WHEN STRANGERS MEET: A RESPONSE TO FREDERIC I. CARPENTER
Exactly thirty years ago, in the very same Arts Theatre in London which, coincidentally, earlier this year housed the production of Long Day's Journey which I reviewed in the Spring 1984 Newsletter (pp. 30-32), I witnessed the first English language production of Waiting for Godot. It was perhaps the most extraordinary theatre experience of my life. I had never heard of Beckett, and the phrase "Theatre of the Absurd" had not yet been coined. All I knew was that word was out that something unusual was happening, and any-one who cared about the theatre had better go and have a look. While some members of the audience stormed out of the theatre while the play was still in progress, slamming doors behind them to announce their displeasure, I sat in my seat silently stunned for some minutes after the curtain fell. I was overwhelmed, uncertain whether to laugh or cry. Perhaps during the course of the evening I had done both. I have seen the play since, but I have stopped going to its frequent revivals despite the fact that I always send my students to it if there is a production within traveling distance. When one reacts as strongly as I had that first time, there is no point in seeing the play again. That initial response can never be recaptured.
I bring up Waiting for Godot because I feel it is essential before I go on that I try to convince Professor Carpenter that I have been known to react strongly to what we had better call "non-traditional" theater. I would rather eschew his term "Aristotelian" because labels frighten me, and I have spent a couple of decades as a teacher of drama--not types of drama, or theories of drama--just drama. Since Beckett's play takes place in no time and no place and has no action, I think Professor Carpenter would agree that it is "non-traditional."
My differing reactions to Long Day's Journey and Strange Interlude, which have provoked a valuable essay-response from Professor Carpenter, forcing him to give expression to some strong feelings which obviously pre-date my recent review, have, I think, little to do with the "traditional" and the "non-traditional." He accuses me of "an elitist criticism" which "assumes the sanctified authority of the Aristotelian tradition in order to validate its personal assertions." No, Professor Carpenter. I do not take refuge behind sanctified authority. My assertions are personal. Trusting to my own judgment, I state my opinions based upon a mind and a sensibility which enable me, I believe, to distinguish the true from the false.
I suspect, and I hope that this is not impertinence on my part, that Professor Carpenter once had a theatrical experience of great magnitude involving Interlude, matching my own experience with Godot, and I envy him that. I would imagine that seeing--even reading--Strange Interlude in the late 'twenties must have been an electrifying experience which could color one's reactions to that play for all time. Its innovations and its daring were, for its time, quite extraordinary. But at that time O'Neill's reach could not exceed his grasp. Professor Carpenter is good enough to point out what O'Neill was attempting in Interlude, but he refuses to admit the possibility that the attempt may have failed by any standards other than "Aristotelian."
Borrowing a phrase from Henry James, Professor Carpenter suggests the ways in which Interlude interests us. The first of these is the convention of the spoken thoughts, which he himself admits are at times superficial. The convention makes possible, he tells us, "the realization of a depth psychology impossible to simple realism." I contend, however, that there are even greater psychological depths in the dialogue of Long Day's Journey. The London audience tittered at some of the more platitudinous of the spoken thoughts. No one titters when Hamlet says, "0, that this too too solid flesh would melt ..." The difference is in the language. Hamlet's soars, Nina's sits there, awkward and empty, the "stammering" to which an eloquent Edmund refers in Long Day's Journey.
According to Professor Carpenter, the "very strangeness [of a scene in Interlude] suggests a universal truth, which may be called archetypal." In Long Day's Journey it is the familiar which suggests the universal, and Mary Tyrone is as much the archetypal woman as is Nina Leeds. It is in fact the close relationship .between the two plays, as I attempted to suggest in my review, that became clear to me when I had the rewarding opportunity of seeing the plays on successive nights, of reacting to the honesty of the one, the contrivance of the other.
Professor Carpenter raises the question of comparative religion. Noting that I was bothered by the play's movement from God the Father to God the Mother and back again, he offers a valuable insight about O'Neill: "He was fascinated by the conflict of the mysterious East and the materialist West, with their opposing values. The religions of India, of course, projected the values of a matriarchal society, contrasting with the patriarchal values of the West." His two sentences make clear what O'Neill left ambiguously mystical within the play itself or perhaps merely neglected to develop. But Professor Carpenter has misconstrued my meaning when I wrote that the "author's implications in his odd journey from God the Father to God the Mother back to God the Father ... may be entirely overlooked in a production which offers Strange Interlude purely in terms of entertainment." What I was attempting to convey was something about the quality of the production. Whereas O'Neill certainly had more in mind, Director Keith Hack was obviously interested in the play merely as a vehicle for a star performance by Glenda Jackson which would attract and entertain an audience comprising for the most part tourists from the United States and abroad who were filling London's theaters nightly after their daytime shopping sprees. After all, their real reason for being in London had little to do with their passion for the theatre, more to do with the strength of the dollar. The intended profundities of Interlude were left unexplored. It was a long but curiously undemanding evening, unlike the searing experience of Long Day's Journey, and much more fun.
Can a failed play be good theatre? Yes. As I noted in my review, there were thrilling moments along the way, but we must thank the performers for those moments more than the playwright. Seeing Jackson in Interlude, I was reminded of Peter Brook's amazing production of Tutus Andronicus in which Olivier's performance convinced an audience that they were witnessing a play as great as Hamlet, as great as Lear--that is, until they sat down and read the text without the aid of Brook's theatrical magic. Yet we need to see Titus Andronicus in order to fully appreciate Shakespeare's achievement in Hamlet and Lear, just as Shakespeare had to write the one before he could attempt the others. In the same way, we need to see Strange Interlude in order to appreciate O'Neill's achievement in Iceman, Misbegotten, and Long Day's Journey.
Here, finally, Professor Carpenter and I meet on common ground. He writes: "But, perhaps, the very failure of O'Neill to integrate perfectly the mythical elements of Strange Interlude made possible the supreme achievement of his later plays." I say "Amen" to that. We may disagree on Interlude--he calls it a play "for the theatre of tomorrow"; I think of it as a play for yesterday--but we are in perfect accord on the genius of O'Neill and his great legacy to us all. And should Professor Carpenter have the opportunity of seeing this production of Interlude--it will apparently be on Broadway soon--he may even forgive me, especially if he manages, as I did, to attend a moving performance of Long Day's Journey the night before.
--Albert E. Kalson
[EDITORIAL INTERSTICE. Controversy may sell papers, though the Newsletter would never seek it out to boost circulation. However, the above interchange between Professors Carpenter and Kalson does raise major issues--about dramatic evaluation in general as much as about the relative merits of the early and late works of O'Neill--which other readers may wish to address. Responses and reactions, whether about the general subject or about the specific play that inspired it, will be welcome. If any are forthcoming, I will forward them in advance to Professors Carpenter and Kalson, in case they wish to re-respond.
One other recent item aroused considerable reaction, though mostly favorable. That was my review of the Provincetown Playhouse production, last September, of Hughie (pp. 37-39 of the Summer-Fall 1984 issue). My one reservation about the otherwise admirable performance was its failure to convey the inner musings of the night clerk that O'Neill relegated to stage directions. Harold Easton, in a letter in this issue, suggests a possible solution based on his own experience in the play. Here, too, other comments are happily invited. On the next page is a reprint of the program note I provided for the Provincetown production. It says nothing new, but it explains one of the reasons for my dismay: it quotes words by the night clerk that the audience didn't hear. How it must have mystified attenders who hadn't read the play!]
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