What critics said about Moon for the Misbegotten from 1947 onward

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Attempting an Irish playwright pose [photo: theater fan]

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My dog eared edition. Time for a new desk copy.

In the English classes I teach at Keuka College, we use the text, They Say, I Say. The handbook encourages students — and teachers — to see writing as fundamentally a conversation. Analytical and persuasive essays ought be a dialogue between one’s own strongly expressed ideas and opinions (I Say) and the viewpoints and evidence presented by other writers/readers (They Say).

The recently ended performance of Eugene O’Neil’s Moon for the Misbegotten at The Geva Theater Center was the first time I had seen the play. I read the first dozen or so pages beforehand to get the gist of the characters and language, but didn’t read any of the local reviews (They Say).  Alas, you can’t now see the finely done performance — receiving a quickly formed and nearly full standing ovation — but this essay may allow you to reflect upon your own impressions and assessments.

To gauge my own reactions (I Say), I looked at fifteen reviews from the first ill-fated production in 1947 and five from 1957 to 1984 and an academic essay from 1988, as well as spoke with three theater goers on the way out (They Say).

From the reviews and essays, several themes came into focus. First was the casting and appearance of Josie, the daughter of an Irish Connecticut tenant farmer, Phil Hogan. Artistic directors — in this case Mark Cuddy — had to reconcile O’Neil’s hard-edged description of Josie — “almost a freak–five feet eleven in her stockings and weighs around one hundred and eighty” — while creating a character with believable romantic charms.show time

Second, critics argued whether the long scene in Act 3 — the moonlit nuit blanche — with Josie and her quasi-suitor the doomed James Tyrone had the “weight and tension of Greek tragedy” and had entered “the kingdom of art.” Or was the scene too idiosyncratically “built of [O’Neil’s] private obsessions”  or psychology naïve and untenable: irrelevant as a “document of contemporary experience.”playlet

And, following O’Neil’s lead who (as written in the play bill) called his play “a strange combination comic-tragic,” critics explored the play’s oscillation between Rabelaisian farce and darkly oedipal family drama. For me, this exploration — especially for the viewer gauging his/her responses — is the most productive.

What you took away from the play may depend on which scene remains most vividly etched in your memory. Madonna-like Josie cradling Tyrone in her arms as she tells her father he is seeing a miracle; “A virgin who bears a dead child in the night, and the dawns find her still a virgin.”  Or earlier when Josie and Hogan spontaneously play to perfection the roles of the outraged peasant and scandalized daughter sending their priggish Yankee millionaire neighbor scurrying back to mend the hole in the plutocrats’ fence Hogan’s pigs had made.clevelan press

Originally, in 1947 Moon had a try-out tour under the Theatre Guild’s auspices, but did not succeed and never made Broadway until resurrection in 1957.

Reviews from it’s February 20th, 1947 world premier at the Hartman Theater in Columbus, Ohio were predictably mixed.  Mostly short and chatty, they tended to recommend the performance to their Midwestern readers.  But several saw tedium, talkativeness and too much conversation.potent

The detractors got in their quips and zingers. Don’t be surprised if Moon becomes known as the new Tobacco Road with an all-Irish cast. One regretted to report it was America’s foremost dramatist at his worst.

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Talesin East floor plan (1947)

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Hemingway’s Finca Vigia Dining Room

Another who objected to O’Neil’s vile, irreverent, vulgar, immoral and profane means to an end, questioned the play’s status as theatrical art: “He [O’Neil] calls his production A Moon for the Misbegotten.”  The unnamed critic simply renamed O’Neil’s production: “A Moon to be Forgotten.”

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Still Life, Picasso (1947)

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Pétrouchka performed by the American Ballet (1947)

Also striking was one review announcing: “A new O’Neil play is like a new Stravinsky symphony, a new Hemingway novel, a new Picasso painting or a new Wright house.”

What an exciting time 1947 was for the arts. Stravinsky’s revised Pétrouchka appeared; Hemingway at his Cuban home, 220px-BalladOfTheSadCafethe Finca Vigia, publishing the Essential Hemingway; Picasso would draw Still Life; Wright would design Taliesin East in Wisconsin.

As mentioned by many of the critics, the way Josie is characterized, especially her physical appearance — inflects the tone of any performance.

In my preliminary reading, I formed a image of Josie based on O’Neil’s stage directions. From O’Neil’s description, I pictured grotesque, a character out of Carson McCullers.from play

From Harold Cluman (Nation, January 19th, 1974), I learned that several performances suffered by a too close adherence to O’Neil’s directions, about which he and his producers were adamant:

The play’s initial failure [at its 1947 try-out tour under the Theatre Guild’s auspices] was to some degree the fault of is author and producers. They insisted that the girl in the play, Josie Hogan, be acted by someone of Irish blood who is “almost a freak – five foot eleven in her stockings and weighs around one hundred eighty.” These physical attributes were considered so important that the actress who played the role—tall but not heavy enough—was asked to sign a contract which read “the artist agrees to gain the necessary weight required for the role.” This stupid and horrible clause may well have led to the actress’ death shortly after the play’s production. None of the actresses who played it subsequently answered the playwright’s description of the character’s size nor where they, as far as I know or as anyone could tell, Irish.

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For example, John Simon (New York Magazine, May 14th, 1984) emphasizes the centrality of Josie’s femininity as the pivot on which the play fails or succeeds:

Josie is Eugene’s fictitious gift to his brother, though, clearly, also what the playwright himself yearned for. Five-foot-eleven and weighing 180 pounds, she is stronger than any man around, yet extremely feminine, with large breasts that are frequently extolled, but more as pillows than as objects of erotic play. She is that well-known fantasy figure Mother-Wife-Whore, with an emphasis in the first.

But Simon laments that in the version he reviews, Josie’s sensuality is dampened:new

Bluntly put her [Josie’s] appearance down to an unfortunate wig) and personality are not warm and winning, and her bosom seems more suited for uneasy catnaps than sleep that brings oblivion.

Given that O’Neil called his play a strange combination comic-tragic, a bewigged, cold Josie pushes our response towards the tragic.

In the performance seen by John McClain (“O’Neill Opus Long but Fiercely Great,” New York Journal American, May 3rd, 1957), Josie wears pads, but is more freed from O’Neil’s straightjacket:

Mr. O’Neil in describing his heroine, the farmer’s daughter, had indicated that she be female behemoth, weighing around 180 pounds.” Wendy Hiller, who plays the part carries no such weight but by sheer animal vigor and some ingenious pads is able to create the desired effect – tender, earthy, and primitively proud.

Finally, Richard Hayes’ Josie is closer to the one I saw in Geva’s Kate Forbes:

Colleen Dewhurst brings a powerful womanliness to the part of Josie. She is of the earth, warm and hearty. She looks and sounds like a person who can do her own and her father’s hard work; one, moreover, who possesses the vast sexuality she boasts of, as well as a woman chaste through the very force of her sexuality. (“The Stage: The Image and the Search,” Commonweal, August 30, 1957)

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Courtesy Rush Rhees library

In Forbes’ performance — no wig or pads — I did not see a McCullers’ grotesque or O’Neil’s almost freakish. Perhaps showing my age (or perhaps our perceptions of female sexuality have changed since 1947), I found her character sensually attractive: not a plain behemoth girl whose only hope with men was to be easy. This Josie pushed our responses toward the more life affirming comic mode.vile newester

As mentioned critics and readers have to come to terms with the scene between Josie and Tyrone: Simon’s moonlit nuit blanche.  The scene itself is fused with O’Neil’s memory of his brother who died of alcoholism and his own lapsed Catholicism.

Hayes finds the scene compelling and mesmeric, but cannot follow O’Neil’s yearning path for religious significance:

Even the mesmeric midnight scene, which gathers one irresistibly into its moist claw of remorse, seems to me inadvertently, if at all, to enter the kingdom of art: it inhabits rather a climate of moral pathology, and I resign happily to the task of charting that weather. . .

This scene, rising like a gutted moon over what had gone before, is of uncommon power and quality . . . However decisively one rejects its lamentable psychology and perverse values, the want of intelligence it flaunts – its lordly indifference to the testimony of common experience – the thing has nonetheless romantic authority and a terrible truth. For it brings to light the fantasy world of a kind of Irish American Catholicism by which we have all been fingered. Such a scene, I might add, could only be written by a lapsed Irish-American Catholic, and whatever its dubious worth as art, as a documentary of contemporary experience it could not be more relevant.

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Courtesy Rush Rhees library

Anthony West (Vogue, September 15, 1968) is more dismissive:

O’Neil may have wanted to give us another Hamlet, but what we get is a lush Peter Pan.

Like others, West finds Tyrone’s account of his affair with a prostitute on the same train carrying the coffin of his mother implausible. Hamlet contended with ghosts, but in West’s lush interpretation, Tyrone’s existential monologues feel only like stream of consciousness from a man suffering from the heebie jeebies.

Included in the reviews is James A. Robinson’s academic essay, “The Metatheatrics of a Moon for the Misbegotten” (Perspectives on O’Neil: New Essays. Ed. Shymal Bagchee, Victoria, British Columbia, 1988, 61-75.).

Drawing attention to the comic mode, Robinson places the play within the genre of Old Comedy (also including more modern references to Pirandello.)  Nowhere better seen than in Hogan:

By the end of first act, Hogan has emerged as a comic gamester, the trickster figure common to folklore and the plots of Old Comedy. And intriguingly, he also resembles the comic playwright, weaving comic plots for purposes of entertainment and fooling the audiences along the way—like a vulgar, farcical, Celtic variation on Shakespeare’s Prospero.

Robinson’s larger purpose is explore Moon as metatheatre or metadrama, designated as:

A self-reflexive style which not only reminds a play’s viewers that they are watching a performance, but explicitly explores the conflicts between role and self, art and life.

In Moon‘s case, Robinson cites Jean Chothia’s emphasis on the play within the play: “Within the conventional performing of the play itself, his [O’Neil’s] characters perform for each other.”

As the play contains a Broadway thespian and characters known for their tall telling and self-fashioning guile, Robinson’s meta-commentary foregrounds the slipperiness between playing and living:

In marked contrast to O’Neil’s other plays, the structure of a Moon for the Misbegotten is strikingly artificial, with so much plotting in its first two acts that (as Frederic Carpenter has observed) it “seems like a maze of false clues and blind alley.” The maze quietly parodies the contrivances of theatrical art. Moreover, the play’s three major characters are all figuratively masked actors who perform before one another. . . “Everything in this play has double bottom,” the late O’Neil scholar Timo Tiusanen once wrote, echoing Carpenter’s remarks about the play’s maze-like quality.

 

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Nowhere is the viewer lost in the Looking Glass than in the inspired scene where Josie and Hogan (played by Mark Lambert)lampoon and harpoon their millionaire neighbor who comes to complain about a hole in his fence (now the maze into which Hogan draws T. Stedman Harder (played by Michael Quinlan).

In the Harder-Hogan interchange, O’Neil has taken us breathtakenly swinging towards the aporia of comedy in which the agon is muffled by our admiring laughter.

As Robinson’s duly notes, in the midnight scene we are to imagine the ruses and masks have come to an end:

Characteristically, the play — apparently unmazing –reverts quickly to it’s realistic core, as Tyrone’s deeper emotions replace the self-conscious his self-conscious posing.  “God damn it! Why do I have to pull that lousy stuff?” he mutters, and with “genuine deep feeling” admits “God, its beautiful, Josie! I-I’ll never forget it — here with you.”

Sweeping back to the tragic mode.

On the way out — following the standing ovation — I canvassed some fellow theater goers.

Two middle aged women loved it, agreeing the ovation had felt spontaneous and unforced. For all the bleakness of the midnight scene, their mood was upbeat, perhaps still mesmerized by Hogan. They did not really see the hopeless doom of either character, Tyrone or Josie. They actually found the ending to be “open.”

While I can’t go there, the two could imagine a reunion if not a happier ending for the moon-crossed lovers. Maybe Josie got the jolt of self-esteem she needed; maybe Tyrone would find the right twelve step program. As they said, in life (and art), you never know.

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Pondering O’Neil in Washington Square Park on the FDR cement block. O’Neil’s scene notes says: “Close to the house, under the window next to Josie’s bedroom, there is a big boulder with a flat top.” [photo: theater fan]

Walking further down to the darkened parking lot, I met a middle aged serious looking, brooding gentleman, inwardly pondering the Moon.  Under the moonlight, I thought he looked Irish, maybe even a lapsed Catholic.

He readily offered his take. Forbes (Josie) and Lambert (Hogan) were first rate. But in Tyrone he did not find a Hamlet. While Donald Sage Mackay playing Tyrone improved as the play progressed, whether the fault was Mackay’s or O’Neil’s, Mackay “did not pull off the drunken Irish thespian which O’Neil meant him to be.”

The man said Tyrone was surely tortured but lacked spiritual depth. He thought further, concluding without elaborating; “Tyrone was too modern.”  Perhaps he meant too superficial, too much like a 21st century character capable of redemption through the right talk therapy and meds. Maybe he wanted the play’s pole to lean more towards tragic reality and less towards the play’s the thing.

My own lasting impressions (I Say) as time elapses from seeing to writing are unprofound. I now most remember the Harder-Hogan rendezvous — to Robinson a brilliant comic improvisation.

Perhaps it is just because my current mood is closer to the middle aged women than the (more insightful) maybe Irishman walking alone to his car in the darkened parking lot. Maybe it’s all the fun I had writing this “open,” quirky, overstuffed, disjointed “review.”

Also, I apologize for my tardiness as the show has ended. Land on the Moon next time it orbits Rochester and judge for yourself.

ALSO ON THE GEVA THEATER CENTER

A finely executed performance of Mockingbird at GEVA. And on the “white trash” Ewells

Deconstructing (and admiring) GEVA’s “Miracle on South Division Street” through the looking glass.

Seeing Red. Did we violate “sacred space” backstage at GEVA?

AND OTHER THEATRICAL PERFORMANCES AROUND TOWN

Jilted Rochester embraces David Bowie at the Visual Studies Workshop. Even if he is still pissed.

Talker loses his innocence, Rockily, at the Cinema Theatre