The history of Eugene O’Neill plays onstage is filled with many triumphs and a number of terribly disappointing failures. What is surprising is the number of actors who achieved their greatest successes in plays by O’Neill. For many actors there were years of struggle in weak plays or vaudeville and then, finally, the opportunity to achieve a critical and popular success in an exciting role created by O’Neill. Although the plays have been revived, the initial presentation often created such a strong effect that the actor or actress is still identified with the role. After Fredric March died, his biographer Deborah Peterson quoted director José Quintero as saying, “I have seen other great, great actors perform James Tyrone in other productions of Long Day’s Journey into Night. And with all due respect, I will have to tap them on the shoulder and say, ‘Excuse me, your lordship. Let’s step aside and let the one and only James Tyrone pass by.’ ” 1 Quintero is foremost among the later directors who brought the plays to the stage. In earlier times the directors who worked with O’Neill’s major works were Robert Edmond Jones, Arthur Hopkins, and Philip Moeller. They contributed significantly to the success of many of the plays.
There are many myths and legends surrounding Eugene O’Neill. Many of these have to do with his relationships with actors. It is widely assumed that he hated actors and had no respect for their craft. A close look at the production history of his plays, interviews with actors and actresses, and interviews with O’Neill reveals a different picture. It is also widely accepted that he hated and had contempt for the theatre of his father’s time, particularly his father’s great hit The Count of Monte Cristo. In fact, he both learned from the theatre of his father’s time (which was often noted by critics) and admired many of the actors. A background for the interviews with today’s actors includes a picture of O’Neill’s own experience as an actor, his views on acting, his work and friendship with actors, and the work of actors and directors in major performances of his plays in the first half of the twentieth century. Moving slightly into the second half of the century, there will be discussion of Quintero’s production of Long Day’s Journey into Night in 1956, a major turning point that led to a revival of interest in O’Neill’s plays.
boyhood was spent hearing about theatre, seeing theatre, and often
traveling with his father’s company. When he wrote The Fountain, he
actually visualized his father in the role. He often remarked that the
actors in his father’s time understood how to play the large-scale
qualities of such a character as Ponce de Leon. Again, when he wrote A
Touch of the Poet, he spoke of the great qualities of actors like his
father and Maurice Barrymore, father of John and Lionel, who knew how to
make an entrance (without having it built up by the playwright) and played
with splendor and style. In 1933 he said to George Jean Nathan, “You can
say what you want to about the theatre back in my old man’s time, you
can laugh at all those tin-pot plays and all that, but, by God, you’ve
got to admit that the old man and all the rest of those old boys were
O’Neill himself had no desire to be an actor. Early in his playwriting career O’Neill invented tales or elaborated on his acting experiences, and his stories were printed and reprinted, giving a muddled picture of actuality. He acted briefly in his father’s company in the famous money-making play and found it a terrible experience. This, however, was during the period in which he had tried to commit suicide and his worldview was negative about most aspects of life. He played several small roles, some without lines, but he was so terrified and so embarrassed by wearing a costume, a fake moustache, and make-up that his performance was bad enough to cause laughter. The version of the tour that he gave in later years was that he was constantly drunk and that he and his brother Jamie pulled gags and generally disrupted the performances. An actor on the tour gave a different version, indicating that although Jamie’s breath always smelled of liquor, there was no horseplay or drunkenness, and that O’Neill waited until after the play to drink. That O’Neill loved to embroider this experience to make people laugh is clear from the fact that he told at least one person that he and Jamie performed a song and dance at the intermission. As Arthur and Barbara Gelb note in their book O’Neill, he said, “Although I was only on the stage for minutes at a time, I imagine there are still people in this country who awake screaming in the night at the memory of it.” If this experience affected his attitude toward actors, it must have been to awaken admiration for persons who could do what he could not. He probably was a very bad actor, but he loved to exaggerate and come up with funny things about the experience. For example, he often said that he was a terrible actor and had graduated from the Orpheum Circuit with the degree of Lousy Cum Laude. After this short stretch on the boards, he was certain that he would never act again.3
The work with other actors, however, continued. O’Neill was deeply involved in the rehearsals for most of his plays except when he was living in Europe waiting for his divorce from Agnes Boulton so he could marry Carlotta Monterey. When he and Carlotta returned, they both attended rehearsals, causing Philip Moeller to joke about the challenge of directing an O’Neill play with the two O’Neills watching.
It is difficult to determine how much he or anyone else contributed to the direction of the plays in the “creative collective” of the Provincetown Players. Sometimes one person began directing and another took over. O’Neill later claimed that he had little to do in the rehearsals as he had not yet quit drinking and was consequently “pickled”most of the time. None of the actors were truly professionals in the early productions, but several went on to have modest careers in the theatre. As time passed, professional actors, including Charles Gilpin and Louis Wolheim, were brought in to play particular roles. But there still was a communal feeling of a group working together as committed amateurs.
O’Neill’s first real experience working with a professional actor in the theatre occurred with Beyond the Horizon. Reading about Richard Bennett, the actor who played the leading role so successfully, one might suppose a baptism by fire for the young playwright. Bennett was forty-seven years old and had established himself both as a successful actor and as a man of some eccentricities. As an actor, he had performed in the daring play about syphilis, Damaged Goods, and had been praised for his role as John Shand opposite Maude Adams in What Every Woman Knows. Nevertheless, he had never really reached the top of his profession and had performed in many plays that were claptrap. He was widely perceived as a matinee idol with a limited range. As Burns Mantle wrote in his review of Beyond the Horizon, he was a good actor and the critic “had often wondered why he had not been popularly placed among the few big men of the theatre of his day.”7
Although another critic described Bennett as a gentleman and a scholar, he had achieved a reputation as “one of the most colorful actors the Broadway stage has known” for his tirades during performances, in which he stepped out of character “to chastise an inattentive audience.” The Bennett file at Lincoln Center is filled with accounts of bizarre behavior for which he was frequently in the news. Married three times, his third divorce attracted much attention. One article was headed, “Wife Says He Acts Too Realistically With a Gun Offstage.” In court his wife claimed that he was a perfectionist and that when his role called for a weapon, he used it at home, “And I’ve got the scars to prove it!” She spoke of his maniacal moods and said that he had stabbed her cheek with a nail file and that the divorce action was set off by his striking her on the head with a gun. In the many stories covering the case, she was quoted as saying, “When he wasn’t threatening to kill me, he was threatening to kill himself.” After the divorce was granted, he sailed for England in disguise, in tourist class, to avoid arrest for non-payment of alimony. On another occasion he appeared in court, suing a hotel because his thumb was injured in a door that was being repaired. It turned out that he was apparently giving the workmen some unasked-for advice, and he was severely chastised by the judge for showing little sense on the occasion of the injury and less in taking up the court’s time.
Onstage, despite his serious approach to acting and his preference for worthwhile plays, it was said that he followed in the footsteps of actor Richard Mansfield in “making impromptu speeches.” His amusing quips were often quoted in the papers and notice was taken when, for example, he stopped a performance to point out that the audience had paid to hear him, not noisy radiators, and to demand that they be fixed. When he performed in On Borrowed Time he got mad about a gate and announced to the audience that he was taking a moment “to join the stage hands union and show these men how to fix a gate so it will stay open.” (A possible result of that was his departure from the cast the next week, reputedly because of illness.) His many speeches directed at noisy latecomers were credited with an improvement in the seating of latecomers. Bennett was the father of two actresses known for their own displays of temperament, but a newspaper article stated that Richard Bennett “completely eclipses Joan and Constance Bennett.” He often invited the audience to stay in their seats at the second intermission while he gave vent to whatever was on his mind: Mussolini, social problems, or critics whom he frequently described as bastards and sons of bitches with infantile intelligence. These disturbances during the play and lectures at intermissions amused audiences, but probably not the playwrights in whose works he was performing. This, then, was the actor O’Neill would face as a playwright struggling for acceptance in the American theatre with his first full-length play.
In fact, the relationship between the two men was full of camaraderie and mutual satisfaction. Bennett came across the script for Beyond the Horizon while poking around in the office of his producer, John Williams. O’Neill had been waiting for two years for Williams to produce it and by chance Bennett read it, was moved, and wanted to play the part of the twenty-three-year-old protagonist. It would be done in special matinees, and would have to be rehearsed while he was giving twelve performances a week in another play.
O’Neill described the process of working with Bennett in letters to his wife Agnes. For him the first challenge was cutting the play. It is widely believed that O’Neill refused to cut a word of his scripts. The truth is that he usually worked with directors or actors to cut and revise scripts during the rehearsal period. In this instance he wrote to his wife that he “labored until two A.M. on the cuts,” arriving at a considerably tightened script. Then he met with Bennett and Williams for a whole afternoon changing the script. Following that, he and Bennett worked all night on the script, drinking absinthe as they went over the play line by line. In the last few days of rehearsal, O’Neill cut more than half an hour from the script.8 (The published text did not indicate these cuts.) O’Neill worked with the actors during the rehearsals and took pleasure in the process. He described himself to Agnes as “the only man in the auditorium, director of my own play! And I don’t think I’ve made such a fizzle of it either! They all showed a noticeable improvement today, and also a marked improvement in their respect for me.”9 As far as his work with Bennett, they ultimately formed a mutual admiration society. During the second rehearsal they had a terrific fight because Bennett did what he wanted instead of following the directions in the text. After doing it O’Neill’s way, Bennett said, “By God, you’re right. Let’s have a few more fights and this play will pick up 100%.”As for O’Neill, his appreciation of Bennett’s talent and intelligence was expressed in letters and conversation. He stressed how much he had learned and how useful it would be to him: “Bennett is really a liberal education all in himself. He has brains and he uses them every second.”10
It was generally known that Bennett’s enthusiastic response to the play and the playwright helped create the production that achieved such fame in American theatre history. One newspaper photograph of the play had the caption, “It was largely due to Bennett’s courage that Beyond the Horizon was produced. Its success has been justified by its brilliant reception.” Bennett was repaid for his courage and dedication by receiving the most positive reviews of his career and moving into the ranks of the best actors of the time.
The play opened with cheap, thrown-together settings (disappointing for O’Neill, as the visual aspect is always an enormously important aspect of his plays), after limited rehearsals, and only at matinees. Nevertheless, the critics came because they had been watching O’Neill’s development and because Bennett and others had created interest by talking about the play. Heywood Broun was one of several critics who said that Bennett was playing better than ever before. Another critic wrote that the role was excellent for an actor “acting from within”: “Mr. Bennett has never done finer work. His dreaming Rob of the first scene has something of an ethereal charm, and this is not entirely lost among the vicissitudes of the following scenes.” While objecting (as critics often did) to the subject matter of the play, he said that the critics’ specific praise for Bennett for his “extraordinarily detailed acting of Robert’s struggle in the last act is richly deserved.”
The phrase “acting from within” would often be used by critics for other actors in O’Neill plays. The plays seemed to present a particular challenge to actors, causing them to explore their own resources and delve deeper into the character than they had previously done. Bennett wrote an article called “Words Versus Situations” in which he described his approach to playing Robert. He stated that he had previously felt that the success of a play depended on its situations rather than its language. Here, he felt “the power of words which Mr. O’Neill has so adroitly woven into the big moments of this tragedy.” He said that he realized that playing Robert called for a different technique than he had ever used before. “I gave myself up to the broad sweep and rugged strength of the realism which has been so effectively invested in it. The result was that I was carried into an entirely different field of expression than I have ever realized.” Although he was twenty-four years older than the character, he was able to please audiences, critics, and Eugene O’Neill through his realistic acting. A caption under a photograph read, “This splendid actor has earned for himself a high place as an exponent of realism on our stage.”
The success of the matinees led to regular performances in the evening, a long run (surprising to critics who felt the play was “too great to be popular”), and to the Pulitzer Prize for 1919-1920. Although all the critics praised Bennett, Alexander Woolcott was also prophetic in his review, saying, “Richard Bennett plays with fine eloquence, imagination and finesse, a performance people will remember.” This proved true even as Bennett went on to win praise in challenging roles such as He in the Theatre Guild production of He Who Gets Slapped and Tony in another Pulitzer Prize winner, Sidney Howard’s They Knew What They Wanted. In his account of the Pulitzer Prize plays, John L. Toohey indicates that Bennett continued his policy of eccentricity. Percy Hammond had praised him as the finest actor in the Western Hemisphere, but Bennett wrote to him to complain about his review. He concluded the letter by saying, “I do not doubt you think me a great actor, but I wish that hereafter you would, if possible, abstain from saying so.”11
O’Neill was interested in realism in drama, and when he wrote plays with African American characters, he wanted to have the roles played by African American actors, which was almost unheard of in the early part of the century. Although he had played the “mulatto”character in Thirst (without make-up because of his black hair and deep tan), in succeeding plays he chose to have appropriate actors playing the demanding roles he had written. In 1919 the Provincetown Players presented O’Neill’s The Dreamy Kid, a one-act play set in Harlem. This featured an “all-Negro”cast and was the most successful play of their fall season. In his 1921 review of the Provincetown Players’ The Emperor Jones, Heywood Broun noted that if O’Neill had taken his play to another company, “we have little doubt that the manager would engage a white man with a piece of burnt cork to play Brutus Jones. They have done better in Macdougal Street. The emperor is played by a negro actor named Charles S. Gilpin who gives the most thrilling performance we have seen anywhere this season.”
Emperor Jones was presented in New York with Gilpin in the
extraordinary leading role. Legends and anecdotes about him give the
picture of a man with limited experience who was hired by some members of
the Provincetown Players between floors in the elevator he was operating
in Harlem. In fact, Gilpin was a thorough professional with experience in
film and onstage. His extensive career is described by Erroll Hill in The
Cambridge Guide to World
Born in 1879, Gilpin took part in amateur productions in school, then left at the age of fourteen to tour with a Canadian minstrel show. He then joined the well-known Pekin Theatre in Chicago, then moved on to the Lafayette Theatre in New York. He starred in some silent films, described then as “colored cast pictures.” He also made phonograph records that were popular because of his rich, melodious voice. Like many other actors past and present, when he had no role he worked at other jobs. He was a barber, a printer, a porter, and an elevator man. In 1917 he was part of a performance that drew great attention. The white writer Ridgely Torrence wrote three plays that were given by the Coloured Players at Madison Square Garden. These were directed by Robert Edmond Jones, who was a central figure in the Provincetown Players. When John Drinkwater’s play Abraham Lincoln was to be presented on Broadway, the unusual decision was made to cast a black actor in the role of a former slave, based on Frederick Douglass.12 Because of his fine work at the Lafayette Theatre, Gilpin was cast in the role. He played it for the entire run in 1919. It was a popular and successful play that lost the Pulitzer Prize to O’Neill’s Beyond the Horizon. Given his success and visibility at the Lafayette Theatre and in Abraham Lincoln, Gilpin was the logical choice for the lead in The Emperor Jones. In the many different accounts of the Provincetown Players, various members claim credit for having decided to cast him.
role is incredibly demanding. The actor is onstage almost all the time,
and much of the play is a soliloquy. The actor must run, shout, crawl on
the stage, and engage in other physical activities. An aspect the audience
does not think of is the number of costume changes required for Brutus
Jones. He starts out in a very grand costume with gold braid and patent
leather boots with spurs. As he tries to escape the natives who are in
revolt against him, the costume gets more and more torn so that at the end
he is in little more than a loin cloth. The difficulty for the actor was
to run offstage with a dramatic line, then get the costume changed and
make his next entrance without pauses, which would break the rhythm and
excitement of the play. In some moments he was offstage saying lines while
someone helped him take off the clothes and put on more distressed ones.
All in all, the actor playing the role has to have physical strength, an
ability to maintain the moods within the scenes, and an excellent,
well-trained voice. At the age of forty-one, Gilpin had all of those
qualities. One critic noted that it would be possible to put on any one of
the hit Broadway shows with another actor in the lead, but that it would
be impossible to perform this play without Gilpin.
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