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Editor: Harley Hammerman
St. Louis, Missouri

Volume 0
1999-2005


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Staging O’Neill: Staging Greek Tragedy

Eileen Herrmann-Miller
Dominican University of California

Let me begin by suggesting some of the rich paradox contained in critiques of O’Neill’s language which I believe relate to discussions of how to stage O’Neill. Eric Bentley, John Henry Raleigh, Ruby Cohn and others have argued that O’Neill’s language is too repetitive, dated— in the words of Ruby Cohn, “sponge-like.” They find O’Neill linguistically overdone, crudely overt, remote.

Others see O’Neill’s language as at once so utterly distinctive, so “O’Neillian,” yet so deeply a part of what it means to be human. At the same time, however, they often concede that O’Neill is one of the most articulate and inarticulate of playwrights—that while his ability to reflect the tragedy of man by plumbing the universe of the spirit should, and frequently does, make him a delight to read on the page, it sometimes doesn’t. They find themselves partially agreeing with critics of O’Neill’s language against their collective will, wondering why O’Neill must repeat himself, or why his inarticulateness often fares better on the stage than on the page (as in the case of The Iceman Cometh, which I contend is virtually stage-dependent.).

Discussions about his language may suggest that O’Neill cannot be confined simply to the page. Like the Greek dramatists whom he loved and strove to emulate, repetitive and obvious to a fault, who wrote mainly for performance, O’Neill, repetitive, obvious, often stage-dependent, indeed may be even more the son of the Greeks than he was of Ibsen or Strindberg.

My focus here is on the stage, not the page: to suggest some general ways in which those presented with the daunting task of staging O’Neill might look to the Greek theatre for artistic inspiration in order to plumb this articulate/ inarticulate dramatist. By experimenting more directly with dramatic techniques associated with the Greek theatre, directors of O’Neill’s work would be following his own wish that his theatre be embraced in the spirit of Greek tragedy. They would also know intuitively that they were on the right path by doing so since O’Neill beckons to us from another plane. As in Greek tragedy, behind O’Neill’s visible universe lies an entirely different universe, a truer universe, the realm of the spirit. The terms T. S. Eliot used to discuss Greek drama apply equally well to O’Neill: as in Greek theatre, so too in O’Neill. In both theatres, there is a conscious, concrete visual actuality, as well as a specific emotional actuality.

I offer these thoughts regarding directing and acting O’Neill because I am concerned that today’s audiences “get” O’Neill’s tragic tones—tones, I would argue, that link him more to the grandeur of ancient tragedy than to the 1920s­1940s. My belief is that O’Neill transcends the realism of that period; that staging O’Neill through a conventional Ibsenian realistic lens is becoming more of a hindrance than a help to unearthing O’Neill for modern audiences more in tune with surfaces and margins and thus immune to realism. For tragedy to be successful, it must unsettle.

Today, directors must resist falling into an easy complacency when staging O’Neill—a complacency I recently witnessed at two separate stagings of O’Neill’s work by major repertory houses.

At a production of Desire Under the Elms, the fiddle music resonated with the play’s themes. Scene followed upon scene, O’Neill’s prose dutifully delivered by competent actors, dressed in credible period costumes, on realistic, well-lit sets. Still Desire failed to create any desire in the audience, failed to move the majority towards tragic empathy, as evidenced by the snickering I overheard at certain poignant moments which should rightfully have evoked tears, as well as by the bored, impassive faces of the audience I saw upon exiting.

The same held true for a version of Long Day’s Journey Into Night. But here, worse, many of Mary’s speeches brought on not just titters but outright laughter. Granted, the thespian skills of the actress portraying Mary were somewhat weak, but not weak enough to evoke that audience’s response.

What went wrong? Are these separate sets of theatregoers all that unique? All that insensitive? I think not. Both these stagings of O’Neill deserved their audiences’ responses—the stagings were ossified, not electrified. Both directors presumably worked hard to deliver O’Neill, but overall failed in their mission of making O’Neill surprising to those already familiar with the content of his work, while delivering O’Neill for the first time to others. Both directors forgot how singularly beautiful the medium of theatre is in its ability to distinguish itself from all the other arts. The theatre has no permanence; it need not be conventional. Both productions adhered to the realism which both Desire Under the Elms and Long Day’s Journey inarguably contain but are not governed by; and they failed. Both productions interpreted O’Neill as though his work were some big, baggy loose novel which can survive the reader who skips pages or entire chapters. In short, they missed O’Neill’s signature and comprehensive tragic spirit.

When I left each playhouse, I was puzzled. What had gone wrong? I recalled O’Neill’s harping upon the words “imaginative,” “Mystery,” man’s self-destructive struggle with Fate or God. Certainly, in his writing, O’Neill had met his theatrical goal of building upon his Greek dream, bringing home to members of a modern audience their ennobling identity with the tragic figures on the stage. The writing was not the issue. Both productions effectively removed themselves from the deeply emotional realm of the Greek theatre. The impressions they left were both incomplete and confusing. Momentarily, I, too, forgot O’Neill’s tragic intentions.

Too often productions such as these mirror Peter Brook’s “Deadly Theatre,” or drama presented by competent directors and actors in what seems to be the proper way, remaining faithful to the original look, feel and sound—yet resulting in boredom. In this “deadly theatre,” directors follow the age-old advice to “play what is written.” Yet we all know that what is written is not all that clear. The real O’Neill resembles Brook’s “Holy Theatre,” the “Theatre of the Invisible-Made-Visible,” employing the stage as a place where the invisible can appear—a theatre which intoxicates, purges, infects.

In the spirit of hoping to shift the focus from Brooks’s “Deadly Theatre,” to his “Holy Theatre,” I offer some suggestions of ways I believe both directors and actors might approach O’Neill in the spirit of the Greek theatre.

THE ROLE OF THE DIRECTOR

The primary task of any astute director is to animate the stretch of the play. Like Greek drama, the stretch in O’Neill is a matter of penetrating a psychic existence and existential terrain, a place whose geography and movements must be shown to be as vital to us today as they were for the Greeks.

When directors first come to O’Neill, they might begin by questioning, by asking, whether simply letting the plays speak for themselves is enough. More might be, and usually is, required of an O’Neill play. If directors want O’Neill’s work to be heard in all of its psychological, tragical ramifications, they might have to work to conjure the tragic sounds from within. How might directors accomplish this?

First: by being willing to experiment—by being open to exploring anew O’Neill’s tragic intentions. In O’Neill, directors have the pattern of a writer unwilling to rest and resistant to any one style. They might recall, for example, that O’Neill mixes styles—e.g., Iceman is a combination of realism, expressionism, and melodrama; The Hairy Ape and Emperor Jones contain powerful expressionistic scenes. O’Neill constantly frustrates our ability to read his plays as straight realism.

Directors hopefully would keep sight of and be willing to experiment with O’Neill’s elasticity and not be mired in realism. While O’Neill is often realistic, he is frequently expressionistic, melodramatic, even absurd. To realize that is to open up to O’Neill and to open O’Neill up for audiences.

I should add that I don’t expect or even want directors to rid themselves of what is realistic about O’Neill’s drama. Rather, I would hope that they would have a vision of the play, and underscore the non-realistic elements of O’Neill in order to present one unified, undiluted tragic experience—a kind of Wagnerian “Gesamkuntswerk,” in which all elements of the theatre—music (singing and dancing), acting, staging, lighting—combine to achieve one final, united artistic outcome. As in Greek drama, where there is no room for error or waste, where all the theatrical elements contribute to the single tragic impression of the play; so, too, those who direct O’Neill should strive for no error, no waste, one unifying impression.

Second: I believe that directors should be committed to pursuing—not running away from—O’Neill’s repetitive, slangy, overt language, as well as the ritualistic use of rhythm he employs in order to penetrate the surface and reach the timeless. Repetitions, handled correctly, are poetic, incantatory. We identify Greek drama by its poetry, its heightened delivery and rhythmic movement intended to arouse powerful emotion. One thinks, for example, of the stichomythia in the Greek choral odes which relied on the rapid exchange of line between two or more characters approximating human speech yet vastly different. Such heightened delivery distinguishes theatrical from ordinary discourse.

Those who direct O’Neill should try to find the myriad spots in O’Neill when O’Neill’s rhythm is overpowering and accent that rhythm. José Quintero found O’Neill’s rhythm in The Iceman Cometh, directing the play as a complex musical form, with themes repeating themselves like symphonic leitmotifs. Individually, each speech and bit of dialogue seems arbitrarily arranged, spontaneous, repetitious; but taken as a whole, The Iceman Cometh reflects deliberation and conscious patterning. Further, Hickey’s language is hypnotic, pitching what he is selling to his chorus of bums in soothing rhythms, simple syntax. The deliberate rhythm of his salesman’s language should convey not just his individual identity as Hickey, but as a Hickey prototype of all salesmen, everywhere. Directors should work with their actors to coach them to free O’Neill’s language by focusing on the rhythm of his prose.

Third: directors should highlight the choral elements of O’Neill’s work which parallel those of Greek drama. Inasmuch as O’Neill uses music in most of his 54 plays, music could be a touchstone in an O’Neill performance, drawing together the disparate elements of the play—e.g., one immediately recalls the haunting “Shenandoah,” which encapsulates the themes of Mourning Becomes Electra; the fiddle music of Desire Under the Elms which, in the hands of the proper fiddler, could reverberate alternately between the perverted joy of old Cabot, and the sweet pain of the two lovers, Abbie and Eben. While the sound of the foghorn certainly helps to suggest the tragic terror of Long Day’s Journey, so, too, Mary’s Chopin waltz could infiltrate the audience’s consciousness and subconscious, or even blend with the foghorn moaning in the night. Where O’Neill does not suggest specific theme music, directors might consider what music might best highlight the ineluctable mystery of his plays.

Moreover, Greek drama is considered in terms of a chorus who sang, danced, gestured and occasionally spoke. The presence of a chorus in Greek drama was a sign of the wider significance of the enacted event. In O’Neill, formal choruses are present in Desire Under the Elms in the person of the neighbors; in Mourning Becomes Electra in the form of the nosy neighbors; in The Iceman Cometh in the community of pipe dreamers. Choral elements abound in other O’Neill plays as well.

Rather than relegating the O’Neillian chorus to some minor role, directors might better serve O’Neill by giving a decided prominence to his choruses— perhaps keeping them on stage longer. By formalizing the role of the chorus, the director could shine the light more squarely on the action, in order to defamiliarize the audience, thus heightening and highlighting the emptiness of O’Neill’s characters in their tragic situations.

Fourth: As in Greek theatre, scenic designers could experiment with the absence of scenery, or incomplete scenery, and designs that are more fluid— neutral, open platforms. In future O’Neill productions, I would employ less realism, and more emptiness on stage.

Finally, in Greek drama, we are often left with powerful images which we can’t erase—such as Clytemnestra’s display of the bloody robe in which she entangled and killed Aegisthus; or Antigone’s being led away from the guards towards the plain where she will die after her pitched battle with Creon. Those directing O’Neill could likewise focus upon creating a play’s central image that cannot be erased from the audience’s mind. I recall an excellent production of Moon for the Misbegotten in which the loving Josie continued to cradle Jamie’s head in absolute silence, well beyond the length of time the scene called for. That rendition of Josie as Pietà will forever be for me the hallmark of Jamie’s tragedy.

THE ROLE OF ACTORS

I envision the actor’s role in an O’Neill play to be one of strenuous commitment to O’Neill; a willingness to let O’Neill “take over,” and simultaneously, not being afraid to challenge O’Neill. Mindful of Colleen Dewhurst’s remark that acting O’Neill is like acting in they eye of a storm, that task of those acting him is to understand the level of commitment they must make to their roles. O’Neill is not just any playwright; actors cannot stand outside him.

As reflected by certain successful productions of O’Neill (e.g., José Quintero and his ensemble in The Iceman Cometh), actors must be willing to sacrifice in order to give to the spectator. They should be willing to lay bare what lies in every man and woman and what daily life covers up. They should act O’Neill as if they believed him when he says that the theatre is a holy place.

Moreover, actors must commit themselves to O’Neill’s dialogue, which must be delivered with absolute precision, stressing the rhythm of the language to achieve greater intensity. This entails work, more work and rigorous discipline. Alla Nazimova, Christine Mannon in Mourning Becomes Electra, said her troupe needed to give a letter-perfect reading of their lines so as not to break the rhythmic drive of the play. She and the others could not substitute any words or phrases without spoiling the effect: “We have to be letter perfect in our parts, and that’s hard work” (Alexander 291-292).

Today, the goal of directors and actors should be to ensure that audiences “get” O’Neill as tragic artist, full and unadorned. Directors must not allow their audiences too easily to mentally cast off this playwright—for example, to ascribe some superficial, psychological self-help advice to the Tyrones in order to “fix” their “dysfunction”; or to allow their audiences to be attracted to Iceman merely because the popular Kevin Spacey occupies his character for a time, rather than to be terrified of the message the play and its protagonist deliver. They must remind modern audiences, who haven’t a sense of theatre as ritual or ceremony, but who crave real dramatic experiences, that tragedy still exists; that theatre can be an “event” rather than a night out; that O’Neill can shock and evoke the ancient tragic terror.

WORKS CITED

Alexander, Doris. Eugene O’Neill’s Creative Struggle. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992.

Brook, Peter. The Empty Space. London: Penguin, 1990.

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