Monday, April 2, 2018

Welded by Eugene O’Neill

Great playwright, terrible play
Eugene O’Neill
Eugene O’Neill, winner of the 1936 Nobel Prize in Literature and highly regarded as one of America’s greatest playwrights, has a good 10 or 12 masterpieces in his body of work. Amidst all the greatness, however, lie quite a few shorter and lesser-known works of variable quality. Fans of O’Neill’s work might derive some pleasure in investigating some of these obscure dramas. You never know what you’re going to get, and the element of surprise adds to the enjoyment. His 1924 play entitled Welded, however, is one case where that strategy definitely does not pay off. This dismal three-acter might just be the lauded playwright’s worst effort.

Welded is the portrait of a marriage between a playwright, Michael Cape, and his actress wife, Eleonore. Given the subject matter, there’s likely an autobiographical component to this story, but one shudders to think what O’Neill’s wife must have done to him to produce this disaster. In the first act, the couple have a vicious argument. Michael has a very romantic conception of what the ideal marriage should be like, and he has little tolerance for any instance when his own wedlock should fall short of this perfect love. Needless to say, Eleonore finds it hard to live up to such unreasonable standards of blissful devotion. Michael is so insecure about their relationship’s imperfections that he is insanely jealous, and the fact that his wife had relations with other men before he met her is something he just can’t deal with. Furthermore, Eleonore’s acting career is built upon the plays that Michael wrote for her, so he has that to lord over her. By the end of the first act, the two are flinging insulting invective back and forth, and the end of their union seems imminent. In act two, man and wife each immediately go out and carry on exactly the way one would expect clichéd representatives of their genders to behave.

Though likely intended to be a deep study of marital dynamics, Welded reads more like the transcript of a role-playing session in couples therapy gone wrong. An inordinate amount of text is taken up with stage directions, all body language and pregnant pauses, to the point where after a while the two leads aren’t even allowed to complete a sentence. They frequently just shout each others names—“Michael!”, “Nelly!”—or their annoying nicknames for each other—“My lover!”, “My Own!” Though O’Neill is known for his realistic depictions of dysfunctional families, this marriage is overwrought with the high-falutin’ histrionics of a pair of pretentious Romantic poets. The most realistic character in the play is a prostitute who unintentionally and thanklessly acts as the voice of reason.

Welded probably would have added up to about an hour on stage. It would take two extremely attractive actors to make that hour tolerable, and to read it off the page is a very tiresome ordeal best avoided. Think of it this way: I read it so you don’t have to.
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