The Playgoer: REVIEW: A Touch of the Poet

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Sunday, December 11, 2005

REVIEW: A Touch of the Poet

A Touch of the Poet
by Eugene O'Neill
directed by Doug Hughes, starring Gabriel Byrne
Roundabout Theatre Company, at Studio 54

The payoff for Gabriel Byrne's casting in A Touch of the Poet lies, of course, in his brogue. Not that you'll hear it for more than two hours into the proceedings, for up until then Byrne is playing essentially a different character. His performance is an impressively schizoid rendering of this oddly compelling late creation of Eugene O'Neill--Major Cornelius ("Con") Melody: braggart, climber, victim of the American class system circa 1828. The arc of O'Neill's narrative requires Con to strut and plume his officer-class pretensions for most of the play, until his own foolhardiness and society's snobbery against his Irish upstart origins end up humiliating him to that point in tragedy where the hero will either redeem himself through self-mutilation or a really, really long speech. After watching Byrne play Con the "gentleman" for most of the evening (decked out in a flashy redcoat uniform, with an indeterminate accent of "class")--playing it with great and enjoyable relish, to be sure--both actor and character seem magically simultaneously liberated in this climax. Witnessing Byrne rip through these final pages with such maniacal fury, giving full voice to his natural sharp-edged mother tongue is a theatrical thrill. Ah, we say, this is why this man is playing this role. A great feeling in the theatre.

Byrne has more going for him than his accent, of course. But if the rest of his performance doesn't communicate all the complex depths O'Neill's nigh-impossible script seems to demand, part of the failing has to lie in the inexplicably tired production director Doug Hughes has constructed to house it. Hughes seems to give into all the potential pitfalls of the script: since people sit and talk a lot, for instance, he lays out two convenient sets of table-and-chairs down front so people can do just that, incessantly, and nothing else. Santo Loquasto presents us with an impressive amount of wood and a faux huge fireplace and chimney dead center stage, which, though non-working, still manages to suck up all the air on stage nevertheless. Nowhere in this dull setting and Christopher Akerlind's(surprisingly) generic lighting is any sense of atmosphere. I mean, how often to you get to realize the world of early America in 1828 rural Massachusetts? I focus on the externals of this production as typical of how Hughes and co. have stretched so little imagination in approaching script that demands to be interpreted. (And, sorry Doug, the live presence of a Uilleann pipes player isn't enough. It may please our ears but gets us no deeper into O'Neill's troubled Irish souls here.)

Unlike Ben Brantley, I lay the blame squarely at Hughes' feet more than the supporting cast. Byron Jennings is giving it all he's got as Con's sidekick, Jamie, and I found Dearbhla Molloy quite affecting in the problematic martyred role of his wife, Nora. (And kudos to Hughes for casting them both to be sure, and for sensing the benefits of Molloy's authentic Irishness.) Kathryn Meisle may be too young for the Yankee rich-bitch Mrs. Harford, but does exactly what the role calls for in a subtle and commanding way.... No, it is Hughes' squandering of these fine resources on a routine, perfunctory staging of a difficult play that is the regrettable story here. A Touch of the Poet may not be top-drawer O'Neill. (A curious digression for someone in the midst of his masterful late period of Iceman Cometh and Long Day's Journey.) But all the raw material is there for a memorable and searing evening of Irish tragedy by way of O'Neill's gloomy modernist mind.

One more parting note about the play--when Con made his final, blood-soaked final transformational entrance, rediscovering his repressed ethnic roots--it was hard not to think of August Wilson. The bullying masculinity, the forces of social discrimination, would all be equally at home in Wilson, too. Poet invites the comparison especially since it was O'Neill's first play in a projected cycle of his own (the eleven-play grandly titled A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed). Perhaps not encouraged by his first installment (Poet was never even performed in O'Neill's lifetime) O'Neill abandoned it, burning all his notes and manuscripts save some fragments of More Stately Mansions. But compare the project itself to the similarly saga- and historically-minded August Wilson ten-play cycle on the African American 20th Century experience. Of course, its the dramaturgical vision I'm comparing more than the sheer form, but so many were the echoes for me in this play. Or, rather, the echoes were of that common forefather of both playwrights. When Con takes out his act of self-mutilation at the end on his poor horse, the reference was clearly to Ibsen, whose "Wild Duck" faced the same fate as a convenient symbol. Wilson may have claimed never to have read Ibsen. But, with his obsessive use of symbolic objects and blood and sacrifice, I maintain his death this year marked the passing of the last American Ibsenite. The first, of course, was Eugene O'Neill.


Anonymous said...

You know what? I'm tired of critics maligning this play. Why the fuck is it not "top drawer" O'Neill? And if you beleive it isn't, why don't you fucking explain why it is not "top drawer," just what it is about this extrarodinary play that does not meet your high critical standards. How about for once people accept that great artists represent their complex consciousness in a way that is not always aesthetically pleasing and neat, and that the proper relationship to this is one of reverence, awe, and humility. Note that I did not say a suspension of one's critical faculties -- just a stance that does not presume to know and tower over extraordinary artistic minds.

This is a marvelous production of an impossibly rich play and once again, New York shrugs its shoulders. How the fuck is one to expect serious drama in a city that wags its Broadway tails for Avenue Q and sticks its nose up in the air when given our greatest playwright's fraught, difficult, demanding play.

Anonymous said...

The grand title of the 11-play cycle was actually "A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed"

Anonymous said...

Although I have not read or seen "Touch Of The Poet"... is it horrible for me to say that I do not consider O'Neill to be a great artist? A man posessed of all the subtleties of a bowling ball, his scritps tend to, when not instructing the audience in how to react to his message, instruct the performers on exactly how to perform them. He was, simply put, a control freak, and that control freakiness strangles the life out of most his works. The didacticism of "Great God Brown", "The Hairy Ape" and "Emperor Jones" can be seen in his so-called great works such as "Iceman Cometh" (I get it, it's about Pipe Dreams, thanks, Gene, I guess I'll just let you do all the work). "Long Days Journey" is worth it, I suppose, but one great work and several overrated so-called "masterpieces" does not a great writer make.

Anonymous said...

Kushner on O'Neill (cached from google because the original has been taken down) -- all the defense America's greatest playwright needs:

Playgoer said...

Dear Anonymous Correction,

I'm very grateful for you pointing out my error in O'Neill's title for the cycle. Funny, the right one makes more sense! I have now corrected it in the post.
I do love the freedom of blogging. But this is why editors are good!

Dear Anonymous O'Neill Defender,
As we can all see from the few comments so far even, opinion is split on this play. I am totally willing to concede O'Neill's genius, though. Even in this play. I somewhat regret resorting to the pat judgement of "not top-drawer" to fill in for a more reasoned argument. (Again, Blogging sometimes comes best in the rush of thought.) But I'm letting it stand. However--I have emended some of the wording around it to moderate my dissatisfactions with the play, since I don't want to give the impression I'm dumping on it.
But hey--just because I'm not talented enough to carry O'Neill's jock doesn't mean I must automatically genuflect does it? I think I'm still paying him the respect he deserves if I consider "Poet" something of a flawed masterpiece.
I do agree, though, that critics all too easily dismiss something as "flawed" and walk away from the responsibility of spelling out what those flaws are. (Like the teacher who gives you a B and just says "not developed," or something.)...Perhaps I will revisit the problems of "Poet" in a later post--or others can weigh in, too! I'll start by saying what's most fascinating in it is the character of Con himself, naturally, and particularly his messed up relationship with his daughter. But his wife, Nora, is the worst, most thinly drawn, of O'Neill's suffering women.
Perhaps what keeps it from reaching the plateau of "Iceman" for me is the lack of the multiple perspectives of that play. Even "Long Day's Journey" gives us four equally compelling points of view.
"Poet" is basically "the Con show" (no, he's hardly the only one on stage, I know). A monumentally complex central character with a simple world surrounding it? That's my best stab at a critique without further study of the play.
And, by all means, let's further study the play. But no need, I think, to just shut up until we do. (After all, how else would we blog!)

Scott Walters said...

I saw an amazing production of this play done at Illiois State University. In this case, the designer did take advantage of the opportunity to recreate 19th century Massachusetts, and the set was glorious. The high point, strangely enough, was the speech where Con's wife takes her daughter down a peg by telling her what makes her father special. It was so deeply felt by the actress playing the role, and you suddenly saw Con in an entirely different light -- not unlike Linda's speech in Death of a Salesman when she flattens her two sons about their behavior.

I think this is a difficult play, but no more difficult than other O'Neill's. And while O'Neill may not be a nimble playwright, he writes with great, lumbering power -- an American Aeschylus. In 2005, we tend to want a playwright who is lighter on his feet than O'Neill, but I think once one adjusts to his pace, he rewards the audience greatly.

Anonymous said...

for those who want a second look,
there is a production of "Poet" running at the 14th St. Theater through Dec. 20, 2008 starring Daniel J. Travanti...