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The Triumvirate (2):   Next

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner


Both Sheldon Cheney and Kenneth Macgowan had visualized a collaborative effort of designer, director and playwright aimed at the creation of a theatre that would realize the aesthetic ideals of Gordon Craig. It was to be a dramatic experience that did not necessarily rely on dialogue or the routine skills of the playwright. It would minimize, if it did not eliminate, the actor. Reinhardt’s mimo-drama Sumurun had suggested the possibilities of such a full theatrical spectacle, and, in the United States, experiments with color organs, masks and choreographic acting had stimulated further undertaking in such a vein. Although some elements of this theatrical aestheticism undoubtedly entered into the creation of Lazarus Laughed, O’Neill’s efforts at pure spectacle were insignificant. Twice, in collaboration with Jones and Macgowan, he created scenarios for such a theatre. Both works were written in 1924 and were adaptations. The first, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, was perhaps a silent acknowledgment of a debt he had owed Coleridge from the time of Fog and Thirst; the second, The Revelation of John the Divine, remained unfinished.

The latter script, which was to have formed half of a double bill with The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,1 represents little more than a cutting of the King James version by perhaps one-third. O’Neill made a preliminary sorting-out of the solo voices, choric passages and “stage directions,” and he indicated one or two elements of design and action. For example, as John the narrator recites Chapter 8, verses 3, 4 and 6, O’Neill called for special lighting and sound effects: “Trumpet—wailing and cries from back of dome and below—noise of hail—crimson fire from above descends down dome.”2 For the most part, however, the work is unformed, undramatized.  O’Neill’s final stage direction gives perhaps some indication of the direction of the action. He wrote, “John slowly rises, shaken and weak, but exalted,—in a trembling note of ecstasy,”3 but this is the only indication of a dramatic development. The rest is oratorio.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was produced in 1924 by the Experimental Theatre on a double bill with Moliere’s Georges Dandin. It was not a success. Coleridge’s poem is slightly cut, with some of the lines being converted to stage directions, e.g., “He holds him with his skinny hand.” O’Neill amplified the action, bringing onstage a chorus of six masked sailors who mime the tale as the Mariner narrates it. He called for screens to form such scenic elements as the house where the marriage is taking place and the icebergs. The lighting is elaborate, and a special-effects machine was required for projections of clouds and stars on the plaster dome. Music and choreography all filled their places. James Light, who with Robert Edmond Jones staged the work, commented that the “finished effects” were “reached primarily through an understanding of the meaning of the poem, through an understanding that we wished them to indicate a flow of emotion, not at all to represent action. Unconsciously they developed a sense of form, a sense of rhythm and because of this . . . what they do affects the audience much as music does.”4 In his review, Alexander Woollcott noted that “The production was singularly childish. In the effort of this generation to break suffocated out of the narrow confines of the traditional theater, they have tried to throw away everything which may, by some chance, have delighted their grandfathers. It is therefore not to be wondered at that, in thus beginning all over again, they achieve something of the accent of a nursery entertainment.”5 A similarly sour attitude toward experiment was apparent in George Jean Nathan’s comment that The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was useful “chiefly as an occasion to experiment with masks and shadow lighting.” He reminded all concerned that such experiments require a play to be of any value.6 O’Neill, although he maintained an affection of sorts for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, evidently shared their opinions. He had much more important projects in hand than such minor editorial work.


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