Ibsen, Strindberg and their Acolytes – a Retrospective

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O'Neill's early one-act play, "Recklessness" at the Metropolitan Playhouse

O’Neill’s early one-act play, “Recklessness” at the Metropolitan Playhouse

 

Two early plays by Eugene O’Neill
at the Metropolitan Playhouse
June 3 – 30, 2016

Recklessness

a dark tale of sweet revenge

Now I Ask You
a light comedy of social folly

Featuring:
Erin Beirnard, Emily Bennett. Dylan Brown, Eden Epstein, David Murray Jaffe, Kelly King, Jeremy Russial, Terrell Wheeler, Eric R. Williams, Kim Yancey-Moore

Crew:

Director – Alex Roe
Stage Manager  – Heather Olmstead
Set  – Alex Roe
Lighting  – Christopher Weston
Costume  – Sidney Fortner

The double bill of early plays by Eugene O’Neill, brilliantly directed by Alex Roe, which recently closed at the Metropolitan Playhouse, appears as the answer to a question posed by another double bill (of sorts, one would have to say, since they are paired in repertory but not in a single evening) presented by the Theater for a New Audience of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879) and Strindberg’s The Father (1887), and it makes sense to discuss them all together. The question is, “What next?” In The Father and other works Strindberg was commenting in an aggressively negative tenor on the Norwegian’s marriage play, and it seemed natural to me to wonder how audiences of various periods would construe the conflict. The young Eugene O’Neill, in these really quite effective and actually impressive early plays, Recklessness (1913) and Now I Ask You (1916), never produced in his lifetime, provided an answer, at least for his own generation. In them, one a 35-minute tragedy and the other a 90-minute comedy, he both wrestles and plays with the legacy of the Nordic masters, who were still the forces to be reckoned with for a playwright learning his craft.

In Tappan Wilder’s essay in TFANA’s supporting publication, their 360 Series, I was struck by his observation that A Doll’s House was generally regarded as dated in the 1930s. The issues were over fifty years old by then, and the tone of William Archer’s translations, the basic vehicle for Ibsen’s plays, not only in English, but in other languages, in which translators relied on Archer rather than the Dano-Norwegian original, was regarded as impossibly stodgy. This was not at all how the twenty-five-year-old O’Neill related either to Ibsen or to Strindberg. On the one hand we see him making an effort to make their themes relevant to his moment, and on the other he was himself living through some of them in his relationships with Louise Bryant and other flames. Now I Ask You came fully to life in Metropolitan’s effervescent production, but it truly catches fire in the context of his relations with Bryant and her husband, John Reed. We might well reflect on what the three of them would have laughed at together and what rankled under the surface.

In Recklessness, Mildred, the young wife of Arthur Baldwin, a much older man of some means, is having what has all appearances of being a banal and rather unpromising affair with Fred Burgess, their chauffeur. The action takes place in Baldwin’s summer home in the Catskills. They plan to leave together, but they disagree on the timing. Fred wants to finish his engineering degree and move on from his position as a servant, which he hates. Mildred has less of a concern with practicality and wants to run away immediately, before she has to endure the company of her husband any further. The lovers have some discussion about how they feel about him. Their feelings vary. Mildred resents her subjugation to a man her parents forced her to marry, who can only regard her as a possession, but she acknowledges that he provides for her well. The parallels with Nora H’s situation are clear enough. Once Arthur returns from the business trip, which has provided Mildred and Fred with their opportunity to pursue one another romantically, and learns of the affair from Gene, the housemaid Fred cast off for the lady of the house, O’Neill’s frame of reference moves over into Strindberg territory. Once alone, he drops the hard exterior he presented to the maid, and cries in agony, as if whatever shreds of masculine dignity have been undermined. The car Arthur used on his trip, we have learned, was giving him trouble. Certain that it is unsafe to drive, he phones Fred and tells him to drive post-haste to the nearby town to fetch a doctor for Mildred, who, he lies, has been taken seriously ill. “Drive like hell!” he urges repeatedly. Later he learns that his plot has worked just as he expected. He calls for Mildred. When she comes down, he confronts her with her adulterous relationship. After some severe moments, he offers her a divorce and wishes her well with Fred. Having learned just what kind of a man Arthur wants her to think he is, she manages to express some love for him. Of course, Arthur is in charge of the situation and controls its timing carefully, knowing that the police will eventually arrive with Fred’s body. When they do, the gruesome sight of her lover’s mangled body sends her off the her bedroom, and we hear a shot. A delighted Arthur tells the housemaid to call a doctor. “Mrs. Baldwin has been shot.”

Arthur channels his rage into a twisted plot, which he is able to control through deceit and manipulation, playing on Mildred and Fred’s love for one another to destroy them. There is some discussion about Fred’s reckless tendencies, but once he is told he must “drive like hell,” to save his beloved, he can see little option. Arthur’s plot is reckless as well, but he is able to control events and knows it. This is a Strindbergian outcome, in which the husband reasserts his compromised masculine privilege through a deceitful indirect murder plot—the opposite of the Captain’s spiritual castration and descent into madness in The Father. As evil as he is, Arthur is an Odysseus returned from the wars, dealing with his wife’s suitor with cleverness, but no valor at all. The classical echo both counterbalances and enriches any modern-minded critique of of bourgeois marriage and male authority.

This production of Recklessness begins with the entire cast moving rapidly through the house. Soon the action focuses on Mildred and Fred’s tryst, as they desperately anticipated Arthur’s delayed return from his travels and the story sets off on its course. Alex Roe, from beginning to end, elicited something beyond energy from his first-rate cast. Passion and desperation produce raw nerves and intense conflict, sometimes bottled up, eventually exploding. Leading the pack was Kelly King, with his brilliant portrayal of Arthur Baldwin. King endowed him with some wit, ranging from the ironic to the sardonic, and a polished accent, hinting at good family and good schools, which give him a certain luster, if little likability. If King gave himself room to entertain us with his edgy humor, he was also intense, expressing rage and browbeating others with powerful outbursts. Erin Beirnard played the adulterous wife with a perfect sense of her class and situation and was thoroughly convincing in dialogue with her lover, played a bit stiffly by Jeremy Russial, and with her husband. Eden Epstein was memorably cold and venomous as Gene, the housemaid. This was a superb cast, but what most impressed me was the intense energy the director brought to each and every performance, and the perfect pacing. Recklessness may be recognizable as juvenilia, but it is still outstanding work by a young playwright intent on learning his craft. It doesn’t take a miracle to bring it off, but the quality of this production was close to a miracle in itself.

Now I Ask You is a comedy of manners, in which Tom Drayton, a young businessman, courts and marries Lucy Ashleigh, a young lady of advanced ideas about art and society. He is unremarkable, except for his devotion to Lucy and his patience in playing along with her fads, which includes free love, which is not at all to his taste. Eventually, after their marriage, it becomes too much, as Lucy carries on a flirtation with Gabriel Adams, a pretentious young man who churns out bad poetry. He lives with Lucy’s friend, Leonora Barnes, an abstract painter. Following the advice of Lucy’s mother, Mary, with whom he seems to have a more profound understanding than with Lucy herself, he finds it necessary to pursue an affair with Leonora, a whirlwind of arty eccentricity and affectation, whom he cordially detests, in order to make Lucy jealous. Things come to a head between Tom, Lucy, Gabriel, and Leonora, and true love and traditional marriage finally hold sway.

It’s hard to imagine a very bright future for Lucy and Tom, but then I’m thinking anachronistically, assuming that some intellectual sympathy and a willingness to take one’s partner seriously is a good thing.z On the other hand, there is nothing in Lucy’s behavior to suggest that she be taken seriously. She is given to posturing on the highest levels of pretension. Yet there seems something unfair in the manipulation her mother and husband conceive behind her back. However, the plot succeeds in restoring domestic order, at least until Lucy and Tom get bored with one another.

Again Alex Roe’s direction is brimming with energy and perfect in timing. Emily Bennett’s red hair and aristocratic profile made her a perfect fit for Lucy, whom she played with a full command of the necessary inspired or pathetic gestures. David Murray Jaffe, as her antagonistic father, gave a fully rounded portrayal of the sort that raises a laugh before the punch line raises its head. His humor was in the character as much as in his lines. Dylan Brown was a perfect Leonora, wearing her absurd arty costume to perfection, and using her features and voice with a constantly amusing concoction of artist’s patter and acerbity. Eric R. Williams brought the requisite extravagance to Gabriel, the poetaster. Kim Yancey-Moore was engaging as Mary Ashleigh, perhaps a little too engaging, and comfortable in attitudes of a wise mother. Terrell Wheeler speaks with a handsome rich baritone and has exceptional expression in his eyes and face, which he used to make Tom a rather more sensitive and complex character than one might assume.

A production of this caliber is only what one can expect from the Metropolitan Playhouse. I have not forgotten last year’s production of George Broadhurst’s The Man of the Hour, which was both funny and suspenseful…and superbly acted. In this case the director. the actors, and all involved created a tour de force which did full justice to the inherent qualities in the apprentice works by one of the greats. His talent and ambition are evident throughout in these plays which deal with the serious dramatic and social lessons of Ibsen and Strindberg without being experimental in themselves. O’Neill has transformed his models, regarded then as now as the daring beginnings of modern theater, into conventional melodrama and social comedy. But it was not because he failed to understand what Ibsen and Strindberg were about or that he was a dense philistine. It is clear that O’Neill wrote the plays, which were never produced when they were new nor at all during the author’s lifetime, not as exercises or experiments, but to entertain an audience and to achieve success on the American commercial stage.

 

John Douglas Thompson and Maggie Lacey in A Doll's House. Photo Henry Grossman.

John Douglas Thompson and Maggie Lacey in A Doll’s House. Photo Henry Grossman.

Theater for a New Audience

Hendrik Ibsen, A Doll’s House (adapted by Thornton Wilder)
August Strindberg, The Father (adapted by David Greig)
Directed by Arin Arbus

 

Today, A Doll’s House, Ibsen’s most famous play, as it was in 1913 and 1938, is treated with rather more respect, or should I say, reverence, handed down perhaps more in freshman women’s studies courses than in drama surveys. In the most recent major English translation, published less than a week ago, its general editor, Tore Rem, can justly say:

“The sound of the street door being slammed is heard from below.” That famous stage direction, the last words on the last page of a play which in English tends to bear the title of A Doll’s House, was first read, albeit in Henrik Ibsen’s original Dano-Norwegian, in December 1879. Since then it has reverberated throughout the world, from Copenhagen to Canberra, from New York to New Delhi, from Beijing to Bristol. A Doll’s House, in which Nora leaves not only her husband but also her young children, has led to controversial and celebrated productions and received iconic status both as a play and as a central document of female emancipation. It has even been hailed as ‘one of the great pages of bourgeois culture: on a par with Kant’s word on the Enlightenment, or Mill’s on liberty’. 1 And it has, without exaggeration, contributed to change in numerous people’s lives and, however directly or indirectly, in societies at large. Ibsen’s art somehow continues to affect us, to produce spellbinding and transformative effects, around the world, well over a hundred years since it was first produced. —Ibsen, Henrik. A Doll’s House and Other Plays (Penguin Classics) (p. xv). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

As for its life on the stage, which is the only real life a play can have…while a Broadway revival would call for a celebrity cast, perhaps more at home in Hollywood than on stage, A Doll’s House (like all of Ibsen’s output) fits comfortably into summer revival programs. The Williamstown Theatre Festival offered a fine production a few years ago, and the Berkshire Theatre Festival gave a magnificent performance of Ghosts with the great David Adkins, to mention only two. In New York, our revival houses keep us reasonably well supplied with Ibsen. The Theater for a New Audience paired a respectful, period-true production of A Doll’s House with Strindberg’s The Father last spring, both under the sober direction of Arin Arbus. I’m usually more than favorably disposed to Ms. Arbus’ productions. Conscious of the integrity of the author’s text, she usually refrains from disruptive interventions. Her King Lear, played by an outstanding cast, led by Michael Pennington’s unforgettable Lear—thoughtful, profound, and craftsmanly—seemed right in every way. The only invention I noticed was apt and powerful: the Fool hanged himself through a trap door in the stage. This time around, the paired productions went in different directions: The Father burst into flame, while A Doll’s House was already ashes on arrival, with a few glowing embers, like Nigel Gore’s Dr. Rank and John Douglas Thompson’s opening harangue against Nora in their final scene together, which was the only moment when the play truly came to life. The other members of the cast, who sparkled with wit and took possession of their roles to a deep level in The Father, struggled to get through A Doll’s House…and for that matter, even Messrs. Gore and Thompson’s performances seemed effortful. Maggie Lacey, whose ferocity as Laura was quite terrifying, proved a carefully considered, but rather boring Nora. Jesse J. Perez, who gave a sharp, cynical performance as the Pastor, seemed constrained and muted as Krogstad. Linda Powell was humane and nuanced as Granny Astrid, but repressed and dull as Christina Linden—which is part of the character, admittedly, but the actor still faces the severe challenge of fascinating the audience with this problematic character. As powerful as Helmer’s outburst is in A Doll’s House, John Douglas Thompson’s portrayal of the Captain in The Father, all leading up to his cataclysmic breakdown, was an unforgettable masterpiece in acting.

Maggie Lacey and John Douglas Thompson in Strindberg's The Father. Photo Jerry Goodstein.

Maggie Lacey and John Douglas Thompson in Strindberg’s The Father. Photo Jerry Goodstein.

I may have simply seen A Doll’s House on a bad night and The Father at a brilliant moment, but it seemed clear enough that Strindberg’s unruly negation of Ibsen’s aesthetic of the well-made play and the fury of his deeply neurotic, even psychopathic characters inspired Ms. Arbus and the cast, while her determination to present A Doll’s House as a period classic instead of a still living message play brought the enterprise down.

There was one innovative feature of this production. TFANA’s auditorium was configured in such a way that the performance played out on a strip between two facing bleachers. As we awaited the beginning of the play, we gazed at not a proscenium and a curtain, but fellow audience members. This gave the event a public cast, making us feel a bit like Athenian citizens about to see Medea or The Bacchae. Nice touch.

Ms. Arbus’ decision to mount A Doll’s House in Thornton Wilder’s version underscored the fact that the play’s relevance and potency was generally questioned in 1930’s America. By then, women had the vote and property rights, and many people thought the battle was over. Critics saw the main problem in producing the play in revivifying the tired old shtick. Wilder, who made the adaptation in response to a request from his friend, Ruth Gordon, who was keen to find a comeback vehicle for her career, which had been lagging somewhat at that point. Wilder did succeed in letting a bit of air into Ibsen’s heavyish nineteenth century dialogue. Typical is the way in which he broke up Nora’s final exchange with Thorwald into one-on-one dialogue. This may have seemed snappier and more cinematic to the audiences of the time, but it distorts the nature of Ibsen’s conception. Nora has the upper hand at this late point in the play, and she is telling Thorwald off in paragraphs, to which he can only respond in single sentences. If you look at the latest translation, made under the direction of Tore Rem and published by Penguin, you will find more reminiscences of poor old Archer than you might expect. Let’s face it, nineteenth-century Norwegians, even married couples, expressed themselves in complete sentences and, like good Lutherans, tended to be rather thorough in expressing their views with one another.

 

Ibsen's Public Enemy at the Pearl Theatre Company.

Ibsen’s Public Enemy at the Pearl Theatre Company.

Pearl Theatre Company
Henrik Ibsen, Public Enemy (adapted by David Harrower)
Directed by Hal Brooks
Cast: Jimonn Cole, Dominic Cuskern, Arielle Goldman, Alex Haynes, Guisseppe Jones, John Keating, Alex Purcell, Carol Schultz, Nilaja Sun, Robbie Tann, David Vino

For some truly bracing Ibsen, there was a riveting production of An Enemy of the People, retitled Public Enemy, at the Pearl Theatre Company, in a version by the Glasgow playwright, David Harrower. While the sets and costumes updated the play to the present, the English, while pared-down and modernized, was true enough to the original to make Ibsen and his message a constant presence on stage, not just in the background. There were cuts, of course, to fit the play into 90 minutes with no intermission—a format which suited it well under Hal Brooks’ urgent direction. From the opening family dinner on, the action gathered momentum and force to a frightening level, as Tomas’s material fortunes and the well-being of his family crumble and his moral stature rises to heroic proportions. As played by the brilliant and passionate Jimonn Cole, Tomas Stockmann is a modest family man, but not without his ambitions. His life has not been easy. He found his current position, which maintains his family decently enough, but little more, through connections. He exists in a fundamental conflict between the social limitations on his professional and intellectual freedom and his drive to do his job well by pursuing the truth in his research. The intensity of Brooks’ direction and Cole’s performance was such that the audience was shouting out in response to Stockmann’s speech, which was as futile as it was powerful. They were supported by a consistently strong supporting cast in what Mr. Brooks actually directed as an ensemble piece. In this case it may be counterproductive to single out individual performances, but I did find Nilaja Sun’s Mrs. Stockmann especially vivid and appealing, with her take on housewifely mannerisms, and John Keating’s Aslaksen was deliciously slimy.

The power of this production came from superlative acting and the energetic pace and razor-sharp focus of the direction,but one might still be tempted to say that the theme of An Enemy of the People is more relevant than A Doll’s House. In An Enemy Ibsen depicted a situation that is front and center everywhere today. Dangerous and illegal conditions are routinely covered up—on a grand scale in the case of the politicians and business leaders who deny climate change, flying in the face of basic science and simple empirical observation. We have gone beyond the plain, old-fashioned spin of the Bush era to a situation in which public figures believe they can score credibility among sympathetic members of the public by repeating patent lies over and over again. By contrast, the specifics of Nora’s situation in A Doll’s House may have been put in the past, but deep-seated, even sub-conscious notions of male privilege remain, both intellectually and sexually—not to mention the men who, in the name of religion, both Christian and Muslim, strive to turn back the clock. The key for the director of a classic play is not reverence, but to seek out what there is for our times and situation in the script. We’ve all heard that before, but it’s true, and there is a lot more to say about it, even…but not now.

These three outstanding revival houses—Metropolitan Playhouse,  Theater for a New Audience, and the Pearl Theatre Company—are for me a major reason why it is such a joy to live in New York City. There others, no less than these—The Mint Theater Company and the Classic Stage Company—which I shall discuss on another occasion. This is, after all, about The Scandinavians, isn’t it?

Michael Miller

About Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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