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Lazarus Laughed


The first half of Lazarus Laughed requires a full musical score. At the time of the play's composition, O'Neill, urged on by Kenneth Macgowan and Robert Edmond Jones, was attempting to make the theatre a meeting place for all the arts. Thus, along with lavish spectacle, dance, choric chanting from a chorus of over 100 persons, many masks and a verse-like prose, O'Neill called for extended musical development: several scenes of chanting and dancing to flute music, chorus music that is "wild" and 'joyous," a song for Caligula ("A bold legionary am L."), music for the Roman legions with blaring trumpets, and a great bass chorus. In the second half of the play, the choral mass is diminished as Lazarus enters the inner world of the Roman court, and except for a reprise of Caligula's song the music is silent.

The first performance of the play and one of its few stagings was by the Pasadena Community Players in 1928. Although the resources of their theatre were limited, the Players, under the direction of Gilmor Brown, with Irving Pichel and Victor Jory in the cast, gave the massive undertaking their best, providing the masks, the great crowds and the full score O'Neill envisioned. The score was by Arthur Alexander, formerly conductor of the Eastman Orchestra at Rochester, New York. A copy of his manuscript piano score exists in the copyright division of the Library of Congress. Although the details of the scoring are not indicated in the manuscript, the music was elaborately conceived. Alexander worked faithfully with the text, making only a few minor cuts in the choric verses. His effort to transform the laughter to music was valiant, and it suggests that the choruses on the page, so difficult to read with satisfaction, are like most song lyrics nothing without their music. Included here are Alexander's piano score for the first act, the awakening of Lazarus and his call to his followers to laugh away their fear of death. Also included are the Chorus of old men and the march of the Roman Legion, to which Alexander appended this note: "The Camp Song is sung by Caligula to the above approximate Melody, unaccompanied." He refers to Caligula's song, "A bold legionary am I... "[1]

O'Neill never forewent his attempt to get a New York hearing for his play and, in later years, considered simplifying the grandiose scheme. Writing to his producer, Lawrence Langner, on December 31, 1943, concerning the possibility of Spencer Tracy's starring in one of his late plays, O'Neill still hoped to obtain a fully professional production of the biblical play. He reconsidered the demands made on the actor playing Lazarus, who in the text is required to laugh with the laughter of a god.

My best bet for Tracy would be Lazarus Laughed.... As far as the unreal-realistic paraphernalia of the masked mobs, chorus, etc. is concerned, forget that. We'll throw all that out. Use only a few people, the rest all offstage sound unseen choir effect. Boris Godunov as a hint of the method. Oh yes, I mean with music. No one but Chaliapin could ever do Lazarus' laughter, but it could be done by the actor starting to laugh and then have his laugh carried on and up by exultant music so that you get the feeling the music is his laugh. You see what I mean? Who to do the music? Hell, there must be someone. And Tracy could get the spiritual quality of Lazarus over, because he could believe in it. Or so I believe.

A simplified scheme was successfully realized in a production at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1951 by director Fred Orin Harris, in collaboration with composer Leonard Ratner. Ratner's music is scored for strings, winds, percussion, piano and wordless voices. The music intertwined with a strong action of supernal joy from Samuel Levine, playing Lazarus. In the open-air bowl of the University's Greek Theatre, the effect was all that O'Neill envisioned, and it made for deeply moving and satisfying drama.

For this collection, Ratner has graciously permitted the printing of excerpts of his score. The first excerpt was heard in the first scene as Miriam, Lazarus's wife, calls for him to come forth from the tomb. The people join in her plea, and Lazarus, aroused from his meditative trance, speaks his first word in the play, the mysterious, accepting "Yes!" As he speaks, the music is heard under the words of the Crowd: "The stone is taken away! / The spirit is let loose! / The soul let go!" The second excerpt, heard at the end of scene 1, underlay the exultant cry of the chorus that "Death is dead!" The third and fourth excerpts are a fan-fare and march at Caligula's entrance, followed by a vocalise as the Greeks hail the coming of Lazarus. The fifth excerpt was played when the Roman soldiers and the Greek crowd first hear the sound of Lazarus coming toward them. The final selection is the music that ended the play and was heard under Caligula's cry that men forget their blessings.

Ratner comments: "Since these excerpts served as back-ground, they could have been repeated as long as the dramatic situation required. In this sense they represent a kind of pre-minimalism."[2]

[1] Curiously, neither Alexander nor Ratner preserved Caligula's song.

[2] An annotated performance score and production script is housed in the library at Tao House.

Excerpt 1. At Curtain [II, 542], Excerpt 2. Miriam: Lazarus, come forth! [II, 545], Excerpt 3. Lazarus: Yes! [II, 545], Excerpt 4. Father: Music! Bring wine! [II, 545], Excerpt 5. Lazarus: I laughed in the laughter of God! [II, 547], Excerpt 6. Lazarus: Sometimes it is hard to laugh, even at men! [II, 557], Excerpt 7. Entrance of the Legion [II, 582]

Excerpts from Music to Lazarus Laughed - Arthur Alexander, 1928

Excerpt 1. Miriam: Lazarus, come forth! [II, 545], Excerpt 2. Chorus: Laugh! Laugh! Laugh with Lazarus! [II, 547], Excerpt 3. Entrance of Caligula [II, 563], Excerpt 4. Chorus: Soon the God comes! Redeemer and Savior! [II, 564], Excerpt 5. A Soldier: General! Let us use our swords! [II, 568], Excerpt 6. Lazarus: Fear not, Caligula! There is no death! [II, 628]

Excerpts from Music to Lazarus Laughed - Leonard Ratner, 1950


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