I’ve been to Ashland for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival several times now. It’s always pretty amazing because it’s consistently world class theater, but one year I went and it just seemed a little bit odd.
Now, I can’t remember if it was trouble getting tickets or what, but of the three plays that I went to, only one was Shakespeare or even Shakespeare themed. That was Antony and Cleopatra. I’d written about this a bit in an earlier post. It was well done and well acted, but the play itself is just kind of a mess. There’s way too many plot points and set changes. Various scenes take place in Rome, Pompey, Alexandria, Syria, Athens, Actium, and various military camps. They literally had a little teleprompter reading out the location of the scene as it took place. It might have made sense as a movie, but as a play, it’s pretty hopeless. The players did as well as they could, but it was just too discordant. This was the first play that I’d ever been to at the OSF where I was even remotely disappointed.
The second play was the Count of Monte Cristo. In the play notes, it said that it was based upon a 19th century version of the play. The book itself is long. It’s probably somewhere over 700 pages. It’s a big old potboiler revenge melodrama.
Although, since it was a play, it was by necessity much condensed, it stayed truthful to the spirit of the novel. It was kind of this almost silly play with big moments of drama, moments of comedy, moments of dramatic reveal, and moments of tense revenge. It was probably the play equivalent to a big budget action hero movie. I felt like getting a barrel of popcorn and a 64 ounce Coke to go along with it.
Like Antony and Cleopatra, it was well done. It was entertaining. It just didn’t seem to have the depth / complexity that you’d normally expect to have of an OSF production. It just seemed like an odd choice for a play for the OSF to stage.
The third and last play that I saw was Long Day’s Journey Into Night, by Eugene O’Neill. I approached this play with some trepidation. It’s four hours long (give or take). There are basically four characters in the play: a father, a mother, and two sons. In the course of those four hours, they fight, make up, discuss trivialities, discuss insecurities, discuss fears. It’s four hours of a family’s conversation. I was afraid that, even though it’s a great classic of a play, that I would find it a little too theater precious or even worse, possibly dull.
Instead, I was transported. The actors brought their characters to life, in all of their tragedies.
The father (James) is a somewhat wealthy man but whose wealth is slowly draining away. He was a famous actor that once appeared on stage with the great Edwin Booth. He was marked early as a young great American actor. However, at a critical point in his career, he gave up the artistic sensibilities of being an actor and landed a role in a very popular play. He then played that role for the next twenty or so years. He became wealthy from it, but in so doing gave up the dream of being the great artist that he could have been. He clearly has regrets over squandering his gift.
The mother (Mary) is emotionally and physically fragile. The rest of the family is both suspicious and solicitous of her. It turns out that she has a history of morphine addiction. She has just recently been discharged from a clinic and she claims to be cured. However, at various points in the play, she has mysterious absences that causes the rest of the family to believe that she is once again using.
The elder son (Jamie) is an alcoholic misfit. James and Mary both disapprove of him yet realize at some level they bear some responsibility for making him the man that he has turned himself into. Jamie both idolizes his father and also hates him for knowing that he can never measure up to him.
The younger son (Edmund) is the sensitive poet that everyone loves and worries about. He has tuberculosis, which Mary refuses to acknowledge. Edmund is effectively the audience’s point of view for the play, as he deals with his own mortality, his mother’s addiction, and his brother’s alcoholism.
It was actually a profoundly moving experience. The final scene, with Mary walking around in a narcotic fog while the rest of the family looks on with despair, was heartrending.
In fact, I was so moved by the play that afterwards, I did a little bit of research on it. From that little bit, I discovered that the play was largely autobiographical. In fact, O’Neill decreed that it should not be played until twenty five years after his death. His wife ignored his wishes and it was played within a year of his death. He received a posthumous Pulitzer prize for it.
He did have a brother named Jamie that was alcoholic. In fact, he drank himself to death. His mother, named Mary, had a opium addiction. Eugene himself did suffer from tuberculosis and was committed to a sanatorium sometime around 1912 or 1913 (the date when the play is set).
His father, James O’Neill, was a career actor. As a young man, he actually did appear on stage with the great American actor, Edwin Booth. He had a great future in front of him but instead of going for artistic greatness, he landed the main role in a very popular play. Over the next several decades, he became synonymous with the play. He played it over 6,000 times. From it, he became wealthy but never again would receive critical acclaim.
Do you think he regretted his choice? Do you think he regretted giving up his dream of possibly becoming the next great actor, possibly even becoming his generation’s Edwin Booth, just so that he could build a house by the sea and live a life of relative ease? Do you think that he might have regretted his marriage and his children, those barriers that might have kept him from achieving greatness?
Those are all interesting questions that came out of my research about a play that asked those very same questions. This is art imitating life imitating art.
And, oh by the way, the play that he was most famous for?
The Count of Monte Motherfucking Cristo.
Yes, that play that I was earlier talking about where I was confused why the OSF would put on such an lightweight overtly box office friendly play was the exact version of the play that James O’Neill played in over 6,000 times.
Nowhere in any of the playbills was this referenced. There’s no way that it was a coincidence. It was just some bizarre Easter egg that the OSF directors put in as some kind of weird inside baseball theater that, for I’m guessing the relative few that figured it out, would blow their minds.
Well, my mind was blown.
Well played, OSF, well played.