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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. II, No. 3
January, 1979



[Tiziana Beggiato, at the age of six, saw her first live play at the Sharon Playhouse in Connecticut last August. Nothing unusual in that, except that Miss Beggiato is from Bologna and knows no English, and the play she saw was Marco Millions. And she loved it.

That the play, with its epic sweep, cast of hundreds, and seemingly endless parade of set and costume changes, was done at all is a novelty. But that its combination of satire (of Western materialism and acquisitiveness) and paean (to Eastern mysticism) would prove a total, comprehensible delight to a six-year-old who didn't even understand the dialogue: that might be an even greater surprise-­and a measure of the achievement of adapter-director Walter Fairservis, who found a way to prune this neglected work, stage it with a combination of Eastern stylization and story-theatre inventiveness, and mount a twirling carnival of a production that would (and did) appeal to all ages without sacrificing O'Neill's original and serious intent.

The Sharon Playhouse production was obviously a taxing one for the busy young company--and less a finished, polished product than an intriguing, engrossing work-in-progress which may be even more fully realized hereafter. Accordingly, I had chosen to offer, rather than a strict review, a description of the experience to accompany the appended photographs. But I scrapped it when I received a letter from Dr. Fairservis that describes the physical production and its inception far more knowledgeably than I possibly could. The following is an abbreviated version of that letter, with bracketed editorial interjections to add a point or direct the reader's attention to a specific picture. --Ed.]

Eugene O'Neill's fascination with Asia was not unlike Walt Whitman's, Coleridge's or even Puccini's: a place where limitless time and vast wisdom combined to produce an exotic world; cruel, colorful, extravagant and mysterious--but above all human, delicate and harmonious. O'Neill's twist, whereby the Polos become the symbols of Western materialism, was a stroke of genius. It has always intrigued me that, as inaccurate and often fantastic as his vision of Asia was, there is no question that he sensed what materialism, Western-style, would do to age-old Asian traditions. As far as I know, he never traveled in Asia nor was he intimate with Asians; yet he saw Asians as individuals, not as the unfeeling masses, which seemed to mark much of the Western conception of the East in his day, and indeed still persists today.

The play, with its enormous cast and extravagant sets, would be impossible to do today. In reading both the play and the various biographical studies of O'Neill's writing of it, I suspected that he got caught up with the "Dramatic imagination" of Robert Edmond Jones and Max Reinhardt and the ideas of Gordon Craig. This plus the plush musicals of Ziegfeld and his contemporaries would certainly motivate a writer of O'Neill's imagination to attempt to overwhelm an audience with the teeming exotic Asia of his vision. In the sense that the Polos themselves described "Cathay" in wondrous terms to their contemporaries in medieval Italy, O'Neill has an authentic reason to create a spectacle. What a blow to an American audience, that ending of the play, when, after an evening in the exotic East--where at last Kukachin's fate would force Westerners to see her as a living, wonderful person--Marco Polo would drive off with the audience as if nothing had happened! I can almost hear O'Neill's exuberant comment as he seized on this motif! In such motivations lies the life of the play!

AUGUST, 1978.

Production concept, adaptation and direction by Walter A. Fairservis
Set design by Jan Fairservis. Music and additional lyrics composed and directed by Eric E. Pourchot. Costume design by Elizabeth Landis.

Flowers in a porcelain vase, a calligraphic scroll, some colored ribbons, a few instruments and as many passions: no more was needed. The props may have been of plywood and cardboard; the actors may not all have been of professional caliber; but the production captured more of the Orient than O'Neill himself had in his overblown, blockbuster extravaganza.

Photographs by Martha B. Porter Sharon, Conn. 06069

It struck me that if one could eliminate the extravagance, pare down the overwrought and overlong speeches, sharpen the subplots by clarifying the dialogue, and make reasonably authentic the Asian background so that there was more of a documentary realism than a spectacle's "show" quality, the point of the play would emerge and O'Neill's real intention would come forth. An intention which is even more relevant today than in the 1920's.

The method I devised was based on the idea: supposing an Asian theatre troupe were to do the play. Such a troupe would minimize scenery and play instead on the imagination. The key figure here was the stage manager (a role that Dr. Fairservis devised and built into the production). He is an actor's actor who describes the scenes partially in terms of the motivations for them and partially because he insists that the audience use their imaginations in all circumstances. He helps them; he claps his hands and a cardboard tree appears, borne by a suitably costumed stage hand; he claps again and, at this signal, off-stage voices are heard--as wind, as rain, as lamentation. Kukachin is discerned, and with a few ribbons moved in large geometric figures, symbolizes the leitmotifs of her fate. She stops and all the stage manager has to say is "the great desert of Persia" and we are there.

The stage manager moves throughout the play; he prepares us for Venice with a short poem about a city of boats, and then he and Marco Polo pantomime sailing on a gondola while a little orchestra of four pieces, Chinese style, imitates the sound of gondolas and Venetian guitars. (In the second picture, Marco (Charles Dietz) stands shakily in a skittish gondola as he bids farewell to his beloved Donata (Adrienne Krug).) Thus the stage manager moves the Polos across Asia from Acre to Xanadu via Persia, India, and Mongolia, and return. Cardboard camel and elephant cutouts, carried variously on the shoulders of the Polos, carry one from place to place. (The third picture shows Nicolo (Chester Morss), Maffeo (Stuart Zagnit) and Marco; Maffeo is reading his notes on the quaint customs and unpleasant traditions of the East they are traversing.)

Meanwhile the stage manager plays a dozen roles accompanied by six assistants, all of whom carry out their tasks with military precision. They are Persian rug dealers, dancing prostitutes, moving Hindu idols, Mongolian shamans. The great wall of China is a cloth which is unraveled by two assistants while the Polos are intrigued by a Mongolian acrobatic dance centered on the stage manager, who is anything he wants to be, from boatman, to Kublai's executioner, to the boatswain on a seagoing junk, to the Cathayan Chronicler. (In the fourth picture, the protean stage manager (R. C. Lawson) offers to behead Marco for the Emperor to determine whether Marco has an immortal soul.)

Even the cannon scene is arranged by the stage manager, whose assistant brings out a large cannon cutout in the Chinese style. When the cannon is fired--a drum beat; powder flies into the air from a bellows placed in back of the cannon's mouth; the stage manager carries a ball on a stick from the cannon's mouth to a paper wall held up by two assistants who promptly fall into picturesque, exaggerated positions as the wall is pierced by the cannon ball.

The stage manager also commands the authentic sounds of a muezzein from the minaret, the papal choir, the grunts and groans of camels and horses, the eternal "Om" of India, and the leather smack of Mongol horsemen; he leads the sea songs and the land songs, all of which were especially written for the production by Eric E. Pourchot.

Thus with a cast of fifteen, the stage manager, imagination and the introduction of authentic sounds, gestures, and even certain words of Asian languages, we were able to present the play. It is true that I wrote a part for the stage manager--mainly in blank verse, so that a style which fitted more appropriately to Asian rhythms could be maintained; it is true that sharp cutting was done on much of the play (particularly where O'Neill lost both his lyricism and his point) in an effort to take full advantage of his dramatic situation; and it is also true that music, sound and action "miniaturized" the scale of the original. But what did come through, according to many who commented, was Eugene O'Neill--speaking sharply, idealistically and dramatically, as was his wont, without the fat and the frills ... but in the Asian setting I'm sure he wanted.

--Walter Fairservis

[What Dr. Fairservis didn't mention was the marvelous performances he won from his actors: Charles Dietz as Marco, whose transition from idealist to proto-ugly-American was both comic and touching; R. C. Lawson as the agile and inscrutably smiling stage manager; Dr. Fairservis himself as the quiet, all-wise Chu-Yin; and especially Elf Fairservis as Kukachin. She captured the beauty and ideality of the East, and even made Kukachin's seemingly uncharacteristic rage, when Marco's crass shell proves impenetrable, totally believable. In the first picture, she is bidding farewell to Kublai her father (Brock Putnam) before sailing to Persia.

When I said that Marco Millions was a total delight to Tiziana Beggiato, I was partially in error. She could not accept Kukachin's death, and her eyes filled with tears. We English-speaking oldsters had heard Kukachin, in that memorable Prologue speech, say, "I loved and died. Now I am love, and live." But this was a Kukachin of such "intense fragility" (to quote Cummings) that our eyes dampened too. --Ed.]



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