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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. X, No. 3
Winter, 1986


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IN THIS ISSUE)

RETHINKING O'NEILL

Peter Gallagher was born in 1956, the year of the landmark productions of The Iceman Cometh and Long Day's Journey Into Night, directed by Josť Quintero, in New York City. Thirty years later, in 1986, Gallagher was to perform Edmund in Jonathan Miller's "controversial" but critically acclaimed revival of Long Day's Journey Into Night on Broadway. His characterization of the young Eugene O'Neill in that production was described as one that "blazes" (Watt, Daily News) and was declared "brilliant" (Henry, Time Magazine). In the New York Times, Frank Rich said that Gallagher's performance "gives us the poet as well as the consumptive; his intelligence and sensitivity flare so dangerously in his big dark eyes that, in his nihilistic reveries of the sea, we see the birth of O'Neill as an artist."

Gallagher's own dangerous side surfaced on the day I interviewed him at the Broadhurst Theatre during the production's New York run. When I presented myself to him as an "academic" who writes historical documentations of O'Neill revivals, he bristled and became edgy. And I soon discovered why: my presence reminded him of a recent letter to the New York Times from Bernard F. Dick, a professor of English and comparative literature at Fairleigh Dickinson University. The letter had been a strong criticism of director Jonathan Miller's interpretation of the play. Dick had negatively compared Miller's three hour and ten minute, fast-paced structuring of the text to Josť Quintero's four hour and forty--five minute, leisurely, measured version of The Iceman Cometh which played in New York the previous fall. Dick accused Miller of not trusting the audience's attention span and claimed that it had been manipulated to play "the fool."

As Gallagher and I spoke I could sense this dark haired, intense young Irishman sizing me up as he sought to ascertain my position on artistic license. While he shot spirited responses to my queries, I was reminded of descriptions of the brash and youthful champion that was Eugene O'Neill. It was clear from the beginning that Gallagher had decided to use our interview as a vehicle to respond to Dick and any other "academics" who might object to tampering with O'Neill. In referring to the Fairleigh Dickinson Professor, Gallagher wryly commented, "I hate to think of the young minds he's warping."

I explained to Gallagher that Josť Quintero had expressed frustrations similar to Dick's and had cited the laudatory reviews of Miller's production and their repeated approval of its shortened length as a particular source of angst.1 Gallagher snorted,

What's he upset about? We all2 saw The Iceman Cometh last fall and loved it. Does he think that this production is a financial success? We're closing in three weeks. Roger [Roger Peters, Long Day's Journey's producer] is losing his shirt on this. He'll lose $100,000 to $200,000. There aren't many people who are going to put up the hundreds of thousands of dollars it takes, to do a cavalier production of Long Day's Journey, because it doesn't make money. The people who do it are going to be doing it because they care about this play. O'Neill is just death, that's all. I don't think O'Neill has ever run more than six months on Broadway.

The subject of the producer's motives initiated a discussion of the origins of this particular production. Since it was well known that Jonathan Miller had given up directing for the theatre and was instead concentrating on opera, I asked how the very British Miller had met up with the very American O'Neill. Gallagher responded:

Well, Roger Peters was in a hotel lobby. Roger saw Jonathan and went up to him and said, "Dr. Miller, you don't know me but I'm an aspiring producer and I just want to ask you a question. Is there any play you would like to direct?" Jonathan said, "Long Day's Journey Into Night. I love that play. I've always wanted to direct that play." Roger said, "If you could direct that play, who would you want to star in it?" Jonathan said, "Jack Lemmon. In fact if you can get Jack Lemmon to do it, I'll direct it." And that's how it happened.

Gallagher recounted that Miller's positive response amazed Peters because he had long been trying to produce that particular play but had forsaken the idea because of numerous obstacles. Many leading actors and actresses had, for example, turned down Tyrone and Mary because of the difficulties associated with the roles.

Once Miller agreed to do the show, however, there were still problems. The O'Neill estate made it difficult to attain rights, and negotiations were slow. This meant that as the pressure built and the wait dragged on, the cast Peters had lined up for Miller could potentially be lost to other projects. As Gallagher put it, "It got to the point where being allowed to do the play became a success in and of itself."

Added problems were the inevitable comparisons which would be made with previous productions. A film version starring Ralph Richardson and Katharine Hepburn was now readily available on videotape. Laurence Olivier's production from the National Theatre in Great Britain aired frequently on public television. Also, Josť Quintero's famous 1956 American premiere of Long Day's Journey, coupled with his unsurpassed reputation for directing O'Neill's plays in America, made the undertaking formidable.

A further obstacle was the fact that the most important review would come from the New York Times, whose editor, Arthur Gelb, holds the scepter as one of the world's foremost O'Neill historians. Gallagher recalled that when the cast and director agreed early on in the rehearsals that they were willing to reinterpret the play, "we just knew that there were people that revered the play, what Jonathan called the 'custodians of O'Neill.' We didn't know how they would respond because we were doing it slightly differently." Because of these pre-show qualms, Miller insisted that the production rehearse out of town. No reviewers were permitted to attend during its initial try-out period at Duke University. The first opportunity came when the show opened at the National Theatre in Washington, to mixed reviews. As the play neared its New York opening, Gallagher mused over the ironies of which he became aware.

What's incredible is that the play is so much about forgiveness and about the tragedy of living your life in remembrances. In the play Tyrone talks about Booth and the highlight of his life. As a 65 year old man he says that his life has gone down hill steadily since he was 27. Mary says that the convent, her wedding day and playing the piano were really "it". And the tragedy is that these people do not let go of the past and forgive themselves for what they are in the present. So it's ironic that that's what the play's about. The play is much greater than anybody's petty kind of attacks. It's a terrible expression of the worst in us that we can't allow these plays to live. No one is diminished by a production of this play.

Gallagher's comments recall the difficulties Quintero faced while remounting The Iceman Cometh in 1985. Overcoming the myth of his own historic 1956 production had proved impossible. His new production was forced to close after a brief and unprofitable two-month run. Oddly enough, rebel and trend-breaker Eugene O'Neill had become such a revered icon that shaking up preconceived notions about the proper ways to realize his work was tantamount to robbing a sanctuary.

Gallagher says that he didn't worry about any of these deterrents, because other cast members were taking care of that problem for him. He recollected that late one night his friend and fellow actor, Kevin Spacey, called him up in a state of "terror and panic" and said, "Peter we're missing something. This is going too well. I don't know what's wrong. I know I'm ... we're missing something big." To which Gallagher responded, "Kevin, maybe we are, but we're not going to find out what it is if we get all panicked about it."

Despite these moments of extreme doubt, Gallagher felt that rehearsals for the production were "joyous":

I never laughed so much. You tell people you're rehearsing Long Day's Journey and they say, "Oh God, you must be in a great mood." And I was! I was having the best time of my life. We were like a SWAT team. We'd try to figure out the problem with this, or how to do that better, and boom--we'd figure out a way that we could do it.

Gallagher recalls that one image Miller maintained of the play was that it was similar to a string quartet. in particular Beethoven's Grosse Fugue, "where you have a first violin on top and then the resonance of the viola and the cello underneath." Miller invited Zubin Mehta to attend rehearsals to see if the play would conjure the same musical response from the Indian conductor. Since Mehta and Miller frequently collaborate in staging operas, Miller trusted Mehta's intuitions. Gallagher states that Mehta's response was that the play was "like a piece of music--solos, duets and trios."

In seeking to discover a new interpretation of the play, Miller assigned the cast copies of the script from which all of O'Neill's original stage directions had been deleted. Even notations for entrances and exits were removed. As Gallagher put it:

I'm glad O'Neill saved his bad writing for his stage directions. A lot of them are nonsense. The good writing is in the play, in the dialogue. Thank God Shakespeare's stage directions are so scanty because that's what's enabled those plays to take off--freedom--because no one has the definitive word.

When we contemplate the problems which ensued during the rehearsals for the 1946 production of The Iceman Cometh, Miller's decision to bypass O'Neill's directorial voice is understandable. Actors from that production's cast claim that its eventual failure stemmed partly from the fact that director Eddie Dowling was seriously inhibited by O'Neill's insistence on attending and commenting on every rehearsal.

During rehearsals with Miller, the actors went to extremes to avoid falling into what they considered the traps of O'Neill's dictates. In a scene that calls for Mary to slap Edmund on the face during an argument, every other possible option was tried before Miller conceded that a direct hit was required. Coincidentally, on the particular day the decision was made to retain O'Neill's bit of business, a storm was brewing outside. Gallagher laughingly recalled that the cast was dumbstruck when a clap of thunder was heard the instant the big moment occurred.

Gallagher credited Miller with inventing the idea of having the cast overlap their lines at crucial moments, thus accelerating the pacing of the dialogue. They began trying the technique the first day of rehearsals:

It was a little too much at Duke when we first were trying it out. We were so proud of ourselves in doing it that at times--it was not a question of overlapping anymore but of responding when the time was right. The repetition in the script was so enormous that no information is lost. We found that the information was not that precious. In fact we found it more truthful in a way, for us, just for us, that they weren't listening to each other. Everyone was a little too afraid. What held everyone together was the love, not the bitterness and the hatred.

As result of the criss-cross of responses--reminiscent of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne's technique of completing each other's sentences, and indeed, of operatic ensemble--the production's length was shortened. Miller explained his reasons for not stylizing the play in an interview for the Christian Science Monitor:

I suppose I was reacting in some sense against previous productions which have emphasized the dark dignities of the piece and the poetic drama. And it seemed to me this was a misconception of the genre, of the work. I don't think it's a poetic drama. I don't think it's an epic.... Even if O'Neill conceived it as epic, it really is not an epic. It goes on for a whole day--remember it has the traditional Greek tragedy's unities of time and place--but it's not the house of Atreus; it's not Agamemnon. And if for some misguided reason O'Neill thought of it as one, he really did misconceive his own best intentions. Because what it is, is a great play. because of the accuracies with which it recaptures the quality of family life.

Gallagher was pleased at Miller's choice not to "romanticize" the play and present it as a "museum piece." In discussing potential artistic intentions for doing Long Day's Journey, Gallagher used the example of possibly presenting the play "to show what life was like in 1912." Still, he rejected this as a useless interpretation, believing it would keep the audience at "arm's length." I mentioned the fact that critics of O'Neill refer to his dialogue as stilted but that in Miller's production the critics praised the accessibility of the language. Gallagher replied:

If you say something and if it's truthful, you go with the truth and don't wrestle with the antiquity of the language. One of the things that I like about O'Neill is that I always get the impression that he was a great listener. He'd go on these ships and just insinuate himself among these hearty and rough guys and just listen, and never judge.

Miller's unromanticized hand was laid on the production in another provocative manner. As a licensed physician, he was able to give the cast valuable knowledge of the four Tyrones' medical conditions. Gallagher felt that Miller's professional background gave the cast confidence that the suggestions he made were not "capricious or had to do with a cooked up concept of the play." He gave them clinical observation that could be documented. Instead of staggering, as Gallagher quipped, "like a Tennessee Williams heroine," Miller encouraged Bethel Leslie to interpret Mary's drug obsession as riddled with tension resulting in a demeanor which seemed terse and strident. Miller worked with Leslie to help her keep Mary's drug habit from becoming caricatured. Instead, he encouraged her to maintain behavior truthful to clinical observation. Gallagher claims that a neurosurgeon who attended one of the performances verified that Leslie's portrayal did indeed convey "morphine addiction."

Gallagher did considerable research on his own to learn about tuberculosis. He pored through medical books and discovered the numerous medieval kinds of cures which were used during the 1912 period. Two of the most ghastly were (1) puncturing one lung to deflate it, and (2) crushing the nerve which controls diaphragmatic breathing. Miller aided Gallagher by explaining that, because of the abscesses which have formed on the lungs, tuberculosis causes considerable pain to the patient when shifting positions. Gallagher then used this information to show the character's discomfort by coughing at crucial moments in the play, as when he becomes overexcited during arguments with his parents, or in Act IV when he is drunk and exhausted and breaks into a frightening fit of chills. Gallagher derived further insight into tuberculosis after reading in Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby the description of the illness as "being dead alive." These windows on the horrors of the disease helped him to understand why Edmund was so terrified of being sent to a state farm.

Although the text does not specifically call for Tyrone to have any physical ailments, Miller decided that the father should also be ill. Knowing that James O'Neill died of stomach cancer, Miller worked with Lemmon to establish a gnawing pain in Tyrone's stomach. Lemmon then showed this side of Tyrone during moments when the character was under stress, especially during arguments with his sons. Gallagher spoke with admiration about the fact that Miller had found this in the play:

One of the first things out of Tyrone's mouth is, "I've the digestion of a young man of twenty if I am sixty-five." James O'Neill was proud of two things, his voice and his digestion. And they are the two things he lost. O'Neill said the stench in his room when he was dying was unbearable. It was as if his insides were rotting. And his voice was reduced to a barely audible whisper. It gives me chills that O'Neill--it's incredible when you know the real story.

Miller's interpretation of the elder Tyrones varied in other ways as well from preconceived notions. He saw Mary as the central character around whom the three male characters revolved. Gallagher confirmed this by stating that Irish Catholics maintain a matriarchal society and that the men run around "in fear of mama." In Miller's interpretation. Leslie's Mary became a fierce and punitive woman. compelled to destroy everyone within her reach including the household's maid whom she coyly invites to drink knowing it will earn the servant a reprimand from Tyrone. Gallagher characterized Leslie's performance by saying, "she's this midwestern small town girl. I hear her voice and it has this dry, bitter quality. She could be standing on a prairie somewhere."

Miller believed that Lemmon should play Tyrone as a man who "sold out his soul at the age of 27. What remains is an empty, sad old man." Instead of playing Tyrone as the grand actor at home, in a manner similar to Fredric March's original rendering, Lemmon was rather an equal with his sons, who were also striving uncussessfully to gain Mary's love and respect. Gallagher believes that the most "harrowing" line in the play is uttered by Jamie, who best describes the despair enveloping the "sleighride to Hades" on which the family rides. Late in Act IV, after it is clear that Mary has returned to her morphine habit, Jamie stares wistfully up the stairs towards her sitting room and says, "I'd begun to hope, if she'd beaten the game, I could, too."

Casting comedian Jack Lemmon in the role of James Tyrone enabled Miller to shift the emphasis of the play and place Mary at the center of the dramatic action. In a sense Miller abandoned Tyrone, who was left to scramble along with his sons for the crumbs of Mary's affections. Lemmon's casting was a risky twist and the most questionable choice Miller made in reweaving the play. It recalls Josť Quintero's equally surprising choice of Jason Robards, Jr. for Hickey in The Iceman Cometh, even though the actor was totally unlike O'Neill's description of that character. Quintero later described the realization which occurred to him when he was debating with himself whether to cast Robards: "it's inside where the reality lies." Michael Feingold clarified Miller's casting intentions in his Village Voice review:

Lemmon's likable softness, which is his "quality," keeps him from fulfilling the part of Tyrone just as it would have kept him from having James O'Neill's career.... Bethel Leslie is the most un-Irish of Marys.... Kevin Spacey uses his large body well, to suggest a drunkard's flabbiness, but misses the Broadway strutter's tinselly grandeur. Peter Gallagher is the victim of the eternal tendency of producers to cast handsome young matinee idols as Edmund.... Yet these four lesser elements make up an infinitely greater whole, which works organically as I've never seen a production of Long Day's Journey work. Though not precisely the O'Neill or Tyrone family, it is demonstrably a family, its member colliding with or wandering away from each other ... in their efforts not to listen to the endless feuding, not to face the perpetual crisis. He has made me feel the force of Long Day's Journey more strongly than ever before.

A common decision both Miller and Quintero had to face in doing the play was whether to recreate the exact floor plan of the Monte Cristo Cottage in Connecticut as O'Neill details it in the script. And both directors opted to evoke atmosphere rather than authenticity. avid Hays, the designer of Quintero's 1956 version, never visited the New London cottage.3 He chose instead to create a realistic provincial living room which one reviewer of that production described as "sombre, bleak and sparsely furnished." For the 1986 production, designer Tony Straiges veered from O'Neill's precise descriptions by creating a minimalist set and using George Segal's modern art sculptures as a source of inspiration. The result was four tall, undecorated and isolated areas of wall which loomed over the play's characters. To fill in the crevasses between the sections, Straiges used a backdrop called "magic black," an extremely dark black velvet. Gallagher describes the ensuing metaphorical effect:

It gives the feeling of being disconnected. I have the feeling that if I get too close to one of those things I'll get sucked into the void. It's tenuous. It's not at all solid.

Straiges did, however, choose to copy the furnishings of the Monte Cristo Cottage, which ideally complemented his purpose for the large vertical elements. He found that the chairs and other set pieces were typical of those found in a summer residence. They were comfortable although unmatched, a reflection of the family's tenuous hold on stability.

Lighting designer Richard Nelson was instructed by Miller not to gell the lights. Since gells are used to soften the effect of the powerful theatrical lights, Dr. Miller seemed to want an enforced feeling of cleanliness and sterility. His intention was to create a harsh and, again, "unromanticized" effect on stage. Costumer Willa Kim dressed each actor entirely in white. Because of the direct white light bouncing off their bleached attire, the Tyrone family seemed to glow, in an intentional contrast to their exaggeratedly dark surroundings. Miller's aim to emphasize the family was clearly highlighted by his designers' craft.

Rumors abounded that one of the reasons Miller's production played so quickly was that the text has been considerably cut. I mentioned this to Gallagher, who seemed shocked. Showing me a copy of his script, he assured me that only two pages of O'Neill's original text were deleted--changes that had to do with the two Baudelaire poems which Edmund recites to Tyrone in Act IV. Gallagher explained why parts of both poems and the transitional dialogue between them were cut:

We worked very hard to keep the poetry in the fourth act, but the way we were doing it made it very, very hard to play. We had to try it many, many different ways. We found that where we had the intermission, those two long recitations were unnecessarily repetitive of the sentiment.

Gallagher noted that dialogue was added to the play immediately after the deletions. Edmund and Tyrone have a discussion about a bet they made to see whether Edmund could memorize Shakespeare. Miller had Gallagher recite sections of Macbeth which O'Neill did not include. Miller had Gallagher use the lines to taunt Tyrone. Thus, despite the fact that there were minimal cuts and even an addition of dialogue, the Miller version ran a full fifty minutes shorter than Quintero's 1956 production. The fast pacing and overlapping of dialogue accounted entirely for the show's shortened playing time.

I mentioned to Gallagher that there were precedents for cutting O'Neill. While discussing the 1956 production of The Iceman Cometh, Jason Robards had once complimented Josť Quintero for making cuts "so well that the author's representative didn't realize it." As a response Gallagher cited Virginia Floyd's book, Eugene O'Neill at Work, in which the author states that O'Neill estimated that Long Day's Journey Into Night would "take about 131 minutes" to stage. O'Neill worked out a schedule for its start and conclusion: "8:30-10:41," a breathtaking two hours and eleven minutes.

Gallagher's ready knowledge of Floyd introduced the issue of his personal research into the role of Edmund. He pointed to a shelf above the sofa in his dressing room which turned out to be a solid library of books about O'Neill. Many of the major works were there--the Gelbs, Floyd, and Sheaffer's two-volume biography. He told me that after he had learned he would be playing the role he had taken a job acting at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven specifically for the purpose of being closer to the O'Neill summer home in New London. He made pilgrimages to the Monte Cristo Cottage and was befriended by a native of New London who gave him an old print of James O'Neill playing the Count of Monte Cristo on film. Thinking that he had made a precious discovery, Gallagher went to great pains and expense to have the film transferred to videotape, only to find later that it could be ordered from a catalog for $24.95!

To further aid in his understanding of the youthful artist, Gallagher turned to Nietzsche, in particular Thus Spake Zarathustra. Gallagher empathized with O'Neill's fascination with the philosopher, noting that a former papist would feel a refuge in Nietzsche's writing. Gallagher quoted from the play:

Edmund: Did you pray for Mama?
 
Tyrone: I did. I've prayed to God these many years for her.
 
Edmund: Then Nietzsche must be right. "God is dead: of His pity for man hath God died."

Being an Irish Catholic, Gallagher could readily understand O'Neill's struggles with Catholicism. "So many Irish Catholics live their lives in a state of penance," he said, and quoted the words of a Catholic in the confessional: "Bless me father for I have sinned. I am not worthy to receive you. But only say the word and my soul shall be healed." Gallagher described Catholicism as being a "subjugated state" where one expends "so much energy drinking and running" from the "stamp" of original sin:

So I can understand the rage O'Neill had about that awful power and how it affected him as a child and his parents--just their total lack of real forgiveness. How can you forgive when you can't be forgiven? You spend your whole life asking to be forgiven for something you didn't even do.

Gallagher's interpretation of Catholicism as delineated in Long Day's Journey Into Night is comparable to the thrust of many Greek tragedies. O'Neill's efforts to give modern American drama a mythic grandeur is recalled as he sets the "haunted Tyrones" in motion to play out their lives on a fated landscape. Gallagher's insights challenge Miller's cryptic statement that Long Day's Journey is not comparable to the house of Atreus; and Miller's direction of the play refutes his personal comments. He structured the production so that it began at mid--sentence and ended in a way which implied that the family's arguing continues. By directing Long Day's Journey in this manner, Miller realized a cyclical quality inherent in the play. At the end of the evening's performance the audience leaves the theatre with the impression that the characters are doomed eternally to replay the nightmare of their lives. This could also clarify O'Neill's decision to immortalize his family during the worst period of its existence, ignoring the fact that his mother finally recovered from her addiction and that he and his father were eventually reconciled. A more optimistic ending, one truer to life than art, would turn the play into a domestic drama, even a melodrama. O'Neill used his family to accomplish a more universal artistic goal. Taken in this light, the play's international popularity can be attributed to its more "catholic" underpinnings.

In June, just before Miller's production closed in New York after a disappointing two month run, it was invited to play in London. After its stay in Britain it would then tour in Israel. Gallagher stated that both countries were eager to welcome the production and had expressed "unbridled enthusiasm. They don't hold O'Neill in the same kind of reverent position that a lot of Americans do." As our interview ended, Gallagher said that he was looking forward to a foreign run which would be unhampered by critical bias and prejudice, one where the Tyrones' story could live and speak honestly to families everywhere. As I bade him farewell, I sincerely hoped he was right.

--Sheila Hickey Garvey

1 Josť Quintero, Suffolk University, Panel "O'Neill on Stage," 1 June 1986.

2 The cast of Long Day's Journey Into Night: Jack Lemmon as James Tyrone, Bethel Leslie as Mary Tyrone. Kevin Spacey as .James Tyrone, Jr.. and Peter Gallagher as Edmund Tyrone.

3 It is interesting to note that Hays eventually lived in the Monte Cristo Cottage several years following his design of the 1956 production and after he became a member of the O'Neill Foundation. In Virginia Floyd's book, Eugene O'Neill: A World View (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1979), actress Florence Eldridge, who played Mary in the 1956 production of Long Day's Journey, described the Monte Cristo Cottage: "I was surprised to find it full of attractive possibilities and charmingly situated looking out on the sound."

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