ROBERT EDMOND JONES AND EUGENE O'NEILL: TWO AMERICAN VISIONARIES
Robert Edmond Jones worked with Eugene O'Neill more frequently than any other scenic designer. He designed the Broadway. premiere of Anna Christie in 1921 and in 1923 joined O'Neill and Kenneth Macgowan in forming The Experimental Theatre, Inc., a professional reorganization of the old Provincetown Players. Here he designed and directed the premieres of Desire Under the Elms (1924), The Fountain (1925), and The Great God Brown (1926). After that group disbanded Jones continued to design several O'Neill plays for the Theatre Guild, notably Mourning Becomes Electra (1931) and Ah, Wilderness! (1933). And in 1946, when O'Neill had been away from the theatre for twelve years and was returning to New York as America's greatest living playwright, it was Jones who was asked to design the premiere of The Iceman Cometh. Altogether, in addition to several other projects, Jones created scenery, lighting, and costumes for ten O'Neill premieres.
O'Neill and Jones admired one another's work and shared the common vision that American theatre must move away from the mundane depiction of daily life which characterized it in the first decades of the twentieth century. Jones, in the midst of a basically negative appraisal of American playwrights in The Dramatic Imagination, said,
And his praise continued in a later discussion of O'Neill's work:
While working with Jones on Mourning Becomes Electra in 1931, O'Neill recorded in his notebook,
Together or separately, Jones and O'Neill sought a theatre which was never content with surface reality, but always soared toward poetic heights or plumbed psychological depths.
Jones admired the intensity of O'Neill's search for meaning and was inspired by his evocation of the imagination. Their early relationship was a close personal friendship as well as a professional association. (During the production of Anna Christie, the O'Neills shared an apartment with Jones on West 35th Street.) For neither man was there a real distinction between personal and professional life. Both found expression of their inner selves through work; both shaped their lives around theatre.4 O'Neill focused upon drama, Jones on production.
As the name Experimental Theatre implies, the aim of that organization was to present plays that differed significantly from standard commercial fare in both subject matter and mode of production. The O'Neill-Macgowan-Jones theatre was intended to provide a forum for O'Neill and other daring American playwrights as well as controversial and often neglected Europeans. When All God's Chillun Got Wings was not ready for the opening bill, The Spook Sonata was substituted and its author, Strindberg, praised in a program note as "the precursor of all modernity in our present theatre."5 Attempting to fulfill the ideals of the art theatre, Jones and O'Neill, with Macgowan's practical guidance, sought to create unified production in which the design and direction combined with the author's words to reveal the deep message that served as the basis for the script. In the first Provincetown Playbill, Jones describes the approach taken by the various theatre practitioners:
One production illustrative of this approach was The Ancient Mariner, which was presented during the Experimental Theatre's first season. Desiring to bring the haunting power of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" to the stage, O'Neill arranged Coleridge's poem, and Jones created the design and co-directed the piece with James Light. For his adaptation O'Neill added only about a dozen words to Coleridge's text. He divided the poem into various speakers' parts and stage directions, and wrote some additional stage directions himself, such as this description of the opening scene:
A few lines into the text, after the Mariner has said "There was a ship," O'Neill indicates the following action:
For "The Ancient Mariner" O'Neill and Jones developed a highly stylized, non-realistic approach to production. Jones created fragmentary scenery and placed it in space; the masked actors pantomiming the action were modeled with light. For the "background of sky & sea" Jones projected distorted patterns on the sky dome.9
The sky dome, or Kuppelhorizont, is a German innovation which cups the whole stage; the plaster cyclorama creates a neutral and seemingly large space on stage. Into this space fragmentary scenic elements can be placed, and the mood of the whole setting can be altered by lighting variations. Jones had seen this device on his first visit to Germany in 1913, and upon his return had lectured on its uses in relation to lighting at the New York Stage Society exhibition of the new stagecraft in November, 1914.10 In 1920 Jig Cook, the founder of the original Provincetown Players, had built a sky dome for the tiny stage of the Provincetown Playhouse in anticipation of producing O'Neill's Emperor Jones, which required a "background of infinity."11 The Playhouse stage would have presented similar problems for staging "The Ancient Mariner," and, as Jones was one of the first American designers to use light to create the desired atmosphere on, stage, it is not surprising that he would avail himself of the dome when faced with the perplexing problem of evoking the eery world of becalmed waters, burning sun and the hallucinations these produce.
The production was not well received; Macgowan noted that critics seemed about equally divided on whether this attempt to stage Coleridge's poem was "worse for literature or the theatre."12 In his own review of the production in Theatre Arts Monthly, Macgowan defended the effort and explained its significance:
This production, along with The Great God Brown and a number of other pieces written during the 1920's, shows O'Neill experimenting with the nature and scope of the theatrical medium. During this period of testing, Jones' enthusiasm for evocative, poetic theatre was a source of inspiration for O'Neill, who sought challenging opportunities for his collaborator. In letters to Kenneth Macgowan his comments on possible scripts for production contain such notes as "Fine chances for Bobby in it, too."14 In 1924 O'Neill worked on an adaptation of the Book of Revelation, but this was never completed because he became so absorbed in writing Desire Under the Elms.15
Desire Under the Elms presents a view of New England which is very similar to Jones' own conception, as Louis Sheaffer has noted:
Jones had once described New England as "violent, passionate, sensual, sadistic, lifted, heated, frozen, transcendental, Poesque."17 Having grown up in poverty on a remote farm outside the village of Milton, New Hampshire, Jones continued to be haunted by his early years. Writing to a friend while visiting at home, he said, "It is dreadful here, all the people are sad and tired and anxious and afraid--and everywhere there is misery."18 Similar feelings would have been elaborated to O'Neill and no doubt contributed to his portrayal of the Cabots.
One O'Neill biographer has attributed the setting for Desire to a combination of the Jones' farm, which has now become a New Hampshire historical site, and the Connecticut farm on which O'Neill was living at the time he wrote the play.19 Another has suggested that the model was the old Smith farm, which O'Neill passed frequently on the highway--a homestead characterized by "two tremendous elm trees that overhung, shaded and framed the house."20 Whatever his sources of inspiration, O'Neill developed a detailed conception of the setting while writing the play. This took the form of scene description in the text and a series of sketches which he gave to Jones.
These sketches illustrated a single setting which would allow for both exterior and interior scenes. The set consisted of a starkly simple New England house, two enormous elms on either side, a stone wall and wooden gate. The south end of the house, facing the audience, had four panels which could be removed to reveal two bedrooms upstairs, the kitchen and parlour downstairs. The four sketches all depicted the same basic structure, but illustrated that the panels might be removed completely, individually, or in various configurations. Jones was impressed by the drawing and suggested, in a letter to Macgowan,
Jones took O'Neill's basic scheme, added the details necessary to make it appear a traditional New England house, painted the structure the same pumpkin yellow as his own homestead, and modified the basic concept slightly to make it workable in the theatre. In O'Neill's original sketch the interior of the house is simply split vertically and horizontally so that Cabot's and Eben's bedrooms upstairs are the same size and the parlour and kitchen downstairs contain the same area. In Jones' design the lower rooms have been modified so that the parlour is smaller than the kitchen. Jones' reason for making this change was clearly a practical one--the party, the scene with the largest number of actors, occurs in the kitchen; whereas Eben and Abby are the only characters to use the parlour. Thus, Jones took O'Neill's scenic idea for the play and modified it slightly to accommodate the needs of production.
Jones directed the premiere of Desire Under the Elms at the Greenwich Village Theatre and was able to fuse his understanding of New England with O'Neill's script. He directed from a design point of view, providing an atmosphere that was conducive to the emotions required by the script, then encouraging the actors in his typical metaphoric style to find a response within themselves. Writing many years later, Mary Morris, who played Abbie, described the experience of working with Jones as a director.
Unlike the omniscient director, Jones never strove to impart his conception of a play; he searched for the meaning contained within the text. He would not have considered adapting a script to suit his personal statement. Rather, he felt that each play contained an ideal and that the function of the director and designer was to create an atmosphere which evoked the essence of the play and gave life and form to the images inherent in the playwright's work.
For his 1946 return to Broadway O'Neill requested that Jones design The Iceman Cometh, Moon for the Misbegotten, and Touch of the Poet. Due to O'Neill's poor health Iceman was the only one to reach Broadway at that time.
Jones always began his design process by immersing himself in the script in order to absorb the mood or atmosphere of the piece. This immersion encouraged the formation of images, which became his guide in doing research. Having absorbed the environment of a stagnant bar room filled with pipe dreams from the Iceman text, Jones felt the need to further his knowledge of this atmosphere by experiencing it personally and sought out bars which contained features similar to Harry Hope's establishment. From his encounter with this world he found confirmation for O'Neill's visual instincts about the setting and was able to proceed with the detailed work of sketching, drafting, and seeking out just the right objects to bring the scenes to life onstage.
In an interview shortly after Iceman opened, Jones described the process of bringing the play into production:
His interviewer emphasized the importance of Jones' research to the settings he produced:
The Iceman setting contains two areas--the regular bar, and the back room where drinks may be served after hours. Acts I and IV take place primarily in the back room with only a section of the bar showing; Harry's birthday party in Act II occurs entirely in the back room, while Act III, which shows each of the men trying to go out and fulfill his pipe dream, requires the entire bar and only a small section of the back room. Describing Jones' handling of these grim scenes, Brooks Atkinson said:
Another critic concurred:
No doubt O'Neill was pleased with this setting, as he had been with Jones' other designs, for Jones consistently brought to the stage the visual core of O'Neill's work as he had originally imagined it.
In 1978, twenty-five years after O'Neill's death, a collection of materials showing the details of his creative process became available to scholars. Particularly important are a series of notebooks which O'Neill kept from 1918 to 1943.27 The notebooks reveal his approach of having an initial concept for a play, recording it and periodically returning to work on it, then gradually developing some of these ideas into scenarios and drafts. The entries are relatively uniform in style: they include a play title, a thumbnail sketch of a groundplan, a list of characters, a breakdown of scenes, and some-times additional notes about the development of the piece. For O'Neill the process of writing a play began with a very solid impression of its physical nature--the place where it will occur, the characters who will enact it, and a sequence of scenes. For him a play was always a solid theatrical entity, no matter how laden it is with images or fraught with great ideas. We have to remember that O'Neill was raised in the theatre. Jones said of him, "In the final analysis he is first, last and foremost the son of James O'Neill, a great actor."28 And the Gelbs have noted that O'Neill was
The scenic image of an O'Neill play is inherent within the text itself. For a designer to work effectively with O'Neill, as Jones did, he must grasp the importance of this central physical vision and find ways to realize it on stage so that the image, which dominated the writing of the play, continues to be the central image in production.
The precision with which O'Neill worked, and Jones' various comments that the playwright is responsible for the design, might seem to suggest that Jones actually contributed very little to their collaborative efforts. But such a conclusion overlooks the fact that O'Neill considered Jones to be the finest designer in the world and chose to work with him more frequently than with any other scenic artist. Obviously, Jones was making an important contribution to O'Neill's productions. I would suggest that the nature of Jones' influence was twofold and changed over time: in their early association he increased O'Neill's contact with experimental or avant-garde theatre techniques; and later, when O'Neill began to combine realistic and symbolic techniques, Jones' austere, poetic style enhanced the playwright's mature works and encouraged a multi-level interpretation of their meaning.
It is true that O'Neill was raised in the theatre and knew a great deal about all aspects of production, but in order to understand this influence properly we must consider what type of theatre it was. The theatre of James O'Neill was nineteenth-century, touring-company melodrama replete with painted drop scenery that could easily be transported from one one-night stand to another. It was the theatre which James Tyrone, in Long Day's Journey Into Night, blames for ruining his acting potential. O'Neill did not become a playwright in order to emulate his father's life; he despised that superficial world and sought an alternative through serious writers like Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer. He only turned to theatre after discovering Strindberg and seeing through that tortured artist's work that it was possible to use the stage to explore the depths of man's psyche and call into question our mundane depiction of reality. Yet neither this source of stimulation nor all of O'Neill's self guided reading provided him with an adequate background for the great work he was to undertake. We must remember that O'Neill was not a well educated man; his formal instruction consisted of a year at Princeton and later a semester under George Pierce Baker's conservative tutelage.30 Jones, by comparison, graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in fine arts and continued as an instructor at that institution for two more years.31 Macgowan also was a Harvard graduate, and letters to him from O'Neil] reveal that the playwright routinely asked for literary source material.32 The Jones-O'Neill correspondence is not extant; however, it is reasonable to assume that Jones played a similar advisory role, but more specifically in the area of theatrical innovation. In 1913-14, while O'Neill was learning how to write a well-made play, Jones was spending a year in Berlin observing the wonders of Max Reinhardt's Deutsches Theater and attempting to get a grant to go to Russia.33 The war put an end to both of these endeavors, but Jones came back to the United States filled with the latest information about European innovations and became a proselytizer for the art theatre.
During the 1920's, Jones remained in touch with European practices by going abroad periodically and reading all pertinent material in German and French as well as English. His own designs awakened Americans to the latest trends both at home and abroad. When Jones, O'Neill and Macgowan came together to form the Experimental Theatre, Jones had by far the greatest familiarity with poetic theatre, which attempted to integrate all elements of production into a single artistic expression. His knowledge and enthusiasm fueled O'Neill's and Macgowan's more recently developed interests. For this association Jones was the artistic director in charge of both the design and direction of plays--a dual role that clearly indicates his partners' complete faith in him. During this association O'Neill became fascinated by the multiple possibilities of the theatre and wrote scripts which tested its limits; for example, The Great God Brown, Lazarus Laughed, Strange Interlude, and Dynamo.
In his later, more mature plays, O'Neill moved away from these obvious experiments to a style which appeared more realistic, but in fact contained symbolic, poetic elements and had the strengths of both modes. For plays such as Mourning Becomes Electra, drawing on the Aeschylean trilogy, and The Iceman Cometh with its Beckett-like view, Jones' designs helped to remind the audience that they were not merely seeing a long saga of a New England family in a post-Civil War crisis, or a group of bums in a last ditch hotel, but were also witnessing profound commentaries on the human condition.
In general, Jones may be characterized as a symbolic and somewhat austere designer. His designs are composed of only those elements necessary to create the desired atmosphere on stage; nothing is superfluous. Doubtless part of this impulse came from his New England upbringing; but I suspect a more important influence was his belief that every object, every piece of fabric, has an individual essence and that to create a design ensemble each of these properties must harmonize and must have a space for its own particular resonance.34 Looking at Jones' original Ah, Wilderness!, compared with revivals, one notes that Jones' design is invariably more spare, less fussy. He creates the locations and environments needed by the author, but leaves room for the text to work its special magic. For Iceman Jones created the essence of a down-trodden bar room, but the so-called realistic scene contained such elements as mirrors suggested by fabric draped and tied. And the whole was without the clutter that would normally be found in such an establishment, thus leaving the spectator free to make the symbolic connections required by the play.
For Mourning Becomes Electra O'Neill had originally sketched the exterior of the Mannon house to look like a Greek temple;35 Jones simply removed the unnecessary roof, thus changing the image from a temple or palace to a pre-Golden Age scenea and reminding the audience that they were in the theatre viewing an archetypal occurrence. For each of the interior scenes Jones provided the essential furnishings, but decorated the set with a formality that calls to mind an ancient tomb, rather than an actual dwelling. Thus he served the various levels of meaning within the text--providing the elements necessary for a realistic facade, but arranging them in a way that leaves gaps for the imagination to fill and reminds the viewer to look beyond a superficial level of interpretation.
Jones' guiding philosophy was that
production must never call attention to itself,
--Dana S. McDermott
1 Robert Edmond Jones, The Dramatic Imagination (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1941), p. 38.
2 Russell Rhodes, "Robert Edmond Jones Says It Was O'Neill Who Really Did Designing for 'The Iceman'," New York Herald Tribune, 29 Dec. 1946.
3 Virginia Floyd, ed. and annotator, Eugene O'Neill at Work: Newly Released Ideas for Plays (New York: Ungar, 1981), p. 209.
4 Louis Sheaffer, O'Neill: Son and Artist (Boston: Little, Brown, 1973), p. 60.
5 Jackson R. Bryer, ed., with intro. essays by Travis Bogard, "The Theatre We Worked For:" The Letters of Eugene O'Neill to Kenneth Macgowan (New Haven, CT: Yale U. Press, 1982), p. 71.
6 Donald Gallup, "Eugene O'Neill's 'The Ancient Mariner'," The Yale University Library Gazette, 35, No. 2 (1960), 61.
7 Gallup, p. 63.
8 Gallup, p. 64.
9 Robert Paul Waldo, "Production Concepts Exemplified in Selected Presentations Directed by Robert Edmond Jones," Diss. Univ. of Oregon 1970, pp. 161-62.
10 Robert Edmond Jones, Letter to Kenneth Macgowan, n.d., Kenneth Macgowan Papers, Univ. of California, Los Angeles.
11 Travis Bogard, Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O'Neill (New York: Oxford U. Press, 1972), p. 71. (The quoted words are Cook's.)
12 Kenneth Macgowan, "Crying the Bounds of Broadway," Theatre Arts Monthly, 8 (1924), 357.
13 Macgowan, p. 357.
14 Bryer, pp. 15 and 90.
15 Gallup, p. 61.
16 Sheaffer, p. 130.
17 Elizabeth Sergeant, Fire Under the Andes (New York: Knopf, 1927), p. 40.
18 Sheaffer, p. 60.
19 Arthur and Barbara Gelb, O'Neill (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), p. 540.
20 Sheaffer, p. 129.
21 Robert Edmond Jones, Letter to Kenneth Macgowan, n.d., Kenneth Macgowan Papers, Univ. of California, Los Angeles.
22 Eugene Robert Black, "Robert Edmond Jones: Poetic Artist of the New Stagecraft," Diss. Univ. of Wisconsin 1955, Appendix 1, pp. iii-vi.
23 Russell Rhodes, New York Herald Tribune.
24 Russell Rhodes.
25 Brooks Atkinson, New York Times, 20 Oct. 1946, Sec. II, p. 1.
26 George Freedley, New York Telegraph, 11 Oct. 1946.
27 "O'Neill Notebooks," Beinecke Library, Yale Univ., New Haven, CT, and Virginia Floyd, Eugene O'Neill at Work.
28 Russell Rhodes.
29 Gelb, p. 568.
30 Bryer, p. 8
31 Ralph Pendleton, ed., The Theatre of Robert Edmond Jones (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1958), p. 146.
32 Bryer, pp. 13-14.
33 Robert Edmond Jones, Letters to Kenneth Macgowan, n.d., Kenneth Macgowan Papers, Univ. of California, Los Angeles.
34 Robert Edmond Jones, "The Robe of Light," Theatre Arts Magazine, 9 (1925), 496.
35 Floyd, p. 199.
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