Reading New England: Three plays by Eugene O’Neill

Eugene O’Neill, Long Day’s Journey into Night (1941)
Eugene O’Neill, Ah, Wilderness! (1933)
Eugene O’Neill, A Moon for the Misbegotten (1943)

oneillplaysBefore I embarked on the Reading New England challenge, I had no awareness of Eugene O’Neill as a Connecticut author. My experience of his plays was limited to a reading of Mourning Becomes Electra in high school, which involved heavy emphasis on the symbolism and parallels to classical drama, rather than on O’Neill’s own life.

In fact, as the son of a touring actor, though O’Neill was born and went to school in New York, he spent summers at the family cottage in New London, Connecticut. He attended Harvard briefly, did a stint at sea, and became involved with the Provincetown (Massachusetts) Players, a collective of artists, writers, and theater enthusiasts that produced some of his early works before they moved on to Broadway. With fame and increased wealth came sojourns in exotic places — the Loire Valley, the Georgia Sea Islands, Bermuda — but he died in a Boston hotel. (Born in a hotel room, died in a hotel room, he quipped near the end.)

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O’Neill (right) with his family on Cape Cod, 1922

The first O’Neill work I read for its Connecticut connection was Long Day’s Journey into Night, a searing fictional portrayal of his own tortured family that is set in the New London cottage — which is open as a museum today, decorated as described in the play. He gave orders for it not to be published until 25 years after his death and never performed, but his widow, as literary executor, ignored both instructions and the American theater gained an instant classic.

With his minute rendering of the painful relationships within a family riven by alcoholism, money problems, addiction, and illness, O’Neill displays great psychological insight and dramatic skill. Hoping against hope that there will be change for the better, the characters yet inexorably slide into old habits of sloth, cowardice, and denial. As their intimate dialogue plays out before us, over the course of a single day and past the midnight hour, they evoke pity and horror at the nightmare that life has become for them.

“The fog was where I wanted to be. Halfway down the path you can’t see this house. You’d never know it was here. Or any of the other places down the avenue. I couldn’t see but a few feet ahead. I didn’t meet a soul. Everything looked and sounded unreal. Nothing was what it is. That’s what I wanted — to be alone with myself in another world where truth is untrue and life can hide from itself. Out beyond the harbor, where the road runs along the beach, I even lost the feeling of being on land. The fog and the sea seemed part of each other. It was like walking on the bottom of the sea. As if I had drowned long ago. As if I was a ghost belonging to the fog, and the fog was the ghost of the sea. It felt damned peaceful to be nothing more than a ghost within a ghost.”

O’Neill put these words into the mouth of the character representing himself, and to me they captured the feeling of the play as a whole — I was reading of people whose souls had died long ago, but who were doomed to replay their tormented lives into infinity. The only way they could rest was to lose themselves in oblivion.

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O’Neill’s gravestone

Most of O’Neill’s plays are tragic, if not all quite this tragic. However, he could also write in a different vein, as shown by his earlier comedy Ah, Wilderness! — also set in Connecticut, but in a nostalgic, idealized small-town setting at the turn of the twentieth century. Its coming-of-age story of a boy who rebels mildly against his warm, loving family, but ultimately returns to their wholesome ideals, is generally described as O’Neill’s vision of the childhood he wished he had had.

Perhaps because I had just read Long Day’s Journey, though, it seemed to me that there were seeds of trouble within the harmony. An alcoholic uncle is played as a source of fun, but I couldn’t help thinking that the characters were blinding themselves to the true horrors of his condition. And the ending, in which the boy and his girlfriend naively pledge themselves to one another, appeared to me a recipe for disaster. What would happen when the boy outgrew his rather bland and stupid first love? These questions are blithely ignored in the play itself, but are the kind of subjects that O’Neill explored so thoroughly elsewhere.

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Poster from the 2000 revival of Moon

A more mature and nuanced love story is the subject of A Moon for the Misbegotten, a third and as far as I know final play set in Connecticut. Here, we visit a dilapidated, hardscrabble farm tenanted by an Irishman and his long-suffering daughter (his sons have been driven away by his tyrannical ways). O’Neill returns to some of the characters and motifs, and even some bits of dialogue of Long Day’s Journey — which, of course, he never expected to be produced — and gives them a slightly more hopeful trajectory.

Centering on the characters representing O’Neill’s alcoholic older brother, and the outwardly rough but inwardly tender woman who hopelessly loves him, it takes us through another long night of suffering into a dawn that brings a strangely poignant redemption. Though their brokenness is too deep for them ever to be truly whole, the fact that they can yet see and acknowledge the human essence in one another brings a touch of grace, of salvation.

Following the utter darkness of Long Day’s Journey into Night, and the artificial brightness of Ah, Wilderness!, I was glad to finish this dramatic journey with the benign, soothing shimmer of moonlight. All three plays, though, are certainly worth your attention. If you’ve ever seen any memorable productions, I would love to hear about them, too.

Classics Club list #19

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Armchair BEA: Beyond the Books

ArmchairBEA-LogoExampleToday’s Armchair BEA topic is “Beyond the Books” — What are your favorite alternative forms for experiencing literature?

I think the focus is supposed to be on webcomics, graphic novels, and so on, but this question got me thinking about some of the great theater productions I have seen over the years, several of which were adaptations of books. I’m sure many readers and bloggers must be theater fans as well, yet I don’t see much discussion or reviewing going on in the blogs I follow. Here are a few of the most memorable shows I’ve seen, some of them dating from decades back. I hope you’ll share some of your theater experiences as well!

Inside the Globe
Inside the Globe

To Kill a Mockingbird – unknown theater, Seattle
I’m pretty sure this is one of the first professional theater productions I saw as a child, quite a few years before experiencing the book (or the movie). I still remember its staging and actors sometimes when I read the novel. I just wish I could remember which theater it was…

The Gospel at Colonus – The Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis
In my first term of college I trekked up to “the Cits” to see experimental theater legend Lee Breuer’s musical version of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus. As the title suggests, the story is told by a Pentecostal preacher and the choir of his church, an interesting take on the traditional Greek chorus. Morgan Freeman was amazing (this was before he became really famous), as were the gospel singers.

Jane and Bertha, in Jane Eyre
Jane and Bertha, in Jane Eyre

On the Town – Shakespeare in the Park, New York City
It was worth waiting several hours in line for the free tickets to this exuberant revival. Click on the link and you can see a video of the opening number.

Jane Eyre – Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York
I’ve already written elsewhere of how impressed I was by this British import, which has the “madwoman” Bertha Mason on stage throughout as a reprentation of Jane’s inner state. (Having a human actor play a dog was maybe not quite such a good idea.)

Twelfth Night – The Globe Theatre, London
This is undoubtedly the Shakespeare play I’ve seen most often, starting with the high school production in which I had a walk-on part as one of Olivia’s ladies-in-waiting. I can think of at least four or five others, but the most memorable had to be this version with an all-male cast at the restored Globe Theatre. Gorgeous music, too.

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Lyra and the Armoured Bears, in His Dark Materials

His Dark Materials – Royal Shakespeare Company, London
I was psyched when on the eve of my departure from London I was able to get into a preview of Part II of this theatrical version of Philip Pullman’s trilogy, which featured some interesting puppetry, as well as Timothy Dalton as Lord Asriel. It’s not my favorite part of the story, so for me the most memorable moment was when part of the revolving stage set got stuck and the cast and crew had to work out what to do.

Illyria – Taproot Theater Company, Seattle
This musical version of Twelfth Night (again!) was utterly charming, and probably better suited to the tiny Taproot stage than to the wider expanses of Broadway, where it flopped. Definitely worth seeing, if you can.

Thinking about these shows brought back so many wonderful memories — I’m now motivated to try to get to the theater more! Do you have any that stand out for you?

Reading New England: Our Town

Thornton Wilder, Our Town (1938)

OurTownThe 1938 Club is a week-long blogging event that encourages everyone to read and post about books published in that particular year.  Do check it out! It’s so interesting to see what came out in that twelve-month span, including some very well-known titles and some nearly forgotten today. Thanks to Simon and Karen for coming up with this fun idea.

For my own 1938 pick, I was happy to be able to overlap with my own Reading New England Challenge, in which I’m focusing on poetry and drama this month, and read Our Town by Thornton Wilder. Since it was first produced this three-act play set in a small New Hampshire town in the early twentieth century has become a classic of world drama; it’s performed at least once a day somewhere on the globe. What is the basis of its long-lasting appeal? And do we really understand what Wilder was trying to say, or do we distort his vision with our own notions of what “Our Town” is?

Most Americans first encounter the play in high school, whether as assigned reading, or even better, through watching or performing in a school production. (That didn’t happen in my school, though I do remember watching the TV production with Paul Newman in class.) Since the central characters, George Gibbs and Emily Webb, are adolescents in the first two acts, this would seem to make sense. But as I realized on this reading, it takes a highly sophisticated, adult understanding of life and of the theater to comprehend all that Wilder is doing in this play. All seeming simplicity on the surface, it aims to open our minds and hearts to the mystery behind everyday life, and that’s something that usually takes a certain amount of maturity.

Take the famous bare-stage method that Wilder specifies in his directions. The play starts with the curtain open and the stage empty. The audience watches the “Stage Manager” placing chairs and tables to represent the Webb and Gibbs houses. Only the bare minimum of scenery and props is used: George and Emily perch on ladders to indicate their second-story bedrooms; a board and a couple of chairs become a soda fountain; a row of chairs indicates graves in a cemetery. Such techniques seem commonplace today, but in 1938 they were more unusual, and perhaps startling. What is the meaning of this gesture? Is it really necessary to the play, or could it be staged in a more conventional way with the same effect?

WilderOurTownI do think that Wilder’s stage directions are important, and not only as a shake-up for complacent audiences, or a convenience to low-budget productions. When the apparatus of our lives is removed, all the physical objects and scenery that distract and preoccupy us, what remains? Human relationships. Connections between parent and child, husband and wife, brother and sister, friend and neighbor, individual and community — this is the stuff of which Our Town is made. And even though in contrast to its visual bareness, it’s located in a very specific place and time, with dates and latitude and longitude and scientists and historians brought in to pin it down, we come to realize that those too can be discarded, indeed must be discarded when our life comes to a close. And what remains then?

For though the first two acts are given titles — “The Daily Life” and “Love and Marriage” — it’s the subject of the untitled third act that gives Our Town its weight and substance. “I reckon you can guess what that’s about,” says the Stage Manager. In fact, it’s already been part of the play from the beginning; the Stage Manager has informed us of the deaths of several of the characters almost before we even hear them speak. Not in a morbid or lugubrious way, but simply placing the inescapable fact of life’s end alongside the myriad details of how we live it. How to live in and with that knowledge, that mystery, is the question that shapes what otherwise might seem a random collection of ordinary events into a true drama — that is, an artistically crafted group experience that partakes of the quality of ritual.

“The morning star always gets wonderful bright the minute before it has to go, — doesn’t it?” says the Stage Manager early on, in his first speech to the audience. A casual, commonplace remark, it seems, a typical New England observation — but after experiencing the play as a whole it may come back to us with a subtle resonance. That, to me, is the genius of Our Town: the particular and the universal are so finely woven together that each embodies and reflects the other. That’s why productions that treat it as an exercise in nostalgia are so misleading. It’s not a play for a season or a year or even a century, but for all time.

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Reading New England: Poetry and Drama

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800px-The_Tenth_Muse_by_Anne_BradstreetThis April is the twentieth anniversary of National Poetry Month, an appropriate time to explore the poetry and drama of New England. The orally transmitted songs and rituals of the Native Americans came first, of course, but are largely lost to us. The first English-speaking American poet, Anne Bradstreet, was one of the Puritan settlers of the Massachusetts Bay colony. Her book The Tenth Muse was published in London in 1650, a significant landmark for American literature. Among her descendants are several other distinguished writers, including Sarah Orne Jewett, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Richard Henry Dana.

The works of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century poets who followed Bradstreet are pretty obscure now, but in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries some of the greatest American poets and poetry came out of New England. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton…an incomplete list can be found at the end of the New England Book List, and further suggestions are most welcome.

November 1954: The Bristol Old Vic Company in a scene from Arthur Miller's play 'The Crucible', which told the story of the Salem witch trials. Original Publication: Picture Post - 7840 - Crucible - unpub. (Photo by Thurston Hopkins/Picture Post/Getty Images)
The Crucible performed by The Bristol Old Vic Company, 1954. (Photo by Thurston Hopkins/Picture Post/Getty Images)

When it comes to drama, it’s not so easy to track down plays set in New England. We do have the Big Three that are consistently ranked among the greatest American plays ever: Our Town by Thornton Wilder (New Hampshire), Long Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill (Connecticut), and The Crucible by Arthur Miller (Massachusetts). But beyond these, my investigations turned up very little, and almost nothing I had ever heard of. The Pulitzer-prize winning Painting Churches by Tina Howe is one exception. If you have read or seen any others, please let me know!

As for my own plans, I have to revisit Our Town, since I now live 15 minutes away from Peterborough, New Hampshire, the basis for the Grover’s Corners of the play. I’d also like to read Long Day’s Journey into Night and check out the film with Katharine Hepburn, and maybe The Crucible as well. I wish I could see some live productions, but those are few and far between in my area.

In the realm of poetry, I’m curious to look into Anne Bradstreet and maybe some other early poets, and I’d definitely like to revisit some of my favorites from Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. I might even get around to the Dickinson biography I have sitting on my shelf, My Wars Are All Laid Up in Books. There’s also a new book by David Orr that looks interesting, The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong. I’ll look for some more modern and contemporary poets to explore too. And as always, I’m looking forward to seeing what you discover!

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Thornton Wilder pantomiming scenery while playing the Stage Manager in Our Town. Wellesley, MA, 1950. Source