A Way Out was the only play Frost published during his lifetime. It appeared in The Seven Arts in February 1917 and was reprinted by Harbor Press in 1929. In Preface to A Way Out (1929) Frost wrote that “Everything written is as good as it is dramatic. It need not declare itself in form, but it is drama or nothing.” He emphasized “the speaking tone of voice somehow entangled in the words and fastened to the page for the ear of the imagination.” North of Boston, Frost’s second book of verse, which includes some of his best dramatic narratives, including “Home Burial” and “The Death of the Hired Man,” had been published only a few years before, in 1914. Frost further explained, “I have always come as near the dramatic as I could this side of actually writing a play. Here for once I have written a play without (as I should like to believe) having gone very far from where I have spent my life.”
Donald Sheehy explains the connection to Frost’s experiences at Ossipee Mountain in 1895. His future wife Elinor was home from college and spent the summer near Ossipee Mountain and Lake Winnepesaukee in New Hampshire with her sister Leona. Frost took a nearby cottage in order to be near Elinor, and according to Sheehy, he drew on that experience both for this play and for The Guardeen as well as for “The Lockless Door.” Sheehy describes A Way Out as “an intense psychodrama of fear and identity” (43).
A Way Out opens in a bachelor’s kitchen bedroom in a farmhouse. It is suppertime and the table is spread. Asa Gorrill, described as “in loose slippers,” answers a knock at the door. He unbolts the ock, and a stranger opens the door for himself and walks in. The stranger is the first to speak. His first line is “Huh! So this is what it’s like,” as if to say, “this is how country folks live.” He then inquires “What you afraid of?” noting that Asa “lock[s] up early.” Encounters with strangers or near-strangers are frequent in Frost’s poems, as are night fears of the outdoors. Encounters with strangers can be found not only in “The Lockless Door” but in “The Fear,” “Love and a Question,” and “The Literate Farmer and the Planet Venus,” among others; the last two also begin with unexpected evening knocks at the door.
Asa explains that he is “ ’Fraid of nothing,” because he does not have anything anyone would want, but the stranger disagrees; he wants some of Asa’s supper. The stranger is threatening, making his way around the house “as if [he] owned it” and speaking accusingly to Asa: “You’re supposed to be poor then?” He wants to know what is behind a door that is nailed shut and whether there might be some money in a mattress. He assures Asa that he “shan’t kill [him] anyway till [he has] something to go on,” as though that were any assurance of anything. Asa stands up to the stranger, ordering him to tell him what his “business is” or to “go out.” He says he has not experienced anything like this since his brother Orin died. The stranger makes fun of Asa’s relationship with his brother, describing them as “keeping old-maid’s hall” and as “patching each other’s trousers and doing up each other’s back hair.” Then the title of the poem is spoken and the speaker’s intentions are revealed. He was “passing this way and in trouble and [he] just thought [he’d] look in on [Asa] and look [Asa] over as a possible way out.” What he needs a way out of is not yet clear and Asa does not know what he himself “might or mightn’t do” to help.
The stranger is a stranger to Asa but Asa is not to him. It turns out he has heard of Asa and was not just passing by but came out of his way to see Asa because of his “reputation.” Asa “popped into [his] head like an idea.” The conversation turns more civilized momentarily, with Asa becoming at ease with the stranger and the stranger becoming more reasonable. But the stranger continues to be critical of Asa and the way he is living. Asa has no cow for milk and few supplies. The only money he has to purchase anything with comes from selling eggs. The stranger is critical of Asa’s life because Asa “like[s] it all” and he “shan’t.” Then the stranger reveals himself as a murderer on the lam. Asa is not so much shocked or fearful as he is beside himself, burying his face in his hands and groaning at the predicament.
Asa, living in the country and attempting to “keep out of things,” finds himself thrust into a situation about which he has little choice. The stranger, taking control again, says that he has not quite decided what he wants Asa to do, but it is clear he does not intend Asa to have any choice in the matter. The two men have been competing since the opening of the play for control and power. Here the stranger asserts his power over Asa, insisting that if Asa does not follow along he will kill him and insisting that Asa has no choice. At the same time he insults Asa’s manhood, telling him he might as well pick his head up and “be a man about it—not a wet dishrag” and later calling him a “half man” and inquiring “Does anyone know for certain you’re not a woman in man’s clothing anyway?”
Asa is not presented as a country bumpkin, and the stranger is not presented as a common criminal. The stranger smartly says, “it’s the fashion now-adays to hide just as near the scene of the crime as you can stay.” The two are at a constant standoff, each one being more accommodating to the other than would be expected under the circumstances.
The stranger has a plan. He is considering staying on with Asa permanently, and taking turns out of the house over the years, so that folks will think only Asa lives out there and not two people. Asa is a hermit, after all, and the stranger believes he is the same hermit who was written about in a Boston paper. The stranger is trying to get a handle on Asa, trying to figure out what made him accept a life of hermiting and wondering how satisfied he is with his choice. It turns out that Asa’s brother Orin was “crossed in love,” and the two ended up together in the house simply by circumstance. It was not so much that Asa turned away from society and women but that society “ain’t any better’n it ought to be, what with all the killing and the murdering and the whatnot,” so though his circumstances did not come about through intention in the way a man goes into a church to become ordained (as the stranger inquires), the outcome is just the same.
The conversation turns philosophical as the stranger continues to speculate about Asa and what kind of a man he is, living alone. The stranger recalls reading about a fellow who had a “queer religion about inhaling from your own shoes when you took them off to go to bed so’s to get back the strength lost by settling in the daytime.” Asa denies having such a religion. But the stranger also talks about how the man could see the light of three cities shining at night and how he thought they “kept getting brighter and brighter attempting like to turn night into day in the face of nature.” The country man thought that such bold pomposity on people’s parts would eventually lead to the Lord “fetch[ing] up a storm that would wipe out those cities in a blue blaze.”
The stranger turns out to be a man who does “literary reading.” He wonders if Asa “like[s] the innocent woods and fields and flowers like a poem in print” and seems disappointed when he realizes that Asa is not a hermit of the poetic sort because he has not “got ideas enough to make a hermit’s life interesting.” That reporter for the Boston paper must not have come near enough to Asa to have gotten a good look, the stranger concludes, saying that he must have been afraid the story would be spoiled if “he came too near.” The stranger wonders what Asa must say “in self-defense” to fend folks off who think that no one has a right to keep to himself as Asa does. Asa cannot recall.
Asa is tired of the examination and wonders how the stranger has “time to plague [him] so” when he is trying to “save [his] own skin.” But the stranger keeps on him. He wants a sampling of Asa’s handwriting. And he determines Asa is rich because he owns the pine woods, “all that timber,” though he has not touched it. In that case this hermit is “just as two-faced as the next man,” since he is withholding.
The scene turns sinister again as the stranger begins to reveal that his plan is to steal Asa’s identity. He is going to practice his “slump” and his drawl and let his “mouth and eyes hang open.” He wants to know how Asa hauls wood, how he lives, and sets about putting on Asa’s jumper and overalls. Asa is not reacting. He is just explaining and deciding he will go to bed, but the stranger says, “I’m putting you to bed tonight,” as if to say, “You aren’t going anywhere until I tell you what’s what.”
When the stranger first arrived looking for supper, Asa had a pot of food all mixed together, some potatoes and string beans. Frost returns to the metaphor here, as the stranger determines that he is going to mix the two of them up like those potatoes and string beans and “see if even [Asa] can tell [them] apart.” He wants to grasp Asa’s hands as children do to spin round in circles and fall to the floor dizzy. It will be a game of ring-around-therosey gone awry. Then he wants Asa to wait to speak. He assures him that he “ain’t agoing to hurt [him]—yet.” Asa determines he is “a crazy man from a madhouse.”
The stranger wants to know if Asa is a happy man, if he has anything to live for, because he claims he wants to “do this thing right when [he] come[s] into office,” when he takes over Asa’s identity. The stranger justifies what he is about to do by saying, “It just shows that if you won’t go to life, why life will come to you.” In other words, if you are going to be a hermit who retreats from life, life will come to you, even though it may be in the form of the stranger who takes your life. The stranger thinks that if Asa had just “read so much as a Sunday paper,” he would have had thoughts and would have lived a more meaningful life.
The two set to spinning in circles, faster and faster, until they break apart and fall to the floor. The audience is meant to confuse the two on stage as they confuse themselves. From here on, the two characters are blurred. There is instead a first and second voice. The first says, “I know. I ain’t lost track. It’s you that done the crime!” The second says, “It’s not!” The first says, “It is! And I’m not afraid of you any more. You’ve got to go. God will give me the strength to wrastle with a rascal.” And that is all. The second snarls, falls backward, and faints. The first hits the second on the head and drags him out of the house.
The house is silent and empty for a bit. Then there is a knock at the door, just as at the beginning. The closing scene is made up of two voices, a “someone,” “Asa,” and “The Hermit.” The stranger, having killed Asa, now adopts his identity. The voices are a posse looking for the stranger. The stranger passes himself off as Asa, and the curtain closes with the stranger putting himself, “Asa,” to bed as he told him earlier he would.
The play is dramatically the best of Frost’s three. It is suspenseful and terrifying and as complex as the best of his dramatic poems. The conversations between Asa and the stranger reveal much about Frost’s view of nature, solitude, human nature, and fear. For him solitude was welcome, as it allowed time for him to be alone with his thoughts, to compose his poetry, and to engage with his learning. That is the country life Frost sought and lived. The life that Asa lives is without any of these fruits. While the stranger is a sinister, harrowing figure, he is also thoughtful and erudite. He is a murderer, but it almost seems that he deserves Asa’s life, his identity, because he would make better use of the solitude. The stranger could become a hermit in the truest sense, whereas Asa is a crude hermit; his isolation has led to nothing positive, to no growth of any kind.
Frost also has the opportunity to express some of the attitudes about technology encroaching on nature that can be found in “An Encounter.” The stranger’s depiction of the hermit in the Boston paper who sees the city lights as in competition with nature’s stars is also similar to some of Frost’s poems. In “The Literature Farmer and the Planet Venus,” the stars are distinguished from the artificial light as “more divine than any bulb or arc, / Because their purpose is to flash and spark, / But not to take away the precious dark.”
The notion of the stranger in Frost also is compelling. There is a certain fear of strangers that runs through the body of his work but also a strange desire to welcome and accept them. The characters in his poems welcome the stranger, even when he does not deserve welcome. Here Asa can be viewed as either extremely empathetic to the stranger or extremely naive. He continues to be accommodating, and it does not always seem that he does so out of a fear for his life. Sheehy explains that “[b]ehind the melodrama of the plot, Frost is engaged in a complex study of fear and motivation” that is often evident in Frost’s poems. The fear of intrusion, either by other people or by nature itself is a constant theme.
Kemp, John C. Robert Frost and New England: The Poet as Regionalist. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979.
Sheehy, Donald G. “Robert Frost and the ‘Lockless Door,’ New England Quarterly 56, no. 1 (March 1983): 39–59.