It is both heartening and sad to see the highly acclaimed London revivals of works by three of the greatest American playwrights: (in descending order) Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Eugene O'Neill. Heartening because British audiences appreciate American drama. Sad because our best playwrights are produced more in London than in New York. Even cutting edge work from new writers is more likely to be produced in London. Has Christopher Shinn's NOW OR LATER, for instance, received a major American production? When American work is done, it tends to be done better here. The Almeida production of Lynn Nottage's RUINED was far superior to the production seen in Chicago and New York. I could deliver a tirade on how the U.S. doesn't celebrate its own culture other than popular culture. In any other country, its own literature, art, drama are required subjects of study. IS anybody now teaching American drama at Duke where Itaught it for forty years?
The National Theatre has imported productions from the Royal and Derngate Northampton Theatre of early works by Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill, SPRING STORM and BEYOND THE HORIZON that have marked similarities. The same cast and fine director, Laurie Sansom are responsible for both productions.
SPRING STORM is a very early Williams work (1937), written while he was still a student a Iowa University. His professor hated it. It was not published until the late
1990s and has not received a major prodction in the U.S. It is not a perfect work, but Williams's genius is already there. Heavenly Critchfield is the first of Williams's voluble heroines. In the small Southern town in which she lives, her only option seems to be marriage. Her family expects her to marry the rich, bookish Arthur, but she is in love with and sleeping with the more macho Dick Miles. Her problem is that neither is the marrying kind. Dick wants to prove himself through physical work, but Heavenly can't see herself in a workman's shack on the levee. Arthur is a crypto-gay character who knows he should feel something for Heavenly and for the frustrated librarian who adores him, but is disgusted by any female sign of sexual ardor. He screams "YOu disgust me" at the librarian, a precursor of Blanche Dubois's verbal assult on her young gay husband in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. Dick goes off to the levee and Arthur, guilt-ridden at pushing the librarian to suicide, runs off. For him it is another escape from a sexualy vibrant woman. The men may be a bit schematic -- wayward stud and sexually repressed aristocrat, but Heavenly is beautifully drawn and brilliantly acted by Liz White who is simply wonderful in both plays. There are clunky moments in SPRING STORM, but also superbly written scenes. Heavenly's garrulous, socially ambitious mother -- a precursor of Amanda in GLASS MENAGERIE and an echo of Williams's mother, is a great character role well played by Jacqueline King. I'll say more about the two male leads anon.
BEYOND THE HORIZON was O'Neill's first full-length play (1920). Like SPRING STORM, it places a woman between two men who are opposites: one a bookish dreamer, the other an ambitious, practical materialist. I have never been a big fan of O'Neill's work. His obsession with over-explaining everything, leaving nothing for the audience to read in, makes his plays over-explicit and over-long. He also seems to write from an idea rather than out of character. You can figure out what is going to happen after the first scene of BEYOND THE HORIZON. The O'Neill machine grinds out the inevitable reversals and conclusion with characters explaining every thought and feeling they have. Though O'Neill wanted his audiences to believe in fate, one has the feeling that the sad things that happen to his characters happen because the playwright wants them to happen, not because they must happen. At least BEYOND THE HORIZON is not stretched out to five hours like his later plays. One also gets tired of the typical O'Neill speech pattern in which a character says something honest, but cruel and in the next speech apologizes for it.
That said, this beautifully directed revival makes as strong a case for the play as can be made. Liz White convincingly traces Ruth's downfall from a vibrant girl to a bitter woman. As in SPRING STORM the two men are played by Michael Thomson and Michael Mallarky. As in SPRING STORM, Thomson plays the more virile, materialistic character and Mallarky plays the bookish dreamer. I kept thinking that, although Thomson is bigger physically, I would have cast them the other way round. Thomson plays Andrew as sweet and kind, a man who wants to make the best out of every situation. I believed him more as Andrew than I did as Dick in SPRING STORM, but Williams's studs are hard to play convincingly. Young Mallarky is straight out of acting school. He's handsome and has a beautiful voice, but physically a bit stiff on stage. I couldn't believe his illness and death because he didn't move any differently. It is wonderful that he is getting this experience, but I'm not sure he's ready for this sort of exposure at this point in his career. He doesn't give bad performances in the two plays, but one can see his technical weaknesses in these two big, demanding roles, but can anyone play the overblown pathos of O'Neill's work convincingly? The supporting cast is fine. Again, it's Liz White who really shines and justifies the revival. If only didn't O'Neill, with his usual misogyny, end up blaimg the woman for al that goes wrong. She's the victim, not the villain. This production makes as strong a case for the play as can be made. The run is sold out, so word of mouth has been strong.
Tennessee Williams, SPRING STORM and Eugene O'Neill, BEYOND THE HORIZON. Royal National Theatre Cottesloe Theatre, June 12 and 19, 2010.