Desmond MacCarthy on Eugene O’Neill: “Poetry did not blow about the words”

Mixed feelings on the great American playwright, who died this day in 1943.

On 27 November 1953, the American playwright and Nobel laureate Eugene O’Neill died in Room 401 of the Sheraton Hotel, Boston. “I knew it, I knew it,” were his final words. “Born in a hotel room and died in a hotel room.” Like so many lines associated with O’Neill, it was a simple statement of the facts. Sixty-five years earlier he had been born in the Barrett Hotel in New York, a site which today houses a Starbucks coffee franchise, Disney and NASDAQ offices, and a rectangular steel plaque which reads: “Eugene O’Neill, October 16, 1888 – November 27, 1953, America’s greatest playwright was born on this site, then called Barrett House”.

O’Neill’s anti-rhetorical style – a terse naturalistic idiom through which he voiced the addict’s despair, the violence of family life and the misery of unfulfilled potential – was picked apart by Desmond MacCarthy, writing in the New Statesman in 1943. “The fear and poetry on which tragedy flourishes pervaded the scenes, but poetry did not blow about the words,” MacCarthy wrote. The best playwrights are, of course, Irish or of Irish extraction, but where most conquered through their “command of language,” O’Neill “owes his place in the front rank of contemporary dramatists to his invention, vigour, psychological insight and his theatrical sense, not to his use of words.”

The piece, reprinted in full below, was in response to a performance of Days Without End at the Mercury Theatre, Notting Hill Gate. MacCarthy is not won over by the play, whose theme – that without belief, there can only be despair – drove him to think up counter-examples:

Not very many have enjoyed life more than David Hume, or been more constantly possessed by benevolent feelings; yet few men can have been more sceptical. On the other hand some great Christians, Pascal for example, have come perilously near being haters of life and enemies of the natural good.

He encourages readers to approach the play’s protagonist, “John Loving”, within his own context. For him, either Eternal Love underpins the workings of the universe, or it does not, and our complicity in the entropic depletion of meaning should not be tolerated any longer than necessary.

What is notable is that MacCarthy writes as though sampling from a writer’s oeuvre, mid-career. He has stated his appreciation for O’Neill’s genius, and proceeds to engage critically with its most recent incarnation, confident that he will continue to do so for years to come. What he could not know was at the time, ten years before O’Neill breathed his last, the writer in him was already dead. Owing to a debilitating tremor, compounded by alcoholism and depression, O’Neill wrote nothing for the final ten years of his life. He narrowly finished the three great autobiographical works for which he is most often remembered: The Iceman Cometh, Long Day’s Journey into Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten. It is in them that the weight of his deaf style would strike home most memorably, as Edmund – the unambiguously titled stand-in for a young Eugene, about to leave the family home with tuberculosis – attempts to formulate, in his own words, the facts as he sees them:

None of us can help the things life has done to us. They’re done before you realise it, and once they’re done they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you’d like to be, and you’ve lost your true self forever.

The Drama of Eugene O’Neill

It is odd but indisputable that after the era of great English verse-drama, since Elizabethan and Jacobean days, the best English-speaking playwrights have been Irishmen or of Irish extraction. Among eighteenth century dramatists (Dryden is seldom read now and hardly ever revived) it is Congreve, Goldsmith, Sheridan who stand out; as the turn of the nineteenth century, Wilde and Synge. And among living dramatists whom would you put before Shaw and Eugene O’Neill?

I am at a loss to account for this Hibernian preponderance, but I note that, with one exception, they all have one characteristic in common. From the dialogue of Congreve, so elegantly voluble yet precise, from the fluid grace of Goldsmith and the concentrated wit of Sheridan, to the extravagant suavity of Oscar Wilde, the nutty and golden talk of Synge’s characters and the brilliantly telling prose spoken by Shaw’s, the work of all these Irish dramatists has been marked by a command of language. They have excelled in diction in addition to their other merits – with one exception. Eugene O’Neill owes his place in the front rank of contemporary dramatists to his invention, vigour, psychological insight and his theatrical sense, not to his use of words. The Hairy Ape is a tremendous little play; its scenes are unforgettable, yet not one line remains in the memory afterwards. In Desire Under the Elms we never disbelieved for an instant in the strength of the longing which drew two heart-starved creatures together. The passion between them and the passion of old Ephraim for his Stone God, lifted it high above the usual adultery play. (Contrast with it the imaginatively inedible synthetic substitutes for passion we are offered year in year out.) The fear and poetry on which tragedy flourishes pervaded the scenes, but poetry did not blow about the words. The same is true of O’Neill’s masterpiece, Mourning Becomes Electra. The force of that tragedy sprang from a dramatic intuition, wonderfully worked out that the conception of the unconscious as something pushing men from within in directions unknown and undesired, might be used on the modern stage with the same tremendous effect as the conception of Fate in ancient Greek drama. In all his plays the characters say what is dramatically effective and psychologically appropriate, but they never say it in memorable manner. He has no ear for a phrase, no eye for a metaphor, no tongue for a period. His dialogue is matter of fact and naturalistic, and yet his dramatic methods are figurative, symbolic! His plays abound in symbols, and the consequence is that if his symbolism fails to grip us, whenever it strikes us as more grotesque than impressive, the play is lost. No verbal imagination comes to the rescue of it. Days Without End, running at the Mercury Theatre till March 17th, is an instance of this happening.

It is described as “a modern miracle play,” and that description will do. Its theme is the conflict in a divided personality between the Christian religion and militant scepticism. It ends with the whole man’s surrender before a crucifix to the God of Love, a surrender which synchronises with the recovery of his wife from approaching death – with a miracle. To the would-be Christian-self in “John Loving” she is unspeakably dear; to the atheist-self she is detestable, because he loathes life, and “John Loving’s” marriage with Elisa (Miss Mary Newcomb) had temporally bound him again to life, just when the bitter nihilistic self had been heading “John” for suicide.

In this play scepticism is equated with a desire for death – death personal, death universal. Dramatically, this equation is effective; but if the value of the play’s content is considered, it is a weakness. Sceptics don’t necessarily loathe and dread life and therefore also those who share it most intimately with them. Not very many have enjoyed life more than David Hume, or been more constantly possessed by benevolent feelings; yet few men can have been more sceptical. On the other hand some great Christians, Pascal for example, have come perilously near being haters of life and enemies of the natural good.

Readers may recall having known men and women who, though unable to believe that Eternal Love created the world, have nevertheless not found life empty, despicable, intolerable, nor have they lost the feeling that some things are good, some bad. From the point of view of appreciating this play, such people will do well to regard it as a study of a special case. There are undoubtedly people like “John Loving” for whom there is no alternative between belief and absolute despair. But they are few. O’Neill’s method of presenting this split personality is to make both halves visible and audible to the audience. They invariably appear together, but sometimes what the evil, savage sceptic says is audible to those on the stage, and is received by them, of course, as proceeding from the mouth of “John Loving” himself. (This composite part is acted by Mr van Gyseghem and Mr John Trevor.) Now this method requires extreme tact on the part of the dramatist. He must stress the perpetual opposition between “the double” and the visible man – that is his theme. But if what the double says contradicts immediately and violently what the visible man has just uttered violently what the visible man has just uttered, then the behaviour of the other characters listening to him is apt to be unconvincing. And this is what happened on the stage. They know him well enough no doubt to know that he is, and has been since he lost his faith in boyhood, a man divided against himself – at least the priest, his uncle, knows that well, though his wife apparently does not, until the plot of the novel he is writing reveals it to her. But a man who uttered in the same breath the tenderest sentiments and violent cynicisms would strike others as mad. This is the technical weakness of the play. It is so grave a one that it relegates Days Without End to the list of Eugene O’Neill’s failures. At moments it has power, even real dramatic force, and it is rather fascinating, but it is a failure. In The Great God Brown, which I have neither seen nor read, I am told he tried to present a double personality by providing the actor with a mask, which from time to time he put in front of his face and spoke through. Eugene O’Neill has always been intensely interested in the problems of personality. Both these plays preceded Strange Interlude, which is an extremely interesting drama in which the dialogue is composed of what the characters say to each other and what they think to themselves. That, oddly enough, came off.

The acting at the Mercury Theatre is quiet and naturalistic. It is apt, perhaps, to degenerate at times into mere behaviour, but Mr Trevor does rise to exaltation of his surrender at the end and Mr van Gyseghem achieved an uncanny, acrid bitterness.

The above piece was uncovered during ongoing research for The New Statesman Century, available August, 2013.

Eugene O'Neill in 1936. Photo: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser