1. Paul Voelker, “Eugene O’Neill’s Aesthetic of the Drama,” Modern Drama (March 1978), pp. 87-99.
Eugene O’Neill was not the type of writer who expended time and energy in recurrent formal expositions of his dramatic theories. Nevertheless, he frequently expressed his ideas on the drama through the more informal methods of the interview and the personal letter. Examination of several hundred of these, primarily personal letters written over several decades, makes it possible to infer and to describe what seems to be a coherent aesthetic of the drama.
O’Neill’s poetics of the drama contains six major principles. First, and for the critic the most important, is the principle of the script’s integrity. The written text is a “thing in itself,” a complete work of art, the values of which are self-contained and independent of theatrical production. Production may enhance these values or obscure them, but the values remain in all their clarity in the script itself.
The script is primarily an effort at communication between the playwright and the audience; as such, its chief value resides in the truth or the “interpretation” of life which the play communicates. The truth of the play is more important than any other aspect; it is the truth which is communicated which makes the play either important or just another play.
The truth of the play is communicated through three chief elements--the plot, the characters, and the settings. The plot is of primary importance; both the characters and the settings are subordinate to the events of the play, which in turn are subordinate to the truth of the play. This hierarchy of values suggests that the first task of the critic is to grasp the importance of the plot and the truth it conveys. In this attempt, however, the critic cannot really ignore the characters and the settings, for with the plot, all three combine into an organic whole which is ultimately indivisible.
The truth of the play is communicated to the audience on two mutually reinforcing levels, the intellectual and the emotional. As a result, the audience may feel the truth of the play without being able to comprehend it or to explain it. The emotional component of the truth is conveyed primarily through the play’s rhythms, both the rhythms of the dialogue and the rhythms of the play’s structure, including its visual scenic structure.
Clearly, in his effort to communicate, the playwright as an artist creates in a mode of mixed media. He uses both dialogue and the various theatrical media--lighting, sound, costume, blocking, gesture, and so forth--as indicated in the stage directions. It is because he is aware in the act of writing of all the salient elements of theatrical production that the completed script is self-contained.
These are the six basic principles: (1) the integrity of the script; (2) the primacy of truth; (3) the hierarchy of values; (4) the concept of organic unity; (5) the two-level, holistic method of under standing; and (6) the artistic creation in the mode of mixed media.
There are also three
secondary principles related to more traditional values: (1) the plot
must be well constructed and recognized as inevitable; (2) the
characters must be perceived as recognizable human beings, not just
abstractions; and (3) the dialogue must be dynamic, colorful, and
rhythmically beautiful. (P.V.)
2. Another essay by Professor Voelker, on Bound East for Cardiff, is scheduled to appear in the December 1978 issue of Studies in Bibliography. To whet readers’ appetites, Mr. Voelker offers the following “pre-abs tract”:
The article presents
the first extended comparison of the 1914 Children of the Sea and the 1916
Bound East for Cardiff,
a comparison which suggests that these two versions may be
significantly more different than O’Neill’s biographers have led
us to believe. Since at this time no manuscript of Cardiff can be
found in any of the major O’Neill collections to substantiate
O’Neill’s report that Cardiff was completed before he went to
Harvard, it appears that George Pierce Baker may have in fact
influenced the final shape of Cardiff, despite O’Neill’s
disclaimers. If so, the story of O’Neill’s development in his
first years as a playwright may have to be revised, especially with
regard to his relationship to George Pierce Baker.
3. Desire Under the Elms, directed by Craig Hartley. Gainesville (Florida) Little Theatre, April 1978.
On a very small proscenium stage, Hartley made use of six acting areas on five levels. Upstage right on the highest level is the brothers’ room. Slightly lower, stage left, is Ephraim’s room. Down three steps and left center is the dining area (with no part of the kitchen being visible). Down right center and slightly lower is the parlor. At floor level downstage left is the porch area and right the yard area. By skillful lighting and movement of a few pieces of furniture, he conveyed the sense of a small two-story farmhouse, suggesting the wooden walls behind the bedrooms by uneven flats higher in the center and merging into a dark backdrop. Very low, similarly uneven partitions masked the levels between bedroom and first-floor levels, whereas a stone foundation appeared to support the house above the yard level.
production was praised for its “craftsmanship” in all regards, the
local critic found the play “filled with bleats and complaints
rather than sound and fury.” But she was “not bored ... at any
time,” and concluded that the evening “was a surprisingly relaxing
one”--hardly the usual response to a well-produced Desire .
The play also was the least popular of the Little Theatre’s
productions for the year--which may say more about Gainesville
reviewers and audiences than about O’Neill. --Winifred Frazer
4. Thirst, directed by Edward Amor. Experimental Theatre, University of Wisconsin-Madison, April 1978.
O’Neill’s first sea play (1913-14), Thirst had an auspicious premiere at the Wharf Theatre in Provincetown in August, 1916. George Cram Cook, its director, played the Gentleman; Louise Bryant was the Dancer; and O’Neill himself played the Mulatto Sailor. But despite such an impressive original cast, the play was not performed again for more than sixty-one years, until it was revived last spring (April 12-15) in an experimental production at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with Mohammed Paigah as scenic designer, Bruce Johnson as composer of the musical score, and Esther M. Jackson as literary advisor. Professor Jackson and the director, Edward Amor, considered the play “cinematic in form and contemporary in theme,” and the endeavor was a great success, praised by local critic Jim Gribble (in the Press Connection) as “one of the theater events of the year.”
While it is unlikely that fog drifted through the playhouse walls this time (the Experimental Theatre is in the basement of UWM’s Vilas Hall), that omission was more than compensated for by the technical sophistication of a great university’s drama department, far surpassing the limited means of the Provincetowners six decades back. This is Gribble’s description of the recent production, which is interesting to compare with Travis Bogard’s description of the 1916 scenic design (Contour in Time, p. 30): “There was no stage-curtain; there was an expansive stretch of green and blue canvas across which the shadows of sharks ‘swam’; there was the raft, articulated with both realism and expressionism of rough boards and canvas. In the back ground, an eerie electronic soundtrack chirped....
“Thirst has no message to speak of. Its historical importance lies in its form and subject matter. In his early experimental days, O’Neill had not developed as a coherent social critic or philosopher. He merely wanted to shatter the false, stylized conventions of the theater and throw what he saw as the ugly, bitter truths of life in the audience’s face. The play, however, is a touchstone for the themes that O’Neill would later grapple with directly in masterpieces like Mourning Becomes Electra.... (Cf. Louis Sheaffer, O’Neill, Son and Playwright, p. 272.)
“The star of this second Thirst is the setting, designed with un canny insight by Mohammed Paigah. O’Neill put up with scarcity out of necessity in his early days, but his later career leaves no doubt that the settings for his plays should reflect both the theme and the mood of the action. In that, Paigah’s work epitomizes O’Neill’s ideas.”
It is at such times
that the editor, who has a photograph of the stage setting, most
laments his present inability to include illustrations in the
Newsletter. It is expected, however, that he will be able to do so
within the coming year, at which time he hopes to share that
photograph with Newsletter readers. Certainly the University of
Wisconsin’s admirable effort at resuscitation demonstrates how those
works of O’Neill that are too often dismissed as unworkable or
unworthy can be made to work, and succeed, if approached with creative
5. Where the Cross Is Made, directed by George Hamlin. Loeb Experimental Theatre, Harvard University, July 6-8, 1978.
Where the Cross Is Made is an interesting study of the tenuous line between facts and dreams; the transference of a mad obsession from a father to a son; the difference between knowing and believing, and the insanity that results when the latter overcomes the former; and also the idea that believing can be life-sustaining even though it under mines the reason. Surely more than enough thematic material to sustain a one-act play, and the Loeb Drama Center production, under the direction of George Hamlin, brought it to effective life on a spare, three-quarter-round stage with just enough of the details of O’Neill’s set description--chairs and table; ship’s lantern; companionway stairs at the rear, rising to stage left; dim light and sounds of wind and sea--just enough to abet the audience’s imagination, in a play that makes great demands on an audience’s imagination.
O’Neill said that his purpose in writing the play was “to see whether it’s possible to make an audience go mad, too,” along with Nat Bartlett, as he is (in Travis Bogard’s words) “consumed by his father’s madness.” While the audience was doubtless able to return to the workaday world after the performance with its reason unimpaired; and while the ghosts, though seaweed-matted, neither swayed nor dripped (their mime was superior to their slime); still, there was nary a titter at the performance I attended, and the throbbing green light that punctuated the ghost scenes made the suspension of disbelief surprisingly easy, even though the front-row spectators were, as in the original Provincetown Playhouse production, no more than four feet from the performers.
Captain Bartlett (Michael Miller) was appropriately crafty; his daughter Sue (Susan Berry) looked like a young Mary Tyrone, which is rather how O’Neill describes her; and Dr. Higgins (Andy Sellon), though more cool than I had expected him to be--neither the tale of cannibalism nor the corpse of Captain Bartlett cracked his supercilious veneer--certainly conveyed the “perfunctory” nature of the man O’Neill described.
performance was by James Bundy as Nat, the son, whose incipient
madness was carefully planted early--long before there’s any
explicit textual hint about his condition. In reading the play, I’d
always sped too quickly over phrases like “with a forced laugh,”
“with a hollow chuckle,” and
“laughs sardonically.” Bundy played them for all they were worth,
as he did the tension in the boy between believing his father and
accepting what he knows. When the treasure map flares up in a bright
flame amid the surrounding gloom as Nat tries to “free (himself) and
become sane,” we recall his earlier emphasis to the doctor that, for
facts, light is necessary: “Without that--they become dreams up
here--dreams, Doctor.” And when the light of the burning map fails
to purge him of his mad dreams, the audience is as touched as Nat is,
though in a different sense.
Mr. Hamlin, whose director’s notes appear elsewhere in this issue, paced the performance with a mastery of suspenseful build-up. That, and Mr. Bundy’s moving performance as Nat, made this a memorable production. --Ed.
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