Sunday, February 10, 2013

On the Power of Language

I continue to reflect on the amazingly powerful production of A Long Day's Journey Into Night at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. (Previous post 1 and post 2.)

As I said in those earlier posts the power of a great American stage play needs the power of the actors to make it believable, of course. Stiff or poor acting would get in the way of the intensity and emotion of the drama. The audience has to accept that his is not just a play- but that it is reality being acted out for them. We know that the people on stage are not really the characters, but you sure have a tough time convincing your brain of that in a great production like the Guthrie's of O'Neill's Pulitzer Prize winning play.

As I continued my reflection's this past week, another item struck me. This has to do with Eugene O'Neill's amazing ability with words. The play was originally written in the 1940s and not produced until the 1950s about a day in 1912.. In many ways that was a really different time, even in drama. The acceptance and use of "vulgarity" was quite low. Thus the language that O'Neill had at his disposal was very different than if he were writing today. For reality's sake today that play would include a lot of strong language, i.e. the F-bomb. We have seen that in movies and stage plays quite regularly. It makes the language more "realistic" and the settings seem more contemporary. We may also hear that to use these strong words would help get the intensity of emotion across.

That wasn't acceptable in O'Neill's time, or even perhaps in the family at the time the action is supposed to be taking place. So O'Neill had to do something remarkable- he had to get that intense feeling across in his non-obscene dialogue. The characters had to let us know the amazing depth of their feelings and the devastating intensity of their lives with how they spoke, interacted, reacted and described their feelings. Instead of saying they felt like ----, they had to explain it so we would know how they felt, and allow it to penetrate us. O'Neill, like any great playwright mastered that and then some. Which is why he won four Pulitzer Prizes for drama!

But, again, to give the Guthrie crew their due, if these actors couldn't bring those characters to life, we would have walked out of the theater with a feeling or two, but not so wrung out by what we had just seen. The actors needed us to know those feelings and express them in inflection, actions, body posture, stage movement, etc. They were not just going through the motions- they were living them.

I don't know how they do it, actually. They have to walk off that stage and back into their own lives- and then get ready to do it again that evening or the next day. What class and motivation.

Thank you for an amazing experience.

Here are two videos of scenes:

And a video interview from Twin Cities Live with the two actors who play the brothers: LINK

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