River Rat, A One-Act Play
This might have happened in the thirties, in a small mid-western town. It has as its theme, the comfort dreams can be for one unwashed waif of the riverfront.
In 1951, this play was given the Alden Award for Short Plays by Stanford University.
Cast of Characters
Violet Guddet Rosie Guddet
Nicholas Guddet Aster Guddet
George Guddet The Man
Mary Elizabeth Mruzik
8433 New Hampshire Avenue
Affton 23, Missouri
The Alden Award was sponsored by the Dramatists’ Alliance of Stanford University in an annual nation-wide competition administered by Professor Margery Bailey of the Department of English Literature [1914-1963] beginning in 1935. Various awards were offered; to wit the Thomas Wood Stevens Award for serious drama, the Etherege Award for full length comedy, and not least, the Raymond MacDonald Alden Award for short plays.
In personal conversations with the author, the story was inspired by real communities living along the Missouri river in small enclaves, like that near her home town of Nebraska City, Nebraska, during the worst depression era years of the 1930s.
( It is an early August afternoon. We can’t see the Missouri River, but along this portion of its brown, slimy banks is The Dump, made up of refuse brought down by the respected folks of the town, and lived on by families like the Guddets.
( There are piles of boxes, cans and other trash in uneven mounds about the stage. A portion of an old automobile, just large enough to sit on, or jump off of, according to the children’s mood, lies in a heap near the center.
( There are no homes visible, but up right, a pitiful clothesline, waving some ashen garments fresh from a Guddet tub, announces the presence of some packing box dwellings.
( As the curtains open, the set is deserted. Then, as we are about examine the trash heaps a second time, we hear the Guddets coming up the path, off right. The little clan is wrangling over something, as usual. The girls are dressed in sleeveless, sack-like dresses, the boys in overalls, only. Faces are dirty, hair is long, bodies scrawny, and of course we find the Guddets, all but Violet, barefoot. )
Voices: Lemee see it….lemme set it….let go…let go of me !
Violet…. Where did you get it….Violet? What is it?
Get out of here ! Let go !
( The Guddets ooze on the stage in a mass. Violet, leading, is fourteen, and is wearing some atrocious red earrings and shoes with slanted heels, which mark her as the eldest of the brood. She is holding some very small object above her head. As the others jump and try to grasp it, Rosie watches, a little apart.
Rosie is a wistful sort of ten-year old. She can sit very still at her desk on Valentine’s Day. That’s when the teacher’s handmade mailbox is chock-full of bright greetings all the children exchange. Rosie with perhaps one valentine, or maybe none before her, can sham quiet indifference so nicely that usually, only the teacher will notice and vow to remember Rosie next year. She never does remember her, but it gives her a warm glow for a moment. )
Violet: I’ll never let you see it if you don’t keep your hands down !
Nicholas; ( He is seven, and like his brother George, nine, is ruthless )
Gimme something good Violet.
Violet: You don’t eat this.
George: Let’s see it, then.
Violet: Get your hands down. ( The little circle stands quietly for a moment and Violet
shows the something to them. )
Nicholas: What you got?
Violet: It’s a lipstick. Scarlet razzberry.
Rosie: That’s pretty.
Pansy: ( She is eight, and fully able to deal with her family ) Put some on, Violet.
Violet: I got some on.
George: Put some more on.
Pansy: Put some on me. Put some on me.
Aster: ( She is just five, and a little too young to know that delightful things like butter
and jelly go on bread. ) Me too !
Violet: You kids can’t have any of this. ( Nicholas and George suddenly make a grab at
Violet’s hand, but she has it in the air, and with her other, cuffs George, who kicks
at her but misses. ) Stop that !
George: Old stingy stink pot !
Pansy: Why can’t we have some, Violet ?
Violet: ( Moving off down left ) You just can’t !
Nicholas: Where you going?
George: Up town, again.
Pansy: Me, too ?
Aster: Me, too ?
Violet: You got to stay here.
George: You going to the dime store ? Hey, Violet, you going to the dime store ?
Pansy: Let me come, Violet. I won’t run between the counters.
Aster: Me, too !
Violet: I ain’t going to any dime store.
Nicholas: Where you going, then?
Violet: Just up town. You can go when Mom goes.
George: Aw, no. That’s no fun.
Violet: You heard me. ( She exits off left. George shies a rock at her, and we hear her
squeal ) You kids stop that !
Nicholas: You missed her. Come on, I’ll show you how to throw. ( The brothers exit left,
after scooping up some ammunition )
Pansy: Why does Violet go uptown, Rosie ?
Rosie: I don’t know. Come here, Aster. ( Aster moves toward her and Rosie wipes
Aster’s face with her hand. ) You hot, Aster? ( Aster nods and Rosie smoothes
her hair down. ) You got a burr in your hair. Hurt? ( She gives it a pull ) There.
( The boys enter kicking a can before them. Pansy rushes between them and
stops their game. )
Pansy: Why is Violet always going up town ?
Nicholas: ( Slyly ) I know.
Pansy: Why ?
Nicholas: She meets fellas.
Pansy: What for?
George: You shut up, Nicholas.
Nicholas: I saw her lots of times going up the path to meet that Henry that works at the
George: You shut up.
Nicholas: You make me. ( He tears off down left with George in hot pursuit. The little girls
sit down on the old car seat to wait. Presently, George comes back and flops on
the ground at their feet. )
Pansy: When you get to go up-town, will you take us ?
Aster: Me, too ?
George: We’ll all go in the stores.
Aster: And see the pretties.
Pansy: I’ll bet I get a “bloon”.
George: I’ll get me seventeen funny books.
Nicholas: ( Enters left, limping a little, but soon forgets his recent beating with this
interesting conversation ) Harold Beason’s got four funny books. ( He flops down
next to George )
George: Yeah, he’s rich.
Nicholas: He’s got a knife, too, and it’s a quarter one.
George: I’m going to get me a sharp knife and…and…cut off your head, Aster ! ( Aster
utters a delighted squeal and hugs Rosie. )
Pansy: You can’t cut mine off ! ( She runs down right, and both boys grabbing sticks
begin the chase. Up right they fling her down and are “slitting” her neck with the
sticks while she screams her pretended fright. But George’s attention is directed
to something on the ground near her. He ceases the game to pick up a bottle. )
George: Hey---look---lookie !
Nicholas: Anything in it ?
George: ( Removes the lid and sniffs ) Medicine.
Nicholas: That’s not even cracked Let’s find another.
George: I know where there’s a bunch of them. Come on. ( They run off left )
(Pansy picks up the sticks the boys dropped and begins to peal one. No need to
follow them, they aren’t interested in any more “throat-cutting”. )
Aster: Rosie, I got something.
Rosie: What ?
Rosie: To eat ? ( Pansy perks up at this, but Aster shakes her head ) Did you find it ?
( Aster nods ) Where ? ( Aster points off right ) Let’s see it. ( Aster runs off stage
and in a moment comes back holding a pair of old copper-toed shoes. )
Aster: See ?
Rosie: Where did you find those ?
Aster: In some stuff some folks dumped. I can wear them.
Rosie: They are awfully big.
Aster: I can wear them. ( She sits on the ground to put them on. ) I can wear these
shoes. ( Pansy runs to Aster and snatches the shoes off Aster’s feet. )
No….No…noooo… you can’t have them !
Rosie: Pansy, you let her alone.
Aster: She can’t have them !
( But Pansy does have them before Rosie can stop her. She shoves her feet in
them and struts about the stage in an imitation of Violet’s swagger. )
Rosie: Give those back, Pansy.
( Pansy struts off in the same direction as her brothers took. Aster’s lip is
reaching out and quivering. ) She’ll bring them back; let her wear them for a
Aster: Pansy’s bad.
Rosie: She’ll give them back. You can wear them again. ( Off stage there are sounds of
a scuffle and presently we hear Pansy screaming. She comes on, in a dead run
bawling loudly. Her feet are bare once more. )
Pansy: Naaaaaaaaaaaaaaa. ( She rushes off right as the boys come on left. )
George: Aw, shut up, Pansy. ( He has the shoes. He puts one on and flings the other to
his brother, who stuffs his foot in the shoe. )
Nicholas: Yeah, hush up your mouth. ( He holds up a bottle. ) Look at my old whisky
bottle. ( He removes the cap ) Whew ! It smells like Dad.
George: Let me smell. ( Aster goes over to smell, too ) Get away, Aster.
Nicholas: Here’s another bottle in this pile. Any more?
George: I dug there.
Nicholas: ( He has moved some cinders and trash about the ground ) Hey, look at this
George: That’s a potato bug.
Nicholas: You’re a liar.
George: That’s a potato bug, dummy.
Nicholas: Potato bug has to be on a potato. There’s a funny colored one. Look at him go.
George: Get your foot off it.
Nicholas: I saw him first.
George: Don’t squash him. I’m going to put him in this here bottle.
Nicholas: Put him in my bottle. You get your own bugs.
George: There’s an ant.
Nicholas: That’s mine ! ( He pops it in the bottle )
George: I’m going to get bigger bugs than ants. I’m going to put a grasshopper in my
Nicholas: I’m going to put an ant AND a grasshopper in mine. ( They are hunting about the
George: Put two grasshoppers in and they’ll have a fight.
Nicholas: Potato bugs fight ?
George: No. There’s another ant.
Nicholas: A green bug. I got a green one.
George: Get away Aster. ( She has crowded close to his elbow )
Nicholas: Aster, go catch me a grasshopper.
Aster: Where ?
George: Anywhere. Just go catch one. ( Aster hunts about the brush at the back of the
Nicholas: By God, I got another green one.
George: Let’s see. That’s not a grasshopper.
Nicholas: I know that. Look at him in there.
George: How many you got ?
Nicholas: Four bugs.
Rosie: Here’s a beetle. ( Nicholas takes the bug )
Nicholas: That’s five. How many you got ?
George: Aw, this ain’t any fun. Let’s bust these bottles.
Nicholas: Where ?
George: Down on the sewer pipe.
Aster: I got a grasshopper. Here’s a grasshopper----
Nicholas: ( Looking off left ) There’s old Adams.
George: And he’s got his air rifle.
Nicholas: That’s Joe with him. I bet they’re going to shoot rats.
Aster: Here’s a grass----
George: Throw it down. Let’s go. ( They exit left )
Aster: What, Rosie, what ?
Rosie: Town kids with guns, Aster.
Aster: Going to kill rats, Rosie ?
Aster: ( Calling to Pansy, off-stage ) Pansy ! Pansy ! Town kids, Pansy !
Pansy: ( Enters right, slowly muttering ) He got my shoes. I’ll get him and choke him !
Rosie: Town kids down there, Pansy.
Pansy: ( Brightens ) Going to shoot rats ? Come on, Rosie. ( Pansy and Aster run off
Rosie: Hunh-huh. ( Rosie watches for a moment, then picks up the bottle her brother
has dropped. )
Rosie: Poor little thing, your dress is all dirty. ( She brushes off the dirt and shines the
bottle a bit on her skirt )
Why, it’s Mrs. Jones. How are you ? For a minute I didn’t know you.
( Her play is stopped for a man is wandering up the path, off left. He is a
stranger, and a bit unsteady on his shoddy feet. Rosie moves back away from
him, dropping the bottle as she goes. )
Man: Whew ! ( Sniffs the air and makes a face )
That’s the Missouri River down there?
( He moves to the old car body ) Your car?
I’m going to sit on it. I won’t scratch the finish.
Ever have a railroad cop bawl you out ? Well, don’t let him. He socks people at
the end of his lecture. My head bleeding ? ( Rosie moves a little closer to see,
and then shakes her head )
Train has to go anyway. I didn’t take up much space in that empty box car. What
town is this sister ?
Well, then, what state ?
Nice to know where your are.
You wouldn’t have a cigarette about, would you ?
( Rosie laughs at this )
Well, you can talk, can’t you ?
What’s your name ?
Course, if you are only five years old, you can’t be expected to talk. Or are you
Rosie: ( Laughs ) No, I’m ten.
Man: That’s nice. Where do you live ? ( Rosie points off right ) That row of shacks ?
Which one ?
Rosie: The big one.
Man: Oh, you belong to the elite of the river front. What’s your name ?
Rosie: Rosemary Verona Guddet.
Man: Now, I can believe it. What town is this ?
Rosie: Cedar City.
Man: Cedar City, what ?
Rosie: Cedar City, Nebraska.
Man: Good Lord.
Rosie: Over there’s Iowa. ( Man makes a grimace ) You can see the bridge from here.
Man: Which way is the business district ?
Rosie: The district ?
Man: Yes, where are all the stores, the bright lights ?
Rosie: Uptown’s that way. ( She points off left )
Man: ( Rises and takes a few swaying steps. ) Guess that cop bounced me harder than I
thought. Think I’ll rest a little before I look over the metropolis. ( Sits ) You play
here by yourself?
Rosie: The other kids are shooting rats.
Man: Who’s shooting rats ?
Rosie: The boys.
Man: ( He looks off left ) Your brothers ?
Rosie: Yes, and Pansy and Aster’s helping.
Man: How can girls help ?
Rosie: They throw tin cans or rocks and yell and the rats run so the boys can shoot.
Man: How big are the rats around here ?
Rosie: ( Measures a seven-inch space with her hands )
Man: What do the kids use, air rifles ?
Rosie: Town kids have air rifles. We don’t get to shoot.
Man: Thoughtful of the mayor to dump his garbage here so you kids would have game.
What do you do when the town kids aren’t here ?
Rosie: Nothing, except—
Man: Except work ?
Rosie: No, nothing.
Man: Very exciting. Go to school ?
Rosie: Sure, I’m in the fifth grade.
Man: And what do you do besides color and cut out pictures ?
Rosie: We read.
Man: Still teaching kids to read ? They’re still putting out the same old line. What do
your read about ?
Rosie: About the Swamp Fox.
Man: What’s that ?
Rosie: A man who used to ride out of the swamps and kill the Redcoats and get away.
Man: What else ?
Rosie: ( With enthusiasm ) Oh, lots. We spell, too. And sing. And go on the slippery
Man: I used to believe things that were told to me. Do you believe the teacher ?
Man: That’s the trouble. ( He perks up ) Anything in the bottle ?
Rosie: Just bugs.
Man: Very refreshing. What you doing with it ?
Rosie: When you came I was playing. I used to have four bottles. One was Mrs. Carter.
She was an ink bottle. She ran a rooming house. Once I had a blue bottle with a
little glass top, like a little cup, you know. I dug a cave and the blue bottle and
Mrs. Carter were shipwrecked and lived in the cave. The boys broke them.
Man: You play with them like they were dolls. Don’t you have any dolls ?
Man: ( Indicates bottle ) And who is this character ?
Rosie: Well, it could be Mrs. Jones. She’s a dancer. Her husband plays the piano for her.
Man: Where’s the piano ?
Rosie: Oh, you just play-like.
Man: I see. What kind of dancing does she do ?
Rosie: On a stage---with lights on her.
Man: Where’s the stage ?
Rosie: You draw a stage on the ground. Like this. ( She makes a semi-circle in the dirt
with a stick and places a few rocks before it ) That’s the audience.
Man: Where did you get this dancing stuff ? They teach that in school, now, too ?
Rosie: Oh, no.
Man: Where then ?
Rosie: In the picture show. We went once. They had dancing in it. Only---only we
didn’t get to see the end.
Man: Why not ?
Rosie: Our dog followed us in and laid down in the aisle to sleep and then the picture
show man came down the aisle and stepped on him when the show was all dark.
Our dog let out such a yell he scared everybody and the picture show man made
us take our dog home, so we didn’t see the end.
Man: Maybe it was just as well. I never go to shows.
Rosie: Never ?
Man: I don’t read funny papers, either. I don’t read daily papers of novels or text
books. I want truth and I find it in no printed matter.
Rosie: That’s funny.
Man: I’m a funny guy.
( He would like to leave, but finds not the energy in the muggy air. He removes
his greasy hat and wipes his forehead with his hand. )
Hungry right now.
( Perhaps this kid has some crackers about. No, one look at those skinny arms
tells him there’s nothing to spare in that house )
I remember seeing our colored garbage man once, sitting on top of his wagon,
eating a hunk of cantaloupe. After that, for a long time, I couldn’t eat melon.
Right now, I’d eat one, no matter where it came from.
Old Bill was that negro’s name. Haven’t thought of him for a long while. The city
would give him a horse in September and along about Christmas, the critter
would be so thin, he couldn’t stand up against the wind. Some sob sister would
complain, and the city would give him another horse. Bill fed him excelsior they
used to say.
Old Bill never got his razor. He always said he wanted a good razor.
What do you want, Rosie ?
Rosie: What do you mean ?
Man: If you could have what you wanted, what would it be ?
Rose: A fluffy-out skirt.
Man: What’s that ?
Rosie: A pink fluffy-out skirt---to dance in.
Man: A ballet skirt ? Is that the kind of dancing you know about ?
Rosie: I’m going to buy me pink slippers, too. Satin.
Man: Well, that takes first prize. Tin cans and ballet slippers. You going to buy them ?
Rosie: Someday, I am.
Man: With what, Rosie ?
Rosie: With money, of course.
Man: Oh, sure, good old money. Somebody ought to set all kids straight—even dirty
little river rats. Does that make you mad, Rosie ?
Rose: Mad ? I don’t know.
Man: You care if you’re a river rat ?
Rosie: I don’t care.
Man: You mean you don’t know what I’m talking about.
Ever had a bath in a nice slick tub ?
( Rosie keeps her eyes on the ground )
Course you haven’t. You haven’t picked flowers in a garden or heard a concert.
Rosie: We go to the free concerts.
Man: What do you do there ?
Rosie: Oh, we try to sit on top the cannon in the park, or sometimes we take ice from
the pop stand. It’s salty. Did you ever taste salty ice ?
Rosie: It’s good. ( The man is staring at Rosie. She just doesn’t add up. She moves a
little, conscious she has done a lot of talking )
Man: What’s the matter ?
Man: Don’t you like to have me look at you ?
Man: Why ?
Rosie: I’m afraid.
Man: Of me, why ?
Rosie: Sometimes you’re funny….and sometimes….
Man: You don’t get what I’m talking about.
You must have seen tramps before, with the railroad so near.
Rosie: Yes, only….
Man: Only most tramps don’t talk as much as I do.
Sometimes you have to talk, Rosie. Talk to get things straight. Sometimes where
there are no people to talk to, you have to tell the birds off—and sometimes you
have to lecture bridge spans or telephone poles.
Rosie, I’m going to do something for you. People should do this for all kids like
you. Your hair should be washed and used to cover up those big ears.
Rosie: Is that good ?
Man: Something could be done about your mouth—you’d get by. You could read more
stuff out of books. But no matter how you’d struggle to be cleaner and prettier
and smarter—you’d still be scum. You’re trash, Rosie and you’ll always be trash.
Rosie: Sometimes we swim in the river. The river’s clean.
Man: I’m going to tell you a story.
Rosie: ( Not giving up ) I’ve passed—always—every year.
Man: Once there was a man who repaired shoes. He had a son. They lived above a
shop in a city. They lived—well, people couldn’t figure out how they lived.
The boy sold papers and shine shoes and ran an elevator.
Rosie: Aster cried when we rode in the elevator up town once. She hid her face.
Man: This boy told himself he was going to be better than his old man. He was going
to make money. He was going to educate himself.
Rosie: Did he ?
Man: He did. But it took a long time. By the time he got to college, people in his
classes looked like children.
Rosie: Did he play football ?
Man: No. He got his training juggling cups of coffee in a one-armed joint.
Rosie: That’s a funny story.
Man: There’s more. The man believed what he read. He believed what he was told by
those in authority. He thought by honest effort he could become what he
wanted. He could be better than a shoemaker’s son. You going to get married,
Rosie: ( Laughs ) I don’t know.
Man: There’s another lot of hokum people put out. You get cheated in the grand old
institution, too. Well, the boy I was telling you about became an engineer.
Rosie: On a train ?
Man: No, this was another kind. A mining engineer. That’s what it said on his papers.
He was sorts like you.
Rosie: Why ?
Man: He was going to buy something someday. Only, instead of a pink dancing skirt,
like you want, he was set on having a wolfhound.
Rosie: What’s that ?
Man: A dog.
Rosie: I like dogs.
Man: This was a dog like you’ve never seen. Not even in that one movie you saw. It
stands this high, and it’s slim and feather-edged. Only the wealthy can afford
Rosie: Do they eat a lot ?
Man: Oh, they eat all right, but they’re highstrung.
You don’t see many of them.
This kid was going to have a dog like that and a castle to match the hound and a
woman to come down a long staircase to him.
Look at me now !
I haven’t even a cat to meow once in awhile, to take the lonesome edges off.
Rosie, the world is a place where they step on your knuckles when you reach for
a second helping.
Which was your house ?
Rosie: Over there; I showed you.
Man: ( He chuckles bitterly )
Packing box material. A few years from now in that someday of yours, you might
be lucky enough to live in a piano box house. That’s heavy wood. One step up
the social scale.
You’ll be harping for a decent dishpan and a shawl to stuff in the corners to keep
the wind out.
See the bugs in this bottle ?
See them struggle ?
Those are the river rats trying to get out of their class.
See them slip back ?
They’ll never make it, because the decent, righteous people of this universe
won’t hear of it.
Trash you are and trash you’ll stay.
You can wrap up all the bunk about your ballet skirt with the Santa Claus lie. It
can’t be done !
( He pulls his battered hat down a little lower, and rises. )
I must be nuts yapping to you. You don’t know what I’ve been saying. It’s got to
be somebody to talk to.
( He stretches ) Guess I’ll move on. Which way is town ?
Rosie: ( Points to the path uptown that Violet took earlier in the play. She watches him
move off, until he disappears behind the storage tanks.
She finally moves to pick up the bottle he has flung down. )
One of the bugs can get out ! Hey, mister---one of the bugs can get out !
( She removes the top of the bottle and watches the bug fly away )
One of the bugs has wings, see ?
( But the man has gone. Rosie holds out her dirty little skirt and does a crude
ballet step, whirling around and around----as the curtain falls. )