Letter to a Giant : Here's to Eugene O'Neill, America's Greatest--and Worst--Playwright, on His 100th Birthday

Dear Gene:

Pardon the familiarity, but have just finished reading your letters*, and feel I know you.

Today would have been your 100th birthday. Irving Berlin didn't take much pleasure in his 100th birthday party at Carnegie Hall a few months ago. It's just as well that you kicked off off when you did, in '53, with your best work not that far behind you.

You certainly left a great exit line. "I knew it, I knew it! Born in a goddamn hotel room and dying in a hotel room!"

In case you were wondering, you are still a big force in the American theater. I can't explain why Los Angeles theater isn't doing anything about your birthday, not even an afternoon of readings at the Mark Taper Forum's literary cabaret. Probably everyone figured that someone else was having the party.

(The Gene Dynarski Theatre is offering a new play about your youth, Louis Larusso's "Sea Mother's Son." Haven't heard a word about it.)

Other cities got their act together. San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre is offering an afternoon of O'Neill scenes at the Geary Theatre, including scenes from ACT's current "Marco Millions." This is being co-sponsored by the Eugene O'Neill Foundation, which led the fight to get your Danville, Calif., estate, Tao House, declared a national historic site.

Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst will be among the celebrants at New York's Circle-in-the-Square Theatre, the theater that brought your plays back into contention in the 1950s.

And your home town of New London, Conn., is dedicating a statue to you. New London is also the site of the Eugene O'Neill Center, where new American playwrights test their work every summer. Remember when the mayor called you a rummy?

How are your plays doing? Well, weekly Variety came out with a story this spring that they are considered box-office poison on Broadway--this after a twin bill of "Long Day's Journey into Night" and "Ah, Wilderness," both starring Robards and Dewhurst, failed to catch fire.

But we know, from your letters, your contempt for Broadway. Nationally, over the last few months, you've had productions of "The Emperor Jones" in Kansas City, "Ah, Wilderness" in Dallas, "A Moon for the Misbegotten" in Berkeley. Your early sea plays have been presented on a boat in San Francisco Bay, and also on National Public Radio, directed by Jose Quintero, another friend from the Circle-in-the-Square.

You are still a contender, Gene. In fact, you are still champ: the bravest, the biggest and the best American playwright yet. Many of us critics have been reluctant to admit this, but it's a fact, and nothing that has happened during this centennial year as changed it.

We've been reluctant to admit it, because much of your work strikes us a malarkey. That includes some of the best-known plays, such as "Strange Interlude," which showed up on TV last winter with Glenda Jackson, an actress you would like. Your device of having the characters speak their inmost thoughts worked fine--but what incredibly banal thoughts!

We won't mention the bombs that were hard to take even in the '20s, like "Lazarus Laughed" or "Dynamo." Not only are you are our best playwright, Gene, you are our worst one, and it's hard to reconcile these two facts.

But I learned something about your work while watching a rehearsal of "Desire Under the Elms" this spring in Moscow. The language was, of course, Russian, so that one didn't have to deal with your version of New England dialect. Suddenly, all the underneath stuff in the play came to the fore, and one was watching a fable that might have been taken from one of the darker chapters in the Old Testament.

The only adroit play you ever wrote was "Ah, Wilderness!" The rest are all dredged out of a some deep, confused cavern in yourself. Often your language isn't adequate to what you're feeling, and the listener is stuck with a lot of empty explanation marks.

But when your vision and your language come together, as in the last plays about your family, "written in blood and early sorrow," we go very deep. Deeper than any American playwright since your day has taken us, including the two that were just coming up when you cashed out, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller.

Another rival is shaping up, Gene. His name is August Wilson. His plays, like yours, don't always hang together on the surface. But they have direct access to that inner cavern from which the god speaks--when he is in the mood. Like you, and like the Greeks, Wilson doesn't have any trouble with the idea that there are dark forces in the universe who couldn't care less what happens to the human race. You were Irish; he is black; but there is a likeness.

Your letters are a marvel. First, they show that we critics have perhaps overdone the idea that you had to struggle to express yourself. In ordinary communications, you could handle the language as deftly as Shaw when so disposed.

Jessica Rippin, one of your New London girlfriends, reminds you that you're still "very, very young" (26.)

"Pooh, Jessica, that remark was unworthy of you," you reply. "I have lived much more than any three men in the town and you ought to know it. My ideas are hardly based on inexperience or a cloistered existence. Why link youth with fatuity?"

Second, the letters show your passion to be "an artist or nothing." This wasn't a pose with you. You weren't too proud to think up ways to publicize your shows; you weren't above cultivating the critics with nice little personal notes; but the plays would say what you wanted them to say, or they wouldn't be done.

You decry American imperialism, but you think as big as John D. Rockefeller. "I'm doing much thinking on my grand major opus which will take me years to do. . . . It will have scope enough to contain all of life I have the guts to grasp and make my own . . . . Believe me, Ben, I'm going to bull's-eye a star with that job or go mad in the attempt . . . ."

To hell with church, state, respectability and family obligations. You will do what's best for yourself and your work, and not bellyache about the consequences. When you fall in love, you're crazy in love. You're shockingly callous when it comes to leaving your wife and kids in Bermuda for the fascinating Carlotta Monterey. But you go into it with your eyes open, and you are still writing love notes to Carlotta at the end of your life, when your marriage has become pure Strindberg:

"Darling: For the love of God, forgive and come back. You are all I have in life. I am sick and I will surely die without you. You do not want to murder me, I know, and a curse will be on you for your remaining days. I love you and I will! Darling! Your Gene."

A high-risk life. We've known this from other books about you (the best of them by Louis Sheaffer.) But not until this book have we had a sense of what it was like to stand directly in your line of fire. "All my former loves are now my enemies," you write, "as it is natural they should be." Oh, that Irish pride. Oh, those Irish jitters. But your stuff holds up.

Sincerely,

DAN SULLIVAN

*"Selected Letters of Eugene O'Neill , " edited by Travis Bogard and Jackson R. Bryer, Yale University Press ($35).

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