UP-STAGED AND OFF-STAGED BY THE
DIRECTOR AND DESIGNER:
London marked the O'Neill centenary a little early with the coincidental openings of two of the early works in a single week in May 1987--the already celebrated German-language production of The Hairy Ape by the Schaubuhne Company of West Berlin at the National Theatre, and a new production of Desire Under the Elms at the Greenwich Theatre. If anything is to be learned from these productions by the many theatrical entrepreneurs who will soon embark on their own O'Neill productions in the centennial year, it may well be this: "Place your trust in the dramatist you are supposedly honoring, not in the ingenuity of a 'creative' concept." That these plays, both about imprisonments of varying sorts, managed to break through some of the shackles imposed upon them by self-indulgent directors and designers and nearly reached their audiences in the end is testimony to the strength of these sometimes lightly regarded works.
The one-week visit of the Schaubühne Company to London's National was made possible by the corporate sponsorship of Mercedes-Benz in conjunction with both the London Festival of German Arts and the National's own International Theatre 87 series, marking the tenth anniversary of the opening of its South Bank complex. Under the direction of Peter Stein, the Schaubühne has in the last fifteen years become Germany's best-known theatrical troupe, replacing in influence even Brecht's Berliner Ensemble on the other side of the Wall. Begun in 1960 by left-wing students to produce world drama to fit their own Marxist views, the company has become, paradoxically, the showpiece of capitalistic West Berlin; and the city fathers, to demonstrate to the world that their isolated city is vibrantly progressive, have poured millions of marks into the company coffers. In 1981 they provided an extravagantly expensive structure of steel and concrete seating 1500 that is regarded as Europe's most up-to-date theatre.
Perhaps the city's lavish gift of a technically perfect theatre with endless possibilities for miracles of staging has imprisoned the company just as the industrial machine--driven world has imprisoned The Hairy Ape's Yank. O'Neill's tightly structured once-short play was produced in Berlin on November 9, 1986, in a staggeringly overblown staging that, so rumor has it, ran about five hours on opening night due to technical difficulties. The production turned the spotlight not on director Peter Stein or leading actor Roland Schafer, tut on designer Lucio Fanti, who provided settings that are in themselves a definition of "German Expressionism." The huge, steeply raked, dangerously angled sets represent a liner, seemingly the size of the QE2, distortedly pitched to such a point that it must inevitably sink, as well as a cityscape reminiscent of Fritz Lang's Metropolis come to three-dimensional life--on the bias--onstage. The difficulty on the first night was that the complicated, sophisticated machinery needed to change the sets during Yank's odyssey from ship to shore repeatedly ground to a halt, subjecting the audience to endless waits between what ought to be free-flowing scenes with rhythmical inevitability. Once the mechanics of the production were solved, Stein and Fanti's Der Haarige Affe became a critical triumph, but one in which O'Neill could hardly share since his The Hairy Ape was buried, literally, under tons of scenery.
Whereas the play's running time on opening night in London, May 11, 1987, was not quite as long as the Berlin opening, it took the entire six-night run to work out the production's bugs at the National Theatre. The first night audience this time was subjected to a 4 1/2 hour technical nightmare during which scenery buckled and threatened to collapse to audible cries from anguished stagehands; and an electrical short caused the intermission to stretch to over an hour. By the end of the week the play ran an almost bearable three hours and twenty minutes; but, despite the dialogue auf Deutsch, O'Neill's voice was beginning to make itself heard.
What the audience first sees as the play begins in this production, which has to be experienced to be believed, arc three huge, parallel but not-quite-level horizontal plates of welded steel that fill the enormous proscenium opening of the National's Lyttelton Theatre. The three plates mark the three playing areas of the first half of the play and represent the ship's various levels: the stokehole at stage level, the forecastle halfway up the proscenium, and the promenade deck at a level just below the proscenium arch. To the throbbing of the ship's engines, the central plate rises to reveal the cramped forecastle barely six feet high that forces the actors to bend their heads and scrunch their shoulders, suggesting their animal nature. Swaying as they move between their barred bunks, the actors naturalistically portray exhausted sailors with no choice but to adjust to the nearly uninhabitable quarters, some lurching drunkenly, some retching as they sing and swill their beer.
The point of placing the forecastle at the central level becomes clear as the welded steel moves back in place to blot out the scene and the upper plate rises to reveal a deck so high up in the stage's opening that much of the audience must crane to see what is happening. The audience's perspective of Mildred and her aunt at the ship's rail is that of the crew quartered far below them. Unfortunately, despite printed warnings posted throughout the lobby that the short second scene would not be completely visible to the entire audience, that it would in fact be dangerous for individuals to move about the theatre, a traffic began that continued throughout the performance. Those seated down front and at the extreme sides, fully aware that the production's unique feature was its massive sets, made sure of getting their money's worth by hunting better vantage points in a sold-out playhouse!
When Mildred, a wraith clothed in a long white dress with a high collar and cloche that barely reveal a sickly, powdery-white face punctuated by a slash of red lips, visits the stokehole, she descends from the very top of the stage down a precarious flight of stairs to the stage floor. There the bottom plate moves to reveal a row of men naked to the waist shoveling coal into the ship's furnaces--round openings through which glares a sickening, almost blinding orange light. The whole scene is as much askew as the forecastle and promenade deck, despite its taking place at stage level. The glare, the noise and the rhythmic movement cause the audience to gasp at what may well be the most overwhelming stage picture they will ever see, dwarfing even the barricades of Broadway and the West End's Les Miserables.
The stokehole scene contains the production's most imaginative, telling moment, the one contribution by the director that enhances rather than overwhelms the play. As Mildred comes face to face with Yank, her arms slowly and involuntarily rise from her sides as if to embrace the enormous, half-naked, filthy creature before her: the languid neurasthenic has been aroused by the animal within the man. Then, suddenly, revulsion replaces desire. Mildred's arms drop; she calls him a filthy beast, then faints. Here is a moment suggesting what might have been, had the director chosen to illuminate the play rather than bombard the audience's visual sense.
The latter half of the production presents a continuing parade of startling images, none of them quite as eye-opening as the stokehole scene. On the precariously raked stage, cut-outs of distorted skyscrapers move from side to center to display within their shopfront windows jewels and furs, the spoils of the rich. Yank explores Fifth Avenue, at one point even climbing a skyscraper silhouette to effect a breast-beating, arm-waving King Kong pose. Finally insinuating himself into the awareness of the previously indifferent city dwellers, whose faces are made up as red masks, Yank is encircled and beaten senseless by the Keystone Kops to the accompaniment of 1920s jazz.
The prison scene that follows presents two tiers of cells that extend from front to back at the side of the stage, ending at a barred window through which the city is visible. Yank is seen in the first cell, but only the hands of the other prisoners are visible as they reach through the bars, their voices a hollow echo. When one of the prisoners begins to read Senator Queen's speech, the top-hatted senator himself appears at the other side of the stage in front of an American flag at a dais decorated with an American eagle. As he rants--in German--the senator's speech takes on the fevered cadences of a Hitler harangue.
After the I.W.W. scene, the production's one nearly conventional set, the zoo of the final scene consists of several two- and three-tiered circular cages tilted to the right surrounded by the city's menacing skyscrapers on a bias to the left. Several gorillas can be seen moving about their cages, but Yank confronts the single gorilla in the cage at center stage. As the entire company is utilized in the play's final scene, the curtain call, with Yank flanked by sixteen gorillas, is as visually startling as anything that has come before. The mood of the hauntingly lit final scene, with the curious low-keyed chattering adding to its eeriness, is immediately dispelled by the irresistibly comic lineup of men and women in gorilla suits. And the audience--they have no choice--laughs.
As Yank, Roland Schafer perhaps commands the stage too well. The imposing actor is and should be the commanding figure among the other seamen, but the towering figure cannot be ignored by the New York automatons who ought to look right through him. He is not the fool the Wobblies take him for. When Schafer adopts the pose of Rodin's Thinker early in the play, he seems in fact to be a man capable of thought, rather than O'Neill's unthinking animal. An intelligence shines through the performance despite the blackened eyes and dirt-streaked chest not quite hirsute enough for the play's epithetic title. Schafer's intelligence, however, evokes the audience's sympathy, which tends to sentimentalize the play--no mean feat against the dehumanizing expressionistic backgrounds, but not necessarily the author's intention. What does become clear in the performance is the character's growing awareness of a nature that makes him unfit for any environment. Not even belonging in the gorilla's cage, Schafer's Yank is alienated modern man who might find his rightful home in the emptiness of a Beckettian lunar landscape.
Oddly enough, a British actor in another American play suggests that the National might have better cast the part from its own ranks. In Alan Ayckbourn's small-scaled but more effective production of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge in the Cottesloe Theatre, the National's studio theatre, Michael Gambon, a bear of a man, is completely convincing as a longshoreman who willfully thrusts himself toward his own demise by a refusal to acknowledge what is obvious to those around him. Like Yank, he stubbornly, even arrogantly, insists on his own view of himself--a pipedream as fragile as that of any O'Neill character.
Those who see the Schaubühne Hairy Ape will never forget it, but what they will remember will more than likely be its startling stage pictures rather than O'Neill's play, one perhaps more suited to the dimensions of a studio space like the Cottesloe than to the vastnesses of the National's Lyttelton or the Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz.
In contrast to the many disruptive performance breaks during The Hairy Ape, Desire Under the Elms, which opened at the Greenwich Theatre on May 6, 1987, is played without interruption. There are no scene changes and no intermission. Aside from the miscasting of the role of Ephraim, this Desire might have been a solid presentation of the play, but once again a director/designer concept mars the production. With Fanti's Hairy Ape sets, the audience may lose the play, but at least they know where they are. The question a spectator at the Greenwich keeps asking is, "Is this house, barn, or open land?"
Director Patrick Mason and designer Joe Vanek have chosen to ignore O'Neill's specific instructions for a unit setting comprising both exterior and interior of the Cabot homestead, but their own simplified setting leads to confusion. The stage is enclosed by two interior walls forming a right angle at upstage-center.
Within the playing area, which does not distinguish house from field, are only a few props--Ephraim's bed on one side, blankets to be used as bedrolls for his sons on the other side, and some crates and an outcropping of rock downstage center. The juxtaposition of farm and house makes this underfurnished homestead seem hardly worth fighting--and dying--for. When Eben opens the play calling God's sky "Purty" and then spits in disgust with his immediate situation and environment. he is in fact within the walled playing area, seemingly within the house. There is nothing "purty" in sight in what is perhaps the first production of this play without a single elm onstage; and one wonders about the upbringing that the mother with whom Eben is obsessed provided him. This is a house in which there has never been a mother or any other female, a house any sane Abbie might flee rather than covet, a house indistinguishable from an ill-equipped barn.
As the play progresses, the curious setting is more and more damaging. When the brothers sit to eat, they pull crates up to the rock which serves as a table. When they sleep, they stretch out on the floor. When Ephraim dances to demonstrate his virility, he ends up jumping up and down on his bed. When Abbie decides to kill the child that has come between her and her lover, she has nowhere to go. Although O'Neill indicated a second story, this one-level house has no stairs, no baby, not even a cradle for her to bend over.
What is lost is the sense of Abbie fighting for possession of all of the property. As O'Neill envisioned it, Abbie must move through the house making it her own. In one scene he has Abbie and Eben, in separate rooms, each so strongly sensing the presence of the other that they seem to be staring down the house's walls. Here there are no walls to be stared down, and they must gaze intently and directly at one another while occupying the same undivided space. When Abbie approaches Eben in this single playing area, he orders her out of "my room" by threateningly picking up a rock. There is no indication of the limits of the parlor where Eben's mother still holds sway, the last room that Abbie states "ain't mine yet." When Abbie finally lures Eben into the parlor, she sets out candles all around the playing area. Candles in the kitchen, in Ephraim's bedroom? Candles in the barn? Candles on the land? Now making no sense, the play's last line--"It's a jim-dandy farm, no denyin'. Wished I owned it!"--loses its intended irony.
O'Neill's Cabot, as imprisoned by the open land as Yank is imprisoned by an alien urban setting, makes something of that land before greed destroys him and his. The Cabot of this production is more an Irish peasant living primitively on land he has never mastered, a concept that suggests what may have attracted the director to the play. Director Mason is best known for his work with the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, specifically his five productions of plays by Irish dramatist Tom Maclntyre. The Mason-MacIntyre collaboration earned special acclaim for The Great Hunger, an almost wordless, ritualized exploration of the dehumanizing of the Irish farm laborer by tradition, church, and unyielding land. Mason has made O'Neill's mid-nineteenth--century New England an extension of twentieth-century rural Ireland. As Ephraim in Desire, Tom Hickey, who played the leading role in the Maclntryre play in Ireland in 1983 and again in its revival in 1986 which the Abbey Theatre sent to Scotland's Edinburgh Festival and London, is still the wizened, half-starved, ignorant Irishman of The Great Hunger. As Ephraim, a role played in New York revivals by Karl Malden and George C. Scott, men of obvious physical strength, Hickey seems too ineffectual to have instilled his sons with his own fear of an unloving Old Testament God, too slight to beat Eben in combat.
Colin Firth and Carmen Du Sautoy, whose chemistry had already proved effective as sensitive young man and older woman in Granada TV's adaptation of J. B. Priestley's Lost Empires, shown in the United States on PBS's Masterpiece Theatre series, are well paired as Eben and Abbie and might have fueled a more straightforward production of the play. Their plausible progression from revenge to lust to Jove and redemption is finally moving and deserving of a less confusing setting as well. as a more physically imposing Ephraim to be a worthy antagonist. During the run of Desire Under the Elms, a production mounted earlier this year by the Greenwich Theatre, Chekhov's Three Sisters, transferred to London's West End for a successful run. This O'Neill production will have no afterlife.
--Albert E. Kalson
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