Eugene O'Neill

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The Byrne-Touch

Reviewed by Andrea Grunert
 

 

A Touch of the Poet. Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54, New York, November 11, 2005-January 29, 2006.

It can be said that many Broadway productions, focusing on the actor rather than on mise en scène devices, turn easily into formulaic design. To some extent, this observation is true for Doug Hughes’ short-running revival of Eugene O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet shown at New York’s Studio 54 last Winter. At a glance, the show, directed by the Tony-awarded Hughes and casting Gabriel Byrne, an internationally famous actor who has the dual appeal of a stage and a film career, seem to follow the law of the market. One might ask: what could interest the reader in a directorial choice inspired by realism? We will try to answer the question by approaching mise en scène devices and by a closer reading of Byrne’s way of acting. Focusing on Byrne, our text will not only give another insight in his performances. It will also raise questions about the body on stage, on presence and on charisma.

A Touch of the Poet, written in 1942, is the first play in a planned but never achieved cycle on several generations of an Irish immigrant family in the 19th and 20th century in the United States of America. The action takes place in 1828 in a rundown tavern near Boston owned by Cornelius "Con" Melody (Gabriel Byrne), a former officer in the English army, hero of the battle of Talavera in 1809 (a battle of the Napoleonic wars in which the British troops under Wellington opposed the French army in Spain) and the unfortunate heir of an Irish estate. Santo Loquasto’s setting and period costumes follow O’Neill’s descriptions very closely, contributing to the play’s realistic touch. However, the apparent realism and the respect for the playwright’s indications are slightly altered giving room for subtle changes. The metaphoric dimension which defies realism creates empty spaces the audience is invited to fill with its own knowledge and emotions. Despite its largeness and emptiness, the gloomy room which occupies the whole stage creates a feeling of oppression. Nora, the protagonist’s wife, wears the outfit of a servant, the task her husband assigned her. In the second scene, Con, commemorating the battle of Talavera, has changed from his old but finely tailored clothes into the red uniform with the golden epaulets of his former regiment. The splendid uniform distinguishing the owner from the shabby environment dominated by brownish colours and from his Irish fellows and Nora in their brown and grey, worn-out garments directs the viewer automatically to him.

The mise en scène makes use of two metaphorical devices that immediately set the tone: an old-fashioned oval mirror, prominently positioned in the middle of the stage; the drone of uillieann pipes at the very beginning of the show. Both draw our attention to the play’s essential themes of Irishness and of false appearances. The brogue is another reminder of the Irish context the playwright refers to. Sara, Con’s daughter, talks in a thick brogue to challenge her father’s ambitious and idealised image of the well-educated young lady he projects onto her. It is, however, the choice of Irish actors with their accent, different from the one the American public knows from Hollywood productions, which confirms the producer’s interest in the genuine and the impact of Irishness. Byrne has started his career in Ireland and, working on both sides of the Atlantic ocean, continues to cross borders. Dearbhla Molloy (Nora) is an Irish actress and an associate artist of the Abbey National Theatre of Ireland who has also some working experience on American stages. Ciarán O’Reilly, playing the small role of Dan Roche, one of the Irish drunkards, is a co-founder of the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York. O’Neill’s text itself creates stereotypes of Irishness which have also been cherished in Hollywood productions as well as in Irish films having internalised view’s from outside. Molloy as Nora, the target of her husband’s disdain, is the quintessential Irish mother who endures poverty and humiliation but fights for the survival of her family far from home. Melody takes an attitude of superiority towards his peasant wife and his Irish fellows who invade his tavern. He displays an anti-Irish racism of which he is a victim himself when he becomes the target of the prejudices expressed by the white Anglo-Saxon establishment. The play brings into mind a time which is overcome now even if it still provides the material for films dealing with Ireland’s history. In the 90s,  the Irish society has passed from a third world country into the affluent Celtic Tiger nation. In the United States, it is now fashionable being Irish. Artists such as Byrne, continuing a long tradition of Irish leading men in Hollywood, participate in the international success-story of Irish culture even if Irish actors cannot expect being always greeted by an audience on Broadway.

An uillean piper playing an air of the early 19th century, "The Bonny Bunch of Roses",  is the first person to appear on stage. The Irish tones repeated from time to time by the background sound remind us of an invisible world beyond the stage: Ireland which Melody has left and which he refers to as a place of his lost glory. But much more is involved. Since the late 18th century, the uilleann pipe, also called ”Irish organ”, replaced the harp in the Irish musical tradition and, not unlike the harpist, the piper enjoyed superior status above other musicians. In the play, the music evoking a larger historical and cultural context becomes a means of expression added to the dialogue. It becomes a signifier of Irishness and Irish culture.

Inspired by nostalgia, the music in the beginning of the performance contains a twofold vision linked to the protagonist’s past: it evokes the country where he comes from and with which he still identifies and refers to the battle which consecrated him a hero. While the plaintive melody of the pipe intensifies, the distant noise of a battle is juxtaposed to it. For a short moment, the sound anticipates the play and becomes a strong echo of the protagonist’s past.

Con, the former war hero, is now the innkeeper of a mortgaged tavern; the heir of an Irish estate has become a drunkard pity for himself. Failing to accept reality, he still plays the nobleman and behaves as if his shabeen is a manor. His ambitions for greatness and his refusal of reality resemble the attitude of another figure created by O’Neill: James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night. This is not a coincidence for both men are modelled on the actor James O’Neill, the playwright’s father. Both men relive moments of a past glory and lament over lost chances and decline. Melody maintains a thoroughbred mare while he can hardly afford to make a decent living for his family; Tyrone looses money in fraudulent investments. Both men are unable to express their love and feelings. Both men are alcoholics.

The Con-character is tailor-made for Byrne whose physical appearance is absolutely appropriate for the role as O’Neill imagined it: ”His face reveals the ravages of dissipation - a ruined face which was once extraordinarily handsome. The face of an embittered Byronic hero (...).” Byrne’s face has just the right number of flaws to make it beautiful. It is an expressive face, lively and sensitive not polished, but marked by laughter and pain, a face of beautiful character and of contrast, a physiognomy which reflects the very contradictory character he plays. His elegant attitude and movements are that of the self-assertive aristocrat. He is impressive in his beautiful uniform and pathetic in his vain attempt to play the lord of the manor. He emanates a sensuality which makes credible the feeling of eroticism emerging between him and Deborah Harford. Con’s gallantry and sexuality trouble the upper-class woman: for a moment, she succumbs to his charm and the illusory image he projects of himself.

As in a hypnotic trance, Con poses in front of the mirror. The mirror in the middle of the stage reminds us of the idea of illusion which is the very essential element of every theatrical production. In A Touch of the Poet, the actor in the central role plays a man who wears a mask and who plays a role to himself and to his environment. It is this role Gabriel Byrne has acted many times. His d’Artagnan in The Man in the Iron Mask (UK/France/USA, 1998) or the Mechanic he played in Smilla’s Sense of Snow (Denmark/Germany/Sweden, 1997) are mysterious men. Allusive gestures, furtive glances, almost imperceptible changes in intonation: the retained intensity of Byrne’s facial and bodily expressions allow the viewer to feel that these men have a secret and suffer an inner torment. The screen-actor Byrne’s discreet but expressive performances are best defined by minimalism. He is an actor who never reveals himself completely. In Somebody is Waiting (USA, 1996) or in Wah-Wah (UK/France/RSA, 2005) Byrne played an alcoholic. Like Melody, the protagonists of these films play a role, a role which they are not always able to hold on to. Sometimes they fail in controlling their temper or they succeed in controlling themselves at the last minute only. It is the same act of balance Melody has to perform.

But the screen performances are less obvious and even more difficult to grasp than the performance on stage which is immediately recognisable. The screen actor is explained by the mise en scène and the editing through fragmentation and (re)composition. He is always the object of a viewpoint. On the stage, the viewer’s eye must also shift from the wholeness to the detail. But he has constantly in front of him the whole picture containing all the details.

It is interesting to see to what extent Byrne’s approach is applicable to the stage. Watch his first appearance in A Touch of the Poet. Con hasn’t started to drink yet but his hands are shaking with anticipation. His movements are slightly overdone drawing the audience’s attention to his beautiful, slim hands which seem to have their own life as if they do not belong to the body. Meaning is generated by the slightest gesture or posture amplifying the portrait of the character as envisioned by the playwright. At another moment of the show, Con is sitting in his arm-chair, reading the newspaper. Once again, he is unable to keep his hands quiet. His fingers, tapping the paper, reveal the ill effects of alcoholism as well as his restlessness and anxieties.

Even if Byrne’s movements are more exaggerated and his articulations are more distinct on the stage than in front of the camera, the ambiguity inherent in the Con-character and the contradictions possessing him are most often revealed through furtive gestures: in the moment of defeat when he becomes aware of his self-deception, his shoulders sag suddenly, his face expresses his loneliness. Under the surface of arrogance and self-assurance, the feeling of insecurity and vulnerability is lingering and sometimes erupts. Con might be impressive in his shiny uniform, but when he struts like a peacock, he causes one to feel pity. By overdoing the posture, Byrne reveals once again the man behind the mask. The movements and facial expressions offer as much insight in the character than words would do. Complacent and authoritarian, Con can never completely suppress the feeling of dispossession and weakness. The mirror as well as the actor’s performance reflect a distorted image of the character. Oscillating between sensitivity and brutality, the male protagonist of A Touch of a Poet is a self-righteous braggart and a splendid buffoon whose surface charm hides hardly neither his cruelty nor his vulnerability.

Once again, Byrne plays a man whose mood changes amazingly quickly from one extreme to the other: the one moment, he is the proud war hero reliving the day of his glory, the next one, he is staring at the table paralysed by disillusionment; the one moment, he is the gallant gentleman, the other, the tyrant who offends his wife and daughter with obscene language. His face might be convulsed by a spasm of pain when he listens to Sara’s reproaches. The next moment it fades into rage and his body takes a threatening attitude. It is this latent aggressivity which resonates through Byrne’s body language. At the end of the play, Con in his bloodstained shirt and dirty uniform, assumes his fate. Suddenly capable of lucidity, he removes his mask and strips his soul. In these moments of self-punishment, the actor’s face is ravaged but his posture dignified. 

The helpless gestures of vanity are the expressions of a profound humanity revealing the mood of the play and its ideas on the aspiration for glory, the loss of identity, on despair and human suffering. Hughes and Byrne managed to take an anti-heroic protagonist made of clichés and to transform him into an human being so that the audience can empathise with him. In doing so, Gabriel Byrne succeeds on stage what he has achieved on the silver screen (remember his performance as Steyne in Mira Nair’s Vanity Fair, UK/USA, 2004). Byrne offers his own subtle and multifaceted portrait of the character and draws the audience deeper into the play. He finds modulations which amplify the melody of the dramatic text and which raise new questions about it showing that O’Neill’s play, verging on absurdity, is still vital.

The production at Studio 54 cannot be that easily reduced to mere formula but gives evidence of the capacity to reveal the layers of meaning inscribed in O’Neill’s powerful play on exile and alienation, on the yearning for greatness and on shattered identities. If Hughes’ mise en scène is conventional, disguised by the search for authenticity, its effects are not invisible. No curtain is separating the stage and the auditorium in Studio 54. The mirror placed in the middle of the stage reflects the audience until the lights are fading and the auditorium is plunged into darkness. The terms of the contract of illusion at the core of the theatrical spectacle are fulfilled.

It is on the stage only, that the actor is the unique catalyst into which the poetic dimension of the play and the stylistic and aesthetical devices merge. Hughes production is a marvellous ensemble work and Byrne’s performance is by no means a simple star turn overpowering the cast. On the contrary, Byrne underlines his ability to stimulate the other actors, to give them enough freedom for expression. He is part of the ensemble working in a mutual relationship with the supporting cast. However, A Touch of the Poet is also very essentially "the Con show" as one critic has put it. The male protagonist is the energetic centre of the play and the show. He dominates the play but is also the object of desire and of hate, admiration and pity for the other characters. To act the role of Con is a challenge for every actor for he has to play a highly ambiguous character whose mean side and weakness are never concealed.

Dr. Andrea Grunert is a German lecturer, specializing in contemporary Irish and American film and culture.

 

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