Nobody, I sincerely hope, will ever revive Jesse Lynch Williams’s Why Marry?, a slick, inanely talky comedy, flirting vapidly with “advanced” ideas, that became, in 1918, the first play ever awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. But a few choice passages from it, for which I regrettably have no space here, would handily demonstrate the quantum jump that American drama took when the second Pulitzer for Drama was awarded, two years later, to Eugene O’Neill’s Beyond the Horizon (Irish Rep).
Early and seriously flawed, stilted in language and overexplained, O’Neill’s drama remains powerful even so. And Ciaran O’Reilly’s revival—plain, squarely built, acted with nail-on-the-head conventionality—confronts it honestly, letting the young O’Neill take the lumps for all his shortcomings, as well as full credit for all the dark power that lurches up, with roaring unexpectedness, from beneath its contrived surface, like a sleeping bear accidentally stumbled over in the woods.
In O’Neill’s late masterpieces, the dark power would dominate the stage. Yet Beyond the Horizon shows that both the power and the tortured emotional matrix that generated it were already in place, just not yet fully perceived. Two brothers, one soulful and bookish (Lucas Hall), one earthy and adventurous (Rod Brogan), love the same girl (Wrenn Schmidt), clash for opposite reasons with the same stern father (David Sitler), and are doted on by the same unsparingly fond mother (Johanna Leister). Leave out the girl, add multiple facets to deepen the other roles, and Long Day’s Journey is right there waiting for you. Two additional characters, a nagging invalid mother-in-law (Patricia Conolly) and a roistering, wayward uncle (John Thomas Waite), seem to embody missing facets of the parents’ roles, as well as adumbrating other O’Neill couples to come, like Sid and Lily in Ah, Wilderness!
Stark and increasingly bleak, the action takes unexpected turns. The bookish brother gets both the girl and the family farm, turning both into disasters; meantime the earthy brother makes an equivalent mess of his worldly success. O’Neill’s sense of reality outpaces the tidy dramaturgy as forcefully as his passion slices through the clunky language. The negativity that weaves across the final scenes, not lacking in bitter jokes, even offers a foretaste of Beckett, who would surely have applauded O’Neill’s jaw-dropping final stroke: The play ends on an unfinished sentence. I wish some 1920s photographer had caught the look on the Pulitzer jury members’ faces as the curtain came down.