REVIEWS OF O'NEILL PLAYS IN PERFORMANCE
1. DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS, directed by Tom Haas. Indiana Repertory Theatre, Indianapolis, March 15 - April 10, 1983.
When Desire Under the Elms premiered at the Greenwich Village Theatre on November 11, 1924, most reviewers were shocked. "A tale of almost unrelieved sordidness," the Post declared, and Time concurred, calling it "the kind of thing the spectator will object to on the score that existence cannot possibly be so brutal" (Nov. 12, 1924). Burns Mantle was not as quick to write off O'Neill's new play, although he felt obliged to caution that "none should see it unadvisedly--without knowing that it is a story in which lust and murder, incest between son and stepmother, and infanticide, ugliness, sin and appalling freedom of speech are frankly illustrated" (New York News, Nov. 14, 1924). Though a few critics were enthusiastic—Stark Young praised its "terrible beauty" (New York Times, Nov. 12, 1924) and Joseph Wood Krutch declared it a play of "extraordinary intensity" (Nation, Nov. 26, 1924)—the reception of Desire disappointed and angered its author, who maintained that the critics failed to perceive either the "epic tinge" or the poetry in his tale of New England life. While the critics bemoaned the drama's unseemly passions, however, the public filled the theatre, and the play ran until October 1925, moving from Greenwich Village to Broadway.
Subsequent critical opinion, of course, has been much kinder. Writing in the New York Times (March 9, 1980), Harold Clurman tried to set the record straight: "O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms made us look to our national past with new eyes. Certain city officials dubbed it 'obscene' and tried to ban it. Others made too much of its Freudian insights. But at its very core were the contrast and conflict of a pre-Civil War generation that had grown tough in the building of the country and the generations that followed, bent on amassing ever greater profit and power from their inheritance only to discover—too late—the blessing of love. Thus the possessors became dispossessed. This was a theme which O'Neill was to develop much more fully in his later works." A rather random selection of later O'Neill critics reveals similar appreciation of Desire. Travis Bogard, for example, declared that "it fulfills the promise of [O'Neill's] early career and is the first important tragedy to be written in America" (Contour in Time, 1972, p. 200). Edwin Engel eloquently proclaimed that Desire "celebrates the divinity of nature, the triumph of pagan naturalism over indurated religion, the victory of mother and son over the father" (Haunted Heroes, 1953, p. 126), while Louis Sheaffer believed that the play attains "the exhilarating level of tragedy" (Son and Artist, 1973, p. 130).
The production of Desire Under the Elms that was recently directed by Tom Haas at the Indiana Repertory Theatre in Indianapolis may not have reached the exhilarating level of tragedy, but it surely deserves recognition for its set, the work of designer Ming Cho Lee of Yale University. For the original production, Robert Edmond Jones had created an extremely realistic set—just what O'Neill specified—but with a house so complex that scene changes took twenty minutes or more to complete. For the IRT production, Lee retained the realism but obviated the interminable waits between scenes. His impressive set featured a real dirt floor, stones that really were stones (though they didn't make a wall, alas), and a two-story house with mechanically-controlled walls that moved to reveal the rooms behind. The "sickly grayish" outer wall slid down quickly and quietly out of sight to reveal the kitchen, stairs, two upper bedrooms, and the darkened, obviously unused front parlor, the room where Eben's mother had been laid out after her death and where her ghost is most alive. The set itself made this production well worth seeing, even though the stage was not large enough to convey the contrast O'Neill wanted between the out-of-doors freedom of nature and the cramped, claustrophobic interior of the Cabot home.
The only disappointment with regard to the set concerned the "two enormous elms ... on each side of the house" that, in the playwright's description, "bend their trailing branches down over the roof. They appear to protect and at the same time subdue. There is a sinister maternity in their aspect, a crushing jealous absorption. They have developed from their intimate contact with the life of man in the house an appalling humaneness. They brood oppressively over the house. They are like exhausted women resting their sagging breasts and hands and hair on its roof, and when it rains their tears trickle down monotonously and rot on the shingles." In a letter to Kenneth Macgowan, O'Neill had reiterated the importance of the elms, noting that they were "characters almost" ("The Theatre We Worked For," ed. Jackson Bryer, 1982, p. 132), and complaining that no production had ever gotten them right. The IRT's was no exception. Though there were two trees, one on each side of the house—with plastic leaves, I believe—they were clearly not of central importance, though the program included a note to that effect, informing theatre-goers of their sinister maternity. They were, however, simply two rather tall, sparse trees—next to the house but certainly not hanging over it in Poesque fashion like exhausted women with sagging breasts. Apparently the elms are a perennial problem with Desire. When the Guthrie Theatre, for example, performed the play in repertory (August 23-November 22, 1980), there were no trees at all but merely a few disembodied branches aloft. I have always felt O'Neill's description of the trees to be novelistic rhetoric quite untranslatable to the stage, and the present production did nothing to make me re-think such an opinion.
With one exception, the characters were competent and faithful to the original. As the uncouth, oafish brothers, Craig Fuller as Simeon and Terry Moore as Peter played the beginning scenes in a humorous vein—the flat New England "Ayeh," followed by a long pause and a vacant expression, tickled this Hoosier audience—yet they also successfully conveyed simultaneous admiration, dislike, and fear of their father.
Scott Wentworth as Eben was a touch-of-the-poet figure, intense, brooding, given to pensive silences, a good deal of fog stammering, and little sexuality, emerging or otherwise. Here we begin to approach the play's major difficulty. According to O'Neill, Eben's love for Abbie transforms him into a man. In this production, however, the audience was convinced neither of their early lust nor of their later love.
In her role as Abbie, Tana Hicken simply was not physically appropriate; slight and rather tired looking, this Abbie was no Earth Mother, no barnyard Phaedra, no forerunner of Cybele. She certainly was not vital enough to displace both of Eben's parents and satisfy his biological and spiritual needs. Because Abbie is female sexuality personified, I found myself thinking, to my surprise, that Sophia Loren—in the two-star, rather dreadful movie of the play—at least conveyed the combination of frank animal nature and maternal warmth that O'Neill intended. Though Hicken's and Wentworth's acting was acceptable, the attraction between the two never gave off sparks, especially in the crucial parlor scene when Abbie declares to Eben that she will be his mother—and more, much more. As she wrapped her arms around him and he capitulated on the unvirtuous couch, my husband turned to me and whispered, "Willing suspension of disbelief."
Belief did not have to be suspended, however, with Marco St. John's Ephraim, who combined flinty determination with an old man's vulnerability. His monologue in the second scene of Act Two, in which he sketches the hardships of his life for an oblivious Abbie, really opens up and tells her how he feels, was beautifully and poignantly done. Abbie gazed longingly at the common wall separating their bedroom from Eben, who sat moodily on his bed, now and again reaching out toward the wall. Halting abruptly in his biblical declaration of desire, Ephraim asks his wife angrily, "Air ye any the wiser fur all I've told ye?" As he rushed off to the barn—"I kin talk t' the cows. They know. They know the farm an' me. They'll give me peace"—St. John was a touching combination of fierceness and wounded pride. He conveyed the same feelings of lonely dignity in the final moments of the play, when he squared his shoulders and tightened his mouth, marching past Abbie, hurting but refusing to let himself hurt, hearing her good-bye but refusing to reply.
Because we never believed in the love between Abbie and Eben, the play's conclusion was bereft of any sense of release; when the lovers went off to jail, we were unable to rejoice, as O'Neill intended, in the beautiful selflessness of their feelings for each other. We felt instead that Ephraim was well rid of them both.
What did emerge in the IRT's final scene, however, was a sense of the permanence of the land. "It's a jim-dandy farm, no denyin'. Wish I owned it!" confessed the sheriff enviously. With those words, he hit the house ruefully with his hand and the solidness of the sound echoed in the theatre, leaving no uncertainties about what endures.
—Susan H. Tuck
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