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Editor: Harley Hammerman
St. Louis, Missouri

Volume 0


Stage Directions: O'Neill's Unheard Voice

Michael Basile
New Jersey City University

The text of a play consists of dialogue and stage directions in differing proportions according to the historical era in which it is situated and artistic designs of the playwright who writes it. Classical and Renaissance texts are constructed mostly of dialogue and contain few stage directions; conversely, many Modern and Post-Modern texts more evenly balance these two verbal components. Eugene O’Neill, among others modernists, initiated this reapportionment, and his plays therefore demonstrate a substantial number of stage directions that attempt to control setting, costume, and—most pertinent to this discussion—the performance choices of actors. But because such stage directions often do not find their way into performance exactly as they were written (and sometimes not at all) it is worth asking if O’Neill primarily provides them for his readers rather than his actors. If so, an interesting paradox ensues with respect to these two linguistic components of the text: the dialogue plays better than it reads while the stage directions read better than they play.

This discussion attempts to understand the second of these notions: the reasons why Eugene O’Neill’s stage directions read better than they play.1 Provisional answers may be supplied by an appraisal of the theatrical process by which the linguistic signs of the text—that is, dialogue and stage directions—are transformed into the physical and vocal signs of the actor in performance (or not, as the case may be with stage directions). Because written dialogue is voiced, it functionally bridges the informational divide between page and stage. In short, audiences hear the words the actors say. Stage directions, on the other hand, create an informational disjunct since playwrights’ written programs for the psychological maps of their characters’ lives are available to readers and actors, but not always to audiences in the theater.

Consider briefly a confrontation during the initial meeting between Anna and Burke in Anna Christie, although a moment chosen at random from almost any O’Neill play would serve to illustrate the difference between what the actors know and at what the audience can only guess. After an argument, Burke offers his hand to Anna in reconciliation. O’Neill describes her reaction as "Looking queerly at him, perplexed and worried, but moved and pleased in spite of herself—takes his hand uncertainly" (101). To convey this subtle mix of emotional states he grants the actor but a single word—”Sure.” Obviously the emotional weight of this moment must be carried by the stage directions and not the single voiced word of dialogue. Yet even the most gifted actor would find it impossible to look "queerly" all the while seeming simultaneously "perplexed and worried," "moved and pleased." In fact, as we shall soon see, texts laden with large numbers of highly specific stage directions such as these invite actors to test a wide range of interpretive choices. By choosing from among those directions they believe they can successfully convey in performance, they thereby ignore the ones they deem unperformable.

A kind of textual instability results. For O'Neill, nothing could be more antithetical to his intentions. Ample evidence from Eugene O'Neill’s biographers suggests that his plays were for him holy, inviolate objects and that, consequently, he expected actors to voice all of his dialogue, convey all of his stage directions. Paradoxically playwrighting offers the author relatively less autonomy of expression than any other literary endeavor.

Why is the dramatic text the most unstable of literary forms? Sign theory yields some explanations to this question that is central to my discussion. Then I will turn to an account of O’Neill’s frustrated attempts to make his produced plays entirely conform to the linguistic programs contained within his written texts. That frustration is made inevitable by the very same sign theory.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, the Prague Linguists pioneered the use of sign theory in the explication of dramatic texts by neatly borrowing some of the principles the Russian Formalists had previously applied in their work on poetry. While anything like a comprehensive summary of their work is beyond the scope of this discussion, one seminal idea subsumes all others: the transformability or utter plasticity of the theatrical sign. According to this theory actors’ bodies, for instance, which usually stand in or act as referents for dramatic characters, can also be used to indicate animals, buildings, chairs, and so on. (The work of the theatrical troupe, Mummenshantz, makes full inventive use of this particular referential transference.) Conversely, set pieces—stools, chairs—and even sound and light cues can play the part of dramatis personae. (In the play, Harvey, the imaginary rabbit is "played" by a spotlight.) Examples of O'Neill's own experimentation in the plasticity of the theatrical sign occur in many of his plays. In All God’s Chillun Got Wings, stage directions describe the neighborhood surrounding the church from which the newlyweds—black Jim and white Ella—have just exited: "The buildings have a stern, forbidding look. All the shades of the windows are drawn down, giving an effect of staring brutal eyes that pry callously at human beings without acknowledging them" (318). In this instance, painted theatrical sets assume anthropomorphic shapes and in effect become a choral character voicing societal disdain of the protagonists' interracial marriage. Working in reverse, the plasticity of the theatrical sign can allow for the dehumanization of actors’ voices and bodies. In The Emperor Jones, O'Neill indicates Jones' psychological descent into slavery by writing that his "voice is heard from the left rising and falling in the long, despairing wail of the chained slaves to the rhythmic beat of the tom-toms." Immediately after, "the expression on his face is fixed and stony, his eyes have an obsessed glare, he moves with a strange deliberation like a sleepwalker or one in a trance" (45). In contrast to the use of sets as character in Chillun, here the actor's face and body—ostensibly the most normative signifiers of dramatis personae—become dehumanized and merely "automatic response[s] to stimulus" (Burke 247). Beyond these instances and throughout his work, O’Neill experiments freely and often with the theater's unique ability to recast sign-referent relationships.

Whether O'Neill was aware of the work of the Prague Linguists is doubtful, but his expressionistic works in particular—such as the ones cited earlier—serve as useful applications of their theories. In fact, the two examples of stage directions outlined above easily manifest in performance as the playwright intends. Compliant stage technicians can easily paint sets of windows with "staring, brutal eyes"; an actor will likely agree to effect a gait like "a sleepwalker, or one in a trance." A disjunct, or what communication theorists call noise often occurs between text and performance, however, when stage directions aim to direct the actors' motivational choices. These types of stage directions largely do not transpose intact. The plasticity of the theatrical sign makes the former transposition possible and the latter problematic.

Writing in 1941, Jîrí Veltruský, a leading member of the Prague Linguists, calls this disjunct "a fundamental opposition" and emphasizes its substantive effect upon a playwright's intended meanings:

One of the fundamental oppositions within drama as a literary work is between direct speeches and author’s notes and remarks...In theatrical performance, these notes are eliminated, and the resulting gaps in the unity of the text are filled with other than linguistic signs. This is not an arbitrary process but essentially a matter of transposing linguistic meanings into other semiotic systems. Yet even when it endeavors to be as faithful as possible, it necessarily brings about important modifications
in the meanings themselves.

He then suggests that not only quality but also quantity of stage directions directly affects the transposition because "the extent of the change depends mainly on the number and weight of [sic] author's notes in the text, that is to say, on the importance of the gaps created by their deletion" (96).

Certainly O’Neill's plays fit this description, for they contain stage directions that are numerous and weighted: that is, ones that aim to obsessively program many of the actors’ choices in intonation, gesture, and movement. If Veltruský s correct, then, "important modifications" in O'Neill's intentions or meanings necessarily occur when his texts are submitted to performance and, by this measure, the "gaps" created by the deletion of his stage directions could be enormous indeed.

Shortly I will turn my attention to the reasons why O'Neill so assiduously attempted to program actors' performances by extensive use of stage directions, an element of the written text to which he "devoted as much attention as to the dialogue" (Törnqvist 35). Before I do, more recent work in theater semiotics sustains the notion of the gaps created by these paratextual additions and of the artistic freedom they inevitably inspire from actors who must perform them, the very freedom O'Neill aimed to restrain.

Original authorial intentions, as represented by what Jean Alter calls "the Literary Text," can be located in the sum of all the written information found in the combination of dialogue and stage directions (or didascalia). The Literary Text remains intact—and this qualification is highly significant—as long as "no theatrical experience is involved" (116, my emphasis). "Gaps" ensue when the literary text submitted to performance becomes "the Staged Text." In this new manifestation of the text-performance confrontation, stage directions carrying authorial comments "cannot be conveyed by the means of staging signs" (116). So what then happens to the author’s intentions? For Veltruský, the actors’ performances unify the total message, thus his comforting metaphor of gaps being filled. On the other hand, Alter sounds an alarm about texts "supplied with compulsory and exhaustive stage directions" believing they "would discourage creative revivals on the stage" (117). Theatrical neglect is his warning.

That, at least, cannot be said of O'Neill's best plays, especially his late, great works such as Moon for the Misbegotten and Long Day’s Journey into Night. Creative revivals of these masterpieces abound. But if we could exhume him and give him front rows seats from which to evaluate how faithfully modern interpreters follow his stage directions in performance—in effect, how unified his message, how close his Staged Text realizes his Literary Text—he would probably choose to return to his grave. As another theater theoretician says, "when actors are faced with ambiguous choices ...they must selectively reinforce some referents and selectively ignore others." This results in "a restriction of referential potentialities of the text" (Savona 136, my emphasis). Such is the nature of any text-performance confrontation but especially those which are initiated by texts containing numerous, weighty, and deterministic stage directions.

No playwright is immune from what Jeannette Laillou Savona calls a phenomenon "more socially coded than the novel" (25). It is just that some playwrights accept the collaborative nature of the theatrical medium for better, and some for worse. Undoubtedly, O'Neill fits into the second group. Ironically his plays aim for nearly complete control over the elements of production—and especially the choices of actors—and fail to do so almost in direct proportion to the number of weight of his stage directions. With stage directions, less is more. When actors are asked to perform three or four motivational changes in as many lines, they will "selectively reinforce" some and "selectively ignore others."

Many have noted the difficulties actors face performing O’Neill’s stage directions. Past volumes of The Eugene O’Neill Newsletter and The Eugene O’Neill Review contain several notable examples. Shelia Hickey Garvey reveals that during rehearsals of Anna Christie in New Haven in 1990, the actors ignored, changed, or entirely disregarded stage directions they would not or could not perform.2 James Fisher notes that Gordon Craig himself, the creator of the uber-marionette that eliminated the need for human actors altogether, objected that the superfluity of stage directions in Lazarus Laughed aimed to constrict the artistic liberties of performers too greatly (29). Most telling is Colleen Dewhurst’s response to playing O’Neill, recorded in an interview in 1982: "Look at O’Neill’s stage directions. You’re supposed to laugh, cry, I don’t know what—all in three seconds…that’s impossible" (52).

This celebrated O’Neill interpreter may have had this passage from Moon for the Misbegotten in mind, a play in which she recorded one of her greatest triumphs:

Josie (stammers): Jim—(Hastily, forcing her playful tone) Sure, you’re full of fine compliments all of a sudden, and I ought to show you how pleased I am. (She pulls his head back and kisses him on the lips—a quick, shy kiss) That’s for my beautiful soul.3

Seconds later, after Tyrone returns her kiss with a more overtly sexual one of his own, the actor playing Josie must somehow manage several more abrupt changes as dictated by the stage directions:

Josie: (Triumphant for a second). You meant it! I know you meant it! (Then, with a resentful bitterness—roughly) Be God, you’re right. I’m a damned fool to let you make me forget you’re the greatest liar in the world! (Quickly) I mean the greatest kidder.

Actors are known to blot out all such stage directions before rehearsals even begin, considering them intrusions into their own creative engagement with the text. Others, like Dewhurst, earnestly strive to follow the author’s notes as faithfully as they can. (A viewing of her 1975 videotaped portrayal of Josie bears this out.) Yet even when actors' performances endeavor to be as faithful as possible to the text, they inevitably cause "important modifications in the meanings themselves."

Ironically, O’Neill should have known that his efforts to prescribe the performance choices of actors would prove difficult if not impossible. Sign theory notwithstanding, his upbringing should have made this clear. Instead, it induced a quixotic disregard for the practical realities of the theater.

The theater tradition within which he was reared—and from which he eventually rebelled—was actor-centric. The matinee idol, and not the play or author, was "the thing." James O’Neill, Eugene’s father, built a national following largely on the strength of one role: Edmond Dantés in The Count of Monte Cristo. During the course of his career, James played the role over four thousand times and consequently sacrificed the actor’s most important requirement for continued interpretive growth—anonymity. From the stalls, as it were, the son viewed his father's artistic diminution. As he began his own career, the young playwright resolved to realign the power structure among theater professionals: the author and his play would replace the actor as the dominant forces in shaping productions. The time was ripe for such a change.

O’Neill inherited a tradition from the nineteenth-century that had become moribund and empty, thus creating "a vacuum which modern authors" like himself "hurried to fill out" (Alter 117). Arthur and Barbara Gelb quote a letter he wrote to a friend in his characteristically blunt prose: "Broadway had become 'a ceaseless repetition of a familiar and timeworn formula, a bag of tricks…I want people to leave my theatre actually quarreling about what they have seen'"(477). And he wanted it in writing. When he began what would become his long association with the Provincetown Players, its manifesto of 1916 assured the playwright of almost total artistic control where "the resources of the theatre…shall be placed at the disposal of the author…[and he] shall produce the play without hindrance, according to his own ideas" (Törnqvist 32). By all measures, this partnership succeeded. Perhaps owing to the artistic influence the manifesto granted him, O’Neill wrote and produced many of his plays at Provincetown. Years later, fter he moved on to Broadway, the same near absolute control eluded him despite his most persistent efforts to reclaim it.

Eyewitness accounts of his confrontations with actors confirm his aim to produce his plays "without hindrance according to his own ideas," but they do not always paint a pretty picture of those efforts. Sometimes he played casting director, such as when he was preparing to go into production for the premiere of Moon for the Misbegotten. He grilled Mary Welsh, his prospective Josie, about the authenticity of her Irish ancestry, town of origin, and even the shape of her nose (Gelb 883). At other times, he played minister of culture and maintained artistic control even after a play was in production. During the initial run of The Iceman Cometh, Gary Vena reminds us that he stationed his wife, Carlotta, backstage to insure that "his stage directions were strictly adhered to" (15).4 Most unattractive of all was his outright intimidation of actors. Charles C. Gilpin, the black actor who created the role of Jones in The Emperor Jones, felt uneasy about saying "nigger," as Jones is often called to do, and began changing the word to "black baby." When O'Neill heard of this, he stormed backstage and shouted, "If I ever catch you changing my lines again, you black bastard, I’m going to beat you up" (Gelb 449).

Such behavior is difficult to excuse, no matter how lofty the aesthetic goals. If O'Neill had humiliated actors in a theoretical quest to realign the artistic hierarchy of Broadway theater culture, his reputation would no doubt be severely tarnished. That it is not may be attributed to the common knowledge of his very personal investment in the themes and characters of his plays. His need to control how his plays were performed also derives from a direct link between his off stage and on stage worlds.

As is well known, many of his characters are sketched from emotional portraits of his own family. Many of his themes—among others, the scourge of alcohol and drug use, the individual’s struggle to find ablution from overwhelming guilt—expose for the general public the private traumas particular to the O'Neills. Not surprisingly, he demanded verisimilitude in the portrayal of situations based directly on his own life and that of his parents and brother, a verisimilitude dependent on strict adherence to his entire text—dialogue and stage directions. Strict adherence to dialogue is relatively easy to monitor, as Gilpin painfully discovered; assuring fidelity to the unspoken stage directions is harder, even with a spouse on guard duty backstage. No matter the difficulty, if we account for O'Neill's professional and personal stakes in controlling the production of his plays, the rationale for superabundant stage directions telling actors why, when, and how to laugh and cry becomes understandable. But practically they defeat the very purpose for which they are included. To reiterate, actors performing O’Neill’s plays must "selectively reinforce" some directions and "selectively disregard" others. Consequently they must be more inventive, not less.

I began this discussion by asking if O’Neill's texts speak as directly to the needs of the solitary reader as they do to the needs of the playhouse multitude, and if the stage directions that play such a prominent part in those texts do not indeed read better than they play. (To recast the question: Was this greatest of American playwrights a closet novelist?) Theater semiotics conclude that large amounts of highly detailed stage directions function novelistically and "assume the cohesion of a wide range of utterances which are sometimes contradictory" in the spoken dialogue (Savona 28). For the reader, then, they are an aid to deciphering the author's ideas. Evidence from O’Neill’s biography confirms his obsessive aim to write "his characters as if he were a novelist" (Gelb 418) and thus insure that his intentions would perfectly manifest in production, unalloyed by actor obtrusions. As noted, stage directions are largely unavailable to theater audiences; moreover, actors are interpretive artists, not puppets. In short, the written texts of both novels and plays contain the author's ideas, all of which are available to readers. During the performance of plays, however, only the author’s dialogue is heard. The stage directions, especially those that aim to control the actors’ choices of motivational subtext, are not sounded in the theater and therefore largely unavailable to the audience.

Actors' performances necessarily cause "important modifications in the meanings themselves" (Veltruský 96); some original authorial ideas remain intact and some are transformed. Eugene O'Neill would find any transformation unbearable, yet presumably welcome the revivals of his plays. But if we do not risk change, we will have no theater to preserve. Such a lesson may be gleaned from the daily newspaper. In a recent review, Mel Gussow of The New York Times touts the actress Fiona Shaw for her highly individualistic characterizations. He then sounds an ominous note of warning to the future of the dramatic canon. Recently Shaw starred in a production of Samuel Beckett’s play, Footfalls. During one moment in the performance she disregarded "the author’s stage directions" and provoked "a storm of protest from Beckett admirers and trustees of the late playwright’s estate." Gussow concludes that since then the actress, fearing both artistic and legal censure, has not "attempted to do Beckett" (E5). Her offense—she moved from the stage to the edge of the promontory and back to the stage and not as Beckett's stage directions dictate "pacing towards left…halts…facing front right" (239). Beckett, as a quick perusal of any of his texts makes clear, was no less fond of stage directions than O'Neill. Nor apparently are his disciples, bent on protecting his every word (spoken or not) from modern-day Pharisees. These efforts are unnecessarily defensive. If plays are to survive as something other than museum relics, actors must be given the freedom to collaborate with texts in the eventual creation of fruitful new interpretations. Ironically, modern plays rich in artistically restrictive stage directions offer them just those opportunities.

Works Cited

Alter, Jean. “From Text to Performance.” Poetics Today 2.3 (Spring 1981): 113-139

Beckett, Samuel. Footfalls. The Collected Plays of Samuel Beckett. New York: Grove Press, 1984.

Burke, Kenneth. A Grammar of Motives. Berkeley: U of California P, 1945.

Dewhurst, Colleen. Interview. Eugene O'Neill Newsletter 6:2 (Sum./Fall 1982): 52.

Fisher, James. “Eugene O’Neill and Edward Gordon Craig.” Eugene O’Neill Newsletter 10:1 (Spring 1986): 27-30.

Garvey, Shelia Hickey. “Anna Christie in New Haven: A Theatrical Odyssey.” Eugene O’Neill Review 14.1-2 (Spring and Fall 1990): 53-70.

Gelb, Arthur and Barbara. O’Neill. New York: Harper and Row, 1962.

Gussow, Mel. “A Contemporary, Human-Scale for Larger-than-Life Characters.” New York Times 7 Jan. 2003, late ed.: E5.

Moon for the Misbegotten. By Eugene O’Neill. Directed by José Quintero and Gordon Rigsby. DVD. Image Entertainment. Broadway Theater Archive. 2002.

O’Neill, Eugene. All God’s Chillun Got Wings. In The Plays of Eugene O’Neill. New York: Random House, 1955.

---, Moon for the Misbegotten: Eugene O’Neill: Complete Plays. Ed. Travis Bogard. New York: Library of America, 1988.

---, Anna Christie. Vintage Books: New York, 1972.

---, The Emperor Jones. Vintage Books: New York, 1972.

Savona, Jeannette Laillou. “Didascalies as Speech Act.” Trans. Fiona Strachan. Modern Drama 25:1 (March 1982): 25-35.

Shaeffer, Louis. O’Neill, Son and Artist. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1968.

Törnqvist, Egil. “O’Neill’s Relationship to the Theatre.” Readings on Eugene O’Neill: Greenhaven Press Literary Companion to American Authors. Ed. Thomas Siebold. San Diego, 1998: 29-37.

Veltruský, Jîrí. “Dramatic Text as a Component of the Theater.” Trans. I. R. Titunik. Semiotics of Art. Ed. Ladislav Matejka and Irwin R. Titunik. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1984. 94-117.


1A future discussion of mine, already under way, questions why O’Neill’s dialogue plays better than it reads.

2Garvey also reveals that the director, Gordon Edelstein’s, made major cuts in the text and retranslated the dialect that “O’Neill had painstakingly included” (54). None of these adaptations would have pleased O’Neill.

3See The Eugene O’Neill Review, Volume 16, No.1. for a review of a production of Moon mounted by the Vancouver Playhouse in 1991. Reviewer Stephen A. Black has a very different perspective on actors, performances, and stage directions. Focusing on a moment much like this one, Black chides Josie (played by Janet Wright) for not religiously following O’Neill’s text. While O’Neill calls for a kiss that demonstrates “tender, protective maternal passion,” Black describes Wright’s as “downright predatory.” He concludes that “the play stopped, and all continuity was lost.” No doubt O’Neill would have agreed with Black.

4Vena’s source for this information is Louis Sheaffer’s biography of O’Neill included in my Works Cited page, page 590.



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