Fog rises and permeates the stage. From the dark, an ensemble of five actors emerge carrying lanterns. An atonal, drifting melody from an on-stage clarinet player, sounds of lapping water and fog horns lure us into an eerie, supernatural landscape. (Sound design by Roc Lee.)
Begotten: O’Neill and the Harbor of Masks, adapted, written and directed by Georgetown University Theater professor, Derek Goldman, in a collaborative workshop with Arena Stage, is a challenging, slow-paced, experimental piece drawing upon excerpts from several of Eugene O’Neill’s forgotten plays. These rarely-seen gems focus on the themes of injustice and show us O’Neill’s early obsession with reviving Greek theater techniques and making them American. These scenes are enacted as actors shift stage positions, double play roles and serve as members of a chorus as Goldman follows O’Neill’s early life as a playwright and developing artist.
Central to understanding and clarifying the meaning in Begotten is the enactment of O’Neill’s obscure one-act, Fog, written in 1914. This stirring play struck us with its parallel similarities to the 1912 sinking of the Titanic. O’Neill raises moral questions that appear in others of his plays with masks, like The Great God Brown and Lazarus Laughed. Do we do immoral things to get ahead? Or do we help each other?
A steamer hits an abandoned boat (a derelict) and is adrift off the coast of Newfoundland. A poet (Clark Young) and a businessman (Rick Foucheux) spend one night shipwrecked on a life raft with a young mother (Vivian Cook), who clutches her dead child. Only the mother wears a white mask and later is referred to as Hecuba, the archetypal suffering mother, the Queen of Troy, who lost all her sons to warfare in Euripedes’ Hecuba and The Trojan Women. The three characters, surrounded by dense fog in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, are filled with terror as their life raft drifts perilously close to a huge iceberg.
Actors Foucheux and Young effectively and subtly make a sense of danger seem real through underplayed reactions. When possible rescue arrives with a passing steamer, an argument breaks out between the two men. The world-weary poet, who travels steerage as a social outcast, cares more about saving other people’s lives. The poet tells the businessman about an American immigrant’s hardships. Death saves this child from a life of misery,. And if we do nothing to prevent the death of an immigrant child, “… perhaps we are responsible.” In contrast, Foucheux is the businessman, who travels higher class, and cries out with shameful coldness, “I’m not going to stay here to die.”
Then come walloping dramatic reversals. Without revealing all the surprises, the fog lifts the next morning, and the captain of a rescue ship praises the wrong person – the depraved businessman – for heroism. The hypocritical businessman, eager to keep up appearances, masks his spineless selfishness. Meanwhile the deeply idealistic, altruistic poet is ignored and remains detached and silent. The use of a gong with its resounding reverberations is highly effective.
This highpoint in Fog is one of the clearest dramatic moments in Goldman’s adaptation that justifies the rest of Begotten‘s title “…the Harbor of Masks.” Masks illustrate the lack of understanding in human relationships. It’s classic early-O’Neill with actors putting on masks to depict the split-personality in the American character, that later became O’Neill’s signature style.
For me, however, one of the most stunning moments occurred when three actors wearing white masks stand downstage center and stare straight out at us. Goldman makes allusion, even has members of the chorus speak direct quotes from O’Neill’s famous philosophical essay “Memoranda on Masks,” from The American Spectator, Nov. 1932, to remind us: “For what, at bottom, is the new psychological insight into human cause and effects but a study in masks, an exercise in unmasking?” intones one chorus member. In other words, to probe the hidden recesses of the mind, and unlock the mysteries of men, the unmasking of masks is the way of getting at the inner reality at the truth of existence.
But somehow this early one-act, Fog, doesn’t quite capture the depths of a Greek tragedy. Maybe that’s why Goldman feels he has to dive deeper by focusing on the disconnect in the archetypal father-son generational conflict by hitting on autobiographical details. O’Neill is depicted as the innovator, driven by rebellion against his father, James Tyrone, the matinee idol, who played The Count of Monte Cristo to fawning crowds for commercial success and “easy money.” All this was abhorrent to the young O’Neill.
Actor Rick Foucheux, stands out with his resonant, lower-register speaking voice, as Tyrone, the Father, who struts with grandiloquent hubris, representing the old, romantic melodramas. After seeing Beyond The Horizon, Eugene’s first play, Father/Tyrone tells the Son (Clark Young) that the play was “..all right….But people go to the theater to forget their problems; not confront them.” To dramatize O’Neill’s break with his father, it is significant that mid-way through, Derek Goldman places the character of Eugene O’Neill, the Son (Young) kneeling in front of us center stage to reveal his deep belief in the grandeur of the Greeks: “The theatre should give us what the church no longer gives us– a meaning…..Modern plays deal with man versus man,” says O’Neill, embodied by the character of the Son. “I am concerned with man and God.” That set-up, clarifies the confusion when Foucheux as Lazarus enters hysterically laughing. Why does Lazarus laugh? Because he no longer fears death, even prefers it, and personifies the celebration of life. He has made the discovery that life is meaningless so life holds no power over him. It’s a Dionysian laugh, an acceptance of joy, intones an actor from the chorus.
“Last Will and Testament of Silverdene Emblem O’Neill (An Extremely Distinguished Dog),” is a must-mention because it is so soothingly delivered by Foucheux, with another actor playing the dog at his knee. This mock-heroic poem, written in 1940, is O’Neill’s whimsical send-off epitaph for his dog, a Dalmatian, that sends us out of the theatre light-hearted.
But Goldman, as a playwright, is almost trying to do too much. And unless you are deeply versed in O’Neill’s life and plays, some of this material will seem disjointed, even obscure. The entire piece needs more focus. As it stands now, it’s a rambling lecture with some spellbinding moments, fascinating and definitely worthwhile for O’Neill fans.
Begotten: O’Neill and the Harbor of Masks continues playing in the Kogod Cradle, Mead Center for the Performing Arts, 1101 6th Street SW, Washington, DC
April 28 at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.; and April 29 at 2:00 p.m.
Details and tickets.
Begotten: O’Neill and the Harbor of Masks
An original work written and directed by Derek Goldman
Produced by Arena Stage in partnership with Georgetown University as part of The Eugene O’Neill Festival
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
Running time: About 1 hour and 20 minutes. No intermission.