Becomes Electra, one of Eugene O'Neill's greatest plays,
was presented by the National Theatre in 2003 celebrating
the fiftieth anniversary of the playwright's death. A reworking
of the “Oresteia” trilogy by Aeschylus and the Electra
tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides, O’Neill’s epic
American tragedy of hatred, passion, jealousy and greed is set
in New England after the Civil War. Using Freud’s theories,
as O’Neill had done earlier in “Strange Interlude,”
he now views classical drama (as had Freud) as a rich field for
exploration of character motivation.
The National Theatre
production is directed by Howard Davies, and Helen Mirren stars
as Christine, wife of returning Civil War brigadier general Ezra
Mannon. Eve Best plays Lavinia, Ezra’s devoted daughter,
who discovers her mother’s love affair with Adam Brandt.
Adam, the son of Ezra’s wayward brother who had dishonored
the family by his marriage to a servant, seeks revenge for the
treatment of his parents. He and Christine plot Ezra’s death
by poison on the evening of his return from the war. Disclosing
them as her father’s murderers, Lavinia persuades her brother
Orin to kill Adam, at whose loss Christine commits suicide. Although
Lavinia had seemed plain in contrast to Christine’s beauty,
she now grows more like her mother in appearance, and Orin, his
mother’s favorite, turns his affections toward Lavinia.
After his torment ends with suicide, Lavinia is left alone in
their mansion, its shutters nailed closed, to “live alone
with the dead… until the curse is paid out and the last
Mannon is let die.”
Born in New York City on October 16, 1888, the second son of popular
actor James O'Neill, young Eugene sometimes accompanied his father
on the national tours that were mandatory in every major actor's
career. James O'Neill's best known part was the title role
in "The Count of Monte Cristo," in which he toured for
many years. The father, a famous actor and also, according
to his son, a land-mad miser, in “Long Day’s Journey” delivers
a long speech revealing his regret at remaining in popular but
worthless vehicles at the expense of developing his talent in
serious works like the plays of Shakespeare.
eighteen, Eugene entered Princeton University and shortly after,
was expelled. In "Long Day’s Journey" the wild
behavior of the younger son,
who is O'Neill, is blamed on the bad example set by the older
brother, would-be actor Jamie. As a seaman, Eugene sailed
the world, and worked for a while as a gold prospector in Honduras.
In New York City, he would frequent the sleazy saloons, one of
which is the setting for "The Iceman Cometh."
By the time he was twenty-four, he had contracted tuberculosis,
the fate suffered by the younger son in "Long Day's Journey."
Always a reader, he decided during his recuperation to become
a playwright, and entered George Baker's playwriting course at
early one-act plays based on his sea experiences became an excellent
film, "The Long Voyage Home." O'Neill's
first big success on Broadway was "Beyond the Horizon"
in 1920, which was awarded a Pulitzer prize, as were three of
his later plays. It concerns two brothers, one a sea-loving,
sensitive lad, who marries and must remain home as a farmer, and
the other, a born farmer who takes advantage of the opportunity
to sail the world but profits nothing from his experiences.
It is interesting to note that both O'Neill and Arthur Miller
had older brothers and that fraternal pairs figure importantly
in the works of both men.
these early plays are realistic, O'Neill demonstrates in two one-acts
his growing interest in the expressionism of the thirties, as
seen in German films like "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari."
In the expressionistic "The Hairy Ape," in which a ship's
stoker, his milieu the pounding engines and furnaces, aspires
to the love of a wealthy woman passenger, but fails to find peace
out of his customary environment; as the citizens of the metropolis
ignore him, mechanically bent on their destinations. He
can find companionship only in the zoo, at the cage of the ape
to whom he has been compared. In "The Emperor Jones,"
an opportunistic black railway porter, through his cunning, takes
advantage of naive jungle inhabitants to become their emperor.
But as he is pursued through the jungle by city deserters even
more greedy than he, his veneer of civilization is lost, and he
reverts to basic human fears. Both these plays are preserved
as good films, the latter with an impressive performance by Paul
Robeson as Jones.
naturalism that marks these one-acts is also the driving force
behind the tragedy of "Anna Christie," a former prostitute
who hopes to leave behind her former life in the West and live
cleanly and peacefully with her father, a tugboat captain in New
York. But she is unable to escape the molding forces beyond
her control, her past and "the old devil sea"
that her father believes has them in his grip. The film of the
same name in the title role stars Greta Garbo, who successfully
captures O'Neill's brooding heroine.
"Strange Interlude" (1928) O"Neill experiments
with having the characters not only deliver their dialogue in
interacting with others, but also speak their thoughts to the
audience, thoughts that often counter their remarks to the listener.
A revival a few years ago, with Glenda Jackson as the heroine
and Edward Petherbridge as her long suffering friend Charles,
played both in London and on Broadway, demonstrating the power
of this work in which the heroine both entraps and is entrapped
by the men in her life: her domineering father, her husband, the
doctor friend who is the secret father of her child, the understanding
family friend, and her son.
Iceman Cometh" (1946) and "Long Day's Journey
into Night" (1957) are generally considered O'Neill's best
plays. The latter was produced posthumously because O'Neill
left instructions with his wife Carlotta that it must not be staged
until his brother died. He wrote the story of the "haunted"
family, he said in the dedication to Carlotta, with "blood
and tears." It is a searing account of a day in the
life of the Tyrones, the father a famous actor, the mother addicted
to morphine, the older son a wastrel, and the younger son (O'Neill)
stricken with tuberculosis. Each blames the other for his
or her tragic plight: -- the father with his need to support the
family, which drove him to remain in a worthless but popular work;
the mother on her pain at childbirth, for which a "cheap"
doctor hired by her husband prescribed morphine, to which she
became addicted; the younger brother on the older, who leads him
into degeneracy; and the older on the father, who forced him into
acting, which he despises, and heavy drinking, in emulation of
excellent film version stars Katharine Hepburn as the mother,
Ralph Richardson as the father, Jason Robards, Jr. as the older
son and Dean Stockwell as the younger. There is also a television
version, with Laurence Olivier as the father and Constance Cummings
as the mother. The play is frequently revived and always
powerful in its impact. One of the best revivals brought
Helen Hayes to the Hartke Theater at Catholic University in Washington,
in an unforgettably moving performance as Mary.
Iceman Cometh" was revived in London and on Broadway a few
seasons ago, with Kevin Spacey as Hickey. "Iceman" may
seem to run a lifetime, but then it does encompass life and death
In Harry Hope's bar earlier this century, the seedy inhabitants
have only their illusions, or "pipe dreams," to keep
them alive. With the help of liquor and companionship, each
recalls a meaningful past and resolves upon action -- but in the
future. In the present, however, they do not venture outside
the bar. As the play opens, they await the arrival of salesman
Hickey offering stale jokes (including the one about the wife
and the iceman) and free drinks.
before the play's initial opening in 1946, O'Neill described the
first act as a "hilarious comedy....a big kind of comedy
that doesn't stay funny very long...the comedy breaks up and the
tragedy comes on." He attempted to explain his approach
to Theater Guild producer Laurence Langner: "There
are moments in it that suddenly strip the soul . . . stark naked,
not in cruelty or moral superiority, but with an understanding
compassion which sees him as a victim of the ironies of life and
of himself. These moments are for me the depth of tragedy,
with nothing more that can possibly be said."
visit is less and more than the denizens of the saloon expected.
This time he is selling them salvation by destroying their illusions
as he has destroyed his own about his wife. Hickey has killed
his wife, he reveals, to destroy her pipe dream that he was a
good man, worthy of her forgiveness. His pipe dream is that he
loved his wife, until he confesses that as he killed her he told
her, "You know what you can do with your pipe dream now,
you damned bitch." Immediately, Hickey retracts this
slip: "I couldn't have said that. I loved Evelyn."
He departs with the police, still holding onto the pipe dream
of loving his wife.
by Hickey, the men and women in the bar now accept their hopelessness,
and are plunged into the despair they have kept at bay --
the liquor has no "kick" and the bar seems "a
morgue." As Hickey had urged, each goes forth to face
reality -- with disastrous results. Finally, each returns
to the sanctuary of the saloon to offer a "face-saving version
of his experience when he went out to confront his pipe dreams."
With the help of liquor, they recover their illusions .
All but Larry, as impressively played by Tim Piggott-Smith.
Larry, who knows that "the lie of a pipe dream is what gives
life to the whole misbegotten lot of us," has clung to the
illusion that he is uninvolved, detached. But by the end,
he has sent Don Parritt to his death. Facing the truth about
himself, a truth that means death, Larry acknowledges that he
is "the only convert to death Hickey made here."
a remarkably skillful performance, Kevin Spacey intelligently
built the character of salesman Hickey from the anticipated joviality
to the evangelical sales pitch for the biggest sale of his life:
selling the group on reality. Their conversion spells destruction
for the fragile inhabitants of "the No Chance
Saloon . . . Bedrock Bar, the End of the Line Cafe. . . the last
harbor." (Larry's description) Spacey avoided the temptation
to make Hickey likeable; even his first speeches had a sinister
motif that finally became the major theme. With great attention
to detail, British director Howard Davies achieved the necessary
ensemble effect for the inhabitants of the bar; this is a play
which demands focus on both the group as a whole and the individuals,
an effect Davies brought off to perfection. What a pity
O'Neill could not live to see this "Iceman." He
often complained about the productions of his plays, including
the l946 "Iceman," with Eddie Dowling directing and
James Barton miscast as Hickey. Of the final scene in this
production, O'Neill remarked, "If our American acting and
direction cannot hold this scene up without skimping it, then
to hell with our theater."
a debilitating illness, O'Neill died in 1953. He had been
working on a series of historical plays designed to show that
since the first settlers, the hope and idealism of America were
lost in its search for material gain. Both were staged on Broadway
and subsequently revived. In "A Touch of the
Poet" (l958) Irish officer Con Melody (Eric Portman)
emigrates to the colonies with his daughter and wife, unforgettably
interpreted by Helen Hayes, combining pathos and humor. The second,
unfinished, "More Stately Mansions” was staged in 1967 and
treats the daughter, who marries into the gentry. Ingrid
O’Neill brought stature to American drama and still stands like
a monolith in the American theater scene since its beginnings
in the early eighteenth century when British soldiers in their
leisure time staged Restoration comedies and scenes from Shakespeare.
American playwrights who emerged followed the pattern of the British
comedies of the day, while in the nineteenth century melodramas
prevailed, like “The Count of Monte Cristo,” in which the elder
O’Neill so successfully toured. But it was Eugene O'Neill
whose work over three decades until his death in 1953 inspired
later serious playwrights and gave stature and international reputation
to American drama.