An Interview with Dan Cawthon, Author and Director

As part of Danville's Eugene O'Neill Festival, 2003, the Eugene O'Neill Foundation and the National Park Service will present "O'Neill: The Rhythms of His Soul"--a lively musical revue featuring the songs from the plays of America's most renowned playwright, September 25-28 in the Village Theatre. Dan Cawthon, theatre professor at Saint Mary's College, Moraga, has written the narrative for the revue and is directing the production.

Q. "O'Neill, the Musical?" How's that possible? Isn't Eugene O'Neill renowned for his tragedies?

Cawthon: O'Neill wrote 50 plays and, yes, most of them are tragedies. However, over seventy times in those plays he prescribes a song or snippet of a tune to be used to underscore a scene, establish a character, create a mood or reveal an attitude. "O'Neill: The Rhythms of His Soul," is a revue which weaves together all that music into a single production.

Q. Did O'Neill write any of the music himself?

Cawthon: No. Almost all of it is music he learned in his childhood and as a young man. It's interesting to note that 99% of it was written prior to 1914--the year he wrote his first play. Which means that as a playwright he didn't turn to the culture around him for inspiration. He called forth from his memory the music that shaped his soul.

Q. How did you get interested in the music? Why did you decide to adapt it as a revue?

Cawthon: I think the seeds for the project were planted ten years ago when Travis Bogard, a distinguished O'Neill scholar at UC Berkeley assembled the music in a songbook. On a warm summer evening in 1993, the Eugene O'Neill Foundation hosted him at a garden party in Danville. With the help of a couple of friends, he sang his way through the collection--alphabetically! Now and then he would pause to provide a wry comment on the songs. Even though the music was nearly 100 years old, the audience loved it. I felt, then, that the music could be shaped into a more sophisticated production. After mulling over it for a decade, I decided to go for it. It's a fitting time, really. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the playwright's death.

Q. Talk about the music itself. What's it like?

Cawthon: Much of it is popular music from the first decade of the 20th century. There are songs by George M. Cohan and Irving Berlin and several all-time American favorites such as "Oh, You Beautiful Doll," "Shenandoah," "Old Black Joe," and "Waitin' for the Robert. E. Lee." O'Neill wasn't attracted to classical music. He preferred the songs of Tin Pan Alley and the American Music Hall. He also had quite a repertoire of sea chanteys and songs from the barrooms and bordellos he frequented as a young man. There's quite an assortment, and they show up in his plays.

Q. What's the format of your production?

Cawthon: It will be presented in the style of "Side By Side By Sondheim," or "Jacques Brel," using four actor/singers, a pianist and cellist. The evening is divided into eight segments averaging about 15 minutes each. I've managed to include every song in the songbook: some will be performed in full, others as medleys. Some as solos, others as ensemble pieces. Each segment focuses on a particular theme--the American Dream, the Sea, the Barroom, Romance, Ireland, the South. My favorite segment features "songs for the Misbegotten" The revue concludes with a group of hymns entitled "Behind Life," those which speak of transcendence. Each of the segments is introduced by a narrative, to be delivered by the different actors as they seque from one theme to another.

Q. Who are the singer/actors you refer to?

Cawthon: I've been fortunate to assemble an extremely talented cast. Michael O'Dell is the musical director will accompany the show on the piano, joined by cellist Patrice Young. The singers are Bobbie Duncan, Shelley Lynn Johnson, Derek Lux and Robin Taylor. They're pros--every one of them.

Q. What are the dates again, and how do we get tickets?

Cawthon: September 25, 26, and 27 at 8 p.m. and September 28 at 2 p.m. You can get tickets by calling the Village Theatre Box-Office, Danville at 925.314.3463. All seats are $26.