Eugene O’Neill: A Documentary Film

"Before O’Neill, there was no American theatre," the playwright John Guare asserts in Eugene O’Neill: A Documentary Film and Guare is someone who ought to know, being one of a legion of the playwright’s creative theatrical descendants.

Guare’s comments, along with those of other theatrical luminaries, give life to this overwrought documentary by filmmaker Ric Burns. Burns’ academic approach results in a wooden exposition, but the sheer facts of O’Neill’s tragic life make it a harrowing and ultimately fascinating portrait of an elusive American original.

Tony award winning director Lloyd Richard says O’Neill "writes to the exclusion of having a life." Poetic observation, but all through O’Neill’s haunted existence–his troubled marriages, personal demons and tortured past–he conquered Broadway with his singular vision. Twenty-one of his plays were produced; he won an unprecedented four Pulitzer Prizes and landed on the cover of Time.

Television viewers who know nothing about the great American dramatist will get a textbook reading in this new PBS documentary on the American Experience series. With painstaking care, Burns has reconstructed the tragic events of O’Neill’s life with letters, remembrances and, in rare instances, archival film footage of the great playwright.

Burns, brother of prolific PBS documentarian Ken Burns, constructs his film in similar style to his brother’spopular surveys Baseball, Civil War and Jazz, full of talking heads and long pans of grainy still photographs, snatches of archival film, stock atmospheric footage. The great theater actor Christopher Plummer’s monotonously grave narration doesn’t help the long-winded prose by Burns, co-scripted by O’Neill biographers Arthur and Barbara Gelb, who also appear in filmed interviews.

A statement by the Gelbs that O’Neill was "born with something dead inside him" is certainly dramatic, but says nothing about the flesh and blood man. In dissecting the complexities of O’Neill’s character, the writers are so heavy handed that it sounds like a dated psychoanalytic case file.

O’Neill was born in a hotel room in 1888. His father forfeited a promising career as a Shakespearean actor in the mold of Edmund Booth, "barnstorming" across America starring as The Count of Monte Crisco. He was successful, but trapped in the role so that audiences wouldn’t accept him in anything else.

The fascinating events of O’Neill’s life do take hold and carry the film. The playwright’s rebellious spirit, his tortured home life witnessing his parents’ bad marriage, his first quick marriage and his youthful bender in Mexico that eventually landed him in a derelict hotel in South America is ripe material for any documentary.

The text narration often verges on purple prose such as when O’Neill finds out his mother used drugs when he was a youth: "In the summer of 1903 his father and brother..are forced to reveal the full truth of her condition. The impact of the revelation was cataclysmic, shattering what remained of his religious beliefs and unleashing in a blow all the bleak phantoms of his childhood along with a tidal wave of conflict within the family." Whew. All that. What might make perfect contextual sense on the page comes over as overreaching in a film.

In contrast, playwright Tony Kushner manages to enliven O’Neill’s life into a real life backstage drama by describing the theatrical literary environment O’Neill created in terms that are far more illuminating. He describes O’Neill’s family struggles as his "arena of contestation" and suggests this engagement as the "mandate of all artists." "He was going to work in the theater," Kushner says, ‘because that is where he did battle with his father and those ghosts."

Of O’Neill’s legendary slide onto New York’s skid row before his major success, Kushner observes, "That bar…is so profoundly important in O’Neill’s life. That’s where he arrives at his own O’Neillean moment. Thank God for American theater and for world literature." Kushner deftly adds "He filled a cultural space. O’Neill came along when we needed a great playwright. It was a created persona as well. He was an actor’s son and he really knew how to look haunted and driven." O’Neill broke down the "shallow commercial conventions of Broadway and created an entirely new kind of American drama." Burns parallels the drama in O’Neill’s life offstage and shows the toll it took on his personal life.

Burns filmed what seem like impromptu readings by some great American actors offering scenes from O’Neill’s great plays that illuminate the events, emotions and people in the writer’s life. Al Pacino, Zoe Caldwell, Robert Sean Leonard, and Liam Neeson read scenes with varying success. It is jarring to take O’Neill’s scenes and characters out of context; at best it’s like hearing a fragment of a symphony, but mostly it can just sound like an audition at the Actor’s Studio. Pacino, trussed up in period suspenders, manages to make one of O’Neill’s more autobiographical characters sound like an outtake from Dog Day Afternoon. Even Caldwell, a theater veteran, doesn’t fair much better. In contrast, a snippet of a filmed scene of Vanessa Redgrave from the 2003 Tony Award winning revival of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, briefly reveals the roaring power of O’Neill’s characters and dialogue.

It’s great to hear the late Jason Robards, one of the best O’Neill interpreters, comment on O’Neill’s plays and recount the legendary night of his opening of A Long Day’s Journey Into Night on Broadway in 1956. Robards was committed to keeping new productions of O’Neill’s plays alive and understood the importance of O’Neill’s theatrical world for actors, directors and audiences.

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Philadelphia, PA
Lewis Whittington writes about the performing and film arts for many publications. He is a renegade dance, theater and opera queen, a jazz-head and a civil activist.