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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. I, No. 3
January, 1978


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THREE EUROPEAN PRODUCTIONS OF THE HAIRY APE

Eugene O'Neill's early plays appealed to those English producers who, being fundamentally interested in experimentation, were seeking a new mode of expression in the theatre. Norman MacDermott first presented O'Neill's plays to Londoners in the Everyman Theatre. The American playwright could not have asked for a better introduction to the British capital; for, in the early twenties, this gloomy little playhouse at Hampden was considered by many playgoers and critics the most serious home of dramatic art in London. Here they could see, in 1921, such one-act plays as In the Zone and Ile and such full-length plays as Diff'rent and Beyond the Horizon (with Raymond Massey as Robert Mayo).

The other producer who early recognized the importance of O'Neill was Peter Godfrey, founder of the Gate Theatre. Interested in the production of unusual plays of literary and dramatic merit, Godfrey staged, in 1926, All God's Chillun Got Wings. In the following year, he presented The Great God Brown for the Stage Society at the Strand Theatre (with John Gielgud as Dion Anthony). Then followed, in 1928, Godfrey's effective and imaginative production of The Hairy Ape. The acting was praised highly by the critics, particularly that of George Merritt who had previously appeared in the small role of the bartender in The Long Voyage Home. "First-rate," "strong" "imaginative," and "explicit" were some of the adjectives used by one critic to describe Merritt's performance as the play's "eponymous" hero. G.W.B. in The Era congratulated producer and actor and wrote about the latter's part that it "had a definitely powerful appeal, in which there was tenderness and beauty. There was real pathos in the picture of this fine, decent, if lumbering, creature trying to 'tink' his way through life and being wounded in the process." Other critics were equally impressed by the whole production and particularly by the acting which, according to the critic of The London Observer of January 29, 1928, reached almost perfection.

Without the excellent interpretations by actors and producers of the Everyman and Gate Theatres, the American playwright may not have found his way to the regular West End theatres quite as easily. For as far as the plays themselves were concerned, there was a general hesitation to accept them wholeheartedly. The critics were often puzzled, but because of the quality of the work in the two theatres, they invariably recommended that their readers go and see the plays and judge for themselves.

It was unfortunate for O'Neill's reputation on the European continent that a number of ill-fated first productions made Europeans wonder about the achievements of the "foremost" American playwright. The presentation of Anna Christie in Berlin (October 9, 1923) had little to recommend it. The German production of The Emperor Jones (January 8, 1924) in the same city also suffered from technical inadequacies and received overwhelmingly bad reviews.

Nevertheless, directors showed continued interest in the American playwright, and through the presentation of The Hairy Ape at the Tribune in Berlin O'Neill was said to have become "naturalized in Germany." Eugen Robert's production on October 31, 1924, was "a conscientious and sincerely intended attempt." The scenery was "competent, if uninspired;" the stage of the Tribune, as Monty Jacobs pointed out in the Vossische Zeitung, was too limited for the free development of the scenes on Fifth Avenue or in the stokehole and for some of O'Neill's technical devices. The same critic praised the art of Eugen Klopfer in the title role and singled out the union scene for special attention: "With dangling arms and dragging steps, as clumsy and artless as an animal, he opens his heart to these men of the world. When they overpower him and throw him to the ground, his simplicity takes on a savior's traits, the characteristics of a despised cross-bearer." There were other theatre critics who commented on Klpfer's acting ability, his naivet and simple emotions, his mental sufferings; but, as in the case of O'Neill's earlier plays, they felt that the German theatre was not being enriched very much and some of them even objected to such American importations.

The Emperor Jones, the first play by O'Neill to be performed in Paris (October 31, 1923 was a complete failure. Firmin Gemier, the recently appointed director of the Odeon, the second National Theatre of France, had enough courage to try out his artistic ideas on a national stage. Anxious to present to the French public each year "an example of American contemporary art," he had, in 1922, made arrangements with the Drama League of America to receive their selection of plays "most suitable for performance in France" and "most representative of the dramatic art of . . . American democracy, sister of the French republic." From the plays submitted Gemier selected The Hairy Ape. In a letter announcing his decision he mentioned that he had asked Maurice Bourgeois to translate the play and concluded that he was "very desirous of working to maintain the bonds of friendship which unite our two continents."

As we know, The Hairy Ape was not the first American play presented at the Odeon, but it was evidently supposed to succeed The Emperor Jones in the following year. There was speculation in the press whether or not, after the failure of Emperor Jones, Gemier would go ahead with his plans for a production of a second play by O'Neill. As the record shows, a performance of The Hairy Ape--or any other play by O'Neill--did not take place until 1929, when Georges Pitoff staged this play at the Thtre des Arts.

In this Paris production of The Hairy Ape on September 21, Pitoff, the Russian-born actor and director, proved to be an indefatigable protagonist in interpreting and emphasizing the symbolic character of O'Neill's work. He played the title role with considerable restraint and a certain monotony of diction. The scene in the stoker's forecastle and the dialogue between the two women on the deck of the ocean liner in particular showed the artistry of which the whole company was capable. Even the spicy low-class language and the play's lack of form could not detract from its "dazzling idealism." Still, the French public reacted to the story of Yank, misunderstood by everyone and outside the law of a mechanized society in which he is destined to live, with total indifference. One puzzled critic, who tried to explain the financial failure of the play, maintained that for the French "social declamations, anarchistic monologues and invectives against established order have not the same sense of novelty or of scandal as they do for the American public" (Illustration, October 19, 1929). The most favorable comment came from Andr Antoine who, according to Anouita Pitoff (Ludmilla, ma mre [Juillard, 1955], p. 179), stressed the originality and the power of The Hairy Ape and concluded that Pitoff's staging had resulted in the presentation of a true masterpiece.

The three early productions of The Hairy Ape in London, Berlin, and Paris have in common that they were presented in small, independent play-houses (Gate Theatre, Tribűne, Thtre des Arts), headed by men with progressive ideas concerning the theatre arts and with a genuine interest in experimentation (Godfrey, Robert, Pitoff). Most of the actors were hardly known but, to judge from the reviews of the critics, they had the ability to give convincing presentations of the play's characters. Most important, in each of the three cities, the production of The Hairy Ape created a favorable climate for its author and established him as a dramatist whose plays now became acceptable to some of the larger and more prestigious theatres in England, Germany, and France.

--Horst Frenz

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