January 6, 2004: O’Neill, Mourning Becomes Electra

National Theatre Lyttelton. Directed by Howard Davies. Lavinia Mannon: Eve Best; Christine Mannon: Helen Mirren; Ezra Mannon: Tim Pigott-Smith; Orin Mannon: Paul Hilton

I was lucky to book a ticket, two weeks ago, to this nearly sold-out produc­tion. I almost didn’t try, my recollection of how unreadable the script is being so strong; what puts me off most of all are the stage directions (“slowly, but with mounting anger”), which constantly remind the reader of O’Neill’s mistrust of actors, mistrust of readers’ ability to sense the emotion in the language itself, and most of all O’Neill’s own deep insecurity over the adequacy of his stage language.

This production, like any other, runs head-on into this infirmity, but it has an additional difficulty over how to get English actors to talk some reasonably convinc­ing New England dialect or other. I heard a near-genuine New Hamp­shire accent among the supporting players — I think it was Simon Merrells as the Reverend Everett Hills — but the other accents were all over the block and included stray tones of deep South (“discuhvah”). The dialect coach, Joan Washington, has very impressive credits, but she failed utterly, this time around, to find a common tongue, and somehow did not notice that one of her actors, Paul McGann, was only half intelligible as Adam Brandt. But, as I say, part of the problem is O’Neill’s own difficulty in finding a stage language adequate to the huge task of rendering these nineteenth-century New England characters convinc­ingly real while at the same time capturing the full amplitude of tragic humanity at which he aimed, as the title of the play and the obvious parallelism with Aeschylus’s ancient trilogy of betrayal, murder, revenge, guilt, and atone­ment make abundantly clear.

It is in fact painful and intermittently instructive, and ultimately vindic­ating of O’Neill as well, to watch them struggle, scene after scene and act after act, to wrestle his extremely ambitious design onto the stage, even as a parallel struggle ensues on the part of this devoted and determined cast of actors. A measure of the difficulty they faced can be found in the number of inadvertent laugh lines early on. It almost seemed as if Howard Davies was playing the sardonic qual­ities of lines, along with their trademark switch-back (“Oh, I didn’t mean that”) qualities, for laughs. But I don’t think he was doing that. It was O’Neill’s own unsureness of tone that was betraying their attempts to play the lines straight and then, finding they were producing laughs, letting the laughs happen and even riding their crests in the best manner of comic timing. Helen Mirren as Christine Mannon was particularly susceptible to this temptation, and at one point I heard a sudden descending tone, toward the end of a speech, that was a sure give-away of her years of experience at playing a line for what it was worth. But her instinct was misplaced here.

After this knowledge, what forgiveness? In fact, as Tony Kushner makes clear in his wonderful program essay “The genius of The Fog: O’Neill,” O’Neill’s talent — no, genius — as a playwright finally triumphs over his ineptitude as a writer. This is why so many critics have spent so much effort “trying to like O’Neill.” You think you really ought to like him because of his huge ambition, his dogged determination, his restless drive to experiment, and his cranky but profound grasp of the depths of tragic humanity. Then you go to see a play by O’Neill and find yourself cringing over the ineptitude of the writing — unless it is Long Day’s Journey or one of the few other plays in which he finally found the right stage language.

But, as I say, the play itself and this devoted cast triumph over its, and their, own limitations. The long scene between Lavinia and Orin in Part Three: The Haunted is one of the best things O’Neill ever wrote — no, constructed — and Eve Best and Paul Hilton give as good as they get here. There is not a sign of discom­forted audience laughter, and the moments of high tension flow seamlessly along. We are swept headlong into the plunging downward spiral of O’Neill’s tragic intent, fascinated, appalled, and helpless before the tremendous energy of our common descent into the maelstrom.

The setting is the exterior and interior of the Mannon mansion somewhere — ambiguously, in this production, both East and West of the Worcester “R” line (so well known and often mocked by people who live in Massachusetts) — in New England, and, for one long scene in Part Two, aboard the Flying Trades, Adam Brandt’s clipper ship. The façade of the mansion towers high and menac­ingly over the porch where we see these almost puny human beings begin to act out their destiny. The exaggerated perspective created by the walls, composed of three or four immensely tall, side-by-side wagons and flats, at stage left, and three gigantic pillars at stage right, creates a convergence upstage to an entrance fictionally representing the nearby town but suggesting a void, out of which come these hapless persons in quest of their own destruction. The roof of the mansion, towering high above, is painted on the visible underside with the ragged remains of an American flag. For the Part Two scene at the clipper ship, this roof is lowered and slanted at about 30°, so that the stage left edge virtually touches the floor, leaving just enough room stage right to represent Brandt’s captain’s cabin, with the trapdoor in its “roof” leading onto the deck, where Lavinia and Orin hide and overhear Christine and Adam planning their getaway to China — and where, in the cabin, after Christine has departed, Lavinia and Orin conspire to trap Adam and Orin shoots him in the back and, after he has fallen and died, shoots him once again. The audience applauded as the roof reached its full, slanted descent.

The wagons are pushed on and off, back and forth, quickly and expertly, in full sight of the audience (of course — no act curtain here, as would have been the case in contemporary productions of this play). As the play progresses, the angularity of the scenery becomes ever more pronounced until, in the very last scene, with Lavinia alone remaining, we see her imprisoned in a narrow, horizontally vertig­inous confine, within blank walls that have closed off any possible point of egress. It worked, and worked beautifully and powerfully.

In the previous interior scenes large portraits hang on the walls, most prom­in­ently that of Ezra Mannon, carrying out O’Neill’s concerted efforts at staging a modern parallel of the House of Mannon (is it a pun on “Mammon”?) with Aeschylus’s ancient House of Atreus. O’Neill was at some pains also to contrast this family of American aristocrats with the more middle-class Hazel and Peter Niles, neighbors and hopeful lovers or suitors of Orin and Lavinia, along with the other townspeople, prosperous, narrow-minded, uncomprehend­ing persons who function as a sort of updated Greek chorus, highlighted by O’Neill’s attempts to transcribe in their speeches the regional accents that set them off as “normal” and contrast them with the unaccented speech of the Mannons. For good measure, O’Neill creates five other characters, representing the lower class: Seth the gardener, an unnamed chantyman, and three workers or hangers-on, who speak in an even more noticeable dialect. Seth himself is given to frequent expressions of assent voiced in what O’Neill seems to have viewed as quint­essen­tially Yankee: “Ayeh!” — A form he had used in Beyond the Horizon and Desire Under the Elms. It is pronounced “ayYEH,” with more accent on the second syllable than the first — a fact unknown to Joan Washington. But hers was an unenviable task, particularly because Davies cast four of these five characters with black actors and then assigned Washington the thankless task of showing them how to talk like lower-class New Englanders, ignoring the unlikelihood of so many Blacks in a small New England town in 1865 and, conversely, the likelihood that, given their presence there, they would most likely be freed (or runaway) slaves and would talk in a more pronounced uneducated “Negro” speech of the sort O’Neill painstakingly (and painfully) transcribed in the speech of Brutus Jones in The Emperor Jones. Worse and worse. After such ignorance, what forgiveness?

It’s really, really hard to get O’Neill right. Olivier, some years back, turned in one of the most credible efforts of a British actor attempting an American accent in his James Tyrone. The best single example of it in my own theatregoing exper­ience has been David Suchet’s George in a revival, five or seven years ago, of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — He got the tones of an educated upstate New York history professor uncannily right.

As it is, it all goes to show that trying to like O’Neill and trying to produce him are comparably difficult enterprises, with many traps for the unwary, most of them unwittingly set by the playwright himself.



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

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