Theatre Review: O’Neill’s The Early Plays

By : February 19, 2012

Richard Maxwell’s February 2012 production of The Early Plays (three Eugene O’Neill one-acts) at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, in cooperation with The Wooster Group, seems to me baffling and unsuccessful.

The plays themselves are very weak and very dated. They lack effective central themes, relying instead on the novelty (a century ago) of a slice-of-life look at unlikely stage characters, rough and tumble sailors who quarrel and drink too much. A press release suggests that The Early Plays “explores themes of longing and eternity,” but press releases are known to be generous.

“Mr. Maxwell himself was unsure if they deserved staging,” according to one report, “since he felt the plays sounded as if they were by a writer finding his voice.”

In trying to replicate the cadences and dialects of sailors from around the world, O’Neill created a casting nightmare. This language problem apparently stymied even the estimable Elizabeth LeCompte of The Wooster Group, who had wanted (for some reason) to do the plays for years but finally decided that only Richard Maxwell could solve the problems.

The New York Times reported that Elizabeth LeCompte said “I didn’t know how to deal with the dialect of the play without it becoming cliché, so I figured Richard, a writer of real rigor, could figure it out.”

And he did. Or at least he decided to eliminate the problem of accents. “When we read through with everyone trying the accents, it just wasn’t working,” Maxwell told Gothamist. “Happily, we found a way to satisfy the requirements of the text without doing accents, and it’s dialect. There’s a distinction between dialect and accent. If you say the lines as they’re written, that’s satisfying the dialect without worrying about, well what’s the accent going to be.”

Sounds reasonable. It also helps to get around  Eugene O’Neill’s efforts, an embarrassment even at the time, to recreate black dialect in some of his plays.

“I feel like once we did that,” Maxwell said about eliminating accent,  “it became easier for us to attack the text. It made it easier for us to get it across in its pure form.”

Unfortunately, the pure form loses its musicality when delivered by an actor following the director’s flat, minimalist delivery style. In fact, parts of this production sounded less like a live production than like actors “running their lines” when they are learning their parts.

That New York Times article characterizes Maxwell’s directorial style as “a process of purification, focusing on stripping away artifice, cutting away excess interpretation and aiming for lines delivered neutrally.”

I have no quarrel with that minimalist style, when it is appropriate to the text, but early O’Neill isn’t early Pinter. Nevertheless it is churlish to criticize a contemporary director who so respects scripts.

Because O’Neill’s early scripts are truly weak, I was eager to see what New York City Players and The Wooster Group would do to bring them alive to a 2012 audience. Perhaps I missed a great triumph of production over material, but I suspect instead that the inherent problems Richard Maxwell acknowledged while developing the production are beyond anyone’s abilities, even The Wooster Group and New York City Players.

The young Eugene O’Neill was not only looking for his voice (never to find it in the cacophony of sailors’ voices), he was looking too for the playwriting principles that bring theater alive. He was looking too for tragic characters and compelling stories, not the vignettes and sketches that comprise these early plays.

[Edit Feb. 24, 2012] Ben Brantley of The New York Times just reviewed The Early Plays and came to a similar conclusion: “The style is stripped-down, straightforward and somnolent in the classic Maxwell manner, but without — I’m sorry to report — the usual Maxwell impact.” My thinking is that the fault lies primarily with the young Eugene O’Neill, who wrote these one-cats while still learning playwriting. He was so enamored with language that he had not yet learned the power of silences. Of course, few playwrights before the 1950s understood that.

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