If only I could have stayed as I was then! Why can’t all of us remain innocent and loving and trusting? But God won’t leave us alone. He twists and wrings and tortures our lives with others’ lives until—we poison each other to death!
– Mourning Becomes Electra, The Hunted, Act 1
Most of us already know something of Eugene O’Neill. His plays are as ineluctable as their characters’ poisoned fates; even if we duck The Emperor Jones in high school, we are caught later by our neighborhood troupe’s Anna Christie, or by the Broadway revival of Long Day’s Journey into Night that our parents believe might finally make us appreciate them. Whatever the venue, an O’Neill play tends to be a singular opportunity to sit through two to six hours of chain-rattling, unmolested by elegance or inventiveness of thought or language; Mary McCarthy was not alone in finding O’Neill’s lack of verbal gift “a personal affliction.” Still, I have always found his plays to offer at least one undeniable pleasure: that of not being Eugene O’Neill.
Eunice Wong, Stephanie Weeks, and Satya Bhabha in TNT's Mourning Becomes Electra. Photo: Gia Squarci.
Not for him the dear minutiae of daily life; not for him nonsense, the bother and charm of society, dancing, moments of being. Famously, he declared, “Most modern plays are concerned with the relation between man and man, but that does not interest me at all. I am interested only in the relation between man and God.” A family friend described young Eugene as “a real black Irishman”: an Irish Catholic who has lost his faith and, failing to find any adequate replacement, can only drink, die, or write. O’Neill was like a child who can attend to nothing else until someone has satisfied the question foremost in her mind—but his question did not admit of an answer and so, massive and untraversable, sat looming over one play after the next. “I’m always acutely conscious,” he wrote, “of the Force behind—Fate, God, our biological past creating our present, whatever one calls it—Mystery certainly—and of the one eternal tragedy of Man in his glorious, self-destructive struggle to make the Force express him instead of being, as an animal is, an infinitesimal incident in its expression.”
His characters’ crimes against each other, however awful, are but the froth churned out of their desperate battles to overcome for even a moment the weak, compromised stuff out of which they were created.
One might have any number of reasons for being only politely interested in such a view. And one might consider oneself pretty well fortified against O’Neill, as one would be against any monomaniac with a single arrow in his quiver who announced he was going to shoot you, nocked his arrow with the most reassuring ineptitude, and aimed too high after laboriously counting down from twenty. All of which only goes to say how mystifying, how dismaying it is when, released at last from an O’Neill production, one is pulled up short by a catch in one’s spirits and finds, on honest inspection, the shards of his question, if not the damn thing itself.
For David Herskovits, the founder and artistic director of Target Margin Theater, this mystery is part of O’Neill’s greatness. “The repetitions, the overstatement, the thematic transparency: all that stuff achieves a kind of grandeur by very virtue of its clumsiness and its obviousness,” he says. “Think about The Iceman Cometh, the most obvious example to me. It’s all about pipe dreams. All you hear is speech after speech about how people have pipe dreams and have to let go of their pipe dreams, with scene after scene where somebody has a pipe dream, and they tell you the story of their pipe dream, and you know they’ll never realize it. And it’s like, ‘We get it! Why are we doing this for four hours?’ Yet it really is a great journey; it’s more than just an overwritten, repetitious, theme-driven play. And why is that—how is that? That’s interesting to me. That’s magic.”
This spring at the Abrons Art Center, after several years of work on the text, Target Margin will present nothing less than the entire Mourning Becomes Electra trilogy. (A selection of scenes was presented at Abrons last year under the title Drunken With What.) O’Neill’s transposition of The Oresteia to a wealthy Yankee household at the close of the Civil War is, as Herskovits has noted, often perceived as unproducible—perhaps not solely due to its length (six hours at a good clip) and cast size. In it, O’Neill, who of course considered the Greek sense of tragedy “the noblest ever,” sets himself the vexed task of calling Greek fates down on American heads without the aid of legend, law, or divinity, with occasionally head-scratching results: Without an Iphigenia, it’s never quite clear why Christine Mannon (Clytemnestra) has come to hate her husband, Brigadier General Ezra Mannon (Agamemnon), so violently. Her sea captain lover seeks vengeance on the Mannon clan for having turned his servant mother out of the house—an unsavory deed, to be sure, but one that hardly registers beside the House of Atreus’s bill of fare. And the voguishly Freudian bonds between father and daughter and mother and son are only perceptible to audiences capable of reading between the lines of such dialogue as, “I’ve watched you ever since you were little, trying to do exactly what you’re doing now! You’ve tried to become the wife of your father and the mother of Orin! You’ve always schemed to steal my place!”
But Target Margin (TMT) is known for being drawn to difficulty. In fact, Herskovits says, “I am only attracted to doing things that I feel I don’t know how to do. If I can read the play and think, ‘Oh, I see how to do this,’ it’s hard for me to stay interested in doing the work.” In its deep dives into Yiddish theater, Gertrude Stein, Euripides, and other diverse pools, his company has consistently returned with strange treasure; reflecting on Target Margin’s unhurried, resourceful work on Mourning Becomes Electra, one begins to sense why.
TMT began its exploration by trying to perform everything in Mourning Becomes Electra exactly as it was written. According to Herskovits, “O’Neill is famous for his novelistic stage directions, which I think can be perceived by a production team as intrusive and overly controlling. He wants to tell you what it looks like, he wants to tell you what it feels like, he wants to tell you how you feel. Some people find that intrusive. But I feel we should embrace that and see what we can learn from it.” The attempt to realize the trilogy as O’Neill had described it became the baseline from which TMT has developed its own version, with Herskovits guiding his seasoned cast in and out of different modes of performance, shaping each scene in what he describes as “a muscular, writerly way.” One mode is naturally melodrama, with the full complement of lip quivering and furtive glances called for by O’Neill’s text. (“What are you hiding?” “Nothing, nothing!”) The production also makes strategic use of a more subdued psychological realism in which “people really talk to each other, and are engaged in listening.” A third mode is a yet quieter reading of the material, with the actors remembering rather than enacting the scene: “They’re remembering the action as if it were a story that they had themselves lived, but it’s not present, it’s in the past. In a way it’s more realistic, because you’re not pretending the moment is happening; you’re just really, truly remembering the moment.”
At the same time that TMT’s performers were working on their “baseline version,” lighting and scenic designer (and TMT associate artistic director) Lenore Doxsee was trying to map the Mannon house and grounds based on the clues strewn in fragments across O’Neill’s pages. “In the rehearsal room,” Doxsee recalls, “while the actors were trying to observe every little ‘She gasps mournfully,’ I was trying to arrange furniture the way it seemed meant to be arranged. We tried to be as faithful as we could, just to see where it would lead. I also did a bunch of period research—because the play starts in a very specific relationship to the end of the Civil War, on its last day in 1865. And he’s a little vague about how much time passes, but not that vague; we can map an awful lot.” Doxsee determined, for example, that the Mannon residence was a Greek revival house near the coast but not on it, and near but not in New Bedford. Similarly, costume designer Kaye Voyce researched period dress and the uniforms that men returning from the Civil War would really have been wearing.
From there, Doxsee says, they selected the elements of O’Neill’s vision that they found the most wonderful or crucial, assembling a spare but suggestive assortment of furniture and scenic elements. They also made their own interpolations: to take one example, Doxsee continues, “O’Neill describes a big portrait of Ezra Mannon in the study that seems to loom over the proceedings. There’s all of this language in the play about how the Mannons all look alike, and the heavy weight of the family history. I thought we’d surely have to do the big portrait of Ezra Mannon somehow—and really there are portraits all over the place, so that became one of the aspects of our design. But in fact every one of ours is of Ezra, as opposed to the reality of how they are described in the play, with George Washington and various and sundry other relatives.” She adds, “There’s also the whole question of whether the house is inhabited by ghosts. And we have a pretty clear feeling about that.” It is a feeling communicated by Doxsee’s lighting design as well; for her, “the shadows and what we can’t see are part of the story.” Her lighting also makes palpable the growing isolation of certain characters as the trilogy grinds on.
O’Neill’s inexorable conclusions aside, the Target Margin folks bring pleasures of their own making to Mourning, not least their verve, playfulness, and what Lionel Trilling (writing of O’Neill actually, but never mind) called the vivifying spectacle of the human mind in action. Greek tragedy, melodrama, realism, American history, American guilt: in any moment, some, all, or none of these layers might be informing the production. All three male roles within the Mannon family are played by the same actor—a reference to the rules of classical Greek drama? Then, too, the audience is confined to the rear of the orchestra section at the opening of the play, with the path and lawn leading to the house conjured out of the theater’s aisle and empty seats; are we joining Mourning’s chorus of townsfolk in being kept at arm’s length from the house? “For any gesture onstage, there are always multiple reasons,” Herskovits says with a touch of reproach. “I don’t do anything because I think it means something. I do it because I think it opens up lots of possibilities for meaning.”
TMT’s casting of those blue blooded Yankee Mannons, with their striking family resemblances, itself opens up possibilities. “One of the actors is Indian (Satya Bhabha), one of them is African-American (Stephanie Weeks), and one of them is Chinese-American (Eunice Wong). That’s the way it is at TMT,” Herskovits notes with satisfaction. “And the hired man, Seth, is played by a woman (Mary Neufeld). So we’re reframing this story, and we’re going to hear it differently because of that.”
They will serve the whole trilogy up in one go, with audiences moving to a different part of the Abrons playhouse for each of the three plays. “You get a ticket, you come at the beginning, you have the whole ride,” Herskovits explains. “There are intermissions, of course, and we’re going to try to get people some food, too. I really just want people to have a thrilling experience—a deep experience. In that sense, I make theater like any vulgar theater-maker. As long as they’re open to going along with it, I’m going to try to make that happen. That’s all I ask of an audience.”
Target Margin Theater’s Mourning Becomes Electra runs April 26 – May 20, 2017 at the Abrons Art Center (466 Grand Street, New York).