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Doing O'Neill
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One of the most powerful moments in American drama is the last curtain of Long Day's Journey Into Night. That effect is the result of the play that leads up to it. Each of the scene-endings along the way to that last one is contrived to mark for the audience, not only a sense of closure to the scene, but also the steps toward that ending of the play. O'Neill's writing career developed in a period when theatrical professionals paid close attention to the way scenes ended. Producers like David Belasco, Augustin Daly, Henry Irving had studied scripts with a keen eye for such effects, and producers of O'Neill's day, like Tyler and Hopkins, still did.

These producers routinely re-ordered any dramatic material that came their ways, even Shakespeare's, to produce what they called "strong" or "big" curtains. They all figure as "co-author" to the published version of a few of the plays they produced. One way to share their attitudes is to think about plays in general as simply as preparations for the tableaux to be displayed at the final moments, so that the last moments are packed, by earlier preparation, with maximum significance.

It is one of the nineteenth-century norms of play-making that is no longer much practiced, and while modern audiences still enjoy a "strong curtain" in the theatre, they no longer demand it. The audiences for which Ibsen wrote, however, had been trained to expect those final tableaux, and plays like The Doll's House, or Ghosts or Hedda Gabler carefully practice the art of a sensational Big Curtain before each intermission and at the end of the play. Anyone who has seen Puccini's operas, Madama Butterly or La Fanciulla del West, has seen such "strong" curtains, for the operas are based on a plays produced by David Belasco that he and his co-authors adapted from American "local color" short stories.

One of the routine criticisms of the age against such a production style was that plays often seemed to aim only at producing an effective curtain and at little else. O'Neill's father's script, The Count of Monte Cristo, ends every act with such a strong curtain, and records of O'Neill's conversation, show him mocking the cheap effect, especially the spectacle of his father standing a stool amid some canvas waves, dripping with sawdust and proclaiming, as the curtain fell, that the world was his.

The analysis in Travis Bogard's Contour in Time of George Pierce Baker's influence on Eugene O'Neill is quite severe, as a kind of enchainment which O'Neill only threw off after a few years(48-52). But in the matter of ending a scene or a play, Baker, if we take his Dramatic Technique as a model of what he said in class, is rather hard to follow. Baker knew so many plays that for every "rule" he suggested, he often cited exceptions, sometimes quoting at length, pages.

And his book does wander rather vaguely from topic to topic, so that sometimes he seems to contradict suggestions he made earlier. He points out "the beginning and ending of acts and plays emphasize even when the author does not so intend.(194)" Much of what he says thereafter about endings indicates an admiration for strong ones. But later in a section on the "characterizing value" of an ending, he cites at length--as an ideal to imitate--the separate exits of three characters, all very quiet, at the end of Act II of Pinero's now-forgotten The Princess and the Butterfly(292-294).

It is useful to think in two different ways about the scene displayed as curtain falls. Scenes at fall of curtain offer members of the audience some material with which to make a guess predictive of what would probably happen after the curtain, what might happen when it next rises; secondly, such scenes offer a stage picture, a tableau, of a situation in some sort of aesthetic stasis, which the members of the audience can carry in their heads to the next scene, or, at the end of the play, home with them or to whatever bistro they retire to in order to discuss the work. These two, the predictive one, generating expectations, perhaps even suspense, and the pictorial one, are not mutually exclusive categories of endings, merely two aspects of any scene-ending. Every playwright tries to offer and audience both at once.

The practice of some of the other playwrights active during O'Neill's involvement with New York theatre, many of them at one time Baker's students, illustrates some of the standard ways that playwrights found to end scenes in the 'twenties. Stallings and Anderson end the first scene of What Price Glory? with a show of force by Quirt. He knocks out a drunken soldier, impresses the girl in the play, Charmaine. The tableau of their long kiss at the curtain is a secondary climax to the Quirt-Flagg conflict, because she is ostensibly Flagg's girlfriend.


The second scene of the first act ends on a quiet tableau with the troops all off the front, the headquarters empty, except for Charmaine and an elderly company clerk, whom she tries without success to tempt. The end of Act II provides the biggest climax of the show right at the curtain, with a German raid on the dugout, the sensational capture of an German officer, and a last tableau of Flagg comforting the dying soldier.

For the final curtain they give the audience, after the main climax of the duel scene, Quirt's patriotic exit to follow the outfit back into the line as a secondary climax, a romantic view of war to which later works, such as R. C. Sherriff's Journey's End (1929) and Irwin Shaw's one-act, Bury the Dead (1936), offer  correctives.

Sidney Howard's They Knew What They Wanted ends the first act as Amy sits down, deciding she will marry Tony after all, the picture of a choice made. Howard emphasizes the image with a stage direction to the actor playing Joe to register admiration. Act II finishes with Amy fleeing the stage pursued by Joe in rut, sensational and sexy, and it creates suspense for the next act. Approaching the final curtain, after Tony discovers that Joe is the father of Amy's coming child, Tony gets his gun, but is disarmed. He then declares that he will not throw Amy out, but keep her. Joe leaves, Howard gives him a line that he has "No kick coming," and has Tony and Amy agree that none of them do. The final curtain falls on suspense resolved, a little too providentially for today's tastes, but it won the Pulitzer in '24.

The climaxes in those two plays are placed near the ends of the scenes, sometimes right at it, and both plays show some care for the scenic image at fall of curtain.

Philip Barry's Holiday displays, with well-bred restraint, no such extremes of on-stage passion. But the management of scene endings show a similar care for both the tableau and the creation of audience interest in what will happen next. In Act I Barry prepares the audience for the bores, the horrible Crams, on page 433. They arrive on stage near the end of the act, page 445. Julia stays to be properly sociable with these tedious cousins, but Ned, Johnny and Linda all flee as the curtain falls.

The moment is constructed on some easy mockery of the Crams, characters whom Barry invented merely for that purpose, part of Barry's typically elitist and gingerly handled anti-elitist theme. In addition, the ending gives focus to Linda and Julia as the poles of Barry's spectrum of social taste. Barry closes Act II with Ned asleep, drunk, at center, and at the side of the stage Linda, calling down the stairs, to join the engagement party of Julia and Johnny, a concession to the forces of propriety and a concession of her defeat.

The end of Act III upsets the apple cart, or perhaps just tips it a little, as far as Barry seemed inclined to go. In Act III Johnny and Julia break up, because she will not skip the long engagement, get married immediately, and come away with him to Europe. Johnny leaves. Barry has Linda establish for the benefit of the theatre audience that Julia is relieved by the break-up, and leaves herself to follow Johnny. Ned for the first time corrects his father, and raises his glass in a toast to the portrait of his grandfather, the robber-baron who established the family fortune in the first place.

The final effect seems intended as optimistic. Barry does not seek to put his main climax at the close of any scene. Instead, he arranges an earlier climax and then an almost polite withdrawal from it, with a slight secondary climax and a "picture" of characters left on stage at the curtain.

Elmer Rice is not polite, but the placement of the climax in his 1929 hit, Street Scene, is the same as Barry's. Rose and Sam have a longish scene at the end of Act I, and she lets him kiss her, then tells him not to be discouraged, and leaves him, to form the curtain picture alone. At the end of Act II, after the violence of the murder, Rose comes home to meet her mother being taken out by ambulance men. Rice has her cry "Mother," before they take her away, a secondary climax, amid much bustle and a crowd of gapers at curtain. The decrescendo for the last curtain is even more pronounced. Rose meets her father, captured by police, for the act's climax. Then Rice moves the focus to Rose's problems in finding a place to live, then to other family plot lines in the tenement. Rice even offers the beginning of a new plot line as a new family looks over the vacated apartment. Other characters come out of the tenement and exit, talking. In the last image a woman comes to a window with a sewing basket, the janitor's wife "comes up the cellar steps. A Sailor appears at left with two girls, an arm around the waist of each. They stroll slowly across"(415), as the curtain falls.

If we go hunting it is not difficult to find scene-endings in O'Neill's plays that are organized in much the same way as in the hands of writers like Anderson and Stallings, or Howard, or Barry, or Rice. Sometimes O'Neill concludes a scene with strong action, like Anderson and Stallings or Howard. The end of Act III, scene 1 in Beyond the Horizon is packed with action as Andrew and Mary rush out to find where Robert has gone. The middle scenes of "The Hairy Ape", two through six, all conclude with violent action, Yank throwing that shovel in scene two, and in a struggle at the ends of the others. The scenes of pursuit in Great God Brown or the violent death of Mannon, with Lavinia screaming and Christine fainting at the end of the first of the three plays of Mourning Becomes Electra, are further examples. Additional ones may be the endings to A Touch of the Poet and The Iceman Cometh, depending on how they are staged. The former concludes with a quiet on-stage picture, two women weeping, but with off-stage noise from the tavern bar that may--or may not--carry a decisive effect. The on-stage revelry at the end of The Iceman Cometh may--or may not--overpower the image of Larry sitting still down front, depending, again, on the way a particular production stages the moment.

But most of the other scene-endings in O'Neill's work are not noisy, but quite the reverse. In re-writing "Chris Christopherson" as Anna Christie, O'Neill abandoned a dramatic Big Curtain, the steamer running down the barge as the curtain falls, and never tried to use it again. He characteristically tried thereafter for a last curtain with a different emphasis, the decrescendo, fading to a dying fall, rather than anything noisy or tremendous.

The scene-ending with a secondary climax, and some care for the stage-picture, however, seems as typical of O'Neill's usual practice as it does of others in the period. Such endings from the one-act sea plays to Long Day's Journey Into Night are so easy to cite that a detailed list of them is hardly necessary here. And yet, O'Neill's work shows a difference. Measuring most of his work against patterns of other writers in the 'twenties demonstrates that O'Neill was trying for something else. In general other writers produce two effects, generating suspense about what may happen next when the curtain rises again, or a sense that the conflict has been resolved or order restored for the last curtain. O'Neill does not seem often interested in either of those, and rarely in a final curtain tableau that might put the audience a state of comfy optimism.

A few of his plays do bring down the last curtain on a moment implying a sense of restoration or of a conflict come to rest. The sentimental conclusion of Ah, Wilderness!, with Miller standing with his arm around his wife, both of them looking at the off-stage figure of Richard in the moonlight, is the obvious example. The last moments of "Hughie" seem intended to produce a similar effect of resolution and rest. And the conclusion to A Moon for the Misbegotten could also be staged to produce it.

But O'Neill was looking for an effect for which Anderson and Stallings, Howard, Rice, and Barry never try. The single most consistently displayed type of episode in his scene-endings, especially in the earlier half of his career, one of the fingerprints of his style, is the expression of incomprehension. The very theme of Beyond the Horizon is connected to it. Nearly every scene ends with a tableau showing one character's incomprehension of what another character is saying.

The scenes in "Emperor Jones" in the forest all show Jones fleeing what he does not understand. The play's final curtain gives Smithers a line showing how little Smithers has understood of what has happened. O'Neill ends the first act of Anna Christie with Chris in ignorance of what kind of girl his daughter has become. Act III ends with Anna giving up on her attempt to explain herself to her father. O'Neill has her say, "Oh, what's the use?" and send him out to get drunk. At the end of second and the last act, Chris turns from the action to curse "dat ol' davil sea." At the end of Act II, he is alone on stage, but at the end of the play, O'Neill puts Burke and Anna on stage to stare at him as he says it.

Either Eben or Cabot is presented at the end of most scenes of Desire Under the Elms in a stage-picture as the curtain falls clearly ignorant of what is going on around them, and sometimes ill-at-ease because of that ignorance. The last lines by the Sheriff in the play show a mind completely ignorant of what that "jim-dandy farm" has cost. The monologues of the character's thoughts in Strange Interlude put the audience in a position to understand how little the characters understand about each other or themselves, possibly the reason that the revival in 1985 got so many laughs. O'Neill this way repeatedly emphasizes Sam Evans' ignorance of the paternity of Gordon. The farrago that was finally staged as Days Without End displays a frenzy of incomprehension, by the characters and perhaps by the author himself.

But a change appears in this pattern of the final moments in O'Neill's plays, starting in the 'thirties and continuing through the plays to the end of his career. He shows us characters at the end whose situation is not that of incomprehension, but of knowing too much. At the last curtain of Mourning Becomes Electra, Lavinia's decision to entomb herself in the Mannon mansion as the final curtain comes down is a choice made, not out of blind confusion, but because of what she knows. The end of A Touch of the Poet displays Melody's abandonment of his false role as an aristocrat in order to assume of the persona of the keeper of a shebeen, like his father before him. That this also a false role, and that Melody knows it, O'Neill suggests in a brief passage just as Melody is making his last exit. Sara is directed to grab Melody's arm, for a speech about his pride and hers, asking him to forgive her. O'Neill gives his reaction to her speech in a stage direction that Melody:

has been visibly crumbing as he listens until he appears to have no character left in which to hide and defend himself. He cries wildly and despairingly, as if he sees his last hope of escape cut off.(255)

The diction of Melody's next line, "For the love of God, stop--let me go--!" is not that of a shebeen keeper but of a Major in the British army, a distinction O'Neill underlines with the next stage direction:

In a flash Melody recovers and is the leering peasant again.(255)

Melody leaves the stage clearly having made a choice. Sara and Nora are left on stage with lines to show that they know, too, that he has made a choice, a mournful one, but one leaves them to make theirs.

Larry Slade sits out the party at the end of The Iceman Cometh, facing the truth about himself, but away from the rest of the cast, while the others face each other, as they drown their own self-knowledge, recapture their illusions in raised glasses, to re-ignite their pipe-dreams, and in frantic song, to un-know again what Hickey taught them. O'Neill in A Moon for the Misbegotten makes Josie's last apostrophe to Jim, and her turning from that to an effort at cheerful blarney with Hogan, an emblem clear enough of Josie's conscious abandonment of any hope of life for Jim, or for herself as any more than that rascal Hogan's out-sized daughter. At the end of A Long Day's Journey Into Night, O'Neill gives Mary lines and movement to signal her regression to her past, and has her hide as if in the fog, putting herself where life cannot touch her, nor the men either, while the men sit, staring, exhausted, in despair at the certainty that she, and they, are lost.

These final curtains in O'Neill are not noisy but quiet ones, sad ones, even "tragic," if that term still means something, offering not action but stasis, appropriate to scripts that seem these days to offer an audience the consolations of absurdist despair.

 

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