Friday, April 1, 2022

More Stately Mansions

If you haven't yet seen A Touch of the Poet at Irish Rep, you should go. It's a chance to see a magnificent production of a classic play by Eugene O'Neill.

Originally O'Neill envisioned A Touch of the Poet as part of a cycle of plays dealing with American history. It was to be followed by a play called More Stately Mansions. Before he died, O'Neill destroyed his latest manuscript of that play, but an earlier typescript remained, which was published posthumously.

More Stately Mansions takes its title from the poem "The Chambered Nautilus" by Oliver Wendell Holmes. The play even quotes the final stanza of the poem:

          Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
          As the swift seasons roll!
          Leave thy low-vaulted past!
          Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
          Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
          Till thou at length art free,
          Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!

Two characters, Sara and Deborah, spend the play urging their beloved Simon to build more stately mansions, but of very different kinds. Sara, Simon's wife, is focused on his commercial success, and a literal mansion he is to build. Simon's mother, Deborah, is focused instead on mansions of the imagination, even if they ultimately lead to death and madness.

The poet who truly holds sway, however, is not Holmes, but Lord Byron, whom the characters quote at length, just as Sara's father Con quoted him in A Touch of the Poet. Simon once tried to be a poet, though he probably would only have ended up being a second-rate Byron, writing poetry derivative of what he read in his youth. Instead, he turns to the figure of Napoleon, a man Byron once admired, but Simon attempts to be a Napoleon of business rather than a general.

Ultimately, his business ventures fail, and Simon and his family end up in the cabin on the farm where he first met Sara. O'Neill implies that this is where Simon belonged all along, living the simple life in touch with nature and detached from earthly greed.

Had O'Neill lived longer and been in better health, he probably would have revised the play and trimmed some of its longer passages. As it currently exists, it is far too long for production, and even a cut version staged on Broadway in 1967 proved too excessive for audiences.

That production did boast performances, though, by Ingrid Bergman, Arthur Hill, and Coleen Dewhurst, pictured below. That must have been quite a show to see!