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The Rope
by Eugene O'Neill


Second on the bill of the surprise seventh bill of the 1917-1918 season was The Rope by O’Neill, a modern and harsh take on the biblical story of the prodigal son.  Coincidentally, or perhaps not, O’Neill’s father was then performing in Belasco’s production of The Wanderer, another depiction of the prodigal son, which O’Neill had attended.  One may remember that the Players produced Harry Kemp’s play The Prodigal Son on their eighth bill the season before.  Not considered an O’Neill sea play, though it takes place in a sea-side town, the setting is an old barn on the top of a “high headland,” its open backdoor looking out over the sea.(1) The central visual image presented to the audience when the curtain opens is a rope with an open noose at the end hanging down from the edge of the barn’s loft.  The play begins with a little girl, Mary, sitting cross-legged and looking at a ragdoll, but she is startled by the sound of someone coming and runs to hide under a carpenter’s table in the barn.   When Abraham Bentley appears, a bent old man of sixty, and leans against the table for support, Mary makes a mad dash for the door.  Paranoid he’s being spied on, he shouts to the wind and quotes scripture freely, but with the anger of judgment.  His daughter Annie comes in, trying to calm him, but he continues to answer only with scripture, eventually pushing her to accuse him of driving her mother to death “with your naggin’, and pinchin’, and miser stinginess,” and of courting other women and remarrying before her mother’s body was even cold in the ground.(2)  Her speech provides expositional information in a somewhat obvious way, and she reminds him that this new wife gave him a son, Luke, and then she abandoned him when he was only five.  Mentioning Luke’s name seems to be the only way to stop Bentley from quoting scripture and get his attention, but she reminds him Luke stole from him and left when he was sixteen.  She tells how Luke laughed when his father “took crazy and cursed him; and he only laughed harder when you hung up that silly rope there (she points) and told him to hang himself on it when he ever came home again.”(3)  Their conversation ends when she tries to get him to return to the house to take his medicine and read his Bible while she gets supper, but instead he hits her with his stick.  Her husband Sweeney, who is an Irishman and Catholic (and of whom Bentley clearly disapproves), almost hits him for striking his wife.  Realizing Bentley has come to the barn to make sure the rope is still hung there, Sweeney almost yanks it down, which sends Bentley into a fit of rage.  Sweeney calls Mary to take her grandfather back to the house.  After Bentley leaves, Sweeney informs Annie he’d been drinking with the lawyer who issued her father’s will and found out that her father was leaving the farm to Luke, but the lawyer swore he knew nothing about her Father having a large amount of cash, as they had believed.  They deduce that he must have hidden it somewhere in the house.  The lawyer also advised that they put out notices in the papers, and if Luke didn’t come back within seven years from when he left, which would be two years from then, the courts would declare him dead and give them the farm. 

They are startled by Mary’s laugh outside and the voice of a man; a moment later Luke is standing in front of them.  It’s clear there’s no love lost between Annie and her half-brother, and she commands Mary to give back a silver dollar her newly returned uncle has given her.  Luke instead takes Mary out to throw her dollar like the stones they used to throw into the ocean, telling Annie and Sweeney he’ll be back in a minute to “talk turkey,” and that he “didn’t come back here for fun, and the sooner you gets that in your beans, the better.”(4)  After Annie and Mary go back to the house, Sweeney tries to press Luke to see what he knows, saying how he doubts there’s any money left, “Your mother got rid of it all, I’m thinking,” to which the stage directions say “Luke smiles a superior, knowing smile.” Sweeney continues that Bentley only has the farm left, and that it’s mortgaged.  Luke replies “Huh! Yuh’re slow.  Yuh oughter get wise to yourself.”  When Sweeney asks what he means, Luke says, “Aw, nothin’.”(5)  Luke sees the rope still hanging where it had been since he’d left, and says that should confirm his old man is crazy, but that he’s going to find out where the man’s money is with the worldly ways he’s acquired while gone. 

Bentley appears at the door and is genuinely amazed to see Luke, quoting the New Testament scripture the father speaks when the prodigal son arrives home, and then comes over and extends his hand for Luke to shake.  Bentley begins to touch him all over as if to be convinced he’s really there, which Luke finally stops.  Soon enough, Bentley, seeming to lose the ability to speak, points his stick to the rope, getting out only “Luke—Luke—rope—Luke—hang.”  Luke, taking it as a joke, says “Anything to oblige,” gets a chair to place under the rope, and stands up on it, faking like he’s going to kick the chair from under him.(6) When Luke sees that his father really wants him to do it, his tone changes and he threatens to kill him, finally shaking him until Sweeney has to stop him and take Bentley to the house.  When Sweeney returns, Luke entices him to help get even and promises to give him half of whatever they find, telling him he has no interest in the farm and he can have his share of that.  He wants cash with which to have a good time before he returns to sea, and if they can’t find it on their own, he wants Sweeney to help him force it out of his father, even with torture, suggesting that they scare him by threatening to brand his father.  Mary appears to tell them supper is ready and, since she’s had hers, she remains to play in the barn.  Luke, being protective of her, tells her to stay away from the rope, but she says she wants to swing.  He promises her as an alternative that in the morning “I’ll give yuh a whole handful of them shiny, bright things yuh chucked in the ocean. . .”(7)  Luke and Sweeney leave and the play ends with an extended bit of action with Mary alone on stage.  Pursuing her original desire, she climbs up on the chair and yanks at the rope as she kicks the chair from under her.  From above her falls a bag tied to the end of the rope, sending her sprawling to the floor.  Once recovered, she unties the bag, takes out the shiny gold pieces inside, goes outside with them, and begins to throw them over the cliff, leaning over to see them hit the water.  When she runs out of coins, she runs back into the barn to pick up more, happily singing “Skip! Skip! Skip!” She then turns to run back out and throw more of the coins as the curtain closes.(8)

Since O’Neill was in Provincetown through most of the casting and rehearsal of the play, his involvement in the process was limited to two letters to Nina Moise, who was directing the piece.  His letter of April 9 affirms his confidence in her understanding of his work, and he knows she will advise him on making cuts in the play.  He tells her he’s concerned they get good actors “or The Rope is likely to hang itself.”(9)  His letter to her on April 14 is written after looking at her suggested cuts: he asks her to reinstate some of them.  It seems she’s suggested to cut much of the opening dialogue between Bentley and Annie, particularly the many scriptures he quotes and her long passages of exposition.  O’Neill argues that cutting the scripture is out of Bentley’s character and “spoils the rhythm”; he says he’s actually proud of how he’s “characterized” the dramatic exposition and that it’s “up to the actors,” and that her cuts are only justified if they have bad actors.  He suggests that the actor playing Annie “talk as fast as she can in a flurry of petty, nagging rage.”  He also suggests that Sweeney “loves the sound of his own voice” and she should “make him that sort of person.”  He insists that she needs to make all of the actors really act: “Don’t let them recite the lines. Of course it will drag if they do that.”  O’Neill makes some cuts himself to “quicken the scene at the end” and to tighten the scene between Annie and Sweeney.  He reiterates that he doesn’t think any cutting would be necessary “in an A-1 acting production where the actors could hold the attention by the vividness of their characterization.”  Moise seems to have objected to the idea of branding the father as Luke suggests if he and Sweeney can’t get him to talk.  O’Neill attributes that to her “gentle soul,” but explains that a drunken Luke would suggest it.  Going back to the exposition again, he confesses he’s too busy to completely rewrite, but doesn’t know what she means by her suggestions, that rereading it causes him to think he did what he wanted to do. 

Of course, I might use a lot of cleverness to make the exposition smoother but I really want just raw character in this play.  You see, I see the exposition as a perfectly logical outcropping of the mood the different characters are in.  Every word, I think, is just what they would say.  If the actors make definite speeches of exposition which don’t come out of the way they’re supposed to feel—then, adios!  But I insist the play isn’t written that way.  I think you’ve misunderstood what I was driving at.(10)

This letter gives great insight into the kinds of discussion and concerns O’Neill had in the rehearsal process, particularly with his director.  While many agree that The Rope is not necessarily some of O’Neill’s best work, Bogard calling it “an almost complete failure of imagination,”(11) his argument about keeping his characters raw rather than using “a lot of cleverness” most likely refers to the kind of skills he learned from Professor Baker, and shows his understanding of what made his work unique and worthy of the critics’ recent attentions.  He also recognizes the need for good acting to do justice to his plays.  In fact, O’Neill told critic and editor George Jean Nathan that the play needed “an actor like Maurice Barrymore or James O’Neill, my old man.  One of those big-chester, chiseled mug, romantic old boys who could walk onto a stage with all the aplomb and regal splendor with which they walked into the old Hoffman House bar, drunk or sober,” but that “most actors in these times lack an air.”(12)

Though Moise initially had struggled in casting the play, all seemed to be pleased with Charles Ellis in the role of Luke, including Broun, who in his review said Ellis was “distinctly good.”  Ellis also painted a backdrop for the set and in an interview with Sarlos years later he called it “the best painting of rocks against the sea that he has ever done.”  There are no extant photos of the production, but Ellis clarified that there was no special rigging for the rope: a board was attached to the ceiling and the bag was placed on it, allowing for safety when Luke put his head in it but was easily loosed when Mary tried to swing on it.  In his article, “Nina Moise Directs Eugene O’Neill’s The Rope,” Sarlos shows a hand-drawn diagram from Moise’s script of how the stage was most likely set up and quotes from interviews with Moise and with Ellis.  The diagram shows the “barn door stage-center, a table with three benches (or two benches and a bale of hay?) and a stool upstage left against the wall.”  Moise confirmed that the noose had a central location, though Ellis remembers it as being hung stage right.  Sarlos thinks that if Ellis’s painted backdrop was seen through the door it “would have assured a strong focus against which the noose must have stood out in the foreground.”(13)  Bogard believes that the description of the play’s stage plan sounds as if it “duplicates the stage of the wharf shed theatre the Provincetown Players used on the Cape,” and that O’Neill simply transposed it to a barn.(14) 

Besides O’Neill’s initial request for good actors and a wish that Collins could be available to play Luke, his only other proviso was to ask Moise not to let Rauh play Mary, asking in his April 9 letter to keep his request a secret between them.(15)  He most likely was remembering Rauh’s performance as the young boy in his play The Sniper the year before.  The other cast members for the play were O.K. Liveright as Bentley; Dorothy Upjohn as Annie; H. B. Tisdale, new to the Players, as Sweeney;(16) and Edna Smith as ten-year old Mary.  Broun’s comment on the overall acting was that it was “acted well throughout.”  Ellis and wife Norma Millay, who performed in Glaspell’s play during the bill, both recalled that Liveright “was successful portraying Old Bentley so as to introduce an element of love even in the most hatred-filled scenes with his son.”  They also mention Edna Smith’s “hysterical laughter while skipping twenty-dollar gold pieces in the final scene as ‘bloodchilling.’”(17)

The Gelbs believe that, while O’Neill felt he’d taken the one-act form as far as he could in his own work, The Rope “was a significant step in O’Neill’s artistic development—a bridge to the deeply tragic plays to come,” particularly as the play “embodied the germ of play and character” for O’Neill’s three-act Desire Under the Elms, which he finished five years later.(18)  Bogard continues his distaste for the play by noting a “trivial error” that most importantly is “a token of the slackness that manifests itself”:  Luke supposedly left home at 16 and had been gone five years, yet talks of him as being twenty-five years old.  Referring to the group of one-acts outside of the Glencairn cycle, Bogard calls them “conventional pieces, incapable of mustering enough energy for experiment and rarely passing beyond the melodramatic.”(19)

Heywood Broun’s review of the bill begins by claiming the Players “are more nearly an experimental organization than any we know,” and because the production costs are so low, “they can afford to put on bad plays as well as good one.”  He compares their experiments to those of a chemist, who knows the results from either a “bad odor” or because it “turns pink or fizzes or blazes brightly,” stating “Provincetown plays are like that.  It is true that two of the plays on the present bill are rather more neutral.  They neither bring down the house nor blow it up.”  Referring to O’Neill’s The Rope, he says “The third experiment, however, is a glorious success.”  He writes that the play “tells an enthralling story in a highly proficient way,” decides not to summarize the plot, in part because it’s a “surprise play” and it wouldn’t be fair to any potential audience member.  “Unlike the majority of plays which fool the audience for a time, The Rope plays fair.  If it were acted backward nobody could say “Ah! There the author went out of his way to deceive me.”  Broun believes O’Neill continues to show, as in many of his other plays, “great ease and fluency in setting down the language of the roustabout world,” and that “The Rope is real enough to create a perfect illusion.”  As for the surprise ending, he claims it “does not mean the author has been at pains to play a trick.  The end is in keeping with the rest and the new turn merely serves to drive the ironic thrust in a little more deeply.”(20)  The Washington Square Players presented the play on their last bill of the season, which became the last bill of their existence, and the reviewer from the Brooklyn Eagle wrote after that performance that the play “has strength in such degree as to be almost brutal.”(21)  Theatre Magazine wrote after this same production that “His copy reads as well as it acts and that is saying much.  There is real literacy worth in Mr. O’Neill’s output.”(22)

© Jeff Kennedy 2007

(1) O’Neill, Complete Plays 547.  One wonders if this play hadn’t been written for the possibility of performance earlier at the Wharf Theatre given this description of the back door opening out to the view of the sea.

(2) O’Neill, Complete 549.

(3) O’Neill, Complete 550.

(4) O’Neill, Complete 558.

(5) O’Neill, Complete 560.

(6) O’Neill, Complete 564.

(7) O’Neill, Complete 568.

(8) O’Neill, Complete 569.

(9) Bogard, Selected Letters 80-81.

(10) Bogard, Selected Letters 81-82.

(11) Bogard, Contours 101.

(12) Gelb, Monte Cristo 634.

(13) Robert Sarlos, “Nina Moise Directs Eugene O’Neill’s The RopeEugene O’Neill Newsletter, Vol VI, No. 3 (Winter 1982) <http://www.eoneill.com/library/newsletter/vi_3/vi-3d.htm>

(14) Bogard, Contours 101.

(15) Bogard, Selected Letters 81.

(16) Tisdale was a professional actor who appeared that August on Broadway in The Blue Pearl.

(17) Sarlos “Nina Moise Directs . . .”

(18) Gelb, Monte Cristo 631-632.

(19) Bogard, Contours 102-103.

(20) Heywood Broun, New York Tribune, 29 April 1918, col 4: 9

(21) “A Form of Art with Little Substance,” Brooklyn Eagle, May 19, 1918.

(22) Sheaffer, Playwright 423.