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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. XI, No. 3
Winter, 1987



O'Neill's interest in the marionette was reawakened by two events that took place in the late 1930s. In 1937, on her second trip to California as director of the Federal Theatre Project, Hallie Flanagan was driven by Carlotta to visit O'Neill (Flanagan 280). When she presented him with pictures and reviews from the FTP's nationwide O'Neill cycle then underway, the dramatist seemed particularly pleased by the San Francisco production of The Emperor Jones, which had been performed entirely by marionettes. He already knew about this production because he had agreed earlier to allow it to be performed royalty free, the only instance of O'Neill waiving royalties for the FTP. When the popular marionette version moved to Los Angeles for an extended engagement, he insisted that full fees be paid (White 195-6).

By then, marionette productions of his plays were no longer the novelties we might expect. Ralph Cheese, creator of the FTP Emperor Jones, had first produced the play in California in 1928, while Jerome Magon presented his version on the east coast in 1933. The Hairy Ape appeared at the New School for Social Research in 1932 and Marco Millions at Carnegie Hall in 1938. And O'Neill himself had become a marionette figure designed by Meyer Levin and Louis Bunin, who also performed their Hairy Ape both in New York and Mexico City in 1929.

The second event occurred in December 1939, when Jerome Magon sent O'Neill a book about puppetry. In thanking him, the dramatist expressed delight in adding the volume "to my theatre library," calling it "the most interesting I have ever seen on the subject" (Floyd 322). Magon had also included several photographs of his Marco Millions, about which O'Neill replied, "The sets especially catch my eye. They are excellent. And the drawing of Nicolo Polo is damned amusing." Obviously favorably impressed with Magon's work, O'Neill added, "Did you ever think of doing The Hairy Ape?" (322).

Soon thereafter, O'Neill began planning "By Way of Obit," a series of two-character plays involving one actor and one life-sized marionette. In his notes the marionette figure is called The Good Listener, whose function it is to sit quietly as the speaker describes an unseen person who has recently died. Virginia Floyd has suggested the possible influence of Magon's book as the source of inspiration for the proposed appearance of the marionette (346).

Just which puppet book published in 1938-39 Magon sent to O'Neill remains a question, for although in his two thank-you notes the dramatist calls it "A Book of Puppetry," no such work appeared under that title. The most likely candidate is Puppets and the Puppet Stage by Cyril W. Beaumont, which contains 144 pages of photographs of puppet productions from around the world, including one of Magon's The Emperor Jones, showing its use of a turntable to facilitate rapid scene changes.

Also included is a picture from De Falla's opera El Retablo de Maese Pedro depicting a puppet-play within a puppet-play; here large puppets sit on either side of the stage listening to a puppet performance on a smaller stage. The bigger figures are operated by masked puppeteers in full view of the audience while the smaller stage is controlled by hidden manipulators. O'Neill's idea for a play in which a life-sized marionette becomes a listener to a live actor may have originated in this photograph (Beaumont 85).

Marionettes were by no means new to O'Neill for they had played their part at the Provincetown Playhouse, which had its own staff puppeteer in the person of Remo Bufano, who was also an actor in small roles in the company. Son of Italian immigrants and a native of Greenwich Village, Bufano had literally wandered into the Playhouse, there to begin a career that would eventually rank him next to Tony Sarg as the most famous American puppeteer of the 1930s (and so he remained until his death in an aircrash in 1948). In the 1920s at both the Provincetown and the Garrick, he presented Saturday morning performances for children of fable and fairy-tale adaptations such as The Fox and the Grapes and The Tinderbox. Certainly, O'Neill knew his work.

Among the dramatists at the Provincetown in the early 1920s, poet Alfred Kreymborg wrote plays that could be performed by either actors or puppets and sometimes by actors impersonating puppets. In his author's notes to Plays for Puppets, Kreymborg claimed he owed a deeper debt to the marionettes who had honored him with their friendship and patience than to the living actors who had performed in his plays. His works required extensive pantomime and what he called "a type of contrapuntal ritual to be sounded" (Kreymborg vii). The Provincetown produced Lima Beans, the most famous of these short works, on several occasions. Described by the Gelbs as so pretentious that even the Provincetowners couldn't understand it, Lima Beans required a cast of four, one of whom was the curtain, whose only function was to close (Gelb 320-1). Once Kreymborg had pressed the Provincetown artistic management to become exclusively a poet's theatre, he met strong opposition and soon left. But by then, the concept of marionettes replacing actors and actors behaving like marionettes had been firmly established.

Among O'Neill's associates, Kenneth Macgowan demonstrated his interest in marionettes as early as 1921 when, in The Theatre of Tomorrow, he saluted Gordon Craig's project for the "bermarionette" and his claim that drama's origins resided in the marionette. Developing his own thesis, Macgowan forecast that the essence of a new drama will not rest in the hero of old ,nor in the present-day superman but in "groups of men--group beings" who will replace individuals in the manner of the chorus in Greek tragedy. He predicted a particular fascination with both masks and marionettes which "involve a certain strange and enthralling sense of the mystic quality of the theatre" (Macgowan 275).

Robert Edmond Jones, in his production of Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex (1931), designed true Ubermarionettes which were carved, constructed and operated by Bufano. Performing forty feet above a stage on which sat the Philadelphia Orchestra and a full chorus under the direction of Leopold Stokowski, the marionettes were operated from a bridge by a team of masked manipulators in what remains the most impressive use of the Ubermarionette in the American theatre. The ten-foot high figures may still be seen as part of the permanent collection of the Detroit Institute of the Arts.

O'Neill, in his stage directions for The Ancient Mariner, described as an experiment in "plastic theatre" at the Provincetown in 1924, begins the adaptation by what he calls "shadowgraphs" that appear on a large "semi-transparent white shade" (O'Neill 1 83). While images of the wedding party dance, their shadows come and go until three guests enter: "Two of them have mask-like faces of smug, complacent fullness, they walk like marionettes. The third, with the same type of face, is nevertheless alive--a human being" (63). The figure of the Albatross must also have been a puppet or movable object because O'Neill requires its wings to open "at right angles making a white cross" (770). The masked chorus closely resembles the "group beings" described by Macgowan as they play a variety of roles. O'Neill's final image is that of the wedding guests dancing with the bride; once again they are shadows on the white shade.

The Emperor Jones remains the play most directly identified with marionettes, in part because the drama shares a direct affinity with the traditional Punch and Judy show. Both plays contain circular structures of short scenes with dramatic focus predominantly on one character whose destiny is determined by a series of events that bring the past into the present. Punch is a thief and a liar, both a coward and a braggart, cunning, confident and clever; in the course of the play he becomes the embodiment of vice, villainy and violence, a man completely self-possessed. Punch bears no guilt for his crimes of throwing his child out the window, beating his wife to death, killing a doctor, and tricking the hangman into hanging himself. Unlike Brutus Jones, he is devoid of formless fears--or so he used to be when, traditionally, he survived his wicked past, even killing the devil who came to claim his soul. In the 19th century, however, the devil was gradually replaced, first by a dragon, and then by a crocodile who appears near the end of the play, snapping its wide jaws. After a thorough battle, Punch, even then, sometimes survived by thrusting his stick in the reptile's fearsome mouth. But not in this century, when moralistic attempts to make Punch and Judy appropriate for children often result in Punch facing his fate before the green eyes of the crocodile just as Jones does.

To what extent puppets appeared in the original production is difficult to determine. The program lists no names for the Little Formless Fears nor gives any hint at their execution. Remo Bufano did not work on the production. However, William Zorach's design for the program cover suggests marionette-like images, and the text itself calls for similar visions: "They are black, shapeless, only their glittering little eyes can be seen. If they have any describable form at all it is that of a grubworn about the size of a creeping child" (O'Neill 4 19). Yet these creatures must both move and make sounds of "a tiny gale of low mocking laughter" (20). The movements of the gang of Negroes in Scene Four are described as "those of automatons--rigid, slow, and mechanical" (24). And in the slave auction scene the characters gather in a dumb show: "There is something stiff, rigid, unreal, marionettish about their movements" (27). In the original production these figures indeed became shadow puppets as this scene was played entirely in silhouette. It is in Scene Seven, in which the Congo Witch Doctor dances, that the "huge head of a crocodile" appears, receives the silver bullet, and then "sinks back behind the river bank" (32). Whether presented as a large mask or hand puppet, the marionette has brought. Jones to the recognition that he can run no farther.

Jerome Magon, the puppeteer who sent O'Neill the book in 1939, had realized when staging a live production of The Emperor Jones that the play's "eerie, unearthly theatricality would make it an ideal vehicle for marionettes" (Magon 19). He planned what he termed an "expressionistic" production that required months to design, construct and rehearse. O'Neill's agent, Richard Madden, attended the first performance and dispatched to the dramatist a flattering report and a set of photographs. In response, O'Neill sent Magon an inscribed copy of the play. Soon thereafter, the puppeteer advertised: "The Emperor Jones, approved by Eugene O'Neill, available for bookings" (94).

Ralph Cheese, creator of the California production, had served as an assistant to designer Aline Bernstein at the Neighborhood Playhouse before dedicating his career to "serious" marionette productions of such plays as Hamlet, Macbeth, and Moliere's Don Juan. He, too, held Jones to be "a perfect play for marionettes" and has revived the work frequently since 1929 (Salter 23).

The Hairy Ape's Fifth Avenue crowd are described as "a procession of gaudy marionettes, yet with something of the relentless horror of Frankensteins in their detached, mechanical unawareness" (O'Neill 5 89); and, of course, the ape itself may be viewed as a form of marionette. In a similar light, one may consider the dynamo of Dynamo as a character conceived as "something of a massive female idol" which possesses a voice that is "a harsh, throaty, metallic purr" (O'Neill 3 473), with switches and wires which to Reuben Light are like "the arms of a devilfish--stretching out to suck me in" (484). In the final moments, Reuben, his face drained of all human feeling as in a plaster mask, stretches out his arms to his "Dynamo-Mother with its whirling metal brain and its blank, oblong eyes" (488). Here the dynamo is a stationary bermarionette, one that breathes, sings, gives and takes life, and becomes one of O'Neill's most powerful theatrical images.

Loving, the masked figure who personifies John Loving's dead alter ego in Days Without End, walks through the play as a living marionette. Wearing John Loving's death mask, this man of conventional American good looks displays a "sneer of scornful mockery on his lips" and a stare that emerges bleak from behind his mask (O'Neill 2 494). A figure seen only by John and the audience, Loving follows John throughout the play, often sitting at his side and regarding him with scornful eyes. When John eventually surrenders himself at the foot of the cross, Loving's legs "crumple under him" as if he had been crushed down and he "slumps forward to the floor and rolls over on his back, dead" (566), in doll-like fashion.

Only Hughie, as we know, exists from the projected "By Way of Obit" series of eight monologues; and, of course, as written, the listener figure of the Night Clerk is not a marionette but a role to be played by an actor. Yet aspects of the marionette remain as the Clerk sits on a stool with nothing to do. According to O'Neill, "He is not thinking. He is not sleepy. He simply droops and stares acquiescently at nothing" (O'Neill 6 7). As Erie Smith pursues his long defense against gloom, the Night Clerk dissolves under his own weight and soon "seems turned into a drooping waxwork, draped along the desk" (14). This stage direction, while a challenge for the living actor, could be readily realized by a marionette, as could such directions as "The Clerk's face would express despair, but the last time he was able to feel despair was back around World War days when the cost of living got so high and he was out of a job for three months" (17), or "In the vague tone of a corpse which admits it once overheard a favorable rumor about life" (18).

At one point the Clerk begins to feel guilty because he hasn't been listening to the Guest: "I should have paid more attention. After all, he is company. He is awake and alive," a statement which suggests that the Night Clerk does not consider himself to be either (30). And he does not become so until near the conclusion, when the honored name of Arnold Rothstein ignites his imagination. Even here, when he joins Erie in a game of dice and becomes involved for the first time, he displays "an excited dead-pan expression" (38). The image of the marionette that originally inspired the play remains throughout, humanized in the drooping figure and dead-pan face of the Night Clerk.

Perhaps O'Neill's most significant dramatic use of the actor as a marionette comes in Act Four of The Iceman Cometh, when the habituťs of Harry Hope's return and sit lifeless at 1:30 in the morning: "There is an atmosphere of oppressive stagnation in the room, and a quality of insensibility about all the people in this group at right. They are like wax figures, set stiffly on their chairs, carrying out mechanically the motions of getting drunk but sunk in a numb stupor which is impervious to stimulation" (O'Neill 7 212). Jose Quintero, in the 1985 revival, saw this moment as a chorus of ashen-faced figures frozen in exaggerated poses of wooden arms and legs at odd angles, a stringless company of marionettes who do not regain control of their energy or equilibrium until Hickey says, "You know I must have been insane" (242)'. But for the thirty preceding pages they have been a group that is "sodden" (220) and "licked" (215), and of whom, as Rocky says, "dere ain't enough guts left in de whole gang to battle a mosquito!" (216). When forced to speak, "They mumble almost in chorus as one voice, like sleepers talking out of a dully irritating dream" (220).

O'Neill depicts Jimmy Tomorrow as the most dead: "More than any of them, his face has a wax-figure blankness that makes it look embalmed. He answers in a completely lifeless voice" (229). And when finished, "He stops like a mechanical doll that has run down. No one gives any sign of having heard him. There is a heavy silence" (230). O'Neill has created a mechanical doll whose confession of his life-lie literally expires into nothingness.

Critic, historian and puppeteer Peter Arnott reminds us in Plays Without People that "whenever the actor dons a mask--either literally, as in the Greek and Roman plays, or figuratively, as when playing a strongly typed part--he is abnegating his individuality and making himself a puppet" (Arnott 77). O'Neill surely shared this belief; and as he had experimented with masks, both literal and figurative, and finally in Mourning Becomes Electra entrusted actors to create on their own faces the Mannon masks of death, so he moved in his later plays to transform actors into living marionettes. Thus, in Moon for the Misbegotten, the larger-than-life Josie may be seen as the bermarionette personified and Jim as a hollow frame of a figure waiting for the invisible strings to be released and finally set to rest. O'Neill had become drama's ultimate puppeteer who through complete control of his character is able to create the illusion of life.

--Lowell Swortzell


Arnott, Peter D. Plays Without People: Puppetry and Serious Drama. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1984.

Beaumont, Cyril W. Puppets and the Puppet State. London: The Studio Ltd. and NY: Studio Publications, Inc., 1938.

Flanagan, Hallie. Arena. NY: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1940.

Floyd, Virginia. Eugene O'Neill at Work. NY: Frederick Ungar, 1981.

Gelb, Arthur and Barbara. O'Neill. NY: Harper and Row, 1962.

Kreymborg, Alfred. Plays for Puppets. London: Seckler, 1923.

Macgowan, Kenneth. The Theatre of Tomorrow. NY: Boni and Liveright, 1921.

Magon, Jero. Puppetry. Vol. 10 (1939), 19.

O'Neill, Eugene. "The Ancient Mariner." Yale University Library Gazette, 35 (1960).

----------. Days Without End in The Plays of Eugene O'Neill. NY: Random House, 1954, III, 491-587.

----------. Dynamo in The Plays of Eugene O'Neill, III, 417-489.

----------. The Emperor Jones in Nine Plays by Eugene O'Neill. NY: Modern Library, n.d.

----------. The Hairy Ape in Nine Plays by Eugene O'Neill.

----------. Hughie. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959.

----------. The Iceman Cometh. NY: Random House, 1946.

Salter Salter, Ted. "Caricature: Ralph Cheese." Puppetry Journal, Vol. 32, No. 6 (May-June 1981).

White White, Leslie. "Eugene O'Neill and the Federal Theatre Project." Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 1985.



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