Monday, July 07, 2008

"Before Breakfast" - The Hughie Prototype

In Before Breakfast, a short monologue, a young woman Mrs. Rowland, puttering about in a squalid apartment gets breakfast ready for her boozing, artist husband who is waking up from a hungover slumber in the next room

It reminds me a bit of Hallie's opening monologue in Sam Shepard's Buried Child, and Maggie's first act monologue in Tennessee William's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The monologue's structure is around the discovery of an affair, but almost in the dead center of the piece we get some purchase on O'Neill's deeper themes of money, marriage and happiness: "There wouldn't be many of them now envy my catch if they knew the truth!"

The young poet husband, from a wealthy family, is a drunk, a layabout and a wastrel. And now, he has gone and got another girl knocked up. The play ends with an offstage suicide.

The Personal Equation - Loneliness and Justice

O'Neill's four act play engages with socialism, anarchy and unions through the dramatization of plot to blow up a ship.

Tom Perkins, Jr. is the son of the 2nd Engineer of the S.S. San Fransisco and he has fallen into the ideology and the aura of Olga Tarnoff, a dark and intense woman who is involved with a group of anarchists plotting to dynamite the engines of a ship.

Tom finds out the ship is none other than his father's! Tom volunteers for the job and goes to visit his lonely old man who lives alone in a small house in Jersey City. The purpose of the visit is for Tom to warn his father, but the scene plays out into a pitiful exchange between a proud old man and his angry son. The lonely father begs the son to not leave him, to take the path of the straight and narrow.

Tom had been an employee on the San Fransisco, but had been dismissed that afternoon. The father begs Tom to reconsider, to go and get his job back with the company.

The dialogue verges on the melodramatic, but there is the deep, pathetic loneliness and the reverberation of shattered American dreams that will echo in the exchanges of Arthur Miller's fathers and sons a few decades later.

Perkins: Listen! If I went to them - I've worked faithfully for thirty years. They've never had a complaint to make of me - if I went
and aksed them-

Tom: (frowning) What?

Perkins: And you were to promise them to five up this I.W. foolishness - you're only a boy, you know - and you promised not to live with that woman any more - I think - I think they might -

Tom: (in hard tones) Take me back?

Perkins: Yes, yes, I'm almost sure. I'll see Mr. Griffin the first thin in the morning and I'll -

Tom: And YOU advise me to do this?

Perkins: (faltering) I think - I think -

Tom: You advise me to cringe like a yellow mongrel and
lick the boot which has kicked me out?

Perkins: (half-insane with nervous fear of everything) I don't know - I
don't - You must go back to your position, really you must - I've dreamed so much - You'll be president of the Company some day - I've failed - you must succeed - Please, Tom, please go back! I know they'll take you if you'll only -

Things end up tragic of course, and O'Neill has a bit of twisted fun with the melodramatic manipulations in the last act. Even the very last line of the play, "Long Live the Revolution," is rendered as a cruel cosmic joke. And outside the windows are the sounds of troops marching off to war.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

"Warnings" Money Sinks Ships

Once again O'Neill does domestic chaos very well. Nautical Wireless Operator Knapp's family is on hard times.

When the play opens Mrs. Knapp is having hard time just keeping the kids in order. Their older boy is introduced as wearing clothes that he is busting out of.

When the Wireless operator comes home, he reveals that his doctor said that he is going deaf. The harridan comes out of Mrs. Knapp when Mr. Knapp gets a conscience about trying to perform his duties with a hearing impairment.

Knapp goes out to sea with disastrous consequences. O'Neill actually is able to create a gripping scene as Knapp tries to receive wireless reports when the ship gets into some trouble.

Once again the need of money, and the fear of poverty result in destruction and disgrace for O'Neill's unfortunates. Knapps' pleading seems so insignificant once within the dire conditions of a sinking ship.

"I wanted to give up the job this time, but she wouldn't let
me. She said I wanted them to starve - and Charlie asked me for a new suit."

"Recklessness" The Rich Man's Got The Power

Recklessness is just marking time. A kind of exercise for O'Neill in making a melodrama. I guess, though, it is the first time we see a servant named Mary.

Millionaire, Arthur Baldwin discovers his wife cheating on him with the chaeuffer and sets up the driver's death just in time for the cops to bring the body to the door for the wife to see.

In the end Mrs. Baldwin shoots herself and O'Neill adds on a Checkovian or Strindbergian end line:

"Mrs. Baldwin has just shot herself. You had better phone for the doctor, Mary."

"Thirst" Why Gawd! Part II

With the Titanic disaster of 1912 fresh in the consciousness and Eugene's obsession with the sea charging forward, Thirst is written and O'Neill's metaphors of drifting souls starts to surface a little.

If you need a refresher on the disaster look here.

The play is a little audacious, I mean the stage directions indicated a liferaft bobbing on the ocean with shark fins circling. In fact, O'Neill keeps referring to the shark fins gathering.

The three people aboard are a gentleman, a dancer and a black sailor who sits quietly the whole time. Eugene O'Neill played him in the first production of the play.

A whole lot of philosophizin' goes on. The Gentleman cries out "God, God what a joke to play on us!"

But the real heartbeat is in the details. The Dancer discusses how she saw the captain shooting himself before the ship went down. The Gentleman remembers how he was watching the Dancer in the ship's bar and also how he saw a woman eaten by a shark right in front of him.

A really uncomfortable and grotesque scene comes when the Dancer, convinced that the sailor has water horded away, straightens out her clothes and tries to seduce the soldier offering her body to him:

"Are you so stupid that you do not know what I mean? Look! I am offering myself to you! I am kneeling before you. I who have always had men kneel to me!"

She is repelled by the sailor, and the whole scene, despite the overly dramatic dialogue, is pathetic and hard to read, or watch I imagine. It is also cruelly ironic when we find out in the end that the sailor will take her body in quite a different way.

However, near the end of the play we will see a glimpse of something still years to come: the image of Mary Tyrone in her final appearance in Long Day's Journey:

(The Dancer is lying in huddled heap moaning to herself.
Suddenlyshe jumps to feet. All her former weakness seems quite gone. She stands swaying a little with the roll of the raft. Her eyes have a terrible glare in them. They seem bursting out of her head...

The Dancer:(smoothing her dress over her hips and looking before her as if in the mirror) Quick Marie! You are so slow tonight. I will be late. Did you not hear the bell? I am the next on. Did he send any flowers tonight...

Monday, October 18, 2004

"The Web":Why Gawd! Why?

The Web was what Eugene O'Neill affectionately called "the first play I wrote."

Interestingly enough it starts out rather good. It is grungy and has the gritty feel young playwrights want to convey. Like Lanford Wilson who wrote the early plays like Balm in Gilead and The Hot L Baltimore, Eugene O'Neill seems fascinated with all the grittiness of of life that he was experiencing in his travels.

The stage directions set the mood directly:

"A squalid bedroom on the top floor of a rooming house..."

Rose Thomas, a prostitute, has a row with her pimp/man about her health and their living conditions. There is a certain reality to the situation and that reality, fortunately, is able to penetrate the Dick Tracy- like noir patter:

"D'yuh think I'm a simp to be gittin' you protection and keepin' the bulls from runnin' yuh in when all yuh do is to stick at home and play dead."

After a few pages of that you will be chuckling, and, in fact, you will find yourself wanting to to be addin' "see" to the end of every sentence,...see.

But the truth which O'Neill is able to touch upon is the truth of money. When Rose and Steve fight over money in the squalid apartment the seen actually comes to life in a way that is totally defeated in the rest of the play. In Long Day's Journey into Night we see the deep effects of money worries on the DNA of the Tyrone family.

Here a ridiculously contrived little plot happens when a stranger comes into the picture, giving Rose money and then, inconveniently, being shot. Rose is framed for the murder and as the cops are puttin' the nippers on 'er, she makes a totally strange outburst:

ROSE-(to the air) That's right. Make a good job of me. (Suddenly she stretches both arms above her head and cries bitterly, mournfully, out of the depths of her desolation) Gawd! Gawd! Why d'yuh hate me so?

This of course comes after we are told that she seems to be talking to and staring at an unseen presence in the room. It is a wholly undeserved outburst and unsupported by the brief proceedings. However, you can see O'Neill starting to formulate thoughts about tragic movements in everyday life.

However, in this attempt, I find myself siding with the cops who say, "Here, here, no rough talk like that!"

Friday, October 15, 2004

"A Wife for A Life" : Keep Your day Job 'Gene

The Year is 1913. O'Neill is twenty five, but lived a harsh life. A divorce, an attempt to take his own life, diagnosis of tuberculosis and a devouring of Synge and Strindberg lead the young playwright to burst onto the scene with.... A Vaudeville Sketch?

Well, actually that is just what O'Neill insisted on calling it apparently, but in actuality it is kind of an vaudeville. The young playwright is using fate, lost love and the bond of friendship between two prospectors in Arizona as the set up for a horrible punchline. The Short Play is called "A Wife for A Life."

The Older Man and Jack are hitting it big panning for Gold, but when the younger Jack talks of a woman, the relationship gets strained. Really it is quite silly and has all of the things we do as beginning playwrights.

Over Exposition
Actor Proofing the script

However, the talent and thought of O'Neill shows through in his setting up of dramatic tension in that The Older Man would like to kill Jack, but Jack saved the Older Man's life at a time earlier. So he can't just up and kill him.

The interesting thing is reading O'Neill's opening description of the set, which contains the poetic details that we would see throughout the rest of his career

The dialogue leaves much to be desired:

JACK: I loved her. In the corrupt environment of a mining camp she seemed like a lily growing in a field of rank weeds.

The Start of Something Foolish

Blame Tony Kushner...

He recently wrote a lengthy article about how looking at the canon of Eugene O'Neill, along with his life, can inform us a great deal about playwrighting.

So. I am going to attempt to read all of Eugene O'Neill's plays and you can follow along on this Blog. I will write about my experiences and what I am learning.

Luckily for me the Library of America has collected O'Neill's plays into a three volume set which has the plays roughly in chronological order.