The First Man, an early play by Eugene O’Neill, is currently being performed at the Jermyn Street Theatre. Dating from 1922, it is the story of Curtis, an anthropologist, who discovers, years after he and his wife Martha made a vow not to have any more children following the death of their two young daughters, that Martha is pregnant. While the pair have made a life’s work of studying other societies, it is their own that O’Neill puts under the microscope.
Not the world’s most likeable protagonist, Curtis seems to be upset not because his wife has broken their vow, but because her pregnancy means that she will not be able to accompany him to Asia on a five-year expedition. Meanwhile, Martha herself faces the eternal dilemma of whether she should prioritise her desire for motherhood over her career.
As if that wasn’t enough, Curtis’ moralistic relatives become convinced that Martha’s pregnancy is the result of a liaison with the couple’s friend Bigelow, and become concerned with how they can maintain respectability in their small town.
Adam Jackson-Smith manages to make Curtis relatively sympathetic despite his character’s egotism and selfishness, while Charlotte Asprey’s Martha conveys the power of her maternal longing. Alan Turkington is convincing as Bigelow, the couple’s friend, but my favourite character is Lily, played by Rebecca Lee, a young woman who despises her family’s hypocrisy while being unable to get free of it herself, and who probably deserves a play in her own right.
Tim Dann’s design, which emphasises the play’s anthropological context, is effective on the small Jermyn stage, while Anthony Biggs’ direction makes the most of the material.
It isn’t O’Neill’s greatest work, but this play is certainly worth seeing, particularly for the accurate portrayal of petty and mean-minded small-town gossip, and the still-relevant conflict between the desire for a family and the wish for a career.