VENICE, Calif. — Like much of Eugene O’Neill, A Touch of the Poet is talky and redundant. It could have used a good editor. If staged as written, in four acts, it could be a very long evening in the theatre, tolerable only with the brightest stars in the three lead roles. (In this production there was one intermission.) It was originally intended as one of a long series of plays on American history, but only this one survives.
This is a late work, first staged in 1958 only after O’Neill’s death in 1953. Its Broadway premiere at the Helen Hayes Theatre starred the aging grande dame of American theatre herself, Helen Hayes, as the wife Nora in a submissive role unlike those magisterial portrayals she had offered her adoring public throughout a long career. Not among O’Neill’s most popular works, it has had only four Broadway productions, at approximately ten-year intervals. It’s understandable why.
Yet it cannot be dismissed either. O’Neill, after all, was a four-time Pulitzer Prize winner, and in 1936 won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the only American playwright ever to have done so. Many early plays, such as The Hairy Ape, recently produced to stunning effect in Los Angeles, showed him as an original and explosive talent.
One of the standard characteristics of an O’Neill play is his rumination on the effects of prodigious alcohol consumption in his family history, and in this play O’Neill does not shrink from the powerful draw of this theme. Known as really the first American playwright to go beyond inherited European dramatic models of melodrama and almost single-handedly establish a national theatre tradition, he is also aware of his Irishness. In Touch, however, a great deal of the “national” identity is subsumed in the lead character’s egregious treatment of women — his long-suffering wife and his headstrong daughter — and the boastfulness, nostalgic regret, drinking and street brawling for which the Irish in America became stereotyped.
Nor is this the Irishness of national liberation, a centuries-long story with equal parts tragedy and valor. Actually, the protagonist is a former officer in the British royal forces during the Napoleonic Era, who fought in Spain and was recognized by none other than Wellington for his bravery. To put it baldly, he was an Irishman who identified with the aristocracy and fought on the side of his British colonial oppressor to put down a man — contradictory as Napoleon was — who to millions of people represented liberty and the downfall of monarchies. “I have no future but the past,” he says.
The Byron-quoting Cornelius Melody (Matt McKenzie), now reduced to operating a modest bar, lives off his memories of military success in defense of reaction, even as those around him, his fellow Irishmen in America and his own daughter, love the Napoleonic gesture. O’Neill uses this contrast, as well as the use or the abandonment of the Irish brogue, as a symbol of immigration and assimilation, the values of the Old World and the New.
The setting is an unpretentious tavern outside of Boston that seemingly caters to an Irish-American crowd. All four acts take place in the dining room of the tavern. Upstairs, unseen, are the family living quarters. The year is 1828, specifically July 27th. The coming presidential election is in the forefront of people’s minds. The sitting sixth president, the aristocratic Bostonian John Quincy Adams — son of John Adams, the second president — is seen as out of touch with the common man. Opposing him is the upstart military man, General Andrew Jackson, who went on to win that election and re-election four years later. His term gave us the model of “Jacksonian democracy,” widely heralded as the spirit of the growing middle class, the further opening of the West, and the essential character of the new American republic. Banished forever were the pretenses and privileges of the “better” class of people embodied in the Adams family. Jackson’s image is on the $20 bill. Until recently, and maybe still in some places, Democratic Party fundraisers happily recalled this era by naming their dinners after Jefferson and Jackson.
Yet perceptions change over time. Only in later years the name of Andrew Jackson has come to symbolize not the growing democratization of America but the terrible price our civilization has paid for whatever democracy we have. Jackson himself was a slaveholder, and in the decades before his presidency he was a renowned and enthusiastic mass murderer of Native Americans whom the white Europeans saw as standing in the way of westward settlement. If American capitalism in an expansive phase in the early 19th century gave hope to thousands, later millions of immigrants from Europe, the prosperity they created, the wealth they began to accumulate, was built on an unsteady foundation — the backs of slaves and the natives’ stolen land.
O’Neill’s Irish immigrants in A Touch of the Poet are not thinking about slaves and native land, however. In O’Neill’s time the older image of Jackson still prevailed. This refraction through the looking glass of history is in part what makes the play less than satisfying today. We squirm at the contradictions of bourgeois democracy, finding it difficult to celebrate a populism that is so fatally flawed.
The Nora role premiered by Ms. Hayes is here portrayed by Julia Fletcher with pathetic intensity. We do feel sorry for her, so under the thumb of her drunken, abusive husband whom she nevertheless won’t stop loving, yet the character irretrievably dates the play: It is hard to imagine any woman believably cowering so submissively today. Their daughter Sara (Julia McIlvaine) is the American-born rebel little given to tolerate her father’s many unlovable qualities. While the old married couple are tiresomely stuck in the deep rut of their relationship, which is akin to that of master and slave, Sara holds our interest as the escape out, from Europe, from privilege, from her alcoholic environment, from religious conformity, out into love and the new possibilities of the young nation. She believes she “could be happy with enough and not more.”
And yet, just when it looks like she’s going to make the big break with her husband-to-be, it turns out his big opportunity is going to work down South managing a cotton mill. So there you have it: The Jacksonian democratic ideal so soon, so sadly compromised by collaboration with the evil of human bondage, the endless dialectic of America, populism and its bitter fruit.
The play is difficult and not fully rewarding, but the production is as much as one could ask for in the caliber of its brave actors who bring this problematic work to our attention. The seven supporting roles are cast well. I would not say run, run, run to see it, but if you are an O’Neill fan and want to catch a fine cast under Robert Bailey’s able direction of a rarely seen play, you won’t be disappointed.
A Touch of the Poet runs at 8 pm Thurs., Fri. and Sat., and at 3 pm on Sun. through December 18 (No performances Nov. 24-27, Thanksgiving weekend.) Pacific Resident Theatre is located at 703 Venice Blvd. in Venice CA 90291. Tickets can be purchased online at http://www.pacificresidenttheatre.com or by calling (310) 822-8392.