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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. VIII, No. 3
Winter, 1984


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BRINGING O'NEILL'S WORKS TO LIFE IN THE DRAMA CLASSROOM

First, let me state the already well known: from the beginning of his career, O'Neill saw his works as living pieces of theatre--works intended to be performed, to come to life on the stage. His early involvement with the Provincetown Players was the initial gesture of this commitment. Later, once his reputation was established, he further demonstrated this commitment by involving himself with the Broadway productions of several of his plays. He clearly saw himself as a man of the boards and intended that his plays remain vital to the world of theatre.

Second, let me state a generalization which appears to be equally true: O'Neill's works are often isolated today in college and university classrooms, the subjects of scholarly study divorced from the stage. Certainly this study is purposeful, and certainly the analysis is enthusiastic--often creating its own "drama" as teachers and students subject the texts to rigorous analysis. Yet we must surely acknowledge that discussion of O'Neill's plays does not substitute for seeing them come to life, for seeing them performed.

Some university communities, as regular readers of the Newsletter know, produce O'Neill's plays, happily complementing the classroom study of the plays themselves. The range of texts produced and the sheer number of productions suggest that some fortunate teachers and students can see O'Neill's works as they were envisioned.

But what of those of us who can only infrequently convince our theatre departments to stage an Ah, Wilderness! or an Emperor Jones? What of those teachers who receive gentle but firm rebuffs suggesting that one O'Neill play every few years is quite enough? Should we resign ourselves to these unfortunate situations and present O'Neill plays only from the printed page? I think not. For if we teachers are willing to make contact with teachers of oral interpretation, acting and directing classes, then we can bring life to at least selected scenes from O'Neill's plays--and emphasize the striking dramatism of his plays for our students. If we cannot introduce our students to entire plays well acted, can't we at least let them see individual scenes well performed?

To orchestrate this connection among English, speech, and theatre departments, teachers of drama in English departments must first of all consider the qualities of O'Neill's plays which make them actable and suitable for interpretation, because the "burden of proof" for arranging these activities will undoubtedly rest upon our shoulders. We must contact people in other departments clearly convinced that O'Neill's works offer oral interpreters and actors a chance to stretch themselves and learn their crafts--for essentially, they must see value in these activities too, or they will comply either reluctantly or not at all.

What, then, makes O'Neill's works so good? First (and very important for workable interpreting and acting), O'Neill's plays are filled with extended monologues and scenes between pairs of characters. A monologue by Hickey from The Iceman Cometh or a scene between Christine and Lavinia from Mourning Becomes Electra can be easily arranged with the teacher of an oral interpretation or acting class, whereas a scene with a full complement of characters would be more difficult, if not impossible, to stage.

Second, O'Neill's experiments with language (low-life cant, high-flown rhetoric, or dialect) provide a tremendous range, giving oral interpreters and actors chances to experiment with a wealth of kinds of dramatic language. Nat Bartlett's ravings in Where the Cross Is Made, the brutish neo-eloquence of Con Melody in A Touch of the Poet, and the rantings of Yank in The Hairy Ape provide real challenges for collegiate performers. Segments from plays like these are rich opportunities for performers and rich experiences for an audience of students.

Third, O'Neill's plays are filled with strong, interesting characters imbued with equally strong emotions. Quite simply, that makes good theatre. A confrontation between Edmund and Jamie in Long Day's Journey Into Night, an impassioned speech by Hogan in Moon for the Misbegotten, or even the bitter harangue of Mrs. Rowland in Before Breakfast: all explore the emotional, sometimes irrational, and yet very human workings of characters within dramatic situations.

Fourth, many of the monologues and scenes in O'Neill's plays have self-contained rising "action" and climaxes. Such moments as Captain and Mrs. Keeney' s fateful conversation in Ile and the revelation scene between Abbie and Eben in Desire Under the Elms offer their own encapsulated complications, rising action, and denouements. These self-contained sequences are important for the interpretation or acting of only portions of plays, for they allow performers a chance to work within a limited context and give an audience of students a "whole" experience.

Fifth, and finally, many of the smaller segments of O'Neill's plays are strong "mood pieces," developing--sometimes quite apart from the larger plot--intense and enlightening characterizations. Mary and Cathleen's conversation in Long Day's Journey Into Night provides a wrenching portrait of a woman whose illusions have been shattered and who is unable to cope with the loss. Richard and Muriel's secret rendezvous in Ah, Wilderness! offers a tender, bittersweet look at child-like innocence and optimism. And Tyrone and Josie's coming to terms in Moon for the Misbegotten shows a growing sense of self-awareness. These scenes explore human psychology and interrelationships, and that, too, can make for challenging interpretation and acting, as well as enjoyable viewing.

We can contact the teachers of oral interpretation classes (typically found in speech or communications departments) to arrange for interpreted scenes from plays; we can contact the teachers of acting and directing classes (found in theatre departments, of course) and suggest that students prepare scenes from O'Neill plays. Most of all, we can contact other teachers whom we know in these departments, or we can approach our own students majoring in those departments and begin our work.

We should start by explaining what is to be gained by such interdepartmental work: students in these several areas of study would sense that our work is closely related; performing students would get a chance to "prove themselves" before real audiences; students in drama classes would see at least portions of O'Neill's work as they were intended. Then we would need to make more specific arrangements.

Together, the instructors would need to decide which scenes from which plays should be performed. Drama teachers might suggest scenes from plays on their reading lists, although they should be flexible enough to allow for scenes from other plays as well. Interpretation and acting students could feasibly attend the drama class and perform there (a table and two chairs can serve well enough if actors know those restrictions at the outset). Or a better plan is to have an "Evening of O'Neill," something like a formal production but using a variety of scenes and monologues. In that way the university at large could benefit from the efforts of the students.

Our work with O'Neill's plays in the drama classroom must include textual analysis and discussion, of course. We are, after all, teaching the texts. Yet we can enrich the reading and study of the plays if we draw upon the people in oral interpretation and acting classes. For through them we can bring portions of O'Neill's works to life.

--Robert Perrin

[EDITOR'S AFTERWORD. Professor Perrin's article is particularly welcome because it introduces a subject too seldom covered in these pages--the treatment of O'Neill and his works in the classroom. I hope that many will follow his lead, share their ideas and experiences--happy or sad--with their colleagues, and thereby aid the common cause of nurturing future audiences clamorous for revivals of O'Neill. (Note the "or sad": we can learn and benefit as much from avoidable bloopers as from epiphanic triumphs.) Letters, anecdotes, essays: all are welcome. If enough arrive to warrant it, a section on "O'Neill in the Classroom" can become a regular Newsletter feature in 1985 and after.]

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