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Doing O'Neill
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O'Neill's written directions of the way players are to move in respect to each other does not tell us as much as they might about his management of stage action. O'Neill, especially at the beginning of his career, is not specific in his stage directions. Many of his directions tell us nothing about movement at all, but only about vocal inflections or the emotional current that a given line is to carry. If we disregard the stage directions in O'Neill's plays that specify only the quality of voice in which a line is to be spoken, the most common direction is one that tells a player which direction to appear to be looking. Characters are directed to look, glance, turn, lean, sometimes toward another character but most commonly, not toward another character, but away. Most directions that use the word "toward" or "to" follow that word with a doorway or a skyline, or some other element of the setting, not another character. Correspondingly, the word "avoid" is not rare in these stage directions, and one of the most common words there is "away." J. Russel Reaver's An O'Neill Concordance cites 29 uses of the word "away" in stage directions, every one of them telling a player to look away from another.

Of course, O'Neill did write other directions, for exits, entrances, movements here and there on stage, and those deserve some study. The process of organizing on-stage movement during rehearsals, and by extension, the resulting movements themselves as well, are called in theatrical parlance, "blocking." In this sense "blocking" is the process of arranging the on-stage action, paradoxically, to avoid the blocking of one player from the view of the audience by another, to avoid the blocking of a doorway by one player when another has to make an entrance or exit. What records survive indicate that through the nineteenth-century, blocking was arranged during rehearsals by the author or by the leading actor. James O'Neill, for instance, managed it in most of the plays in which he starred. The very concept of a "director," who organizes such matters from an off-stage perspective instead of from the middle of it, started about the same time as James O'Neill started his acting career. Directors grew in importance until by the 'twenties, the actor-director became rather rare, and most companies routinely hired directors and publicized their names.

Nina Moise, as Robert K. Sarlos points out, appears to have been designated as the "director" for the Provincetown Players' production of O'Neill's "The Rope" in the Village in 1918(9-12). But when the producer, Williams, staged O'Neill's first full-length play, Beyond the Horizon, in 1920, and when another producer, Tyler, tried to mount an early version of Anna Christie, then going under the title of "Chris," a year later, neither hired anyone with the function that we know of today as "director" of the play. The leading male actor in each production did most of that work, Richard Bennett in the former and Frederick Stanhope in the second.

During the rehearsals for that first production of Beyond the Horizon, O'Neill himself stood sometimes in relation to the cast as a director does today. O'Neill's letters from New York to Agnes back on Cape Cod describe a rehearsal in which he and Bennett had a terrific fight. The actor finally agreed to "try it" O'Neill's way, and then conceded that "it works." After that, at the end of each rehearsal period, Bennett called out "suggestions," and the cast lined up on the stage while O'Neill stood in the house looking up at them to give each one a comment on what he liked or not about what he had seen so far. The pattern is exactly that of a modern director in a practice these days, called "giving notes."

The letters do not tell us what kind of suggestions O'Neill made. Most of the stage directions in O'Neill's manuscript and printed plays are for voice modulations. In the early 'twenties, before Desire Under the Elms, O'Neill put in his stage directions little that we would today call "blocking." He seems to have left it to the actors to work out. Such a practice is not uncommon among playwrights. None of them, as they write, know the size of the stage on which the play will eventually be mounted. An actor, talking, may need enough lines to get him from the entrance to the focus of attention in two steps or in ten.

O'Neill in his early sea plays, for instance, and in the "The Hairy Ape", wrote such directions as "they all settle themselves to wait," or "they all rush to the side and look to the land," or "the four women come in...the men crowding around grinning," all from the "Moon of the Caribees." An actor in one of those roles will find few specific descriptions of what to do, who is to be on his left or right, who is to go first through an exit, who last, etc. One exception in "Moon of the Caribees" is the character Smitty, for whom the script often gives specific directions on where to stand or sit.

But usually, even when O'Neill wanted to focus on a single character in those earlier plays, as in "The Hairy Ape", he put the actor center stage and let the others stand around him in no specific formation. In the opening scene, Long is directed to "jump on a bench" for his leftist outburst until "interrupted by a storm of catcalls, hisses, boos, hard laughter" from the men. Which men are to call, hiss, boo, or laugh is left up to the actors to organize during rehearsals. Yank is then to stand up at center and glare at Long, and has a line telling Long to sit down. O'Neill's next direction is that "Long makes haste to efface himself" (Nine Plays, 44). 

Paddy's long paean in praise of the old days of sailing ships follows shortly thereafter, three minutes of monologue delivered, if O'Neill's directions are followed exactly, entirely from a sitting position on one of the benches. And Yank standing, center.

Few directors of that scene today take O'Neill's relative silence on the matter of stage movement as a command. No one acting Paddy would try simply to sit throughout that aria except on a dare. And the actor in the role of Yank, without a line, would feel trapped in the focal position without a words to say.

In any modern production, the actors move. Paddy stands, gestures and moves as Yank steps back into the crowd, and the crowd stirs around Paddy. Or some other pattern of movement is invented for the moment.

In All God's Chillun Got Wings, the scenes of the first act all involve crowds, and extras. The extras, a couple, for example, are directed to come on, pass over the stage, exit, but O'Neill does not bother to state whether from left to right or right or left. Crowds are directed to "range themselves" into two lines (Nine Plays, 110). O'Neill does not bother to specify how many extras are needed, or how many men and how many women. He leaves all that for later, for the realities of the production to solve. Jim and Ella come on, stand still, talk, and finally walk to the curb, and the curtain falls. The point here is not that O'Neill commands static acting; the point is that he left the blocking almost entirely to the responsibility of those organizing the productions of his earlier plays.

Starting with Desire Under the Elms, however, he took care to be explicit. Positions and postures are detailed. Movements are clearly indicated. The only crowd scene is the first one of Part Three, the dance party. The set shows both upstairs bedrooms and the kitchen, and the area outside the house as well. Eben is described in O'Neill's directions sitting in his bedroom upstairs.

Everyone else is in the kitchen. O'Neill is quite specific on where he wants all these characters on chairs around the walls, "squeezed in tight against one another, farmers and their wives and their young folks both sexes" are seated. Cabot "is standing near the rear door." And "in the left, front, dividing" the attention of the on-stage crowd "with her husband, Abbie is sitting in a rocking chair." The fiddler is "seated in the far right corner" near Cabot(40). Abbie "turns to a girl on her right" and speaks. The girl then "turns to her mother seated next to her." Abbie "turns to her left to a big stoutish middle-aged man" who answers but gets no response, and then "goes over and joins Cabot." A remark by Abbie is repeated down the line...until is reaches the fiddler," who then calls his line the length of the room to Abbie.

This is a new precision for O'Neill. Crowd actions like general laughter or a "grumble of resentment" are still only sketched in. And even some dialogue is left to the actors to ad-lib. When the stoutish man joins Cabot, the script tells us that Cabot "is arguing noisily with an old farmer over cows"(41).

But most of the action in the scene is set out in detail. When Cabot's grotesque dance is finished, Eben, upstairs, "gets to his feet and tiptoes out the door in the rear, appearing a moment later in the other bedroom. He moves silently...toward the cradle and stands there looking down at the baby"(43-44). "At the same moment that he reaches the cradle, Abbie...gets up...and goes to Cabot"(44). She tells him that she is going up to the baby. He tries to pat "her on the back. She shrinks from his touch." There is only one door to the kitchen, so O'Neill signifies her exit simply with "she goes." And when Cabot leaves a line later, "he goes," closing the door behind him. Then he appears outside the house and goes over to lean on the wall. Then Abbie appear upstairs in the doorway and stands looking "at Eben who does not see her." In the kitchen the voices of the guests "die to an intensive whispering"(44).

This set of directions is not merely a new precision for its own sake. O'Neill has avoided misleading the audience in the theatre about the direction the scene would take. Cabot comes out of the house before Abbie appears upstairs. Had Abbie re-appeared first, audiences, trained by other plays they had seen, would immediately require, as obligatory, the re-appearance of Cabot, not outside, but also upstairs, behind Abbie and Eben, for his sudden discovery of their real relationship. But such an expectation is obviated if Cabot appears outside, first, where an audience can keep an eye on him. Then and only then O'Neill has Abbie appear upstairs with Eben.

In later plays this precision about stage movement continued. Jean Chothia's Forging a Language prints drawings from some of the O'Neill papers now at Yale, including a sketch by O'Neill of the way he wanted the set for Desire Under the Elms to look(39) and a chart, a "table of masks" for Lazarus Laughed(36). The "table of masks" also offers a look at the way he was prepared to dictate even crowd movements in the latter play. The same kind of tables, charts, plans appear in his papers for the earlier Marco Millions. Thus by 1925 O'Neill was writing out every move of everyone in the cast, even the throngs. His stage directions for Marco Millions and Lazarus Laughed may still direct a chorus simply to "come on" or to "group" themselves in one fashion or another. But his concepts are clear enough in the charts and tables that he laid out, presumably not only for his own use, but for the Theatre Guild as well.

This same attention to details of movement is also illustrated, of course, in The Iceman Cometh, where the position and posture of every drunk in the bar is specified in that six-page opening stage direction. A similar care is easily confirmed with a study of any of the major plays after 1925 from Strange Interlude to "Hughie" and A Moon for the Misbegotten. Again Jean Chothia reproduces for us an O'Neill drawing, a plan view of set of Long Day's Journey Into Night, with the positions marked for each of the three men in the last moments of the play. A dotted line indicates the exact route that O'Neill wanted the actress of Mary to follow as she wanders from up-stage left, to take her final position, down right, leaving the men, seated, slumped, center at the final curtain.

A number of causes of this new precision after 1925 suggest themselves. Travis Bogard likes to pitch upon Anna Christie (1921) as Eugene O'Neill's first mature play ("The Fall and Rise of Anna Christie," 62-71). As he points out, nearly all the themes and patterns of plot and character that O'Neill was to work and re-work over the years are present in the play. Bogard's point, limited to the ideas and themes in O'Neill's plays, seems just. But Desire Under the Elms represents O'Neill's first demonstration of mature technique, of managing the opportunities and obligations of the stage. It had none of the awkward, half-hearted compromise solutions to its plot development that so bedeviled Anna Christie and its earlier versions as "Chris Christopherson" and "The Ole Devil," and it did not have to go through such full-scale re-writes to make it stage worthy. Indeed, it shows marked advance over Anna Christie and even over such effective successes as "The Hairy Ape".

O'Neill is often cited as a writer born to the theatre, son of a famous actor. He sometimes bragged about his theatrical knowledge, used his reputation for theatrical instinct to ride down suggestions for changes or cuts in his scripts. He probably did know more about Broadway and its ways than most people--but not more than most theatre people. In fact, his experience before 1913 was limited to plays already mounted, touring, on the road. He knew little, because his father rarely tried it, about mounting new and untried material. Gradually he learned, the way everyone else with the Provincetown group learned, as they went along.

O'Neill confessed privately that he had a lot to learn. In that letter to Agnes written during the rehearsals for Beyond the Horizon, he took some space to justify, on the grounds of the good it was doing him as a playwright, his remaining in New York while she stayed on Cape Cod.

I'm a bit wiser now than when I first went to "Beyond" rehearsals. Honestly, I've learned a tremendous lot that I wouldn't miss for worlds--knowledge that will be of real worth to me hereafter. I don't mean knowledge of technique a la Broadway--"Beyond" isn't put on like that--but real stuff as to the theatrical medium. Bennett is really a liberal education in himself. He has brains and he uses them every second, and outside of some misconceptions, he has really been a great help to the play. And even from his mistakes I have learned a hell of a lot. I'm a better playwright already, I feel it. The whole experience has been invaluable to me as an artist who ought to know his medium from top to bottom. (Agnes Boulton, letter to, Jan. 28, 1919)

Obviously O'Neill protests too much to Agnes here. She wants him to come to Cape Cod. One of his covert aims in the letter is to defend his need to stay in New York. But the passage here is not all propaganda. O'Neill was learning. One of the techniques he was learning involved a new awareness of the uses and mis-uses of stage movement.

But it is not the causes of this new care for movement that should most concern us here, but its consequences for those who are planning or in the process of "doing" an O'Neill play. In O'Neill's early plays, the stage directions call for busy moments and quiet ones to alternate. In the "Moon of the Caribees" the alternation seems quite unforced. However, "The Long Voyage Home" looks as if it had had gratuitous action injected into it, as if to keep it busy. O'Neill decorates the otherwise static expository opening dialogue between Joe, the owner of the "dive," and Nick, his melodramatically nefarious assistant, by adding Mag, a barmaid, whose only function is to be yelled at and slapped before she disappears from the stage.

It is impossible to pontificate with any accuracy on O'Neill's motives for adding Mag. Maybe some actress with the Provincetown group would have had no role at all if Mag had not been written for her. But Mag's episode also helps to match the quantity of action at the beginning of the play with action at end, drunken conflicts that surge across the stage.

O'Neill alternates busy moments and quiet ones in "The Hairy Ape". In the odd numbered scenes, Yank yells in the forecastle, he shovels coal and throws a shovel at Mildred, then, after bouncing off passers-by on Fifth Avenue, is given the bum's rush by a horde of policemen, then forcefully ejected from I.W.W. headquarters. Later still in Desire Under the Elms, O'Neill uses such busy material more rarely and with greater concentration. The drunken war whoops and "Indian dance" by Simeon and Peter come near the beginning of the play; Cabot's dance "like a monkey on a string" comes near the end.

In later plays O'Neill uses such busy moments even more rarely. Strange Interlude when analyzed this way produces the impression of almost hypnotic clam. A character who merely stands up or sits down enacts a histrionic statement. Mourning Becomes Electra fumes with passion, but one of the plays' themes is the suppression of that passion. If we except the three climactic outbreaks of movement, one in each play of the trilogy, then beyond violent speech and a single outbreak of terror on the part of the Seth's gang in one prologue, there is hardly any physical action at all. A Touch of the Poet contains the ejection of the lawyer, Gadsby, from the Melody tavern by its raucous clients, but most of that, and all of the rest of the violence in the play, O'Neill keeps carefully off-stage. The Iceman Cometh builds to its chaotic singing climax, but A Moon for the Misbegotten has only the Act I episode with T. Stedman Harder; from there the play grows ever quieter and more static, right to the end. Long Day's Journey Into Night has hardly any such busy moment, certainly nothing to match the dinner scene in its earlier analogue, Ah, Wilderness!

Thus, while O'Neill makes less use of mere business in action, of entrances and exits, of bustle of movement or physical struggle during his writing career, he increased his precision about what movement he did want.

O'Neill's hard opinion of actors is well-documented. He seems to have learned by the time he had finished the production of Beyond the Horizon in 1920, if not earlier, that actors are difficult. One way to keep actors from doing things that he did not want them to do was to give specific directions on what he did want. His stage directions show that, which brings us to a key point. In Desire under the Elms and later plays, a silence in the stage direction can not be taken as license to improvise. If no movement is indicated, O'Neill conceived of the scene with no movement at that spot.

Some will find the scripts static when read in this way. So be it. By the standards for the later twentieth century, they are static. By the standards commonly applied in the theatre of New York in the 'twenties and before, O'Neill's plays, although by no means hectic, put about the same quantity of movement on the stage as those of his contemporaries. Such an assertion is impossible to demonstrate in these pages, of course. But anyone who cares to check his or her own impressions is welcome to read ten or twenty plays of the period for the quantity of movement.

If we look only at the American plays most anthologized, most revived and most prized by theatre people these days, the plays that present themselves are the furious comic energy of George Kaufman in his work with Marc Connelly or Moss Hart, in Maxwell Anderson and Laurence Stalling's What Price Glory? Ben Hecht and Arthur MacArthur's Front Page, avant-garde work like Rice's The Adding Machine, J. H. Lawson's Processional or Sophie Treadwell's Machinal. But if we look instead at the work of George Kelly, Sidney Howard, Sidney Kingsley, Susan Glaspell's "Trifles," or even some of the later plays of Clifford Odets, we see that a standard for on-stage bustle seems about as static as that for O'Neill's work.

The kind of audience that James O'Neill helped create in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century had no interest in the kind of plays that Eugene O'Neill wanted to write. With the help of many others bent on the same mission, Eugene O'Neill literally created between 1916 and 1922 or 1923 a New York audience with an appetite for what he had to offer. A coarse and rather technical measure of that appetite is displayed in the gradual reduction of stage movement in his plays, as if he were slowly weaning his audience from action, to force them to concentrate instead on what the characters were saying.

An alternative postulate presents itself. Because it is so subjective, so easily asserted but so difficult to demonstrate, I can only suggest that O'Neill gradually found new ways to raise emotion in his plays. Instead of relying on mere activity and bustle to produce a superficial semblance of it, he sought instead for intensity of it. Another way of saying about the same thing is that he shed his gratuitous training in melodrama and taught himself in ways to evoke the intensity of the best of Strindberg, or of the Abbey Players' productions in New York in 1911 cited in Sheaffer (Son and Playwright. 205,206).

And yet by the standards of the later half of the twentieth century, O'Neill seems to develop a play as a sequence of poses and postures, not as dynamic interaction among situations and characters, a judgment O'Neill himself would surely resent. As John Henry Raleigh demonstrates in his article, "Escape from the Chateau d'If," O'Neill's work is a testament to his ability to climb above the meretricious busy-ness, the posturing and posing of the melodrama that ruled the stage when he first came to it.

There are some ironic consequences to the success of O'Neill's effort to create a change in taste. By the mid-'thirties, the audience became restive again. The cinema, among other influences, re-trained audience tastes. And modern television production has only intensified that training of audiences. O'Neill had accustomed audiences to a certain handling of stage activity, like that in Desire Under the Elms. Although this play does contain a couple large bursts of activity, as the last exit of Simeon and Peter, or Cabot's fantastic dance, O'Neill also deliberately puts characters in a single position for minutes at a time, as if to develop stage tension solely from the personal issues over which they argued.

His audiences in the 'twenties found nothing to remark on in that. Many other playwrights of the period did the same thing to them. But a modern production no longer faces O'Neill's original audience. A modern audience has been taught to expect on-stage bustle, and if they do not get it, they cough. They do not care that O'Neill's lack of a stage direction implies that he wanted no movement during a given speech. His modern audiences demand movement, the more the better, no matter how meaningless. Any modern production of O'Neill that respects its audience will provide the quantity of movement that previous modern productions or other plays have taught the audience to expect, demand. One of those qualities of his plays that O'Neill sought to impose on his audiences, a respect for the language of the play, and the patience to await the development of a scene of great intensity, may in some sense be irrecoverable.

The production directed by Jonathan Miller of Long Day's Journey Into Night in 1986 seems symptomatic of this post-modern lust for bustle. Miller seems to have taken a page from the notebook of the Russian director, Yuri Lyubimov, whose production of Chekhov's Cherry Orchard at the Taganka theatre in Moscow ran, not the four hours one normally expects from that script, but two hours exactly, 61 minutes for the first two acts, and 59 minutes for the last two. Lyubimov accomplished this not only by a rapid and nervous delivery of speeches by all the characters, but also by overlapping speeches, an especially striking effect in those scenes were it is evident that Chekhov's characters are not in fact responding to each other at all, but merely verbalization self-directed monologues.

These techniques Miller adapted for his 1968 production of Long Day's Journey Into Night. He cut parts of the script, directed the dialogue to be delivered at high speed and often overlapping, changed and cut down the set, so as to reduce the space--and the time--that the players needed to cross the stage. New York audiences in all their provincial gullibility were evidently quite happy with the result. It is hard not to sympathize with a Stephen F. Bloom's grumpy suggestion that Miller staged only A Short Day's Journey, not a long one(38). Bloom at least had the restraint to spare his readers a report of Jack Lemon's imitation of The Dying Ham when he swooned--whether with Miller's connivance or not, I do not know--drawing all the focus from the actress of Mary to himself as the final curtain fell.

As telling as any of these details of O'Neill's handling of stage movement and the quantity of it, is the observation with which we began, O'Neill's management of the way players are to move in respect to each other. Players are directed to look, turn, lean, face, not toward other players, but away from them. One of the many the ironies of this writer's career is that he seems to bring characters on stage principally to show their inability to communicate with each other.


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