RESPONSE TO THE PREVIEW ISSUE: A LETTER
January 31, 1977
The first issue of
The Eugene O’Neill Newsletter was handed me today
by a colleague; enclosed is my subscription. Best wishes for success
in stimulating the exchange of ideas.
As a theatre historian and O’Neill enthusiast, I am particularly eager to see an upsurge in theatrical thinking, coupled with action centered on O’Neill. More of his plays need testing on stage in more imaginative ways than has been, or is being, done. You need not apologize; your fourth question (“Are there plays, denigrated and disregarded before, that might now be stageworthy because of technical advances since the time of their first production?”) is relevant not despite but because of its practicality-—and my response is emphatically YES! Moreover, I believe that our thinking and imagination have changed and may do as much to enable new production concepts as does technology. I also believe that organized attempts are needed to encourage several, very different, productions of what Professor Jackson quite correctly labels “a group of works which strike us today as essentially unfinished” in order to begin doing justice to O’Neill, and to the American theatre, past and present.
Too long have “scripts” been treated as finished works of literature--in reality they are to the finished product what a blueprint is to a work of architecture. That writers occasionally transcend requirements of their craft (play-W-R-I-G-H-T, not play-W-R-I-T-E, I regularly have to remind my students) should not determine the standard by which we measure the other efforts.
I have little patience with the tired myth that there was no American theatre prior to O’Neill. No wonder, his early experiments and even some of his mature works are misunderstood and vilified (and I include Professor Floyd’s “mediocre, indifferent, and really awful” in that) if only the “Irish-Catholic heritage” and the “New England environment” are allowed as formative forces. Since O’Neill was “dragged up” (Yank’s words) onstage, his plays cannot be understood without reference to that stage, no matter how vulgar, cliché-ridden, un-literary, and money-grabbing: it was alive, it spanned the continent, it packed them in, its practitioners were not on the unemployment rolls and--it handed O’Neill every cheap and highfalutin’ trick in the book. Only God creates out of nothing; artists create out of the particular debris they know. In O’Neill’s case that included the American theatre as he knew it, hated it, loved it, and lived it.
As a student of the Provincetown Players, I discover repeatedly how certain bad plays provide structural or thematic elements for O’Neill. A systematic search of the plays that comprised the theatrical repertory to which O’Neill was exposed as a child and as a young adult would add numerous examples; nor does that detract from the dramatist’s originality: Shakespeare, Molière, Shaw, Brecht and many others have shaped the dregs of other writers into masterpieces.
The kind of ranking Professor Raleigh engages in, while it may stimulate discussion, is potentially very dangerous if not done thoroughly. Numerous plays on both ends of the spectrum, as well as in the middle, have been omitted. Arbitrarily so, or by conscious selection process? What standard was used? His “real clunkers” will compare favorably with The Movie Man and Abortion, or with such one-acts as Thirst and The Sniper. On the other hand, to entirely ignore Strange Interlude, Mourning Becomes Electra, and such one-acts as Bound East for Cardiff, The Moon of the Caribbees and The Rope is a crime. Nor are other plays justifiably excluded.
Any ranking should be done with reference to theatrical standards which include, but are not restricted to, verbal expression. The unfinished scripts cry out for production; scholarship can and should explore O’Neill’s hints for production that have hitherto been misunderstood, or not even deciphered.
--Robert K. Sarlos
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