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Theater Review: Early O’Neill works show the artist in the making

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

"SERVITUDE" preceded by EUGENE O’NEILL RAGTIME REVIEW Aug. 10-14 and Aug.17-21.

Chapter two of the Playwrights Theater Festival of O’Neill, "Year II: the Birth of an Artist," at NYU’s Provincetown Playhouse, 133 Macdougal Street, through Sept.12, 1999. By Joseph Hurley

Eugene O’Neill is hardly the first stage artist to offer conjecture on precisely what might have happened to Nora Helmer, the heroine of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 classic, "A Doll’s House," after she slammed the door on her stiflingly secure marriage and ventured out into the terrors of the world beyond her household.

Now, an early O’Neill play, "Servitude," has turned up as part of a series of virtually unknown works being aired at NYU’s Provincetown Playhouse on Macdougal Street, under the banner of the Playwrights Theater and its founder and artistic director, Stephen Kennedy Murphy.

The program notes for this summer’s series, which the producers have termed "Year II: The birth of an Artist," claim that "Servitude" is O’Neill’s comic sequel to Ibsen’s "A Doll’s House," an assertion not really bourne out by the text itself. What "Servitude" is, or appears to be, on the basis of the unabashedly modest staging running on Macdougal Street through this Saturday, is a rather standard domestic melodrama written by a youthful author who was still very much in the process of finding his own unique theatrical voice.

A mysterious young woman appears at the isolated home of an apparently successful novelist and playwright, seeking advice concerning her personal life, particularly on her unsatisfactory marriage. The character, Mrs. Fraser, is ostensibly O’Neill’s stand-in for Nora Helmer, while the writer, Mr. Roylston, could be viewed as the dramatist’s projection of himself in the affluent future.

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Here, any similarity in tone or theme linking "Servitude" and "A Doll’s House" evaporates without leaving a trace, and this early effort from a writer who would eventually become America’s greatest playwright becomes a standard exercise in marital misunderstandings and reconciliations accomplished just in time for the final curtain.

Last summer, the Playwrights Theater produced, among other very early works by Eugene O’Neill, a full-length play called "Bread and Butter," which the dramatist disowned and even claimed to have destroyed. Telling a friend that he had just mailed a manuscript to a Broadway producer, O’Neill described "Servitude" as "really my first long play."

Apparently, he considered "Bread and Butter," which has never been published, unworthy even of mention. As the Playwrights Theater staging, just a year ago, indicated, even that scorned play shows distinct flashes of the talent which would soon enough put Eugene O’Neill solidly on the American and international theater map and keep him there in perpetuity.

When he wrote "Servitude, " O’Neill was about 28, and a partner in a distinctly loveless marriage, which may explain why the protagonist in the play considers himself "trapped" in a marital union not of his own design.

"Servitude," along with a briefer play, "Abortion," staged at the Provincetown Playhouse earlier this summer, was published, without the author’s permission, in 1950, in a volume entitled "The Lost Plays of Eugene O’Neill," On at least one occasion, the writer listed "Servitude" as "destroyed."

Barely three years after the publication of the "Lost Plays," O’Neill died, on Friday afternoon, Nov. 27, 1953, victim of a debilitating illness which, among other things, had rendered him unable to hold a pen.

As is the case with each of the four bills making up "Year II: the Birth of an Artist," each performance of "Servitude," will be preceded by an edition of the "Eugene O’Neill Ragtime Review," with Stephen Kennedy Murphy at the piano, aided by members of the company in a concert of songs and poems associated in one way or another with the plays the fledgling dramatist wrote very early in his career.

Some of the songs, "Oceana Roll," to name one well-known example, were popular favorites the writer would specify for use in one or another of his plays as the years came and went.

The plays, "Servitude" and those to come during the remainder of the series, which runs through September 12, begin at 8:30, with the "Eugene O’Neill Ragtime Review" kicking off at 7:30.

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