REVIEWS AND ABSTRACTS
1. THREE LOST PLAYS OF EUGENE O'NEILL (A Wife for a Life, The Movie Man and The Web), dir. Michael Fields. Lotus Theatre Group, Playhouse 46 (at St. Clement's Church, 423 West 46th Street), New York City, November 4-20, 1982.
The earliest dramatic efforts of a major playwright, even if they are flawed, trivial and fledgling work at best, deserve more than the attention of readers; they deserve the chance to prove themselves in performance. (Who knows what potential gems remain lost to us because they were rejected out of hand as irrelevant or unworkable?) So the news of the first professional New York production of three of O'Neill's earliest works was exciting indeed. And the result—while none of the long-rejected scripts proved even a minor masterpiece—was an evening (in my case, an afternoon) of considerable pleasure. And pleasure of more than an antiquarian sort: it showed that O'Neill was an intuitively brilliant playwright from the first, even before he had freed himself from the grip of what Travis Bogard, in describing A Wife for a Life, calls "turn-of-the-century theatre at its worst."1 Unfortunately it also showed that, at least at the start of his career, O'Neill was more adept at melodrama and naturalism than at comedy or farce.
I often wonder, when enthusing about a performance of O'Neill, whether it is the work's significance or merely the rareness of the opportunity that arouses my approval. In the present instance, I imagine that fully polished performances in optimal theatrical environs would have been far less satisfying than this Equity "showcase" production in the cramped, ramshackle depths of St. Clement's, where the performers' enthusiasm overcame their rawness of technique and the spectator felt a pioneering exhilaration doubtless akin to that felt by early Provincetown playgoers in their nights on the wharf. Plays, players and playingspace were perfectly attuned to one another. And the sets of Stephen Caldwell, changed in full view of the audience, were appropriate and clever. For Wife, scarp-like cliffs flanked a deliberately unrealistic backdrop, probably quite in keeping with O'Neill's vaudeville intentions, on which enticing rays of reflected light reached up and out from a central, doubtless gold-riddled spot behind a distant butte. Before it were the "ragged tent," "smouldering campfire" (rather static in its smoulder because the light was electric), and panning tray of the Older Man, effectively played by P. L. Carling. For The Movie Man, the drop was removed to reveal the adobe walls of a suburban Mexican house. And for The Web, which followed the performance's one intermission, the cliffs and walls were removed, and we were in a larger room—a gray-walled, "squalid bedroom" on New York's Lower East Side. Whitney Quesenbery's lighting was particularly effective at The Web's opening, when the evening light, shining from beyond the fire escape outside the room's two windows, threw prison-like bars across the dim tableau of the interior--certainly appropriate, given the deterministic emphases of the script and its title.
Of the three plays, the first proved best in performance. While Carling, as the Older Man, was hardly believable in his stage-whispered asides (who could be?!), he did make his long, exposition-laden monologues seem plausible, given his isolation in "this land God forgot." And his renunciation of revenge and wife to his young mining partner, Jack (who had once saved his life)—while Bogard is right to label it a "burst of sentimental nobility" (p. 9)—proved quite moving. (Of course I may just be a sucker for tears. At the end, when Carling sat at his again-lonely campfire, gazed at the snapshot of his wife, pocketed it and returned to his solitary whittling, he seemed to produce real ones!) Frank Nastasi was just right as old Pete, with his gleaming-eyed acceptance of adversity and his readiness to receive the Older Man's charity with a smile and a chuckle. But Bill Kalmenson effectively stole the show as Jack, the younger man, by bringing just the right amount of loping naturalness and vocal idealism to his performance, though the loud, high "Ya haw!" at his final exit undercut the sadness of the ending. The play is unquestionably overloaded with coincidence, but it does support the contention of the Older Man, who introduces a major O'Neill leitmotif—"What tricks Fate plays with us." The Lotus Group's only flaw was to change the play's title to A Wife for Life. Surely the title is meant to refer, not to the wife's refusal to remarry until her husband is declared legally dead, but to the Older Man's giving her up to the boy who had once saved his life. That demurral aside, the production was admirable in every respect, if one accepts the play as a representative of its genre, the melodramatic vaudeville sketch. From the start, O'Neill knew what he was doing.
The same cannot be said of The Movie Man (1914), a ham-fisted attempt at a romanticofarcical treatment of Pancho Villa's Mexican revolution and the financial involvement in it of the United States, here represented by the Earth Motion Picture Company. Pancho, renamed Gomez, has signed a contract with the American company, agreeing to stage raids and executions only when the light is right for documentary filming. But Henry Rogers, an Earth representative, falls for the buxom charms of the dis¬traught Anita Fernandez, whose father, one of Gomez' subordinate generals, has been sentenced to execution the next morning. Rogers agrees to permit Gomez one night raid if he will free her father, and the General complies, permitting the play a happy ending. But little else about the play is happy. Gomez, beribboned and multi-medalled, is a cocky, drunken fool; Anita, beneath the sincere tears, is a coquette; and Rogers, moved more by the lady's bust than her father's plight, is hardly the hero he might sound in a synopsis of the plot. The jokes, if jokes they are, are woefully weak, and the performers lacked the necessary lightness and fleetness to blind us to the inadequacies of the script. Frank Nastasi strutted comically as Gomez, and Rosemary Sykes was flashingly temperamental as Anita, but The Movie Man, I fear, should return to a well-deserved oblivion. I doubt that even abler players could bring it to life.
Life, and promise, was far more evident in The Web (1913-1914), O'Neill's first foray into low-life lingo and his first portrait of a prostitute—Rose Thomas—who is burdened with consumption, a baby and a heartless pimp; who finds a moment of near-happiness and hope when she is rescued by a fellow loser, a burglar, who forces the pimp out of her room; and who loses everything when the pimp returns by the fire escape, shoots the rescuer, and frames Rose for the crime. Melodrama, unquestionably; and written in a language no mortals could ever have spoken. But the performance was punctuated by effective moments: the opening picture of Rose, seated stage-center, pale, vulnerable, rubbing her hands in nervousness, her orange skirt soiled and torn, her light-turquoise pumps incredibly worn, the epitome of desperate penury (and movingly played by Sykes, in an amazing transformation from the coquettish tease of the previous play); the visceral fight between pimp (Bill Kalmenson, hood-flashy in a brown pinstripe suit), and gangster (William Gaynor Dovey, soft, mild and gentle, the idealist in the piece); and the growing intimacy between Rose and her rescuer until a bullet writes "no way" on their escape plans.
My thanks to the Lotus Theatre Group for their dedication to such an obviously non-profit venture. Non-profit financially, that is; for I am sure that many of us profited greatly from the chance to see and judge O'Neill's first plays where they should and must be judged—on the stage. And special thanks to Bill Kalmenson, whose study of O'Neill at Berkeley inspired the project, and who proved, as miner, film executive and pimp, to be a very natural and versatile performer.
—Frederick C. Wilkins
1 Travis Bogard, Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O'Neill (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), p. 9. Bogard's discussion of Wife (pp. 7-14) is the fullest and richest I know of, since it shows that "the sketch contains many of the elements which O'Neill was later to infuse with theatrical power" (p. 9).
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