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A Touch of the Tragic

 
BY Barbara Gelb
FROM The New York Times, December 11, 1977

Director Jos Quintero has been reliving
Eugene O'Neill's life -- on stage and off.

Each time Jos Quintero approaches the first day's rehearsal of a play by Eugene O'Neill, he feels as though he is going on trial for murder.  He broods guiltily about his directorial responsibility to America's only Nobel Prize-winning playwright, and on his way to the theater the palms of his hands sweat.  When he arrived at the rehearsal hall a few months ago for the initial read-through by the cast of one of O'Neill's final plays, "A Touch of the Poet" -- due on Broadway Dec. 28 -- he and the star, Jason Robards, exchanged looks of anguished anticipation.

ROBARDS: I'm scared witless, Jos
QUINTERO: What do you think I am?

Jos Quintero suffers, as did Eugene O'Neill, form a sense of ambivalence about practically everything: sex, religions, the quality of his work, the core of his identity.  The two never met, but Quintero feels possessed by O'Neill's spirit.  He has O'Neill's haunted, penetrating eyes; for a time he wore O'Neill's wedding ring; O'Neill's beautiful, demented widow called him "Gene"; when his demons converged he hid, like O'Neill, in a bottle; he talks to O'Neill's portrait and he has been visited by O'Neill's ghost.

Like O'Neill, Quintero was born afraid and raised for failure -- ingredients for the tragic view.  O'Neill wrote the tragedy of his life into his plays and Quintero, for 21 years, has been wresting the tragedy from them.  Other directors have staged O'Neill, but -- even during the dramatist's lifetime -- none with anything like Quintero's mastery.  He resurrected O'Neill's reputation with a stunning revival of "The Iceman Cometh" in 1956.  And his revival of another undervalued O'Neill play, "A Moon for the Misbegotten," astonished almost everyone by becoming the biggest dramatic hit of the Broadway season four years ago.

By some process of alchemy between these two, the neglected O'Neill -- who with the daring of genus had created a native literature of the theater in the 1920's -- was restored to his high place, and Quintero's reputation was made.  It was as though O'Neill had been awaiting Quintero, as thought each needed the other for fulfillment.  It is the sorrows and frustrations of Quintero's own life that have made him the quintessential O'Neill director.

Quintero believes himself, at last, to be virtually out of pain.  But a few years ago he was drinking himself to death and his kind of pain -- the pain of alienation -- rarely subsides completely.  He is a lapsed Roman Catholic, who has borrowed the pageantry of the mass as imagery for his staging; it was in church that he learned the true center of attention on the stage is off-center.  Having rejected the church, he yet, not long ago, penitentially crawled on his knees to a shrine of the Virgin in Mexico.

Although he has forgiven, he can never forget his father's disapproval of his birth; first, because he was not the expected girl child (there were already two boys); second, because his skin was darker than anyone else's in his upper-class Panamanian family.  He refers to himself as "black," and it is as much a metaphor for the climate of his soul as for the tint of his skin.  He found it impossible, from earliest childhood, to please his father, and failed conclusively at 15, when, having been led by the elder Quintero to a brothel, he was unable to perform.

More instances of duality: His Latin good looks and physical appeal transcend gender.  He has always attracted glamorous women -- and sometimes provoked the wrath of jealous husbands.  Gloria Vanderbilt, the designer, has shared an intimate fantasy life with him, and a similar bond between him and Colleen Dewhurst, the actress, was a source of resentment to her then husband, George C. Scott.  But his closest relationships have been with men, and he has lived for 16 years with a former advertising executive named Nick Tsacrios.

Quintero is caught between English and Spanish.  In love with America and unwilling to live in his native Panama, he sought the comfort of a Spanish-American ambience and moved to San Juan a few years ago.  Though theatrical to the marrow, he clutches at the thought of solitude and, at times, is tempted to quit the theater and try to earn his living by writing.  He has published a memoir and is now writing a novel.

The very profession he has chosen is ambiguous.  Of the three principal artistic contributors to a stage production -- playwright, actor, director -- his is the least clearly defined and the most difficult for an audience to identify and appraise.

Because "A Touch of the Poet" is to Quintero the last remaining challenge of the O'Neill repertory, he looks upon this production as, possibly, his valedictory to O'Neill.  And because for the past 21 hears O'Neill has haunted him -- indeed, almost destroyed him -- Quintero is hopeful that with this production the ghost will, at last, be propitiated.

Quintero regards O'Neill as his symbolic father and stands in awe of him for having singlehandedly elevated the American theater from frivolity to serious art.  Nearly always, Quintero refers to his as "Mr. O'Neill."

As Quintero was leaving his house in San Juan last September to begin rehearsals of "A Touch of the Poet," his eye caught the framed photograph of a "very stern and bitter-looking O'Neill," given to him by Carlotta O'Neill.

He backed up a few steps and addressed the photograph:

"I'll do my best!  That's all I can tell you -- I'll do my best."

When he cuts a line from an O'Neill play (as, inevitably, he must) it gives him nightmares.  He could not rest easy about his production of "A Moon for the Misbegotten" until he had a ghostly visitation from O'Neill toward the end of the play's out-of-town tryout in Washington, where "A Touch of the Poet" is currently playing.

"I was sitting in the back row at the Kennedy Center and everything in the play sort of was jelling together," Quintero recalls.  "I sensed Mr. O'Neill's presence.  It was such a strong feeling -- he was standing right behind me.  I didn't turn around to look for the actual, physical he.  I got cold.  It unnerved me.  After the performance, I had a feeling of great relief.  There's so much between him and myself that's a mystery, and I choose to have it remain a mystery."

In a sense, Quintero has been preparing his production of "A Touch of the Poet" ever since he directed the Broadway premier, late in 1956, of "Long Day's Journey Into Night," O'Neill's agonizingly self-revealing family saga, which won for O'Neill -- posthumously -- his fourth Pulitzer Prize.  It was then that Quintero realized how closely the traumas of his own life coincided with those in O'Neill's.  When his younger sister, Carmen (yes, the girl child finally arrived) came to New York to see the play she said to him, "Jos, how could you?  With just a few little change, it could be our family."

It is not easy to follow the thread from O'Neill's life, through his plays, through Quintero's life, to the final, intricate work of embroidery that Quintero puts onto a stage.  Just bear in mind that O'Neill's father, James, appears in the autobiographical "Long Day's Journey Into Night" as the actor James Tyrone, and under various guises in most of the other O'Neill plays, and that Quintero, because of his own father, understands the James O'Neill character in all its mutations.

Eugene O'Neill's father, James, born of Irish peasant stock, was an enormously popular American touring actor of the late 1800's, who came to feel trapped by success; his romantic public personality was at variance with his embittered private one.  Eugene's mother, Ella, was convent-bred and fragile, and -- as Eugene discovered at 13 -- a morphine addict.  His brother Jamie, older by 10 years, was a charming, cynical, wastrel, who ultimately died of alcoholism.  Ella O'Neill did not spare her younger son the knowledge that it was the pain of his unwanted birth that led her to drug addiction.  It was hardly surprising that O'Neill, form earliest childhood, adopted the tragic view of life.

Nor did Quintero's parents spare him the knowledge that his birth was unwelcome.  Jos's father, Carlos, like James O'Neill, came from peasant stock.  He was uneasy in the high Government rank for which he had fought; at home, he was a martinet.  His wife, Consuelo, was from an aristocratic family and, like Ella O'Neill, convent-bred.  She was completely subservient to her husband, but, like Ella, had a way of withdrawing; she spent long hours lying alone in her darkened room, suffering silently from violent headaches.

"She never complained, but I though she would die, Quintero says.  "She looked white, dead."

What Quintero specifically did in preparation for "A Touch of the Poet" was to read the play, them put it aside and allow the characters -- particularly O'Neill's battered hero, Cornelius Melody -- to walk through his mind while he re-imagined the story.

"Then, as rehearsals approached," he says, "it seemed as though almost every day I would see or hear or recall something that connected with the play.  I thought for a long, long time about my father.  He came from an entirely different world than Con Melody, but there are comparisons that are absolutely unbelievable."

Cornelius Melody, though disguised, is perfectly recognizable as a symbolic James O'Neill.  Melody is a Boston innkeeper of the 1820's who has seen better days, a middle aged man of soldierly stance and "tough, peasant vitality"; he has the ravaged, once-handsome face of "an embittered Byronic hero."  Like James O'Neill/Tyrone, Melody senses that his world is caving in and that his illusions are about to shatter.  He can find no comfort in his marriage and he sees that his daughter (here a symbol for the two O'Neill/Tyrone sons of "Long Day's Journey") will destroy him.

He is tragically ready to cave in, as were James O'Neill and Carlos Quintero.  James died, bewailing his superficial success.  Carlos, having become Panamanian Minister of State, threw away his career.  And Melody, a former major in the British Army under the Duke of Wellington, abandons his airs of grandeur and dies metaphorically.

"To understand Con Melody," Quintero says, "I began thinking how my father felt.  My mother was a woman of the aristocracy, who had a sizable fortune.  That's the reverse of Melody, but the peasant and the aristocrat is the same."  (Melody is married to a once-beautiful peasant girl whom he got pregnant.)

"My father left my mother for a peasant mistress when he was 48 -- younger than I am now.  She couldn't read or write.  But he was going back to where he could breathe.  Then, when he was in his 60's, she threw him out because he wouldn't marry her; he would never divorce my mother and his guilt toward her is similar to Con's toward his wife, Nora.  My father died in complete humiliation six years ago.  To understand Con Melody, I find myself living my father's humiliation.

"Once I understand intellectually what Mr. O'Neill is trying to say, and the whole puzzle is clear, then I have to break it up and piece it together with emotional glue."

"A Touch of the Poet" is one of a quartet of plays that O'Neill felt compelled to finish -- along with "The Iceman Cometh," "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and "A Moon for the Misbegotten" -- during the final eight years of his writing life; at 55, a debilitating nervous disorder forced him into silence.  "A Touch of the Poet" is not quite the masterpiece that the other three are, and the first time it was done on Broadway, 19 years ago, it was disappointing.  While it is vastly more absorbing than most of our contemporary theater fare, its impact would have been greater if it could have been seen in the context O'Neill intended.  It was meant to be part of an ambitious cycle of 11 plays collectively entitled "A Tale of Possessors Self-dispossessed," about several generations of an American family destroyed by ambition and greed.  Cursing his fate, O'Neill abandoned the project and wanted, for 10 years, to die.

"The loss of the other cycle plays is so painful," Quintero says.  "And it becomes more painful as I work on this play."

Robards and Quintero are old hands, but now, at peeling away layer after layer of the O'Neill family litany.  this is the tenth O'Neill play Quintero has directed and the fifth in which he has directed Robards.  Seeing them -- these two bespectacled, graying, haunted survivors -- once again slugging it out with O'Neill's ghost, I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time.  I remember them both when they did "The Iceman Cometh" -- Quintero at 32, slim and dark-haired, and Robards, at 35, his attractive clown face only slightly creased by the pain of an unhappy marriage (long since ended), trying to look older than he was for the role of Hickey, whom O'Neill had written to be 50.  Robards was amazing.  No one who saw his performance as the manic, straw-hatted, finger-snapping salesman of death has ever forgotten it.  Now he is 55, and although his face has been skillfully reconstructed, it is hard for anyone who knows him well not to see the tiny scars.  He disfigured and nearly killed himself in a car accident a few years ago.  He blames the accident on his blind rage over losing the role of Hickey in the movie version to Lee Marvin.  Robards regarded the role as belonging to him, alone.

Quintero's scars are less visible.  At 53, his eyes are still his most compelling feature; deep-set, dark, fiercely compassionate.  He has acquired a paunch, but has not lost the brilliant smile, the husky voice, the caressing Latin speech cadence and the defensive, slightly round-shouldered slouch that disguises the broadness of his back and makes him appear vulnerable and in need of instant mothering.

Fearful and insecure though he is each time he begins a rehearsal, he knows that his actors are even more fragile, and he finds the strength to be immensely supportive of them; they love him for it.  It was he who discovered and nurtured the talents, Off-Broadway, of George C. Scott, Colleen Dewhurst, Geraldine Page and Jason Robards.

While they are kindred spirits in so many ways, Quintero and O'Neill are diametric opposites when it comes to actors.  O'Neill hated them, believed they never understood the souls of his characters, wished he never had to produce his plays, wished the plays could be read and appreciated as novels, and constantly toyed with the idea of hiding the detestably necessary actor behind a mask, or even of using puppets.

The members of the "Poet" cast sit on wooden folding chairs in a circle on the bare stage, equipped with ramps, where the Ziegfeld Follies used to rehearse.  It is on the top floor of the building that houses the New Amsterdam movie theater on West 42d Street.  Besides Robards, the cast includes Geraldine Fitzgerald, Betty Miller, Kathryn Walker and Milo O'Shea.

Quintero wears a buttery, chamois jacket over a black T-shirt and slacks.  He dresses always with casual elegance: a brown velvet jacket over a cram turtleneck; a thick, handknit white sweater with rust-color corduroy trousers.  He is, however, ill shod, his footwear, throughout much of the three-and-a-half-month period of rehearsals and out-of-town tryouts of "A Touch of the Poet, " was white sneakers (the expensive, tennis kind), because his unglamorous corns hurt and he had no time to have them attended to.  At the opening nights in Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington he wore black moccasins and suffered.

"Just read, please," Quintero says, almost diffidently, "and listen to what each one says.  I'm not looking, yet, for depth."  He lights one of his thin, brown cigarettes.  There are always dramatic pauses in his speech, and often a genuine groping for the right word -- English, after all, is not his mother tongue, though he speaks it, by now, with considerable flair -- and the pause is usually bridged by the phrase "You know."

Quintero and Robards keep exchanging grins of recognition over lines of dialogue -- recognition of the old O'Neill themes Robards has already conveyed time after time, echoes of James and Jamie Tyrone and of Hickey; they communicate in shorthand.  O'Neill was their age when he wrote "A Touch of the Poet."  A flinching survivor himself, he would have made a cozy and approving third, seated at the rickety prop table, pretending to drink from the empty prop bottle, sneering at the "Yankee gentry" who had snubbed his successful actor-father in his New London, Conn., hometown because he was Irish.

O'Neill knew all about destructive drinking and has filled his plays with references to whisky.  He used the device of drinking to strip away the mask and reveal hateful truths ("I didn't mean that; it's the liquor talking").  No one knows better how to get full value from the scenes than Quintero and Robards.  For years, Quintero directed such scenes half-drunk -- or more -- himself.  And Robards played them from firsthand knowledge, often while recovering from a hangover.  this time they are both cold sober.  Robards has drunk nothing stronger than Perrier for several years and Quintero, who endured a terrible cure in 1972, is now temperate, except for an occasional glass of wine.

Quintero in action prowls the stage and the dim aisles of the empty auditorium like a lithe and restive ocelot.  He is choreographer, dancer, conductor, vocalist, therapist, diplomat, spiritualist, seer and actor -- most emphatically, actor; the stage lost a potential star when Quintero decided to become a director.  Under the glaring stage work light, his skin glows like teak.  His hands, slender, with long fingers, are in constant, graceful motion as he speaks.

He raises an arm, index finger pointing skyward, making a pause in dialogue.  He smashes his fist onto a prop table, not so much to show the actor how to perform a bit of stage business, but because he is feeling the role.  He has been silently mouthing the actor's lines in this particular scene, and the emotion here dictates a violent physical comment.

Quintero does not necessarily expect the actor to copy his gesture, but s merely communication how the character feels.  he hums along when the actors break into song, nods his head and stamps his feet when they perform a little jig, beams when they joke and laugh, twists his features into a grimace of despair during a speech of anguish, reaches up with both arms as a scene draws to a close, in a gesture resembling a benediction, calls, softly, "Curtain."  He is a complete performance.

At Quintero's insistence, Miss Fitzgerald, who plays Nora, Con Melody's browbeaten wife, and Miss Walker, who plays Con's spirited young daughter, Sara, are wearing long skirts, to get the feel of moving in them.  He explains that O'Neill's stage directions -- elaborate and fanciful and often quite impossible -- are not, in his opinion, meant to be taken literally.  They are, rather, meant as guides to characterization (such a description, for example, as that of Josie Hogan in "A Moon for the Misbegotten":  (a woman "so oversize that she is almost a freak, weighing around 180," but nonetheless "all woman").  And O'Neill's description of the very pretty Sara as having "large feet and broad, ugly hands," Quintero tells Miss Walker, means -- "to me, at least, that she is insecure."

Rehearsing a scene with Miss Fitzgerald, Robards suggests that he take the whisky bottle form her hand, rather than letting her pour the drink into a glass.  "We can try it that way," Quintero says.  Robards tries out a speech:  "Well?  I know what you're thinking!"  Quintero steps beside him, puts his hands on his hips, cocks his head, looks off past Miss Fitzgerald and delivers an approximation of Robards's speech.  "Yes, I see," Robards says appreciatively, and begins the speech again.

"Jason and I understand each other, inside, right away," Quintero says, recalling the first time he directed Robards at Circle in the Square, the Off-Broadway theater of which he was a co-founder.  "There was an open corridor between us, with no obstruction.  There was never a feeling that I had to be careful, you know, not to say this, not to say that.  It has been like that, also, with Colleen and Gerry Page.  They don't have to hear what I say, they sense what I feel.  That's my kind of actor and I'm their kind of director."

"I don't remember Jos actually telling me anything," Robards says, confirming this, at the end of the third week of rehearsal.  "He's acting with us."

Shortly before leaving for Baltimore, where the play was to have its first paying audience, Robards decided to try for a more imposing nose by adding putty.  Quintero told him to go ahead, though he felt Robards would soon discard it.  "He thinks he needs it.  It is something to hide behind, because he is frightened of the role," Quintero said.  (Robards is, however, dyeing his hair for the role.)

How much does an actor bring to a role on his own, and to what extent has the director's conception shaped the success or failure of the performance?  The degree, in both cases, varies enormously from production to production and depends on the personalities of the director and the actor involved.

No director has much impact on a performance by George C. Scott, for instance.  Quintero, who has directed Scott in two plays -- one of them a revival of O'Neill's "Desire Under the Elms" -- has found that Scott is completely cerebral.  He is so meticulously versed in all the nuances of a role by the time he begins rehearsals, and so gifted at finding precisely the attitude, gesture and inflection that will convey character, that only the most minor suggestions are ever necessary for him.

Robards, on the other hand, develops a role slowly and emotionally, form within.  he welcomes Quintero's suggestions and support -- which is not to say that Robards is not a highly inventive actor.  The collaboration between the two is far more typical of Quintero's directorial approach than is the intellectual and minimal collaboration between him and Scott.

"All the examples I give to Jason are emotional ones," Quintero says.  "For instance, I've talked to him about how it felt to Melody to live in the past, how his life has no meaning in the present.  Who is Melody without his dreams?  I think he is on the verge of madness when the play begins, like Hickey in 'The Iceman Cometh.'

"And we talk about Mr. O'Neill.  What must those years have been like when he was forgotten and could no longer write?  He must have said to himself, 'I was given the Nobel Prize. . . .'

"If something doesn't become organic to Jason, we throw it out -- but we're not afraid to try anything."

One bit of business that became organic was the cold fury with which Robards, as Melody, crumpled a paper document whose contents he would not confront.  Watching Robards in an early rehearsal, Quintero sensed his wish to make the gesture -- and his hesitation.  Silently, Quintero stepped up to Robards, adlibbed the sense of his line and closed his fist around the piece of paper.

"Once you set Jason on the right track," Quintero leaves the sentence unfinished, but gestures, to show that Robards will take flight.  "Watch the way Jason deals with the cigar, as though it's the most deadly stiletto.  His hand movements, his body movements, are incredible.  I will say things to him, like, 'Try to catch the plumelike silhouette of Lord Byron.'  I never push him, because I know he is very daring.  He was willing even to try taking out his bridge after his fight scene."  (The bridge is one of many repairs that were necessary in restoring Robards's face after his auto accident.)

"I think Jason know this is one of the greatest parts that will come his ways," Quintero says.

During the dress rehearsal in Baltimore on Oct. 17, Nick Tsacrios dropped in at the Mechanic Theater to see how things were going.  Tsacrios, who shares the house in San Juan with Quintero, had accompanied him to New York in September.  In addition to the daytime quiet and the nighttime gambling in San Juan ("I love blackjack and craps"), Quintero enjoys being able to garden year-round.  At his lowest point, about six years ago, when on one would offer his a directing job, he thought of becoming a professional gardener.  The comfortable Spanish-American setting he sought has gone sour, however.  "I speak Spanish to them and they answer me in English because they regard me as American and they hate Americans," he says.

Tsacrios, an equable, dark-haired, pleasant-mannered, practical man of 48, whose father immigrated from Greece at 9 and became a successful businessman in Florida, appears to be an excellent counterpoise for the volatile Quintero.  It was not without difficulty that Quintero confronted and accepted the fact of his sexual preference.  He does not discuss it, but he has never made any attempt to conceal it.

Having studied in Mexico and Madrid, Tsacrios is drawn more to Quintero's Spanish culture than to his own.  He is totally admiring and supportive of Quintero and has given up his career in advertising to accommodate himself to the demands of Quintero's profession.  He acts as Quintero's buffer, answers his mail, handles his business matters.  But though loving, he is neither unobjective nor humorless about Quintero.

"I've never know anyone else who sends himself roses," Tsacrios said with a chuckle in Baltimore, where it is not easy to find something to chuckle about.  "The hotel where we all stayed was gloomy, the producer was saving his flowers for opening night, and Quintero was spending 10 hours at a stretch in the theater, working with set designer Ben Edwards on the lighting, which is elaborate.  He felt he simply had to have flowers to come back to when he left the theater.

"I was relieved, actually, to move to San Juan after the success of 'A Moon for the Misbegotten,' " Tsacrios says.  "That was when Jos had stopped drinking and I was afraid of the pressures in New York."

It was Tsacrios who heard of the man who eventually helped Quintero give up drinking.  Quintero had been in analysis for four years without feeling any improvement and at first resisted going to Vincent Tracy, a layman and former alcoholic who had invented his own treatment for curing drunks.  But he finally submitted to Tsacrios's urging.

"I used to fill little bottles and put them in my pockets and during rehearsals I would go away in the dark and drink the," Quintero says.  "If anyone mentioned my drinking, the fury was enormous.  I would consume that much more."

The cure began with immediate and total withdrawal.  Quintero was sedated and professionally nursed for several days and then began daily sessions with Tracy, who told him, "We are going into a tunnel together."  What struck Quintero mist was when Tracy poured him a drink, put the glass into his hand and told him, "No one and nothing on earth can make you drink that, if you don't want to ."  Quintero is aware that O'Neill was cured of drinking when a psychiatrist told him that whisky would eventually turn his brain to egg white.

Quintero touched no alcohol for three years, then began, cautiously, to sip an occasional glass of wine.  Once in a while he smokes a little pot to relax before going to sleep.

"I don't need it anymore," he says.  "I'm very careful because I now realize I am susceptible to addiction.  And I'm frightened.  I remember the feeling."  He paused to recall something.  "Didn't O'Neill drink a little, after he was cured?"

O'Neill did occasionally have beer with a meal and seemed not to have suffered any ill effects.  Such details about O'Neill's life are important to Quintero.  One very significant detail is that their birthdays are one day apart -- Quintero's on Oct. 15 and O'Neill's on Oct. 16; Quintero always celebrates both birthdays.

"When I was growing up," he says, "my birthdays were never celebrated the way my brothers' and my sister's were.  I was always being punished."  Once, during a particularly bitter period, he gave himself a birthday party at the terraced apartment in New York where he was living.  He got himself quietly and ferociously drunk and as each guest arrived bearing a gift, he slipped out to the terrace and hurled the unopened gift over the side.

The day Quintero was born, O'Neill had just turned 37.  He was about to write "The Great God Brown," an early play, mystical and symbolically complex, about the duality of man's nature.  The play's theme, as expressed by its anguished, poet-protagonist, rang the changes of O'Neill's dismay at the circumstances of his own birth and equally could have presaged Quintero's arrival into the world: "Why was I born without a skin, O God, that I must wear armor in order to touch or be touched?"

Quintero has never directed that play but he has, or course, read it and absorbed it into his bloodstream.

"From birth I was branded a disaster," He says.  His two older brothers were good at school, well-behaved and tidy.  Quintero disliked most of his subjects and often came home from school with his clothes ink-stained.  His father wanted him to study medicine and sent him to college in California, but Quintero could not interest himself in the subject and returned home to Panama, to be met with icy disapproval.

He looked for a job, but found himself handicapped by his work identity card, which listed his color as "brown" and barred him from working at certain white-collar jobs.  This infuriated his father, who, though embarrassed, interceded.

Failure piled upon failure, tear upon tear.  He had known he could never gain his father's good opinion after the episode in the brothel.

"The woman was someone my father knew and she was perfectly nice, but I was a mass of absolute terror and could do nothing," Quintero recalls.

When his father fetched him from the brothel, he said, "I hope you dispatched your task with grace and manliness."

"I lied, knowing he would get a report," Quintero says, "but I did not have the courage to admit my failure."  He pauses a moment to reflect.  "It was fear that started me drinking.  After the enormous success of 'Long Day's Journey' I was afraid that people would discover I was a phony.  When you are schooled for failure and suddenly you're a success . . . I drank because I was terrified."

Having failed at several jobs in Panama, Quintero returned to the United States.  Shortly after, he received a letter from his father.  It contained $500 and a warning never to ask for another cent.  "I once had a son whose name was the same as the one you bear," wrote Carlos Quintero, "but as far as I am concerned, he is dead."  In a sense, this freed Quintero; if he was dead, there was no longer any danger of failing.  He could only go up.  He started thinking about a career in the theater.

Seven years later, after the critics had certified Quintero's talent, he returned to Panama for a visit and was readmitted to his father's haughty affection.

Growing up alienated can have compensations.  For Quintero, such a compensation has been his intense friendship with Gloria Vanderbilt, who, as America's most celebrated poor little rich girl, grew up, like Quintero, feeling emotionally dispossessed.

"We immediately sensed each other's alienation," Miss Vanderbilt says.  "My father died when I was born and I grew up with an aunt I didn't know."  Miss Vanderbilt is, of course, referring to the sensational custody case brought against her mother by her father's sister in 1934.

"The first time Jos and I met I felt as though I'd know him all my life," she says.  "It was like meeting a member of my family, the South American side."  they were both 33, she was then married to the film director Sidney Lumet, and Quintero had not yet met Nick Tsacrios.

"A friend, Carol Grace, took me to a party at Jos's apartment in the Village.  Jason Robards was there.  It was a big party and after everyone else left, Carol and Jason and I stayed on until 8 in the morning, talking.  I felt a closeness to Jos that's hard to define."  At the time, Miss Vanderbilt was an actress.

The quality in Quintero that creates the quick sense of intimacy felt by Miss Vanderbilt is similar to the quality conveyed by O'Neill, as it had been described by those who were close to him.  It is an extraordinarily seductive sense of nonjudgmental compassion, combined with delicacy and intuition.  Miss Vanderbilt describes Quintero as "bone honest," which is interesting but does not encompass his ability to say what he knows you want to hear.  Everyone in the theater lies.  It is impossible not to, without doing unthinkable damage to tender egos, and Quintero is exceptionally adept at that kind of soothing deception.

Miss Vanderbilt regards Quintero as "terribly romantic" and say their relationship is "filled with fantasy."  They have spent hours comparing notes about their respective families, and when Miss Vanderbilt, at 36, faced a traumatic reconciliation with her mother, whom she had not seen since a disastrous summer reunion 16 years earlier, it was Quintero to whom she turned for emotional support after the meeting.  He left the rehearsal of a Broadway play to come to her.

"I have a wonderful relationship with Wyatt Cooper [her husband] and with all four of my sons," Miss Vanderbilt says, adding that it is only recently that she has been able to view her life with composure.  "I think Jos has reached that point now, too," she says.

Although both Quintero and Tsacrios are welcomed by the Coopers for family holidays whenever they are all in New York, Miss Vanderbilt prefers to conduct her friendships on what she calls a "one to one communication" basis.  She and Quintero, she says, dreamily, "have a plan of just being alone together some day for four days and nights."

Occasionally, Quintero's friendships with women, particularly actresses whom he is directing, have drawn the wrath of jealous husbands.  When Quintero put on "A Moon for the Misbegotten" with Colleen Dewhurst one summer at Spoleto, Italy, prior to the Broadway production, George Scott, to whom she was then married, fretted about it.

Even more extreme was the reaction of the husband of a Mexican star, at whose request Quintero went to Mexico to direct a production of "Camille."  It was in 1966, when the drinking was at its height.  The star's husband was the producer and he did not approve of the way Quintero demonstrated, for the actor playing Armand, how Camille should be embraced and then flung to the ground.  The following day Quintero was arrested outside the theater by plainclothes policemen and driven off to the station house.  Tsacrios, who was with him, telephoned the Panamanian Embassy and Quintero was released after a few hours with apologies but no explanation.  The production was, of course, wrecked.

While Quintero could not think what he might have done (apart from being drunk) to get himself arrested, he felt guilty, nonetheless.  "It was my fault -- even when it wasn't," he says.  A few days later he embarked on his penitential pilgrimage.  Accompanied by Tsacrios, he drove to the site of the shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe, where, following the custom, he crawled on his knees up a long flight of steps in the shrine itself.  Tsacrios, embarrassed but loyal, walked beside Quintero.

"I wanted to pretend I didn't know this strange man, doing this strange thing," Tsacrios says.  "He padded his knees with cloth, but they were bloody.  It was terrible."

Quintero remained in Mexico for about a year, writing.  He had saved a little money and living was cheap.  In 1967 he returned to New York to direct the unfinished O'Neill play, "More Stately Mansions."  Because he had already directed six O'Neill plays at that time, he was undeterred by the fact that "More Stately Mansions" had been left unfinished and with an injunction by O'Neill that no one attempt to finish or produce it.

"I do have a certain sense of security about what O'Neill was trying to say," Quintero declares.  On the other hand, he now admits, "I wasn't as protective of Mr. O'Neill as I should have been."  But the drinking was getting worse, he needed money, and he had been able to persuade Ingrid Bergman to star as the fey and enigmatic Deborah Harford (who appears, four years younger, in "A Touch of the Poet," to which "More Stately Mansions" was to have been the sequel).

The production was a flop.  And, whereas in the case of "Long Day's Journey Into Night" Quintero could not handle the success, he found, now, that he could not handle failure any better.  The drinking became more destructive.

Quintero was also profoundly affected by the mental collapse of Carlotta O'Neill.  He found her in a psychiatric hospital on his return from Mexico.  His friendship with her had grown very close after his production of "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and much of his intimate knowledge of O'Neill's life came from her.  In her final years she held terrified, defensive conversations with her husband's ghost, for she felt guilty about having broken his 25-year seal on "Long Day's Journey"; he had wanted the play withheld until all of his parents' relatives and friends were dead.

"He come and stares at me in the night," she would tell Quintero.

It was Carlotta who gave Quintero O'Neill's wedding ring.  She died, at 81, in 1970, and Quintero was devastated.  It was the severing of one more time to O'Neill.  He had met O'Neill's older son, Eugene Jr., a Greek scholar and teacher, many years before, in Woodstock, N.Y., and not long after, Eugene killed himself by slitting his wrists.  He was 40.

Quintero had also met Shane O'Neill's younger son, during the run of "The Iceman Cometh."  Following the tragic O'Neill pattern, Shane, married and the father of several children, was a drug addict.  During much of his adult life he was in and out of institutions, and he had approached Quintero to intercede with Carlotta (who was his father's third wife) for a handout.  Through Gloria Vanderbilt, Quintero also me O'Neill's daughter, Oona, who married Charles Chaplin.  It is small wonder that he has become inextricably intertwined in the O'Neill saga, and sometimes behaves as thought he is a character in an O'Neill play.

Quintero called the production of "A Moon for the Misbegotten," in 1973, "the resurrection company."  Freed of his drinking habit, working with two of his favorite stars, Robards and Dewhurst, he felt a sense of rebirth.  He was particularly pleased that the play was one from which Shane and Oona could receive the royalties.  (Under the copyright laws, Carlotta's estate owned some of the O'Neill plays.)  Oona Chaplin turned her share of the money over to Shane, who was then 53; the financial security seemed to revive him.

Shane stuck it out longer than his older brother.  He was 57 when he killed himself last June by jumping out of the window of his Brooklyn apartment.  The story was not in the newspapers, and Quintero did not know of Shane's death until the opening night of "A Touch of the Poet" in Washington on Nov. 15.  Oona Chaplin had written of it, finally, to Gloria Vanderbilt.

"I thought it was a deathful moon tonight," Quintero said shuddering superstitiously upon entering the theater.  He seemed half fearful that Shane's death was an ill omen for the play.  His nerves, as always before an opening, were frayed.  A short while before he had been telling me that he had learned to accept his fear as "part of the whole creative process."

"Nothing is going to take the fear away, and I am quite happy to have reached the age of 53.  Now I value that I can still get frightened.  It means I am not going blas.  It means, thank God, I can still feel the fear of the challenge and I'm there to confront it the best I can.  It means I haven't dried up."

As the curtain was bout to go up (only metaphorically; there will be no curtain, only a flood of light on the open stage, to mark the beginning of the play) he said in sudden panic, "Why do I do this to myself?"

 

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