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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. I, No. 3
January, 1978



Four years ago, the third New York revival of A Moon for the Misbegotten became, in Barbara Gelb's words, "the smash dramatic hit of the 1974 season," an event which "does indeed argue for Mystery and Miracle." The phrase seems apt. Even to some devoted O'Neillians, the success of Moon seemed something only divine intervention could accomplish, especially to those of us well west of the Hudson. Later, we heard that this marvelous production would appear on television and that we would be able to witness the Miracle for ourselves.

Alas, for many of us, as for Jordan Y. Miller, writing in the Kansas Quarterly, 7, iv (1975), "the full-length uninterrupted living color performance" did nothing to dispel the Mystery. Like Professor Miller, I, too, "remained displeased, unsatisfied" because "It wasn't working." Unlike him, however, I was not awed by the performance of Jason Robards (although, like Clive Barnes, I did fall in love with Colleen Dewhurst). Yet, Professor Miller's dissatisfactions were mine. At bottom, whatever one felt about the performance, it seemed the play was deeply flawed.

Thus, when I learned a year ago that the excellent Guthrie Theater of Minneapolis was adding A Moon to its 1977 repertory season and, more than that, taking this main stage production on tour in early 1978, I was intrigued. Conscientiously, I included the play in a survey of modern American drama I was teaching, but after spending a week on the play with some bright theater students, I was still dissatisfied with it. Further, the grapevine from Minneapolis assured me that the role of Josie had created casting problems. I began to have some fears for the Guthrie production.

At the theater itself, on a Saturday evening, as I realized it would be a full house, my fears began to ease--something must be right about this production. But when I read that the director, Nick Havinga, was largely a television director, previously under contract for six years to Proctor & Gamble productions, my fears returned. Fortunately, they proved to be without foundation. The Guthrie Theater production of A Moon for the Misbegotten is truly brilliant. I have seldom been as moved by a play as I was that evening. And I was not alone. The entire audience was gripped by the incredible beauty of Eugene O'Neill's last play.

Perhaps if I had seen the Robards-Dewhurst Moon in the theater rather than on TV, I might have been equally moved, but I think not. I believe Jason Robards was miscast and, after seeing the Guthrie production, I believe I can explain why.

How many remember who played Phil Hogan opposite Dewhurst's Josie? Doesn't the director, Jose Quintero, come more readily to mind? (He certainly did to Professor Miller, who referred to the "Quintero-Robards revival" and failed even to mention Miss Dewhurst anywhere in his review.) The point seems clear, then, that the play was seen to focus on the Jamie-Josie relationship. Those are the starring roles. And if one must pick the role, many would choose Jim Tyrone. In Professor Miller's view, Tyrone is the "protagonist," and in Clive Barnes' words, "the real part, the whirl-pool part, in the play is that of James Tyrone..." (New York Times, December 31, 1973, p. 32).

This view, I now believe, is a gross misconception, engendered by far too much emphasis on the "autobiographical O'Neill." Thanks to the success of the obviously biographical Long Day's Journey, the massive production of the Gelbs, and the meticulous efforts of Louis Sheaffer, I for one have been too quick to view the "sequel" to Journey through the distorting lens of biography. The simple truth of Nick Havinga's faithful direction is that James Tyrone, Jr., is not the most important character in Moon. lie is not even the second-most important character; Josie's father is. And that is why Robards was miscast. Placing him in the role of Jamie automatically gave the role an importance, a weight, it cannot carry.

The order of priority was clearly visible in the Guthrie curtain call. First out was Peter Michael Goetz, who did a masterful job in the role of Jim Tyrone. He accomplished what I felt Robards was unable to do: make the abrupt shifts in mood that O'Neill demands seem natural rather than forced. More important, Mr. Goetz delivered Jim's major confessional speech in Act III in the manner O'Neill calls for--"His voice becomes impersonal and objective, as though what he told concerned some man he had known, but had nothing to do with him." Unlike Robards, Goetz did not wring every possible ounce of emotion out of those speeches; rather, as O'Neill admonished Richard Bennett in the Horizon rehearsals, he delivered the speeches "as per the text." And it was exactly right.

To deliver Jamie's confession as Robards did, in a manner suitable to Hickey's confession in Iceman, is to force A Moon to appear as misshapen in performance as it does when read through an autobiographical screen. Jamie should not command the stage at that point. His speech is less important than Josie's reaction to it. A Moon is very much her play, hers and her father's.

Richard Russell Ramos, a marvelous character actor in this season's Guthrie company, did an amazing job as Phil Hogan, and was the second to appear in the curtain call. His applause clearly overshadowed Goetz's, not because he is a better actor, but because he was so perfect in the role which is second only to Josie's. It is the father-daughter relation-ship upon which A Moon so solidly rests, like the rock O'Neill calls for in the stage directions.

When Professor Miller writes that "We have little interest in James Tyrone, Jr., himself a petty figure, whose maudlin confession of his sins creates only disgust and revulsion," he is very close to the truth. We are neither supposed nor allowed to be that interested in Jim Tyrone because he is not the focal point; Josie is. A Moon has not a tragic hero, but a tragic heroine--a fact the Minneapolis audience well recognized when Sharon Ernster finally appeared for the curtain call. Uncannily, she embodies Louis Sheaffer's description of Christine Ell almost to perfection. What other roles future directors may find for Miss Ernster I cannot tell, but it is hard to imagine other roles for which she is so qualified. Outside of her unremarkable height, she is physically right for Josie in every respect and, what is more important, she brought Josie Hogan to incredible life as one of the great tragic heroines of this century.

For A Moon for the Misbegotten is a tragedy, a tragedy of love, of love denied and of love triumphant. Josie Hogan progresses classically through the pattern of purpose, passion, and perception. At first, out to revenge herself on James Tyrone, she learns he is blameless of the crime Phil has accused him of. Then, touched by Jim's ability to see her true nature, she tries to win his love. Confused by his respect, she proceeds to discover and grieve over the utter hopelessness of her love. She suffers over the painful knowledge of Jim Tyrone's sordid, pitiful memories, and then achieves tragic greatness as she is able to go on, despite this knowledge, and give him the love he deserves simply because he is a tortured human being capable of only a single, small act of self-denial. Her depth of love and self--abnegation ennoble her and in the process Jim Tyrone as well. Josie Hogan achieves tragic greatness because she is a genuinely self-sacrificial human being and, hence, deserving of the Madonna-blue costumes O'Neill calls for (a color which the designer, Lewis Brown, seems to have deliberately avoided, without any loss to his overall effective conception).

Given the excellence of the acting and direction, the few departures from O'Neill's script were not significant. On the full-thrust, three quarter round stage of the Guthrie, there was never a hope that O'Neill's set would be created, but John Conklin's scene design captured the spirit of O'Neill's realistic description beautifully, even though Act II had to occur in the yard. The removable wall, a seeming import from Desire, is not essential. Nor is a cyclorama. The Act IV sunrise was accomplished by changes in the color, direction, and intensity of the lighting while the background remained black. Even so, it was a beautiful sunrise.

Of equal interest was the placement of the traditional Guthrie single intermission. It occurred, not at an act break, but immediately following Hogan's line in Act II, "God forgive me—it's the only way I can see that has a chance now," a procedure which pointed the line most emphatically and permitted the play to run without interruption from Tyrone's entrance until the end. As a consequence, the performance lasted only two-and-one-half hours and gained greatly in intensity.

The Miracle and the Mystery seem less enigmatic now, but not yet fully removed. How could the Quintero revival have been so successful if so wrong? Was it simply a case of Broadway "old-boyism" with the audiences applauding the idea rather than the act? Of one thing I am reasonably sure: A Moon for the Misbegotten owes more, biographically speaking, to Carlotta Monterey than it does to James O'Neill, Jr. Where else but in his last marriage, as O'Neill so often wrote, could he have found the true faith in love which allowed him to create the tragic greatness and beauty of Josie Hogan, a greatness and a beauty which the Guthrie Theater production fully realizes, both to their credit and to O'Neill's.

--Paul D. Voelker

[Richard Eder, in an article reviewing the current Guthrie Theatre repertory in the New York Times (July 21, 1977, p. 23), shared both Professor Voelker's enthusiasm for the performers and his misgivings about the play itself. He particularly liked the way the cast captured Josie's "mercurial strength and vulnerability," Tyrone's "deathly, strained cheerfulness," and the "fine tension" in the nature of Hogan: "He is bent and tricky, a small spring vibrating with calculation and with a tiny, sharp concern for Josie." --Ed.]



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