Orderly Anarchisms

This is most true in the long second-act scene between Tom and his father. O'Neill spent nearly his entire career seesawing his male parent figures between Ephraim Cabot and Nat Miller, trying to find some image of a father who wasn't either a tyrannizing bully or a gooey-hearted sitcom pop. The Personal Equation reveals, ironically, that he had a fully achieved version of the father-son relationship playing in his head from the start; he wrote it down for Pierce Baker's class in terse, lucid, uninflated language. The engineer's alcoholic bonhomie, the feelings of inadequacy and shyness it masks; his son's resentful defiance, coupled with his unconscious impulse to emulate the father's failings in his own generation's way; the shared sense of a poisonous family pride, seeing the world as a conspiracy against the clan—the scene wraps them all in a neat bundle, of a kind O'Neill wouldn't achieve again till he depicted his father much more literally as Long Day's Journey's James Tyrone.

The metaphor he chose carries its own ironies. Most people think of actors as having an artistic, not a mechanical, sensibility, and being fairly independent-minded figures. In portraying his father as a servile conformist who preferred tending machinery to human contact, O'Neill was serving notice not only on his parent but on the whole carpentered and contrived 19th-century stage, and on the cartel of money-minded producers who controlled it, the American theater's equivalent of the play's "shipping combine." (Four years later, the laborers it exploited would finally rebel, in a famous strike action, and defend themselves by founding Actors Equity.)

Having experienced England's 1911 General Strike during his seagoing time, O'Neill had every reason to be skeptical about the outcome of labor agitation: In his version, the anarchists' hopes are dashed when the advent of World War I divides the crew along lines of nationality. He's even percipient enough to notate his own fascination with the hokey, mechanized theater that made his father a star. When Perkins senior apologizes for his inability to talk about anything but engines, Tom replies, "Ah, I like to hear about them well enough, when you're not so technical I can't follow you." O'Neill will go on, in 1928, to create Dynamo, a play in which the father is long dead, and the engine-worshiper is the deranged son. It's one of the most peculiar, and embarrassing, plays ever written by a dramatist of major stature—proof that the melodramatic brain-damage metaphor, too, was truer than the boy playwright of 1915 realized. The beauty and triumph of O'Neill's late plays is that you can watch as he talks his way toward healing the damage; this early, crude lump of a work holds inside it the ringing announcement that such healing is possible.

Ralph Waite in The Personal Equation: engineering a theatrical takeover
photo: Brian Byrne
Ralph Waite in The Personal Equation: engineering a theatrical takeover

You may find it hard to hear, though: Despite the presence of a few good actors, Stephen Kennedy Murphy's flaccid production seems to put all its efforts toward muffling the playwright's voice. I understand all about Downtown budgets and time commitments, I'm grateful that admission is free and that we have the chance to see this rarity. But surely, for a world premiere of a work by Eugene O'Neill, New York could provide a better cast than this. Ralph Waite and Daniel McDonald make what they can of engineer and son under the dispiriting circumstances; they get some help from Steve Brady as the inevitable anarchist plotter with the foreign accent (I keep thinking of him as "Mr. Verloc"), and rather more from Con Horgan as the ship's most pugnacious stoker—O'Neill's first sketch of the character who evolved into the hero of The Hairy Ape.

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