REVIEWS AND REPORTS OF BOOKS AND PRODUCTIONS
1. GARY VENA, O'NEILL'S "THE ICEMAN COMETH": RECONSTRUCTING THE PREMIERE. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1988. xi + 251 pp. $49.95, cloth. ISBN 0-8357-1841-7. (No. 47 in UMIRP's "Theater and Dramatic Studies" series, edited by Oscar G. Brockett.)
How refreshing, in an era of rampant deconstruction, to have this exhaustively researched, meticulously detailed and handsomely packaged reconstruction of the original, 1946 Theatre Guild production of The Iceman Cometh. It's an exciting story, as full of human interest as of literary and theatrical insight, and Professor Vena's skills as scholar and raconteur are perfectly blended in its telling. Add the striking black cover with a half-length O'Neill portrait stamped on its front; the two sizable appendices (textual modifications made during the rehearsal period, and extracts from the more than 45 opening night reviews); and the wealth of illustrations--including full-page photos (albeit posed) of the 19 cast members in their costumes, O'Neill's set drawings for each of the four acts, and Robert Edmond Jones's renditions of the bar and back room at Hope's saloon--and the hefty fee is unquestionably warranted. O'Neillians of limited means should at least see that their local or institutional libraries acquire copies.
Of course the story is ultimately a sad one. The last Broadway production of an O'Neill play during the playwright's lifetime was not a popular success. It ran for only 136 performances, and would have to wait a decade to prove its now-acknowledged theatrical viability. And Professor Vena makes clear that much of the difficulty arose from temperamental clashes between the author, who was present throughout the casting and rehearsal periods, and director Eddie Dowling, whose wishes and decisions were often overruled. (An evocative one that was retained was his decision to have Larry Slade exit near the end of the last act, as if following Don Parritt's route to the fire escape.) But there are as many happy notes as negative ones--especially the tremendous contribution to mood and atmosphere of the sets, lighting and costumes designed by Jones.
A particularly intriguing emphasis in the 1946 production was the suggestion of a "relationship" (p. 127) or "connection between Hickey and Cora" (p. 156), hinted at in the second act and underscored in the fourth, when Hickey (James Barton) made six "advances ... towards Cora [Marcella Markham] during his lengthy confession." Vena calls the relationship "unexplored" and "unexamined," but he does offer two possible sources for its inclusion in 1946. Perhaps Dowling was utilizing the "comradery" that had developed between Barton and Markham during the rehearsal period; or he may have wished to show Hickey "motivated to arouse [the] sympathy" of the only female in his on-stage audience. Whatever its source, the subtextual sidelight is both intriguing in its own right and a fascinating evidence of the way that the "chemistry" of a particular group of interpreters can broaden a scene beyond the author's original intentions.
The reconstruction-proper--an act-by-act illustrated study of scenic designs, lighting effects, and stage action--is preceded by four chapters that treat O'Neill's earlier affiliations with the Guild, the evolution of the script and technical preparations for production, the casting and rehearsal periods, and the "cast of characters"--the last a particularly valuable survey of the real-life models, their fictional counterparts, and the biographies and distinctive contributions of their first portrayers. Through extensive use of promptbooks, ground plans, rehearsal texts and (best of all) interviews with surviving members of the original cast and production team, Vena has assembled an intimate and engrossing narrative that will be as useful to devotees of professional theatre in general as to lovers of the specific play and playwright. For their collaboration on an obvious labor of love, author and publisher deserve hearty congratulations.
-- Frederick C. Wilkins
2. HAROLD BLOOM, ed., EUGENE O'NEILL. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. 183 pp. $27.50, cloth. ISBN 0-87754-633-9. A volume in the Modern Critical Views Series.
HAROLD BLOOM, ed., EUGENE O'NEILL'S "THE ICEMAN COMETH." New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. 120 pp. $19.95, cloth. ISBN 1-55546-048-8. A volume in the Modern Critical Interpretations series.
HAROLD BLOOM, ed., EUGENE O'NEILL'S "LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT." New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. 150 pp. $19.95, cloth. ISBN 1-55546-049-6. A volume in the Modern Critical Interpretations series.
Professor Bloom and his cadre of amanuenses have attempted, in the 476 volumes that comprise the "Views" and "Interpretations" series, to gather the "best current criticism" of the "most widely read" authors and literary works "of the Western world." As the criterion of popularity indicates, there has been little attempt to broaden the canon beyond its traditional confines; but the goal is unquestionably a worthy one, and the series will be a boon to small public libraries hazardously distant from any citadel of learning. Even a major library could strengthen its collection by acquiring the volumes devoted to writers sparsely represented in its holdings.
I doubt, however, that any serious individual or institutional collector of O'Neill material will find much in these particular volumes that he or she doesn't already have, since the bulk of each comprises chapters, or parts of chapters, from standard and ubiquitous book-length studies of the playwright. (Bogard and Chothia appear in all three, Falk and Tiusanen in two, and Berlin, Manheim and Törnqvist in one each.) Surely even modest O'Neill shelves will include their studies--so well known that I need not even list their titles--along with those of many another writer equally worthy of representation. Of articles from scholarly journals, only four are offered, all from Modern Drama. And the sections from books broader in scope--by Bigsby, Brustein, Orr, Sewall and others--should already be present, in their original locales, in any respectable collection of modern drama studies. Lionel Trilling's perceptive 1936 essay, that leads off the general O'Neill volume, will delight those who hadn't seen it in The New Republic or in Morris Freedman's collection, Essays in the Modern Drama (1964). Indeed, almost all of the chosen items are a pleasure to read again; and the prices, by current standards, are admirably modest, especially for such sturdy and attractive packaging. Still, for the "snapper-up of unconsidered trifles," the pickin's, or snappables, are sadly few.
These reservations may be unfair: such a massive series of small volumes must, I suppose, stick pretty much to the mainstream; and any O'Neill collection is welcome, even if its contents are well known. But there are other problems that exacerbate this reviewer's discontent. First of all, the contents have been shorn of most of their original documentation, probably to smooth the way for the general reader for whom the two series were designed. But even a general reader might wish to know the authors of quotations and the sources of here-unattributed facts and opinions. Secondly, a number of the selections have been severely (and silently) truncated--a practice that runs the risk of distorting the meaning or intentions of the author. And a third problem, affecting only the general O'Neill volume, was the overall decision to present the selections in the order of their original publication. While it is fascinating to trace the evolution of criticism of Iceman and Journey (in the latter case, from Falk's study two years after the play was released to Bigsby's twenty-four years later), it is at best disconcerting, and hardly helpful for a student new to the playwright, to come upon Falk's assessment of O'Neill's last plays 100 pages before Bigsby's analysis of "Four Early Plays"! Had creative rather than critical chronology been observed, the general reader might have been spared a good deal of confusion, as he is in James J. Martine's Critical Essays on Eugene O'Neill (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984), whose introduction and contents, both comprehensive and comprehensible, epitomize the anthologist's art at its very best.
Professor Martine, of course, is an O'Neillian; he has affection for the man and an admirable knowledge of his work and what has been written about it. And this leads to my fourth and strongest reservation about the three books under consideration. No surveyor of almost all of major Western literature can possibly revere every artist and artifact; even the most catholic of tastes has its limits. And Professor Bloom clearly carries no torch for Eugene O'Neill, as is evident in his three introductions. (I should say his one introduction, since he cagily constructed a three-part introduction to the general volume, whose sections could be stored and reheated for the other two. The first part, largely an expression of bewilderment at O'Neill's popularity, appears in all three; while the second and third parts, perfunctory glances at Iceman and Journey, reappear once each, in the volume on that particular play.) He parades all the old shibboleths of the anti-O'Neill brigade as if they were shiny new. O'Neill was a bad writer whose "strength was never conceptual," whose "convictions were ... in no way remarkable, except for their incessant sullenness," and who had "no American precursors." [Had Bloom read more of Bigsby than he includes, or any of the recent studies by Marc Maufort, he would have learned that (in Bigsby's words) "O'Neill's real ancestor was Melville." But then, one wonders if he read with care even the selections that his assistants gathered for him. The cryptic, one-page "editor's note" to each volume suggests that he may not have.] How could O'Neill possibly be well or fairly served by an editor who finds in him "a paucity of eloquence, too much commonplace religiosity, and a thorough lack of understanding of the perverse complexities of human nature"? Even words of praise, when unavoidable, are acerbically qualified: Long Day's Journey is "by common consent" a masterpiece; Mary Tyrone's last speech is "banal if moving," etc. Only O'Neill's gifts as mimeticist and creator of "extraordinarily effective stage directions" are praised without reservation. And the praise, in such a context, is faint indeed.
Fortunately, all of Bloom's charges are refuted or strongly challenged in the chapters and essays that follow his remarks. But the damage may have been done at the start--and in triplicate. How many neophytes will be moved to investigate a writer for whom the editor has such obvious distaste? If, as we hope, O'Neill continues to flourish in the years ahead, he will do so not because of but in spite of the recent work of Professor Bloom. One would do best to acquire the books quoted in the three volumes, rather than the three volumes themselves, whose flaws, in two cases, extend even to the art on the jackets. The detail of Edward Hopper's "Sunlight in a Cafeteria," a study in individual human isolation, hardly evokes the physical or human atmosphere at Harry Hope's. And the glorious photograph of Monte Cristo Cottage on the Journey cover has been incongruously reversed. Incongruous, but perhaps appropriate: it mirrors the "backwardness" of the editor's introduction!
-- Frederick C. Wilkins
3. THOMAS P. ADLER, MIRROR ON THE STAGE: THE PULITZER PLAYS AS AN APPROACH TO AMERICAN DRAMA. Purdue University Press, 1987. xv + 171 pp. $17.50, cloth. ISBN 0-911198-884-9.
KATHERINE H. BURKMAN, THE ARRIVAL OF GODOT: RITUAL PATTERNS IN MODERN DRAMA. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1986. 176 pp. $24.50, cloth. ISBN 0-8386-3264-84-5.
BRENDA MURPHY, AMERICAN REALISM AND AMERICAN DRAMA, 1880-1940. Cambridge University Press, 1987. xiv + 232 pp. $27.95, cloth. ISBN 0-521-32711-3.
Professor Adler's book manages to overcome its unorthodox format. In fact, its organization--thematic rather than chronological--is its salvation. Like Brenda Murphy in American Realism and American Drama (reviewed later in this section), Adler begins by addressing the problems that American drama has had in being taken seriously as literature. Accordingly, like Murphy's, his discussion is developed along an aesthetic, analytical line. He is chiefly concerned with the issues that the Pulitzer prize-winning plays raise--issues reflecting sociological or cultural concerns that, he notes, have been covered inadequately in previous treatments of the Pulitzer plays. Hence his success in achieving his wish to provide something "new and fresh." By eschewing chronology in favor of an "intertextual" approach, he succeeds in delineating "relationships that might not otherwise be apparent in plays widely separated by time."
The book is divided into ten categories which become chapter headings for the discussions of the plays that Adler finds to be "intertextually linked." One such linkage of interest to O'Neillians is that of Ephraim Cabot (in Desire Under the Elms) and Big Daddy (in Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof). Both plays are shown to be about the strength of a patriarch and the lust for land. Adler does not strictly limit himself to plays that have won the Pulitzer, but he remains consistently true to his subject--what the American stage reflects about American culture.
O'Neill plays are discussed in four of the ten chapters: Beyond the Horizon and The Iceman Cometh in "Supportive Illusions/Romantic Delusions"; Strange Interlude in "The Ethic of Happiness"; Anna Christie in "The Varieties of Religious Experience"; and Long Day's Journey Into Night in the final chapter, "From Modernism to Metatheatre--Art and Artists in Modern American Drama." It is this last discussion that best illustrates what Adler is attempting to do, and it will be of greatest interest to O'Neill specialists. He reads the play as being about the failure of its characters to come to grips with life--surely not a shattering revelation--but he defines in a most revealing way what coming to grips with life means in terms of "art." He shows that Long Day's Journey transcends reality, alluding as it does to a "supra-reality" that can only be "momentarily plumbed and revealed" by the vision of an "artist." And, within this context, he defines an artist as one who follows the "highest calling"--one which allows the individual to be at ease with both the world at large and the world within. Thus, Long Day's Journey becomes an exploration of consciousness itself, not only in terms of family relationships or personal ambitions, but in terms of what it means to exist and to reconcile experience with that existence. For that analysis alone, Mirror on the Stage more than justifies its modest asking price.
Despite Professor Burkman's title, I fear that we are still waiting, and that her book will not be of special interest to the O'Neill scholar except in its discussion of The Iceman Cometh and Ibsen's Wild Duck (pp. 25-32). Iceman recurs throughout the text as a keystone in the failure of the "birthday party ritual" to be consummated as a fully celebratory structure.
Waiting for Godot is the dramatic acid test for Burkman, who hails its ongoing presence and influence as indicative that waiting itself has become the essential ritual of modern drama. Her discussion is frequently arresting; but, since her conclusion offers no overwhelming argument for Godot's arrival, I suspect that her title is grounded in a Beckettian irony.
As for the analysis of Iceman, Professor Burkman describes the play in terms of its triumph over hope, which is the essence of the rejection of ritual. When Larry Slade refuses to join in the cacophonous chorus at the play's conclusion, he is denying Hickey (Iceman's Godot figure) and allowing himself the opportunity to "finally make friends with death." She shows that Hickey and Ibsen's Gregers Werle have the same function in their respective plays: to bring to other characters the realization that life is fed by illusion. This is not, however, their ultimate importance--at least not in terms of "godotisme," if that is what this dramatic phenomenon may be called. What is most significant is that their message is ultimately rejected. And it is through this rejection that the two dramas become denials of ritual. With ritual denied, the notion of rebirth can be considered. For Larry Slade, of course, such a rebirth may not be possible within the realm of the physical. But Burkman is concerned here with "the quest for renewal" as a "spiritual journey," and Larry Slade's physical presence is not needed. Indeed, it is only excess baggage. Less concern with ritual and more with characters' natures might have marred the thesis, but it might also have resulted in a more rewarding study.
Professor Murphy's book sets itself four tasks: "to describe the dramatic theory the Realists developed, to show its immediate impact on the theater in the realists' own American drama and that of their theatrical disciples, to trace this native realism's slow evolution within American drama between the early 1890s and World War I, and to describe the resulting innovations in realistic drama that flourished in the American theater between World War I and World War II." She attempts as essay in "historical poetics"--a term she borrows from Benjamin Hrushovsky, who defines the term as the "poetics of literary movements placed in historical periods." She is careful in describing her method because her analysis redresses the "traditional but arbitrary division between literary specialists who study drama and those who study American literature."
O'Neillians will be satisfied with the volume, whose specific chapter on O'Neill is entitled "The Cutting Edge." That that is the right placement for the playwright would, of course, be questioned by few; but Murphy's argument for it is particularly incisive because of the context that she limns for O'Neill's emergence. By focusing as she does on the intrinsic development of American realism as a dramatic theory, she makes evident O'Neill's debts to an American dramatic tradition. O'Neill's acknowledgment of Edward Sheldon's contribution to that tradition has been quoted before, and the influence of works like The Count of Monte Cristo has been traced in his work. But Murphy, no jingoistic scholar, gives full attention to continental influences as well. Indeed, she spends considerable time in the books's second half discussing the impact of Freud. If this latter half is more diffuse than the first, it is because of the nature of her subject. By the 1930s (and by the final chapters of the text), "realism" was no longer the dominant force in literature and drama that it had been. Still, it is her conclusion that, by the end of the 1930s, realism had become more than a device or theory: it had become an intrinsic part of American drama. And the book concludes, for exemplification of this notion, with studies of The Iceman Cometh and Long Day's Journey Into Night.
Murphy discusses O'Neill in the context of American drama as a whole, not in terms of his own specific development as a dramatist. Her discussion includes two-page analyses of plays ranging from the early sea one-acts to Mourning Becomes Electra, as well as the two masterworks that are assessed at book's end. But the emphasis is less on analysis of individual plays than on O'Neill's position vis-à-vis his dramatic antecedents. Because she takes such care in establishing the premises of her essay in "historical poetics," her book accomplishes admirably the tasks it sets for itself. For instance, by citing the "denial of closure" as one of the essential features of a fully developed American drama, she clearly indicates that O'Neill's plays, since the late ones resound with such a denial, represent the integration of American drama with its European counterparts in the realistic-theoretical realm.
-- Thomas F. Connolly
4. SUSAN LETZLER COLE, THE ABSENT ONE: MOURNING, RITUAL. TRAGEDY AND THE PERFORMANCE OF AMBIVALENCE. University Park and London: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1985. 183 pp. $22.50, cloth. ISBN 0-271-00391-X.
At the end of her book, Professor Cole makes some very interesting observations about The Iceman Cometh. Getting to the end is the problem. The author finds neither a rhetoric nor an intellectual framework within which to develop adequately the central idea of her book. That the idea has real merit makes its shaky development all the more regrettable. Promise unfulfilled breeds asperity. Ideas that approach the core of tragedy deserve better nurture.
Ranging from Aeschylus to Ionesco, Cole offers to explain tragedy on the model of ancient and "primitive" funerary rites. The thesis, in the author's words, holds that tragedy "is a performance of ambivalence on behalf of an absent presence." By ambivalence she means three different things: simultaneous and opposed feelings or wishes "(a) as expressed by intrapsychic conflict within a single character; (b) as reflected in the relationship between two central characters: deceased and mourner, father (-surrogate) and inheriting son (-surrogate); (c) as displaced onto the governing structure and imagery of the play" (pp. 1-2). Cole lists the other elements she believes link tragedy to funerary rituals: "the presence of the uncanny ... (ghosts, symbolic dreams, hallucinations)"; "the beloved deceased, usually a father or father-figure"; "a mourner-inheritor"; and "the antithetical style and antiphonal exchange characteristic of ritual lament." The introduction and first chapter are jargonish and unclear, suggestive rather than convincing. In the remaining chapters, Cole sometimes shows she recognizes the dynamic potential inherent in her idea; but far too much of the book settles for itemizing the elements common to both tragedy and funerals, for "proving" rather than developing the thesis.
As for theory, Cole does not understand very well the psychiatric writings on mourning that she cites. She needs to consider more fully the celebratory aspects of mourning, which she acknowledges but never clearly explains. It is wonderfully interesting to consider how a play that ends like Lear or Antigone can leave one filled with a sense of beauty and serenity. Hegel on transcendence might help, or Nietzsche on the dynamic between individuation and Dionysian loss of self.
Cole does best in her last chapter, in which she makes valuable brief comments on several tragic plays (Sophocles' Theban trilogy, Lear, Endgame, Philoctetes, Othello, and The Iceman Cometh.) Readers of the Newsletter should find her remarks about Iceman (pp. 160-165) enlightening.
I believe that no previously published account tries to understand as deeply as Cole the play's constant references to death. The metaphor of alcoholism, she shows, embodies funereal lamentation and celebration. To the bums, drinking simultaneously means joy and sleep--anesthesia. And sleep means death, as Larry and others reiterate. Cole correctly perceives that Hickey is not the one who understands death: he is limited by his all-or-nothing thinking. "The unacknowledged situation of the play," Cole asserts, is "the collective death of most of the characters." That the characters themselves are "walking stiffs" complicates perceiving the significance of the dead and death. To Cole it lies in the proposition that the characters' "refusal to admit, and mourn, what is dead in the lives of each ... is the refusal to recover what is still living." To understand we must know Larry, the only character in the play capable of accepting death and mourning. In Larry's mourning for Parritt Cole finds the "Aristotelian tragic catharsis in a whisper!"
The concern for mourning Cole finds in the Iceman she would find equally prominent in most of the plays O'Neill wrote after the early 1920s (when his father, mother and brother all died). The theme is especially central in the late plays. With O'Neill the biographical connection from the life to the tragic sensibility is especially clear. How many other of the great tragic writers found their way to tragedy through the struggle to mourn overwhelming losses?
--Stephen A. Black
5. FOSTER HIRSCH, EUGENE O'NEILL: LIFE, WORK, AND CRITICISM. Fredericton, N.B., Canada: York Press, 1986. 48 pp. $6.95, paper. ISBN 0-919966-55-1.
MADELINE SMITH and RICHARD EATON, EUGENE O'NEILL: AN ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY. New York & London: Garland Publishing, 1988. 320 pp. $44.00, cloth. ISBN 0-8240-0691-7.
ULRICH HALFMANN, ed., EUGENE O'NEILL: COMMENTS ON THE DRAMA AND THE THEATER. A SOURCE BOOK. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 1987. xxxv + 255 pp. $24.50, paper (ISBN 3-87808-669-5), $41.00, cloth (ISBN 3-87808-447-1). No. 7 in GNV's "Studies and Texts in English" series.
As a sucker for annotated bibliographies who has long sought a comprehensive O'Neill "Poetics" and a short, inexpensive survey of the playwright's life, work and reputation to assign to students, I was naturally delighted at the appearance of these three volumes. Two of them--the Smith-Eaton and Halfmann collections--are musts for any serious scholar of O'Neill. After reading Hirsch's diminutive study, however, I fear that one of my searches must continue--if, in fact, the goal is attainable at all.
The more one knows about O'Neill and his oeuvre, the less one will be satisfied with a 48-page overview, since so much is necessarily omitted, and what is treated is hardly exhaustively treated. Hirsch's book, like all the series of which it is a part, is divided into five sections: a biography of just over six pages, that emphasizes how O'Neill "shatter[ed] the theatrical conventions of his father's era" and "transformed personal experience into timeless art"; a "chronological list of O'Neill's works" that omits references to poetry and fiction, arouses confusion by jamming together three kinds of chronology--creation, performance and publication--and contains a few errors [e.g., Chris Christophersen was published in 1982 (not 1980) by Random House (not Yale)]; a chapter entitled "Life into Art: The Plays of Eugene O'Neill"; a two-page assessment of "O'Neill's Achievement"; and a fairly up-to-date "annotated bibliography" (books only), some of whose capsule judgments ("brilliant," "ponderous," "inessential") will arouse anger or amusement depending on the reader's point of view.
The central chapter on the plays contains a number of conventional but accurate insights and fairly comprehensible synopses of the plays it discusses (which do not include Hughie, More Stately Mansions or A Moon for the Misbegotten). But it is marred by run-on sentences, some glaring errors (that Brutus Jones was "emperor of a remote African tribe" comes as an unnerving jolt!), and a number of questionable and unsupported judgments. Some may agree that The Hairy Ape is "now a museum piece" (so much for "timeless art"!). But is Marco Millions "a tissue of pious platitudes"? Are Strange Interlude and Mourning Becomes Electra no more than "superior soap operas"? And isn't there an odd inconsistency, after saying in the first section that "[w]riting Long Day's Journey at fifty-one, O'Neill attained his maturity," in claiming two sections later that the 1916-1918 one acts "contain some of O'Neill's most mature ... writing"? Hirsch must be drawing a tacit distinction between personal and artistic maturity; but the truncation required by the publisher's prescribed maximum of 50 pages precludes clarity.
Problems multiply in the section on "O'Neill's Achievement," which lists five persistent themes and three ubiquitous character types (nothing wrong there), but offers, at best, halfhearted refutations of O'Neill's detractors while actually allying itself with the supposed enemy. O'Neill, says Hirsch, had "difficulty in telling a story" and was betrayed by a lack of "modesty" and "technical discipline" into a "frenzied quest for thematic grandeur" that entailed "laboring against his truest gifts" as a "poet of private passions." With such defenders, O'Neill's reputation rests on shaky ground indeed!
I'd sought a short overview so students would have the basics, leaving time for deeper discussions of individual works and of relations between O'Neill's life and his art. But I fear, were I to assign this volume, that the time saved would pale in comparison with the time needed to challenge, qualify and correct what the students would be reading. Far better, I think, to assign one of the paperback studies by Berlin, Bogard, Carpenter, Floyd, Manheim or Raleigh. (Apologies to others whom I've momentarily overlooked.) The price is higher, but the value to students would be infinitely greater.
The Garland volume is another matter entirely. Smith and Eaton's goal was to update Jordan Miller's Eugene O'Neill and the American Critic, which ends in 1972, to 1985, with an international component reflecting the increase in writing about O'Neill around the world since the early 1970s. The result is, like its splendid predecessor, a clear and comprehensive work that no O'Neill scholar will want to be without. The bibliography is divided into nine parts: books and parts of books in English; dissertations; periodical publications in English; foreign language publications; English language productions and reviews; foreign language productions and reviews; miscellaneous (adaptations, television and film versions, etc.); editions of primary works; and translations. The first four sections are arranged by year, each year's items alphabetized by author. The English language production list is alphabetized by play title, the productions of each being presented chronologically; and the foreign language productions are alphabetized by country, each's productions appearing chronologically. And so on. Clarity reigns throughout; and even if it didn't, the two concluding indexes--of plays and authors--would make it fairly easy for any researcher to find what he or she is seeking. (A third, thematic index would have made it even easier; but given the eclectic breadth of subjects covered, it might have doubled the book's length!)
No seeker, whatever the specific goal, is likely to be disappointed. What a wealth of material was produced between 1973 and 1985! (That the 322 "periodical publications in English" include 112 from the Newsletter, which didn't begin until 1977, is gratifying to note, even though to do so will possibly undermine my critical credibility!) And what a massive and valuable service Smith and Eaton have performed in locating, organizing and digesting all of it! (If there are lacunae, I haven't spotted them.) The synopses vary greatly in length and detail. For instance, Judith Barlow's dissertation (B21) is more clearly treated than the book it later became (A209), while the reverse is true for the two versions of the film study by John Orlandello (A142 and B31). And there are occasional lapses in orthography, and even in accuracy. (I had to scurry back to see if I'd made the remarks about O'Neill's Irish Catholicism that were attributed to me in A108. I hadn't.) But such cavils are small potatoes indeed, when one considers the monumentality of the whole, and remembers that the annotations are intended, not as substitutes for the items summarized, but as hints at the content one will find in the originals. (The items that include quotations are the best in this regard.) If the book is treated as it should be--not as an end in itself, but as a guide to resources--it will be a boon to scholarship for years to come. Smith and Eaton have earned a place of honor, right next to Jordan Miller on any self-respecting O'Neill bookshelf.
And so has Ulrich Halfmann, whose book includes the one thing that Smith and Eaton omit--an Analytic Subject-Index of "approximately one hundred concepts and keywords occurring in the texts" that the editor has so scrupulously gathered. We've had brief summations of O'Neill's "poetics" in the past, one of the best being Paul Voelker's "Eugene O'Neill's Aesthetic of the Drama" in Modern Drama (1978--item C111 in Smith and Eaton). But never before have all the bits and pieces comprising that aesthetic been gathered in one place, and the result is a revelation. Halfmann has compiled "153 items from 110 different sources"--letters, interviews, introductions, essays, tributes, etc.--the criterion for selection being each's contribution "to our understanding of O'Neill's work, Weltanschauung, or theory of art." Even if O'Neill himself had penned a book on his dramatic theory, it would not have been as good as this collection, which permits us to trace the evolution of that theory as it was worked out throughout his career. If Smith and Eaton should stand beside Miller, this book should accompany Clark, Sheaffer and the Gelbs, since it is the closest we will ever come to the playwright's artistic autobiography.
The selections themselves would make the volume essential, but the scholarly apparatus that links and surrounds them increases its value even more. In addition to his informative introductions and notes, Halfmann has provided a 12-page chronology of O'Neill's life and work, and a series of appendices and indexes that aid immeasurably in one's study of the contents. So the decision to divide the selections into two parts--material published during O'Neill's lifetime (1919-1951) and material published posthumously (dating from 1914 to 1979)--poses no problem, except for the necessary skipping between the two parts if one wishes to read everything in strictly chronological order. But with a guide as conscientiously thorough as Professor Halfmann, the skipping entails no tripping! Like Smith and Eaton, he has made a major contribution to O'Neill studies that will long outlast the brouhaha of the centennial.
-- Frederick C. Wilkins
6. HARRY KEMP, POET OF THE DUNES. Provincetown: Cape Cod Pilgrim Memorial Association [Box 1125, Provincetown, MA 02657], 1988. Reprint of a 1952 edition. 104 pp. $6.00, paper. ISBN 0-945135-00-9.
It has always seemed improper to me that in recent years nothing of Harry Kemp's work has been regularly available in Cape Cod bookstores--not even in Provincetown, which was Kemp's home for so many years. With the reissue of Poet of the Dunes, this embarrassing oversight has been eliminated. What's more, it has been eliminated in style: the book is handsome, and it is enjoyable to read.
Other Kemp poetry collections always disappointed terribly, a kind of Byronic distortion factor always overwhelming the work to the degree that the poems, cumulatively, had all the charm, value and presence of concrete greenhouse urns or cherubs. Poet of the Dunes is more satisfying because the poems are somewhat more detail oriented, and, thematically, the collection is more cohesive than previous ones. Almost all the more than 100 poems have to do with the Cape, or the dunes, or the sea; and in the instance of a poem such as "The Old Shoemaker," you get a sense of Kemp being his own man, a poet who could simply come out and say, to good effect, "The old shoemaker is gone."
This is a great souvenir kind of book from the land of dune shacks and shipwrecks, where sand and sea coexist in a weird constant shifting meeting with each other, frequently trading identities, and sometimes disgorging an artist of O'Neill's stature while retaining one of Kemp's in amongst the eel grass, the sea shells, the dried beached skates and the driftwood.
For O'Neillians who are fascinated by O'Neill's Provincetown days and the formation of the original Provincetown Players--of which Kemp was a part--Poet of the Dunes is highly recommended. It is the first volume in a series of reprints of Provincetown classics by the Cape Cod Pilgrim Memorial Association. The rest of the series is eagerly awaited.
-- Marshall Brooks
7. A TOUCH OF THE POET, directed by David Thacker. The Young Vic and Comedy Theatres, London, January-May 1988.
[This production was reviewed by Laurin R. Porter in the Spring 1988 issue of the Newsletter (pp. 62-64). However, since there is word that it may grace a Broadway stage early in 1989, under the auspices of the Jujamcyn organization, we felt that readers might enjoy the following "inside report" by the productions's dramaturg, William F. Condee. Indeed, Professor Condee's report is so revealing about a fascinating exercise in theatrical (and more than theatrical) transplantation that it merits publication anyhow. The quoted statements of David Thacker are taken from his interviews with the author on 31 December 1987 and 25 March 1988. -Ed.]
The origin of the Young Vic production of A Touch of the Poet lay both in Its stars and its producer. Duncan Weldon, the producer, had the London rights to the play, but was about to give them up for lack of suitable leading actors. Meanwhile, he had asked Vanessa Redgrave and Timothy Dalton, who had acted together shortly before in a season of Shakespeare at the Haymarket, what play they would like to perform in the West End. After reading many scripts, Redgrave recalled Poet, for which she had auditioned in America; she was unaware that Weldon held the rights or that 1988 marked the O'Neill centennial. As soon as Dalton read the script he "knew that we had to do it" (Morley 7).
For the director, Redgrave wanted David Thacker, director of the Young Vic, with whom she had previously worked on a production of Ghosts. Redgrave and Dalton also wanted the production to originate at the Young Vic because "seat prices there are still so low that you really do get a young student audience" (Morley 7). Even though it was to be a commercial West-End venture, Redgrave carried enough clout to have the production presented initially at a playhouse more likely to draw the kind of audiences she wanted: younger and impecunious.
Though there had been two prior English productions of the play, they were little noted and Thacker's was likely to become, as one critic pointed out, "a definitive production" in Britain (Truss 13). Thacker expressed appreciation that audiences and critics would not come to the play with preconceived ideas, and would therefore have "open sensibilities." His attitude was therefore to approach the play as if this were its first production.
I became involved as dramaturg through the Young Vic's ongoing relationship with Ohio University, where I teach. Before travelling to London, I researched Poet and its productions at the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale University and the Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library. Of greatest interest and value to the director and actors were photocopies of O'Neill's notes on the characters, the play and the cycle of which Poet is a part. The designer, for instance, had completed his set rendering, only to discover that it strongly resembled the sketch by O'Neill that I provided. I worked with the director and cast before and during the initial rehearsal period, wrote the program notes, and then returned to London to see the production after it had moved from the Young Vic to the West End's Comedy Theatre.
I spent the first week of rehearsal with the cast as they read slowly through the play, stopping frequently to discuss issues central and tangential to it. While the cast (other than Redgrave) knew little about O'Neill or nineteenth-century American history, they had a voracious appetite for such information. They saw the direct application to their work of information such as: nineteenth-century American life and politics; other O'Neill plays in which comparable ideas and characters arose; O'Neill's ideas about the cycle, and his comments about their characters in his notes and in More Stately Mansions (the play that followed Poet in O'Neill's planned cycle). The actors' discussions were lively, prolonged and at times heated, with everyone taking part. Thacker sat back and said little during these discussions, encouraging the actors to take the lead. His input was usually confined to urging them not to reach conclusions about the issues raised, but rather to leave that until later in rehearsals. He recognized that such open discussions were "dangerous" for a director to allow, in that ideas could run counter to his own. He felt, however, that the exploration of the play and characters was worth the risk.
Leading members of the cast expressed particularly strong interest in the play's social and political context. Some of the most animated discussion concerned their characters' attitudes toward the American and French Revolutions, the "Yankee" and English "ruling classes," and class struggle in Ireland. Redgrave's advocacy of leftist politics and political causes was apparent in discussion, but her views were well-grounded in the text and historical research. While this socio-political context was not in the foreground of the actual performance, it may have been one cause of the Irish tone of the production, as is discussed below.
Thacker's approach to directing is to eschew a preconceived "concept" for the production. Not that he doesn't start out with, or develop, ideas about the play; but he sees the rehearsals as an "organic process" in which you "start with a point of view and an understanding and you end up somewhere else." The director's job, in Thacker's eyes, is to lead a "process of discovery," in which the director is the "adjudicator." Thacker describes his approach as finding the "narrative line of the play from each character's point of view ... what the journey of each character is." The separate, individual journeys of the characters then "lock together to form the central journey that [the spectators] are taken through."
One technique Thacker employed was to create cut-and-paste pages for each character that included any line in which the character, or anyone else, referred to him- or herself. Taking the script apart in this fashion provided each actor with a coherent collection of all script references to his or her character. In fact, the rehearsals were characterized by careful attention to every detail and nuance. The payoff was performance that exhibited a clear understanding of the play. This was not a "conceptual" approach, but a thorough delving into the text itself.
Once the play had opened, Thacker described what he felt was its "central journey":
The central idea of the play that emerged for Thacker is that "human beings cannot face that much reality."
Thacker's aim was to achieve a production balanced between psychology and politics, or more specifically, a production that "concentrates on the psychology of the human beings" within "the given political circumstances":
One of the most interesting aspects of this production is the nature of the politics presented. Some might argue that if the play is political, it concerns American politics. It was, after all, part of O'Neill's planned cycle of plays on American history. This production, however, focused on Irish politics and culture, based on the idea that all but two of the characters are Irish.
This is where Redgrave's approach entered into the production. According to Thacker, "Vanessa was very keen to open up ... the extent to which the play is dependent upon an understanding of Irish history, as much as an understanding of American history.... Without Vanessa's interventions in that way, one might not have been quite as focused on that." For her part, Redgrave noted that "if we want to understand anything of now, we have to understand the history which produced the now." She had clearly studied the history of the period, and carefully pointed out the political aspects of certain lines and characters. Redgrave described her "strength as an actress" as "the fact that I am very conscious of the necessity of finding out the history that produced the subject of whatever I am working on" (quoted in Fallowell 28).
Thacker's approach, however, was to express the politics of the play through characterization. He described how an understanding of Irish-English politics is central:
In this production, the Yankees in the play became, in effect, stand-ins for the English, and the Irish-Americans became the Irish. According to Thacker, this substitution is based on Con and Nora's psychological reaction to America. They arrive in a new country only to find themselves "subject to similar oppression in personal terms," and so their "hatred of the Yankees" becomes "total." This approach makes sense, given that this was a production of and for Great Britain. While Americans might tend to focus on the immigrant experience in America, the emphasis here was on the fact that the characters (or their ancestors) had emigrated from the British Isles. The shading is perhaps slight, but the result is a different performance.
With the play's many Irish characters, Thacker felt that his British cast may have had an advantage over an American one: they could handle the accents more easily and understand the English and Irish prejudices more readily. The inherently strong Irish flavor of this particular O'Neill play could perhaps be brought out better by a British cast than by Americans.
In fact, the performance did emphasize the "Irishness" of the play. It featured a live Irish bagpiper offstage during the action and onstage during intermission. Lines referring to Ireland and the Irish got the biggest laughs from the audience during the performances I attended. For the most part, the actors' brogues were excellent (though they initially had some difficulty with some of the rhythms and words of what they considered to be O'Neill's "Americanized" brogue). A section was added to the program notes describing Irish politics and the plight of the Irish in America at the time the play was set (replacing an explanation of American political references in the play). Also included in the program were an extended passage describing O'Neill's Irish heritage, a paean to O'Neill by Sean O'Casey, and the lyrics to an Irish revolutionary folk ballad. The program, music, accents and style all combined to create a production to be "received" by its primarily British audience as a play on Irish themes. In fact, critics noted the Irish heritage of this play, with many comparing it to Synge and O'Casey.
Critics especially praised the acting in this production. Indeed, the casting of the leading roles was central to Thacker's decision to direct the play. While good acting would obviously be helpful for any play, Thacker felt that O'Neill could not be successfully produced without ."exceptional" acting:
Thacker noted that O'Neill's dialogue is "dead" until the actors "inhabit" the language: "It has to be the language of real speech. When it's just read, it doesn't work." Thacker and the critics took special note of Redgrave's performance. According to Thacker, when Redgrave performs O'Neill "you rapidly realize that it's the language of real speech. What is required is very naturalistic acting and very high caliber acting that makes you believe you're listening to people talking to each other--just having conversations about things." Thacker believes that Redgrave's was "a definitive performance for all time. Who'd want to see anyone else play it?"
Redgrave's initial entrance in the play was staged in a way that did not elicit applause in the performances I witnessed. She entered unobtrusively, shuffling through a side door. Applause may also have been dampened by disorientation and shock at her appearance: the usually dazzling Redgrave had sagging breasts (after much experimentation, lentils worked best), greasy, gray hair, a heavily lined face and padding so as to look over weight. While Redgrave's verve and sparkling eyes were unmistakable, it was a marvel to watch the extent to which she transformed herself. She truly gave the illusion of being spent, overweight and weighed down with years of work and turmoil. Her face and body slack, she trudged about the stage. The always handsome Vanessa Redgrave was as weather-beaten as could be imagined, and thus she was well-suited to the script references to Nora as being a former beauty.
Timothy Dalton, the most recent James Bond, received more mixed reviews as Con Melody. He is arguably too young, handsome and well-preserved for the role, though he does come close to O'Neill's description. He endeavored to undercut these traits with grayed hair, a heavily lined face and red eyes. His after-the-fight makeup, for the last act, was deliberately reminiscent of clown makeup, to emphasize the buffoonery of his character, and to underscore his reference to the "dead" Con as being "a clown in the circus." He delivered a bravura, swaggering performance, posing and strutting throughout. This created a strong and forceful effect, but went too far for some viewers.
Rudi Davies performed the role of Sara Melody after Redgrave's daughter Joely Richardson dropped out because of illness early in rehearsals. Davies also received mixed reviews, with the major criticism aimed at her voice and brogue.
Amanda Boxer played Mrs. Harford in quite a daring fashion. She was costumed in a wild white dress, with a turban-like toque adorned with feathers and jewels, and carrying a parasol. She delivered her long speeches in a chanting, incantatory manner. Overall, the emphasis was on her eccentricity. Though her long speeches were delivered very slowly and in this extremely "unrealistic" fashion, the audiences at the performances I attended were attentive throughout, laughing at and reacting to the slightest nuance of word or delivery. While a more "realistic" reading was experimented with during rehearsals and previews, Ms. Boxer told me that she found audiences needed the time to soak up the complexity of her speeches. The result was a self-consciously eccentric, but engaging performance.
The Irish-English conflict so apparent in this production was reinforced by the background of the other characters. John McEnery, as Jamie Cregan, and the other cronies at the tavern provided an extraordinarily authentic Irish chorus. Their ruddy faces, dense brogues, songs and dances meant that Ireland was present not just in name, but woven throughout the activity of the production. They contrasted sharply with the Yankee lawyer, Nicholas Gadsby, played by Malcolm Tierney with delightful English hauteur.
This was an especially fascinating production to work on as dramaturg. The result was uniquely British and, I think, a very different approach from what American theatre artists would have produced. The production was very successful with its British audience, and there is some talk that the production may come to New York in a year. If so, it will be interesting to see the reception of this British production by an American audience. Americans would, I suspect, be both intrigued and, at times, disoriented.
-- William F. Condee
Fallowell, Duncan. "Woman of Substance." Time Out (March 29, 1988), p. 28.
Morley, Sheridan. "Back Where He Belongs." The Times (London, March 10, 1988), p. 7.
Truss, Lynne. "Direct Object." The Times Literary Suppl. (January 22, 1988), p. 13.
8. MARCO MILLIONS, directed by Vaclav Hudecek. National Theatre, Prague, Czechoslovakia. Première, February 11, 1988.
MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA, directed by Zdenek Kalov. Mahen [State] Theatre, Brno, Czechoslovakia. Première, April 20, 1988.
O'Neill has long been a popular playwright in Czechoslovakia. Beginning with a production of The Hairy Ape in Prague's National Theatre in 1924, virtually all of the major works have been produced, some within a year or two of their Broadway premières. A hasty survey of professional repertory theatres reveals that the most frequently performed works have been Anna Christie (at least 17 productions) and Desire Under the Elms (at least 16 productions). In considering those figures, bear in mind that Czechoslovakia has a population of only fifteen million, and that virtually no O'Neill was done during the Nazi occupation (1939-1945) or during the Stalinist years of the 1950s.
Two recent revivals that I saw during a Fulbright Research residency in the spring of 1988--Marco Millions (first produced in 1930 in Prague's Municipal Theatre, and at least seven more times prior to the current production), and Mourning Becomes Electra (first produced in 1934 in the National Theatre, Prague, by one of Czechoslovakia's greatest directors, Karel Hugo Hilar, a few months before his death, and subsequently produced at least ten more times prior to the current production)--are almost textbook examples of contrasting directorial approaches. Marco Millions is a highly competent, expertly staged, but essentially conventional production. It is, with few exceptions, faithful to O'Neill's text without giving it any special slant or new insight. On the other hand, Mourning Becomes Electra is an extensively cut, edited, and forcefully adapted version of O'Neill's play, the text of which simply seems to serve as raw material for the director's vision or statement.
In a larger sense, both productions should be considered in the context of directorial practice in Czechoslovakia (especially since World War II), which almost always reflects an obligation to be relevant, not so much to the subjective, idiosyncratic vision of the director (1 la Andre Serban, for example),but to contemporary life outside the theatre, even if the relevance must be achieved by alterations to the text and its themes, and even if the immediate relevance is sometimes obscure and cryptic, certainly to an outsider. The prototype here is Meyerhold, perhaps, rather than Brook. In recent Czechoslovakian theatre, the models would be Otomar Krejca, Alfred Radok, and, before them, E.F. Burian. Incidental editing of texts is routine, almost standard practice, as are shifts of tone or emphasis. Most audiences accept that plays, especially the classics, are to be reinterpreted. Many would probably be disappointed to witness a "mere" retelling, unless, as may happen, the performance has remarkable freshness and inventiveness while staying within the confines of the text as written. Needless to say, it is a tradition that intensely irritates many living playwrights and would have driven O'Neill wild.
In this context, the Marco Millions production seems tame. It has only incidental cuts and faithfully emphasizes O'Neill's generic theme of losing one's soul in pursuit of the world, as well as the play's central conflict between the insensitive commercial acquisitiveness of the Polos and the serene, enlightened wisdom of the Orient. What is not emphasized, however, is the sheer Americanness of Marco. In commenting on the production, Hudecek, the director, said that he saw the Polos as representing not so much America as the modern western world, in contrast to Oriental traditions. It is also true that the sheer American idiom of Marco's language would be virtually impossible to translate in such a way as to convey that it is American rather than English.
Particularly impressive are the setting and the choreography of the action in relation to the space of the stage. The setting, by Zbynek Kolar, a veteran, major Czech designer, tends effectively to reduce the stature of the characters without dwarfing them. A huge circle suspended above the stage generally represents the sun or the sky, but also has various patterns or images projected onto it for the many scenes of the play. Sometimes these projections are supplemented by scenic elements (occasionally verging on a certain kitschiness) lowered in front of the circle. Otherwise, scene changes are handled by rolling on key furniture, like thrones. Scenographically, the overall effect is that of exotic spectacle but with simple, economic means. Reinforcing the effect of artistic economy is the minimizing or elimination of crowd scenes. The costuming, on the other hand, is lavish.
The actor portraying Marco was quite on target, though older than he should ideally have been. He played Marco relatively straight, which had the advantage of avoiding caricature but perhaps limited the full flavor of O'Neill's zestfully satiric portrait., Two actors, both National Artists, alternated in the role of Kublai Kaan. I happened to see Milos Kopecky, who plays comic roles more often than serious ones. Here (as is suggested in the accompanying photograph) he maintained an almost monumental dignity without losing the Kaan's subtlety and sense of irony. Especially good was the actress playing Kukachin, who managed to project the charm, passion, and poignancy the role requires.
All in all, therefore, a good if not exciting revival. The Mourning Becomes Electra is another matter.
First of all, director Kaloc has cut the text to a playing time of some three hours, brought the action up to the 1980s, emphasized the military elements in the costuming and properties, and staged the action in a radically altered, nearly expressionistic setting. More fundamentally, he has deemphasized if not eliminated the Freudian and New England Puritan themes of the work, while heightening its inherent melodrama. The characters behave in a reckless, passionate, self-indulgent manner and then try vainly to avoid the consequences. To this extent, the production is essentially faithful to O'Neill. The difference is that the behavior of the characters, as here presented, is not rooted in the psychological deformations produced by nineteenth century Puritan New England but in their own, primarily self-generated excesses. During one of our conversations, the director said that the emphasis in this production is intended to be on the moral and ethical issue of responsibility. In any event, the production is a dynamic, colorful, imaginatively reshaped shocker that freshly energizes O'Neill's repressed, brooding, angst-filled work. On the other hand, subtlety and complexity are largely sacrificed, and the final effect is reminiscent of some of our contemporary superheated television series. Many of O'Neill's overtones, as well as a great number of lines, are simply eliminated.
In an ingeniously designed set that combines indoors and outdoors, we are confronted with walls and doors sheeted in metal, with a segment of footlights under a metal grill, and with very large electric switches that control two floodlights aimed at two larger-than-life statues, one standing, one seated, on the stage apron, down left and down right (seen in the accompanying photograph). They represent two of the Mannon ancestors. The space between the statues may function as either indoors or outdoors, depending on the furniture. At the rear is an inner stage with numerous additional, smaller busts on pedestals (not paintings) of Mannon ancestors; above it is an upper acting area consisting of a shallow balcony with sliding panels that open onto another inner chamber. It is in fact very much like an Elizabethan stage and, like it, facilitates a sustained flow of action from scene to scene.
Kaloc has introduced a host of other changes and innovations, only a few of which shall be mentioned here. Several Jacques Brel and Donovan songs, chiefly relating to islands, weave throughout the action to underline one of O'Neill's main motifs, the Blessed Isles. The songs are either presented as recorded voice-overs or sung live by Peter and Hazel, who appear in at least one scene garbed in contemporary tennis outfits. The very beginning of the production involves a major alteration. Lavinia, appearing in a nightdress outside the house, cites various short statements from Aeschylus and Euripides on power, justice, and honor. Adam enters and ascends to the upper level by means of a piece of rolling scaffolding that is a permanent component of the setting. We and Lavinia, who remains downstage, then see a highly erotic dance and mimed sexual union between Adam and Christine. Lavinia, appalled, enters the lower part of the house. Only then does O'Neill's play proper begin.
The chorus figures become a motley, coarse group that function as servants, scene shifters, and cleaning crew. Seth serves drinks to Ezra and Christine, and others dress and load the corpses into caskets. One of their number is a woman, whom the men regularly paw.
In a reversal of O'Neill's stage direction, the bedroom scene between Ezra and Christine is played downstage, while Lavinia paces on the upstage balcony. Adam is killed not in his boat, but on the Mannon estate. Orin shoots him with a rifle, and the mortally wounded Adam reels over to the downstage-right statue, smearing it with his blood as he dies. Orin shows the corpse to Christine, who retreats to her chambers on the upper level. She is revealed, soon after, hanging in her clothes closet.
The characterizations are not so much altered as condensed, intensified, made hyper. This is chiefly evident in Lavinia after her return from the islands. In a loud red and black striped, short-skirted dress, she is aggressive, loud, hysterical, and spastic. Interestingly, and consistently enough, Orin's remarks in the last part of the play concerning the switch of identity that he and Lavinia have experienced, the Mannon dead, and the Mannon legacy of guilt, as well as his incestuous proposal to Lavinia, are cut.
No, this is not the play that O'Neill wrote. But in its own way it is theatrically stimulating and faithful to its romantic, melodramatic core of passionate relationships. It plays vividly and perhaps has special relevance to its audiences as a form of glasnost in its comment on certain aspects of their society. In contrast to the National Theatre's Marco Millions, it is adventurous and provocative. On the other hand, it violates O'Neill's text and many of its intentions. And it adds fuel to the ultimately unresolvable controversy about the respective rights of author and director in the theatre.
-- Jarka M. Burian
9. FOUR PLAYS OF THE SEA ("S.S. GLENCAIRN"), directed by Michael Cawelti with Marc Bruno. Just So Productions, San Francisco, CA, April 27 - June 17, 1988. (Reviewed June 15, 1988.)
O'Neill fans in the San Francisco Bay Area received a special treat during the spring of 1988 when Just So Productions offered the four Glencairn plays under the general title Four Plays of the Sea, staged aboard the three-masted schooner C. A. Thayer.
C. A. Thayer was built in Fairhaven, California in 1895 and until 1912 served as a lumber schooner on the West Coast, traveling as far as the Fiji Islands. She then went codfishing in the Bering Sea, and during the Second World War, the U. S. Army removed her masts and used her as an ammunition barge off of British Columbia. By 1950, she was the last commercial sailing vessel to operate from an American Pacific port; and in 1957, she was brought to San Francisco, where she now rests at the Hyde Street Pier, one of only two survivors of the Pacific Northwest lumber fleet of 900, and part of the National Maritime Museum.
While not an authentic setting for O'Neill's plays, which were written to take place aboard a tramp steamer, C. A. Thayer did provide an atmosphere more vivid than most conventional theatres. While on deck, spectators could smell the salty air, feel the San Francisco fog, and see the Golden Gate, Alcatraz and the city skyline in the twilight. Once below, they leaned to and fro as the ship rode the gentle waves when other craft sent their wake towards the pier.
The unusual setting provided unusual circumstances. Spectators gathered at the base of Hyde Street, outside a white picket fence which forms the entrance to the dock/museum, many wearing warm clothing against the chilly night air, and some carrying blankets and cushions. At eight o'clock, producer Marc Bruno arrived, and because park regulations and insurance requirements prohibit the sale of tickets on the premises, he asked those without tickets to follow him to a nearby restaurant on the wharf, where he made the necessary transactions. When all were ready, Bruno and a park ranger escorted the audience (a full house of just over fifty people) down the dock and up the gangway to the schooner, where everyone chose seats on benches and platforms set up on the main deck. A drummer beat out a haunting rhythm aft, and a group of sailors gathered on the deck and in the shrouds, one playing a concertina.
Director Michael Cawelti chose to begin the evening with The Moon of the Caribbees, which proved to be the weakest performance of the four. O'Neill's impressionistic collage of apparently random interactions seemed to make the cast uneasy, and the quest for women and liquor took on an adolescent quality rather than evoking the blind, driven but routine desperation that the play requires. The staging was effective within the bounds of the unusual actor/audience relationship, but culminated in a perfunctory fight scene.
The production improved when it moved below decks. In the Zone was set in the forecastle, with spectators sitting on benches and in the wooden cubbyholes that once served as sailors' bunks. Led by Kristopher Logan as a taut Cocky and Richard Lindstrom as Smitty, the cast evoked the thick tension of sailors traveling through hostile waters; and even though no one had a full view of all the action at any given moment, Cawelti succeeded in conveying the action to the entire audience. Suspicion accumulated until Smitty was captured and Driscoll, played by James Reese, sat as his principal judge, gazing anxiously into his face while Paul Finocchiaro as Yank paced the playing area and argued Smitty's innocence.
For intermission, the audience moved to a nearby ferry boat, Eureka. where Bruno gave an informal talk on O'Neill, then returned to the forecastle for Bound East for Cardiff. As Yank, Finocchiaro was laid in a grimy bed near the stove while the other men laughed and talked, and then remembered their shipmate. The helplessness of the Captain, played by Robert Hogan, and the deep concern of Driscoll kneeling by his friend's cot, nicely complemented Yank's fear and agony. He twice suffered a coughing fit and left a spot of bright red blood on the deck, an effect disquietingly vivid to those spectators sitting only a few feet away.
The Long Voyage Home took place below decks, amidships on the starboard side, in a space that had been curtained to suggest a waterfront bar. As the audience filed in to sit on cushions, Jeanne Thomas as Mag, the barmaid, maintained a constant wailing at the lone table. As Fat Joe, Robert Hogan was a man of many faces, now the smiling barkeep and now the shifty opportunist; and Mark Toepfer as Nick was grim and violent. Joe Cole played a giant, well-meaning Olson, arriving with Cocky and Driscoll, all hilarious and ready for Joe's drinks and the company of Celia Shuman and Verona Selter as Kate and Freda, the first thin and the second plump, each as unsavory as she was greedy. By the time Joe's thugs carried Olson out to the waiting windjammer, the sailor's lot seemed as inescapable as the waves that washed the hull. In sum, the daring and faith of this production made it a sterling example of San Francisco theatre and a sincere tribute to O'Neill.
-- Jeffrey D. Mason
10. L'ETRANGE INTERMEDE (STRANGE INTERLUDE), directed by Jacques Osner, with Marie-Christine Barrault as Nina Leeds. Production by Le Sorano, Théatre National de Toulouse Midi-Pyrénées, at the National Theatre of Belgium in Brussels. May 12-18, 1988.
A bonus of my summer trip to Brussels was the chance to attend the last performance in the Belgian capital of a production that had opened in Toulouse on 17 November, was nominated for a 1987-88 Moliere award (for "Meilleur Spectacle de la Décentralisation"), and visited six other French cities before its six performances in Brussels and a concluding five in Strasbourg on 25-28 May. My French is only marginally superior to my Swedish (see the two reviews that follow), and the 4 1/2-hour running time was a challenge to an inexperienced jet setter; but I can concur with a French critic that the production of "ce premier 'soap-Opera" was "un vrai plaisir." The French and Belgian reviews (from which I will quote below) were uniformly ecstatic; and it is a special pleasure that such a successful and innovative production originated in France, where reverence for O'Neill has never been particularly deep. That that tide may be turning was suggested by Michel Cournot's review in Le Monde ("Toulouse repeche New York," November 27, 1987). Praising director Jacques Rosner's bravery in mounting "une piece-phenomene,une piece-monstre," Cournot went on to stress the historic importance of its author: "Notons qu'Eugene O'Neill a ete le pionniepièce-phénomène,unehpièce-monstre,"si de la litterature, americains de notre temps."
The central attraction, qu'Eugène, was the aétéarance of Marie-Christine Barthéatre,aughter of famed alittératureoraméricainss Barrault, in the role of Nina Leeds, that protean protagonist who (to quote Jean Pigeon in Pourquoi Pas?, Brussels, 14 May) "reunit en elle seule toutes les femmes: la maman et la putain, la vierge et l'amante, la creature et son createur, etc." That Ms. Barrault fel"réunitship with Nina was clear in a comment of hers in the same article: "Je l'aime parcecréature n'est ecréateur,an rien, parce qu'elle pousse toujours plus loin les limites du possible, brisant les cadres trop stricts...." But it takes more thanenferméeal affinities to turn "toutes les femmes" into one, credible figure, and even more to make plausible Nina's phenomenal charisma. (Of Norma Shearer and even of Glenda Jackson, despite the latter's vocal brilliance, more than one viewer bas expressed doubt that such a woman could hold so many men for so many years!) Well, Ms. Barrault had the requisite "mores" in abundance. Call it charm, or intensity, or just sex appeal; whatever it was, it was radiantly in evidence, from her running entrance in Act One--young, wiry, and all in white--through the vicissitudes of the next quarter-century, to the quiet ending, when she sits on a park bench with Charlie, all passion spent, suffused in the red glow of sunset. Cajoling and babying Charlie, or luring Ned and later reigniting their romance, or screaming with her hands over her ears at the recollection of her first beloved's death, or berating the ever-fatter and self-satisfied Sam, or crying ardently to her "Deus Mere," Ms. Barrault succeeded in portraying a believable, even a lovable Nina.
But this was no one-person vehicle or tour de force: Nina's men were equally well played, though none of them without (perhaps inevitably) a whiff of caricature. Jean Bosquet was appropriately gruff and formal as Professor Leeds, though he seemed a bit old for fifty-five. Didier Sauvegrain developed believably as Ned Darrell--dashing at first, comically embarrassed when being involuntarily lured into Everywoman's web, and sadly shriveled after his tropical sabbatical. Roger Van Hool managed the drastic changes in Sam Evans, from gauche young hick--on his first visit to the Leeds home, in straw hat and knickers, he lowered himself toward the sofa, and missed--to pot-bellied blowhard. And as Charlie Marsden, Jean-Claude Dreyfus almost stole the show. Hopping with bent-wristed hands about waist high like a well-schooled puppy, catty in his acerbic asides, yet touching when he sobs on the heroine's breast and cries, "J'ai peur de la vie, Nina," Dreyfus showed, as Edward Petherbridge had done before in London and New York, that Marsden's role and nature are not just comic. Still, in this fascinatingly Frenchified Strange Interlude, there was no one he resembled more than Albin in La Cage aux Folles. The acting ensemble was consummately skilled, and the production flowed because the famous spoken thoughts were delivered naturally, the characters, usually in profile, turning their heads toward the audience to deliver the inner remarks. So there was no problem for us in distinguishing between what a Brussels critic called their "deux langues: le parler social et la voix intérieure." And there was no vocal tiptoing in the "intérieure" statements: the appropriately wrought ones were literally screamed!
Except in the eighth act, when a low railing across the rear, some nautical rigging and a trapdoor created the Evans' motor-cruiser, the distinctive feature of Max Schoendorff's sets--aside from the period authenticity shared by his equally accurate, equally ghastly costumes--was a series of tall upstage pillars that kept increasing in number (two in the first act, four in the third, six in the seventh, etc.), whose unstated purpose may have been to suggest the growing entrapment of the dramatis personae. (No one on stage seemed to notice that the same site, when revisited, had sprung a new pillar or two!) Between the acts (there was but one intermission, between the fifth and sixth acts), recorded pop and swing music helped to transport the audience to an earlier era; and each act's initial stage directions were provided in voice-over by an unseen announcer.
Since my French is rustier than my jaunty quoting might suggest. I dare not offer any further evaluations about the performance, except to say that the cast seemed perfect. the innovative touches were arresting, and Jacques Rosner proved that Strange Interlude can entertain and absorb even a weary traveler, and even in the heat of midsummer. There were increasing numbers of surreptitious defectors as act succeeded act, but I was rapt to the bittersweet end.
-- Frederick C. Wilkins
11. HUGHIE NATTPORTIERN (HUGHIE), directed and designed by Pi Lind. Komediteatern. Stockholm, Sweden, May 1988.
Among the delights of my one-day summer sojourn in Stockholm was the opportunity, a few hours before the evening performance of Long Day's Journey at the Royal Dramatic, to attend a production of Hughie (complimentary to Nobelsymposium participants) at the Comedy Theatre, a short and exhilarating boatride away from the playhouse where the one-act had had its world première thirty years earlier. And I must say that the theatrical adventure was as revivifying as the nautical one, more than justifying the decision of some of us to choose an additional performance over an invitation to the American Embassy that was scheduled at the same hour. The furnishings were modest--little more than the Wilder-prescribed "platform and a passion or two"; but the interplay of two savvy veterans of comedy and vaudeville, Tor Isedal as "Erie" Smith and Sten Ardenstam as Charlie Hughes, made it an afternoon to treasure, and the applause of the audience of twenty or so lasted till well after the performers had retired permanently beyond the wings.
A few props on the red-curtained stage suggested the "seedy lobby" of an unprosperous New York City hotel in 1928. The desk, with a carafe and water glass on it and a tall, round-topped stool in front of it, could easily have been a bar--not inappropriate for a play so thematically and atmospherically akin to Iceman. And the Houdini poster to the left of the cubicles behind it was not inappropriate either, suggesting a grand theatrical equivalent of the "magical escape" (from loneliness) achieved by the characters at the end of the ensuing hour. Behind the desk/bar stood Ardenstam, looking only slightly less moribund that the potted palm on a low table nearby. His near-terminal ennui was quickly established before Isedal shambled in, uneasy on this old and world-weary legs, introduced himself, and held the clerk's reluctantly proffered paw in a long handshake that seemed as much an act of desperation as of camaraderie. And then the O'Neill magic took over, as the "odd couple" slowly worked their way to the revitalizing relationship each so desperately needed. Not immediately, of course. At first, Hughes--as pallid and tight-lipped as a corpse--was totally oblivious to the new arrival's vocal overtures; and Erie, frequently roused to passion by his recital of recollections, was repeatedly stopped short by the clerk's opaque resistance. (Opaque to us, too, as there was no use of the clerk's silent thoughts. But the vivid, volatile eyes in Ardenstam's otherwise stony face, as he forced them open, or looked longingly heavenward, or just stared straight ahead in silent pain--those eyes spoke volumes.) By the end, after the mention of Arnold Rothstein had broken through the clerk's opacity, the two men stood arm in arm behind the counter, each having found the lifeline he needed, and the dice rattled vivaciously on its surface.
Purists might point out that neither Isedal nor Ardenstam suggests a character "in his early forties." They might even have resented the comic vocal and physical mannerisms of the former: the lisping "Thmith" with which he introduced himself, the wavering walk, the slow-burns and double-takes. But no one on that particular sunny afternoon would have cared a rap for such reservations. O'Neill, like the characters, had worked his magic once again, and the attenders were enthralled. My thanks to the Comedy Theatre for serving such heartening fare, and to Mimi Lind for sending the photographs that accompany this review, each showing Isedal at the left and Ardenstam at the right.
-- Frederick C. Wilkins
12. LANG DAGS FARD MOT NATT (LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT), directed by Ingmar Bergman. Kungliga Dramatiska Teatern, Stockholm, Sweden. Opened April 16, 1988.
To review the performance of a play, even one as well known as this, when it is done in a language that one does not know, would be an act of the boldest presumption. So I offer less a review than a report--albeit subjective--of the Royal Dramatic Theatre's latest revival of a work that it first revealed to the world in 1956, nine months before the play's Broadway première. Two facts indicative of the passing of three decades since that first production are (1) that Jarl Kulle, the first Edmund, is now cast as James, Sr. and (2) that Ingmar Bergman, this year's director, has taken considerable liberties with a script to which Bengt Ekerot had been rigorously faithful in 1956. Neither change, fortunately, is detrimental. I didn't see Mr. Kulle as Edmund, but his James Tyrone is the genuine article, strutting and declaiming like a thespian of the "old school," and wielding his cigar and walking stick like implements of royalty, until the events of the day's long journey undermine and dash forever his lordly façade. And Mr. Bergman's choice of production style, while it is far from what O'Neill had envisioned, still reveals to the full the intricate love-hate relations among the "four haunted Tyrones."
Aside from the chairs and tables that vary from scene to scene, there is no attempt at realism in the sets of Gunilla Palmstierna-Weiss. The only constants are two short, round, pillar-like tables at right and left rear, one holding a statue of the Virgin Mary with a votive candle burning before it, the other supporting a telephone and housing the senior Tyrone's precious, locked liquor cabinet. On a huge curtain at the rear of the high and wide thrust stage, a series of projections offers more atmosphere than verisimilitude: at first, a befogged and tilted exterior shot of Monte Cristo Cottage; later, such objects as clouds, a lace-curtained window, a magnified fireplace tile (or it may have been a patch of wallpaper), and a large, illuminated tree, starkly brilliant in the surrounding darkness. A tree? In a cottage without walls? Clearly O'Neill has been elbowed into a stylized, post-Beckettian world, leaving the viewer frequently uncertain whether the Tyrones are in the parlor, the garden, or the "vacant, vast surrounding" of memory.
One thing that such a setting does not provide is the claustrophobic arena in which this family's battles are usually waged. And the resultant directorial choice, after a quiet, untraditional start, was amplification rather than subtlety--at least it seemed that way to a non-Swedish ear. Initially, the four Tyrones enter. with the fog-shrouded cottage-shot behind them, and form a linked family tableau, including the black-clad maid, as though posing for a Christmas card. Then the fog lifts, the boys leave, and the 'parental dialogue begins, while, incongruously, the maid remains, knitting at the far left with her back to the audience. Thereafter, all is volatile and kinetic--laughter and tears, entrapments and embraces, confrontations and escapes--through the nearly four hours of the production's two acts (the intermission coming before Act Four). Discussions tend to begin calmly, then mount to a climax, usually punctuated at the end by a character's hand slamming on a table or chair. or the flight of one of the combatants. Seldom have the Tyrones been so much in motion--or so much on the floor, one character kneeling imploringly by another's chair, or two (Mary and Edmund) seated there together in a moment of temporary rapport. (Mary even falls to the floor in the last scene, after wrenching the wedding dress from its paper wrapper in Cathleen's hand, and Edmund helps her to his chair.) Bergman accentuates the tendency toward violence among the men, and even in Mary, who is given to hysterical screaming at moments of tension, as when she discovers that James had given Edmund a drink. Still, amid all the flare-ups and face-offs, the director never lets us forget that it is really love that ties the Tyrone family together. Nor did I detect any simplistic attempt to blame any one member for its communal malaise, though Mary was generally stiff, sharp and swift in her rejection of verbal or physical embraces from her husband and sons, from the first scene to the last.
I was told that the play, despite its long running time, had been heavily cut. Perhaps a good deal of the literary quotation was omitted, but the language barrier prevented me from detecting deletions. The only omissions I thought I noticed were the ice pond story, some references to James's "performance" as hedge cutter, and his remarks about the watered booze. Naturally, given the setting, there are no bulbs to turn off and on above the card players' table: but the only major change, aside from those already noted--the opening tableau and some untraditional bits of business for Cathleen--is at the very end. At the reference to "James Tyrone" near the close of the seated Mary's monologue, all eyes turn toward her. Then, concluding her speech, Mary exits, soon followed by James and Jamie, leaving Edmund alone on the darkening stage with the projected tree behind him. Then he leaves too, taking with him a book that he picks up from the table, and total darkness envelops the stage. An untraditional closing--perhaps less evocative than the diminishing pool of light in the Lumet film--but not an inappropriate one.
The cast was uniformly fine, though, again, the language barrier precludes total evaluation on my part. Peter Stormare as Edmund, loose of limb and wearing his long cardigan like a security blanket, was more physically active than most of his predecessors in the role. Thommy Bergren as Jamie, tawdrily resplendent in his off-white suit with suspenders and red stickpin, played the sport and the drunk effectively, though he remained a bit too neat and clean in the fourth act, and his "warning" to Edmund didn't seem very threatening. (It was interesting that both brothers laughed at Jamie's "Frankenstein" reference--a suggestion that what we traditionally take to be a new and startling revelation may not be that to its on-stage listener.) Bibi Andersson was a stately and beautiful Mary, though hardly a plump one. (Perhaps the comments on Mary's size were also deleted.) What she was, was wildly changeable--floating and soft-voiced at one moment, twirling and gabby at another, or stridently cutting, or icily reserved, and fussily fidgeting and pacing when alone. I didn't discern any clear progression in this mélange of moments, and it is possible that none was intended. But it may be, rather, a heartening reminder that the essence of drama remains language, and that, missing that, I lacked the key ingredient in the characterization.
One biographer and translator of Scandinavian playwrights asked, after attending the production, whether Long Day's Journey might not be vastly overrated, since he had found both play and performance to be embarrassingly "self-indulgent." I could not agree, preferring to ascribe the histrionics to the influence of James's kind of theatre on the members of his family. It is only right that the Royal Dramatic play a major role in the O'Neill centennial celebrations. Thanks to the innovative genius of Ingmar Bergman, ,the fresh contributions of his production team, and the splendid ensemble of the performers, that role is a striking and memorable one.
-- Frederick C. Wilkins
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