BY Barbara Gelb
FROM The New York Times, December 11, 1977
Quintero has been reliving
Eugene O'Neill's life -- on stage and off.
Each time José
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
ROBARDS: I'm scared
QUINTERO: What do you think I am?
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
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
"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,
"José, 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. José'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
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
"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
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
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
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
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 José
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
"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
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
"I was relieved, actually, to move to San Juan
after the success of 'A Moon for the Misbegotten,' " Tsacrios says.
"That was when José 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
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
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
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 José
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 José'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 José
that's hard to define." At the time, Miss Vanderbilt was an
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 José
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
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
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
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 blasé. 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?"