Collected Shorter Plays

Collected Shorter Plays

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Overview

All of O’Neill’s themes and concerns find expression in his one-act plays. They are the dramatic equivalent of short stories. Here gathered in a single volume are nine one-act plays that span the playwright’s career—from the early sea plays to the Expressionist masterpiece The Hairy Ape to the eerie nocturnal monologue Hughie.
Included in this volume: Bound East for Cardiff • Fog • Thirst • The Long Voyage Home • Ile • The Moon of the Caribbees • In the Zone • The Hairy Ape • Hughie

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300107791
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 03/01/2007
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 558,540
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.75(h) x 0.81(d)

About the Author

Eugene O’Neill (1889–1953), the father of American drama, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama four times and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936. Robert Brustein, founding director of the American Repertory Theatre and of the Yale Repertory Theatre, has been a key figure in American theater for the last forty years. He is the author of numerous books, including Millennial Stages: Essays and Reviews 2001-2005, published by Yale University Press.

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Collected Shorter Plays


Introduction

ROBERT BRUSTEIN

O'Neill's best-known one-act sea plays-Bound East for Cardiff, In the Zone, The Long Voyage Home, and The Moon of the Caribbees-were all written between 1913 and 1916 and published together under the generic title S.S. Glencairn. They represent only four of twenty-four such playlets that O'Neill was composing around this time, and when they were produced at the Wharf Theatre in Provincetown (and later at the Provincetown Playhouse in New York), they made the playwright famous overnight.

O'Neill was not the first American to turn to one-act plays. Susan Glaspell and others were also writing them for the Provincetown Players. But there is no doubt that, largely under the influence of Strindberg, he perfected the form, just as Hemingway, a few years later, was to perfect the genre of the American short story. Encouraged by his father, the famous actor James O'Neill, to study playwriting with George Pierce Baker at Harvard, O'Neill at first found considerable inspiration in the short, terse, suggestive one-act play. His father, whom O'Neill depicted as the penny-pinching "Old Gaspard" in Long Day's Journey into Night, also financed his son's first collection of these works, Thirst andOther One Act Plays in 1914.

Like Hemingway, who compared the short story to an iceberg whose mass was mostly hidden beneath the water, O'Neill admired the short play more for what it implied than for what it said. At this point in his career, at least, he is interested more in anecdotes than in plots, engaged less with big philosophical statements than with a kind of terse, allusive pointillism. The man with epic ambitions who would later turn out dramatic marathons keeping audiences in their seats for four to eight hours is here content with making his theatrical points in twenty minutes or less.

The seven early sea plays included in this volume sometimes feature a number of the same characters. The American Yank, for example, appears to have died in Bound East for Cardiff, only to be resurrected in The Moon of the Caribbees, and again later as the considerably more primitive stoker in The Hairy Ape (though it is Paddy in The Moon of the Caribbees who is first called "a 'airy ape"). Similarly, the melancholy self-hating Smitty, who drinks to forget his blighted past, appears as a supporting character in The Moon of the Caribbees and then as the central tragic figure of In the Zone. In short, the international crew of Cockney, Swedish, Irish, Scottish, and Norwegian sailors form a kind of seagoing repertory company, partly based on some of the polyglot nationals with whom O'Neill sailed during his days in the merchant marine. Some of them speak an almost cartoon dialect (Cocky's "Gawd Blimey," Big Frank's "py chiminy Christmas," Scotty's "na doot"), while the Cockney whores in The Long Voyage Home seem to be verbal blood relations of Eliza Doolittle in Shaw's Pygmalion.

But dialogue was never O'Neill's strong point. What distinguishes these early sea plays is not their language but a sense of mood, of atmosphere, of local color. Each of the plays is set on a different body of water, ranging from the Atlantic to the Caribbean to the Arctic Sea, and in a different geographical location, from London to New York to the West Indies before World War I. Each exposes a different aspect of shipboard life as well. Bound East for Cardiff shows us the tragedy of sickness and death in the forecastle; Fog, a social protest play set on a lifeboat and the first example of O'Neill's enduring conflict between the artist and the businessman, is about the powerlessness of the poor; Thirst, also set on a life raft, characterizes a sea undulating with threat, loss, and accident; The Long Voyage Home is about the shanghaiing of the gentle Olson, who will never see home again; Ile brings us the first of O'Neill's obsessed characters, an almost Shakespearean whaling captain who sacrifices his wife to his overweening pride; The Moon of the Caribbees is a genre piece about bun boat whores selling whiskey and sex; and In the Zone is a drama of panic and paranoia during wartime. Whatever their subject, almost all of them are drenched in that spiritual fog that Edmund Tyrone so beautifully describes when telling his father about his seagoing life in Long Day's Journey into Night.

The Hairy Ape is a bit of an anomaly in this collection. Written at least five years after the earlier works, it is not really a one-act play at all, considering its length (more than an hour) and structure (eight scenes). And subtitled A Comedy of Ancient and Modern Life, it obviously has much more ambitious things on its mind than local color.

O'Neill's Yank is an early version of Tennessee Williams's Stanley Kowalski-an inarticulate hero inclined to substitute instinctive violence for coherent debate. O'Neill describes him as "Neanderthal Man" with a hirsute chest and long arms. And although the clumsy diction O'Neill invented for him ("Nix on dat old sailing ship stuff. All dat bull's dead, see?") is about as artful as the stiff upper-class speech he provides for Mildred ("How naïve age makes one"), it is at least an effort to demonstrate Yank's estrangement from the modern world.

Like so many of O'Neill's works, The Hairy Ape is a play about human alienation, and just as Edmund Tyrone, half in love with death, feels a sense of belonging only while on watch on the bridge merging with the Infinite at night, so the hairy stoker Yank ultimately can find his identity not in political action nor in human exchange nor even in the clasp of a murderous gorilla, but only in the embrace of death. Edmund says he "would have been more successful as a seagull or a fish." Yank is not even successful in the role of a primate.

Hughie, though set in 1928, was written in 1942 and belongs to the period when O'Neill was writing his last great plays, a sick man in a shuttered room, tortured by the sun, unable to hold a pencil in his hand. One critic has called it "a footnote to The Iceman Cometh," and there is no doubt that just as the fog-ridden sea plays forecast the voyage into darkness and fog of Long Day's Journey, so Erie Smith's soliloquies in Hughie often sound a lot like Hickey's monologues in Iceman. Hughie is the only O'Neill one-acter not set on or near the sea, but like The Iceman Cometh it is clearly an underwater play.

More than twenty years after his earliest work, O'Neill's control of working-class dialect has not really improved ("Nix on that Mr. Smith stuff," says Erie in a typically tone-deaf passage), but his sense of character has grown infinitely more sophisticated. In a few deft strokes, O'Neill draws a portrait of a tinhorn gambler and Broadway sport, full of bluff and bluster, yet deeply lonely and near desperation, looking for any human contact to counter the loss of Hughie the desk clerk, the only friend he had. Although the piece ends positively, with Charlie replacing Hughie as Erie's good-luck charm, it is permeated with O'Neill's patented pessimism, now a deeply felt despair, that compelling urge to get "out of the racket," which is life itself.

Taken together, then, these short works reflect O'Neill's abiding weaknesses, yes, but also a lot of his strengths. They represent indispensable chapters in that spiritual autobiography that is his artistic testament. They show us O'Neill's earliest efforts to imagine those "fog people" that populate his last great plays. They show him attempting to forge an American drama out of the smithy of his early experience and his reading of European plays. They show us someone in process of becoming one of the world's most powerful modern dramatists.

(Continues...)



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