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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. VI, No. 2
Summer-Fall 1982



1. Servitude's American Premiere (?): A Report by the Director.

On Saturday evening, November 14, 1981, at 8:00 p.m., the Drama Department of the University of Wisconsin Center-Richland presented what was, according to our research, the American premiere of Eugene O'Neill's second full-length play, Servitude. The production ran for four performances through November 16 and was witnessed by 600 to 800 people during three evening performances and one Sunday matinee. The production was directed by myself with scenery by Marilyn Loft Houck and costumes by Marvis Voelker.

This production was undertaken with full knowledge of--and largely because of--the
low repute in which it is generally held by the critics. Our assumption was that the play is much better than believed, and that it could hold up in performance if given the chance. We further believed that the play's major theme--the role of women in marriage--had a timeliness which would improve the appeal of the play as well as provoke thoughtful consideration of the issues involved. At the same time, we assumed that the apparently conservative resolution of those issues might appeal to many in our audience, drawn from a small city with a strong agricultural orientation. In other words, here, if anywhere, might be found an audience to appreciate and enjoy O'Neill's efforts.

Happily, our assumptions proved to be well grounded. Audience response, both during and after the performances, was good. This was especially true on opening night, as evidenced not only by the frequent laughter and warm applause, but also by the extremely provocative discussion of the play and its issues which followed the performance.

Since we were able to locate no American production of record (we seem to have lost out on the claim to a world premiere by a matter of months to a theatre group in Spain), I decided that the play deserved to be taken on its own terms. The revival of a play considered a failure may require or justify a radical restructuring of the text in order to "make it work." But the assumption here was that the play ought to have, for its initial production, the benefit of the doubt, and that O'Neill's indisputable greatness as a playwright and his remarkable theatrical sense ought to be trusted.

Consequently, the production was very much "by the book." The text was virtually uncut, except for two words, and the play was performed on a proscenium stage in a semi-presentational style characteristic of the acting of the period. The setting and costumes were designed and executed in the manner of realism with "period" decor and apparel. While O'Neill's floor plan was the basis for the design, two variations were introduced. First, a balcony was added upstage in order to break the single level O'Neill calls for. (The library and rear door were on the higher level; the fireplace on the lower level, upstage right.) Second, the windows on the right, which O'Neill suggests are conventional sash windows, were changed to French doors in order to permit the gardener, Wesen, to play his Act II scene with the butler on stage rather than through the window. In addition, the door on the left was converted to an arch for smoother entrances and exits.

Mrs. Frazer (Rowena Symon, at left) and Mrs. Roylston
(Dorothy Thompson) in Act II. Photo by Ted Wilson

A further departure from the script involved the thunderstorm and rain in Act I. O'Neill calls for rain and emphasizes it in the dialogue, but gives no stage directions for sound effects. So four thunderclaps were added, including one at the curtain's rise and another shortly after as the butler waits for Roylston to notice him. The other two were timed to build up to and then coincide with Mrs. Frazer's line, "It's pouring!" Consistent with the thunder was the sound of rain, both early and late in the act.

One costume was also added to the basic one-character, one-costume plot called for by O'Neill. In Act III, Mrs. Roylston appeared in a different outfit, one more indicative of her altered condition. Further, a smoking jacket was added for Roylston in Act I.

The play was performed with two full intermissions as suggested by the three-act structure, and each act was found to run just under forty minutes. Thus, with the intermissions, a full evening of theatre was provided. A videotape recording of the final dress rehearsal was made for archival purposes and is now available for inspection by all interested researchers. Needless to say, such a tape is only an inadequate substitute for the performance. [There is information in the News, Notes and Queries section of this issue on how to obtain a copy of the tape. --Ed.]

At this point, a number of observations, some perhaps obvious, others less so, may be in order in the hope that they may prove helpful to some future director willing to take the risk of producing Servitude. To begin with, three strong actors are required, since each act is primarily a "duo-logue." Acts I and III are carried by Mrs. Frazer and Mr. Roylston, Act II by Mrs. Frazer and Mrs. Roylston, and the latter delivers what is for all practical purposes an extended monologue. So all three of the leads must be strong, and Mrs. Frazer exceptionally so: she is on stage for almost the entire play and, in a very real sense, the casting of this part will either make or break a production.

If actors with the necessary strength can be found, they can be assured that they will find their efforts rewarded. All three leads have marvelous opportunities to take the stage and give bravura performances. Moreover, the "method" actor will find the basis for exploring and creating a perhaps surprisingly deep subtext. In addition, the roles of the butler and the gardener offer good opportunities to character actors, while the children's roles are not so great as to require the director to find highly exceptional tots for the job.

Perhaps the most interesting and problematical portion of the play is Act II. It is interesting because it seems to contain in miniature the movement from farce to tragedy characteristic of so much of O'Neill's later work. It is problematical because the motivation for Mrs. Roylston's confession is hard to pin down, as is the motivation for some of the transitions within her speeches. At the same time, Mrs. Frazer has very little dialogue to work with in dramatizing her conversion. The scene places a great strain on the ingenuity of the director and both actresses. A similar problem is presented by Roylston's initial surrender in Act III. It seems motivated more by the script than by the character. We found that it played better as a conscious deception on Roylston's part, to be distinguished from his later, more genuine conversion following Mrs. Frazer's pointed reminder of his first years of marriage to Mrs. Roylston.

Mrs. Frazer's hat is worthy of a final note. Prior to rehearsal there was some concern as to the workability of the forgotten hat; we felt it might require a special staging solution. In fact, it did not. The blocking just naturally evolved in such a manner that leaving the hat behind without Roylston noticing it was no problem whatsoever. The difficulties don't arise until Act II. Once Mrs. Frazer retrieves her hat there, she must contend with it until her exit in Act III. That is a problem which was alleviated somewhat by means of a "practical" mirror on stage. Nevertheless, it is strongly recommended that a rehearsal hat be employed from the very beginning so the nuisance value can be reduced as early as possible.

The American premiere of Servitude demonstrated that the play as written is capable of entertaining and provoking thought in an average audience. Well acted, the play will hold the attention of such an audience, despite its "disquisitory" nature. Moreover, the play provides solid opportunities for a strong cast. Unfortunately, no reviewers attended, so the definitive word on the playability of Servitude will have to await a more visible production. It is to be hoped that the foregoing may encourage just that.

--Paul D. Voelker



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