HISTORY AS IMAGE: APPROACHES TO THE STAGING OF EUGENE O'NEILL'S MORE STATELY MANSIONS
The principal challenge for the production team which undertook the development of a plan for the staging of More Stately Mansions was to translate O'Neill's vision of a critical period in nineteenth century American history into the language of the theatre. More Stately Mansions is concerned not so much with clearly defined events as with processes; that is, with developmental patterns affecting the shaping of American characters. O'Neill has set such developing characters--drawn from a "representative American family"--against the background of events taking place in the 1830s and early 1840s. Moreover, he has attempted to create a myth about the Harfords of Massachusetts, one which recalls their individual pasts, informs their collective present, and anticipates their futures and those of their progeny.
In More Stately Mansions, O'Neill treats character as both the cause and the effect of American history. He undertakes to show stages in the development of patterns he thought representative of the processes at work in the creation of that history.
The principal task of the team which staged this research production was to give theatrical expression to this vision of American history. The research method used in this case was the preparation of a staged reading; that is, a costumed performance with "books in hand." As the emphasis of this exploratory production was to be given to "the text as blueprint," a decision was made to limit the use of scenery, costumes, and properties to what seemed essential for the translation of the script into an appropriate theatrical imagery.
The decision to limit the use of scenic elements was an important one
The director for this staged reading was a graduate student in American Theatre and Drama. He was assisted by other graduate students in acting and directing, as well as in the history, literature and criticism of the American theatre.
The principal actors were drawn from graduate programs in acting and directing; secondary roles were performed by students in literature, history, and criticism. These actors included Deborah Holmes as Sara Harford, Anne Drymalski as Deborah Harford, Paul Nelson as Simon Harford, Thomas Pscheidt as Gadsby, Patrick Schmitt as Joel Harford, and Ronald Miller as Tenard.
The design and production staff, composed of students majoring in theatrical design, included several units which corresponded to the production areas involving setting, costume, light, properties, and sound. Another unit was assigned to the photographic documentation of rehearsal and production processes. Design students were involved in the process of rehearsal, observing at regular intervals, but also participating in the readings of the play, and serving as understudies. Similarly, actors, directors and dramaturgical assistants participated in all phases of the design and production processes.
This staged reading was supervised by Professors John D. Ezell and Esther M. Jackson with the assistance of Professor Edward Amor. Consultants were drawn from the Department of Theatre and Drama and from other departments in the University of Wisconsin.
An important development in the preparation of the project involved opportunities to consult with Dr. Donald Gallup, the editor of the text used for the staged reading,1 and with Professor John H. Raleigh, whose important study of O'Neill's plays explores aspects of the playwright's approach to the interpretation of American history.2
The first problem addressed by the director and his associates was that of establishing the nature of the dramatic action in this innovative work. Background studies involving specialists in American history, literature and philosophy seemed to support the view that O'Neill sought in his play to interpret events which shaped a critical period of American history; that is, to interpret factors contributing to the social, political, economic and intellectual climate of the United States in the years between 1832 and 1841. His characters are illustrative of this climate. They represent different responses to the dilemmas posed by contemporary events, both personal and societal in nature.
Simon Harford, an intellectual and a businessman, seeks, in his response to these events, to reconcile idealism with pragmatism. Sara, his wife, illustrates a second pattern of response; her reactions to changing circumstances have been shaped in large measure by a fear of poverty motivated by the disparity between the life of her family in America and her father's memory of a more prosperous past in the Old World. Of the three major figures in the play, Deborah--Simon's mother--is perhaps the most complex, subsuming in her character memories of a past which is in large part fantasy. Her retreat into daydreams of an aristocratic France are prompted by the pressure of events in the New World.
In the first phase of the rehearsal period, attention was given to the specific crises which engage the attention of the Harfords. Significantly, the central crisis is socio-economic in emphasis. This emphasis became evident as the director and company sought to trace the intricate pattern of crises and conflicts which comprise the action of O'Neill's extended drama.
The crisis which sets in motion this pattern of action is the death of the head of the Harford family. It is followed by 1) the disposition of the Harford estate and transfer of the Harford Company to Simon, 2) the deeding of the Harford mansion to Sara, 3) the transformation and further expansion of the corporate structure under the directorship of Simon, 4) the ostracism of Deborah from the family circle, 5) the rise of Sara to a position of power within the Harford Company, and 6) the play's culminating crisis in a final confrontation between the three Harfords. The director and the acting company sought, in this first phase of rehearsal, to interpret the roles of the characters in the very specific terms suggested by this socio-economic sequence of developments.
A second phase of the rehearsals focused on the psychological patterns in the drama, patterns which are denser and less coherent than other layers of action, and even more difficult to interpret. In rehearsals, the director and the acting company found that psychological responses do not appear to constitute the primary level of action in this drama. The action is motivated, rather, by an historical progression, which provides for each character both a context for action and a set of choices. In More Stately Mansions, then, personal fate may be seen as an effect of history, will as a manifestation of societal values. The psychological subtext of the drama is secondary, serving to personalize the characters. The primary patterns of action, however, are motivated by the characters' needs to establish coherent approaches to living within their specific historical context. A major challenge for the director and the actors was therefore to relate internal (psychological) and external (social) lines of response in ways which appeared realistic.
A third stage of rehearsal was devoted to the articulation of the play's philosophical content. Whereas the motivating factor in the interrelated pattern of crises seems to be largely socio-economic--and many of its evident effects psychological--a major problem which absorbs the attention of all three principal characters is philosophical. O'Neill appeared to think that the essence of the dilemma which confronts the principals throughout the drama is posited in Oliver Wendell Holmes's poem, "The Chambered Nautilus," from which the play's title is taken. The central problem which engages all three can be stated in these terms: What is the truth of human nature? And how does one reconcile that truth to the goal of happiness? Sara seeks to resolve this problem through immersion in life itself. Deborah, by contrast, attempts to resolve the apparent conflict by substituting dreams of an idealized European past for the realities of an American present. Simon chooses an even more difficult approach: he seeks to make the world of practical experience conform to moral ideas. As his life situation changes, he is forced to modify his philosophy and undergoes a radical trans-formation from romantic idealism to an unrestrained nihilism. Both Simon and Deborah fail finally to mediate between mind and life; it is Sara who emerges triumphant.
While O'Neill posed questions of value regarding the lives of the
drama's principals, there is no doubt that he saw the problem engaging
them as in some senses representative
Acting style is an important determinant in the interpretation of levels of action and interaction in this play. It must be a unifying factor, capable of relating actions of heroic dimension to shifting patterns of thought and altering psychological states. Above all, the style of acting chosen for this drama must be capable of interpreting the social, political, and cultural data required for the spectator to understand the play. Two factors may be said to have defined the style of acting which was chosen for this staged reading: 1) the need to attend to carefully selected details regarding character, setting, language, and historical context; and 2) the need for modes of gesture and diction which could be, on occasion, intense, vibrant, and flamboyant, and at other times economical, controlled, specific, and highly realistic.
The attention to realistic detail was especially important in interpreting the play's historical context. On the other hand, the play was well served when the actors performed with pace and verve, and gave stature to the text by enlarging essentially realistic diction and gesture. This stylistic approach was unified by the notion of action as the projection of a single poetic consciousness, whose changing aspects take the form of romantic realism.
Members of both the directorial and dramaturgical units were responsible for resolving special problems related to acting style. Thomas Pscheidt, a graduate student in directing, was concerned with problems in style related to staging. Betty Jean Jones, a graduate student in American dramatic literature, history, and criticism, was responsible for articulating difficult transitions in terms of character development. A member of the dramaturgical staff, Deborah Wood, assisted by Scott Hedbloom of the production staff, sought to clarify difficult transitions through the use of music, a technique which was valuable in articulating transitions in style.
As the directorial unit and the acting company sought to identify the play's levels of meaning and to translate these levels by means of a coherent style, the production team began work on yet another problem, the creation of an appropriate setting. Work on this problem was supervised by Professor John D. Ezell. The production was planned for the Vilas Experimental Theatre, a "black box" which permits considerable flexibility in staging.
Setting is a particularly important factor in this drama. Not only does it define the "spaces" in which the action is projected; it provides a context for the action, locating the play in historical time and place. It also suggests visual symbols which clarify the play's metaphysical structure.
The creation of the setting proceeded in several phases. After the initial periods of study and rehearsal, the design unit, together with members of the dramaturgical unit, compiled a "dictionary" of visual images, including architectural forms, landscapes, garden scenes, portraits, furniture, interior scenes, costumes, and patterns of light. Coordination of this work with the acting-directing unit was provided by dramaturgical assistants. One of these assistants, Adrienne Hacker, assembled many of the materials for the use of the research team. A second, Patrick Schmitt, provided materials relevant to the interpretation of the historical context of each scene.
The design team sought to relate the imagery created by the acting--that is, through language, blocking and gesture--to the imagery of the mise-en-scène. The scene designers, James Burbeck and Brian Lorbiecki, in consultation with members of the directing unit, devised a setting which was both pictorial and architectonic, one capable of both containing and defining the play's complex action. Only three architectural units were used to define the stage space: two permanent door-frames, one in each of the two side corners of the triangular stage; and in the back corner a simple platform, which became the base for the the summer house in the scenes taking place in Deborah Harford's garden. The forestage functioned as a flexible platea--that is, as a neutral space which could be used in each of the play's scenes. In this flexible space, it was possible to indicate the play's five locations--the cabin, the garden, Sara's sitting-room, Simon's company offices, and the parlor of the Harford mansion. It was decided to employ only those architectural elements which were necessary to suggest these specific environments.
A discrete constellation of properties was chosen for each scene, properties which were related to the specific action of the scene, and which enhanced its meaning. For example, for the scene in Simon's office, the properties consisted of Simon's desk and desk chair, a second chair beside the desk, and a scrivener's desk and high stool, with a mirror hanging above this second desk. For the second office scene, a sofa was added. The pieces of furniture for this and other scenes were selected and modified by Eve Cauley, head of the properties unit, assisted by Peter Beudert.
In order to give continuity to the changing scenes, slides were projected on a single large screen, located behind and to the right of center stage. Five images were selected--one for each scene--from the visual materials assembled by the design and dramaturgical staffs. Because much of the action was played against these images, an effect of visual layering was created, as if the actors were set in relief against a two-dimensional back-ground. Moreover, the use of slides gave emotional texture to the scenes. Slides and scenic properties functioned as elements of a changing composition which might constitute a coherent image at one moment and, at another time, two antithetical images, creating, through their juxtaposition, an entirely different pattern of meaning.
Finally it was determined that the lighting, designed by Dana Kenn, assisted by Kathy Haaga, should be used to isolate stage areas, confining specific scenes within pools of reality set against an opaque background. This treatment allowed each scene to retain its specific character, while endowing significant elements of action with greater value. The scenery, in its mixture of scenic modes, and in its juxtaposition of noncontiguous elements, endowed a single stage space with the capacity to assume many identities, with-out the loss of a sense of continuity.
The mise-en-scène developed by the production team was a critical factor in shaping an appropriate acting style. The properties helped to ground the action in physical reality. The units of furniture served as the basis for blocking the psychological movement of a scene. The openness of the setting encouraged the actors to take stage, in moments of reflection and in moments of passion, in ways which enhanced the meaning of the play and which provided effective solutions to many of O'Neill's long and difficult speeches.
The approach taken to the mise-en-scène placed great importance upon the costumes designed by Mary Anne Aston and Kurt Sharp, and on certain elements of the stage decor, selected by Eve Cauley. These elements of the design clarified progress of character, and colored a visually austere setting (the predominant color of the setting was black), thus highlighting both the actors and certain critical properties.
More Stately Mansions emerged in production as a poetic work. This poetic quality was evident not only in the play's language, but also in the mixture of scenic modes, the rhythms and tempi of action and, above all, in the shifting configurations of character. In this play, O'Neill's characters both define their world and are defined by it. The dynamic tension which results was articulated in performance by both the style of acting and the scenic imagery. While the actors utilized the tension between the play's realistic context and its romantic texture, the setting juxtaposed imposing projections with the discrete three-dimensional figures on the forestage. The effect was to give the members of the audience invited to attend the reading staged on December 15, 1980 not only a sense of the events, but also of the moment of transition in American history which O'Neill sought to interpret.
--Ronald R. Miller
1 The text used was shortened from the O'Neill's partly revised script by Karl Ragnar Gierow and edited by Donald Gallup (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1964).
2 John H. Raleigh, The Plays of Eugene O'Neill (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1965).
[EDITORIAL AFTERWORD. The editor is most grateful to Professor Jackson
and Mr. Miller for providing such detailed and illuminating reports of
the More Stately Mansions project at Madison. They restore him
in the faith--which had noticeably wavered during his harangue
It might be added, for the record, that the Harvard Dramatic Club presented eight performances of More Stately Mansions in October, 1974. I remember that production as an engrossing evening of only partially opaque melodrama, but reviewer Peter Borowitz, calling it "one of the strangest interludes in the recent history of the Loeb Drama Center," began his attack in the Harvard Independent (October 24, 1974, p. 7) with a near-apology to Oliver Wendell Holmes: "Had he but known how Eugene O'Neill would later mangle his poem, he might well have forbidden its original publication."
No one can yet predict what the ultimate results of the Madison study will be; indeed, it sounds as if a great deal of work (not to mention funds) will be required before a comparable professional production could be effected. But this pioneering venture deserves the applause of all O'Neillians who long to see his neglected masterworks vindicated and established as part of the regular theatrical repertory. Congratulations to all concerned! --Ed.]
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