- A Touch of the Poetdir. by Eric Fraisher Hayeseugene, and: The Playboy of the Western Worldby John Millington Synge
The Eugene O'Neill Foundation brought A Touch of the Poethome to its birthplace as part of its annual O'Neill Festival, pairing it with a Role Player Ensemble production of J. M. Synge's The Playboy of the Western World, which was performed in nearby Danville, California. The old barn on the property of Tao House was the venue for Poet, and so the story of the Melody family unfolded just 500 feet or so from the desk where O'Neill wrote it initially in 1939. After he faced the fact that he would never finish the "Cycle," a sequence of eleven plays tracing two families from the time of the American Revolution to the present, in which Poetwas to have been the third, O'Neill returned to this segment in 1943 and put the final touches on it as a standalone play. He thought about venturing a production in the late 1940s, but the mixed success of The Iceman Comethand the stress of moving across country to New York sorely taxed his fragile health. Then, the apparent failure of A [End Page 190] Moon for the Misbegottenin its preview performances convinced him that the effort would be futile. And so it was not until 1958 that the play received its New York premiere in a botched production (see Laura Shea's account of the play's Broadway history in the Eugene O'Neill Review37, no. 1 : 89–107), and it took major revivals with Jason Robards, Gabriel Byrne, and others to show that the play's subtle effects are well worth pursuing.
In the choice to present these two plays, Eric Fraisher Hayes, artistic director of Role Players as well as the Foundation, took the cue from the Galway O'Neill conference to explore the imprint of Ireland on O'Neill's writing, which is nowhere clearer than in Poet. In this play, as in the other late plays, he returns to a time of origin, specifically the 1911 and 1913 New York tours of the Abbey Theatre's Irish Players, which included performances of Synge's Playboy. That play was also included in three American tours of the Abbey in the years preceding O'Neill's writing of Poet—1930, 1934, and 1937. He could not have seen any of these revivals, but he might have read reviews and other coverage. There can be no doubt that Synge's portrayal of a father- and daughter-defined family in a County Mayo shebeen in years before Irish independence was influential on O'Neill's depiction of a similarly configured—and conflicted—family in a New England inn on the eve of Andrew Jackson's rise to the presidency. These two historical events are hardly identical, but as expressions of the rise of populism in the name of democracy, they bear comparison, especially when considered in conjunction with similar political uprisings during the Great Depression, as O'Neill would have seen.
The Role Players' production of Playboy, directed by Edward Nattenberg, served as a reminder of those terms of similarity, though the production largely missed the peculiar humor of a clever patricide who gains and loses the admiration of a community at odds with the laws of an imperialist state. The dead father turns up alive and well, as thick-headed as ever. (They don't make loys like they used to.) Keith Jefferds created such a powerful image of that father's brute existence that it made some of the other performers seem like cartoon figures. An exception was Bri Costello in the crucial role of Pegeen Mike, the daughter of the shebeen's owner in whose heart the whole play takes place. The stubborn reality of her environment...