O'NEILL AND AMERICAN DRAMA AT THE 1984 ATA CONVENTION: A REPORT
Every year the annual convention of the American Theatre Association seems to become more and more the one national meeting of interest for those who specialize in the drama, and the 1984 convention offered ample illustration. Of course, as the term theatre in the organization's name would lead one to expect, there were many sessions on practical aspects of theatre production and theatre programs at the convention, held last August in San Francisco. In addition, however, there were also ten programs devoted exclusively to the drama, and eleven more sessions which contained papers on the drama. Beyond that, fifteen other meetings concerned various aspects of dramatic theory and criticism, and four sessions covered television and/or film. And this listing does not include the panels devoted exclusively to theatre history or the contemporary theatre, programs which often discuss plays and playwrights as well as directors, designers, actors and theatre companies.
This year's convention was especially profitable for students of American drama. Of the 21 meetings devoted either solely or partly to papers on drama, six offered at least one paper on American drama or an American playwright, and six panels more were devoted exclusively to American drama. It would be difficult to find as many sessions of interest at the usual MLA convention. And most ATA drama sessions are indistinguishable from a typical MLA meeting, especially in terms of the type, number, and quality of the papers presented.
For readers of this Newsletter, it may be of interest that the playwright who seemed to get the most attention was an American, Sam Shepard (five papers). Next in line were Shakespeare and Shaw (one session and one other paper for each). Next were two playwrights of similar ethnic background, Boucicault and Eugene O'Neill (two papers each). Finally, there were many playwrights, mostly American, who were discussed exclusively in one paper. In addition to Moliere and Ibsen, a paper was devoted to the work of each of the following: Hansberry, Harrigan, Mamet, Miller, Rabe, Wallace Shawn, and Mercy Otis Warren. There was also one theatre history paper on Jose Quintero and the Loft Players. Noticeably missing this year were papers on Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee.
As indicated previously in the Newsletter, two papers were devoted to O'Neill. For a panel on "The Puritan Influence in Representative American Plays," Shelly Regenbaum discussed "O'Neill's Puritans and the Promised Land." Despite the implications of the title, the paper seemed to be concerned less with the Puritans than with O'Neill's use of the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. Regenbaum detected this particular mythic underpinning in a number of earlier plays--The Rope, Where the Cross Is Made, Desire Under the Elms--and, to a lesser degree, Mourning Becomes Electra. In general, she concluded that O'Neill's use of this myth tends to lack the redemptive features found in the biblical account, features which are there due to the presence of God and/or His covenant.
A second presentation on O'Neill occurred in the meeting entitled "Directing Molière, Ibsen, and O'Neill." Apart from the presence of O'Neill's name in such august company, this session offered little to the dedicated O'Neillian. The young man who offered suggestions on directing O'Neill clearly based his advice on his own experience directing the plays in a small, religiously conservative town in the Pacific Northwest. I had no trouble with his initial suggestions that a prospective director should read about O'Neill's life and read his plays, nor with his observation that the plays have more to do with character relationships than with plot. But I began to wonder how the many directors in attendance were reacting to his advice that they keep a director's notebook. Given that this panel was sponsored by the University and College Theatre Association, the advice seemed superfluous! In any case, when the presenter got down to more specific suggestions, I must confess I had no choice but to leave the meeting or risk creating "a scene." His first specific suggestion was to cut the plays, the objective being to get performance down to two hours. He further suggested that to accomplish this, one should remove all the profanity (obviously a practical concern to any small-town director, though by today's standards O'Neill is pretty tame) and, more importantly, eliminate the repetitions. At that point I left, missing the remainder of his advice.
Other meetings were more rewarding to the student of American drama. A
panel entitled "Hot and Cold War: American Theatre 1940-1980"
contained three papers which summarized
admirably the treatment of preparations for World War II, the era of
HUAC and the Cold War, and the Vietnam era in relevant American plays.
The papers were by Albert Wertheim, Robert
But the program which took the longest view addressed the question, "What is American about the American Drama?" Author Gerald Bordman addressed the question directly, surveyed the history of American drama in terms of the European influences which gave it birth, and proceeded to dismiss most identified characteristics as the product of importation rather than being really uniquely American. He concluded that the most significant contributions of American theatre might be in lighting design and the use of American music, while the most striking characteristic of American drama might be the global breadth of scene and imagination as illustrated by such titles as The Great Divide and Beyond the Horizon. Travis Bogard focused more precisely on the twentieth century and, in "The Wimp in the Shower," traced the rise of an anti-heroic American male character type in all areas of dramatic entertainment, both comic and tragic, including films, television and the drama. Next, William R. Reardon examined the question specifically in relation to responses to the U.S. Constitution by American playwrights, from colonial days to the present, and indicated that a book might be in progress on this large theme. Finally, in his response to the three papers, John Henry Raleigh cited pertinent passages from de Tocqueville on the nature of American literature and concluded that in the drama Eugene O'Neill represented the culmination and fulfillment of de Tocqueville's vision. This panel seemed to be one of the most well-attended meetings devoted to American drama, and its success led the chair to prepare a proposal for continuing the dialogue at the next ATA convention in Toronto, August 4-7, 1985. Enthusiasts of American drama will at least want to examine a preliminary program (usually available in early summer) to see if the ATA continues to offer such a large and good selection of sessions on American plays and playwrights.
--Paul D. Voelker
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