On Two Major Recent Productions of O’Neill in Japan
In Japan, it was the Tsukiji Sho Gekijo [=the Tsukiji Little Theatre] that introduced many O’Neill’s plays in 1920s, but after the theatre was disbanded under the climate of the militaristic government’s control, very few plays by O’Neill were produced during the war. Even after the war ended in 1945 and many new theatre groups were founded, O’Neill’s plays were little produced in commercial theatres or by major theatre companies and almost ignored in the 1990s. When we consider the greatness of O’Neill as a sole Nobel Prize winner in the American theatre, it is almost unthinkable that works by O’Neill have been much less performed than other American plays by such authors as Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Thornton Wilder, and Neil Simon. However, this deplorable history was ameliorated in 2004 when two productions of O’Neill performed at publicly-run-theatres drew attention: Desire Under the Elms was produced at the newly-built-theatre called “Theater 1010” with the famous actress, Shinobu Terashima in the cast; then in the New National Theater’s Playhouse, two brilliant actresses, Kazuyo Mita and Shinobu Ohtake performed Mourning Becomes Electra. Both Theatre 1010 and the New National Theater’s Playhouse are fairly large theatres publicly funded and regarded to be major theatres in Tokyo. Both productions received fairly good reviews, particularly Mourning Becomes Electra, which was granted the Grand Prix of the 4th Asahi Performing Arts Award sponsored by a major newspaper company.
A surprising phenomenon in the production of Mourning Becomes Electra: was that all advance tickets were sold out within two hours on the day they started to sell. This may be because the actor playing Orin was so popular in a television drama that many of his fans bought tickets. However, the production’s success owed not only to this actor but also to the actresses playing Christine and Lavinia and to the skillful director, Tamiya Kuriyama, who, cutting some dialogue, shortened the play into three hours and three quarters’ length.
Despite its length and serious themes, a couple of productions of Mourning Becomes Electra, though on a small scale, have been performed in Tokyo lately, tackled by courageous directors including the O’Neill scholar, Yoshiteru Kurokawa. Why does this play look so appealing now? What led Tamiya Kuriyama, the artistic director of the New National Theatre, to choose the play to be performed there?
The New National Theatre has been producing quite a few classical western plays of certain length that would not be produced in popular commercial theatres. In May 2000, they produced Long Day’s Journey Into Night in the Pit, their small theatre. It was an experimental trial by Tamiya Kuriyama who, after the sudden death of Hiroko Watanabe, the former artistic director of the New National Theatre, carried out her wish for staging the play. Receiving a greatly favorable response to this production, Kuriyama, who loves O’Neill’s work, decided to produce Mourning Becomes Electra this time in a larger house. The director expresses the charm of O’Neill’s work in a program for Long Day’s Journey Into Night:
Kuriyama, who has learned from Howard Davis, the ex-artistic director of London’s National Theatre, the importance of taking time to understand dialogue, is highly evaluated with his careful examination of the dialogue. Mourning Becomes Electra is another family drama by O’Neill in which the dialogue plays an important role. From the dialogue articulated by the Mannon family, Kuriyama believes, arises “a tremendous power of an instinct for the struggling human being to have a strong desire for love and life”(from the program of Mourning Becomes Electra, my translation).
Mourning Becomes Electra has been often produced in other countries as well: three out of six reviews printed in the last year’s issue of the Eugene O’Neill Review are on productions of this play and among them is Howard Davis’s that received Laurence Olivier’s Best Revival Play Award. Perhaps it has to do with the climate in today’s world in which people in many countries seem to be exposed to fear and terror; Kuriyama describes this rightly by saying “this play [=Mourning Becomes Electra] reflects today’s world where two irresistible extremes clash with each other, insisting on their own justice which causes chains of revenge”(ibid.).
Robert Allan Ackerman, the director of Desire Under the Elms also tries to convey a certain message—a meaning of life—of a man living in this age:
Thus, O’Neill’s works, both based on Greek tragedies, seem to appeal to the people in the theatre who believe his plays give us knowledge to live in this age of indescribable fear and terror. If you think of O’Neill living in another chaotic age between two world wars, it seems quite natural that his works written in the 1920s are back now in the form of revivals. Ronald H. Wainscott in his book, Staging O’Neill, analyzes the first production of Mourning Becomes Electra by saying, “Despite the economic and political troubles of the Great depression, the personal anxieties and furies of O’Neill’s dramatic world took center stage”(260), but it should be rephrased as the personal anxieties and furies of O’Neill’s dramatic world called attention precisely because the white middle-class audience living in the depression could feel empathy with them.
Despite such comments by directors, both Japanese productions of Desire Under the Elms and Mourning Becomes Electra did not overtly show contemporary political connotations and they were quite faithful to O’Neill’s texts: no lines were added (though some lines and talk by the townspeople were cut to shorten the play in Mourning Becomes Electra; the talk of the townspeople in a shorter version was heard in recorded voices); sets and costumes which create the whole image of the play were done in old American styles (though Jiro Shima’s sets in Mourning Becomes Electra were simple and elegant, while Setsu Asakura’s sets were “close to the audience” (Wainscott, 162) with “a low ceiling” (ibid., 163)—quite faithful to the original—in Desire Under the Elms, but were unkind to the audience in the front seats who could not see the rooms upstairs); and both productions used a proscenium and a revolving stage. New meanings were suggested in a small way: Kuriyama used the U.S. flags for hinting at his criticism of President Bush’s war; a small flag of Stars and Stripes was seen fluttering on the top of the mansion and the dead body of Ezra Mannon was covered by an American flag; the actor playing Eben in Desire Under the Elms was a Korean in Japan, which might add a political connotation to his feelings of love-and-hate toward Abbie. But on the whole, there was not much radical change or reinterpretation.
What is more interesting in both productions is the way roles of O’Neill’s women were performed and how they were strongly depicted by skillful actresses. The cast itself reveals that women are the focus in both productions. From now on, I will endeavor to discuss and analyze how Abbie, Christine, and Lavinia were performed in two major recent Japanese productions of O’Neill.
Shinobu Terashima playing the role of Abbie in Desire Under the Elms was brought up in a Kabuki family and trained in one of the major Shingeki theatre companies, the Bungakuza. She has worked in commercial theatres and films, and was awarded a couple of important prizes in her twenties. She is unique in her stylized acting influenced by both Kabuki and Shingeki. By the way, historically and culturally, the naturalistic method of acting was not fully established in Japanese Shingeki: it actually did not seem to fit the western plays performed in Japanese. Shingeki people, then, focused on how to reflect the inner feelings of the characters in dialogue and did not emphasize gestures and bodily movements much. This was strongly criticized by such avant-garde theatre people as Tadashi Suzuki and Shuji Terayama, the so-called “Underground Theatre” directors, who endeavored to find actors’ physicality to accord with the dialogue. Terashima is a very skillful actress who can express her lines almost with her whole body in her unique stylized acting. This fits the woman in O’Neill’s play; Abbie as well as Christine and Lavinia; a strong character who is beyond what we expect from a real woman, her emotional shift being extremely unnatural and even grotesque. Therefore, her inner feelings could be fully conveyed by her non- naturalistic acting.
When we think of the play, Desire Under the Elms, set in mid-nineteenth century America, it is obvious that the contemporary Japanese audience finds difficulty in synchronizing the play. So it may demand stylized or rather exaggerated acting when produced nowadays. Eben’s two brothers almost seem like a caricature. The actors playing them did a good job by acting them extremely comical, which made a great contrast to the role of Eben. The difficulty in playing the role of Eben, however, is that his seriousness cannot be conveyed without any reality in his love for Abbie; the play demands a naturalistic acting of Eben. Though the actor playing Eben tried to be very naturalistic and he actually did, his acting endeavor was overwhelmed by Terashima’s strong characterization of Abbie.
Abbie, thus, with the haunted spirit of Eben’s mother and the elm tree symbolizing her oppressive shadow, was the core of the play in this production. She appears onto the stage as if she were a ghost coming back from the other world, and haunts the house of the Cabot’s. She not only takes away the life of her child, but also carries off her loving Eben, the sole inheritor of Ephraim Cabot, while Ephraim is left with nothing but his “hard, not easy” God at the end of the play. When Abbie’s materialistic desire is transformed into true love for Eben, she disappears from the land and the house. This interpretation of the structure of the play, right or wrong, coincides with the structure of a Japanese traditional Noh play; the protagonist, a ghost with a deep sorrow or revenge by his/her beloved’s death appears onstage, and reproduces the scene of his/her tragic fate by disclosing his/her own suppressed inner feelings, and finally disappears with his/her hurt feelings soothed by the priest, the listener to the protagonist’s story.
The audience in Japan, even well-educated and familiar with the western style of drama, still tends to respond less intellectually and even emotionally to the play. Perhaps the way ancient Japanese people enjoyed traditional plays still defines the cultural taste of the audience in contemporary Japan. The emotion of each of O’Neill’s characters struggling with life enlarges as the play goes on, and strikes the chord of his/her listeners when it is expressed in almost a melodramatic way by the physically and vocally stylized acting. Zander Brietzke in his The Aesthetics of Failure, analyzes how O’Neill “stressed the value of emotion in the theatre”(198) and “hoped that his audience would see past the surface melodrama to the real drama underneath”(21).
This must be what Kuriyama aimed at in his well-controlled direction by balancing melodrama and tragedy. He pruned the text by cutting repetitive and too obvious lines, so the emotion of each character was much controlled. The talk of the townspeople was made compact and heard as recorded voices, and lengthy dialogue was shortened so that the play went speedily and the audience could follow the story easily and attentively. But some poetic and symbolic lines featuring O’Neill’s romanticism were gone: for example, Chantyman’s nostalgic lines on good old days are cut; “Aye, but it ain’t fur long, steam is comin’ in, the sea is full o’ smoky tea-kettle, the old days is dyin’, an’ where’ll you an’ me be then? Everything is dyin’! Abe Lincoln is dead. etc. etc. “ is eliminated. Chantyman singing “Hanging Johnny” appeared briefly just to give an ill omen here in this production. Another example of lines cut is--Orin’s lines such as “The breaking of the waves was your voice. The sky was the same color as your eyes. The warm sand was like your skin”, describing how he felt when he read “Typee”. Orin’s yearning for returning to his mother’s womb is in fact visualized on stage after this by Christine patting him on his head and Orin touching her hair. Even in a tense moment when he and Lavinia were eavesdropping on Brant’s plan of eloping with Christine, Orin actually refers to his jealousy as “And my island I told her about—which was she and I--she wants to go there—with him!” But these lines depicting his incestuous feeling toward his mother were omitted, though too much emphasis on this could make the play too melodramatic and look feigned, especially in our culture where inner feelings have to be often suppressed and not expressed in many words.
Another example of the cut made the meaning of the play less philosophical; Orin’s confession suggesting his death-wish was not fully conveyed, for the latter half of his line of “The only love I can know now is the love of guilt for guilt which breeds more guilt—until you get so deep at the bottom of hell there is no lower you can sink and you rest there in peace” was eliminated.
But as these examples show, cuts and omissions in this production were made so meticulously that the whole story and images in O’Neill’s original script were kept: in that sense, one could say that it was a “faithful” production.
In this production of Mourning Becomes Electra, the focus of the play was again on the female protagonists, Christine and Lavinia. Orin’s yearning for returning to the womb and his death-wish, which reflects the playwright’s philosophy, were, as was discussed so far, not much emphasized and he as well as Brant and Ezra did not give much impression, compared to the two women strongly characterized by Kazuyo Mita and Shinobu Ohtake.
Many critics admired the contrast of these two actresses. Yukio Sugai in his article entitled “Fierce Images of Women Are in Contrast—Mourning Becomes Electra”, for example, writes, “Tamiya Kuriyama, the director, depicted the contrast of the fierce women, concentrating on the point Lavinia changes into a woman like her mother after Christine’s death”, and Yoshiharu Ehara says, “This play by O’Neill, set in the post-Civil-War America, centers on the antagonism and conflict between Christine and her daughter, Lavinia”. Takashi Kohno, then, comments, “Tension is created by Lavinia squaring off with Christine”. Eiichi Adachi expresses how he was overwhelmed by the two actresses’ terrifying performance: “Kazuyo Mita with her fox-like face, adopting a stylized acting, terrified us as if she were wearing a female demon’s mask in the Noh play, while Shinobu Ohtake with her innocent raccoon-like face, terrorized us when she spoke in her deep threatening voice as if she were a devil” (The quotations in this paragraph are all originally in Japanese but I translated them).
As this last criticism by Adachi suggests, Kuriyama’s Mourning Becomes Electra reminded some people of the masks of a female demon in the Noh play. O’Neill consciously uses the “mask-like” expressionless faces in his characterization of the Mannon family. It is known that O’Neill was interested in masks; he had a collection of masks, among which was a Noh mask. Both Mita and Ohtake, following the stage direction of O’Neill, tried not to express too much emotion in their faces as if they were wearing Noh masks, but they could convey the demonic terror in their physical and vocal rhythms. Their exaggerated movements which Adachi calls “stylized acting” helped to express their antagonism. Tamotsu Watanabe, the drama critic and scholar of the traditional Japanese theatre, however, criticizes their acting differently:
Watanabe separates the so-called “stylized acting” in the traditional theatre from the acting in modern plays based on the psychological interpretation as Stanislavsky defined in directing naturalistic plays. Even with certain moments “stylized”, psychological conflicts must be expressed physically. Perhaps Watanabe wanted them to take a more naturalistic approach to the play. But the director chose certain stylized acting, for it worked well to convey the emotional shift of the characters to the audience. Kazuyo Mita, who performed Mary in Kuriyama’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, the more naturalistic play, however, knew O’Neill’s play better and thus did not forget to express psychologically in her gestures and movements. On the other hand, Ohtake, who often appeared in large commercial theatres and worked on Greek plays with directors like Yukio Ninagawa or avant-garde plays by Hideki Noda, one of anti-Shingeki directors, approached the play more in style and form.
But certain stylized acting may actually work in performing O’Neill’s play. According to Stark Young, O’Neill himself demands a certain stylistic technique by keeping the “rigid and motionless” face like a mask, which may be realized aesthetically when it is done in “a general stylistic whole, as in the Greek drama or the Chinese theatre that Mei Lan-fang brought to us….he gave us the whole model…in acting—the eyes constantly moving, the head imperceptibly in motion, supported by a complete and often almost invisible rhythm of the body, the emotions precise and compelling because of their very abstraction.”(Berlin, 37) It is, however, difficult for today’s actors in the modern theatre to achieve such a perfect abstraction, and even skillful Japanese actresses cannot reach that point. But they were right in adopting stylistic expressions with their faces like Noh masks.
Though the Noh play may not be so popular any more in Japan, its plot and structure, which I have already discussed before, seems to be still deep in the taste of today’s Japanese audience. Lavinia in Mourning Becomes Electra, as Egil Tornqvist says, “is connected with the pine tree”—the symbol of the Mannons(Berlin, 66). Is it just a coincidence that the pine tree is the symbol of the Noh stage where the ghost—the dead person—as a central character appears? Lavinia at the end of the play decides to lock herself in the deadly tomb-like mansion as if she were Death herself, though she has to live in her deadly condition with her guilt. Lavinia’s hurt feelings will never be consoled, but at least her demonic passion is gone and peace comes back when she “get[s] so deep at the bottom of hell there is no lower you can sink and you rest there in peace”, if we apply Orin’s words here. She hides herself in the house, completely drawing away from the public eye. She literally “disappears” at the end of the play, just as the protagonist of a Noh play does. In this Japanese production, the set of the mansion itself drew back to the further part of the stage, so it was visually gone with Lavinia inside. A revolving stage with a simple set designed by Jiro Shima was cleared away as the portable sets and properties used in a Noh play are. The large, almost bare, stage only with a distant view of the mansion, then, appeared in front of the audience, who were led back to reality.
Though both productions I discussed today did not consciously add any Japanese connotations and in that sense they were “faithful” to the original work, they were performed in a way fit for the cultural taste of the Japanese audience. Though they did not overtly show much critical comment on present society, in a larger sense, they did—particularly on focusing on women rather than men. O’Neill’s women seem to be opposite to the presently refined women in the highly controlled and suppressed society. But if you look inside of contemporary women, you may find that desire to cry and scream to the point of madness just as O’Neill’s characters do. The 21st century started with the threat of terrorism and war, and people today, especially women, feel powerless in this society full of anxiety. So O’Neill’s female characters who cannot resist exposing their emotional tumult must strike the hearts of today’s audience; their tragic fate of “confinement” in “jail” or “death” in silence after so much emotional struggle gives the audience catharsis.
 Desire Under the Elms was produced at Theater 1010 in Tokyo from October 18th to 31st, 2004(Directed by Robert Allan Ackerman / Set Designed by Setsu Asakura) with the following cast: Shinobu Terashima(Abbie), Shu Nakajima(Ephraim Cabot), Akira Yamamoto(Simeon), Hiroki Okawa(Peter), and Sohee Park(Eben)
Mourning Becomes Electra at the New National Theater’s Playhouse in Tokyo from November 16th to December 5, 2004 (Directed by Tamiya Kuriyama / Set Designed by Jiro Shima) with the following cast: Kazuyo Mita (Christine), Shinobu Ohtake (Lavinia), Masato Sakai (Orin), Masane Tsukayama (Ezra Mannon), Yoshida Kotaro (Adam Brant), Keishi Nakamura (Peter Niles), Mari Nishio (Hazel Niles), Naoki Ikeda (Seth), and Akio Marubayashi (the Chantyman).
 Theatre 1010 has a seating capacity of 701, while the New National Theatre’s Playhouse has a seating capacity of 1010.
 Even in the original American production, the merging of “stark realism” with “mystical quality” in the play demanded “ritualized and stylized activity” (Wainscott, 160).
Berlin, Norman, ed., Eugene O’Neill: Three Plays: Mourning Becomes Electra, The Iceman Cometh, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, A Casebook. London: MacMillan, 1989.
Brietzke, Zander, The Aesthetics of Failure: Dynamic Structure in the Plays of Eugene O’Neill. Jefferson, North Carolina, and London: McFarland & Company, 2001.
The Eugene O’Neill Review, Vol.26, 2004.
O’Neill, Eugene, Nine Plays by Eugene O’Neill. New York: The Modern Library, 1941
Wainscott, Ronald H., Staging O’Neill: The Experimental Years, 1920-1934. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1988.
(Titles of the following Japanese articles are originally in Japanese but I translated them into English.)
Adachi, Eiichi and Kaiyama, Takehisa, “Criticism on the Recent Theatre Productions”. Higeki Kigeki [=Tragedy/Comedy], March, 2005, 85-88.
Ehara, Yoshiteru, “Mourning Becomes Electra—Ohtake Explodes the Fiery Emotion of Her Role”. Tokyo Shinbun, November 27, 2004.
Kohno, Takashi, “The New National Theatre’s Mourning Becomes Electra—Self-righteousness of ‘the Judgement of Justice’”. Nihon Keizai Shinbun, November 25, 2004.
Sugai, Yukio, “Fierce Images of Women Are in Contrast—Mourning Becomes Electra”. Shinbun Akahata, December 10, 2004.
Watanabe, Tamotsu, “The Best Stage and the Worst Stage in 2004”. Teatro, March, 2005, 64-65.
A LIST OF O'NEILL PRODUCTIONS IN JAPAN
This is not a complete list of O’Neill’s productions. There must have been more small productions privately performed, but I listed only professional productions (except the very first private production of O’Neill, Ile) recorded in periodicals and major newspapers.
[A shorter version of this paper was presented at the Sixth International Conference of the Eugene O’Neill Society in Provincetown, Massachusetts in June, 2005.]
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