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[Publisher’s Note]

American Disease

Eugene O’Neill’s genius lay in his dialogue.
A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on May 6, 2024. Translated from the French by Elettra Pauletto.

In the 1950s, my father worked as a photographer in New York City, where he specialized in stage rehearsals and Broadway personalities in what was then the center of the anglophone theatrical world. Boosted by America’s economically dominant position after World War II, Broadway had surpassed in gross output – and in glamour – London’s West End, which was still damaged by bombings and depleted by the cost of the recent war against Nazi Germany.

I was born into this atmosphere of carefree triumph and privilege. My father mainly shot for Theatre Arts Magazine and was able to attend almost any play for free, sometimes with my mother, often at the premiere. The prestige attached to our last name very likely contributed to his success in his profession. There was no ignoring the larger-than-life presence of his uncle, Charles MacArthur, a playwright and screenwriter who, together with Ben Hecht, had written many famous plays and films during the three previous decades, including The Front Page, Twentieth Century, and Wuthering Heights

Moreover, “Uncle Charlie” was married to the “first lady of American theater,” actress Helen Hayes. My father was so proud of all this that he gave me Charlie’s first and middle name, Gordon, as my third and fourth names, in honor of his uncle, who died six weeks before my birth in June 1956. 

It was no surprise, then, that as I got older and began to rummage through my father’s papers at the bottom of a large metal filing cabinet, I discovered photos of the greatest stars of the day, some of whom were also well-known film actors: Henry Fonda and Jason Robards Jr., Julie Andrews and Mary Martin, not to mention illustrious directors such as Elia Kazan and José Quintero, as well as the best set and lighting designer then working, Joseph “Jo” Mielziner.

All of this made me dream of a life beyond the mundane. During a family vacation to New York in 1972 – long after what I thought of as our exile to the Chicago suburbs – my father took us to dinner at Sardi’s, the legendary restaurant that served Broadway celebrities, where caricatures of famous actors hung on the walls. When, as we walked in, Vincent Sardi Jr. greeted my father by his nickname Rod, I was speechless with admiration.

And then one night, in our quiet house away from the cosmopolitan bustle of Manhattan, I asked my father why he’d traded the sophisticated charm of Broadway for the commercial boredom of his new business career, leaving him stuck in the cultural void of the Midwest. To my surprise, he dismissed my romantic notions: first, it hadn’t been possible to comfortably earn a living – especially after a third child (me) – with the modest and unpredictable income of a photographer.

Second, he thought that none of the plays he’d seen over the first four years of his theatrical career were even worth talking about. Most were mediocre, or at least disappointing, and the adolescent excitement I felt at the sight of those photographs was largely an illusion. Only one play stood out for him during that time, one that he remembered as a real work of art.

That play was Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Nobel Prize-winner Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical masterpiece, published and performed for the first time on Broadway on November 7, 1956, three years after the playwright’s death. Given the nature of his family’s painful troubles, as revealed in the script, O’Neill hadn’t wanted the story to be made public until 25 years after his death, but his widow had not complied. As a result, my father was invited to the Helen Hayes Theater, and his photographs were published in the January 1957 issue of Theater Arts alongside a very positive, anonymous review.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night was a huge success and won many prestigious awards. As for me, however, I neither read, watched, nor so much as contemplated this play until March this year, when I came across an interview in the Financial Times with British actor Brian Cox (of Succession fame), who is currently playing the starring role in a London revival. 

I decided to interrupt my stay in Paris to see it. With the Eurostar serving as a time machine, I made my way to the Wyndham theater in the West End on the evening of April 11 to reconnect with my father and answer two questions: why was he so impressed by this play and why had I ignored it?

Do you know any alcoholics or drug addicts? If so, you have a good idea of how the lies of addicts can erode the life of a family or a couple. Do you know to what extent greed and rivalry can deprive children not only of money but also of love? That’s the story of O’Neill’s (Irish) family and of my own family (on the Scottish side), both destroyed by premature deaths, each poisoned by the uniquely American disease of every man for himself – a fundamental hostility to helping one another.

Eugene O’Neill’s genius lay in his dialogue. I’m not going to tell you the whole story of his life – or of mine. It’s best to listen to the play.

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