The Unauthorized Afterlife of Eugene O'Neill
Cady opened his performance by quoting O'Neill's famous last words: "Born in a hotel room, and God damn it, died in a hotel room." Immediately, Cady's dynamic movement reminded me of Lily Tomlin's The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe on Broadwaythe way he filled the whole space with his compact body like a meteor or northern lights streaking across a night sky. He convinced us that O'Neill had risen from the grave to remind us who he was and why he wrote his long tragic dirges, and maybe to settle a few old scores. Alienated from home and family all his life, O'Neill sought comfort in his imagination first as a poet and then as playwright.
Early in the performance, Cady's O'Neill stripped away the fourth wall to ask for house lights. He asks how many of us (hands up) knew who he was. When the lights went down, the wall returns dislodged a bit, leaving us pondering the disjuncture between the man and the mask, reality and facade. What had the playwright returned from the dead to tell us that we don't know from his plays? Did he crave our collective consolation for his life-long pain and disappointment with his family? Was he fated to write only tragedy, except for his one comedy, Ah Wilderness!, where he imagined a happy childhood?
Cady's O'Neill boasted that he created the new American theater with unfinished endings true to life in place of the old theater that fed them a false "mirror happiness." He didn't want to tie up his plays into neat packages the audience would forget five minutes after they left the theater. He also bragged that he once had six plays on New York stages, more than Williams and Miller combined. His Nobel and his Pulitzers mattered little compared to his on-going afterlife obsession with his cursed family, whom we know as the fictional Tyrones in A Long Day's Journey into Night.
O'Neill's father wasted his artistic gifts playing the ludicrous Count of Monte Cristo for money and acclaim most of his life instead of taking on more challenging classic roles. On his deathbed he had Eugene promise never to sell out, and the son believed he never did. His mother, a morphine addict, never gave him the love he craved. His brother Jamie, an alcoholic, deserted him by committing suicide. Eugene was shipped off to a tuberculosis sanatorium by his father who expected him to die young. He survived to pass on his own bad family karma to three wives and three children. His two sons committed suicide, and he disowned his daughter Oona for marrying "that clown Charlie Chaplin."
Bringing Cady's narrative of O'Neill full circle, he imagined a heavenly "happy childhood" dinner table with home-cooked roast, potatoes, and apple pie. His father announced he's quitting playing The Count and taking on King Lear. His loving and solicitous mother urged him to eat. But Cady's O'Neill pushed away from this false table. Too late for him to have a happy childhood. In truth, he needed not happiness, according to Cady, but the torture of his family.
Cady created a whimsical fantasy with O'Neill frolicking with "Minnie the Mermaid," a character in one of his favorite honky-tonk bar songs. The fantasy allowed Cady to lighten up the somber tone with a bit of song and dance. How ironic to have his fantasy female be not human but hybrid and sexless.
Many colleagues helped Cady create his premiere. Brian Hansen directed it. John Meade, as dramaturge, researched everything by and about O'Neill. Thomas DeMele composed original music. Zane Barker designed lighting, Linda Lopez McAlister sound, Judi Buehler costumes. Meyers Goodwin was technical director and Robin Cady sound technician. Donna Marie Barra was the producer and Marcelle Garfield Cady associate producer.
The Unauthorized Afterlife of Eugene O'Neill, was written by Jim Cady and performed on April 16, 2011, at the North 4th Art Center, 4904 Fourth Street NW, Albuquerque. It will be performed at 7pm, Wednesday May 25, at Warehouse 21 in Santa Fe.
Photo: Michael L. Miller