New York Week – The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O’Neill Volume 1: Early Plays/Lost Plays

We’re back from a whirlwind theatre trip to New York and have a whole week of blog posts and videos about the trip.

The second show holds the distinction of having one of the longest titles in theatrical history – The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O’Neill Volume 1: Early Plays/Lost Plays.

The text of the show was comprised entirely of stage directions from Eugene O’Neill’s plays. For example:

Rose Thomas, a dark-haired young woman looking thirty but really only twenty-two, is discovered sitting on the chair smoking a cheap Virginia cigarette. An empty beer bottle and a dirty glass stand on the table beside her. Her hat, a gaudy, cheap affair with a scraggy, imitation plume, is also on the table. Rose is dressed in the tawdry extreme of fashion. She has earrings in her ears, bracelets on both wrists, and a quantity of rings – none of them genuine. Her face is that of a person in an advanced stage of consumption – deathly pale with hollows in under the eyes, which are wild and feverish. Her attitude is one of the deepest dejection. When she glances over at the bed, however, her expression grows tenderly maternal. From time to time she coughs – a harsh, hacking cough that shakes her whole body. After these spells she raises her handkerchief to her lips – then glances at it fearfully.

Here’s what we thought of the show:


Craig: Hey! We’re Theatrefolk!

Lindsay: Hello!

Craig: And we’re still on our New York trip and today we wanted to talk about a show we saw last night. Now, I remember in university when we read Long Day’s Journey Into Night, what I remember most about it actually was the stage directions by Eugene O’Neill, and how specific the stage directions were. In particular, what I really remember was pages at the beginning of the script, before anyone even spoke, detailing the set and what the room looked like. And I rec all – now, correct me if I’m wrong – but the stage directions actually list the books that are on the bookshelf and the order that they’re on the bookshelf in.

Lindsay: Not that we’re ever going to see them.

Craig: Yeah, not that they ever appear in the play or whatnot. But just that’s how specific Eugene O’Neill’s stage directions were. And so, we were so excited that we got to see a show that was completely Eugene O’Neill’s stage directions…

Lindsay: Completely.

Craig: …brought to life on the stage, and that show is called The Complete and what?

Lindsay: The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O’Neill Volume 1 – Early Plays / Lost Plays.

Craig: Yes. So, that was put on by a group that we’ve talked about before, the New York Neo-Futurists, and it was done at the Kraine Theatre down in East Village.

Lindsay: So, here’s some examples of some of the stage directions that Eugene O’Neill put into his early works and what is so fascinating actually, one of the fascinating things about this play was that, because it was just stage directions, sometimes you’re sitting there going, “What on earth would the dialogue be? If these are the stage directions, what’s going on in the dialogue?”

Craig: Yes, they only performed the stage directions so they would just skip over the dialogue that was in the script.

Lindsay: So, some of these plays are like from The Web which was from 1913, Thirst which was from 1913 which had this gem of stage direction, “the sun glares down overhead like a great angry eye of God.” That’s the stage direction. You, all you actors out there, you go act that. Please go act that. And then, this one, which is a character direction, some of the ones, Bound East For Cardiff, 1914, and now, I ask you, has this description of the heroine, Lucy, “She is slender, dark, beautiful with large eyes which she attempts to keep always mysterious and brooding; smiling lips which she resoutly compresses to express melancholy; determination; a healthy complexion subdued by powder to a proper prison pallor; and a vigorous life body which frets restlessly between the restriction of studied artificial movements.” That’s what we’re working with here.

So, I think, in my opinion of the play, is that I think that it was a fascinating idea, a great idea, an idea well-worth exploring and it failed execution. I do not think that it was successful because they had the work, they had the stage directions, and I don’t feel that the production went anywhere with them. It was an hour and a half and we were in the same position in minute one as we were in minute ninety.

Craig: I felt that, too. I felt that the execution, particularly at the beginning of the play, there was a narrator who would read these stage directions and then the cast would execute them as it went along. And, at the beginning of the play, the narrator would read the stage directions and the cast would kind of do this little scramble thing to kind of bring the stage direction to life no matter how bizarre or ridiculous the stage direction was, and that was funny. But that notion got dropped as the play went on and there was no real build so I didn’t know what the… I loved the concept, I loved that they were bringing this stuff to life, but I didn’t see how it was a play in and of itself.

But the quietness of the piece was probably one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen in theatre where, I believe there’s a character who shoots herself, and then, Eugene O’Neill calls for a three-minute silence, a three-minute blackout.

Lindsay: Three minutes.

Craig: And they executed an exact three-minute blackout on stage.

Lindsay: And I have full appreciation and full kudos for the Neo-Futurists. They could have cut it short. They could have left a light. They could have done many things to cheat that. No no! We sat in the dark for three minutes. And half of the most fascinating part of that was the audience reaction.

Craig: Yeah. I think if the doctor would tell you you had three minutes to live, you would think that’s a very short time. But I promise you, if you have three minutes to live, spend it in a theatre in the darkness. It was the most phenomenal experience I’ve ever felt. The audience would alternately laugh, they would become uncomfortable, it would get silent, there would be coughing, and then we would start laughing again and it just seemed to go on forever and ever and ever! And it was 180 seconds, a straight 180, three-minute pause. But it felt like hours and hours and hours and that really was a phenomenal lesson to anyone writing stage directions.

Lindsay: So, in the end, I think this was a fantastic exploration, a fantastic experiment. I don’t think it was successful but I applaud fully. I’m so glad that they did it and I’m so glad that I saw it. Thank you very much!

Craig: I very much agree. Very glad that I saw it but I’m not sure it was a play.

About the author

Craig Mason