14 March 2012

'Early Plays'

On Friday evening, 2 March, my friend Diana and I drove over to DUMBO to see Early Plays, an adaptation of three one-acts from the Glencairn Plays by Eugene O’Neill, presented at St. Ann’s Warehouse. The adaptation, by Richard Maxwell, was performed by a combined company made up of actors from the Wooster Group, the long-lived experimental troupe whose usual home is the Performing Garage in SoHo, and the New York City Players, a 13-year-old group started and directed by Maxwell. While I’ve known of the Wooster Group for years (I was a grad student in NYU’s Department of Performance Studies and a frequent student of Richard Schechner’s, whose Performance Group was the precursor to the Wooster Group), I hadn’t heard of the New York City Players—at least I don’t remember having heard of them despite the fact that reviews of their shows and articles about them have appeared in the New York Times and elsewhere for over a decade. (Along with a collection of some of Maxwell’s plays, Plays, 1996- 2000: Richard Maxwell, there’s even a book about him and his company: The Theatre of Richard Maxwell and the New York City Players by Sarah Gorman.)

The four Glencairn Plays (also known as the Sea Plays) take O'Neill’s tales of sailors at sea and ashore, drawn from the playwright’s own experience as a merchant mariner, as a vehicle to explore themes of longing and eternity. Dark episodes depict the underside of turn-of-the-century maritime life—brawls, dances, and carousing—as the playwright captures the voices of seamen from different countries. The one-acts were written separately and weren’t all débuted by the same troupe. Bound East for Cardiff (1914) premièred at the Wharf Theatre in Provincetown, Massachusetts, on 28 July 1916 in a production of the nascent Provincetown Players; the Washington Square Players’ début of In the Zone (1917) opened at the Comedy Theatre in New York City on 31 October 1917; the Provincetown Players premièred The Long Voyage Home (1917) at the Playwrights’ Theatre, New York, on 2 November 1917; and The Moon of the Caribbees (1918), presented again by the Provincetown Players at the Playwrights' Theatre, opened on 20 December 1918.

O’Neill hadn’t intended the Glencairn Plays to be played together at first, even though they all share the same set of characters who are shipmates on the British tramp steamer Glencairn. It wasn’t until 1924 that the Provincetown Players first staged the four one-acts under one title, The S.S. Glencairn, at O’Neill’s suggestion, but since then, they’ve been considered a set. (The four plays were filmed together in 1940, updated from World War I to World War II, as The Long Voyage Home, directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne. It’s said to have been O’Neill’s favorite film based on any of his plays.) The Wooster Group had invited Maxwell, who’d worked with his company out of the Performing Garage a few times, to direct the plays, and he chose to do three of them (Zone isn’t included in Early Plays) on the set of the Wooster Group’s Emperor Jones and Hairy Ape (designed by Elizabeth LeCompte and Jim Clayburgh). In Moon, the ship is anchored off a West Indian island as the men listen to the eerie singing from shore and wait for the native women to come aboard to sell fruit and contraband rum. Two sailors fight over Pearl, who’d been flirting with them both, and one of the men is stabbed to death. The first mate throws the women off the ship, leaving the sailors alone as the on-shore singing haunts them. In Bound East, Yank takes a fatal fall down a hold and reflects bitterly on the life he’s leaving. His shipmates attempt to comfort him as death comes for him in a vision of a beautiful woman. Long Voyage is the story of Ole Olson, a Swedish sailor, who goes to Fat Joe’s, a bar on the London docks, with his mates. Olson won’t drink so he doesn’t get drunk, but he recounts his plans to return home to his family farm to sympathetic Freda. She distracts him while Joe slips him a mickey and he’s shanghaied aboard the Amindra, the “worst ship dat sail to sea.”

Early Plays, a world première that the companies plan to tour to Paris, Los Angeles, and San Francisco next season, explores the spareness and the musicality of this language in scenes that include songs by Maxwell. Elizabeth LeCompte, director of the Wooster Group, chose the New York City Players director to provide these plays a "re-mix," giving O’Neill’s romantic text a stark, Postmodern feel. After my experience at St Ann’s, I have to say, I don’t get the hype or even the attention Maxwell and his troupe have gotten. Granted, this production is different from the usual New York City Players’ fare: first, the company is a combined troupe of New York City Players and Wooster Group actors, so Maxwell’s not working with his usual crew; second, this is a rare effort with a script that Maxwell didn’t write. (In 2003, Maxwell and his troupe staged an interpretation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1. Their only previous effort at presenting the work of another writer than Maxwell; it was universally panned.) I don’t know what difference that might make, but I have to consider it.

Maxwell, a North Dakotan who launched his theater work in Chicago around 1992, is the brother of Jan Maxwell, a well-regarded star of Broadway and Off-Broadway (and the wife of an actor I used to know quite well and greatly admire). Maxwell started the New York City Players in 1999 and their work has gained a great deal of acclaim among both devotees of experimental theater and the press. Ben Brantley of the New York Times, for instance, said of Maxwell in 2001 "that he may indeed turn out to be one of the most innovative and essential artists to emerge from American experimental theater in the past decade." According to the company itself:

New York City Players is a theater company creating original work about people, relationships, and above all, feeling. [Its] aim is to initiate a new dialogue with an ever-growing audience using original text and music. By rigorously stripping away the habitual identities that encumber work, we pursue the power of language, of story, of image, and what happens when people gather in a room.

I can’t unpack this manifesto, but what all this turns out to mean is that the actors create no characters and deliver the lines with flat affect so that not only are the emotional or psychological intentions erased, but the accents and dialects in which O’Neill wrote in the Sea Plays sound ridiculously childish and stupid. (I gather from reading criticism that Maxwell’s idea is that this emphasizes the words and impels the spectators to supply their own emotional content. I can do that by reading the plays—I even own a collection of O’Neill.) There are many jokes about untrained actors reading a script for the first time and reading all the words, including the stage directions. That’s what this is like, except instead of stage directions, the actors read the phonetically spelled-out dialects verbatim. The actors also speak in an even, slightly speeded-up pace and exhibit few, if any, facial expressions or body gestures. There’s no attempt to make the words sound like speech—indeed, the company deliberately subverts any such intent. If there’s some point behind this practice—and I gather that this is the performance style of the New York City Players—I don’t see it. Diana thought it was amateurish—but that’s simplistic. An amateur might do something like this out of ignorance or inability; these actors do it intentionally, as if it meant something to sabotage the sense of the dialogue. Now, I recognize that O’Neill’s writing in these early plays is stilted, inartful, and hard to speak. The Sea Plays are usually considered unstageable as they’re written. The dramaturgy is clumsy, fragmentary, and plotless. As Ben Brantley points out in his New York Times review of Early Plays, acting these plays “with ardor and earnestness often only amplifies their creaks.” But Maxwell’s approach hardly solves the theatrical problems; it exacerbates them. (The cast is split among Wooster Group actors and New York City Players, but the production's style appears to be exclusively Maxwell’s.) Frankly, I don’t get the point of the whole exercise.

According to Brantley (whose word I’ll take in this instance), Maxwell’s notion is “to look for the distilled essence beneath the hoary crust” of O’Neill’s novice efforts. The affectless monotones, phonetic pronunciation of the dialects, and robotic movements, however, don’t elucidate or clarify. They numb and enervate. Even the staging, using the Wooster Group’s O’Neill set as a kind of found object, has its detriments. Bound East, the playlet about the dying Yank, is performed far upstage right, off the actual platform that is the ship’s deck in Moon and the bar in Voyage. Yank is stretched out in a bunk or hammock a few feet up, his face and torso dimly lit by a lantern, as a shipmate stays with him to keep him comforted, and it was so hard to see this scene that I ultimately gave up and just tried to listen. (Some reviewers suggested that that was Maxwell’s goal for Bound East—but another name for that kind of production is radio drama.) Now, I’ll freely admit I’m a geezer, but I don’t automatically dismiss experimental art, especially theater. I’ve seen some performances that I didn’t really understand, but that I enjoyed for their flair, verve, and innovative impulse. I like seeing what younger minds than mine (which is . . . well, most of them these days) are coming up with to make the old new again. But here, I just don’t see the rationale for the approach—except just to do it, to thumb their noses at the audience. (Okay, that’s what Marcel Duchamp did in 1917 when he mounted a urinal on a board and called it art—but that was funny! At least I think it was.)

The plays include a few moments of song, such as the shanty the sailors sing in Moon and the haunting music they heard from shore in the same play. Oddly, when the men sing, the actors seem to forget their commitment to affectless performance and sing like working men engaging in an impromptu musical interlude. Then there are the songs that Maxwell composed for the breaks between the plays. As far as I could see, they had nothing to do with either the little vignettes of the seaman’s life or “the spirit of the sea” which O’Neill is said to have designated the hero of the Glencairn Plays. Like a lot of the work in Early Plays, the original songs struck me as self-indulgences by a self-important artist.

Aside from Brantley’s New York Times notice, which was cool but harked back to earlier Maxwell successes and laudatory estimations, Adam Feldman in Time Out New York, while also acknowledging that Maxwell’s style works effectively when applied to his own scripts, concludes that when applied to the work of other writers, as in Early Plays, “it can come off as smug and dismissive, as though diddling itself with a middle finger.” In Back Stage, Jason Fitzgerald calls “Maxwell meets O'Neill” “a carefully wrought and visually beautiful production that is defeated by its own rigor,” and suggests, “It lacks the thing O'Neill cared about most in his theater: a beating heart.” The Village Voice’s Alexis Soloski offers, “It’s a clever show and sometimes a startlingly charming one, but it never argues for its own necessity, never clarifies what drew these companies to it.” In the New Yorker, however, Hilton Als, saying that Early Plays “has the supreme realism of a dream,” lauds Maxwell for “short-circuiting our desire for the standard forms of theatrical pleasure” and asserts that the production “is reductive in the best possible way.”

Nonetheless, I’m left with the questions Why Maxwell and his company do this kind of work—because I don’t understand it—and then Why does anybody find it worthwhile and even praiseworthy. In the end, it was I who was at sea. I felt I’ve been witness to the emperor’s new clothes: the monarch’s naked, but no one’s dared tell him so or inform the people. Well, here I am to tell you all: The emperor ain’t got no clothes on! Go look if you want to, but don’t be fooled. He’s as naked as a jaybird!

[This play report, an application of the principal rationale for launching Rick On Theater three years ago, appears in the week of the blog’s third anniversary (on 16 March). There’s nothing especially remarkable about “Early Plays”—though I suppose it’s auspicious that my anniversary post focuses on the first American playwright to gain an international reputation and the only American dramatist to win a Nobel Prize (1936)—but it does represent the very purpose I had for starting this on-going effort. In the intervening months and years, I’ve branched out into other topics, even other fields beyond theater or the arts, but the mainstay of ROT is still the play report. This month and last will have seen a surfeit of reports on plays and performances, both from me and from my friend and contributor, Kirk Woodward. As far as I’m concerned, that’s all to the good. The season’s only about two-thirds over, so there will certainly be more production reports to come—and, I hope, well into future seasons. In between, I hope to present thoughts on topics that interest or concern me and to bring ROT readers ideas and opinions from other writers, both previously published and original for the blog. I also hope readers will keep returning to see what’s up on ROT. The past three years have been challenging and fun. I expect the future will be the same. ~Rick]


  1. The 57th Annual Obie Awards, honoring the best of Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway, were presented at a ceremony on Monday, 21 May, at Webster Hall in the East Village. Richard Maxwell won a directing Obie for "Early Plays," his adaptation of the O'Neill Sea Plays. (It certainly wouldn't have been my choice!)


  2. For ROT readers on the West Coast: I've just reveived notification from the Wooster Group that 'Early Plays' will be presented in California in February. From 14-16 February, the production can be seen at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) in San Francisco and from 21 to 24 February at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT) in Los Angeles. (Performance times vary; check local listings for the schedule and ticket information.)