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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. XI, No. 3
Winter, 1987


(IN THIS ISSUE)

CONSPICUOUS BY HIS ABSENCE:
EUGENE O'NEILL AND A 1987 PROVINCETOWN CONFERENCE

According to a press release of 10 April 1987, "Beginnings 1915: The Cultural Moment" was "a conference exploring the artistic, social and cultural issues that led to the birth of the modern American theatre." For purposes of this conference, the birth was presumed to have occurred in 1915 with the staging of four plays by a group which would come to be known as the Provincetown Players, when they formally organized in the late summer of 1916. Given this premise, the 14-17 June 1987 gathering at the Provincetown Inn on the tip of Cape Cod was a conference organized with unusual conceptual clarity.

At the center of the proceedings were the four plays first performed in the summer of 1915--"Suppressed Desires" by George Cram Cook and Susan Glaspell, "Constancy" by Neith Boyce, "Change Your Style" by George Cram Cook, and "Contemporaries" by Wilbur Daniel Steele. These four plays reflect, in the words of the press release, "Major issues of the 1910's--the New Art (abstract), the New Psychology (Freud), the New Woman (who wanted the right to vote and sexual freedom), and the New Politics (emphasizing individual liberty). Panel discussions will reiterate these four themes." In fact, these "panel discussions" involved the presentation of scholarly papers, but each panel was neatly tied to a dominant theme of one of the four plays--the New Psychology to "Suppressed Desires." the New Woman to "Constancy," the New Politics to "Contemporaries," and the New Art to "Change your Style." After a keynote address on the evening of the 14th by Daniel Aaron (Professor Emeritus, English and American Literature, Harvard, and President, the Library of America), which provided an overview of the 1910s, the next two days of the conference consisted primarily of two panels each, followed in the evening by performances of the day's two pertinent one-acts.

The intellectual rigor of this structure might well serve as a model for any future conference which proposes to unite scholarly explorations of the "cultural moment" with relevant dramatic productions. Unfortunately, the realization of the concept left something to be desired. The scholarly presentations during the day did not always relate to, or even well acknowledge, the fact that the "birth" of the American theatre was the issue at the center of the conference.

In this regard, the program on the New Psychology was probably the most effective. After a brief account of Freud's chief appeal to the "intelligentsia" of the era by program chair John Burnham (Professor of History, Ohio State), Dr. Sanford Gilford (Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School) presented an anecdotal history of the arrival of Freudian thought in America, beginning with the 1909 Clark University lectures, which were attended by Emma Goldman. Subsequently, Fred Matthews (Associate Professor of History, York University, Ontario) explained how concepts of character in the drama during the period 1900-1930 changed to reflect, in part, the new Freudian notions of personality. The sequence of presentations was ideally constructed to illuminate this aspect of cultural and intellectual history for the student of drama and led perfectly to that evening's performance of "Suppressed Desires."

The subsequent panels were to fall short of this successfully integrated achievement. Presentations on the New Woman, the New Politics, and the New Art tended to be either general introductions to the topic, useful only to the uninitiated, or presentations of specialized research of interest only to the student of the topic in question. To some extent, this appeared to be the consequence of hasty searches to find substitutes for the speakers listed in the program: scholars whose work was only remotely related seemed to have been pressed into service on short notice. Though the New Woman program proceeded as listed, substitutes appeared to discuss the New Politics and the New Art. In some cases, the substitutes added immeasurably to the value of the conference. Milton Brown (Professor of Art History, CUNY), an expert on the famous Armory Show of 1913, presented slides of many works which were actually displayed at that epochal event; but in general the art history program took up far too much time in proportion to its direct contribution. Some art historians at least seem to be "prisoners" of their slide carrousel.

Another important substitution was the presentation by Robert Sari& (Professor of Theatre History, University of California, Davis) who pinch hit for Theodore Mann. Sarls, originally scheduled to lead after-the-play discussions of the two evenings' performances, presented a superb informal account of the forces in American theatre history which led to the formation of the Provincetowners. His cogent and entertaining "lecture" on the morning of the first full day placed theatre history at the center of the conference in a way which would probably not have occurred otherwise. Unfortunately, he was then relieved of his duties as after-the-play discussion moderator. His commitment to the Provincetowners would probably have generated more useful discussion at the evenings' end but, as it turned out, such discussion took place only on the second evening, after the less interesting of the two bills. The first night's talk was cancelled due to the lateness of the hour.

For the student of American drama generally and of Eugene O'Neill in particular, the opportunity to see professional productions of four rarely produced plays was the most valuable part of the conference. Only by seeing these plays in performance can one really begin to understand the excitement which the Provincetowners must have felt on that famous evening when they first heard "Bound East for Cardiff." Of the four plays presented in 1915, only one, Neith Boyce's "Constancy," approaches the level of realistic characterization to be found in even the weakest of O'Neill's "apprentice" plays. Boyce's play should probably be much better known than it is because of its feminist slant and its solid characterizations and genuine drama. The other three plays tend to be ineffectively realized concretizations of a single idea; and one of them, "Contemporaries," is based on a gimmick which only an undergraduate theme writer would find clever. Conceptually, these three plays are on a par with O'Neill's "A Wife for a Life" and "The Movie Man." Consequently, it is little wonder that O'Neill's arrival in Provincetown turned out to be the watershed it was; only after "Cardiff" was produced in the summer of 1918 did the Provincetowners take steps to organize formally.

Given this fact, the question arises, what would the Provincetown Players have become without Eugene O'Neill? Would they have had the same impact on the New York theatre scene without him? Would their enterprise have lasted as long as it did without a productive playwright of O'Neill's genius? The answers may be no. Only time will tell whether the only other playwright of stature to come out of the Provincetown experiment, Susan Glaspell, has been unfairly dismissed from the canon of American drama. But whatever that verdict, it is not clear that she alone would have been able to sustain the Provincetowners' dedication to a Playwright's. Theatre. The larger question, then, is whether there would ever have been a conference on the Provincetown "moment," funded by the NEH, if there had not been a Eugene O'Neill. In that context, O'Neill and his work were conspicuous by their absence. In fact, the conference almost seemed to take an anti-O'Neill turn, as if he had somehow unfairly eclipsed the intrinsic worth of all the other Provincetowners. This sense was enhanced by the appearance of Linda Ben-Zvi (Professor of English, Colorado State University) as a co-moderator (with Jackson Bryer, Professor of English, University of Maryland, College Park) of the one post-performance discussion. Ben-Zvi, a well-known champion of Glaspell's reputation, seemed to feel obliged to denigrate O'Neill's early work in order to enhance Glaspell's stature--an unfortunate and unnecessary turn of events. C. W. E. Bigsby (University of East Anglia) made clear once again why he is one of the foremost commentators on modern American drama. His after-dinner paper on Glaspell centered on a superb "feminist" reading of "Trifles." The only program devoted specifically to O'Neill was a presentation, following the closing brunch, by Barbara Gelb, who presented a well-told story of O'Neill's life before coming to Provincetown. However, since she did not attend the entire conference, she was unable to bring the several days' activities to a closing summation. Consequently, the conference, instead of ending with a sense of finality, congealed to a close, rather like the hollandaise sauce on the eggs Benedict.

For the student of O'Neill, then, the chief value of the Provincetown conference was the opportunity to "experience" the context in which "Bound East for Cardiff" first appeared and to learn about the wider cultural context out of which O'Neill's first plays emerged. For those who were unable to attend and who wish to have a good introduction to the cultural history of the era, two of the four prepared bibliographies for the panels recommended an excellent study, The End of American Innocence: The First Years of Our Own Time, 1912-1917, by Henry F. May (New York: Oxford UP, 1959). On the other hand, the opportunity to witness the four plays on two consecutive nights in a makeshift theatre in Provincetown, Massachusetts, may never again present itself. That experience was priceless, and justified the entire conference for this O'Neillian.

--Paul D. Voelker

(IN THIS ISSUE)

 

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