Parallels in the Work of
The superb production of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. called to my mind the many parallels between O’Neill and Wilson, arguably the two finest American playwrights of the twentieth century. These include the attitude toward the theatre, the content, and other elements.
Gem of the Ocean is part of the ten-play cycle that Wilson created to relate to each of the decades of the twentieth century. Set in the first decade, it treats the situation for blacks following the freeing of the slaves. In many instances, the circumstances are so terrible that one young black is moved to say, “This is worse than slavery.” But in a series of moving speeches, two older men describe the actuality of the horrors of slavery, beginning, “The night was dark, the ground was hard.” For Wilson, the past of slavery informs his plays and determines the actions which occur in later decades. O’Neill, too, felt that the history of America determined the present within the plays envisioned as part of his intended nine-play cycle. Both playwrights wanted to present a vast panorama of American life related to actual historical events. Most obviously for O’Neill this was his approach to More Stately Mansions and A Touch of the Poet. Both playwrights might have said, as did Mary Tyrone, “The past is the present, it’s the future, too.” For O’Neill the past included the deaths of Irish immigrants escaping the Famine in “coffin boats.” For Wilson the past included the deaths of millions of slaves in “that inhuman transatlantic voyage known as the Middle Passage.” A scene of great power in Gem of the Ocean was the enactment of the beating of a slave in the hold of a ship with two actors wearing white masks.
Wilson and O’Neill also shared a total commitment to the theatre. Whereas O’Neill’s great chance was to have the opportunity to experiment and develop in the nurturing atmosphere of the Provincetown Players, Wilson’s good fortune was to create, write, and rewrite with the guidance of Lloyd Richards at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center so near to the O’Neill home in New London. Given their opportunities to write plays as they chose -- rather than in accordance with a producer’s wish for a one-set, small cast play-- they gave their full talents to the theatre. When I interviewed Wilson he told me that he was surprised that so many of the playwrights who came to the O’Neill Center talked about television and movies and really viewed the theatre as a stepping stone to those lucrative fields.
He also told me that he was surprised by the lack of intense intellectual discussions among the playwrights. Of course he and O’Neill were incredibly widely read. When Wilson left high school because of racism, he spent many of his days in the public library. O’Neill not only read the European plays (many in French at which he excelled), he studied Greek so that he could read the Greek tragedies in the original. Such plays as Gem of the Ocean and Long Day’s Journey Into Night reveal the writers’ knowledge of history and are referential to other writers’ plays and poetry. It is sometimes forgotten that both were inspired by their early reading to write poetry, some of which was published. One of the thrilling scenes in Gem of the Ocean was the quotation of poetry by two of the characters. The sonorous lines were intensified by their melodious voices and their strong emotions.
The music sung by the characters was also very theatrically effective. Several of the actors have performed in musicals and their voices were wonderful. Wilson, as usual, incorporated music into the action. It is well-known that he was inspired in his early efforts at writing by the old phonograph records of black singers and that his first success was Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. He built up a collection of old 78rpm recordings. He remarked to me that one day he heard Bessie Smith sing “Nobody in Town Can Bake a Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine” and was stunned by its beauty and honesty. Less well known is the fact that O’Neill was an ardent music lover, enjoyed Broadway musicals, and played phonograph recordings of blues and jazz. Writing to Carl Van Vechten from his exile in France, he thanked him for the phonograph records he had sent. He also asked him to give his “fraternal greetings” to Mr. Louis Armstrong and said that it was a delight to hear Bessie Smith “wahooing in the peaceful French evenings. She makes the ancestral portraits of the provincial noblesse shudder—or maybe it’s a shimmy!” O’Neill plays are filled with music, always accurate to the historical period, and Travis Bogard had the wonderful idea of collecting the songs in The Eugene O’Neill Songbook. Perhaps someone is putting together The August Wilson Songbook.
A similarity between the two playwrights which may not seem apparent is the use of comedy in alternation with intensely serious material. This production of Gem of the Ocean was much funnier than the New York production, partially because Lynnie Godfrey who played Aunt Ester is a superb comedienne. With just a pause or a gesture she could get an appropriate laugh from the highly responsive audience. There were times when a comic scene was followed by a sudden shift in mood so startling that there were gasps from the audience. This effect is constant throughout Wilson’s body of work. The same thing occurs in good productions of Long Day’s Journey Into Night and The Iceman Cometh. One remembers the laugh which occurs in the latter when Harry Hope says that when St. Patrick came to Ireland all the snakes left and came to New York to join the police force. Perhaps out of misplaced reverence, many productions of O’Neill’s plays de-emphasize or ignore the comedy. O’Neill wrote that as he was writing Iceman, it made him guffaw and that it was like a big joke that goes flat. When I was the consultant for the Berlin production of the play a few years ago I was amazed by the balance of comedy and tragedy and delighted by the quickly shifting response of the audience. Jason Robards told me that when he auditioned for Iceman Quintero wanted to see if he could be funny as Hickey, “wanted me to play funny.” The actors in Gem of the Ocean had perfect control over the sudden shifts between the comedy and the drama.
The obvious likeness between the two playwrights is their ability to create wonderful opportunities for actors. The plays demand great actors and also give great actors the opportunity to show what they can do. Despite myths to the contrary, O’Neill had deep admiration for the talents of actors of the past and those who performed in his plays. When he was young he went to see Nazimova in Hedda Gabler ten times. Her greatest role was that of Christine in Mourning Becomes Electra. O’Neill said to George Jean Nathan, “You can say what you want to about the theatre back in my old man’s time, you can laugh at all those tin-pot plays and all that, but, by God, you’ve go to admit that the old man and all the rest of those old boys were actors.” Many actors reached the highest point in their careers in the roles O’Neill gave them. Jason Robards leaps to mind as well as Fredric March, Edward Petherbridge, and George M. Cohan. Gloria Foster played Mary in the all black production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night. James Earl Jones performed in a number of O’Neill plays and, of course, achieved a great triumph in Wilson’s Fences. Other actors who fulfilled the demands of great roles in Wilson plays are Larry Fishburne, Charles S. Dutton, Mary Alice and Roscoe Lee Browne.
That production was one of many opportunities afforded black actors by O’Neill plays. Paul Robeson and Charles Gilpin were able to act in the kind of roles previously played only by white actors. There is always some criticism of The Emperor Jones but James Earl Jones told me that he felt O’Neill gave us the first fully heroic African American character for the stage. When O’Neill wrote All God’s Chillun Got Wings he not only put up with negative criticism from blacks and whites, he and his family were threatened by the Ku Klux Klan. His plays continued to offer opportunities for black actors and James Earl Jones’ father Robert Earl Jones played Joe in Iceman at the Circle in the Square. For many years Wilson’s plays have been the major plays for black actors in America. The cast of Gem of the Ocean included Jimonn Cole, Clayton Lebouef, the previously mentioned Lynnie Godfrey, Pascale Armand, Joseph Marcell, and Leland Gantt. They created a great ensemble production. It was rather like a thrilling concerto with each performing exciting solos at various points throughout then coming together again. The same effect is apparent in Long Day’s Journey Into Night and many other O’Neill plays.Arena Stage has consistently presented wonderful plays with superb actors. Recently there was an extremely interesting and unusually staged Anna Christie and Michael Kahn directed A Touch of the Poet a few years ago. Wilson’s play was certainly a high point in the current season. Arena Stage is making a real contribution to the American theatre with productions by playwrights so demanding and complex as August Wilson and Eugene O’Neill.
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