Tony Mastroianni Review Collection

Hanna Company Great in O'Neill's "Touch of Poet"

Cleveland Press April 19, 1967

Having had fun by romping through a 17th Century French farce Monday night, the National Repertory Theater last night displayed the extent of its capabilities by presenting Eugene O'Neill's "A Touch of the Poet" at the Hanna.

Like almost everything O'Neill wrote, this play's central character is not a hero but a failure. "A Touch of the Poet" is a tragedy; not a tragedy of outward misfortune but of the inner destruction of pride and soul.

It is Denholm Elliott who exercises his virtuosity in the role of Con Melody, once an Irish gentleman and a major in the English army, now a penniless, sodden tosspot running a dreary inn in the United States early in the 19th Century.

Sharing his failure are his wife Nora (Priscilla Morrill), an adoring woman but, he keeps reminding her, of a class beneath him; and his daughter, Sarah (Jeanne Hepple), able to see through him but underneath a kindred spirit.

FOR ALL OF HIS GRAND MANNERS, Melody is all bitterness hidden beneath his posturing and preening. He stands before a mirror admiring himself, quoting Byron, reminding himself of his station as a gentleman.

So lost is he in his world of illusion he cannot separate reality from dreams as he slips from one into another.

"A Touch of the Poet" concerns a single day in the life of the Melody family, a day in which the lifetime of a man crumbles as his dreams end forever.

The incident triggering the change is his daughter's affection for a young Yankee, wealthy but not class as the father defines it. He sneers at the wealthy Yankee merchants, discovers that they have even less use for him and his daughter.

SETTING OUT TO AVENGE an insult, he is badly beaten, his pride destroyed as he is humbled before the boy's mother, a prim woman who had looked down on him before. For a man who prided himself on his feminine conquests it was a terrible blow.

He destroys the last link with his past, a thoroughbred mare he could ill afford. With it he destroys the man he was.

Elliott is excellent, whether as an eloquent drunk, a posturing phony or a broken spirit. Jeanne Hepple is fiery and saucy as the daughter. Both are superb in the scenes in which they play against each other.

THE CAST IS GOOD throughout and Jack Sydow's direction provides as much movement and variety as is possible in a play which is long on dialog and short on action.

"Poet" is better in its characters than in its plot, of which is has little. The drama is in its speeches, some of them verbose but most of them overpowering.

"Poet" was produced after the writer's death, and was to have been the first of 11 plays in a family chronicle. It is not O'Neill's most powerful work, but his second best was better than most playwrights can do at the top of their form.