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Doing O'Neill
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Certain details reported by O'Neill's biographers betray an interesting and ironic struggle by the playwright with his chosen medium. These struggles as a matter of O'Neill's own psychology may be of no great interest, but as they are reflected in the way O'Neill shaped his scripts, they are of central importance to anyone working on any of his plays, for the study or for the stage. Some of the tensions resulting from O'Neill's struggle against the confines of his own medium are detectable even in a brief history of his management of setting and scenery.

For scenic displays, for bustle, color, noise, most of us today are used to an entertainment delivery system in which we turn to the movies and television. We turn to the theatre for language, often language that seeks to oppose or upset our presuppositions rather than gratify them. We maintain no grand expectations about the illusion of the "real" from the stage designer. We have been trained by our experience in the theatre to be content with the merest sketch of a setting: a pool of light on the stage level suggesting the battlements at Elsinore, or a long drape up center to signal Gertrude's chamber.

But in O'Neill's day, and certainly during his youth, before the out-break and subsequent epidemic spread of cinema, the theatre was the place to see striking and impressive visual effects. A playwright trying to stretch the limitations of the theatre as he found it in those days certainly had a duty to demand more, not less, of the settings. Through the first part of O'Neill's career as a playwright, until the mid-thirties, he called for sets that aspired to extend the stage-designer's task, and budget, rather than simplify them.

Thus for a mere one-act play intended for a tiny stage in Greenwich Village, he called for a huge white room, and then a dark, tropical jungle. And the theatre responded. Jig Cook took the idea of the Kuppelhorizont that Robert Edmond Jones and Kenneth Macgowan had brought back from Germany to erect a plaster dome around the back and over the top of the stage area. American theatre people today call it a "cyclorama." It could be lighted from the floor level to suggest distant sky and not the cramped, back-stage in which the production of Emperor Jones was actually mounted.

The two acts of All God's Chillun' Got Wings called for an exterior in Act I, and an interior in Act II. But the last scene of the four in Act I is a different exterior from the one in the previous three. And Act II, though ostensibly set in same "place," calls for three scene changes as the walls and ceilings, like something from the silent film, The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, close in on the characters. All for a play that runs, not counting the time required for scene-shifting, a bare forty to fifty minutes.

The eight scenes of "The Hairy Ape" require eight sets, two of which are fully lit, the second on the promenade deck of a ship, the fifth, "a corner of Fifth Avenue in the Fifties on a fine Sunday morning"(202). But all the rest suggest darkness or confinement or both in the forecastle, the stokehole, a prison, a cage in a zoo, and both the inside and the outside of the IWW union headquarters, at twilight, in moonlight, at night.

Later still, as O'Neill was turning production of his plays over to the Theatre Guild, he expanded his demands even farther, calling for frequent changes of vast settings, of which Marco Millions is a striking example. The budget, at this stage of his career, seemed no concern of his, though occasionally, upon seductive application from Lawrence Langer, he grudgingly reduced his requirements. The Gelbs' biography cites a letter from Langer to O'Neill, clothing the Guild's budgetary concerns about the size of the production in aesthetic qualms about losing concentration of effect (O'Neill 633).

Any production these days of any of these plays, even of Emperor Jones reduces these requirements. The budget and modern impatience with the least longeur in a production of any kind, commands it. Film, television and their various technical progeny, because they can provide constant action, have generated a taste for constant action to which theatre must adapt to survive. Theatre performers face auditors whose training in spectacle has been almost entirely in front of some sort of screen.

Even in O'Neill's day, audiences were not infinitely patient with long waits between scenes. The text of Emperor Jones calls for six different jungle settings in the last seven scenes of the play. Heywood Broun's review of it in the New York Herald on November 4, 1920 (cited in Cargill, Fogel, and Fisher, O'Neill and his Plays), while commending the sets as "fine and imaginative, and the staging effects uncommonly beautiful," (145-146) complained of the waits between scenes "of several minutes in length"(145). Any production these days uses the same setting for all seven jungle scenes, with action in different parts of the setting under lights from differing angles and of a different color.


Part of O'Neill's taste in magnificence in settings came from the theatre in which O'Neill grew up and in which his father worked. James O'Neill's career covers the period of the exaltation of the stage carpenter. Since about 1850, playwrights had been gradually abandoning the old "drop-and-wing" settings and responding to the newer and less overtly artificial effects provided by the "box set" that gas light and later electric light had first made possible and then nearly unavoidable.

The name of David Belasco, in part thanks to strenuous public relations work by Belasco himself, has become closely associated with a kind of detailed "realism" of settings in this period. James O'Neill had worked with Belasco on a San Francisco religious spectacle ten years before Eugene O'Neill was born. The elder O'Neill still respected the producer. In the twenties Belasco was still active in the theatre. Eugene O'Neill sent him Marco Millions for possible production in 1924, though, like everyone else in the Provincetown crowd, he had long used Belasco's name as a synonym of a kind of superficial and factitious realism in staging, a kind that has also become associated with the box set.

The box set had become a standard for serious plays by the time Eugene O'Neill was ten or twelve years old. Three walls, a ceiling, a rug on the floor, functioning doors and windows were standard. Generalized lighting, to produce the effect of a normal interior, was standard too. But exteriors put some awkward demands before a set designer bent upon that kind of "realism." The box set is perfect to show boundaries, walls, limits on a stage. But showing the absence of boundaries is difficult. And open sets, with hardly any boundaries at all within the acting area, appear in O'Neill's earliest one-acts, like "Thirst," and "Fog." The former is on a life-raft in an otherwise empty ocean. The latter uses a similar set, a life-boat drifting perilously close to an ice-berg. The action of the play depends on a fog from the iceberg which completely hides the characters from any would-be rescuers. This fog is the precursor of one of the most persistent images in O'Neill's stage-craft, and an image too of his own problems with his own writing (Field, 194).

Citing the difficulties posed by these sets might have been one of the corrective observations by George Pierce Baker in 1914. Certainly many of O'Neill's next plays use standard box sets of interiors, living rooms. The one-act sea plays between 1915 and 1919 are almost all set in cramped rooms, smokey bars, or "below" in bunk rooms. With "The Moon of the Caribees," however, O'Neill is back to trying for distances again, with a play set on deck, midships, in moonlight, within sight and earshot of a tropical island. "In the rear, the dark outline of the port bulwark is sharply defined against a distant strip of coral beach, white in the moonlight, fringed with coco palms whose tops rise clear of the horizon."(3) The cramped crew's quarters are just off-stage in this set.

The one-act, "The Rope," has it both ways. The set is both open and closed. It is an interior with a rear vista on the sea and its horizon. One can watch the sunset through it during the action of the play, and throughout hear "from the rocks below the muffled motions of the breaking waves."(166) It is easy to point out plays by other writers which call for a similar set; the effect is not unique to O'Neill. The first and third sets in his father's version of The Count of Monte Cristo are examples. The set for Sidney Howard's They Knew What They Wanted is another.

O'Neill's first full-length play to be produced, in 1920, calls for nothing so subtle as that in "The Rope." The scenes of Beyond the Horizon alternate between the claustrophobic boxed set for the interior of the Mayo farm house and the open fields of the Mayo farm running down to the sea. J. D. Williams, the producer, seems to have saved himself some money on this production by getting up the sets from stocks pieces he had in storage. Stage hands took much too long to erect the Mayo farm house or to strike it again for each of the set-changes. Critics of the production complained of the alternation of the settings, referring as well to the tedium of waiting. O'Neill's letters reveal his irritation with their judgment, but he ignored the evidence that the length of changes bothered the critics. Instead, as the second volume of Louis Sheaffer's biography reports, he simply pounced on Alexander Woollcott's comment in the Times that alternating the settings inside and out was impractical. Sheaffer quotes O'Neill's letter to Barrett H. Clark in which he complains that critics simply did not "get" the symbolism of the alternation of the visual imagery between the boxed and the open sets (Sheaffer 10-11).

The set for Desire Under the Elms puts the house on stage, divided into four rooms, one or more of which are to be either visible to the audience, or hidden from it, as the action requires. In addition to this quadruple box, O'Neill calls for a view of the exterior of the house, the yard, the elms drooping down over it. The set description requires a stone wall around the yard with a wooden gate at one side of the set, and view of the sky in the background. A path leads through the gate, to town, to the sea, and eventually to California. Another down stage exit leads ostensibly to the barn and its comfortable cows. During the action of the play, heads pop in and out of windows, characters yearn at each other through walls, run up and down stairs at the back of the set, peer through doors, and in the fourth of the play's twelve scenes, two of them throw stones and break a window, and one dismantles that gate and carries it off stage.

Most of the critical commentary on the setting for this play, after some reference to those elms in the title, concentrates on the division of the house into the four rooms in which action maybe serially or simultaneously visible. Very little critical commentary takes into account how much trouble O'Neill has in making use of this set. Much of the action takes place in the kitchen, and much that takes place in other parts of the setting could have been written so that it too took place in kitchen and on an exterior porch adjacent.

In his letter to Clark about critical insensitivity to Beyond the Horizon, O'Neill had already made the point that he could have put all the action of that play in a single set, the Mayo kitchen (Sheaffer, 10-11). O'Neill, of course, could have set this play too entirely in the kitchen. In Desire Under the Elms, he could have merely evoked that parlour by report, with its heady symbolism of propriety, courtship, and funerals, connections of which most people in a modern audience are, alas, utterly ignorant. He puts it on stage. Yet he has only one scene take place there. In the upper portion of this demanding set he put those two bed-rooms with walls opaque to all but desire. If the scene in which Abbie and Eben yearn blindly for each other through that solid wall were staged in some other way, all the other bedroom scenes could be re-staged in other places or reported by the characters. Such writing is "easier" on the writer, and requires much less attention to the elaborate traffic-control and covering action in stage directions which O'Neill had to insert, while trying to focus on a scene in one room, to account for all those characters visible in other parts of the set.

A play often paralleled with Desire Under the Elms indeed, even suggested as a source of it, is Sidney Howard's big hit of 1924, winner of the Pulitzer Prize that year, They Knew What They Wanted. Roughly the same kind of staging is required by both plays. Howard's set is smooth and simple. Off stage in one direction is a kitchen. Off in another is the central figure's bedroom. The audience is to accept the area between these as the central figure's living room. In the back wall, windows and a wide central door open on a porch, and the audience is asked to imagine that steps lead from the porch downward, and further upstage, to an invisible yard, the road, the vineyards, etc. Some of the ostensible action is out of sight, upstage, described and reacted to by characters watching from the upstage central doorway to the porch.

In contrast with a model like this one in Howard's play, so smooth, such room for flowing action, such professional economy of means, O'Neill instead demands a chopped-up, cut-off, walled-in image, full of divisions, obstacles, requiring movement back and forth, up and down, in and out. He seeks, evidently, not harmony, but frisson; not to soothe, but to grate. The different impressions of the sets are quite consistent with the different impressions of the two plays, They Knew What They Wanted with its soothing and rather shallow optimism, contrasted with the dark and abrasive conflicts of O'Neill's tragedy.

O'Neill's sets underline deeper impulses in other plays. Mourning Becomes Electra calls for a "special curtain" which "shows the house from the street. From this, in each play, one comes to the exterior of the house in the opening act and enters it in the following act."(224) The rest of the passage requires that this curtain suggest extensive ground around the house, woods in the background, orchards on one side, flower gardens, a green house on the other, and fronted by a long curved drive. O'Neill's directions seem to call, on a stage, for everything that only the cinema can give. The "special curtain" has all the marks of the opening "establishing shot" which every movie patron has been trained to expect. Another phrasing of the same observation is that O'Neill seems to ask for both an open set with a wide view of the Mannon lands, and at the same time for a narrow, enclosed box interior.

Many of his plays are set entirely or partly in bars. These settings are always divided into two rooms. Obviously, the bars O'Neill frequented in the Village were also divided into two rooms. But O'Neill, despite the scripts which in every case could have been developed in one of the rooms, shows or strongly suggests both of them, sometimes, as in The Iceman Cometh, dividing the set from the front to the back. The one in The Iceman Cometh is preceded in O'Neill's career by ones with similar shapes in the early one-act, "The Long Journey Home," in the first scene of Anna Christie and in Act III, Scene 1 of Ah, Wilderness! Each of them spreads a group of tables and chairs across the stage; each has a doorway leading up to "the rooms." The tavern that holds the action of A Touch of the Poet has its entrances, exits, and windows in different places on the set from these others, but it has all the same facilities. And like many of these bars, it is divided. All of them have two main rooms: the bar room and the room with tables. For our purposes here, the key element in these bar settings is this division that appears with such frequency in his sets.

Another element obviously repeated in his plays is the sea. Putting the sea on stage, as O'Neill required in those two early one-acts, "Thirst" and Fog," is a serious obstacle to "realism" as it was then understood for scene decoration. For the sets of later plays, he calls instead for the edge of the sea, another dividing line between an open area and the closed area of the action. The more mature one-acts take place on ships. In "Moon of the Caribees," the play's theme is underlined by the low horizontal back wall of the set, dividing the violent and vulgar foreground action from the sea and the barely visible, distant and romantic island. That set for "The Rope" and two of the scenes of Beyond the Horizon evoke the sea's edge, the shore. All of the action of Anna Christie takes place in sets where the sea is just off-stage, a waterfront bar or on a barge. One of the earlier versions of Anna Christie, "Chris Christopherson," puts much of the action in the second half on a ship. "The Hairy Ape" generates another kind of contrast as it opens below decks, moves to the promenade deck, then to the dark hell of the stoke-hold. The last scene of Strange Interlude takes place on "the afterdeck of the Evans' motor cruiser in the lane of yachts near the finish line at Poughkeepsie"(187). Half the cast spends the whole scene up-stage, peering into infinite distance, trying to see the race. The other half huddles on the forestage, working through another variation of Nina's domination of and accommodation to the men in her life. The first and last scene of the Great God Brown are "on the Pier and the Casino."(257, 324) Part of Act IV of the middle play in Mourning Becomes Electra takes place inside Adam Brant's ship and part of it on deck, or on the wharf beside it. And the sea, with its fogs and fog-horns, is never far away in Long Day's Journey Into Night.

These sea-side sets, like so many others mandated by O'Neill's set descriptions, display division. The action and dialogue in these sets repeatedly insists on a contrast between a confining area and a free, even limitless and formless one, like the open sea, outside or beyond it. Characters in Beyond the Horizon constantly contrast the farm for its safety or its confinement, to the sea, for its freedoms or its dangers. Anna Christie and its precursor, "Chris Christopherson" have characters explain time and again how they are neither on land nor at sea. One scene in Ah, Wilderness! is on a moonlit beach; Richard Miller sits half in and half out of a rowboat that is partly in the water and partly on the sand. He meets his girl friend who prefers to stand half-hidden in the shadow, and they talk about how afraid they are of what they want to do. The action for Long Day's Journey Into Night is in a sea-side summer cottage, and characters talk about the fog from the first scene to the last. Of course, O'Neill himself felt most at ease in places near the sea, near water of some kind, and it is easy to dismiss these repeated references to the water and the water's edge as one of O'Neill's personality quirks.

Those who see the plays may not share those quirks. These edges, endings, boundaries in any one play are part of a system which a theatrical audience struggles to bring to some order. They need help. O'Neill's sets betray a cinematic lust to overleap the limitations of theatre. The vocabulary he offers in his dialogue, loaded with vast and passionate abstractions, betrays the desire to stage the essence of emotion, rather than any on-stage objective correlative for it. He writes long speeches of agonized emotion, as if to show passion itself instead of the character who suffers it. Of course, it can't be done. O'Neill knew it. Its very impossibility seems to be what attracted him to it, for only then could he be sure to fail. But here we totter on the brink of psychology.

Let us withdraw from the abyss, and return to something solid, like sets. Those rooms, cluttered with tables and chairs so that players can hardly ever cross to another and touch, but must shout across the furniture, those curtains, walls that divide the sets in parts, and those huge vistas, often stated, sometimes staged, those houses set up center against a sky, as in Desire Under the Elms or A Moon for the Misbegotten, are all eloquent. These contrary impulses for both closures and expansions, sometimes almost simultaneous ones, that an O'Neill script offers to an audience, force themselves upon the attention of anyone who directs an O'Neill play or designs sets for one. Design and direction help auditors recognize that these plays make available, to those willing to "read" the scene in that way, embodiments of tensions, self-contradictions, divisions, not just in the author's aims, but in the ways his characters struggle with self, in the way that O'Neill as an artist, struggled with his medium, made the content of the script struggle against the very form that embodies it.

 

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