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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. XI, No. 1
Spring, 1987



A graduate of Smith College where she first cultivated her love for the theatre in a number of extracurricular productions, Mary Arbenz arrived in New York City in 1927 with the aim of establishing herself as a professional actress. Through the aid of a former classmate, she began working for the Theatre Guild, serving as understudy and playing a number of minor roles. Her first great opportunity came in 1931 when Philip Moeller cast her as Hazel Niles in the original production of Mourning Becomes Electra. She also appeared in S.N. Behrman's Biography and, following her association with the Guild, played leading roles with such luminaries as Otis Skinner, Frances Starr and Katherine Alexander.

In 1939 she left the professional theatre and returned to school, eventually completing her doctorate at the University of Illinois. Her dissertation, "The Plays of Eugene O'Neill as Presented by the Theatre Guild," although never published, stands as one of the most important historical accounts of that phase of the playwright's career. Professor Arbenz stayed on and joined the faculty at Illinois and taught a variety of courses in Speech and Theatre until her retirement. Now, at the age of eighty-one, she travels widely, attends the theatre, and generally leads a very busy life.

A modest and rather private woman, Professor Arbenz graciously agreed to share with me, in July of 1986, some of her memories of Mourning Becomes Electra. While the interview yielded no earth-shattering revelations, her unique perspective on the work and personalities of Alla Nazimova, Alice Brady, Philip Moeller, and O'Neill himself brings us into close contact with the actual experience. It is a contact which is becoming, at this late date, very rare indeed.

--Jeffrey Sands

JS. After graduating from Smith College, did you go straight to New York City?

MA. I went to New York, and the Theatre Guild, of course, was very important in those days. I met a woman from Smith College--I didn't really know her. since she was in a class somewhat ahead of me--who was recruiting for the Guild, and she saw to it that I was hired as an extra and understudy and those kinds of things.

JS. You had an initial audition with the Guild?

MA. No. As a matter of fact, I didn't really audition when I got the part in Mourning Becomes Electra, either. I just read a little bit from the script.

JS. Who was present at that reading?

MA. Just the director, Philip Moeller. He liked the way I read, and I replaced another actress who wasn't doing very well with the role.

JS. So rehearsals had already begun by the time you came on board?

MA. Oh, yes. I had only three weeks. Rehearsals were more than half over.

JS. That must have been difficult. It would have been trying enough to have started from the beginning with O'Neill and these famous actors, but to come in halfway through! Were you frightened?

MA. No, it wasn't frightening at all. Everyone was helpful. Also, I felt that I understood the role. I could be sympathetic to the characters who needed that sympathy--Nazimova's character, Christine, especially. So it wasn't difficult at all.

IS. Getting back to your reading for the role of Hazel. Was O'Neill present?

MA. No, just Moeller. I didn't have to wait long to hear from the Guild. I may have waited one day, but I don't think so. I think he just told me to report to rehearsals. Of course, I was delighted. I didn't know at the time exactly what the role was, though. I had read only a few pages.

JS. It wasn't as though you could stop by the bookstore and pick up a copy of the play.

MA. No, certainly not. It hadn't been published. Nobody really knew what it was.

JS. I seem to recall that the details of the play were a rather tightly held secret.

MA. They were. There was always the problem of the length, with a dinner break and all. They weren't sure whether the play would draw audiences the way Strange Interlude had done, and I recall that O'Neill and Moeller and the rest of them were a little bit worried about the reception. We did very well, though. The show opened in late October, and I think it went on until April or May. Then we played on tour in a few cities.

JS. This was with the original cast? I know that, later, a new cast was assembled for an extended tour.

MA The original cast, yes. We went to Philadelphia and Washington. Then maybe one other city. I don't quite remember. But I DO remember Alice Brady and one of the things she used to do [laughs]. IL was very hot, and of course the theatres didn't have air conditioning. She would open her dress backstage--we wore those heavy clothes that had been designed for the show--and she would open the top. And here were these bosoms all hanging out! It didn't make any difference who was there, who was coming in from the outside to visit with her.

She was very nice to work with. I remember one night--it was the scene where Lavinia and Orin are returning from their trip and my character was supposed to open up the house and get things ready for them. One night, for some reason, I got a feeling of fear about the house. I, myself, but also as the character. So I stopped, and then pulled myself together to open the door and enter. And this pause drew a laugh from the audience. I didn't intend for it to be funny and I don't know why they laughed, but they did. Well, Brady was in the wings, talking as usual. She would always stand there and talk about everything under the shining sun with the stage hands and the assistant stage manager, and anyone else who happened to be there. Never had her mind on the role. But then she would come on to the stage--wham! Right in the middle of all this talk, with the complete characterization. The point is, she was right there in the wings when I got this laugh, and it bothered her. She didn't think it was appropriate. She got Moeller to come to a performance one evening, and afterward he said that he didn't think there was anything wrong with my character's reaction, that he kind of liked it, and that I should leave it in.

JS. How did it feel to be a part of the production? After all, it, was 1931, and here was O'Neill, the Guild. these fine actors and actresses--really the center of the American theatre at the time. Did you have a sense of the historic aspect to the occasion?

MA. I didn't have much time to think about it. Maybe if I had come in at the beginning of rehearsals. But. as it was, I had my hands full. I had to learn the role, attend rehearsals. And we rehearsed! We started at ten-thirty or eleven in the morning and would go all day, and then work all evening. I don't mean that I was always called, but almost always. Because by this time they were having run-throughs. We had only three weeks left, and no tryouts. The show opened cold in New York.

JS. You had said that Nazimova spent some time trying to give you directions about how to play your scenes with her. Was that because you had come late into the rehearsals?

MA. I never knew why. She was the only one who did this. Maybe it was because--you see, she would play the role differently every night. She would be scared some nights. On others, she would be haunted, in a different way. Not scared of the situation, but fate. Or, at other times, she would be despondent. I would have to adjust my reactions to her. I don't know, in rehearsals, if she felt I was imitating her tone--in the sense that, if she was fearful, I would play Hazel that way--or just what. But Moeller came back to rehearsals---he had been gone for some reason--and I don't know if someone said something to him or if he just didn't like what he saw, but he must have spoken to Nazimova, because she stopped fussing. After that there were no more suggestions [laughs].

JS. Was she good about taking direction herself?

MA. As far as I knew. But the leading actors always left the stage and went down into the auditorium to discuss things with the director and O'Neill. But Moeller was very relaxed in his direction. He was very easygoing with his actors. If he didn't like what they were doing, he said so. But ordinarily he let them work it out for themselves.

JS. And O'Neill? He was there most of the time?

MA. Yes. Did I mention that you could always feel his presence? It was most interesting.

JS. How so?

MA. I don't know. He would come in and you wouldn't necessarily even see him, because you were busy. But you would always feel his presence somehow. At least I would.

JS. You also mentioned that one time he came and sat beside you on the stage after a rehearsal, and that he didn't say a word.

MA. Not a word! [laughs] But I don't think he would have sat beside me if he didn't like what I was doing. I think it was his way of telling me that he liked it.

JS. Then he just got up and left?

MA. No, I think what happened was that his wife came over to us and--THEREFORE---he then got up and left.

JS. Did O'Neill sit near the director during rehearsals?

MA. Very rarely. Mostly he sat in the back of the house. Sometimes on the side. Only when they had these consultations did they sit together.

JS. You were also the understudy for Margalo Gillmore, in the role of Princess Kukachin in Marco Millions. Did you ever get the chance to play the role?

MA. No, but I did play that role in the opening scene when the slaves pull her dead body across the stage. She let me do that! [laughs] There was a long time, you see, between that opening scene and her next entrance--almost half the play. She didn't like arriving early and then having to wait this long time before she went out again. I wore a wig, of course. Nobody would have been able to tell by looking at me that it was another actress. And the tone of the speech she has to deliver is so ethereal--beyond the grave--that they couldn't tell by listening.

JS. I don't suppose that your performance was acknowledged in the program, that Mary Arbenz played "The Corpse."

MA. [laughs]

JS. Getting back to Mourning Becomes Electra. Brooks Atkinson had some very nice things to say about your performance as Hazel. As I recall the review, you were the only member of the supporting cast that he mentioned by name.

MA. Yes. that was very nice. But the woman who replaced me in the touring company--one of the critics--I can't remember which one, but it was for one of the New York papers--said he liked her in the role better than he liked me. I don't remember who it was, but it wasn't Brooks Atkinson.

JS. Well, I would go with Atkinson. MA. So would I!



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