From Sea-Chanties to the Moon
A spate of intense new productions shows how Eugene O'Neill's theatrical vision deepened as his canvas tightened
By Wendy Smith
Eugene O'Neill towers over the American stage the way Shakespeare towers over the English: He virtually invented our national drama, forcing a juvenile theatre to grow up just as America was facing the political, social and spiritual challenges of maturity. No truly ambitious actor can shirk the challenge of his soul-exposing roles, and no one who cares about the theatre wants to miss out on the key entries in his exhausting yet exhilarating canon.
An evening of O'Neill can be exhausting and exhilarating for the same reason: He never settles for less than the most the theatre has to offer. He disdains cheap laughs, easy emotions and comforting nostrumsall the facile tricks of the "show shop," as he sneeringly called Broadway. He demands of his audiences the same stern willingness to look at life whole and without flinching that he demands of himself, and he expects them to sit still for as long as that look takes.
O'Neill sometimes failed to achieve his titanic ambitions, but he never compromised them. Toward the end of his life, as he gained perspective on the nightmarish family drama that shaped his dark view of the world and humanity's place in it, his work became more personal and also more universal. There are no greater American plays than The Iceman Cometh, Long Day's Journey into Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten, yet they came after nearly three decades of game-changing achievement that included such other seminal pieces as Anna Christie, Desire Under the Elms and Mourning Becomes Electra. Familiarity with O'Neill's entire body of work merely makes those final masterpieces more astonishing: How could he have given so much and yet still have more to give?
A representative selection of that sprawling body of work this past spring in New York and Washington, D.C., gave a partial answer. The one-act seafaring dramas, with which O'Neill and the Provincetown Players announced their determination to create a new American theatre in 1916, got an avant-garde reboot in Brooklyn, where the Wooster Group, no stranger to the writer's catalog, produced Early Plays. Meanwhile, across the East River on West 22nd Street, the Irish Repertory Theatre gave a scrupulous, traditional account of O'Neill's rarely performed 1920 Broadway debut, Beyond the Horizon. Uptown at City Center, the Pearl Theatre Company essayed A Moon for the Misbegotten, offering a production deliberately lower-keyed than the big-name Broadway revivals of 2000 (featuring Gabriel Byrne and Cherry Jones) and 2007 (with Kevin Spacey and Eve Best).
Arriving with the cherry blossoms in Washington was the Eugene O'Neill Festival, the second such full-scale celebration in a scant three years. (Chicago's Goodman Theatre-sponsored "A Global Exploration: Eugene O'Neill in the 21st Century" was a 2009 American Theatre cover story.) The D.C. festival's centerpieces were the Shakespeare Theatre Company's fearless crack at Strange Interlude, O'Neill's notoriously difficult nine-act Freudian marathon, and the Arena Stage production of Long Day's Journey into Night. Among the festival's other offerings were Arena's staging of O'Neill's nostalgic Ah, Wilderness!, plus two new plays examining O'Neill's theatrical legacy and an exhibition of some 40 drawings of O'Neill productions over seven decades by New York Times caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. Lectures, panel discussions, readings and even an online radio play were all part of this multi-venue extravaganza.
Ranging from the first script of O'Neill's to be publicly performed (Bound East for Cardiff, included in Early Plays) through the last one completed before failing health forced him to stop writing (A Moon for the Misbegotten), the spring flurry of productions made palpable the continuity of his ambition and vision, even as his craft grew and his style shifted. "This sailor life ain't much to cry about leavin'," says Yank, the dying seaman in Cardiff, a judgment echoed in Josie Hogan's benediction for James Tyrone Jr. in Moon: "May you have your wish and die in your sleep soon, Jim, darling." O'Neill was the first great American playwright in large part because he was the first to challenge audiences with a genuinely tragic vision of the human conditiona vision that consistently presents death as the only lasting peace achievable.
O'Neill's quest to present onstage life in its unvarnished reality led him to experiment with new forms from the very beginning. The Moon of the Caribbees, O'Neill's personal favorite among his one-acts, is a virtually plotless mood piece, and the stark, nearly empty setting at St. Ann's Warehouse offered an apt visual metaphor for the vast, indifferent world in which his sailors seize the transient pleasures of drink, dance and sex.
That opening vista was, unfortunately, about the only moment in Early Plays that meaningfully connected with O'Neill. To direct, the Wooster Group tapped fellow avant-gardist Richard Maxwell, who guided the actors to adopt a flat-affect style familiar to anyone who has seen the work of Maxwell's company, the New York City Players, several of whom mingled with Wooster regulars here. I was not among the purists outraged by the Wooster Group's earlier multimedia renderings of The Hairy Ape and The Emperor Jones; perhaps that's why I liked Maxwell's stripped-down use of the same unit set for Early Plays. But while those earlier productions had a fiery conviction that matched O'Neill's, making their radical revamping feel like legitimate reinvention, Maxwell took a more detached approach to Bound East for Cardiff, The Moon of the Caribbees and The Long Voyage Home. And though he received an Obie for his efforts, to me they were off the mark. O'Neill sought to evoke the varying backgrounds of his characters using dialects, which look hoary in print but can easily be spoken in a way that seems natural on stage. Maxwell's choice to have his actors deliver them in a droning, intentionally artificial manner seemed to miss the pointthat O'Neill portrayed with dignity the kinds of people who had previously appeared in the theatre only as comic foils or villains. This compassion and sense of kinship for even the most miserable dregs of humanity is a thread that binds the seafaring plays to The Iceman Cometh.
"It's almost revolutionary to give exactly what O'Neill intended," director Ciarán O'Reilly told the New York Times in 2009, discussing his faithful execution of the playwright's expressionist devices in The Emperor Jones. (That revival, starring an electrifying John Douglas Thompson, appeared in New York a few years after the Wooster Group remounted its own high-tech version from the 1990s.) O'Reilly took the same original-intent approach to the naturalistic Beyond the Horizon, which makes O'Neill's first major statement of principles: Hold onto your dreams or suffer the consequences; betraying your essential nature will ruin your life; materialism will destroy your soul. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that these are not simply the lessons to be drawn from Beyond the Horizon's grim saga of two brothers derailed from their true destinies by their love for the same woman. They constitute an artistic credo that would guide O'Neill throughout his career, and they sprang from personal experience.
"What are you trying to dosend [the audience] home to commit suicide?" James O'Neill infamously asked his son after Beyond the Horizon's premiere. O'Neill certainly had no intention of pandering to them, as his father had done for decades performing in immensely profitable tours of the melodramatic The Count of Monte Cristo. His intimate knowledge of the fallout from his father's commercial compromisesJames's squandered talent, the O'Neill family's shattered home lifegives painful intensity to Beyond the Horizon's merciless insistence that mistakes can't be undone, that life is too implacable to allow for redemption.
It's a young man's play, sometimes crude and schematic, and O'Reilly had the good sense to encourage the Irish Rep's capable actorsLucas Hall as Robert, the dreamer who stayed home on the farm; Rod Brogan as Andrew, the man of the soil who went to sea; and Wrenn Schmidt, who played Ruth as an exhausted young mother terrified of her husband's inadequaciesnot to be embarrassed by the flaws in the text. They embraced O'Neill's unrelenting pessimism and played the human particulars in which he always embeds his philosophical points. O'Reilly's thoughtful interpretation illuminated Beyond the Horizon as the unjustly neglected culmination of O'Neill's apprenticeship years.
Strange Interlude is a characteristic work of O'Neill's middle period, the decade and a half of furious creativity during which he wrote 20 plays and pressed against the realistic theatre's constraints. Following The Great God Brown, a daring attempt to use masks in a contemporary drama, Strange Interlude features another imaginative update of ancient theatre practice. In what O'Neill called "thought asides," characters speak aloud their inner musings, unheard by the others on stage. Unlike the direct addresses to the audience employed across the centuries from Elizabethan drama to Victorian melodrama, these asides are freely intermingled with ordinary dialogue exchanged among the characters.
To distinguish between the two kinds of speech, the director of the 1928 production had all the other actors freeze in place while a single actor voiced a private thought. That strategy has generally been emulated in the play's infrequent revivals, but Michael Kahn, artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, correctly concluded that such telegraphing was unnecessary. Kahn's actors didn't overtly distinguish the asides either physically or vocally. On the night I saw Strange Interlude at Sidney Harman Hall, the audience had no trouble telling the difference, and the contrast between what the characters were saying and what they were thinking often provoked hearty laughter.
Some of the humor in the play is intentional, but much is not; O'Neill's ultra-Freudian insights, considered terribly bold and risqué in 1928, seem terribly obvious to a modern audience. But people are obvious sometimes, and one of this production's great strengths was the willingness of the actors (especially the pitch-perfect Robert Stanton as sex-fearing mama's boy Charlie Marsden) to let both kinds of laughs happen. They were relaxed about Strange Interlude's excesses, so the audience could relax and enjoy the play on several levels.
"It's just a giant soap opera!" said a woman next to me on line at the first intermission. Indeed, promiscuity, hereditary insanity, abortion, adultery and deaths both natural and unnatural are among the plot developments O'Neill doles out with a generous hand as his angst-ridden heroine, Nina Leeds (expertly enacted by Francesca Faridany), finds that she needs the love of three menand the son on whom she obsessively dotesto make up for the fiancé she lost in World War I. Despite his contempt for the phony, sentimental fare of his father's generation, O'Neill shared its relish for high drama, and he imbibed an enormous amount of theatrical know-how during those miserable childhood years being carted from town to town on James O'Neill's endless national tours. He thought and wrote naturally in units of acts and scenes, expressing character development through dialogue and stage action, even as he stretched the theatre to encompass greater metaphysical depth and psychological complexity.
O'Neill's famously detailed stage directions express these boundary-stretching intentionsand his mistrust of those executing them on stage. They describe scenery in terms of its emotional impact and its relationship to the progression of the story; they give in-depth psychological portraits as well as physical descriptions of characters; and they frequently indicate precisely how a line should be spoken and the action that should accompany it. (The New York Neo-Futurists spoofed this micro-managing in their wickedly funny The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O'Neill Volume 1: Early Plays/Lost Plays, which had a brief reprise during the D.C. festival.) He was seldom happy with productions of his plays and considered the published scripts, in which he restored cuts made for performance, to be the truest versions.
In fact, O'Neill was in his lifetime one of Random House's best-selling authors, and he is among the most readable of playwrights, thanks in part to those evocative stage directions. If he had not been so irrevocably committed to the theatre, he might have been a great American novelist.
Strange Interlude is O'Neill's attempt to write a novel as a play, covering 27 years over 9 acts. In the original production, his sprawling script took four-and-a-half hours to perform, plus a 90-minute dinner break in lieu of intermissions. With the permission of the O'Neill estate, Kahn cut the running time to slightly over three hours, including two intermissions. I have usually found it a mistake to eliminate the deliberate repetitions with which O'Neill orchestrates his themes; I've seen two heavily cut productions of The Iceman Cometh, both fragmentary and oddly dull, whereas the Almeida Theatre's 1999 production, anchored by Kevin Spacey's scarifying Hickey, gripped me for every minute of its more than four hours. Goodman Theatre's recent production, directed by Robert Falls, was similarly uncut, and judging by the glowing reviews, it too lived up to O'Neill's epic demands.
I have to admit, however, that having read Strange Interlude just days before I saw Kahn's production, I couldn't point to anything significant missing. Indeed, Kahn's pruning brings to the foreground a surprising, proto-feminist twist in O'Neill's habitual philosophizing. He wrote many great roles for women, and plenty of speeches that express a character's effort to find meaning in human suffering. But only in Strange Interlude does he offer a coherent, female-centered challenge to the way men see things. "The mistake began when God was created in a male image," Nina tells Charlie. "That makes life so perverted, and death so unnatural. We should have imagined life as created in the birth-pain of the God the Mother. Then we would understand why we, Her children, have inherited pain."
O'Neill is here, as ever, a forceful rather than a subtle artist, but he makes the case against a punitive God the Father with delicacy and considerable tenderness in an assertion by Nina's mother-in-law (the excellent Tana Hicken) that reverberates throughout Strange Interlude: "Being happy, that's the nearest we can ever come to knowing what's good." Kahn and his accomplished cast realized that these lovely, quiet moments couldn't be disentangled from the busy plot and facile Freudianism that make Strange Interlude rather dated, albeit a surprising amount of fun; they struck every note in O'Neill's discordant symphony with equal deftness.
When middle-aged, widowed Nina turns down the marriage proposal of her longtime lover at the end of Strange Interlude, she explains, "Our ghosts would torture us to death!" It's a cogent forecast of the basic action in Long Day's Journey into Night, which sends the ghosts of a naïve schoolgirl and a rising young actor to stalk the family they made and destroyed. "The past is the present [and] the future too. We all try to lie out of that but life won't let us," says Mary Tyrone in Journey's Act 2, summarizing the bleak conclusion O'Neill winnowed from his harrowing family history.
Helen Carey's superb performance at Arena placed Mary at the play'sand the family'sagonizingly conflicted heart. Beautiful and flirtatious in the early scenes, Carey showed us the ardent young woman James Tyrone fell in love with and the ethereal mother their son Jamie worshipped. If Peter Michael Goetz's underpowered James Tyrone had been Carey's match, we would have felt the full horror and sadness of a love that endures despite its disastrous consequences. Carey wrung every ambivalent nuance from Mary's initially good-natured teasing of her husband and sons, and from her retreat into a spooky, morphine-fueled detachment. I'd never been quite so struck by the double-edged nature of Mary's comment to her son Edmund, "None of us can help the things life has done to us"; in complete command of his material, O'Neill has the artistic confidence to give a statement of his core belief to a drug addict making excuses for her relapse.
The same dynamicbrutal truths uttered with self-justifying intentdrives the ghastly exchanges among the tormented Tyrone men that climax Act 4. The impact of that act's orgy of recriminations was muffled by Robin Phillips's overly cautious direction, but O'Neill's own struggle to forgive his parents and brother for the damage they inflicted, on his life and theirs, imbues Journey with a seething emotional force that is palpable even in a flawed production.
A Moon for the Misbegotten shares with Long Day's Journey into Night and The Iceman Cometh a simplicity and economy that reveal the playwright working at the deepest levels of his art. The urgency of what he needs to communicate precludes the restless experimentation that marked his work in the '20s and early '30s. A single set and a single day suffice as O'Neill uses unadorned, naturalistic speech to strip away his characters' lies and force them to confront who they are and what they've done. If this sounds savage, it is, and yet A Moon for the Misbegotten has a warmth well served by the Pearl Theatre Company's intimate production, sensitively directed by J.R. Sullivan on the company's tiny stage at City Center. Indeed, the first act's broad humor, played with gusto by Kim Martin-Cotten as Josie Hogan and Dan Daily as her father Phil, makes this, paradoxically, O'Neill's saddest play. A Moon for the Misbegotten shows us people capable of delight (not something you see a lot of in O'Neill) once again shipwrecked on the shoals of the past. What makes O'Neill's perennial theme so heartbreaking here is that it isn't Josie's past; she makes the mistake of falling in love with someone whose course in life was set long before she knew him: haunted James Tyrone Jr.
Andrew May's Jim Tyrone was a hollowed-out shell of a gentleman whose intelligence and charm hadn't been entirely drowned in drink and dissipation, a tantalizing rescue project for Martin-Cotten's strong but achingly vulnerable Josie. May's courtly demeanor in the early scenes made an intriguing contrast with Jason Robards's performance in the keening 1973 revival that established A Moon for the Misbegotten as a central work in the O'Neill canon. Robards was more of a Broadway tout, using his raucous voice and braying laugh to drown out the furies shrieking inside his head, while May's demons seemed to be whispering poisonously in his ear. When May delivered the lacerating Act 3 monologue in which Jim confesses that he got blind drunk on the train carrying his mother's corpse to New York and spent every night of the journey in bed with a prostitute, the defining moment was his storm of weeping against Martin-Cotten's breast. O'Neill brought the character based on his brother back from Long Day's Journey into Night because he felt he'd failed to do justice to Jamie O'Neill's profound love for their mother, and May's interpretation movingly conveyed that love. Robards's final monologue was one long howl of outrage, abandonment, self-hatred and the most dreadful, desolate kind of self-knowledge. It's one of the few times in the theatre when I have felt in my bones the catharsis through pity and fear that Aristotle defined as the purpose of tragedy.
Greek tragedy was one of O'Neill's touchstones, not only in his understanding of theatre but of life itself. Depicting a world in which human beings commit crimes without intending to, driven by forces they cannot control but may at last come to comprehend, the Oresteia and Oedipus Rex provided a philosophical frame that could encompass the guilt and grief of a teenager wracked with the knowledge that his birth had been the cause of his mother's morphine addiction.
But if O'Neill's embrace of the Greeks' tragic ethos quite possibly saved him from following the suicidal path of his nihilistic brother, he found no way to voice it in his own plays until he discovered his second touchstone: the revolutionary drama of Ibsen and his peers. Seeing Alla Nazimova's Hedda Gabler in 1907, he remarked, "gave me my first conception of a modern theatre where truth might live." More than 100 years later, sampling key works from his staggering output, we can see that what Hedda gave O'Neill is what he gave the American theatre: the belief that it was a place where truth might live.