Richard Nelson confesses he doesn’t have a philosophy for teaching playwriting. Instead he offers as the criteria qualifying him as chair of the playwright program, the fact that he believes he is the first “working playwright” in that position.Nelson begins his video presentation for the Yale School of Drama with a personal rendition of its legacy. Citing the playwriting program as the oldest in the country, he emphasizes that the founder, George Pierce Baker, was the teacher of Eugene O’Neill. He then singles out O’Neill’s wife Carlotta and her bequest of the playwright’s papers, specifically the publication rights of Long Days Journey into Night, as the gift that keeps on giving to the program.
The infomercial is an enthusiastic mixture of hype, flimflam, and self-delusion with the implicit message that the young playwright enrolling for study at the School of Drama will be taught how to make his living writing plays. And like the school’s patron, Eugene O’Neill, the playwright need not sacrifice his art to achieve this.
The ironies of using O’Neill as Yale’s patron abound. Although O’Neill did study playwriting under George Pierce Baker, it was at Harvard, and a full decade before the program at Yale began. But more, whatever talent O’Neill possessed in 1914, was negated by his submission to the jejune “dramatic technique” of Baker’s teaching.
With the appointment of Richard Nelson and the institutionalization of his new product-oriented vision of playwriting, the biggest irony in flaunting O’Neill as patron is no longer simply an irony. The unpleasantness of Yale’s complicity in the bad faith exploitation of the playwright’s masterwork Long Days Journey into Night has never been called to task. Only with the help of Yale was Carlotta O’Neill able to usurp the playwright’s intent that the drama not be published until 25 years after his death and never be produced.
With this attitude and policy shift, the School of Drama flips completely on end the notion that the legacy of authors and dramatic literature is an act of commerce essentially within the realm of art and ideas. The “bounty” of future playwrights will now be abridged into its most pede$trian value.