- More Stately Mansions dir. by Eric Fraisher Hayes
One of eleven plays planned to be part of a cycle entitled A Tale of Possessors, Self-dispossessed that Eugene O’Neill envisioned would delineate the histories of two families—the New England Harfords and the Irish American Melodies—More Stately Mansions covers the years 1832–1841, including the 1837 panic. O’Neill never completed the play, and even asked his wife Carlotta Monterey to destroy it; he did finish its predecessor, A Touch of the Poet (1942). The two plays remain as vestiges of O’Neill’s ambition for his Cycle: to construct a comédie humaine dramatizing the story of America as it was experienced by the intertwined Harfords and Melodies, while suggesting that American democracy had failed in its ideals. In the process O’Neill constructed a subtle conceit tying the instinctive and egoistic impulses of his characters to the underlying motivations for materialism and economic expansionism. After attempting to keep each play a unified whole, yet a vital part of the Cycle, but finding himself overwhelmed by the immensity of the undertaking, O’Neill abandoned what he called this “elephantine opus.”
Fortunately for us, More Stately Mansions escaped the fireplace, and, as this reading of the play in Danville, California, proved, the play more than holds its own, without the support of A Touch of the Poet. In this two-and-a-half-hour version of the four-hour edited More Stately Mansions (the uncut original version of the play would run ten hours), the play’s shortcomings and its tragic components—that is, the stasis of its three main characters locked in an interpersonal battle—were heightened. Stunning readings were provided by Lindsey Murray (Deborah Harford), a classically trained actress, supported by the talented Geoffrey Nolan (Simon Harford), with notable [End Page 263]
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readings turned in by Davern Wright (Joel Harford), and John Tessmer (doubling as Nicholas Gadsby and Benjamin Tenard).
The reading was directed by Eric Fraisher Hayes, who has a Shakespearean background and is committed to O’Neill. His reading accented more the troubled dynamics among mother, son, and daughter-in-law than it did America’s shortcomings—a natural direction any staging of the play would take minus an entire cycle devoted to O’Neill’s stated thematic concern (the failure of American democracy) as necessary backdrop.
The reading was all the more remarkable given that within two and a half hours, O’Neill was not “lost.” Indeed, Mr. Hayes’s edits removed the shakier aspects of the play and, I would argue, provided more focus. Though written in tandem with A Touch of the Poet, The Iceman Cometh, and Long Day’s Journey Into Night, the four-hour version of More Stately Mansions is unlike the other works inasmuch as it is filled with interior monologue and an excess of exposition—more characteristic of O’Neill’s earlier playwriting style than his later. In Danville’s experiment with the play, the Epilogue was expunged, as were the scenes containing the children of Simon and Sara Harford, which naturally downplayed the generational aspect of the cycle but highlighted the dramatic conflicts among and within the three main characters (Simon, Deborah, and Sara); the expository nature of the play was less evident and [End Page 264] its active components more prominent. Mr. Hayes’s reading was especially psychologically penetrating as it showcased the Hamlet-like nature of the troubled Simon Harford. The strength of the production also lay in the impressive tableaus created on stage by the characters and the humorous moments found by the actors (e.g., the conspiratorial scenes between Deborah and Sara) within this tragically inclined play—all done with only three rehearsals!
It is undoubtedly risky to edit any work by O’Neill. But given the play’s unfinished quality and the lack of initial editing, I believe it may be warranted. The play’s...