In February 2011 I embarked on one of those grandiose projects to which I am occasionally susceptible, a survey of the effect that 9/11 had on American drama. I was unable to sustain the dedicated time, contemplation, and writing necessary to do this up right. Once in a while I have hopes of continuing the series, but it seems it was not meant to be. For example, I read Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul (which premiered in New York in December 2001) last week and planned to write a few notes about it, only to find that the edition I’d read had been superceded by revisions that Kushner published in 2005. I considered writing about it anyway, but it would have been unfair to the play as Kushner currently conceives it, and readers of the play would likely have access to the revised 2005, not the 2002, version. It’s then that I throw up my hands.
Given the day I republish the introduction to this planned survey below. I imagine if I were to revise both the introduction and the conception, it would have to include mention and consideration of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Short essays on Wallace Shawn’s Grasses of a Thousand Colors, Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, and Neil LaBute’s The Break of Noon (still the most incisive if corrosive portrait of the American consciousness in the decade after 9/11) were completed.
Symbolically, the 21st century began for the United States with the World Trade Center disaster of 11 September 2001, the tenth anniversary of which will be marked later this year. In the decade since, the cultural, economic and social landscape of the U.S. has changed beyond all prediction. The elections of 2008 put America’s first citizen of African descent in the Oval Office, in the midst of an economic crisis which many compared to the Great Depression of the 1930s. While its predecessor pursued a policy of military interventionism exacerbated by the events of 11 September, the current administration continues a similar interventionism in Afghanistan. Both of these are reactions to an Islamic fundamentalism on the rise in the 1990s but seemingly confined to the Middle East and South Asia; 11 September proved that the U.S., too, was susceptible to the violence this fundamentalism engendered. While the progressive left hailed the election of Barack Obama as a turn away from conservative Republican values, in only two years a radicalized right in the form of the “Tea Party” movement was in part responsible for returning a Republican majority to the House of Representatives in the last mid-term elections. In the meantime the economic downturn continues to negatively affect employment figures. The social fabric is so uneasy that regular irrational bursts of deadly violence are a common staple of the news, most recently in the January shootings in Arizona.
The landscape has changed internationally as well, and U.S. policy and its perspective on the world continue to be affected by these changes. In the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, some Eastern European nations such as Belarus, Russia and now perhaps Hungary are beginning to exhibit authoritarian gestures of censorship and police-state social tactics. In Egypt, the Sudan and the Congo, authoritarian regimes continue to spell catastrophic conditions for many citizens. The Internet has played a role in changing the means of communication not only domestically but internationally. Private corporations like Facebook and Twitter are now driving online communications rather than the more public sphere of the World Wide Web and email.
American theatre and drama have had to contend with these changes as well; dramatists have the same concerns as the rest of us, and their explorations are revealed in their work. I think it may be safe to say that there are more plays being written and staged in the U.S. now than at any earlier period of American history, despite the smaller number of straight plays being produced on Broadway. It is somewhat surprising, therefore, that recent discussions of this explosion of dramatic work, such as Outrageous Fortune and Rocco Landesman’s recent comments, have far more to do with the practical production landscape for these plays than about the plays themselves. Evaluations of these new plays are often confined to the newspaper or magazine review, the length of which does not allow longer contemplations of the work (and the shrinkage of space in print media for this kind of coverage of theatre renders it unpublished, if not unwritten). I do not here mean to disparage the work of these reviewers, who are often very fine, but the necessity to cover this greater number of plays does not easily permit the critic to stand back and describe broader trends in both the content and the changing form of the plays they review; even those who are able to glimpse the forest through the trees have neither the time nor the outlet for the necessary broader considerations of this work and how it reflects the historical and social condition of the U.S. in the first years of this century. Another influence is the rise of celebrity culture in coverage of the arts generally. When longer pieces on this drama are published, they are often in the form of interviews or profiles of young playwrights — interesting and even necessary as secondary literature, but lacking a critical and evaluative focus on the plays themselves, instead valorizing anecdote and personality.
Extended criticism of plays as texts with literary and cultural properties have been published overseas by British theatre writers such as David Ian Rabey, Dan Rebellato and Aleks Sierz, but their work has focused primarily on British drama, as is appropriate. These three writers are also aware of the performance and theatrical qualities of these dramatic texts, and their textual criticism is influenced by these considerations. I’m going to try a little of the same thing here at Superfluities Redux. I’ve noticed my increasing interest in the history of American drama (indeed, my essays on texts like The Glass Menagerie, The Iceman Cometh and Awake and Sing continue to draw some attention, even if it’s only from high school and college students in need of paper topics), and given the strictures on my time and wallet I can’t get to the theatre as much as I like. But I do have access to the texts of contemporary drama, and in looking for a new direction for Superfluities Redux I may have found some future contemplation there. I continue to hope that Superfluities Redux provides some kind of content and thinking that are difficult to find elsewhere on the Internet or in press criticism of American theatre.
This survey of American drama over the last decade will begin with a toe dipped in the water before I wade out to further depths. In the next week or so I’ll be posting essays on three recent American plays that reflect these uniquely 21st century issues in American culture: Neil LaBute’s The Break of Noon, which ran at the MCC late in 2010; Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, the winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama; and finally a new American play which has not yet debuted on U.S. shores, Wallace Shawn’s Grasses of a Thousand Colors, which premiered last year at the Royal Court Theatre in London. I will try to approach these plays as individual expressions of contemplation on American culture over the past few years, then, after this, look more deeply at the work of those dramatists who it seems to me are meaningfully wrestling with this new 21st-century America in theatrical and dramatic form — both new writers like Christopher Shinn, Thomas Bradshaw and Young Jean Lee and more established dramatists like Richard Foreman, David Mamet and Tony Kushner.
In the better-late-than-never department, word comes today through the Theatre for a New Audience Web site that Wallace Shawn’s 2009 play Grasses of a Thousand Colors will make its US debut on 8 October 2013 at the Public Theater. The production will be directed by André Gregory and feature Mr. Shawn, Emily McDonnell, and Jennifer Tilly reprising their roles from the 2009 Royal Court Theatre world premiere staging. Grasses is a part of the “Wallace Shawn-André Gregory Project” co-produced by the Public and Theatre for a New Audience, which also includes a revival of Shawn’s 1996 The Designated Mourner, also directed by Mr. Gregory and featuring Mr. Shawn, Deborah Eisenburg, and Larry Pine in the cast.
I wrote about Grasses of a Thousand Colors in February 2011; below is the text of that essay.
Miranda Richardson and Wallace Shawn in the Royal Court Theatre’s production of Grasses of a Thousand Colors. Photo: John Haynes. Courtesy Royal Court Theatre
At the worst, a few people will conclude that it’s worthless. And I will have spent 10 years doing something ridiculous. But I’ve decided to take a bet on my subconscious. Isn’t all writing to some extent about trying to get through the layers of propaganda and false interpretations and received ideas and clichés that prevent us from seeing what’s going on? I think that’s the enterprise.
Issues of power, and more specifically hegemony, and how they are writ in both the broader cultural and more private landscapes of human relationships have always been at the center of Wallace Shawn’s plays. His dramatic voice, also, is unique and unmistakable. In both these senses he is an American equivalent to Harold Pinter. The seemingly intimate disclosures, emotional violence and manipulations of Shawn’s early plays like Our Late Night (1975) and Marie and Bruce (1978) became more and more politically and culturally acute, without losing the sense of sexual dynamics and hostility, through the 1980s with Aunt Dan and Lemon (1985, which explored how political hegemony is exploited in the personal realm through the relationship between a girl and a family friend) and, especially, The Fever (1990, a monologue about a Western traveler in a foreign country under siege) and The Designated Mourner (about the role of intellectuals in an increasingly authoritarian Western culture, 1997, perhaps Shawn’s masterpiece to date). As the dates here indicate, many years separate one Shawn play from another, and in the immediate aftermath of 11 September 2001 Shawn expressed his concerns about changing American culture not on the stage but through editing Final Edition (2004), a single-issue periodical which included Shawn’s interview with Noam Chomsky, essays by himself and Jonathan Schell, and fiction by Mark Strand and Deborah Eisenberg.
There is no mention of 11 September nor, indeed, of the United States in Grasses of a Thousand Colors, which opened two years ago at London’s Royal Court Theatre. The geographical setting of the play itself may indeed be Great Britain (placenames in the text include the British-tinged “Pushbroom Lane” and “Apple Street”), and chronologically the play is set somewhat in the future, not the past. But at its center, the drama is about the unconscious play of technological and emotional hegemony through fantasy and contemporary sexual relationships. The three-act play is, at the outset, presented as a reading from a memoir: Ben, a scientist who has achieved a certain level of celebrity, begins to read from his autobiography, Loaves, with Fishes, for Dinner, a title with a Biblical undertone. Ben is a distinctly American pragmatist and optimist, he admits:
You see, I’m an optimist — I come from an optimistic generation. Everyone I know from my generation — we’re fixers, improvers. That’s what we are. We were born that way, apparently. Do you have a problem? Fine. Problems can be solved. Are you dissatisfied with how fast you can run? Are you dissatisfied with how fast you can think? These are problems that can be solved. So if something isn’t right, for God’s sake, fix it. (10)
The problem that scientist Ben has apparently fixed is the problem of world hunger, and he has done so by genetically changing the nature of the world itself. He explains:
There was, on the one hand, an enormous crowd of entities — ourselves and others — roaming the planet, trying to sustain themselves, or in other words, looking for something to eat; and on the other hand, there was a tiny, inadequate crowd of entities available on the planet to be eaten. So it was a problem of food. It was all about food. There wasn’t enough food. So, as a generation, working really across all the nationalities and all the continents, we figured out ways to create food where there’d been no food — whether it was by giving a certain frog a simple injection so that he and his friends could live off the corpses of other frogs, when, formerly, a dead frog would have worked as a poison in the body of a frog, or by forcing certain substances into the upper atmosphere, so that an odd sort of rain would sprinkle down onto fields full of cows, so that cows who formerly could only live off grass could happily live off skunks and rats and foxes instead … that was the work of our generation. And, in the way of things, we ended up deriving some benefit ourselves from that, through various ridiculous instrumentalities we call salaries, stocks, investments, what have you. …
[Showing a photograph of himself and a dog] This was one of our earliest successes, because my good friend Rufus here was the very first large mammal ever to be raised entirely on the meat of members of his own species. … (11-12)
The American expression of capitalistic competition, “dog eat dog,” indeed — and problem solved, evidently, until the genetic mutations that Ben has introduced mutate beyond the control of science, turning meat (and eventually vegetation) not only inedible but poisonous to human beings. (So much, too, for “man’s best friend.”) It soon becomes clear that this has catastrophic implications for the future of the human race; in changing life to solve life’s own problems, technocratic rationalism has signed its own death sentence.
Ben is interrupted by a memory of his first wife, Cerise, who appears to introduce a second metaphor of the animal kingdom, one which will grow to control the unconscious lives of all the characters and the structure of Grasses of a Thousand Colors itself. “I’m going to be very frank with you and tell you something true rather than being euphemistic about it,” she tells the audience:
Cats like to tease mice. They like to play with them a little. … Cats like to tease mice. In other words, I’m saying, it’s not something that happens by accident when they’re pursuing some other more respectable purpose. No. They like to do it. … And of course everyone knows that cats punish mice. They inflict many different types of punishment on mice — they can inflict capital punishment, life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, and many other sorts of punishments. So they tease mice, they play with them, and they punish them. They pummel them, and they eat them. But what’s not generally known is that cats also sometimes protect mice. They protect them, they pardon them, and sometimes they reward them, way beyond what any person would think they deserve.
Oh yes, and there’s one other thing I know about cats which is not generally known, and that is the interesting fact that cats mate for life. That’s right. You heard me. They mate for life. Like humans. (17)
Ben’s professional and personal life is the content of the first act of the play; however, the metaphors of the animal world soon mutate themselves into a picture of the unconscious sexual life of all three characters, mutating this sexual life as well into a series of pornographic fairy tales about the animal kingdom that reflect the irrationalism that lies beneath technocratic rationalism and ultimately determines the direction of its hegemony and cultural force. This direction allows for the freer play of the arbitrary and capricious love, hate and emotional devastation of intimate human relationships. This irrationalism also bursts out in the most casual of human relationships, as Ben’s genetic mutations poison the food upon which the human race needs to survive.
Before long, however, the monologue becomes a memory play populated by three women from Ben’s past, his first wife Cerise, his midlife partner Robin, and finally his latelife lover Rose; as Ben grows older, his successive loves grow younger. As the global catastrophe engendered by Ben’s work begins, however, the play makes a sharp shift in the second act to an extended eruption of bestial pornography involving cats and donkeys — an unconscious eruption seemingly shared by all of the characters in the drama. The site for this fantasy is a secluded house in which Ben finds sexual comfort with a large cat, Blanche (who in the third act is transformed into a memory of Cerise), while Robin finds herself disturbed in a presentation of male sexuality exhibited by donkeys. The gross deliberate obscenity of the monologues of the second act — which turns Victorian-style children’s literature and erotica upside-down — is emphasized through its hour-long length as Ben finds his penis (with which he has what he describes as “a love affair”) an evocation of aggressive male sexuality, which yet desires to be teased and comforted by his new feline companions.
Emily McDonnell, Miranda Richardson and Jennifer Tilly in Grasses of a Thousand Colors. Photo: John Haynes. Courtesy Royal Court Theatre
Ben’s misogynistic aggression — and the global crisis that his research has engendered — becomes more complex with the third act of the play, which combines the more realistic tone of the first with the fantastic of the second. The three women — ex-wife Cerise and mistresses Robin and Rose — form a triumvirate for mutual support even as the world is crashing down. Ben is subjected to the emotional manipulations of Robin (who uses the threat of suicide as a means of revenging herself against Ben’s abuse). At the same time the human world is quickly coming to an end outside of the increasing solitudes of all four characters; the human body reacts to the genetic mutations with vomiting, first occasionally, then frequently, then finally, as Ben puts it, “the typical end of life which everyone knows they can look forward to now, the moment when the vomiting doesn’t stop.” (78) Death comes as a release from this cultural and environmental catastrophe, and eventually Ben becomes a victim of his own hegemony over nature. ” … while vomiting was awful, and suffering was awful, death in itself was a trivial process, the fearsomeness of which had been ridiculously inflated by generations of people who apparently had had nothing else to talk about.” The play concludes with his own:
Quote unquote “death” will actually feel no different from a dreamless sleep — although everyone else will notice that you’re not waking up. Well, this was all in a certain way a little bit more than I needed to know at that particular moment — but I still suppose maybe it did sort of put me into the right frame of mind as Blanche set me off on my way across the meadow. As you might have guessed, it was just the time of day in which the direct sun on one’s face was totally agreeable and not at all too hot, and, sure enough, by the time I was halfway across the meadow I desperately wanted to lie down and fall asleep. So I found a very pleasant mossy spot and — you know — what can I say? — I mean, don’t be envious about it — I have to admit, it felt quite nice. (88)
The extremes of sexuality and violence in Shawn’s play are comically undermined by a satire of popular culture, in which sexuality and violence themselves become trivialized to the extent of becoming merely another gesture of public identity. “So you see, for me, the way things are now still seems astonishing — I mean, the fact that people talk about their penises and vaginas in public, at dinner parties, in magazines and newspapers — I can’t get over it. Ha ha ha! I can’t get over the way in interviews, not just actors but even politicians mention genitals so freely — ‘my vagina,’ ‘my penis’ — and of course all the plays, the films, whatever — well, it’s all changed so much,” Ben observes (perhaps several decades after Bill Clinton leaves semen stains on Monica Lewinsky’s dress and Lady Gaga repurposes transgressive sexuality for commercial purposes) (23). And, in this near future, Rose gives out business cards with a picture of her vagina on them (57). But the ease with which the intimate secrets of sex have entered public discourse does not alleviate, nor reveal, the power of the darker urges expressed in intimate relationships. It is a means of titillation, with which everyone eventually grows bored.
Shawn shares with Howard Barker a sense of how cultural and historic crisis can give rise to expressions of transgressive sexuality, sexualities which may serve to reconstruct the self. As in Barker’s plays, however, political power issues in Shawn’s plays do not guarantee any kind of redemption; indeed, they may make this individual valorization impossible and drive those in power, like Ben, to ever more violent disruptions of both the psyche and the body. Though they are, like Barker’s plays, often witty and very funny, they are not hopeful.
If Grasses of a Thousand Colors concludes with the end of the world, it leaves open the question of whether the world, and the people who inhabit it, are capable of saving themselves. That some human and natural traits remain unaddressable through rationalism, or because of the irrationalism of the human spirit, is neither misanthropic or pessimistic, terms which have been associated with Shawn’s plays as well as those of Barker and another dramatist to come under consideration here soon, Neil LaBute: it may be merely a statement of fact. By repudiating any attempt to analyze or explain the emotional and physical extremes his characters seek, Shawn leaves to the spectator the question of what it means to be a human being and a citizen in a world which is becoming more thoroughly administered, militarized and delusional that these problems are soluble, especially through science and political administration. For a play which remains resolutely without reference to contemporary events, Grasses of a Thousand Colors demonstrates that Shawn may have his finger more sensitively upon the pulse of America at the beginning of the 21st century than any other American dramatist.
Below is a short interview with the dramatist, conducted by Royal Court Associate Ola Animashawun in June 2009; below the video are links to a few other references:
Superfluities Reduxreview of Wallace Shawn’s Essays
John Lahr’s review in the 1 June 2009 New Yorker (those who care about such things will be amused to note that Shawn portrayed Lahr in the 1987 film Prick Up Your Ears)
A recent production of "In the Zone" from Brazil's Companhia Triptal.
A small black tin lockbox holds the secret that ultimately destroys Smitty in In the Zone, another of Eugene O’Neill’s Glencairn plays (and which, when accepted for a tour by the Orpheum vaudeville circuit, provided O’Neill’s first regular income as a playwright). As the tramp steamer, laden with ammunition for the continuation of the war, crosses the North Atlantic, the rest of the forecastle crew becomes suspicious of Smitty’s secretive and fugitive attempts to hide the box, and ultimately wrests it from him. Inside is not the bomb or the radio transmitter or the codebooks that they had feared, but love letters from “Edith” to a “Sidney Davidson,” chronicling a relationship that cruelly ends when Davidson returns to his alcoholic lifestyle, despite Edith’s love for him.
To be absolutely accurate, it is not the secret itself that destroys Smitty — he continues to possess, even cherish, this secret love so catastrophically destroyed by his own weakness. It is, instead, that secret’s revelation that decimates not only Smitty but the rest of the crew (each with their own secrets, unrevealed) as well. It is a frequent trope of melodramatic American theatre that simple objects such as letters or telegrams contain material that can radically change a situation, imbuing the objects with a special physical significance. Here the object of the metal box serves a double theatrical purpose: it is a container for Smitty’s explosive love and weakness, but also a microcosm for the ship itself, its cargo potentially devastating if the ship is penetrated by a torpedo or bomb.
It remains a mystery why Smitty would continue to cherish this destructive secret even as he tries to escape it, changing his name and signing on for cargo ship duty in the midst of wartime. The revelation of his secret reveals the marrow of his identity in all its weakness and capacity to deserve love. But in a sense this early play of O’Neill’s is indicative of the rest of his career as a tragedian; the same theme can be identified in his late plays as well. It is also a metaphor for theatrical experience itself. For what is the preparation of a play — its writing, its design and direction, its rehearsal — but a private conspiracy, the setting of a bomb, set to go off at 8.00pm in the middle of a black box? After Smitty’s secret is revealed, the rest of the crew, ashamed, tries to go back to sleep: but their sleep is an uneasy peace.
The text of In the Zone can be found here, and O’Neill scholar Travis Bogard’s notes on the play are here.
Criticism is the art we need most today. But not, don’t you see? not the “if I’d done it myself.” Yes, a, a disciplined nostalgia, disciplined recognitions but not, no, listen, what is the favor? (William Gaddis, The Recognitions, p. 335)
In my musing about “American drama: A personal history,” Wyatt Gwyon’s stuttering half-formed thoughts about the function of criticism strike a chord. I’ve never been interested in that “if I’d done it myself” kind of review or criticism — it is not a very far cry, not a very difficult extension, from the intention-based detective work, or the so-called objective blank-slate perspective of evaluation and assessment, that many critics and reviewers have been considering. “This is what I perceive the Platonic Ideal of this work to be, this is how it diverges or stands away from that Ideal”: I don’t have the psychic ability to dredge these up, and I don’t have the presumption to impose my own suggested corrections to these perceived errors.
If as Gwyon suggests criticism is indeed an art, it, like other forms of art, elicits recognitions from the spectator and the viewer. That criticism does so from a second-degree — that it stands between the artwork and the spectator, like a know-it-all pest standing next to you at a gallery and pontificating on the abstraction on the wall — makes it no less an art, only different in its mechanisms. For the artist, the world is the subject of art; for the critic, the art itself is the subject. Both are interpretive, but the second at a further arm’s-length from the world.
He also suggests that it is not appropriate for the true critic to merely vomit out his opinion. Disciplined nostalgia, disciplined recognitions: the discipline inhering in the care taken to shape this opinion, this insight, through a variety of interpretive prisms, not least of which are linguistic or rhetorical, historical or aesthetic. And, if George Jean Nathan is to be taken at his word, the personal prism as well: “The great critics are those who, recognizing the intrinsic, permanent and indeclinable egotism of the critical art, make no senseless effort to conceal it,” he puts it rather strongly, but his point is the far less malignant observation that all criticism, like all art, is a personal, individual expression of an opinionated personality who brings his own experience not only to the work but to his interpretation of it. He is not a judge who sits in one of Parnassus’ courtrooms, but one and the same with the rest of us, the audience member and the artist alike.
This recognition also constitutes the difference between reviewer and critic, as Mr. Brantley’s essay in this Sunday’s New York Times instructs. Though it is an intriguing idea to consider the odd popularity of Shakespeare’s King Lear in the US over the past few years, Mr. Brantley writes less on King Lear than on those figures who have played King Lear in US stages, and more precisely those actors Mr. Brantley has actually seen in the flesh. (I should note that I don’t fault Mr. Brantley or this column as such; to do so would be to blame it for not being something it was not intended to be.) It is essays like this (and other reviews and essays by others; Mr. Brantley is not alone here) that have led to the accusation that so much journalism about drama and theatre in the US is driven by celebrity and media to the detriment of the play or drama itself. In any case, Mr. Brantley breezily passes over the drama as such, likening its lead character to “that homeless guy on the corner who talks to space aliens and throws rotten fruit at passers-by.” I’m happy to allow Mr. Brantley and other reviewers, who spend a lot of time in dark rooms watching bad plays (for which they deserve our pity rather than our contempt), a lighthearted smack at a dramatic masterpiece — masterpieces can take such smacks easily enough. But you may search high-and-low in Mr. Brantley’s essays, and in those reviews and essays of others, for a single clue as to what insights or recognitions King Lear has drawn from them personally, if anything. If a critic’s work is to have any lasting value, it appears, it must demonstrate that it has engaged with the play on that personal, aesthetic, and historic level. No, I’ll go further — if a critic’s work is to have any value, lasting or otherwise, it will demonstrate that engagement on a regular basis, if not every day. Otherwise it is mere consumer reporting, for which there is a place. But it is not an art.
So much for the “personal” in “American drama: A personal history.” For the rest: Well. As much as I admire contemporary European drama, I am not and have not been in a place where I can experience that first-hand; if I am to gain personal experience of any drama it will be that of the country in which I live, and it is only there that I can expect to gain any broad competent knowledge of it. (I have acquired the reputation of being a “well-read” critic, but I believe that I am just “differently-read” than others.) The first thing one learns from a survey of European drama from an American perspective is just how different it is, and one is more privy to the subtleties and nuances of the language into which one is born than to a language and culture acquired second-hand later in life. And “history,” yes: American drama has been an important part of my life for more than three decades, and whether I like it or not, the intellectual, emotional, spiritual and aesthetic strands of my engagement with it are a tight Gordian knot of tough titanium wires that, inextricably tied, challenge the sharpest and strongest scissors. As I implied in my post on O’Neill’s Bound East for Cardiff yesterday, any experience I have with the play will be consciously or unconsciously informed by the experiential context in which I first came across it. If I am to be true to Nathan’s injunction to admit this egotism, I may as well confess to it.
I have been writing and reading (and writing about) American drama since the age of 14. Whether or not I see any other of my plays staged — or written — in my remaining years, 35 years of drama and theatre as the central attraction and value of my life to date, an attraction and value which colors my personal life as well as my professional life, cannot be abandoned. In the coming years, it can only be reconciled. So this is only for those who will have it, and it is one of the great virtues of middle-age that one doesn’t much care if too many people read it, so long as they’re the appropriate people: the small band of those who share the appreciation of that attraction and value.
Members of the Provincetown Players setting up the stage for Eugene O'Neill's Bound East for Cardiff at their first Playhouse at 139 Macdougal Street in New York City, Fall 1916. O'Neill stands on the ladder at the far left.
The last birthday present I received from my father before his death was a DVD of the American Experience biography of Eugene O’Neill that first aired on PBS in 2006. Decades earlier, one of the first books of plays I ever came across was the Modern Library edition of The Long Voyage Home, which was in my father’s small library and which, in my early teens, I read as I began to think about writing plays myself. I mention this only because the relationship between fathers and sons is one of the central themes of O’Neill’s career, a theme that even led to the titles of each of Louis Sheaffer’s two-volume biography of the dramatist (Son and Playwright and Son and Artist). My own relationship with my father was considerably more benign than O’Neill’s with his. But as a starting point for a project I am calling “American drama: A personal history,” it seems appropriate to begin with these origins.
The tensions of the father-son relationship, though a strong thread that runs through American drama, is not exclusive to American drama alone. Hamlet and Oedipus had their significant run-ins with their daddies too. Before O’Neill himself faced these tensions, however, he concentrated on men alone, and alone on a vast ocean, in the four one-acts that make up the Glencairn cycle: The Moon of the Caribbees, Bound East for Cardiff, In the Zone, and The Long Voyage Home. Except for the first, the plays retain a whiff of the melodramatic theatre in which James O’Neill had his success and which Eugene O’Neill strained against, not always successfully, through his career. With the exception of the last-named above, they all take place in the forecastle and on the deck of the British tramp streamer Glencairn and center on a group of sailing men from a variety of nations and backgrounds, each one of whom has their private reasons for staying on the seas. What they have in common is that they are alone with themselves and each other, adrift in an environment which constitutes a dangerous and serious threat to their well-being. Some are there voluntarily; some (like Olsen in The Long Voyage Home) are shanghaied into seemingly unending servitude on the seas, the victim not only of nature but also, in some cases, of sadistic captains and mates.
Most of these plays were written in the wake of O’Neill’s apprenticeship with George Pierce Baker in 1914-1915, when he attended Baker’s playwriting class at Harvard (Baker’s other students included George Abbott, Hallie Flanagan and Thomas Wolfe). O’Neill submitted a draft of Bound East for Cardiff as part of his application package, and though O’Neill was accepted, Travis Bogard reports that Baker dismissed it as “not a play at all.” Set in the forecastle of the Glencairn, the play is a deathwatch for Yank, a sailor fatally injured in a fall down a hold (“He puts his leg over careless-like and misses the ladder and plumps straight down to the bottom. … He was hurt bad inside for the blood was drippin’ from the side of his mouth,” eyewitness and fellow sailor Davis reports). There is little story beyond this; the play centers on the relationship between Yank and Driscoll, who sits by Yank’s side until the former’s death. As melodramatic as this may seem to 21st century readers, Baker’s objection was likely that it was not melodramatic enough — its lack of a stronger narrative is accompanied by a lack of stage business, which Baker probably also recognized.
The relationship between the two men has certain homoerotic undertones (O’Neill, no stranger to Freud, the sea or the theatre even at the age of 26 when he wrote the play, must have been aware of them). As part of their last conversation, Driscoll and Yank dream of starting a farm together: “This last year has seemed rotten,” Yank says. “I’ve had a hunch I’d quit — with you, of course — and we’d save our coin, and go to Canada or Argentine or some place and git a farm, just a small one, just enough to live on.” The erotic tone of the play is also underscored by Yank’s final vision of the Angel of Death: “A pretty lady dressed in black,” he says “faintly” just before “his face twitches and his body writhes in a final spasm, then straightens out rigidly.”
This marriage of Eros and Thanatos in an allegorical figure, as the “Angel of Death” cliche indicates, is not new to our eyes. But it was new to the American drama at the time, and is only one indication of O’Neill’s modernistic tendencies. (And because what is old always becomes new again over time, such a close relationship between sexuality and death lends the play a contemporary tone even now.) These tendencies are also revealed in the cacophony of dialect that constitutes the play’s dialogue (among the seamen are a Cockney, a Scot, a Swede, an Irishman, a Norwegian and an American), which both Pound and Eliot were integrating into their poetics. Of course dialect dramas based in specific ethnic communities were not uncommon at the time, but O’Neill’s chosen milieu — the tramp steamer — allows him to blend a variety of these dialects into a unique linguistic fabric of English stage discourse, providing it with a new, discordant and atonal music. The sentimentality of this death scene is balanced by O’Neill’s strict naturalism, born of his familiarity with Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser. Within ten years, O’Neill would be abandoning the realism and naturalism of this theatre, a development from Victorian and Edwardian dramatic forms, for the more expansive possibilities of Expressionism. But even in Bound East for Cardiff, O’Neill’s experimentation was broadening the discourse of stage realism and naturalism as it hewed closely to those forms.
Another thing that distances us from these plays now is the Sea itself as metaphor — a Sea which O’Neill would continue to explore and fight against to the end of his days, as the waves of the Atlantic Ocean lapped up upon the shore near the beachfront summer home of the Tyrones. Transatlantic air travel would render the power of the sea, its dangers and awe-inspiring breadth, as it appears in O’Neill’s plays (and as it appears in Joseph Conrad’s and Herman Melville’s novels) something less significant to twentieth-century experience, when the ocean became a puddle over which an airplane could leap in a matter of a few hours. On the other hand, this is no more distant from us than medieval England is to the experience of King Lear or pre-revolutionary France to The Misanthrope. To the sensitive reader, O’Neill’s sea plays retain this majestic power as they approach a new stage poetics for the American drama.