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The Triumvirate (2): Marco Millions   Next


To most adherents of the Art Theatre movement, the name of David Belasco was anathema. Some were willing to grant him a limited virtue. Cheney speaks approvingly of his thoroughness in preparing a play, of his technical improvements, particularly in the area of lighting, and of his having discarded canvas for solid, dimensional box settings. Macgowan links him with Reinhardt and Craig in turning away from cheap, ugly decor. In the main, however, Belasco’s imitation of surface appearances was slavish and dull, a trivial naturalism whose product was without truth or delight. It is a matter of some amusement, therefore, to visualize the moment when O’Neill and Jones, the chief young Turks of the anti-Belasco theatre, with hat and the script of Marco Millions in hand, approached the enemy to interest him in producing O’Neill’s new work. The proposal must have given even Belasco pause. As O’Neill wrote it, he told Macgowan, he let the sky be the limit and was putting “every fancy in.”* The typescript of the first version was in fourteen scenes divided into eight acts and an epilogue. The acting script Belasco saw was a work which fell into two parts, each two and a half hours long. The producer was courteous, took an option on the play, and, it is said, offered to send Jones to China for two years to do research for the scenery. He dropped the option in April, 1926, and the play was also rejected by Arthur Hopkins and Gilbert Miller. It was not produced until 1928 when the Theatre Guild staged a much shortened version that O’Neill had prepared in 1927.

Like The Fountain and Lazarus Laughed, with which it is linked in its picaresque, romantic style, Marco Millions had to wait long for its production. Its charm, for a producer, lies in its comedy and in the opportunity it presents for stunning theatrical display. Yet any producer might pause upon discovering that thirty extras are called for in the Prologue to draw in the coffin of Princess Kukachin. Nor would the prospective cost of O’Neill’s scenic “fancies” be in any way reassuring. Lee Simonson, who designed the Theatre Guild production, noted with something like despair that O’Neill “passes in review the architectural façades of five separate civilizations during thirty minutes of playing time,”23 and he commented that the light plot for the production was very difficult.24 The play was, he admitted, “a scene designer’s holiday,” and he wrote at some length about the way in which O’Neill’s cuts, made for the sake of economy, injured the first act of the play in performance. Without the cut material, the scenes of the voyage of the Polos to China “seemed pointless and the play did not begin as a drama until the second act.”** His comment is suggestive, in its implication that, although the play demands the fullest resources a theatre can muster, *** the scenic requirements are more than decorative. It is costly, but not extravagant. O’Neill uses what he asks for.

The play, or something like it, had been in O’Neill’s mind for many years. In 1917, to a friend named Slim Martin, he mentioned that he would some day write a play about Marco Polo.25 In 1918, he conceived a play in “a multitude of scenes that would have appalled any producer. I wished to show a series of progressive episodes, illustrating—and I hope illuminating—the life story of a true Royal Tramp at his sordid but satisfying, and therefore mysterious, pursuit of a drab rainbow. . . .“26 The play of the Tramp was never written. In its stead, O’Neill wrote the tragedy of Robert Mayo who remained drably earthbound, incapable of pursuing his dream. What he did not dramatize fully in Beyond the Horizon was the story of Andrew Mayo, the brother who was denied even a dream, who went to sea and became “almost a millionaire” (156) and whose only reaction to the mysteries of the East was its smell:

And as for the East you used to rave about—well, you ought to see it, and smell it! One walk down one of their filthy narrow streets with the tropic sun beating on it would sicken you for life with the “wonder and mystery” you used to dream of. (132)

Marco Millions can be viewed as the account of the voyages of Andrew Mayo.

There were other considerations which governed the shaping of the play. O’Neill stated that he became interested in the story of Marco Polo in 1921, while he was doing research on The Fountain. In that year, Donn Byrne had published Messer Marco Polo, a highly successful, somewhat precious novella, about a romance between Marco and the Kaan’s daughter, Princess Golden Bells, as filtered through the lips of an aged, mysterious Irish story teller, whose language is a cross between that of the Abbey Theatre and Christopher Marlowe. His characterization of Marco is very much in the line of O’Neill’s typical hero: Byrne’s Marco is young, a poet, a dreamer. In Venice he hears of the beauty of the Princess and loving her, goes in quest of her. He is permitted to go with his father and uncle as a missionary, for the Kaan has asked the Pope to send him word of their religion. A strange, almost supernatural journey leads Marco to China where he is received with kindness by the Kaan and with love by the Princess. They marry, she dies, and, after he achieves a distinguished career as the servant of the Kaan, Marco returns disconsolate to Venice, having converted none but the Princess to Christianity. Had O’Neill ever set out to write a bitter-sweet exotic love story, Messer Marco Polo, devoid of its more fantastical excursions, might well have been the work. That it offered suggestions to him for the development of his play seems likely, since Marco Polo’s own book contains no love story, nor is it especially concerned with Marco’s Christian mission.****

Another tangential influence was at work in the novels of Sinclair
Lewis, Main Street, published in 1920, and Babbitt, published in 1922, the year before O’Neill began to work on Marco Millions.***** Lewis’s image of a soulless, corrupt, mercantile America served to define the attitudes of many who to that time had been restless but not to the point of protest. More than the communism of Jack Reed or the anarchism of Terry Carlin, Lewis fed O’Neill’s sense of what was wrong with America. Radical theory of protest is very well, but O’Neill found more imaginative stimulus in such satiric portraits as Lewis provided. Marco is Babbitt in Xanadu, yet O’Neill takes Marco farther than Lewis takes Babbitt. In Act II, scene i, when Marco tells the Kaan what his mayoralty of the city of Yang-Chau has achieved, he reveals himself to be the most outrageous fascist, a demagogue who has committed gross abuses of his powers:

I even had a law passed that anyone caught interfering with culture would be subject to a fine! It was Section One of a blanket statute that every citizen must be happy or go to jail. I found it was the unhappy ones who were always making trouble and getting discontented. You see, here’s the way I figure it; if a man’s good, he’s happy—and if he isn’t happy, it’s a sure sign he’s no good to himself or anyone else and he better be put where he can’t do harm.

To which the Kaan properly replies:

(The citizens) complain that you have entirely prohibited all free expression of opinion.

Marco protests:

Well, when they go to the extreme of circulating such treasonable opinions against me, isn’t it time to protect your sovereignty by strong measures? (392)

In another incarnation, and for the clearest of possible motives, a complete absence of human feeling coupled with an intense cupidity, Marco would have been a willing adherent of Strength through Joy. Marco leaves China at this point, and the story centers thereafter on the love of Princess Kukachin. Marco reverts to mere Babbittry and the suggestion remains undeveloped. Nevertheless, brought to focus by Lewis’s depiction of Babbitt, O’Neill’s sense of the dangerous realities of materialistic America are presented in much more compelling and controlled terms than they had been in The Hairy Ape or in All God’s Chillun Got Wings, and his sense of what thirst for material power does to an individual is more specific in this play than it was in The Fountain.

Marco’s character is seen as the same combination of poet and materialistic thinker that O’Neill had last treated in the portrait of Juan Ponce de Leon. Now, somewhat clinically inspected, and with the element of the poet reduced to a minimal adolescent urge, the materialist emerges pure. Marco’s pitiful soul is in his poem that a prostitute tears up early in the play. Thereafter, except for the moment when Kukachin’s love awakens a brief response in him, Marco’s soul is as the prostitute described it as she stamped the poem in the ground, “dead and buried.” The problem Marco presents is therefore not so complex as that which O’Neill had undertaken in The Fountain. Marco need suffer no resurrection. He can move in his gilded effulgence, a dead man among the wonders of the world. The Kaan senses his deformity, comparing him to a humped jester. Marco’s hump, however, is spiritual. As the Kaan says, “He has not even a mortal soul, he has only an acquisitive instinct,” and he adds, in words that might have been spoken of Andrew Mayo, “He has looked at everything and seen nothing.” (308) Marco, unlike Juan, has had no vision of golden cities. When he finds them, they are nothing to him. His creative imagination is devoted to the invention of paper money and gunpowder.

Not only in character and theme is Marco Millions like The Fountain. It resembles it in structure and in this particular it may also be compared with The Emperor Jones, The Hairy Ape and Lazarus Laughed, which he began in 1925. Each of them is a journey play, told in a number of scenes, and centering on the travels of its hero. The picaresque novel, of course, provides analogues in literary tradition, but there are fewer examples from drama to set beside O’Neill’s account of the spiritual journey of his heroes in terms of a physical voyage. To an extent, Peer Gynt had provided suggestions that caused The Emperor Jones to assume the form of a physical and spiritual journey, but Ibsen, to the advocates of the Art Theatre, was the master of an essentially outmoded naturalism. On the other hand, to Macgowan and to O’Neill, the preeminent theatrical artist was Strindberg, and in his work there were a number of notable examples of the so-called “Wander Play.”27

Strindberg’s “Wander Plays” include Lucky Per’s Journey, The Keys to Heaven, the trilogy To Damascus, A Dream Play and The Highway, and they were written over the entire course of Strindberg’s career as a playwright. They are, in many ways, his most directly autobiographical plays, and they are the ones in which he pushed beyond naturalism into the expressionist mode. Each of the plays centers on a quest for salvation by its hero. The structure, essentially picaresque, is evolved in a series of scenes, which like stations on a Via Crucis, lead to the hero’s discovery of his soul and his coming to a right relation with God. The arrangement of the scenes is cyclic, and in some there is a conscious alternation of indoor-outdoor scenes, such as O’Neill devised for Beyond the Horizon. The symbolic content of the works is marked, and, as Strindberg developed the form in To Damascus, A Dream Play and The Highway, the reliance on picaresque realism gives way to the projection of an intense, evolving inner life. Strindberg described his technique in the prefatory note to A Dream Play:

In this dream play, as in his former dream play To Damascus, the Author has sought to reproduce the disconnected but apparently logical form of a dream. Anything can happen; everything is possible and probable. Time and space do not exist; on a slight groundwork of reality, imagination spins and weaves new patterns made up of memories, experiences, unfettered fancies, absurdities and improvisations. . . . A single consciousness holds sway over them all—that of the dreamer. For him there are no secrets, no incongruities, no scruples and no law.

O’Neill’s sympathy for the questing, poetic dreamer led him almost from the outset of his playwriting career to write “Wander Plays”-in-embryo. Elements of the genre are to be found in the S.S. Glencairn plays, and in “Anna Christie.” Beyond the Horizon, presenting the voyager who does not travel, and The Emperor Jones, presenting the traveler who makes the voyage for other reasons than his spiritual salvation, can be viewed as sophisticated variations on the form. They are not, of course, but they suggest that O’Neill is looking in the same direction as Strindberg had gone. The Fountain, The Hairy Ape, Marco Millions and Lazarus Laughed answer almost precisely to the requirements of the genre. The dream state in which the wounded Ponce de Leon views the apparitions at the fountain in Florida, the expressionistic manner of The Hairy Ape, which attempts to suggest a controlling point of view, the revelation in the Epilogue to Marco Millions that Marco has been seated in the audience viewing, and thus in a sense “controlling” the point of view the audience must take of the play, Lazarus’s journey through the Mediterranean world to his crucifixion all suggest that O’Neill is now emulating Strindberg’s depiction of wanderers questing God. Marco, evidently is not in search of his soul, or salvation, or love or anything of spiritual value. He is given no moment to show even a mild regret at losing what he finally saw in the eyes of Princess Kukachjn. Instead, at the end of the play, he is engulfed in the fat world of Venice, barely visible behind mounds of food, unheard amidst the swilling sounds of his guests eating like hogs, and the repeated word “Millions.” This Jonsonian scene is one of the darkest—and incidentally the most truly expressionistic—that O’Neill ever penned. Yet, despite this ending, Marco has made Lucky Per’s journey. He has been to Damascus and beyond. The Kaan and his adviser, Chu-Yin, make amply clear that Marco can discover his soul; indeed, they urge the quest upon him. Marco’s refusal, his inability to comprehend more in effect than “I breathe, therefore I have a soul,” creates a sophisticated, ironic variation on the type, which despite its amusements and its beauty is a play with darkness at the center.

Some of the darkness came from a personal problem that the play in part reflected. In telling of Robert and Andrew Mayo, O’Neill had sketched, however lightly, something of the characteristics of himself and his brother, Jamie. Marco, like Andrew, has in him the spiritual emptiness of Jamie, who once wanted to write, but whose most significant creative achievement was to play in the farce called The Travelling Salesman. If it is there at all, the presence of Jamie in the character of Marco is deeply buried. Jamie died, hideously, in 1923, the year his brother began work on Marco Millions. Nothing of his manner, his cynicism, his self-abasement nor his humanity exists in Marco. Marco remains a cartoon, a dummy through whose mouth O’Neill voices anti-materialistic sentiments. Yet the ghost of Jamie in Marco may help to explain why, while on the surface Marco Millions is one of the simplest, most available and amusing plays of the canon, it is one of the most pessimistic. A traditional comment on the play is that it is the comedy of Marco, the tragedy of Kublai Kaan. Yet, in the context of The Fountain, Lazarus Laughed and even The Hairy Ape, and coming at a period in his life when O’Neill was seeking to bring to the theatre a sense of spiritual exaltation through the dramatization of man’s quest for God, the play is also the tragedy of Marco Polo, whose unawareness of any life beyond what he can see makes him, despite his cock-sure step on the earth, a creature God cannot touch.

What finally may be said of Marco Millions lies less in its achievement as an individual work than in the concepts it released for the future.

O’Neill seems to have written easily as he let his “fancies” loose.****** If Desire Under the Elms can be said to cap the efforts of his youth, Marco Millions opens ahead. As lines in The Moon of the Caribbees anticipated The Hairy Ape, so much in Marco points toward O’Neill’s next four plays, Dynamo, The Great God Brown, Lazarus Laughed and Strange Interlude. For example, in calling Marco, who has not even a mortal soul, the “Image of God,” (379) O’Neill is writing in the ironic vein that will ultimately produce Billy, the Great God Brown. Another view of him maintains that he is yet “unborn.” (397) This is said at the moment when Kukachin testifies that Marco indeed has a soul, to which Chu-Yin replies “A woman may feel life in the unborn.” For a passing moment, Kukachin takes on qualities that will be later developed in the portraits of Cybel and of Nina Leeds, an impression that is reaffirmed in the chorus sung as she finally meets her future husband, Ghazan Kaan. The women attendants sing of his coming:

The lover comes,
Who becomes a husband,
Who becomes a son,
Who becomes a father—
In this contemplation lives the woman. (417)

Kukachin does not become such a personification of the maternal force as Cybel or Nina, but the implication is strong that in his future pictures of women, this conception will come to the fore, as it began to do in the portrait of Abbie Cabot in Desire Under the Elms written at the same time.

In other short passages, concepts which will receive full development in Lazarus Laughed, Dynamo and, to a lesser extent in Strange Interlude rise to the surface. In a moment of despair, the Kaan cries out,

My hideous suspicion is that God is only an infinite, insane energy which creates and destroys without other purpose than to pass eternity in avoiding thought. Then the stupid man becomes the Perfect Incarnation of Omnipotence and the Polos are the true children of God! (426)

The view of God as a physical energy will characterize the Electrical God of Dynamo and provide imagery of God’s power in both Strange Interlude and Lazarus Laughed. Nina, for example, speaks of life as being a “strange dark interlude in the electrical display of God the Father!” (199) and Lazarus describes men as being “quivering flecks of rhythm” beating down from the sun. (324)

The same plays rely on the sense of life as an interlude between two awakenings, and the motif is anticipated in the dialogue of the Kaan and Chu-Yin, who also speak of life as eternal in much the same terms as Lazarus will use. Finally, it may be noted that in the play’s last scene, after the priests of Buddha, Confucius and Tao have failed to assert more in solace to the Kaan, sorrowing for the death of Kukachin, than that “Death is,” O’Neill brings the Kaan to a kind of peace with the paradoxical truth that the living are dead, and the dead live, (438) a view he will restate with Lazarus’s doctrine “Life is,” in the pageant play to come.

Marco Millions was a play of its period, and it will remain so. Its ironic theme, like its Art Theatre aestheticism, is buried too deeply in time for it to emerge as a play of substance, important to later audiences. It was even partially buried by 1928 when it finally received its first production. Nevertheless, it was an important stop on O’Neill’s journey forward if for no other reason than in the releasing of images that were to prove germinal to plays yet to come.

* Unpublished correspondence, O’Neill to Macgowan. The letter is undated, but falls between April and July, 1924. In a postscript, O’Neill suggests that possibly Max Reinhardt might be interested in coming to the United States to direct Marco Millions in collaboration with the Triumvirate. At one time, O’Neill attempted to interest George M. Cohan, who later was to star in Ah, Wilderness!, in the role of Marco.

** The Stage is Set, 117. Simonson is referring to the elimination of the silent groups of people, representing the ages of man from infancy to death whom Marco sees in Act I, scenes iii, iv, and v. His point is that the circle of figures place Marco not in a particular locality, but “in the presence of the patient pattern of Eastern civilization.” Without these sequences, Marco’s introduction to the East was without dramatic force or full meaning.

*** Which it has never had. In an article in the New York Times, Jan. 22, 1928, Simonson complained about the inadequate machinery of the Guild’s theatre, and many of the reviewers of that production objected to the long waits between scenes. The more recent production in 1964 was played on a thrust stage, without such full scenic realization as O’Neill envisioned.

**** In 1926, Manuel Komroff, O’Neill’s editor at Boni and Liveright, published a selection of The Travels of Marco Polo. It is probable that O’Neill’s interest in Marco prompted Komroff’s edition.

***** George Jean Nathan in The American Mercury, in 1927 stated that Marco Millions was written in order to satirize the American business magnate, and in particular to irritate Otto Kahn who had disliked The Great God Brown. (Cf. Clark, 108) Marco Millions was completed in 1925, well before the production of The Great God Brown. Nathan’s story may reflect a rationalization after the fact, based on the punning possibilities of Kublai Kaan and Otto Kahn, to whom O’Neill often referred ironically as “The Great Kahn.”

****** The two-play version of the story would have provided better evidence of this point, and incidentally might give evidence that the play was once better constructed, in terms of its character development, than is the present script. There is a great gap between the ending of Act I and the beginning of Act II, where a space of fifteen years elapses. Marco is left as a child at the end of Act I; in Act II, he is the assured bureaucrat. Something more is needed to show his transition from adolescence to maturity. While one is willing to accept the child’s being father to the man, what O’Neill shows is Marco’s arrival in China and his departure. Marco’s life under the rule of the Kaan could have been detailed with profit.


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