FOCUS ON WELDED: A SPECIAL SECTION
The quick demise of the Columbia University production of Welded, which failed to complete even its modest originally-scheduled run, must have been even more disappointing to director Jose Quintero and his cast than it was to this would-be viewer, who had reservations to see it two days after his return from England, only to discover that that return coincided exactly with its farewell performance. Nothing new, of course. Welded, which O'Neill described as his "attempt at the last word in intensity in the truth about love and marriage" (italics mine), had lasted only 24 performances when it was first presented in 1924, and it had been produced in New York City only once between then and its short-lived revival this June. And one might surmise with double dismay that another production will be a long time coming.
Unfortunately the real "last word" is that of the critics, and the bottom line is box office receipts. So, when Mel Gussow (New York Times, June 18, 1981, p. C22) berated Mr. Quintero for "heavy-handed direction" and "unwarranted exhumation" of "one of O'Neill's most dreadful plays," in which "we simply see O'Neill drowning in a Sargasso Sea of symbolism, in overwrought language that might have sunk a lesser reputation"--receipts, not surprisingly, dropped to nil and the corpse was precipitously reburied. Which is sad for those who were eager to see it but couldn't: even if its fate was justified, better a bad production than none at all. And that is the first, more personal half of the double dismay I spoke of above.
What's far worse--a potential tragedy--is that many other enterprising directors, who might have been thinking of similar worthy exhumations, will heed the fate of Welded, prudently scrap their plans, and opt for yet another sure-fire Ah, Wilderness! Not that one can blame such directors: critics wield power, playgoers have limited funds for ticket buying, and an unsubsidized theater can't risk, "for art's sake," the former's scorn or the latter's defection and play to near-empty houses. Nor would I blame Mr. Gussow, whose sympathy for the untraditional is well-established and whose candor was probably just--though if the justice had been tempered with a touch more mercy, the director, designer and cast might have had longer to tinker with their composite product. No, the problem lies in theatrical conditions in America. Where can one exhume, experiment, and take risks? Not on Broadway, certainly; seldom anymore either Off or Off-off; and not even in university theaters, if Columbia is characteristic. The increasing absence of such opportunities will make theatre in America a diminished thing.
If we are to know our greatest playwright truly and fully, we must confront his minor works as well as his major ones, and on the stage as well as the page--"Else a great prince in prison lies." We need fewer Long Day's Journeys and more Straws. And what we need above all is an organization formed for the specific purpose of mounting, in a variety of forms and modes, all of O'Neill's oeuvre. Mr. Quintero said so himself, without any hints of ironic prescience, in a pre-production interview in the New York Times that is abstracted below: "I think someday there will be a theater in America dedicated to doing the O'Neill works. The whole output should be investigated. We should do all of them." Amen.
This special post-mortem on Welded comprises an abstract of the aforementioned Times article, reviews of the June 1981 production by Michael Hinden and Marshall Brooks, and the transcript of an interview that Stephanie Greene conducted with an actress who auditioned for the role of Eleanor Cape and, though she didn't get the part, has valuable insights to offer about the play. Welded, by the way, is available in the Vintage paperback, Six Short Plays of Eugene O'Neill. -- Ed.
I. Jennifer Dunning, "Quintero Takes On An Early O'Neill," New York Times (June 7, 1981), Section II, pp. 5, 28: An Abstract.
Ms. Dunning's report on the then-imminent production of Welded, directed by José Quintero with Philip Anglim as Michael Cape and Ellen Tobie as his wife Eleanor, should be of interest to anyone new to the play and the playwright's life. She points out the play's autobiographical content--the emotional and even physical similarities between the Capes and the 1922 O'Neills (Eugene and his second wife, Agnes Boulton). She quotes friends' reactions to the newly completed manuscript: H. L. Mencken "found it banal and implausible," and George Jean Nathan, hurriedly consulted for a second opinion, labeled it "very third-rate Strindberg." Ms. Dunning offers a cryptic summary of scholarly opinion: "most O'Neill scholars and critics consider Welded ... to be unwieldy, melodramatic and possibly unplayable in its stylized construction." And she notes Alexander Woollcott's negative but perceptive review of the first production:
But the article's greatest interest is in the comments of Mr. Quintero, whom Ms. Dunning interviewed during a rehearsal. The director acknowledged both the dangers and the importance of his undertaking: "It's a flawed play. It is purple-hued. But it is shining in its relentless honesty." And it was the play's emphasis on honesty, on what Quintero later calls "commitment," that moved him to choose it for production--because such commitment is rare in contemporary human relations: "We have grown accustomed to compromises. And through those compromises we lose the core, the reason for a relation-ship." He said he tried to be faithful to the stylized, ritualistic element in the play's staging, but that the limited technical facilities at Columbia University's Horace Mann Theater prevented him from obeying the playwright's lighting instructions. One of the greatest values he had found in working on the play (an example of the value of doing the lesser works as often as possible) was the light that this early work shed on the later, greater dramas:
The interview ends on a note that seems ironic in retrospect. "It's wonderful," says Mr. Quintero, "to have a chance now to do this, free from all the fears of a commercial production." Such freedom, unfortunately, was illusory. --Ed.
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