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Doing O'Neill
5. Dialogue I:
Prior   Stories, Monologues, Long Speeches   Next


The script of Long Day's Journey Into Night puts Edumnd's report of Shaughnessy and the Standard Oil heir in a context where an audience can see the report as Edmund's diversionary tactic to draw his father and his older brother from their compulsive duel of sneers. The story fails at this task, a failure that lets O'Neill announce the tactic: Edmund and Mary both complain the moment that Tyrone turns again on Jamie: "James! There's no reason to scold Jamie!" and "For God's sake, Papa! If you're going to start that stuff again, I'll beat it."(26) As a covert distraction of one of the characters, it functions about the same way as the little musicale organized by Richard Miller's father in Ah, Wilderness! to distract Richard's mother from the fact that Richard is late coming home.

In many productions, both are such grand moments that the theatre audience loses track of the function more readily than the on-stage audience for which each is ostensibly intended. In the late plays, as soon as the Shaughnessy story is over, O'Neill has Tyrone attack Jamie. In the earlier play, he directs the actress playing Essie Miller to continue to quiver in tremulous apprehension for the younger son throughout her older son's display of lugubrious sentimentality.

As technically proficient as these two examples are, many others in O'Neill's plays are not. Many "stories" have merely expository functions, and thus come early in the play. Some of these expository stories late in his career are surprisingly clumsy, a recitation by one character to another that an audience might suppose would know the story already. But early in a play, an audience will forgive a great deal of unrealistic recitals in order to get the information needed to understand--and enjoy, and thus get their money's worth--from what follows. Creegan and Maloy tell each other such stories at the beginning of A Touch of the Poet. Josie shares the telling of such an expository tale with her brother Mike in the first moments of A Moon for the Misbegotten. The motive to speak all this informative dialogue is O'Neill's, but the rules of the game of "realism" award higher scores for information offered as if because of some other imperative as well, one that the audience may credit as the characters'.

Most of the stories that characters tell each other in O'Neill's plays are the characters' autobiographies, told with the overt motive of self-justification, often in response to some accusation of bad faith, explicit or implied. One of O'Neill's faults as a writer is a fondness for expository overkill. Many of these stories come not only near the beginning of a play, where audiences are eager enough for background information to overlook a little clumsiness, but also throughout a play, even in the last speech of it.

To actors, these can seem moments to spread their wings, like operatic arias. In the early sea plays, O'Neill gives to Yank and Driscoll in "Bound East for Cardiff" a long diminishing duet to the end; in "A Long Voyage Home," he gives Olson an aria on his mother in the middle of the play; in his latest plays, he provides similar histrionic displays. The third act of A Moon for the Misbegotten ends with Tyrone's long confessional explanation of his behavior when he returned from San Francisco on the train with the body of his mother. (The Later Plays, 389-393).

In the plays of O'Neill's career between these two, it is difficult to point out one that does not offer players such chances for display their talents. "Hughie" consists wholly of such a speech. Yank in "The Hairy Ape" has one in every scene he is in, except the episode on Fifth Ave. Desire Under the Elms is remarkable among O'Neill's work for the brevity of most of the exchanges, but Abbie, Eben, and Cabot are provided with moments to pour out stories of pasts which justify the present. Jean Chothia has given sharp critical analysis of two such arias, Ezra and Orin's, in Mourning Becomes Electra. The latter is of much more dramatic use than the former, she points out, because O'Neill uses it twice. Orin echoes his war-story of killing a Confederate soldier as he gazes at the face of the dead Adam Brant (Forging a Language, 99-105).

From the early sea plays to the end of his career, the whole logic of the action of his plays is persistently bent not toward some revelation, discovery of some external fact heretofore suppressed, nor arranged around some peripetia or "turning point," where the whole process of that logic is reversed, but in a simpler way, toward the grand speech, the story, the aria in which a character exposes his or her internal coherence at last, that is, takes off the mask, as in, again, The Iceman Cometh.

Of course, what's under the mask must be worth the wait, or the audience will feel itself cheated. Some of O'Neill's plays, and some of the productions of his plays, have not been equal to that challenge. Others, of course, have triumphantly delivered even more than an audience could reasonably expect.

For anyone "doing" O'Neill, the big speech is a moment to look forward too. The player to speak it needs blocking from the others on stage to give him focus. The actors who are to listen to it need even more help. Some experienced players, though not all, alas, can be depended upon to provide appropriate, intelligent, and intelligible nods, sighs, gestures, etc., while they spend five otherwise motionless minutes listening to a speech. Many actors in small roles are not experienced ones. Too much reaction is worse than too little. One director is proverbially supposed to have screamed at such a listening player during rehearsal, "Don't just do something! Stand there!" 

When Paddy delivers his speech in "The Hairy Ape" on the grand old days of sailing ships, when Yank responds with his abrasive counter-blast, the script offers little to guide the other actors on the stage, listening. To "do" a play is to plan what each of the actors of those other parts in the scene--the sections of dialogue assigned to "voices" seems to anticipate ten or twelve--is to do, to sit, to move or not, nod or not, maybe groan, gasp, sigh, or mumble. Or just stand there.

In later plays O'Neill is more specific on how listening players are to react to such speeches. But in several of them the listening character is ironically too wrapped up his or her own thoughts to pay attention, as if O'Neill were conscious that he was overwriting, and instead of re-writing shorter, passed the buck for the error from himself to his character!

He gives Cabot a long autobiographical explanation in Desire Under the Elms, but Abbie is not listening. O'Neill has her looking away toward the wall on the other side of which the audience can see Eben leaning toward her (Three Plays, 31-32).

Sara delivers an outraged oration, a brief one as these things go in O'Neill, in A Touch of the Poet, on the iniquities and folly of her father. Her mother, Nora, the only other character on stage, the script directions tell us, "is staring at the floor dejectedly and hasn't been listening."(150)

Ezra Mannon has a long speech on his war experience in Mourning Becomes Electra. O'Neill does not make the actress in the role of Christine listen to this in silence, but instead has her interrupt now and then to beg him to stop talking, to say aloud that she has understood nothing that he has said.

Such moments in O'Neill's plays give some readers in the study an impression of O'Neill's lack of self-confidence in his power, one that may indeed be correct. But on stage they can work very well. Their success depends on the players and on the playwright's preparation for the speech. If the speech is solely preparation for something to come, its delivery seems to many players to be merely a primitive form of exposition, and hard work to keep an audience from getting restless. But in examples from Desire Under the Elms, or Mourning Becomes Electra, or A Touch of the Poet, the scripts offer the players the chance to lead an audience to look forward to other qualities than the mere expository information they may contain.

Moreover, those long speeches for which O'Neill has prepared provide actors with chances to show their skills. The Iceman Cometh can be a serial display of such virtuoso arias. The fourth act of Long Day's Journey Into Night gives each of the four principal characters one or more such speeches, so well prepared that they make a substantial reason for the play's almost invariable success. The on-stage listeners have been given every motive to remain as still as possible; nothing distracts, not even the absence of other action, from the performance of the actor speaking.

An earlier moment in the play, one that can be as great a success, has one dangerous element. When Mary has her long scene in the first third of Act III, she has on stage with her the fifth player, the actress in the role of Cathleen. It is a small part. In this scene Cathleen does have one moment, complaining how the druggist reacted when she brought him the prescription, but for some four or five minutes she has hardly a word(103-105).

Those of us who "do" O'Neill on mental stages, of course, can cast in the role of Cathleen an actress as strong in hers as the other four are in theirs. Those who "do" the play on boards may find that a company does not offer an actress equal to great roles and may have to choose among several of whom are merely adequate. Reviews of productions of Long Day's Journey Into Night over the past thirty years yield evidence of how the script mercilessly reveals any weaknesses in a player's technique. The actress of Cathleen is too often visibly weaker in technique than the others, and is often damned by a reviewer with praise so faint as to make a reader wince. The task of "standing there" while the actress playing Mary uses her as kind of verbal mirror may prove too tricky. The result is no disaster, but it can dampen the effectiveness of the actress of Mary in that scene.

Often O'Neill employed the technique of providing the "listening" players with some back-chat during long speeches, in the classic pattern of the confidante of French drama. In Jim's lengthy explanation of his return with Ella from Europe in All God's Chillun Got Wings, the actor in the role is aided by O'Neill, who gives the other player on the stage, the actress in the role of Hattie, some brief comments and queries, each with some dramatic function because they each express some measure of hostility. The weight of all that information is effectively distributed between the players(Nine Plays, 116).

But in later plays his technique in this matter is conspicuously weaker. Mourning Become Electra contains not only the example of Ezra Mannon's wistful attempt to reconcile himself with Christine, which she interrupts with a one-line comment now and then(268-271), and the one by Orin on his experience killing two soldiers in the same way with a sword (304-305), interrupted by comments from Lavinia, already discussed above, but also one by Lavinia, interrupted by strikingly empty exclamations for the actor in the thankless role of Peter, as she describes her wishful thoughts about returning to the Pacific islands(348-349). The first of these three moments is by far those most effective, and last by far the weakest.

In The Iceman Cometh, O'Neill gives the actor of Moser some help with his demonstration of how he used to short-change everyone, even his sister, by giving the actor in the role of Harry Hope some acid comments to interject along the way.(58-59) Of course the most famous "long speech" in all of O'Neill's plays is Hickey's half-hour monologue in the last act of this play. O'Neill has ranged the entire cast on stage to listen to this, but even so it takes all the ingenuity and intensity of the director and the cast to keep that scene alive and building, not dying. Without concentrated effort by all, the actor of Hickey is left twisting in the wind, the audience restless and bored. With good cooperation among talented people of course, it leaves an audience exhausted and stunned by its power.

Making long speeches work is difficult. Critics of O'Neill's verbosity, prolixity are legion. On the other hand, the desire to cut the plays has received a certain amount of published execration. Paul Voelker's note, "O'Neill and American Drama at the 1984 ATA Convention: A Report," in the Eugene O'Neill Newsletter (Winter 1984), 41, reveals that Voelker, in his exasperation with a director who gave a paper on how to cut O'Neill's plays down to two hours, walked out on him.

It is easy to see why Voelker would be irritated, but his reaction to the idea of cuts in O'Neill in general is an extreme one. O'Neill's plays are not sacred texts. His plays have always been changed, revised, and cut, too, during production, from the first ones under O'Neill's own control to the ones in rehearsal at this writing, this reading. When we consider what is accepted as fair play in the theatre for Shakespeare's scripts, we can hardly expect a more reverent treatment for O'Neill's. Some of these will inevitably seem distorted from their original impulse. Jonathan Miller's production of Long Day's Journey Into Night, mentioned in the previous chapter is a case in point.

The position in favor of cutting O'Neill is not well represented. The obvious example is Eric Bentley's famous essay back in 1952 in the Kenyon Review, "Trying to Like O'Neill," which he later reprinted in his In Search of Theater, and which he has permitted to be reprinted in many other places as well.

The article never betrays the least suspicion that his description of his attempt to direct The Iceman Cometh in Zurich, Switzerland, reveals a catastrophic incompetence on his own part. He tells us that O'Neill was at fault for the productions's evidently tepid reception in spite of cuts by Bentley, cuts which Bentley describes and which display how Bentley practically gutted the script. That his explanation is quite funny never seems to have occurred to him.

Seen against the background of Bentley's folly, Miller's treatment of Long Day's Journey Into Night can come as no shock. Nor that New York audiences went away evidently satisfied with this version of the play should come as no surprise. Even Bloom agrees that some of Miller's Taganka-style manipulation of the text, so that some speeches overlap each other, works quite well in places. It is not hard to think of other parts of other plays in O'Neill's work which might benefit by a similar treatment, if judiciously applied.

A couple small moments in Ah, Wilderness! have always bothered me. In Act I, Miller's interview with McComber, contains a long speech by Miller that begins, "You damned old fool," and goes on for a dozen more lines with no response from McComber. (25) The speech is useful to O'Neill for its revelation of Miller's trust in his son, Richard, and his understanding of him.

But for the actor in the role of McComber, the moment is a poser. Obviously the degree of his reaction to "damned old fool" and to each of the comments that follow will depend on the technique of the actor in the role, the director's estimate of the tempo he needs for the scene, with due regard to what comes before it and after, the patience of his prospective audience--or lack of it--and host of other local considerations. Usually, the actor of McComber invents a series of snorts, grumbles, mumbles and gestures, which, tempered by the director's advice, replaces the appearance of utter passivity that the script's lack of direction for McComber might suggest.

Plenty of suggestions for such reactions, of course, are apparent in the lines the O'Neill gives McComber before and after Miller's long speech. Given the sarcastic tone of McComber’s remarks before Miller begins his “damned old fool speech,” one yearns in the scene for lines that McComber might utter at the same time as Miller is talking.

A more complex kind of problem is embodied in a brief moment in Act II of the same play. Sid has left the dining table, drunkenly singing, "In the Sweet Bye and Bye." O'Neill's script reads:

Miller and his wife and children are all roaring with laughter. Lily giggles hysterically.

MILLER (Subsiding at last)
Haw, Haw. He's a case, if ever there was one! Darned if you can help laughing at him--even when he's poking fun at you!

Goodness, but he's a caution! Oh, my sides ache, I declare! I was trying so hard not to--but you can't help it, he's so silly! But I suppose we really shouldn't. I only encourages him. But my lands--!

At which point Lily interrupts her and scolds them all. Miller answers, admitting Lily is right.(58)

In performance these two speeches are clumsy. Miller sputters out his exclamations, then falls silent while Mrs. Miller sputters out hers. Lily's scolding seems, in the script, directed at the most recent speaker alone, Mrs. Miller, but it is Miller who responds to Lily. Players in the roles of Miller and Mrs. Miller feel clumsy here, especially when Mrs. Miller's lines are recited and the actor of Miller has to fall silent. Worse, both players often look ill-at-ease too.

One solution is to take, as Jonathan Miller has with Long Day's Journey Into Night, a cue from the Taganka Cherry Orchard, and overlap these two speeches, so that both Miller and Mrs. Miller speak at once, and neither has to be silent. Simply to let the speeches tumble over each other ad lib., may work, but most who "do" O'Neill would prefer something more carefully arranged. Mrs. Miller's speech has four or five natural pauses, and Miller's falls into four or five natural pieces. It takes no great powers of imagination to see how the two speeches might be interlaced to form an overlapping stichomythia that would give even more stimulus to the scolding from Lily which they cue.

Hundreds of other moments in O'Neill's plays--or in any writer's plays for that matter--will at one time or another be perceived as "awkward spots" that need a little fixing up. Most of them in O'Neill's better plays can managed by the way they are acted, without materially altering the words or word-order in the script. Long speeches, for instance, rarely give trouble to the player speaking the lines, only to those on-stage with the task of enacting the roles of listeners. Nevertheless, simply reciting the lines as they are written is in no way doing justice to the script. A modern director on a stage, or simply a student "doing" the play in a mental theatre, takes on the duty of organizing the action to make the best, not the worst of the play. One should, for instance, seek some means to veil those moments when O'Neill's motives peep out from behind the motives he has assigned to the character.

Of course, in the study it is easy to say, "Well, McComber could snort here, or gasp, or slap his hand on the table," and leave it at that. A player has no such freedom. A production of the play cannot not decide. The same discipline applied to anyone "doing" a play in a mental theatre, of course, is difficult. Yet that kind of "scriptural analysis" does not depend as much on one's wisdom or experience as much as on mere patience and energy.

A common observation on O'Neill's dialogue is that he seems a monologist. Travis Bogard in the introduction to the collection, The Later Plays, justifies that appearance on the grounds that O'Neill's dialogue is "essentially lyric in its final effect," and that "O'Neill taxes language heavily in his attempt to make it express the welling up of the character's deepest inner motives" (xix), another way of saying that players reciting O'Neill's dialogue often tax the listeners in the auditorium.

Ruby Cohn's chapter on O'Neill, which she has saddled with the unfortunate title, "The Wet Sponge of O'Neill," a phrase taken from Hoffmanstahl's analysis of O'Neill in the 'twenties, sees so little development O'Neill's skills as a writer in the later plays that she terms the achievement of Long Day's Journey Into Night a "miracle" (67). But there is a development in O'Neill's skills in the use of dialogue, one that Bogard in his introduction to the later plays allows for, but one that is more complex than Bogard allows. In The Iceman Cometh and in most of his plays before that, O'Neill does present characters who talk on doggedly, so that players have a hard time convincing an audience that the obsessive behavior is the characters', not simply the playwright's. Even so, some of the speeches in which the character can be played as attempting self-delusion, like some of Yank's arias in "The Hairy Ape”, or all the characters' explanations of themselves in The Iceman Cometh, can work with great effect.

Starting with Ah, Wilderness! the dialogue in O'Neill's plays begins to require less and less effort by the players to draw the attention of the audience from the writer's thought to the character's. Richard Miller's speeches are those of a callow youth, who clearly knows more from books than he does from experience. And here we verge as much on a question of technique in characterization as in dialogue. Not all characterization is by dialogue, but all dialogue contributes inevitably to characterization, the topic of the next chapter.

In turning to that topic, it is helpful to note a few more details about the ways that the long speeches serve, not only as obstacles to players, but also as opportunities. Especially gratifying to players are those speeches in which the character is lying, like Phil Hogan in the early parts of A Moon for the Misbegotten, or bragging, again like some of Phil Hogan's speeches, or many speeches by old Tyrone in Long Day's Journey Into Night, or about half the things that Erie Smith says in "Hughie."

Even more opportunities for a display of a player's technique come with the many examples on the spectrum of half-lies in O'Neill's scripts. A common example is the speech in which the character can be seen as attempting self-delusion, like some of Yank's arias in "Hairy Ape", or Con Melody's in A Touch of the Poet, or all the characters' explanations of themselves in The Iceman Cometh, or Erie Smith again.

Most tantalizing of all to a player are those moments which suggest that the character's lies are intended by the character to delude no one, like some speeches by Con Melody or Josie Hogan. With these we take the plunge into a central drama in the play of Eugene O'Neill. The drunkenness, the only too apt quotations from poets, the stories offered as if for the sake of distraction, are part of O'Neill's tactics for giving the players the tools to display that tension between blarney and confession that pulls so many of his characters apart before the eyes of the audience. Anyone "doing" O'Neill, even if only in a mental theatre, can find material for great scenes, great acting in those moments where the writer gives the player the job of showing that a character sees in him or herself mere cunning, understands that what he or she says is not artless, but artful, not a spontaneous overflow of emotion, but a calculated display to get result from other characters on stage. In an O'Neill play, dramatic tension often develops when Sincerity suspects itself to be only a deeper disguise for Lies.


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