II, No. 3
THE MAGIC OF MARCO MILLIONS
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.
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.]
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!
MARCO FOR THE MILLIONS!
by Martha B. Porter Sharon, Conn. 06069
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.
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.
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.)
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
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.
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.
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.
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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