Abortion by Eugene O’Neill, Turned Into A Play About Race

Eugene O'Neill, decades after he wrote "Abortion" in 1914
Eugene O’Neill, decades after he wrote “Abortion” in 1914

Eugene O’Neill wrote “Abortion” exactly a century ago, shortly after he had decided to become a playwright. Director Heather Lanza and producer Taryn A Wisky have chosen to “adapt” O’Neill’s text to create what they call “an original theater piece that aims to put race in the forefront and start a society-wide conversation.” “Abortion: Race Redux” runs through Sunday, August 24, as part of the 2014 Dream Up Festival at the Theater for the New City.

If it’s not a production I can recommend, it is nevertheless a thought-provoking experiment .

Clint Hromsco and Damon Trammell in "Abortion" at Dream Up Festival
Clint Hromsco and Damon Trammell in “Abortion: A Race Redux” adapted form Eugene O’Neill’s play at Dream Up Festival

Jack Townsend is a college hero. He is captain of the baseball team, a pitcher who, as O’Neill’s one-act play begins, has just won for his team the championship. We are introduced to a classmate, his sister, his mother, and his fiancé Evelyn – all of them adoring. The only initial indication we’re given that something might be awry (besides the title) is the appearance of a character named Joe Murray, who asks angrily where Jack is, and promises to return. Jack, when he finally appears on stage, is affable, modest, attentive. His father arrives, all avuncular and charming, waxing nostalgic for his own college days.
“Come to the point, Dad,” Jack says impatiently when they are alone.
That’s when they talk about the abortion.
“Everything is all right,” Jack says
“When was the operation performed, “his father inquires. (The word “abortion” is not uttered by any character in “Abortion.”)
“Last Monday,” Jack says.
“…Are you sure, absolutely sure, you were the father of this child which would have been born to her?”
“Yes, I am certain of it…. To even think such is an insult to a sweet girl….For she is a sweet, lovely girl in spite of everything, and if I had loved her the least particle, if I had not been in love with Evelyn, I should certainly have married her.”
Neither father nor son mention the woman’s name.
We learn her name is Nellie from her brother, Joe Murray, who returns to inform Jack, that, as a result of the abortion (performed of course illegally, for $200, by the only doctor Jack could find to do it), his sister Nellie has died.
“Yuh sneaked out like a coward because yuh thought she wasn’t good enough. Yuh think yuh c’n get away with that stuff and then marry some goil of your own kind,” he says (The dialect is O’Neill’s attempt to reproduce New England working class speech.)
Murray pulls out a gun, but after a scuffle, changes his mind and decides he will go to the police. “Yuh’re not worth gittin’ hung for.”
Jack takes the gun and shoots himself.

O’Neill reportedly couldn’t get “Abortion” produced, even when his famous actor father agreed to perform in it, which may have more to do with a subject that was taboo in 1914 than the quality of its writing. The play apparently remained unperformed and unpublished for decades. In 1950, its copyright had lapsed, O’Neill having neglected to renew it, and an enterprising publisher sought to capitalize on the O’Neill reputation as one of the century’s great dramatists by publishing it along with other early works. A production of the play in a trio of O’Neill one-acts called “Lost Works” in 1959 was eviscerated in the Times, the critic quoting O’Neill himself as having called the plays “pretty bad, and the less remembered about them the better.”

But there is enough here of interest historically – in terms of the history of O’Neill as a dramatist as well as the history of attitudes towards abortion – to be a rich choice for a revival.

In the new production, the adapters have added an opening sequence in which the company faces the audience and utters well-known platitudes about America and race – first positive ones (“Home of the free”) and then negative ones (“I always just think of you as white.”) “What do you see when you look at me,” various members of the interracial cast ask, before we are introduced to the two actors who will play Jack – White Jack (Clint Hromsco) and Black Jack (Damon Trammell)

The play begins, but stops mid-way, interrupted by the recitation of something (not written by O’Neill) called the Rules for Passing (e.g. “Change your last name to one that is not associated with black family names.”) Then O’Neill’s play resumes, backed up a bit, with the three black actors playing parts we’d just seen portrayed by white actors.

The production ends with both Black and White Jack asking the audience: “So, what did you see?”

The idea that one would think differently about the exact same person if something shifted in that person’s identify – their race, their ethnicity, their gender, whether they were disabled – is a very powerful tonic, so potent that it has been used in legal cases and social science experiments to prove discrimination.

It didn’t work well for me in this production. I think this is largely because, frankly, the mostly mediocre acting was too much of a distraction, but also because this doesn’t seem the ideal play on which to try it out. In one scene, though, the experiment struck home. Joe Murray and his sister Nellie are “townies,” working class residents of the college town – he’s a machinist; she was a stenographer – in contrast to the Ivy League upper-class characters embodied by Jack and the others. (O’Neill had grown up near Yale and had briefly studied at Harvard.) It seems unmistakable that O’Neill was making a comment about class distinctions; the father makes the point explicitly when he accuses Jack of showing “a lack of judgment on your part and [lack of] good taste,” for choosing a different “class” with whom to have sex. When in the Dream Up Festival production, the brother Joe Murray is played by Trammell, one of the black actors (meaning of course Nellie was black), it had a mind-blowing effect on me – the beginning kernels of insight about how the issues of class and race have evolved in the past century. (It helped that Trammell was one of the better actors.) But then they switched roles again, and the insight promised by their conceit seemed drowned by its overly complicated execution.

Molly Stoller, Alison Scaramella, Taryn Wisky (also the producer and co-adaptor), and Yvonne Roen in "Abortion: A Race Redux"
Molly Stoller, Alison Scaramella, Taryn Wisky (also the producer and co-adaptor), and Yvonne Roen in “Abortion: A Race Redux”

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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