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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. III, No. 1
May, 1979


(IN THIS ISSUE)

REVIEWS, REPRINTS AND ABSTRACTS

1. A production of The Emperor Jones, directed by Peter Honchaurk, was mounted by the Masque and Gown of Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine, last February. The following review is by George H. "Pat" Quinby, former Director of Dramatics at Bowdoin, who knows the play well, having seen the original production and having directed it himself 42 years ago.

"The obvious thing to say about The Emperor Jones as played last night arena-style in the Experimental Theater under the main stage of the Pickard Theater is that the Jones boys, Tyree and Greg, were satisfactorily cast as Brutus Jones and Jeff. O'Neill's choice of such characters as Jones (and Yank in The Hairy Ape) to show that pride goeth before a fall indicates his amazing ability to present a man so sure of his superior power (the craftiness of Jones--the physical strength of Yank) as to turn an audience against him but then to win the sympathy of that audience and turn the protagonist into a sympathetic figure of tragedy before the play ends. In the original productions he had the magnificent assistance of Gilpin and Wolheim as actors; but the dramatist must receive credit for creating such panic--when Jones's superstitious fears overwhelm him, as does Yank's inability to see where he belongs--as to make them truly touching. That's why I called O'Neill 'a humanitarian playwright' back in '23. [See George H. Quinby, "A Humanitarian Playwright," Eugene O'Neill Newsletter (September, 1978), pp. 8-11. --Ed.]

"Tyree Jones is no Charles Gilpin, and the fishnets hanging from the flies of the Experimental Theater are scarcely as effective as the canvas draped to represent the jungle in the original production. But even under such conditions, I found the play moving. I learned, when Bowdoin produced it in '37 (with a faculty cast--the dream figures in masks--supporting two black students), that the lighting and the tempo of the drums were the trickiest element in the show, though the scenery and costuming helped considerably. This arena production failed to follow O'Neill's specific and meticulous directions for the drum, rising to an impassioned beat on each blackout; and the lighting had its lapses. But I admired the ambition of the director in trying to do it without scenery in cramped confines with the audience on top of the action. It's a play that really needs a proscenium and aesthetic distance. At the climax, with the appearance of the crocodile god and witch doctor, most of the illusion of the Emperor's final panic was lost. Still, it's good to know that current students have a chance to see the play."

2. Le Roy Robinson's "John Howard Lawson's Unpublished Nirvana," in Keiei to Keizai ("Management and Economy," a publication of the Economics Department of Nagasaki University, Vol. 57-3, No. 148, March, 1978, pp. 59-83), is the first full descriptive summary of the Lawson play to be published and is based upon Lawson's manuscript, copyrighted August, 1925, which he permitted Mr. Robinson, a teacher of Basic English Conversation in Nagasaki University's Economics Department, to read. The summary reveals remarkable parallels with O'Neill's thought in the 20's, and especially with Dynamo.

As Mr. Robinson notes on p. 80, the publication will "make it possible for historians of American drama to...relate Nirvana to other dramas by other American playwrights of the period, e.g., to O'Neill's Dynamo." Noting that others (Barrett Clark, et al.) have cited the parallels between Dynamo and Kaiser's Gas, and that O'Neill's own claim was that "the 'origin' of Dynamo was in his observation of a dynamo generating electricity," Robinson points out (on the basis of a discussion with Lawson on April 9, 1964) that "O'Neill saw Nirvana in performance and read it in March, 1926," and he stresses (on pp. 80-81) remarkable similarities between the themes, characters and situations in the two plays. "O'Neill's concept of electricity in Dynamo," for example, "is directly related to Lawson's similar conception in Nirvana." "In 'Literary Ancestry of Dynamo' (New York Herald-Tribune, January 16, 1928, p. 18) Richard Watts, Jr. mentions as 'literary ancestors' Henry Adams, Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), Samuel Butler (Erewhon), Karel Kapek (R.U.R.), Dudley Murphy (Ballet Mecanique, a film) and its 'most direct and recent predecessor, John Howard Lawson.'" O'Neill scholars will want to avail them-selves of this most helpful summary of Nirvana.

[Mr. Robinson will share with Newsletter readers some comments on O'Neill from John Howard Lawson's unpublished autobiography in the next issue. --Ed.]

3. Frederick John's "The Day George M. Cohan Came Home to Podunk," printed in Yankee during the month marking the 100th anniversary of Cohan's birth, is a nostalgic piece that may be peripheral to O'Neill studies but is irresistible. Excerpts follow.

"On Monday, October 29, 1934, the great George M. Cohan returned to his childhood home of Podunk, which is actually a part of Brook-field, in central Massachusetts. He brought with him the entire company of his hit Broadway play, Ah, Wilderness!

"As he stood on the stage of the town hall, where the play was presented 'for one night only,' Cohan, the man who owned Broadway, actually developed a case of stage fright. He forgot his lines.

"'I looked out into the audience and saw Murt Howard staring up at me,' Cohan later told an interviewer. 'We used to play baseball together when we were kids.... I just lost track of my lines. Maybe it was because I was appearing before a lot of people who knew me when. Maybe it was because it was a play by Eugene O'Neill. I just don't know what happened. I froze! If Jean Adair, who played my wife, hadn't fed me some lines, I'd probably still be standing up there like a dummy on the stage of the town hall.'

"Everybody knows that America's favorite Yankee Doodle Dandy was born on the Fourth of July in 1878 in Providence, Rhode Island. He grew up in the town of Brookfield--though much of the time he was on tour with his famous theatrical family, The Four Cohans. At the end of every theatrical season, [they] returned home to Brookfield to rest during the warm weather months.

"George always loved Brookfield. In particular, he was quite fond of that section of town called Podunk, because there was a baseball field there.... In later years, George made Podunk famous. He kept mentioning the place in his comedy routines. He described the people who lived there as 'hayseed hicks.' Other entertainers started mentioning Podunk in their acts, and soon the place was one of the best-known communities in the world....

"George was 'packing them in' for Ah, Wilderness! at the old Plymouth Theatre in Boston. One night some old friends from his home-town came backstage for a visit. He hadn't been to Brookfield in years.... Murt Howard, who was the local grocer, whispered to Cohan that it would be wonderful if he could perform again 'back home.' A day or so later, Howard got a letter from George: 'I'd love to per-form there with our theatrical troupe.'

"The play closed in Boston on a Saturday and opened in Springfield the following Tuesday. It was decided to 'squeeze it in' on the Mon-day before the Springfield date. However, the scenery was being shipped directly to Springfield. [So it was agreed that] the play would be performed on a bare stage with what props local citizens could produce.

"Tickets were $1, and they were gone in a matter of hours. There were only 515 seats in the town hall, but more than a thousand tickets were sold.... On the big day, there was a canvas banner strung across Main Street. In red and black letters was the message, 'Welcome Home, George Cohan.'

"He arrived in the afternoon, ahead of his company of twenty players. 'It's great to be home again,' he said. 'I've knocked around everywhere, but there's no place like the place I grew up.' At the time, the town had a population of 3, 013, but it was estimated that more than 10,000 people were there that day. It was a chilly day, and Cohan kept the collar of his coat up about his ears, and his hat drawn low on his forehead.

"'If you can't quite see me because of my coat collar, I apologize,' he informed one and all. 'I don't want to catch cold and be hoarse tonight--I've got some singing to do.' [He concluded the night's performance with a medley of his songs, ending with "Over There."]

"He was great that night. Even without scenery, even with a severe case of stage fright, he captured his audience with his performance. 'He made his audience smile,' wrote a visiting drama critic, 'and he moved them to secret tears. He kept them enthralled for two hours.' They cheered and stamped their feet--the old town hall really rocked that night.

"During the early morning hours, Cohan strolled through the town with his old friend Murt Howard. 'Wouldn't it be wonderful, Murt,' he said, 'if we were boys again playing baseball over in Podunk. To be a boy again, Murt, to do it all over again--if only we could!'"

[Reprinted with permission from the July, 1978, issue of Yankee magazine, published by Yankee, Inc., Dublin, NH 03444. Thanks to John Henry Raleigh for bringing it to our attention. --Ed.]

4. Andrew Porter, "Island Emperor," The New Yorker (March 5, 1979), pp. 115-117. A review of the February production in Detroit, by the Michigan Opera Theatre, of the 1932 one-act opera The Emperor Jones by Louis Gruenberg, Porter's essay is interesting as a history of the opera and as an assessment of its merits and weaknesses, among the latter being the fact that the persistent drumbeat, which one might expect to be the most effective element of a musical adaptation, actually "loses some of its force when it is but one element of a musical score." Of particular interest, however, are Mr. Porter's comments about the play on which the opera is based. Like James Earl Jones in a recorded discussion of the play, he cites the telltale "yet" in O'Neill's initial description of Jones's features as one evidence of an "offensive" racism in the play's language and attitude. But Porter is willing to accept the language "as authentic to its period."

However, he finds it "harder to accept the play as the Sophoclean tragedy [Olin] Downes deemed it to be [in his New York Times review of the first Metropolitan Opera Company production of The Emperor Jones in 1933]. Brutus Jones is no Macbeth. His ambition has been to get rich at his fellow-blacks' expense, bank his money abroad, and escape when his subjects will suffer his despotism no longer. In America, he has picked up enough white-man smartness to know how to exploit the credulous West Indians. Suffering and retribution following on commercial sharp practice can provide a moral spectacle, but it is not quite the stuff of high tragedy. There is no suggestion that Jones is a potentially great or good man corrupted or led astray. Moreover, there seems to be no particular reason why the memory of his crimes should recur in the jungle and destroy him. One could say: O'Neill demonstrates that back in the jungle a sophisticated black reverts to savagery as swiftly as Jones's Western clothes fall from him and leave him almost naked--and that, I fear, is the plain surface reading of both the play and the libretto. One could add: And by this the playwright intends a parable of what can happen to any man, whatever his color, who has founded his career upon crime--but that reading must be forced on the text. Alternatively, one might say: This is simply a striking and effective piece of theatre without any special significance--and leave it at that. On any reading, the tone of the play seems pretentious for. its matter."

5. Mourning Becomes Electra, adapted by Kenneth Cavander and directed by Nick Havinga, was presented on public television in five one-hour episodes on successive Wednesday evenings from December 6 to January 3, as part of WNET-TV's "Great Performances" series. The major roles were played by Joan Hackett (Christine), Roberta Maxwell (Lavinia), Bruce Davison (Orin), Joseph Sommer (Ezra), Roberts Blossom (Seth) and Jeffrey DeMunn (Adam). Of the original three titles ("The Homecoming," "The Hunted" and "The Haunted"), two were retained and three were added: "The Secret," "A Taste of Murder," "The Hunted," "An Act of Justice" and "The Haunted." What was most haunting, despite superb performances by Hackett, Maxwell and Davison, and despite the contribution of cinematic techniques and the authenticity of sets and costumes, was the memory of the towering original, so much of whose cumulative force was eroded by the truncation into five parts with a week-long break between each, the play's claustrophobic intensity suffering radical diminution despite the effectiveness of close-ups on the small screen.

Evidently the motivation for choosing Mourning Becomes Electra was its similarity to standard television fare. Jac Venza, co-producer of the series, reported to Leah D. Frank in the New York Times (Sunday, December 3, 1978, Section II, pp. 1, 37) that, "in form at least, Mourning Becomes Electra is not much different than a soap opera ... a kind of drama where a series of scenes are presented in a rather slow and continuous development." But it was much more the "slow" than the "continuous" that was served by the once-a-week format.

Still, despite reservations, most reviewers were impressed. John J. O'Connor (New York Times, December 6, 1978, p. C26), although he found the play "dated, sometimes turgid, often obvious and always relentless," and considered some of its language "downright silly," still thought that, in its televised version, "its haunting and at times awesome power [was] realized brilliantly." He had special praises for the performances of Miss Hackett ("strong and beautiful and perfectly vicious"), Mr. Davison ("a complex study in weakness and strength, managing to remain sympathetic even while on the edge of being despicable") and Miss Maxwell: "Her Lavinia is the complete Electra.... Progressing from revengeful daughter to a reproduction of her hated mother to bitter but resigned recluse, Miss Maxwell never hits a false note." He also had praise for Mr. Cavander's "superb adaptation," in which "the play is opened out to a variety of realistic details" without losing "the essence of O'Neill."

William Henry, 3d, reviewing the production in The Boston Globe (December 6, 1978, pp. 25-30), saw the connection with standard television material ("Mourning Becomes Electra is soap opera without shame, a sexy Gothic by America's one undisputed master playwright"), and he shared O'Connor's approval of the leading performers, adding Roberts Blossom, whose Seth "persuades us to believe one of the essential tenets of tragedy, that all the members of a household share the same personality, the same destructive arrogance." And he liked the enhancement of Maurice Jarre's musical score, that "makes the sprawling, secluded Greek revival (naturally) mansion seem foreboding from the first glimpse." But he finally seconded O'Connor's view that the play is "difficult and flawed," and particularly so on television: "for all its strengths, Mourning Becomes Electra doesn't quite work. We expect naturalism from television. We expect agony to be accompanied by shouting and tears. The tempered menace of the Mannons, their quiet, almost unspoken evil, is finally too poetic for a domes-tic art."

Lea Frank's contention, in the aforementioned New York Times article, that the trilogy "is rarely produced on the stage" moved James P. Pettegrove to respond in a letter (printed in the December 24 issue) that proves once again that Europe has been kinder to O'Neill than his own countrymen: "according to data collected by the Mykenae Publishing House of Darmstadt, West Germany, 'Mourning Becomes Electra was produced in 59 German, Austrian and Swiss cities between 1955 and 1975." Nor was the American television mounting the play's first: "In the fall of 1970, a TV version was broadcast over West German stations on two successive evenings, lasting an hour and a half each time." [Any reader familiar with that earlier adaptation is invited to submit a description and evaluation. A comparative study should prove fascinating. And readers' reactions to the 1978 mini-series will also be appreciated. --Ed.]

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