Celtic Twilight: 21st-Century Irish Americans on Eugene O’Neill

by Robert M. Dowling, Contributing Editor

Depressing. Bitter. Alcoholic. Pessimistic. Fatalistic. Suicidal. The usual run of adjectives trotted out to describe Eugene O’Neill, the Irish-American recipient of four Pulitzer Prizes and to date the only American dramatist awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. All of it is true, of course, but O’Neill’s legacy offers far more. In the pages of “Celtic Twilight,” we find a wide range of perspectives expressed through original essays, memoirs, poetry, and visual artwork that prodigiously broadens our understanding of America’s greatest playwright. Inspirational (T.C. Boyle, Joan Houlihan, Maureen Howard, Alice McDermott). Empathetic (T.J. English, Julie Kane, Larry Kirwan, Ciarán O’Reilly, Greg Delanty). Joyful (Sean O’Casey). Funny (that’s right, funny—see Brian Dennehy). Great suffering pervades the plays of America’s “master of the misbegotten,” no one’s disputing that; and great suffering can be found throughout the pages of “Celtic Twilight” as well. But O’Neill himself puts the matter most succinctly in his first Pulitzer-Prize winning play Beyond the Horizon, in which his autobiographical character Robert Mayo sums up the guiding conviction of his creator with one simple line: “Only with contact with suffering…will you awaken.”

O’Neill embraced human suffering like an Irishman, as an avenue toward exaltation, and he considered this worldview life-affirming rather than pessimistic. Each theme that emerges over and over in O’Neill’s life and plays—his difficulty becoming a serious writer, his rejection of accepted social institutions and mores, his battles with addiction, his intense empathy for outsiders, his Irishness, the past informing the present and future, among others—are all bound together by this vital credo. The relentless melding of tragedy with rapture one finds throughout his plays might be considered the most revolutionary aspect of his art, perhaps even the most un-American. Like Robert Mayo after him, Stephen Dedalus, the protagonist of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, uses a Latin expression that encapsulates this playwright’s Irish ethos: “per aspera ad astra”—“through difficulties to the stars.”

The germ for this project was planted last December, 2009, after the novelist Peter Quinn suggested I join a new nonprofit called Irish American Writers and Artists (IAW&A). The first gathering I attended was a celebration to honor Colum McCann’s National Book Award for his Tower of Babel of a novel Let the Great World Spin. There I met “Southie” memoirist Michael Patrick MacDonald, our web designer Brian Corrigan, and T.J. English, the journalist and author of The Westies and Paddy Whacked. IAW&A had recently inaugurated a “Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award” (William Kennedy was their first recipient, and Brian Dennehy will be the next), and English told me IAW&A decided their award “had to be named for Eugene O’Neill.” Caught up in the whirl of the evening, I never found out why.

Soon after the release of my two-volume Critical Companion to Eugene O’Neill the previous summer, 2009, Drunken Boat’s founding editor Ravi Shankar, my great friend and colleague at Central Connecticut State University, asked me to put together a folio on the playwright in the 21st century. By December, I still hadn’t come up with an idea. But at the IAW&A event, I got it—Irish American writers and artists discussing the influence of Eugene O’Neill and Irish heritage on American arts and letters, why O’Neill had to be the name to connect with past and future efforts by Irish Americans in all fields of creative endeavor.

The response was overwhelming.

My intent with “Celtic Twilight” is to take a step out of the academic echo-chamber, where I’ve lived for years, and listen to voices unheard from in traditional O’Neill studies. Some of our finest Irish-American writers and artists straight away signed on as contributors—a remarkable array of over 30 poets, playwrights, novelists, historians, actors, journalists, and editors, along with two painters (Tim O’Brien and Michael J. Peery), a rock musician (Black 47’s Larry Kirwan), even a leading neurologist on his remarkable discovery of the actual cause of O’Neill’s death (Bruce H. Price). Imaginative departures were encouraged and, as you’ll see from the work published here, each contributor answered the call with irrepressible gusto; each also importantly reveal how immigrant lives such as O’Neill’s parents’, and many of our own ancestors who arrived much later (no matter their national roots), improve upon and integrate the United States’ cultural fabric rather than pulling it asunder. It has been my great privilege to work with these remarkable minds over the past eight months.

I am also deeply indebted to the hard work and tireless support of Ravi Shankar, outgoing Drunken Boat managing editor Leslie McGrath (also a contributor), her gifted successor Sarah Clark, my two graduate assistants Michael Clark and Erin J. Sullivan, and the astonishing talent (as you can see) of our contributing web designer, IAW&A member Brian Corrigan.

Along with original contributions, this folio contains a host of primary materials, including photographs of O’Neill and his kin and a collection of statements by O’Neill on Irishness over the course of his life with accompanying images of the original letters. In the contributions by Brian Dennehy and John Patrick Shanley, you will see them read monologues from Long Day’s Journey into Night (1941), show-stopping performances streamed onto this site. Also included is a tribute to O’Neill following his death in 1953 by one of his greatest fans, the preeminent Irish playwright Sean O’Casey. Responding to a separate letter of inquiry by O’Neill biographer Louis Sheaffer, O’Casey dispelled any doubt of comradeship, addressing his letter to Sheaffer, “Dear Friend (all lovers of O’Neill are friends).” Shivaun O’Casey, his daughter, graciously provided a codicil to O’Casey’s heartfelt tribute as well.

Most important, “Celtic Twilight” is dedicated to Haiti relief after the horrific event of January 12, 2010. Haiti relief is singularly appropriate for an O’Neill tribute, given his first major experimental play The Emperor Jones (1920) was directly influenced by Haitian political history and folklore. For a checklist of facts connecting the play to Haiti, the autograph manuscript in pencil of his preliminary notes for the play (originally titled “The Silver Bullet”), production photos and illustrations, and James Weldon Johnson’s influential series “Self-Determining Haiti” (published in The Nation just before O’Neill wrote the play), see The Emperor Jones and Haiti.” Concern Worldwide, an Ireland-borne nonprofit, has served the people of Haiti on the ground since 1994. Last March, 2010, IAW&A held a benefit for Concern Worldwide called “Island People Supporting Island People.” In a single night, they earned $107,000, and we’re determined to keep up the momentum. So if you like what you read—and I’m certain you will—please click on the link and donate! Here’s their site: http://www.concern.net/where-we-work/Caribbean/haiti.

“Celtic Twilight” was a term William Butler Yeats applied early in his career to evoke a pre-colonized Irish past and its sustained relevance in his colonial present. Over the years, the expression has suffered criticism as excessively nostalgic about a mythic Ireland. Sean O’Casey himself told a reporter on his first trip to New York, “Celtic this and Celtic that. I never in all my life, and I’ve lived in Ireland for forty years, seen a Celtic twilight or a Celtic dawn or any of that nonsense.” James Joyce acidly referred to Yeats’ movement as the “Cultic Twalette.” There we are. But for our purposes, the reference comes from O’Neill himself. The playwright adopted “Celtic Twilight” as a catch-phrase for his notoriously complex temperament. “God knows I have had enough of Celtic Twilight in my make-up without needing any more of the same,” he half-joked about the neurological illness that would kill him less than a decade later.

O’Neill’s testimonials on Irishness provided here lay bare the influence of heritage on his dramas, and thus on American theater history. One telling letter to his eldest son Eugene, Jr., for example, illuminates the Irish subtext of his autobiographical tour de force Long Day’s Journey, widely considered the finest play ever written by an American. In it, he describes his family, the Tyrones of the play, during his youth in New London, Connecticut: “To the outer world we maintained an indomitably united front and lied and lied for each other. A typical pure Irish family. The same loyalty occurs, of course, in all kinds of families, but there is, I think, among Irish still close to, or born in Ireland, a strange mixture of fight and hate and forgive, a clannish pride before the world, that is particularly our own.” From O’Neill’s earliest years as a writer to the final moments of his life, he voiced a clear and rising identification with his Irish heritage. Indeed, the masterpieces of his late period frankly address Irish themes—A Touch of the Poet, The Iceman Cometh, Long Day’s Journey into Night, and A Moon for the Misbegotten.

The Turn of the 21st-Century Eugene O’Neill Renaissance:

In 1949, four years before O’Neill’s death, hundreds of book collectors voted him “the American author who stands the best chance of being regarded as a ‘classic’ in the year 2000.” The spectacular popularity of his revivals at the turn of the 21st century shows that this prediction was dead on. O’Neill is now enjoying a new Renaissance following his posthumous comeback on the world stage ignited by the 1956 premiere of Long Day’s Journey into Night. Dozens of successful revivals have appeared at the turn of the 21st century, and below is a lengthy, albeit woefully incomplete, list of recent productions. Skeptics who contend that O’Neill’s plays are beyond their expiration date simply haven’t been paying attention. American and international audiences alike have shown an unquenchable desire for his work over half a century after his death, and there appears to be no end in sight for this singular dramatist’s potential to speak to 21st-century audiences as he once spoke to his own:

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“Anna Christie” (1993, starring Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson; 2008, Metropolitan Playhouse), The Hairy Ape (1995, Willem Dafoe and Kate Valk for The Wooster Group and 2000, Derron Wood for The Flock Theatre), Ah, Wilderness! (1998, Debra Monk and Craig T. Nelson), the world premiere of O’Neill’s first full-length play Bread and Butter (1998, Provincetown Playhouse), The Iceman Cometh (1999, Kevin Spacey), Long Day’s Journey into Night (2003, Brian Dennehy, Vanessa Redgrave, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Robert Sean Leonard), A Touch of the Poet (2005, Gabriel Byrne), A Moon for the Misbegotten (2000, Gabriel Byrne and Cherry Jones; 2006, Kevin Spacey, Colm Meaney, and Eve Best), and Desire Under the Elms (2009, Brian Dennehy); off-Broadway productions of The Emperor Jones (1993 and 2005, Kate Valk and Willem Dafoe; 2009, John Douglas Thompson directed by Ciarán O’Reilly for The Irish Repertory Theatre), Hughie (1996, Al Pacino and 2008, Brian Dennehy, both performed at The Long Wharf Theater), Marco Millions (Waterwell, 2006), the early one-acters Ile, The Movie Man, The Web, and Before Breakfast (Metropolitan Playhouse, 2007), Mourning Becomes Electra (Lili Taylor and Jena Malone, 2009), a monumental eight-play festival produced by the Goodman Theatre in Chicago entitled “A Global Exploration: Eugene O’Neill in the 21st Century” (2009), and an annual Eugene O’Neill Festival at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center (winner of the 2010 Tony Award for Regional Theater; last year’s festival was entitled “Eugene O’Neill: The Irish and the Yankees”). This September, the Tennessee Williams Theater Festival is offering a revival of O’Neill’s Diff’rent, a rarely revived play and an excellent choice. Next June, 2011, the Eugene O’Neill Society will be hosting a massive international conference at New York University and the Provincetown Playhouse, the location of O’Neill’s New York City debut.

The Eugene O’Neill Papers are housed in the Yale Collection of American Literature at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. A detailed Guide to the O’Neill Papers is available online: http://hdl.handle.net/10079/fa/beinecke.eopapers. Associated images appear in the O’Neill Papers Image Guide: http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/digiallibrary/oneill.html. Related archival collections can be located in the Library’s finding aid database: http://drs.library.yale.edu:8083/fedoragsearch/rest.