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Lifelong Love Affair With O’Neill Works : Director Jose Quintero Looks Back on His Fascination With Playwright/Icon

On March 15, 1956, when Jose Quintero took the elevator to the fourth floor of the Lowell Hotel in New York City, he was on his way to a meeting that would change his life.

He was going to meet Carlotta Monterey O’Neill, the widow of playwright Eugene O’Neill, to ask permission for the fledgling Circle in the Square theater in Greenwich Village to stage a revival of O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh.” The play had premiered on Broadway in 1946 to a disappointing reception--and none of O’Neill’s plays had been staged in the United States since.

Dressed all in black, as was her custom, Mrs. O’Neill received Quintero and led him to her room. “She almost performed a ritual, a strange ritual, with her hats,” Quintero, who has been teaching at Cal State Fullerton for the last several years, recalled last week. After modeling one hat after another--all of them black--Mrs. O’Neill asked Quintero’s opinion of one in particular. “That one is the most beautiful of all,” he told her.

It was the hat she had worn for her husband’s burial less than 3 years before. “That was the reason she gave me the rights to do ‘The Iceman Cometh,’ ” Quintero said. “It was almost like passing some kind of test.”

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Quintero’s production of “The Iceman Cometh” was a now-legendary smash, almost single-handedly restoring O’Neill’s flagging reputation in the United States, adding momentum to the burgeoning off-Broadway movement, making a star of a young actor named Jason Robards Jr. and setting the stage for the director’s lifelong love affair with the works of the playwright.

After the success of “The Iceman Cometh,” Quintero directed the landmark U.S. premiere of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” written in 1941 but not published or produced until after O’Neill’s death, in accordance with the playwright’s wishes. In all, Quintero has directed 17 works by O’Neill in 32 years (see box on Page 54B), including the Tony-winning production of “Moon for the Misbegotten” in 1972 and last year’s successful revival of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” with longtime Quintero collaborators Robards and Colleen Dewhurst.

Quintero, now 65, believes that fate drove him to his close association with O’Neill’s works. “I really do think it was a kind of destiny because I cannot explain it any other way,” he said at his home in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles. “I do not believe in accidents.”

The director has explored his connection to O’Neill in a series of writings over the years, some of which have been collected in a new small volume called “Lines in the Palm of God’s Hand.” Edited by Cal State Fullerton professors Joseph Arnold and John Brugaletta, it is the premiere publication of the new South Coast Press, a campus-based outgrowth of the South Coast Poetry Journal formed by Brugaletta several years ago.

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Quintero was on campus in Fullerton on Thursday signing copies of the book and meeting with faculty members and students. Next Sunday, he will receive an honorary doctorate from Cal State Fullerton. It is only the second honorary degree ever conferred by the university.

Quintero has been teaching classes and workshops at Fullerton each spring semester since 1984, and he says the school is “the closest institute of learning to my heart. I have really enjoyed working there more than I have enjoyed working in any school, or even in my own workshops, because I have been surrounded by people who have been absolutely most encouraging and wonderful to me.”

“Lines in the Palm of God’s Hand” traces his fascination with O’Neill from his brief acquaintance in 1949 with the playwright’s son, Eugene O’Neill Jr. (who later committed suicide) to a letter Quintero wrote to O’Neill biographer Barbara Gelb last year on the 100th anniversary of the playwright’s birth.

The Panamanian-born director had just scored a huge success with a production of Tennessee Williams’ “Summer and Smoke” when it was suggested that the Circle in the Square revive “The Iceman Cometh” in 1956. At that point “I knew very little about (O’Neill),” Quintero recalls. “I had no preparation for O’Neill. I had not studied him. I had never read any of his plays before.”

He picked up a copy of “Iceman” one evening and read it straight through, finishing the long work at daybreak.

“I felt that he was writing about me. From the beginning, I felt that he was writing about the kind of landscape which I understood. I mean, I was one of the bums (in the bar at Harry Hope’s, the setting of the play). I felt like one of the bums, he described me so completely. . . .

“In the act of reading that play, I really felt the necessity of doing it, not realizing that O’Neill had been relegated to oblivion.”

After the success of “The Iceman Cometh,” Carlotta Monterey O’Neill called Quintero to another meeting, this time to offer him the much-coveted rights to the American premiere of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” which had just been published. (The play already had been performed in Sweden, where admiration for O’Neill had never waned.)

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Quintero was so stunned by the offer that, according to his recent autobiography, “If You Don’t Dance They’ll Beat You,” he immediately felt ill, rushed out of the hotel room and vomited on the sidewalk.

The highly successful 1956 production featured Robards as James Tyrone Jr. In the 1988 revival at the Neil Simon Theater in New York, Robards played the father, James Tyrone. As Robards’ roles changed, so did Quintero’s perception of the characters.

“When I first did the play... my understanding and perceptions were with the boys in the play,” Quintero said. “This time, of course, I was the age of the parents, and so I understood their particular plight so much more, since I was much closer to them than I was to the boys. With the boys, it was like remembering my youth, and the parents were my actuality, my reality at that very moment. . . . It was like a new experience, a new production to me.”

In the last years of his life, O’Neill could no longer write because of a severe trembling in his hands. In 1987, Quintero was diagnosed with throat cancer, and his vocal chords had to be removed.

“I went through a dark period, the period where I thought that I was not going to be able to communicate at all,” Quintero said. “Because life without communicating is unthinkable for me, because I’ve dedicated my whole life to communicating . . . I thought, well, a muted life is death. But it has not turned out to be so.”

Quintero now speaks with the aid of an electronic device that picks up vibrations from his esophagus and amplifies them. His voice sounds mechanical and alien, but he can speak--and work. He directed the “Long Day’s Journey” revival only months after his operation.

“I don’t care how I sound, really, as long as I can communicate,” he said. “I am amazed, and I am really grateful.”

He is currently directing each of O’Neill’s plays for radio broadcast but says he will never again direct O’Neill on the stage. “I’ve done them all--at least the ones I want to do,” Quintero said.

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His next directing assignment will take him to London, where he begins rehearsals next April. “I am going to do now, for the first time, a play by someone that I have loved all my life and have been very fearful to do. And that is Chekhov,” he said. “This will be my first time, can you imagine? I have been terrified with Chekhov and yet I have been in love with him all of my life, and now I’ll get a chance to do ‘The Three Sisters’. . . .

“It is unbelievable. I thought I was going to die without ever doing a play of Chekhov’s, but there you are.”

Quintero also continues to write and to teach. He has two workshops each week in Los Angeles and will leave in September for 7 weeks at the University of Houston and 12 weeks at Florida State. He then will return to teach in Los Angeles and at Cal State Fullerton before leaving for London.

“I think it is natural that when people get to my age, they need to give to the young whatever it is they have learned about their craft or their art,” Quintero said. “And it is a very necessary, very healthy interchange.”


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