first entrance of the characters Long
Day's Journey Into Night has been justly praised in Jean Chothia's Forging
a Language for its impression of effortless naturalness. And yet, as
Chothia's further analysis shows, the scene is heavily contrived, in
debt to a host of staging conventions. Chief among these conventions is
that every character who enters must have a reason, a motivation for
motivates many entrances and exits in this play as part of a normal
traffic pattern in a household of the period. Mary is in and out,
between the on-stage room and the off-stage kitchen or the off-stage
up-stairs. For Mary and for the rest, O'Neill provides another kind of
overt motivation for exits and entrances: meals; the characters first
enter as having just finished breakfast; next they are preparing to exit
for lunch and later for dinner. Between lunch and dinner comes the men's
expedition to town, with one motive stated, to see Doc Hardy, and a few
others merely suggested, to do some real estate business, to get drunk,
to go to Mamie Burns', and, though never stated, indirectly implied, to
get away from Mary.
course, different members of any audience will see the issue of
"natural" or "realistic" action differently. A
motive to enter or exit, or to delay one, will seem perfectly plausible
to some, but to others a trifle contrived. In Long
Day's Journey Into Night, Act II, Scene 1, to put Jamie and Edmund
alone together on stage, O'Neill delays the prepared entrance of their
father on his way to lunch with the excuse that he is down at the hedge
talking to a "Captain Turner," invented by O'Neill for the
members of a modern audience will object to the motivation for the delay
of Tyrone's entrance here. Only carpers and complainers like myself
would bring it up. Two motives for so carping are first, to display the
way the simple matter of an entrance or an exit is heavily encumbered
with arbitrary rules and conventions, and second, to show how these
conventions offered O'Neill some obstacles and some opportunities.
in American drama is a staging convention that commentators on these
matters tell us that playwrights and play-goers imposed on the stage in
the nineteenth century, through writers like Robertson, Zola, Ibsen,
Strindberg and their ilk. Part of that convention is that the action
occur in a room, with doors, some local habitation with a name.
Characters can by this convention simply "be" in the room at
the rise of curtain, and can be left there at its fall. But any
characters who enter or exit are expected to have a "reason"
to come on or go off.
character of course has any reason for doing either or for staying put.
Each goes or comes or stays because a writer and subsequently a player
so wills. However, the impulse to provide that motivation is
considerably older than the realistic tradition. O'Neill's audience has
been trained by plays ancient of age, and so has the playwright, to
demand that every character have one of these "reasons" for
every entrance and exit. That imperative now and then shows some
evidence of strain upon O'Neill's inventive power. Mrs. Aitkins is
on-stage in her wheel-chair at the beginning of the penultimate scene in
Beyond the Horizon, but her
presence would make subsequent action improbable. So O'Neill has her
suddenly decide that she does not want the characters about to enter to
see her "looking a sight," and she has her daughter wheel her
off stage to the kitchen (Plays:
Beyond the Horizon, The Straw, Before Breakfast, New York: Liveright,
1925, p. 108) That's the last the play mentions her.
Part Two, scene two of Desire
Under the Elms, O'Neill gets Cabot out of the way so that Abbie can
realistically move from his bedroom to Eben's. O'Neill's audience has
been trained by earlier plays, and so has the playwright, to demand that
every character have one of these "reasons" for each entrance
and exit. Cabot announces that he feels lonesome, that therefore he will
go see his cows, and exits(32-33). It is "psychologically
appropriate" that Cabot feel "lonesome" in the presence
of a woman who loathes him, his wife, Abbie. But he might with equal
propriety feel numberless other emotions and react to these with a
limitless variety of actions. Making an exit to see his cows is not the
only reaction for Cabot that O'Neill might have offered, but it is
certainly a convenient one.
We find the three men of Strange Interlude all on stage together in Act IV, as O'Neill has Evans enter to find Darrell and Marsden talking. O'Neill gives Evans the line, "Say, Charlie, I don't want to hurry you but Nina needs a few things at the store before it closes, and if you'd give me a lift--" to which Marsden, who had already recited lines indicating that he was motivated to leave, agrees "dully." He and Evans exit (Three Plays, p. 123), leaving Darrell now alone for his scene with Nina which follows. Evans never returns with those "things." It was not the character, Evans who wanted to go to the store, nor was it even Nina who wanted him out of the house. It was the playwright, O'Neill, who needed a "realistic" excuse to put Nina and Darrell on stage alone together.
can be supplied, of course, by the players. The script directs Nora
and Sara to embrace near the end of their scene together. If the actor
playing Melody opened the door to the bar a crack, and if the two
actresses arranged their embrace so that Nora faced the bar door and
Sara faced away from it, the motive will seem evident to any audience:
Nora spots Melody in agony and to tries to give him some room by
taking Sara with her up to the attic.
playwrights of the 'twenties were just as conscientious about these
motivations as O'Neill. One might suppose that the "rules"
for such realism in comedy, at least, might be much less strict. Yet
the writers of successful comedies during O'Neill's career took care
to supply the trappings of realistic motivation. George Kelly's The
Torch-bearers (1922) and his The
Show-off (1925), as well as the one-act vaudeville pieces that are
the early drafts for these two fine plays, are meticulous about such
motivation for exits and entrances.
exits, sometimes called "doorknob exits" for sets that have
practical doors with knobs on them, were also part of convention-bound
technique of the day. In some quarters they still are. The player is
supposed to pause just before leaving, with one hand on the doorknob,
and deliver a last telling shot. Once again, Kelly's
The Torch-bearers offers a compendium of them, and again they are
often extremely funny.
can cite more serious ones in other plays of the period, but they are
rare in O'Neill's work. He does parody them in Ah,
Wilderness!, such as Richard's exit line at the end of Act I,
"Darn Fourth of July anyway! I wish we still belonged to
England!" (32) and Sid's drunken departure from the dinner table
in Act II, singing "In the Sweet Bye and Bye" in the style
of the prohibitionist's street demonstration (58).
in serious drama, rather than leave a conflict truncated by having one
of the competitors walk off, O'Neill writes a release to the quarrel,
so that it seems to die down. The peaks of tension he puts, not at the
end of the interview or the scene, but somewhere in the middle. The
pattern is familiar to most scholars, for it is roughly the same as
that followed by Shakespeare and other Renaissance playwrights who
wrote for a stage with no front curtain.
first exit follows an argument with Smithers that had run its course.
O'Neill now and then has Cabot leave the stage unremarked by other
characters, but he usually has Eben leave, not with smart remark on
his lips but with a satirical comment following him. This is not to
argue that O'Neill takes no care at all with these exits. His choice,
however, seems aimed, not at a striking exit lines, but at the effect
of quiet closure. Typical of O'Neill is the closing of Act 5 in Strange Interlude. O'Neill directs Nina to kiss each of the three
men seated on stage, one as if big brother, one as if a father, one as
if a lover. His last direction in the act reads "She turns and
walks quietly out of the room. The eyes of the three men follow
her"(169). It is a commonplace of acting and directing that the
eyes of the actors are their most powerful tools for giving focus to
another. Nina's exit is beautifully effective.
Mourning Becomes Electra, however, O'Neill does offer several
striking and heightened exits, especially for the role of Lavinia,
directing a pause in a doorway, from which vantage point Lavinia can
deliver threats. At the end of Act II of A
Touch of the Poet, he gives Sara a striking exit, scorning
Melody's pretenses and then lapsing into brogue as she cries out,
"Arrah, God pity you!" She exits, and O'Neill has Melody
display his rage at her triumph, "There is a crack as the chair
back snaps in half. He stares at the fragments in his hand with stupid
surprise"(196). Of course, it is melodramatic. It also works very
well, and its style is entirely consistent with O'Neill's theme in the
some productions of these plays, of course, the style of the direction
may make or unmake big entrances and exits, so that effects on stage
may seem rather different from what one would expect from reading the
script in the study. O'Neill has Deborah announce her last exit twice
in A Touch of the Poet.
First she apologizes to Sara, after several long speeches, for
"boring her with words," and then has her use Sara's offer
of a "cooling drink," delivered according to O'Neill's stage
direction, "with stiff politeness," as an excuse to deliver
another long speech, as O'Neill directs it, "talking...rapidly in
her strange detached way," about how her son, Simon, astonishes
her black coachman that he "has to prove that he--I mean
Simon--is free." (Later
Plays, 191-192) And then she does exit. For speech to be delivered
with one hand on the door-knob, it seems rather long. But given one
kind of staging, it could serve indeed as a big exit. Given another,
it could serve as a kind of decrescendo to tension, and not a big exit
last exit from The Iceman Cometh
comes as he is escorted off by the two police detectives, swearing he
loved his wife all along. The timing of the calls after him, led by
Harry Hope, "Don't worry Hickey...We'll testify you was
crazy!"(246) controls how "big" that exit will seem.
The longer the actor of Hope pauses after he is cued, the greater
chance that Hickey's speech will strike an audience as significant.
The same applies to Jamie Tyrone's last exit from A Moon for the Misbegotten which follows Jim's kisses for Josie on
the lips. The timing, again, of the next action, Phil Hogan's
entrance, can inflate or deflate the importance of the image left with
script of Long Day's Journey Into Night seems to offer few big exits, if any.
Characters walk off stage with a simple good-bye. One of the textual
problems that Judith Barlow raises in Final
Acts is the exit line for Edmund near the end of Act 2. But the
only question is whether O'Neill intended for Edmund to to exit
without saying anything at all, or if his line, “good-bye,” was
missed by his typist and never corrected in proof.
like exits, can seem merely conveniently timed rather than
realistically motivated. Sidney Howard's They
Knew What They Wanted (1925) creates one weakly motivated entrance
in this play of a kind that O'Neill rarely uses. Howard arranges that
his central figure watch with growing horror as the two people he
likes the most fall into a quarrel that betrays they deep-seated
dislike of each other. Then suddenly two minor characters, followed by
nearly everyone else in a large cast, surge onto the stage,
interrupting the quarrel just in time, as Howard's stage direction
kind of convenient interruption of an on-stage conflict is universally
applied in realistic drama. But O'Neill uses it rarely. In A
Touch of the Poet, Act I, O'Neill has Sara and Melody bring their
quarrel to a climax, then brings on the clowns. "The street door
is flung upon and Dan Roche, Paddy O'Dowd, and Patch Riley attempt to
pile into together and get jammed for a moment in the
usually O'Neill does not interrupt his conflicts. Instead, he arranges
for the conflict to reach a climax and then die down, often as one of
the characters specifically declares further debate useless, before
another party is given an entrance. While O'Neill's handling of
entrances in this one respect is at some variance from the practice of
most writers for the New York stage of his time, it is otherwise
generalizations of course apply only to plays written to conform with
the tradition. Plays that reject that tradition, by accepting another,
like expressionism, or inventing one, are under no pressure to provide
"natural" motivation for entrances and exits. Indeed, some
expressionistic pieces flaunt their arbitrary qualities. Elmer Rice's Counsellor-at-Law
was a big hit 1920. Because it continued to occupy the only New
York stage then available to O'Neill's producer, in some sense it
obstructed the path of O'Neill's Beyond
the Horizon to that stage. It is a courtroom melodrama in which
every entrance and exit has at least some motivation. But three years
later, Rice's The Adding Machine (1922), with its underlying message of the malice
of the universe, has characters pop in and out at the writers'
and Connelly adapted in 1924 a German play by Hans Apfel,
Hans Sonnenstoessers Hohlenfahrt as their comedy, Beggar on Horseback. The play keeps the characters and the audience
continually on the wrong foot as it leaps back and forth between one
level of flashback or dream-sequence and another. Characters do not
enter or exit through doors, but are directed simply to appear out of
the scenery and then vanish.
Thus for plays in a
non-realistic or anti-realistic pattern in plays like "The
Hairy Ape" or Dynamo
or Great God Brown, O'Neill
could have done without motivation for entrances. As Travis Bogard
points out in Contour in Time
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), O'Neill more or less
contracted to supply the triumvirate of himself, Kenneth Macgowan, and
Robert Edmond Jones in their Experimental Theatre with plays. One
group of plays was to be consistent with what the three termed "psychologic
realism," but others were to serve another kind of ideal, a
"re-theatralized drama"(179-181), one that in some cases
over-lapped a German-style expressionism. Plays written to conform to
the conventions of "expressionism" treat the
"rules" for motivation of entrances and exits as largely
irrelevant, even openly flaunting them. But O'Neill never did. His
plays in that vein, just as much as the ones O'Neill wrote to suit a
"psychologic realism," like Desire
Under the Elms, all provide clear motives for almost every
such ancient convention is that the audience should be warned that
some character is about to make an entrance. A look at the entrances
in O'Neill's realistic plays shows a respect for the warned entrance.
Indeed, in his first full-length play to be staged, O'Neill displays
an almost fussy concern with warning entrances. O'Neill has someone on
stage look out a window to see someone coming and say so. The sound of
doctor's car in Beyond the
Horizon warns of his imminent entrance. Characters are even
directed to look toward the place where another is about enter and
speak the lines, "Here he comes."
the same technique appears at the other end of his career in Long
Day's Journey Into Night. O'Neill warns the audience about every
entrance except the very first one. The brothers, giving themselves a
treat from their father's whiskey bottle, keep themselves, and thus
the audience as well, informed on the approach of the elder Tyrone.
O'Neill has Jamie and Tyrone, discussing Edmund's health, tell each
other, and the audience, if Edmund or Mary is about to enter,
sometimes with merely a quick noise or gesture to hush. O'Neill shows
them especially careful of the whereabouts of Mary. From the first
scene, when O'Neill has them worry about her use of the spare room
upstairs, and slowly teaches the audience the significance of that
place, to the whole of the last act, as the men sit hoping that Mary
will not come down stairs, O'Neill keeps up the tension about where
she is. The audience is told she has come down the steps, and then,
no, she has gone back up again. This concern to "warn" each
entrance, which, in some of the earlier plays seems merely a dutiful
concern with "rules," gradually develops over his career,
until it becomes in Long Day's
Journey Into Night a tool for drama.
further stipulation of these conventions in drama is that each
entrance be "prepared," that is, that the audience should be
told the name and condition of the next characters to enter before
they actually come on stage for the first time. O'Neill for most of
his career carefully observed this convention as well. He could have
learned it by precept from his one year in English 47 with George
Pierce Baker, or by example from a thousand places, most notably from
his father's perennial stage-piece, Fechter's version of
The Count of Monte Cristo.
convention of "preparing" an entrance leads to others.
First, plays in this convention often open with a conversation between
two minor characters who, though they ostensibly already know the
facts about the major characters, tell these facts to each other
anyway--so the audience will be "prepared" when these major
characters do at last enter. Second, plays in the tradition lead
audiences, and players as well, to expect extremely careful
preparation for the first entrance of a major character. And third,
audiences and players alike develop a taste for a Big Entrance later
in the play, one that provides some level of dramatic emphasis.
PREPARATION FOR FIRST ENTRANCE
the end of Long Day's Journey Into Night, O'Neill has Jamie satirize the older
Tyrone as one who could play the miser in The
Bells without makeup. That particular role was as intimately
associated with the British actor Sir Henry Irving as James O'Neill in
the United States was linked to The
Count of Monte Cristo. The biography of Irving by Gordon Craig
(New York: Longmans, Green, 1930) takes most of a chapter(53-59) to
analyze Irving's first entrance in The
Bells. Craig discusses the text of the play in terms of the way
the dialogue prepared the audience for that first entrance, so that
when Irving finally appeared and said, merely, in his peculiar accent,
"It's I," he got, every night, a storm of applause.
Pierce Baker's book, Dramatic
Technique, which we may suppose embodies the sort of the lectures
he gave to the classes of English 47 at Harvard that O'Neill attended,
considers exits and entrances as methods of characterization(287-294),
but his comments range beyond that limit. The kind of "triumphant
entrance" that Irving used to enjoy in The
Bells, Baker dismisses as "inartistic but
time-honored"(298). Yet he regards a delayed entrance such as
Irving made as justified by "naturalness and theatrical
effectiveness," as a way to let the audience "grasp the full
significance of...in the environment" to which the character
today it is not so rare to hear players discussing a script in terms
of the kind of preparation contrived for the first entrance of a
character. How much do the characters already on stage describe the
one soon to enter? Any role that does not receive such preparation is
dismissed as a "poor part." By that standard, all of the
parts in Long Day's Journey Into
Night are poor parts. Jamie and Edmund make their first entrance a
few lines after Mary and Tyrone have been discussing them, but even so
the characters of the two sons do not have their first entrances much
"prepared;" and Mary and Tyrone come on "cold," as
the saying is. The first entrances of almost everyone in that earlier,
comedic analogue for O'Neill's great play, Ah,
Wilderness!, is also a "cold one," with the single
striking exception of Richard Miller's. That character is kept off
stage for some minutes while the entire cast discusses him, preparing
thoroughly for his first entrance when it finally comes.
the beginning of his career O'Neill was consistently careful with the
preparation for the first entrance of a major character. Thus the
stage of Beyond the Horizon
is occupied at the opening curtain by none of the principal
characters, but three minor ones explain to each other, for the
benefit of the audience, enough about the major characters to let the
audience know what they are supposed to be seeing. Emperor
Jones opens with Smithers talking to an old woman, setting the
scene for the action, and dropping the important warning that the
emperor is black. But then O'Neill has Jones enter shortly and the
rest of the scene is an exchange between Jones and Smithers devoted
largely to an analysis of Jones' character.
Christopherson enters the first act set of Anna
Christie only after an exchange discussing him between the postman
and the bartender. Anna enters later only after Chris has described
her to the bartender, to the owner of the saloon, and to his friend
and Abbie's roles in Desire
Under the Elms are also by that standard, excellent parts. Before
their first entrance, during some 40 minutes of playing time, the
characters on stage, Eben, Simeon and Peter, discuss almost
exclusively what Cabot is up to and what Abbie might be like. By the
same logic, Simeon and Peter do not offer good parts. They come on
"cold" and do the preparation for others. As soon as Cabot
and Abbie arrive, O'Neill sends Simeon and Peter off-stage for good.
O'Neill offers them, as in if compensation, a grand exit: they sing,
dance, swear and shout, and carry away a gate when they leave.
plays making some fame on Broadway in the 'twenties show a similar
care for certain characters' first entrances. Anderson and Stalling's
big hit of 1924, What Price
Glory? provides a conventional handling of the first entrance of
Captain Flagg. Soldiers talk about Flagg for about eight minutes of
playing time preceding his first entrance.
first entrance of Captain Quirt, however, works a reverse on the
pattern. A soldier has just finished a speculating on the replacement
top sergeant that the outfit is liable to get. Quirt enters without
ceremony, and after about four minutes talking about the sloppy
conditions of the soldiers, he leaves. The playwrights then give one
soldier lines to describe Quirt to another soldier as "a top with
two glass eyes, a slit across his face for a mouth, and a piece out of
his ear"(61). Members of the audience learn what they should have
seen in Quirt after Quirt has already left.
Howard's They Knew What They Wanted, the Pulitzer Prize Winner for the
1924-25 season over What Price
Glory? and over Eugene's O'Neill's Desire
Under the Elms as well, puts two characters on stage in the first
minute to describe Tony to each other before Tony's first entrance. By
contrast, the next twenty minutes of playing time, over half the first
act, is spent preparing for the first entrance of Amy.
a couple of instances, O'Neill did try "expressionistic"
technique for first entrances. The Germans founded the technique on a
desire to show an ideologically correct sympathy for Massemench as an
antidote to the Uberhelden
so common in Romantic drama from Byron to Wagner and Rostand. The main
characters in "The Hairy
Ape" and in All God's
Chillun Got Wings are made to develop out of crowds. Yank is in
the first scenes simply another of the stoke-hold workers. Jim and
Ella are each part of groups of children in the first scenes. Only as
these two plays progress are the main characters gradually isolated as
subjects of particular interest to the audience.
in all of O'Neill's other plays, his preparation for first entrances
is much more conventional. Nina's first entrance in Strange
Interlude is very carefully built up. Richard Miller comes into Ah, Wilderness! after he has been discussed at length by the rest of
his family. All of the Mannons get well-prepared first entrances in Mourning
Becomes Electra, Melody gets one in A
Touch of the Poet, so does Deborah, and the preparation for Hickey
in The Iceman Cometh is
extensive, not to say ponderous. Indeed, although O'Neill's
preparations have obviously taken care and planning, they are
sometimes, by comparison with his Broadway competitors, a bit obvious,
even clumsy, and rarely give the impression of ease or polish.
impression of a heavy-handed and mechanical technique is striking in A
Moon for the Misbegotten. Perhaps if O'Neill had had the energy
and the physical capacity in the early 'forties, he might have
re-written the first interview between Mike and Josie or found some
way to cut Mike from the cast entirely. In that first scene in the
version published in Travis Bogard’s edition of The
Later Plays (New York: Modern Library, c1967), Mike and Josie tell
each other things that both would ostensibly already know, all in
preparation for the first entrance of Phil Hogan, and later of James
Tyrone. The scene contains several cues for Mike to exit--but then
O'Neill has him continue talking. He finally exits with no line at
all, while Josie is talking.
THE BIG ENTRANCE
playwrights have always given the first entrance of any important
character, and certain exits, careful preparation, writers have also
worked later entrances for large effects. The big entrance was so
often sought that it became a target for satire. Kelly's The
Torch-bearers, a spoof of "little theatre" pretensions
to High Art, is riddled with parodies of such grand moments. Every
time Kelly has Mrs. Pampinelli come on, he directs the actress to a
sweeping and corny cross.
is capable of that kind of parody as well. One of the great comic
moments in Ah, Wilderness!
is Richard's entrance in Act III, Scene 2, drunk. O'Neill gives the
entrance over twenty minutes of preparation, as Richard's father
encourages the other children to sing, in an unsuccessful attempt to
distract Richard's mother from the fact that the boy is not yet home.
O'Neill gives several characters a chance to take the focus of the
scene. The eldest son sings a lugubrious ballad so that Mr. and Mrs.
Miller can sit downstage front with their most doleful expressions.
The black-sheep brother-in-law comes in hung over and attempts
pathetically to excuse himself for being drunk at dinner an earlier
scene. Finally Richard comes on, drunk, hyper-dramatically quoting
Ibsen, then immediately bawling for his mother. The rising climax of
catastrophes is irresistibly funny.
commonly O'Neill worked against standard melodramatic effects of his
day in subtler ways. An example, one not intended as comic, is
Melody's last entrance in A Touch of the Poet, half carried in by Creegan, and settled,
speechless, through Creegan's explanation of the beating they have
taken before he finally speaks--in a thick Irish brogue.
the technical clumsiness of the first scene of
A Moon for the Misbegotten seems the consequence of mere
weariness, certainly by comparison with other elements in that play or
with other late plays. Nothing O'Neill ever wrote is the equal of
Mary's last entrance in Long
Day's Journey Into Night. The whole play prepares for it. Part of
that preparation are some striking entrances that precede it. Tyrone
is discovered on stage to open the last scene. The audience is warned
of an entrance by Tyrone's call, "Edmund, is that you?"
Edmund enters and they have their last duet of mutual confessions.
Jamie then makes his last entrance, one warned by a noise in the hall,
and by Tyrone's explanation that it must be Jamie who has arrived.
O'Neill has Tyrone sneak out on the porch to avoid Jamie because
"he has a tongue like an adder when he's drunk." That
permits the next duet, the tragi-comic display of drunken sincerity in
Jamie's confession scene with Edmund, distracting attention, for a
time, from the worry over Mary's location. Tyrone makes his last
entrance, Jamie has one more outburst, and then O'Neill orchestrates a
slow release of the tension among the men, fatigue and alcohol taking
Finally O'Neill arranges for one of his rare surprise entrances: O'Neill directs the some off-stage lights to come on, the off-stage piano suddenly to play, then stop. The effect is electrifying, or could be in a production that makes that effect available to an audience. When Mary now comes on with the wedding gown, members of the audience can entertain, among many other emotions, the aesthetic gratification of putting together all those warnings from early in the play that this entrance is the one that the play had been promising--or threatening--from the start.
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