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Editor: Harley Hammerman
St. Louis, Missouri

Volume 9


From Modernism to Post-Modernism:
The Modes and Goals of Experimental Theater
in Eugene O誰eill痴 The Hairy Ape

Keely Moloney
Miami University

Eugene O誰eill, and the early work he did with the Provincetown Players, is renowned as an innovator in a new era of American theatre. Particularly in his early plays, O誰eill shocked his audiences through his blunt depictions of lower-class conditions, revolutionary socio-political themes, and dramatic stylization with which audiences were unfamiliar. His use of expressionism was perhaps most disorienting for early twentieth-century theatre audiences who were used to either melodrama or the emerging naturalism. As scholar David Savran has shown, O誰eill helped to create an American avant-garde theatre, and yet that term is often attributed to contemporary, experimental work of the postmodern era but not applied to O誰eill (Savran 11). The Wooster Theatre Group (established in 1980) is an example of the continuing legacy of the avant-garde theatre that O誰eill forged nearly half a century before. Indeed, critics Arnold Aronson and Jason Zinoman have lauded this group as 鍍he premier experimental-theater company in America and 鍍he last major exponent of the 殿vant-garde companies (12). A comparison of O'Neill's script and the 1922 original production of The Hairy Ape with The Wooster Group's 1997 adaptation reveals compelling similarities in both productions' goals and experimentations. While separated by 75 years, these similarities nonetheless indicate inherent intentions behind experimental theatre and the possibility of making O'Neill's older plays pertinent to modern audiences. My objective is to provide details of the Wooster Group痴 production that exemplify stylistic and thematic choices that echo O誰eill痴 original vision of The Hairy Ape. Although the two companies were challenging entirely different traditions separated by nearly eighty years, the essential objective to revolutionize drama with a focus on social commentary remains the same.

Before comparing the two productions of The Hairy Ape, I will first explicate the historical contexts of each group's formation. Noted O'Neill historian Travis Bogard states that the formation of the Provincetown Players, and O誰eill痴 role with them, 塗as become part of the folklore of the American theatre (66). Like most folklore, the founding story also has a mythical quality, with historians disagreeing on some of the specifics. However disputed the details may be, facts about the Provincetown Players generally point to the important role the troupe played in forming modern American theater, as Brenda Murphy has convincingly shown (Murphy 1). The Provincetown Players began in the summer of 1915 when a group of vacationing artists and writers began sharing and performing plays in efforts to create a new kind of theatre. Although it has been proven that O'Neill was not 電iscovered by the group, eventually his one-act play, Bound East for Cardiff, was produced on the Provincetown Players second bill in the summer of 1916. The success of the plays that summer led the group to form an official organization in 1916 and establish a theater in New York City's Greenwich Village. Members of the group modeled themselves after other Little Theaters in the United States that drew inspiration from modernist movement in the theatre in Europe (8-12). One of the group's founding members, John (Jack) Reed, helped to frame the group's official mission statement as follows: 釘e it resolved that it is the primary object of the Provincetown Players to encourage the writing of American plays of real artistic, literary, and dramatic--as opposed to Broadway--merit. That such plays be considered without reference to their commercial value, since this theatre is not to be run for pecuniary profit (qtd. in Williams 166). The group fulfilled this goal, producing 鍍he first truly experimental American plays, expressionistic, futuristic, and surrealistic plays, plays with often potent political themes, poetic and verse plays, allegory plays, plays that showed the plight of lower and middle class Americans and immigrants, according to theatre historian Jeffrey Kennedy. Critic William Archer went as far as saying the Provincetown Playhouse was 鍍he real birthplace of the American drama (qtd. in Kennedy).

Since their formation, The Wooster Group continued to uphold the legacy of experimental theatre in a post-modern fashion. The Wooster Group痴 extreme experimentation with classic plays and stagecraft fulfilled some of the same goals as the Provincetown Players. Both groups worked to dismantle the predominant codes of theater of their eras in order to galvanize critical thought and encourage new perspectives. The Provincetown Players placed themselves in opposition to Broadway commercial theatre (typified by sensational melodramas) that constituted much of American drama. Members saw these forms as limiting and void of any true artistic value, especially in relation to the social problems afflicting the United States (Kennedy). The Wooster Group, however, confronted standards of drama developed in the modern era. As a self-proclaimed postmodern theatre group, the Wooster Group devotes itself to productions that, as Martin Puchner has noted, deconstruct the seemingly innate notions of theater by highlighting the artificiality of acting and depersonalizing the actor's relationship to the text (Puchner 300). The fact that both troupes provoked similar controversy with their productions of The Hairy Ape is another significant point of interest. Reviewers from the 1920s lambasted many of the Provincetown productions and certain plays addressing issues of race (such as All God痴 Chillun Got Wings and The Emperor Jones) garnered protest and even death-threats (Kennedy, under 滴istory). Similarly, the Wooster Group's use of controversial performance practices such as blackface in several productions has also incited controversy as has their overall irreverent treatment of classic plays (Savran 13). Although these general similarities may seem inconsequential, the Wooster Group's 1997 production of O'Neill's The Hairy Ape provides more substantial correlations.

The time and location of both productions have striking similarities and can be seen as milestones in the progression of each groups' theatrical philosophies. Following the Provincetown Playhouse's 吐irst bona-fide 'hit' and move uptown (The Emperor Jones in 1920) the group 努as challenged with the perils of success (Kennedy, under 滴istory). Members disagreed over the new possibilities for expansion. Some Provincetowners, specifically the group's president George Cram Cook, wanted to remain an amateur company and continue a democratic, collective model of decision-making (Murphy 13). Others, specifically O'Neill, wanted to capitalize on offers to move their plays to professional stages in order to achieve more critical acclaim and commercial success. O'Neill's decision to move The Hairy Ape to Broadway under the direction of James 笛immy Light instead of Cook, confirmed his belief in the many merits of popularized (yet seriously artistic) dramatic works. O'Neill's rejection of Cook's vision for the Provincetown Players, among many other power struggles, was a factor in the eventual dissolution of the Provincetown Players (Bogard).

The Wooster Group experienced a similar transition with the 1997 production of The Hairy Ape (directed by Elizabeth LeCompte). LeCompte decided to accept an opportunity to move the production to the Selwyn Theater on 42nd Street, but for more practical purposes than O'Neill's. The company initially intended to stage the play in their small home at the Performing Garage. In an interview with New York Times writer Don Shewey, Lecompte stated, 努ith the combination of a big cast and diminished funding from the National Endowment and a small seating capacity 努e were losing money every night, so 鍍he run at the Selwyn is just a chance to do the piece without losing money (Shewey 6). While O'Neill wished to establish a more permanent residence uptown, LeCompte seemed content to 電isappear again immediately, back to their lesser-known theater in Soho. Another reason behind the Wooster Group's first performance uptown since 1980, Shewey observes, was to perform a piece more palatable to an audience unfamiliar with their work, given that The Hairy Ape was 菟robably the most conventional production in the company's repertoire (6). What makes this production more 田onventional was LeCompte's 砥nusually straightforward treatment of and adherence to O'Neill's original text. According to New York Times reviewer Ben Brantley, 殿lthough it also has the luxury of newfangled things like television screens, video simulcasts and synthesizers, it managed to uphold O'Neill's original portrayal of 鍍he world as an atomistic nightmare of disconnected souls. Although the Wooster Group often uses the original text in its deconstructive approaches, their production of The Hairy Ape treated O誰eill痴 text sincerely by building upon the central themes rather than deconstructing it (along the lines of LeCompte's production of The Emperor Jones). LeCompte's considerable adherence to the original text demonstrates the persistence of O'Neill's voice in postmodern theater.

The manner by which directors Light and LeCompte used experimental theater practices to express O誰eill痴 intended meanings is one salient consistency in the two interpretations. O'Neill once wrote about The Hairy Ape that he meant for Yank 鍍o have universal significance . . . but the play is also very much a protest against the present. I meant many things in the play and am satisfied if an audience 'gets' even one of the many (Selected Letters 166). The play was protesting, in other words, the conditions of modernity that alienated the common person, including capitalism, racial prejudices (in relation to Social Darwinism) and new technologies (Nickel 33). O'Neill communicated these issues through expressionistic symbolism. The costuming, set design and stage directions were designed to alienate and challenge his audience in a Brechtian manner, by purposefully forcing the audience to analyze the stylistic choices rather than passively relate to them. For example, there are numerous points in the stage directions in which O'Neill instructs the actors to develop artificial and mechanical poses. At the beginning of the first scene, O'Neill writes: 典he treatment of this scene, or any of the other scene in the play, should by no means be naturalistic (121). He instructs a heavily stylized performance to be exhibited, for example, by the stokers' chorus displaying noise and movements that have 殿n order in [them], rhythm, a mechanical regulated recurrence [and] a tempo (135). The artificial acting is meant to suggest an incongruity between the characters and the natural environment. O'Neill's experimentation with expressionism was denounced by reviewer Patterson James in 1922, who expected straightforward realism that dominated most American stages. In describing Scene Five, James wrote:

One might suppose that the figures which roused [Yank's] rage would be extravagantly dressed men and women. Instead of that they are manikins, with faces encased in masks, and all mincing upstage-downstage-upstage-downstage while the stoker empties the slop pail of his vocabulary over them. Even the cause of his arrest is an unworthy and unmanly attack on a clothing window dummy. How come such symbolism in our 途ealist?

Although James acknowledged the mechanical parade was meant to be symbolic, he failed to identify the symbolic meaning. The wealthy people are styled like mannequins to display the superficial contrivance of wealth and the conformity of class expectations. Other critics gave favorable reviews of O'Neill's innovative mixture of realism and expressionism, noting the captivating effect of turning the stark realism (of vulgar language, dirty, lower-class men) into a highly theatrical experience through rhythmic dialogue and striking physical movements. In his review for The Freeman in 1922, Walter Pritchard Eaton described The Hairy Ape as:

somehow tonic in its stark sincerity, and though it may quite truly play no small part in the startling quality of the play, the quality which brings you up in your seat like a slap in the face, it also is curiously devoid of mean suggestion, rousing instead, a profound pity in all spectators who have imagination enough to grasp the significance of the drama.

Eaton went on to praise O'Neill for his new direction in theatre as 鍍he bright promise of what is to come. The mixed reviews serve as evidence of the revolutionary role The Hairy Ape played in expanding modern American theatre beyond realism.

LeCompte directed a similar, albeit exaggerated, expressionistic acting style which disrupted audience expectations in a similar fashion of the 1922 production. Erika Rundle claimed LeCompte痴 production 田aptured the spirit of O'Neill's stage directions better, perhaps, that any previous attempt (142). In performing nearly eighty years after the premiere, the Wooster Group's production had the advantage over O'Neill with the 斗uxury of newfangled things like television screens, video simulcasts and synthesizers, which allowed them to enhance the execution of O'Neill's stage directions and amplify expressionistic techniques. (Brantley). One such example was the stylization of voice intonation. The actors often spoke with lyrical rhythm (reminiscent of both vaudeville songs and 堵angster rap) as a technically advanced homage to O'Neill's vision of voices with 殿 brazen, mechanical quality as if their throats were phonograph horns (124). All the lines were delivered via a microphone that mechanically distorted them while the actors also manipulated their voices in a highly affected manner (Brantley). To portray Mildred, actress Kate Valk's voice was 杜echanically augmented to create a 鍍wo-level voice that suggest[ed] Snow White and Jeanette MacDonald talking at the same time (Brantley). Her actors were 途educed to the status musical instruments (Brantley) and were merely 砺ehicles for speech and for physical action: they are never organic and coherent human beings representing fictional human beings (Puchner 300). Still, this style of acting heavily resembled expressionism that also inspired O'Neill.

Although the Wooster Group did make significant divergences from the original production, a lot of differences expanded upon O誰eill痴 ideas and styles. One particular expansion was drawing from the suggestions of masks from O誰eill痴 original The Hairy Ape. While there is no explicit reference to using masks in the script, one concept for the original production was to stage it with the use of actual masks. The costume designer of the original production, Blanche Hays, 都uggested using masks for the Fifth Avenue scene, an idea O'Neill took up . . . with enthusiasm (Brugnoli 47). Although this concept was never put on the stage, O'Neill describes in the stage directions 殿 procession of gaudy marionettes . . . with something of the relentless horror of Frankensteins in their detached, mechanical unawareness. This choice gestures towards a literal visualization of the Wooster Group痴 concept of exaggerated artificiality on the stage (147). Interestingly, LeCompte chose to remove this scene and bypassed an opportunity to explore O'Neill's experiments with masks (Hornby 476). However, the final scene of the Wooster Group's production exhibits LeCompte's regard for O'Neill's symbolic usage of masks by masking the gorilla, as seen in fig. 1.

Fig. 1. Willem Dafoe as Yank in The Wooster Group's production of The Hairy Ape, 1996. Photo credit: Mary Gearhart.

The gorilla's masked face is encased in a shadow box resembling a television screen. The televised gorilla痴 fatal grasp on Dafoe as Yank suggests technology's full absorption of the actor figure. Although this is the only explicit use of masks in LeCompte's production, she uses other tactics to obscure the actors' natural faces that reflect some of O誰eill痴 original concepts for the play. According to O'Neill, 擢rom the opening of the fourth scene where Yank begins to think, he enters into a masked world; even the familiar faces of his mates in the forecastle have become 都trange and alien and 鍍he faces of everyone he encounters thereafter should be masked (O誰eill, 溺emoranda, 117-19). LeCompte appropriated the conceptualization of masks in her production, directing her actors to take on their roles 殿s one might don a mask (Savran 15). The actors were fashioned with heavy makeup and adopted stylized poses and movement, turning 鍍hemselves [into] moveable masks (Rundle 143). LeCompte's recreation of O'Neill's recurrent tableau of Yank sitting in the posture of Rodin's The Thinker (seen in fig. 2) called attention to the use of the actor's body as a mask or sculpture (Krasner 351).

Fig. 2. Louis Wolheim as Yank in a publicity photo for the original 1922 production of The Hairy Ape. Photo credit: Nikolas Muray. Nickolas Muray Photo Archives. Courtesy George Eastman House.

The Wooster Group's use of makeup also adhered to O'Neill's original stage directions, but provides updated social commentary. O'Neill frequently alludes to the blackness of Yank's face (although he is racially identified as white) and in one instance writes, 鍍he coal dust sticks like black make-up that makes him 都tand in contrast to his fellow stokers (138). John Nickel considers this an oblique reference to blackface, but with the intent to remind 徹'Neill's audience of the artificiality of racial prejudice (34-35). Willem Dafoe also performed Yank in blackface, yet reviewer David Krasner believes 鍍he ultimate significance of the choice remained shadowy. (532). Krasner proposes only one possible interpretation, that being 鍍o defy an audience's middle-class complacency and political correctness (532). In his 1922 review of the original production, Alexander Woollcott noted a similar audience reaction to the depiction of 都qualid speech: 徹nly those who have been so softly bred that they have never really heard the vulgate spoken in all its richness would venture to suggest that he has exaggerated it by so much as a syllable in order to agitate the refined (Woolcott). The use of dialect in the original performance and blackface in LeCompte's modern version disturbed their corresponding audiences by disrupting their complacency.

The aforementioned expressionistic techniques in both the original production and the Wooster Group's postmodern interpretation both served to illuminate the theme of alienated individual existence in the modern world. As scholar Annalisa Brugnoli states, O'Neill 's text 菟resents his audience with a scenario of isolation in which interactions, situations, and social practices are all about building up walls rather than bridges (53). O'Neill ironically uses Yank's false insistence that he 澱elongs to society in the industrial age to highlight his alienation: 的'm de ting in coal dat makes it boin; I'm steam and oil for de engines; I'm de ting in noise dat makes yuh hear it; I'm smoke and express trains and steamers and factory whistles; I'm de ting in gold dat makes it money! And I'm what makes iron into steel! Steel, dat stands for de whole ting! And I'm steel--steel--steel! (O'Neill The Hairy Ape, 129). Although Yank thinks industrial innovations make his existence important, O'Neill proves that industrialization actually marginalizes his importance as an individual. One pointed divergence of the Wooster Group's production was fixating on the isolating effects of technology--a contemporary take on O'Neill's exploration of the dehumanizing effects of industrialization. LeCompte translated the paradoxical relationship of the alienated individual with technology to the present day equivalents in a 澱rutally exaggerated manner (Etchells). The original theme 登f man at once defined and bound by technology - seems more than manifest in the staging itself, the lasting image of the piece is of bodies and technology in a brutal hybrid relationship (Etchells). Modern technologies of film, video and digital media envelop and at times overwhelmed the actors' performances, reflecting Yank's entrapment in an industrial economy that diminishes his individual significance. Flat screens surrounding the set 吐eature[ed] close-ups of the actors' body parts...effectively dismembering them or hiding them behind equipment, (Puchner 300). These fragmented close-ups portrayed new technology as a devouring force that dictates a body's interactions with their environs. At times, the actors even took their gestural cues from films, seeking to imitate movements gleaned from screens, engaging in distortions that resulted from whatever camera angle frames a given scene (Puchner 300). The screens also displayed almost constant images of a boxing match, a design not found in the original text (Krasner 531). These images suggested Yank's struggle in the text has been hijacked by technology to create a spectacle (which is essentially the motive behind LeCompte's production).

LeCompte's technological stylization is especially attuned to O'Neill's original dramatic intentions in Scene VII. The scene depicts Yank's attempt to join a labor union and reflects a vivid sense of his alienation by making Defoe's face visible only through a video screen (Krasner 332). Yank's attempts to engage with the secretary of the Wobblies are met with disdain and dismissal. O'Neill's stage directions for the secretary describe his sarcastic, scornful and mocking attitude with Yank that ultimately result in Yank being thrown out of the building. The full recognition of Yank's isolation and inability to fit into any sector of society is realized when the secretary calls Yank 殿 brainless ape (159). LeCompte chose to exaggerate Yank's failure to relate to the members of the Wobblies by obstructing Yank's character through yet another lens: a video screen. In this scene, LeCompte asserts that O'Neill's initial themes can persist through an exceptionally idiosyncratic and postmodern approach by adding a modern device of technology that further distorts and divides sincere human connections.

O'Neill predicted that The Hairy Ape would leave a lasting mark on American drama. He wrote retrospectively in 1941 that, The Hairy Ape is ripe for revival...It is, spiritually speaking, a surprisingly prophetic play. Not superficially about labor conditions, [...] but about Man, the state we are all in of frustrated bewilderment (qtd. in Rundle 145). O'Neill notes that the surface-level conflict in the text is not integral to interpretations and the theme does not have to be limited to a specific social phenomenon. Elizabeth LeCompte's 1997 adaptation proved the value of treating the play with a postmodern deconstruction. Yet, the Wooster Group痴 production still evoked O'Neill's essential concerns with alienation. Theatre scholar David Savran supports the prevailing relevance of O'Neill's work, stating, 鍍his disinterment of [a] once revolutionary play . . . functions to support the principle of a modernist canon by reinforcing the notion that certain texts and practices instantiate a kind of ahistorical and timeless radicalism (16). O'Neill and the Provincetown Players' revolutionary theatrical innovations, although renovated to apply more directly to the present, remained intact and highly palpable in the Wooster Group's The Hairy Ape. At the heart of The Hairy Ape is the rage of an individual against oppressive forces. Although the mode of oppression changes throughout time, the Wooster Group痴 production exhibits the enduring problem of individuality expressed as an homage to Eugene O誰eill痴 original work.


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