BY Edward L. Shaughnessy
By 1930 Eugene O’Neill had developed something beyond the character-range of the mere journeyman dialogist. What he needed, of course, were actors capable of bringing his characters to life. Only three, he said, had achieved exactly what he had hoped to achieve: Charles Gilpin in The Emperor Jones, Louis Wolheim in The Hairy Ape, and Walter Houston in Desire Under the Elms.
If he could have seen the 1956 revival of The Iceman Cometh, however, O’Neill would surely have placed Jason Robards into that pantheon, a man whose background and experiences so uncannily paralleled his own. That would have been fitting and proper. For, as things turned out, Robards was one of the dozen or so women and men who restored O’Neill forever to his rightful station as America’s premiere dramatist.
If ever a man lived by another’s words, it was Jason, who spoke O’Neill’s truth. But, to understand this phenomenon, we must first put the background into focus, for the life we celebrate in these memoirs represents an instance of theater heroism as splendid as any we may ever know.
Like O’Neill, whose plays gave his career direction and meaning, Jason Robards was a son of the theater. Yet theirs was a theater fractured in the cosmos quake of the twentieth century. Shakespeare’s “mirror up to nature,” by then a spiderweb of cracks, reflected only a broken world. Thus, their fathers’ theater of easy optimism and formula melodrama spoke to them with little authority. Steeped in the faithlessness of the new day, they were forced to wonder how their talents should be spent; how their art and craft might achieve nobility.
The modern playwright who has sought to master his total art form has had to confront an especially difficult issue. Was it even possible any longer to represent men and women as tragic figures? Indeed, did there remain a language fit to pursue the classic genre? These questions are philosophical and historical, religious and cultural. They have been endlessly debated, of course, and will not soon be solved.
O’Neill’s inveterate defender, Joseph Wood Krutch, spoke to both sides of the issue: that is, to the prospects for modern tragedy and to the question of language:
In 1949 Arthur Miller once spoke bravely to the question. “I believe that the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were” (1949). Critics on the side of tradition would, no doubt, disagree with Miller’s view (e.g., Francis Fergusson); modernists, I think, would assent (Gerald Weales). This is certain, however: many theater historians consider the phrase “modern dramatic tragedy” to be something of an oxymoron.
Even if O’Neill was limited in language, however, his words and rhythms fit perfectly many of the characters he created, often the down-and-outs or the otherwise defeated. O’Neill’s creations also included his “higher” types: the stammering lyricists, Edmund Tyrone and Richard Miller; the sensitive poet-architect, Dion Anthony; the brittle intellectual, Charles Marsden; and the taut New Englander, Lavinia Mannon.
Robards never sat for portraits of Edmund, Richard, Dion, Marsden, or many another character in the O’Neill gallery. Indeed, his career record includes no work in Desire Under the Elms, Strange Interlude, or Mourning Becomes Electra, all major entries in the O’Neill canon. Some may wonder whence, then, this widely heralded identification with Eugene O’Neill? Indeed, with the exception of Nat Miller (the George M. Cohan part) in Ah, Wilderness (1933), Jason Robards never took a role in an O’Neill play of the early or middle periods. He might very well have made a splendid Captain Keeney or Ephraim Cabot.
Yet I say without hesitation that O’Neill would have included Robards among his company of acting elite. Jason had made his first important mark in the theater as the iceman Hickey and he stopped the world with his performance. This play demands an actor who can render justice to those O’Neill loved: “the people in that saloon were the best friends I‘ve ever known. . . . Their weakness was not an evil. It is a weakness found in all men.” Hickey’s misguided mission was to save them, even as he was one of them. O’Neill needed a great actor, and he got one: the redoubtable Mr. Robards. Jason belonged on the boards—with Ralph Richardson and Frederick March; with Colleen Dewhurst and Ed Flanders; with Geraldine Fitzgerald and Zoe Caldwell. He belonged.
The year 1956 was truly an annus mirabilis in the life of Jason Robards. From May through November he played in nearly 200 of the 565 consecutive performances of The Iceman Cometh; Leo Penn replaced him, but Jason created the definitive Hickey. Then, on November 7th of that year he opened as James Tyrone, Jr., in Long Day’s Journey Into Night and thus helped to launch its run of 390 consecutive performances. These tandem achievements in two of the modern theater’s most challenging roles constitute something beyond tour de force. They stand as a feat of endurance and longevity that fairly defies belief.
At any rate, his notices in 1956-57 raise another fascinating question: What is the nature of Robards’ kinship with certain O’Neill parts? Playing the fifty-year-old Hickey and the Jamie of 33, when he himself was only 34, required that he maintain a remarkable psychological balance. He became first the working-class wife-slayer and then the well educated New Englander and ne’er-do-well.
At the moment I can offer a mere, and confessedly inadequate, notion as to how the formidable Mr. Robards managed all this. But everything suggests that he gained, somehow, a wide-ranging knowledge of the guilt manifestations that operate in human relationships. The layman can offer no just critique except to grant that the actor gained a kind of experiential knowledge from living, in rapid succession, the “lives” of Theodore Hickman and Jamie Tyrone. It may be that such a chameleon suppleness was demanded of over-the-road men from another time who played the classical repertoire (the Booths, Barrymores, and James O’Neill, the elder). But an extended run as Hickey or one of the Tyrones calls for an expense of psychic energy of a different magnitude.
In any case, the audience probably cares little how the actor achieves the insights that move him or her. When the curtain goes up, what we want is a professional performance. The actor’s problem is how to maintain an evenness of quality over weeks and months. Kevin Spacey, himself a pretty fair Hickey, remarked at the time of Robards’ death, “He had no patience for the self-analysis that some indulged in. He was interested in the psychology of acting. His view of acting was just do it. Learn it. Serve it” (NY Times, 1-14-01). In formula this might well read: performance + knowledge + dedication. Jason served with such conviction that all who beheld it could believe in the truth of his work.
Every account of Robards, especially the Robards of 1956-1973, suggests that he was a man of deep psychological complexity. This nature probably contributed, not only to the development of his Hickey, but also made possible his investing, with similar dynamics, Erie Smith, the fast-talking sport of Hughie (1964). Further, Robards undoubtedly gained equally profound insights from playing Jamie in Long Day’s Journey. This depth of understanding, I do believe, made credible Jim Tyrone’s final unburdening to Josie Hogan, his confessor in A Moon for the Misbegotten (1973). Indeed, these experiences caused Robards, eventually, to yearn for the part of James Tyrone, Sr., a part that would give him “total” knowledge of that astonishing O’Neillian portrait of the father-son relationship.
Veteran Irish director Sean Cotter is my source for the fact that in the fifties and sixties Peter O’Toole considered Robards coequal fine actor and sleuth unrivalled in locating the still-extant saloons O’Neill had once haunted. They had many a hilarious adventure together, Cotter said. But, from a brief meeting with him, I know that Mr. Robards recalled those days with mixed sadness and nostalgia, the bittersweet remainders.
In March of 1974 I travelled to New York to see the highly acclaimed production of A Moon for the Misbegotten. This was well along into the O’Neill revival but still some years before the founding of the Eugene O’Neill Society (1979). The play had flopped when it was first presented by the Theatre Guild in Columbus and closed shortly thereafter in St. Louis (1947). That failure had followed by only a few months the lukewarm reception of The Iceman Cometh on Broadway (October, 1946). As the late Travis Bogard observed, “(A Moon for the Misbegotten) is doomed to failure without superb acting.” And that is what it got in 1973-74.
I had read most of the glowing reviews, including those by Clive Barnes and Walter Kerr. But for a total and unqualified encomium, nothing I had come upon compared with T. E. Kalem’s tribute in Time Magazine.
“Get thee to the Morosco,” I said to myself.
I’m not certain if the house was full. That now-razed theater had a capacity of 500-600. Even for this Wednesday matineé, however, given all the testimonies to the cast’s high achievement, I doubt if there was an empty seat in the building. Of course, I knew very well that the Morosco had hosted Beyond the Horizon in 1920. (Which was the greater joy to O’Neill, I wondered: that his father and mother were in a box on opening night; or that the play won him a first Pulitzer Prize? (His father would die that summer.)) With a seat, front-row center, I felt favored by the gods.
I chatted with him, for half an hour or so, in his dressing room, a conversation it is altogether unlikely that he recalled ever again. More on that exchange. Here is how the opportunity developed.
I had been in Broadway houses before, but attendance on the main stem was not a typical Hoosier overnight. Not all went well. I had taken a Trailways’ bus to New York. Somewhere near Pittsburgh the driver, mistaking the air-conditioner control for the heater, could not reverse the maneuver. It was March; we were still some 400 miles from the Port Authority Building. Thus I arrived at the Morosco with a severe chill but was to be yet further tested. Seated next to me was a somewhat original type, a tall young man with a raspy cough. This was not too serious by itself, but every few minutes he would yawn or make a low moan and then, in a violent jolt, thrust himself forward as he shifted his weight from one side to the other. Completing this acrobatic maneuver, he would exhale a depressurizing“Ahhaaaa.” Once, Robards himself directed a baleful glance in our direction, a gesture that is not scripted. (I know I saw the flicker of a smile cross Ed Flanders’ lips.) Maybe the young man, at a certain point, tired of the dialogue (or of my muttering, “May ye suffer the unending fires”). He left at intermission, the company relieved, I was sure.
* * *
Josie Hogan appeared immediately. The house broke out in applause as Colleen Dewhurst, the farmer’s daughter, sprinted onto the stage sans footwear, “more powerful than any but an exceptionally strong man.” We were off. At once she begins to abuse her brother Mike, a pious and humorless teetotaler who’d have no hope in this life to match the venom-tongued Jim Tyrone. Yet a sisterly side of Josie was also revealed, something pulled from the late Colleen’s storehouse of theatrical acumen. Anyone who has read the script knows that these two sides of her nature repeatedly surface as she spars with her father, the bantam but formidable Phil Hogan, another “wily Mick” who can throw darts at all comers with a velocity nearly the equal of Josie’s. It’s all great fun.
Enter the landlord, Tyrone.
The challenge of playing Jim Tyrone is suggested in the stage directions: “a certain Mephistophelian quality, habitually cynical expression, the ghost of a former youthful, irresponsible Irish charm, (a) humor and charm which have kept him attractive to women, and popular with men as a drinking companion.” Here may be an assemblage of traits no mortal can project. Robards, who could be a deft comedian, does not come on stage until half way through the first act. He was the nearly perfect practitioner of sardonic humor, no easy assignment, even for a veteran who has honed his skills over many years.
O’Neill, his comedian’s talents often overlooked, felt that in The Iceman Cometh he had created some very funny lines. He matched these in Moon, another of the late tragedies. Of course, he knew every verbal pratfall from vaudeville. Take, for example, the side-splitting scene in which Josie and Phil fluster the stuffy T. Stedman Harder, the Standard Oil millionaire whose estate abuts Hogan’s lowly farm. The tricks employed to outrage Harder are taken, without blushes, from the turn-of-the-century bag of comic devices.
By the time he wrote the late masterpieces, O’Neill had sloughed off most of the experimental props that had served to telegraph his intentions: asides, soliloquies, masks, symbolic scenery. He had come to rely on two things: his own profound knowledge of his characters’ psychology; and the actors’ sense of his (the playwright’s) understanding. This is why, I think, O’Neill is often found wanting and seems clumsy to many critics and playgoers. They do not understand that, in the theater of his own mind, O’Neill knew that only fine actors could do what he asks. And this is also why, when lesser directors choose lesser actors, the challenge cannot be met. And the play “fails.”
I invoke again Bogard’s admonition that without fine acting in the parts of Josie and Jim A Moon for the Misbegotten will not only fail but will be considered a poor play. The actors must possess, if you will, a certain conaturality with their characters. In Ireland I found broad evi-dence of O’Neill’s popularity among actors. Again and again they saw him as an American theatrical giant and practically begged to be involved in his plays. These included Sean Cotter, Vincent Dowling, Siobhan McKenna, and many others in the Republic; Stella McCusker, Liam O’Callaghan, and the late Jack McQuoid in the North. O’Neill was not especially well received in the literature departments of Irish universities.
As the late Ms. Dewhurst remarked in “A Glory of Ghosts,” a PBS documentary on O’Neill in 1986, “The more you play a (great) play, the more you realize what’s inside of it . . . about life.” Something of this could be understood in several instances of the Morosco production I saw. For example, as the play moves toward its bleak revelations in late Act III, not all humor is lost; but its lightness is. And, as Jim’s darker and darker thoughts come on in the buildup to his confession, Jason’s genius is fully exhibited.
Tyrone labors under a heavier and heavier load of accruing remorse and sorrow. But Jason himself did not fall off stride as an actor, even as his character descends into an abyss of despair. And as he undergoes a deeper and deeper self-bruising, Jim’s cynical defenses assault his spirit; his humor, ever more lethal and sardonic, carries forward. When, after a brief withdrawal, Josie returns with a bottle of Phil’s best bonded Bourbon, Jim says he’s “been dying of loneliness.” But his humor does not lighten his burden of guilt.
Colleen Dewhurst made another acute judgment. “O’Neill,” she said, “gives you no safety net.” She meant that you’d better understand the words because there is nothing else to support you. That fine acting is an art, O’Neill knew well. The words are the writer’s, but the actors’ capacity, born of talent and experience, is equally a mystery. Quintero realized this. After Robards had, years earlier, proved to José his own equal understanding of O’Neill by evoking a fully credible Hickey, Quintero knew he also had the Moon’s Jim Tyrone. By then the director had gained the confidence to identify other first-line actors. Hence his choice of Colleen Dewhurst to play Josie.
If playing Jim Tyrone was a labor of love, it was still hard work. From my station, front-row middle, I could sometimes hear Robards breathe and observe droplets of sweat on his brow and upper lip. Those who know the play will remember that as Act II ends, Tyrone, thinking of seducing Josie, is left alone on the stage. “His hand is trembling so violently he cannot light the cigarette.” The audience participates in his tension. Curtain. After an interval of fifteen-twenty minutes the house lights dim again, while “Tyrone is still trying with shaking hands to get his cigarette lighted.” Show people call this “stage business.” Done properly, it is the sign of a professional actor.
The actor must by now be, as it were, inside the skin and brain of Jim Tyrone--and have retained his motivation throughout the interval. If we think, “These are the easy moments, feigning fear or garbling one’s words,” we fail the test of worthy spectatorship. Attention must be paid. Yet, it must be granted, A Moon for the Misbegotten and The Iceman Cometh, are not fare for adolescents, who will more easily understand Hamlet. The dialogue will seem like self-absorbed and drunken drivel to spectators unprepared to do their share of the work. But what exquisite enjoyment for those who join in the characters’ conflicts.
And if we think that carrying off the stage business is a piece of cake, add into the equation the “outside” stresses that increase the actor’s difficulty. The house full is of theater cognoscenti; the most discerning drama critics of the theater establishment are sprinkled throughout the house. Here is what Jason communicated: that, once again, Jim Tyrone has come to fear his own capacity to spoil something good. This realization is produced via the same logic O’Neill invoked when Jamie taunts Edmund in Long Day’s Journey. How fortunate we are to have the film record of Jason Robards’ execution in the part of Jamie, a remarkable blending of love and hate, the very crystallizing of ambivalence. Robards’ achievement in this family tragedy is a moment of greatness now preserved forever:
To carry out such an assignment is a challenge too great for many actors. “No sweat!” they may say. The mediocre actor will not even recognize the difficulty of what he is asked to do. But I tell you, there is sweat. I saw it on Robards’ face in the part of Jim Tyrone. Frightened by the potential evil in his own soul, he gives signs of preparation for confession. But he, who was not raised in O’Neill’s (rejected) faith, had by this time absorbed Eugene’s sensibility. Jason clearly understood the guilt and remorse with which O’Neill has impacted and charged his characters.
“O’Neill gives you no safety net.” That is, either one believes in the truth of the character’s lines or one doesn’t. Jason believed in O’Neill’s words.
The performance was over. Jim Tyrone has walked off into a new day, absolved by Josie’s benediction: “May you have your wish and die in your sleep soon, Jim, darling. May you rest forever in forgiveness and peace.” Curtain: thunderous applause, encores. Slowly, the house emptied. After several minutes, I noticed two people walking down the right side aisle: Henry Fonda and his statuesque wife. They were going backstage. I sat for some minutes, trying to etch into memory the contours of the stage and set. The recollection remains intact, some twenty-seven years later.
Soon, Jason’s dresser, H. R. Donnelly, walked the Fondas to the street door. As he returned, I made bold to ask: “Would it be possible to say hello to Mr. Robards?” Chances seemed small, the next performance to be given at 8:00 o’clock. “Wait.” In thirty seconds, he returned. “Follow me. He’ll see you.” This was about 4:00 p.m. I was with Jason until about 4:25.
* * *
Back stage was cluttered. Unwrapped pipes showed everywhere. Mr. Robards’ room was a bit cramped. He rose to greet me, as I praised the production and performances by the three principals. The actor seemed glad to see me, a stranger from the hinterland.
All O’Neillians recall Jason’s long fight against severe alcoholism. After he had conquered the illness, he gained a kind of second identity by doing a television service announcement: “I’m living proof that you don’t have to die for a drink.” This may have referred to the disastrous automobile accident he had on a canyon highway one night in December, 1972.
Robards had been filled with resentment against John Frankenheimer, who had cast Lee Marvin in the part of Hickey in a film version of The Iceman Cometh. The actor, then age fifty, thought the part was his. The accident all but killed him and nearly ended his career; he was, in fact, pronounced dead at the Santa Monica Hospital, with every bone in his face smashed and major internal injuries. In the hospital Jason was rescued by a plastic surgeon so skilled that his colleagues called him “the magic man.” Thereafter, the only evidence of surgery was at the point where his upper lip had had to be sewn back on. He now wore a mustache to cover that scar. (A detailed account of all this is Barbara Gelb’s “Jason Jamie Robards Tyrone,” New York Times Magazine, 1/20/74.)
By the time Moon opened at the Morosco in late December, 1973, Jason had established a promising new life. His wife of four years, Lois O’Connor, and their daughter, Shannon, gave Jason Robards every reason to recover. Added to this was his collaboration with an energized José Quintero.
He sat at his dressing table, I in a chair across from him. He seemed in no way “winded” from the afternoon’s work and said he was looking forward to the repeat performance that evening. After a few minutes, Donnelly came in to say that he would bring in a snack at 5:30; Jason would rest after I left.
We chatted, mainly about Eugene and Jamie. He said he hoped, someday, to play the elder James Tyrone. He had enjoyed very much working with Ralph Richardson, a “worthy mentor.” There was no mention by either of us of Frankenheimer or Lee Marvin, who had long been his pals.
“Where are you from, what do you do?” I smiled and said, “I’m from Indiana,” aware that we both took an insider’s delight in the coincidence. Hickey remarks to “de gang” that he learned his trade as the son of a circuit-riding preacher.
Jason laughed too. “Well,” he said, “I guess they got the gospel out to the frontier.” I asked him to sign my program. He’d be glad to but didn’t have anything at hand. “All I have,” I said, “is a pen with teacher’s red ink.” He wrote, “To Ed Shaughnessy, in teacher’s red ink, not Scotch.”
I thanked him and left. Down the street I stopped in a bar to scribble some notes about my afternoon at the Morosco. I knew that I would not soon forget Jason’s kindness and his reflections on O’Neill. But the image of another actor came to mind as well: yes, another actor who had loved Eugene. I thought of all three men and silently repeated James O’Neill’s favorite toast: “To sunny days and starry nights.”
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