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

[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. - e.s.]

    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 Play—the 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 Mexico—and 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 faith.

    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 other—the 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 Loma—the 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 stage.

"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.

Act II

    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 mass.

    The procession is most picturesque—Spanish senoritas and senoras, Indian women and wide-eyed children, muleteers, neophytes and priests—and 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 handiwork—and 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 needful things.

    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 build."

    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 ecclesiastical authority.

    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 immobility.

    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 hat—Father 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 revelers—presto, 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 laughing abandon.

    Sunset approaches, the sky reddens in glory, darkness falls—the 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 people—now, 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 Anita—that once beautiful half-blood girl whom the Commandante sought—and 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 Franciscan friar.

    "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."

    "Starved—starved—Oh 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, yes—but wait", and she plucks a flower from the altar to place upon the bier. Suddenly she discovers a golden chalice, hidden in his robe.

    "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 ransom—yet 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.

    "Go—Amigos—in 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 too—so well."

    "Though we may not see it, Ubaldo—neither your nor I—maybe in God's good time the Mission bells will ring again their old, sweet music, even in Purissima and in lovely Soledad—and all the way from San Diego's sunny waters to Sonoma's moonlit hills. Maybe so, Ubaldo, maybe so. Oh, the Missions restored—and 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 Juan—farewell—farewell".

    The final curtain falls; the play is over.