Abortion: A Striking One-Act by Eugene O’Neill

American Drama is often been used as the voice for social issues society may try to silence. Race, gender, social class, and morality topics that have been swept under the rug by mainstream media have found their stride on the American stage. For one of my classes at Indiana University Southeast, I decided to closely examine a play that tackles the controversy that surrounds the act of Abortion. The play is not so cleverly titled “Abortion” and it is by  the renown classic American playwright, Eugene O’Neill (pictured below).

The Dude

If you have studied O’Neill’s other works, you will find little about social commentary, which is what drew me to study this work. O’Neill is largely famous for his long dramas and dark tones in his writing, much like his works “A Long Day’s Journey into Night” and “Desire Under the Elms”. It’s important to note that O’Neill did, in fact, battle alcoholism and depression for most of his adult life, which is apparent in nearly all of his scripts. One interesting aspect to O’Neill’s work is his ability to project his own personality onto at least one character in all of his plays. In “Abortion”, for example, the main character is a college student, and he wrote this play during his first year at Harvard in 1914. You can find other information about O’Neill to better understand his work by visiting this biographic website.

http://www.eoneill.com/biography.htm

In this lesser known play by Eugene O’Neill, a successful college athlete is celebrating a huge championship victory until he is confronted by his father  about an “operation” that appeared to have happened before the play events transpired. The audience then learns that this “operation” was actually an abortion performed on a woman the athlete had an affair with. According the the athlete, he received a letter from the woman saying that she was fine and the operation was a success. The main character then has a monologue outlining his moral stance and he makes the decision to cut off all communication with this woman and pursue a new life. After he makes this conclusion, a furious man by the name of “Murray” storms into the room and goes nearly to the athlete’s throat. Murray informs the main character that Murray is the brother of the woman who underwent the operation, and they she actually died an hour after it was finished. When the athlete asked why he was sent a letter saying everything was okay, Murray stated “She did not tell the truth because she loved him so much”. Murray then says that violence is not the answer, but instead he would inform the public of the Athlete’s actions. Overwhelmed with grief, the athlete takes his own life with a pistol in his desk and the play ends on a rather depressing note.

If you were hoping for a happy play where everyone lives happily ever after, you have my deepest apologies.

Hopefully through the synopsis alone, one could tell why I found this an important piece of theater to examine. Even in modern times, the conflict over “Pro Life vs Pro Choice” is still a hot button issues, and this play was published over 100 years ago. Not only that, the play also comes from one of the most famous playwrights in American history, yet most have not heard of this play where he deviates from his regular formula, which is usually multiple acts and a large number of complex characters. Through analysis of both the text and the social significance of the subject matter, it is clear that this play is worthy of further study.

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The Bad Seed Play Recovery

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“…tell me, do children ever commit murders? Or is crime something that’s learned gradually, and grows as the criminal grows up, so that only adults do really dreadful things?” -Christine Penmark (Act 2, Scene 1)

If you were looking for a lighthearted story I’m sorry to disappoint. This play, produced in 1954 and later adapted into film in 1956 is more likely to keep you up at night than give warm fuzzies. Looking at the main protagonist of this play shown above, would you guess she is capable of murder? Her eyes seem to give her away and you have to congratulate the actor, Patty McCormack, for giving the character a cold and calculating look.

The play focuses on the seemingly perfect little girl Rhoda Penmark, who is able to charm her way into getting just about anything she wants. Anything, except a highly coveted penmanship medal that her teacher has awarded to Claude Daigle, one of Rhoda’s classmates. During a school outing near the shore, Claude goes missing and it is soon discovered that Claude has drowned near a pier. Rhoda’s mother, Christine, begins to suspect that Rhoda had something to do with the boy’s death when she finds Claude’s penmanship medal hidden in Rhoda’s room. Gradually Christine comes to believe that Rhoda was behind other sudden deaths surrounding the family. Her suspicions challenge Christine to look into her own past, and she learns that not only was she adopted, but also that her biological mother was a ruthless serial killer. Near the end of the play, Christine decides to take both Rhoda’s life and her own. She gives Rhoda a lot of sleeping pills, telling her they are vitamins. Then she shoots herself in the head, killing herself. Rhoda survives because the sound of the gunshot has alerted her neighbors to investigate and they find Rhoda just in time to save her.

This play seems to indicate an interest in psychology and encourages the belief that criminal tendencies are hereditary. A conversation which best encapsulates this theme is the one between Christine, her father, Richard Bravo who is a journalist, and a family friend, Reginald Tasker, who writes murder mysteries. In Act 2 Scene 1, at the original prompting of Christine who says she is interested in stories to write murder mysteries, they start talking about a character named Bessie Denker, who becomes more significant in the following scenes. Bessie was a serial killer and is infamous for using different poisons on her victims every time and getting away with it. She even stood before three juries who took a look at her “lovely dewy face” and said, “She couldn’t have done it.” This is the legacy Christine is haunted by because even though she doesn’t know it at this point she is the daughter of Bessie.

Besides a psychological dimension, there appears to be a societal commentary as well. When Christine expresses the belief that Bessie would have been better off if she had died young, Reginald replies with, “And society would. And yet sometimes I wonder whether these malignant brutes may not be the mutation that survives on this planet in this age. This age of technology and murder-for-empire. Maybe the softies will have to go, and the snake-hearted will inherit the earth.” In other words, this quote expresses a cynical view that society now favors the cold, calculating, and competitive over compassionate people.

If you’re interested the whole play is available on Youtube produced by Camille Playhouse in Brownsville, Texas on October 26, 2014.

For those who may not want to watch the whole play, there is a less than five-minute video clip from the film that is significant. If you do watch the clip, pay attention to how Rhoda expresses emotion to manipulate her mother and where she lets her facade slip.

I Never Saw Another Butterfly Recovery Part 2

After completing the final paper arguing that I Never Saw Another Butterfly should be recovered, studied, and learned from, there were other sources I ended up using that I had not yet found before beginning the paper. There was a significant journal that provided reviews on different Holocaust drama adaptations. The point that I chose to include in my final paper had to do with how the playwright has a responsibility as a historian as well as a provider of entertainment. Plays must be presented in a way that engages the audience, but declares that they must turn away from the stage after the play’s completion with a responsibility to act.

This is especially important with I Never Saw Another Butterfly. In my final paper, most of the points I made about why this play deserves to be recovered over others is because of the relevance it must today regarding politics. The election of Donald Trump has surged Islamophobia, ad has caused the ostracizing of several minorities in America. I touched on the slippery slope that could take place, in that Hitler’s rise to power and rhetoric strongly favors Trump’s.

Interestingly, I realized that I genuinely enjoyed writing this paper. I thought my transitions were naturally flowing, and that my content and arguments wouldn’t really stray off. Everything seemed relevant to my overall topic, which really helped the rhythm of the paper. I also think I came to a definitive conclusion about why I Never Saw Another Butterfly is so important maybe compared to other plays. It is not just that people should be informed about the atrocities of the Holocaust, but additionally and most importantly, it is about preventing the next play like this one from happening. Hence my title; “Preventing Part Two.”

Touched on in the paper as well were several studies that discussed details about children reading poetry from the original book I Never Saw Another Butterfly. The studies found that children were more interested to see the dramatic adaptation once their initial interest peaked in the literature portion. The studies also proved that drama was conducive to learning literature as well. Other studies found that children at young ages, when learning about the Holocaust, extended their interest beyond the classroom, and began to talk to and ask their elder relatives about their experiences with war. This related to the study that claimed that teaching children about Holocaust atrocities early on in life, will provide as a prerequisite later down their educational career. In other words, readiness is relative, and kids can learn about atrocities early on because it pushes them to think more deeply about it earlier in life, which in hopes leads to them desiring the prevention of its repetition and assuming responsibility to help that cause.

As a broader subject/alternative I believe Holocaust plays as a genre should be recycled and studied. Just because one atrocity has occurred doesn’t mean it can’t repeat just because people are informed about it. America just witnessed another mass shooting in a Texas church killing about thirty people, just weeks after the largest mass shooting in American history in Las Vegas. There is still work to be done, and although plays seem like a temporary distraction providing entertainment, they really encourage the audience to leave with a more than just a laugh or smile; they challenge us. They challenge us; they externalize everyday struggles and issues. It is the audience that ensures the play’s relevance, and not the play itself.

Worth noting, the end of I Never Saw Another Butterfly has an interesting scene. Butterflies appear while the main character who survived the Terezin ghetto tells the audience that she survived “not alone, and not in fear.” Butterflies can certainly be interpreted as a new life, or the emergence of crossing the “cocoon threshold.” I wonder if this was the playwright’s intent; to convey to the audience that new life, and better life is possible even after the atrocities of the Holocaust?

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The poem “The Butterfly” by Pavel Friedman, a child who died in Auschwitz, is one of the most well-known poems from the original book I Never Saw Another Butterfly. The poem inspired this YouTuber to adapt it into song form. Quite beautiful.

I Never Saw Another Butterfly Recovery

The genre of drama in America went through different phases and different cultures were represented throughout American drama history. Much of drama focuses on certain issues and ideologies of the time the play is performed. For example, many plays between the years 1900-1960 would in some way or another involve racism. A very well-known play like this is A Raisin in the Sun which presents a family that struggles to move higher up in American society because of the color of their skin, and face racism through several facets of everyday life.

The intent of this project is to choose a lesser known American play, and “recover” it. This means to bring it back into the light for everyone to see and pay attention to. The goal is to show how the play could be considered canonical, or even to highlight its importance in American history or drama.

After much research, I decided on the play I Never Saw Another Butterfly. The play is influenced by several poems and art from children in the Theresienstadt concentration camp during The Holocaust. These works were then compiled and published into a book. Most of these children died at some point during The Holocaust, often in Auschwitz. However, one child named Raja Englanderova returned to Prague and the play was then produced out of her memories and experiences as well as the other children’s.

The reason why I chose to recover this play has a lot to do with what is going on today in the world, but more narrowly in American society. When Donald Trump announced his running for the Presidency, a lot of latent ideologies began to surface. Donald Trump’s rhetoric throughout his campaign really seemed to spark a lot of passion in certain hate groups including white supremacists. He made comments amount Mexico sending America their rapists, Muslim people needing to be banned from the country, and bragged about sexually assaulting women. Recently he failed to condemn white supremacist rallies. A very short time later, he called NFL players “sons of bitches” for choosing to kneel during the playing of the National Anthem in protest against police brutality.

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One may ask, what does any of this have to do with a Holocaust play? Well, The Holocaust began for several reasons. Scapegoating Jews for the devastation of Germany was the first step. Hitler’s strategy to unify his people against a common enemy produces a mob mentality. Hitler’s plan to stimulate Germany through producing war materials also sparks the economy and morale increases. He was able to turn an entire population against a religion. Six million Jews, and a combination of seven million people of color, homosexuals, and handicapped people were killed due to pure hatred and ignorance.

One could interpret my thoughts as a slippery slope, but an enormous amount of Islamophobia has surfaced since Obama’s presidency and carried over into Trump’s presidency tenfold. Jewish cemeteries and Holocaust memorials have been vandalized, an unacceptable amount of unarmed black people have been shot and/or killed by police across the United States, and new videos surface every week containing people yelling at others claiming that they “are immigrants” and that they “need to go back” to where they came from.

Anyone who is unfamiliar with American drama needs to understand right off the bat that plays are often performed with an underlying message. A moral in the story is either deeply or blatantly embedded, and it is often the playwright’s intent to have the audience leaving the theater thinking about the moral, and how it relates to their own life.

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My hope is that presenting I Never Saw Another Butterfly will remind people about the extremes that can actually happen when a society does not take a step back and analyze what is happening before them. America has arguably never been united. There is always something that divides the people. Race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, politics, and many other aspects are factors that contribute to the lack of unity in this country. I hope that the scenes depicted in the play will serve as a figurative slap-in-the-face to any audience. The atrocities committed are so terrible that even I, as a Jew, sometimes deny that humans are even capable of what the NAZI’s did. The absolute main part of the play that I hope drives home a message, is the fact that these were CHILDREN that experienced the atrocities. The complete innocence that these youth embodied should elicit a pure disgust reaction b y the audience.

In short, I hope that the play evokes a response from the audience, in that any viewer will realize the importance of challenging authority rather than burying their head in the sand. We all have different political opinions, but we can’t let a leader inadvertently or consciously lead to the ostracizing of one or more types of people. The play should remind us what can happen when control is lost, and Earthly hell becomes reality.

Play performed by John Witherspoon Middle School on November 13, 2015

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The Farce Aspect of “The Elopers”

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When I first read this piece by Paul Merion, I realized that I didn’t really know what the point of farce in literature was. So, I took to the internet to find out why people wrote this genre of literature.

There is one main element that seem to stand out when comparing this to other genres and that is highly exaggerated situations that seem absurd. Some of these scenes will include improbable coincidences. These situations are meant to evoke laughter from the audience and be comedic. Now, for those of you that haven’t read “The Elopers” here is a brief overlook at some of the moments that clearly hearken to this genre of plays.

  • In the very beginning of the play, the main character Phyllis is running away from her arranged wedding. How does she do this? Sneaks out of the room in her wedding gown and a large suitcase. When her step-mother evidently ends up finding her, she claims she is “going to the grocery store”.
  • Then, after her step-mother sees through this, she claims she was eloping.  Who was she eloping with? Herself.
    • In that line, she also makes a pun. The conversation goes,
      Mrs. Gerald: The man you were about to elope with, of course.
      Phyllis Gerald: But he wasn’t coarse–in fact he wasn’t at all. I’m eloping all by myself.
      I laughed a little too much at that line.
  • After being locked away in her room, a man ends up coming in. Who is this man? Later we find out he is her childhood crush. Wow! Would have never guessed that her unnamed childhood crush would suddenly come in when she needed to elope with someone!
  • There is also a cross-dressing scene in this play. He is hiding from the cops because he was thought to have committed a murder. Turns out he (probably…) didn’t do it. They needed to get him out of the house so they sneak him by her step-mother by saying he fell out of an air-ship and was very intoxicated at the time, so it is also a scene in which someone is over-playing being drunk.
  • In the end, they end up getting married over the phone that she won’t have to marry some random rich older man. Convenience!

Now, these are only the main plot points that clearly can be found as elements of this genre. While these elements taken out of context may not seem as if they evoke this “audience laughter” that farce pieces are supposed to but, several times while reading this I couldn’t help but laugh.

Satire is also something that was clearly part of the farce genre. While not all pieces focus on the satirical element, it is still prominent in many forms of farce literature. While on the outside, pieces of farce literature may seem as if they are simply meant of the audience to get a good chuckle out of they can have implications on a larger scale. This is something that I wish to go into more depth into a do a bit more research on the possible satirical elements that this play could also have.

Information taken about Farce plays and the picture were taken from here.

-Paige Mosson