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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. II, No. 3
January, 1979


(IN THIS ISSUE)

REVIEWS, REPRINTS AND ABSTRACTS.

1. THE TENOR GETS THE GIRL: DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS AS AN OPERA.

A new Composer-Librettist Conference, sponsored by the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in collaboration with the Opera Company of Philadelphia, began its existence on the 10th and 12th of August, 1978, in the Palmer Auditorium of Connecticut College in New London, with performances of an opera version of Desire Under the Elms. Eight years in the making, the opera has a score by New York City composer Edward Thomas, and a libretto by Joe Masteroff, author of The Warm Peninsula and the books of two Broadway musicals, Cabaret and She Loves Me.

This first foray into the field of opera by both artists was presented as a "staged reading" of a "work-in-progress." The cast of five principals and a chorus of twenty-four was accompanied by two pianos. Musical direction was by Paulette Haupt-Nolen of the Opera Company of Philadelphia. Joseph J. Krakora, executive vice president of the O'Neill Center and the originator of the idea for the Conference, served as stage director. The set was a two-level modular design by Fred Voelpel, and was praised by Christian Science Monitor critic Louis Chapin as "strikingly effective" (September 14, p. 19). He also liked the "flecks of projected light" that suggested the brooding elms--the work of lighting designer Arden Fingerhut.

The chorus was composed of local volunteers who were lengthily trained by Ms. Haupt-Nolen. But the five soloists were skilled professionals, which was fortunate since there were only nine days of rehearsal with the full cast before the first performance. The vocal range of each of the leads seems appropriate: Eben is a tenor (Michael Best), Abbie a soprano (Carol Todd), Ephraim a bass (William Fleck), and Eben's brothers both baritones (Sean Barker as Peter and Ken Bridges as Simeon).

The co-creators agreed that O'Neill had made their work relatively easy, and they in turn have respected his text. According to Krakora (New York Times, August 6, p. 45), "We have allowed the music and libretto to grow organically out of the play itself, which makes it very dramatic." "I really don't feel I've done very much," Masteroff reported in the same article. "I didn't make many changes because who is going to mess with O'Neill. I'm certainly not going to. O'Neill almost wrote an opera. All the grand passion was there.... It was just a matter of putting it into shape." Not that the play itself is shapeless; but an opera's texture and substance are technically quite different from those of a play. The librettist explained this belated discovery in the Sunday Record (Bergen/Passaic/Hudson Counties, NJ, August 27, p. F-17): "when I finished the first act and the music had been composed, we realized we had only one person singing at a time. That's the way O'Neill had written it. So I had to go back and look for possibilities for duets and larger ensembles."

While the New York Times had announced the work as "an American folk opera," Mr. Krakora claimed that the creators were "not after folk opera, but just opera, period." However, he did acknowledge its having "a particularly American sound, which is part of what we are after. We want to bring the popular musical theater and opera a bit closer together." Composer Thomas clearly agreed with this desire for popular appeal, stating in The Day (New London, July 18, p. 14) that his goal was "to re-affiliate people with opera instead of alienating them with incomprehensible atonal music."

The musical result met with the approval of Monitor critic Chapin: "Mr. Thomas, writing tonally though with rich melodic and chordal dissonance, has given the singers a number of fine and well-handled lyrical opportunities." Chapin's only major criticism involved the chorus. While he liked its "fine, gossipy song-and-dance job in the middle of the story," he felt it should have other things to do as well, "most particularly at the beginning and the end," where he seemed to feel that the authors had been too faithful to the original. He found the opening duet by Simeon and Peter, and Ephraim's "sober soliloquy" at the end ("God's not easy ..."), insufficient for setting and sustaining "the mood of this high-powered story."

But these were, after all, workshop performances; opportunities to find out what works and what doesn't and needs changing; and Mr. Chapin was optimistic about the opera's future. Presumably the composer and librettist are currently revising it on the basis of the summer experience--the kind of experience for which the O'Neill Center is so justly famous. When revision is completed and the work is orchestrated, it will be, according to Krakora, "available to any company that wants to mount a full-scale production and put it into its repertoire." (Ed.)

2. "Honoring O'Neill" was the headline appended by the New York Times (November 26, 1978, Sec. II, p. 5) to a letter the newspaper received from Normand Berlin of the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Mr. Berlin's letter deserves recording here.

"Twenty-five years ago tomorrow Eugene O'Neill died in a Boston hotel room. A few days earlier he muttered to his wife Carlotta: 'Born in a hotel room--and God damn it--died in a hotel room." The statement captures his tone of voice, reveals the pressure of despair behind that voice, and reminds us of the agony of his major characters, in all of whom he lived.

"With Brutus Jones, he heard the beat of the tom-toms and touched the heart of that mystery; with Chris Christopherson, he cursed the fog and puzzled over 'dat ole davil, sea'; with the hairy Yank, he took a despairing view of mechanized American society; with Nina Leeds, he became 'sick of the fight for happiness'; with the mourning Lavinia and the hunted Orin, his conscience was tortured by the Furies of the past.

"In each of his late autobiographical plays, but especially in Long Day's Journey Into Night, probably the highest achievement in American realistic theater, O'Neill probed his personal agony again and again. To see, with Carolotta O'Neill, the playwright coming out of his study after a long day's bout with the four haunted Tyrones--'gaunt and sometimes weeping,' looking ten years older than when he entered the room in the morning--is to recognize the pain of his art and the price that confrontation with his own past demanded.

"A divided man, he wrote about divisions within men and women, which explains in part his reliance on masks and alcoholic reveries and pipe dreams and dope dreams. His was an intensely personal art, driving so deeply that it managed to range widely. Back in 1912, during his battle with tuberculosis, he made the fateful decision 'to be an artist or to be nothing,' and he never wavered from that decision. Writing inexhaustibly, he transformed his medium and expanded American theater, never compromising his integrity, always making the largest demands on his audience.

"Eugene O'Neill gave America a stature in world drama that it never possessed before he wrote those early sea plays performed on the rickety Provincetown boards--a stature it has rarely achieved since his death. He was our finest American playwright. This darkly impressive dramatist, this authentic man--born and dying in a hotel room, gone twenty-five years tomorrow--hovers over American drama like the elms of his brooding play."

3. Eugene K. Hansen, Professor of English at College of the Desert, Palm Desert, CA, has been awarded the degree of Doctor of Theology from the School of Theology at Claremont, CA. The title of his dissertation was "Earth Mother/ Mother of God: The Theme of Forgiveness in the Works of Eugene O'Neill"--a project aimed at applying the method of theological criticism to the O'Neill corpus, and to show how the need of maternal pardon dominated much of the playwright's work. An abstract follows.

"Although the works of Eugene O'Neill are marked by a strong religious concern, theological criticism, or criticism from the standpoint of religion and literature, has largely ignored his drama. The reasons for this oversight of the country's greatest dramatist on the part of this twentieth-century critical movement are to be found in the nature and treatment of his religious concern.

"While only one play, Long Day's Journey into Night, is strictly autobiographical, virtually his entire work grows out of the author's personal experiences. The plays involve men who are on a quest, a quest which is seen variously but which always involves a spiritual need. Closer examination of the plays shows the close connection between women, mothers in particular, and the quest. Even those women characters who are wives to the heroes are seen by them as mothers. Behind these women ultimately can be found another mother, Mary the Virgin Mother of God of O'Neill's rejected Catholicism. What the heroes desire is a restoration of the relationship they once knew with such a Holy Mother, a restoration that amounts to forgiveness. Because the author's own mother, a devout Irish Catholic who left the convent to marry O'Neill's father, was deemed to have failed him by virtue of her morphine addiction, the playwright appears to take his revenge on all women, in life as well as in his art. Because of this, the search for forgiveness before the mother fails, and the mother is rejected. Symbolic of the renunciation and of the continuing search is the way the hero turns to other women: prostitutes. These prostitutes are often sage and even sexless, examples really of the Earth Mother. They, too, prove to hold no genuine pardon, no real consolation, for the heroes, and so the men must join those who had been better off had they never been born, the ones the author calls the Misbegotten: damned to live out lives they would rather not have lived at all.

"Thus, what O'Neill offers for the contemplation of his viewers is an aesthetic world in which the only hope is to be found within the art itself. His faith had failed him, so only his art could save. It is this concept, salvation by art, that has kept theological criticism away. That it should not is evident from the validity of the artistic world he offers for contemplation, a world not only personal but utterly human." --E. K. H.

(IN THIS ISSUE)

 

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