Collecting Delaware Books
Published in 1997
The late William P. Frank (1905-1989) was best known as a Delaware newspaperman whose career spanned parts of seven decades. But he had many other interests, including the theater. Bill acted, directed, or otherwise took part in many plays produced by several local theater groups.
Being both a writer and actor, it is natural he should have tried his hand as a playwright. None of his plays have endured in the theater, but scripts of some have been preserved in local archives. There are three in the Bill Frank papers at the Historical Society of Delaware. Written in 1923, 1947, and 1976, they provide an interesting contrast to his newspaper writing style.
Frank was 17 years old when he wrote his first play. His age and the letter of transmittal make it likely it was written as a high school assignment. However, he disavows writing it for a mark, so it may have been done as a lark for a favorite teacher. It exists as a crumbling typescript carbon copy with many corrections.
The letter of transmittal reflects a quaint style adopted perhaps from Elbert Hubbard, whom he admired.
To Miss Picket:
Time is one of the gifts given to man by the divine beings. We are intrusted with this precious gift but, alas, we are spendthrifts and do not know how to use it. Time was wasted before I could sit down to write this play. But, at last, one Saturday afternoon, I received the Muse into my soul and wrote. But e'er I could perfect it, the coquettish Muse left me and here is what I have.
The writings and corrections on the MSS must be excused because I am neither a typer or a writer, so of the two means by which I could express my thoughts, I chose the typewriter.
Please do not think I wrote the play because I wanted a mark. I could have been a paster of pictures, but I found the chance to express my thoughts and so threw my lot with the playwright but a sorry mess I made of it. This is my first play I have ever written. I did write a poem in free verse called The Farewell of the Soul. This poem's inspiration was received from the death scene of Dido in the Aeneid.
Wm. P. Frank (signature)
The play consists 12 double-spaced, typed pages. It is titled The Play of the Goddess/by William Pen Frank/(Frankquil)/Based on the Fourth Book of Virgils Aeneid/June 4, 1923. It is actually a play within a play. The scene opens as the Gods are at a banquet in Olympus.
Jupiter: How now, good wife, 'tis your turn to entertain.
Juno: My turn! Listen, Venus, listen to the old man speak … my turn. (to Jupiter) Indeed, how come such things to your noble mind.
Venus: (aside to Juno) Most noble Juno, what would you give should I furnish you with such as your lord wishes?
Venus then proceeds to put together a play, taken from the Aeneid, to entertain Jupiters guests. In keeping with the source, the play ends tragically with nearly all the characters dead on the stage.
This play was probably a radio script. Titled Assignment Wilmington, January 20, 1947, it starts with the music Hunters of Kentucky. A narrator says, "and our subject tonight The adventures of Wilmington school teacher John Filson."
Filson, of course, was author of The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke. The book was published by James Adams, Delawares first printer, in 1784. It was widely pirated in the United States and England. The James Adams edition is one of the most coveted Delaware imprints.
The Frank radio play starts with two men planning a trip to Kentucky —
First Voice: Well, Ill tell you, Cy Im gettin kinda tired of the city … guess Ill shove of for Kaintuck.
Second Voice: Yep sure sounds like good country to me Kaintuck.
First Voice: Plenty of injuns down thar … but I reckon if Dan'l Boone and Jim Harwood kin do it, I reckon I can too.
With similarly cumbersome dialect and syntax, the story is told in snippets of conversation before, during, and after Filson's expedition to the frontier. It ends with a modern auctioneer selling an Adams edition of the book, finally knocking it down for $4,275. (Today the book can bring five figures.)
Frank wrote A State is Born for the Delaware American Revolution Bicentennial Commission, which obtained a copyright on the play. It was presented at the old courthouse in New Castle by Julian Boris and others on September 20, 1976.
The play starts with a voice from the audience which becomes the narrator. Characters include a soldier, a newspaper publisher, a black slave, a slave owner, a preacher, Thomas Robison, Colonel Moore, John Cowgill (a Quaker), George Read, Thomas McKean, a clerk, John Wiltbank, Nicholas VanDyke, Isaac Horsey, a crier, and Richard Bassett. A note indicates one person can play several parts.
Through two scenes on 16 double-spaced pages, the story of the new Delaware constitution and the issues of the Revolution are told.
Bill Frank's contribution to Delaware letters is in the content of his writings. As a newspaper reporter and columnist he addressed many causes and issues fearlessly and fairly. He is also, possibly, the biggest single influence that popularized Delaware book collecting. However, he did not excel as a playwright. Despite his common touch in writing and his acting experience, he had little feel for dialog or conversational rhythm. But it was fun finding his plays. Perhaps there are others hidden away in collections or libraries. — JPR