Menu Bar


Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. V, No. 1
Spring, 1981



1. Morris U. Burns, The Dramatic Criticism of Alexander Woollcott (Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, 1980), 286 pp., $15.00.

There may be no more colorful witness to the American theatre's golden years than Alexander Woollcott (1887-1943), raconteur, reviewer, radio "personality," actor, wit, co-founder of the Algonquin Round Table, playwright, and model for the work of fellow playwrights. So Professor Burns' volume--since it comprises (1) a detailed survey of Woollcott's career and his views on "Actors and Acting," "Playwrights and Playwriting," and "Theatre Issues," liberally laced with memorable mots, (2) a bibliography of all of his published works, and (3) an alphabetized, documented list of all the theatrical productions he reviewed--deserves a place in any collection with significant holdings in American drama and drama criticism. While he admits that Woollcott was "not a critic in any but a rather general sense of the term" (being an "ardent dilettante" rather than a "profound theorist"), Burns shows how much Woollcott's views reflect the theatre of his day and how witty the reflection can frequently be. While one might lament the extreme brevity of Burns' ultimate evaluation of his subject (Chapter 5, where that evaluation had been promised, is cagily titled "Postscript" and is only slightly more than one page in length), the analysis and documentation in the rest of the book are abundant and thorough.

An O'Neill scholar might not wish to invest $15 in a volume only eight of whose pages (85-92) are devoted solely to O'Neill; but references to the playwright are scattered throughout. Which is hardly surprising: Woollcott reviewed 18 O'Neill plays between Nov. 9, 1919 (The Dreamy Kid) and Feb. 5, 1928 (Strange Interlude); he was one of O'Neill's most dedicated early champions ("his work will be read and acted," he wrote in 1925, "long after most of the contemporary work in the American theatre is forgotten dust"); and he was also, especially after The First Man in 1922, one of his most feisty detractors, when he saw the O'Neill qualities he most admired--power, imagination, originality and believability--being overwhelmed by prolixity, implausibility and pretentiousness. For instance, he had praise for the mélange of dialects in The Hairy Ape in 1922 ("It is true talk, all of it"), but utter scorn for the "naive and tasteless pomposity" of the words assigned to the characters in Strange Interlude (1928)--"store dummies ... spouting all too unmistakably the words of the ventriloquial O'Neill himself."

Few O'Neill works earned as much of Woollcott's disdain as did Strange Interlude ("that 'Abie's Irish Rose' of the pseudo-intelligentsia"), and his responses to that play and to Desire Under the Elms receive the fullest treatment in Professor Burns' survey. (In both instances, reviews' titles say a great deal: "Through Darkest New England" for Desire, and "Giving O'Neill Till It Hurts" for Interlude!) Desire's special staging effect--the removable walls of the farmhouse--since it was at the very least implausible, earned the initial scorn of Woollcott the devotee of theatrical realism. Any member of the Cabot household, he noted, may stroll of an evening and observe--repeatedly--how "purty" the sky is--"But the same character is not permitted to notice also that a large hunk of the wall of his home has been neatly cut away for the benefit of some Peeping Toms out in the audience." But Woollcott had to admit that, though the resultant "strain on ... illusion" was "painful," the device did permit two stunning moments: the electrical connection between Eben and Abbie in "the intensely dramatic juxtaposition of the two bedrooms" in Part Two-Scene Two; and, even more importantly,

the picture [in Part Three-Scene One] of that jeering crowd of neighbors drinking to the new baby in the kitchen below, while the still ailing mother rocks moodily in the corner. And at the same time held in suspense as an essential part of the same picture, you could see the silhouette of the cradle against the candle light in her bedroom above and, in the adjoining bedroom, the mute father of that baby twisting tormented in the lonely silence enforced upon him. You may remember that scene when you have forgotten much that seemed weak and raucous and untrue in Desire Under the Elms.

Such a passage reveals the Woollcott gifts at their best: a willingness to bend his established views if theatrical impact justified it, and an infectious enthusiasm for all of theatre--nonverbal elements as much as text--and delight in writing about it.

While popular biographies of Woollcott offer a deeper, rounder portrait of the man, The Dramatic Criticism of Alexander Woollcott is a splendid overview of that portrait's most important ingredient. And it renews one's regret at not having been present at the Algonquin Round Table's No Sirree!, a revue satirizing contemporary theatre, penned and performed by its members at the 49th Street Theatre in 1922, in which Woollcott "played the part of the Second Agitated Seaman in 'The Greasy Hog,' a one-act satire of O'Neill's one-act sea plays." --Ed.

2. Jean Chothia, Forging a Language: A Study of the Plays of Eugene O'Neill (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 243 pp., $24.50.

As the first full-scale analysis of O'Neill's developing use of language for the stage, Ms. Chothia's study deserves a place on every O'Neillian's bookshelf, though it certainly ousts none of its predecessors. First of all, the phrase "full-scale" must be qualified: it is as misleadingly broad as Ms. Chothia's subtitle; since she is extremely selective in her choice of works for detailed analysis. Of the early plays (1913-1923), only three (All God's Chillun, The Hairy Ape and Desire Under the Elms) are treated at length; of those of the middle period (1924-1934), only two (Lazarus Laughed and Mourning Becomes Electra, the latter of which is excessively denigrated); and of the late plays (1939-1943), another two (The Iceman Cometh and Long Day's Journey), though these last are granted a chapter each and are covered in full and revealing detail.

Secondly, a discussion of a group of plays' linguistic component, carried on with-out consideration of all those plays' other constituent parts, would be of limited value. But fortunately Ms. Chothia's range is much broader than her announced one: the plays she does treat are treated "holistically," and she extends her coverage well beyond O'Neill's oeuvre to consider such broader contextual elements as these:

(1) the nature of language in prose drama, and the fallacy in the assumption that realistic dialogue is or could be an exact copy of real speech ("it operates by duplicity; it is not spontaneous but must appear to be so");

(2) the growth in the last century of dramatists' awareness of, and experimentation with, stage speech (achieving "a finely patterned organic imagery that might justly be called 'poetic");

(3) the failure of academic critics to follow suit and devote the attention to modern dramatic prose that it deserves (an omission that she rectifies vis-à-vis O'Neill in the present volume);

(4) the conditions, genres and language of American drama in the nineteenth century (an unlikely spawning ground for genius) and the revolutions effected by European influences in the early twentieth century (a diversity of influences and isms that intrigued and occupied O'Neill but that he failed to mold into a successful unity until his late period);

(5) O'Neill's "literary biography"--what he read throughout his youth and career (admirably delineated in a select but revealing appendix on pp. 199-206 that lists, in parallel, chronological columns, the plays and the concurrent reading that was directly or indirectly influential on each of them; and shows O'Neill to have been a man whose biography was as literary as physical because of his penchant for "experiencing the world with a consciousness shaped by his reading"); and

(6) the evolution of American interest in the vernacular, which became a serious element in poetry and fiction well before drama, and which O'Neill was the first to use extensively for non-comic purposes in the theatre, earning him one third of the crown shared by Twain and Whitman as co-fathers of the vernacular in American letters.

So the book, which concludes with appendices on "Irish dialect and artifice in the two last plays" (Touch of the Poet and Moon for the Misbegotten) and "A Tale of Possessors, Self-Dispossessed' copious notes, a select but valuable bibliography, and a helpful index, can hardly be accused of narrowness of focus.

The core of the work (Chapters 3-6) is a study of the relative effectiveness of the language in the three periods into which the O'Neill canon is traditionally divided; and the chart (p. xii) reproduced at the left is an extremely helpful and revealing division of the plays into several linguistic categories.

Ms. Chothia reveals a qualified fondness for the first period because of the freshness of the slang and dialect (when he avoids "the trap of virtuosity") and its effectiveness in characterizing protagonists (e.g., Jim in All God's Chillun and Yank in The Hairy Ape) whose natures and aspirations are as unsophisticated and inchoate as their speech patterns. (There's fine coverage here of how both protagonists are set off by their language, and of how O'Neill, "by giving [Jim] speech that is continually developing, ... embodies his aspiration and spiritual search.") O'Neill, she explains, deliberately chose such characters, who lacked his own articulateness, to save himself from the "formulaic language of the nineteenth century" that had been so glaringly dominant in his earliest attempts (the "Lost Plays"). But by 1923 he had largely abandoned what he called "the dodge-question of dialect" (i.e., dodging the question of how to express himself by choosing speakers so different from himself).

Ms. Chothia agrees that the abandonment was artistically and emotionally necessary:

To allow him to develop a more personal voice, he had to develop more sophisticated characters whose vision and verbal capacity would approximate to his own and to that of his audience.

But she deplores the results of the decision--the "Standard American" of the middle period, which she divides into two parts:

(1) those plays in which he adopted "the poetic style"; e.g., Lazarus Laughed, with its "monotonous exclamatory structure, [its] use of abstract nouns to give size to the thought, bald repetition [and] affirmation unfounded in the action of the play"--all of which are blamed on the playwright's incomplete adoption of Nietzschean devices; and

(2) those plays in which he subsequently utilized "realistic dialogue"; e.g., Mourning Becomes Electra, in which a new monotony of style develops, replacing the discarded poeticism, that again "deadens the audience's capacity to ponder motive and deliberate on human relationships," largely because O'Neill "fails to embody his real concerns in the dialogue and action."

The greatest space and praise are allotted to the plays of the late period, in which, for reasons that Ms. Chothia is unable to define, he succeeded in combining "standard English" and "low-colloquial" into the "significant form" that she dissects in the superb chapters on Iceman (where O'Neill "differentiates all seventeen characters who people Hope's bar and makes us interested in them so that the stage seems to teem with life") and Long Day's Journey, which is an even greater achievement because "the art of the caricaturist," that O'Neill mastered in sketching the seventeen figures in Iceman, is succeeded by an art so richly, complexly and three-dimensionally lifelike that O'Neill is essentially "confronting the audience with the pattern of its own familiar conversations and asking them to leap its gaps and understand its shared assumptions." This springs from his achievement of a "family rhythm" for the four Tyrones that seems "to root the characters together in their shared past." The result is one of those all-too-rare plays "whose action and emotion seem ... searingly close to ourselves ...." O'Neill had finally achieved the "real realism" he had always sought. As Ms. Chothia says, and persuasively demonstrates, in each of the late plays "we feel the presence of a creative imagination, shaping and controlling the elements of the play. Nothing is arbitrary or unfinished as it so often was in the past."

Readers wishing a more thorough coverage of the contents of Forging a Language should consult the reviews by Michael Hinden in Contemporary Drama (Winter 1980-81), pp. 374-377, and Dennis Welland in the Times Literary Supplement (April 4, 1980), p. 399. I agree with both critics, and have tried to avoid repeating them; but they did their work so thoroughly that I was left with little to say!

One might quibble with some of Ms. Chothia's judgments, such as her near-total rejection of all of Mourning Becomes Electra but its last scene. And one might regret that Hickey is treated far too briefly for a character of his magnitude. But whatever its shortcomings, this is a book to reckon with. As the author herself notes, it is not an end in itself, but an exemplary catalyst for many future studies. --Ed.

3. Richard B. Sewall, The Vision of Tragedy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), xi + 209 pp.

Along with The Trial, Long Day's Journey Into Night was added to this new, "expanded edition" of Professor Sewall's 1959 volume because, like the Kafka novel, it "explores a central area of contemporary experience rife with tragic potential," "transcends the limits of realism on the one hand and pathos on the other," and "reaches out toward cosmic concerns...." In his introductory chapter, Professor Sewall declines to define tragedy per se because it is "not a doctrine" but a "sense of life," whose components he does delineate: an "independent, radical vision," a "contemplated and individual response to suffering," and an active, impulsive, creative grappling with existential questions that "puts to the test of action all the formulations of philosophy and religion."

In his study of the play, which is admirably summarized and anatomized on pp. 161-174, with particularly sensitive attention to stage directions, Professor Sewall shows how "the wrangling Tyrones become Everyfamily, prisoners of their own temperaments; there is no way out--except the one no one will take." He shows how the play is built on a series of encounters, all following the same pattern--"blame, counter-blame, uneasy truce"--and how, overarching this series of clashes and impermanent resolutions, the play's "progress, or 'journey,' ... is toward a deeper understanding of each other's natures on the part of the four Tyrones," who, though they lack heroic attributes, amaze us with their stamina and tenacity: "They bear it out to the end--and the end is not bitter." Among the insights gained by the characters are these: "that human beings are capable of loving and hating at the same time," and that there could be no release from their individual and familial burdens "until they could look within themselves and be honest to what they saw." Each Tyrone's agon is inextricably linked with those of the other three. All are fogbound, and none escapes it completely (neither during the play nor, we can infer, afterward), but they do, through their interaction, "have glimpses through the fog to new truth"; have moments of what Professor Sewall calls "redemptive insight." It is this "capacity for suffering--and for learning from it--on the part of the four Tyrones" that raises the play from melodrama to tragedy, and that permitted O'Neill, in the "quest for meaning" that the writing of the play constituted, to secure his own release from "fatalism, despair, bitterness." As for the fictional participants, that the end of their story is not bitter is the result of the most heartening facet of their composite portrait: "the love and loyalty that, for all the bickering, keeps them from disintegration, as individuals and as a family." --Ed.

4. Michael Hinden, "Desire and Forgiveness: O'Neill's Diptych," Comparative Drama (Fall 1980), pp. 240-250.

No one reading Professor Hinden's insightful essay, in which he cites a multitude of parallels and links between Desire Under the Elms and A Moon for the Misbegotten--parallels not only in setting, cast, plot and theme (all of which are lucidly under-scored), but also "in terms of psychology and structure"--could possibly question the profound relatedness of these two plays, which, taken together, "comprise a fascinating diptych, two panels of a single portrait or one unified action." In the later play, "certain unconscious fantasies dramatized in [the earlier] are exorcised and self-forgiven"; and the character of Jim Tyrone is shown, when compared to Eben Cabot, to be at least as close, internally, to O'Neill himself as to his brother Jamie. As Professor Hinden says, "by dramatizing Jamie's oedipal dilemma [in Moon], O'Neill may have been trying to come to terms with his own."

The keystone of this rich study is Professor Hinden's comparison of the parlor scene in Desire and the pieta scene in Moon. "The penitents who need to be forgiven in both instances [Eben in Desire, Jim in Moon] are one and the same figure: a son who fornicates in the presence of his dead mother [Eben in the parlor, Jim on the train]. ... In both cases the sexual act is the result of hatred and hostility, not love, an attack against the parent by the child." But the "desire" and "endless guilt" in the early play give way to "forgiveness" and "peace" in the later, which is "suffused with an unparalleled generosity of spirit," and in which O'Neill "revisited the scene of Desire Under the Elms in order to shrive his composite protagonist (and possibly himself) of complicated guilt feelings related to a mother's death." As a pair of plays concerning "the desperate cycle of guilt and forgiveness," O'Neill's diptych equals the intimacy and power of Strindberg's treatment of the same subject.

Ah, Wilderness! and Long Day's Journey; Touch of the Poet and More Stately Mansions; Iceman and Hughie: all have proven in the past to be pairs worthy of close, interrelated study. But after Professor Hinden's analysis, they've met their match, and he relates the new diptych's two panels superbly. --Ed.

5. Earl Hyman, who plays James Tyrone, Sr., in the Geraldine Fitzgerald-directed production of Long Day's Journey Into Night that is reviewed in this issue, was interviewed by Carol Lawson in the New York Times (March 27, 1981, p. C2) and responded "with mild annoyance" to a question about blacks playing the white, Irish Tyrones. "Black. We forgot all that and went right to the meat of these people--their humanity, what makes them tick. With any three-dimensional part, the Irishness or blackness is only on the surface. The rest is internal. Otherwise, you have an ethnic play, which this is not.... The fact that the cast is black is other people's problem, not mine. Let's face it. The play has a universal theme. It's a picture of the human condition: we love each other, yet we hurt each other. We say we're sorry and then go on hurting each other forever and ever."

Mr. Hyman's affection for O'Neill began long before the present production. "I always knew I would play this role. I love O'Neill and always have--passionately. He was a Libra, and I'm a Libra. I see a lot of similarities between us--his love for his work, a touch of mysticism, the extraordinary closeness of his family, a bit of self-destructiveness." --Ed.

6. The dual influences of Strindberg and Ibsen on O'Neill were mentioned in Michiko Kakutani's New York Times essay, "How Ibsen Fathered the Modern Drama" (December 14, 1980, Section II, pp. 1, 4):

Certainly the most renowned of Strindberg's admirers remains Eugene O'Neill, who called him "my inspiration down all the years." For O'Neill, after all, Strindberg was not simply a literary mentor; he was also a kind of kindred spirit whose dark vision was remarkably similar to his own. Both charted the terrain of the unconscious, and both exposed and expiated their lives through their work.

It was not just by way of Strindberg, however, that Ibsen affected O'Neill. The young writer read [Shaw's] The Quintessence of Ibsenism while in high school, and his early play Servitude, which one reviewer described as "what happens to a Nora after she slams the door," possesses strong echoes of both Shaw and Ibsen. There are also overtones of The Wild Duck in The Iceman Cometh, for both are concerned with the necessity of illusion ....

But it was the theme of the family, of hereditary guilt, that was the most lasting of Ibsen's legacies to O'Neill .... Ibsen, says [Rolf] Fjelde, who has translated most of Ibsen's plays, was the "first dramatist to understand the spiritual implications of Darwinism," and in that sense "O'Neill's greatest plays are Ibsenesque plays--the exploration of the family, this pressing deeper and deeper into the soul."

O'Neill's debt to Ibsen is hardly "news," but it deserves periodic reemphasis. And the two dramatists were similar, not only in the content of their plays, but in the negative responses each elicited from his first critics. Given the epigraph to Robert Butler's essay in this issue, one infers that O'Neill himself might have said, as Ibsen did say, "I have been more of a poet ... than people have generally been inclined to believe." --Ed.

7. Eric Pace, "Preserving the Homes Where O'Neill Lived and Worked," New York Times (Sunday, February 8, 1981), pp. 5, 18.

Because of the extraordinary breadth of Mr. Pace's coverage of current O'Neill-related activities, it seemed more appropriate to reprint it than to synopsize it. It appears, in its original form, on the next two pages. Filling out the second of the two pages is the Hirshfeld drawing of Earle Hyman as James Tyrone, Sr., in the production of Long Day's Journey Into Night that is reviewed in this issue. The drawing appeared in the March 27, 1981 issue of the Times (p. C2), and the quotation that accompanies it is from Mr. Hyman's interview with Carol Lawson that appears on the same page and is abstracted in this issue of the Newsletter.

8. Jordan Pecile, "Where the Long Day's Journey Began," The Hartford Courant Magazine (Sunday, December 28, 1980), pp. 4-7.

An excellent survey of the genesis, subsequent decay and recent resurrection of Monte Cristo Cottage, with fitting praise for its Curator, Sally Pavetti, and its Assistant Curator, Lois McDonald, for their painstaking success at having "raised up out of the saddest ruins what must be not only New London's but one of this nation's most important literary landmarks--one that, with its environs, figures in at least ten of O'Neill's dramas."

James O'Neill, Sr.'s motives for settling there; the cottage's birth as a store-dwelling and a one-story schoolhouse clapped together and adorned with the obligatory Victorian embellishments; the treatment of the O'Neills by the neighboring gentry; and the effect of visiting the cottage on one's understanding of Long Day's Journey and Ah, Wilderness!: all of these items and many more are included in Mr. Pecile's account, which is accompanied by excellent photographs of the cottage's exterior, the parlor, O'Neill's Provincetown desk, and the famous balustrade in which the seven-year-old Eugene is supposed to have carved MC and been punished for it--the MC being a snide allusion to his father's theatrical vehicle, The Count of Monte Cristo.

Anent the snubs of the New London neighbors and their effect on the playwright, Mr. Pecile infers that they were influential on his ambition and records a confession that O'Neill later made to an old drinking buddy about why, in his youth, he'd dreamed of wealth: "so that he could hire a buggy, fill it with whores, load each whore with a bushel of dimes, and then ride with them down New London's main street, tossing money not only to the rabble but to the local gentry--those 'big frogs in a small puddle.' ... It would be his glorious way of getting even with his home town."

Anent the MC, recent restoration may have toppled that venerable legend of filial disaffection: the restorers have "uncovered a notch at the center of the C, leading some to wonder if O'Neill actually carved the word ME, a curious act of introspection." (Not too curious, considering the acronym that O'Neill's three initials produce: EGO!) But does it matter? As long as we interpret his plays aright, his carving can remain teasingly enigmatic!

For its pictures alone, this issue of the Hartford Courant Magazine is well worth having. Write to the paper (Hartford CT 06115) if you wish to acquire it. --Ed.



© Copyright 1999-2007