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Theater for Readers


BY Barbara Gelb
FROM The New York Times, November 6, 1988

EUGENE O'NEILL Complete Plays. Edited by Travis Bogard. Volume One: 1913-1920. 1,104 pp. Volume Two: 1920-1931. 1,092 pp. Volume Three: 1932-1943. 1,007 pp. New York: The Library of America.

While virtually all of Eugene O'Neill's plays have been published singly or in mini-collections - including quite a few plays that he disavowed in his lifetime - the wonder is that it has taken so long to collect an authoritative ''Complete Plays.''

O'Neill, as America's only playwright to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, was as interested in the publication of his plays as he was in their production. Certainly his elaborate and often poetic stage directions were aimed at the reader, and his plays sold very well in book form. ''Strange Interlude,'' published in 1928, had sold over 100,000 copies by 1931.

As he matured O'Neill grew less inclined to put up with the ''dreary ordeal of disillusionment and compromise called 'rehearsals.' '' And he was only half-joking when he said, ''I think I will wind up writing plays to be published - with 'no production allowed' in red letters on the first page.''

O'Neill fussed over the texts of his plays, but he was careless about their format. An earlier three-volume edition of his works, published by Random House in 1941, contained 29 plays - everything he had written to that date and wanted to preserve - but the plays followed no discernible order. Evidently O'Neill didn't think that mattered. One of those volumes begins with ''Strange Interlude'' and is confusingly followed by ''Desire Under the Elms,'' written three years earlier. The volume winds up - bafflingly - with the one-act monologue ''Before Breakfast,'' written in 1916.

I rave on like this because when I began doing research for a life of O'Neill in 1956, that earlier collection drove me crazy. What wouldn't I have given for the meticulous chronology and informative notes included in this handsome new three-volume set. It contains 50 plays, arranged in the order in which O'Neill wrote them, enabling the reader to follow his development from a groping, idealistic 25-year-old in 1913 through a 30-year writing career.

An important inclusion is the heretofore unpublished draft of ''More Stately Mansions,'' which was to have been part of a never-completed 11-play cycle. O'Neill clearly labeled it: ''Unfinished Work. This script to be destroyed in case of my death!'' The manuscript will be fascinating to scholars interested in learning how O'Neill labored over his playscripts.

A radically condensed version of ''Mansions'' was published in 1964, with the permission of O'Neill's widow, Carlotta. She did her husband a disservice in this instance, even as she did him an inestimable service in releasing - much earlier than O'Neill had specified - the intact and exultant ''Long Day's Journey Into Night.''

Travis Bogard, who selected the texts and wrote the crisp, lucid notes for these new volumes, gives us, where applicable, each play's original cast, director and producer. We learn that in the play O'Neill tried out in 1920 as ''Chris Christophersen,'' the rising ingenue Lynn Fontanne portrayed Anna Christophersen; when the play was rewritten as ''Anna Christie,'' Anna was portrayed by Pauline Lord. But Fontanne returned to O'Neill as Nina Leeds in ''Strange Interlude,'' and the role made her reputation.

In his notes Mr. Bogard also tells us that O'Neill hastily constructed an early one-act play, ''Where the Cross Is Made,'' because the Provincetown Players did not like another play he had offered. O'Neill justified this rare instance of artistic compromise in a letter to George Jean Nathan: ''I merely took the last act situation [ of the as-yet-unfinished long play 'Gold' ] and jammed it into the one-act form because I wanted to be represented on the Provincetown Players' opening bill.''

The three volumes also provide 22 pages of biographical notes, tracing the years of turmoil and ever-worsening health that marked O'Neill's working life. One of the saddest of these notes refers to the year 1951, two years before O'Neill's death, when severe illness had long since made it impossible for him to write: ''Visited by Russel Crouse, his only friend still on good terms with Carlotta. Reads mysteries, listens to baseball games on the radio, and takes increasing amounts of sedatives.''

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