Eugene O’Neill

Today is the birthday of the great American playwright Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953)

In my view he towers over (nearly) every other American playwright..because of his ambition, his restless and inexhaustible experimentation, his grasp of theatre as an essentially metaphysical proposition (not a mere political one), and because the formal architecture of his plays (the ideas for plots, settings and characters–and the scale) is always right on the money. He has the best IDEAS for plays. An awesome diversity of characters, locales, stories, formal approaches.

He is both prolific and long-winded! He wrote an amazing number of plays: 53, that I know about (and I have read and made notes on them all). He was even more prolific than most people know, taking into account  the number of finished and partially finished plays he destroyed.  And he dreamed of still others that were sadly unrealized. To me, this is the correct working method. The playwright must be like the painter, turning out more canvases than he intends to show.

Many of the plays are of epic length, some would say unnecessarily so, that they are inflated with blarney and bloviation. Some score, some don’t, but in the true American fashion there is MORE of everything. Size is theatrical. There is something THERE. His art says I am HERE! Ambition, bigness, he is quintessentially American. So many who practice this craft don’t “get it” in this department.

He is a marvelously transitional figure…between the old melodrama and what we think of as modern drama. Very much associated in his day with “racy” subject matter: miscegenation, infanticide, incest, drug abuse, alcoholism…always shocking, his instinct was very commercial, very theatrical in this way, always pushing back the boundaries and keeping the public interested.

He famously said that his plays were more about the relationship between man and god than about man and man. The climaxes of his plays often seem like religious epiphanies, the hero dissolving like an aspirin tablet before the overwhelming might of nature. He reminds me of Aeschylus—he must have prized Prometheus Bound. So many of his characters are blasphemous, even foolish, but they all eventually tire and must stop swimming against the tide. That’s not always tragic—sometimes it’s a joyous moment. The Apollonian giving way to the Dionysian—an ecstasy. Very Catholic. For all his fashionable interest in Neitzsche, Marx, Freud, etc it all keeps coming back to an almost conservative (if unintentional, merely programmed) Catholicism.

Like Melville, he appears to have been driven to metaphysics by the sea.

Parallels with Jack London. I have to confess that I like that he is in touch with his masculinity, and that his characters are soldiers, sailors, farmers, drunks and anarchists. He himself experienced life as a working man, worked in factories, farms etc in addition to having been a sailor. He’d even experienced life as an out and out bum. Such experience I think expands one’s compassion. O’Neill’s compassion to me seems infinite. While he made quite a demonstration of becoming an atheist, his entire work seems informed and dominated by an underlying Christianity—fundamental Christianity, GENUINE Christianity.

Robards as Hickey in “The Iceman Cometh”

I had the thrill of meeting the ultimate O’Neill actor Jason Robards, Jr. in 2000. It was at HERE Arts Center during the switchover between plays. I was going to a performance of my show House of Trash and he was coming out from a play which his grandson had been in. I was so glad to see him that I lost the usual inhibitions and went right up and shook his hand and chatted with him about the work his own father (Jason Robards, Sr.) had done in the Griffith film Abraham Lincoln, which seemed to gratify him immensely. He was old and frail and passed away not long after. He was a terrific actor—with that growly voice, twinkling eyes, and the very expressive mouth—almost a clown’s mouth. He had tremendous authority. I wish I could talk to him about O’Neill NOW

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