NINA MOISE DIRECTS EUGENE O'NEILL'S THE ROPE1
Eugene O'Neill's one-act sea-coast play, The Rope, was first performed on 26 April, 1918, on the last bill of the Provincetown Players' second New York season, at The Playwright's Theatre in Macdougal Street. It was directed by Nina Moise, and leading roles were taken by Otto Liveright (the publisher's brother) and the painter Charles Ellis (he would soon marry Edna St. Vincent Millay's sister, Norma). Ellis also provided a backdrop.
As with most Provincetown productions, there is little evidence about the staging: no photographs are known to have survived, and Heywood Broun seems to have written the only review. However, the script used by the director is in existence, along with a series of letters from the playwright to her. In addition, I had personal conversations with both Miss Moise and Mr. Ellis in 1963. On the basis of the enumerated evidence, some comments on the original production can be made.
O'Neill's script begins with preparations by the niggardly father, Abraham Bentley, for the return of his prodigal son, Luke. Old Bentley hid the remainder of the family fortune at one end of a rope he arranged in the barn--the noose at the other end is in plain sight. He receives the young man with a mixture of obvious joy and of inarticulate urgings for Luke to hang himself. Young Bentley does not become aware of the morbid joke below the surface of his father's mutterings, and nearly kills the old man before storming out in a rage. It is the halfwitted granddaughter, Mary, who finds the gold at the end of the rope and chucks it piecemeal into the ocean.
Nina Moise, the director, was one of O'Neill's favorites among the Provincetown Players. She first joined the group near the end of its first New York season, just as the Players were growing aware of the harm caused by their chaotic operation. The group spirit was already failing, the originally sacred principles of collective play selection and of collective production under the author's supervision were breached more often than honored, and incoming scripts were getting worse. This situation cried out for expertise, Nina Moise was the competent director on the horizon, and the ice of amateurism began to crack.
Since graduation from Stanford as a drama major, Moise had wanted to act, yet always ended up directing. Again, arriving in Greenwich Village after a brief term with a Massachusetts stock company and looking for roles, she was told that the Provincetown Players needed a director. A meeting with Jig Cook, factotum of the Macdougal Street group, was arranged in a restaurant, and he promptly took her to the theatre, where David Pinski's A Dollar was in rehearsal on the diminutive stage. According to a letter Moise wrote in 1933, it appeared "quite evident that the actors didn't have much idea what to do or how to do it....they had a very definite idea that anything one did in life could be done on the stage. If people stood in front of each other and bumped each other in a room, why not do it on the stage—which is exactly what they were doing." Nina Moise was almost immediately put in charge of the rehearsal. Soon, Neith Boyce, author of the second play on the bill, approached her with a similar request. Finally, Susan Glaspell asked her to "please help Jig direct Pan in which he was playing with Edna James. I suggested he might prefer doing it himself, but she assured me he didn't and I discovered after the first rehearsal that he needed a little help. At any rate, I ended by directing that entire bill."2
Moise could not singlehandedly turn the performances professional even had she wished, yet her expert control made an impression on the Players, who were never the same there-after. As a result of the measure of order she introduced into production methods, Moise's hold on the group grew stronger. At the next meeting she was asked to head the production committee, and by the time the second New York season began, she had been hired as production director.
When O'Neill learned that Moise was directing The Rope, he wrote her on 9 April, 1918 (three days before his marriage to Agnes Boulton), expressing "complete confidence" in her direction, giving tentative advance approval to her cuts, and commenting on possible casting choices—mostly in a negative and sarcastic manner. The date of this letter, less than three weeks prior to opening, is the sole evidence as to the length of rehearsals. In a second letter, five days later, the dramatist ordered several drastic cuts reinstated.3 The script, however, recording the director's judicious surgery, testifies that it was she who was right, not he. Moise made ingenious omissions in the initial dialogue between Bentley and Annie (the slowest part of the playlet), effectively wielded her blue pencil on the old man's repetitious biblical chants, and abridged Annie's longest speeches. O'Neill (as always) protested; he thought the cutting "spoils the rhythm." Instead, he suggested, "Make the woman talk as fast as she can in a flurry of petty, nagging rage." But the production justified Moise's cuts if one can trust Heywood Broun (one usually can), who called The Rope "brilliant" and "glorious," adding that in it O'Neill "tells an enthralling story in a highly proficient way." (New York Tribune, 29 April, 1918.)
As to the staging, one must begin with a penciled groundplan on the first page of the script, presumably in Moise's hand. It shows the barn door stage-center, a table with three benches (or two benches and a bale of hay?) and a stool, upstage left against the wall. A all circle and square stage-right may indicate additional stools.
A central location for the noose (focal point of all action) seems logical, and Moise confirmed that reasoning. Yet, the rope's position is not explicitly indicated, and Ellis (who played Luke and provided the backdrop) remembered the noose as having hung stage-right. Might it be represented by the circle? Although the script gives no clues about blocking, the location of the noose and of the barn door would have dominated all movement and business. Ellis, who was still active painting and exhibiting when I saw him in the sixties, proudly recalled the backdrop seen through the door as the best "rocks against the sea" he ever painted. That vista would have assured a strong focus against which the noose must have stood out in the foreground. A way out of this dilemma was suggested to me by David Rinear (Univ. of Oklahoma), who called attention to the difference between the two lines marking the barn door. The much longer line stage-right is not an accident, he convincingly argues, but rather an indication of the noose's position. Thus would the testimonies of Moise and Ellis—one recalling a central, the other, a stage-right location—be reconciled.
Ellis also explained that special rigging was not needed to secure the rope: there was no fly-space in the converted brownstone that served as the Playwright's Theatre for the Provincetown Players: the "bag of gold" at the nooseless end of the rope was simply placed on a board that was fastened to the ceiling. This way it stayed in place when Luke inserted his head into the noose during the climactic scene, but came loose easily when Mary tried swinging on it.
Broun commented that the play "is acted well throughout, and Charles Ellis as Luke Bentley is distinctly good." In addition to corroborating other testimony concerning Moise's effectiveness as a director, this praise calls attention to Ellis, who consistently excelled in a variety of roles, despite his belief that what he heard about "the actor's true spiritual involvement" with characters was a fraud, and all that was necessary was technical skill. He and Norma Millay, his wife, insisted that Liveright was successful in portraying Old Bentley so as to introduce an element of love even in the most hatred-filled scenes with his son. They also recalled Edna Smith's hysterical laughter while skipping twenty-dollar gold pieces in the final scene as "bloodchilling."
—Robert K. Sarlós
1 This is a revised version of a paper presented at the American Theatre Association's 46th Annual Convention, New York, August 1982.
2 Moise to Edna Kenton, October 16, 1933; in Kenton's scrapbook, Fales Library, New York University.
3 O'Neill's letters and Moise's script are in the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Library.
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