THE MISSION PLAY
by John Steven McGroarty
Henry Van Dyke's Commentary
Carey McWilliams "The Indian in the Closet" - a very different view
|Pictures from the 1941 official program. Clicking one will display a larger version.|
Serra vs. el Commandante
Indian war dance
Serra says farewell
1941 program cover
Mission San Gabriel
Tribute to Ida
THE STORY OF THE PLAY
[This material is taken directly from the official
program. Much of it is unbelievably sentimental to a modern ear; much of
it is also politically very incorrect. It may be worth remembering that
the program is from the 1941 production of a play first performed in 1912.
The Mission Play, in three acts, tells the epic story of the
founding of the California Missions, beginning with arrival from Mexico of
Fray Junipero Serra and Don Gaspar de Portola, with the first expedition
of 1769 at San Diego; the rise and full glory of the Missions fifteen
years later, shown in the second act; and their decay and ruin during the
period of seizure and secularization, as shown in the third act, where the
scene is laid amid the broken and deserted walls of Mission San Juan
Capistrano (the Mission of the Swallow), in 1847.
With unerring dramatic perception, the author chose Junipero
Serra as the dominant figure of the Mission Playthe brown-robed
padre of the trails, holding aloft the torch of civilization in this
strange new land.
The first act opens on the shores of the Bay of San Diego.
It is the fateful year 1769. A corporal, three soldiers, and a Franciscan
padre are sitting dejectedly in the sun, the weary padre dozing against
one of the rude huts that have been reared to shelter the expedition. They
are all worn with anxious waiting for the return of the Gobernador of the
expedition, the military commandant, Don Gaspar de Portola, who, with a
chosen body of men, had gone forth more than a year before, in search of
the port of Monterey.
Disease, hunger and death have made sad inroads upon the
ranks of those who remained behind in the garrison of San Diego.
Discontent is rampant, mutiny is in the air. They are sick and tired of
the whole thing, all anxious to board ship and sail back to
Mexicoand some mayhap to the senoritas there. Only one soul remains
steadfast, and that is Padre Junipero Serra, their spiritual leader. But
the others can see only famine and despair ahead, if they remain. The
soldiers especially are restive. Even in the face of starvation, the three
"leathernecks" and their corporal are most amusing; their antics furnish a
rich vein of humor running throughout the first two acts; their admiration
and reverence for Father Junipero is their saving grace.
Father Junipero is sad and constantly at prayer, because no
conversions have been made among these wild gentiles of the hills. His
heart yearns over the land and its people.
Calling for his Christian neophyte, Vincenzo, Father
Junipero loads him with bright beads and bids him renew his efforts to
bring a child for baptism, for not a single convert has been made to the
While Vincenzo is gone to the hills, great excitement
develops, for after dreary months of hardship, Don Gaspar and his men
return. Alas! they are in a terrible plight. Monterey has not been found,
and the men are ragged and starving. At this point Don Gaspar makes the
dramatic announcement of the discovery of a marvelous harbor to the north,
the harbor of Saint Francis.
Realizing the expedition's plight, the Gobernador orders
everybody, including Father Junipero, to be on board the ship at sunset,
to sail with the tide, back to Mexico. California is to be abandoned
forthwith, and those who are still living saved from starvation while
there is yet time. Cries of gladness ring out from the hearts of the
re-assembled survivors of the ill-fated enterprise. Yet again, one great
soul flames out in opposition. Junipero Serra will not go. Vehemently he
declares that he will remain, alone, in California to prosecute the work
they had come to do.
Then comes the great conflict between Serra on the one hand
and Portola and the survivors on the otherthe conflict between
despair and sublime faith and dauntless courage. Father Junipero pleads
with Portola for one more day of time, reminding the Gobernador that the
relief ship from Mexico which had been promised might still arrive.
Portola scorns the idea.
The conference is interrupted by the arrival of Vincenzo,
who announces the approach of a small party of Indians bearing a baby for
baptism. Father Junipero is transported with joy; all is made ready for
the ceremony. The Indians appear, degraded and ignorant, clad in skins,
fearful, suspicious, reluctant. The Indian father hands the infant to
Father Serra, who places it in the arms of Don Gaspar, who is to be
godfather to the child.
Just as the blessed water touches the brow of the child, the
Indians set up a shriek and snatch him away from Father Serra, and
disappear with wild shouts. Father Serra drops on his knees in despair,
crying out "Mea culpa, mea culpa," "I am to blame, I am to blame."
Purple shadows of evening begin creeping over the bay. With
pity for Father Junipero but believing the situation hopeless, Don Gaspar
orders all on board to sail for Mexico, threatens to force Junipero to
accompany them, if necessary.
Fray Junipero begins a dramatic appeal to heaven; priests,
soldiers, neophytes, kneel with him.
"Almighty Father, hear my prayer. Desert us not in our hour
of need. From the face of the great waters, from the waves of the ocean,
send us the ship that was promised." The dusk of night deepens; sunset
flames low in the west; and as Serra reaches the end of his agonized
prayer, an old Spanish galleon rounds Point Lomathe relief ship.
Vincenzo, on the lookout, first beholds the miracle, and his
wild shout thrills the audience as well as the waiting throng on the
"A sail! A sail! Look, Father Junipero. God has answered your prayer."
San Diego is saved, and the first act of the Mission Play
ends with a thrilling and triumphant climax.
A period of fifteen years is represented by the interlude
between the first and second act. The curtain rises upon a semi-darkened
stage. Dimly outlined is the beautiful Mission of San Carlos of Carmel,
near Monterey, Father Junipero's "own." The familiar facade flanks the
spacious courtyard with its tall cross, while through the Mission arches
that enclose the patio is the shimmering sea of Carmel bay.
The twitter of birds heralds the dawn. Priests and Indians
begin chanting the matins or morning hymns, and a procession headed by
Indian acolytes preceding Father Junipero streams into church for early
The procession is most picturesqueSpanish senoritas
and senoras, Indian women and wide-eyed children, muleteers, neophytes and
priestsand yes, our friends, the three Catalonian soldiers, each of
whom insists upon staying outside, to keep watch; for as one of them slyly
observes, "the shortest mass is too long, for a soldier."
While the service is being concluded, the soldiers discuss
the great day that has come to Carmel, the convocation of the Fathers
superior of the nine Missions, to make their reports to Father Junipero.
Then the Indians are to show the visiting padres the results of their
handiworkand then the Fiesta.
The reports of the nine Fathers, even in their brevity, are
eloquent of the tremendous labors of the Missionaries and their Indian
converts. Father Palou of Mission San Francisco reports 400 Christian
Indians trained to work and speak Spanish as well as to read; 1700 sheep,
1800 head of cattle, 3200 bushels of grain, and a splendid supply of other
Father Sitjar of Mission San Antonio reports the best horses
in all California and "Thousands of bushels of grain, thousands of sheep
and cattle, and one thousand and eighty-four Christian Indians.
"Ah, that is the news we want to hear," exclaims Father
Junipero; "the harvest of souls is the harvest we have come to reap."
Father Calzada of San Gabriel announces "One thousand
Christian Indians, all trained to work. We have built a ship at San
Gabriel, which our Indians have launched in the harbor at San Pedro."
Father Caraller of San Luis Obispo reports that in spite of
destruction by fire, this Mission has six hundred and sixteen Christian
Indians, well taught in trades," and the curved tiles we have invented for
roofing are now used in all California."
"Four hundred Christian Indians sheltered, fed and taught,
at our Mission San Juan Capistrano," reports Father Ammuria. "Our crops
are wonderful, our Indians are gentle and quick to learn. We are about to
begin the finest church in California, which the Indians themselves will
Father Murguia reports from Santa Clara one thousand eight
hundred Christian Indians, two thousand head of cattle, eight hundred
sheep and bursting granaries, besides a splendid church, which the Indians
built with their own hands.
Father Dumetz of San Buenaventura has little to report, as
this Mission has been established only a few months, and Father Lausen, of
San Diego, reports good progress, with fully half of all the Indians in
the section Christianized.
Father Juniperio has a premonition that he will not be with
them much longer on earth, and bids his brothers a touching farewell.
The convocation is here interrupted. Galloping horsemen are
heard without. Captain Rivera, Commandante of all the King's soldiers in
California, is announced with a troop of cavalry from the Presidio of San
Francisco. He enters and demands the custody of a half-blood girl named
Anita. Father Junipero, being informed by Father Palou of the
Commandante's sinful designs upon the girl, refuses to give her up.
This is the high dramatic point of the play. The Commandante
flies into a rage and declares he will carry out the purpose for which he
came to Carmel; that he will take the girl away from him in defiance of
Age falls from Father Junipero. His eyes flash with the fire
of youth. He demands the presence of the girl Anita and the Indian
neophyte to whom she is betrothed. There, in the presence of the
Commandante, he declares them espoused.
"I suppose," says Rivera scornfully, "you think I am to be
impressed with your mummery. Well, I tell you, Father Junipero, that it
does not impress me to the least; I don't give that for it," snapping his
fingers. "Bah! what do these Indians know about marriage, or care for it
either. I am still here to demand the custody of this girl."
Then Father Junipero rises again to his old stature and in a
magnificent scene of wrath and powerful mastery threatens to call down the
curse of the church upon the sacrilegious wretch, and excommunicating the
Commandante and driving him from the Mission, as one of the other padres
snatches the Commandante's sword and throws it after him.
A charming incident next takes place. Father Junipero,
shaken with the storm of righteous wrath he had just gone through, stands
alone in the center of the stage. A tiny Indian maiden, about four years
of age runs in and with the utmost confidence plucks at his robe and
offers him a bouquet of wild flowers. As he does not notice her, she gives
the cord of his robe a good shake and her little high voice is heard:
"Padre, Padre mio." Slowly the old saint comes out of his reverie of wrath
and takes the little one up in his arms, talking to her with the utmost
tenderness and love.
Little Paula is succeeded by the appearance of the
impressive Indian figure, Capitajeno, chief of the Indians of Carmelo and
Monterey, in feather bonnet and full regalia. Then follow the Indians of
the Mission, bringing specimens of their handiwork for the delighted
inspection of the visiting padres. There are baskets and blankets, and
saddles studded with silver, the famous red roofing tiles, and many other
samples of their arts and crafts.
The Mission bells ring and a throng gathers for the Fiesta,
but pauses for a moment of prayer, after which Serra says to them:
"My children, in honor of our Father St. Francis these hours
that remain before darkness shall be given over to innocent pastime. We
must work and we must always pray, but it is permitted to us to enjoy
ourselves in innocent pleasure. God grant happiness to all."
Then comes the brilliant Fiesta scene. It is like the sudden
blossoming of some gorgeous flower, the beauty of which assails one's
senses. The color and life are intoxicating and nowhere outside a Latin
land could such delirious action in dance and song, such allure of music,
of gaiety and youth, of love and laughter, be found to make a holiday.
The brilliant-hued gowns of the Spanish women, the
picturesque Caballeros, the savage chiefs in full regalia, the bronze
bodies of the Indian dancers, all add their barbaric color to the dazzling
group in the patio of Mission San Carlos de Carmelo.
The barbaric background of the early California asserts
itself in a weird beating harmony played by Indian musicians, the Indians
dancers bound upon the stage and begin their war dance, which never fails
to thrill. Tom toms are stilled; the redmen relapse into unstudied
Then, "El Sombrero Blanco! El Sombrero Blanco!" is echoed
from joyous throats and the apotheosis of all this life and color is seen
as lissome young couples make you rhythm-made with the melody and motion
of the dance of the white hatFather Serra's own dance, composed by him,
tradition says, and handed down like the songs of Homer. "Quieres que te
ponga mi sombrero blanco? Quieres que te ponga mi sombrero azul?"
The words possess delicious humor and are sung by the pretty
senoritas as they whirl through the measures.
Comes a pause in this wild rush of rhythm; the haunting
melody of "La Golondrina," the swallow with the broken wing, is sung while
a guitar strums.
Again, dance follows song, song follows dance. Margarita,
Margarita with the castanets, Margarita with the merry feet, comes
forward; there is a flutter of masculine hearts as she dances. Dulcet
strains of La Paloma again bring forth the prima donna.
"La Jota, La Jota," shout the revelerspresto, the tempo
changes and a whirlwind of romance follows with the click of the castanets
as Juanita Vigare and Juan Zarraquinos dance the closing number with
Sunset approaches, the sky reddens in glory, darkness
fallsthe Fiesta is over. The gay company leave the Mission patio.
Someone begins to chant the evening hymn, which is taken up by many voices
and finished. A love-lorn couple hang back. The church bell rings, the
lights go out. The church door opens, a padre emerges, reading his
breviary. Quickly the couple quit their cooing bench; the woman laughs a
provocative laugh as she vanishes beyond the arches.
For a moment, the Mission San Carlos de Carmelo stands in
shadowy beauty in the moonlight, the sea and the white breakers seen
rippling in silvery splendor through the arches of the patio.
Father Junipero, bent and old, enters and silently kneels at
the foot of the great cross. It is his last appearance in the play. The
moonlight silvers his white head as with a halo, while he prays:
"Hear, O Lord, thy servant whose days upon the earth are
about to close, even as the day has closed upon this scene. Bring to the
foot of thy cross these wild Gentiles of the plains and hills. Bless this
dear land of California, and all its peoplenow, and in the centuries
to come. This is the prayer of thy servant, Junipero, who is old and
worn, and who must soon say 'Farewell.'"
The third act is one of lamentation and sorrow, depicting
the decline of the missions after the seizure of the Mission lands by the
Mexican government. The work of the padres has been undone, the Indian
neophytes scattered and driven forth to starve and to die.
The setting is the beautiful ruin of Juan Capistrano.
Ubaldo, the one-time Indian baby whose parents snatched him
away in the moment of baptism, now an old, old man, has gone over to the
enemy by becoming caretaker of the cattle in the Mission ground of San
Juan Capistrano, with instructions to drive the Indians away.
He has relaxed his vigilance at the rise of the curtain; he
is asleep on a rude bench and a little group of his Indian friends are
sitting about. There is Anitathat once beautiful half-blood girl
whom the Commandante soughtand her husband, both old and decrepit.
An Indian lad is playing on a guitar.
The little group talk of the old happy days. "Someone is
coming," cries Juanito, "it is the Senora Yorba". Making one of her rare
visits to the Mission, she places flowers upon the ruined alter, looks
sadly about. Seeing Ubaldo, she speaks bitterly to him at first: "Ubaldo,
you grow grayer and fatter every year in this starving country. It pays,
it seems, to be friendly with robbers."
The shades of evening fall. "Look, Ubaldo," she exclaims,
"there are Indians coming down the pathway through the mustard fields.
They seem to be carrying some kind of burden."
With a native chant of lament, Indians enter the old
compound carrying a rude litter upon which rests the body of a dead
"Amigos! Friends! We wish to enter the church yard with our
dead padre, to bury him in holy ground." Ubaldo is greatly frightened, but
the Senora compels him to allow the Indians to enter. She learns that the
padre went into the wilderness and there starved to death"a few
acorns were their only food."
"StarvedstarvedOh God! The Lord's anointed!"
exclaims the Senora in horror.
"Starved! Oh Michael, archangel, where is thy sword of
fire! Lord God of justice, where is thy wrath!"
"Poor Indians, Mis Amigos, my own people," Ubaldo mourns.
The Indians have asked permission to bury their padre. Senora Yorba says,
"Yes, yesbut wait", and she plucks a flower from the altar to place
upon the bier. Suddenly she discovers a golden chalice, hidden in his
"The holy chalice!" she exclaims.
"Si, Senora", says Sancho, the spokesman of the Indians.
"We want to bury it in the grave with our poor dead padre".
"Why, this is the chalice of the altar of San Juan
Capistrano", says Senora Yorba, lifting up the gold cup. "It is pure gold
and studded with precious stones. It is worth a king's ransomyet
these poor, starving Indians would neither steal it nor sell it."
She starts to replace the chalice on the padre's bier, but
withdraws it, tells the Indians they must not bury the holy vessel in the
ground for sacrilegious thieves to dig up; she will carry it with her own
hands to Santa Barbara, the one Mission fortress that never surrendered,
where the altar lights are still burning.
"GoAmigosin God's name, and bury your dead padre
in the holy ground."
"Farewell, San Juan", says the Senora, "I shall never look
upon your broken walls again.
"Perhaps the Americanos, who are so great and strong, even
if they are always in such a damnable hurry, will restore these broken
walls, Senora," opines Ubaldo.
"If they will but do so, God will bless them, Ubaldo",
replies Senora Yorba. "Surely, when the Americanos are building their
great cities, and their tireless hands are making California the wonder of
the world, so also will they think, sometime, of these holy places where
the padres toiled and builded tooso well."
"Though we may not see it, Ubaldoneither your nor
Imaybe in God's good time the Mission bells will ring again their
old, sweet music, even in Purissima and in lovely Soledadand all the
way from San Diego's sunny waters to Sonoma's moonlit hills. Maybe so,
Ubaldo, maybe so. Oh, the Missions restoredand again a cross on
every hill, on the green road to Monterey!"
"Oh, cross of Christ!" exclaims Ubaldo.
Then follows Senora Yorba's touching soliloquy:
"Farewell, dear place. Farewell, San Juan, that lingers in
ruin beside the sunset sea. Sleep well, ye who shall here abide until
God's judgment day. Farewell, my countrymen, brown priests and all.
Farewell, San Juanfarewellfarewell".
The final curtain falls; the play is over.