Book Reviews

A Moon for the Misbegotten on the American Stage:
A History of the Major Productions

By Laura Shea

Reviewed by Sarah Boslaugh

Moon For the MisbegottenCritical opinion regarding Eugene O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten, both the play itself and the various productions it has enjoyed, has fluctuated wildly over the years. It's a big work by one of America's great playwrights, but no one would claim that it's perfect. Even the highly successful 2006 London production at the Old Vic got mixed reviews, with both sides encapsulated in a single phrase of Benedict Nightingale's review for the London Times: "both a major triumph and, inevitably, a bit of a failure."

That's pretty much what's it been like for productions of this play, a history traced in A Moon for the Misbegotten on the American Stage: A History of the Major Productions by Laura Shea. Ms. Shea's volume covers the original 1947 production, which never reached Broadway, the 1957 Broadway debut, the 1968 Off-Broadway Debut, and the Broadway revivals of 1973, 1984, 2000 and 2007, and makes brief mention of some regional productions as well.

Moon is a tricky play to bring off, with its potentially uneasy mix of comedy and tragedy, poetry and realism, and plot conventions lifted from melodrama. This makes it a great subject for a production history, however: consistent success and consistent failure are just plain boring. Whatever else you may say about it, the production history of A Moon for the Misbegotten has not been boring.

This play's star-crossed history begins with the original 1947 production by the Theatre Guild. O'Neill's insistence that the director and principal cast members be Irish created casting difficulties, as did his insistence on a physically large actress to play the role of Josie. Unhappy with progress in rehearsals, O'Neill demanded out-of-town tryouts in a series of Midwestern cities.

Once the company hit the road, trouble followed right along. J.M. Kerrigan, who played Jim Hogan, left the production in Pittsburgh and denounced the play as anti-Irish. In Detroit, police censor Charles Snyder refused to allow the production to be opened unless certain words were altered or omitted: among the proposed changes were "louse" for "bastard" and "tart" for "whore." Critical response was mixed rather than uniformly negative, but the Theatre Guild decided to close the production without bringing it to New York.

The New York (and Broadway) premier had to wait until 1957, when Moon ran for 68 performances and again got mixed reviews, with most critics praising the acting more than the play itself. The play got its Off-Broadway debut in 1968, where it ran at Circle in the Square for five and half months, followed by a national tour.

Moon's first Broadway revival, in 1973, began as a summer stock production in Lake Forest, Illinois. It was the most successful of any of the Broadway productions, and is often cited as the definitive version of this work, as well as the production which secured this play's place in the active theatre repertoire. Directed by Jose Quintero and starring Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards, it ran for 313 performances and won three Tonys, for best actress (Dewhurst), best direction (Quintero) and best featured actor (Ed Flanders as Phil Hogan).

The 1984 Broadway revival also began on the road, or in this case over the pond at Riverside Studios in London. The production, starring Frances de la Tour, transferred to London's West End and then to the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Only the director, David Leveaux, followed the play to America, and the Cambridge production was cast with Americans, including Kate Nelligan as Josie and Jerome Kilty as Phil Hogan. Positive reviews in Boston led to a transfer to Broadway, where the critical response was decidedly less positive and the play closed after 40 performances.

The 2000 Broadway production also began in Chicago, where it sold out the Goodman theatre for a month. The transfer to New York was less successful: the production closed after 120 performances, a decision hastened by the fact that it won no major Tony awards. And that brings us to the 2007 Broadway revival, which was yet another transfer, this time of a critically acclaimed London production. Despite ample star power, including Kevin Spacey as Jim Tyrone, the production got mixed reviews (a phrase which must sound like a broken record by now) and ran for only 71 Broadway performances, although it earned a profit for investors.

Shea presents a lot of information in this volume: sometimes too much information which is tangential to the main topic. For instance, it's reasonable to give some background for the Theatre Guild, but five pages worth, most of which does not relate to the play in question, is a bit much. Similarly, devoting an entire chapter to plot summary is questionable: Why would anyone be interested in the production history of a play if they haven't read the play itself? There's also extensive tracing of the sources of the plot and characters, and the lives of their real-life counterparts, which would be more appropriate to a volume whose purpose was to introduce the reader to the play itself rather than to its production history.

Shea also has a disconcerting habit of presenting information in the style of a music video, with lots of rapid cuts between disparate sources and not much in the way of connection. The end result is that the materials sometimes seem thrown together at random, and leads me to the conclusion that this volume would have profited by at least one more round of editing. This is a book you read for the information it contains, and there's no reason not to write it as clearly as possible.

There's a curious oversight in the cover design, which bears a wrap-round photograph of Eve Best and Kevin Spacey enjoying a tender moment in the 2006 production of A Moon for the Misbegotten. But Best and Spacey are not on the American stage: the photograph is from the London production at the Old Vic, where Spacey is the artistic director. Ouch! The Old Vic production did transfer to Broadway, but the irony remains that this book's only color photograph, in fact the only high-quality photograph of any type, portrays a production outside the scope of the title. It also brings attention to another limitation, which is that it should really be called "A History of Broadway Productions" rather than assume that "Major" automatically means "Broadway."

There's no question that Shea presents much valuable information in this book, but at $45 for a paperback of less than 200 pages it's a bit pricey. The meager number of illustrations also limits its usefulness as a production history. It's a worthwhile volume for libraries, however, and students of O'Neill should give it a look, as should people interested in the history of the modern American theatre.

Moon For the MisbegottenA Moon for the Misbegotten on the American Stage: A History of the Major Productions
By Laura Shea
Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008
Softcover, 490 pages
ISBN-10: 0786435631
ISBN-13: 978-07864-3563-0