Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Fountain by Eugene O’Neill

An uncharacteristic foray into romanticism
Eugene O’Neill
For most of his career, Nobel Prize-winning playwright Eugene O’Neill seems to have lived by the familiar adage, “Write what you know.” O’Neill made his name penning plays about sailing, alcoholism, and dysfunctional families—all subjects with which he bore an intimate familiarity. O’Neill is arguably America’s most acclaimed playwright, and the importance of his work to the history of theater is most often credited to his unflinching realism, which was a groundbreaking departure from the melodramatic and farcical productions that previously frequented the American stage. Despite his reputation as America’s premier dramatic realist, however, O’Neill was not afraid to experiment from time to time with subjects and styles father afield, as evidenced by his 1926 play The Fountain, a rather romanticized telling of Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon’s search for the fountain of youth.

The drama opens in a palace in Spain, where Ponce de Leon first hears a moor tell the tale of a magical fountain in Cathay (China) that grants rejuvenation to those who drink from it. With this legend in mind, he travels to the New World with Christopher Columbus’s second voyage, all along chafing at having to serve as underling to the arrogant Genoese captain. Decades later, Ponce de Leon is governor of Puerto Rico, but what he really wants is a grant from the Spanish crown to search for the route to Cathay, in hopes of finding the fountain. O’Neill not only depicts Ponce de Leon’s all-consuming quest for the fountain but also provides a reason for his obsession in the form of a true love that drives the explorer to risk everything for the promise of youth.

Stylistically, The Fountain bears a fair resemblance to one of Shakespeare’s history plays. The narrative is a combination of historical fact and folkloric conjecture. Ponce de Leon is a classic tragic hero who leads an ensemble cast of characters, each with his own motivations that lead to conflicts, alliances, and betrayals which drive the story forward. While a somewhat realistic period piece for much of its length, the narrative becomes more and more romantic towards the end as it focuses more on the love story, ventures into supernatural visions, and hammers home its allegorical statements about love, loss, and the inevitability of fate. Perhaps the most modern aspect of the play is O’Neill’s frank references to the genocide committed by the Spaniards in the New World. He is sympathetic to the plight of the Native Americans and treats his Native characters as complex human beings integral to the story.

Based on its stage directions, The Fountain reads almost as if it were written for the motion picture screen rather than the stage. Complex and lavish sets depicting ships, beaches, and palaces are required, as well as crowds of extras and special effects that seem like they would have been quite difficult to accomplish for 1926. Nevertheless, it was produced, with Walter Huston as Ponce de Leon, but who knows how successful they were in pulling off the sumptuous visual spectacle of the story. Though now a relatively unknown entry in O’Neill’s body of work, its obscurity results from its anomalous style and subject matter compared to the rest of his writing, not because of any lack of literary value or dramatic power. If ever an O’Neill play was ripe for a film adaptation, it’s this one. Until then, it’s simply a good, compelling read.
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