Northampton expands the repertory with O’Neill’s long journey and Tennessee Williams on the unkindness of families.
“It feels like doing new plays by two masters,” says Laurie Sansom, “family dramas by expert playwrights.”
Sansom, Artistic Director at Northampton’s Royal and Derngate, is expanding the repertoire by looking beyond the famous, familiar titles to produce two plays from some eighty and one hundred years ago, from the early work of two big names in 20th-century American drama. Beyond the Horizon (1918) was the first theatrical success of that poet of the sea and alcoholic voyages, Eugene O’Neill, whose life’s work culminated in the mammoth binge-drink The Iceman Cometh and the drink-and-drug-fuelled, autobiographically tinged Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
Horizon is the story of the Mayo brothers, part of a New England farming family – the febrile and poetic Robert Michael Malarkey) who’s due, as the play opens, to set off and sail the world, and practical Andrew (Michael Thomson), staying at home to manage the family’s land. The night before he’s due to set sail, Robert has an encounter with Ruth (Liz White), the young woman both brothers love, which leads to a sudden switch, with Robert staying at home while Andrew takes his berth.
As time passes, Ruth’s feelings change; what she thought was love for Robert turns out a response to his poetic sensibility on the night before his voyage. But Andrew no longer has any feelings for her when he returns to find the land decaying. By then the brothers have wrecked their lives by going against their dreams and their natures.
The tubercular Robert has more than a touch of the poet, O’Neill in him. For all his suffering, says Sansom, “he reaches some kind of spiritual understanding and a peace in resigning himself to his fate.” For Robert has a vision of life beyond the horizon and of escaping the restrictions of a little life. And the theme of personal passions bursting out against a restrictive society binds these often very different plays.
Ruth was perceived unsympathetically by early audiences. But O’Neill provides evidence to counter this view. “Ruth looks after her wheelchair-bound, widowed mother. And she knows herself when she makes her decision, going through a process of self-realisation.”
It’s Andrew who might, on the surface, seem to come out of things least scarred. Not so, says Sansom. “Andrew is the true failure. He is hiding from himself for years and ends up out of touch with who he is. His life comes to be all about ownership and possession. Yet be fails through a stock-market crash. “So the brothers swap lives, living contrary to their dreams and ideals.”
That’s their tragedy, and Beyond the Horizon, a Pulitzer prize-winner, “is the beginning of O’Neill experimenting with a new kind of American tragedy, formulating his tragic sensibility. It is one of the most relentlessly tragic of all his plays, showing his interest in spiritual awakening and self-realisation through acute suffering.” No slouch in his own right when it came to tragic force, O’Neill was fortified at the time by reading late 19th-century German tragic philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
Success and Failure
The play’s success contrasts the long-term fate of the other ‘Young America’ piece. Yet Tennessee Williams’ Spring Storm, from twenty years later, has more variety and comic energy, “a more spiky and changeable tone with comedy and some absurd characters.”
And it’s crammed with hints of Tennessee plays to come; “it was some years before he returned to this kind of material, in The Glass Menagerie.” Menagerie’s maternal monster Amanda Wingfield is heralded in Spring Storm’s Mrs Critchfield (Jacqueline King), while young Heavenly Critchfield (Liz White) could sit for an early portrait of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. Blanche’s story of her young, gay husband who shot himself and her words to him, “You disgust me” are prefigured here. The words carried a scarred significance for Williams, who linked them to his guilt over a cruel comment he had made to his sister Rose before the breakdown that led to her undergoing a lobotomy.
As with O’Neill’s Robert, Williams puts himself into his play, in rich young Arthur Shannon (Michael Malarkey), “an aspiring writer who is gay but has not realised it and is traumatised by his experience with girls. He’s obsessed about marrying Heavenly, as she used to call him a cissy in the playground. Yet Arthur can be ludicrous at times; there’s a very funny scene as Heavenly tries to get him to make love to her. It’s remarkable how honest Tennessee Williams is, very early in his career, putting himself at the centre.”
And, remarkable though it seems in hindsight, in 1938 the playwright had every reason to project himself into the character of a failed writer. It suggests a fear that must have seemed confirmed when Spring Storm could not even make it into production.
The play’s portrayal of Port Tyler, Mississippi, also opens out the class system on three levels. “There are the aristocratic families, plantation owners with genealogies, who don’t have to try to have status – the Shannons. Then there are the middle-class, the Critchfields, aspiring to aristocracy. And the lowest level, the White working-class, like Dick and Hertha.”
This third tier was seen as a danger by the others. There had been a surge of immigrants after World War I. “While the Black population remained near-slaves, with no vote, the Whites did have a vote – and a vested interest in breaking the ‘slave’ economy. This class structure puts tension on the lovers.”
It’s easy to see how discontented Dick Miles (Michael Thomson) might be a threat, for Heavenly’s attracted to this worker who seeks escape from Port Tyler’s restrictive code by a job on the river levee project. But local librarian Hertha Neilson (Anna Tolputt)? “She is a threat as she and Arthur Shannon share an interest in art and are very good friends.” Sansom sees in Hertha a portrait of Rose Williams, someone on the edge of sanity. And roses, he points out, are mentioned a lot in Spring Storm.
Heavenly has help from her aunt. “Lila is an old maiden aunt, but she has charm and sophistication and is unconventional. She helps Heavenly steer her course. There’s comedy between Aunt Lila (Joanna Bacon) and Mrs Critchfield, who is a social snob – tracing her genealogy back to the Civil War is very important to her, while Lila doesn’t think Mrs Critchfield should interfere with the young people.” Though kindly, she can be shrewdly critical, telling “The young ones, the kids like you, they think the sun won’t rise tomorrow unless they get what they want.”
American and Young
The ‘Young America’ season takes its name not just from the plays’ geographical spread – O’Neill’s Connecticut contrasted by Williams’ Mississippi – but also from their focus on youth. There’s the springtime of the year in Williams, whose early idea was to call the piece April is the Cruellest Month, the opening line of T S Eliot’s Waste Land. The play is set in April and is influenced by Spring Awakening, German playwright Frank Wedekind’s tragedy of adolescent sexuality facing adult oppression.
Most importantly, “both plays are about young people. Both look at what pulls young people and makes them explore and make their fortune” (in the sense of destiny rather than wealth). And both have a character (Robert, Dick) who is desperate to escape their home environment.
At Northampton Sara Perks’ set designs provide the same flooring for both plays. But anyone who’s seen her clean, minimalist setting for the O’Neill may return surprised to find the more elaborate set for Spring Storm. The storm idea is evident and – fitting Sansom’s view of Williams’ self-exposure – the ‘author’ is a character added to the production,. “as if we’re waking the play up.”
It contains two physical storms, while the idea’s also a metaphor for the emotions underlying the action. “In rehearsals we’ve asked ourselves whose storm it is at any one time,” Sansom says.
He believes people will find both plays provide gripping stories behind the unfamiliar titles; stories “that will speak to people now and make a great night out.”
Northampton’s YOUNG AMERICA season opens on 22 October running to 14 November. The repertoire is:
Beyond the Horizon: 7.45pm on 24, 27, 29, 30 Oct; 4, 7, 9, 10, 12, 13 Nov.
Mat 2pm 31 Oct; 5, 14 Nov.
Spring Storm: 7.45pm 22, 23, 26, 28, 31 Oct; 2, 3, 5, 6, 11, 14 Nov.
Mat 2pm 29 Oct; 7, 12 Nov.
TICKETS: 01604 624811