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
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
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:
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,
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.
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
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.
© Copyright 1999-2007 eOneill.com