“Life is for each man a solitary cell whose walls are mirrors.” — Eugene O’Neill, Lazarus Laughed (1925)
“O’Neill is our Shakespeare.” — Dramatist Tony Kushner
Dallas — Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953) sits indisputably within the grand pantheon of American playwriting, alongside Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, Lillian Hellman, August Wilson, and others, yet some theater historians hasten to call him the greatest dramatist this country has ever produced.
He received four Pulitzer Prizes for his often challenging and barrier-breaking works, and, in 1936, became the first, and so far only, American playwright to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. All this, despite a turbulent life shaped by a troubled childhood, alcoholism, tuberculosis, three marriages, several estranged children, and assorted physical ailments, including depression and a Parkinson’s-like tremor that threatened to derail his career. He died in 1953 at age 65.
O’Neill’s body of work is massive and varied, yet he both revolutionized theater itself in ways we perhaps take for granted today, and also mined earlier performance traditions, works, and other playwrights and thinkers for inspiration.
O’Neill looked to modernist European dramatists, such as Henrik Ibsen and especially August Strindberg, along with writers of classical tragedy, and philosophers like Nietzsche. His Irish-American Catholic heritage also shaped his creations, along with the personal tragedies within his immediate family, which included a deceased sibling, a drug-addicted mother, and a talented yet deeply flawed and domineering father who failed to embrace his full creative potential.
Just a few revolutionary examples from the O’Neill canon:
The Emperor Jones (1920) and All God’s Chillun’ Got Wings (1924) brought African-American themes and actors, to the stage, while The Great God Brown (1926) utilized masks akin to ancient Greek theatre tradition. Strange Interlude (1928 Pulitzer) figuratively demolished the traditional fourth wall as its characters revealed themselves through spoken monologues. And O’Neill’s massive 1931 five-hour-long trilogy Mourning Becomes Electra was a modern reconfiguration of Aeschylus’ classic Oresteia, set after the American Civil War.
Ironically, O’Neill’s acknowledged masterworks, The Iceman Cometh (published 1940) and Long Day’s Journey Into Night (completed in 1941) appeared years after his Nobel citation. Long Day’s Journey would win O’Neill his fourth Pulitzer, posthumously, in 1957.
While O’Neill’s literary reputation is undeniable, his multi-act plays themselves pose great challenges as stage works, usually due to their length and dramatic complexity. Nevertheless, we can be grateful that revivals do occasionally cross our paths.
Thanks to Dallas’s Undermain Theatre, North Texas will see its first professional production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night since 1998, when Richard Hamburger staged it in the Arts District Theater in downtown, which was razed to make room for the AT&T Performing Arts Center. Much was written about that DTC staging, which placed in intimate play in a giant, airy space; whereas the small, below-street-level Undermain, sounds perfect for the claustrophobia of O'Neill's masterwork, set in his family's home in New London, Connecticut. That home is now a museum called Monte Cristo Cottage, and the room where much of Long Day's takes place is remarkably true to O'Neill's lengthy and detailed stage directions, including the bookshelves filled with Shakespeare and the classics.
Director Katherine Owens helms a five-person cast in O’Neill’s wrenching theatrical representation of the demons within his own troubled family.
Undermain has always offered audiences a mix of revered yet challenging classics in tandem with cutting-edge modern works, and its selection of this monumental piece epitomizes one of its approaches to season-building, continuing a theatrical lineage from what has gone before. Owens believes that Long Day’s Journey Into Night in many ways follows closely on the stylistic and thematic heels of August Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata (produced by Undermain in 2013) in terms of the Swedish playwright’s deep influence on O’Neill.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night brings us one Aug. 1912 day in the life of the Tyrone family at their summer home in New London, Connecticut. Father James (Bruce DuBose) could have become one of the world’s great stage actors, but, for the sake of money, instead imprisoned himself in one melodrama character role for his entire career, as did Eugene’s own actor-father. Along with the constant threat of poverty, real and imagined, James Tyrone must now also deal with the morphine addiction of his beloved wife Mary (Joanna Schellenberg), who was modeled after O’Neill’s own drug-dependent mother Ella.
The Tyrone sons Jamie (Shelby Davenport), a directionless, somewhat debauched, failed actor himself, and Edmund (Josh Blann), a poetic soul racked with tuberculosis the family tries to deny, interject their own emotional pain into the proceedings. Their four-sided tango becomes increasingly devastating as the day-long action progresses. The family’s maid Cathleen (Katherine Bourne) bears witness.
O’Neill described his characters’ interplay as “shifting alliances in battle.” As the day unspools with both bitter recriminations and often lyrical reminiscences, we see undeniable mutual love combined with airing of decades-old grievances. As each fictional Tyrone corresponded to an O’Neill family member, including the brothers, this work became an emotionally wrenching confessional for its author. O’Neill’s third wife Carlotta Monterey would recall his “being tortured every day by his own writing.”
O’Neill completed the play in 1941, yet stipulated in his will that it was never to be performed for the public, and only published 25 years after his death. However, Monterey defied his wishes and allowed it to appear in print and on stage in 1956. Its Broadway debut production starred Fredric March and Florence Eldridge as James and Mary.
The legendary performers tackling the play’s demanding roles over the decades, in both stage and film versions, have included Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Earle Hyman, Brian Dennehy, Jack Lemmon, David Suchet, Katherine Hepburn, Colleen Dewhurst, Vanessa Redgrave, Ruby Dee, Laurie Metcalf, Jason Robards, Kevin Spacey, Robert Sean Leonard, Peter Gallagher, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Major revivals are planned this year at Chicago's Court Theatre and again on Broadway later in April, the latter starring Gabriel Byrne and Jessica Lange.
In 1953, Time Magazine declared: “Before O’Neill, America had theater, but after O’Neill, America had drama.” In a life often punctuated with personal anguish, physical struggle, and emotional darkness, O’Neill managed to bring forth a body of work that was both a reflection of his turbulent times, and also, as Professor James Fisher, head of the Department of Theatre at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro notes in his book O’Neill in an Hour (Smith and Kraus, 2009), “offering [America] a profound optimism.” He concludes, “[O’Neill] suggests that despite its many failings, a great nation, like a family, may one day live up to its ideals.”
TheaterJones talked to Katherine Owens about the O'Neill legacy, Undermain's exploration of theater lineage, and how Long Day's Journey fits into this season.
TheaterJones: It’s my understanding that the overarching theme of Undermain’s current season is “family.” Is that correct?
Katherine Owens: Yes, but I’m also interested in the sense of the theatrical family. We have at least two shows dealing with families who are in the theater. The Droll was the first one, and now Long Day’s Journey. Later this season, Jonah by Len Jenkin will certainly center around a family, and this current play is about really one of the first prominent theater families in America.
There are many “family”-related plays available for production, so how did you decide to do this one?
Well, when we’re doing the classic plays, the older plays, I’m interested in lineage, in that something comes down to you from a particular tradition. I think the focus of our theater comes from the more poetic and experimental tradition. While it had antecedents, it was really in many ways born with August Strindberg, so the fount of our tradition is Strindberg. And Strindberg was the most important influence, dramatically, on O’Neill. In fact, it would not be wrong to say that Long Day’s Journey was built right on top of Strindberg’s Ghost Sonata [a 2013 Undermain production], so that partly explains why it was chosen.
Structurally, Long Day’s Journey shares a huge number of elements with Ghost Sonata, even down to the time of year it occurs, plus the characters and how they interact, and in fact, O’Neill has always been particularly popular in Sweden. Actually, the day we open this show in Dallas is around the anniversary of the show’s 1956 opening in Stockholm. The Swedish people have always embraced O’Neill, and I think it’s because of his great debt to Strindberg. O’Neill always said that if he could bring one deceased person back to life, it would be Strindberg, so his debt to him is absolute. Thus, in a sense, Strindberg was the father of O’Neill, dramatically.
Of course, there were other enormous influences on O’Neill, and he brings all those elements to bear, but you certainly see Strindberg in his work and without Strindberg, our tradition would not exist.
In my research, I came across several statements from theater historians declaring O’Neill America’s greatest playwright. Do you agree with that?
Well, he’s very high up on the list. Those kinds of distinctions are not so important for me. O’Neill certainly changed the American tradition of drama. In fact, he established it to some extent. I have a theory that his actor-father suffered greatly from lack of roles. It was so hard for his father to find an appropriate role that I almost feel like O’Neill decided “We need an American theater.”
Someone once said, “Before O’Neill, America had theatre, but after O’Neill, America had drama.” He had been steeped in the theater since childhood, so he came to it fully aware of its traditions and the kinds of melodramas—the wasteland, dramatically, in terms of American plays—that were present in this country at the time. There were some very interesting British plays coming over, but whether that was enough to sustain the American theater is a big question.
O’Neill didn’t do this on his own; there were colleagues of his, like the Provincetown Players, and some small companies in New York that were trying to bring about a revolution in the theater. They wanted to see a more naturalistic theatre without cardboard stories, which they considered old-fashioned, the kinds of things his father had made a living in. They were very interested in tragedy.
O’Neill was obviously enormously well-read; he had wanted to be a poet, and so we see so much poetry in his plays. It’s unbelievable to me how much documentation there is about O’Neill’s life, and about the lives of people around him, so that has made the research for this piece much, much easier.
It’s also important to remember that this piece was written about the year 1912 but was not written in 1912, so it was more contemporaneous with [Tennessee Williams’] The Glass Menagerie and [Arthur Miller’s] Death of a Salesman.
Several other Long Day’s Journey revivals are planned in 2016, on Broadway and in Chicago, in addition to Dallas—three major American cities in one calendar year. Do you think this play is somehow being rediscovered?
I think it’s more of a zeitgeist. You ask yourself, what do we need to produce during this given period of time? This play seems to resonate. People are saying, now is the time to see this play again.
This play has plenty of symbolic themes and motifs, but when viewed from a bare-bones perspective, it’s really about a family with “issues,” which is a contemporary concept to which everyone can relate. How did O’Neill make this work so exceptional above and beyond the basic premise of a troubled family?
O’Neill was at the height of his powers in a lot of ways. He had actually had a dip in his career. It’s a hermetic play; he did not plan to have it staged for a long time, if ever. He had used his family before for other works; his teacher told him to use the people he knew. The play is the product of a lifetime of erudition, a lifetime in the theater, and of the 20th century. He finished it in 1942. In that sense, it precedes Death of a Salesman and Glass Menagerie by a little bit.
It’s chilling to consider that O’Neill didn’t intend for this play ever to be staged, but thankfully, his widow Carlotta Monterey went against his wishes after his death. However, it’s been speculated that he knew full well that Carlotta would not follow the terms of his will.
Carlotta probably felt that the play’s time would have passed if she had adhered to his stated wishes. She was very wise to have it produced. It premiered in February, 1956. The writing period was 1941-42, a difficult time in the United States; a lot was changing, what with World War II and the like. I think that it must have been very difficult for him to bring that out.
From biographies about him, you learn that O’Neill said a lot of things that he later reversed. He was a very passionate person, so if he had lived, he might have reversed that wish himself. It could have been a whole different story for him if he had lived longer. You saw other people writing about their families, so maybe Carlotta knew that he really would want the work to be seen.
Aside from the historical importance of this work returning to the DFW Metroplex after so many years, what are you and Undermain aspiring to bring to it? Any special approach?
Well, there’s a sense that you direct certain productions, and then certain productions direct you. It’s really a negotiation. I’m very used to working with living writers, so many times, I have a feeling about a writer’s presence. It’s important to remember that since this play wasn’t staged in O’Neill’s lifetime, he never negotiated it with a director. Thus, it’s a bit of a first draft. In that sense, it’s good because nothing’s been “marked” on it, so you can come to it in lots of different ways.
It was enormously helpful to me to see Patrick Kelly’s production of Ghost Sonata because I never would have been able to understand the work just by reading it, and Patrick brought so much to it. So by directing Easter and seeing Ghost Sonata, I felt I had a real working knowledge of what Strindberg had done. And then I could see the lineage from Strindberg and the parallels to Ghost Sonata, and that’s been a real influence on me, thinking about Long Day’s Journey in terms of Ghost Sonata.
And also, the Irish “ghostly” tradition is in this play as well. I had no idea how “ghostly” it was. In other productions, it’s been more about the domestic drama. It’s very confined within its elements. There are very few things on stage. No one eats; they only drink. Money is important, books are important. They smoke. There are many things missing from the play; in a certain way, it’s not a realistic drama, and yet it’s very recognizable. People can see it and say “Oh, that’s my family.” Long before he wrote this play, O’Neill even commented that his mother was like the “Mummy” in Ghost Sonata. He was already drawing the parallels between this play and Strindberg’s.
Also, the nautical element is one of the most important things in O’Neill, so the set looks like the inside of a ship. I think this design [by John Arnone] leaves air to breathe.
As far as an approach is concerned, I feel there’s a high level of violence among these people, having to do with both their disappointments on a family basis and their strong ideological differences. They see themselves as culture-makers. They have these arguments that are both personal and philosophical. So the back half of the play is almost entirely philosophical: James’s poet is Shakespeare, while his sons’ poet is Baudelaire. All the men have these very philosophical entanglements where they really disagree, and it causes personal problems, the fourth act in particular. So that’s something that I’m thinking about as well.
And I’m considering the relationship of the mother and the ghosts that are in the household, including their dead child. But it’s not so tightly realistic. I think that not having rooms that are completely described and having these open spaces, is a way of saying the play is drawn out of O’Neill’s memory. Like with any memory, for example, you might remember the windows but you don’t remember the side walls, and I think that’s really important.
The O’Neill house wasn’t large. It was small, and that was the problem. It was less house than they needed in certain ways. There’s an interesting theory that the environment is always working against the character. The space is wide, and the audience will be very close, but I think that’s an advantage because you can really see into the subtleties. You don’t have to move things out into a large hall.
The play is teaching you while you’re in it; I guess everyone who does a play knows that.
In light of O’Neill’s long and detailed stage directions, do you think this work could have been a novel instead of a play?
Absolutely not. I think there are two things at work. One is a sort of necromancy that people engage in when they try to get the people they love to live again. They tell a really detailed story about them to someone, or they set up a fund for them, trying to get that person to continue to live.
Then the other thing is that O’Neill was quite concerned with the plight of actors—he knew that actors need something to play, besides these wooden kinds of melodramas to which his father had been confined. And I think that’s why he wrote it as a play. He did like short stories and dabbled in writing them himself. But, in a sense, what would be the point of making this play a prose work? He had to redeem the theater to some extent—he had to give people something to do in the theater. So that makes the most kind of sense. He’d been in the theater as a child, with his father. So I don’t know what the point of it as a novel would have been.
His lengthy stage directions are quite illuminating. It’s been suggested to me that a certain mistrust of actors drove him to write such detailed directions, but I think they’re interesting and helpful, even as long as they are.
Some people I know who are attending this production intend to read the play first. But I’ve reassured them that if that’s not possible, they’ll be able to follow the action just fine.
It is pretty easy to follow the issues involved. Like right now, we seem to be having a heroin epidemic in this country! Newspapers have been reporting about all the drug overdoses, and heroin use in particular has stepped up, plus women getting prescriptions from doctors and becoming addicted. So addiction is far from an unknown problem. And we have to remember that this play is based on a prominent family; whatever the O’Neills did, whether at home or on stage or on tour, they were in the paper all the time. So for James O’Neill, keeping secret both his wife’s addiction and her being sent to a sanitarium for a cure was very important.
A major question in this play is: has everyone acted on their potential? Have we all acted on our potential? Lots of tragedies are cautionary tales—if the people on stage go through something, perhaps you won’t have to. You can learn from it to some extent. Certainly O’Neill was educated through his proximity to tragedy, theater, and reading. Like all writers, he read continually.
What do you feel this play has to offer a 2016 audience?
On one level, you have two kids who don’t want to live the way their parents lived. They’ve got a little bit of a failure to launch. There is pretty pronounced drinking going on, there’s alcoholism. There’s an issue of these people having been first-generation immigrants.
There are the ever-present problems of families. Jamie is caught between his dad and his brother, so if he can’t be either one, he’ll be a Dionysian character: he’ll be debauched and just live for pleasure. And Edmund is trying to make something new in the world that’s worthwhile. I think those are values people can certainly understand. With a really great play, you don’t feel your intelligence is being insulted, and people have enough problems in their lives so that any strong information about how life works is always valuable.
Of course, everybody wants to be entertained and there are parts of the play that are interesting that way, but who doesn’t have conflict in their family? Another point: you’re making theater for a theater audience. You would love to have every citizen in here, but are you going to? You’re going to have a theater audience, which is tracking on a particular tradition, so there’s a sense of plays that fit in a pattern, and this becomes the pattern of what you’ve brought into your life.
I think that theater-goers are always interested in plays even of great difficulty like Ghost Sonata: they can go and then say “All right, I see how this all fits together.” Not enough is made of the tradition of theater-going. Theater is put into a category with “entertainment,” as if we’re all competing on that plane.
We’ve been doing theatre for 3,000 years. Sometimes people ask “Well, now, can you justify that theater you do?’ and I respond “I don’t feel that I really have to. This has been going on since Sophocles, and it has its place.” And I think there’s also a resurgence of theater in this town, particularly. When you consider what it was like when we started some 30-odd years ago, this community has really drawn the arts to the forefront in a way that’s beyond my imagination.
The point of classic plays is that they’re on a bucket list. It’s like the way people read. They’ll say “Well, I’ve never read a Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky novel, so it’s time to do it.” And I don’t think that tradition gets enough attention. It’s more about marketing or getting people into seats, but those are very important impulses that people have, to bring an education to themselves.
This play is very accessible. It’s long, but people will know exactly what’s going on. When a play isn’t accessible, reading it ahead of time will hardly help. I only really understood Ghost Sonata when I saw it.
This play is so much like a musical composition: you have monologue “solos,” plus duets and ensemble moments, though very few instances of anyone being totally alone on stage.
They hate being alone. Everyone in this family hates being alone; they despise it. In fact, someone has said that when these family members are really upset and want to hurt each other, they withdraw. They go away and leave someone alone. In a sense, it goes back to this being a theatrical family; they’ve held onto each other for such a long time, but also, here in their summer cabin, they’re without their crowds, their friends, and their people.
Any final thoughts?
I think O’Neill is a far more imaginative and experimental writer than we give him credit for. He spent a lot of time looking at structures and other kinds of things. And that’s something Strindberg really did: he blasted structure apart for people. It’s impossible to overstate the effect that Strindberg had. At the core of American drama, you have Strindberg—haunted-ness, decay, things that are rotten. From Strindberg, you come through to O’Neill, through the Irish tradition.
This play was written during the Production Code era in Hollywood. The Code eviscerated so much; it was horrible. Pre-Code, the films were darker; they were able to talk about things directly and not pull punches. So the Code would have been in force at the time this was written. After World War II, that all changed. By that time, people had seen a lot that made them realize there was no need to sugar-coat anything. So, considering when this play was written, I think that O’Neill is a more experimental playwright than we know. His ambition was really tremendous and he wrote this in a hermetic period of his life.
I think there are two traditions in the theater—the hermetic and the heroic, and even though this play is sometimes produced in grand scale in a perforce heroic kind of setting, it really is a hermetic play. It’s about people that are hidden, things that are hidden, and it was written by him in a kind of hidden way.
It demands an unbelievable amount from actors. I cannot tell you how great it is to be working with the actors in this production, who can really go the distance. The most poetry, most philosophy, most violence is in the fourth act: how those actors do it, I don’t even know. I think O’Neill is saying, “This is what actors can do. Give them a bare stage and a couple of entrances and some books and a bottle of whisky, and that’s all they need.”
» Catherine Ritchie is a librarian at the Dallas Public Library