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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. II, No. 1
May, 1978



1. A Touch of the Poet (New York, 1977): a review.

Jose Quintero’s production of A Touch of the Poet fails to mask the structural problems of the play and creates several of its own. Although anticipating the late masterpieces in theme, characterization and structure, Poet betrays a clumsiness that O’Neill overcame when he abandoned the proposed cycle and wrote about the experiences and milieus of his past. The heavy-handedness of the current revival only draws attention to the script’s weaknesses.

The play begins badly, with a conversation of bald exposition. It supplies information establishing the authenticity of Con Melody’s heroism and his subsequent fall from grace, but does so in narrative rather than dramatic fashion. O’Neill’s normally sure dramatic instincts also desert him in his treatment of the Harfords. Simon, the young man who captures Sara Melody’s heart, remains a shadowy offstage figure. His mother Deborah speaks of her husband’s family in a way that might have made sense in the overall scheme of the cycle, but which is virtually meaningless in a play whose central conflict is between Con and his daughter. Betty Miller’s lack of Yankee aristocratic grandeur did not help, but the failure of dramatic intensity in her scene with Sara must be blamed on O’Neill.

Despite these difficulties, O’Neill created one of his greatest characters in Con Melody, a clear prototype for James Tyrone and a figure of romantic grandeur and tragic folly. The central disappointment of this production was Jason Robards’ failure to capture Con’s charm and power. Both visually and aurally he emphasized the character’s foppishness and pretense, failing to remind us, even occasionally, of his heroic Byronic dimension. Most disastrous, however, was Robards’ failure to make credible Con’s apologies for the words that wounded his wife and daughter. Even these moments of true feeling rang false, uttered with the same obvious insincerity as his English country gentleman’s posturings.

Robards’ performance, and consequently the play, only came to life in the fourth act, when Con returns home bloody and beaten. Employing his own voice and freed from the stylization he found so uncomfortable, Robards made real Con’s acceptance of his present circumstances, finally allowing the audience to care for the character he had only been superficially impersonating thus far. Sara’s final realization that Con’s illusions were preferable to his present abject submission had true power because Robards had now shown us a Con Melody worthy of our attention and sorrow.

In some ways Sara is the play’s central character. She must choose between her father’s Irish past and the hoped-for future happiness of Simon’s love. She also bears the crucial insight that Con’s grandiose posturings may have been destructive, but their absence renders him a defeated man. Kathryn Walker did not find the transition from child to woman occurring within Sara. Her delivery often became drawn-out vocal mannerism and there was little passion in much of her performance. As was the case with Robards, she also missed the Irishness of her character, something particularly evident because of the fine supporting performances of Geraldine Fitzgerald as Nora and Milo O’Shea as Cregan.

After his convincing productions of A Moon for the Misbegotten and Anna Christie, Jose Quintero’s direction was especially disappointing. He miscast the two central roles and then compounded his error by failing to help his actors discover the truth of their characters until late in the production. If Con Melody is not a complex mixture of blarney, cruelty and true Romantic charisma, and his daughter fails to convey the confusions of adolescent rebellion and first love, then the play becomes sodden and boring. I left the theater grateful for a moving fourth act but frustrated that O’Neill’s flawed but still powerful play had not been better served by two of his foremost American interpreters.

--Roger W. Oliver

2. S.S. Glencairn: The Sea Plays (New Haven, 1978): a review.

Remembering the brilliant, pointillist evocation of group life in the Long Wharf Theatre’s 1973 production of David Storey’s The Changing Room, I expected the same company’s mounting of O’Neill’s sea plays to be the highlight of the 1977-78 season. That it wasn’t is not necessarily their fault; I had anticipated an analogy that couldn’t exist. Storey’s play is an organic unit whose power derives from the tightness of its structure while the four Glencairn one-acts (The Moon of the Caribbees, In the Zone, Bound East for Cardiff and The Long Voyage Home--played in that order, with an intermission after the second) are, despite connections of set, cast and atmosphere, only tenuously linked. And so the performance, despite the addition of clever transitional scenes between the two plays in each act, lacked the cumulative punch of a full-length play. Nevertheless, the production did capture the atmosphere which is the plays’ chief virtue; director Edward Payson Call managed the shifts from languorousness to violence and excitement and back again skillfully; and John Jensen’s atmospheric and manipulable sets and Ronald Wallace’s evocative lighting could not have been better. And aside from vocal inadequacies in a few of the smaller roles (the Captain, the First Mate and Fat Joe), the casting was ideal.

Actually the establishment of atmosphere began before the production started, for the audience entering the Long Wharf’s three-quarter-round playing area were confronted with a dim, brooding study in black and grey, punctuated impressionistically by mast, bulwark and walkway, over which floated the mournful offstage song of the natives. The play began almost imperceptibly, as we slowly perceived the natures of individuals among the seamen--Driscoll’s forceful superiority, Smitty’s disdainful set-apartness, and the Donkeyman’s detached cynicism. Tension slowly built until the arrival of the women, when excitement (and rum) spilled across the stage in an effective aura of raucous anarchy, briefly interrupted by quiet duets with Smitty by the Donkeyman and Pearl.

In the Zone, with its conventional suspense yarn and its message-ridden obviousness, was a letdown after the evocative sprawl of Caribbees; of the four plays it was the least enhanced by staging--because there is less to enhance. But performance by the same actors in the same roles under scored O’Neill’s consistency in characterization: Smitty, again brooding, alienated and disdainful of his shipmates (though now with considerable justification); Cocky, again comic in his shifts from braggadocio to weasly cowardice; only Driscoll slightly changed--never again as dominant and forceful as in the first play. And Zone did have its theatrically effective moments: the men’s panic when a coffee cup clatters to the floor and when a log thuds ominously against the side of the ship; the suspenseful, snail’s-pace lifting of Smitty’s mattress and the delicate immersion of his metal box in the water pail; and, at the end, the image of Smitty, spotlighted in his isolation and brokenness, bent over his bunk in pain and humiliation.

The three-quarter-round staging was most beneficial in Bound East, for Yank’s bunk could be near the front of the stage, and not at the back as O’Neill had placed it. The comradely affection of Driscoll and Yank was touching--one spotlighted oasis in a world of uncaring--and the pulsing throb of the ship’s engine added to the grimness of Yank’s plight. The Long Voyage Home, that provided the last movement of the quartet, was hampered by inadequate performances in the minor roles (especially vocally, though probably no one could swim smoothly through O’Neill’s dialectal atrocities in those parts). But it also provided the acting triumph of the evening: William Newman’s Olson--hair slicked down, gawky in landsman’s garb, totally believable in accent, and touchingly hopeful, shy and gallant. No other of the Glencairn roles received quite so effective a transition from page to stage.

If Zone and Bound East had shared one act of the two-part evening, no shifting of sets would have been necessary in that half of the performance. But the director’s choice of play-order was definitely right: the introduction of outsiders in the first and last plays served as an effective frame; the first and second should be done together since both focus on Smitty as the tormented isolato; the third and fourth provide comparable portraits of dreamers-of-land, hurtfully defrauded of their dreams; and each half followed the same progression--from a non-narrative mood- piece to a more traditional “story.”

Aside from Newman, the most effective performers were Robert Lansing as Driscoll, solid, gruff yet tender, a clear leader; and Emery Battis as Cocky, strident in his false bravado, yet quick-wilting when challenged.

If the four plays have a unifying theme, it is provided by Driscoll in Bound East: “It’s a hell av a life, the sea.” And many nuances of that hell were vividly captured in the Long Wharf production which, flaws notwithstanding, conveyed a present life sufficiently cramped and demeaning for us to understand why men would take fragile refuge in hopes for the future (Yank and Olson) or memories of the past--whether sad, like Smitty’s; happy, like Driscoll’s and Yank’s; or pathetically fabricated, like Cocky’s. --Ed.

3. Probably no character in any O’Neill play has received as thorough and exhaustive a critical and scholarly study as has the protagonist of A Touch of the Poet in Lennart Josephson’s recent monograph, A Role: O’Neill’s Cornelius Melody (Stockholm Studies in History of Literature, #19), published in Stockholm by Alrnqvist & Wicksell International (1977), and in an English translation by Alan Blair (1978) by Humanities Press, Inc., Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey, 07716. The aim of Josephson’s study is to give “examples of various viewpoints one can adopt in getting to know a remarkable role in a remarkable drama,” and that aim is abundantly realized.

A few of the subjects covered are the following: (1) the sociological phenomenon of “class displacement” in the new world; (2) the naturalistic and expressionistic elements in the play; (3) parallels with classical drama (peripeteia, hubris and catharsis, with the tavern-regulars as chorus and Cregan as messenger); (4) the influence of other modern play wrights: Ibsen (The Wild Duck and Peer Gynt) and Synge (Playboy of the Western World); (5) the degree of influence of theorists and philosophers (Nietzsche, Jung, Adler); (6) the significance of the unprinted epilogue, and the relation of the play to More Stately Mansions and the projected cycle in its entirety; (7) “models from life” (John Dolan, James O’Neill, Sr., the Irish character in general, and Eugene O’Neill himself--his obsession with mirrors and his own fondness for the passage from Byron that Melody quotes); (8) the relations between Melody and his wife, his daughter (both parallels and contrasts are revealed in a comparison of Con and Sara), his clients and the Yankee gentry; (9) the revelatory significance of setting, lighting, costume, furniture and properties; (10) the heterogeneous responses of critics and “artists of the theatre” to the first productions of the play in Stockholm, Helsinki and New York City; and (11) the treatment the play has received in scholarly publications from its first appearance to the present.

One of the finest sections is a study of the inner nature of Con Melody himself--or, rather, of the conflicting interpretations to which it has given rise. Just as the play embodies a “violent contrast between comedy and tragedy,” Josephson sees Major Melody as a “contradictory person” who “belongs to two worlds” and whose “two selves...have quite contrary ways of talking.” (Josephson is particularly good in his study of the language in the play.) The problem that arises is how to assess Melody’s voice and behavior after his fourth-act transformation. Do we see the re-emergence of a previously-submerged reality? Or is Melody donning a new mask? Or does he merely switch to the other half of a split personality, both of whose halves are “real”? Josephson examines the variety of answers to these questions and shows what they reveal: that Con Melody is “a live human being” and not a symbol--a view that is reinforced by the fact that the character’s transformation is neither sudden nor complete.

If the book has a flaw (definitely not a tragic flaw!), it is the abundance of parenthetical asides: many a “see below” in the first half, and just as many “see aboves” in the second. But a study as wide-ranging as this probably requires such a plethora of cross-references. And the searching they demand of the reader proves eminently worthwhile since, in addition to the light it throws on Melody and his play, it teaches a valuable side-lesson: how a complete analysis of one character can illuminate a playwright’s entire canon. --Ed.

4. This season’s Broadway revival of A Touch of the Poet was the springboard for a free-flowing discussion of O’Neill in the New York Theatre Review’s “Critics’ Roundtable” (March 1978, pp. 10-22). While an unedited transcript makes for bumpy reading, stylistic infelicities can be offset by the spontaneity of discussants’ contributions. And the discussants in the NYTR roundtable session were impressive indeed: actors Jason Robards, Colleen Dewhurst, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Milo O’Shea and Kathryn Walker; critics Henry Hewes, Julius Novick, Alvin Klein and Debbi Wasserman; biographer Barbara Gelb; producer Elliot Martin; and NYTR editor Ira J. Bilowit.

The discussion is too wide—ranging to “abstract” in the usual way: O’Neill’s Irishness (O’Shea, p. 11), his view of women (Klein, Walker and Dewhurst, pp. 10-11), the complexity of his characters as a reflection of his own inner conflicts (Walker, p. 10), the alternation between possessiveness and idealism in so many of his characters (Hewes, p. 21), the theme of the cycle of which Touch of the Poet was to be a part (Gelb, p. 20), the Con Melody of Eric Portman and the James Tyrone of Frederic March and Laurence Olivier (Martin, pp. 19, 22), the conflicting views of what’s authentic and what’s artificial in the speech and behavior of Con Melody (Robards, p. 14; Hewes, Martin and Gelb, pp. 19-20), the echoes of Carlotta Monterey and Oona O’Neill in Deborah Harford and Sara Melody (Gelb, p. 21), the need for a permanent O’Neill repertory company (Fitzgerald, pp. 15-16), etc. Certainly the discussion offers something for everyone and should be “must” reading for scholars and theatre artists alike. Two subjects--the unique challenge that O’Neill poses for actors and the reason for his current appeal to young people--loomed largest and may be of broader interest than the rest.

The challenge inherent in playing O’Neill was noted by a number of the performers. (Dewhurst, p. 13: “O’Neill is the actor’s nightmare.” Walker, p. 13: “it’s intimidating because it’s so immense.” Robards, p. 10: “The greatest difficulty is trying to weed bring life into the make it real.”) And the question most lengthily pondered was how actors can best meet that challenge. Not through the O’Neill biography, it was felt. (Gelb, p. 16: “I don’t think it hurts...but I think they’re two separate things.”) Nor through other scholarly research. (Robards read (p. 14) “a whole bunch of books about Wellington...and...a lot of Byron” prior to playing Con Melody; but when it came time to rehearse, “I just had to do lines and cues and business with my friendly fellow actors. That’s about what it comes down to.”) And not through intellectual analysis. O’Shea said (p. 13) that he always considers it “very bad for an actor to analyze too far.” And Gelb (p. 22) warned against “a too intellectual approach to O’Neill (because he) was not an intellectual or cerebral writer. He was a very emotional writer who wrote from his gut and his unconscious.”

Part of the difficulty for actors lies in combining life-size verisimilitude with the lofty, larger-than-life passions suggested, for instance, in the sort of stage directions paraphrased--or parodied--by Dewhurst (p. 13): “‘screams with terror,’ ‘tears falling down,’ ‘now laughs,’ ‘now attacks.’” But the combination is essential since, as Walker said (p. 13), “unless you get a sense of the normal becomes far too melodramatic.” The actors, concurring with Gelb that O’Neill should be approached emotionally rather than intellectually, felt that one must begin by finding the deepest root of a character’s nature in oneself. (E.g., Dewhurst, p. 13: “The biggest thing in O’Neill is to bring it down to the simplest response that you have in yourself, as a man or woman, to that character, and then build up.”) The initial “bringing down” parallels O’Neill’s own creative process, which Wasserman describes (p. 11) as “stripping away the masks, and revealing raw emotional flesh underneath.” The “building up” that must follow seems like the reverse--an act of redonning the mask. This latter process is explained in an apt analogy of Jose Quintero’s that Walker cited (p. 13): “Jose describes it as putting on a lot of...petticoats--all of very bright colors, the different emotional colors. And you put each one on. And once you understand all of that, you put a gray dress on top of it”--the gray dress being the mask, or the lifelike outer self that contains all the emotional colors--”so that, every once in a while, your skirt sort of kicks up and you see a...ruffle of amazing colors.” She notes that “the gray dress is the hardest part.”

O’Neill’s current appeal to young people, in both theatre and classroom, was commented on by a number of discussants. Dewhurst and Fitzgerald (p. 16) spoke of the enthusiasm and involvement of younger members of the audiences at Moon for the Misbegotten, Touch of the Poet and the 1971 production of Long Day's Journey. And Hovick stated his discovery (p. 16) “that students are interested in O’Neill in a way that they’re not interested in any other playwright”--that they feel “a peculiarly personal connection” with him. There was general agreement among actors and directors (p. 16) that the basis of this appeal is O’Neill’s focus on “strong passion (and) basic human emotion” (Wasserman), and his insistence “that the essential truth of anybody’s existence is the emotional truth of their lives” (Walker). It is heartening to young audiences to find “people who can feel as deeply as (O’Neill’s) characters” (Hewes, p. 22) in an era in which “we’re very packaged” (Dewhurst, p. 17). Ms. Dewhurst gives the liveliest explanation of this phenomenon (p. 16): “they are living in a TV tube, in a well-constructed, academic society in which we are all behaving either like mad people who’ll die tomorrow or like bores who have nothing original to say or to think. And suddenly, they come to the theatre, and up there come living, breathing human beings.” If so, and if, as is believed, theatre can have a transitive effect on spectators’ lives, then O’Neill’s influence may now be stronger and more efficacious than ever. Let’s hope so. And three cheers to the New York Theatre Review for sharing so stimulating a discussion with its readers. --Ed.

5. Roger W. Oliver’s “From the Exotic to the Real: The Evolution of Black Characterization in Three Plays by Eugene O’Neill” (Forum (University of Houston), Winter 1976, pp. 56-61) traces two simultaneous developments in the playwright’s craft: from self-conscious, “exotic theatricality” (“innovations of Naturalism and Expressionism”) to realism in dramatic technique; and from “racial stereotypes” to a deeper, truer perception of “social implications” in his treatment of blacks. Although the three plays (The Emperor Jones , All God’s Chillun Got Wings and The Iceman Cometh) have a steadily decreasing number of black characters (all but one in Jones , exactly half in Chillun , and only one in Iceman) , the actual treatment of blacks ascends, from the racial stereotyping of the first play (though Oliver shows that O’Neill’s emphasis in Jones is really more universal than racial, and that the protagonist’s blackness is exploited primarily for its exoticism); through the “honest attempt” in Chillun, though somewhat hampered by continued stereotyping, “to seriously dramatize blacks who try to advance themselves in a white-dominated society” and to examine “the effects of prejudice on the black psyche”; to a play (Iceman) in which “racial antagonism”--dominant in the second play--remains but is subordinated to O’Neill’s “perception of the schizophrenic role played by a black man needing to become part of a white world. What Oliver skillfully traces, in an essay that offers fine analyses of Brutus Jones, Jim Harris and Joe Mott, is an evolution from experimental self— consciousness to subtlety and sensitivity; from exotic spectacle-for-its-own-sake to “a realistic presentation emphasizing what O’Neill wants to say rather than how he expresses it.” In the course of that evolution, theatrical devices become more integrated, themes gain in clarity, and the characterization evidences O’Neill’s “growth of sophistication and sympathetic understanding” of blacks and of their plight in American society. --Ed.

6. In “A Touch of the Tragic” (The New York Times Magazine, December 11, 1977, pp. 43-139), Barbara Gelb provides a lengthy and intimate portrait of O’Neill’s greatest director, Jose Quintero, and a revealing picture of his directorial methods during the early rehearsals of A Touch of the Poet. (“Each time (he) approaches the first day’s rehearsal of a play by O’Neill, he feels as though he is going on trial for murder.”) She cites the numerous, almost mystical parallels between the lives of the playwright and the director: both gaining a “tragic view of life” because of troubled childhoods and similar parents; both lapsed (but not happily lapsed) Roman Catholics; both retrieved alcoholics; both sufferers from “a sense of ambivalence about practically everything”--and both addressed by Carlotta Monterey O’Neill as “Gene.” “It is,” writes Gelb, “the sorrows and frustrations of Quintero’s own life that have made him the quintessential O’Neill director.” While her article restates much that can be found elsewhere--in Sheaffer, in the Gelbs’ own biography, and in Quintero’s book of memoirs, If You Don’t Dance They Beat You--it does bring the sources together, carries them up to the present, and offers new insights of interest to those who have attended the ten O’Neill productions Quintero has directed:

The Iceman Cometh (1956),
Long Day’s Journey Into Night (American premiere, 1956),
Desire Under the Elms (1963),
Strange Interlude (1963),
Marco Millions (1964),
Hughie (American premiere, 1964),
More Stately Mansions (American premiere, 1967),
A Moon for the Misbegotten (1973),
Anna Christie (1977), and
A Touch of the Poet (1977).

Quintero’s rehearsal techniques are described (read-throughs before analyses, a more visceral than “cerebral” approach, and a quest for the perfect gesture), as are his feelings of guilt when he must make cuts in O’Neill’s texts. Quintero draws an interesting parallel between his latest production’s protagonist, Con Melody, and an earlier one: “I think he is on the verge of madness when the play begins, like Hickey in The Iceman Cometh. ” An interesting contrast is drawn between the acting methods of George C. Scott (“completely cerebral”) and Jason Robards, who “develops a role slowly and emotionally, from within”--the suggestion being that the Robards approach is the more fruitful for work on O’Neill. Quintero, Ms. Gelb finds, has a number of the remembered qualities of the playwright: “an extraordinarily seductive sense of nonjudgmental compassion, combined with delicacy and intuition.” --Ed.

(A sad postscript to the Gelb article, one that suggests that the above list of productions may not grow longer, was Mr. Quintero’s announcement, released on May 7 by William Raidy of the Newhouse News Service, that his affiliation with O’Neill is over. “This is it...for always,” he said. “It is the termination of an association that I treasure, but it has to come to an end. I have directed ten plays of O’Neill all over the world, and now I want to emerge into my own reality.” One hopes that he will be back; that all we’re hearing are the doors of Harry Hope’s saloon, which are so notorious for swinging both ways. But there is a note of finality in Quintero’s words, and certainly all O’Neillians wish him well. --Ed.)



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