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Theater Review Exploring O’Neill through his little-known plays

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

THE PLAYWRIGHTS THEATER FESTIVAL OF O’NEILL, Chronological Stagings of O’Neill’s 49 plays; Year II: The Birth of an Artist. At NYU’s Provincetown Playhouse, 133 MacDougal St., NYC. Aug. 3 through Sept. 12.

Vastly more than is the case with even the most self-revealing of playwrights, the life of Eugene O’Neill, chapter by chapter, phase by phase, can be traced by examining his work, perhaps particularly the seldom-produced early plays, several of which the great Irish-American dramatist wrote when he was still in his middle 20s.

Therefore, the ongoing O’Neill project undertaken by the Playwrights Theater at NYU’s Provincetown Playhouse on Macdougal Street, now embarking on its second year, is of particular interest to anyone even casually concerned with the life and legacy of the man who still, despite his detractors and the whims of fashion, ranks as the finest writer for the theater ever produced in America.

Last season, the Playwrights Theater produced a valuable staging of "Bread and Butter," the first full-length play O’Neill ever wrote, and now, in a venture the group, and its artistic director, Stephen Kennedy Murphy, are calling "Year II: the Birth of an Artist," the focus is on the eighth through the 14th plays in the writer’s 49-play canon.

The initial bill, which opened on Aug. 3 and played its final performance with a matinee on Aug. 8, contained three early O’Neill one-acts, the familiar "Bound East for Cardiff," the first of what came to be known as the S.S. Glencairn "sea plays," and two almost unknown works, "Abortion" and "The Movie Man," the last being one of the writer’s few ventures into comedy.

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The Playwrights Theater, which is presenting four bills of generally unknown O’Neill plays, ending on Sept. 12, will begin each performance with an edition of what it calls the "Eugene O’Neill Ragtime Review," made up of songs and popular verse.

Murphy, who directed "Bound East for Cardiff," is at the piano for the ragtime sessions, with Jake Robards playing "Young Eugene O’Neill" for an exceedingly pre-play diversion lasting 30 minutes or so.

Unsurprisingly, the unfamiliar plays, "Abortion" and "The Movie Man," written, like "Cardiff," in 1913-14, carry about as much fascination for their strangeness as for their actual content.

"Abortion" appears to be related to the single, unhappy year that O’Neill spent as an undergraduate at Princeton University, starting in September of 1906. It is, perhaps predictably, a blatant stab at melodrama. That degraded form of theatrical endeavor was the only one with which he was familiar from observing his actor-father’s career in plays such as "The Count of Monte Cristo."

The play was not performed until 1959, which was also the case with "The Movie Man."

"Abortion" concerns a young collegiate sports hero who, having casually impregnated a girl from the unrespected "townie" community, and then paid for an operation, after which the unfortunate individual has died, is confronted by her brother, bent on revenge.

Ironically, O’Neill appears to have based "Abortion," in part, on an affair his own father, James O’Neill, had had with a girl named Nettie Walsh. In the play, the hero’s father is a strong, stern type, much like the elder O’Neill, while the unseen girl is named Nellie, too close for comfort to the actual name in the family scandal.

"The Movie Man" has, as a central figure, a Mexican outlaw whom O’Neill called Poncho Gomez, but who is clearly patterned on the marauding outlaw leader Pancho Villa.

Villa, who died in 1923, was at the height of his notorious fame in 1914, and had been when O’Neill made a trip to Central America in 1909. He must have heard about Villa and his border raids wherever he stopped, because the Mexican had become a folk hero wherever Spanish was spoken.

Set in a suburb of a city in northern Mexico, it tells the story of a couple of American producers who attempt to force a Mexican general to conform to the specifics of a contract he had signed with a movie company, including staging his raids to meet the needs of the filmmakers’ schedule.

In a sense, "The Movie Man" is based on the exploits of journalist John Reed, whom O’Neill had recently met in Greenwich Village and who was covering the Mexican Revolution for an American magazine, and who had written extensively and colorfully about Pancho Villa.

Reed had talked his editor into giving O’Neill $300 to cover his expenses on a trip to Mexico, an adventure that was supposed to result in some field reporting. It is unknown, however, whether O’Neill ever actually got to Mexico. He wrote endlessly of his days in Honduras, but he never even mentioned being in Mexico.

The play, written in haste in July 1914, is a minor effort, interesting, if at all, because of its difference from everything else O’Neill ever wrote.

The Playwrights Theater stagings of these three one-acts, done without scenery except for the odd table and chair, use a mix of student and professional actors, mainly to positive effect.

As the summer continues, the Provincetown Playhouse, scene of Eugene O’Neill’s earliest New York successes, will host three works "Servitude," "The Sniper," and "The Personal Equation," which are among his least familiar endeavors. Much credit is due the Playwrights Theater for giving them a moment in the sun.

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