BOOKS OF THE WEEK
O'Neill in 1954
By GERARD FAY In those days the creative man had to create at the top of his voict. It was a necessity, not a fashion, in the Twenties, which was essentially O'Neill's decade. Most of what counts in his work was done after 1919 and all but four of his chief plays were written by 1930. Other writers studied the manners and morals of ' flaming youth ' and were able to distil the spirit of the feverish times into fiction. O'Neill never tried. The reporting could be left to others. He would editorialise.
When he began to write, seriously there was hardly any live native drama on the New York stage and the cinema looked like driving the theatre out altogether. By 1925 it was no longer likely that The Better 'Ole, Dear Brutus and John Ferguson—all alien coin—could be simultaneous hits on Broadway as they were in 1919. By 1930 names were being spoken which had been unknown when O'Neill began his quick march from Provincetown to Greenwich Village—names like Anderson, Behrman, Barry, Howard and Sherwood. This may have been the time when America was losing her youth, but she also gained a place in the arts, especially in the theatre, with O'Neill always as the pathfinder. Yet during those years he never tried to reflect in his plays what he saw going on around him, except a little amateurish class-war in The Hairy Ape. Anna Christie was left over from the early sea-cycle, Desire Under the Elms, The Great God Brown and Strange Interlude were massive chunks of that super-naturalism which O'Neill thought was the only way: • • • to express in the theatre what we comprehend intuitively of that self-obsession which is the particular dis- count we moderns have to pay for the loan of life. The old ` naturalism '—or ' realism.' if you prefer—no longer applies. It represents our fathers' daring aspirations toward self- recognition by holding the family Kodak up to ill-nature.. . Strindberg knew and suffered with our struggle years before many of us were born. He expresses it by intensifying the method of his time and by foreshadowing both in content and form the methods to come."
The more urgent need of something new made it natural for O'Neill to be more welcome in New York than in London. In both cities he scraped rather than romped into the long- runner class, though Strange Interlude (the Abie's Irish Rose of the pseudo-intelligentsia, Woollcott called it) lasted over 400 performances in New York.
It was the smaller theatres that introduced O'Neill to London —the Gate, the Arts, the Westminster. (under Anmer Hall who also died last year). Later his work arrived at the Strand, the Lyric, the New, but not for long runs. In London and in the repertory theatres outside, his dark, violent, puzzled, puzzling plays attracted producers and players who have been more consistently seen and heard than O'Neill has—Michael MacOwan, Norman Marshall, Flora Robson, Beatrix Lehmann, Mark Dignam, Stephen Murray. Paul Robeson made The Emperor Jones almost unplayable by any other actor, and C. B. Cochran, taking up Anna Christie, showed that there were commercial possibilities in O'Neill, however unpromising some of his plays seemed. But this was all so long ago ! Who is going to bring the plays to life again ? Curiosity about them as stage writing is still alive. Jonathan Cape has produced a uniform edition* which contains half the plays and more than half of O'Neill's successes. Six of the eight have been reprinted before, most of them five or six times, one of them ten, which seems to be something of a record among modern dramatists. It suggests that some company can make a name for itself by sorting out the good O'Neill plays from the bad and putting them on even against the judgement of West-End managers to whom he died a forgotten, unprofitable man.
The amateurs, the cinema, even television, have put his work before hugs audiences. In England, on the commercial stage, even his less difficult pieces are not much more than a memory : some of them have not been seen for twenty years. Yet the obituary notices did not exaggerate when they men- tioned influence, significance, dramatic power. Nor did John Mason Brown, eight years ago, when he wrote : " He has won the Pulitzer award three times, and deserved it more often . . . the Nobel Prize has also come his way. In schools and colleges he is studied along with Ibsen as if he were an unassailable figure of the past. Wherever people care about the drama (which means in regions far beyond the reach of the theatres) his name is known and respected. Indeed, no other living playwright, with the exception of Shaw, enjoys his pre-eminence."
What puts the modern theatre off O'Neill ? It is not simply his pursuit of the interminable or the fact that his poet's eye and mind expressed their images in the language of the pulp magazine. There are technical reasons. In his first long play The Straw half a dozen characters, four of them children, contribute nothing to the action. In The Emperor Jones he had the wit to envisage the .` little formless fears ' but not the imagination to have them presented as the producer chose—they were described in detail and even given sounds to emit (' a tiny gale of laughter like a rustling of leaves ') and it is all too near the forest scene of Where the Rainbow Ends to be taken seriously—enough to ruin the play unless the director ignores the author.
The fear that some trained hand might mould his sprawling texts never left him, so that in The Iceman Cometh the first stage direction to Act 1 fills six pages. This is just the sort pf literary arrogance that Shaw adoptedjeaving no freedom to designer, director or actor.
There is also the question of length. Strange Interlude (which inscrutable Hollywood changed to Strange Interval) is generally des- cribed as a play in nine acts. It is really two plays because it uses the aside ' to extend characters and move them from one plane to another ; the visual equivalent is the use of masks in The Great God Brown where the character as he feels and as he appears are separately presented. These were experiments well worth making and they succeeded, but revival is difficult because when a playgoer must attend an endurance trial he is more likely to put up with an un-cut Hamlet or The Ring than anything in the way of ' super-naturalism.'
The sea plays have the modern touch. They say that a tall ship and a star to steer her by may be all very well, but the sailor of today uses steam : let's see how he lives. Even the three snippets which are sometimes combined (for example at the Mercury in 1947) as s.s, Glencairn, hang together. The rural dramas, with their echoes of Stella Gibbons and even of Tobacco Road, must be heaven-sent for American college drama societies and little theatres, but they have no future here. Anna Christie and Ah, Wilderness ! are likely to turn up at any moment and Mourning Becomes Electra is almost certain to be presented some day with the special advertisement- " As you saw it on T.V." or " By the Author of Before Breakfast," which made the libretto for a short television opera only the other day.
Undisciplined writing and inconsiderate treatment of actors and audience have helped to drive O'Neill from the English-speaking professional stage. But he is sure to be revived, for when they are stripped of their literary flannel his plays have bite and reality and force. It is up to somebody now to prove that they have staying- Powe r.