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The Triumvirate (1): Kenneth Macgowan   Next


Macgowan was O’Neill’s age and had been a drama critic in Boston, Philadelphia and New York. In 1919, he became an associate editor of Theatre Arts Magazine and was quickly accepted as a prophet of the new movement in theatre. His first two books, The Theatre of Tomorrow (1921) and Continental Stagecraft (1922), on which he collaborated with Robert Edmond Jones, were, like Cheney’s book, seminal investigations. Macgowan set himself against the theatre which was only “realistic” and preached the quest for a new realism which would be revelatory of spiritual values. The new theatre, he said, will create drama which moves, with the help of the new scenic and lighting methods, toward spiritual abstractions. Some present-day realistic plays, such as Rosmershoim and Beyond the Horizon, not only imitate life but illumine it. Such a play “goes so much deeper (than the ephemeral exterior) for the substance of its art that it has values which are . . . eternal.” Nevertheless, “we are turning away . . . from their higher realism because we are seeking an intense inner vision of spiritual reality which will push the selective process so far that to call the result realism will be an absurdity.”10 The new drama “will attempt to transfer to dramatic art the illumination of those deep and vigorous and eternal processes of the human soul which the psychology of Freud and Jung has given us through study of the unconscious, striking to the heart of emotion and linking our commonest life today with the emanations of the primitive racial mind.”11 Elsewhere he defined spiritual qualities as being those which give us a “subliminal sense of mysterious age-old processes alive in us today.”12 Although he spoke in the main of new developments in stagecraft and lighting which would make possible the new, abstract and symbolic art, he felt certain that once the new stagecraft had evolved into a totally efficient instrument, it would “attract the playwright and cause him to write in a style suited to (its) exigencies.”13 The future of this kind of playwriting he felt lay in America, as a young country with a youthful literature, and as one of many outlets for the nation’s burgeoning spirit.14

Continental Stagecraft, his collaboration with Robert Edmond Jones, was dedicated “to the Playwrights of America,” and implicit in its theme is the belief that playwrights, designers and directors must work closely together in evolving theatrical works of distinction. Macgowan began by speaking of realism and its opposite: Realism, which has been in vogue for perhaps fifty years, sees truth in terms of its literal representation of men in action. Resemblance and plausibility are the tests, and “It is the business of the realistic playwright to draw as much as possible of inner truth to the surface without distorting the resemblance to actuality.”15 The opposite of realism dispenses with the need for resemblance. It has the free techniques of romanticism, coupled with the modern insights provided by psychological research. “The question is both of technique and materials, for an inner truth is to be found in a study of the unconscious mind which will not brook the obstructions of actuality and resemblance. Inner truth is so much more important than actuality that the new type of drama will not bother itself to achieve both, and if one must infringe on the other—which must happen in almost every case—then it chooses quickly and fearlessly the inner truth.”16 Such a dramatic style he called anti-realistic, presentational or expressionistic. What was to be sought was an inner shape, a “significant form,” whether the mode be realistic or its opposite. Seeking examples of both modes, he described in detail the Moscow Art Theatre production of The Cherry Orchard as an example of superb realism which found its “significant form”; his favorite example of the expressionist play was The Hairy Ape, “a play that grows greater in the perspective of Europe.”17

The stage artists, he noted, have an easier time with expressionism than have the playwrights. Working only in color and design, they are released from the questions of morality and the “pull of actual life.” Designers with the example of recent French painting to guide them can move toward the abstract freely, indulging in pure vision to find, as if the stage were music, “beauty and ecstasy.”18 Macgowan’s review of the theatrical machines of the German theatre appears somewhat disenchanted. Reinhardt, for him, turned out to have feet of clay. He felt that stage machinery could be eliminated from the theatre, if the playwright worked with the régisseur and the artist to make machinery unnecessary. Together they could “seek the subjective instead of the physical ... thrill us with the mysteries and clarities of the unconscious, instead of cozening us with photographic detail or romantic color. For all this they need imagination in setting, not actuality. Form carries the spirit up and out. Indications speak to it louder than actualities. Design, which is of the spirit, drives out mechanism, which is of the brain.”19

Macgowan acknowledged that plays of the expressionist theatre might be written without the aid of a régisseur or artist, but he doubted that they could be produced without close and detailed collaboration. Certainly acting appropriate to expressionism would never come without a “presentational ensemble” to banish representational acting. The need clearly was for a theatre, essentially simple in its means, dedicated to the principles of the highest theatrical vision and evolved and energized through the collaboration of great dramatic artists.

Kenneth Macgowan was a man who had the courage of his vision. Through his association with Jones, it was inevitable that he would be drawn into O’Neill’s orbit. Together, the three men provided the talent essential to the creation of just such a theatre as he had envisioned. From O’Neill’s point of view, the alliance would fill the need that his problems of production made painfully evident. For Jones, who, except for his work on The Hairy Ape, had long ago left the Provincetown Players Macgowan’s vision undoubtedly seemed attractive in that it provided a place where he could work both as a stage artist and. as a director. The formation of the “triumvirate,” as the press called it, was not long in coming. The theatre that was ready to hand was the now dark Provincetown Playhouse. There, the first season of “The Experimental Theatre,” opened on January 3, 1924, with the American premiere of Strindberg’s The Spook Sonata, followed by a revival of Anna Cora Mowatt’s comedy, Fashion.* The third bill included Moliere’s Georges Dandin and O’Neill’s arrangement of Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner. A revival of The Emperor Jones, with Paul Robeson in Charles Gilpin’s role, followed. The final bill of the season was O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings, again with Robeson.

O’Neill’s working association with Macgowan had begun in the spring of 1921. At that time, as he set to work on The Fountain, he asked both Macgowan and Jones to suggest background reading. Macgowan did some research for him and sent O’Neill in Provincetown lists of books about the conquest of the Americas. O’Neill was grateful, expressed his admiration of the critic and told him that he felt they were “fated for a real friendship.” The tone of his letters quickly became intimate and affectionate, and with some candor he discussed details of his work in progress, as well as his personal problems.

In July, 1921, Macgowan and his wife visited the O’Neills in Provincetown, and their friendship was confirmed. In August, when they had returned to the city, O’Neill wrote “I felt from the first that Eddie (Mrs. Edna Macgowan) and you were old friends—and, rarer than that—pals—and that I was free to do as I liked with every confidence that you would do the same and enjoy yourselves doing it. All of which is great stuff! So come again! Come often, stay late! You will always be as welcome as the waves.” He adds a note concerning The Fountain: “So far this act has developed very well, I believe, with many added touches creeping in since I discussed it with you.”20

The discussions between the two men evidently revealed to both their common idealism concerning the theatre. Macgowan expressed his distrust of most professional theatre men, and O’Neill replied that he understood his friend’s suspicions. He was concerned, however, that Macgowan not include him among the rank and file of Broadway theatrical hacks:

Usually, I have no doubt,—knowing theatrical folk as well as I do—you have just grounds for suspicion. But with me you ain’t got—even if you did have in spite of yourself. Because I don’t think of you as a critic but as a fellow-worker for the best that we can fight for in the theatre in all directions. Both members of that same club, that’s what I mean. Most critics are too tired to be that. Most playwrights, too. The rest of us ought to stick together—not by the usual mutual back-patting of “little groups of serious thinkers”—but by sincere mutual criticism. In that way we’ll all be helped, and the theatre in the bargain.21

The statement is just short of an appeal for the development of some form of collaborative work.

From April to June, 1922, Macgowan and Jones made the European tour which resulted in Continental Stagecraft. In these same months, the Provincetown Players declared their holiday. By the spring of 1923, Macgowan’s scheme for a reorganization of the Provincetown Players had taken form. At the outset he mentioned to O’Neill many names for possible collaborators; Irving Pichel was apparently at one time considered as a co-director. O’Neill, however, insisted that Macgowan be the absolute head, and proposed a “Senate” of nine members, including four actors—Pichel, Clare Eames, Roland Young, Jacob Ben-Ami, two playwrights—himself and someone who understood comedy—and designers Robert Edmond Jones and Norman Bel Geddes. Of his own function on the board, he wrote, somewhat incoherently,

My greatest interest in this venture, as I guess you know from what I’ve said, would be as a person with ideas about the how & what of production rather than original writing—I mean there are so many things outside of my own stuff that I have a creative theatre hunch about as being possibilities for experiment, development, growth for all concerned in working them out. Perhaps I’m mistaken about myself in this capacity. At any rate, I’m willing to work these out with whoever is interested & pass them on to whoever is interested—to work as one part of an imaginative producing scheme, if you “get” me from this jumble. You see, all these ideas of mine are being incorporated into my own plays bit by bit as they fit in but I can’t write plays fast enough to keep up with the production-imagination section of my “bean!” It would be suicidal to attempt it. . . . If I wish my work to grow steadily more comprehensive & deeper in quality, I’ve got to give it more & more of my possible sum-total.22

As evidence of his seriousness, he suggests projects for the theatre: his adaptation of The Ancient Mariner and his Marco Polo play— now in scenario form—an adaptation of a Norse Saga and a new play by Djuna Barnes.

In September, O’Neill wrote advocating strongly that the name of the Provincetown Players be dropped from the new theatre’s title, and he objected in significant emphasis to the new directors’ being “actively associated” with the old group of bickering partisans. A complete reorganization of policy was essential. Macgowan was to rule as artistic dictator, but at the same time, in a letter of unusual length, he took Macgowan to task for his proposed manifesto for the theatre. His statement indicates how thoroughly he has accepted the principles of the Art Theatre as evolved by Cheney and Macgowan himself:

Your manifesto is too meekly explicit, the plays you list too much what might be found on the repertoire of a dramatic club. I think you ought to inject a lot of the Kamerny spirit into your statement with the emphasis on imaginative new interpretations, experimentation in production. That’s what that theatre ought to mean in New York today, Kenneth! That’s what N.Y. lacks right now! That’s the gap we ought to fill. And that idea is the idea we’ve been interested in, it seems to me. But where is it in your manifesto? Nowhere! And do you know why? Because that old man of the sea, P.P. (Provincetown Players) is on your neck. You’re trying to collect subscriptions in the name of a dead issue, in the spirit of straddling compromise.

Don’t get sore at the above. I’m raving because this isn’t developing as you, Bobby (Robert Edmond Jones) & I dream—as Bel Geddes & others dream—and unless it’s going to be that dream, or at least, approximate it in spirit, then what’s the use? If this is going to be just another repertory Guild on a smaller scale, what’s the use? If it’s going to be anything of anything that is or has been in N.Y., again what’s the use? The opportunity is for the unique or nothing.21

The cry was for manifest difference, and to a degree the Experimental Theatre at the Provincetown Playhouse provided it. The success of Fashion in the first season forced the company to find another stage at the Greenwich Village Theatre, but by the summer of 1925, the triumvirate was operating only the latter, leaving the Provincetown Playhouse to be run by James Light and a few members of the first Provincetown organization. By 1926, O’Neill had severed connections with both organizations and from that time forth worked with the Theatre Guild.

Between 1921 and 1926, however, and with Macgowan’s principles and the Experimental Theatre in mind, O’Neill conceived and wrote much of The Fountain, The Hairy Ape, Welded, All God’s Chillun Got Wings, Desire Under the Elms, The Ancient Mariner, Dynamo, a dramatization of the Book of Revelations, entitled The Revelation of John the Divine, The Great God Brown, Marco Millions, Strange Interlude and Lazarus Laughed.** In contrast to the plays written between 1917 and 1920, which, with the single exception of The Emperor Jones, do not attempt astonishing departures in theatrical style from what was normal for the period, the works undertaken in the subsequent five-year period are all conceived in the spirit of the Art Theatre experiment. Indeed the plays fall readily into Cheney’s categories: As “psychologic drama,” there are Welded, All God’s Chillun Got Wings, Desire Under the Elms and Strange Interlude; as “aesthetic drama,” O’Neill offered The Fountain, The Ancient Mariner and The Revelation of John the Divine; and as the third “re-theatralized” drama, that which seeks to invent new stagecraft in order to incorporate all the arts of the theatre equally, there are Dynamo, The Hairy Ape, The Great God Brown, Marco Millions and Lazarus Laughed, each of which pushed beyond the bounds of routine stagecraft and which in the case of Lazarus Laughed required for its full realization a new form of playhouse such as Macgowan and Jones had envisioned in their project for the conversion of the Cirque Medrano to theatrical purposes.***

That O’Neill consciously followed Cheney is of course not at issue. Yet he was writing in a time when the life of the theatre revolved around such categories and for a theatre whose purpose was defined by one of the movement’s principal theorists. In Robert Edmond Jones, who during the time of the Experimental Theatre emerged as a director as well as designer, he found a régisseur capable of thinking of the total design of a production. Both his collaborators opened doors for him, and he entered willingly, for the sake of experiment.

Experiment and something more. The theorists had spoken of the need of idealism in all dramatic enterprise. There must be, they had insisted, an element of spirit evolving from even the most “naturalistic” plays. Cheney had called for American dramatists with the souls of poets to create an imaginative drama capable of making the theatre’s function comparable to that of the church. Macgowan too cried out for men of sensitivity and vision to work in the theatre. The theatre, he said, is the art “nearest to life; its material is almost life itself. This physical identity which it has with our very existence is the thing that can enable the artist to visualize with amazing intensity a religious spirit of which he has sensed only the faintest indications in life. He can create a world which shines with exaltation and which seems—as it indeed is—a world of reality. He can give the spirit a pervading presence in the theater which it once had in the life of the Greeks and of the people of the Middle Ages. And when men and women see eternal spirit in such a form, who can say that they will not take it to them?”24

Whatever O’Neill derived from such inspirational prose could only conform to his own impulses. The most significant of the plays written before 1921 had instinctively worked toward a similar statement—that behind life there lay a spiritual force to which men belonged, but whose nature could be intuited only through a sense of belonging. The light of diurnal existence obscured the light of the spirit: life was a mask on the face of God. O’Neill, a renegade Catholic, was yet intent on seeing that face. Interpreting literally the idealism of the proponents of the Art Theatre, he sought to go further than his early studies of men seeking to belong had taken him. The new stagecraft appeared to offer him the opportunity to penetrate deeply into man’s psychological and spiritual reality, and perhaps even to image God on the stage. Far more significant than the fact that the plays written between 1921 and 1926 coincide with the categories established as appropriate to the new movement in the theatre is the fact that they are all religious dramas.

* The revival of Fashion, one of the Experimental Theatre’s greatest successes, and one which led to a number of revivals of nineteenth-century American plays, appears to have been selected with a certain ironic intention. A cardinal principle of the Art Theatre movement was that nineteenth-century stagecraft—painted drops, wing pieces and the like—was all wrong. Jones, who staged the play, designed impeccable period sets of great charm, containing all the elements that adherents of the new stagecraft hated in theory.

** Dynamo was not completed until 1928. The Revelation of John the Divine was never completed. The thirty-five-page typescript, is little more than a copy of sections of the King James version.

*** Continental Stagecraft concluded with the description of the authors’ project for transforming the Cirque Medrano in Montmartre to a theatre in the round, perhaps the first mention of a stage completely encircled by an audience in modern times.


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