: Aaaallllll aroundddddd

ALL: Eighteen hundred and ninety three // We came on over across the sea

Sixty-five black currant scones // We wiped and polished until they shone // Four hundred, five hundred, six hundred more // They found us when we washed ashore

One two three one two // One two three one

Up from the deep // Out of the sea

Over the land // Down in the sand

Pine // Plaster //Platinum

Ten trays of teacups // (Pine)

Nine racing horses // (Plaster)

Eight foreign yew trees // (Platinum)

Seven squirrels scurrying

Six soapy colors

Five black satin waistcoats // Four fires burning // Threeeee railroad lines

Two ladies swooning, two oceans swimming

One big ole continent

Pine plaster platinum

MAID 12: Pine Pine Pine

MAID 13: Plaster

MAID 14: Platinum

MAID 1: One big ole continent

MAID 4: One two three one two

MAID 5: One two three one

MAID 6: Hum hum la di da

M AID 7: Hum hum la di dum

The rain has quieted. They all slip away, except for one. MOTHER wakes up. She grasps at her head. She has a migraine. She leaves.


MEET PETER. Peter comes riding in on a train. The MAID explains.

MAID: Meet Peter.

The train goes around, and around, vee r y slo oo wlyy. Peter looks at around him and at us, smiling in awe. Maybe the window plays a reel of the Out West.

MAID: Peter has been Out West. He’s been learning the business. How the sausage is made // How the tracks are laid // How the backs are paid.

PETER (shouting into distance): Oh Ada, today I have been at the Grand Canyon. It’s pretty damn big, let me tell you.

MAID: Peter has been at his best. Rise and shine,

Eggs and sausage. And such.

PETER: Oh Ada, no time to read the Coleridge you have sent. Plenty of ridges here though, and plenty of coal! (as if waiting for a response): Oh Ada! We will get married ! ! ! ! ! Oh Ada? Oh Ada!!!!


ACT 2. THE DESERT. Nighttime again. A maid comes out of the woodwork and lights the candles, winks at the audience, and flits off.

A maid comes out of the woodwork and closes the door. She does a little tip-toe waltz around the room, winks at the audience, and flits off.

A maid comes out of the woodwork and closes the door. She walks to the candles, and flips one over onto the lace doily. She winks at the audience, and flits off.

Something like: static and fire on the screen / a train rushing towards the window / an oil fire. Then, it is very dark.


THE GOLD MINE. …As dark as in a gold mine. Chooo choo: The train comes around. Only a dim, dinky light on the train. It casts strange shadows on the walls that jump and move about. But Peter is not on the train… It’s the BREAKERS. The BREAKERS now are men in dirty working clothes, wearing headlamps that give off a golden sparkle.

choo chooo // chooo chooo

one two three one two

one two three one

Up from the deep // Over the sea // Out of the land // Down in the sand

They disembark. Stretch their legs. Point headlamps at things. Whistle. Move around. Shadows are moving all along the walls. A MAID appears, holding a candle to light her way. This can overlap with what the Breakers are saying, or not. She tells the STORY OF THE GOLD RUSH, 1849 (omitted). The BREAKERS go across the room in rows and lines, grids that roll and sweep over the room. They move fluidly like shadows. They say:

ch ch ch ch // ch ch ch


smoke really thick in the air

a different kind of air up there

up there // down here, a seam in the earth, // or a rip or a tear: a big fire in the coal mines, a big fire in my eye... a hole in the ground, // or a hole in the air: a big fire in the oil fields, a big fire in the sky...step on a track, break a mother’s back // chew on a shoe, bite on a screw... gun to the head...

choo chooo: butter and bread

best go to bed

best go to bed

A CHIMING of many grandfather clocks. MRS. VANDERBILT appears at a door in a white nightgown. She is sleepwalking or something. She wanders in a waltz among the figures of the Breakers, standing still as stone. She murmurs, very worried:

MOTHER: Black currant jam..!? Fifty-five pillowcases, and they have all been smeared with jam! // Strawberry compote on the sheets, and it won’t come out, I will have to ask Annie but she is nowhere to be found…  I cannot believe …Annie has let the strawberry compote on the sheets… Blackberry preserves, cherry preserves… All preserved… All on the bedclothes––They have become so dirty. Oh, who knew black currant jam could be so dirty! And so sticky! Annie!! Annie?? There is jam all over the bedclothes and I cannot get it out!

And we will not have enough for the strawberry-and-custard tarts this evening…

She exits through the other door.

ADA appears at another door. She paces in front of the window, looking all around but not seeing the Breakers. She sighs and sinks into the chaise longue. She rings a silver bell. The WHIRRING of gears becomes a CRUNCHING that doesn’t seem right. Tea is NOT poured into her cup, or maybe it tastes very bad.

ADA: Dear Diary. Today is my sixth day at the Breakers. Mama has a migraine; Papa is away. Dear Diary, I am. I am, I am … The storm has made me––The rain is so very… // I think I am–– // I think I, um, hear things in the walls, like there are things moving. Um. Umm, like–– hello?? is someone there??


Like. Probably it’s just, // Annie says there’s squirrels in the walls. This is common. I can’t imagine where there’s room to be.

Good night. Love, Ada.

She falls asleep. Day starts to break. Slowly, the normal lights and machines and sounds of the house, which had fallen silent during this sequence, come back on. But the house is not the same: in what way??? The BREAKERS move away.


Olivia Kan-Sperling B'20 is on her 31st day at the Breakers.