Carlotta Monterey O’Neill, living out her last months under tight supervision in St. Luke’s Hospital in New York City, kept bridling when people called her late husband a playwright. He was, she insisted, a dramatist. What was the difference? “Playwrights talk to commuters.” she said. “Dramatists talk to God.”
The distinction was recalled, fittingly, by José Quintero, the person whom theatre professionals and the public alike associate with the resurrection of O’Neill. It may be, as Quintero suggests in a modest disclaimer, that chance played its part in the pairing. “O’Neill wrote his best plays toward the end of his life,” the director notes. And, “led by some quirk of fate to the doorstep of Carlotta,” the young Quintero found himself entrusted with the first performances in this country of those plavs—Long Day’s Journey into Night, A Touch of the Poet, Hughie and More Stately Mansions. He also directed revivals of Desire under the Elms and A Moon for the Misbegotten, and was responsible for the positive rejuvenation of The Iceman Cometh, a play that had, after long postponement during World War II, proved a disappointment in its 1946 Broadway premiere.
But as his memoir, If You Don’t Dance They Beat You, makes clear, chance was only part of the story. Quintero sought Carlotta out, prompted by Leigh Connell, one of his partners in the original Circle in the Square company; he had already made up his mind to take on that Goliath of an Iceman. Besides, even if the late scripts have qualities the earlier ones lack, the caliber of the Quintero productions’ casting, design and steadily constricting hold on audiences attested to a depth and breadth of theatrical investigation that confirmed O’Neill in the ’50s and after as the spearhead and the godhead of American drama.
Although Quintero had some undergraduate training as an actor in California, he was born and grew up in Panama. That, too, seems fitting: O’Neill has since the beginning of his career enjoyed a warm, sometimes fervent, appreciation among theatre practitioners overseas, that genuinely pandemic appeal that allows a few authors to sink international roots. The first stagings of Long Day’s Journey, Poet, Hughie and Mansions took place in Sweden. But well before these openings directors across Europe and on other continents pounced on O’Neill’s dramas as soon as they became available. Even today Quintero receives more invitations to direct O’Neill from Germany, Norway and Sweden than from producers here.
An older generation of American critics and reviewers who lived through O’Neill’s experiments of the ’20s—Stark Young, Joseph Wood Krutch, George Jean Nathan, Alexander Woollcott, Brooks Atkinson, John Mason Brown, John Gassner—knew him personally, often corresponded with him and championed his work, while letting fall reservations about his dialogue, and in particular his slang. Then after a spell of sometimes malign neglect—the author had no new plays produced for almost 13 years between Days without End in January 1934 and Iceman in late 1946, followed by the 10-year lapse until Ouintero’s renewal of Iceman—O’Neill again began to come back into his own. Since 1950 O’Neill scholars and other enthusiasts have tried to stay afloat in the oceanic outpourings of books, articles and chapters, collections of essays, reminiscences, working papers, two enormous biographies, reviews, and the printed upshot of panels and colloquia. The plays are continually reissued. In Waterford, Conn., a theatre center dedicated to testing out new American plays, under the leadership of George White and Lloyd Richards, is named for O’Neill; and on the West Coast Gordon Davidson, artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, hopes to develop in time for the O’Neill centenary in 1988—and in alliance with Quintero—a center for staged readings and other explorations of the familiar and less familiar texts to determine “how to go at them.” The Eugene O’Neill Newsletter, edited by Frederick C. Wilkins, publishes fresh interpretations, O’Neill memorabilia, and reviews of productions abroad and at home. This past March Suffolk University in Boston, the sponsor of the Newsletter, devoted a conference to the topic “Eugene O’Neill—the Early Years”; among its rush of activities were screenings of eight movie versions of the plays with “32 legendary stars…35 years of screen history! 14 hours of ecstatic eyestrain!”
Where does O’Neill stand today, some 30 years after his death and 40 years after he ceased writing? Evidently on a pedestal. Or maybe on several different pedestals, according to a recent sampling of opinion. Directors, actors, designers and producers who have tackled O’Neill revere him unanimously, and yearn to assay him further.
Katharine Hepburn says she “was brought up on O’Neill. I saw Pauline Lord in Anna Christie [at the Vanderbilt Theatre in 1921], a wonderful performance,” and “was pleased to be asked” to play Mary in Sidney Lumet’s film of Long Day’s Journey because “anybody but a jackass would be thrilled to be in that work.”
Geraldine Fitzgerald, who took on the same role under Arvin Brown’s direction at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, went on to direct Long Day’s Journey herself for the New York Shakespeare Festival with a black cast, because “it’s timeless and universal; it can be played in any country. The nuclear family belongs everywhere.” She believes that, like Anna Christie and certain other O’Neill plays, “Journey is not always performed for its comic possibilities, its satire—O’Neill always satirized mothers—and, in the case of A Moon for the Misbegotten, its wit.”
John Dillon, artistic director of Milwaukee Repertory Theater, recently staged a play by Ostrovsky and was struck by some parallels: “There’s a flavor-of-the-soil quality in O’Neill’s characters, as in Ostrovsky’s. They seem to come straight out of the ground; they have a grittiness about them compared with, say, Arthur Miller’s characters, who spring from the sidewalks of the city.” Further, “O’Neill created a new set of standards in the United States, just as Ostrovsky did in Russia, where he turned the theatre around.”
David Wheeler draws attention to the scope of O’Neill’s ambitions and his monumentality. After working for two years as an assistant to Quintero and then directing at the Boston Theatre Company and at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis (Desire, Mansions and Poet), he observes that whereas other writers are satisfied with small plays, “O’Neill was going after whole generations,” seeking to memorialize the entire life of a time, even though the plays are specifically located.
George Ferencz has directed The Hairy Ape and Dynamo Off Broadway, and likes “the young plays,” written in the early ’20s, “before O’Neill turned inward, when he felt the impulse to redefine the theatre—not only to influence the way we look at sets and costumes and masks, and to send a shiver through each spectator, but also to encompass the whole of life. He wanted to deal with issues like civil rights and socialism, women’s rights, religion; he wanted to create an alternative to his father’s theatre” of 19th-century melodrama. “Today he’d be at LaMama.”
Colleen Dewhurst, the incarnation for those who witnessed her of Abbie in Desire, Josie in Moon and Sara in Mansions, speaks of the cathartic outcome of a performance: “O’Neill compels actors to work at the very top of their form. When the play is over, when you’ve had to strip down to the innermost confessions and revelations, endured the agonies of finding them and of being watched in those moments of privacy and self-discovery, you feel released, and the audience does, too.”
“He’s the most personal and political playwright, the most American playwright in our history,” according to James Earl Jones, who has undertaken two of O’Neill’s most demanding and depleting to create an male roles, Brutus Jones in The Emperor Jones (a part which Cleavon Little will assay this summer in a new musical version at Philadelphia’s American Music Theatre Festival) and Hickey in Iceman (directed by Ted Mann at Circle in the Square). “In assessing age-old American problems having to do with labor, for example, and the Movement, he always managed to cover all sides of them, to present them fairly,” Jones contends.
Long Wharf aristic director Arvin Brown has directed Long Day’s Journey twice and Ah, Wilderness! three times, once for television. He also produced the four “sea plays” that make up The S.S. Glencairn; and his literary manager, John Tillinger, has edited Strange Interlude for a production that will run under four hours. “Any performance of O’Neill begins by sounding the depth of the writer’s emotional commitment – which exists in the lighter plays and not only the more serious ones,” Brown believes. “The actors and director have to meet that commitment with a matching emotional openness. In the ‘arias’ the emotional and verbal life go together. The plays are never, as is sometimes thought, overwritten. There’s a joy in understanding the passions that have to be behind the language. At the same time, I’ve always dissociated myself from the demons and ‘peering into the abyss’ and so on. I approach the humor, and I look for the sense of love that comes out of the routine behavior, the ordinariness.”
Ed Flanders, who played the father, Phil Hogan, in Quintero’s Moon, says that when an O’Neill production goes well, “when he’s humming, it’s so good, so true. It has so many levels, it’s like listening to Beethoven. You have one harmony in your head—he has seven going at once. All the levels are honest and we all have them in us at every second. There’s so much of a prayer in his work, too, even though he jumped on the Church.”
Ted Mann has directed revivals of five O’Neill super-plays, at Circle in the Square, on national tour, and at the Ford Theatre in Washington, D.C. For him those plays “are like detective stories, absorbing the audience throughout but most of all as the elements eventually unravel themselves. Each play deals in some fashion with love at the turning point or at the precipice, and it does so in gorgeous language.”
For director Irene Lewis, “when you work on O’Neill you go right into the cathedral—you lift off the ground.” John Dillon engaged her to do back-to-back productions of Long Day’s Journey and Ah, Wilderness! in Milwaukee, so that audiences On Saturday could see the two plays in sequence, with the same actors doing the fathers, James Tyrone and Nat Miller; the mothers, Mary and Essie; the booze-ridden brothers, Jamie and Sid; and the young heroes, Edmund and Richard. Lewis points to an “Irish logic” that inheres in some O’Neill characters. Mary, for example, “takes a shot of morphine so that she’ll appear normal to her husband and sons and not have to take morphine.”
Back to Quintero: “I use O’Neill to measure other writers against. His uncompromising, monastic dedication to his work is staggering. He’s our only playwright who utilized the commercial theatre as a laboratory for his work.”
Actors and directors who have sunk themselves into O’Neill scripts speak virtually in one voice about the efforts and the payoffs in “getting up” the play. Designers tend to agree. “It’s a painful experience to design an O’Neill play, but the rewards are great enough to endure the pain, reasons Clarke Dunham, who did the set for Mann’s 1973 Iceman. “The advantages far outweigh the disadvantages of pitting yourself against O’Neill,” concurs Ben Edwards, who has designed Poet twice on Broadway and several other O’Neills.
Of actors, the plays require “tremendous breath and strength,” says director Ferencz; O’Neill performers need “an enormous quantity of sheer technique, and the ability to take everyday speech and ennoble it,” says Geraldine Fitzgerald; they must look inward to “the core of the American experience” and to “the defining of male and female sensuality as essences of character,” notes Arvin Brown; an actor must “mobilize all his or her resources and keep them in focus” to play O’Neill, declares David Wheeler; Quintero calls it “going beyond the characters’ words and minds right into their souls,” so that “when you confront what is there, you confront yourself”; for Irene Lewis, the word is “stamina.” Wheeler relates that when Florence Eldridge played Mary in Long Day’s Journey on Broadway, “she said the effort, the struggle, to find that character every day became more than she could manage.”
Given these tributes to O’Neill’s daring, verve, compassion, tenacity, persuasive delineation of characters and clashes of temperament, artistic honesty, forceful deployment of a limited vocabulary, sustained flights of imagination, the sweep of his subject matter, the inspiration of his example for other writers, the stern requirements he imposes on his interpreters, his innate Americanism as a critic of our weaknesses and beliefs—don’t we now face some danger of treating him with too much awe? In discussions of O’Neill plays, the word “classic” keeps slipping out. It’s inevitable to prize a classic as a national heirloom, but the very word implies that the play has seen its best days of service and is now cherished for its antique value. The truth seems to be that while O’Neill’s output of 40-odd plays commands veneration as a totality, he is still regarded as an “uneven” writer. Seven years ago John Henry Raleigh, a distinguished O’Neill authority, divided up the plays into six categories of ascending merit: real clunkers, so-so’s, interesting weirdos, good plays, near-greats, and the great plays. That classification, with a little shuffling among the published verdicts, still represents something of a consensus.
Katharine Hepburn recalls that in the ’30s she “tried to organize a film of Mourning Becomes Electra with Garbo as Christine and myself as Lavinia. I talked to [Louis B.] Mayer and gave it to him to read. He felt it wouldn’t work.” The “won’t work” response, without any saving afterthought (such as: it depends on who does it, and how), has long oppressed and demeaned the arts in America. It has crushed the commercial theatre whose adherents can’t bring themselves to believe anything “works” unless they’ve already seen it “work” elsewhere—in London, for instance. When American producers ask Quintero if he’d like to revive an O’Neill and he suggests The Emperor Jones, the reply is generally a variant of “Anything else?” How come? Could it be that these days Emperor, which brought Charles Gilpin and then Paul Robeson to fame, “wouldn’t work”? Certain producers, even noncommercial ones, appear to want no more from O’Neill than the prestige of his name (a classic!). Ignorance masquerading as professional knowhow, and condescension toward audiences (let them eat emptiness), and timid intuitions make them fearful of theatre that is nonrealistic and which they therefore consider unrealistic. O’Neill himself encountered the “wouldn’t work” challenge from almost the beginning of his career, even before 1920 when he first passed uneasily beneath the Broadway portcullis.
This may be one reason he supplies such finicky and occasionally overwrought stage directions: he’s out to prove that the plays will work. Another reason is his notorious distrust of actors’ improvisations and off-the-cuff substitutions. And there’s a likely third reason. He doesn’t so much oppose his father’s melodramatic theatre as seek to capitalize on it, exalt it, transform the unfelt, technical exaggerations into convincing anguish and jubilation. When a dramatist converses with that other Father, the one on high, he wants the message to carry; he arms himself with big gestures, big noises, big guns.
Sensing this, serious artists who apply themselves to O’Neill look and feel their way past the jeering mouths and shifty eyes, the mocking laughs and the instructions on how to deliver lines raptly, huskily, disappointedly. James Earl Jones says, “An actor must create the performance through the dialogue, as with Shakespeare,” and so “you have to take a soft lead pencil to O’Neill’s stage directions. But you’d better keep a second copy around.” “Actors would go mad,” says David Wheeler, “if they followed the stage directions literally,” and he remarks that when O’Neill sat in on rehearsals he voluntarily cut and changed and chopped lines and acting directives. But, he adds, “you have to read him carefully for when he requires an extreme emotion, a desire or loathing.” Irene Lewis departs from the stage directions as little as possible; most of them are “uncannily correct.” George Ferencz reaches unabashedly for O’Neill’s grandeur: “I read the stage directions and try to get the spirit, discover the essentials, catch the rhythm. I want to stop the actors from pulling back. It’s no use being private with O’Neill. We have to break down walls, make everything metaphorical. He wrote a theatre of shock. I don’t believe there’s a mirror that reflects life. People in the audience should see things they’ve never seen before. I try to make love to the play, brutalize it. Instead of taking out the exclamation points, we play them. The capital letters and the big moments and the long speeches—we embrace them.”
If it’s true that O’Neill may not have exactly meant to “hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature”—if his art grew less out of recording than out of poetic impulses, and if his poetry of the theatre is too often slighted in performance—did he nevertheless strive to show “the very good age and body of the time”? His final, far-from-finished project proposes an affirmative answer. The cycle of plays to be known as “A Tale of Possessors, Self-Dispossessed” would consist of a comprehensive history of the Harford family “as extraordinary examples and symbols in the drama of American possessiveness and materialism.” No playwright since O’Neill has contemplated a work so vast, so majestically threatening a scale. And yet some of the influence exerted by this author on his age and ours can be detected in many subsequent American and European playwrights—and one or two “dramatists”—since. The roster of names proffered by our correspondents includes most of O’Neill’s younger contemporaries, from Rice, Odets, Sherwood, Kingsley, Connelly and Hellmann through Miller, Williams and Inge to Albee, Rabe, Shepard and Mamet, and across the Atlantic to Sartre, Camus, Osborne, Wesker, Handke, Pinter, and—yes—Brecht and Beckett. In one respect or another—style, content, range, ferocity—all these connections have validity. As John Dillon says, “It’s hard to think of a recent writer who wasn’t influenced by O’Neill. His restless soul sent out feelers in all directions.” Not that the characters of O’Neill are always explicit in his successors. Quintero: “In any family play I’ve read I can see traces of Long Day’s Journey. Tennessee Williams said the impact of O’Neill on him was enormous. He could write like Williams because he had a predecessor who wrote like O’Neill.”
O’Neill took his own cues from Ibsen, Shaw, Strindberg and unnumbered earlier authors here and abroad. And because he “wrote like O’Neill,” he remains our theatrical pioneer who opened up terrain the extent and fertility of which seem limitless. Except through one or two frontal assaults like Ferencz’s, we can hardly know whether those early plays deserve to be labeled clunkers, so-so’s or interesting weirdos until we seem them variously mounted by Quintero, Ferencz, Wheeler, Dillon, Davidson, Lewis, Brown, Fitzgerald and other gifted friends of O’Neill’s ghost. As for the later plays, critics and spectators still esteem them for their realism and concentration, rather than for the metaphorical freight and expansiveness they display once they’re translated imaginatively to the stage.
The whole body of work awaits further liberation that will yield fresh treasures. In his own voices and the voices of those who came under his influence, O’Neill, dead but very much alive, continues his one-way dialogue with God. While we continue to eavesdrop.
Albert Bermel is the author of Farce: The Comprehensive and Definitive Account of One of the World’s Funniest Art Forms (Simon and Schuster) and a lecturer on Eugene O’Neill at Lehman College of the City University of New York
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!