5 June 2005: O’Neill, Desire Under the Elms

American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge. Directed by János Szász

The latest reminder that the ART is the western-most outpost of the East European avant-garde. The play is indicated as running one hour fifty minutes, but it is more like two hours, without intermission. Szasz has imposed a punishing regimen on his three main actors (the two Equity actors in the produc­tion: Raymond J. Barry as Ephraim Cabot, and Amelia Campbell as Abbie Putnam, along with Mickey Solis, a second-year actor in the ART Institute). Not only are they required to lift numerous heavy stones from a pile downstage and carry them well upstage, where a dry wall is being built (rather poorly), but they have to constantly shout, scream, or cry out as they perform the most highly emotive parts of O’Neill’s drama. That is, Szász has cut fully one-third, perhaps more, from O’Neill’s patient, labored script; the text that remains is composed of the rapidly mounting sequences and climaxes. Since, by and large, American actors are not trained how to use their voices coherently to articulate strong emotion at full-voice level, a lot of what we hear from these three earnest, much put-upon actors is not intelligible. In an interview printed in the program Szász said that one of his goals was to erase as much as he could the barrier between stage and audience; he succeeded, in so far as making the theatre experience as tiring for his audience, almost, as for his performers. The actors were visibly exhausted at the end (the second of two demanding performances at this Sunday evening show).

It is one of the most intense productions of O’Neill I have ever seen — and this, a playwright unrivaled for intensity. Riccardo Hernandez’s set design feat­ures a two-dimensional façade of a farmhouse (a nod in the direction of Robert Edmond Jones’s 1924 production design), which as the play begins is leaning forward at a sharp angle toward the audience, and then is raised up and flown back upstage but not out of it; it remains as a menacing presence throughout. When it is flown, we see that the entire stage is covered with stone, stone the size of pebbles, of small stepping stones, of larger stones, of even larger stones that require a strong man to lift, and one gigantic boulder — which also will be hefted, by the son, Eben, and later by the father, Ephraim (for under it, as Eben’s knows and Ephraim still later thinks, is a bag containing thirty $20 gold pieces, Eben’s self-appropriated inheritance from his dead mother). Stones, in O’Neill’s strongly moralized view, are the unyielding substance of life in this hostile rural New England climate; and they stand as well for the granite heart of Ephraim Cabot and for the hard God that speaks to him of what he must or must not do. Weakness is anathema to this God of Ephraim’s, and for that he detests Eben, the son of his second wife, who was well-meaning but too soft to brave the rigors of farm life.

Rehearsing this play must have been a cruel challenge for Barry and Sobis, and only somewhat less so for the Simeon and the Peter, the other two brothers, fairly thankless roles played dutifully if unimaginatively by Shawtane Munroe Bowen and Peter Cambor (also Institute actors); they are constantly piling up rocks in their arms and porting them upstage, where they deposit them behind the unfinished wall, at the top of a steeply raked incline. Eventually, a separate, smaller aggregation of rocks gets used for more imaginative purposes. Ephraim, at center stage, within reach of this second circle of stones, builds a precarious tower out of them, each stone symbolizing a step in the allegory of his life (as he views it); the sequence is truly mesmerizing. Then, when Abbie finally succeeds in seducing Eben, she drags a dirty mattress from far down right, between the audience risers, to center stage, just behind the magic tower of stones. Of course, we can see it coming: Eben, in falling onto the mattress with Abbie, “inadvert­ently” knocks the tower of his father’s life to the ground, where it lies in shambles. Yep — sorry: ayeh, we get it. Just a tad heavy-handed. But then, to­w­ard the end, the rocks are used once again, this time by Abbie, to build a small circle around her swaddled baby and then to smother it.

“Stone atop o’ stones,” a passage from the play, also becomes the title of the program note by Stella Gortin, the dramaturgy student at the Institute who, taking her cue from Szász’s approach, writes a short disquisition on stones.

And the word echoes through the two hours of dialogue, just as it must have echoed in O’Neill’s mind as he wrote this relentless tragedy about thwarted love and persistent loneliness. The only other echoing word is “pretty” —purty, or purdy, in the local dialect in which O’Neill couched the dialogue of the play; but it occurs only in the dialogue, not visibly in the setting. All the characters seem to agree that this is a pretty piece of New England property — even the sheriff, at the end of O’Neill’s original script (an ending totally excised by Szász) observes, “Mighty purty farm. Wish’ t I owned it.” But the prettiness is all in the script, not in what meets the eye here. The unrelenting bleakness of the place is untroubled by a single blade of grass. Even the elms, described by O’Neill as towering solemn­ly, even mournfully, over the doomed farmhouse, are present only as two naked tall trunks, their limbs sawed off, at extreme stage left. There is no life here, no heart, no soul, we are made to understand. No hope.

In the interview Szász said he imagined a landscape that might remind one of Beckett. He may have been thinking of the featureless place in which Gogo and Didi wait for Godot, or the pile of sand that buries Winnie up to her waist and then her neck. But I recall a reference to the rocky landscape of Connemara in Godot, and it pleases me to think that the unremitting stony land of Connemara is what Szász had in mind in translating O’ Neill’s somber American scene to a rocky west of Ireland place as imagined by an obsessive Budapest auteur.

To be sure, Szász did get some things right, in one case almost despite himself. Pretty clearly, he is not much interested in dramatic character itself. That perhaps is why he allowed his three main characters to yell and shout and scream so much. In the interview he said that in rehearsals they were like doctors with stethoscopes, “trying to understand what’s inside these characters.” But this doesn’t show up in performance because of the great lack of subtlety and the decibel overload. Then suddenly, late in the play, when Abbie tells Ephraim “I killed him” — killed the baby Ephraim thinks he has fathered — the play came alive emotionally. Raymond Barry, who up to this point had not been particular­ly believable — only very strong and energetic — suddenly had a reaction that let us see into his very soul. It was as if he froze up like any stone, and yet we could see how deeply hurt he was by this loss. He almost wailed of how lonely he was. How lonely he had been all his life. And we saw all his life there, in that moment. Ephraim doesn’t have a clue why he has been so lonely; doesn’t know that it has been because he has been unable to love anyone, even his wives and sons, that he has remained as circumscribed and wholly contained as any stone. O’Neill, in this moment (and perhaps well before it, in drawing this towering yet ultimately pitiful figure), saw to the depths of the kind of character that drew from him his most creative and genuine efforts; the kind of man who perversely imprisons himself in the fortress of the self, in a desperate act of self-protection, and then spends his life criticizing other people for failing to love him as he needs and deserves to be loved.

This is not an epic theme; this is the ultimate in realism. Szász claims that, though they started to rehearse the play in a realistic mode, he soon discovered “that this style didn’t honor the scope” of the play. “The play has an epic quality,” he insists. O’Neill’s ambitions were surely epic in scale, to judge from his plan for multiple plays charting the development of American life and culture. But he couldn’t fulfill it, and not, I think, only for reasons of health. He wasn’t really interested in epic, as his general description of this sequence of plays, “a tale of possessors, self-dispossessed,” plainly indicates. The tragedy of O’Neill’s characters is that they remain completely and permanently opaque to themselves; they struggle manfully to penetrate them­selves and always signally fail.

We saw this happen on the Loeb stage last night, saw it and heard it and felt it, despite the fact that the director had his eye on something else entirely. Finally, despite their prominence, it is not Eben and Abbie’s play; it is Ephraim’s. That’s why O’Neill delays his entrance for a long while, long enough to get his thick-headed, luckless elder sons off to California. That’s why he spends so much time building up the character of Ephraim and his relationship to that hard, relentless Old Testament New England God. Barry was not convincing as an O. T. prophet manqué, because he couldn’t get inside the skin of a man who deep down feels that God speaks to him personally and gives him the inside track on truth. But Barry finally connected with his character when it came to feeling the depths of unrecoverable loss and appropriates it instantaneously into Ephraim’s life-long loneliness. Szász couldn’t give Barry any help with this early on, partly because he had set his sights on O’Neill as Epic Dramatist, and also perhaps partly because he had never encountered that familiar American type, the self-anointed prophet rock-sure of his ground and radically disinclined to give way to anyone else’s version of the truth.

Are there not such fanatics who inhabit the mitteleuropan landscape? If there are, Szász has not met them. What he has brought to this production of one of O’Neill’s most heartfelt moral tales was an odd conviction that O’Neill, like Chekhov, does not judge his characters (see the Interview), and an equally outré sense that O’Neill can be meaningfully transfer­red to the post-modern urban existential landscape of the Beckettian Absurd. This, finally, is to impose a mainly false and irrelevant agenda on a true Amer­ican original. For that matter, it also does scant justice to Beckett himself, who shares with O’Neill a vast and deep compassion for the aged and the lonely of the world.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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