REVIEWS AND REPORTS OF O'NEILL PLAYS IN PERFORMANCE
1. THE GREAT GOD BROWN, directed by Jarka Burian and produced by the Department of Theatre, State University of New York, Albany, November 20-23, 1985, with stage design by Robert Donnelly, lighting design by Jerome Hanley, and costume and mask design by Janet Harreld. The following are the director's "comments after the event."
Three things impressed me particularly as I read and reread this play (O'Neill's self-described favorite): the sheer Americanness of its cultural and psychological orientation, most obvious in its idiom; the particular period of the 1920s as a time of fresh energies, naive materialism, and receptiveness to foreign models of art and thought; and O'Neill's intensely autobiographical investment in the play.
I wanted to reinforce the presence of these elements in O'Neill's dialogue and stage directions by embodying them scenographically. To begin, although working in a proscenium theatre, we decided not to attempt conventional realistic settings; but not wanting to go to an opposite extreme of abstract, isolated space, we arrived at a series of settings with minimal, selective realism in furniture and props, mounted alternately on two wagons that moved in from stage right and stage left as needed, for the five locations and thirteen scenes. Remaining downstage below the curtain line for all scenes was a low, boardwalk-type platform representing the dock of the Prologue and Epilogue and functioning as a neutral downstage area for all the other scenes, which rode in on the wagons to adjoin this neutral boardwalk platform. We made no use of curtains, all changes occurring in lowered lighting in view of the audience. The costumes were realistic and in period.
Our special scenographic reinforcement consisted of seventeen variously shaped panels with graphic images of the era and of O'Neill. (Ideally, we would have used' projections on one or two screens, but we lacked sufficient equipment.) These panels were configured in three discrete planes that could be flown in and out during scene changes to form various backdrops for the succeeding scenes. The panels were sometimes accented with special lights, sometimes only dimly visible, sometimes not present at all for certain scenes. Similarly, period music of the 1920s was chosen to introduce and bridge the many scenes: jazz, blues, and dissonant classical--Beiderbecke, Armstrong, Bartok, for example. Bartok is hardly American, but some sections of his quartets of the 1920s captured the angst of several key moments in the play, especially as Brown agonizes under Dion's mask. (Is there American music c. 1910-1930 that has a Bartok dissonance?) Most nearly ideal, for me, was the instrumental portion of Louis Armstrong's "Saint James Infirmary," which came in after Brown's death in Act 4, Scene 3, and segued to the Epilogue.
The Masks. We decided on lifesize halfmasks that left the jaws and mouth free. The masks were made of celastic from casts of the actors' own faces, but then stylized according to O'Neill's stage directions; consequently, for example, we wound up with four masks for Dion and three for Billy Brown. The masks were held to the head by the sideframes of eyeglasses, to which the masks were firmly bonded. Thus, the necessary clapping on and removing of the masks was reasonably efficient.
O'Neill did not make things easier by writing in three sons--seen at two ages--so that one may need as many as six actors, unless, like O'Neill, he apparently has at hand a cluster of Jones siblings (four of them) to play the boys, and a fifth Jones to play the police captain! (See original-cast list in Margaret Loftus Ranald, The Eugene O'Neill Companion, p. 270. Does anyone know if these Joneses were related to Robert Edmond Jones, the director and designer of the original production?) I seriously considered cutting the boys but was finally able to line up some off-campus youngsters for the young sons and then used young-looking college students for the older sons.
Sentimental, melodramatic, pretentious, and clumsy as some of the play is, it has a core of impassioned sincerity and theatrical dynamics that carried beyond the footlights effectively. Our production was favorably received.
Second Thoughts. Our main problem was the length of the play, or, perhaps more precisely, the length of time and repetitiveness involved in moving the wagons on and off stage for the thirteen scenes of the play. Were we to do it again, I would like to maintain even less realistic fidelity to O'Neill's stage directions for the settings and, instead, establish something like a simultaneous setting of three separate acting areas designated by lighting. Changes of scene would be accomplished by cross fading the lights and would take only as long as the actors needed to move from one area to another. The graphic panels worked well but, like the changing wagon settings, became repetitive and perhaps heavy handed. Instead, I would now try fewer, essentially larger panel images, all of which would be present throughout most of the play. Instead of being flown in and out in groups of five or six, individual ones would be accented by lighting for specific scenes.
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