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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. I, No. 3
January, 1978


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DESIRE AT THE ASOLO

The Asolo Theatre, on the (grounds of the Ringling Art Museum in Sarasota, is supported by the state of Florida with an equity company directed by Richard Fallon, Dean of the Florida State University School of the Theatre. Built within the medieval castle of Queen Catherine Canaro in 1798 in the little town of Asolo near Venice, it was taken down in 1930 to be replaced by a movie theatre. Fortunately the proscenium arch, the curving decorated walls of the two upper tiers of boxes, the valences at the box openings and other ornamental details were preserved and stored and eventually purchased by the Sarasota Museum to be installed in 1957 in a building similar to the original theatre. Of typical 18th century design with three tiers of boxes, seating some 350, the theatre is said to have been adored by Eleanora Duse, who spent much time in Asolo, as did Robert Browning, who wrote "Pippa Passes" among its "dew-pearled" hills. (Ironically the Italian province in which Asolo lies is now reconstructing an exact replica of this little architectural gem in Queen Catherine's castle, using the theatre in Florida as model!)

One of the nine plays in the Asolo's 1977 repertory season, Desire Under the Elms, was staged, as O'Neill designed it, on a two-level set with kitchen and parlor below and two bedrooms above. Since a porch at the front rises a foot or more above the stage (the yard) level, the house is raised that much more and makes for craned necks in the front rows of seats. According to the actors it was a difficult set to play on, with its small areas for action and the need to walk from the yard around to the back of the house to enter through the kitchen door or to tramp upstairs (the audience does not see the stairs but hears the footsteps) and down again, as the action moves from one room to another.

In the original production in 1924 at the Greenwich Village Theatre and later at the Earl Carroll Theatre, the setting was much like the Asolo's except that the porch was on stage right instead of between the audience and the house. Also flats were used to cover the unused rooms, necessitating curtain drawing and shifting of scenery not needed in the Asolo production, which revealed all rooms at all times, shifting focus by lighting the action on one or the other. The wooden gate, which in the original was stage center, supported by stone walls along the footlights, was moved to the side by Asolo, but was as effectively ripped off by the two brothers on their way to California.

To enter briefly the argument about the worth of Desire, if I were playing the old game of what three works of an author would you save if all the others were lost, I would choose Long Day's Journey, Iceman, and Desire. Melodramatic it is, but so are the myths of Phaedra and Oedipus. Living on his estate in Ridgefield, Connecticut (unlike the Cabot farm but with stone walls around it), O'Neill somehow caught the spirit of hard Ephraim Cabot, and already knew familial hatreds from his own life.

Perhaps Arthur Miller, a quarter of a century later, took a page from O'Neill's book when he designed Willy Loman's house on two levels with bed-room above and kitchen below. (Describing the past he says, "Brooklyn was gigantic elms ...") But he gave the actors freedom to move through the walls to dramatize at stage front Willy's memories of the past, whereas Eben's Maw remains a ghost. Even though Desire is thoroughly naturalistic in style, however, I would urge modern directors to use a half century's experience of stage techniques to bring the play to life in a new setting. True, the crowded, tiny rooms convey the restricted life of a New England farm, but much might be gained by moving the action into the open and conveying the "sickly grayish" walls by innovative lighting. The play, which was finely performed by the Asolo Company, is worthy of the best that modern techniques can bring to it.

--Winifred Frazer

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