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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. XI, No. 1
Spring, 1987


(IN THIS ISSUE)

NOTES ON A WORK IN PROGRESS:
AN INTERVIEW WITH BARBARA GELB

Barbara Gelb's My Gene, a two-act, one-character play about Eugene O'Neill's widow Carlotta Monterey O'Neill, opened at the New York Shakespeare Festival's Martinson Hall on January 29, 1987. It would be an understatement to say that the reviews of the production were "mixed": many were tastelessly, painfully negative, especially in their reactions to the script. "Mundane phrases that ... seem unedited by art" (Clive Barnes in the New York Post), "inept words ... numbing your ears" (Michel Feingold in The Village Voice), and "journalism, not theatre" (Howard Kissel in The Daily News): harsh words indeed, especially when coupled with the often-voiced inference that Joseph Papp would never have produced the play if its author were not the wife of the powerful managing editor of the New York Times. In short, there was more evidence of envy and the settling of old scores than of responsible or objective criticism.

Fortunately, Gelb and her star, Colleen Dewhurst, ignored the critics' venomous jabs and carried on with the more important job of honing the quality of script and performance. And public response corroborated their decision: the show played to large and frequently sold-out houses, concluding its more than respectable run on Sunday, March 22. The critics lost their almost unanimous battle to kill My Gene.

Before attending the performance on Tuesday, March 3. I had been primed by the reviewers to expect an amateurishly structured play, awkwardly written, and riddled with illogical transitions and ill conceived notions of character development--a "bravura performance" (John Beaufort in the Christian Science Monitor) imperiled by but miraculously surviving its author's ineptitude. What I saw, however, was something quite different. A full six weeks into the run, a very nervous and pressured Colleen Dewhurst was still clearly struggling to capture and convey the mercurial nature of Carlotta Monterey O'Neill. There was no question but that Dewhurst's stage presence was imposing. But it was my observation that she was relying on years of refined technique to cover gaps in her performance. It was apparent that she had not yet come to terms with Carlotta, a problem which the critics may have attributed to the wrong artist. The performance was certainly competent, but it lacked a clear, definable core characterization. And such a flaw can as easily be the fault of performer and director as of the playwright.

I should mention that the March 3 performance was exceptional in a way unanticipated by any of its participants but illustrative of a lesson the actress had learned before My Gene opened. In a pre-show article in the Times ("Colleen Dewhurst Portrays O'Neill's Haunted Widow," Sunday, January 25, 1987, Sec. 2, pp. 3-4), Helen Dudar told how Dewhurst, jittery about doing a play all alone, had called on a friend, one--person-show veteran Zoe Caldwell, for advice, and how Caldwell replied that she'd hate it "until she found the companionship of an audience." That night it was very clear that Dewhurst had taken Caldwell's advice to heart. About halfway through, an elderly attender became ill and an ambulance had to be called. The audience remained very quiet, out of respect for the actress, who, they knew, was continuing because she was unaware of the situation occurring in the house. Becoming conscious of the growing undercurrent in the audience, she hesitated a few times, sensing that something was wrong but unsure what to do. She finally stopped and gently asked, "Are we looking for a doctor?" Softly and in one voice, the audience replied, "Yes." "Shall we stop for a while?" Again the communal whisper, "Yes." It was a moment in theatre as compelling as the play being performed. Dewhurst had included us in the process of performance. It was clear that she depended on us and needed us to start and finish the work at hand. We were her partners. That was foremost in her thinking as she tried to deal with the unknown threat in the darkness. At that moment the raw power of the actress's dependence on the audience was breathtaking. In terms of the immediate emergency, it was gratifying and heartwarming. But it also heightened the sense I had had earlier---that she was grasping outside of herself for support. Because she had not internalized the sources of her character's motivations, Dewhurst's characterization was vulnerable to any interference that might present itself.

Barbara Gelb was in the audience that night, so our discussion two days later included reference to the event's effect on the performance.

It was not a good performance. She was aware of that. It was inevitable, of course. It was very dismaying, what happened. Act Two is usually much better even than Act One. But Colleen didn't get her rhythm back. She was really thrown by what happened.

That Gelb was not herself "thrown" by the critics' attacks was also clear; indeed, she had expected them.

Joe Papp was aware of the possibilities. I think it was very brave of him to put on a play by me. Whatever I wrote was destined to be attacked. There was just no way that was not going to happen. Both Colleen and Joe were aware of it and they were very brave to take the play on.... It was painful and unpleasant to have to go through this--for all of us.... I think we sailed through with flying colors. We were all very considerate of each other, and we all tried to be extremely obliging.

The phrase "extremely obliging" begged for explanation. Perhaps the team had been too "obliging." Since I had observed weaknesses in the acting and directing, I decided to pursue questions about My Gene's rehearsals. Problems during that period could have a permanent effect on the outcome of the production. Gelb reluctantly described Dewhurst's behavior:

She had a great deal of difficulty memorizing the script. She would be the first to admit it took her a long time. It was difficult. She could not really be directed. We could not make changes that we wanted until we were well into the previews. She was stumbling over lines. But that was a question of its being a terribly long script and having no other actor on stage to give her any help, any cues. So we couldn't really begin to do business. Colleen couldn't really feel what the character should do because she wasn't free enough: she was concentrating so hard on remembering lines.

As Gelb and I discussed the origins of the project which eventually became My Gene, it became clear that some of the problems entailed in the production might have arisen from the differing expectations of the actress and the playwright. Dewhurst had asked Gelb to write her a monodrama to be used in touring colleges. She was thinking of scripts Gelb had written for private presentations by the Theater Committee for Eugene O'Neill. The format for those programs had been documentary: readings from O'Neill's plays--by Dewhurst, Jason Robards, Geraldine Fitzgerald and others--interspersed with slides and discussions of O'Neill's life. In making her request, the actress had in mind a tourable, one-person equivalent of those earlier evenings. When Gelb presented her, instead, with a full play with Carlotta O'Neill as its heroine, she didn't know how to react.

We had been talking about doing it since 1979. I showed her a script about three years ago, and I said, "This is not exactly what you asked me for. It's getting to be more like a real play. What do you think?" I think she was a little taken aback because it was not what she was looking for. She was interested, though. But then it took a year or so before I had a manuscript anybody thought they could go into production with.

But why had Gelb's hopes for the script become so lofty? It was because she had never had the opportunity to tell the whole truth about Carlotta, and this play was to be her chance. When the Gelbs had set out to write the first major biography of O'Neill, there had been restrictions:

Everyone advised us that we should only do the first forty years of O'Neill's life because O'Neill's widow was still alive and she was very quick on the trigger to sue people. She had tremendously volatile likes and dislikes. So we said all right. We felt that that was quite enough of a job to take on. As we started doing the research, it got more fascinating and more and more involved. One thing led to another, and we decided we had to interview everybody and get the whole story before we could attempt even the first forty years. Then we realized: how could you interpret the first forty years unless you knew how he spent his entire life? We couldn't analyze the early plays unless we were doing it in light of the later plays.

In order to write the book in the way they felt it must be written, the Gelbs decided they had to take their chances with lawsuits:

We were going to be careful. But we just, had to write the whole story.... We had to balance very carefully what we could say about Carlotta with what we could say about O'Neill.... We couldn't make O'Neill the total villain and have Carlotta come out smelling like roses.... It was very tricky getting the balance.

On the suggestion of lawyers, the Gelbs were advised to ask Carlotta for a taped interview which would state for posterity her side of the relationship with O'Neill. Since Mrs. Gelb was "out of favor" with Mrs. O'Neill at the time, it was her husband Arthur who recorded the crucial interview. Much of it was later used in My Gene.

After Carlotta's death in 1970, the biographers were able to make some revisions in their 1962 volume. They added further information about the O'Neills' tempestuous marriage into the body of the text, and they appended an epilogue about Carlotta's final years. Still, Mrs. Gelb was irked by required limitations:

There were restraints by our publisher [about] going beyond too much because it's such a big book, and there were mechanical problems with doing too many revisions.

The dissatisfaction with never having been able to tell the complete story remained with Barbara Gelb. When Dewhurst asked her for a manuscript, the idea of writing a play with Carlotta as heroine was born.

The scope of the project which finally became My Gene needed the guidance of a playwriting expert. Gelb took her script to Joseph Papp.

I thought Joe was the perfect person to do it. I knew it was not a Broadway play. I wanted it done in New York for a limited run before Colleen took it on tour. I thought that would be the best way to launch it. Joe was interested when I showed it to him. He said, "I think you should work on it more." I started consulting with Gail Merrifield [the Shakespeare Festival's play doctor] on how and what they thought should be done. It was much too long. I cut fifty pages out of it before it even started rehearsing. That I worked on with the director [Andre Ernotte].

Gelb described the play's evolution as being "very much a collaborative process." For instance, director Mike Nichols had suggested the superstructure which was finally used. According to Gelb, Nichols said that it would be interesting to have the audience confronted with the question, "is she crazy, or isn't she crazy?" The result of this discussion with Nichols led Gelb to set the play in Carlotta's room in the psychiatric unit of St. Luke's Hospital during the last two years of her life. The aging widow is discovered, at the start, pleading with an unseen physician and trying to convince him that she is sane. The audience is drawn into the argument as bits and pieces of Carlotta's behavior in the hospital are juxtaposed with her recollections of her life with O'Neill. These are parts of the puzzle the audience is left to complete: the final decision as to Carlotta's sanity rests with them--with us.

I wondered whether the decision to show Carlotta in her last days, locked in a hospital ward and presumed insane, didn't absolve the viewers from having to participate in the decisions Gelb wanted them to make. Showing her earlier could also have afforded us more of the regal grandeur that Carlotta Monterey had adopted along with her name--the queenly aura that Zoe Caldwell conveyed in "Eugene O'Neill--A Glory of Ghosts." Dewhurst's Carlotta appeared defeated from the start, and there was no apparent attempt to make her look like the real Mrs. O'Neill. The playwright bristled at the last observation:

It's just that she doesn't look like Carlotta, and it doesn't matter. I felt that what was important was that she have the majesty and the carriage of a Carlotta and that you could imagine her to have been a great beauty. I think Colleen embodies all those aspects.

Some reviewers had criticized Gelb for incorporating speeches from O'Neill's plays into her script: Mildred Douglas, Nina Leeds, Mary Tyrone, Josie Hogan and Deborah Harford are all briefly represented. The playwright made the purpose and value of those interpolations very clear: she saw the speeches as integral in developing Carlotta's persona. To Gelb, Carlotta was the model for many of O'Neill's heroines. Mary Tyrone, for instance: while she was clearly modeled on Ella O'Neill, there was also a good deal of Carlotta in her composition.

Either Carlotta was like Mary Tyrone, or O'Neill created Mary Tyrone to resemble her, which I think is perfectly likely. I think that [Carlotta] lived out all of O'Neill's fantasies and all of his passions for theatrics. I think she was a very integral part of most of the female characters that he wrote in his later years from the time he was with her. Even Nina Leeds in Strange Interlude, which he was writing when he first fell in love with her. It was a kind of circular thing. He had his mother in his mind, but then he also had Carlotta in mind. He would talk to Carlotta about his mother, and then she would take on some of his mother's characteristics and qualities and sort of absorb them because she was an instinctive actress. Even though she wasn't a very good [actress] professionally, emotionally and personally she had all the instincts of high drama. So she began taking on those characteristics, and O'Neill in turn recognized them and wrote them into his characters. So I think Mary Tyrone is very much a combination of what he remembered of his mother--not perhaps very accurately or objectively--and what Carlotta had become.

Gelb's portrait of Carlotta revealed an individual so complex that it conjured images of a Tennessee Williams courtesan, a Blanche DuBois. It is no wonder that Dewhurst, despite her triumphant portrayals of many baffling Eugene O'Neill heroines, had such difficulties sustaining a characterization of Carlotta O'Neill. She had been presented with one of the most intricate and challenging roles of her entire career, and one whose challenge was intensified by setting the play so late in Carlotta's life.

The challenge to the audience---to decide the question about Carlotta's sanity--was integral to Gelb's purpose, which was to present neither the villainess limned by Mrs. O'Neill's detractors nor the apotheosized idol of her admirers, but the real woman in all her enigmatic complexity.

She had many enemies. People hated her guts. People loathed her. We interviewed people like that. It's all in our biography. I tried ... to convey it ... all through her eyes, that there were people who thought that she was a bitch and a virago and jealous and over-possessive. I tried to convey that. even though she has to say [it] herself. And I certainly hope it works. But I did not want to give a one-sided portrait of her.... I wanted it to be compassionate. I think any very one-sided view either for or against is boring.

One thing that My Gene definitely is not, is boring. The performance I saw, two nights before my interview with its author, revealed an interesting work that admittedly had flaws but was certainly stageworthy, an event to witness from an historical as well as a theatrical perspective. Happily, there are plans for My Gene to tour colleges and universities during the next few years. Gelb and Dewhurst will have plenty of time to perfect the final shape of the work and the presentation of its fascinating heroine---a luxury unavailable amid the imposed restrictions surrounding the New York production. They will be sharing their wealth of knowledge of O'Neill's life, and wife, and work with an eager and unbiased audience. My Gene is a work in progress. Its outcome can only serve to benefit the fortunate recipients of Gelb's and Dewhurst 's courageous partnership.

--Sheila Hickey Garvey

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