Visit the blog
announces a new imprint

Search Articles

Search Authors

Advanced Search

Join our Mailing List
Friday, June 24, 2005

Arts & Letters

Hippolytus in Denim

Desire Under the Elms by Eugene O’Neill, directed by János Szász. With Raymond J. Barry, Amelia Campbell, Mickey Solis, Shawtane Bowen, and Peter Cambor. Set design by Riccardo Hernandez; costume design by Edit Szücs; lighting design by Christopher Akerlind; and sound design by David Remedios; American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Eugene O’Neill was an alcoholic, as his father was before him. His mother became addicted to morphine following treatment during a difficult delivery. His son was an alcoholic and a suicide. It is the kind of family story we label as “tragic” without any real specificity. As a young man, O’Neill studied at Harvard with the famous George Pierce Baker, whose drama classes were the inspiration for a generation or more of America’s theatrical talent. Baker’s emphasis on ancient Greek theater gave O’Neill a lifelong interest in dramatic stories that display irony, reversals, recognitions, with characters caught in the iron grip of necessity (the ancient ananke), their lives a desperation from which only death can release them. Joined to this was the Roman Catholicism of his childhood, which imposed a system of moral absolutes and judgments with equal relentlessness. Before the day when addiction was understood as a disease and frequently a genetic predisposition, an addict’s intense shame added to the fuel of rage. O’Neill rejected the divine system or destiny that ancient theater posits as the force that holds humans in bondage and found his inexorability in the ideas of Sigmund Freud, which were so popular in the Twenties. As he himself fought against a powerful father, so he posed young males in a struggle with fathers. The inevitability of such conflicts or the love a son might feel for his mother were worked into his tragic sense of American life.

Two of his greatest plays are formed from Greek models: Desire Under the Elms and Mourning Becomes Electra. The latter, set in New England following the Civil War, is a reworking of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, while the former is somewhat more loosely based on Euripides’ Hippolytus, the drama of sexual conflict and competition between a father, son, and stepmother. Neither is as deeply satisfying as the play he wrote when he had finally freed himself from models but remained steeped in the ancient Greek notion of inexorability: A Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Here, all the elements of his life—the addiction, the powerful father, the mother’s emotional blackmail, the son’s rebellion, the Catholicism, the alcoholic’s rage—finally come together in a portrait that in fact excites the pity and fear to which Aristotle alludes. Yet, of course, the action cannot be truly tragic as the Greeks understood the idea, since addiction robs its victims of the capacity for choice and committed action (which is why they are victims).

Desire Under the Elms was first produced in 1924 with Walter Huston (grandfather to Angelica) famously taking the part of the old patriarch, Ephraim Cabot. The play is what critics of the time liked to called “heightened realism,” that is, a depiction of “real” life; yet, through the language, the paring-down of detail, the yearnings for transcendence, the action takes on a symbolic or abstract quality. Plays with rustics—gruff old patriarchs; moody rebellious sons; outsiders with an urban view who upset the status quo; women who “spell trouble”—were common fare at the time. Indeed, shortly after Desire opened, Sidney Howard’s They Knew What They Wanted, a comedy with almost the same plot (an aging farmer, a young wife whom he has more or less “bought,” a young farmhand who gets her pregnant) came before the New York public. Because his characters were clichés in a sense, O’Neill immediately achieved another important feature of tragic drama: a connection with his audience, which would understand both the characters and their story. As such, there would be no surprises, and the sensation of tragic inevitability would result.

O’Neill also put dialect into the mouths of his characters, a daring maneuver considering that vaudeville routines at the time featured country rubes talking “rube-like.” The argument can be made, however, that O’Neill found such dialectical variety poetic; more to the point, the tragic diction of Attic drama was a special language that removed tragic characters from the real world of fifth-century Athens. In the same way, no one really speaks as O’Neill portrays them speaking: he creates a timeless situation on the foundation of realistic drama. References to the Gold Rush place the story sometime after 1848, but no further effort is made to keep that time frame. It could be anytime. That many New England farmers continually have to remove rocks from their tilled fields is well-known, but other than that indication, the place of the drama could be anywhere.

Critics of the time called Desire Under the Elms the first genuine American tragic drama. It is still considered to hold that honor. The action takes place in and around the Cabot farm, thus establishing the two sources of tension, the relations among its inhabitants and their passionate attachment to the land. O’Neill envisaged a stage-set with a house of exposed rooms, so that the hothouse emotions played out through thin walls would bring home the seductions inherent in overly close quarters. As we know from Greek antiquity (and present-day police blotters), house-bound families are often beset by incest, adultery, hatred, violence, and murder. Once out of doors, these very same people are at once the slaves of agricultural life and tenacious possessors of their land. O’Neill furthermore describes two giant elms, which stand over the Cabot house with limbs drooping down like tired women, yet women who offer maternal comfort, a kind of projection of the dead mother of Eben Cabot, whom the young man romanticizes and fantasizes about throughout the play. It is an association the audience cannot possibly make; yet critics of productions of this play have remarked over the years on the presence or absence, or indeed the quality, of these two great elms as presented by successive generations of set designers.

In the ART production that just closed this month, Riccardo Hernandez has worked with the director, János Szász, to create a minimalist setting that evokes rather than describes the scene. From the first row of seats to the brick backwall of the stage area, the surface is covered with loose gravel rising to suggest a slight hill. Over this hovers the sidewall of an entire house raised on a slant, looming down, and creating the sense of oppression that this house has for the family that occupies it. These are not entirely new ideas. Several years ago in San Jose, California, Giulio Cesare Perrone created a set with the stage covered in soil; in London, a couple of years ago, Bob Crowley created a looming house for the National Theater’s production of Mourning Becomes Electra (see, “Bloodlines,” February 1, 2004) with panels that opened and shut, and thus created the same sense of oppression.

The present set design is problematic, however. First of all, the stones are so rough that they require the play’s only woman, dressed improbably enough throughout the action in what seems to be a blue cocktail dress, to accessorize with kneepads since she spends so much time histrionically going down on her knees. The combination is ludicrous. Furthermore, Szász has chosen to emphasize the stones to the point of overkill. The play begins with the brothers picking up rather large stones lying in a heap in front of the stage and running with them up the slope to deposit them in a wall they seem to be building. Put aside the fact that an old farm such as this would not be pushing up such a collection of large rocks every year; that the walls of the farm would long since have been in place; and that men who labor continually—especially at tasks like hauling rocks—know enough to pace themselves and certainly never to run up an incline. In addition, watching all this activity transforms the audience into spectators at an athletic event rather than bringing them into a dramatic action.

The director cannot let the stones alone. When Ephraim has to deliver one of his two long monologues, this one on his marital history, rather than working at making the speech inherently interesting, the director and actor have taken the easy way out by having him create a tower of stones while speaking, so that the audience can engage itself in speculating on the pile’s stability (of course, it also has its phallic implications). Later, when Eben jumps on Abby for a delicious round of illicit sex, the director is flagrantly manipulative in positioning their bodies close enough to the pile so that the young man’s flailing feet kick over his father’s simulacrum of an erection. Not too subtle a gesture, that. But never one to let the symbol go, Szász stages Abby’s murder of her new baby by burying the infant in a pile of the very same rocks (although it seems that what Abby actually creates is a little stone shelter in which the babe could have survived long enough to have been heard crying by someone and rescued).

The cast has dispensed with O’Neill’s dialect speech except for a few words such as “purdy” and “wahm,” evidently to give the suggestion of rusticity. Is it too much to suggest, however, that a theatrical group such as the ART, which does not have to worry about box office in its pursuit of the interesting and unusual, might consider that it had an obligation to present the actual language that O’Neill wrote, and take the effort to make it sound right? Or to consider that it had the obligation to stage scenes in the rooms designated by the playwright rather than have characters in a vast open space conduct intimate scenes while their fellow actors upon occasion face away at the edges of the stage to remove themselves from the action? The point of the interior walls of the house, as O’Neill suggests, is that, ironically, they both impose separation and require intimacy of the people who live within them. The blocking in this production loses the cast in a vast space in which each character’s personality and problems become entirely individuated. The result, however, is that the family, that matrix of tragic action, gets lost.

Robert Benchley infuriated O’Neill when, in reviewing the original production, he called the drama a “triangle,” as though it were a variation on that ever-fashionable French comedy of manners. Instead, it is the story of a young son whose love for his dead mother is complicated by his sexual and material rivalry with his father; of a young woman who has in effect sold herself into marriage with an old farmer to gain the security of some real estate that she anticipates inheriting upon the old man’s death; and of an old man who is alternately cock of the walk in possessing a young woman and a vengeful foe when he perceives that his son might wrest the land from him. There are three sons on the farm. Two, from Ephraim’s first marriage, leave for the gold of California. It is only the youngest who remains to act out the Freudian drama that is his destiny. He has been relieving himself sexually with the town whore, as his older brothers (as well as, he learns, his father) have done before him. The stage is set for more sharing. Like Phaedra in Euripides’ Hippolytus, Amy casts suspicion on the young stepson to alienate his father, who, in patriarchal fashion, will make Eben, not his new bride, his heir. Like Oedipus, Eben will make love to his father’s wife, invoking as he does so the memory of his mother, whom he fancies hovers over the house—her house, as he claims it always was. Amy, whose desperate life has finally brought her to this barren and lonely patch of gravel, will fancy that she loves her stepson for the emotional warmth that it brings, along with a baby boy with which he impregnates her, which she can present to her husband as her lawful son and rightful heir. The complicated lusts of this drama for flesh and soil, issue and money, are the stuff of contemporary soap opera. The challenge is to keep Oprah at bay.

The veteran actor, Raymond J. Barry, an import from Manhattan, plays Ephraim with tight lips and hard eyes: you just know nothing escapes him—except, of course, that his son is cuckolding him. His self-confidence leads him into the aggressive sententiousness of everything he has to say. Barry handles these speeches pretty well considering that they are both tiresome and repelling, meant to demonstrate his presence and his yearnings so that their surface content is immaterial. He has the swagger of a successful male: seventy-five and he can still get it up, still do the chores, still boast himself a formidable obstacle to his son’s ambition to succeed him. Barry gives the scene in which he dances at the party in celebration of the birth of his baby son marvelous energy, and the isolation of his dancing is finally the saddest moment in the play. There is nothing worse than old men naked in their hope.

Eben, as played by Mickey Solis, uses his androgynous looks as the perfect foil to the father. He is thin enough to look as though he would break in two. He is a dreamer, a misfit, one senses, in the mold of James Dean, young and sexy, and the immediate object of Amy’s sexual hunger. He derives his strength, one feels, solely from his confused worship of his dead mother, from the farm that he insists was hers and is therefore now his, and from the rage he feels for his usurping father. His lust for the farm slides into lust for his mother, which is confused with the sexual rivalry he experiences in using the town whore, his father’s cast-off, and culminates in the sexual conquest of his father’s wife, his own stepmother. O’Neill has created something other than a textbook Freudian Oedipal situation by enfolding material greed into it. Still, the audience is required to use considerable imagination to translate the fact of Solis’s good looks into the psychic energy that the part requires. It does not come easily from his delivery of the lines or body movements.

Amelia Campbell, who made a great impression and won a Tony nomination for her part in the short-lived production of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good several years back, comes on the scene in the play as a spitting cat. It is a marvelous evocation of a woman who, as she says, “comes from nothing,” an orphan who must fight for everything she can get in a world that has openings only for wives, maids, nannies, and whores. As a wife to an old man on a dismal farm, she knows that she will be required to combine all these roles, and she wants to be sure that she gets her reward in the end. Campbell shouts, screams, taunts, wails, does everything at the top of her lungs, as her desperation keeps her fighting with furious aggression. It seems the best thing in this production. One can even overlook the preposterous getup: cocktail dress and kneepads (the irreverent image of fellatio from Amy’s previous life looming large). But then, the shouting gets away from Campbell, and the director seems to have lost control. For the rest of the play, Campbell screams and rants until she and the audience are exhausted, and she has drained the character of meaning.

Amy’s face—set in a hard, furious grimace—matches the closed expression on her husband’s face. Theirs is a colossal struggle for control—only, and this is what makes the play tragic, she doesn’t play her cards right. The young man turns out to have to make choices of his own: he will not be her passive partner. The baby they create becomes the albatross she must destroy if she is to keep the young man. It is at this point that O’Neill sentimentalizes. Murdering the baby is bad enough, since it seems so out of character with what Amy wants out of life and knows she can expect. As Tina Turner would sing, “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” O’Neill’s sentimental resolution of the plot—that is, Eben turning Amy in, her insistence upon facing her punishment, the arrival of the police to escort her off to jail—is more than this director seems to have wanted, for it is all cut from the play. We are left with the more contemporary sight of three people destroyed, the baby dead, and the farm no longer wanted.

Charles Rowan Beye is distinguished professor emeritus of classics at the City University of New York, a contributing editor to, and author, most recently, of Odysseus: A Life.
Page 1 of 1 pages