Monday, March 12, 2012

The Return of O'Neill

We sometimes forget that Eugene O'Neill is the only American playwright to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Not that that is always the greatest distinction one may be awarded. After all, neither Sinclair Lewis nor Pearl Buck today receives the respect they may have garnered many years ago. And there are all sorts of miscellaneous writers worldwide who have been feted by the Swedish Academy despite what could fairly be described as lackluster credentials.

But O'Neill has taken his knocks, just as many of his greatest characters did. We have learned that not all of his work is great, but whose is? In New York, some of his earliest plays are being revived, with mixed reactions. Now, however, in Washington, we are having an O'Neill festival, centered at the Arena Stage, the city's pre-eminent regional theater company. Last weekend, I saw O'Neill's only comedy, the not-very-comic play of either nostalgia or recollection, Ah,Wilderness. It is a pleasant play--to employ Bernard Shaw's terminology--and it was well played at Arena.

O'Neill was recalling what he had wished was his adolescence in New England. Next month, we get to see what in many ways is the flip side of that play, and to many, his greatest work, Long Day's Journey Into Night.  Instead of the all-American Millers of Ah,Wilderness, which sometimes emits the scent of a Father Knows Best type of in the person of small-town editor Nat Miller, and his delightfully awkward but already inspired son Richard, we get the Tyrones.  The father has wrecked his acting career by taking the easy path (taken by O'Neill's father) of playing The Count of Monte Cristo 6,000 times and thus never hired to portray anyone else.  Elder son Jamie already shows sign of the alcoholism that will consume him. Mother Mary is fighting a relentless morphine habit. And son Edmund, possibly the part most reflecting O'Neill himself, finds out that he has contracted tuberculosis. So much fun for everyone!

Yet as the characters assail themselves and each other, this emerges as O'Neill's most wrenching and most marvelous play.  He must have felt so close to it that although he wrote it in the 1930s, it did not get produced until twenty years later, after his death, when his widow finally released it. Jason Robards came of age playing in it and two other great O'Neill works: A Moon for the Misbegotten and The Iceman Cometh. First, he was Jamie in the original production and then James Tyrone the father some decades later. 

Yes, sometimes O'Neill can feel repetitive. Sometimes you feel you can't listen to Larry Slade kvetch any more in The Iceman, but then Jason Robards (or in the movie, Lee Marvin, who was also excellent) appears as Hickey, the salesman whose entrance receives as long a build-up as does Tartuffe in Moliere's eponymous play. And then we all face dealing with our pipe dreams, whether or not we find Hickey convincing in his sales pitch to the gathered drunks to deal with theirs.

Seeing one of these three great plays is a wonderful experience. So was seeing Ah, Wilderness.  It's amazing to recall that when it debuted in the 1930s, the father's role was played by none other than the then-aged George M. Cohan. Shakespeare Theatre Company here has also been active-doing Mourning Becomes Electra previously and soon Strange Interlude. These I haven't seen, but I will not write off any O'Neill. He always manages to make you feel some new thoughts even when seeing one of his great plays a second or third time.

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