Just after receiving the Pulitzer Prize for Beyond the Horizon, Eugene O’Neill started writing this autobiographical play about a man who only lives for his work and is under the illusion that his wife shares his passion, whilst she is secretly longing for a more steady life and a child. The First Man is an odd foray into realism as was written so close to O’Neil’s strongly expressionistic pieces Emperor Jones and The Hairy Ape and O’Neill dismissed the play after its rather unsuccessful run in New York in 1922. The Jermyn Street Theatre has unearthed this forgotten play and offers us a chance to see this rarely performed play as part of their American season.
Curtis Jayson (Adam Jackson-Smith) stems from one of the best families in Bridgetown, Connecticut. His marriage to Martha (Charlotte Asprey), the daughter of a miner, was frowned upon. After their two daughters died, Curtis and Martha swore not to have any more children. Curtis seeks immortality in his research instead and Martha has been travelling with him all over the world for years to assist him. Curtis is convinced that Martha shares his enthusiasm for anthropology and his work, of which she has become an integral part. He has written a number of books for the past few years, involving much help from Martha, but is eager to leave for a five-year trip to Tibet to find the origin of man, the missing link. Unbeknownst to Curtis, Martha is tired of this life and she cannot find fulfilment in assisting Curtis with his work. She is longing for a home and a child..
O’Neill’s play is a sardonic look at traditional family values and reflects O’Neill’s own dislike of children, whom he considered basically a nuisance and hindrance. Reflecting the animus/anima stereotype, Curtis strives for a life dedicated to research, driven by intellectual passion, free from conventions and family ties, Martha wants to build a nest and have Curtis settle down. The second conflict that is discussed is individualism versus small-town bigotry, represented by the Jaystons, Curtis’s family. Presided over by family matriarch Mrs Davidson (Lynette Edwards), the Jaystons have achieved a certain status in their small town and Curtis is jeopardising their position, first by marrying below his station, and now by allowing his friend Bigelow (Alan Turkington), a former philanderer , to be a frequent caller at his house. Bigelow claims to have amended his ways after his wife died to take care of his children but the Bridgetown community, led by Emily Jayston (Kate Copeland) is sceptical.
Anthony Biggs skilfully directs this production that begins on a light hearted note as the Jayston family arrives for tea and is left to their own devices – Martha has forgotten about the date and prefers going on a spin in the car with Bigelow and his children and Curtis has important work to do. Whilst the Jaysons are sipping their tea in stony mortification, Curtis’s younger sister Lily (Rebecca Lee) entertains them with flippant comments culminating in the news that Martha is pregnant. The tone of the play changes dramatically when Curtis learns of Martha’s pregnancy. Instead of being happy about the news he reacts with aggression and hatred for the destroyer of his life plans and rival for Martha’s love. Martha is deeply distraught about the situation but insists on keeping the child. As she is giving birth, the stage is lit only by the fire which gives the scene a hellish glow as the Jaystons are standing guard listening to Martha’s subdued screams that resemble those of a wounded animal.
Charlotte Asprey and Adam Jackson-Smith give outstanding performances as the troubled couple, Alan Turkington convinces as the reformed sinner and Rebecca Lee makes an impressive stage debut as Lily.
Reviewed by: Carolin Kopplin
The First Man is playing at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 31 October. Click here for tickets