I came to O’Neill a bit late in life. I rarely leave my roost at The Irish Repertory Theatre on West 22nd Street. But a few years ago, Doug Hughes offered me a small role in A Touch of the Poet at the Roundabout Theatre Company. I jumped at it because it gave me an opportunity to work with Doug—a director I much admire—and with the great Gabriel Byrne. That, and the sheer luxury of acting in something I wasn’t producing, was something I couldn’t turn down.
My role was Dan Roche, one of the louts that hang around Con Melody’s run-down tavern. I drank his booze while encouraging him to celebrate his past glories when he was once a Major in the Napoleonic Wars at the Battle of Talavera. The role required me to appear for a few short scenes and the rest of the time I sat in my dressing room listening to the stage monitor where O’Neill’s mesmerizing words crackled in the air: words punctuated with pain and despair and grand dreams crashing to earth.
I fell under the spell and began to read his other plays. The early ones.
The Hairy Ape was particularly potent. It featured a full-blooded character called Yank whose job was to feed coal into the furnace of an ocean liner. He was proud of his work. He felt the world revolved because he spun it. He belonged.
I’m de ting in coal dat makes it boin; I’m steam and oil for de engines; I’m de ting in noise dat makes yuh hear it; I’m smoke and express trains and steamers and factory whistles; I’m de ting in gold dat makes it money! And I’m what makes iron into steel! Steel, dat stands for de whole ting! And I’m steel—steel—steel!
Following a brief encounter with a high falutin’ passenger, with classic bold strokes, O’Neill strips Yank’s layers as he takes his unraveling path towards a primal truth. The notion that Yank should finally find a soul mate in a gorilla at the Bronx Zoo blew my mind. It was totally shocking and yet completely inevitable.
O’Neill wrote this play when machines with cogs replaced blood and sweat. The cooper who once shaped the bent wood to fashion a barrel was made redundant as the industrial presses mass-produced the new containers of the day. Today, in our virtual digital world, with daily assaults of iPads and iPods and Blackberry’s and Twitter; where the operative word is being connected, I feel this alienation. I don’t play this instrument. I don’t belong.
I hear Yank as he tries to make sense of it:
It’s way down—at de bottom. Yuh can’t grab it, and yuh can’t stop it. It moves, and everything moves. It stops and de whole woild stops. Dat’s me now—I don’t tick, see?—I’m a busted Ingersoll, dat’s what. Steel was me, and I owned de woild. Now I ain’t steel, and de woild owns me. Aw, hell! I can’t see—it’s all dark, get me? It’s all wrong!
It’s the Everyman in every age and that’s why O’Neill will endure.