The Playgoer: O'Neill on PBS

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Monday, March 27, 2006

O'Neill on PBS

Tonight on most PBS stations is the premiere of the new "American Experience" bio of O'Neill.

I've been mighty disappointed in the obvious dumbing-down and sentimentalizing of recent AE shows on Fitzgerald and Hemmingway. So I'm afraid I expect the same.

Then again, it's by Ric (Ken's brother) Burns. Plus interviews/footage of Robards and Pacino. So there should be someworthwhile viewing in this two-hour condensation.

One not-encouraging sign, though, is this already hackneyed statement by Ken's-brother (sorry, Ric!):

"There was no American theater before Eugene O'Neill. American culture itself was of fairly recent provenance by the early 20th century. American theater was bowdlerlized Shakespeare, comedies of manners borrowed from Europe, and distinctly terrible American melodramas."
That's fine for an "American Theatre for Idiots" volume. But I would have hoped PBS would provide more nuance.

9 comments:

damien said...

There's actually a lot of good stuff in the documentary, Playgoer--it's almost worth seeing just for what a taste of Christopher Plummer's James Tyrone would be like (fantastic) and what Al Pacino's Hickey would be like (fantastically weird). Some very smart takes on Long Day's Journey and Iceman Cometh from both the commentators and the actors, but you do have to wade through about 15-20 dreary minutes at the beginning during which it feels like it's never going to get up off of its haunches and start.

I saw this because I rented it; it's been on DVD for a week, with many extras. I will be very curious to know what you think. I read Jonathan Kalb's Times piece this morning (I guess he's the official Man From Outside The Times for anything involving the Gelbs) and he seemed to want to revive what feels to me like a pretty dusty Mary McCarthy-era debate about whether O'Neill was a good writer or not; to paraphrase Louis Armstrong, "if you have to ask, you'll never know". Maybe it's time to say that, at least as far as Long Day's Journey Into Night is concerned, the verdict is in.

George Hunka said...

The first hour of the documentary was pretty standard saint-moulding in the PBS tradition (and completely passed over most of O'Neill's career before Mourning Becomes Electra, even the Provincetown years), but Damien's right about the second hour -- an excellent case made for both Iceman and Long Day's Journey that avoided the trap of sentimentality (except when Tony Kushner suggested that the end of Iceman could be a new start for humanity, though to be fair he also admitted that it could represent humanity's end).

Though for Chrissake I hope Pacino doesn't try Hickey again, he brought his standard trademark twitches. Even Lee Marvin in John Frankenheimer's film was better.

Anonymous said...

I liked Pacino! At least it seemed really felt. The other actors were so damn earnest. The nature shots and sentimental score didn't help. Liam Neeson = most overrated actor in history. Unwatchable, constipation face.

They didn't interview enough people. I wanted to hear Kushner and Guare go on at greater length. And the great Jason Robards, that's all they could get out of him? Brustein = pompous, smug, superior.

Anonymous said...

The documentary also made light of O'Neill's deep debt to psychoanalytic ideas, only invoking psychoanalysis to claim he had an aborted attempt at treatment.

Playgoer, most everyone interviewed in the documentary agreed that before O'Neill, there was no American drama. You objected to this. Enlighten us as to what good American drama existed before O'Neill!

Scott Walters said...

I agree with anonymous -- there really wasn't a serious American theatre before O'Neill. It was melodrama, Shakespeare, and warmed-over continental hits. The only exception that I can think of might be the Little Theatre movement which took place around the country at the same time O'Neill's star was rising, and had enormous artistic potential. Unfortunately, like the current regional theatre, it was too spread out to be covered thoroughly (despite the committed efforts of Theatre Arts Magazine), and got trumped by the more centralized New York theatre scene. But O'Neill was the giant who changed everything.

The Playgoer said...

Well I suppose "theatre for idiots" was a bit too glib to describe the O'Neill-ascendant viewpoint. And I suppose I shouldn't make such a statement without having a specific title or two at the ready of an equally "great" American playwright pre-1920.

But it seems to me the academy has been very actively, of late, questioning the exceptional status of O'Neill. Surely, all playwrights and audiences pre-1920 couldn't have been incompetent, or just "settling." A lot of important work has been done in the last twenty years recovering Melodrama, for instance, as a quite viable and vibrant form, despite the current associations of excess as handed down in distorted and hackneyed forms. There is serious interest now among scholars and practitioners in the work of Boucicault, for instance, who was a major, major force. A great poet? No way! But I would call him the Spielberg of the 19th century stage. (Plus one of its main leading actors.) Now if you bristle at the invocation of Spielberg in a discussion of theatre, then I'm afraid you may have to excuse yourself from objectively assessing the 19th century stage.

Let's also remember that some fine American writers were writing plays, even if their plays didn't succeed. (Henry James, anyone?) Edith Wharon also did her own adaptation of "House of Mirth" with Clyde Fitch. (NY's Mint Theatre recently did it and is staging a benefit reading soon.) I'm also a fan of Fitch's The City for what it's worth. (Which I saw a pretty good production of at the little Metropolitan Company downtown who specilizes in this repertoire.)

Look, you may not like these plays as much as O'Neill and they didn't win Nobel Prizes (then again there were none, then). But it's clear to me that their success was not an accident of history. They *worked* in the theatre of their time. And once you can read past the conevntions of, say, melodrama (or better, learn how to *read* them at all) you discover some surprises in these plays.

Now before you answer that O'Neill is still superior because he's "timeless" and no such "in- its-time" adjustments and allowances have to be made, I must answer...really??? "All God's Chillun'"? Read "Beyond the Horizon" lately? Remember *these* were the plays that won him his prizes, NOT "Iceman" and "Journey" which came at the very end.

In sum, when one thinks as an objective historian (meaning not considering personal opinions of the work), it's clear that O'Neill's achievement was in being the first US playwright *recognized*--in his own time--as an "artist" on a par with Europe's.

It's worth remembering, though, that he achieved this with some pretty now-unwatchable plays!

If you genuinely adore O'Neill's writing, great! You probably won't find anything previous quite like him. But it is part of the enterprise of Theatre History to constantly reeavluate the assessments of the past, and to show how those such opinions are formed more out of the determinants of their time rather than revealing anything about absolute standards of truth, beauty, and art.

George Hunka said...

Such as those absolute standards are, of course ...

One of the major shortcomings of the special was that there was no mention of the way in which these earlier O'Neill texts are being re-examined in the nontraditional theater. Fine to talk with Brustein, and nice to see Robards from beyond the grave, but where were Liz LeCompte and Kate Valk, whose new Emperor Jones has been so highly praised and regarded? Or Ivo van Hove, whose revisionist productions of three O'Neill plays have been seen around the world?

Not sure if the Gelbs, who co-wrote the program with Ric Burns and were such a huge presence (in contrast to Travis Bogard, who only edited the complete works for the Library of America and didn't appear in the program at all), care for that. But I could be wrong.

Scott Walters said...

As an academic myself, I know that it is the constant project of academics to "question the exceptional status" of just about everybody -- that's how we get published. That said, I have to give you credit: I don't think I have ever seen anybody hold Clyde Fitch up as an equal of O'Neill before. Yes, Fitch's work "worked" on stage -- as a critical standard, however, I don't see much value in that position, since it would elevate plays like The Odd Couple to classic status.

I have not only recently read, but seen staged and am even considering a production of "Beyond the Horizon," and it still speaks to young people (it is a young playwright's play) about the danger of trading one's own dreams for practicality. My students have been enthralled with the S. S. Glencairn one-acts, and "The Hairy Ape" as well. That said, I don't think current appreciation is a particularly reliable source of historical importance.

O'Neill changed the face of American theatre, and put American theatre on the map. That remains unchanged, and attention must be paid, as Arthur Miller wrote.

As far as George's and Jonathan Kalb's objection to the absence of Kate Valk and the Wooster Group, the program was about O'Neill hiself, not productions of O'Neill. The actors reading from his work ethically should have been trying to perform it as the playwright might have wanted it performed. I hardly think that O'Neill had in mind the Wooster Group's deconstruction, as interesting as it is.

The Playgoer said...

Scott, Scott, Scott...

Let's be fair. I in no way offer Clyde Fitch as an "equal of O'Neill." I challenge anyone to find that meaning in my comment. I was only taking on the stated assumption of the PBS show that there was NO drama of worth pre-O'Neill. And I think that one Fitch play, at least, has worth.

I also very clearly was trying to, for a moment, steer the subject off who are the "greatest" (i.e. our personal favorite) playwrights and look at who has historical importance. In that context, believe it or not, YES even Neil Simon will have to be paid attention to by future generations.

Simply put, we cannot fall into assumption that US audiences pre-1920 were yawning through plays groaning "Man, when is O'Neill going to arrive!" They found value in what was around, so I'm interested in what they valued.

Finally, I totally respect your comments on Beyond The Horizon. Michael Kahn made a good case for it, too, in his 70s (80s?) production (aired on PBS). BUT- your very language indicates a rediscovering and unearthing of the play, as well as making exuses for it ("a young playwright"). These are valid. But it just reminds us how often we have to make excuses for all these old "creaky" plays, and that maybe O'Neill's predecessors would start to look good, too, if we devoted a similar labor of love to them?