Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The O'Neill: The Transformation of Modern Theater
By Jeffrey Sweet
Yale University Press

This coffee-table sized book is a solid history of an important institution in 20th century dramatic arts, even if it doesn't quite merit the grandiose subtitle (embarrassingly common these days, and I sympathize. The writer probably isn't responsible for it.)

 It's a 50th anniversary account of an institution--the Eugene O'Neill Center-- that began inventing itself in the late 1960s, in Waterford, Connecticut. The O'Neill began with the intention of nurturing new playwrights and new plays, which was not then the formal function of any other institution outside of a few university classes. This evolved into the National Playwrights Conference, held for a month every summer. Other programs were added over the years, and this book chronicles them.

 The proximity of New York and also of Yale Drama were crucial, as some of the best young actors in the country came up to be an intimate part of the process. (Two of the earliest, Michael Douglas and Meryl Streep, provide prefaces.) The O'Neill is young enough that many present at the creation, including its founder George White, were available to be interviewed for this volume.  Sweet reports the story, and includes theatre lore to satisfy that appetite as well.

Under the leadership of  Lloyd Richards, the playwrights conference evolved into both a model and a unique experience. Many new playwrights thrived there, including its most famous alum, August Wilson.  I attended two weeks of the 1991 conference for a Smithsonian Magazine article and saw how well it worked, and felt the personal bonds that it made and that nourished its success.  For actors who went there every year (like John Seitz, who I interviewed and who is mentioned in this volume as having his ashes scattered there) it was a holy place, and participating was "renewing my vows."

Since this was the first of the O'Neill programs and the most influential, Sweet begins with it.  He punctuates this narrative with chapters on other programs (National Theatre for the Deaf, the critics institute, etc.) though following the death of August Wilson with the Cabaret and Performance Conference is more than a little jarring.

When I was there in 1991, the O'Neill and the Playwrights Conference specifically were already encountering financial problems, and a certain anxiety accompanied that summer's activities.  There was a particularly strong feeling of appreciation for what it was, since it seemed it might not last.

In fact the conference did undergo changes after Lloyd Richards left, many of them for reasons related to money.  One year there wasn't enough to fund the open submission policy that was the heart if not the soul of the conference, but loud clamors of opposition to the change brought it back.  Thanks to a fund set up by former O'Neill employee and playwright Wendy Wasserstein, and initially financed largely by Meryl Streep, the resources necessary to continue that process are safe, this book says, for a long time to come.

But it does seem that the power has shifted towards the commercial theatre, particularly musical theatre, even within the O'Neill.  This reflects a long trend in American theatre as much as the growth of university playwriting programs.  Dramatists are now more likely to find creative homes as well as financial support in television, as was even the case among the 1991 playwrights I met and followed.

I hope this book inspires more books and different books (with additional photographs that exist) that delve into the history and the magic of the O'Neill, and such extraordinary figures as Lloyd Richards, George White and Edith Oliver.  My two weeks there were among the most memorable of my life.  Just the theatrical stories told by participants and visitors in the Blue Genes cafe would fill volumes.  In the meantime this book is a very good start.  

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