As a child of the 1980s, there is apparently some cosmic law which requires that I be a fan of that cinematic maestro of teen-angst, John Hughes. And though I could never have articulated it at the time, when I first saw what is arguably Hughes’ masterpiece—The Breakfast Club—it was an important landmark on a long life’s journey which not only led to a love of intimate, complicated drama, but the particular form of that genre mastered by a man far too gloomy for even a teen-angst movie, Eugene Gladstone O’Neill.
What remains startling about The Breakfast Club is that it is a successful, compelling and entertaining film, the vast majority of which takes place in a single room. No car crashes, no bullets, no vampires. Five characters trapped in a room. Throw in family conflict and copious amounts of alcohol, and you’ve pretty much got the same ingredients to O’Neill’s acknowledged masterpiece: Long Day’s Journey into Night. Four members of the human race (Irish Catholic strain), bound by the sturdy and oppressive bonds of family, bonds which can support but also strangle. Trapped in a house, they, too, are forced to confront their inner demons because all they can do is talk, because talking to them is breathing; if they stop they might die. And yet, it is this very talk which sets them on a course which will reveal secrets and expose grudges which may not kill them, but instead wound them so severely that death might actually seem preferable.
Long Day’s Journey—and much of O’Neill’s oeuvre—should never be confused with Hollywood fare. But what stands out for many of the O’Neill plays I love—separate from O’Neill’s more uneven, experimental work—is their accessibility and simplicity. For all the complicated language and themes and historical references and political allusions, there is an obsession with talk, with language and with humanity—its desperate search for connection and camaraderie, and the sometimes horrendous damage we do to each other in our pursuit of that connection. Long Day’s Journey may well be O’Neill’s towering achievement. It is so Irish and so Catholic. It illustrates the profound difficulties of assimilation, mocking the notion that there is anything so neat as a first or second generation, an unassimilated and assimilated generation. We learn, instead, that because of religion and homeland and—now that we are in America—money, assimilation is not something with a beginning or an end but instead a never-ending process, a thorny struggle. Many authors before O’Neill and since have worked in a similar vein. They have failed to receive their due partially because a certain sector of the cultural establishment will forever consign such “ethnic” themes to a ghetto. O’Neill was simply so good he was able to break out of that ghetto with his rage and poetry.
But if Long Day’s Journey is the autobiographical masterpiece, I have a more personal love for the messy, sprawling, dazzling Iceman Cometh. If Long Day’s Journey is the offspring of Joyce and Shakespeare, Iceman is haunted by the many-voiced ghost of Whitman. Iceman is an urban play, a melting pot play. If Long Day’s Journey is claustrophobic, Iceman never seems to cease expanding outward, as if The Last Chance Saloon (oh yes he did!) is an entire city block, or neighborhood, or universe. Which, of course, it is. This is no breakfast club. This is purgatory on earth. If any of these folks do have one last chance awaiting them, it’s probably one more than they’ve ever had.
Perhaps most importantly, Iceman’s universe is populated by those in society who are generally looked down upon, if they are ever looked upon at all. Which is understandable, because when O’Neill does compel us to gaze upon the likes of Hickey and Harry Hope and Pat McGloin and Jimmy Tomorrow, and the cops and street walkers and other drunken philosophers who populated The Last Chance Saloon, we see a lot more of ourselves in them then we might be comfortable acknowledging.
Which is what great art always does. It never stops talking to us.