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Arthur Meiselman
The Apparent Eugene O'Neill
Scene4 Magazine-inView

April 2012

Only in America... a dumb, somewhat educated, often mean-spirited man, who played stooge and door-keeper to the moneyed clique that enhanced its interests, drove the nation into severe debt, disenfranchised and disengaged a vast portion of the population... Ronald Reagan, heralded in death as one of the great presidents in American history.

Only in America... a dumb, uneducated, bubba, who would play stooge and door-keeper to the moneyed clique that would enhance its interests, drive the nation into severe debt, disenfranchise and disengage a vast portion of the population... George W. Bush, was elected president by less than fifty-per cent of the voters.

Only in America... a dumb, somewhat educated, successful film-actor, who did a few stage performances when he was young, delivered some entertaining and intriguing film performances... Marlon Brando, heralded in death as the greatest stage and screen actor of his time.

Only in America... would a major news publication Newsweek, herald Bob Dylan as the greatest poet of the 20th century.

And, Only in America... the only American playwright to win a Nobel prize... is best remembered for a lesser, melodramatic work that is heralded as his masterpiece, Long Day's Journey Into Night.

Who actually does all this heralding?

At the time O'Neill was honored, 1936, the Nobel Prize was a carefully protected, deeply weighed perspective of an artist's work. It recognized O'Neill, not only for his daring and innovative explorations of the theatrical art form, but also for his contribution to literature. O'Neill wrote to be read as well as to be played on the stage. He was a playwright, a constructor of plays like his mentor, Strindberg, and G.B. Shaw, not a dramatist like Shakespeare. In large part, he wrote about large, universal themes, even when he created small, seemingly inarticulate characters -- he didn't offer characters with 4-letter, 4-word vocabularies. O'Neill's work has been translated into most of the literary languages of the world. His plays are performed consistently -- at any given time, there is an O'Neill play on the boards, somewhere.

To date, there have been no successful cinematic adaptations of O'Neill's work (including Sidney Lumet's movies), with the exception, perhaps, of Ah Wilderness (O'Neill's only comedy), a couple of obscure European and Japanese films, and some films of live stage performances. Hollywood has never been able to digest O'Neill and O'Neill never cooked for Hollywood.

The arched criticism that attempts to capture this failing and has always elbowed O'Neill's work is grounded in disdain for his language; "turgid", "awkward" are the most common labels. But the fact is that O'Neill presents a powerful, confrontational eye-to-eye challenge to both the actor and the director. Screw with his dialogue, screw with his vision of the staging, and the production is screwed!.

A good example of this was the appearance of The Iceman Cometh.  When it premiered in 1946, this rolling concerto of a play is performed as a flat dirge. Ten years later, in the hands of José Quintero, it is a piece of music. In 1973, the film is once again a flat dirge. Even Tony Kushner, who reveres O'Neill and who is one of the few American playwrights since O'Neill to lunge at universal themes with often breathtaking construction, labors with the criticism of O'Neill's voice. He, too, genuflects that Long Day's Journey is the masterpiece.

In today's "Pax Americana", disposable, dyspeptic, American culture, where theatre is a trivial pursuit and the functional illiteracy rate inches toward 30 per cent, O'Neill remains a unique, almost unimaginable American artist. He wrote only for the theatre, he shared little of himself but his art, and he died in the privacy of his own vision.

Here is a part of his voice:

    ...I thought to myself, well, it's funny, there always have been wars and there always will be, I suppose, because I've never read much in any history about heroes who waged peace. Still, that's wrong. War is a waste of money which eats into the profits of life like thunder! Then, why war, I asked myself? But how are you going to end it? Then the flash came! There's only one workable way and that's to conquer everybody else in the world so they'll never dare fight you again! An impossible task, you object? Not any more! This invention you see before you makes conquering easy. Let me demonstrate with these models. On our right, you see the fortress wall of a hostile capital. Under your present system with battering rams, to make an effective breach in this wall would cost you the lives of ten thousand men. Valuing each life conservatively at ten yen, this amounts to one hundred thousand yen! This makes the cost of breaching prohibitive. But all of this waste can be saved. How? Just keep your eyes on your right and permit my exclusive  invention to solve this problem. (He addresses the fortress in a matter-of-fact tone) So you won't surrender, eh? (Then in a mock- heroic falsetto, answering himself like a ventriloquist) We die but  we never surrender! (Then matter-of-factly) Well, Brother, those  heroic sentiments do you a lot of credit, but this is war and not a  tragedy. You're up against new methods this time, and you better  give in and avoid wasteful bloodshed. (Answering himself) No! Victory or Death! (Then again) All right. Brother, don't blame me.  Fire! ...

    The play is over. The lights come up brilliantly in the theatre. In an aisle seat in the first row a MAN rises, conceals a yawn in his palm. stretches his legs as if they had become cramped by too long an evening, takes his hat from under the seat and starts to go slowly with the others in the audience. But although there is nothing out of the ordinary in his actions, his appearance excites; general comment and surprise for he is dressed as a Venetian merchant of the later Thirteenth Century. In fact, it is none other than MARCO POLO himself, looking a bit sleepy, a trifle puzzled, and not a little irritated as his thoughts, in spite of himself, cling for a passing  moment to the play just ended. He appears quite unaware at being unusual and walks in the crowd without self-consciousness, very much. one of them. Arrived in the lobby his face begins to clear of all disturbing memories of what had happened on the stage. The noise, the lights of the streets, recall him at once to himself. Impatiently he waits for his car, casting a glance here and there at faces in  the groups around him, his eyes impersonally speculative, his bearing stolid with the dignity of one who is sure of his place in the world. His car, a luxurious limousine, draws up at the curb. He gets in briskly, the door is slammed, the car edges away into the traffic and MARCO POLO, with a satisfied sigh at the sheer comfort of it all, resumes his life.

                                             (from Marco Millions)

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©2012 Arthur Meiselman
©2012 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Arthur Meiselman is a playwright, writer and the Editor of Scene4.
He also directs the Talos Ensemble and produces for Aemagefilms

For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives
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April 2012

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