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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. IV, No. 3
Winter, 1980



If Robert Brunstein's assertion in The Theatre of Revolt--that "O'Neill will be primarily remembered for his last plays"--is ever to be demolished, it will not be done by productions like the Guthrie Theater's recent Desire Under the Elms. Performed in repertory from August 23 to November 22, it had just the opposite effect and seemed to confirm Brustein's further observation that "the bulk of O'Neill's dramatic writings before Ah, Wilderness! are ... riddled with fakery, incoherence, and clumsy experimental devices."

Surprisingly, perhaps, where the Guthrie Desire is concerned, only the first two of Brustein's three charges were actually testified to, for no "clumsy experimental devices" were to be found in the Minneapolis production. The famous four-room, two-story house with the removable walls, of which O'Neill was so proud, was not created on the Guthrie stage. Scenic designer James Guenther's dwelling contained only three rooms--two bedrooms above and one room below, which doubled as the kitchen and the parlor. As a result of the doubling, two intermissions were required simply to effect the set change. Also missing from Mr. Guenther's design was the stone wall which is to run across the front of the stage. The gate, which is supposed to be centered in the wall, appeared down right, supported by two small columns of rock.

Nor did the Guthrie stage contain "two enormous elms." It did not, in fact, contain one enormous elm. What was visible, for the delectation of those in the upper reaches of the auditorium, were three elm branches, suspended high in the air by imperceptible wires. In theory, the viewer had no cause for complaint about the artistic choice, for the naked displays of desire were, after all, taking place underneath elms. Nevertheless, if the spirit of O'Neill was yet waiting for the elms and "the house as character" he always wanted, it will have to wait awhile longer.

The Guthrie stage is not the sort O'Neill wrote for, and because it is not a proscenium stage, many compromises had to be made with his set description. The stage's extreme thrust, which allows the audience to be seated around seventy-five percent of the main acting area, does not permit a house with any sort of facade, either transparent or removable. Nor does the smallness of the main acting area allow space for two different lower rooms as well as an exterior acting area. Similarly, space and sightline problems prohibit the inclusion of stone walls. Finally, either budgetary restrictions or the requirement that all sets must be struck in one hour (so the next play in the repertory can be set up) or both in combination do not seem to permit the utilization of large trees. In consequence, the Guthrie Desire was very far from a realization of the scenic environment O'Neill calls for. (If a home for O'Neill's plays is ever built, it would appear that it must have a proscenium stage.)

That the Guthrie is so ill-suited to realizing O'Neill's intentions is a hard fact with which any designer there must wrestle; and it may be that Mr. Guenther's solution to this problem is the best one could hope for. Yet even the scenic elements which did appear contained little of the texture and visual poetry which the script seems to demand, and the play which remained did little to dispel impressions of "fakery" and "incoherence." And these impressions were augmented, rather than subdued, by a particular stylistic decision of director George Keathley. The keynote for the remaining elements of the production was literal realism, surface verisimilitude.

For example, throughout the early scene between Simeon (Edwin J. McDonough) and Peter (Peter Thoemke)--a scene which was played largely for its humor--Eben (Richard McWilliams), without a wall of the house to hide behind, was kept busy actually preparing the called-for meal. The aroma which wafted back to the fifth row was definitely the smell of bacon, and testified to some stage technician's effort to place a working gas burner inside an antique wood stove. As a further result of the drive toward surface realism, scene breaks in the text were obscured completely by action which flowed continuously from room to room. In consequence, the evolution of the characters from scene to scene seemed forced and contrived rather than credible and convincing.

In the crucial bedroom scene of Part Two, directorial and design decisions combined to remove the necessity of wondering whether Eben and Abbie (Katherine McGrath) were in telepathic communication during the monologue of Ephraim (Tony Mockus). The bedroom doors, instead of opening upstage, as O'Neill directs, faced each other across a hallway which ran downstage, thereby facilitating the continuous flow of the action. As a result, for a person seated center-front, Eben and Abbie seemed to be peeking directly at each other. This overt interaction removed the focus from Ephraim's speech completely. It was almost impossible to pay attention to it.

All of the concern for surface realism created several problems. First, one never sensed a higher level of metaphysical reality; when Eben and Abbie finally arrived in the parlor, the references to the mother's spirit seemed mere silly superstition on Eben's part and calculated design on Abbie's. Second, the expressionism of Simeon's and Peter's choric responses at the end of the first scene sounded a jarring, disconcerting note. But the most unfortunate result was the effect on character development. The relationship between Eben and Abbie did not evolve, it jumped, as if the characters were randy marionettes manipulated by a pornographic puppeteer.

Katherine McGrath (Abbie) and Richard McWilliams (Eben) in
Desire Under the Elms at the Guthrie in Minneapolis.

Finally, however, what was most distressing is that the effort toward literalism was not consistently maintained. In the celebration scene, which opens Part III, the fiddler was obviously faking his playing, while among the dancers appeared a young, blond boy whose teased and blow-dried hair and mod wristwatch had clearly just arrived from the late twentieth century.

But despite all this, the Guthrie literalism did provoke an insight into the play. As Eben, Richard McWilliams was the picture of current commercial notions of virility, with his sculptured face surrounded by long, soft curls; his neatly trimmed moustache; and his hairy, well-muscled upper torso. Similarly, as Abbie, Katherine McGrath was as buxom and voluptuous as a first-class stripper. Thus, when she discoursed on the heat of the sun in Part Two, Scene One, the phallic imagery of "makes ye grow bigger--like a tree" was not just suggested or even suggestive; it was blatantly explicit. Further, the recurrent references to "hardness" and "being hard" consistently brought to mind the notion that the major erection of interest to O'Neill was not a two-story house.

Is such a suggestion out of place or out of proportion? O'Neill did, after all, refer to "desire" under the elms, not love. And by linking the sexual drive of Eben and Abbie to the rampant materialistic possessiveness towards the farm, which drives all the principal characters, it is possible to glimpse a universe in which the lust for power is the primary motive behind life. From this perspective, Desire Under the Elms could be seen as a sort of sexual Titus Andronicus--that is, as a play that achieves its primary emotional impact in the form of audience revulsion which culminates in exhausted relief that the horror is over.

Such a view would seem to suggest that the characters ought to be perceived as being, in Brooks Atkinson's words, "in the grip of forces they cannot master," and that the dominant theme ought to be taken to be, to quote Atkinson again, "the great theme of the fury of nature." It was, of course, this approach which was the basis for Atkinson's seemingly extravagant opinion that Desire "may turn out to be the greatest play written by an American." Atkinson had seen the Harold Clurman revival of Desire at the ANTA Playhouse in 1952 (with Colleen Dewhurst in a minor role) and had no knowledge of Long Day's Journey Into Night. But even so, if the Guthrie production is any indication, it is difficult to grasp why he would have chosen to elevate Desire over The Iceman Cometh or even Death of a Salesman or A Streetcar Named Desire.

Nevertheless, Atkinson's view of the play as another O'Neill probing of "the Force behind" at least provides a possible rationale for what in the Guthrie production appear to be crudely inconsistent characters who kill babies and turn their lovers in to the sheriff only because those are good ways to create a painful ending. In consequence, at the end of the performance in Minneapolis, this viewer felt no sense of the "redemption through love" which Stark Young found on the opening night in 1924, nor of the "redemption in recognition of error and the assumption of responsibility" which Travis Bogard presents in his lengthy discussion of the play. Whether such an ending is possible or appropriate in a production which would emphasize sexuality as a deterministic force (rather than a prurient appeal), because the Guthrie version contained no plane of significance above the literal surface, the ending brought only a sense of relief that the "fakery" and "incoherence" had finally come to a stop.

This sense of relief was accompanied by three observations. First, if the Guthrie version of Eugene O'Neill were alive today, he would be chief story editor for "The Young and the Restless." Second, failure seems inherent in a glossy production style more appropriate to "Little House on the Prarie." Third, it is devoutly to be wished that the Guthrie's newly-designated artistic director, Rumanian-born Liviu Ciulei, will be able to restore the stature of what was once this country's outstanding regional theatre.

--Paul D. Voelker



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