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Early O’Neill and Williams, together in LondonBY: Carol Rocamora 06.12.2010
The British director Laurie Sampson had the brilliant idea of pairing the earliest full-length efforts of Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, and directing, cross-casting and producing them in repertory with a unifying set. The effort reveals many intriguing common characteristics– as well as the debt that Williams clearly owed to O’Neill.
Beyond the Horizon, by Eugene O’Neill, and Spring Storm, by Tennessee Williams. Both directed by Laurie Sampson. At Royal National Theatre, South Bank, Belvedere Road, London, U.K. www.nationaltheatre.org.uk.
Seeing your own theater tradition through others’ eyes (and on others’ stages) can be a revelation.
Take the two little-known American plays currently running at the Royal National Theatre and generating palpable excitement in London this spring. Director Laurie Sampson of the Royal & Derngate Theatre (a celebrated regional company in Northampton) had the brilliant idea of pairing the earliest full-length efforts of Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, and directing, cross-casting and producing them in repertory with a unifying set.
What’s striking about this inspired pairing is the number of elements these two youthful efforts share-- as well as the debt that Wlliams clearly owed to O’Neill. We’re left to wonder why we Americans hadn’t thought of combining the two plays on our own stages before. At the same time, we can be grateful for the opportunity to take a closer look at these rarely performed works by two giants of the American theater.
O’Neill wrote Beyond the Horizon, his first full length play, at the age of 30, having already accrued some significant life experience: He’d flunked out of Princeton, sailed to Argentina as a qualified able-bodied seaman, attempted suicide in a New York skid row flophouse, abandoned his young wife and child for another woman, and showed signs of serious alcoholism.
He was in a sanitarium recovering from a case of tuberculosis when he decided to become a playwright (O’Neill avidly read Strindberg, Ibsen and Synge among others). In 1918, following a modicum of success with his early one-act “sea plays” produced at the Provincetown Players and off-Broadway, O’Neill set out to write his first full-length, autobiographically-driven play about a young man who leaves home and roams the world– and that became Beyond The Horizon.
Two years later, in 1920, it opened on Broadway and became a sensation, winning O’Neill his first of four Pulitzers (a prize he hadn’t even heard of before.) The play prompted O’Neill’s father, the famous actor James O’Neill, to remonstrate his son, saying: “What are you trying to do– send them home to commit suicide?”
Two brothers, one woman
Set on a dreary farm in Connecticut, Beyond The Horizon tells the story of two brothers in love with the same woman. Andrew, the elder, is betrothed to Ruth, a young beauty, but she in turn loves Robert, the younger. Robert, a dreamer who longs for the sea, decides to set sail for the “mystery beyond the horizon” to get out of the couple’s way. But when Ruth declares her love for Robert, Andrew steps aside, allowing Robert to take his place and setting out instead to make his own fortune in the world.
Watching Beyond The Horizon, it’s exciting to recognize the rich raw material that forms the foundation for so many of O’Neill’s future works. The two brothers-in-conflict (an element from O’Neill’s own life) will resurface again as the Tyrones in O’Neill’s autobiographical masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Robert, the invalid/dreamer who longs to sail the seas, will return in that later play, too, as Edmund, the younger Tyrone (named after O’Neill’s other, deceased brother). The bleak landscape of “The Family Farm” (site of “The Family Curse”) will appear again in two later works— Desire Under the Elms (setting for another love triangle, this time including a father and son) and A Moon For The Misbegotten (scene of another family curse— alcoholism— that plagued O’Neill for many years and took his older brother’s life).
Young Williams scorned
Similarly, Tennessee Williams was only 26 when he wrote Spring Storm (his second full-length play) in 1937, while enrolled in a playwriting course at the University of Iowa. Its working title was April Is The Cruelest Month (from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land), and it was scorned by his classmates, prompting his playwriting teacher’s dismissive remark: “Well, we all have to paint our nudes…”
Unlike O’Neill’s instant success with his youthful effort, Spring Storm lay forgotten, and was only recently unearthed in the 1990s among Williams’s papers. (Since its discovery, Spring Storm has received only a few American regional productions and a small off-off-Broadway one in 2004.)
Williams’s recently published Notebooks reveal that he had been reading a collection of Pulitzer Prize-winning plays— including Beyond The Horizon— at the time he wrote Spring Storm, and the similarities are startling.
As in O’Neill’s play, Spring Storm tells the story of a love triangle (again, two men and a woman), of young souls trapped in provincial settings desperate to flee, of passion as tempestuous as the weather and as raw as the landscape, of high hopes dashed by uncontrollable forces. Williams’s setting— a town in the storm-swept Mississippi Delta— is as remote as O’Neill’s farm.
Gentleman vs. drifter
In Williams’s triangle, a young poet Arthur loves Heavenly, a spirited young Southern belle who has already made love to the rough-and-restless Richard. But Heavenly’s mother Esmerelda favors the well-born and -bred Arthur to the drifter Richard, who wants to work on the river. As in the O’Neill play, Arthur almost gets his girl, but for a terrible reversal of fortune ending in tragedy.
Spring Storm is a youthful, passionate “song of the South,” and it’s a thrill to observe Williams staking out his dramatic territory, discovering his voice and molding the models for his later, immortal characters. Arthur is a poet and a dreamer, sensitive, unsure of his own sexuality, teased by his contemporaries— like Williams himself and his Tom to come in The Glass Menagerie.
Heavenly, with her charged sexuality and rebelliousness, is a clear predecessor to Blanche DuBois (of A Streetcar Named Desire) and Maggie the Cat (Cat On A Hot Tin Roof). Esmerelda’s smothering mothering forecasts that of Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie.
As for the immortally fragile Laura Wingfield, she is poignantly preceded in Spring Storm by the play’s most affecting character, Hertha, a timid young librarian who is desperately in love with Arthur. Williams’s own beloved sister, Rose, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and lobotomized in the year that he began writing Spring Storm, so her plight was a raw wound in his life. Hertha’s tragic fate is Williams’s first homage to his sister’s thwarted youth and passions.
A single gnarled tree
Director Laurie Sampson has unified these two youthful works by casting the same three actors in each of the love triangles, along with a strong, ever-present ensemble who change the scenery in each production and serve, chorus-like, as a supporting cast.
She further underscores the common themes (youth, dreams, passion) that sweep across the raw landscapes of Beyond The Horizon and Spring Storm– by unifying her productions with a single gnarled tree that dominates them both. Proud and defiant, it stands center stage in both plays, desperate and determined to reach for the sky. It’s a symbol of the towering talent of both young writers that would one day bloom– but that, at the end of both writers’ lives, would stand alone, bare and ravaged, a stark symbol of personal tragedy over artistic triumph.
Yanks in London
The British feel a sincere and abiding passion for American playwrights, and London is rarely without a major production of an American classic. In the past decade, I’ve seen some of the best productions of Albee right here in London (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf with Diana Rigg and David Suchet, The Lady From Dubuque with Maggie Smith), as well as an extraordinary production of O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra at the Royal National Theater, directed by Howard Davies– to name only a few.
There’s a critically acclaimed revival of All My Sons with David Suchet and Zoe Wanamaker on the West End now, too – one of numerous productions of Arthur Miller in the past decade.
But this unique pairing of young O’Neill and Williams is groundbreaking in its artistry, its insightfulness, and its gift to the theatergoing public– the spring awakening of two American theater immortals.♦
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