Menu Bar


Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. IX, No. 1
Spring, 1985


O'NEILL ON THE GERMAN-LANGUAGE STAGE. A review of Ward E. Lewis's Eugene O'Neill: The German Reception of America's First Dramatist (Berne: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 1984, 211 pp. ISBN 0-8204-0156-0. $28.95.)

Professor Lewis's work is a valuable contribution to O'Neill studies that does more than its title promises. This 136-page text focuses on O'Neill's plays in Germany. Professor Lewis has adopted an excellent method of presentation which combines discussions of content of plays and their receptions in America and Germany with running comparisons of responses to O'Neill in the two countries. The book contains a goodly number of well-selected quotations from German-language sources which are precious to specialists while perplexing to non-Germanists. However, the English text leaves little of the gist of quotations to the imagination of non-linguists.

Professor Lewis discusses the best-known plays according to the chronology of their productions in Germany. In order to fill in gaps in O'Neill stage history, the author includes outstanding Austrian productions from time to time. One can easily grasp his reasons for confining his focus, yet one can regret that some of the interesting Swiss productions of O'Neill could not be included.

Among several advantages of Lewis's approach, an especially worthwhile result is its demonstration of the emergence of O'Neill from a definitely alienated critical viewpoint to the status of one of the world's major dramatists. One early critic, after seeing Anna Christie, said he preferred American automobiles to American drama. The following plays were produced--all without real success--between 1923 and 1928: Anna Christie, 1923; Emperor Jones, 1924; The Hairy Ape, 1924; Desire Under the Elms, 1925; All God's Chillun Got Wings, 1926; and The Great God Brown, 1928. It was not until thirty-five years later that Austrian director Ernst Lothar placed O'Neill among the great dramatists of all time with his claim that "Mourning Becomes Electra ... is not only O'Neill's finest play, it is one of the greatest tragedies in world literature" (Express am Morgen, 4 May 1963).

The early period of O'Neill on the German-language stage ended, nevertheless, in a victory. The victory, to be sure, was conceded by critics and audiences rather to the actors and the production than to the author. But henceforth Eugene O'Neill was a must for the German repertoire. The play was Strange Interlude, and the confluence of forces which led up to this memorable event in Berlin's theatrical history is so remarkable that one ought not to omit it here.

In her all too brief autobiography entitled Unordentliche Erinnerungen (Casual Memories), Elisabeth Bergner relates the circumstances of this production. Owing to a bad press after she had played Juliet in Shakespeare's play, she had gone into exile in England. Here she read Strange Interlude in the original, then in a rough German translation. She found the role of Nina Leeds irresistible, fell in love with the whole play, and returned to Berlin, script in hand. Under Reinhardt's management of the Deutsches Theater she had signed a contract to play a part in a drama of her own choosing, By her return to Berlin Reinhardt had turned the management of this theater over to Dr. Robert Klein. Bergner wanted to break the contract, but Klein held her to it. She then chose Strange Interlude as her option. But Dr. Klein indignantly refused this choice. Having looked at the script he called the play a mere imitation of Strindberg, an opera by Wagner without the music. "No German audience would sit through it," he said with finality. Bergner's reply in substance was: No play, no contract.

Reluctantly yielding, the theater manager took his revenge. He invited two theater celebrities who shared his view of the O'Neill play to occupy the manager's loge at the premiere for the purpose of disrupting the performance. Bergner writes that in the tensions of the first night she began to hear voices, and laughter where no humor belonged. The theater barely escaped a madhouse scene when Rudolf Forster, who was playing Darrell, suddenly walked downstage and faced the audience in silence until quiet was restored. There-after applause stifled the efforts of the two mischief-makers. Next morning the critics tore the play to bits while conceding that Bergner was good and the production by Heinz Hilpert well done. Dr. Klein walked up to Bergner with the remark: "Now are you satisfied?" She assumed the play would be dropped at once. But, just as the manager was reaching this decision, word came from the box office that long lines stretched out into the street. Tickets were selling for a run, and Bergner played the role for seventy-five nights before she left town again. (See Unordentliche Erinnerungen. Munich: C. Bertelmann, 1978, pp. 65-68.)

The role of Nina, writes the actress, was "an unforgettable high point in my career." Bergner says the interior monologues, so often panned by critics, contributed immensely to the maturing of her talent. Professor Lewis calls the monologues a "mixed blessing" and praises the judgment of Rudolf Steinboeck, who cut most of them out of the script for his Burg production in Vienna. One regrets that the author could not have seen Keith Hack's recent production with Glenda Jackson and Edward Petherbridge.

Whether or not one agrees with the specific conclusions of Professor Lewis, his book conveys truths about O'Neill's oeuvre which his fellow countrymen too often overlook. One of these is the astonishing popularity and prestige of Mourning Becomes Electra on the German-language stage. Since O'Neill was banned from National Socialist Germany (1933-1945), Austria was first to produce Mourning Becomes Electra, on February 11, 1938--one month before the country was swallowed up by the Hitler regime. This play was chosen to represent American drama within a cycle of plays from different nations. Critical response varied from revulsion to praise. Audience reactions--in part, owing to a brilliant cast--were evidently enthusiastic. One critic notes that ovations lasted almost throughout the intermission, and extended applause marked the final curtain. As Lewis observes, this production is little known, though it represents a milestone in the upward trend of O'Neill's dramatic stature. Josef Gielen, who directed, cut and rewrote Rita Mathias' translation in order to adapt it to his players and to a four-hour performance. The late Ewald Balser took the General Mannon role, while Maria Eis played Lavinia. (Frau Eis had played the title role in Anna Christie in 1924.)

After the war, Mourning Becomes Electra was freshly translated by Marianne Wentzel, who went on to translate all but the last four plays of O'Neill. The translation and production rights to these were awarded by Carlotta to Oscar Fritz Schuh.

The stage history of O'Neill's plays in translation has to begin in Sweden, the land of August Strindberg. There alone a company of actors over decades has specialized in plays by O'Neill and Strindberg. Karl Ragnar Gierow, formerly manager of the Royal Dramaten in Stockholm, has recorded that this theater produced Anna Christie, Days Without End, Strange Interlude, Desire Under the Elms, Mourning Becomes Electra, Ah, Wilderness!, Iceman Cometh, All God's Chillun, A Moon for the Misbegotten, Long Day's Journey, A Touch of the Poet, Emperor Jones, Hughie, and More Stately Mansions in this sequence. The relevance of Gierow's enthusiasm lies in its carry-over to his German friend, Oscar Fritz Schuh. As Schuh once told the reviewer, he followed closely in Gierow's footsteps in translating and producing the last four O'Neill plays which created the O'Neill "Renaissance" in Germany. A brief listing will illustrate: A Moon for the Misbegotten opened at Stockholm in 1953; in Berlin, 1954; Long Day's Journey in Stockholm, 1957; in Salzburg, 1957; Hughie in Stockholm, 1958; in Salzburg, 1960; More Stately Mansions in Stockholm, 1962; in Salzburg, 1965. And regularly, Schuh pointed out, after his first German-language production, the plays went the rounds of German, Austrian, and sometimes Swiss theaters.

As the American dramatist's stature grew with his late plays, interest in the earlier works increased, says Lewis. And early plays were given better productions. All God's Chillun now became a favorite of audiences, stimulating lively discussions of the racial and political problems raised by O'Neill. Ah, Wilderness! came into its own with many productions in the sixties; this play was felt to be a genuine representation of a stratum of life in America.

Of O'Neill's major works, only Iceman Cometh has never yet had a truly successful German-language production. A comparison of O'Neill's text with the cut version which was offered by Kurt Hirschfeld in collaboration with Eric Bentley in the fall of 1950 reveals the secret of the play's failure. As Bentley explains in his famous essay, "Trying to Like O'Neill," the two men cut an hour out of Iceman. Bentley assumed that O'Neill's sense of theatrical form clashed with his "repetitious garrulousness." It was therefore the job of the dramaturge to excise the fat and keep the solid flesh--or at least the bone. When this skeleton of the play put audiences to sleep, Bentley made up his mind that it was the dramatist's fault! Hence, though he tried, he found O'Neill wanting. Bentley thinks the untranslatable dialects, the absence of American tough talk, was a great loss. Yet when Iceman Cometh was given a four-and-a-half-hour performance at the Stockholm Dramaten, Tom Olsson tells us ("O'Neill and the Royal Dramatic," in Virginia Floyd's volume, Eugene O'Neill: A World View. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1979): ""The critics were profusely enthusiastic...."

A Touch of the Poet was the center of attention at the Salzburg Festival of 1957. Schuh had again found just the right cast: Attila Hörbiger as Cornelius Melody; Adrienne Gessner as Nora; Aglaja Schmidt as Sara; and Marianne Hoppe as Deborah Harford. Schuh once told the writer that Touch of the Poet is, of all O'Neill plays, the audience favorite. In Germany, Austria, and Switzerland between 1956 and 1974 it had sixty-nine productions.

If Professor Lewis undertakes a second edition of his book, one hopes he will include the Swiss contribution to the German-language stage through its interesting selection of O'Neill plays. During World War II the Zurich Schauspielhaus was the only theater to produce O'Neill in German. In 1943 Mourning Becomes Electra appeared on this stage. The first German-language production of Marco Millions was staged at the Basel Stadttheater in May 1945, eleven years before it appeared at the Frankfurt Städtische Buhnen. And of course the excellent, if misguided, 1950 production of Iceman Cometh was also at the Zurich Schauspielhaus.

The one flaw in Professor Lewis's book is in Chapter I where he discusses Anna Christie in Berlin from the perspectives of Alfred Kerr and Rudolf Kommer. Discussion of Anna Christie has been saved for the latter part of this review in order not to cast a negative light from the start upon this highly readable, highly informative, and serious piece of scholarship. Kerr was disappointed with the production on 9 October 1923, as were most (but not all) of the critics. One reviewer said the play gave Käthe Dorsch (Anna) an opportunity to exhibit all her acting talent. Prof. Horst Frenz is the source of Lewis's statement that Anna shot herself in a sudden unmotivated moment. True, this was an inspiration of the young but able director, Fritz Wendhausen, a protégé of Reinhardt; Lengyel had, however, developed sufficient motivation for suicide, but had prevented it by a quick re-action of Mat who grabs the pistol. Yet even then Anna's last words in the play are, "Ich will sterben, Mat." (I want to die, Mat.)

Another unfounded statement of Lewis is on p. 20: "The entire second act of the original work [Anna Christie] was deleted in the Berlin production." The opening and early part of Act II in O'Neill is almost identical with Lengyel's text. But Lengyel combines O'Neill's Act II with Act III; he also deletes about half of Mat's stage-Irish boastings, and the rescue scene is treated in retrospect rather than as an immediate event.

Rudolf Kommer, a hanger-on and employee of Reinhardt, was a gifted linguist and a brilliant conversationalist. Alexander Woolcott wrote him up as a human curiosity in the New Yorker, IX (March 18, 1933), pp. 20-23. Kommer was a disappointed author and translator. In his delightful but utterly misleading article "Eugene O'Neill in Europe," Kommer was spitting venom at the established Hungarian dramatist Melchior (Menyhért was his original name in Hungarian) Lengyel when he accused the latter of a Berlitz acquaintance with German and English.* In a letter of February 20, 1972, Liddy-Ann Lengyel, wife of the author, wrote the reviewer that she had translated a text provided by her husband, who had "an excellent dramatic sense and was so well known in German and Central European theatrical circles that he could secure the first productions of an O'Neill play." She states further that the Lengyel version of Anna Christie was obtained in New York during a visit while Emperor Jones was on Broadway, though she could not recall the name of O'Neill's agent. This cancels Lewis's suggestion that Lengyel smuggled a script of Anna out of the country. True, there were numerous condemnations of the translation. Translators of plays are rarely popular among critics. Oscar Fritz Schuh, himself a translator, has remarked that the sure sign of a good translation is when the critics do not mention it; if it becomes the subject of discussion, it is flawed. There are no data available for many productions of Anna in the early years; however, the Mykenae Verlag has data for the period 1954 to 1976. Lengyel's version was used through 1960. The play ran intermittently for three seasons, 1954 to 1957. In 1956/57, Anna was performed 40 times at the Zimmertheater in Hamburg. In that season (when Long Day's Journey had brought with it an O'Neill vogue), the play was performed seventy-four times in four theaters. Regarding the quality of the translation, Walter Tappe, who directed Anna at the Jürgen-Fehling theater in Berlin, 1945, told the reviewer that he found the version quite adequate; he may have changed three or four words, as is normal, while rehearsing the play. Dr. Tappe was unaware that O'Neill's published text is very different from, and some five thousand words longer than Lengyel's.

Both text and footnotes show careful proofreading. Yet, as usual, a few solecisms have crept in. It is a pleasure to note the accuracy of names and language in the German quotations. One can imagine that the Swiss printers assisted in this. Yet on p. 186, Note 4, one reads "das Vehemenz." On p. 162, Note 1, Edward Balser should read Ewald Balser; on p. 85, Alice Bradley should read Alice Brady; and on the same page Earle Lattimore should read Earle Larimore.

--James P. Pettegrove

* The Kommer article, like the one by Eric Bentley earlier cited, is most readily available in Oscar Cargill et al., O'Neill and His Plays (New York: New York University Press, 1966). Kommer's article appears on pp. 266-269, Bentley's on pp. 331-345.



© Copyright 1999-2007