REVIEWS AND ABSTRACTS
1. Gettin' Eben: Desire Under [Dartmouth] Elms.
Last February, in the intimate, three-quarter-round Warner Bentley Theater at Dartmouth College's Hopkins Center, the Dartmouth Players presented a spirited and moving all-student production of Desire Under the Elms, under the skilled and inventive direction of Robert Berlinger, a Senior Fellow, whose Fellowship project, "O'Neill's Vision of Poetic Realism"--and, specifically, the means by which it is artistically manipulated in Desire--culminated in this production. (Mr. Berlinger will report on the conclusions of his project in the next issue of the Newsletter.)
Christopher Wilson's effective set was on two levels. From the middle of the lower level--with kitchen at stage-right, parlor at stage-left, the suggestion of a porch in front of the latter, overhanging boughs of elm (artificial) at both sides, and a layer of dirt (real) in front of the whole--a flight of stairs led up to the second floor, with Eben's and his brothers' room at stage-right and Ephraim's across the hall from it at stage-left. (This hall division between bedrooms may have clashed with readers' memories of how, in Part 2, Scene 2, Abbie's and Eben's "hot glances seem to meet through the wall." Wilson's set required that the glances travel farther; but the suggestion of an electrical connection between stepmother and stepson, which was retained, was the more effective because of the greater distance between the two.)
The farmhouse looked lived in, and the actors were well trained in inhabiting it naturally--just one of Mr. Berlinger's successes. Another was the dance in the kitchen in Part 3, Scene 1 (see picture 4), with swirling skirts, tabletop fiddler, and a wild, stompin', jumpin', chest-thumpin' dance to "Turkey in the Straw" by Ephraim, as Eben sits, sihouetted in near darkness, on his bed in the room above, and Abbie sits, still and sad, in a chair on the porch. Contrapuntally perfect.
Through the skeletal back-wall boards and roof beams behind and above the two-level farmhouse, lighting designer James Gage provided a varying array of colors--a hot, red glow at the start; a dark, dusky blue in Scene 2; a pale pink-violet at the time of the father's arrival with his bride in Scene 4; etc.--that contributed greatly to the emotional effect of the production, as did the music for solo cello, composed by Brian Witter, that served as transition between scenes. Another lighting device--the use of candles in the parlor scene that gave a ghostly look to the room and its inhabitants--was similarly evocative. O'Neill's lighting directions for that scene were superbly executed.
The opening scene, which began with Eben's bearded, soil-etched brothers leaning lethargically on hoes, was the most comic realization of the fraternal dialogue that this reviewer has ever heard, as was their cut-ups' taunting of Ephraim in Scene 4. Robert Southworth and Edward Morgan made Simeon and Peter a team of comic hayseeds (Peter sounded like Festus on the television series, Gunsmoke), and the rhythm of delivery of the lines in their scenes with Eben was effective--both as a laugh-arousing device and as a suggestion that such scenes had been frequent in the past.
The three principals conveyed with brilliance all the triangular tensions of the Cabot family feud--surprising brilliance, considering their extreme youth, which made the task of Peter Morse, as Ephraim, the most difficult of the three. He had clearly studied and practiced the mannerisms of age, but they looked as cosmetic as the white in his hair. Nor did he seem hard enough in his first scene, when his older sons' taunts should arouse more ire. But he gained real force when he most needed it, as in the wildness of his dance, the confrontations with his acquisitive bride (picture 3), and the contempt with which he pushes Eben to the ground when he learns that the boy has been to the Sheriff (picture 5).
Heather McCartney and Scott Coronis, not burdened by imminent senility, had an easier time of it as Abbie and Eben. Coronis showed Eben's growth from stiff, marching boy in his opening scenes--all gruff, rasping brusqueness--to the newly-softened man of the last scene, when he kneels before Abbie, his hand on her breast and her hands on his shoulders. The change begins in the fourth scene when (shortly after the moment in picture 2) Abbie touches his cheek and says, "Let's yew 'n' me be frens, Eben," and an odd, unexpected smile appears on his face. Not that the tensions between the two are omitted: all the temperatures from fire to ice are called into play. Though Eben seemed a bit too casual in reacting to his first realization of Abbie as a rival (picture 1), his torment in the parlor scene was fully realized.
McCartney's Abbie was a believable blend of arrogance (in Part 1), earthy seductiveness (in Part 2; though her invitation to the parlor--"Won't ye come courtin' me in the best parlor, Mister Cabot?" was so chill that I was surprised Eben accepted:), and genuine anguish in the kitchen scene following the strangely underplayed murder. Perhaps the lovers' most memorable scene was the one preceding their upstairs union in Part 2, Scene 2, after Ephraim has left to join the cows in the barn. Eben sits on his bed, looking, in profile, toward Abbie across the hall. She sits on her bed, facing forward. Then she rises, turns towards him--drawn by a current that she cannot control and that has nothing to do with greed--advances slowly toward the wall (the nearer of the two walls:) separating them, and then impulsively rushes to the door at the back, through the narrow hall, and into Eben's room, initiating an attack to which he soon willingly responds.
Aside from a feeling that the production was a blend of spurts--of highs and lows with no fully sustained emotional arcs except those of individual characterization--I have nothing but admiration for the performers, the designers, and Robert Berlinger--a director whom we should see much of in the future. I hope that future will include abundant affiliation with Eugene O'Neill.
2. Full Moon at the New England Rep.
In the oft maligned if not misbegotten city of Worcester, Massachusetts--once proudly touted as a city of "diversified industry"--the New England Repertory Theatre's 1980 winter-season production of A Moon for the Misbegotten incontestably provided its patrons with an imaginative and full-bodied rendition of O'Neill's play of lunar redemption. Strong performances by Susan McGinley (Josie), Bill McCann (Phil Hogan) and James Cooke (James Tyrone) made the Rep's version of the play especially memorable--so much so that one came away with the feeling that this had been the definitive performance of the play.
Susan McGinley's Josie (at center in figure 2) was sublimely earthy, crude and frolicking throughout. As even the most casual reading of the play reveals, there are two women, at the least, contained within the character of Josie, and none too subtly. One tough and vulgar, with a bod to match. ("She is so oversize for a woman that she is almost a freak," O'Neill wrote in the stage directions.) The other compassionate, loving and virginal with, again, the appropriate physical attributes: "She has long smooth arms, immensely strong, although no muscles show. The same is true of her legs."
Ugliness and beauty. Harshness and tenderness. Lust and love. All of these seemingly irreconcilable differences must be contended with by the three main characters, but by Josie especially, as she is the obvious embodiment of all these opposites. McGinley's Josie was admirable, and whenever parts of her performance seemed unconvincing--and there were a few such moments toward the end of the play--one is tempted to blame the playwright rather than the actress. Like the absurdly contradictory description of Josie's physical features, O'Neill's presentation of her as a person seems, at times, not a little awkward.
Bill McCann as Josie's father, Phil Hogan (at left in figures 2 and 3), was a joy. Full of blarney and downright mischievous to the ends of the grey hairs on his chinny chin chin, he was a most believable character. Never for a moment did the audience doubt that this rambunctious little man was truly of the old sod or that his hatred for his millionaire neighbor, T. Stedman Harder, was anything but from the heart. At the same time it was quite obvious that, despite the revels in blarney, Phil Hogan was more than capable of compassion when the moon was just right.
James Cooke's portrayal of that living dead man, James Tyrone, (at right in figures 2 and 3), was stunning. One felt that Cooke knew as much about how the part should be played as O'Neill obviously knew about how it should be put down on paper. Not only does the wise-ass--and quite lyrically wise-ass--sot move one within the con-text of the play, but also outside of it. Of all of the characters, James Tyrone is the genuine American product. Phil Hogan is, after all, of the Old World. And Josie is--well, otherwordly; more a product of O'Neill's imagination than honest-to-God flesh and blood. James's face is a scary one. To look into it--God forbid having to look out of it--is to look into the eyes of a man of our own time and place. Cooke caught all of what O'Neill had to offer.
The set (figure 1), designed by Jon Knowles, was beautiful and inspiring--a considerable improvement over the monstrosity that O'Neill outlined in the script. Quite simply, there were, at stage-center, a set of porch steps; a screen door above them; rough-hewn fencing, befitting the Hogan residence, on either side; and arboreal greenery at far-left and right. The steps had the look and feel of an altar; all the more so when caught in the blue-white orb of moonlight included in Alan Goodwin's excellent lighting design. The sound of birds chirping brightly before the start of the show, with the verdant and rustic set in plain view, certainly had a soothing effect. One of intimacy, no less.
The New England Rep's theater, a former Quaker meeting house designed by an Episcopalian architect, seats only 99. One hopes that, for this production, a hundredth seat was re-served somewhere in the heavens for the playwright. Had he seen this production of Moon, O'Neill would have been a proud man indeed.
3. Sara Faces Life: A Touch of the Poet in Boston.
Boston's Lyric Stage company uses with consistent ingenuity its oddly shaped auditorium: a large playing area surrounded on three sides by spectators--two rows across the wide front, and six and seven shorter, tiered rows to left and right. In a February-March production of A Touch of the Poet, effectively directed and designed by Polly Hogan, the setting featured a fireplace, an upholstered chair, a dark-wood bar with shelves behind it, and three tables (two cloth-covered, the third plain and surrounded by wooden chairs), in a room with three doors and two windows, the latter appropriately lace-curtained. A small, inelegant chandelier hung above the stage near the front-center; and the mirror, so necessary to Con Melody's poetic preening, was cleverly placed on the wall behind the two center rows.
Not just in setting but in costume, song and dialects, Ms. Hogan had paid scrupulous attention to period detail, and the result was a piece of early-nineteenth-century Americana that smacked of authenticity. For the spectator, believing in the mise en scène was a helpful first step toward believing in the array of disparate characters who occupy it.
As much care was lavished on the minor as on the major roles. Peter Haydu's Mickey Maloy had a genial smile, a winning garrulousness and a mischievous optical twinkle, especially when, in the first scene, he plied information from Jamie Cregan with abundant "on the house" nips. Deena Mazer's Deborah Harford, floating goddess-like in a white gown with pink trim and short, puffed sleeves, was the essence of ethereal grace until her eyes flared with anger at Con's "blarney" and "absurd performance." Later, in a particularly comic realization of her scene with Sara, she showed herself to be more than a little eccentric--clearly the Deborah we come to know more fully in More Stately Mansions. As Gadsby, Charles Carr was appropriately stiff, genteel and legalistic--a sharp contrast to the barroom riffraff who hold him ironically aloft by the hands and feet and toss him out of the tavern.
Ron Ritchell was curiously subdued as Con Melody, but, while his tight-mouthed, often pianissimo performance was disturbing at first, he ultimately proved capable of considerable force within a limited dynamic range. Actually, his quietest lines were frequently the most cutting, as in his third-act duels with Sara, when we clearly saw the guilt Con felt at the things he had said (and had not said) to his daughter. Ritchell showed that a Major Melody stripped of the vocal fustian and braggadocio that such predecessors as Portman and Robards had draped him in can be just as moving. Perhaps even more so. Not that we can forgive Con's excessive retaliation after Sara's sharpest taunts in Act Three (one of the production's most effective scenes); but we understand, largely because of the quiet delivery, the deep hurt and shame he feels.
True, Mr. Ritchell's was not a perfect performance. He captured, for instance, too little of the comedy in the earlier acts. As for the pain that his rage masks when Sara accuses him of madness in Act One, and the conscious, deliberate brogue he adopts in his last scene: these too were underdone. But he did convey the essence of the character: the pride in a castled past, the self-pity, the studied formality, the love he feels for Nora but hates to admit to, and the deadness at the center of the defeated man who returns from the street brawl in Act Four, ironically calling himself "new born." His hands shaking, his face bruised, his gallant uniform now a tattered, dirt- and blood-stained wreck, and his delivery alternating between mad laughter (after his third-person references to "the Major") and unfeigned tears (especially at his recollection of the dying mare's eyes), Ritchell's Melody, though still knotted with inner conflict, had clearly become a hollow and pitiable husk.
But the production's highest acting honors go to Joan Gale as Nora and Ann Murphy as Sara, not only because they looked like a mother and daughter (see picture on first page of this issue), but because they accentuated the essential elements of their characters' natures best of all. Ms. Gale used movements, looks and a richly expressive voice to mold Nora's combination of strength, worry, warmth and undauntable pride into a moving and believable whole. And Ms. Murphy embodied, with equal verisimilitude, Sara's transition from (1) unnatural uptightness and obstreperous adolescence in the first act (her hair severely caught up in a bun, her feet defiantly bare, and her real feelings carefully hidden--except the love for Simon, which her prestissimo enthusiasm in discussing him with Nora made obvious), to (2) radiant and mature fulfillment in the fourth act (her hair now unloosed; her face now glowing; and her feet now bare again, but no longer with any thought of defiance). Like Eben Cabot in Desire Under the Elms, Sara grows up in the course of her play, and Ms. Murphy's performance traced that development touchingly and persuasively. It was perhaps the finest achievement in a rich and satisfying production.
4. Michael Billington, "Why Are American Plays Suddenly Popular in Britain?" The New York Times (March 23, 1980), Section II, pp. 5, 32.
Noting that, in London's 1979-1980 theatre season, "almost everything good has been American, musical or a revival," Mr. Billington asks, "why this sudden passion for American plays?" He cites " the collapse of the gentleman-code of English drama" in the late 1950's as the turning point when British critics began to look at classic American plays with unjaundiced eyes and realize that they have "a fierce, unironic emotion often lacking in British drama" and frequently surpass the latter in "giving the local a mythic feel." But it was the result of two productions by the National Theater in the early 1970's--Long Day's Journey Into Night and The Front Page--that "the steady trickle of American plays ... turned into a flood." And much of that flood, last season, was the work of Eugene O'Neill--thanks, again, to the National Theater, which scored great successes with productions of The Iceman Cometh (starring Robert Stephens); Hughie (with an American, Stacy Keach, as "the soiled, sweaty, street-wise Hughie, a Runyonesque hustler portrayed without romance"); and the S. S. Glencairn quartet, collectively titled The Long Voyage Home, whose "rare atmospheric poetry" Billington praises, singling out for special commendation the way that The Moon of the Caribbees "leaves behind an indelible image of a gently rocking ship, a star-speckled sky and the distant sound of carnival singing." Billington reports that Bill Bryden, who directed all three evenings of O'Neill, "wants to move on to A Touch of the Poet and More Stately Mansions, though both, he argues, need textual revision." Cuts notwithstanding--and in the case of the latter play they are unquestionably necessary--it's good to hear that "the cultural barriers are crumbling," and that we need not reissue George Jean Nathan's 1932 defense of O'Neill and his U. S. brethren, "On British Condescension Toward American Letters." Bravo, Messrs. Bryden and Billington. We like your plays too! --Ed.
5. Harold Clurman, "What Was Broadway's All-Time Best Season?" The New York Times (March 9, 1980), Section II, pp. 1, 9.
O'Neill loomed large in Mr. Clurman's attempt to answer the question posed by his title. His first thought was the 1919-20 season, "for it was on Feb. 2, 1920, that Eugene O'Neill's first full-length play, Beyond the Horizon, opened at the Morosco Theater. . . Today such a play as Beyond the Horizon might be held too gloomy for most commercial managements. Even in 1920, its producer hesitated a long while before he risked putting it on. American plays with unhappy endings were virtual anathema on Broadway before the 20's.
"What is peculiar in all this is that while the decade . . . was one of exuberant optimism, the reaction to Beyond the Horizon, in which all the characters come to a sorry end, was one of elation. The play 'humanized' us. We were learning to confront tragedy in the theater and to give sober thought to our own life experience. We were growing up: reality was at last permitted free entry onto our stage."
But Clurman's final choice is the 1924-25 season, largely because it included Desire Under the Elms, a play which "made us look at our national past with new eyes. Certain city officials dubbed it 'obscene' and tried to ban it. Others made too much of its Freudian insights. But at its very core were the contrast and conflict of a pre-Civil War generation that had grown tough in the building of the country and the generations that followed, bent on amassing ever greater profit and power from their inheritance only to discover--too late--the blessing of love. Thus the possessors become dispossessed. This was a theme which O'Neill was to develop much more fully in his later work."
Another factor that kept that play's first production in his memory was the performance of its "still little known" star. "When Walter Huston appeared as Ephraim Cabot in Desire Under the Elms, he was a much younger man than the role called for. There was an intensity of concentration, an unwavering grip which might almost serve as a model for the American Puritan character--a quality which in its more gentlemanly aspect informed his acting in Dodsworth and in Knickerbocker Holiday. I saw Desire Under the Elms three times and his Cabot took on added stature and inner dimension at each performance." --Ed.
6. Peter Egri, "The Short Story in the Drama: Chekhov and O'Neill," Acta Litteraria Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, XX (1978), 3-28. (In English.)
In a most valuable comparative study of the dramatic techniques of Chekhov and O'Neill that demonstrates persuasively the "inspiration" that the former provided the latter, Professor Egri discusses the connections, "both generic and genetic," between the short story and the drama. The "generic affinity between the epic turn of a short story and the dramatic zenith of a short play" (p. 4) is shown in the O'Neill one-acts that began as short stories (e.g., Warnings, The Dreamy Kid, Where the Cross Is Made and The Hairy Ape). The more complex "cascade-connection of short story-oriented dramatic units [frequently employing different types of conflict] in multiple-act plays" (p. 5) is revealed in full and detailed studies of Servitude (pp. 11-14) and A Moon for the Misbegotten (pp. 15-24). And A Touch of the Poet is cited as an example of the type of full-length play that features "a short story-like turn at the dramatic zenith." In showing the influence of Chekhov, Professor Egri seeks, "not to accuse [O'Neill] of imitation," but to point out the American playwright's "Chekhovian affinities" (p. 25). That goal is admirably achieved, and the essay is a worthy complement to the one by the same author in Eugene O'Neill: A World View, that is mentioned in Professor Voelker's review on page 13 of this issue. The analyses of Servitude and Moon for the Misbegotten are particularly outstanding, and the editor will share his copy with any interested subscriber lacking access to ALASH. (Requests should include $1.50 for xerographic reproduction and postage.) --Ed.
7. Gordon Gow, "Hughie," Plays and Players (February 1980), pp. 22-23.
A review of the National Theater production that opened at the Cottesloe Theater, London, on January 22, 1980, directed by Bill Bryden, designed by Hayden Griffin, and featuring Stacy Keach as Erie and Howard Goorney as the night clerk. Mr. Gow had praise for all concerned--especially Griffin, whose "naturalistic set ... included just a hint of the blackness and dread outside, punctuated by gaudy points of light ... visible beyond the window"; and Keach, a "considerable presence," whose performance as Erie "catches exactly the truth and the pity at the heart of him." The aforementioned window, one of the production's "valid embellishments on O'Neill," had a double value: not only did it reveal a red neon sign, "HOTEL," outside, but it served as the target of a number of nervous glances by Keach, who, as soon as he entered, "darted to the window to peer furtively out, as if fearful that he might have been followed by some night creature whose intent would indubitably be malign." --Ed.
8. David Mayer, "Anna Christie," Plays and Players (December 1979), pp. 30-31.
A review of the Royal Shakespeare Company production that opened at The Other Place in Stratford on September 18, 1979, directed by Jonathan Lynn, designed by Saul Radomsky, and featuring Susan Tracy as Anna, Fulton MacKay as Chris, and Gareth Thomas as Matt. Mayer admired the production, especially the "luminous acting" of Tracy and MacKay and the cinematic fluidity of Radomsky's "versatile" set; but his respect for the play itself was grudging at best, since his greatest praise was for the way director and performers brought life to the "caricature," "stereotype roles" and "naïveté and patent artificiality" of the "ungainly" text, and successfully fought and resisted O'Neill's invitation "to pull out the stops and to play for the Big Effect" (p. 31). A misprint adds to the review's piquancy, and leads one to wonder if the playwright were striking back: "Tracy and MacKay emphasize the kinship of Anna and Christ through the same mixture of sensitivity, coarse fibred toughness, and unexpected streaks of self-pity." --Ed.
9. David McDonald, "The Phenomenology of the Glance in Long Day's Journey Into Night," Theatre Journal (October 1979), pp. 343-356.
Mr. McDonald's premise is that "Long Day's Journey Into Night is a structure of watchers-being-watched in which all of the observers are trapped in a play of glances--glances of death--that mutually intersect and abstract the presence of the characters, leaving only a trace of their being as a sign of their essential absence" (p. 343). This premise gives rise to what must be the most exhaustive study of glances, glancers and glancees ever devoted to a literary or dramatic work. Its style is frequently convoluted, but the intricacy of the subject precludes mellifluousness. Beginning with an explanation of the Sartrean sources for his terminology and approach (especially Being and Nothingness), McDonald then establishes (p. 344) "four descriptive phases of a developing sequence for the unveiling of absence" in the play, and relates them, consecutively, to one or more of its five scenes--Presence (Act 1), Appearance (Act 2, Scene 1), Transference (Act 2, Scene 2 and Act 3), and Absence (Act 4)--noting, though, that the four phases "interplay throughout the text" in an "interlacing flow," the study of which "contributes to our understanding both of the play's meaning and of its effect" (p. 345). He traces the "sequence of positional changes between observers and beings-observed" (p. 344); provides a particularly penetrating study of the last-act Mary Tyrone as deliberate performer; and offers a detailed explication of so many stage directions and pieces of dialogue, while pointing out "the intricate visual interplay" in a drama usually noted for its "verbal density" (p. 356, italics mine), that no abstract can do it justice. The essay admirably elucidates "the dynamic, and even tragic, effect of perception--of seeing and being seen--on the identity and fate of the characters" (p. 356), and deserves the careful attention of anyone confronting the play, whether in study, classroom, or playhouse. --Ed.
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