Drowning in the Sorrow of Eugene O’Neill
For years, we had produced work for the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Through the auspices of PR Director Mike Krawczyk, and his successor, Richard Bryant, we had shot all their publicity images, produced slide shows, and even wrote and produced their public service announcements.
In the summer of 1977, we were offered a plum project — to produce a thirty-minute documentary to air on local PBS stations that would support the Rep’s groundbreaking production in repertory of two Eugene O’Neill plays — “Ah, Wilderness”, and “Long Day’s Journey into Night”.
The concept of Artistic Director John Dillon was brilliant: demonstrate the parallels between these two plays — one happy, one sad — by using actors to double similar parts in each of the plays. Thus, the stable father figure in “Wilderness” would be played by the same actor who would portray the failed father figure in “Journey”, perhaps showing the maturing of O’Neill’s vision.
Our job was to provide background on O’Neill, reveal the acting process, and help point out some of those parallels.
As importantly, it would provide public exposure to our more artistic efforts, and help display our capabilities in the new “video” field. To that end, we had added video staff people with knowledge of color bars and IRE levels and the ilk.
The project was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and this provided the Rep with funding for many aspects of the production, including the video. We got a decent budget. Because of the all-encompassing nature of the project — videography on call, continuous project management — we hired a project coordinator (who would stay with us for many years after the project), Mary Bryant. We also chose to appoint our official staff “video producer” to be the project’s Producer/Director.
Bad idea.. not the guy’s fault, but he wasn’t someone mired in content. What he did know was pedestal levels, zoom lenses, light candles, and white balance. Scary stuff for a client looking for a relatively “pure” documentary.
Late in the summer of ’77, after a month or so into the project (with a delivery date of December 1), the rep’s Managing Director, Sara O’Conner, invited me to lunch. This was a first — I had little contact with Sara. John Dillon may have had the vision for the project, but Sara had made it happen with the funding.
She told me in no uncertain terms that they had hired me, not the other producer, and that if we wanted to continue on the project I had better get involved quickly. This wasn’t part of our company’s management plan — the three owners did most of the “breadwinning”, turning projects over to staff producers. But my ego clearly saw her point. As the firm’s “Creative Director”, I was flattered. I would get to be a full-time “creative”.
I sold my partners on the reality of the situation. They deferred to my judgment (and to the threat of a lost income stream); we broke the news to our video guy; I grew a beard.
I wanted to fit in with the theater crowd, and I always wanted to look more creative (I had the midwest “aw, shucks” approach down pat, despite being born in New York.) So I began to adopt the look.
The rep’s initial idea for the documentary was to interview lots of academic experts — and in O’Neill-land, there are many — and they deserve the mantle. Years after his death, O’Neill seems to be one of the most well documented, in picture and word, artists of the twentieth century. There were two well known biographers, and they didn’t see eye to eye. There was another biographer who specialized in O’Neill’s later years. There were academic experts.
Some of these folks showed up for a round table discussion, held in our studios, taped for the documentary. This was the first tape we ever rolled — hours and hours of it. We never used a second of it. The first decision I made creatively after that session was that talking heads would not be a feature of our tape.
What did interest me was a proposed trip the actors would take to New London, Connecticut. O’Neill spent his boyhood here (he was born in a hotel in New York City), and many of his plays were set in the boyhood home the actors would visit.
The home was called the “Monte Cristo Cottage” — named after the play O’Neill’s actor father often took on tour (an “MC” is carved into the banister in the home’s hallway, ostensibly by a bitter Eugene.)
With a video crew, the four main actors, and other personnel from the rep, we flew to New York and drove to New London, a seaside town two hours north of New York.
We stayed in a very rundown hotel in downtown New London, a city that at the time was just beginning to entertain thoughts of redevelopment.
We made many of these trips — adding footage and interviews (okay, there were talking heads, but these were of people that actually knew O’Neill. Mrs. Fones knew Eugene — she lived 2 houses away, and she chronicled Eugene’s romantic infatuations for us).
Each trip was hosted by the curator of the O’Neill home. The structure had been named a national historic place, and would soon be turned into a museum. Sally, the curator, was a devoted and gracious host, helping us land interviews with key people, and giving us a run of the place (and for that matter — the town. She was very well connected.)
The next three months were pivotal for me in a lot of ways. For one thing, I love theater and theater people. Directing actors is something I rarely got to do, but they never disappoint, In this case, actors roaming through the basis for the sets on which their plays would be staged was an incredible video opportunity and each of them was brilliant.
Robert Burr, the father figure, Anthony Heald, the O’Neill figure, Ron Frazier, O’Neill’s older brother (Uncle Sid in “Wilderness”), and Regina David were all wide-eyed and glib in their observations of the O’Neill home.
They were fun, too.
And that leads to the crux of the matter — I took this job very, very personally. It shows in the final tape, and I wanted it that way. Not overtly, but in many ways, I needed the tape to be every bit an artistic expression as that of the director or actors or author of the plays. And that was easy since I felt we — I and O’Neill — had something in common.
For one thing, there was alcohol. O’Neill’s plays — “Journey” for example, or “The Iceman Cometh (“You’ve done something to the Booze, Hickey!”) revolve around alcohol, in particular its effects as a tongue loosening agent, and its ability to provoke bravado and promises, which often can not be kept.
I’m an alcoholic — and I no longer drink. But at the time of O’Neill, it was a key part of who I was, and alcohol became — for some of us on those New London trips — a bond, easily excused because “Gene would have wanted it that way”. (I later found out Eugene had given up the booze later in life. Too Late.)
There was also the dysfunctional family syndrome — painfully detailed in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”, a play O’Neill did not want to be published in his lifetime (It was written in 1940, and published in 1956.) O’Neill’s father was an absentee father, his brother a drunk, his mother, a morphine addict. There were similar skeletons in my closet. . O’Neill had me hooked.
There were many bright and sober moments: interviewing O’Neill biographer Louis Schaeffer, photo research at the Yale Library in New Haven, and document research in New York. But much of the three months’ time was spent imitating the O’Neill lifestyle, and it took its toll. Getting through that period was tough. I revisited my roots often — visits to relatives in Norwalk, Connecticut on the company dime and time; stops to my boyhood home in New Jersey trying to rekindle old friendships, and constant ingestion of Jack Daniels and New Jersey pizza (or whatever passes for pizza in Milwaukee). Finally, I got off the self-indulgence wagon, and with the help of Mary Bryant, Rob Riordan (who shot some brilliant footage in New London and Milwaukee), Bob Marx (who did the final editing), Ric, Linda, and, ultimately, my dear friend “deadline panic”, we finished the job.
I’ve never been disappointed by the results — they were the results of creative chaos, and I think we did what the rep wanted, and what I had hoped to accomplish creatively as well. But there are technical rough edges that could have been better had I spent more time planning. After all, I didn’t know white balance from black levels, and what we added creatively, we were missing technically.
We had a big party the night it ran on TV. The actors were there. The Rep staff was there. But some of my coworkers were not. While I had been playing creative cool guy, they had been doing filmstrips on drop forges keeping the money rolling in. Friday morning, my business partners confronted me.
“Are you in, or are you out?”
My ego was such I had no idea what they were talking about. But I played along. I was in. O’Neill was a once-in-a-lifetime affair for this kid in Wisconsin, I told them. My penance was to handle a bunch of tool and die filmstrips.
That’ll sober you up.
By the spring of 1978, I shaved my beard. In 1985 I got sober. Now, if I could just give up pizza….