Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Straw by Eugene O'Neill

Love in the sanatorium
Eugene O’Neill wrote some of the finest plays in the history of the American theatre, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946 and four Pulitzers. His works combine gripping drama with a frank, naturalistic realism, often depicting ordinary people caught up in extraordinary situations. Even for those who’ve never seen one of his dramas performed on the stage, his writing retains its power when read from the printed page—usually. I have read about a dozen of his plays and have always been impressed by his better-known works, such as The Hairy Ape and The Iceman Cometh. The Straw, originally published in 1919, is not one of his better-known works. It is, however, one of the few O’Neill plays that’s in the public domain, and therefore available for free download from Amazon or Project Gutenberg. While you certainly can’t argue with the price of admission, the question remains, is it worth your time?

With three acts consisting of five scenes, The Straw is considered a full-length play, but it’s not a terribly long one. In book form it weighs in at a little over 100 pages. It opens, like many O’Neill works, with the obligatory Irish alcoholic. Carmody is a bit of a hairy ape himself—brutish and uncouth, but capable of artful guile when it serves his purposes. A widower, he is left with five children, most of whom are barely characters in the story. His eldest daughter Eileen, however, is the star of the show. She is clearly the brightest tool in this shed, but unfortunately she has problems with her physical health. Diagnosed with tuberculosis, her doctor recommends she be moved into a sanatorium for rest, recovery, and observation. Eileen is engaged to be married, and the thought of being separated from her fiancé saddens her, but he is turned off by her illness and finds the distance liberating. Fortunately for her, upon arriving at the facility she meets a dashing aspiring writer who takes her mind off her troubles.

Just a couple generations ago, tuberculosis was an everyday fact of life in America. At the time this play was written, most audience members likely would have known someone who spent time in a sanatorium. For today’s readers, on the other hand, it’s a situation that’s tough to identify with. One can’t help but see it as merely a convenient but less-than-clever device to get Eileen away from her boyfriend and into close proximity with another man. Reading this play reminded me that theatre was the television of the early 20th century, and 90% of what’s on television is mediocre at best. The Straw is not a terrible play, but there’s certainly nothing special about it. The plot is neither entirely comic nor tragic, but an odd combination of the worst melodramatic elements of both. It’s a rare substandard effort from O’Neill.

I have no idea to what the title of the play refers. I don’t recall the word “straw” being mentioned at all in the text, and all the “straw” phrases I can think of—the last straw, the straw that broke the camel’s back, grasping at straws, drawing the short straw—don’t really apply. Obviously the title gave me no indication of what the work was about; I simply went into this one cold and without a clue. Sometimes it’s rewarding to approach an unknown work by an acclaimed author, as the result is often a pleasant surprise. This is not one of those times.

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