Billy’s Goat

In James Floyd Stone’s 1937 comedy, Billy’s Goat, the harassed fifty-something businessman Henry Carter is having a hard time with the womenfolk in his family. His wife and Violet, his elder daughter, are always wheedling money out of him, but the younger daughter, 23-year-old Madge, is the ‘crazy’ one. She’s constantly going around with unsuitable men, and has been engaged at least a dozen times, always to notorious ‘freaks’, from a poet to a pugilist. The publicity is hurting her father’s business and so, he insists, ‘Madge has got to change her habits.’ And perhaps inevitably, the process of effecting that change is going to involve:

1957 production at Choudrant High School, Louisiana

1957 production at Choudrant High School, Louisiana

What it is not going to involve directly is Henry Carter himself. The plot gets properly started when man-of-the-world Billy Hay arrives chez Carter trying to sell Henry radio advertising. Henry is more impressed by Billy himself than by his advertising scheme, and offers him a position as the family’s manager: ‘If you think you have the magic formula for transferring this madhouse into a nice, quiet home, sweet home … the job is yours.’ He goes away for a month, leaving Billy as the head of the household in his stead – ‘a brand-new, unused papa’. They even have to address him as ‘daddy’.

Deprived of their easy source of ready cash, Violet and Mrs Carter quickly decide that Billy is a tyrant, but Madge tries to get round him with some sweet-talking. It works and he becomes affectionate… until she asks him to let her have a thousand dollars, and gets a polite refusal. ‘Wait till my father gets home!’ she tells him, and announces that she’s going to get herself in the newspapers again – by jumping out of an airplane. ‘I won’t let you,’ says Billy, but Madge laughs in his face. As the argument proceeds, the maid Beulah walks in, just in time to overhear:

MADGE: Don’t you touch me!

BILLY (smiling): Very well, daughter.

MADGE: Don’t you daughter me!

BILLY: All right, darling –

MADGE: I’m NOT your darling!

BILLY: But you ARE a darling.

(Beulah is wide-eyed. Madge starts, taking a step up)

MADGE: I’m going.

BILLY: Wait. I’m going to talk seriously to you.

MADGE (coming back to him): Are you going to try to lecture me?

BILLY (losing his temper): YES. And I’m sorry you haven’t the sense to appreciate it.

MADGE: Oh, so I haven’t any sense.

(She slaps his face soundly, Beulah staring wide-eyed.)

BILLY (quietly): I don’t know whether to kiss you or spank you.

(Beulah stifles an exclamation.)

MADGE (horrified): WHAT?

BILLY (as their voices grow louder): YOU NEED BOTH.

MADGE (defiantly): YOU JUST TRY IT!

(Billy seizes her and kisses her.)

MADGE: No, not that!

BEULAH (breaking in): NO, NOT THAT!

BILLY: Not that? Very well, then I’ll be happy to accommodate you.

(Takes her across his knee.)

BILLY: I’m going to give you a darn good spanking.

MADGE (struggling): Let me go – let me go!

(Beulah runs up and down stage, carried away with excitement. Billy proceeds with the spanking as Beulah looks around, sees ruler on the desk, grabs it and runs to Billy, offering ruler.)

BEULAH: Here you are, Mr Billy.

(Billy looks up)

BILLY: Oh, thank you, Beulah.

(He takes ruler and proceeds with his business.)

Floydene Jones is spanked by Vance Hunt in a 1948 production at Dodson High School, Texas

Floydene Jones is spanked by Vance Hunt in a 1948 production at Dodson High School, Texas

BEULAH: Don’t mention it. Is there anything else, sir?

BILLY: That will be all, Beulah.

(Beulah paces up and down stage in excitement, as Madge struggles with her tears and screams for help.)

BEULAH: Oh, isn’t it wonderful. It’s JUST LIKE IN THE MOVIES!

(Beulah runs up and down and Billy soundly spanks Madge as she screams for help.)

And with that, the curtain falls.

The next scene starts a few hours later. Billy is dejected, and asks Beulah what the fallout has been with the family. Contrary to what is says in the plot summary at the front of the script, it isn’t ‘love at first smack’: Madge is gritting her teeth and grunting at the mention of Billy. Beulah then cuts to the chase:

BEULAH (sadly): I guess Miss Madge means a lot to you, don’t she?

BILLY (slightly annoyed): why do you ask that?

BEULAH (dreamily): ’Cause I seen a movie once where the handsome hero spanked the beautiful heroine, and all the time he was in love with her.

BILLY (unconcerned): Yes?

BEULAH: Yeah. And she slapped his face for him, too. Oh, it was wonderful! (Sighs.) I wish some good-looking man would spank me. It would do me good.

BILLY (laughingly): Cheer up, Beulah, I’m sure you’ll get just what you deserve.

BEULAH (hopefully): You ain’t mad at me, are you?

BILLY: No, Beulah.

BEULAH (miserably): Oh – that’s too bad.

But it does all work out in the end: Billy persuades the women that Henry has gone bankrupt and they must now work for a living, and although Henry returns prematurely, convinced that Billy has failed, it is Madge who speaks up in his defense. And it is Madge too that Billy asks to marry. ‘I warn you,’ says Henry, ‘she’s slightly wild.’ ‘But she can be tamed,’ replies Billy. And he should know!

5 thoughts on “Billy’s Goat

  1. jim says:

    What a missed opportunity Beulah asking for a spanking and not getting one. Great photos and love how you presented the story. Great work. Thank you and have a great day.
    Jim

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    • Harry says:

      Thanks for your kind words. I wouldn’t say that a play written in 1937 that was still being produced in high schools twenty years later had ‘a brief and limited lifespan’. (The first photo is from 1957.) A lot of modern plays do less well even though they have been much more widely publicized. (Will we, for example, ever see a revival of Robert Askins’ Permission?) Plays like this were written to service the market created by the tradition of the annual class play in high schools, and publishing companies rented them out for a few dollars per performance. So the plays stuck around on the companies’ books so long as they continued to be selected by classes and thereby turn a profit for the company. The typical lifespan of a script seems to have been around twenty years, though I do know of occasional cases of plays from the 1950s being produced as recently as the 1990s – and, even more remarkably, Act Your Age from 1943 is still offered by the Dramatic Publishing Company that holds the rights and has been produced more than once in the present decade!

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      • I knew I had misspoken soon after I hit the post button. I based my hasty statement on the fact that you only offered a couple of photos not on the span of years between publication and staging in high schools which I didn’t notice until it was a done deal, I decided to let it go for no reason other than laziness.

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      • Harry says:

        Bad luck!

        I think one of the issues here is that the play was written in the 1930s. The usual pattern with these high school plays is that they are very popular right at the start of their lifespans and then get picked up less frequently as time goes on. The visual record of class plays in high school yearbooks changed progressively between the Thirties and the Fifties as photography became cheaper and technically easier; in the Thirties, when this play had its largest concentration of performances, it was still common to show only a group photo of the participants, rather than selected scenes from the play as became standard later on. Given that not all schools will choose to illustrate the spanking scene, and given that the availability of yearbooks is very patchy anyway, earlier school plays are always going to be less well represented photographically than those written from the 1940s onwards = in fact, I know of several where I have yet to find even a single photo of the spanking scene!

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