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THE jOURNAL OF

AMERICAN DRAMA AND THEATRE


Volume 12, Number 1 Winter 2000
Editor: Vera Mowry Roberts
Co-Editor: jane Bowers
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OF THE CITY UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK
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Ruby Cohn
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Don B. Wilmeth
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THE jOURNAL OF AMERICAN DRAMA AND THEATRE
Volume 12, Number 1 Winter 2000
Contents
jONATHAN CHAMBERS, 1
The Dilemma of Commitment:
john Howard Lawson's Marching Song
LEWIS E. SHELTON, 22
George Abbott and the
Total Theatre Perspective of Directing
MICHAEL R. SCHIAVI, 53
Eugene O'Neill's "New Men" and the Theatrical
Possibility: Strange Interlude and Ah, Wilderness!
RONALD WAINSCOTT, 74
Let's Get a Divorce:
American Drama's Divorce Crisis, 1870-1925
SUSAN C.W. ABBOTSON, 83
What Does August Wilson Teach in The Piano Lesson?
The Place of the Past and Why Willie Boy
Knows More Than Berniece
CONTRIBUTORS 102
j ournal of Ameri can Drama and Theatre Vol ume 12 (Winter 2000)
The Dilemma of Commitment:
John Howard Lawson's Marching Song
jONATHAN CHAMBERS
In June of 1934, a few months prior to his official joining of the
Communist Party, American playwright John Howard Lawson wrote an
essay entitled "Towards a Revolutionary Theatre: The Theatre-The
Artist Must Take Sides." In the first part of the essay, which appeared
in New Theatre, Lawson claimed that the new era of class-
consciousness in the United States necessitated revolutionary changes
in the theatre. While noting that the recent critical ly and commercially
successful New York productions of Stevedore, Peace on Earth, and
They Shall Not Die where indeed "tremendously significant" in the
"development of a genuine American theatre" which sought to
"dramatiz[e] the class struggle directly and uncompromisingly,"
Lawson cautioned that these productions needed to be viewed as only
a "beginning" for the revolutionary theatre. He went on to assert that
a careful Marxist analysis of these playscripts and the productions
would reveal "certain serious [ideological] faults" which could not be
addressed as long as revolutionary theatre artists sought to work within
the "traditional pale-pink, art-for-art's sake" environment of a "sick
and debilitated" Broadway system, which was "a [capitalist] business
organism, whose methods and operations are clearly defined as those
of Wall Street." Lawson continued:
The revolutionary theatre is on the threshold of its vital
growth. . . . [A]t the same time, it is inevitable that a split
between the theatre of the workers and the theatre of the
reactionary bourgeoisie will become gradually more
pronounced. As the class struggle grows more intense and
more openly apparent, it is reflected more clearly in the
various arts: The compromisers, the escapists, artists who
chatter about "pure art" find that they are no longer able to
hide behind their aesthetic liberalism. The artist is forced to
recognize the elementary facts of the economic struggle; he is
forced to take sides (emphasis in original).
2 CHAMBERS
Theatre workers, he charged, who " profess a confused and half-
hearted liberalism," by employing a "veneer of aesthetic liberalism"
needed to do as he had done and " take sides," "orient themselves
toward the left", and find "political clarity." In doing so, they would
be able to participate in "the living force of proletarian art, offering
fresh themes, fertile experimentation, and real integrity.". Lawson
concluded this impassioned plea for "revolutionary" change with a
fervent and critical evaluation of his own work, focusing on the plays
produced while he was a member of the New Playwrights' Theatre
1
in
the years 1927-1929, and an earnest call to arms:
[The New Playwrights' Theatre] played an important part in
initiating the first steps toward a class-conscious theatre. These
steps were tentative and lacking in political clarity, but the
New Playwrights did an important job, both in the quality of
the plays produced, and in the confused but courageous
insistence with which they raised the slogan: "The theatre for
social protest ... a theatre pledged to the production of plays
revolutionary in method and theme."
But we are living in an era of revolutionary change. Confused
and half-hearted liberalism is no longer possible. . . . Class-
conscious workers in theatre should propagandize for an
extension of the movement, appeal to other workers, attack
reactionary press and reactionary management, stress the need
of developing new audiences, expose the shoddy standards of
Broadway. There is only one direction in which the drama
can move forward: it must join the march of the advancing
working class, it must keep pace with the quickening
momentum of the revolution.
2
The impassioned proclamations made in "Towards a
Revolutionary Theatre" marked a profound shift in the life of Lawson,
who had for many years identified himself primarily as an "artist
rebel" committed to "break[ing] down the walls of the [bourgeois]
1
The New Playwrights' Theatre was founded in early 1927 by Lawson,
Michael Gold, John Dos Passos, Franci s Faragoh and Emanual (Emjo) Basshe. The
founding members hoped to establish an independent theatre, producing avant
garde plays on a repertory basis, which would be committed to working class
issues and audiences. The New Playwrights' struggled through three seasons of
commercial and critical failures.
2
John Howard Lawson, " Towards a Revolutionary Theatre: The Theatre-The
Artist Must Take Sides," New Theatre Uune 1934): 6-7.
john Howard Lawson 3
theatre" by employing current and symbol-rich theatrical methods.
3
To
be sure, unlike the New Playwrights' manifestos Lawson penned in the
late 1920s, which called first for aesthetic revolution in the American
theatre, and the various newspaper articles published in the early and
mid 1930s that found him struggling to "[break] away from bourgeois
romanticism and [be] of some genuine literary use to the revolution,"
" Towards a Revolutionary Theatre," was an unabashed and
unapologetic call for ideological revolution.
4
In the autumn of 1934, Lawson supported this passionate appeal
with clear action and joined the Communist Party. In his essay,
"Straight from the Shoulder" published in the November 1934 issue of
New Theatre, Lawson wrote that because it was "the first obligation of
the revolutionary writer" to be "specific in regard to party and political
questions," then "the playwright must organize his/her [sic] technique
from this point of view" (emphasis in original). He went on to criticize
many so-called revolutionary playwrights, claiming that they tended to
fall prey to "literary romanticism" and, as a result, produced works
"muddled by symbolism," "humanitarian vagueness," and "Freudian
3
Lawson uses the term "artist-rebel" to describe himself in the 1920s and
early 1930s in the drafts of his unpublished and unfinished autobiography, A Way
of Life, circa early 1960s. Various drafts of this work are contained in Boxes 91,
92, 95, 97, and 99, john Howard Lawson Papers, Special Collections, Morri s
Library, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, Collection 16. Hereafter, I use
the following method to document materials drawn from this archive: Lawson
Papers, followed by "B" indicating Box or "Pkg." indicating package, followed by
"F" indicating Folder (when applicable), followed by "p" indicating Page (when
applicable). He first used the phrase " break down the walls of the theatre" in
reference to his hopes for the 1923 Equity Players production of his play Roger
Bloomer. It was, according to Lawson in an interview conducted by Robert
Hethman on April 25, 1964, a phrase he used repeatedly in the 1920s. A written
transcript of this interview is contained in the Lawson Papers, B. 39, F. 1. Lawson
also makes use of the phrase in A Way of Life.
4
There are three New Playwrights' "manifestos." The first, entitled "The
New Showmanship," was published in the program for the Neighborhood
Playhouse February 192 7 production of Francis Faragoh's Pinwheel. The New
Playwrights' inaugural production, a staging of Lawson's Loudspeaker, followed
the next month. The second manifesto, "What is a Workers' Theatre?, " appeared
in the New York Sun on November 12, 1927. The last manifesto written by
Lawson was included in a pledge pamphlet sent to all season ticket holders in the
spring of 1928. Copies of the program for Pinwheel and the pledge pamphlet can
be found in the Lawson Papers, B 1, F4. The newspaper articles from the early and
mid 1930s are numerous. Most notable is Lawson's essay "Inner Conflict and
Proletarian Art," published in New Masses in April, 1934. It was written in
response to a brutal attack written by Mike Gold against Lawson's plays The Pure
in Heart and Centlewqman. The quote used here is from: John Howard Lawson,
"Inner Conflict and Proletarian Art," New Masses (April 1934): 29-30.
4 CHAMBERS
escape." Revolutionary theatre artists needed to reject these
tendencies and instead write with " dynamic clarity." Lawson
continued:
I say emphatically that it is not the business of the Proletarian
theatre to aid this escape. In fact, that is the business of
bourgeois art; the function of revolutionary drama is to
circumvent this escape; it is successful in proportion to its
ability to force parti sanship upon the audience (emphasis in
original).
If the revolutionary playwright is successful in his/ her endeavor to
" force partisanship" then s/he will have written a play that is "greater .
. . in the truly Aristotelian sense." The essay closed with Lawson
encouraging all revolutionary theatre artists to "bring detailed
understanding to the problems which mean life and death to the
working class" and announcing that it was his "ai m to present the
Communist position, and to do so in the most specific manner. "
5
Since Lawson was a playwright of no little status, the Communist
Party immediately sought to incorporate him into official activities. His
first major function as a spokesperson for the party came in April of
1935 when he addressed the first American Writers Congress.
6
Lawson, who would later refer to the event as "a declaration of
revolution in the arts," opened his address, entitled "Technique and
the Drama, " with a call for "detailed technical [i.e., Marxist] analysis"
of the theatre and, specifically, the playwright's craft_l He then offered
a "crude, admittedly over-simplified" four-step approach for play
construction and analysis founded upon the classic tradition of
Aristotelian conflict:
(a) Conflict and action involve the exercise of the conscious
will toward a goal; (b) this involves social judgments. and
social purpose; (c) it may be assumed that the dramatist's
conception of social meaning and purpose will determine the
exact form of the conflict; (d) then construction is not merely a
5
John Howard Lawson, "Straight from the Shoulder," New Theatre
(November 1934): 11-12.
6
The first American Writers Congress was held at the Mecca Temple in New
York City on April 26, 27, and 28, 1935. Over 200 delegates from twenty-six
states attended, as well as 1 50 writers, who attended as guests, and 4000
spectators.
7
Lawson Papers, B. 99, F.1.
John Howard Lawson
pitcher into which the social content is poured, but is the core
of social content itself.
5
With this model in pl ace, Lawson offered a brief analysi s of the work
of Ibsen, the last great writer of "the end of the middle-class era."
[Ibsen] dissects the bourgeois family with surgical vigor,
showing its inertia, its bitterness, its confused moral values.
But the structure of Ibsen's plays conforms very directly to the
social content: instead of developing the action gradually, his
plays begin at a crisis. Clayton Hamilton says, " Ibsen caught
his story very late in its career, and revealed the antecedent
incident in little gleams of backward dialogue." What is the
reason for this form? The explanation lies in the fact that Ibsen
has invented a technique which exactly fits his social material:
the final psychological crisis of the middle-class family.
(emphasis in original)
Lawson claimed that while Ibsen's technique had been fitting for his
era, that method, which embraced idleness, passivity, and Freudian
musings, had outlasted it usefulness and was now influencing the
theatre in negative ways. Using the works of dramatists Eugene
O'Neill and George 5. Kaufman to exemplify his point, Lawson
declared that the contemporary American theatre had been " infected"
by Ibsen's method that had at its core " the d e n i ~ of growth and
dynamic development." He cited specifically the practice of
beginning the play at crisis and illuminating the past in the course of
the action, as techniques that led to "the denial of the conscious will."
The crisis is diluted and the backward-looking moments are
emphasized, so that the play (in many cases) is all exposition
and no crisis. Drama depends on action and logic. But
mystic [i.e., Freudian] philosophy negates action and denies
logic. Thus the playwright, whose point of view is tinged with
mysticism, expresses a dread of action, a lost desire for
emotional stability. He achieves this by delaying or avoiding
conflict. This may satisfy the playwright, but it does not sati sfy
dramatic construction. When the dramatist runs away from
life, he runs away from his own play.
Lawson closed his address by warning that as long as the
contemporary American playwright denied "the conscious will ," the
"growth and dynamic development" of the American theatre would
6 CHAMBERS
be obstructed.
8
At this point Lawson's explanation of "the conscious
will" was incomplete and his thoughts on how to revolutionize the
American theatre were immature. Nevertheless, a skeletal framework
of his methodology for a new revolutionary theatre was put in place.
In early 1936 the impassioned call made in " Towards a
Revolutionary Theatre" and the practical methodology outlined in
"Technique and the Drama" were merged and expanded in Lawson's
book Theory and Technique of Playwriting. Lawson divides the study
into two parts. The first half involves a sweeping account of the
development of western drama and its connection to and dependence
on philosophy. Describing his investigation as " clinical, " Lawson's
chief concern is tracing the rise and fall of humanist ideology, as
manifest in the notion of "individual will, " as an impulse in the
drama.
9
In mapping "the close connection of philosophy and
dramatic thought," Lawson offers detailed considerations of Hegel,
whose notion of the dialectic, as evident in the conflict between the
free individual and the conditions imposed by his/ her environment, is
dramatized in Goethe's Faust; Schopenhauer, whose subsequent
arguments that will is divorce from consciousness, impulse rules over
logic, and happiness is achieved through inertia and passive
contemplation, is dramatized in the last plays of Ibsen; and james,
whose "principle of pure experience," which positions the individual
as a fragmented and irrational entity, is dramatized in the later plays of
O' Neill (i.e., post The Hairy Ape) (88).
Having defined a pattern of philosophy and its application to the
structure of drama, Lawson at last arrives at the following thesis: the
"influential trends in modern thought that deny humankind's [sic]
ability to exert any rational control over his/ her [sic] existence, " have
led to the over-use of an outdated dramatic structure where " moods
and fears replace courage and consistent struggle to achieve rational
goals" (85). The first half of the study closes with a call for the
"serious artist . .. to break from the mold of outworn ideas, to think
creatively" (emphasis in original). While this struggle will no doubt
cause "serious inner conflict," the creation of new and revolutionary
dramatic forms, ones that entail a portrayal of humankind's conscious
struggle to realize aims and desires, will emerge (158).
8
john Howard lawson, " Technique and the Drama," in American Writers
Congress, Henry Hart, ed. (New York: International, 1935), 123-28.
9
John Howard Lawson, Theory and Technique of Playwriting (New York: Hill
and Wang, 1960), 157. All subsequent references will be cited parenthetically in
the text.
John Howard Lawson 7
In the second half of the book, Lawson focuses on introducing his
method of revolutionary playwriting. Working from the premise that
because "the drama deals with social relationships, the dramatic
conflict must be a social conflict/' Lawson posits the following "basis"
for his method:
The essential character of drama is social conflict in which the
conscious will is exerted: persons are pitted against other
persons, or individuals against groups, or groups against other
groups, or individuals or groups against social or natural
forces-in which the conscious will, exerted for the
accomplishment of specific and understandable aims, is
sufficiently strong to bring the conflict to a point of crisis.
(168)
From this point Lawson goes on to discuss in detail conflict, action,
and unity, following closely the method outlined at the beginning of
his address "Technique and the Drama." The study concludes with a
brief comparison wherein Lawson likens his method to "the method of
socialist realism," which could rise above subjective romanticism and
the mechanical constraints of naturalism and thus, eliminate confusion
in the drama, and a rationale of why his new method is necessary
(208).
In the early nineteen-twenties, the more rebellious spirits in
the theatre talked of breaking down the walls of the
playhouse; the moldy conventions of the drawing room play
must be destroyed; the drama must be created anew in the
image of the living world. These declarations were vitally
important; but those who attempted to carry out the task had
only an emotional and confused conception of the living
world of which they spoke. They succeeded in making a
crack in the playhouse walls, through which one caught a
glimpse of the brightness and wonder which lay beyond.
This was the beginning: the serious artist who caught a fleeting
glimpse of the free world knew ... that he must leave the mist
of dreams and see reality "free and awake." This could not
be done by selecting bits of reality piecemeal or by building a
dramatic patchwork of fragmentary impressions. Since the
drama is based on unity and logic, the artist must understand
the unity and logic of events. This is an enormously difficult
task. But it is also an enormously rewarding task: because the
real world which the artist seeks is also the audience of which
he dreams. The artist who follows Emerson's advice to look
8 CHAMBERS
for "beauty and holiness in new and necessary facts, in the
field and roadside, in the shop and mill," finds that the men
and women who are the stuff of drama are the men and
women who demand a creative theatre in which they may
play an active part.
The living theatre is a theatre of the people. (302)
As soon as Lawson completed Theory and Technique of
Playwriting, he began to work on his next play, Marching Song. He
had come up with the idea for the play in the summer of 1932 while
in residence with The Group Theatre which was working on his play
Success Story. The idea remained just an idea until the summer of
1936. Lawson's recollection of the writing experience during that
summer indicates that the goal he sought in his dramatic writing was a
product of his own endeavor "to break from the mold of outworn
ideas, to think creatively":
I was engaged in the summer of 1936, in the most difficult
dramatic task I had ever undertaken. In Marching Song I
hoped to create a lyrical poetic form which would express the
suffering and hope of people who had not been shown on the
American stage-the workers who were beginning to organize
the great mass-production industries. It seemed to me a great
epic of our time; it was the essence, the soul of all I had ever
attempted to do in the theatre.
10
From this, Lawson's lofty objective is quite clear: to create a new
dramatic form wherein he could merge the story of "suffering and
hope of . .. the workers," an indication of his new found commitment
to documenting the struggles and triumphs of the working-class, with a
"lyrical poetic form," a career-long ambition dating back to his work
in the twenties. In short, by bringing together the heightened and, at
times, poetic language with the hot topic of labor strife, Lawson sought
to make manifest his dream of a "theatre of the people."
Marching Song is set inside the abandoned factory of the now-
defunct Winkle Wheel Company on the outskirts of Brimmerton, an
industrial city in the Great Lakes Region that is home to the Brimmer
Motor Company. As the first act opens, Jenny Russell is discovered
sitting alone in the factory, rocking her baby and singing softly.
Through various conversations with the homeless, unemployed men
who live in the shadows of the abandoned factory, it is revealed that
10
Lawson Papers, B. 99, F. 5, p. 765.
john Howard Lawson 9
jenny's husband Pete has been fired and black-! isted from the Brimmer
Company for trying to organize a union local. Now, under order of
the Brimmer Company, the local bank has foreclosed on the Russell's
home, leaving Jenny, her sister Rose, the baby, and Pete without a
home. Pete and his friend Hank enter carrying belongings from the
house. As they talk about Pete's situation, Hank, who is a member of
the strong electrician's local, asks why Pete's union hasn't become
involved. Pete answers bitterly: "The union? Nothin' left of it but the
name. I was down there yesterday, office full o' men and women
askin' for help. The union's got no money an' no plans. They make a
lousy settlement an' we're left holding the bag."
11
As Pete continues
to speak, "a procession of men and women" slowly enters, carrying
the Russell's belongings (66) . With the floor of the factory full of
people, Bill Anderson, the new leader of the union local, enters.
Anderson has spread the word of the Russell's eviction and has called
for a union meeting in the abandoned factory. After Anderson brings
the meeting to order, he calls for a sit-down strike in order to get Pete
and the other fired men back to work. Emotions grow and someone
yells, "I tell you he's [Anderson] a red!" Anderson replies:
BILL. I'll tell you who I am. Most of you don't know me: I never
got around much. I worked on the brake-drum assembly for
eleven years, put a nut in a grease cap an' tighten six bolts.
Most of you was in some place else in the same plant. Pete's
case is tied up with all of us, inside or out, with everybody in
this town an' other towns. Don't think we're alone here.
We're doing our stuff right now on a belt that goes seven
times 'round the world! [A pause.] I got three things to
propose: first we go to the bank to get Pete Russell put back in
his house. . . . If they turn us down, we go to the relief,
demand they give 'em a place to live an' move 'em into it
free. . . . If we don't get any satisfaction there, there's one
thing left to do: we take this furniture an' put it back in the
house where it belongs. Them that want to do it raise their
hands-them that's ready to join us, raise up your hands!
Slowly, one by one, everyone in the factory, except for Jenny and Pete
who are standing apart from the crowd, raise their hands. As the
crowd turns slowly toward Pete and Jenny a "jagged flash of lightening
cuts across the scene," a "terrific roll of thunder" sounds, and Jenny
and Pete raise their hands (70-72).
11
John Howard Lawson, Marching Song (New York: Dramatists Play Service,
1937), 32. All subsequent references will be cited parenthetically in the text.
10 CHAMBERS
Act II takes place in the afternoon of the next day. As Pete, Jenny,
and Bill talk it is revealed that the attempt to put the Russell s back in
their house was met with an attack from the poli ce and thugs hired by
the company. While Pete and jenny are pessimistic about the future,
Bill is energized. As he tells Pete of the leaflets he has been
distributing all over town, news arrives that the workers at the plant
have sat down on the job. The factory floor floods with people and
Bill addresses them in a passionate speech wherein he outlines the
demands the workers have made. When he finishes, Hank starts to
sing, the crowd joins in and they march out of the factory into the
street, leaving Bill, jenny, Pete, and a few of the unemployed men
alone on stage. Bill turns to Pete and jenny:
BILL. Come on Pete.
JENNY. [Clinging to Pete.] Don't do it, Pete. Don't go with them.
BILL. You' re a living part of the union, Pete. Can't cut yourself off
no more' n you'd cut off your own hand.
JENNY. I knew it would be like this. It begins with a small thing
and it grows like a storm, it's nothing to you now, there's no
job to save. They come to you making promises, but it's you
that must give your pain and hunger. Haven't you given
enough?
Bl LL. What's the matter with you, don' t you see what this means?
It's like you got a spotlight on you, whether you want it or not.
The way people see you, you're bigger than yourself like a
man makes a big shadow. (84-85)
This tense scene is interrupted by the entrance of Jenny's sister, Rose,
who offers to go to work for the union. As Rose and Bill make plans,
Jenny begs her to reconsider. Rose leaves the factory and Pete
explodes:
PETE. [Turns on Bill violently.] You think you're a big shot, set
yourself up for a little tin jesus. Go ahead and see what you
get. Maybe you won't feel so big when the shooting starts.
That's what you're heading for only you're too dumb to know
it. You gab about the workers but every worker in this town is
gonna be worse off the way thi s is gonna turn out. O.K. Go
ahead, shoot the works, I don't care if they blast you to hell.
(86)
John Howard Lawson 11
Pete exits with Jenny, and Bill appeals to the homeless men to join in
the march and then exits. As the homeless men talk, Mr. Winkle, who
owns the abandoned factory, enters. Pete returns and he and Winkle
talk of the days when the factory was thriving. In a gesture of
kindness, Winkle offers Pete a job and promises to set things straight
with the bank. They exit and Binks, a New York thug hired by the
Brimmer Company, enters and searches for Bill. When the
unemployed men offer him no help, Binks exits. Soon after "Sinks
leaves, Bill enters, wounded from an explosion at the union office. He
is being chased by Inspector Feiler, a cruel police officer bought off by
the company. As Bill prepares to hide in the furnace of the factory,
Pete enters smoking a cigar that Winkle gave him. Ambivalent about
the cause, he stands idly by and watches as Bill scrambles into the
furnace. Winkle enters with Jenny and they all talk about the Russell's
new life. The discussion is interrupted by the arrival of Feiler who has
followed Bill to the factory. As Feiler questions all in the factory, it
becomes apparent that Pete knows the whereabouts of Bill. Winkle
turns to Pete:
WINKLE .. .. Speak up, Russell. I'm depending on you. Whatever
your personal opinion may be, you must co-operate with the
law ...
JENNY. Pete .. . It's your life, Pete. A chance to live .. . you
know how I worried about the baby ... Seems I ike the baby's
life you're holding in your hands ...
[PETE is in agony.]
PETE. Jenny . .. help me, Jenny ...
JENNY. [Hesitantly, watching his face, trying to understand what
he is going through.] You got to do what you know is right,
Pete.
PETE. [Turns firmly to WINKLE and FEILER.] I got nothing to say
about Bill Anderson. (1 09-1 0)
With that, Winkle takes back his offer to help the Russells and he and
Feiler exit. Pete turns to Jenny:
PETE. [Slowly, searching his mind, trying to make it dear.] I had
to do it. I kept thinking of the men sitting there in the plant, in
the motor assembly, sitting there where I worked. I'm there
with 'em, can't cut myself off no more'n I'd cut my arm.
12 CHAMBERS
JENNY. Why did you ask me to help you?
PETE. [Simply.] I needed to.
JENNY. [In a strange voice.] You needed me?
PETE. I know how you feel, I know the bitterness of you.
JENNY. Do you?
PETE. All you cared about was the house.
JENNY. [Bursts out in a voice of tortured passion, showing a
violence which she has never before suggested.) You think I
want a house to die in? You think I want to sit there dying till
you come in with liquor and perfume on you. I got a heart in
me and the house was my heart 'cause it's you, the house was
you and no other thing. You talked to me about love at one
time. When was that? Is the memory in you?
PETE. It's my job to take care of you an' I can't do it, I'm too weak
for it.
JENNY. [More gently.] Then what's happened to us, Pete? Why
have we been like strangers?
PETE. All I want is to keep you warm, you an' the baby, keep you
warm with my arms around you. I got no strength for it.
JENNY. It's all right, Pete. [He takes her in his arms, crushing her
against him.)
PETE. Your heart's beating like it would break.
JENNY. That' s what it' s been doing for a long time ... you don' t
know. (111-12)
The first scene in the last act takes place later that afternoon. Rose
enters followed by her boyfriend, Joe. Rose reveals to Joe that Bill is
still hiding in the furnace and that she is working for the union. Joe,
who is ambivalent about the strike, is troubled by Rose's sudden
commitment and begs her to run away with him. Angered by this
proposal , Rose leaves. Left alone, Joe finds a cigarette and when he
hears someone approaching, retires to a dark corner. Binks enters with
John Howard Lawson 13
his henchmen and Pete who is questioned and then beaten when he
refuses to answer. Pete is sent away. As Binks and his men talk, they
discover Joe in the shadows. Under threat of torture Joe reveals the
whereabouts of Bill. When the men check the furnace, Bill is gone.
Binks turns once again to Joe who reveals that there is a massive picket
line being planned for the evening. The thugs leave and Joe stands
alone until Hank arrives with Lucky, a man who works at the Brimmer
plant and lives in the abandoned factory. Bill enters and reveals that
he heard Joe betray him and escaped through a pipe. Bill and Hank
exit, leaving Lucky to organize the crowd, which has gathered while
the men have been talking. Jenny enters carrying her dead baby. She
speaks to the crowd:
JENNY. I was sick with fear to make my baby safe .. ... It's lonely
to be afraid. {She looks around wonderingly at the crowd.]
You're the same as me, wanting your children to live ... . [As
if she is beginning to understand.] That's why you're here, so
you can be togetheri to make each other strong to hold the
lives of your children. [With increasing passion.] I want to
give life to this in my arms, but I can't My flesh won't keep
her warm, my breath won't give her breath. I'll go with you.
Give me strength to carry her, so I can make her warm again
with hunger and hope. [Carrying the baby held rigidJy in front
of her, she turns toward the door.]
The scene ends with the entire crowd moving slowly "toward the
lighted doorway" (148).
The final scene takes place later that night. As the curtain rises,
Binks and his men, drunk and laughing, are standing in a circle around
a smoldering ashcan with hot pokers in hand. Joe stands apart from
the crowd, terrified. The men separate, showing Bill, "lying face
downward on the ground. He is bare to the waist and his feet are
bare" and he has just been branded (150). The sounds of an
approaching crowd filter into the factory and Binks signals his men to
"Shut him up!" As the group of thugs close in around him, Bill speaks
"as if he were repeating a lesson": "Lay down your tools ... Strike for
the right to live free ... General strike" (154). Binks and his men exit
to face the oncoming crowd, leaving Bill's lifeless body o.n the floor.
People flood into the factory, fleeing the police and thugs who have
used machine guns and tear gas. Suddenly, the stage goes to dark,
except for the moonlight cutting across it. The men in the power plant
have turned off the electricity that feeds the entire city. With only the
moonlight illuminating him, Lucky climbs up a ladder to a window to
look out over the darkened city. He speaks, in part to himself and in
part to the people below him on the floor of the factory.
14 CHAMBERS
LUCKY: No light but the moon shining from here to nowheres.
But there's people, more'n you could count if you never quit
counting. Streets full of quiet people ... . We stopped the
power 'cause it's us that made it! Electric power comes from
the sky, but it's us that hold it in our hands with the sparks
flowing from our hands. We put a saddle on the lightning like
you saddle a mule! We strung them wires . . . We built them
motors! You hear me, you multitude, power is people!
While Lucky speaks the people who fill the stage slowly rise to their
feet "from their broken and despairing positions," until all are standing
as the curtain falls. (158)
The essential quality of Marching Song is established in the first
moments of the play. Jenny, quietly singing to her baby in a
dismantled factory, talks with Fergus, one of the homeless men who
lives in the factory:
FERGUS. How do you happen to be sitting there?
JENNY. I just want to rest a little.
FERGUS. Is that a place to rest, on a cold stone, with the day just
breaking?
JENNY. I get the sun here. It's a real comfort to feel the sun.
FERGUS. Has your house no windows to let the sun in?
JENNY. It's all right here, safe from the cold wind blowing from
the river.
FERGUS. Aren't there four walls to your house to shut out the
wind?
JENNY. [Rises and screams suddenly as if her voice were torn
from her body.] No. (15)
That despairing cry of "No" is echoed through-out the play and can be
taken as evidence of Lawson's attempt to rise above the subjectivity of
bourgeois romanticism he so thoroughly condemned in Theory and
Technique of Playwriting. This rejection of romanticism is carried
throughout the play and can be seen in the playwright's approach to
theme and technique.
John Howard Lawson 15
Thematically, there are two impulses at work in Marching Song.
While the first and most obvious idea, the conflict between capital and
labor, certainly has overtones of the romantic notion of absolute good
versus absolute evil, another issue that lies with that theme at the core
of the play is treated in a stark and realistic manner: the dilemma of
commitment. While a consideration of the first issue would further
demonstrate Lawson's commitment to revolutionary politics, a study of
the latter issue is far more valuable, in that it provides remarkable
access to the mind of Lawson at this time.
At the end of the first act, when Pete and Jenny, who are standing
apart from the crowd, raise their hands to join the crowd in putting
back the furniture, there is not only fear and .excitement, but reluctance
in the commitment they are making. The multi-layered dynamic that
surrounds their commitment was not a new idea for Lawson or unique
to Marching Song. Indeed, his 1934 play Gentlewoman also shows
conversion to the revolutionary cause not as a relief to the bewildered
soul looking for solace, but as an invitation to suffering which would
torment the spirit but, at the same time, purify and humanize the
alienated soul. Still, while Gentlewoman and Marching Song share the
theme of commitment, their presentations of that theme are markedly
different.
To begin with, in Gentlewoman the dilemma of commitment is
romanticized. Gentlewoman tells the story of an ill-fated relationship
between Gwyn Ballantine, a recently widowed and impoverished New
York socialite, and Rudy Flannigan, a hard-drinking, wildly
irresponsible writer who talks of revolution but never acts on his
impulses. Through three acts of constant bickering Gwyn comes to
realize that the old world order on which her life is based is materially
and spiritually bankrupt. Similarly, Rudy comes to realize that all his
talk of revolution does little more than mask his indecision. The play
ends with Rudy leaving, determined to make a difference in the world
on his own, and Gwyn, who, unbeknownst to Rudy, is pregnant,
committing herself to "make a child who won't be afraid, he'll take
sides and die-but there's always a chance, he might live and make a
new world. "
12
Thus, as Rudy and Gwyn wallow in their ambivalence,
the. ramifications and rewards of commitment, though constantly
alluded to, are never demonstrated. Instead, their struggle never
progresses beyond the highly romantic notion that commitment is
good because it is noble. Conversely, Marching Song focuses not only
on the agonizing choice of commitment, but also the ramifications of
that choice. Indeed, out of Jenny and Pete's reluctant commitment
12
john Howard Lawson, With Reckless Preface: Two Plays "The Pure in
Heart" and "Gentlewoman" (New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1 934), 221.
16 CHAMBERS
comes even greater difficulty: the beginning of a sit-down strike in the
factory, which they refuse to join, the questioning of Pete by Winkle
and Feiler, and the death of the child. Therefore, unlike the taxi
drivers in Waiting for Lefty who are easily won over to the cause by
the murder of their organizer, Pete and Jenny are continually forced to
question their decision.
13
While not as overt as the thematic design, the technique of
Marching Song, as seen in stylistic and structural methods, shows
further evidence of Lawson's explicit attempt to reject bourgeois
romanticism and satisfy his desire " to create a lyrical poetic form
which would express the suffering and hope of [working] people."
14
Stylistically, the language in Marching Song can be characterized as a
poetic intensification of ordinary speech. Similarly, the printed text
includes many detailed suggestions from Lawson regarding gesture and
movement that could only be described as stylistically exaggerated.
Structurally, Marching Song seeks to satisfy Lawson's call for play
"construction [to be] not merely a pitcher into which the social
content is poured, but . . . the core of social content itself."
15
To be
sure, the dilemma of commitment in Marching Song is conveyed not
just in its thematic design, but also through a plot structure that is
poignant, direct and relentless. As the play involves very few moments
of exposition, the focus is instead upon Jenny and Pete' s constant
struggle to achieve rational goals. Further, they are never given a
chance to elude the social confl ict they face and, as a result, the
dramatic conflict is never delayed or compromised. Indeed, the
multiplication of difficulties faced by Jenny and Pete, the unbearable
responsibility of each choice they face, is the key to the suspense in
the play. For example in the scene between Jenny and Pete at the end
of Act II, Pete, faced with the questions of Winkle and Feiler, cries out,
'' Help me Jenny." A moment later Jenny asks, "Why did you ask me
to help you?, " to which Pete responds "I needed you .... All I want is
to keep you warm, you an' the baby, keep you warm with my arms
around you. I got no strength for it" (111-12). Pete's confession of
weakness, brought about by the dilemma of commitment, creates a
new bond between him and Jenny. Furthermore, it is this confession of
weakness, and not heroics, that prompts the climactic action in the last
act.
16
While subtle, Lawson' s technique, involving both stylistic and
13
Lawson Papers, B. 99, F. 5, p. 836.
14
Ibid., B. 99, F. 5, p. "765.
15
Lawson, " Technique and The Drama," 124.
16
Lawson Papers, B. 99, F. 5, p. 836-37.
john Howard Lawson 17
structural choices, is another clear sign of the playwright's attempt to
create a "theatre of the people, " wherein the constraints of bourgeois
romanticism are eliminated.
Despite Lawson's advances with content and form, the February
1937 Theatre Union production of Marching Song did not, in the
playwright' s estimation, succeed. Instead, director Lem Ward allowed
the piece to "wallow in the shadow of naturalism ... that was heavy
over the American theatre at this time." As a result, the poetic
interpretation of the raw tensions in society that Lawson. had
envi sioned, was " obscured" by fellow artists who relied on "lyric
probing" that "turned aspiration to rhetoric. "
17
To that end, it is
impossible to unconditionally assess the merit of Marching Song.
Certainly, its faults are manifest. Even so, these faults are inextricably
interwoven with virtues. In his own evaluation of the piece Lawson's
writes:
It attempts too much; it is on a relentlessly ambitious [and]
impossible scale; it dreams of a "people's theatre" which does
not correspond to the consciousness of any conditions in the
American theatre or the relationship of the theatre to the life of
its time. I have no regret for the rebellious spirit, the dream of
impossibilities that made Marching Song a unique effort to
create a new kind of theatre, a new consciousness.
18
Ironically, Marching Song was the only play Lawson ever wrote
that was favorably reviewed by a majority of the critics of the
mainstream press. This was due, in part, to the impact of the play and
in part to the growth and influence of the left-wing theatre in the late
thirties. Some in the mainstream raved. John Mason Brown of the
New York Post spoke of "the skill and suspense of the scenes, " and
claimed that it was the "most stirring [Lawson] has written since the far
off days of Processiona/."
19
Richard Watts, Jr., who also found it to be
"Lawson' s best drama since the now classic Processional,"
commented that while "[a] good editorial blue pencil would
unquestionably have been a great help . . . Marching Song is a
powerful and exciting drama."
20
Arthur Pollack made no stipulations
17
lb.id., B. 99, f . 5, p. 84L
18
Ibid., B. 99, F. 5, p. 835.
19
John Mason Brown, "Review of Marching Song," New York Post, 15 March
1937, p. 1G.
20
Ri chard Watts, Jr., "Review of Marching Song," New York Tribune, 18
February 1937, p. 14.
18
CHAMBERS
in his short review: "Marching Song burns with indignation skillfully
expressed."
21
Gilbert Seldes of Scribner's offered a more extensive
analysis: "[Lawson] has taken the staple elements of melodrama and
transformed them into a propaganda play which is remarkably
successful as a play . ... The vitality and conviction of Marching Song
make the polite politics of the season look sick, and make us wonder
whether the polite plays were not always invalid."
22
While no one in the mainstream damned the play outright, there
were those who had reservations: Wilella Waldorf commented:
Mr. Lawson is bent on giving us a comprehensive picture of
the grinding poverty, political pandering, official stupidity,
mob violence and hired gun play that so often makes
newspaper headlines in times like these . .. . Mr. Lawson is so
busy painting his picture and so fascinated with its details that
he has not bothered to get good and mad and slash out in the
vigorous manner of some earlier, and probably less intelligent,
Theatre Union plays. His play is full of melodramatic
happenings, but it fails to pack a good melodramatic wallop,
the sort of thing the gallery loves to applaud and roar overY
Brooks Atkinson wrote:
Mr. Lawson is a writer of brilliant scenes which he etches with
savage humor. He also has considerable trouble making a
coherent play out of them. Although most of Marching Song
is alive and most of the dialogue is crisply worded, it makes a
tortured progress down the labor union street.
24
Burns Mantle thought that while the play made "a clear, frank
statement or picture of believable conditions," the playwright and the
Theatre Union had "missed an opportunity":
21
Arthur Pollack, "Review of Marching Song," Brooklyn Eagle, 18 February
1937, Lawson Papers, Pkg. 1.
22
Gilbert Seldes, "Review of Marching Song," Scribner's, April 1937, Lawson
Papers, Pkg. 1 .
23
Wilella Waldorf, "Review of Marching Song," New York Post, 18 February
1937, Lawson Papers, Pkg. 1.
24
Brooks Atkinson, "John Howard Lawson's Marching Song Brings the
Theatre Union to Broadway," "Review of Marching Song," New York Times, 18
February 1937, sec. 18, p. 2.
john Howard Lawson
It is, in the minds of Mr. Lawson and his producers, another
statement for the cause of labor. But to me it is merely
another statement.
just why the propagandists who are so eager to benefit the
workers through drama will continue to merely repeat the
injustices and brutalities practiced against them in strike times,
and not make some intelligent effort to prove their cause and
their campaigns justified, it is difficult to understand.
What they should be told, and shown as well, is what the
workers are fighting for and why they are willing to sacrifice
everything for their compromise victories.
25
19
The arch conservative John Anderson was the most critical. While he
admitted that, "Mr. Lawson can write lines of searing heat; he can
sting his drama to mordant and ferocious laughter," he found
Marching Song "slow in its development, trite in its statement and
unresolved in its conclusion, a p.lay that grows luke-warm at best and
reaches no emotional pitch anywhere."
26
As might be expected the notices from the left-wing press were
highly favorable. Charles E. Dexter wrote a glowing review in the
Daily Worker:
The play you have been waiting for is here at last. It is John
Howard Lawson's Marching Song and you may as well line up
at the box office and get your tkkets now. For it is the Theatre
Union's greatest production. . .. . Marching Song is a great
show as well as an impressive social drama. There is not a
dull moment in it and many an episode that will stir you to
anger, melt you to sympathetic tears, tickle you to laughter
and, finally, urge you to action. For this is not a great
American play but today's American reality, as fresh as the
headlines on your newspaperY
25
Burns Mantle, "Review of Marching Song," Daily Nevvs, 18 February 1937,
Lawson Papers, Pkg. 1 .
26
John Anderson, "Embattl ed Strikers in New Play Mirrored Recent
Headlines, " " Review of Marching Song, " New York journal, 18 February 1937,
Lawson Papers, Pkg. 1 .
27
Charles E. Dexter, "Marching Song Vital As Today's Newspaper," "Review
of Marching Song," Daily Masses, 19 February 1937, Lawson Papers, Pkg. 1.
20 CHAMBERS
Nathaniel Buchwald's review made a similar claim:
Marching Song is a captivating and poignant drama. It is the
best labor play, the most eloquent and poetic dramatization of
the class struggle of our time. . . . It is the most profound
drama, despite the familiar formula of the labor play, "we
suffered, we fought, we won." The magic of the author's
creative imagination plus his clear thinking has turned this
formula into a living, palpitating dramatic composition.
28
In addition to the positive reaction from the left-wing press, the
New York State committee of the Communist Party threw its full
support behind the play. The committee sent out a letter, signed by
the State Organization-Education Committee which, in part, read:
It can definitely be pointed out that this play accurately
depicts the times from a class conscious point of view. It is
not only a good play from the standpoint of theatre technique
but is a really powerful piece of propaganda, the sort of thing
which, in the cultural field, can educate and arouse interest in
the labor movement.
The letter ended by encouraging all members and organizations of the
Party "to do everything possible in the direction of encouraging
attendance ... [and] in guaranteeing that this fine play will get over
the critical two or three week period ... to play before hundreds of
thousands of additional New York workers."
29
In the end Marching
Song won critical applause and a fervent response from a limited
audience and ran for sixty-one performances. Despite this positive
response, Lawson saw the play as evidence of his inability to find a
dramatic method that corresponded with his political ideology:
[Marching Song is] a consummation of negations or barriers
that is so painful that it seems to me that words must burn the
paper. It was the end of a process that began in the twenties;
it was the failure of what was projected by the New
Playwrights' .... The problem of converting what I felt, what I
28
Nathaniel Buchwald, "Review of Marching Song," Daily Worker, 21
February 1937, Lawson Papers, Pkg. 1.
29
New York Stare Communist Party, State Organization-Education
Committee, Lawson Papers, Pkg. 1.
john Howard Lawson
had to express, into an aesthetic form that I knew-to make
the whole experience, including the blood and anger [of the
working-class] my own, was beyond my powers. . . . I [had]
failed to find a dramatic theatre form through which I could
create effectively. . . . It was at last clear to me, the theatre
could not provide the substantial involvement [my] political
commitment now required. . . . [l]t marked the wholly
unexpected end of my public career in the theatre.
30
21
With Marching Song john Howard Lawson attempted to
incorporate a revolutionary theory of playwriting and take his place
alongside other artists who saw artistic expression as a tool for political
revolution and were committed to portraying through an artistic
medium the evils of capitalist society. While the play stands today as a
fine example of the proletarian movement in the theatre, it was for
Lawson a bitter defeat. It was the end of a decade long struggle to
understand and put on stage the "harsh reality of the American scene,"
and to find a suitable balance between his artistic vision and political
ideology.
31
Unable to find a method wherein he could bring together
his art and ideology, Lawson chose the latter. Unwilling to continue to
write plays which privileged function over form, Lawson left the
theatre behind and pursued screenwriting and political activism on a
full-time basis. Joseph Wood Krutch' s review of Marching Song offers
an intriguing and concise summation of Lawson's choice:
For a very long time the trouble seemed to be that Mr. Lawson
did not know what he thought, but when he at last found out
he seemed to know almost too well . Before he embraced
communism he was too confused to write a really effective
play; since his conversion he has been almost too clear.
Knowing all the answers is, for a playwright, almost as bad as
not knowing any.
32
30
Lawson Papers, B. 99, F. 2, p. 441 & F. 5, p. 834.
31
Ibid., B. 100, F. 3, p. 474.
32
Joseph Wood Krutch, "Strike Play," " Review of Marching Song," Nation
(27 February 1937): 249.
Journal of American Drama and Theatre 12 (Winter 2000)
George Abbott and the
Total Theatre Perspective of Directing
LEWIS E. SHELTON
The most enduring career in the American theatre spanned 76
years and belonged to George Frances Abbott (1887-1994), who began
pursuing his dreams in professional theatre in 1913 and continued his
activities through his final production in 1989. An actor, playwright,
and producer, as well as a director, his directing approach embodies
one of the perspectives central to the American theatre. The "Abbott
touch" represents the commercial theatre idea of the production as a
"show," and in his 1950s musical productions, it reached an apogee.
Known to most of hi s colleagues and collaborators as "Mr. Abbott," he
brought attention to the artistry, creativity, and power of the director's
role in the 1920s and 1930s, but his most notable contribution was in
the popular form of the musical in the 1940s and 1950s when he was
the most outstanding musical theatre director on Broadway. Abbott
utilized an essential theatricalism that infused his productions with
freshness and verve as well as realism and believability that helped to
make the American musical an indigenous theatre form. Abbott's
perspective and his record of success make him both a true theatrical
phenomenon and an important contributor to the culture of the time.
While not a direct manifestation of Adolphe Appia's idea of total
theatre, the "Abbott touch" reflected many of the same principles and
created an American version of the Wagnerian legacy contained within
Appia's theories and practices. After reviewing his career, I will
analyze his total theatre perspective as it is revealed in his productions,
his practices, and his theatre aesthetic.
Abbott's youth promised little success at anything. He was born in
Forestville, New York in 1887
1
and spent his early years in Salamanca,
New York. His father was "a gregarious, hard-drinking, swaggering
man who was anxious for popularity;" and his mother, more
influential on her son, was "individualistic, frugal, scornful of cant and
1
Current Biography (New York: H. W. Wilson and Company, 1965), 3. (Lists
1889 as birth date, but all other sources give 1887.)
George Abbott 23
pretension and indifferent to the op1n1ons of others."
2
Abbott has
stated that his "family I ife was not a happy one"
3
because of the
parental differences which may have contributed to Abbott's being a
troublesome child through his adolescent years. Hi s father failed at
several businesses in New York but secured an appointment as a
government land agent in Cheyenne, Wyoming in 1898. In Cheyenne
George was exposed to such diverse milieus as ranches and the
brothels-as a telegraph messenger, he made deliveries to the brothels
and was sent on errands by the women. Admittedly a poor student, he
felt unappreciated and insecure, and after unruly behavior at school he
was sent to Kearney Military Academy in Nebraska where he was
usually in trouble; however, the academy succeeded in curbing some
of his rebelliousness. Abbott's father eventually botched his position
and failed in several other ventures in the West, and the family
returned East to Hamburg, New York in 1903. In high school George
began to settle down somewhat as he discovered football and the
drama society-he was the school's most prominent actor; but home
life continued to be tense, for his parents had separated. While in high
school, he impregnated a girl, who had an abortion. Left off the
marriage hook, Abbott abandoned her. He continued to be an
indifferent student and basically directionless, until a new, young
teacher, Ednah Levis, encouraged him. In fact, Abbott and she dated,
and he resolved to turn his life around. He even changed his name.
Previously he had been called Frances to differentiate him from his
father; he now called himself George.
4
In 1907 he began studies at the University of Rochester with a
career in journalism as his goal, continued his interests in football and
theatre, and graduated in 1911. While at Rochester, he began writing
plays, one of which, Perfectly Harmless, was performed by the
university drama club. This acceptance fostered his inclination to
become a playwright, and during 1911-12 he enrolled in George
Pierce Baker's playwriting course at Harvard University. A play
written for Baker's class, The Head of the Family, was later produced
by the Harvard Dramatic Club; in addition, he won a one-act play
contest sponsored by the Bijou Theatre in Boston with a script, Man in
the Manhole, based on his summer job experiences at a steel mill. He
did not ftnish Baker's course but took a position as an assistant to the
manager of the Bijou Theatre in 1912. In this capacity he both acted
2
Ibid., 3.
3
George Abbott, Mr. Abbott (New York: Random House, 1963), 10.
4
Ibid., 49.
24 SHELTON
and wrote sketches. These experiences whetted his ambition to be a
playwright, and consequently, he left Boston for New York's larger
theatre world.
Abbott started his New York career in 1913 as an actor in The
Misleading Lady, but afterwards with no work on the New York stage,
he took whatever jobs he could get in vaudeville, touring productions,
and movies as an extra. He continued to write plays but found no
acceptance for them, plus he was out of work for long stretches. In
1914 Ednah Levis and Abbott were married, and she supported him for
years. They had one child, Judith (an actress, producer and director
herself) . Ednah died in 1930.
In 1918, with a highly unique recommendation, Abbott become
an assistant casting director and all-around office boy for producer
john Golden thereby gaining entry to New York's theatre world:
George Abbott's career on Broadway began when a sixteen-year-
old girl "glorified him"-she was the receptionist in the outer
office of famed producer john Golden, and she called him on the
phone one day panting: "There's the most beautiful, biggest blond
young man I ever saw out here and he wants a job and I think you
should hire him!" P.S. -He was hired, at $16 a week.
5
That same year he successfully performed in a David Belasco
production, Daddies, and received good reviews as "a character actor
of distinction."
6
This experience led to more acting roles, but he
continued writing, now collaborating with others. By the 1920s
Abbott was becoming a successful actor, getting good notices in plays
such as Lighting (1918), Duley (touring production, 1921), Zander the
Great (1923), Hell Bent for Heaven (1924), Lazybones (1925), and
Processional (1925). He was serving an apprenticeship under directors
George S. Kaufman, August Duncan, Guthrie McClintic, and Philip
Moeller as well as Belasco. Further, by 1926 .he was also "the busiest
5
Tex McCrary and jinx FalkenberK "New York Close-up," [n.s.], 1949, [n.p.].
Clipping file, Billy Rose Theatre Collection of the Performing Arts Research Center,
New York Public Library at Lincol n Center. Most reviews and articles were located
in these files.
6
[n.a.], New York Sun, 23 March 1919, [n.p.]. Heywood Broun wrote, "One
of the most engaging bits of acting in the play was done by George Abbott, who put
over a kindly and sympathetic quality before he as much as spoke a line. And later
he strengthened it." New York Tribune, 7 September 1918, [n.p.}.
George Abbott 25
play doctor on Broadway"
7
-a function he would continue throughout
his career.
Abbott's directing career was launched when he replaced co-
author james Gleason (he was cast in another play) as director of their
own play, The Fall Guy, in 1925. It was moderately successful, but
Abbott struck it big the next year with Broadway, which he co-wrote
and co-directed with Phillip Dunning, although Abbott was largely
responsible for the staging. After ten years of trying to write on his
own, Abbott realized that with regard to playwriting he needed to take
"a parasitical advantage of other people's ideas."
8
Thereafter he
devoted himself to writing and directing, and in a flurry of activity, he
staged twelve plays (mostly melodramas and farces) between 1925 and
1930. After The Fall Guy {95 performances-theoretically not a hit
since 100 performances constituted a hit), he had a hit with Love 'Em
and Leave 'Em (152 performances) the following year, 1926. His third
production, Broadway (603 performances, his first mega-hit) in 1926,
was the on-e which made Abbott's reputation, aided by critic Brooks
Atkinson praising the staging -as an example of the director's art. The
other hits were Chicago (1 72) in 1926, Four Walls (144) in 1927,
Coquette (366) in 1927; and Gentlemen of the Press (128) in 1928.
Additionally, Pappa with 96 performances in 1928 just missed being a
hit.
Abbott became famous in the 1930s-his most prolific decade
with a total of twenty-nine productions-epitomizing the glamorous
Broadway commercial director while cavorting with high society
bohemians on Long Island and spending winters in Palm Beach
playing tennis. He continued to direct melodramas and farces and
became his own producer. His first hit of the thirties was Twentieth
Century (152) in 1932. In 1934-35 he staged five plays with Kill That
Story (11 7), Small Miracle (11 7), and Three Men On A Horse {835)
being hits. He added musicals to his repertoire with jumbo (233) in
1935-Abbott was director of dialogue scenes-the first of five
collaborations with Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. In that same
season he had hits with Boy Meets Girl (669) and Rodgers and Hart's
On Your Toes (315). Brother Rat (577) in 1936 was one of Abbott's
school comedies of which he staged several in the thirties and forties.
The farcical Room Service (500) was another hit that same season. Of
the four plays Abbott staged in 1937-38, only What A Life (583) was a
7
From caption under newspaper photo of Abbott, [n.s.], {n.d.], but as
Broadway is mentioned as a current play, date is probably 1926. Clipping files,
Lincoln Center.
8
Abbott, Mr. Abbott, 89.
26 SHELTON
hit. The 1939-40 season also had four Abbott productions with two of
them being hits: The Boys From Syracuse (235) by Rodgers, Hart, and
Abbott; and The Primrose Path (166). From this point onward, Abbott
began to direct more musicals than comedies or dramas. Of the four
productions of the 1939-40 season, only Rodgers and Hart's Too Many
Girls (249) was a hit.
Abbott's phenomenal success returned in the 1940s with ten of his
eighteen productions becoming hits. Nine musicals dominated his hit
parade: Pal joey by Rodgers and Hart (374 performances in 1940 plus
another 104 after a summer hiatus); Best Foot Forward (326) in 1941;
Kiss and Tell (956) in 1943; On the Town (463) in 1944; Billion Dollar
Baby (220) in 1945; Barefoot Boy with Cheek (1 08) in 1947; High
Button Shoes (727) in 1947; Look, Ma, I'm Dancin' (188) in 1948; and
finally, Where's Charley (792) in 1948. The one hit play was Snafu
(158) in 1944.
Musicals continued to be Abbott's forte in the 1950s, and his fame
mounted, surpassing that of the 1930s. Of his fifteen productions, ten
were hits, all of them musicals: Call Me Madam (644) in 1950; Out of
This World (157) in 1950; A Tree Crows in Brooklyn (270) in 1951;
Wonderful Town (559) in 1953; Me and juliet (358) in 1953; The
Pajama Came (1 063) in 1954-Abbott's longest running success;
Damn Yankees (1019) in 1955; New Girl in Town (431) in 1957;
Once Upon a Mattress (406) in 1957; and Fiorello! (795) in 1959.
Abbott was 80 years old in 1967 but still energetic, and although
he had at least one production each season during the 1960s for a total
of fourteen, only seven were hits: Tenderloin (216) in 1960; Take Her,
She's Mine (404) in 1961; his last big musical hit, A Funny Thing
Happened on the Way to the Forum (964) in 1962; his biggest non-
musical hit, Never Too Late (1 007) in 1962; Fade Out-Fade In (271)
in 1964; How Now, Dow jones (220) in 1967; and a revival of Three
Men on a Horse (1 00) in 1969.
In the 1970s, Abbott had no success with his four productions,
and in the 1980s he directed three more with his only hit being the
revival of On Your Toes (505) in 1983. His final production was his
own musical version of the Frankenstein story called Frankie (20) in
1989 when he was 102 years old. Abbott directed for the first time a
regional theatre production, Life With Father, at the Seattle Repertory
Theatre (1976), and a summer stock production of Damn Yankees in
1986. As late as 1994 he was helping with a revision of Damn
Yankees for a Broadway revival.
From 1929 on Abbott also directed films at various times but was
dissatisfied with the medium because he found the slow pace of film
making too tedious. His more well-known films include: Too Many
Girls (1940), Kiss and Tell (1945), Damn Yankees (1957) and The
George Abbott 27
Pajama Came (1958).
9
For a short time he hosted a television variety
program in the 1950s and even returned to acting briefly in 1955 in a
production of The Skin of Our Teeth.
Abbott was an imposing, tall (6'3"), blond man who usually
looked younger than his age and who dressed impeccably. He has
been called
the Great Stone Face, a scout master, Abraham Lincoln, a hard
man to know, a man of few words, basically shy, basically
self-sufficient, basically in need of people, warm under a cold
exterior, cold under a cold exterior, Aladdin, [and] a football
coach. . . . Even among close associates he is simply, Mr.
Abbott.
10
He did not smoke and drank only occasionally. He was tight with
money-"the group to which I belong might be called frugal"
11
-both
personally and profess ionally as a producer. He was a popular figure,
rich, a ladies man who loved social dancing (he was a master of the
rhumba) and having fun with his cronies. In 1983, at ninety-five, he
married for the third time to Joy Velderama. Having lived without
controversy and with his career having spanned nearly the entire
century, triple threat man-writer, director, producer-George Abbott
died in 1994 in Florida.
12
Abbott's involvement in theatre as actor, writer, producer,
director, and play doctor totals at least 125 productions.
13
Of this
number, he directed 94 New York productions (i ncluding revivals)
9
Ephraim Katz, The Film Encyclopedia (New York: The Putman Publishing
Group, 1979), 1-2.
10
[n.a.], "Aladdin of Broadway. George Frances Abbott," New York Times, 15
November 1965, [n.p.].
11
Walter Wager, "George Abbott," Diners' Club Magazine, (November 1964):
61.
12
Sources for biographical information on Abbott are Current Biography, 1965,
3-5; Abbott, Mr. Abbott; Samuel L. Leiter, The Great Stage Directors: 100
Distinguished Careers of the Theatre (New York: Facts on FHe, 1994), 1-4; Samuel
L. Leiter, From Belasco to Brook (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1991 ), 51-75;
Theatrical Directors: A Biographical Dictionary, John W. Fri ck & Stephen M.
Vallillo, eds. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994), 3-4; and the clipping files of
the Billy Rose Theatre Collection.
13
[n.a.], "Abbott Theatre Hi story," Variety, Uune 1987): 102, contains a li st of
those productions.
28
SHELTON
with 47 of them running for over 100 performances, a 50% ratio of
hits, but with 27 hits out of the 34 musicals staged, the ratio was 82%
in musical comedy. Seventeen of his productions ran for over 500
performances and are considered mega-hits. While the large number
of productions is attributable in part to the fact that he was often his
own producer (as were David Belasco and Arthur Hopkins-two other
key directors), his endurance and success are clear in the statistics and
in the important productions he staged. From his first co-directing of
The Fall Guy during the 1924-25 season, Abbott staged at least one
production every season through 1971-72 except those in which he
was directing films (1930-31, 1955-56, and 1957-58) and in most
seasons he directed at least two plays. In 1934-35 he staged five
productions; and in two seasons, 1937-38 and 1939-40, he directed
four plays each season.
Abbott's directorial perspective is clear in an analysis of key
productions in his career. From the beginning, Abbott's work
exhibited the qualities later associated with the Abbott touch. These
qualities were wedded in part to the style and tone of the scripts,
which he often either co-wrote, adapted, or reworked, beginning with
and exemplified in The Fall Guy and Broadway. Breezy, idiomatic
and melodramatic, these plays lent themselves to Abbott's sensibilities.
The New York Post review of The Fall Guy suggests aspects of both the
writing and staging that almost define Abbott's approach:
It smacks of New York, catches the twist of speech, the pace
of living and compresses them into a play of rowdy and
breathing people. Here are the real practitioners of the elusive
wise crack and their doings. Here is a play as metropolitan as
the museum or the sidewalks of Second Avenue.
It has a dumbwaiter and clothes lines in the courtyard, an
installment plan saxophone and a woman upstairs named Mrs.
Buchowitz. And it is all ten-minute comedy, which means, in
the terms of those who bathe breakfast eggs, hard-boiled.
The two actors who wrote it have written it all over the stage.
It comes violently and flagrantly to life every time it turns
around, a tough guy among the dramas, hard, jaunty, self-
assured.14
Already evident in this description are the qualities of fast pace, local
color, idiomatic and vernacular speech, rowdiness, credible characters
14
john Anderson, [review], New York Post, 11 March 1925, [n.p.].
George Abbott 29
and action, and ample use of the stage space-all combined with a
great deal of theatricality.
Although the script may not stand the test of time, Broadway is a
seminal production in that it pinpointed the art of the director in a new
way. The play deals with the goings-on backstage at a New York
nightclub and involves performers and gangsters-a melodrama which
includes a chorine shooting a gangster who killed her boyfriend. The
production was raucous and fast paced. Co-author Philip Dunning
wrote that the production had over 300 entrances and exits.
15
In
addition, "The production rolled along with fast pace and a good deal
of action. Characters ran on and off, doors slammed, guns went off,
and a jazz band played.
16
Even within this framework, Abbott gave the
production an aura of realism and credibility:
But it is bright, intense, painstaking, good humoredly
picturesque .. .. The pay telephone rings with a real twenty-
five cent sound when they slip a real quarter in it. The
dancers have a resin box for their soles, and some of them
remember to cross themselves just as some of them should
before prancing out for their turns. Not even a Belasco could
scrape more correct local color off the palette of the
everyday.
17
Brooks Atkinson's review highlighted similar attributes of the
production, which were to become hallmarks of Abbot's style, writing
that it was "imaginatively directed":
The result is an exhilarating, madly colored melodrama, a
kaleidoscope, spattered with the brightest pigment of local
color.
By defining the important characters completely, especially
through the back-stage scenes, the authors, who are also the
directors, give their play the illusion of motion even when it is
15
Philip Dunning, "Dunni ng Wrote ' Broadway' to Show up Movies," New
York Herald Tribune, 2 january 192 7, [n.p.].
16
Maurice Zolotow, " Broadway's Most Successful Penny-Pincher," Saturday
Evening Post, 29 January 1955, [n.p.], quoted in Robert T. Hazzard, The
Development of Sel ected American Stage Directors from 1926 to 1960, (Ph.D.
diss., University of Minnesota, 1962), 47. Zolotow wrote that Broadway had 243
exits and entrances, much more than the usual 20 or so.
17
Gilbert W. Gabriel, [n.t.], New York Sun, 17 September 1926, [n.p.].
30 SHELTON
not progressing at all.
18
In a later article, Atkinson credited the director with actually
shaping the production:
by casting the parts perfectly and by shaping the proportions
of the play through the medium of sensitive directing, by
keeping the local color flaming always in high light, the
producer and the authors have fused their scattered material
into an eloquent performance.
Atkinson noted the playwright usually provided the drama in a play,
but in this case Atkinson stressed the importance of the director:
"Using the theatre as an instrument of expression, stimulating the ear
as well as the eye, the directors thus create drama in the full meaning
of the word." Further, he noted that the production had a "complete
use of the theatre as a medium of expression through acting and
directing," and that it was usually only the art theatres that "shape
their productions so beautifully."
19
Five years later, Atkinson was to
assert that Broadway started the vogue for exalting dynamic directors:
"Particularly in the spectacular theatre directors are no longer
handmaids of the arts but demigods. They bring us the fire from the
sacred mountains."
20
Abbott was to utilize the theatre as a medium of
expression even more fully when he began directing musical s, for
these talents were to infuse his later work in musical theatre.
The American musical has a long and involved hi story,
representing as it does an amalgam of many diverse forms and
influences including ballad operas, pantomime, masques, burlesques,
comic operas and operettas among others.
21
Nevertheless, by the mid-
twentieth century, the musical comedy had evolved with the addition
of native elements in musical forms such as jazz and dance forms such
18
Brooks Atkinson, [n.t.], New York Times, 1 7 September 1926, [n.p.].
19
Brooks Atkinson, '"Broadway' Glamor," New York Times, 26 September
1926, [n.p.].
20
Brooks Atkinson, "Morals for Kings," New York Times, 27 September 1931,
[n.p.]. It is not clear if Atkinson recognizes that he in part was responsible for that
exaltation.
21
See Julian Mates, American's Musical Stage: Two Hundred Years of Musical
Theatre (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985); Cecil Smith and Glenn Litton,
Musical Comedy in America (New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1981) for the history of
the development of American musical theatre.
George Abbott 31
as tap and modern so as to be a unique creation of its own. As such it
had become expressive in a manner reflective of the total theatre
concepts of Adolphe Appia.
Appia (1862-1928) developed his view from Ri chard Wagner's
idea of gesamstkunstwerk, which represented a concept of total
theatre, of a unified art work. Wagner (1813-1883) posed an ideal of
theatrical synthesis but saw that a cohesive theatrical event could not
be shaped from arts that were autonomous in function. In Art Work of
the Future, Wagner wrote that in drama
each separate art can only bare its utmost secret to their
common public through a mutual padeying with the other
arts; for the purpose of each separate branch of art can only be
fully attained by the reciprocal agreement and co-operation of
all the branches in their common messageY
Wagner's idea of gesamstkunstwerk implied not only multiple
elements of expression but an amalgamation of these elements into a
simple, unified whole. The interior dramatic action was to be the
controlling factor of multi-theatrical expressionY In Wagner's notion,
music became the chief instrument of transaction of an inner reality,
the chief poetic expression of the artist's will.
Adolphe Appia, mostly known for his reforms in stage design,
expanded on Wagner's idea with a more thorough idea of synthesis for
the musical form in his writings Music and the Art of the Theatre
(1899) and The Work of the Living Art: A Theory of Theatre (1921 ). In
his efforts to reform staging of Wagnerian opera and through
collaboration with Emile Jacques-Dal croze and his system of
Eurhythmics, Appia derived a doctrine with a system for achieving
organic synthesis of musical form. Agreeing with Wagner, Appia
"determined that the dramatic idea control s the expression of the
musical and dramatic elements defined in the text, and that the total
production is the interpretative agent of that dramati c idea."
24
To the
Wagnerian formula, Appi a added movement and rhythm as important
elements in hi s synthesis. Appia stated that:
22
Ri chard Wagner, Richard Wagner's Prose Works, Volume II , Art Work of the
Future, William Aston Ellis, trans. (New York: Broude Brothers, 1966), 184.
Reprinted from 1892 edition, (London: Routl edge & Kegan Paul Ltd. , 1892).
23
Ibid., 191 . See Lynn Mahler Shelton, Modem American Musical Theatre
Form: An Expressive Development of Adolphe Appia's Theories of Theatre Synthesis
(Ph.D. diss., Madison: Universi ty of Wisconsin, 1973), 24-29. I take this discussi on
of Wagner and Appia from her analysis.
24
Lynn Mahler Shelton, 32.
32 SHELTON
a dramatic idea requmng musical expression in order to be
revealed must spring from the hidden world of our inner life,
since this life, cannot be expressed except through music, and
music can express only that life. By means of the spoken
word, [the dramatist] endows it with a practical dramatic form
and composes the poetic-musical text, the score; this text
imposes an already living role on the actor, a role he has now
only to take on. The proportions of this role determine the
form of the setting through three-dimensionality (the point of
contact between the living actor and the inanimate setting);
the nature and extent of the three dimensionality determine
the spatial arrangement of the setting which in turn controls
the lighting and painted sceneryY
Appia established a hierarchy for the "word-tone drama" and
systematized the notion of theatrical synthesis. Lynn Mahler Shelton
formulates his principles as follows:
(1) Movement creates forms in space, and time is created by
the successive movements of these forms. In music, which
creates time, space is created by rhythms-the duration of
sound-which can then determine the range of the movement.
Therefore, movement expresses time in space. According to
Appia, movement then becomes " the determining and
conciliating principle which can so regulate the union of the
several art forms that they will converge, as it were, at a given
point and a given time in dramatic art" (Living Art, 8)
(2) The moving body of the actor not only links space and
time in music, but because of its plasticity, the living form of
the performer connects the spatial arts of architecture-stage
space-to the inner dramatic action which is determined by
music.
26
Appia's idea was that music and action found concrete reality in the
three dimensional aspect of the moving actor creating a total
expressiveness in a union of all the theatre arts-total theatre. Appia' s
idea found its fruition in popular form in the integrated American
25
Adolphe Appia, Music and the Art of the Theatre, Robert W. Corrigan and
Mary Douglas Dirks, trans. (Coral Gables, FL: University of Miami Press, 1962), 26.
26
Lynn Mahler Shelton, 39.
George Abbott 33
musical at mid-twentieth century. As a top director of this form,
George Abbott brought to it a basic theatricality that expressed the
Appian idea of synthesis.
Musical theatre came of age, reaching a mature and indigenous
form, during Abbott's heyday as a director. Jerome Kern and Guy
Bolton earlier had created integrated musicals in productions such as
Very Good Eddie (1915), Have a Heart (1917), and Oh, Boy (191 7).
Kern and Oscar Hammerstein made a further jump in integration with
the production of Show Boat in 1927. Essentially, the reforms in these
musicals meant that the musical was now motivated by dramatic
action and plot line-changes that led to the book musical.
Hammerstein and his partner Richard Rodgers furthered .the integration
of elements of music, drama, and dance in Oklahoma! in 1943. In
1957 Elie Siegmeister stated that,
the best musicals are highly polished theatre pieces in which a
credible and sometimes first-rate drama is presented through
lyrics, music, dialogue .and dance artfully woven into a
smooth, unified pattern. The skillful presentation of story and
character, the subtle blending of choreography, decor,
orchestration, lighting, and costumes, often make of the
modern musical a piece of theatrical entertainment,
sometimes even of artY
Siegmeister's assessment of the qualities that formed the basis for the
American musical reflects the Appian synthesis of total theatre.
George Abbott's contribution to this synthesis came from his talent
for creating authenticity, pacing, vitality, and comedy to musicals, but
most of all, he brought an idea of dramatic action as the key to
structure and consequently to form. Abbott became master of the
book musical and helped move musical comedy from earlier
precedents of revue, operetta, and burlesque as well as the
sentimentalism of the George M. Cohan musicals, or in essence, from
the theme driven or music-dominated musical to the action-motivated
musical play. He also furthered efforts at blending the elements of
text, music, movement and song into an expressive, coherent, unified
whole. In fact, his earliest efforts predated Oklahoma!-integrating
dance into the book of the musical performance. An analysis of early
productions On Your Toes and Pal Joey, the later 1940s On the Town,
27
Elie Si egmeister, "Which Way the Musical, " Theatre Arts, (April 1957): 74,
quoted in Dean William Hess, A Critical Analysis of the Musical Theatre
Productions of George Abbott, (Ph.D. di ss., University of Southern California,
1975), 36.
34 SHELTON
and hits from his heyday of the 1950s such as The Pajama Came and
Damn Yankees illustrates hi s development and perspective as a
director of musicals.
Abbott co-directed Rodgers and Hart's On Your Toes in 1935. This
musical comedy about a performer who gets involved with some
gangsters was noteworthy because it featured choreography (first use of
that term in a playbill) by George Balanchine and was a turning point
in the use of dance in musical comedy as Balanchine's dances were
essential aspects of the plot.
28
A key moment in the dramatic action
was the ballet, "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue," the first major story
ballet sequence in a musical. The performer had to dance and keep
dancing until the police arrived so that the gangsters would not kill
him. The dance was an integral aspect of the plot, and " Slaughter"
gave the production " the fillip of a good George Abbott thrill" while
"bringing something new with it, an attempt to give musical comedy a
form more closely approximating what is known as art than it has had
before .... This is something new, pointed and of a great freshness."
29
Abbott's direction of the production with hi s sense of detail and small
touches gave the entire piece credibility in spite of its occasionally
outlandish circumstances.
30
In 1940, a significant step in improving the quality of musical s as
drama and theatre was made with the production of the Rodgers and
Hart musi cal with book by John O' Hara, Pal joey, which portrays the
doings of a low-life hoofer who treats women poorly and, in general,
behaves amorally. This was a hard-boiled, melodramatic, satiric
musical whi ch followed Showboat in attempting to deal with serious
subject matter. Once again, it was a real collaboration, merging the
book, music, lyrics and movement into a whole. "Signs of new life in
the musical s"
31
were obvious as " the old conventions of the song-and-
dance show had been cast happily into the di scard. Originality was
more than in flower; it was in full bloom. "
32
Abbott was famili ar with
28
Carol Lawson, "A Revival of 'On Your Toes' Set for the Kennedy Center,"
New York Times, 5 August 1982, [n.p.].
29
Robert Garland, [n.t.], New York World-Telegram, 13 April1 936, [n.p.].
30
Percy Hammond, [n.t.], New York Herald Tribune, 13 April 1936, [n.p.].
31
Burns Mantl e, '"Pal Joey' Smart and Novel," New York Daily News, 26
December 1940, in New York Theatre Critics Reviews (New York: Critics' Theatre
Reviews, 1940), 172. Hereafter thi s source will be ci ted as NYTCR.
32
John Mason Brown, '"Pal Joey' Presented at The Ethel Barrymore," New
York Post, 26 December 1940, in NYTCR (1940), 172.
George Abbott 35
the milieu of the play from his work on Broadway and gave Pal joey
expert direction:
Mr. Abbott has staged the musical comedy with a seeming
inside knowledge of the Grade C " clubs" that provide Mr.
O'Hara with his background. He burlesques the managers,
the hangers-on, the waiters, the dances and the songs that are
seen and heard in a joint that is bound to be called Chez Joey.
His costuming is in humorous keeping with the atmosphere. It
is star spangled, gaudy and abbreviated.
33
Abbott's move from song-and-dance variety to singular plot-driven
musical contributed to what was perceived as a more innovative and
complex form of musical play.
In prai sing the dancing of Gene Kelly Uoey), who was launched
into stardom with this production, New York Times dance critic John
Martin recognized the contributions of Abbott as no drama critic did,
and he reflected upon the uniqueness of the production in regard to its
use of dance:
... here dancing and character are far more closel y united
than in the majority of ballets, and through both there runs a
penetrating line of comment which makes it possi ble to laugh
at Joey instead of shooting him forthwith.
To be sure, Kelly has not and could not possibly have done
this single-handed, for George Abbott's production is all keyed
to the same pitch. Obviously there has been a strong guiding
hand that has succeeded in molding music and lyrics, settings
and costumes, dancing and acting, into a hilarious instrument
for translating into stage terms all the implications that John
O' Hara put into the original sketches of Joey, " the perfect
heel ," which he used to write for The New Yorker.
34
Martin discussed the choreography in a manner which reflected
the importance of the dramatically driven musical and Abbott's
influence in developing the unified musical:
Robert Alton, who created the dances for the show, has given
33
Sidney B. Whipple, " Pal Joey Is a Bright Gay, Tuneful, Novel Work," New
York World-Telegram, 26 December 1940, in NYTCR (1940), 173.
34
John Martin, " The Dance: Pal Kell y," New York Times, 8 June 1941 , [n.p.].
36 SHELTON
him [Kelly] and his fellow-dancers some corking things to do.
The routines themselves are nicely characterized and worked
into the scheme of the whole ... . he has taken advantage of
the opportunity just as fully to make his numbers an integral
part of the proceedings. . . . the whole production is so
unified that the dance routines are virtually inseparable from
the dramatic action.
35
For the most part the dance routines are night club numbers so that it
is not all that difficult to justify their inclusion in the story. But some
songs such as "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" do flow
dramatically out of the action as Vera, the society woman, admits she
is foolish for falling for a man like Joey.
36
A major dance piece was the
precursor if not the originator of the dream ballet, for at the end of Act
One, Joey fantasizes what his night club will be like. The ballet is in
effect a representation of Joey's mental images and state of mind.
Clearly, the Abbott touch, utilizing all aspects of production in
expressive ways, was an important element in unifying the mature
book musical as its form continued to evolve at mid-century.
Another significant step in Abbott's contributions occurred with
the 1944 production of On the Town, a musical based on jerome
Robbins's ballet Fancy Free, with music by Leonard Bernstein and
book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. The story line involves the
romantic escapades of three sailors on twenty-four hour leave in New
York City. In the opinion of one reviewer, "On the Town is a perfect
example of what a well-knit fusion of the respectable arts can provide
for the theatre:"
Everything about it is right. It is fast and it is gay, it takes
neither itself nor the world too seriously, it has wit. Its dances
are well paced, its players are a pleasure to see, and its music
and background are both fitting and excellent. On The Town
even has a literate book, which for once instead of stopping
the action dead speeds it merrily on its way.
But the charm of On The Town is not so much in the
individual performances as in the whole. The chorus and
ballet numbers, many of them done with an edge of satire, are
easy and graceful, and down in the pit and up on the stage
everything is in order. It is an adult musical show and a
35
Ibid.
36
John O'Hara, Pal Joey (New York: Random House, 1952), 57.
George Abbott 37
remarkabl y good one.
37
Reviewer Louis Kronenberger applauded the freshness of the
production with its gaiety, crispness, and fast pace. In fact, he thought
that On the Town should put "the Broadway of tasteless lavishness, of
stale gags and stupid smut, of tired formulas and meaningless
furbelows-in its place. For On the Town pumps energy and
excitement and humor into the musical field; it spurns formulas;
indeed it makes fun of them. " He further attributed much of the
success of the production to the direction of Abbott:
If On the Town faced a serious danger, it was that its
adventurousness and high spirits might spill over-in Main
Stem terms-into something undisciplined and even a little
amateurish. Here and there perhaps it does. But never for
more than moments, for the strong hand that was needed to
tie things together for Broadway was found in George Abbott.
With his professional savvy and his own famous feeling for
youth and pace, Abbott keeps everything spinning without
snarls or confusion.
38
By the mid-forties, Abbott had succeeded in bringing a sense of Appi an
word-tone unity to the production of musical theatre through his
disci pl ined approach and expressive use of the dramatic action whi ch
led to a synthesis of music, drama/comedy, and movement. These
qualities were to serve him very well in his most successful
productions in the 1950s, The Pajama Came and Damn Yankees.
With The Pajama Came (co-directed with Jerome Robbins) in
1954, Abbott " developed a new style of Shirt-sleeved American
musical-again with fresh young talent-and pulled off a whale of a
hit."
39
With Abbott as co-author of the libretto, Pajama Came may
well be the quintessential Abbott musical , for he took a story about a
labor dispute in garment factory (an unpromi sing premi se) and made it
into a " bri ght, brassy and jubilantly sassy show"
40
- a description that
37
Lewis Nichols, "On The Town" New York Times, 29 December 1944, in
NYTCR (1944); 46-47.
38
Loui s Kronenberger, "Best Musical of the Year," PM, 29 December 1944, in
NYTCR (1944), 47.
39
Tom Prideaux, " The Perennial Hatcher of Hits and Talents," Life, [n .d.]: 61,
cli pping fil e, Lincoln Center [ca1959] .
40
Walter Kerr, " ' The Pajama Game,"' New York Herald Tribune, 14 May 1954,
in NYTCR (1954), 324.
38 SHELTON
fits all of Abbott's classic productions. At the center was a romance
between the manager of the plant and the union head of the grievance
committee.
Abbott molded this piece with his usual adroitness for pace,
character, comedy and, most importantly, collaboration. The "fast,
funny" dance numbers by Bob Fosse "neatly dovetailed into a hard-
driving book,"
41
either furthering the action or revealing character: "It
is in its dancing that The Pajama Game is its most enlivening. There is
no pretentiousness in the choreography of Bob Fosse and jerome
Robbins, and they maintain the pseudorealistic mood of the story with
brightness and imagination."
42
Further, this production indicated the
value that Abbott placed on movement:
The Pajama Game has been staged by both Mr. Abbott and
Jerome Robbins, both of whom like motion on the stage. That
may account for the lightness and friskiness of the
performance. And that may also help explain why Bob
Fosse's ballets and improvised dance turns seem to come so
spontaneously out of the story.
43
For example, "Hernando's Hideaway" is a somewhat gratuitous
number, but it segues very smoothly out of a discussion about where
to go on a date:
Gladys: No. And I sure would like to but-oh, gee. Where will
you take me?
Sid: I know a wonderful joint.
44
Gladys starts singing "Hernando's Hideaway" which then becomes a
dance/chorus number.
The by-now-obl igatory dream ballet in Pajama Game stems from a
quarrel between Gladys and her jealous boyfriend, Hines, who says "I
can see what marriage with Gladys would be like." The booths of the
41
Ibid.
42
Richard Watts, Jr, " Factory Life in Musical Comedy," New York Post, 14
May 1954, in NYTCR (1954), 326.
43
Brooks Atkinson, " Theatre in Review: ' Pajama Game,"' New York Times, 14
May 1954, in NYTCR (1954), 325.
44
George Abbott and Richard Bissell, The Pajama Came (New York: Random
House, 1954), 141. Subsequent references cited parenthetically in the text.
George Abbott 39
Hernando's Hideaway disappear and the lights come up on the
imagined bedroom of Hines and Gladys future home, and " The
jealousy Ballet" begins (152). A little less credible perhaps is the
"Steam Heat Number," a show stopper dance number which has
nothing to do with the story line; however, it is presented as part of the
entertainment at a union meeting, so that it does give the illusion of
flowing out of the action (1 07-1 09). Abbott basically staged "shows,"
but nevertheless he insisted on believability created from an emphasis
on the dramatic action.
His production Damn Yankees in 1955 dealt with Joe Boyd, a
middle aged man who bargains his soul with the devil in order to play
baseball for the Washington Senators and beat the New York Yankees
for the pennant. The structure of Damn Yankees is similar to The
Pajama Came, but in some respects is not as well integrated. The
romance plot line is not as dramatically important here, consisting of
Joe's affection for his wife, which eventually causes him to want to
return to his home and give up baseball. His song, "Goodbye, Old
Girl " is a revelation of his feelings as he is about to leave his wife.
4 5
Other songs do not apparently further the action or reveal character,
but like "Heart" (25-30)-a quartet of baseball players singing about
what it takes to win, which does set up the team's situation-most do
seem to flow or fit logically with the action.
The most famous number in the play, "Whatever Lola Wants, "
(91 -92) is a show stopper but is integrated into the action as the devil 's
hand-maiden tries to seduce joe to keep his bargain. However,
"Who' s Got the Pain," (1 07-1 08)-a dance highlighting star Gwen
Verdon (Lol a)-has nothing to do with the plot and appears as part of
the story only as an entertainment at a celebration honoring joe, a Ia
" Steam Heat.'' The entire scene serves to justify the dance.
For all that, Damn Yankees "provides gay and unflagging
entertainment, fully representative of the kind of theatre that Abbott
has been di shing up for more than thirty years."
46
Further, the famous
Abbott sense of pacing and racy excitement was apparent:
When Abbott is at hi s best-and he is at his best in Damn
Yankees ... there is a feeling of perpetual motion created by
the adroit multiplication of hundreds of large and small
movements. Everything is fluid. Everything moves. When
one character has to divulge a bit of information to another,
45
George Abbott and Douglass Wallop, Damn Yankees (New York: Random
House, 1956), 20-2 1. Subsequent references cited parenthetically in the text.
~ r [n.a.], "The Devil 's Di scipl e," Time, (13 June 1955) : 62 .
42 SHELTON
love, admiration and awe.
61
From the beginning of rehearsals, Abbott was business-like and
straight forward, using none of the manipulative techniques of Belasco.
Abbott did not start rehearsals with blocking mapped out. He
preferred to have the actors sit and read the script for a few days-a
practice he learned from Guthrie McCiintic-in order to give himself
and the cast a chance to feel how they would be most effective in the
parts. Then the actors got on their feet and worked out the blocking,
which was a matter of constant readjustment. Abbott preferred to
work out positioning and movement prior to memorization because he
thought actors learned lines better by knowing where they were when
they said them. Then he often left the actors alone with the stage
manager while they learned the lines. Dancers and chorus members
worked separately with their directors. When he returned, the pacing,
interpretation, and mechanics of the production were worked out in
detail, and the various parts-dances, scenes, musical numbers-
brought together.
62
Abbott supposedly liked to test an actor's own instinctive feeling
for what to do next and let the action develop naturally, but at final
rehearsals he tightened the reins.
63
Behaving almost like early
authoritarian director Mr. Ben Teal,
64
Abbott' s actions at a rehearsal of
Winning Isn't Everything by Lee Kalchaim in 1978 indicate the
approach that he had used for decades:
At the start, Mr. Abbott remained seated, . . . His
concentration on the actors was total. Not a syllable got past
him. He made terse comments. Very instructive. . . . " Hold
your I ine, please," he would say. " Let the phone ring before
you say that." Or "Say the line first, then cross." Or " Move
over to the other side of the table when you take the thing. "
Or "Let's say the line standing up, then collapse after the
line." Or "Have your back to them when you yell, 'Oh, no! "'
6
) Kipps, "Remembrances of 'George'," 102, 104.
62
George Abbott, "A Director's Lot," New York Times, 15 April 1951, [n.p];
John Chapman, "Mainly About Manhattan," [n.s.], [n.d.], [n.p], cl ipping file, Lincoln
Center; Morton Eustis, "The Director Takes Command," Theatre Arts Monthly,
(February 1936): 120-123; Leiter, Belasco to Brook, 65-70, all discuss Abbott's
rehearsal methods.
63
Prideaux, " Perennial Hatcher," 61 .
64
See Lewis E. Shelton, "Mr. Ben Teal: America's Abusi ve Di rector," The
journal of American Drama and Theatre, (Spring 1990): 55-80.
George Abbott
Or "Excuse me, we'll have a yellow pad, so that's your motive
for going over there." Or "If you don' t say ' freshman' and
make it stand out, you don't have anything. " Or "You could
move upstage a little bit, Kathy." ... Or "You're bored with
her; sit down.: Or " Get up on 'I don't want to, ' Up. Up. To
her, to her." Or " Keep that up, up. ' Law and or-der!'" Or
"Don't drop the end of your sentence." Or "Try it again,
please." Or "Kathy, don't jump that cue." Or "let's change
it. Say ' Hello,' then walk forward on your line." Or "When
you first start, don't face dead out." Or "Your tone is
placating. You' re like a salesman. A Buick salesman." Or
"Wait till he shakes his head, then sit on it. Let's get the
sarcasm in it." Or "Let it hit you a beat before you reply to
her announcement."
When it was necessary, Mr. Abbott would change his position.
He would jump up to demonstrate a posture, a gesture, a
walk, a way of avoiding a collision between actors. . . . He
would laugh with true enjoyment at some of the jokes. Once
in a while, he woul d tell the actors, with great courtesy, that
their delivery of a supposedly funny line was not making him
laugh, and would suggest a way of making it work.
65
43
In this rehearsal Abbott was concerned with the techniques of external
acting, of saying the line just so, for he believed that: "There's only
one way to read a line. Well , at least one best way."
66
The director
was clearly in control, demonstrating, tightening up, getting the pace
and tempo just right, not concerned with inner justification but with
outer motivation-picking up the phone at just the right time, having a
pad to provide business, getting the right inflection for effect, and most
importantly for Abbott, sustaining the line all the way through to the
end of the sentence: "He demands that you lift the line through to the
end."
67
Abbott's famous precision, varying tempo and comic timing,
are evident in the instructions. These practices served him well for
over sixty-five years as a stage director and as a consequence made the
American musical comedy at mid-century the unique, indigenous art
form it was. Due to his authoritarian, no nonsense approach, Abbott
65
[n.a.], " Rehearsal ," New Yorker, (October 1978): 34-35.
66
[n.a.], " The Wit and Wi sdom of Abbott at 1 00," Variety, (24 june 1987):
104.
67
Charl es A. Will ard, "Great Lakes Theater Fest Stages 'Cl assic Broadway'
Confab in Abbott's Honor," Variety, (24 june 1987): 102.
44 SHELTON
brought discipline to the musical theatre form, making it sharp,
prec1se, and action based, all in all giving it multiple elements of
expression.
Abbott's theatre aesthetic evidently derived from his early
associations with George Pierce Baker and David Belasco. Of Baker,
Abbott said, "The most wonderful thing about Baker was the
inspiration he gave you; he interested you in every form of drama ...
they were all worth while to him-musical comedy, burlesque, farce,
tragedy."
68
From Belasco, he developed an eye for detail which he
pursued in all aspects of his staging, including making characters and
incidents truthful and believable.
69
Further, one of Abbott's basic
principles, he claimed, was to " play it straight and play it for
character."
70
Along the same lines, he sought to do what was "most
simple, what's economical, what's real, what's truthful. "
71
All of these
aspects would lead to believability: "You have to believe the story and
the characters ... or you're licked. "
72
Even within the presentational
aspects of musical theatre, he sought an illusion of reality and
credibility which were necessary in order to keep the audience
involved and entertained.
All in all, Abbott's aesthetic was essentially pragmatic, for he
believed in "shows" first and foremost, and he aimed to entertain the
audience. He dismissed " message drama": "what the theatre is for is
to amuse, to entertain, to excite-to make you feel better than when
you came in."
73
Although by the late 1950s he recognized that the
musical had undergone changes, Abbott insisted that the primary goal
was to provide a show:
Musical comedy changes have been so enormous that a true
musical comedy is hard to come by today. You get musical
versions of serious themes, world wide themes. I like it. I like
change because no change means stagnation. But the
inflexible old rule is still there ready to swat you: do a show
68
[n.a.], " Let Others Go to Barnyards, Abbott Is Bullish on Broadway," [n.s.],
[n.d.], [n.p.], clipping fil es, Lincoln Center.
69
Abbott, " A Director's Lot," and " Let Others Go to Barnyards ... "
70
John Chapman, " Mainly About Manhattan," [n.s.], [n.d.], [n.p.].
71
Judith Abbott, " Life With George," New York Herald Tribune, 5 Jul y 1964,
p. 13.
72
Prideaux, "Perennial Hatcher," 61.
73
Eckman, "A Sense of Direction," 2.
George Abbott
first. Let it be a show. The fancy dress and the new points of
view come later as icing on a cake. Basically, you have to
have a show.
74
To entertain was purpose enough for Abbott.
45
Another aspect of his idea of theatre was that comedy usually was
central to a production, and one of his basic tenets was that comedy
should be played seriously.
75
In his only novel, Tryout, Abbott has a
stage director discuss comedy in terms that Abbott himself probably
used with a cast:
There's a tendency in some quarters to think farce is just slam
the door, under the bed, out the window, bang, bang, bang.
But I think it's something more-l think it's characters. I think
if the people in the show become real in their predicament,
it's a damn sight more amusing than if they are just types. I
think a farce should be played just like a tragic play. . . . I
would like us to give a performance that has real characters
and that has class. I would like to see it played by skilled,
talented actors, not just farceurs. I would like the people out
front to think each of you is a real person, not an actor saying
lines. The mechanics of it are easy-where you come in,
where you stand, who looks where, when- but the acting, the
real guts of the character, is where the problem comes.
76
Additionally, although Abbott had little regard or patience for Method
acting, he did insist on truth in acting: "I have an intuitive hatred of
overacting, ... in that sense I was ahead of my time in the 20s and
30s."
77
Abbott noted that American humor grew out of combining the
serious and the comic and that honesty was a basic part of the best
kind of comic acting: "It is, oddly enough, acting with a heart. It is
acting in which pathos and emotion are mingled with humor. It is the
kind of acting that makes you want to cry while your sides are aching
with laughter."
78
74
Whitney Bolton, ' "Fiorello!' Is 75th Show For Abbott," New York Morning
Telegram, 26 October 1959, [n.p.].
75
Willard, " Great Lakes Theatre Fest," 102, quotes Garson Kanin to that point.
;
6
George Abbott, Tryout (Chicago: Playboy Press, 1979), 27.
77
Kissel , " Going through the Paces," 12.
78
George Abbott, " ... Comedy," Baston Post,21 September 1952, [n.p.].
46 SHELTON
While few patrons left an Abbott production crying, he did establish an
intense, believable style of acting which was also theatrtcal and which
became both the aesthetic and practical basis of the musical comedy
art when it reached its peak in the 1950s.
At that point the musical had become something of a unique and
indigenous American art form, as Abbott realized:
what growth and development our theatre is showing is found
more in the musical theatre, than in the dramatic theatre . .. .
It is the musicals that are growing, expanding, searching for
more valid presentation. It is the straight plays that have
settled into a conventional form which holds them in a
groove. . . . As things are now developing, I can see the
American musical taking over the position once held by
opera. Not that it will develop into opera as we know opera
today. It will be a form in and of itself, which expresses our
American tastes, but it will be the American equivalent of
opera.
79
The major development of the musical had been the integration of
lyrics, dance, and character propelled by the dramatic action and
music. Abbott was at the center of this evolution and called for a
workable book, one that would hold its own without songs and
dances,
80
thus insisting that dramatic action and character provide the
motivating force of the production. Additionally, Abbott wanted song
writers "to create material that actually advances the story line in
tightly integrated and sophisticated shows."
81
jerry Bock, composer
and lyricist of both Tenderloin and Fiorello!, appreciated Abbott's
manner of creating unity:
To the best of my recollection, his staging of musical numbers
was neither far out nor predictable but, once again, natural
and unaffected, letting the song sing for itself as he guided the
design of its presentation with an eye on honest detai I rather
than ornamental fuss. He was always on the lookout to
illuminate humorous content and would not hesitate to bound
on stage, demonstrating an attitude or giving a lyric reading
79
George Abbott, " The Musicals Take Over, Theatre Arts Monthly (July 1954):
21,95-96.
80
Martin Gottfried, Broadway Musicals (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.,
Publishers, 1979), 87.
81
Wager, "George Abbott: Fifty Years of Show Business, " 96.
George Abbott
for a song. He also managed crowds very effecti vely, painting
them in with ease.
82
47
Further, Abbott recognized the importance of movement as an
expressive element: "Abbott was one of the few non-choreographing
directors who was able to appreciate dance to its fullest extent. ... He
was more than willing to give up whole sections of his shows to
talented choreographers."
83
In fact, reviews of even his earliest
musical theatre productions suggest that often the dances were so well
integrated into the piece that they seemed to appear spontaneously
and logically, as part of the dramatic action, not as separate,
interpolated vehicles. By serving the story .line, Abbott demanded a
totally expressive theatre, a merging of theatrical elements into a
unified whole, an important aspect of his practice and his aesthetic.
Both Abbott's practice and aesthetic may be seen in the "Abbott
touch," a term used to describe the Abbott formula and approach to
theatre. Abbott himself jokingly remarked that the Abbott touch was " I
make them say their final syllables,"
84
and added taste and pacing to
his definition:
By taste I mean artistic judgment-the decision as to just how
much to do or not to do, at what point to leave one scene and
get into another, and for the actor, how much to express and
how much to imply .. . . And finally, the one thing a play
should not have, is just simple uncontrolled speed. The
director who thinks that pace is just hurry makes a tragic
mistake and produces a noisy, violent hodgepodge devoid of
any illusion.
85
His own analysis of the Abbott touch is unsatisfactory, for ultimately it
was a style, a technique, a method, and both a pragmatic and an
aesthetic paradigm with many elements. Brooks Atkinson's
description of the presentation of In Any Language (1952) illuminates
the model, though the play in question is not a musical:
81
Quoted in Robert W. MacCiennan, The Comedy of George Abbott, (Ph.D.
di ss., Bowling Green State University, 1975), 216.
83
Denny Martin Flinn, Musical! A Grand Tour (New York: Schirmer Books,
1997), 296.
84
Mr. Abbott, 263.
85
Ibid., 264.
48 SHELTON
Mr. Abbott, his strength and enthusiasm unimpaired, gives it
the old fond treatment. The pace is fast, the style is broad.
The acting is noisy. The stage lighting is glaring. Although the
characters are behaving like headstrong imbeciles, they are
desperately serious. Every moment in the performance is a
crisis for one or the other of them. No matter how
boisterously the audience may be laughing, the characters
never intimate that the rumpus in which they are involved is
crack-brained and ludicrous and a travesty on the life the
audience thinks it is living outside the theatre. This is the
formula that Mr. Abbott devised many years ago. Most of us
have accepted it joyfully.
86
Fast paced, broad, glaring, noisy, intense, serious, and credible-
qualities that most audience members accepted even more joyfully
when they appeared in a musical.
Abbott himself commented frequently on the idea of pace-the
quality most often associated with the Abbott touch-which he pointed
out had "nothing to do with speed. It has to do with variety and
sustaining interest. If things go fast all the time, you no longer know
what fast is. Not to be dull is pacing."
87
Abbott noted more than once
that " pace is variety .... It isn' t speed."
88
In his 1936 article on
Abbott, Morton Eustis quotes Abbott as saying that tempo is "a
combination of surprise, variety and poise;" that "the illusion of speed
in the mind of the audience;" and that "the real basis of rapidity is
fluidity." Eustis goes on to state:
What the director actually does to establish the desired tempo
is to emphasize contrast both in speech and movement; to
make the audience, instead of the actors, supply movement,
by turning their eyes from one portion of the stage to another;
to build up the volume, the speed, the intensity of the tone of
voice here, drop it there; accelerate the motion of the actor,
both in movement and in gesture; speed up the rhythm of the
company as an ensemble, slow it down, then build again; in
short, to approach every problem relating to everything the
audience sees, hears or thinks about with variety,
66
Brooks Atkinson, " Slapstick Comedy," New York Times, [n.d.], [n.p.] .
[cl952].
67
Kissel, "Going through the Paces," 12.
66
Melvin Maddocks, "George Abbott, the Ballet Master of Farce," Christian
Science Monitor, 21 December 1962. [n.p.].
George Abbott 49
inventiveness, and still more variety.
89
Eustis's analysis indicates that Abbott had honed his skills for tempo
and pacing to enhance the expressive nature of performance. Further,
Abbott varied his shows with short scenes and crisp delivery for
maximum impact and utilized the crossover scene as a way of
speeding up his productions. Abbott's shows were episodic, full of
many quick scene changes, all adding the illusion of fast pace to the
entire presentation.
Another description of the Abbott touch expands beyond pace:
"vigor, directness, economy, freshness, vitality and biting insight, all
the qualities that can be ascribed to Abbott himself."
90
Harold Prince,
often Abbott's producer and the inheritor of his directing mantle said
of Abbott: "One of George's favorite ... words is "peppy." Pep is
what he brings to a show."
91
In the same vein, the Abbott touch
resulted in "the old razz-ma-tazz"
92
which epitomized the Broadway
commercial theatre. The Abbott touch was based on an illusion of
reality that was yet theatrical and presentational. Abbott used a quick
and varied pace and tempo; and short, brisk scenes; producing the pep
his productions were known for. He synthesized all elements-music,
dance, language and spectacle; and worked in collaboration with other
theatre artists-composers, choreographers, and writers. His plays had
credible, consistent characters (albeit often "types"), speaking
idiomatic, vernacular language and played by actors who were often
newcomers, seldom stars. An Abbott show was slick, with a lot of
razz-a-ma-tazz and technical, external acting. His most successful
form was the book musical produced as a show. In essence, it was the
Broadway commercial theatre, refined and honed to its slickest and
best, yet involving totally expressive theatrical elements which resulted
in an organic synthesis.
Many aspects of the Abbott touch can be seen in the video-taped
performance of his 1983 revival of On Your Toes.
93
Unfortunately this
89
Morton Eustis, " The Director Takes Command," Theatre Arts Monthly,
(February 1936): 120-121 .
90
Hickey, "Mr. Abbott, Sir!" 16.
9 1
Marilyn Berger, "Theatre's George Abbott: On the Road to 1 00," New York
Times, 22 June 1986, [n.p.] .
92
Norman Nadel, "Laughter Doesn't Fade in 'Fade Out-Fade In'," New York
World-Telegram and The Sun, 27 May 1964, in NYTCR (1964), 251 .
93
Located in the Jerome Robbins Archive of the Recorded Moving Image,
Dance Col lection, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln
Center.
50 SHELTON
1936 musical shows its age, but its staging appears to be typical of
Abbott's productions. The music by Richard Rodgers is certainly
1930s show music-breezy and jazzy with a hard piano and lots of
brass and strings. The story line involves the efforts of Philip Dolan Ill
to join the Russian ballet, so it has a show business atmosphere and
plot line. It begins with a threesome performing a vaudeville routine
about show business in front of the curtain. The scenes are brief and
to the point. Lines lead logically and seamlessly into the songs as
when Frankie says, "I wish we were far away," and Philip replies,
"Very far away," and they begin the duet, "There's a Small Hotel."
The characters are obviously types: Philip is a naive idealist; Sidney is
a self-confident wise-guy; Vera is an extravagant ballerina; Sergei is an
egotistical maestro; Frankie is a sweet young thing. Scenery is
decorative and functional and contains only what is needed. Since the
story line is about show business and a ballet company, the production
numbers and songs are easily integrated. The "Slaughter on Tenth
Avenue" tune had been introduced early as a composition, and later it
becomes part of the plot as Phil dances it with Vera and has to keep
dancing because a gangster is trying to kill him.
Throughout, actors definitely hit the last words of lines: "Philip
Dolan Ill ain't going to school." "Not going out with any number two
acts." The actors also play up almost everything, sometimes playing
to each other, but at times giving lines straight out to the audience in a
very presentational manner. The dialogue is often sarcastic and
sharp-and delivered as wise cracks. The actors have good timing and
comic delivery, often dry and underplayed; at other times the acting is
very broad. On Your Toes may not be quite as sophisticated in
structure as The Pajama Came or Damn Yankees, but it is typical of
Abbott's direction.
Among Abbott's contributions are that he was mentor to the next
generation of music theatre directors who were to expand the genre to
the concept musical, particularly Jerome Robbins, who choreographed
On the Town, Billion Dollar Baby, High Button Shoes, Call Me
Madam and was the co-director of Look Ma, I'm Dancing and The
Pajama Came; Bob Fosse, who choreographed, The Pajama Came,
Damn Yankees and New Girl in Town; and Harold Prince, who
produced nine of Abbott's productions between 1954 and 1965.
Additionally Abbott's shows helped create stardom for a large number
of performers including Nancy Walker, Eddie Albert, Sam Levene,
Desi Arnaz, Carol Haney, Gwen Verdon, Liza Minelli, Carol Burnett,
Gene Kelly and many others from the 1920s through the 1960s.
George Abbott combined George M. Cohan's self-conscious,
George Abbott 51
speedy, fast paced, wise-cracking, and theme driven format
94
with
David Belasco's approach to detail which made the illusion credible
and theatrical at the same time. Although he claimed he was
interested primarily in entertainment, Abbott brought a level of
actuality unusual in musicals:
In reality, he was demanding the essence of the later Method
school: truth. He didn't teach it-he demanded it, and he had
an outstanding ability to know when it was being delivered or
not. He directed by staging a play logically and precisely and
disallowing anything phony. Abbott came into the theatre at a
time when acting was still very artificial-focusing on
performance and declamation-and thus he set the
groundwork for the modern actor, who does not indicate, but
is. Musicals, the natural home of performers, were the last art
form to embrace this level of reality and truth, and benefited
from it as much as straight plays. The new approach allowed
musicals the freedom to become more serious, and raised
their level of reality so that audiences could expect more than
just entertainment-they could empathize with the
characters.
95
This analysis overstates the case a bit, for in retrospect, Abbott's truth
was based on an externalized, shallow reality, often romanticized and
"of the theatre." Nevertheless, the result was a total theatre directorial
perspective which 1ed to the synthetic musical in which music, lyrics,
text, movement all combined to create an expressive whole greater
than the sum of its parts. He employed dance movement as an
important element in the construction of the musical , demanded
precision of staging and insisted that the comedy flow not from an
assemblage of gags, but from plot and character. His musicals were
based on dramatic action at the core with music and movement as
prime elements, in fact, as equal, integral elements.
To a certain degree, Abbott's success depended on technique
rather than content. While the Abbott touch gave vitality to the
musical, it fell short in other ways: "His trademark is one of slickness,
of shiny, adamantine luster and unmatched technique-but lacking in
the warm, unconscious sentimentality of such hits as South Pacific and

~ See Stephdn M. Vallillo, George M. Cohan, Director (Ph.D. diss., New York
University, 1986).
95
Flinn, Musical!, 295.
52 SHELTON
My Fair Lady. "
96
Abbott's productions were cooler than others from
the heyday of musical comedy. They did have some sentimentality
because they were in the genre of the romantic musical; however, as
Martin Gottfried noted, his technique did not always hide the
shallowness of the story line: "It adds up to the energetic, glossy,
smooth flow of show making we identify with musicals. This has
sometimes been disparaged as 'slickness' but there is no sense blaming
the emptiness of content on aplomb of technique."
97
Additionally,
George jean Nathan claimed of Abbott: "He is the theatre of snappy
curtain lines, wise cracking dialogue, sentimental relief in the shape of
tender young lovers, and analogous condiments, all staged as if the
author had used a pepper shaker in lieu of an ink well."
98
After a time
Abbott's productions became similar as he repeated the formula over
and over.
In his way, Abbott did exemplify the Appian master artist who
created a work of art, " the result of an ensemble of technical means
commanded by one artist," who controlled by his will alone the
methods suitable for his purpose-the artist was master of everything.
99
It may be that, I ike Belasco, Abbott created a form that was greater
than its content, but the synthesis which evolved was significant and
unique, and when all is said and done, form and content probably did
match very well. The American musical theatre may not have
achieved the stature of grand opera which Appia wanted, however,
under the total theatre directorial perspective of George Abbott, it did
achieve a form very much like the Appian word-tone drama in which
the total production became the interpretative agent of the dramatic
idea.
96
Hi ckey, " Mr. Abbott, Sir!" 16.
9 7
Gottfried, Broadway Musicals, 87.
98
Quoted in James Davis, " Bigger and Better," New York Daily News, 17
March 1975, [n.p.].
99
Adolphe Appia, "The Future of Production," Ralph Roeder, trans., Theatre
Arts Monthly, (August 1932) : 652-53.
Journal of American Drama and Theatre 1 2 (Winter 2000)
Eugene O'Neill's "New Men" and Theatrical Possibility:
Strange Interlude and Ah, Wilderness!
MICHAEL R. SCHIAVI
In 1968, Quentin Crisp stated, "Now that morality is finished and
social convenience is the only criterion of behavior, it i s only
obviously effeminate men who are ostracized."
1
More than twenty
years later, Craig Lucas noted how little public reception of effeminacy
had changed: "The effeminate man has been, and remains, the
laughing stock of our movi'es, our most successful comedians."
2
Regardless of venue, observers theatricalize effeminate males as third-
rate slapstick. After parading an expected semiotic set (e.g., lisp
1
flexible wrists, fluid walk, melting posture, widely varied vocal
inflections), non-masculine males, whether onstage or off, must yield
performance space to men whose masculinity accommodates
naturalistic narrative. Spectators of non-masculine behavior needn' t
engage deeply with its burlesque; they have only to chuckle and wait
for the " real" plot to simmer.
Kneejerk responses to effeminacy reveal a facile conception of
spectacle that Eugene O' Neill , disdainful son of Monte Cristo,
abhorred. Adopting the Provincetown Players' anti-commercialist
resolve, O'Neill insisted that theatre be as literary an art as it is visual
and developed in his plays a psychological complexity not permitted
by the formulaic drama that had glutted the Broadway of his father' s
career.
3
By dramatizing effeminacy, a behavior so lazily received
offstage, with a characterological complexity it had never previously
1
Quentin Cri sp, The Naked Civil Servant (New York: Plume, 1983), 193.
2
Kate Bornstein, Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us {New
York: Vintage, 1994), 156.
J Arthur and Barbara Gelb, O 'Nei ll (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 18-19,
54, 415, 430. The Gelbs discuss the degree to which turn-of-the-century Ameri can
theatre, honoring patrons' demands for overcoded spectacle, doomed James
O'Neil l to professional redundancy and great unhappiness.
54 SCHIAVI
known-and has seen scant of since-O'Neill demanded greater
interpretive sophi stication of hi s audiences and reali zed perhaps his
boldest effort: to make theatre an intellectual American art form.
In Strange Interlude (1928) and Ah, Wilderness! (1933), O' Neill
created effeminate, asexual or heterosexual , protagoni sts who
complicate the semiotics of gender performance and divest
of its dramatic passivity. Charles Marsden and Richard Miller
represent O' Neill ' s efforts to challenge traditional expectations of male
performance. Frequently at center stage, they defy normative
masculine spectacle by not exhibiting the social aggression of men
who typically command observers' serious attention.
4
Depicted
instead through suspect, solitary dedications to language, these
characters provide audiences with new conceptions of " watchable"
mafe behavior. O' Neill also took care with both characters to
communicate effeminacy not as a grab-bag of actorly tricks,
5
but as a
spectrum of far subtler characterological effects. His success in doing
so during an intensely homophobic period in Ameri can history
demonstrates his commitment to dramatic innovation far more
daringly than does his earlier and contemporaneous experimentation
with drumbeats, masks, or extended asides. These devices do not
require the political courage that was necessary for O' Neill to insist
that so charged, yet seemingly unworthy, an affect as effeminacy be
taken seriously by audiences still new to the notion of serious
spectatorship.
4
El sewhere, O'Neill renders masculine characters through their ability to
overpower others physicall y or verbally. In " The Hairy Ape" (1921), for example,
O'Neill characterizes Yank as " broader, fiercer, more truculent, more powerful,
[and] more sure of himself than [the other stokers] ." Darrell in Strange Interlude
and Jamie in Long Day's j ourney into Night (1940) are masculine for their
irresistibl e seductiveness, which masks in Darrell the "observant . . . analytical"
control and in Jamie the embittered "cynicism" with which they dominate others.
Darrell and Jami e thus boast a talent for social manipul ation that, wholly absent in
Marsden and Richard, inversely defines the latter characters' non-masculini ty.
Eugene O'Neill, " The Hairy Ape," i n Nine-Plays by Eugene O'Neill (New York:
The Modern Library, 1993), 38. O' Neill, Strange Interlude, in Nine Plays by
Eugene O' Neill, 491. (All subsequent citations from Strange Interlude will be
noted parenthetically in the text.) O' Neill, Long Day's j ourney into Night (New
Haven: Yale Uni versity Press, 1987), 19.
5
Semi otician Keir El am notes this techni cal shorthand by asserting that " a
competent actor will be abl e to draw upon a repertory of vocal indi cators [and]
crude stereotyped indi ces .. . [such as] 'effeminate' voice set and voice qualities as
i ndi cators of homosexuality." Such i s precisely the vaudevillian effect that O'Neill
tried to counter in his own constructions of effeminacy. Keir El am, The Semiotics
of Theatre and Drama (London: Methuen, 1980), 83.
Eugene O'Neill 55
At the time O'Neill composed Strange Interlude and Ah,
Wilderness!, New York society delighted in framing effeminate men as
outlandish spectacle. George Chauncey notes these "most visible
representatives of gay life" attracted thousands of curious onlookers to
"gawk.,' at the balls and cafeterias where the men, aware of their own
visibility, acted their most flamboyant. These acts of observing
effeminacy, made theatrical by the spatial configuration of "sta_ges"
framed by plate-glass windows and dance floors, permitted no
complexity of response, no sense that effeminate men could or did
participate in social narratives beyond the Village or Harlem. Indeed,
spectators had little social tolerance for their subjects, whom they
generally considered "perverts" suited only for the " fairy hangouts" to
which average spectators' "slumming" might bring them.
6
No stranger
to this brand of spectatorship, O'Neill bragged to Princeton friends that
he'd often visited Village gay bars to observe the exotic clientele.
7
By
the tjme he began writing Strange Interlude twenty-odd years later, he
was a seasoned enough artist to recognize effeminacy's more complex
theatrical resources.
O'Neill also may have become convinced of the dramatic worth
of his own non-masculine traits. Consider the following list of
adjectives used to characterize O'Neill during his youth: moody,
oversensitive, delicate, refined, quiet, queer;
8
he was also described as
shy, apprehensive on approach, tremblingly sensitive to the world,
and withdrawn.
9
Teachers and friends of the young O' Neill depict
him as "[sitting] for hours . . . reading, sketching, dreaming";
"[spending] his free time with books rather than in active play with his
companions" ; as needing the help of an older boy who "punched
another boy in the nose for calling Gene a sissy."
10
Perhaps most
tellingly, O'Neill, via Edmund in Long Day's journey into Night,
describes himself as having a "quality of extreme nervous sensibility"
that likens him to his mother and di sti nguishes him from his more
masculine, outgoing father and brother. Mary notes that Edmund "was
born nervous and too sensitive" and that as a child, he was "always
6
George Chauncey, Cay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making
of the Cay Male World, 1890-1940 (New York: Basi c Books, 1994), 4, 167, 168.
7
Louis Sheaffer, O'Neill, Son and Playwright (Boston: Little, Brown, 1968),
118.
8
Gelb, 62, 66, 67.
9
Sheaffer, O'Neill, Son and Playwright, 57, 90.
10
Gelb, 62, 66, 67.
56 SCHIAVI
getting upset and frightened about nothing at all. . . . Everybody used
to say ... [that he would] cry at the drop of a hat."
11
To all appearances, O'Neill, like Marsden and Richard, exhibited
many of the self-effacing traits that typify effeminate behavior.
Significantly, though, none of the accounts detailed above seems a
sniggering equation of O'Neill's affect with homosexual inclination.
Indeed, his well-documented heterosexuality seems to have granted
him the understanding that effeminacy may be more complex than
reductive sexual interpretation would argue. Through Charlie
Marsden, O'Nei II raises effeminacy's hermeneutic stakes by promoting
its dramatic novelty. Refusing to associate effeminacy definitively with
homosexuality, he assigns it to a character who is central to the play's
action (i.e., not merely comic relief) and whose removed ruminations
significantly inform its moral universe.
In describing Strange Interlude to Joseph Wood Krutch, O'Neill
wrote:
I like [Marsden] very much .... I've known many Marsdens
.. . and it has always seemed to me that they've never been
done in literature with any sympathy or real insight.
12
Louis Sheaffer, citing this quotation, identifies the artists Charles
Demuth and Marsden Hartley, both gay acquaintances of O'Neill, as
models for Marsden, hence "proof" of the character's homosexuality.
13
Virginia Floyd, Kaier Curtin, and Chauncey have since leaned on this
assumption in order to allege Marsden's homosexuality. In each case,
however, the critics make their claims gingerly: Floyd holds that
Marsden is "probably a homosexual."
14
Chauncey cal l s Marsden an
"effete, implicitly homosexual character."
15
Curtin, who speaks more
boldly of Marsden's "obvious gay identity," also remarks that
"Broadway critics seemed not to recognize [O'Neill's] circumspect"
11
O'Neill, Long Day's journey into Night, 20, 88, 110.
12
Travis Bogard, Selected Letters of Eugene O'Neill (New York: Limelight
Editions, 1994), 247.
13
Louis Sheaffer, O'Neill, Son and Artist (Boston: Little, Brown, 1973), 243.
14
Virginia Floyd, The Plays of Eugene O'Neill: A New Assessment (New York:
Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1985), 337.
15
Chauncey, 232.
Eugene O'Neill 57
handling of the theme.
16
By qualifying their statements, Floyd,
Chauncey, and Curtin acknowledge the interpretive dangers of
automatically conflating homosexuality and effeminacy. Furthermore,
while Floyd reports that "Marsden is described as being bisexual in the
[play's] early notes,''
17
at no time does he intimate, mucn less profess,
sexual interest in another man. Given the play's psychological
exposition via detailed "asides," Marsden's absence of homosexual
confession, however subconsciously coded, resonates deeply. In fact,
O'Neill positions Marsden heterosexually by having him win, after
patient decades, the libidinous Nina over the men who gradually
abandon her. O'Neill's removal of any overt reference to bi-, much
less homo-, sexuality in the play's final draft indicates his greater
interest in representing effeminacy on its own terms.
The " many Marsdens" he mentions in his letter to Krutch,
therefore, very likely were not exclusively gay men, but non-masculine
men, also a group seldom treated onstage with "any sympathy or real
insight," and a group that O'NeiH, from both his own childhood and
his desire to challenge Amerfcan spectatorship, had an investment in
seeing thoughtfully represented.
Strange Interlude
During and following the composition of Strange Interlude,
O'Neill believed he was polishing the literary status he'd been
attempting to confer upon theatre for a decade. His treatment of
effeminacy is at the center of this endeavor. During the play's drafting,
he wrote to Carlotta Monterey, "I seem to hit on things that,
dramatically at least, have never been touched before."
18
Hi s careful
dramatization of an effeminate character certainly numbers among
these unspecified "things." After finishing the play, he implicitly
asserted its improvement upon contemporary literature in a letter to
Krutch:
[The best modern plays] make no attempt at that poetic
conception and interpretation of life without which drama is
not an art form at all but simply tricky journalism arranged in
16
Kaier Curtin, "We Can Always Call Them Bulgarians": The Emergence of
Lesbians and Cay Men on the American Stage (Boston: Alyson Press, 1987), 118,
25.
17
Floyd, 337.
16
Bogard, Sel ected Letters of Eugene O'Neill, 247.
58 SCHIAVI
dialogue. But, on the other hand, even the best of modern _
novels strike me as dire failures. . . . so wordy, so padded
with the unimportant and insignificant, so obsessed with the
trivial meaning of trivialities. . [true art must force]
significant form on experience.
19
Journalism occupies the bottom rung in O'Neill's literary economy for
its reporting of mundane facts that demand no interpretive subtlety.
O'Neill sought to force audiences into consideration of suppressed
truths. His use of the extended aside, which constitutes Strange
Interlude's "significant form," allows its characters to distill incendiary
topics that observers, like characters themselves, would probably avoid
in conversation.
Curiously, though, the majority of topics raised in the play's asides
are ones that O'Neill had previously staged with greater directness: the
marital hatred between Nina and Sam appears in Before Breakfast
(1915), Welded (1924), and All Cod's Chillun Cot Wings (1925);
O'Neill's early effort Abortion (1914) borrows for its title the act that
Nina can't bear even to ponder explicitly; and Desire Under the Elms
(1924), a major critical and popular success, dealt openly with the
incestuous and adulterous desires that harrow Professor Leeds, Nina
and Darrell. Never before, however, had O' Neill dramatized
effeminacy, which, if discussed aloud, would fix the audience' s
attention on "deviance" and disqualify Marsden for the active role he
plays within both the plot and O'Neill 's larger battle against
thoughtless spectatorship. Strange Interlude's use of asides, therefore,
seems calculated to socialize effeminacy in the only way available to
O'Neill in 1928.
Marsden's effeminacy receives open comment only when Sam
employs him as a model for how he and Nina should not raise
Gordon: "we want him to grow up a real he-man and not an old lady
like Marsden. (Sagaciously) That's what made Marsden like he is, I'll
bet. His mother never stopped babying him" (612). However, as Sam
displays almost no sagacity throughout the play, and as Nina's reaction
to his analysis is a mere " look of bitter scorn," it seems that O'Neill is
determined not to permit any simpleminded disparagement of
Marsden. He clearly realizes that detailed focus upon Marsden's
effeminacy would raise suspicions regarding the character's sexuality.
At a time when the slightest allegation of homosexuality could break a
person financially, legally, and medically, the original audiences of
Strange Interlude could not have entertained its appearance in a
19
Ibid.
Eugene O'Neili 59
principal character without his "tragedy" becoming the play's focus,
as was the case, for example, six years later in Lillian Hellman's The
Children's Hour. Consequently, while Darrell may consider Marsden
a " ladylike soul," an "old maid, " or even an " old sissy," and while
Nina may mentally assert, "I'm sure he's never even dared to kiss a
woman except his mother!" (494, 533, 572), never do any of the
characters voice their aspersions to each other.
Never, moreover, does any character even silently brand Marsden
an invert or fairy. Chauncey attests to the latter term's institutional
currency between the World Wars " Regulatory agents-police,
doctors, and private investigators alike ... knew and frequently used
the vernacular fairy."
20
However, if the contemptuous Dr. Darrell,
who by profession belongs on Chauncey's roster, used the ubiquitous
"fairy" to characterize Marsden, Strange Interlude would undergo
unwanted generic transformation into seamy crime melodrama and,
fatal to O'Neill's deeper psychological aims, lurid sexual spectacle.
Darrell's discretion, therefore, foregrounds O' Neill's interest in
exploring effeminacy's interpretive rigor. Moreover, while it is
tempting to read Marsden's aversion to (hetero)sexuality, demonstrated
when he recalls his squalid sexual initiation with a prostitute, as
"proof" of his homosexuality, it is important to remember that O'Nei ll
based Marsden's youthful experience on an adolescent venture of his
own.
21
Secure in his own heterosexuality, O'Neill realized that
Marsden's mishap needn't communicate conclusively any one shade
of sexuality. It should, rather, encourage audiences to interpret male
sexuality as more complex than an "either/or" binary.
The dense opening description renders Marsden with appropriate
opacity: "There is an indefinable feminine quality about him, but it is
nothing apparent in either appearance or act" (462). O'Neill is not
i nterested in staging Marsden as a collection of limp wrists or sibilant
consonants. He relies on cultural appropriation and images of
physi cal susceptibility in order to prevent audiences from disregarding
effeminacy as mere comic spectacle. If the character is performed
according to specification, actor and audience alike will engage with,
2
Chauncey, 14-15.
21
Sheaffer, O'Neill, Son and Playwright, 101.
60
SCHIAVI
not simply guffaw at, effeminacy's more recognizable tropes.
22
Considering the vitriol hurled at effeminate men of the period/
1
O'Neill's treatment of Marsden is astoundingly thoughtful.
By depicting Marsden as an "Anglicized New England
gentleman," O'Neill gently suggests the character as co-opted by an
effete aesthetic shrugged off in manly Revolution 150 years earlier.
That his "face [is] too long for its width" makes Marsden seem wan,
drawn, narrow, a departure from presumed masculine solidity. In a
deceptively sinrple reference, O'Neill writes that Marsden "has never
liked athletics and has always been regarded as of delicate
constitution" (461 ). What seems to be the playwright's only
deployment of sissy stereotype actually echoes descriptions of his own
childhood self. In his evident identification with Marsden, O'Neill
specifies that "The main point about his personality is a quiet charm, a
quality of appealing, inquisitive friendliness, always willing to listen,
eager to sympathize, to like and to be liked" (462). O'Neill departs
considerably from stock characterization here by showing an
effeminate man as a valued member of a social setting, not a sideshow
of physical or vocal aberrations. Appropriately, he speaks the play's
first and last lines and remains within the Leeds's orbit for over twenty-
five years, surviving all of Nina's more transient contacts and
semiotically outlasting everyone onstage.
In his asexuality and incongruousness among more masculine
men, Marsden retreats into the world of language and observation,
thus following the path of Professor Leeds, whom Nina
contemptuously dubs "The Professor of Dead Languages ... a dead
22
Robert Z. Leonard's film version of Strange Interlude (1932) demonstrates
the dangers of representing effeminacy as a collection of mannerisms. Required,
like the rest of the cast, to emote in near-constant close-up and voiceover, Ralph
Morgan gives the film's only ridiculous performance by portraying Marsden as a
caricature of effeminacy rather than as an effeminate character. During his asides,
Morgan tosses back his head to peer from under preternaturally arched eyebrows.
His painstaking embodiment of every thought, like his desperately searching tone,
marks effeminacy as a wallow in expressive despair. In his mannerisms, Morgan
unwisely relies on the effeminate " repertoire" that Elam noted and that O'Neill
hoped to circumvent via his nuanced directions.
23
Early twentieth-century discrimination against effeminate men is widely
documented in historical, sociological, and (auto)biographical texts: see, for
example, Crisp, The Naked Civil Servant, 24, 44, 58-62; Chauncey, 59-60; and
Stuart Timmons, The Trouble With Harry Hay (Boston: Alyson Publications, 1990):
42, 71. Effeminate men received scarcely better treatment onstage. Mae West's
play The Drag (1927) shocked audiences with campy dialogue that Curtin calls
" petty, mindless raillery" appropriate for "fags,'' as the characters are labeled in
stage directions (76, 130).
Eugene O'Neill 61
man [who] lectures on the past of living" (473). In his portrayal of
both men, O' Neill seems to draw on Edward Casaubon of Eliot's
Middlemarch (1871-2). While vainly attempting to discover the " Key
to All Mythologies," Casaubon "(concludes] that the poets had much
exaggerated the force of masculine passion" and makes his marriage to
young Dorothea Brooke a numbing torture.
24
Attention to language in
Strange Interlude similarly bespeaks either inappropdate sexuality, as
in Professor Leeds's thinly masked desire for his daughter, or its total
absence, as in the parallels suggested between Marsden's literary
output and his carnal na"lvete. In his intellectual and sexual remove,
however, Marsden also serves a vital narrative function in the play,
one that epitomizes O' Neill's employment of effeminacy as a
dramaturgical tool.
Immediately after remarking, "How we poor monkeys hide from
ourselves behind the sounds called words," Nina asks Marsden, "Have
you written another novel lately? . . . With you the lies have become
the only truthful things" (497,498). Indeed, Marsden's novel-writing
represents throughout the play his escape from the bodied truth that so
frightens and repulses him. In trying to discuss Nina' s self-destructive
behavior with Marsden, Darrell realizes that he "can't tell him the raw
truth about her promiscuity . .. he isn't built to face reality .. . no
writer is outside of his books" (493). Darrell accuses Marsden of
escape from reality inside his books as well: "his novels just well-
written surface .. . no depth, no digging underneath . .. . afraid he' ll
meet himself somewhere. . . . one of those poor devi ls who spend
their lives trying not to discover which sex they belong to!" (492).
Darrell's criticism of Marsden echoes O' Neill's insistence to Krutch
that art must avoid the "trivial," the "well-written surfaces" on which
Marsden trades.
Critics have shared Darrell's disgust for Marsden's i mplicitly
effeminate work. C.W.E. Bigsby, for instance, notes, "In Strange
Interlude, with the passing of sexual potency, all meaning drains
away."
25
That is, Marsden, celibate throughout the play's twenty-five
years, cannot hope to achieve meaning in hi s writing and thus suffers
personal as well as professional failure. Travis Bogard's fairly detailed
discussion of the play offers no analysis of Marsden at all save the
following throwaway, relegated to a note: " [he is] a figure without
24
George Eliot, Middlemarch, Gordon S. Haight, ed. (Cambridge, MA:
Riverside Press, 1956), 146.
25
C. W.E. Bigsby, A Critical Introduction to Modern American Drama, Vol. 1
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 74.
62
SCHIAVI
wisdom, deservedly held in contempt until the final moments of the
play."
26
Like Bigsby, Bogard links romantic, i-f not sexual , animus with
personal efficacy and so commends Marsden only when he marries
Nina, however platonically. Yet Bigsby and Bogard do not
acknowledge that Darrell, who serves the plot chiefly as stud to Nina,
also fails in his professional efforts to make meaning; even Marsden
thinks of Darrell ' s flagging work at biology as a "pretense" and Darrell
himself as "pitiable," a mere "scientific dilettante" (595, 602) . O'Neill
thus demonstrates that Marsden is not the only character to have
squandered his intellectual gifts and suggests, importantly, that
effeminacy need not always prove the gauge of male ruin.
Bigsby and Bogard additionally fail to recognize that Marsden' s
union with Nina constitutes the play's only successful personal
relationship; Nina hardly achieves "meaning" or "wisdom" in her
sexually chaotic relationships with Evans and Darrell. Strange
Interlude thus works against physical spectacle by privi leging the
chaste peace that Marsden, whom Nina rightly calls her "only
dependable friend" (574), can offer her. After being successively
abandoned by Gordon, Evans, Darrell, and her son, Nina finally turns
to Marsden for much-needed rest from what he calls "the whole
distressing episode" of romantic entanglements, which they should
regard merely as the titular "interlude" preceding their spiritual purity.
O'Neill validates Marsden's asexual tidying of their lives by closing the
play with his thought, "God bless dear old Chari ie . . . who, passed
beyond desire, has all the luck at last!" (656).
An articulate observer of actions from which he is excluded,
Marsden forces moral reckoning and brings closure to the play's
maddening cycles of sexual confusion. Bette Mandl accordingly finds
Marsden's "presence . . . a kind of enhanced rationale for the stream-
of-consciousness technique that so often allows us to see what
happens through his eyes."
2 7
Kurt Eisen similarly asserts that Marsden
"personifies the play' s novelistic technique. He is wholly a man of
words. . . . his fear of life coincides with his acute powers of
perception, his keen, often uncanny awareness of others."
28
Else-
where, Eisen speaks provocatively of Marsden as the "character who
26
Travis Bogard, Contour In Time: The Plays of Eugene O'Neill, 2nd ed.
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 304.
27
Bette Mandl, "Gender as Design in Eugene O' Neill's Strange Interlude,"
The Eugene O'Neill Review 19, 1-2 (Spring-Fall1995): 124.
28
Kurt Eisen, "Novelization and the Dramatization of Consciousness in
Strange Interlude," The Eugene O' Neill Review, 14, 1-2 (Spring-Fall 1990): 44.
Eugene O'Neill 63
becomes the pla{s central consciousness, a noveli stic figure Henry
james called a ' refl ector' who serves not to alter events but to bring
them into focus and perspective."
29
What remains unestablished in
Mandl's and Ei sen's cogent arguments, however, is the primacy of
Marsden's effeminacy in his role as Interlude's sentience.
Marsden dreads the public gaze: he feels "panic" upon realizing
that Nina has "sneaked into [his] soul to spy" on his unmanly_ fears
(500), and he is mortifi ed to sense that Gordon considers him "an old
woman" (644, 630). At the same time, Marsden' s effeminacy grants
him the time and di stance to hone hi s own penetrating gaze.
Nina and Darrell are both aware of being watched by Marsden at
compromising moments. Darrell warns himself, " Look out for this
fellow . . .. like a woman ... smells out love ... he suspected before"
(579). While Nina feels "pitying contempt" and "scorn" for Marsden
on at least two occasions, she nonetheless fears her old friend's powers
of discernment: "why did he look at me like that? . . . does he
suspect? . . . be careful! ... Charlie's staring at me" (500, 508, 570).
Marsden's unspoken intuition of their relationship, much like young
Gordon' s actual witnessing of their adulterous kiss, forces Nina and
Darrell to realize that their affair has moral implications beyond the
empty "charity" of sparing Nina a handi capped child. Their fear of
detection grants them belated understanding of operating in a social
29
Kurt Eisen, The Inner Strength of Opposites: O'Neill's Novelistic Drama
and the Melodramatic Imagination (Athens: Uni versi ty of Georgia Press, 1994),
143. While Marsden finally does participate in the action by becoming Nina's
partner, he is comparabl e throughout the play to two of james's detached, arguably
effeminate, " reflectors": Ralph Touchett in The Portrait of a Lady (1881) and
Lambert Strether in The Ambassadors (1903). Due to severe i llness, Touchett is
unabl e to pursue Isabel Archer romantically, but before his death, he importantly
serves as her confidant during complications with Lord Warburton, Caspar
Goodwood, and Gilbert Osmond. Moreover, he quietl y l aunches the novel's
primary action by convincing his father to leave Isabel the money that pulls the
scheming Osmond and Madame Merle into her orbit.
In The Ambassadors, Strether, aging edi tor of a "sweetly i gnored"
Massachusetts journal, i s also a genteel " watcher" of li fe when he travel s to
Europe to reclaim young Chad Newsome from hi s scandalous liaison with
Madame de Vionnet. Although Strether himself never partakes of European
exotica, his contemplati on of such experience forms the novel's ethical core. His
growing respect for sensual indulgence and self-determination, communicable
only through the lengthy ruminati on of effeminate retreat, allows the novel 's
contemporary readers a philosophical and moral latitude that they, as represented
by Mrs. Newsome and Sarah Newsome Pocock, may well have lacked. Henry
james, The Ambassadors, Harry Levin, ed. (London: Penguin, 1986), 101.
Marsden therefore shares with Touchett and Strether an " unmanly" distance
from plots that nonetheless hinge on his musings, as discussed below.
64 SCHIAVI
universe with laws and obligations to others. This revelation finally
forces them apart and pushes Nina toward Marsden, who affords her
the only sense of lasting peace she-or, indeed, any character in the
play-ever enjoys.
Ah, Wilderness!
The most autobiographical of American playwrights, O'Neill
employs the signs of his non-masculine youth in making Richard Miller
a tenable character. Sheaffer calls O'Neill the "chief model" for his
bookish, theatrical young protagonist, for, like Richard, O'Neill also
spent considerable time isolated in libraries, such as those of his father
and Dr. Joseph Ganey, where he too memorized Swinburne, Wilde,
and Shaw.
30
He also learned to "recite Chi/de Harold interminably"
and, with his friend Hutch Collins, "could recite long passages from
the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam."
31
The Gelbs describe young O'Neill
and Collins
as often seen leaving the New London [CT] library with stacks
of books under their arms, eliciting the bewildered respect of
their less intellectual friends. One such friend, on being
questioned about Eugene by a younger boy, was told,
definitively, "that Gene O'Neill-he reads deep stuff!"
32
In autobiographical writing, non-masculine boys describe their
retreat into the private realms of language and spectatorship as a token
passage. Their solitary (and rabid) consumption of books, records,
movies, and plays is generally configured as a response to verbal and
physical assaults; peers, and often family, are ever ready to show
effeminate boys their contempt for them.
33
Young boys especially take
shelter in the darkness of theaters or their own bedrooms, developing
30
Sheaffer, O'Neill_ Son and Artist, 404; Gelb, 88.
31
Gelb, 88, 85.
32
Ibid., 86.
33
See, for example, Bradley Boney, "The Lavender Brick Road: Paul Bonin-
Rodriguez and the Sissy Bo(d)y," Theatre journal 48 (1996): 35; Frank De Caro, A
Boy Named Phyllis: A Suburban Memoir (New York: Viking, 1996), 4-5, 197;
Funny Gay Males, Crowing Up Cay: From Left Out to Coming Out (New York:
Hyperion, 1995), 199; Greg Louganis (with Eric Marcus), Breaking the Surface
(New York: Random House, 1995), 33-5; RuPaul, Lettin it All Hang Out (New
York: Hyperion, 1995), 20.
Eugene O' Neill 65
there a suspect narrative mastery that underscores their concurrent lack
of participation in masculine ritual.
34
O' Neill, however, earned
"bewildered respect" for his literary seclusion and scant participation
in ritual. Why shouldn't a theater audience find an
aesthete's activities as watchable and respectable as young O'Neill's
peers did?
In staging his teenage self, O'Neill faced two significant fears. First,
as Stanton B. Garner, Jr. argues, the act of reading, which occupies
much of Ri chard's life, is not overtly dramatic: "In the multiactional
world of theatrical performance . .. there are few activities deemed
less stageworthy [than reading a book] ... [because it] is motionless,
time-consuming, solitary, and usually silent in its interior pro-
jections."35 O'Neill thus wisely restricts Richard's reading to offstage
invisibility; the boy's hobby is theatrical to the extent that it allows him
a wide range of scripts for subsequent recitation. O'Neill recognizes,
however, that the impromptu theatri cality of Richard's reading also
courts deadly sexual suspicion. In a letter to Phillip Moeller, director
of Ah, Wilderness! In its initial Broadway run, O' Neill writes of casting
the play's protagoni st: "Re[garding] 'Richard,' I needn' t tell you that
no fairies need apply-nor anyone who isn't all-American mal e boy. It
would be fatal. "
36
O'Neill fears the effect of a non-masculine performance on the
play's resolutely nostalgic and patriotic tenor. In a letter to hi s son,
Eugene Jr., O'Neill described the main focus of Ah, Wilderness! as
"the typical middle class hard working [family] of the average large-
small town which i s America in miniature. "
37
Amid O'Neill's
sentimental Americana, an effeminate protagonist would create a
dramatic strain, serviceable only if demonstrating the family's
34
See, for exampl e, Marlene Fanta Shyer and Christopher Shyer, Not Like
Other Boys: Crowing Up Cay: A Mother and Son Look Back (Boston: Houghton
Mifflin, 1996), 28; and Holl y Woodlawn, A Low Life in High Heel s (New York: St.
Martin's Press, 1991 ), 38. For dramati zation of the relationship between
effeminacy, abuse, retreat, and performance, see David Drake, The Night Larry
Kramer Kissed Me (New York: Anchor Books, 1993); and Larry Kramer, The
Destiny of Me (New York: Plume, 1993).
35
Stanton B. Garner, Jr., The Absent Voice: Narrative Comprehensi on in the
Theater (Urbana, IL: University of Illinoi s Press, 1989), 170.
36
Bogard, Selected Letters of Eugene O'Neill, 421 .
37
Ibid., 412.
66
SCHIAVI
commitment to expelling aberrance from their midst.
38
Such
moralizing would destroy the play' s comic tone.
Moreover, in his proscription against " fairies" and hi s essentialist
insistence on a " male boy" actor, O'Neill implies that only straight,
overtly masculine performers could make credible Richard's blend of
heterosexuality and theatricality. O'Neill is unwilling to take chances
on an actor who, via masculine inexperience, might fail to neutralize
the "fatal" effeminate tropes that threaten the play. The antagonism
between O'Neill 's iconoclastic staging of maleness and hi s dread of
staged effeminacy has followed Ah, Wilderness! through sixty-five
years of critici sm, culminating in the play's recent, curiously
ambivalent mounting by Lincoln Center Theater . .
O' Neill 's opening description of Richard establishes the character
through familiar inflammatory markers. Richard has
something of extreme sensitiveness a restless,
apprehensive . . . shy, dreamy self-conscious intelligence
about him. In manner, he is alternately plain simple boy and
a posey actor sol emnly playing a role.
39
Moreover, like his dramatic (and proto-gay) descendants David Drake
in The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me (1992) and Alexander in Larry
Kramer's The Destiny of Me (1992), Richard seems to have no male
friends; he spends most of his time in the isolated memorization of
forbidden texts. While Drake and Al exander devour films, ori ginal
cast albums and Broadway banter in their di stance from other boys,
Richard li ves in 1906 and must therefore content himself with . the
printed poetry of Swinburne, Khayyam, Wilde, Ibsen, and Shaw. Like
Alexander's father, Mr. and Mrs. Mill er di splay considerable
discomfort over their son's fascination with texts that prompt him to
unsolicited, unseemly performance. Richard's parents are no more
thrilled to find Oscar Wilde lurking in thei r teenage son than
Alexander's father is to discover an Andrews Sister in his.
Wayne Koestenbaum notes the frequency with which female
singers describe themselves as " rather queer. " In Koestenbaum' s
appealing analysis, "A si nger is queer because she presents the ear
38
For a related discussion of gay characterol ogy in real ism, see john M. Clum,
Acting Cay: Male Homosexuality in Modern Drama (New York: Columbia
Uni versity Press, 1992), 54-60, 142-7.
39
Eugene O' Neill , Ah, Wilderness!, The Later Plays of Eugene O'Neill, Travis
Bogard, ed. (New York: The Modern Library, 1967), 14. All subsequent citations
from thi s text will be noted parenthetically.
Eugene O'Neill 67
with unexpected bounty."
40
While Ri chard's performances are not
musical, they do earn him the radioactive appellation " queer" in their
"unexpected bounty." Richard shocks hi s father, for example, with an
unwieldy political speech in the family sitting room early on July 4
111
(16-17); later, a Salesman, stunned at finding a well-versed "child poet
or . .. child actor" in a bar, happily encourages Richard to continue
his recitation of "Reading Gaol" (71, 72). Although both men are
briefly amused to witness oratory in places and times designated for
public intercourse, they soon weary of Richard's presentations and
enjoin him to stop. His repertoire is indeed "queer" for its
indifference to performance norms.
While observing her son's theatrical behavior, Mrs. Miller calls
Richard "queer" no fewer than three times (32, 101 , 125). Although
the term lacked in 1906 the various homosexual connotations it has
since acquired, it does express puzzled disapproval over a speaker
who neither respects discursive boundaries nor evinces expected male
legibility. A cipher, Richard's body appears publicly, as at the play's
beginning, only when commanded forth from isolation; even then,
however, it communicates mostly through the words of scandalous
arti sts. Miller, therefore, resolves to "draw the line somewhere" (28)
when he realizes that Richard's hidden literary stash has informed his
oversexed letters to Muriel. He finds the possibility of ungoverned
heterosexuality sufficiently alarming to curtai l the boy's rebellious
reading and potential embarrassment of his family.
Nevertheless, Richard's appropriation of Wilde, when coupled
with his many non-mascul ine traits, evokes a si lent threat of
homosexuality that his attraction to Muriel alone cannot contain. At
his nephew's mention of Wilde, Sid "smothers a burst of ribald
laughter," and Miller "[hides] a smile behind his hand" (18), thereby
communicating to suspicious audience members, particularly at the
turn of this century, that Richard's forbidden reading and penchant for
performance may reveal more provocative secrets than heterosexual
promiscuity. Decades of subsequent criticism have passionately
attempted to exorcise the homosexual specter raised in Sid and
Miller's stifled amusement.
Ah, Wilderness! has enjoyed tremendous vogue since its first
performance. Writing to actress Anne Shoemaker, who created the
role of Essie Miller, O'Neill commented in 1941 that the play had
"been done to death since the original production-movie, radio,
40
Wayne Koestenbaum, The Queen's Throat : Opera, Homosexuality, and the
Mystery of Desire (New York: Poseidon Press, 1993), 98.
68 SCHIAVI
stock and amateur theatres."
41
Nine years after O'Neill's death, jordan
Y. Miller proclaimed Ah Wilderness! "undoubtedly the most popular
[of] O'Neill['s] plays."
42
Like O'Neill himself, Ellen Kimbel attributes
the play's popularity "to its clear and convincing representation of the
cul tural milieu of middle-class small town America at the turn of the
century."
43
The play presumably maximizes accessibi lity by focusing
on an economic level familiar to most theater audiences and by
representing gender within the traditional parameters of masculinity
and femininity that O'Neill mandated in his casting note to Moeller.
44
Critics tend toward equal conservatism by casting Richard as a
model of standard teenage silliness. Kimbel, for example, speaks of
the "gentl e" irony O'Neill directs against "the follies of adolescence-
the theatrical posturing, the self-aggrandizement. "
45
Comparably, the
Gelbs assert that by age nineteen, O'Neill "was outgrowing [Richard's]
tendency to announce" his own melodramati c political predictions.
46
For these criti cs, Richard's non-masculine traits merely exaggerate
"regular" adolescent male performance and wi ll inevitably yield to
more socialized expression in adulthood. Above all, they would
safeguard Ri chard against all forms of sexual "aberration"; hence,
"while [he] is depicted as startling his family with lurid and antisocial
quotations from disreputable European authors, he is shown to be
basically innocent and pure in heart; hi s ' depravity' is solely
intellectual. "
47
However, no animated consolidation of Richard's
masculinity can fully banish "depravi ty" once it is introduced.
41
Bogard, Selected Letters of Eugene O'Neill, 523. O'Neill would be
horrified seven years later to learn that Ah, Wilderness! had also been turned into a
movie musi cal, Summer Holiday (dir. Reuben Mamoulian).
42
Jordan Y. Miller, Eugene O'Neill and the American Critic: A Summary and
Bibliographical Checklist (Hamden: Archon Books, 1962), 156.
43
Ellen Kimbel , "Eugene O'Neill as Social Historian: Manners and Morals in
Ah, Wilderness!," Critical Essays on Eugene O'Neill, James J. Martine, ed. (Boston:
G.K. Hall , 1984), 138.
44
For a discussion of O'Neill's privileging of masculine and moneyed
privilege in Ah, Wilderness!, see Thomas F. Van Laan, "Singing in the Wi lderness:
The Dark Vision of O'Neill's Only Mature Comedy," Modern Drama 22, 1 (March
1979): 9-18.
45
Kimbel , 139.
46
Gelb, 120.
47
Ibid., 88-9.
Eugene O'Neill 69
Critics have contextualized Richard's behavior within hoary
narratives that guarantee his "maturation" into more manly, explicitly
heterosexual behavior. Gilbert W. Gabriel, in reviewing the original
production of Ah, Wilderness! for New York American, labels Richard
the Millers' problem child, the poet in their midst. ... Young
Richard is the fond, fuzz-colored young historian that all sadly
middle-aged men have to admit that they, too, were in their
prep-school Galahad days. He is you, I, all of us at the
damnfool age of seventeen.
48
Universalized tropes of class, masculinity, and high culture all
converge in Gabriel's effort to recover Richard's tenuous manhood. In
order for the play to be the popular success that it indeed became,
audiences must convert the sensitive "problem child/poet" into a
junior knight whose educational privilege
49
will help him to outgrow
the adolescent absurdities "all " men experience in youth.
By blessing Ah, Wilderness! with comparisons to Shakespeare,
Bogard links Richard with canonical characters whose antisocial
actions receive sexual correction by play's end:
The characters in Shakespearean comedy . . . begin by making
a series of withdrawals from life- into walled gardens, into the
artifices of lover's melancholy, into what amounts to a denial
of sexual possibility by transvestism. Yet, for all their willful
denial of its positive power, nature has its way with the
would-be spinsters; in the end it restores them securely into
the mainstream of common experience. 5
Bogard alludes principally to Twelfth Night (1600), particularly
48
Gilbert W. Gabriel, " Review of Ah, Wilderness!" in O'Neill and His Plays:
Four Decades of Criticism, Oscar Cargill, N. Bryllion Fagin, and William j . Fi sher,
eds. (New York: New York University Press, 1961 ), 195.
49
Whil e the play actuall y makes no mention of Ri chard's enrollment at a prep
school , he is about to enter his first semester at Yale University, an opportunity hi s
mother values chiefly for its social impli cations. When Miller threatens to cancel
Richard's matri culation, Mrs. Miller protests, " Not go to Yale! I guess he can go to
Yal e! Every man of your means in the town is sending his boys to coll ege! What
would folks think of you?" (122). An advantaged education thus implies the
masculine validation and social acceptance that Gabriel's revi ew al so strains to
confer upon Ri chard.
50
Bogard, " Introduction," The Later Plays of Eugene O'Neill , xxiv.
70
SCHIAVI
Ol ivia's protracted renunc1at1on of love while mourning her brother
and Orsino's neglect of mal e interaction (e.g. , hunting) in his passive
love for Olivia. According to the supposition that " nature" demands
exclusively heterosexual couplings, the plot complication of Viola' s
cross-dressing throws lllyria into further imbalance when Olivia comes
to desire "Cesario," and when Orsino lingers longingly on the
feminine mouth and voice of the "dear lad."
51
Without the excuse of
" disruptive" transvestism, however, Antonio also claims to "adore
[Sebastian] so,"
52
and neither his longing nor Olivia' s subtly lesbian
delight with Sebastian (as predicated upon his being Viola' s twin)
receives satisfactory "restoration" at the play's resolution. Bogard's
recourse to generic laughter in Twelfth Night can no more dispel
suggested deviance than can the smiles of Ah, Wilderness!.
Lincoln Center Theater's 1998 revival of the play respected
Richard's critical heritage while also acknowledging O'Neill's effort, as
begun in Strange Interlude, to configure effeminacy as an open
challenge to constraints upon male performance. The result proved an
uneasy gender melange.
James McMullan's poster for the production (see Fig. 1)
emphasizes Richard' s sensitivity. Wanting to capture the "physical
awkwardness that seems to be an i nevitable part of the artistic
teenager, " McMullan found inspi ration in the adult photographs of
O'Neill, who held himself in the "gawky, protective [manner] of a man
more at home in his mind than in his body."
53
Accordingly,
McMul lan's Richard sits alone on a beached rowboat in rapturous
contemplation. Left elbow at rest on his thigh, he holds a book
languidly askew in his left hand and clutches his stomach defensively
with his right arm. His head ti lted up and his long, graceful neck
exposed, he gazes soulfully off to the right, his dark eyes large with
undisclosed revelation, his mouth resolutely closed until he finds an
audience for his new repertoire. In thi s pose, Richard seems
masculinity's antithesis.
5 1
William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, or What You Will, David Bevington,
ed. (New York: Bantam, 1988), 1, 4, 30-5.
52
Ibid., 2, 44.
53
James McMullan, " Notes on ' Ah, Wilderness!': How a Poster Was Born,"
Lincoln Center Review, 18 (Spring 1998): 15.
Eugene O'Neill 71
Figure 1
(Courtesy of James McMullan)
72 SCHIAVI
Nonetheless, by commenting that Richard " reminded [him] of
[himself] in [his] late teens and of every other young man with an
ambition to be an artist, "
54
McMullan, like Gilbert W. Gabriel sixty-
five years earlier, attempts to rescue the theatrical male who has yet to
reach expressive maturity. Daniel Sullivan's production
55
presented
Richard in this recuperative vein by attempting to reinscribe him
within a nostalgic and familial frame that could combat antisocial
affect.
The production began non-naturalistically with the rest of the
Miller family posed upstage in an immobile portrait, from which they
pronounced their opening lines. The tableau suggested a protective
unity that Richard was missing in self-imposed exile. It also bespoke a
photographic permanence under which Richard' s stormy teenage
frustrations would soon calm.
Sullivan' s production cut all of Mrs. Miller' s "queer" references.
Not only would they have evoked a very different meaning in 1998
than in 1933 or 1906, they also would not have characterized Sam
Trammell's Richard. In a much-praised performance, Trammell played
the character as a stoop-shouldered, extravagantly macho loner. Rather
than recite his repertoire from the ecstatic transport of McMullan's
poster, Trammell bit off Richard's poetry with fierce bitterness and
used his borrowed discourse as a weapon. His reading of the Pierpont
Morgan speech, for example, sounded formidable political disgust,
devoid of Richard 's lingering love of language. Trammell capitalized
on Richard' s comic potential not through histrionic excess, but through
the ludicrous manly bluff with which he tries to convince Wint and
Belle of his worldliness. This Richard often became quite aggressive,
particularly while spouting "Reading Gaol " with growling ferocity and
bellicose blows to the air that suggested jackie Gleason about to send
Audrey Meadows "ta da moon." Forever on the offensive, at no point
did Trammell project a solitary, self-conscious boy who knows, . as
Richard must, that others ridicule his behavior.
Having directed Trammell to project this machismo throughout,
Sullivan closed his production with a curious image. In O'Neill's text,
Richard proves his continent heterosexuality with Muriel before
receiving the parental blessings of normalcy ("You're all right, Richard .
. . . You' re a good boy, Richard") that inscribe him within the famil y
fold. Immedi ately following, however, Trammell returned outside to
Richard' s dangerous solitude. Once again removed from family, his
54
Ibid.
55
As seen by thi s author on February 22, 1998.
Eugene O'Neill 73
Richard stepped off the raised platform representing the Millers' living
area and sank onto the ground in a melting posture evocative of
McMullan's Richard. Coyly drawing his left knee to chest level and
thrusting his right leg straight out, foot tilted slightly askew, he leaned
back on his palms and tautly outstretched fingers to gaze raptly at the
stars. Wholly vanished was his pugnacious strut, replaced by the
distinctly languid thoughtfulness ascribed to "excessive" spectatorship
and study. In this image, on which the lights faded, Sullivan and
Trammell upset critical efforts to masculinize Richard for a general
audience. They managed to suggest instead the broader spectrum of
male representation that constitutes the theatrical originality of Ah,
Wilderness! and Strange Interlude.
Effeminacy is usually spectacular-or worthy of dramatic framing-
to the degree that it is both comical and non-threatening. The
effeminate aesthete who withdraws from society both to avoid scrutiny
and to observe others would seem the antithesis of spectacle: such a
figure appears anti-dramatic, in fact, for giving audiences very little to
watch. By foregrounding Charles Marsden and Richard Miller,
however, O'Neill challenges mainstream expectations of male
behavior, the dramatic inevitability of (hetero)sexual romance, and the
limits of theatricality itself. Would that stagings of maleness in the new
millennium display the courage and subtlety that Eugene O' Neill
managed seventy years ago.
journal of American Drama and Theatre 12 (Winter 2000)
Let's Get a Divorce:
American Drama's Divorce Crisis, 1870-1925
RONALD WAINSCOTT
"New York is bounded on the North, South, East and West by the
state of Divorce," Langdon Mitchell tells us in The New York Idea of
1906.
1
This well-known line represents much more than topical mirth,
however. Many Americans before the turn of the twentieth century
perceived that the institution of marriage was under siege in their time,
and a host of American playwrights capitalized on this fear for a
number of reasons including moralizing, bolstering the box office, or
disarming real concerns by making them seem ridiculous (much as our
current late-night shows do with topical issues).
In the late nineteenth century the United States was shifting from
an agrarian to an urban majority. The population shift was officially
complete by the time of the census of 1920, but the concomitant
tensions and problems had been playing out for decades (roughly
since 1870). What was viewed as a most alarming problem-often
associated with urbanization-was an ever-escalating divorce rate.
Public concern over divorce was reflected in the plays of the period.
Before 1871 the subject of divorce rarely appeared in American drama
in an age dominated by melodrama and Agrarian idealism. From 1871
until well into the 1920s, divorce figured in the plots of myriad United
States plays. Several French playwrights, including Victorien Sardou
and Emile Augier, also exploited the topic comically in the 1880s in
response to a new 1884 divorce law in France with plays like
Oivon;ons (or Let's Get a Divorce) and. The Surprise of Divorce.
2
The
United States differed from most other Western countries in its lack of
1
Langdon Mitchell, The New York Idea in Dramas from the American Theatre,
1762- 7909, Richard Moody, ed. (Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 1966), 775.
2
The Surprise of Divorce is a gloss on Marivaux' s Surprise of Love. The
popularity of French divorce plays is discussed in MaNin Carlson, The French Stage
in the Nineteenth Century (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1972), 191 . Carlson
relates the spate of divorce plays to the new Naquet divorce law in France (1884)
which sparked much public response.
Divorce Crisis, 1870-1925 75
uniform divorce legislation; several attempts at creating federal di vorce
law at the turn of the century failed. The most acti ve efforts for a
federal law occurred in 1905-06 led by Theodore Roosevelt and the
National Congress on Uniform Divorce Law. It is clear that many who
supported a federal law envisioned it as a way of making divorce more
difficult.
Although the rate of divorce in the United States would not appear
to many Americans as an "epidemic" until after the Civil War, as early
as 1816, Timothy Dwight, the president of Yale University, di scerned
an alarming increase in the divorce rate and predicted that eventuall y
"the whole community will be thrown ... into a general prostitution . .
. . one vast brothel. "
3
This reactionary position, whi ch viewed divorce
as an excuse for serial polygamy, was shared by much of the
conservative leadership, which from both pulpit and legi slative
podium sought to make divorce either illegal or as difficult as possible
to obtain.
4
No matter what measures were taken from state to state
either to liberalize or to restrict the divorce laws, the divorce rate
continued to climb without respite until the Great Depression. As it
happened that was only a temporary and small decline which was
followed by soaring rates throughout most of the century.
Although the number of divorces in the nineteenth century is very
small c o m p ~ d to the twentieth century, in the decade of the 1870s
the divorce rate increased by 80% compared to a 30% increase in the
population. The 1880s saw a 70% to 26% ratio of divorces to
population growth and the 1890s, 67% to 21 %. In the year 1910 the
United States finalized 83,045 divorces, almost four times the number
granted in all of Europe, which had a larger population (462-463).
Social scienti sts and hi storians have had a field day with
discerning causes for the divorce increase in Western society generall y
and the escalation in the United States parti cularl y since it has been
number one both in rate and total numbers of divorces since at least
the mid-nineteenth century. Scholars have disagreed regarding the
causes, offering scores of possible explanations including urbanization
and population growth, major wars, women' s movements, economic
shifts (especially per capita income), industrialization, social reform
movements, a morality revolution, the weakening power base of
3
Roderi ck Phillips, Putting Asunder: A History of Divorce in Western Societ y
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 441 . All subsequent references
cited parentheti cally in text.
4
Bishop Hare in South Dakota call ed divorce "consecutive polygamy" when
he spearheaded a successful campai gn to reform divorce laws there in the 1890s by
lengthening the residency requirements. See William L. O'Nei ll , Divorce in the
Progressive Era (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), 233-234.
76 Wainscott
organized religion, smaller families, and many others. Roderick
Phillips reminds us that when one tries to negotiate all the popular
explanations one is faced with a contradictory morass of material: " By
defining so many causes they have defined none (558)." This essay
will confine itself to a discussion of those explanations of the climbing
divorce rate that are manifest in American plays of the period, whether
the playwright is consciously espousing a theory or unconsciously
reflecting popular attitudes.
Between 1870 and World War I it is evident that nearly all
playwrights who ventured into divorce territory viewed divorce as a
social evil, or at least an alarming trend which should be curtailed. It
is rare in this era to find a playwright who might be of the opinion that
divorce, although an emotionally painful and at the time horribly
expensive process, nonetheless served a positive purpose in ending an
irreparably broken marriage. In fact, marriage breakdown in these
plays is often associated with trivial, petty events that can be mended;
the couple who had already divorced or seemed in danger of adding
to the divorce statistics is usually reunited once the repair work is
done. Of course serious problems between spouses also arise in these
plays and reveal popular perceptions (true or not) of the divorce
"problem." Even the earliest scholarly attempt to explore divorce in
American drama, a 1942 dissertation by Donald Koster, is reactionary
and makes assumptions similar to those of the majority of pre-war
playwrights.
5
Before World War I it was often very difficult to get a divorce
although many were attempting it, often by moving temporarily to
" divorce colonies" like North and South Dakota or Indiana, which
Horace Greeley called " the paradise of free lovers (457)." The trouble
and expense of divorce are captured by David Belasco in Madame
Butterfly (1900) and by Clyde Fitch in The Truth (1907): the American
divorce procedure is described as taking many years and a jury trial,
more like the complications we now associate with murder cases.
Because divorce was expensive and only the divorces of socially
prominent people were publicized, many playwrights assumed that
divorce was an option only for the idle rich and therefore set their
divorce action in the homes of the wealthy. Statistics of the late
nineteenth and early twentieth century, although incomplete, indicate,
however, that the economic classes represented among those granted
divorces roughly corresponded to the general population (608). The
reality was perhaps ignored, but more likely unknown by playwrights,
who no doubt were responding to popular notions regularly expressed
5
Donald Nelson Koster, "The Theme of Divorce in American Drama, 1871-
1939" (Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1942).
Divorce Crisis, 1870-1925 77
in journalism at the time. Further, it was probably much more fun to
create divorce-oriented comedies of manners and "genteel"
melodrama, and plays that depicted the upper classes were much
more likely to attract New York audiences.
Many plays deal with divorces in progress; if successful , divorces
are usually awarded to supporting rather than leading characters.
6
In
the many plays featuring already divorced characters it is common, but
not mandatory, for playwrights to manage a reconciliation or even
contrive a way to nullify a divorce that preceded the dramatic action.
Supporting characters who were already divorced before the opening
curtain tend to remain so, and several supporting characters have
multiple divorces, usually effected in the Dakotas. Reno, Nevada
doesn't take its place as divorce capital of the country unti I 1910 when
that city is criticized as a divorce center in Her Husband's Wife by A.
E. Thomas. Just after statehood North and South Dakota became
havens for migratory divorce due to liberal ninety-day residency
requirements. However, by 1899 both states had lengthened their
residency requirement, so the migratory capital moved further west
centering eventually in Reno.
7
Periodically, playwrights give much
attention to official grounds for divorce which vary wildly from state to
state. In pre-World War I plays, a man's infidelity is the only
acceptable excuse for a woman to divorce him outside of capital
crimes. After World War I a few playwrights took great pains to allow
for the possibility that a woman might appropriately divorce a man for
some reason other than infidelity.
Since most plays gaining any kind of national attention had to be
performed in New York, playwrights usually focused on the issues that
most affected New Yorkers. That the majority of playwrights both
before and after the war seemed to believe that adultery was the only
justification for divorce is probably a reflection of the fact that until
1967 New York had one of the most restrictive divorce policies in the
nation. New York al lowed divorce only on the grounds of adultery,
and the guilty spouse was forbidden to remarry. In cases of physical
abuse a legal separation was possible, but no divorce. Except for
South Carolina, which forbade divorce for any reason, most states had
much broader grounds for divorce than New York. Hence migratory
divorce was a popular topic both inside and outside the theatre. New
6
The pattern is similar to what I find in my examination of sexuall y profligate
female characters in American sex farces of the 191 Os and 1920s. They are never
leading characters and usually vanish in the last act when all mistakes are morally
rectified. Ronald H. Wainscott, The Emergence of the Modern American Theater,
1914- 1929 (New Haven: Yal e University Press, 1997), 59-60.
7
O' Neill, 231 -236.
78 Wainscott
York was indeed bounded on every side by states granting divorces on
more broadly-based grounds. The dizzying array of differing divorce
laws from state to state led many playwrights, like Mitchell in The New
York Idea, to capitalize on the confusion and to nullify former
migratory divorces of their protagonists in order to manipulate a
reconciliation at play's end. This device, which seemed believable at
the time due to interstate legal disparities, continued to appear in plays
regularly well into the 1920s. An especially complex version arises in
Avery Hopwood' s The Demi-Virgin in 1921.
New York divorce law also contributed to one of the most far-
reaching dramatic devices in American comedy and melodrama long
beyond World War 1: the co-respondent. Adultery divorce cases
required that a co-respondent be named in order to verify the " crime
of passion." In most cases this meant that the illegal sexual partner of
the adulterer was summoned to court. Playwrights enjoyed
exaggerating the omnipresence of process servers or reports of their
lurking presence. In Clare Kummer's Good Gracious Annabelle the
protagonist is on the run from a process server: " I' m just a homeless,
penniless co-respondent," she whines.
8
When such activity, however,
took a serious turn as it does in On Trial (1914) by Elmer Rice, the
smarmy activity which almost ends in divorce resembles late century
soap opera.
The absurdities of New York divorce law are not just lampooned,
but cleverly dissected in Jesse Lynch Williams' s Why Not? (1922).
When his characters wish to divorce amicably (a clear call for no-fault
divorce which was not common until c. 1970), they encounter
horrible !egal difficulties and ultimately must not only migrate, but
make up false claims in order to restore domestic tranquility. Thi s play
is probably the first to attempt to persuade its audience that it should
not be necessary to assume that cruelty or other felonious crimes were
necessary to dissolve a marriage.
In the melodramatic comedy The Unchastened Woman (1915) by
Louis Anspacher we see an unconscionable woman using a restrictive
law to her benefit: Caroline, who doesn't want to be divorced from her
husband, manipulates and tortures him mercilessly because he has
committed adultery, while she, although breaking all of her other
marriage vows, will not yield to affairs although she gives every public
indication of doing so. "Divorce is always ridiculous, " she tell s him.
"I made up my mind you'd never get free for anything I should do. "
9
8
Clare Kummer, " Good Gracious Annabelle" in The Best Plays of 1909- 1919,
Burns Mantle and Garrison P. Sherwood, eds. (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1933), 294.
9
Louis Kaufman Anspacher, "The Unchastened Woman" in Best Plays of
7909-7 919, 243.
Divorce Crisis, 1870-1925 79
In other plays, especially in the 1920s, we see unscrupulous
lawyers and detectives repeatedl y setting up phony adulterous liaisons
to trap an unwary spouse. On occasion the adulterous conspiracy is
plotted with the knowledge of both spouses who can find no other
way out of a lovel ess marriage. In The Moth and the Flame (1898) by
Clyde Fitch a divorcee well versed in New York law plans her next
marriage: "I want a man with a bad record! . . . Plenty of proof
concealed about his person, or not buried too deep in his past for me
and my lawyer to ferret out. "
10
Probably the earliest example of an unscrupulous divorce lawyer
in a play came with Augustin Daly' s 1871 melodrama entitled
Divorce. Set in New York, the play attempted to examine the divorce
issue through the troubled marriages of two wealthy young sisters. The
major plot line, vacillating between domesti c distress and sentiment-
ality, centers on one of the sisters, who separates and nearly divorces.
Much attention i s given to the struggle over her small child, yet all
ends happil y with reconciliation. Her childless sister, however, i s
central to a comic, frivolous subplot which actually results in a
divorce, brought about by a manipul ative and money-hungry divorce
lawyer, but is solved by the couple remarrying. Variations on these
patterns recur on the American stage for decades.
One of the most common explanations for the escalating divorce
rate between the Civil War and the Great Depression was that a moral
revolution was overturning the old order and di scarding much of the
good with the bad. Numerous were the laments questioning what was
happening to Ameri can values in countless sermons and newspaper
and magazine articles, laments that connected the ri sing di vorce rates
to the reform movements dotting the cultural landscape of the late
nineteenth century. In hi s book, Divorce in the Progressi ve Era,
William L. O' Neill suggests that thi s " new morality," which " had its
roots in the secular, skepti cal climate of opinion," was the number one
reason for the escalation of di vorce.
11
Arguably, thi s opini on was
shared by many near the turn of the century; as a result, the National
Di vorce Reform League founded in 1885 enjoyed much social and
politi cal clout.
In the first two acts of Fitch's The Moth and the Flame (1898) we
are presented with a stereotypical view of the loose woman, a figure
seen by many as emblemati c of the moral failure of soCiety. Thi s
1
Clyde Fitch, " The Moth and the Flame" in Representative Plays by
American Dramatists, 7856- 79 11 , Montrose j . Moses, ed. (New York: E. P. Dutton,
1921),550.
11
O'Neill, 91 .
80 Wainscott
supporting character, Mrs. Lorrimer, deliberately engages in serial
divorce apparently to relieve the boredom of her extravagant life of
socializing: "I find I have a perfect passion for divorce!" she muses.
"just like men have it for drink. The more I get the more I want! ...
I've only had two divorces, and I want another!"
12
This speech is
delivered while she is unmarried but seeking a new match. Much later
in the play Fitch reforms Mrs. Lorrimer and demonstrates that,
although uttered by a two-time divorcee, most of her words were
outrageous posturing: " Haven't you heard," she tell s a disbelieving
friend, " my house in Dakota's for sale. I don't belong to the Divorce
Club any more."
13
Although Fitch may have both shocked and
entertained his audience with the flippant discussion of divorce, the
play ends conservatively after first comically fanning the fires of moral
outrage. Similar humorous but reactionary stances are taken by
Langdon Mitchell in The New York Idea and Clare Kummer in Good
Gracious, Annabelle (1916), and more melodramatically by David
Belasco and Alice Bradley in The Governor's Lady (1912) and many
other plays predating World War I. As john Hartman reminds us in his
overview of American social comedy before 1939, "preservation of
marriage and the home is upheld."
14
There were significant
exceptions, however, beginning in 1917.
The moral revolution was embraced by jesse Lynch Williams in
Why Marry? (1917) and Why Not? (1922). While the latter is most
concerned with divorce laws, the former confronts the morality of
divorce. In a set of secondary characters we see the usual
reconciliation of separated spouses (she in Reno, he in New York), but
the central couple, both of whom are scientists, takes the moral issue
head on and plans to live together without marriage much to the
horror of the young woman's family. Helen, the wife, tells them that
" the object of marriage is not to bring together those who love each
other truly, but to keep together those who do not."
15
Helen
disdainfully watches as her sister-in-law is repeatedly oppressed by her
conventional husband. Late in the play Helen's uncle, who is on the
verge of divorce himself, claims, "We' re at the dawn of a new era ....
unless we change the rules and regulations of the game, marriage is

~ Fitch, 550.
13
Ibid., 570.
14
John Geoffrey Hartman, The Development of American Social Comedy from
1787 to 7 936 (New York: Octagon, 1939), 116.
15
Jesse Lynch Williams, "Why Marry?" in Best Plays of 1909-1919, 327.
Divorce Crisis, 1870-1925 81
doomed."'
6
Although the scientist couple is con1ically manipulated
into marrying anyway, it is evident that the playwright is asserting, not
that divorce is the problem, but that marriage as practiced is terribl y
flawed and in need of reform.
Although Williams was writing comedy, melodrama was a vehicle
for a similar response even earlier in Paid in Full (1908) by Eugene
Walter. Here an oppressed New York wife is exploited sexually by her
husband so that he may escape his criminal behavior. She manages to
clear hi s name without compromising herself but insists on being
divorced from him as the price he has to pay for his evil. " I gave you
your freedom," she declares, "you give me mine. "
17
Although New
York law would not have allowed a divorce on such grounds, the
husband must yield to her wishes and the assumption is that she will
seek a migratory divorce without opposition from her spouse. The
playwright is clearly appealing for expanding the legal justifications for
divorce in New York while pointing up the variety of abuses men often
perpetrated on their victimized wives.
Both Why Marry? and Paid in Full relate the moral revolution to
women's rights as well. Many scholars of divorce point to the
women's movement as a chief player in the rising divorce rate, even
suggesting that the key to the new morality was feminism.
18
Repeatedly, since Daly' s Divorce of 1871 , we see female characters
with heightened expectations for what marriage should be. Much to
the consternation of male characters, female characters frequently
insist on being an active part of all domestic decision-making while
gaining either partial or complete independence from the conventional
constraints of the marriage bond. This is apparent in plays by women
as well as men. Although Rachel Crothers was often more concerned
with the double standard than with the problems of divorce, she
frequently comments on marriage breakdown and possible
separations. She connects the conflicts between male and female
protagonists to raised consciousness in the women, in plays such as A
Man's World (191 0) and He and She (1920). Likewise Zoe Akins
explored marriage breakdown and serial divorce in such plays as
Declassee (1919), Daddy's Cone A-Hunting (1921 ), and The Texas
Nightingale (1922), and often focused on the woman' s struggle for
independence and self-respect. But most plays by Akins and Crothers
that focused on divorce were produced after World War I.
16
Ibid., 344.
17
Eugene Walter, " Paid in Full" in Masterpieces of Modern Drama, John
Alexander Pi erce, ed. (Gdrden City, NY: Doubleddy, 191 5), 23 7.
18
O' Neill, 127.
82 Wainscott
In any given year between 1870 and 1929 two-thirds or more of
all successful divorce petitioners were women. The lead women were
taking in dissolving marriages may have convinced Clyde Fitch in The
Climbers (1901) to embody his "voice of reason" in the character of a
mature unmarried woman who successfully convinces her niece to
remain in a horrible marriage which has already broken down.
Women who engaged in the struggle for equal rights and suffrage were
deeply divided over divorce issues (500-501 ). Numerous men in and
outside of the theatre connected women's rights and marriage
breakdown. For example, in divorces granted in the United States
during the 1870s more than 80% of the men who sued for divorce did
so on the grounds that their wives refused " to live up to the ideal of a
submissive subordinate (593)." This male point of view is presented
sympathetically in plays from the 1870s to the Great War.
In a reactionary 1919 play, The Famous Mrs. Fair by James Forbes,
divorce is attributed to women moving into the work place. It is clear,
however, that nineteenth-century male playwrights' sexist interpret-
ations of marriage breakdown and divorce were regularly countered by
more enlightened views. Susan Glaspell in The Verge (1921) explores
marnage breakdown through the emotional struggles of a
misunderstood, clinically depressed woman whose insensitive
husband tries to keep her in a subordinate position. By 1925 Gilbert
Emery could claim in Episode that divorce was a private issue, not a
social, religious or political problem. He found divorce an institution
often necessary for "the preservation of human dignity."
19
When the plays that dramatized divorce first began to appear
(1870-1890), the annual number of American divorces grew from
approximately 11,000 to 33,000. When the reactionary playwrights
were at their most prolific (1890-1917), the number of American
divorces grew annually from 33,000 to 115,000. While divorce plays
continued to appear during the 1930s, the edge was missing and the
divorce rate was in a temporary decline. Paradoxically, public
acceptance of divorce was growing. As the number of divorced
people increased, it is argued, they became less stigmatized. The rush
to respond on stage to the perceived pub I ic crisis was spent. Although
there were 1,200,000 American divorces in 1995, playwrights no
longer see the number of divorces as a pressing publi c issue deserving
of their scrutiny.
19
Koster, 83.
Journal of American Drama and Theatre 12 (Winter 2000)
What Does August Wilson Teach in The Piano Lesson?:
The Place of the Past and
Why Boy Willie Knows More than Berniece
SUSAN C. W. ABBOTSON
It is all too common a trait in America to dismiss the past, as
Henry Ford did with his "History is bunk," but August Wilson insi sts
that the past cannot be so readily ignored. An event such as slavery
will reverberate through all of our lives for all time, and it is dangerous
to deny this. Wilson sees the past as an important and active
component of people's everyday lives. Thus, he recreates the
emotional, psychological, and spiritual history of African Americans in
his history chronicles, to show how individuals have successfully
struggled to survive both internal and external pressures and have
managed to sustain a sense of self through it all. The Charles family in
The Piano Lesson not only illustrates the inventiveness and spirit of
African Americans like Boy Willie in the difficult 1930s, but also
enacts through Doaker, Wining Boy, and Berniece, the dangers of
separating oneself from one's past.
The past provides a sense of connection, both temporally and
personally. Also, it assists in self-defi nition and offers empowerment to
those who freely embrace it. In the play the past is symbolized by an
object, the piano, which acts as a focal point and fulcrum of conflict
between the characters who appear in the plays. While some neglect,
ignore, or attempt to hide from these symbols, serving to negate the
role of the past in their present lives others are fortunately on hand to
educate them in the need to recognize and understand how the past
should be approached.
The Piano Lesson centers on the Charles family and the wrangling
between siblings, Berniece and Boy Willie, over the family piano. After
her husband died, Berniece came North with their daughter, Maretha,
to live with her uncle, Doaker. As the play opens, Boy Willie comes
up from the South with hi s friend, Lymon, to sell a truck load of
watermelons and to take possession of the piano. Berniece will not
allow him to sell the piano, nor is she willing to donate it to her
84 ABBOTSON
boyf6end Avery's new church. Their other uncle, Wining Boy, comes
visiting, but, like his brother, is reluctant to take sides between his
niece and nephew. Meanwhile, the house appears to be haunted by
the ghost of Sutter, whose family had owned Berniece and Boy Willie's
ancestors in the days of slavery. In order to exorcise this troubling
ghost it becomes apparent that a decision must be made about the
p1ano.
All of the characters in The Piano Lesson have lessons to learn,
and the content of this lesson varies, depending on the character. The
catalyst for this learning is the central conflict between Boy Willie and
Berniece over a family heirloom, but it is important not to oversimplify
this conflict as some critics have done. For example, Thomas Arthur
insists: "Boy Willie and Berniece are arguing over whether to put their
enslaved family tree behind them or to honor their ancestors."
1
Arthur
sees Boy Wi llie as feeling bound by the past and wanting to get rid of
it, Berniece as preferring to keep the piano as a shrine to her ancestors,
and Wilson as asking the audience to take sides. This is a fairly
standard interpretation of the play, but it is an oversimplification which
can lead to some warped interpretations of Boy Willie and Berniece.
Why cannot Boy Willie's desire to sell the piano be seen as a way of
honoring his ancestors and building with their heritage? In this light,
he is not putting his family tree behind him, but increasing its
importance. For him, selling the piano is not a denial of the past, but a
validation. Berniece, on the other hand, is not honoring her ancestors
by her decision to enshrine the piano, as she refuses to pass on its full
legacy to her daughter or even to accept it into her own life.
In a way, it is Berniece who tries to put her enslaved family tree
behind her, by teaching Maretha values of the white community rather
than those values by which her African-American family have lived
and died. But Wilson does not want us to take sides; in fact, he feels it
is important that we do not. What we need to do is carefully balance
the pros and cons of each character's behavior, to ascertain what is the
best combination of responses to the dilemmas these people face. All
must come to terms with the piano, which symbolizes their past, in a
way that will allow them to progress to a brighter future.
Wilson describes Berniece as "a character who was trying to
acquire a sense of self-worth by denying her past. And I felt that she
couldn't do that. She had to confront the past, in the person of her
brother, who was going to sweep through the house like a tornado
1
Thomas H. Arthur, " Looking For My Relatives: The Political Implications of
'Family' in Select Work of Athol Fugard and August Wilson," South African
Theatre journal 6, 2 (September 1992): 6.
August Wilson 85
coming from the South, bringing the past with him."
2
For Wilson, the
past has a tremendous importance, as Michael Morales explains:
Wilson predicates the relationship of the past to the present
for black Americans on an active lineage kinship bond
between the living and their ancestors. In this sense, the
transmission of history becomes a binding ritual through
which his characters obtain an empowering self-knowledge, a
tangible sense of their own self-worth and identity, that gives
them the strength to manage the future on their own terms.
3
The piano and its carvings can be likened to both the brass
plaques of Africa's Benin, which depict figures and events of the
kingdom, and the "lukasa" (memory boards) of the Luba, which are
shell designs to aid the memory when recounting historical events and
family lineage.
4
Like the _lukasa, the piano both recalls the past and
allows a mystical connection to the ancestors; it acts as the kind of
shrine which is common to many African cultures. Morales considers
that the blood sacrifices made over the piano intensify its sacral
properties. Boy Willie and Berniece both need to renew this sacral
connection because, as Morales points out, "in the parallel context of
most African ancestral worship; neglect of the ancestors and the
ancestral altars results in a loss of their protection and threatens the
destruction of the entire community."
5
If the shrine is neglected then
the spirits will leave it and the living will lose their support, protection,
and presence. Morales sees the threatening presence of Sutter and his
ability to actually play the piano as an indication of the family's loss of
ritual connection to the piano, and therefore, a reduction of its power.
The opening description of the Charles house tells us that
something is wrong due to the "lack of warmth and vigor"
6
in the
2
Quoted in Mervyn Rothstein, "Round Five for a Theatrical Heavyweight, "
New York Times, 1 5 April 1990, sec. 2, p. 8.
3
Michael Morales, "Ghosts on the Piano: August Wilson and the
Representation of Black Hi story," in May All Your Fences Have Cates, Alan Nadel,
ed. (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1994), 106.
4
Ibid., 1 06-07.
5
Ibid. , 109.
6
August Wilson, The Piano Lesson (New York: Plume, 1990), xvii. All
subsequent references cited parenthetically in text.
86 ABBOTSON
place. The people who irihabit this house are not living full y and are
in a kind of deathly stasis. Their lack of furnishings attests not only to
their literal poverty, but also to a certain poverty of spirit. The piano
dominates the scene, waiting for people to take heed of its lesson
which is carved onto its surface and exuded through its physical and
metaphorical presence. The piano offers the only vitality in the room,
and it is clearly through the piano that this household may regain its
warmth and vigor. Though the play begins with the potential of dawn
time, there is still "something in the air that belongs to the night" (1),
as the house remains entrenched in the life-denying pall cast over it by
its current occupants. Yet their stasis is soon to be threatened, and we
are told that "something akin to a storm" (1) is about to arrive to shake
things up. That "storm" is embodied by Boy Willie, who arrives in a
whirl of noise and activity.
Boy Willie has come to wake the house up, literally and
metaphorically. His hollering and bombast will wake them and force
them to re-engage with the world and the past from which they have
set themselves apart. Doaker, who "for all intents and purposes retired
from the world" (1 ), must rise and let the vital force of his nephew in
the door. Though in his thirties, Boy Willie retains all the vitality and
enthusiasm his youthful name implies. " Brash and impulsive, talkative
and somewhat crude" (1-2), everything about Boy Willie suggests a
tremendous and unrefined energy which, it is to be hoped, will turn
out to be catching for his somnambulant family. While Doaker and
Berniece have withdrawn from the world, Boy Willie and his friend,
Lymon, are out in that world, striving to better themselves.
Assisting each other, without petty competition or rivalry, Boy
Willie and Lymon are prepared to share the work, the failure, and the
success of their operation. Together, they represent a healthy,
embryonic community. They have brought a truck-load of water-
melons (symbolic of life, both as food and by their association with
water) from the South, thus, they bri ng with them both a reminder of
their Southern roots and something tangible from there with which to
turn an enterprising profit. While Boy Willie' s ultimate goal is land,
Lymon's is a woman. Both goals suggest a positive future of
connection and possible growth. These men have goals and a sense of
direction, which have a definite value in a world where so many seem
to live lives without either. Their way North has been a constant
struggle as they kept breaking down, but they have not given in. Both
men represent a celebratory force of life which is in marked contrast to
the house at which they arrive.
Berniece will try to scare Boy Willie into leavi ng, but she will have
no more success than Sutter' s ghost, for Boy Willie is unshakable in his
course. Later in the play, Boy Willie explains that his refusal to be
August Wilson 87
~ e d by death is a main source of his power. Lacking any fear of death
increases his power over whites as there is nothing they can do to him
that will hurt him. Frustrated by the lack of opportunity he has been
given, Boy Willie is determined to own his own land to ensure that he
has work for the future that will benefit him and not whites. He will
not settle for the exploitative sharecropping into which his father had
been forced. The play's epigraph makes clear Boy Willie's dream and
plan for the future: "Gin my cotton/ Sell my seed/ Buy my baby/
Everything she need" (ix). The lyric underlines the importance of
owning your own land. Owning land is a positive route by which
African Americans can become economically viable. If Boy Willie
buys Sutter's land, he will have a sense of ownership and a firmer
economic and social footing; it is an act Wilson believes more African
Americans should emulate.
7
Lymon has come North thinking that he will be freer away from
the Stovalls and sheriffs of the South. However, freedom has little to
do with location; it is mostly a state of mind. Boy Willie will be free
wherever he chooses to live because he insists on making choices for
himself. Lymon could be in danger of becoming a wanderer like
Wining Boy, a destiny suggested by his buying and wearing Wining
Boy's clothes and the suggestion that Wining Boy could even be his
biological father (having once slept with his mother). But Lymon is not
7
Corlis Hayes questions the viability of Boy Willie's dream, suggesting that he
was only being allowed to buy this land because cotton prices were low and no
whites wanted to farm it. She insists that if he made a profit, the whites would
probably run him off the land at some future date. See Corlis Hayes, "A Critical
and Histori cal Analysis of Five Major Plays by August Wilson," (Ph.D. diss.,
Southern Illinois University, 1993), 259-60. Wilson depi cts this happening to
Memphis' father in Two Trains Running, but we should not use the outcome of
one play to predict the future of a character in another. The members of the
Charles family seem to be of a more sturdy stock than that of Memphis, who until
the close of hi s play i s haunted by the fact that he has, in the past, run away. Boy
Willie is a stronger character, ready to fight anyone and everyone who gets in his
way. Also, I am not so sure that Wilson wants us to consider thi s far ahead, but
wants us to consider Boy Willie's dream as a symbol only for the present and his
immediate direction for the future. Wilson insi sts that Boy Willie's plan is a solid
and sensible one: " Land is the basis of independence," he explains, and it is
imperati ve that all African Americans strive for economi c independence and parity.
See Richard Pettengill, " The Historical Perspective: An Interview with August
Wilson," in August Wilson: A Casebook, Marilyn Elkins, ed. (New York: Garland,
1994), 225.
88 ABBOTSON
as rootless as he at first seems.
8
. In his late night discussion with
Berniece we learn that he has a firm goal; he wants to settle down and
needs the right woman with whom to settle. Strongly attracted to
Grace, he wins her from Boy Willie, and by the close of the play he
extricates himself from the Charles' family business to go off with
Grace and pursue his own dreams.
Berniece has withdrawn to the world of the dead and has
remained in isolated mourning for her husband for three years. Having
centered her attention on the dead, she has no remaining faith for the
living. The repetition of names in the Charles family indicates a strong
connection to past generations, but it is a connection that Berniece is
trying to deny-her move North may even have been part of this effort.
She does not want her peaceful, quiet, but essentially empty life
messed up by her brother with all of his noise and energy. She
patently resists the life Boy Willie attempts to bring into her household,
making him unwelcome and trying to devalue and denigrate
everything he is doing. She accuses him of crimes, from stealing their
truck to killing Sutter, and is determined that his presence can only
bring trouble. She sees Boy Willie's independence as troublesome:
"He don't want to do nothing unless he do it his way" (77). Such
independent behavior in an African American is sure to create trouble
in the white community, and Berniece prefers to take the easy road of
capitulation.
Berniece shuts out life: "I just stay home most of the time. Take
care of Maretha" (79) . She will not allow life-giving sex in the house,
either for others (Boy Willie and Grace) or for herself (with Avery) . As
Avery warns her,
You too young a woman to close up. . . . Who you got to love
you? Can't nobody get close enough to you . . . . You gonna look
up one day and it's all gonna be past you. Life's gonna be gone
out your hands-there won't be enough to make nothing with.
(66-68)
8
Sandra Shannon is particularly harsh on Lymon, insisting that hi s character
reinforces prevailing stereotypes of African American men from the South, " forever
in trouble with the law, averse to hard work, fond of flashy dothes, devoid of
personal ambition, driven by sexual lust, and essentially limited in vision to the
here and now." See Sar1dra Shannon, The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson
(Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1995), 153. This assessment seems a
superficial and unfair response to a character who reveal s his true depth to
Berniece. Lymon does not mind work when it is for his own benefit, and he is
driven by more than "sexual lust."
August Wilson 89
Yet, there is still a flicker of life burning inside her waiting to be
reawakened, and we see signs of Berniece's gradual re-emergence into
life, despite her attempts to restrict herself. She allows Lyman to kiss
her and even kisses him back. Boy Willie goads her into throwing
down her passivity and taking up a gun to prevent him from taking the
piano. Having regained sufficient spirit to stand up to the powerful
force of her brother, it will only be a short step to her building up the
courage to face not only whites, but her own heritage. But this does
not occur until the close of the play.
In order to free herself of any responsibility or involvement,
Berniece blames others: she blames Boy Willie for her husband's
death; she blames the piano for her father's death; she blames every
male relation for all of the violence inflicted on them. Her husband,
Crawley, was shot while trying to provide for his family (he was
claiming some waste wood to try and make a profit). Boy Willie and
Lyman were with him, but it was not their fault Crawley died. He was
shot because he.tried to fight back against overwhelming odds to keep
the wood. Her father, Boy Charles, was burned to death in a boxcar as
a punishment for having stolen the piano from under Sutter's nose.
Crawley, Boy Willie, and Lyman were stealing from the whites as a
matter of pride just as Boy Charles, Doaker, and Wining Boy had taken
the piano, because they felt they deserved it. In each case the most
determined one of them died, as if to denote a price of blood that had
to be paid in exchange for any gain. Berni ece centers on the loss and
not the gain, and cannot get beyond her need to blame. If she could
accept what occurred without blame, she would be able to see more
clearly what was gained by these confrontations. These men died
upholding their rights and dignities. They are martyrs to the need for
African American pride, and Berniece should acknowledge this and
shout their names aloud in celebration, rather than subdue their
memory in shame. Boy Willie will allow hi s sister to hit him in her
frustration, but he refuses to accept any blame for her husband's death:
" I ain't had nothing to do with Crawley getting killed" (54).
Berniece's one comfort in life appears to be her religious faith, but
that seems as uncertain as her commitment to Avery. Although-
Avery's religious intentions seem, like the man, honest enough, Wilson
is perennially wary of Christian preachers. Just as Wining Boy's tale of
the man from Spear tells of a preacher who couldn' t follow through,
Wilson's tendency is to portray all such figures as potentially
hypocritical and insincere. They are not figures on whom African
Americans should pin too much hope as they deal with a realm
beyond, rather than the here and now. Wilson undercuts the ethereal
nature of Avery's religious ambi tions with Berniece's more practical
90
ABBOTSON
declaration that she is going for a bath. Avery tries to inspire Berniece
to take up her life once more and face the piano, through religion, but
that is not a sufficient impetus. Nor will his religion be sufficient when
it comes to combati ng Sutter's ghost. Religion can offer some comfort,
but there are higher powers in these people's lives. Berniece will
finally face the piano out of family feeling, not religious compulsion,
and she does so to aid her brother. Thi s is clear in her choice of song:
an evocation of family rather than a hymn.
As Boy Willie recognizes, Berniece has no faith in herself and who
she is, and this is far more dangerous than having an uncertain
religious commitment. Berniece is fearful of her heritage and of her
own color, and she is transmitting this self-effacing fear to her own
daughter, Maretha. She warns her: "You mind them people down
there. Don't be going down there showing your color" (27) . Amadov
Bissiri suggests that Berniece teaches Maretha what she feels is the
"truth/' but it is a cultural attitude heavily saturated with white belief,
which cuts her daughter off from her African heritage.
9
Berniece
encourages Maretha to conform to white expectations, teaching her to
be quiet and unassuming, greasing down her hair to make her look
more like a white girl. She continually subdues Maretha's spirit,
thinking that this will make it easier for her to live in the white world.
She conveys no inkling to the girl of her true African American
heritage, refusing to pass on the family history and any trait she
associates with African American life.
Boy Willie strongly objects to the way Berniece treats his niece.
He sees Berniece's complaints and her restriction of Maretha as
stripping her of a valid identity: "Telling her you wished she was a
boy. How's that gonna make her feel " (90). He suggests that instead
of hiding the piano's origins and their family history from Maretha,
they should throw a party to openly mark the anniversary of the day
Boy Charles took the piano:
Have a celebration. If you did that she wouldn' t have no problem
in life. She could walk around here with her head held high ...
That way she know where she at in the world. You got her going
out here thinking she wrong in the world. Like there ain't no part
of it belong to her. (91)
He believes that Maretha needs to be gi ven a sense of her family in
9
Amadov Bissiri, "Aspects of Africanness in August Wilson's Drama: Reading
Piano Lesson Through Wale Soyinka's Drama, " African American Review 30, 1
(1996): 110.
August Wil son 91
order to have pride in herself and to become a vi abl e and valuable
member of the Afri can American community. Berniece has not
allowed thi s to happen as she wants no part of that community. Instead
Berniece criticizes and belittles her daughter, preparing her for a
lifetime of subservience to whites. But it i s Boy Willie's influence that
eventually engages Maretha. Bi ssiri points out how, "Maretha,
embracing Boy Willie in the final scene, i s eager to identify with the
things about life in the South-hence Africanness-which all through
the action he has tried to get her to learn."
10
Boy Willie' s optimi sm is far more attractive than the fatal ism
Berniece tries to pass on to her daughter. Boy Willie believes in the
possibilities of dreams, and he tries to pass this belief on to his sister:
"Berniece say the colored folks is living at the bottom of life. I tried to
tell her if she think that .. . that's where she gonna be" (93). He
refuses to be so cowed in spirit and warns her against such a negative
outlook: " I wasn't born to that. I was born to a time of fire ... Hell ,
the world a better place cause of me ... I got to mark my passing on
the road ... Like my daddy done" (93-94). He offers Berniece a much
needed lesson in self-respect, evoking the family spirit from which she
is hiding: " Crawley didn' t think like that. He wasn't living at the
bottom of life. Papa Boy Charles and Mama Ola wasn' t li ving at the
bottom of life" (92).
Both Doaker and Wining Boy provide contrasts which emphasize
their nephew's vitality. Next to B_oy Willie, they seem l ifeless,
directionless, and tame. Both Corli s Hayes and Kim Pereira view
Doaker as a man "at peace with himself."
11
I would suggest that they
confuse peace with passivity. Doaker' s contentment is little more than
complacency. Doaker has largely switched off from life. After his
wife, Careen, left him, he refused to have anything more to do wi th
women. While the idea of Sutter's ghost has Boy Wi ll i e bridling with
rage, Doaker has seen the ghost and done nothing about it. Doaker
prefers to distance himself from extremes, settling for an unfair status
quo, sti cking to the middl e road which he sees as being safer. Doaker's
way leads to a paralysis that Boy Willie refuses to accept.
Doaker has worked for the railroad for twenty-seven years yet has
no real prospects or security. Though comfortable at home (we see
him cooking and ironing with ease and familiarity), Doaker has
traveling in hi s blood and is unable to let go of hi s railroad life. It is
10
Ibid.
11
Hayes, 253-54, and Kim Pereira, August Wilson and the African-American
Odyssey (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995), 96.
92 ABBOTSON
deeply ironic that he works for the railroad, spending his life
constantly moving, and yet has made no progress. Doaker knows the
railroad's power and that he has given his life to a white institution.
Though the rail system has been built with the labor of African
Americans, they will not be the ones to benefit from its construction.
People ride the trains thinking they will take them places they want to
go, but the train will only take them where the whites have decided
they may go. As Doaker tells us: "If the train stays on the track ... it's
going to get where its going. It might not be where you going" (19).
Railroads are dangerous as they offer the illusion of movement, but
little satisfaction. It is imperative that those who board a train have a
strong idea of where it is they really want to go, or they will aimlessly
wander for the rest of their lives, I ike Wining Boy.
just like Doaker, Wining Boy's life has been in decline for the last
few years. His name is highly ironic since he has clearly been on a
losing streak for some time and is fast getting left behind in life. The
stage directions tell us that " he tries to present the image of a
successful musician and gambler, but his music, hi s clothes, and even
his manner of presentation are old" (28). A little like Doaker and
Berniece, Wining Boy has trapped himself in his past rather than face
the future. Largely uninvolved, both Wining Boy and Doaker set them
selves apart from the others, standing on the si de-lines of life to
observe and comment, but refusing to get personally involved. Even
though they both have perspectives on what they feel should be done
with that piano, they only share those opinions with each other where
they can do little good.
12
Wining Boy gave up hi s music because he grew t i red of satisfying
the people who asked him to play. He was a blues piani st, but he has
sacrificed thi s identity out of selfishness. His spirit, given life through
the blues he used to play, has been silenced. He allowed his piano
and music to become a burden to him (much as Berniece does) and in
ridding himself of this burden has given away a vital part of himself.
He could not accept the responsibilities attached to his music, so he
refused them in an effort to regain his freedom: " Got to carrying that
piano around and man did I get slow. Got to be like molasses. The
world just slipping by me" (41 ). He sings his only remaining song, the
tale of a "traveling man/' who lives a life of aimless wandering and
hardship.
At times we see a glimmer of Wining Boy's old vitality, but he is
12
Wil son makes it difficult to choose between Boy Willie and Berniece by
having Doaker support Boy Willie' s plan to get rid of the piano and Wining Boy
support Berniece's wi sh to keep it.
August Wilson 93
largely held back by his lack of direction in life. Always a little
insecure he has survived on the support of others, but has selfishly
given little in return. Even his family is getting tired of the way he
turns up only when he needs something. It sustained him to know that
even though his wife asked him to leave, she still loved him and told
him that she would always be there for him, but she is now dead. One
time he sought help from the ghosts of the Yellow Dog, and the
confidence they gave him helped him to a winning streak in his
gambling, but he has moved North, away from their sphere of
influence. He has never really developed a strong confidence in his
own abi lities.
Neither Doaker's nor Wining Boy's marriages produced any
offspring, which can be seen as a sign of the emptiness of their chosen
lives. It was their more vital brother, Boy Charles, who was rewarded
by having children to whom he could pass along his heritage. While
Wining Boy's wife asked him to leave and then later died, Doaker' s
simply left him. Both wives were noticeably dissatisfied by husbands
who were constantly restless,' but who seemed to have no sense of
direction. Boy Charles' wife, Ola, in contrast, paid faithful tribute to
her dead husband's memory for seventeen years by polishing the
piano for which he gave his life.
Doaker knows many stories and could be performing a useful role
as a family/community storyteller, but he has forgotten how to tell
them-just as his brother has ceased to spread the joy of his music.
Both undergo a profound revitalization, partly influenced by Boy
Willie's enthusiasm, as thei r nephew helps to goad them into action.
Boy Willie is able to influence them, partly because of the bond he has
with them, a bond which goes even beyond kinship. This is illustrated
when they join together to sing a work-song they all learned whi le
serving time down on Parchman's workfarm. Bissiri suggests that such
songs enable the men to take "emotional journeys back to the South,
where their African identities lie. The performance of songs often
offers the singer and the listener an occasion to express common
emotions: a sense of community."
13
It is clear that these three men
understand jail, though some are more willing to break free of it than
others. There is no use just hiding from Parchman's Farm by residing
in the North, as Lymon, Wining Boy and even Doaker are doing; Boy
Willie intends to face it out down South and advises the rest to do the
same if they want to truly conquer its influence on their lives.
Doaker starts to get involved by revitalizing the past and telling the
family story. He gradually gets more involved, taking issue against his
13
Bissiri, 109.
94
ABBOTSON
nephew rather" than calmly staying out of the argument. We witness
the increase of his stature when he finally asserts his authority against
Boy Willie:
DOAKER: (Quietly with authority.) Leave that piano set over there
till Berniece come back. I don't care what you do with it. But
you gonna leave it sit over there right now.
BOY WILLIE: Alright (84-85).
The first sign of change in Wining Boy is his decision to return to
the South with Boy Willie. He only needs to raise the train fare, and
Doaker provides the necessary cash. Wining Boy then gets more
money by selling his old clothes to Lymon, which can be viewed as an
illustration of his willingness to shed his old way of life and start anew.
Wining Boy's increase of stature comes when we witness his renewed
ability to face the past, as he sings a newly composed song he has
written about his recently departed wife, Cloetha. He plays, for the
first time, without being asked, and willingly shares his talent. This
song about a dead woman, ironically, displays the revita1 ization of his
life, as well as allowing Cloetha to live on through the song which he
has written about her. The song, like the carvings on the piano, adds
to the family history, and it is, therefore, most fitting that we first hear it
played on that same piano. At this point we also find that Wining Boy
has the strength, like Doaker, to stand up to his nephew and tell him
not to take the piano.
Berniece instinctively holds onto the piano even though she has
lost sight of its meaning. She brought it with her from the South when
she and Doaker moved North. It offers her a connection to her family,
the South and her past, though she has forgotten how to forge that
connection.
14
Berniece's mother, Ola, had known how to connect.
She had Berniece play the piano and through its tones could hear her
late husband. Since her mother died, being scared by the piano's
spirits rather than comforted, she has silenced them by refusing to play
the piano: "I don't play that piano cause I don't want to wake them
spirits. They never be walking around in this house" (70). These are
her family spirits she is rejecting. Maretha's occasional playing is
unable to release the spirits because she has been kept ignorant of
14
Boy Willie does not need the piano to connect him as he is quite literally a
re-embodiment of his father, as Berniece herself recognizes: "He just like my
daddy. He get his mind fixed on something and can't nobody turn him from it"
(69). Atso, Boy Willie has neither left the South nor tried to hide from the past.
August Wi I son 95
their presence and relevance to her life. Berniece feels that she is
keeping Maretha free of a burden by not telling her about the piano,
but it is a necessary burden. The piano's history is a responsibility
which should be borne, or the family will lose an important part of its
identity and strength.
Boy Willie can see the piano both as cash and as a family icon,
even if his vision of it is a little too narrow: " Papa Boy Charles brought
that piano into the house. Now, I'm supposed to build on what they
left me. You can't do nothing with that piano sitting up here in the
house" (51). He recognizes the piano's importance in the family's
history, but initially misunderstands how this is to be built upon. "If
my daddy had seen where he could have traded the piano in for some
land of his own, it wouldn't be standing there now," Boy Willie
explains (46). Wilson insi sts that it is " important" that Boy Willie is
attempting to build "on what his father left him. Which is what
Americans do, except for blacks who very seldom have anything to
pass along to their kids."
15
Boy Willie is right to insist that the piano is
an active component of their family life and should be included in
strengthening the family's future; Berniece, in contrast, is trying to shut
it out of her life entirely. Boy WiiJie knows the importance of
symbols-it is why he is so keen to buy up Sutter's land, the land on
which his ancestors had worked as slaves. As Richard Hornby points
out:
The land for [Boy Willie] functions as the carvings on the
piano did for his great-grandfather. Taking something that
belonged to the master and making it into his own is a means
to power, a way to go on record and be somebody, an
ultimate triumph over white oppression.
16
Boy Willie has already saved some money toward the purchase of
the land. He intends to add the watermelon profits to thi s and then
make up the difference by selling the piano. Since he is enterpri sing,
we can assume that if he does not sell the piano, he will find another
way to make up the sum he needs. Wilson relates how he added
elements to later drafts of the play to ensure that we recognize Boy
Willie as a responsible character and that the audience will have no
15
Quoted in Mel Gussow, " Fine-Tuning The Piano Lesson," New York Times
Magazine, 10 September 1989, sec. 6, p. 60.
~ Richard Hornby, " The Blind Leading the Blind/' Hudson Review 43 (1990-
91): 472.
96 ABBOTSON
doubt that Boy Willie will buy the land as he says he will.
17
Boy
Willie is being offered the land only because the seller thinks he can
get a higher price than he can get from any white interests, but
ownership of that land is more important to Boy Willie than it is to the
whites, and he is prepared to pay the higher price. In a way, this is
I ittle different from his father's attitude toward the piano; only the price
he paid was his own life. Boy Willie is not scared of competition or
hard work, and he is prepared to toil for what he wants. What makes
Boy Willie so special is his clear vision of what it is he wants: "Why I
got to come up here and learn to do something I don't know how to
do when I already know how to farm? . .. I'm going back and live my
life the way I want to live it" (46). This clarity is mostly a result of Boy
Willie having such a strong sense of himself.
Boy Willie knows who he is, where he comes from, and where he
intends to go. He knows that the color of a person's skin need not
dictate his potential for good or bad, unless one accepts a limiting,
racist view of I ife which he firmly rejects. Rather than view his color
as limiting, he sees it as liberating. He uses his family history as a
source of strength and pride, unlike Berniece who can see that same
past only as a source of shame and anguish. Boy Willie refuses to
allow himself to be dominated by whites: "They treat you like you let
them treat you. They mistreat me I mistreat them right back. Ain't no
difference in me and the white man" (38). When white laws work
against African Americans, Boy Willie will ignore them and pursue a
life dictated by moral laws which will protect and support everyone,
regardless of color: "I don't go by what the law say. The law's liable
to say anything. I go by if it's right or not" (38).
Boy Willie demonstrates his dominance over whites as he sells
them his watermelons. By mocking what he sees as their foolish
behavior, he inflates his own superiority: "One lady asked me say, 'Is
they sweet?' I told her say, 'Lady, where we grow these watermelons
we put sugar in the ground.' You know she believed me ... Them
white folks is something else" (59). He exploits them by increasing the
price when he sees how eager they are to buy. He has no
compunction over selling them more than they need, pandering to
their greed while making an even bigger profit for himself. He is in
firm control and knows it.
Boy Willie is right to criticize Berniece's attitude toward the piano:
"She ain' t doing nothing but letting it sit up there and rot. That piano
ain't doing nobody no good" (42). Boy Willie's main, and genuine,
complaint is that it is not being used:
17
Gussow, 19.
August Wilson 97
Alright now, if you say to me, Boy Willie, I'm using that piano. I
give out lessons on it and that help me pay the rent or whatever.
Then that be something else. I'd have to go on and say, well ,
Berniece using that piano. She building on it. Let her go on and
use it. I got to find another way to get Sutter's land. But Doaker
say you ain't touched that piano the whole time it been up here.
(51)
But the piano is not there to be used by Boy Willie, and this is the
lesson he must learn. When he and Lymon try to move it, the thing
will not budge, which should be unsurprising considering that it is so
laden with family history; this piano does not intend to leave the
family any time soon.
Berniece will not sell the piano, which may be the right impulse,
but she decides for all the wrong reasons. She acknowledges her
mother's homage to the piano but misses its relevance: "Seventeen
years' worth of cold nights and an empty bed. For what? For a piano?
For a piece of wood? To get even with someone?" (52). As Arthur
points out, the piano can be both, "a reminder of the painful past and
a testimony to the continuing uniqueness and strength of the African-
American family," while Mimi Kramer points out how for Berniece the
piano only represents "a heritage of grief, bitterness, and women
without men."
18
Berniece creates a vision of the piano which
concentrates only on its bad connections rather than on the good;
thus, she enslaves herself to an unpleasant past which remains static
and unsati sfying. By failing to acknowledge its more positive aspects,
Berniece allows the piano to trap her in an unfruitful and highly
negative past of violence and death. Boy Willie does not make the
same mistake. As Corlis Hayes points out: "He knows that the act that
brought the piano into their family house was an act of courage that
changed forever the way in which the family could look at itself . . It
changed their identity from slaves and sharecroppers to free men and
women, ready to die for their connections."
19
Though she lets her daughter play the piano, Berniece does not
teach Maretha the right music or tell her the instrument's history.
Maretha's playing is restricted to what is on the sheet music she is
given, and it has no spirit. It will be Boy Willie who tries to rectify
18
Arthur, 7, and Mimi Kramer, "Travelling Men and Hesitating Women,"
New Yorker 66 (30 April 1990): 82.
19
Hayes, 250.
98
ABBOTSON
these omissions in Maretha's education. He plays a boogie woogie
tune for his niece, allowing the piano's truer voice to be heard, and he
later tells her something of her family's history. In this way he thwarts
his own designs on the piano, as he himself will finally realize. Once
the piano's power has been reawakened, it will have to remain a part
of his family and cannot be sold back to the whites from whom it was
triumphantly wrested.
The piano was first claimed by Boy Willie's great grandfather,
who, in defiance of its white owners, carved hi s entire family history
into the wood. That claim was reaffirmed when Boy Willie's father
and uncles stole it from the Sutters. They did this, significantly, on
Independence Day, making the act a strong statement of the family's
complete independence from the Sutters. Boy Willie wishes to take
this claim one step further by now claiming the original family
property of Sutter by buying up his land. But the lesson that Boy
Willie must learn is that it is neither wise nor necessary to sell off any
part of your heritage, for whatever reason. It is better to progress by
other means.
The piano is a symbol of the Charles' history of slavery and
freedom, and this is something they need to own. Owning the piano
strengthens the family; allowing someone else to own it will weaken
them all. Boy Charles knew this, which was the reason he stole the
piano in the first place: "Say it was the story of our whole family and
as long as Sutter had it ... he had us. Say we were still in slavery"
(45). For Boy Willie to sell the piano to the whites to gain his land acts
as a metaphor for assimilation and all of its dangers. In Wilson's view,
too many African Americans have sacrificed part, or all, of their rich
heritage in a misguided attempt to advance in society. Boy Willie has
the power to succeed without selling off a part of his birthright and
identity. An incredibly powerful figure, Boy Willie does not hesitate to
fight Sutter's ghost on any occasion: "If you see Sutter up there ... tell
him I'm down here waiting on him" (16). Boy Willie always runs
towards confrontation and never away from it. He will succeed on his
own terms, without any assimilation, without any capitulation to
whites, and without doing so at the expense of hi s family.
Berniece suggests that Sutter's ghost has come to haunt Boy Willie
for killing him, but it is far more likely that the ghost has come to try to
stop Boy Willie from buying his land. The ghost's appearances
consistently coincide with Boy Willie's concerted efforts to take the
piano to rai se enough money to buy that land. Thus, the presence of
Sutter's ghost indicates a white fear and objection to what Boy Willie is
attempting and seeks to prevent him from completing his task. It is a
challenge from which Boy Willie will not run. That what Wilson says
is most important is "Boy Willie's willingness to do battle. He's not
August Wi I son 99
running out the door, he's not relying on Jesus, he's not relying on
anything outside of himself. "
20
Sutter represents the role of whites in African American history,
and as Sandra Shannon suggests, the " looming threat of the white
power structure."
21
Sutter's great weight, 340 pounds, conveys the
corpulence and greed of a man who has fed off the labor of African
Americans for years. But Sutter has fallen, quite literally, as he.went
down to the bottom of that wel l; like "Humpty Dumpty" (5), Lymon
suggests, to illustrate the disdain the African Americans hold for a man
like Sutter. Sutter's time is passing. He himself is dead, and though his
ghostly presence seems to object, he cannot cover up the decline of
his family's control. Of his heirs, his brother lives up North and is
willing to sel l his Southern heritage to "the enemy," in the form of Boy
Willie. Of Sutter's two sons, one has moved North and the other is a
renowned idiot: "The dumbest white man I ever seen. He' d stand in
the river and watch it rise till it drown him" (29). This is a clear
indication of the decline of white power in the South. The rise of the
ghosts of Yellow Dog indicates the contrasting growth in power of
African Americans in the area. The demise of Sutter and other whites
who have been unjust to African Americans in the past points to an
African American ability to wreak vengeance and acts as a warning to
whites to behave better in the future. All this should make the way
easier for African Americans to take control of their lives in the South,
if only they can build the motivation to do so. Too many African
Americans are satisfied with leaving well alone and are too timid to
shake things up. This is not so in Boy Willie's case. His family's
history has been one of resistance to white control , and so it is
unsurprising that he too has chosen this path.
Avery and his religion are unable to exorcise Sutter's ghost. They
cannot even call him up. Bissiri suggests that the gradual shift away
from Avery's attempts to those of Boy Willie and Berniece acts as "a
clear assertion of the original African cultural spirit" which Berniece
retrieves " to the detriment of Christianity, the white American cultural
spirit."
22
Boy Willie mocks Avery's attempt to perform an exorcism by
tossing water around in a pan as he offers a more personal challenge to
Sutter-to this the ghost responds. Morales explains how Sutter is the
"disembodied embodiment of the slave holder' s historical
20
Gussow, 60.
2 1
Shannon, 195.
22
Bissiri , 107.
100
ABBOTSON
perspective" and his expulsion will act as "a metaphor of historical
self-definition for blacks in America."
23
In other words, it will mark a
change in African American sensibility. Instead of allowing themselves
to be defined by others, they insist on defining themselves. Boy
Willie's wrestling with the ghost emulates jacob wrestling with the
angel. jacob successfully wrestles the angel to win an identity-the
name of Israel. Boy Willie's success confirms his sense of himself as
able to pursue a life not dominated by whites. It is a life and death
struggle between them, and Boy Willie refuses to give in, even when
he appears to be losing the fight.
Despite Boy Willie's strength and willingness to fight, this is not a
battle he can win alone. He needs the help of his sister and the
support of his family. A lesson the piano teaches this family is that
they must be united before they can turn their former bondage into a
full sense of freedom. The piano leads Boy Willie and Berniece to
team together against their real enemy, Sutter, rather than fight each
other. Berniece responds instinctively to her brother's danger by
playing the piano: "It is an old urge to song that is both a
commandment and a plea . . . an exorcism and a dressing for battle"
(1 06). She pieces together a song which draws on her past and her
heritage in order to combat the ghost. Berniece sings, not a religious
hymn, but a call to her ancestors/
4
who by the sound effect of a train
arriving appear to have come from their Southern home in great
numbers.
25
She releases the piano's spirits by acknowledging their
presence, by owning them. They rally to strengthen both her and her
brother. Embracing her ancestors gives her the power to defeat the
ghost.
The ghost is banished and a calmness is brought to the house.
Since Berniece has rediscovered how to use the piano, Boy Willie is
content to leave it with her as he heads back South. Having come
North, Berniece had weakened her family connection and needs the
piano to keep it alive. Boy Willie will return South making his
23
Morales, 111.
24
Morales explains that in an earlier draft of the play Wilson had Berniece's
song call on the Lord for help, but later realized the greater significance of
allowing her, instead, to call on her ancestors, and so changed it (11 0).
25
Wilson tells Richard Pettengill that his ideal ending for the play would have
the portraits of the ghosts of Yellow Dog at the top of the stairs being increased to
around two thousand faces, "so that it becomes every man/' and when Berniece
shouts out the names of her ancestors, the whole audience would join in and form
a complete community (224).
August Wilson 101
connection through the land itself; he has no need of the piano and so
accepts Berniece's claim. Wilson says that unlike Berniece, Boy Willie
"does not need the piano to remind him of whom he is since he
carries that in his heart."
26
He does not leave, however, without
warning his sister and niece that they must continue to use the piano if
they wish to hold onto it. The play doses on a triumphant note with
Berniece singing "Thank you" in celebration of her reconnection to
her past, to her family, and through these, to a stronger and more
fulfilling life in the present. To play the piano is to claim and possess it
and everything for which it stands: the blood and suffering of the
Charles family as well as their strength and spirit Berniece finally
accepts it all, for she has learned the lesson of the piano, a lesson,
ultimately, in responsibility. She ends by thanking her ancestors and
her brother for having pushed her back into life.
Wilson likes to suggests that there is good in most things, just as
there is evil. Characters such as Berniece, Doaker, and Wining Boy
struggle to set the evil asideand embrace the good, reforming those
connections which will lead them back to life by accepting the
responsibilities inherent in embracing their pasts. The more vital
characters Boy Willie and Lymon assist them, infectious in their surety
of purpose. Their clear sense of goals and direction, though
occasionally flawed, inspires others to reconnect with their own
history and become revitalized, shrugging off the power others have
held over them. This allows them all to face their own lives with
independence to accept that their pasts hold both unpleasant and
positive aspects, and to concentrate on the latter. They are
encouraged to use their memories to sustain them rather than to trap
them or erode their sense of selfhood.
26
Quoted in John DiGaetani, "August Wilson," in A Search for a Postmodern
Theater: Interviews with Contemporary Playwrights (New York: Greenwood,
1991 ), 284.
CONTRIBUTORS
SUSAN C. W. ABBOTSON is an adjunct professor at Rhode Island
College where she is currently teaching Children's Literature. Her
book, The Student Companion to Arthur Miller, with Greenwood
Press will be coming out next Spring, and she has published
various articles and chapters in books on playwrights such as
Arthur Miller, August Wilson, Tom Stoppard and Sam Shepard.
jONATHAN CHAMBERS is Assistant Professor of Speech and Theatre
at St. Lawrence University where he teaches performance studies
and acting. Areas of interest include early leftist twentieth-century
American drama, the acting technique and theory of Michael
Chekhov, the historical avant-garde, and melodrama. His work has
been featured in Theatre History Studies, Theatre Symposium, and
Victorian Studies.
MICHAEL R. SCHIAVI is Assistant Professor of English and
Coordinator of ESL at the New York Institute of Technology's
Manhattan Campus. He recently published in The Tennessee
Williams Annual Review, and he has other work forthcoming in
Cassell's Companion to Twentieth-Century Theatre and the
anthology A Doorway, A Dawn, A Dusk: Queer Lives in the
Theatre.
LEWIS E. SHELTON is Associate Professor of Theatre at Kansas State
University, Manhattan, where he teaches directing, acting and
Greek and Roman Theatre as well as directs productions. He has
published essays on Ben Teal, Al an Schneider, David Belasco, and
Arthur Hopkins in ]ADT. He continues to research the history of
American directing.
RONALD WAINSCOTT is Director of Graduate Studies in the
Department of Theatre and Dance at Indiana University. He is the
author of the books The Emergence of the Modern American
Theatre, 1914-7929 and Staging O'Neill: The Experimental Years,
7920-7934. He is currently at work on a book provisionally
entitled American Theatre and the Urban Majority, 1885-1930.
102
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