EUGENE O'NEILL'S MORE STATELY MANSIONS: STUDIES IN DRAMATIC FORM AT THE UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN-MADISON
In the fall semester of 1980, a research seminar on dramatic form in Eugene O'Neill's More Stately Mansions was conducted at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. The seminar was one of a series of studies of form in the American drama conducted by Professors Esther M. Jackson and John D. Ezell, with the assistance of Professor Edward A. Amor.1 These studies have involved graduate students and, in a few cases, advanced undergraduates, in various areas of specialization in the Department of Theatre and Drama. Through these research seminars, Jackson, Ezell and their colleagues have sought to identify significant alterations in traditional forms of Western theatre by major American playwrights, alterations which have been dictated not only by the individual imaginations of the playwrights, but also by the social, political, economic and moral realities which they have undertaken to interpret.
The methods of study involved in these seminars have included: a) analyses of texts; b) study of background materials relating selected plays to American life and culture; c) study of the production requirements of these texts; d) translation of such texts into "minimal" production forms; e) presentation of productions before selected audiences; f) evaluations of the results by the production teams; and g) preparation of papers, reports, designs, models, drawings, production plans and other documents and artifacts.
Earlier surveys of the evolution of form in the dramas of O'Neill served as background for the More Stately Mansions project. They allowed members of the research team to 1) place the work in the progression which characterized O'Neill's changing ideas about form; 2) recognize recurrent themes, methods of exposition, and settings; 3) compare his treatment of character and action in this work with those used in dramas written in earlier periods; and 4) make a preliminary assessment of the difficulties which challenge production teams seeking to translate this difficult work into performances for popular audiences.
More Stately Mansions2 was chosen for intensive
study for a number of reasons.
Several reasons for this failure have been suggested. Dr. Tom Olsson, Curator of the Archives at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, and, at one time, an assistant to Erwin Piscator, has written of the difficulties confronted by Karl Ragnar Gierow in his efforts to develop an acceptable Swedish stage-version of the play from O'Neill's 1939 draft.5 Study of the available texts of the work suggests a factor which may be of major importance in assessing the theatrical potential of this and others of O'Neill's most innovative dramas. The formidable production requirements of this unique work may be the primary source of the problems which have affected its production history in the United States.
More Stately Mansions is a work whose form differs substantially from those of earlier dramas written by O'Neill. It is one of the most innovative of his works, in terms of its treatment of character, action, dialogue, and setting. However, its unique quality derives from the playwright's treatment of a fifth element of dramatic form--thought. What distinguishes this work from those of other American playwrights, and indeed from earlier plays by O'Neill himself, is its subject. More Stately Mansions represents O'Neill's most serious effort to create a form itself expressive of the dynamic character of American history. The "epic form" he created--like that of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass--was unorthodox.
There is reason to believe that the playwright regarded the version of the play left among his papers as unfinished. Certainly, it remained, in his lifetime, untested, a fact which is important in assessing the potential of the work as a piece for the popular American theatre. For a factor of unusual importance in the determination of the success or failure of all of O'Neill's plays is their dependence on a secondary language, a mise-en-scène consistent with the essentially poetic character of his texts.
Preliminary study of More Stately Mansions suggests that this unique work requires a production language qualitatively different from those used to interpret others of O'Neill's plays, including A Touch of the Poet. The published text of the play offers a mature, if not a final version of a highly original work, one whose unorthodox treatment of character, action, dialogue, setting, and theme anticipated more general changes in the idea of dramatic form in Western theatre, changes which would become more evident in the works of writers of the sixties, seventies, and eighties.
Jackson, Ezell, and their colleagues elected to approach More Stately Mansions not as an immature version of a conventional form of drama, but rather as a near-final version of a new kind of history play, one substantially different in form and content from earlier examples of the genre, including some of O'Neill's own works. In More Stately Mansions, O'Neill sought to free the idea of the history play from the constraints of the models of European playwrights, including those of Aeschylus, Shakespeare, and Schiller, and to set it within a "New World" context; that is, to view American history from the eye-point of a modern American.
John H. Raleigh has observed that O'Neill's view of history has strong affinities to those of other writers in the American literary tradition; that despite the playwright's interest in the innovations of European writers such as Nietzsche and Strindberg, he retained strong ties to the major figures of the "American Renaissance" of the nineteenth century.6
More Stately Mansions can be described as a drama about what Ralph Waldo Emerson called "the identity of history."7 The identity of history, Emerson observed, is to be found in the experience of individuals. "If the whole of history is in one man," he continued, "it is all to be explained from individual experience8 . . . A man is a bundle of relations, a knot of roots, whose flower and fruitage is the world."9
American dramatists, including O'Neill, have shared with other writers within the American literary tradition the tendency to view history subjectively; that is, not so much in terms of great events as in terms of changes in human character and consciousness.
The notion of individual character as the measure of history has not, however, been restricted to American writers. It is a tenet of European romanticism. One of the factors which distinguishes the perspectives about history which have shaped the works of the major American playwrights of the twentieth century from those appearing in the works of major European dramatists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has been the American preoccupation with the historical significance of those men and women whom Walt Whitman called "average." In his own observations on the significance of such individuals in and for American history, Whitman wrote, "The average man of a land at last only is important. He, in these states, remains immortal owner and boss...."10
But More Stately Mansions represents a modification of O'Neill's earlier treatment of the history play. Although the play shares with Mourning Becomes Electra -- and even with A Touch of the Poet -- interest in American history of the nineteenth century, its form differs significantly from those of earlier works. In More Stately Mansions, O'Neill has created individuals who are fully at home in the twentieth century; that is, characters whose personalities, ambitions, desires, conflicts, and modes of reconciliation are highly contemporary in feeling. In this work, O'Neill attempted to free his characters from the constraints of conventional concepts of time, substituting instead moments of insight in which past, present, and future converge. More Stately Mansions can be described as a "dream play," a vision of American history which borrows from the past in order to create images of the present and future. But if its form seems dreamlike in quality, its contents are highly realistic. Study of the political, social, economic and cultural history of the period interpreted in this drama shows that O'Neill had done his homework with great thoroughness.
The innovative nature of the play--particularly 1) its multifaceted view of character; 2) its complex and often simultaneous patterns of development; 3) its manipulation of time; and 4) its concern with the role of "average" individuals in the shaping of history--suggests that O'Neill may have had in mind a production form which would make use of techniques of exposition similar to those being developed by film makers, as well as by stage directors such as Erwin Piscator, during the thirties and early forties.
The radical departures in form which characterize More Stately Mansions pose production problems which require the kinds of systematic study given the innovative works of other major playwrights in Western theatre. It is a drama which stands effectively outside of the interpretative range of the styles of acting, directing, and design used for the staging of earlier works, including A Touch of the Poet. The development of an appropriate production form--or forms--requires the kinds of study, experimentation, and technical augmentation11 applied to the works of European innovators such as Strindberg and Bertolt Brecht. Such experimentation should be conducted by teams capable of 1) adopting a single vision of the work, 2) integrating all elements of performance within a coherent theatrical language, and 3) rendering the text in terms which are both consistent with its author's intent and accessible to popular audiences.
A primary goal of this study was the establishment of a basis for cooperation between scholars in various areas of the arts and humanities and artists and technicians working in the theatre, in order to consider the problems affecting the theatrical alignment of form and content in performances of this challenging work. A related goal was to provide opportunities for students preparing for scholarly careers and those preparing for careers in directing, design, and technical production, to work together in the solution of problems affecting the transposition of a dramatic text of great complexity into the language of the popular theatre.
Study of the play at Madison proceeded in three phases. The first phase involved preliminary readings which included all members of the research team. These readings allowed members of the team--including designers and technicians--to enact various characters in the drama, a procedure which was to be important in assisting the production staff in discerning the complex patterns which comprise the action of the drama.
The second phase of study also involved all members of the team. This important phase brought experts from other departments in the University--including specialists in history, literature, philosophy, psychology, physics, and television production--to discuss the form and content of the work and to comment on the playwright's uses of an impressive body of information. One of the most interesting of these lectures involved a physicist who explored with the seminar a number of questions relating to O'Neill's treatment of time, matter, and movement in this unique work.
The consensus of all of the experts who participated in this phase of the study was that More Stately Mansions demonstrates the playwright's mastery of his complex subject matter. Indeed, specialists who had not previously given close attention to the play expressed surprise at the accuracy of O'Neill's representations of both the lives of his characters and the period of American history against which he set the drama's action. Most agreed that his treatment of character was the major achievement; that his views about the "identity" of human character extend beyond those of Freud, reflecting other developments in the fields of psychology and psychiatry as well as in other areas of the humanities and social sciences.
Rehearsals for the reading were directed by a graduate student in American Theatre and Drama. Actors, drawn from the seminar, included graduate students majoring in acting and directing, as well as in the history, literature, and criticism of the drama.
The primary interest of the design unit established for this study was to give concrete form to the environment of the action, an environment characterized not only by political realities, but by an intricate pattern of social relationships, and, in this drama, by economic factors which are both a background for action and a motivating force in the lives of members of this family.
As the staged reading moved toward the date of performance, the dynamic form of this drama became increasingly clear. But what was more important was that the work appeared, increasingly, valid as a history play. The form of the play was shaped by O'Neill's preoccupation with a motif recurrent in his work: the human condition in the "New World." In More Stately Mansions, he sought to become what Walt Whitman declared himself to be --"an historian of the future."12 In the exceedingly complex form which he devised, the playwright sought to bring together the American past, present, and future; that is, to interpret the continuity of history. In this staged reading, his methods of exposition proved to be well suited to the interpretation of the moment of insight which the play represents.
The challenge of this work as a theatre piece for popular audiences is substantial. There are three problems of exceptional difficulty: creating a production form which can subsume historical data; composing a theatrical imagery which can interpret the intricate pattern of actions; and interpreting faithfully not only the dense contents of the work, but also its form, style, and, insofar as can be determined, what the playwright hoped would be its effect on an audience.
These problems indicate something of the exceptional qualifications needed by theatrical interpreters of More Stately Mansions; that is, by directors, designers, composers, technicians, and most of all, by actors. The primary challenge can be summarized in the term "style." Because the challenge of production style for this work is so formidable, the Madison team concluded that the text requires controlled experimentation by a professional company, under optimal conditions, for a substantial period of time, before the play is put into full production.
The members of the Madison team acknowledge that the methods of study and experimentation described in their reports are not new. They are used and have been used by artists and scholars of many periods of history and in many parts of the world, when preparing works of similar complexity for production. They were popular in the United States during much of the first half of the twentieth century, being employed during that period by art theatres, film production units, and television workshops, as well as by many university theatres.
The Madison team hopes that its attempts to recover aspects of this vital research function will accelerate the possibilities of cooperation between university programs, professional theatres, and theatre industries, to the end that difficult works such as More Stately Mansions may reach larger audiences and may do so, in each case, in a form that is consistent with the intent of the dramatist.
--Esther M. Jackson
1 The More Stately Mansions seminar was the fourth in this series to be devoted to the study of a single work by an American playwright, following Tennessee Williams' Out Cry and The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, and O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh.
2 The text used for this production was that shortened from the author's partly-revised script by Karl Ragnar Gierow, edited by Donald Gallup, and published by Yale University Press in 1964.
3 See Tom Olsson, "O'Neill and the Royal Dramatic," in O'Neill: A World View, ed. Virginia Floyd (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1979), pp. 34-60.
4 See Josef Jarab, "The Lasting Challenge of Eugene O'Neill: A Czechoslovak View," in O'Neill: A World View, pp. 84-100. See also Andras Benedek, "O'Neill Productions in Hungary: 1928 to 1978," in O'Neill: A World View, pp. 142-144.
5 Tom Olsson, op. cit., pp. 53-60. Olsson discusses aspects of the style as it affected interpretations of O'Neill's plays at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm.
6 See John H. Raleigh, The Plays of Eugene O'Neill (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1965), pp. 242-266.
7 Ralph Waldo Emerson, "History," in Essays: First Series, in The Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Brooks Atkinson, Modern Library Edition (New York: Random House, 1950), p. 129.
8 Ibid., pp. 123-124.
9 Ibid., p. 141.
10 Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas, in Prose Works, 1892, 2 vols., ed. Floyd Stovall (New York: New York University Press, 1963-64), II, 387.
11 The term "technical augmentation" is intended to suggest the use of stage technology as an element of the expository language of the modern theatre. It can perhaps be used to describe aspects of the use of technology in the creation of stage imagery by artists such as Erwin Piscator.
12 Walt Whitman, "To a Historian," from "Inscriptions," in Leaves of Grass, Comprehensive Reader's Edition, eds. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley (New York: New York University Press, 1964), p. 4.
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