Thursday, February 28, 2013

Douglas Messerli | "The Endless Voyage" (on O'Neill's Glencairn Plays)

the endless voyage
by Douglas Messerli

Eugene O’Neill Early Plays (Three Glencairn Plays)  performed by The Wooster Group and New York City Players / the performance I saw was a matinee at Los Angeles, Redcat (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater) on February 24, 2013

Although I highly admire O’Neill’s later works, including the majestic tragedy, Long Day’s Journey into Night, I have always been slightly embarrassed reading his earliest works, particularly The Glencairn Plays, three of which were performed this past week at Red Cat in Disney Hall. First of all, they are obviously slight works with fairly stereotypical characters and plots, which ultimately reveal little about what being a sailor is really about. Lonely men desperate for a drink find both in the 1918 work Moon of the Caribees, two loyal lumps of clay express their devotion for one another in my favorite of the works, Bound East for Cardiff (1914), and a young man determined to return home in Sweden gets tricked by the proprietors of a local bar and is shipped out on what is near to “slave” ship in The Long Voyage Home (1917). Even worse, however, is the language O’Neill gives these lugs to speak: each of them, representing different races and countries, are revealed in a painfully dialogue-based argot that makes one wonder, at times, whether O’Neill had really heard men like his characters speak. Any casual reader, I believe, would declare them “fake.”

     Accordingly, these early O’Neill plays are rarely performed, and, I, like most others, had never seen them upon the stage. How wonderful, I reasoned, be able to see a production under the direction of The New York Players founder, Richard Maxwell, known for his productions in which he reveals the very “theatricality” and “unnaturalness” of theater works instead of attempting to pawn them off as “realistic” or “veristic” events. Maxwell’s actors are about as far away from Method acting as you can get.

     Yet, at the same time, Maxwell is emphatically loyal to the original texts. And, in this case, his actors speak every Swedish, Bronx, Caribbean, and British accent that O’Neill has thrown their way. By speaking those lines without dramatic intensity, almost in a monotone, they somehow relieve us from necessity of placing them into a realist world, and, while often calling up laughter, they also highlight the poetic value behind their somewhat incoherent words.

     Particularly in Bound East for Cardiff, in the long dialogue between the dying Yank (Brian Mendes) and Driscoll (Ari Fliakos, who I last saw in the Wooster’s Williams play Vieux Carré), this strange pairing of theatricality and emotionality creates its own intensity, as the two long time sailor friends reveal their love and devotion to one another, while reminding themselves of their various past adventures. Played out in a corner of the stage, supposedly the ship’s fo’c’s’le, the scene requires the audience to listen attentively and peer into the set from a great distance as if they were secret voyeurs. Indeed, they are, as it gradually becomes clear, particularly with Yank’s admission that he had always dreamed of settling down with Driscoll on a farm. Far more believable than anything expressed in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, we sense the intense eroticism of these two “roughs” and the painful denials and acceptances of their own mortality. If they speak often almost incoherently, it is even more painful that the two now so clearly confess to each other their own love.

     The last of the three plays, The Long Voyage Home, is also painful in its chicanery, betrayal, and inevitable imprisonment of the young Olson (Bobby McElver) who, fed up with the hard work, low wages, and inedible food of the several ocean voyages he has suffered is determined to return to his homestead in Sweden, with the hopes of helping his brother and mother on their farm. He has apparently had that dream for a long while, but each time he reaches port, his thirst for alcohol seizes him, and spends his wages, unable to travel back to his homeland. This time, he brags, he will not drink. The sleazy bar owner, Fat Joe (Jim Fletcher), his assistant Mag (the wonderful Kate Valk), and a fellow sailor, Cocky (Keith Connolly), helped by the prostitute Freda (Victoria Vazquez) work to break down the young innocent’s defenses, slipping a potion into his drink that knocks him out. In sad inevitability, he is once again shipped out on one of the worst vessels in port!  Olson’s quiet revelation of his story through O’Neill’s torturous Swedish rendition helps to make the audience feel sad and solicitous for this doomed young traveler, who, like Odysseus takes a nearly endless voyages to reach his destination.

     Outwardly O’Neill’s most poetical short, filled with tropical moons, exotic native music, two Carribean beauties (Kate Valk and Victoria Vazquez), and loads of rum, seemed the least successful of the three plays. It may, in fact, have been that this work was the first of a trio, and we had not yet adapted ourselves to Maxwell’s techniques. But then the relationships between the characters seem innately vague and mysterious. Why is Cocky so distanced from all the others and apparently the only one able to resist the charms of Pearl? Most of the indeterminate sailors, moreover, spend their time in the fo’c’s’le drinking, and when they do gather atop ship to dance, they interrupt their pleasures with what they know best, a chantey—in part simply to drown out the strange and frightening music of the island natives. While there is a forceful dis-ease in their momentary pleasures, there is, more importantly, a disease within them that breaks out in a violent fight, to be quelled by the always squelching officers. Even their momentary pleasures, accordingly, are forbidden and interrupted.

     In the end, I am not sure that any of these plays represent great theater. But in the hands of the Wooster Group and Maxwell’s New York Players we see them, at least, for their fascinating potentialities, and recognize why O’Neill himself saw them as break-through works.

February 27, 2013

1 comment:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.