REVIEWS OF BOOKS AND PRODUCTIONS
1. THOMAS B. GILMORE, EQUIVOCAL SPIRITS: ALCOHOLISM AND DRINKING IN TWENTIETH-CENTURY LITERATURE. Chapel The University of North Carolina Press, 1987. 226p0. $22.50 cloth/$9.95 paper. ISBN 0-8078-1726-0 (cloth), 0-8078-4174-9 (paper).
Alcoholics Anonymous prescribes twelve "steps," or principles, to lead an individual from alcoholic drinking to sobriety and mental tranquility. The twelfth step urges the individual to share the benefits of his personal healing with others: "Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs." In Equivocal Spirits: Alcoholism and Drinking in Twentieth-Century Literature, Thomas B. Gilmore attempts to fulfill the twelfth step for himself by applying the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous to literary analysis. While this first book-length study of drinking in modern literature is well-written and often demonstrates a richly suggestive interplay between "scientific knowledge" about alcoholism and literature, the chapter. on O'Neill, called "The Iceman Cometh and the Anatomy of Alcoholism," is disappointing. While the inclusion of O'Neill in Gilmore's study correctly suggests the importance of drinking and alcoholism in O'Neill's drama, Gilmore's use of the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous in this particular analysis takes his twelfth step too far.
In this chapter, Professor Gilmore develops three major points about the play: (1) that Hickey's "practices, ideas, and achievements" constitute a "parody or travesty of genuine adherence to AA principles and practices"; (2) that Harry and his friends in the bar are drunks, not alcoholics; and (3) that Hickey and Larry are the only alcoholics in the play, "but for different reasons this designation must be tentative for both."
The main problem with Professor Gilmore's analysis is buried in a footnote to this chapter, in which he admits that there is no evidence that O'Neill knew anything about AA or its principles. Given this admission, it seems arbitrary at best to say that because Hickey does not adhere to AA principles, he is therefore parodying them. How can a character parody something that his creator knows nothing about? Hickey's behavior is confusing, mysterious, contradictory, and psychologically fascinating; and knowledge of the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous adds nothing to our understanding of his behavior. Gilmore claims that the viewer who is aware of AA principles will have "good reasons to doubt [Hickey's] assertions of a happy, peaceful sobriety long before his terrible self-disclosures discredit them"; but O'Neill has given the attentive viewer sufficient reasons to doubt Hickey's assertions without imposing on the play concepts of which the characters and the dramatist would be unaware.
One of Hickey's gravest violations of AA principles, according to Gilmore, is that he tries to impose his ideas on people who do not want to accept them; he tries to help change people who do not want to change. This error Gilmore attributes to Hickey's failure to understand that the others are drunks and not alcoholics, the difference supposedly being that an alcoholic experiences a conflict between his drunken conduct and the "values or standards to which he still maintains an allegiance," while a drunk lacks "values or conscience" and feels "no guilt or shame." One of the keys to the success of Iceman in performance is the development of the inner life of the characters who inhabit Harry Hope's saloon, who are on stage through much of the play. By denying them guilt and shame, Gilmore denies then a great part of their potential richness. There is more to most of these characters than Gilmore's analysis gives them credit for; and Gilmore himself may be hedging here, since his distinction stipulates that drunks feel no guilt or shame, and he acknowledges that the denizens of Harry Hope's feel "little" guilt or shame.
Gilmore sees these characters as "disreputable if not positively hostile to or potentially destructive of society." He also suggests that their "former" pursuits, which he calls "shady occupations"--gambling, collecting graft--"cannot be said to display values in any generally accepted sense." Here, in judging these characters negatively on the basis of his own traditional value system, Gilmore wrongly denies them the "complex humanity" that he himself claims literature uniquely provides, and more important, that O'Neill particularly imbued them with. In his denial of the depth of these characters, Gilmore misses one of O'Neill's paramount accomplishments in Iceman: O'Neill has endowed these characters on the periphery of our society with a common humanity and, in effect, demands that (in the words of another American dramatist) attention be paid to such individuals, regardless of their failure to display values in the "generally accepted sense."
Finally, Professor Gilmore analyzes the internal conflicts within the two "alcoholic" characters in the play, Hickey and Larry. While making some interesting, if not especially new, observations about Hickey's divided self, essentially from a Freudian perspective (id vs. superego), Gilmore questions whether Hickey's self "has sufficient identity or coherence to be described as alcoholic." He explains that the first step toward ending alcoholic drinking, according to AA, is for the drinker to accept that he is an alcoholic, and then observes that "Hickey's personality is so badly divided that this unitary designation may not be feasible"; Hickey is, according to Gilmore, "an anomaly, half a drunk and half an alcoholic."
The question is, what does it matter to our understanding of Hickey whether he is a drunk, and alcoholic, or an anomaly? This seems to be an attempt to explain an apparent contradiction in Gilmore's analysis. On the one hand, the alcoholic must experience conflict between his drunkenness and his values; but if this conflict becomes too internally divisive, the self lacks integration, and therefore, the person can no longer be considered an alcoholic. The problem here may lie in Gilmore's hidden agenda, which is to practice AA principles--in this case to explain why Hickey's solution to his drinking problem is insufficient. Hickey stops drinking and achieves peace, but not the Peace AA promises. Hickey's is the peace of death, which is unacceptable to Gilmore and AA.
Similarly, the conflict in Larry's soul is apparent, and to say that he is "an alcoholic who would rather be drunk" does not add appreciably to our understanding of him. That Larry is torn between cynicism/nihilism and pity/compassion is certainly true, as is the observation that during the course of the play he is forced to acknowledge the conflict (previously having denied the pity). Again, though, it seems irrelevant to suggest that Larry's changes are effected by his use (unknown to him) of AA principles. Larry does confront himself and his pipe dreams more honestly than the others, and he does remain apart from them at the end of the play, refusing to participate in the celebratory carousing that brings the curtain down. But are we to conclude that Larry, the alcoholic, has permanently given up drinking because he has adhered to AA principles and taken a "moral inventory" of his life?
Once again, there are apparent contradictions here. According to Gilmore, it seems that Larry "will no longer seek the refuge of drink to escape the pain of a self with irreconcilable dualities of vision." If Hickey's "irreconcilable dualities" disqualify him from being classified an alcoholic, why does Larry's lack of self-integration not disqualify him from this classification? The answer seems to be that Gilmore views Larry as stronger than Hickey because, while Hickey was driven to "murderous hatred" by the tension of his inner conflict, Larry supposedly has found a way to live with the tension without drinking. While Gilmore claims that Larry has gone through a "searching and honest self-evaluation," he admits that it does not lead to the "subsequent happiness promised by AA." Indeed, as Gilmore acknowledges, it leads to a gloomy and genuine longing for death. It is not clear, then, why it is useful to see Larry's behavior in terms of AA principles, if they do not lead him to AA's goal. Even the suggestion that Larry has given up drinking at the end of the play is unconvincing. As Gilmore himself implies, drinking never seems as important to Larry as to the others; and while he does remain apart from the others at the end, it is not necessarily the drinking that he rejects. There is a difference between intoxication and pipe dreams: Larry rejects the pipe dreams, but tomorrow he may still have another drink.
The final paragraph of Gilmore's chapter on Iceman is perhaps the most suggestive of all:
This is one of the only references in the chapter to O'Neill's life and to his own history of alcoholism, and it is perhaps Gilmore's most interesting conclusion. Two of his other chapters, on Fitzgerald and Berryman, are concerned more with the interplay between biography and literature. In the case of Berryman, there is evidence that the poet was familiar with Alcoholics Anonymous and its principles, and so the reflection of that in the poetry is much more interesting than the rather idle and pointless speculation on their hypothetical relevance to O'Neill's works. This final paragraph in the O'Neill chapter, however, makes one wish that Gilmore had taken a fuller biographical approach here too.
In neither of the chapters on Berryman and Fitzgerald does Gilmore limit his analysis to a single work, nor should he have done so in the case of O'Neill. For even though, as he says, Iceman is "thoroughly steeped in alcohol," so too are Lone Day's Journey Into Night, A Moon for the Misbegotten, and A Touch of the Poet; and many of the earlier works, including The Great God Brown, Desire Under the Elms, and Ah, Wilderness!, certainly incorporate drinking and alcoholism in interesting ways. Furthermore, while Professor Gilmore includes at least one representative work from each of the main modern literary genres, his study ignores their generic differences. That is, he never considers, for example, why dramatic form lends itself to a certain kind of depiction of alcoholism, as opposed to its depiction in fiction or poetry. Drinking and alcoholism are more significant in O'Neill's life and dramaturgy than Gilmore's limited study suggests.
Too much of Gilmore's book is like the chapter on O'Neill in that it tries too hard to convince us that the liabilities of drinking outweigh the benefits. He describes a "developing 'postmodern' attitude toward alcohol":
Ultimately, he suggests that no creative work can be worth the personal consequences of alcoholic drinking. This may be a valid insight into the lives of alcoholic writers, but since it devalues and denigrates, a priori, the work of writers who do drink, it is objectionable as a critical approach to literature.
O'Neill once stated that "altogether too much damned nonsense has been written about the dissipation of artists," but let us not go to the other extreme and make too little of their dissipation.
--Steven F. Bloom
2. NANCY L. ROBERTS AND ARTHUR W. ROBERTS, "AS EVER, GENE": THE LETTERS OF EUGENE O'NEILL TO GEORGE JEAN NATHAN. London and Toronto: Associated University Presses (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press), 1987. 248 pp. $35.00, cloth. ISBN 0-8386-3303-X.
The release to scholars of O'Neill's personal papers at Yale, prompting such important studies as Virginia Floyd's Eugene O'Neill at Work (Ungar 1981), has given us a remarkably detailed and closely personal look at the processes by which O'Neill functioned in the creation of his best--and worst--efforts. The man and the artist emerge in a fashion not entirely evident even in the outstanding biographical accounts of Louis Sheaffer or the Gelbs. But it has been the gradual appearance of O'Neill's letters, starting with the 30-year (1920-1951) correspondence between the playwright and Kenneth Macgowan in "The Theatre We Worked For" (Yale 1982), compiled so admirably by Jackson R. Bryer and Travis Bogard, which has provided us with an increasingly clear picture of the personal side of the artist throughout his productive lifetime, an aspect which the very private O'Neill zealously guarded from any public scrutiny. Being able to follow the nuances of the artist's feelings toward personal friends, professional acquaintances, the critics, and, to some degree, the public throughout his career is fascinating in itself. But there is in addition the awareness we gain of domestic ups and downs, and of so many of the physical and eventually totally debilitating afflictions that plagued him.
There will be much more in the eagerly anticipated second volume from the Bryer-Bogard team, but in the interim we have available from Nancy Roberts of the University of Minnesota and her father, Arthur, SUNY College at Morrisville, this fine collection of O'Neill's letters to George Jean Nathan, written between 1919 and 1949. They have been made available through the generous cooperation of Julie Haydon Nathan, and once more provide a side of the playwright which brings an increasingly rounded picture of man and artist. Unfortunately, O'Neill did not retain Nathan's letters to him, so that the volume is, perforce, one-sided. Fortunately, however, such loss does not detract in any way from the interest developed in reading this one-way correspondence.
One of the most notable contrasts between these and the Macgowan letters is the relationship between the correspondents. Both Macgowan and Nathan remained life-long friends and were among the very narrow circle approved and welcomed by Carlotta O'Neill, who herself often engaged in writing letters or postscripts on her own. But Macgowan from the start was an intimate professional associate, a man in and of the theatre as co-worker and producer; while Nathan remained the sharp-tongued journalist and critic whose acerbic wit and intolerance of artistic sham and pretense made his columns and his many books so entertaining and, from time to time, infuriating to read. Accordingly, the latter relationship began quite formally on a somewhat distant professional basis ("My dear Mr. Nathan ... Very sincerely yours, Eugene O'Neill"), during which time O'Neill continually sought and received comments and criticisms; developing finally after ten years into a genuine close friendship ("Dear George ... As ever, Gene"), with Nathan visiting the O'Neills as house guest and both sharing knowledge of each other's lives on a sometimes deeply personal basis.
Thus, in reading the Nathan letters, we see things in slightly different perspective. While O'Neill does not ask Nathan to become involved in some matters, in the way he requested Macgowan to be his John Alden with Carlotta during their initial clandestine affair, he does talk frankly and in some detail about his progress with his work, gaining, apparently (lacking the Nathan letters we must interpolate), straightforward critical comments on the manuscripts he forwarded, sometimes long before production. Often disagreement is sharp; O'Neill is sure that Nathan simply can't understand, as in the case of Days Without End, because of Nathan's atheism. (Nathan was proven quite right in the ultimate evaluation of this play as one of O'Neill's least successful efforts.) But the exchange remains friendly, even when Nathan in print lets fire his best broadsides against the playwright.
Underneath all, however, remains O'Neill's obvious respect for and ultimate trust in Nathan's judgment. The critic was a repeatedly strong advocate of the developing O'Neill, and supported him in cases where others could not go along. Nathan was one of the few who saw The Iceman Cometh as a major, important play, despite its poor initial reception, and, again, he was completely vindicated. It is clear that Nathan's continuing championing of O'Neill, despite the terrible lapses which Nathan attacked, willy-nilly, was a strong force in aiding the playwright in his developing artistic and critical accomplishments.
The volume is generally well presented in an attractive format, printing the letters chronologically with only minor emendations such as silent spelling and punctuation corrections. The four parts--"The Protégé and the Mentor," "Colleagues," "The Nobel," and "The Masterworks"--are appropriately grouped, each preceded by an Introductory Essay orienting the reader to the conditions under which the correspondence was written. They are fortunately brief, but to the knowledgeable O'Neill scholar or even dilettante they provide little of critical significance. Some letters are headed by "Prefatory Remarks" to help explain certain of the contents, although there are superfluous observations such as noting that "This is one of the longest letters O'Neill ever wrote to Nathan," or that at a certain point Carlotta began to add notes of her own--all obvious from the texts themselves. The most serious objection might be to a kind of pedantic overkill: the authors' insistence on foot-noting a certain name or other reference every single time it occurs, even in adjacent letters. This may assist the casual browser, but to all intents and purposes, once is enough.
There are many fine photographs of both O'Neill and Nathan, a few with H. L. Mencken as well, many of which have not been widely published, if at all, and a facsimile or two of the original letters in O'Neill's tiny script. There is a very good index.
All in all, an excellent volume. Tracing the young writer's deference to the critical mentor which Nathan represented through the struggles with each play, so many of which, bad or good, O'Neill felt were his "best" up to now; watching the writer's increased confidence, his willingness to argue, yet his continual appreciation of Nathan's blunt comments; the thanks for recognition in many of Nathan's essays in periodicals and books; the sharing of developing ideas, such as his "sneak preview" of Iceman, Long Day's Journey, and others, specifically named but often requesting oaths of secrecy (he did not ever reveal that Journey was about his own family); and the long, long decline in the health and stamina of the later ailing artist--all of these provide a truly fascinating picture. How sad to see the growing frustrations at the increasing inability to write. O'Neill calls his affliction Parkinson's, although it was apparently a similar but unrelated disease. All this while the artist's mind is so full of great, unaccomplishable projects, including the monumental "cycle" which O'Neill tackles, abandons, and tackles again. The always renewed enthusiasm for each new home, then the ultimate disillusion with each and the ensuing restless move elsewhere, and the continual search for respite as the world seems to explode outside, and his own world collapses in his decreased capacities: all come forth, starkly and movingly, in this most valuable collection.
--Jordan Y. Miller
3. MARY C. HENDERSON, THEATER IN AMERICA. New York: Abrams, 1986. 328 pp. $45.00, cloth. ISBN 0-8109-1084-5.
It is both appropriate and pleasing that Mary C. Henderson's history of the American theatre devotes considerable attention to Eugene O'Neill. In the section on playwrights, several paragraphs present her opinion that "for most of the theater-conscious public throughout the world, O'Neill's name is synonymous with American theater." The large number of production photographs, posters, portraits, and sketches related to O'Neill and his work are also very welcome. Some are familiar, but some are not, and several impressive illustrations in color (such as a two-page spread of a scene from Long Day's Journey Into Night, and Robert Edmond Jones' scene design for Mourning Becomes Electra) have usually been reproduced in black and white in previous books.
The organization of the volume is by categories such as "Producers," "Designers," and "Architects," so references to O'Neill are spread throughout the book. In the section on playwrights there is a five-page summary of his work from Beyond the Horizon to Long Day's Journey Into Night. The focus of attention is on the latter play, while a number of other major works are barely mentioned. For example, what many readers consider O'Neill's finest play, The Iceman Cometh, rates only a few references in the text and is dismissed with one sentence: "In 1948 O'Neill came out of retirement to attend the rehearsals of The Iceman Cometh, which was not the critical and popular success he hoped it would be." Some of the writing about O'Neill is melodramatic ("Only after an enforced stay of a few months at a sanatorium, which cleansed not only his tubercular lungs but his soul. did O'Neill decide that writing for the theater might be his salvation"), and for most O'Neill scholars there is little in the text which will be new.
But of course the book is not about O'Neill, but about its subtitle--"200 years of plays, players, and productions." The author begins with the work of 18th century producer John Hodgkinson and concludes with a tribute to Joseph Papp and a two-page picture of the New York Shakespeare Festival's Delacorte Theater in Central Park. In between are directors, choreographers, actors, playwrights, producers, designers, and architects whose work is presented in more than 350 illustrations. The design of the book is excellent and the illustrations provide interest throughout. The section titled "Beyond Broadway" describes many theatre companies outside the Broadway realm. Of special interest is a section on the Provincetown Players and O'Neill's work with them. There is a useful chronology moving from 1750 to 1980, and a very complete bibliography.
4. GEORGE E. WELLWARTH, MODERN DRAMA AND THE DEATH OF GOD. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1986. 177 pp. $25.75, cloth. ISBN 0-299-19850-3.
In an article earlier in this issue, Paul Voelker notes that Eugene O'Neill was "conspicuous by his absence" from a Provincetown conference last summer. The same phrase comes to mind when a book with a title like this one makes not even the tiniest passing reference to O'Neill. One would expect the playwright who described "the sickness of today" as "the death of an old God and the failure of science and materialism to give any satisfying new one for the surviving primitive religious instinct to find a meaning for life in, and to comfort its fears of death with," to be accorded a place of prominence in such a study. Surely Dynamo alone, whatever its failings as art, justifies its author's inclusion. It cannot be simply a result of aversion, since twelve pages are devoted to Strindberg, for whom Professor Wellwarth definitely carries no torch: "the whole corpus of his work might be entitled The Passion and Apotheosis of August Strindberg as Directed by Himself" (21)1 One hopes that the omission was simply a result of spatial limitations, and that a second, expanded edition of the study will fill that lamentable lacuna. (Devotees of Chekhov, Gorki, Cocteau and Giraudoux--playwrights whose absence is at least acknowledged by the author--can speak for themselves.) Still, lacunae notwithstanding, Modern Drama and the Death of God is a study of sufficient importance to merit brief mention even in this journal. (O'Neillians are not grudge bearers!)
It is Professor Wellwarth's thesis that the Copernican and French revolutions undermined irrevocably the traditional bases, respectively, of religion and society; that modern drama constitutes an "extended meditation" on the "existential rootlessness" that resulted (3); and that that meditation follows a dialectical pattern which is traced in the book's three parts-- "Fragmentation," "Analysis," and "Synthesis." The fragmentationalists, confronting "the meaninglessness and chaos of reality," either lamented what they saw and retreated into the self (Strindberg's "pure subjectivism" and Pirandello's "subjective relativism") or celebrated it and confronted the welter head-on (e.g., Jarry, who "raised "artistic hooliganism to the status of a philosophy" ). Among Strindberg's and Jarry's successors are the expressionists, the surrealists, the Dadaists, Artaud, Camus and Beckett. The analytic antithesis to the retreat or celebration of the fragmentationalists comprised "a faith in the ability of the human being to better himself by his own efforts and to achieve a sense of his own integrity from within himself" (130). Ibsen, who "reached out and tried to transform the world" (75), was the father of this optimistic alternative, all of whose adherents (except Sartre) tended, in their later years, to discard the possibility of "human self-responsibility" (76). In Ibsen's case, the result was the discouragement inherent in the last plays, which show the "emotional paralysis" (95) attendant on "the failure of existential self-realization" (86). In the case of his major successors, Shaw and Brecht, the reaction was a movement toward what Professor Wellwarth calls "magical drama," which posits a source of melioration external to the individual--the former's "Life Force," and the latters's Communism. The third phase, synthetic drama, which is still in its infancy but represents "the trend of the future" (161), completes a circle by replacing the old, supernatural God with a new, cybernetic one, in drama that "concerns itself with the metamorphosis of man into machine" (161). Seen first in Buchner's Woyzeck, the synthetic drama is dominant in the work of such Spanish and Catalan playwrights as Manuel de Pedrolo, Jose Ruibal and Josep Benet i Jornet. "Once more man seeks to divorce himself from moral responsibility" (161), and gets the stage mirror he deserves--a theatrical world of gurus and automata.
This hasty outline does little justice to the intricacy of Professor Wellwarth's dense, perceptive, and ultimately troubling argument, which is studded with thoughtful and thought-provoking analyses of individual plays--especially the major works of Pirandello, Ibsen and Brecht. One can only hope that, at some future time, Eugene O'Neill will take his rightful place in their number. And, more importantly, one can also hope that Professor Wellwarth's cogent admonitions will help to lead us away from the dystopian cul-de-sac that synthetic drama drearily prophesies.
-- Frederick C. Wilkins
5. A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN, directed by Kenneth Kelleher. Sacramento (CA) Theatre Company, October 27 - November 21, 1987.
Given that a set is not just a picture for audience delectation but also functions California's capital city, like many state capitals, is something less than a cultural mecca. For some years, however, it has had a lively though struggling professional theatre in the Sacramento Theatre Company. In observance of the centennial of O'Neill's birth, the STC mounted a production of A Moon for the Misbegotten that was more than a mere nod in the direction of imminent anniversaries or literary heritage. The production was strong theatre, and did justice to a central part of America's dramatic inheritance.
to create the necessary mood for the performers, Jerry Reynolds' design served both viewer and actor well. Although the STC's space is modest, Reynolds managed a farmhouse that seemed real without overwhelming the. stage. While small, as a tenant house would be, it didn't demand herculean effort to imagine people actually living there. The foliage, the stone fence, the pesky boulders: all were realistic, and the litter strewn about seemed to fit a family that probably didn't keep the neatest farm in the township.
The characters' accents were, for the most part, quite convincing. The Hogans all had a lovely Irish lilt to their voices; James Tyrone's speeches were delivered with a touch of Broadway sarcasm; and T. Stedman Harder was very, very proper.
At first blush, Ingrid Gerstmann seemed a remarkable Josie. Her voice was strong, the accent pleasing, the movements true to her character. She was blustery, yet ever soft; aggressive, but not to the point of being shrewish. She could be motherly toward Mike, yet a good and gentle daughter to Phil--until she needed to put him in his place. But her character didn't seem to grow, and before long a numbing sameness took over, and the promise of the opening scene went unfulfilled.
Jack Wellington Cantwell was a great Phil Hogan--charming, scheming, more than able to hold his own against a Standard Oil millionaire, even if Josie could best him every time. Even his drunken scenes he played well, and never just for laughs. Make-up failed him, however, for with hardly a trace of grey he appeared more Josie's age than her father's. A touch of talc could have gone a long way toward making him appear the right age.
In spite of appropriate Broadway twang, Randall King failed to turn in a satisfying portrayal of Jim Tyrone. Although his accent was what one might expect from Broadway, his lack of resonance was not what one would expect on the stage. His delivery was too much recitation, as if in his desire to be sarcastic and worldly he avoided any expression of emotion.
T. Stedman Harder (played by David DiFrancesco) was stunned by the coarse country folk. Although he managed to deliver the message he brought, it was at great cost to his personal dignity in the face of these uncouth farmers. The contrasts between country gentleman and peasantry, and their skillful manipulation of His Lordship, made the scene a comic highlight of the production.
Director Kenneth Kelleher allowed no really weak moments in the performance. Even in those quiet scenes between Josie and Tyrone, the story moved well, and its deep emotional impact was not lost after all. Maurice Vercoutere's lighting design created time and mood without ever calling attention to itself, as did Michael Chapman's costumes. STC's production of Misbegotten provided the Sacramento area with a fine introduction to the anniversary year.
-- Eugene K. Hanson
6. A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN, directed by David Head. Theatrical Outfit, Atlanta, Georgia, March 11 - April 12, 1987. Set design by Jeroy Hannah, lighting design by Liz Lee, and costume design by Chris Cook.
Theatrical Outfit is a professional, non-profit group supported in its tenth year by the National Endowment for the Arts, city and county government and sponsored by Citicorp - Atlanta. Having succeeded with Desire Under the Elms two seasons ago, they turned this year to Moon for twenty-eight performances of an interpretation hailed unanimously by Atlanta's three major drama critics--and justifiably so--but a far cry from what O'Neill had conceived or intended.
Theatrical Outfit adapted the resources provided by a former dimestore and forwent an elevated stage or proscenium. Since the clapboard Hogan house stood several feet above the floor on blocks, performers were visible in the interior rooms, and the final audience rows were also elevated.
O'Neill's stage directions describe a two-story house with a sitting room/living room and a one-story, one-room addition comprising Josie's bedroom "tacked on at right." A path therefrom leads through a field to woods on the right and joins a dirt road at the left. In this production a number of reasons dictated alterations of O'Neill's directions. The constraints of space defined an acting area extending only about five feet from the steps of the house to the first row of the audience. The house was one-story; anything else would have towered far above the spectators. There was no available space for the suggestion of field, woods, path, or road. Josie's bedroom was left-front, and a kitchen with a wooden table and chairs took the place of the sitting room/living room at right-rear--a reversal of O'Neill's arrangement. Since Josie's bedroom was closest to the audience, the pale full moon that looked three quarters over the wall was most prominent. Entry from the road was effected at right-front through the ranks of the audience towards the kitchen rather than from the left-rear, behind the house, as O'Neill called for.
Jamie Tyrone (David Milford) was bitter and cynical as well as witty, debonair, and smooth as the city slicker in vested suit and spats, demonstrating what O'Neill prescribes as a "style set by well-groomed Broadway gamblers who would like to be mistaken for Wall Street brokers." However, he lost his claim to the central focus of the drama--primarily because of the editing of O'Neill's text.
Jose Hogan (Suzi Bass), who assumed the central stage presence, was exceptional: husky, vital, folksy. Reddish brown hair, like her brother Mike (Mike McGehee), and convincing Irish pronunciation were enhanced in fact by what the author's stage directions metaphorically describe as a "map of Ireland stamped on her face."
Although Phil Hogan (Buck Newman) inclined, in the first act, towards a parody of a New England hillbilly, O'Neill's wily schemer emerged more convincingly thereafter. Hilarious were the moments when he shook his head, and indeed his whole body, to clear his (perhaps) intoxicated mind.
A reviewer for the Atlanta Constitution referred to the players as "an exceptionally strong group with impressive rapport." This was nowhere more clearly demonstrated than in the altercation with T. Stedman Harder (David de Vries) over the polluted ice pond. Harder, representing haughty, effete propriety in jodhpurs, white silk shirt, gloves, black derby and cigarette holder, was the object of ridicule in an amusing tug of war with his riding crop. Bass, Newman and de Vries in their dressing rooms earlier had played around with a line from an imagined B film: "You, I ought to pound you!" Bass injected this line as Josie and caused Newman to temporarily lose his role, but de Vries held his character as Harder.
In this production the third and fourth acts were conflated with considerable deletion to make for a playing time of just under two hours--a period which was still excessively long for some reviewers! Lost was the Memorable line when Jamie begins to feel the first effects of alcohol: "The Brooklyn boys are talking again." Of more significance was the deletion of the image of the Pieta and Josie's words: "A virgin who bears a dead child in the night, and the dawn finds her still a virgin. If that isn't a miracle, what is?" Indeed, the tormented drive of Jamie O'Neill towards alcoholic self-destruction is represented in the agony and desire to avenge himself upon his dead mother; but his hatred of his father and the sense of his own loneliness were eliminated in a production more valuable as an acting tour de force than as an embodiment of O'Neill's tragicomic vision.
-- Ward B. Lewis
7. AH, WILDERNESS!, directed by Karen Barton. Presented by the Winchester (MA) Unitarian Players, May 1-9, 1987.
The Winchester Players: production of Ah, Wilderness! was one that compensated for technical limitations by means of a solid ensemble performance. In fact, two performances--by Eric Mortenson as Richard Miller and Dirck Stryker as Uncle Sid--raised the production well above community theatre standards. In O'Neillian parlance circa 1906, their performances were "the goods."
Mortenson was not only the right age for the role; he also brought off the tricky task of portraying a juvenile who was genuinely jejune, and managed to endow Richard's blush of youth with a foundation of pseudo-sophistication--and all of this despite the fact that his poetic recitations had been severely trimmed by the director. Mortenson's self-conscious bombast featured just the right amount of hesitancy for an adolescent who is as "restless, apprehensive, defiant, shy, and dreamy" as O'Neill describes him. He escaped the mawkishness that can endanger the penultimate. scene, and he remained engaging and likable throughout. In his best scene, the barroom encounter with Belle, he delivered his recitations (here mercifully untrimmed) with touching fervor and earnestness, and his transparent escape from Belle's advances--"I've sworn off"--brought down the house.
Dirck Stryker as Sid underscored the loneliness and isolation inherent in the character's alcoholism. This Sid seemed to be his own best audience; not that he laughed too hard or strained the humor out of his own jokes, but he seemed to be part of--or to want to be part of--a scene being played out elsewhere. In the sense of "otherness" he brought to the role, the aura of being "among the Millers but not of them," Stryker's Sid evoked echoes of another, later O'Neillian raconteur, Erie Smith. In allowing the "secret sorrow" that "oppresses" Sid to come to the fore, Stryker's performance contributed mightily to a production that, despite its deletions, uncovered many of the "vitriolic" qualities that Albert Bermel has discerned in the play.
Ellen Knight's Lily had oppressions of her own that interestingly complemented Sid's. She seemed too resigned to her fate to really care whether her beau reformed or not--too content to grasp at any straws of happiness that Sid's intermittent sobriety might offer.
Barton's success at evoking a bittersweet tone almost made up for her injudicious cutting of the text. Norah's role was virtually eliminated, as was much of the poetry, and Nat and Sid's interchanges were extremely abridged. And yet Arthur's musical recital was expanded to include "After the Ball." Peter Maust had a fine voice, but otherwise the addendum seemed superfluous. The blocking was generally effective on a set that, despite the absence of the prescribed bookcases, was too cluttered to permit much ease of movement. The only major gaffe occurred in the Fourth of July dinner scene, which Barton altered by placing Sid at the end of the table with Lily to his right, upstage, where she was completely hidden from most of the audience by Tommy, who was seated directly across from her. This prevented many from seeing any of Lily's important reactions to Sid's drunken antics.
The costumes were nondescript, except for the "paraphernalia of motoring" that O'Neill prescribed; and the lighting merits mention only because of what must have been a bizarre mistake. At play's end, when, according to O'Neill, "faint moonlight shines full in through the screen door," the audience was suddenly treated to a lunar spectacle more appropriate to a quotation of Richard's in the previous scene--about the dawn coming up like thunder out of China! But the production was a success and was warmly received by the capacity crowd--proof that O'Neill's magic can overcome technical deficiencies and even textual tamperings if the right actors are engaged.
--Thomas F. Connolly
8. ANNA CHRISTIE, directed by Cigdem Onat. Presented by the Ohio University Players at the Monomoy Theatre, Chatham, MA, August 4-8, 1987.
This splendidly mounted production of Anna Christie aroused questions of irony. No one can be either surprised or outraged when an audience titters at Chris Christopherson's umpteenth imprecation of "dat ole davil sea"; but how is one to react when a serious and well-intentioned production arouses titters throughout? Questions about the audience's level of "seriousness" aside, one must ask whether Anna Christie is still a viable melodrama. The quasi-feminist reading that emerged from the Monomoy Theatre's production nearly succeeded in persuading one that the play is indeed that; yet the feminist injection flies in the face of the play's "happy" ending, de-emphasizes the alcoholism of the three principals, and turns the play into a real defeat for its title character. This was not so much a thesis production as one that was steered onto the ultimate shoals of anticlimax. Onat's reading, with its emphasis on Anna's strength, suggests that Anna Christie may not be "see-worthy" if it is allowed to hinge on Anna herself.
Jane Gabbert-Wilson's Anna seemed most concerned with finding a place where she "belonged," A la Yank and so many other O'Neill characters; yet there was a restlessness in her characterization that made her ultimate decision seem all the hollower. When she told her father to "can that stuff," one sensed the eruption of long harbored resentment; and when she shrank from his proffered embrace, one felt that Anna could not, and probably never would, fully escape from her prostitute past. Even with Mat Burke (Jeffrey Baumgartner) she was uncomfortable. Only when she was alone did she seem to be relaxed, be herself. Otherwise, Gabbert-Wilson etched a portrait of a woman who could never be at peace, who could never come to rest or "belong."
Hence the question of irony, similarly raised by the recent revival of Strange Interlude. While Anna has neither the psychological not the dramatic pretensions of the later work, the laughter that both plays evoke today almost impels the imposition of irony. Surely Onat's feminist underpinning was ironic, given the thumpingly anticlimactic conclusion to which it led. The fourth act was presented as the second scene of Act Three,, and both Anna and Mat were eclipsed in shadow as Chris (Matt DeCaro) intoned his final lines. Such an emphasis can be seen as a rejection of the ingenuous toast that Anna has offered just before: "We're all fixed now, ain't we? ... Here's to the sea, no matter what!" But Onat cannot be faulted if her attempt to usher Anna towards feminism was a failure. The problem lies in the text itself--its ambivalence, and its aggravating absence of satisfying closure. (Perhaps O'Neill should have heeded Chekhov's advice about onstage guns and retained Anna's suicide.)
One almost forgot these nagging problems when basking in the sets of Ron Gottschalk and the masterful lighting design by Timothy D. Latners. The first-act bar rested on a large platform that tilted upstage-left at nearly a forty-five degree angle and later served as the stern of the "Simeon Winthrop." Two broad, ingenious cutouts offered silhouettes of the New York and Boston waterfronts. Latners provided precisely the appropriate brightness for the moonlight in Act Two and achieved, in the final scene, one of the best lighting effect I have ever witnessed. Anna sat waiting for Chris's return, lit only by a hurricane lamp; and when he arrived and she turned up the lamp, the lights were brought up perfectly. This marvelous technical feat, which intelligently underscored Anna's isolation, was but one of a number of fine technical touches that masked, if only for a moment, the insoluble dilemmas that O'Neill has bequeathed us in Anna Christie.
--Thomas F. Connolly
9. MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA, directed by Edward Payson Call. Trinity Repertory Company, Providence, RI, September 25 - October 25, 1987.
That O'Neill was more than a little influenced by the theatre of his father was abundantly evident in this let 'er rip production of his New England Oresteia that more than one reviewer compared, not all unfavorably, to the likes of "Dallas" and "Dynasty." Purists, especially devotees of O'Neill's mid-career monoliths, might decry the ripping of the text itself to a three-and-a-half hour playing time (one of the trilogy's parts per act); but few, even of those who relished the melodramatic excess, would have wished it longer. Our disbelief had already been suspended to the point of exhaustion.
I have yet to see a complete Electra, but I would guess, on the basis of the two abridgements I have seen that only if O'Neill's text is presented as written and his directions are followed to the letter, can the true note of tragedy be struck and the towering passions of the protagonists be believed. And my impression, after the Trinity Rep production, is that a proscenium stage is an essential ingredient. Trinity's upstairs theatre, where the performance took place, had the actors surrounded on three sides by the audience. As a result, the façade of the Mannon mansion, with its four massive pillars, splendidly designed by Robert D. Soule on a raised platform at stage-rear, was present for both exterior and interior scenes--certainly a strain on believability, which was even more strained in the second act's shipboard scene. Brant stood by a set-piece at center-stage (the chantyman's role was deleted), near his cabin, which was entered through a trap door in the floor, causing all of the important indoor part of the scene to be not only invisible but almost completely inaudible as well. Otherwise, the production was quite successful and showed the exceptional skills of Trinity Rep's acting and production teams.
John F. Custer's lighting design and Paul Nelson's music (largely electronic, I inferred) did much to enhance the melodramatic goings-on. The two combined most effectively in the scene of Ezra Mannon's death. Lying on his bed upstage-left, and trying to rise to strangle Christine, Ezra finds that one of his arms is paralyzed. He beats at it with his other fist, as a bright spot etches his anguish and a sudden, sharp soprano dissonance fills the theatre--and then spot, shriek, and Ezra's life fade out together. The melodramatic combination was riveting--unquestionably the finest theatrical death scene I have ever witnessed. Earlier and later there were a few audience groans at the overwrought music, redolent of Elvira at the Wurlitzer; but at that moment the entire house was frozen in awed silence.
The acting company, skillfully directed by Edward Payson Call, lived up to its reputation as one of the best ensembles in the country. Barbara Orson, frequently cast in comic roles, was an astoundingly effective Christine--haughty, magisterial, acrid in her vengeance against Ezra, and pathetic in her clearly deep love for Adam Brant. Richard Kneeland won our sympathy for Ezra by showing all of the warmth and loneliness beneath the military façade. Richard Kavanaugh, though a bit broad of beam and tremulous of voice for a paramour, was effective as Adam Brant, especially in his proud defense of his mother. David PB Stevens brought just the right whining weakness to the role of Orin, and Jennifer Van Dyck succeeded completely in making believable the changes in Lavinia from stony spinster to sultry swaggerer to stoical self-immolator. Of the smaller roles, only that of Seth was below par. David C. Jones, a marvelous Harry Hope at Trinity a few years back, was winningly glint-eyed as a revealer and concealer of secrets, but he offered no evidence that he knew a thing about gardening, and his near-monotone delivery of "Shenandoah" was as un-nautical as it was unmusical.
All in all, Trinity Rep's Mourning Becomes Electra was memorable as melodrama but less than the tragedy that O'Neill intended and envisioned, and that might have been achieved if the same group had presented the full text on a proscenium stage. Or perhaps it can't be achieved. I'm still waiting to find out, but Trinity Rep provided a full-blooded appetite-whetter in the interim.
--Frederick C. Wilkins
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