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On Monday, February 10, The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center joined forces with the Playwrights Theatre of New York to Present a gala benefit reading of O'Neill's "Long Days Journey into Night" at the Roundabout Theatre. For serious theatre addicts, the evening was a once in a lifetime chance to see a dream cast performing the autobiographical O'Neill classic. Julie Harris (Mary Cavan Tyrone), Philip Bosco (James Tyrone, Sr.), Peter Gallagher (James Tyrone, Jr.) Tom McCamus (Edmund Tyrone} and Allison Janney (Cathleen). The performance inaugurated an ambitious series in which the entire fifty play canon of O'Neill will be performed.
Because of a $500 top ticket price, I expected to see an audience of Darien and Westport socialites. To the contrary the audience was composed of O'Neill devotees. The organizers of the event were kind enough to allot a number of tickets to students from N.Y.U, the Actors' Studio and the O'Neill Center's National Theatre Institute, some of whom were encountering the play for the first time. For the rest of us, it was a return visit to one of the great American dramas and for many in the audience, a theatrical replenishment of our collective souls.
THE MONTE CRISTO COTTAGE
The play is based on events which took Place in the O'Neill family's Monte Cristo Cottage. The cottage, which was named a National Landmark in 1971 is maintained by the O'Neill Center. The reading was a benefit (in part) for funds to renovate the cottage; the glass topped turquoise wicker table, rocker, and wicker chairs used on stage were borrowed from the cottage. The table was also on stage in the original 1956 Broadway production.
In the summer of 1912, O'Neill returned to the only permanent home his family had ever known, spending it with his father James, Sr., a well known actor of the time, mother Ella and older brother James, Jr. Matinee idol O'Neill Sr. spent most of the year touring in a swashbuckllng vehicle, "The Count of Monte Cristo", but spent summers in the New London Connecticut cottage. O'Neill Sr. owned performing rights to the play, toured in it for years and eventually filmed it. (A scratchy video-tape of the silent film is available.)
THE GENESIS OF "LONG DAY'S JOURNEY"
During his final summer at the cottage, twenty-four year old Eugene O'Neill was diagnosed with tuberculosis. His mother, weary from years of accompanying his father on tour, was addicted to morphine, prescribed by an incompetent hotel doctor for pain after Eugene's birth. "Long Day's Journey into Night" dramatizes twelve consecutive hours with the four family members. The family surname is Tyrone, rather than O'Neill, mother Ella is renamed Mary, and O'Neill calls himself Edmund after a brother who died at the age of three (the deceased brother in the play is referred to as "Eugene"}. Reflecting reality, the father and older brother are James and Jamie, respectively. Cathleen, a servant, is the fifth character on stage.
Just before the reading, O'Neill biographer Barbara Gelb explained the publication history of "Long Day's Journey into Night." O'Neill completed the play in 1941 and presented it as anniversary gift for his last wife Carlotta, stipulating that the play not be published until twenty-five years after his death. In 1953, two years after O'Neill's death, Carlotta went to Random House publisher, Bennett Cerf, demanding that he publish the manuscript which was in Cerf's office safe. Because of its (then) sensational themes, Cerf refused to publish the play unless Carlotta wrote a forward distancing Cerf and Random House from responsibility. Incensed by this, Carlotta took another copy of the manuscript to Yale University Press, who published the work, resulting in a Pulitzer Prize and an acclaimed Broadway production in 1956 starring Fredric March, Florence Eldridge, Jason Robards, Jr., Bradford Dillman and Katherine Ross. The subsequent 1962 film starred Katherine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson (Spencer Tracy wanted too much money}, Robards repeating the role of Jamie and Dean Stockwell replacing Dillman as Edmund. (The exterior of the Monte Cristo Cottage was actually an old house standing on City Island in the Bronx, while the interiors were filmed in a New York City studio.) A 1973 television tape preserves Sir Lawrence Olivier's National Theatre performance as James Tyrone, and a controversial Jonathan Miller production starring Jack Lemmon with Peter Gallagher as Edmund and Kevin Spacey as Jamie was televised in 1987.
In 1988, "Long Days Journey" played Broadway in repertory with "Ah, Wilderness", O'Neill's 1933 coming of age comedy with a setting remarkably similar to Monte Cristo cottage. Only this time, O'Neill based his characters on New London neighbors, the McKinleys. The 1988 production of "Long Day's Journey..." starred Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst, who alternated as the fictionalized McKinleys (Mr. and Mrs. Miller) in "Ah, Wilderness."
A colleague who saw the original "Long Day s Journey..." tells me that March dominated the original production. Hepburn rules the l962 film and Olivier controls the l973 telecast. The benefit reading was an ensemble piece.
A PLEA TO PRODUCERS
Please rehire the evening's cast and mount a full production for Broadway! Julia Harris, who closed Athol Fugard's "The Road to Mecca" at Long Wharf the night before, is an ideal Mary Tyrone. She conveys the character's fragility, but lets us know that there is a tenacious inner strength lurking within her. Her moments off stage are filled with as much tension as her time on stage, as the audience wonders what permutation of addiction she will manifest with her next entrance. Late in the play when she describes her wedding gown, the moment has the power of an operatic mad scene.
Philip Bosco's James Tyrone is not a variation on the aging matinee idol he played in "Moon Over Buffalo". Bosco has instead created a completely new entity: an affable hale fellow well met, slowly revealed as a miserly control freak, who finally sees his control dissipate. Peter Gallagher, who played the younger son, Edmund, in the Jack Lemmon production graduated to older son Jamie for the benefit. He has an intuitive grasp of O'Neill's slang and understands the O'Neill cadences and rhythms. He even seems ready for the challenge of Jamie in "Moon For The Misbegotten," the drama which continues the story of O'Neill's older brother.
Allison Janney, on loan from the current production of "Present Laughter," played the often thankless part of the maid Cathleen with sauce and verve, but, to her credit, never overplayed.
The discovery of the evening was Tom McCamus, a young actor not well known in New York, but with important Stratford and Shaw Festival credits. The character of Edmund can be a cipher, since he is standing in for the author, but Mr. McCamus' interpretation gives the play an element of hope. He subtly foreshadows Edmund's emancipation from his family end the great writing career ahead of him.
Barbara Gelb writes about the opening night Of "Beyond the Horizon", O'Neill's first Broadway production (and his first Pulitzer Prize). James and Ella O'Neill attended the first night at the Morosco Theatre. O'Neill Sr, was moved to tears by the drama, but at the final curtain asked his son "Are you trying to send the audience home to commit suicide?"
Hardly. O'Neill does just the opposite. His drama makes us think; perhaps even reexamine our lives. Suicide? No. O'Neill propels us to embrace our existence. The non-theatre going members of the world may cherish "Ozzie and Harriet" and "The Brady Bunch." But those of us who love the theatre keep returning to the Tyrone family and let ourselves be embraced by O'Neill's tormented genius. We are grateful for the existing tapes of past performances, but can also look forward to new interpretations of O'Neill's rich drama of tragic theatrical royalty.
PRESERVING MONTE CRISTO
During the first intermission, I met Sally Thomas Pavetti and Lois Erickson McDonald who serve as Curator and Associate Curator of the Monte Cristo cottage. Under the O'Neill Center administration, the cottage has become a repository for O'Neill family furniture, letters, posters, photographs and other historical objects, some of which are part of a permanent display. But the structure which was built in the 1840's needs major repairs. Water is seeping into the basement and steps must be taken to prevent structural damage.
Stephen M. Wood, who has recently been named President of the O'Neill Center and has been working on behalf of the O'Neill since 1982 initiated the gala. As a result, restoration and repairs to the cottage will begin immediately.
PERPETUATING THE O'NEILL LEGACY
Pounded in 1963 by George White, The Center is home to numerous summer festivals and conferences (Musical Theatre, Playwriting, Cabaret and Puppetry). The O'Neill hosts the National Critics Institute, the year round National Theatre Institute (international, in fact, with centers in London and Moscow) and an ongoing outreach program, Creative Arts in Education.
But for a moment return to the summer of 1912 when James O'Neill Sr. decided to send twenty-four year old Eugene to a tuberculosis sanitarium. During his recuperation O'Neill first started writing plays. How fortunate for all of us. And what a splendid living monument the O'Neill Center is to the writer's legacy.
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