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O'Neill's 'Lost Work'

BY Arthur Gelb
FROM The New York Times, October 28, 1959

There are several good reasons why the so-called "Lost Works" of Eugene O'Neill have never been done before in New York.  The production of three of them at the Key Theatre last night does not invalidate any of these reasons.

The plays are very early efforts filed by the dramatist at the Library of Congress for copyright purposes, but later rejected by him.  Confident that they were so bad no one would ever think of resurrecting them, he neglected to renew his copyrights when they expired.  In 1950 a publisher who apparently had nothing better to do printed them.  Now an amateur dramatic group with nothing better to do is acting them -- if acting is the right word, which it clearly isn't.

The boys and girls collected down at the key groan, shriek, snap their fingers, flex their muscles, roll their eyes, and snort and spit as if their lives depended on it.  In the end, it is a toss-up which is worse -- the plays or the performance.

"The Sniper," written by O'Neill in 1915 when he was 27 and a student in Prof. George Pierce Baker's workshop at Harvard, is an antiwar play in which the hero, a Belgian peasant, is shot by a German soldier.

"Abortion" is about a tragic love affair in which the hero, a college boy, shoots himself (the shooting was edited out at Key for some unfathomable reason.  What was needed was more shooting, not less).

"The Movie Man," a farce about some American movie-makers in Mexico, might conceivably be a funny sketch, if say, George Abbott were to stage it.  The last two were written in 1914 in New London, Conn., where O'Neill was boarding with an English family and recovering from a six-month siege of tuberculosis.

"The plays * * * are pretty bad, and the less remembered about them the better," O'Neill wrote in 1926 to the daughter of his New London landlady.  Although he was not always the best judge of his own work, his opinion of these plays was sound enough, and should have been respected.

But Nils L. Cruz and Robert E. Judge are not men who bother with niceties.  They have cast and staged the plays with embarrassing amateurism.  Mr. Judge proclaimed last week that his theatrical training derived from Less Strasberg of the Actors Studio, thus casually incriminating a man who is generally regarded with respect in the theatre.

The "lost" works can have no valid interest except for scholars, and the people on the stage of the Key Theatre do not look much like scholars.  They do not look very much like actors or directors, either.


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