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Doing O'Neill
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The 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 doing so.

O'Neill 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.

Of 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 purpose.

Few 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.

"Realism" 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.

No 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.

In 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.

Nora in A Touch of the Poet, after an interview with Sara which opens the second act, suddenly requires her daughter's help to get Melody's uniform from its trunk. O'Neill has her tell Sara, "It won't break your back in the attic, like it does me." In her next speech, O'Neill has her add, "I disremember which trunk--and you'll have to help me find the key." They exit, and the set is empty. Then Melody enters from the bar (The Later Plays, p. 177). Nothing in the script indicates that Melody could perhaps see, through a crack in the door, when his sharp-tongued daughter had left the room. Nothing in the script indicates that Nora sees him peeking and takes the hint to get Sara away, to give him some peace from Sara's acid commentary. The motive for taking Sara with her as she exits and the motive for Melody's immediate subsequent entrance, then, seems quite nakedly O'Neill's: to get Melody on stage and ready for the scene with Deborah which follows.

Motives 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.

Other 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.


Dramatic 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.

One 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).

But 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.

Jones's 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.

In 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 play.

In 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 at all.

Hickey's 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 Jamie's departure.

The 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.


Entrances, 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 points out.

This 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 doorway"(167).

But 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 thoroughly conventional.

These 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' convenience.

Kaufman 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 entrance.

Another 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."

Exactly 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.

A 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.

This 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.


Near 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.

George 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 the environment" to which the character enters.

Even 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.

From 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.

Chris 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 Marty.

Cabot's 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.

Other 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.

The 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.

Sidney 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.

In 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.

However, 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.

The 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.


While 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.

O'Neill 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.

More 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.

Indeed, 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 their toll.

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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