DIRECTOR’S NOTES FOR WHERE THE CROSS IS MADE
[The production of Where The Cross Is Made at Harvard University’s Loeb Drama Center, which is reviewed in this issue, was directed by George Hamlin, the Center’s Producing Director. Mr. Hamlin has kindly permitted the Newsletter to print the notes he made during pre-production discussions and rehearsals. The editor hopes that this exemplary and revealing study of the play will inspire other directors, and performers, to follow Mr. Hamlin’s lead and share the insights that only theatrical experience can provide.]
Notes on the Text: One of O’Neill’s journeyman plays. On the surface, filled with superficial melodrama, elementary psychology, stereotypical characters, and out-moded language. A strong play exists beyond and in spite of any of these apparent difficulties. It is concerned with the all-too-human tendency to see only what one believes. Under the unusual circumstances of this play, Nat and his father want to believe in the treasure where the cross is made, and they make themselves believe it. Is this madness, or just an extension of what we all do, in some degree?
As actors and director, we must stay above the play’s problems and deal with the play as a “tale”--very much like a Poe horror-story. The reader of a Poe tale wants to be taken in by the story; that’s why he reads it. Our audience wants to become involved in a reality; they come to the theater willingly to ask us to suspend their disbelief.
Notes on the set and lights: The simpler the better. The characters describe the set; in arena staging we will assume that the place looks like a ship’s cabin because the character says it does. Things that we actually use (lamp, chair, table, map, treasure, etc.) should be the real thing. Choose them wisely for just the right effect. There will be no miming of absent doors, port-holes, etc. Unnecessary.
Everything in the text implies that the play happens in semi-darkness. We see only what we must see, and nothing else. Great opportunities for lighting to enhance belief in the reality of the unreal--just as the “other” characters in the play do. Direction the light comes from is an important factor in the play.
Notes on early rehearsals: We have to sort out what O’Neill intends in many cases. His stage directions are sometimes misleading, sometimes absurd. Example:
No further clues for actors and director. Mother fixations of Nat and his sister? What would make a man strangle himself? We must find a way to play this for a modern audience whose knowledge of psychology is far more sophisticated than those of O’Neill’s day.
If the ghosts come back only in the minds of Nat and his father, how can they bring back a real map with them? Is the map part of the “dream”? We add to Sue’s final line to make our decision clear:
The Doctor and Sue are the skeptics in the play. Every such story has disbelievers within it. Their skepticism creates. the dramatic conflict of their scenes with Nat. Play that! You are trying to get the other person to see what you see, and he can’t or he refuses because of his character position.
We find an important viewpoint shift in the play at the moment of climax when Nat “sees” the ship in the harbour. Up to now the audience is on the side of the disbelievers (the skeptics). Now the audience begins to see what Nat and the Captain see (ghosts, ship, map, etc).
Notes after the last rehearsal: (One of our observers found the play sometimes funny). Don’t be thrown if people laugh. With late-night horror movies, outer-space melodramas, shock films, etc., laughter is a common reaction. When you go to a fun-house or ride a roller-coaster, you get scared and laugh at your own fright. The Omen, Jaws; the titles themselves evoke a humorous reaction. Audiences are individuals acting in collective reaction; they are aware of people around them. They wouldn’t laugh if there were no one else there. People love to show their sophistication, their superiority to anything outside the circle of provable experience. They wouldn’t react at all unless they were being taken into the reality. They react because they catch themselves believing, not because they don’t believe. (To the leading actor:) You have to believe, or you can’t act the play. Don’t be a critic, be an actor. From your character position, you cannot possibly view the world of the play with objectivity. You as the character snicker at Sue’s unbelief, and it makes you hold on more firmly to what you think is real (the red and green lights of the ship in the harbour).
To the cast
before the first performance: Tell the story. You are compelled to
tell it, are driven to tell it, and desperately want to tell it. Aim
for the climactic moment. The trajectory of the play is toward the
moment when Nat believes he sees the ship in the harbour and when the
audience begins to see what he sees. The audience will go along with
this delusion as reality if they know that the characters actually
believe in it. Making this happen is the fun in doing this kind of
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