“Long Day’s Journey Into Night” director Donald Hicken talks the compassionate, misunderstood mind of Eugene O’Neill

Eugene O’Neill. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

A lot of liquor disappears in American playwright Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical reckoning and Everyman Theatre’s next production, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”—the New York Times succinctly diagnosed the play as “a tempest in a bourbon bottle.” The drinking begins just before lunch at the summer home of the Tyrone family in 1912 and continues throughout this ordinary day, the ferocious, looping arch of which makes up the entirety of the play, hence the title. It’s an obvious vice for James Tyrone Sr. and his two adult sons (the youngest of which is based on O’Neill himself), while their mother turns to morphine. Something to get through the throws of their mutual resentment, their collective inability to sever their present and future from their past. To direct the company’s first-ever production of an O’Neill play, Everyman tapped Donald Hicken, who retired from his 36-year-long tenure at the Baltimore School for the Arts in 2016 and more recently directed Everyman’s productions of John Patrick Shanley’s “Outside Mullingar” and Frederick Knott’s “Wait Until Dark.” I sat down with the director to discuss the play and the life of its author, whom Hicken describes as “the first great American playwright in the modern era.”

Baltimore Beat: Can you tell me more about the background of the play? I understand it was published posthumously, and premiered a few years after his death in 1953.

Donald Hicken: He requested it not be published until 25 years after his death because he wanted to make sure everyone who was named or implied was long gone. I think that was partly why he wanted to protect it, but also partly he didn’t want to have to throw open all the closets and pull out all the skeletons. He said it was written in tears and blood. His wife at the time describes him writing it and hearing the sobs coming from the room where he was writing it. It was really hard for him to write, and he wrote “A Moon for the Misbegotten” after this to kind of purge that demon, to forgive his brother, who died of alcoholism. He was already a very successful playwright, he was a Pulitzer prize-winning, Nobel prize-winning playwright. So he was extremely successful and he was also suffering from what was thought to be Parkinsons disease but turned out not to be; it was a much more rare neurological phenomenon. He was losing his ability to write, and he could never use a typewriter, he could never dictate. He wrote everything in pencil. He got to the point where the tremor was so bad that in order to keep writing he had to write so small that one needed a magnifying glass to transcribe it. He knew he was losing the ability to write. He knew he had to get this play written.

He needed to forgive and understand his life from the standpoint of his family. So he goes inside this family in a way that is extremely meaningful for anyone, for all of us who’ve been in families. I think that Carlotta, his widow’s decision to publish it—she maintains that he told her she could if she had to. We have no way of knowing if that’s true or not. Bennett Cerf at Random House was in favor of respecting his wishes and not publishing it, but I think then there was sort of compromise like, well, it’ll be published but not performed. In fact the first production was done in Sweden, it wasn’t even done in this country, it was done in translation first. They tried to protect it from being produced even though it had been published. And once it was published it was a big sensation, I mean people saw how brilliantly written it was. And it’s sorta become known as his greatest play, partly because I think some of the other plays are a little misunderstood.

BB: How so?

DH: I think we’re kinda in the same place with O’Neill that the 18th century was with Shakespeare. They found Shakespeare too sad, so they changed the endings, like Romeo arrives in time and Juliette wakes up and they live happily every after, and that’s kinda the way they thought it should be. They didn’t understand tragedy in that way. I think we’re that same way with O’Neill because we don’t think of it as anything wrong with greed—what’s wrong with greed, what’s wrong with being successful? There’s no cost. And if you say there is it comes across as melodrama, sentimental. I think we think of O’Neill as maybe overly sentimental. Because he believes in compassion and empathy.

BB: You used the word “groundbreaking” to describe the play, how do you mean exactly?

DH: He wanted to break the mold of 19th century Romanticism and start to tell a new kind of truth in a new way. And he was inspired by Ibsen and Strindberg, maybe to a lesser extent by Shaw. And these were playwrights who were eschewing verse and Romantic circumstance and settings and starting to tell stories of real people in real life situations. He was fascinated by the growth of industrial America and what it was doing to what he considered to be the soul of America. He saw America being consumed by materialism, losing its soul to greed. The greed and criminal activity were rewarded whereas sensitivity and compassion and empathy and those kinds of things were trampled.

I don’t think anyone in America was writing like this. Both Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller credit O’Neill with showing them a new way of writing for the theater. They basically credit him with being the first to kind of break the mold. Up until then everyone was writing sort of heroic, romantic epics about valiant noblemen and damsels in distress. And he was interested in topics, kinda post-Freudian topics of psychological and emotional dimension. He saw people as duplistic, wearing masks. In a number of his plays he actually uses masks; people would put on a mask and behave a certain way, take the mask off and we hear their real thoughts, their real feelings. I think for contemporary audiences that’s all seen as kind of cheap trick. So I don’t know whether we’ll ever get back around to it, but we might.

The groundbreaking part of it really was the fact that he talked about things that nobody else [was talking about]. A lot of his plays were banned. Productions were stopped because of language that he used. In “The Iceman Cometh” he had prostitutes depicted onstage. Police shut that production down in Chicago. And he also insisted in “The Emperor Jones” that the lead character be played by an actor of color. The producers said, “No, you don’t want to do that, you want to have a white guy in blackface.” Because that was the tradition, if people of color were depicted onstage it was a white person in blackface. And he said he wasn’t having blackface, he wanted an actual black person to play the role. And he actually went out and found a guy who was an elevator operator who worked around in community theater and stuff and had been active in Harlem Renaissance sort of stuff, and he got him to play it. The play was an enormous success; the guy became kind of an overnight sensation. It was running performance after performance, it was getting increasingly more accolades and it kinda went to his head and he started drinking and celebrating and had a couple performances where he was too drunk to go on, and they needed to replace him. The producers basically said, “We told you so, you should’ve had a guy in blackface.” And O’Neill instead of saying, “you were right and I was wrong” and doing that, he went off and found another actor of color, he insisted, and the second actor happened to be Paul Robeson. So it was really the beginning of Robeson’s career. [O’Neill] was groundbreaking in a number of ways, in terms of his insistence on a certain integrity in the work—and the kind of subject matter he was working with.

Donald Hicken (left) directing Everyman Theatre Resident Company members Deborah Hazlett and Danny Gavigan in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” /Photo by Jared Earley, courtesy Everyman Theatre.

BB: Booze was a major force in O’Neill’s life and plays a major role in “Long Day’s Journey.” Can you tell me more about his handling of addiction in the play?

DH: Well you know he was an alcoholic and he drank off and on all of his life. He went through long periods of sobriety but he also relapsed a number of times. In the household, even though they consume a tremendous amount of booze over the course of the day, I think that the presence of alcohol in the house was not a big deal from O’Neill’s perspective and I think that while he acknowledged, at the time this play was written his brother was drinking himself to death. And he knew it. O’Neill was sober when he was writing this play and I think he understood the importance of remaining sober, but I don’t think he felt that at the time in 1912, in this household, this Irish Catholic family, the presence of alcohol in this house was not a particularly big deal. His mother’s addiction to morphine was the great shame because as they’d say, “only whores took dope.” Now I do think that O’Neill, by the time he wrote this play, had come to an understanding of the terrible toll all that drinking took on his brother because it was in the process of killing him, and on his father who didn’t die of it but certainly didn’t help him. But it was at a day before AA. There weren’t really any reasonable treatment programs. They put you in a sanitorium and not allow you to have any and that was it, very little sort of therapeutic, no 12-step, there was very little therapeutic process that had been identified at that point that was having any degree of success; they were basically drying people out and then releasing them back out into the world. So the extent to which people went right back to drinking was pretty substantial. And as I said, O’Neill went back and forth a lot in his life. Usually when he would get around his old friends. And there were some times in his life when he came close to dying from drinking bad stuff. And he did have one suicide attempt when he was a young man.

BB: What can you tell me about your approach to this production?

DH: I’ve had a history with the play; I’ve worked on or been associated with two other productions. So I have a great deal of respect for the play. My approach I suppose would be described as traditional in the sense that I’m not trying to do anything conceptually unusual with it. The setting is based on the actual home. It’s not a realistic depiction of the home; it’s kind of fragmented, a way of illustrating the fragmented nature—and it really isn’t a home. It doesn’t feel cozy. It feels kind of porous and disconnected. There’s a dominant staircase to where the spare room is where [the mother] goes to use. I don’t know whether it’s symbolic necessarily but it is, to me, appropriate. But in terms of the costumes and the setting and the sound design and all of the production elements, they’re pretty faithful to the play as written. O’Neill is famous for writing these long, long stage directions. The italics in this play is almost as long as the play itself. You kind of have to take that with a grain of salt; I mean he goes into very specific character descriptions and very specific descriptions of each moment—because he lived it. We pretty much ignore those. Some of the actors have actually crossed them out in their scripts so they’re not tempted to read them. I don’t believe we’ve ignored them in spirit but I believe we’ve ignored them in terms of what they dictate.

BB: What do you think this play says to an audience today?

DH: I think it says that love is a rigorous process, that love requires vigilant service to other beings, and it’s not an easy road. I think at the center of this, there’s this triangle, these three men, a husband and two sons who love this woman so deeply that even with everything that happens in the course of this day, they remain a family. And that’s because of that bond, that inexorable, inextinguishable bond. I think of it as kind of a love story, or a story about love. And addiction and history and all of that kind of stuff, those are obstacles that need to be overcome or need to be dealt with, and I think they try as hard as they can to deal with it, each in their own way—and not very successfully. But nobody leaves at the end. Nobody runs away; everyone’s there at the very end. So I think it says something about the resilience of people and families. I mean I know a lot of families get torn apart by addiction; that happens all the time. But I think this is a family that—hard to say they survive, but they go on.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Long Day’s Journey Into Night” opens at Everyman Theatre on Jan. 31. For more information, visit everymantheatre.org.

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