Eugene O'Neill

New York Times, October 3, 1958

Theatre: Eugene O'Neill's "A Touch of the Poet"


Given Eugene O’Neill and a cast of superb actors, the effect on the stage is electric.

The play is “A Tough of the Poet,” put on last evening at the refurbished Helen Hayes Theatre. The principal actors are Miss Hayes, Eric Portman, Kim Stanley and Betty Field. O’Neill used to feel that his dramas seldom or never had the force on the stage that he had imagined when he wrote them.

If he could have seen the stunning performance that Harold Clurman has directed, it is possible that for once he might have been satisfied. For the performance fits the play exactly. And the performance includes the sort of inspired group acting that our theatre is seldom able to provide.

“A Touch of the Poet” is the fifth play in the projected cycle of eleven plays that O’Neill was never able to finish. The cycle was to record 175 years in the life of an American family – “A Tale of the Possessors Self-Dispossessed” being the over-all theme. “A Touch of the Poet” is set in a gloomy tavern near Boston in 1828, and it has some bearing on the assimilation of European ideas in the business-like democracy of America.

Even without the general theme, you would recognize “A Touch of the Poet” as an O’Neill play. A hot-blooded Irish father, a submissive wife, a scornful, rebellious child, orotund talk, an abundance of drink and – most characteristic of all – gaudy illusions, pipe-dreams, a deluge of silly, romantic fantasies; these constitute the hallmark of an O’Neill drama. They characterized his first plays. They had become almost an obsession in the plays he was working on at the end of his career.

In “A Touch of the Poet” the father is a braggart, tyrannical Irishman who fancies himself a gentleman and a soldier who won signal honors on the battlefield from the Duke of Wellington. Everyone else knows that he is a drunken, meddlesome, lazy fraud. Certainly, his daughter does. She is in love with the son of a rich Yankee tradesman who is ill in a bedroom in the inn kept by her father. Her father regards the Yankees as beneath him. He is astonished to find that the Yankees regard him and his daughter as trash.

Since no one is killed or dies in the play, “A Touch of the Poet” is not a typical O’Neill tragedy. The tragedy is confined to the destruction of a braggart’s pride. But it has the size and tumult, the clash of purpose, the bigness of scene writing, the bitterness, the hatred, the recklessness of O’Neill’s most theatrical writing. It is characteristically overwritten and drama on a big scale.

Inside the shadowy, raw-timbered tavern room that Ben Edwards has beautifully designed, the performance has the power of an epic. Mr. Clurman has mad a thunderbolt out of O’Neill’s writing.

Every actor is at the top of his form. As the braggart Irishman, Mr. Portman is frequently inarticulate. And that is unfortunate. For his portrait of the bogus gentleman whose pride takes a disastrous fall is masterly in concept and in the wildness of emotion. Miss Field gives a nicely balanced performance as a witty, sagacious Yankee lady whose gentility makes an amusing contrast with the violence of the other characters.

“A Touch of the Poet” brings us the two finest actresses of their respective generations as mother and daughter. This is not the time to discover Miss Hayes’ genius; it has been happily familiar for years. But the shrunken, shabby biddy she plays here seems like a fresh discovery because it is so marvelously wrought in frailty, brightness, quickness of instinct, physical vulgarity and spiritual beauty.

Nor does Miss Stanley’s vividness of communication come as a surprise. She has been a fresh and creative actress for a number of seasons. But the fullness of her characterization, the tempestuousness of her emotions, the interior life of the character as well as its external expression represent Miss Stanley well on into an extraordinary career.

There is one scene toward the end of the play that Miss Hayes and Miss Stanley have made a classic. Mother and daughter alone in the night in the dining-room of the inn, drawn together, absorbed by each other, yet thinking different thoughts – it is a scene that is alive, profound and unforgettable.

O’Neill wrote it. Like the rest of “A Touch of the Poet,” it has substance, a point of view, human principle and theatre


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