Late in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Eugene O’Neill’s final play, Edmund, O’Neill’s dramatic stand-in, describes his sensations on the deck of a Buenos Aires-bound ship. “For a moment, I lost myself,” Edmund says. “I was set free! I dissolved in the sea, became white sails and flying spray, became beauty and rhythm, became moonlight and the ship and the high dim-starred sky!”
That shipboard lyricism occurs less frequently in O’Neill’s Early Plays, a collection of three one-acts at St. Ann’s Warehouse, directed by Rich Maxwell and starring a company assembled from the Wooster Group and Maxwell’s own New York City Players. In Moon of the Caribbees (1918), Bound East for Cardiff (1914), and The Long Voyage Home (1917), O’Neill drew on his experiences aboard a British tramp steamer to create playlets that blend deliberate realism with maudlin melodrama.
These three works, as well as In the Zone (1917), are often referred to as the S.S. Glencairn plays, though O’Neill conceived them separately and never intended them staged in concert. Running less than half an hour apiece, they offer brief plots—a drunken brawl, the death of one sailor, the shanghai-ing of another. O’Neill esteemed only the last of them, Moon of the Caribbees. “No one else in the world could have written that one,” he said.
The Wooster Group has had a long relationship with O’Neill, director Elizabeth LeCompte offering acclaimed stagings of both The Emperor Jones and The Hairy Ape. Maxwell, however, doesn’t seem to have a previous engagement with the playwright and has only recently returned to directing plays other than his own.
Both the New York City Players and the Wooster Group demand and reward heightened audience engagement, even as they employ different techniques. The Woosters dissect plays and then reassemble them, often mashing them together with another work or with video components in an approach that is both coolly distancing and highly visceral. Maxwell, on the other hand, prefers a kind of radical stripping away, removing much in the way of intonation and stage action, asking audiences to supply the emotional content themselves.
It’s not entirely clear why LeCompte offered these plays to Maxwell, save that his own works reveal similar strains of melodrama and melancholy. Rather than a merging of the two styles, Early Plays presents a chance to see the Woosters adopting Maxwell’s dramatic vocabulary. Maxwell told The New York Times that during rehearsals, “When I see a Richard Maxwell style I want to fix it.” But the actors seem to have adopted it nevertheless. With the exception of a dance scene, they reject unnecessary motion and speak O’Neill’s overcooked dialect—“Py yingo,” “Wot a bloody lark”—just as it appears on the page, rather than undergirding it with accents.
This encourages audiences to laugh at the scripts more often than laugh with them. Indeed, it sometimes seems as though the actors are enjoying themselves at the expense of O’Neill’s attempts to find his voice, though a few—Ari Fliakos, Jim Fletcher—dig deeper. Yet how deep can they go? These plays are shallow dramatic waters, awkward in construction, clumsy in writerly execution. Often the one-acts seem most significant for the ways in which they prefigure later works. One sailor, Yank, suggests The Hairy Ape; a dockside tavern and its bar girls forecast The Iceman Cometh and Anna Christie.
Early Plays proves visually arresting, with a set borrowed from the Woosters’ earlier O’Neill forays and the cast attired in costumes that split the difference between shipboard gear and Williamsburg chic. But only in the sea shanties—one a standard that O’Neill includes, three supplied by Maxwell—does the world of these short works ever threaten to overtake you. It’s a clever show and sometimes a startlingly charming one, but it never argues for its own necessity, never clarifies what drew these companies to it. Unlike Long Day’s Journey’s Edmund, you don’t feel the spray from your seat or scent the salt tang, and you certainly won’t dissolve into the action. O’Neill said of these scripts that the “spirit of the sea” was their hero. But in Maxwell’s wry vision, this is drier stuff.