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Sunday, 2 September 2012

The Great God Brown, by Eugene O’Neill, Reviewed

What to say about this piece of classic American literature? The play is presented in six stages; a prologue, four acts, and an epilogue. 

First impressions are that this should have been devised as a film, not a stage play, had that medium been capable at the time. Many of the stage directions (and these are multitude and detailed) would produce results invisible to all but the first few rows in the audience. And some are so specific and precise as to defy execution. It’s as if O’Neill has forgotten that theatre is a collaborative medium relying as much on director and actors as on the text from which the action is driven. I recall, in my early days of writing for radio, being advised that stage directions should be kept to a minimum, the nature of the delivery being evident from the words used in the dialogue.

Parts of the play come over like the tortured polemic of the inebriate, which the drunk generally mistakes for truth. Given that large portions deal with a drunken Dion, this struck me as ironic.

But, the play has a great deal to say and, in spite of its overambitious and sometimes pretentious presentation, it manages to say much of it very well. Written during the great depression, and strongly affected by the religious hypocrisy that remains a pervasive influence over huge swathes of the USA, it deals with the conflict between creativity and money-making. That it is also a love story is what mostly redeems it for me.

The use of masks to illustrate the difference between what is said and what is meant by the various characters is probably very effective on stage, for those at the front of the audience at any rate. I suspect that the subtle changes would be invisible to those paying less for their seats, which is again ironic, given that the play has a good deal to say about the uneven spread of wealth.

I can’t say that I enjoyed reading this text. But I was compelled to read it to the end. I cared about the outcome and was interested in the characters. Ultimately, however, it was a play that left me unsatisfied and, to some extent, confused. I don’t expect it to live in my mind for long and I doubt I’d bother to go to a performance at a theatre. I might be tempted to watch it as a television production, hoping, in that medium, to experience the minutiae that might otherwise be missed on stage.

As a piece of American culture, it exposed, to me, the national obsessions with money, ambition and religious guilt, as well as the inability of some men to separate lust from love. Dion, as the tortured artist came across as more selfish than passionate and Billy, as the face of business, portrayed the greed and self-interest that many find distasteful about the culture of the country. But the players are complex and very human, displaying the characteristics of a society still searching for its identity under the weight of imposed dogmatic religion and the worship of money.

As ever, this is my personal response to a piece of writing. I’ve made no excursions into the multitude of critiques and literary analyses that must have been written on this play. This review is the result of my own experience of reading the text, and probably says as much about me as it does about the work itself. 

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