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Splendor and Fear and Greatness

A smart new documentary explains why Eugene O’Neill stands astride American theater, critics be damned.

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About his fellow Nobel laureate, Sinclair Lewis told us that Eugene O’Neill “has done nothing much in American drama save to transform it utterly, in ten or twelve years, from a false world of neat and competent trickery to a world of splendor and fear and greatness . . . he has seen life as not to be neatly arranged in the study of a scholar but as a terrifying, magnificent, and often quite horrible thing akin to the tornado, the earthquake, the devastating fire.” Lionel Trilling more or less agreed: “His interest is not in the minutiae of life, not in its nuances and humor, but its ‘great inscrutable forces.’ ” George Jean Nathan added, “There is something relatively distinguished about even his failures; they sink not trivially but with a certain air of majesty, like a great ship, its flags flying, full of holes.” All this in spite of his lack of language skills, as John Mason Brown explained: “Though he possesses the tragic vision, he cannot claim the tragic tongue.”

Or at least he couldn’t up until Long Day’s Journey Into Night, in which, by sheer force of will, as if desolation were a distillery, he would stammer his way to eloquence. (Think of Edmund, remembering a gull and the sea, “a little in love with death.”) And then he insisted that this great play be hidden away in a Random House vault, not to be published for 25 years, and never to be staged. Yes, he probably counted on Carlotta, his third wife, to disobey his instructions, but just imagine our missing the most shattering night of American theater until Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Not surprisingly, Kushner is one of the talking heads in Eugene O’Neill, the splendid Ric Burns American Experience film, along with Lloyd Richards, Sidney Lumet, Robert Brustein, John Guare, Zoe Caldwell, Jason Robards, and Arthur and Barbara Gelb, the O’Neill biographers who co-wrote the script with Burns. All of them, between scenes from stage and screen, old photographs and moody montages of waves and trees, roll around in the playwright’s wounds.

Of which there were many. From an actor-father who hated himself for a lifetime of playing The Count of Monte Cristo, a morphine-addicted mother who blamed herself for her dead baby, and a God gone awol, O’Neill ran away to sea, booze, tuberculosis, psychoanalysis, and experimental theater. (If Strange Interlude floundered in Freudianisms, The Iceman Cometh sought to slay Sigmund as if he were O’Neill’s own dad.) And the plays, always astonishing, sometimes embarrassing, got a lot smarter once he stopped drinking: race, class, grief, dreams, and masks. (In the course of these two absorbing hours, we watch performances by Christopher Plummer, Al Pacino, Vanessa Redgrave, Robert Sean Leonard, Liam Neeson, and Natasha Richardson.) In the snapshots, he looks, says Guare, “like a ghost haunting his own life.” Wives and children left behind; nervous breakdowns covered up; handwriting that could be read only with a magnifying glass; a last decade when he couldn’t write at all because of Parkinson’s.

Reviewing Iceman in 1946, Mary McCarthy quite stupidly declared, “To audiences accustomed to the oily virtuosity of George Kaufman, George Abbott, Lillian Hellman, Odets, Saroyan, the return of a playwright who—to be frank—cannot write is a solemn and sentimental occasion.” She continued, “O’Neill belongs to that group of American authors, which includes Farrell and Dreiser, whose choice of vocation was a kind of triumphant catastrophe; none of these men possessed the slightest ear for the word, the sentence, the speech, the paragraph; all of them, however, have, so to speak, enforced the career they decreed for themselves by a relentless policing of their beat.” This is stupid, as Ric Burns and the Gelbs make abundantly clear, because it is tone-deaf to the deepest chords; it is a smarty-pants whistling in the ferocious dark that would, but for brave souls like O’Neill, devour us.

Eugene O’Neill
PBS. March 27, 9 p.m.; Re-Airs April 2, 11:30 p.m.


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