- Beyond the Horizon, and: Spring Storm
It is all too easy to forget that even the greatest artists were once insecure, flawed human beings, teetering on the brink of failure. Eugene O'Neill was expelled from Princeton University after a single semester of carousing in 1907, and his family, having discovered his secret marriage to Kathleen Jenkins, hoped to avoid public scandal by shipping him off on a gold-prospecting expedition to Honduras. When he returned, he chose not to contact his wife or see his young son, Eugene Junior, before setting sail again for Buenos Aires.
Tennessee Williams flunked out of the University of Missouri and when, at age 25, he received another chance to complete his undergraduate education at Washington University in St. Louis he failed again. In the spring of 1937, hoping at last to redeem himself by winning a one-act-play competition against much younger undergraduates, Williams received yet another blow: Honorable Mention. After flunking his final examination in Greek, he left Washington University in disgrace.
Because of this string of youthful failures, it is tempting to see the early work of both O'Neill and Williams as juvenilia, mere apprenticeship for the profound and serious work that followed. However, two astonishing productions at The National Theatre (presented this summer by the Royal & Derngate Northampton) reveal that closer examination of this early work is not merely important for understanding what came afterward, but for the plays themselves.
It would not be an exaggeration to call both works "portraits of the artist as young men." Director Laurie Sansom's staging with a single repertory cast highlights parallels between the two plays, both of which shed light on O'Neill's and Williams's career-long obsessions. At the same time, the twin productions illuminated questions of dramaturgy, structure, and approaches to realism. In O'Neill's case the play depicted what might have been had the young man not fled his responsibilities to his family and child and gone to sea. In Williams's we see an even more pressing crisis: a young man deeply conflicted about his sexuality and struggling with his vocation.
Beyond the Horizon was O'Neill's first real success (it won the playwright the first of four Pulitzer prizes) and is certainly the tighter and more accomplished of the two plays. Spring Storm has a far more obscure history, and was only accidentally discovered in 1996 among Williams's mother's papers in the Tennessee Williams Collection at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin. Spring Storm has not had a major production in the United States, and the Royal & Derngate's was its premiere outside of North America.
Both plays benefited from being staged in the tiny Cottesloe, instead of in one of The National Theatre's larger performance spaces. Minimal sets and fluid scene changes enhanced both plays' rapid shifts in time, moving from intense scenes of domestic confinement to natural landscapes without losing a beat. Staging them on a large proscenium stage like the National's Lyttleton, for example, would have accentuated the historical period and an outdated realism at the expense of character development and the creation of symbolic worlds that, under Sansom's direction, felt more expressionist than realist. Horizon opened with the entire cast (who later reappeared as members of the family) rapidly constructing the Mayo farm's fence. The set for Spring Storm opened on a windy bluff that was only used in the opening scene in Williams's play, but remained visible throughout as a symbol of aspirations never attained by the play's central characters. As the play began, the lights came up to half and a shadowy figure dressed in Williams's [End Page 111]
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