T.J. English on Why We Celebrate O’Neill

TJ English

Interlude II: T.J. English introduced by Malachy McCourt.
Irish American Writers and Artists celebrating the Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award
in Honor of William Kennedy, October 16, 2009.

Eugene O’Neill. Boy, it’s a very daunting assignment to be at this microphone saying a few words about O’Neill with Gabriel Byrne in the room and the Gelbs sitting in the front row, so I’ll be brief…I won’t even go into a dissertation on O’Neill and his work and his life because you can’t do it in 3-5 minutes. I won’t talk about the four Pulitzers, the Nobel Prize. I won’t talk about the biography, a lifetime of a considerable amount of personal hardship: alcohol issues, suicides…ending with a debilitating illness. The accomplishments of O’Neill are so vast and cast such a huge shadow across anyone who sets out to have a life as an artist in the United States of America, really. I know for me, my introduction to O’Neill, I was probably about 17 or 18 years old, and I saw the film version of The Iceman Cometh, the one with Lee Marvin in it. And I was watching the scene in the movie, there is a very memorable scene in the movie, where the barfly in the bar where everyone gathers has come in to get drunk as he does every night; and the main character, Hickey, played by Lee Marvin, is determined that he’s going to engage in an act of charity and stop the drunk from destroying himself and killing himself with alcohol. And so he sets out to do that. But events and other people in the bar conspire against him, and then ultimately the old coot has his shot of whiskey, as he does every night.

And I was watching this scene unfold as a 17-year-old kid, and I noticed my ears were getting red with embarrassment. And I looked around the theater to see if anyone else had noticed, and I thought to myself, “He’s telling the family secrets. O’Neill is giving away the family secrets.” And I think I was responding of course there as an Irish-American and having some sense and feel for what was being detailed in that particular scene. And I felt a kind of embarrassment and even, you might say, shame. And I was affected by the work profoundly and left the theater and went on with my life and felt that O’Neill meant that forever after that I would experience some level of embarrassment and shame when I saw O’Neill because of what he was revealing about the Irish-American experience.