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A Conversation with

 

Richard ArmitageOn October 15, 2016, Richard Armitage spoke about Love, Love, Love with education dramaturg Ted Sod as part of Roundabout Theatre Company’s lecture series.

An edited transcript follows:

(There are spoilers below)

Ted Sod: Thank you for joining us, Richard. Are you having a good time playing the role of Kenneth? It looks like you are.

Richard Armitage: Yes, it’s something very different from what I’m used to doing. I’m known for being quite a somber, moody person, but I have loved every single day walking into the rehearsal room with this cast and Michael Mayer. I have to say this show is a tonic and I think it has something to do with the speed and energy and Mike’s writing.

TS: This play forces us baby boomers, I’m one of them, to contemplate whether or not we screwed things up for subsequent generations, and we’ll discuss that a bit later. You are playing a boomer in this play, but you are actually a Generation X-er, correct?

RA: Nirvana. That’s how I remember it. We did this fascinating thing on the first day of rehearsal with every member of the cast and crew. We put ourselves in groups based on our birth year and one of the defining things apart from technology and politics was music, the kind of music that was around at the time we came of age. One of the first bands that came into my head was Nirvana. I’m Generation X, but I do think that I sit somewhere in the middle.

Amy Ryan and Richard Armitage (Photo by Jenny Anderson)

Amy Ryan and Richard Armitage (Photo by Jenny Anderson)

TS: I read on the Internet that you got your British Equity card by joining a circus — is that true?

RA: Yes, it is. It was a time long gone, just before Thatcher ended the 'closed shop', where you had to be a member of the union before you could even go to an audition. I remember going to an audition and there were two rooms: one with Equity members and one without and I thought I was never getting through to the next door. I went to a vocational school and they somehow set up this contract in Budapest where I was working in the circus for six months doing some unmentionable things with hula hoops.

TS: Fascinating. I read that you played the cello and studied the flute as well.

RA: I started with the cello and it was too big to take on the school bus and I used to get squashed trying to find a seat, so I decided to choose the smallest instrument I could possibly find and I picked up the flute because I could put it in my bag.

TS: I understand that you convinced your parents to allow you to go to a school to study theatre, but it was mostly musical theatre.

RA: It was a combination of three things: it was primarily dancing and singing classes and then a bit of drama class as well. My mother took on a job specifically so that I could go to this school because it was a fee-paying school and every single penny of her wages went toward my education. It has become a driving force throughout my whole journey as an actor just thinking that my mom went to work to purely pay for my education.

Richard Armitage and Zoe Kazan (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Richard Armitage and Zoe Kazan
(Photo by Joan Marcus)

TS: The last thing I’ll bring up from reading about you online, is that you fell out of love with musical theatre and decided you wanted meatier roles, so you went to LAMDA.

RA: That’s true. A lot of the time when I was working in musical theatre, I was being told, “Smile and look like you’re enjoying yourself!” I got to a point where I thought well, if I was enjoying myself, I’d be smiling my face off and clearly I wasn’t, so I just wanted something more. I did a year in the West End production of Cats understudying and I saved money and paid for myself to go to LAMDA. I spent three years rejecting the whole physical musical theatre thing, but actually it has become very useful to my work onstage in non-musical plays.

TS: The discipline and stamina that you have to use to do musical theatre must become valuable when you’re doing all kinds of theatre.

RA: It is, for sure. I worked with a movement teacher, the late Christian Darley who studied at Lecoq, in Paris. She worked very much from a mime based place. And that work really makes sense to me the kind of physical language onstage between actors and the way characters physically move through their spine according to the "temperature" in the room I think the work I did with her really lends itself to playing in this type of comedy.

TS: I want to talk a little bit about Mike Bartlett who wrote Love, Love, Love. He’s been doing television work as well as stage work since 2005. When did you first become aware of Mike’s work?

RA: He still feels like a new writer to me, but I became aware of his work through Cock, which I think started at the Royal Court.

TS: Yes, it played there in 2009 and it played here at the Doris Duke Theatre in 2012.

RA: I was also aware of his play King Charles III, which unfortunately I didn’t get to see because I was playing in The Crucible around the same time. I flew to London to see his last play, Wild. I was already onboard with this production and it galvanized something in me. I realized we’re actually from very similar backgrounds: we’re a similar age, we grew up in a similar place, our music tastes are very similar, which is why this play resonated with me. It wasn’t until about the third week of rehearsal when somebody told me Mike was a drummer that suddenly everything fell into place. His work is so much about a rhythm and speed. There’s something in the music of his writing that I also saw onstage in Wild, which is, incidentally, a play about Edward Snowden. He tends to write verbal tennis matches among his characters, which is just phenomenal to play. So, I came to this production with an enthusiasm for his writing.

TS: Mike has this ability to write epic stories, as he did with Earthquakes in London, which is a play about climate change among other things — and then a play like this one, which has an epic theme, but is more or less a domestic drama.

RA: Yes, from the inside out, it definitely feels like a domestic drama. I had no concept of how funny the play was until we put it in front of an audience. I didn’t know if it would resonate with an American audience because a lot of the references are very British, a lot of the temperament in the play is very British. Clearly, we’re not that different.

TS: Let’s talk about your process as an actor, if that’s okay with you. I once said to Alan Cumming, “What’s your process?” And he said, “I’m not a cheese.”

RA: I’m a ham.

Richard Armitage, Amy Ryan and Alex Hurt (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Richard Armitage, Amy Ryan and Alex Hurt (Photo by Joan Marcus)

TS: Good to know. I’ve read that you like to make a journal for your characters. Did you make one for Kenneth?

RA: I didn’t. Every piece that comes to you, you somehow figure out a different approach. If you try to apply the same rules for everything, it doesn’t always work and you find yourself trying to force a square peg into a round hole. I did background work on this. I looked at the periods that Mike was writing about. I wasn’t alive in the ‘60s. I was just being born around the early ’70s, so that process was really fascinating and it came in the form of a picture diary. I just gathered a photo album of as many images as I could, which I shared with Michael Mayer, our director. I figured there were things that Americans wouldn’t have necessarily seen, like the poll tax riots. When we got into the rehearsal room, the work was immediate. There was not a lot of talking about background, it was very much about the text and the texture of the text and trying to get it up on its feet as quickly as possible. It was a very fast process, something I normally resist. I like to spend a lot of time doing background work, but we were on our feet on day three. I think it was great to be on our feet that quickly. It was really liberating.

TS: I’ve watched the play twice and I’m not sure what kind of work your character is retired from. Are you?

RA: I decided that he ended up in publishing, probably for something like Time Out. No offense to Time Out, but it’s sort of the box that he probably didn’t want to get into. The thing about act two is that the characters are locked into this suburban box in Reading. I don’t know if anybody knows Reading here. It’s got very nice houses with nice gardens. It has a train station. Sorry, Reading. It’s a slightly disillusioned place compared to the expectations Kenneth and Sandra have. It’s a little bit like wanting to be an actor and ending up teaching acting in a comprehensive school. It’s a noble pursuit, but it’s not the dream.

TS: When you speak about Reading, I wonder if the comparison here would be somewhere in Connecticut or New Jersey.

RA: Scranton.

TS: Scranton, Pennsylvania. Well, I’m from Wilkes-Barre so I know Scranton.

RA: There’s nothing wrong with Reading. It’s just people live there because it’s a little bit cheaper. You can commute into London if you want to, you usually work in publishing or a bank and then you go home and it’s 2.4 children. There was a British sitcom called 2.4 Children, which really was the inspiration for act two.

TS: Talk to us about Kenneth and all these freedoms that we boomers were privy to. How did you find your way into that?

RA: Kenneth and Sandra both feel like they’ve been part of a revolution, which really was a movement there was suddenly a push forward in female emancipation, the sexual revolution, the pill. Really it was an ability to listen to the music you wanted, to dress the way you wanted, to actually not just leap from childhood into adulthood. Then, of course, they grew up. They were probably stoned out of their heads for most of that period of time and then they hit 30 and found themselves in this suburban, mundane box. We didn’t really fill in the gaps between the first act and the second. I like the fact that we walk into act two and Kenneth and Sandra barely look at each other. He doesn’t know she’s not in the room when he’s talking to her. They really don’t make eye contact until they’re pulling their marriage apart. It’s really a fascinating experiment to let yourself be in that situation you’re suddenly only 'in the moment' at the moment, your family is being torn apart.

Richard Armitage (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Richard Armitage
(Photo by Joan Marcus)

TS: As a boomer, I’ve lived through some phenomenal changes: the civil rights movement, the women’s liberation movement and the gay rights movement — everything that’s changed since 1967 — for better or for worse. For me all these changes felt like they were caused by the repression of the ‘50s.

RA: There was a woman called Mary Whitehouse in the UK and everything about the arts, writing and television was censored by her. She was described as a 'social activist' but she really suppressed a lot of voices. I think the Sex Pistols come out of pushing against that suppression. There was a shift between the ‘50s and into the ‘60s that felt like things were moving forward. It’s amazing to stand onstage at this time and say things like, “The laws are constantly being overthrown, the boundaries of what’s possible, the walls are coming down.” Those words resonate with me because I feel like we’re on the edge of the walls going back up, which is just terrifying.

TS: I’m also feeling that this play deals with capitalism and what happens when capitalism doesn’t work for you.

RA: There was a study that The Guardian, quite recently about adults living in their parents’ basements. I believe Secretary Clinton has mentioned it in her Presidential campaign as well. Women are delaying having their children and it’s causing a certain level of psychological dysfunction. They’re putting their lives on hold. Men are being infantilized by having to go back to live with their parents right through their 30s. It’s becoming a pressure cooker of violence because they’re not able to live fully rounded adult lives. And it’s not just one or two people, it’s quite a large chunk of a generation that is not economically well off. The other thing that I never considered before is the simple size of the baby boom generation. It’s probably about twice the size of Generation X. Their voting power is something that’s discussed in the play. Their ability to put politicians in place who will provide them the best benefits is something real. I don’t think Mike Bartlett necessarily answers any questions about how capitalism works for some and not others, but he gives the audience an argument and hopefully they’ll go home and have a good chat about it.

TS: I think it was Chekhov who first said, “As a playwright my goal is to ask questions, not to answer them.” Kenneth is so blunt when says to his daughter Rose, “No, I won’t buy you a house.”

RA: I struggle with that every night because I look at my daughter who I genuinely love and think she’s right, but we worked hard for 40 years, we waited all this time and now we have this pension. If we relinquish that, we have no security and then what do we do? I haven’t quite decided just how wealthy we are. There were questions that came up in rehearsal about this Birmingham house that they have. The buy-to-let scheme where property prices were thrown up in value because people were buying a second property to rent out. We talked about the fact that they could release that house for Rosie to live in, but it’s not quite what she’s asking. As a father, Kenneth is still in that position of thinking and saying, “Well, you have to carve your own path as we did. My parents didn’t give me a handout so that I could go further.” What he doesn’t consider is that the political system was manipulated so that there was free healthcare, there was comprehensive school education, grants that no longer exist. Kenneth and Sandra have benefitted from those things, but I think, at this point in his life, Kenneth isn’t considering those things, he’s just being quite pragmatic. He thinks that he’s doing what’s right for Rose by telling her to “Fight harder, go further.” And, again, this is Mike Bartlett at his best. He hasn’t made Rose destitute. She’s making a living at her profession; it’s just not enough. That’s what these situations are like. Younger people may have a job, but it’s out of balance. They literally can’t afford to live in a city like London. I think it’s like that in this city as well.

TS: Definitely. Young people in New York City are sharing apartments because they cannot afford to live alone. I have a sense Kenneth and Sandra are going to go on that world tour together at the end of the play, do you?

RA: I think he’s just saying that to melt her a little bit. I don’t know he necessarily really means it. I don’t think he knows what’s going to happen next. He hasn’t got it all figured out. They’re living in the moment still.

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Richard Armitage and Amy Ryan (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Audience Member #1: Hi. So, our country and yours have both gone downward. Where do you see it going? Are we going to restore some of the things that allowed the earlier generations to thrive? Does the play make you think about that?

RA: I do think about it every night. I am glued to the news cycle both here and in my own country. I feel like there’s no one to blame. I wouldn’t blame an older generation for the vote in the UK for Brexit. I feel like that’s a gross generalization. But I do think a Pandora’s Box has been opened. We can’t go backwards and that’s frightening. Britain is going to leave the European Union that’s for sure but what that price will be, I don’t know. What are the options really? Where are the inspiring politicians with voices that make us feel like they’re going to help make change and find a balance? I come from a country where we vote for the party, not a single individual, and I cannot believe we have a conservative government that I’m actually nodding my head at. Politics in the UK are in meltdown after Brexit. There really was not a plan in place and I just wish that they considered fully the implications of what that exit means. I know I am digressing, but I just despair at current politics and the lack of planning that’s happening everywhere.

TS: I think many of us are going through election fatigue right now and just wish it was over.

Audience Member #1: It’s terror. It’s not fatigue, it’s terror.

RA: I feel like if you keep people frightened enough and if you split them, then you’ll give yourself leverage as a politician and find people to support you. I just spent five months in Germany where this is not the case. There is a sense of peace and ease and actually feeling positive about things, which is probably also a generalization. At the moment, there isn’t an awful lot of positivity floating around here in the United States or back home either and that needs to be changed.

TS: I feel like what you’re talking about is divide and conquer, which has been a winning formula for a lot of people. I also find it interesting what you say about Germany. Merkel’s feet are being held to the fire right now because of the immigrant situation.

RA: Yes, and she’s standing by it.

Audience Member #2: I really liked your character as a person in terms of your values in act one and act two, but then in act three, I thought you were blind to your son’s problems.

RA: I feel my character is definitely in denial about his son. It’s interesting when Jamie comes in at the end of act three. It’s just at the moment that Rosie says, “You’re supposed to take care of your children!” I feel like saying to her, “I’m taking care of my boy, he lives here at home with me, we garden, we go the pub, he’s happy, I see him happy.” But he is a difficult child who is having to live at home because he can’t really function otherwise. Mike has written Jamie based on a friend of his who, after smoking a certain amount of marijuana, was just less sharp. It left him slightly disconnected from normal social interaction. I don’t think Kenneth is unaware of it, I think he’s just riding on top of it. It’s almost like he can’t look too closely because otherwise it would be difficult for him to accept.

TS: Isn’t it Jamie that says they’re like mates?

RA: Yes, I took him to see Wicked. It’s a simple life and it’s obviously not ideal. I feel like Kenneth is propping Jamie up and it possibly has something to do with Rosie’s attempted suicide. They clearly haven’t really dealt with that. I don’t think Sandra or Kenneth ever faced their demons and what they’ve done to their children. They’ve just done what British people do, which is to look away when someone starts to get emotional and then say, “Would you like some tea?”

Ben Rosenfield, Amy Ryan, Richard Armitage, Zoe Kazan and Alex Hurt (Photo by Walter McBride)

Ben Rosenfield, Amy Ryan, Richard Armitage, Zoe Kazan and Alex Hurt
(Photo by Walter McBride)

Audience Member #3: I was wondering what is was that drew you to this character?

RA: I rarely get to play comedy. People don’t come to me with offers to do comedy. I love the challenge of playing different ages. Also, I’ve always been into Harold Pinter and Alan Ayckbourn and it felt to me like Mike’s fashioned a cocktail of writing styles in this play and I was really excited about trying that out.

TS: I’m so glad you brought that up because when I watched the first act, I thought this feels a bit like Pinter. The relationship between Kenneth and his brother Henry is so bizarre. It has a Pinter-esque quality in that I sense that Kenneth is afraid of Henry.

RA: Act one has been through a change. We pushed it a long way since the rehearsal room. It was extremely exuberant at first and we’ve slowly pulled it back because it needs to sit in that place of danger. Kenneth has to be provocative and press Henry’s buttons because essentially it is the baby boomer generation pressing the buttons of Henry’s generation. Mike’s writing uses elements of Pinter and Osborne, which I love, and then in act two there are elements of Ayckbourn. In the rehearsal room, act two felt very steady and as soon as we came into the space, Michael Mayer wanted us to elevate the style. He said, “I want you to imagine that every time you make an entrance, there’s applause like a television sitcom.”

Audience Member #4: Hi. My parents are baby boomers and they are stable, dependable people, but I know they weren’t always that way. I feel that your character and Sandra’s character never really developed emotionally. I’m wondering if Mike Bartlett is making a statement that people can’t change?

RA: In my personal view, I think our personality is probably solidified somewhere in our youth. You either develop ways to navigate through life with a certain level of fluidity or you are somebody with concrete boots on who really can’t change and move around. I just let Kenneth be taken with the current in a way. Until act three, when he’s really forced to make a decision and potentially make a change and he chooses not to.

TS: Richard, there was a remarkable documentary made in England by Michael Apted called Seven Up

RA: Yes, I studied it for this and it’s so fascinating.

Richard Armitage, Amy Ryan, Ben Rosenfield and Zoe Kazan (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Richard Armitage, Amy Ryan, Ben Rosenfield and Zoe Kazan (Photo by Joan Marcus)

TS: Because it tracks people from the age of seven on at seven year intervals. It quotes a Jesuit motto: "Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man."

RA I feel like it tracks that moment when a child leaves the home and finds themselves in society, interacting with other people and you can see their personality developing. I’m sure it’s different with everyone, the point where your personality is fixed and maybe that’s the thing about Rosie. Because of her suspended situation, she feels she can’t solidify her life. It’s an admission to say, “I’m 37 and I don’t have anything.” She’s talking about material possessions, but she goes on to say, “I don’t have a child, a car, a house, I can’t start my life and I’m 37.” Whereas the baby boomers were probably well embedded into their lives by their early 20s and beginning families.

Audience Member #5: One of the things that was very good about the play was the author’s ability to empathize with each of the characters. But in my view, he identifies most with Rosie. What do you think?

RA: Having not explored what it’s like to be Rosie, I don’t know. I’ve always struggled with act three, even from reading it. I feel like my character was at his most alive in 1967 and there’s something fading about him in act three, which I fought a little bit. He says, “I just can’t concentrate anymore. There’s no need to. I love it. Freedom at last.” I think that is the place that Kenneth sits. I remember saying to Amy Ryan, “Which character do you think is Mike’s voice?” I just couldn’t figure it out. Everyone gets a point of view that is relevant and sharp, and I don’t think I’ve ever met a playwright who was able to do that. But, certainly in terms of what we’re seeing and feeling in the world now, Rosie’s voice is the most relevant particularly in act three.

TS: The younger audience members were cheering Rosie on during the third act of the play. They were with her 100%. But I think Mike really wants us to feel for all the characters and understand them all.

RA: I think he wants to press our buttons and get us to think. It’s been fascinating to try to figure out if we have a boomer audience or a Generation X audience every night. Sometimes Amy will come up to me after a scene and say, “Oh, they don’t like me tonight.” And sometimes you think the audience is going to start throwing things at us both. It’s been fascinating to understand who we’re performing to on any given night or matinee. It will be really interesting to be performing in front of a student audience.


Love, Love, Love is now playing at the Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre. For tickets and more information, visit our website.


Related Categories:
2016-2017 Season, A Conversation with, Love Love Love


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SPW ensemble members performing a scene from the play at the Student Theatre Arts Festival

SPW ensemble members performing a scene from the play at the Student Theatre Arts Festival

Student Production Workshop’s summer production She Was as Beautiful as the Moon follows two strangers, Luna and Alexander, who spend the evening recounting the moments, good and bad, that made them who they are. At the heart of the production are playwright Hanako Montgomery, and director Kayla Arvelo. The two have continuously collaborated throughout the play’s development, dating back to the play’s first reading, directed by Arvelo.

Education Coordinator Sarah Kutnowsky sat down with the pair to discuss their partnership and bringing the play to life.

 

Sarah Kutnowsky: What was the inspiration for She Was as Beautiful as the Moon?

Hanako Montogomery: There were many different things, but one of the key things was the short story Wunderkind by Carson McCullers. It’s about a little girl who was a musical prodigy. Her parents and her teacher applied a lot of pressure on her and made her amazing technically. But through that, striving for technical perfection, she lost the beauty of her playing. In She Was as Beautiful as the Moon, there is a lot of violin imagery, pursuit of being amazing at one thing, and the loneliness that comes out of that.

 

SK: What was the process of developing the play?

HM: I developed this play through the playwriting [track] at SPW. I wasn’t sure what I was going to write until two weeks before the deadline. I was actually on vacation when I had to submit it. So I sat down on the plane, and I just started writing. I wrote the first draft of She Was as Beautiful as the Moon non-stop. I didn’t really determine the structure beforehand, and I had a vague idea of who the different characters were and their relationships, but I didn’t really know what the central theme was going to be. But from that script I worked with Elizabeth [SPW’s Playwriting Mentor] a lot, and I narrowed down the message of the play. There was a really messy editing process that I’m glad to say, but also sad to say, is over.

 

SK: What has the rehearsal process been like? How have you two collaborated on this play?

Kayla Arvelo: For me, it’s mostly hands on. It’s about painting the picture in my head and putting it on its feet. I was always open with Hanako and told her “if you want something, let me know and I can do it”.

 

Kayla and Hanako in rehearsal with the cast

Kayla and Hanako in rehearsal with the cast

SK: So you consult Hanako?

KA: Yes! She doesn’t even notice, but I look at her face while they’re rehearsing and if she makes a face I’ll say “no, do it again.”

HM: I really trust Kayla. She does ask me “is this okay? What do you think of this?” Sometimes, we’ll have to talk about it. The set was a challenge; we weren’t sure if we wanted to have a lot of pieces onstage.

 

SK: How did you two work with the design team to bring the play to life?

KA: When we first started, we had a meeting before we even spoke to the design team. We narrowed down what our vision was. We discussed a lot about what we wanted the audience to see. We got help from our mentors on how to share our ideas; we didn’t say exactly what we wanted, but we gave specifics that [helped the design team] get the big picture.

HM: The weekly meetings helped a lot. We met the different design teams to catch up on what they’d been doing the past week, and what else they planned to do. During that time, if we didn’t like something or were questioning something, we could ask questions.

KA: The two of us have our language. We’ll just tilt our head and everyone knows that means “no." Or we’ll squint our eyes, and that means “maybe." And if our eyes pop that means “yes!”

 

SK: What do you want audiences to take away from this play?

HM: One of the main things I want them to take away is the message of the play. The pursuit of being important, being great at whatever you do, and the loneliness that comes with it. The effects it has on different relationships, and the people in your life. I hope audiences can see that and think about what that means to them. How they’ve maybe abandoned their values or family members in trying to do something better for themselves, and how that makes them feel.

KA: I want [the audience] to take away the idea of not giving up on what you love, that passion. Not letting those around you affect what you love to do. I find that that’s a big part of this play, specifically for Luna and Alexander, they gave up on those priorities in their lives, and that has taken a toll on them. Especially for us teenagers, it’s important to know that we should go for what we want, and not let parents or friends change that idea for you. Even if it changes, let it change on your own terms.


She Was as Beautiful as the Moon will premiere at The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre on August 7.


Related Categories:
A Conversation with, Education @ Roundabout, Student Production Workshop


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Gabriel Byrne and Jessica Lange in Long Day's Journey into Night. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Gabriel Byrne and Jessica Lange in LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

 

On April 16, 2016, Rob Richter spoke about Long Day’s Journey into Night with education dramaturg Ted Sod as part of Roundabout Theatre Company’s lecture series.

An edited transcript follows:

Ted Sod: Rob, I wanted to start with some background information on how you got interested in Eugene O'Neill and his family.

Rob Richter: My first introduction to O'Neill was really as a teenager living in Westchester County. I would come into New York and see productions. I saw Liv Ullmann play the title role in Anna Christie; I saw Jason Robards perform in A Touch of the Poet. My father, who was a journalist, at one time thought he might be a theater critic and he loved O'Neill, so he gave me a paperback of O'Neill's seven one-act sea plays when I was studying theater as an undergraduate. I went to school at Connecticut College, New London, Connecticut, where Long Day’s Journey into Night is set. It's funny, during those school years I don’t really remember making a connection or going to the house or anything.

Fast forward a number of years and I was working at Mystic Seaport Museum, the maritime museum, in 1988, which was the centennial of Eugene O'Neill's birth, and naturally there was a lot of programming going on around O'Neill, and I was asked if I'd direct some of his sea plays at the museum. I chose Bound East for Cardiff, which is set in the crew quarters of a ship. And we did it in the crew quarters of a ship. I directed The Long Voyage Home, which is set in a sailors’ tavern, and we did it in a tavern. As I was reading those plays again, now with a background in maritime history, I thought, this guy knows what he's talking about. What I think theater practitioners would see as jargon, was hardcore detailed information.

Eugene O'Neill

Eugene O'Neill

I then became fascinated with how O'Neill came to know this information about the maritime world and be so detailed in his plays. I started work on a master's degree at Wesleyan University in American Studies and I decided my thesis would be the maritime influence on Eugene O'Neill.

And when you think about O'Neill's plays -- there are about 45 plays he authorized for publication and 20 or so of those deal in some way with sailors and the sea. Even in Long Day's Journey Into Night there is a monologue that the character Edmund has, in which he has a very strong connection with the sea.
After finishing my thesis, I thought I'd write a book. And so I started another year of research and writing and then I published Eugene O'Neill and Dat Ole Devil Sea. It's a title that just rolls off your tongue.

TS: What can you tell us about the Monte Cristo Cottage which is the setting for the play, Long Day’s Journey into Night?

RR: The Monte Cristo Cottage is in New London, Connecticut. It is right across the street from the Thames River and has a view of the harbor.

It was a house that James O'Neill cobbled together in a sense. It was originally used as a store on the first floor with living apartments on the second floor. And on the property there was also a one-room schoolhouse that he had moved and abutted to the main structure of the house. The action in the play actually takes place in that room, which was the schoolhouse.

The Monte Cristo Cottage

The Monte Cristo Cottage

In order to make it grand, James O'Neill had the ceilings raised on the first floor. And there are lots of windows. But on the second floor, he didn’t raise the roof so the living quarters are claustrophobic and cramped.

And if you read the stage directions in Long Day's Journey Into Night – O'Neill's stage directions are very detailed in all of his plays – he talks about the movement of the sun. The house faces the east, so it gets the morning sun. But there are really no windows on the back or west side of the house, so come midday it starts to go into shadow and by early evening, when it's still light outside, it's a very dark place.

TS: You mentioned Bound East for Cardiff earlier, which was really the first play of O’Neill’s to be produced – correct?

RR: It was produced 100 years ago in 1916 in Provincetown. And that play is really thought to be the beginning of a new American theater, a theater of realism. Prior to that, there was much more melodrama being produced. When I work with students today they think, what's the big deal with O'Neill? This type of theater and this realism is what we're just so familiar with nowadays. But he was really revolutionary and Bound East for Cardiff was the beginning.

TS: He was influenced by Chekhov, Ibsen and Strindberg. In fact, the Swedes adored him as I understand it?

RR: Chekhov, Strindberg and Ibsen were huge. A man by the name of Doc Gainey, who was very well traveled internationally, picked up that dramatic literature overseas and brought back with him. He shared that literature with O'Neill. That was O'Neill's first exposure to it. There was a group of young men, O'Neill and his contemporaries that was called the Second Story Club. They would gather at Doc Gainey's house on Main Street in New London, which is now Eugene O'Neill Drive; and they would play cards and smoke cigars, drink and talk. It was during these visits that O'Neill borrowed the literature.

TS: Can we talk about the 1920s for O'Neill and his family? I suppose we should explain that the character of Edmund in the play this afternoon is an avatar or stand-in for Eugene. But there was a brother named Edmund. Would you like to explicate that for us?

RR: Yes. Eugene had two brothers. Eugene was born in 1888. Jamie or James, Jr., was born 10 years earlier in 1878. And another brother, Edmund, was born in 1883. He died before Eugene was born. He died from the measles that he was exposed to from Jamie. Jamie had measles and he was told to stay away from the baby. Apparently he didn’t. Ella, his mother, and James, Sr. were on tour at this point, so their grandmother, Ella’s mother, was taking care of the children.

TS: In the play, O’Neill keeps the names for his father and brother the same and he uses his mother's first name – her name was Mary Ella in fact.

RR: Mary Ellen was her name.

TS: But they referred to her as Ella?

RR: Yes, yes.

TS: His father, who was a matinee idol, made an incredible amount of money for that time period touring in The Count of Monte Cristo, which is why the home was named after it. I read somewhere he was making about $40,000 a year.

RR: He was making a huge amount. He owned the rights to the script. He tried to step away from Monte Cristo, but audiences kept wanting him to come back to it. He performed in three or four Broadway productions of The Count of Monte Cristo. It was a great vehicle for him.

Jessica Lange as Mary Tyrone in Long Day's Journey into Night

Jessica Lange as Mary Tyrone in Long Day's Journey into Night

TS: He passed away in 1920?

RR: Right and it's an interesting time. It's a very poignant time in O'Neill's life because he is beginning to make it as a playwright. At this point, he's living in Provincetown. He's doing a lot of writing. Beyond the Horizon, which was his first full-length play, had just opened on Broadway in 1920. So that, in his father's world, would certainly be a sign of success. And then James fell ill and in 1920 he passed away. Mary Ellen passed away in 1922.

One thing that I'd like to point out is that Long Day’s Journey into Night is a moment in time in his life. And, at that time, his mother was addicted to morphine. She beat that. I think because the play is so well known there's not always the revelation that she beat it and had a successful life. After her husband died, she managed the real estate and did very well. And Jamie O'Neill, his older brother, who had been an alcoholic, dies in 1923. After the father died, he was on the wagon and was really a companion for his mother. But when she died, Jamie fell off the wagon, severely, and he basically drank himself to death.

So O’Neill is this acclaimed, emerging playwright on Broadway who wins a Pulitzer Prize for Beyond the Horizon and then for Anna Christie and he's losing all of his immediate family.

TS: He wins a third Pulitzer Prize for Strange Interlude the same decade, so his success is rather phenomenal throughout the '20s. He strikes up a collaboration with Paul Robeson and writes three plays for a leading black actor, which was unheard of at the time – do you agree?

RR: It was unheard of. In his play All God's Chillun God Wings, was the first interracial kiss in the American theatre. In his play, The Emperor Jones, which came first, it was the first mixed race cast. The character of the Emperor Jones was first played by Charles Gilpin, an African-American. The producing company had wanted to do it in blackface but O'Neill refused. So Gilpin was the first black actor playing with a white theater company.

Paul Robeson replaced Gilpin in the title role in the play and film and then went on to perform in All God’s Chillun. The Klu Klux Klan threatened the production of All God's Chillun, at various points, threatening O’Neill. His play Desire Under the Elms had to be performed in court before the censors, before it was allowed to open in Los Angeles. He was pushing the envelope for the American theater, American culture.

TS: He really wanted theater to say something, as opposed to being escapist or innocuous entertainment.

RR: He was really trying to talk about issues. For American literature and American drama, he was setting the trend. There were other movements and other art forms in terms of realism in the visual arts. He was part of that whole group of artists in Greenwich Village who were part of the Ashcan School, such as George Bellows, who was painting dock workers.

TS: I want to get to Ah, Wilderness!, which was written in the '30s I believe. He wrote it specifically so he could prove he could write a comedy, because his métier was tragedy. That play takes place in the same location, the Monte Cristo Cottage. Is he the stand-in for the main character?

RR: The main character of Richard in Ah, Wilderness!, which is also set in the Monte Cristo Cottage -- but they don’t refer to it as that -- is part of a much larger family. Richard is a really idealistic teenager who has been exposed to the avant-garde literature of Oscar Wilde and Swinburne and he has these revolutionary ideas, but he is also very naïve. Yes, there's parallels between O'Neill himself and Richard. But the father in Ah, Wilderness! is a newspaper editor.

There were two prominent newspaper families in New London. Judge Latimer was the editor of The New London Telegraph, and the McGinley family was involved with The New London Day, which still exists. O'Neill was friends with the McGinley family. It was a very large family. Judge Latimer from The Telegraph was a mentor to him as well. And so the character of the father is Latimer, but the family is probably the McGinleys.

TS: So it's literally a hybrid of people he knew and somewhat less autobiographical?

RR: It is definitely a hybrid. O'Neill talked about how it was the family that he wished he had been born into. When it opened on Broadway, the theater world was in shock because they were used to all of his dark dramas. All of a sudden he comes out with Ah, Wilderness!, this bittersweet comedy.

TS: In the late '30s O'Neill wanted to write an 11-play cycle about a family from the 1800s to modern times. Only two pieces survive because he abandoned the project and he told his third wife, Carlotta Monterey, to destroy everything. What survived was A Touch of the Poet and More Stately Mansions.

RR: A draft of More Stately Mansions, yes.

TS: When he abandoned that project he started on the more autobiographical plays like Long Day’s Journey, Moon for the Misbegotten and The Iceman Cometh.

RR: Right, and Iceman came first, then Long Day's Journey into Night, and then Moon for the Misbegotten.

Colby Minifie in Long Day's Journey into Night

Colby Minifie in LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

TS: Now he finished Long Day's Journey in '41, and puts it in an envelope. He hands it to Carlotta as an anniversary present, and says, "I don’t want this published or produced until 25 years after my death." So, is this a first draft?

RR: I would say that O'Neill would probably say it is a draft. I wouldn't say it's a first draft. He worked on it but he didn’t consider a play complete until it went through a rehearsal process and then he made revisions during that process. He gave the play to Carlotta, but he also had given the play to Random House, his publisher. And he told Random House, "Put it in the safe, lock it away, I do not want this published until 25 years after my death. And I do not want it ever produced."

TS: What is the reasoning behind that – was it because of his children? He disinherited -- or really didn’t care for his children.

RR: He had a very strong relationship with Eugene Junior. Eugene Junior was part of his first marriage with Kathleen Jenkins. And that marriage and that birth took place prior to the events in Long Day's Journey into Night. So I'll leave it there.

TS: But can we tell them what happened to Eugene Junior? He ultimately committed suicide?

RR: Right, he committed suicide in 1950. And O’Neill passed away in '53. So Carlotta felt she was in charge of the estate so she had the power to take the script from Random House. She gave it to Yale to publish, and authorized production. First in Sweden and then here in the US. She said that since Eugene Junior was no longer living there were no other relatives that it would impact. But Oona was still alive, and Shane was still alive.

TS: Shane also committed suicide -- correct?

RR: Yes, he did. He was plagued by addiction.
RR: Oona married Charlie Chaplin when Chaplin was 54 and she was 18. He had both Oona and Shane with his second wife, Agnes Bolton.

TS: And was that really the reason that O’Neill never saw her again?

RR: There was a paternity suit against Chaplin at the time. So there's good reason for O’Neill not to want his 18-year-old daughter to be hanging out with Charlie Chaplin. But Charlie and Oona had a great life.

TS: And marvelous children.

RR: And children.

TS: I saw Victoria Chaplin, their daughter, do a circus piece in Seattle and it was just brilliant. She inherited her father's physical prowess. So Carlotta decides that she's going to transfer the play to Yale and she creates a scholarship for playwrights. From the royalties?

RR: Right.

TS: And then she makes the Broadway production happen with Jose Quintero directing?

RR: Yes. Jose Quintero had directed a revival of The Iceman Cometh. The first production bombed, and then the revival was very successful. That also pushed Carlotta to say, "You know I have this piece that no one knows about." And so she summoned Jose and said, "I want you to do this play."

TS: Did he direct the revival of The Iceman Cometh during O'Neill's lifetime?

RR: No, O'Neill had passed away. If Carlotta had not released Long Day's Journey into Night, O'Neill and his work might have gone into obscurity.

TS: Because we would not have gotten to read this play until 1978?

RR: Right.

TS: The play wins the Pulitzer posthumously. The first Broadway production is in 1956 with Fredric March and his real-life wife, Florence Eldridge.

RR: And Jason Robards is Jamie.

TS: Bradford Dillman is Edmund I believe. And we always forget the names of the maids.

RR: Right there's the poor maid.

TS: Unforgiveable. Who would like to ask a question?

Audience #1: My question is, I thought that A Moon for the Misbegotten was a continuation of this play. And I just wanted to know the connection between this play and that one?

RR: A Moon for the Misbegotten is Jamie's story after Mary Ellen, the mother, has passed away. It is Eugene trying to come to terms with his brother's death. He's writing this 20 years later, but wrestling with what happened to his brother. Jamie Tyrone or Jim Tyrone is the main character in A Moon for the Misbegotten. And it is also set in that New London community.

John Gallagher, Jr. and Michael Shannon in Long Day's Journey into Night

John Gallagher, Jr. and Michael Shannon in Long Day's Journey into Night

TS: But would it be considered a sequel or prequel to Long Days Journey?

RR: It would be a sequel.

TS: Because it happens after the action of today's play, which is about 1912?

RR: Yes, 1912. The real events of Long Day's Journey into Night happened in December of 1912. O'Neill sets the action of the play in August of 1912.

TS: And the idea that's addressed in the play is about Edmund, the character based on Eugene O'Neill, being diagnosed with tuberculosis. That really happened?

RR: Yes.

TS: And right after that, correct me if I'm giving misinformation, he was sent to a sanitarium for six months?

RR: Yes. He went to the Gaylord Hospital sanitarium in Connecticut for treatment of his tuberculosis. He was encouraged by Dr. Lyman there to write about things that he knew.

TS: I believe not long after that his father arranged for him to study with George Baker?

RR: Right. Baker was at Harvard and teaching a playwriting course. It's a two-year course, so he took the first year at Harvard.

Audience #2: Was A Moon for the Misbegotten also sequestered by O’Neill like Long Day's Journey?

RR: No, it wasn’t. O'Neill finished A Moon for the Misbegotten right at the end of World War II. And he felt it was too depressing to have this play done at the end of the war when people wanted to see optimistic things. So he was against having it produced. But the Theatre Guild encouraged him and it was produced out of town. One thing I also just want to note is O’Neill is the only American playwright to win the Nobel Prize for literature, and that happened in 1936, prior to writing what we call his great plays.

TS: Long Day’s Journey into Night is often considered to be his magnum opus, his masterpiece. It's usually uttered in the same breath with A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman as being one of the greatest American plays ever written. Is there anything else you want to say that we didn’t already discuss?

RR: Long Day’s Journey is a play you should just go along for the ride with. I think it's a great play. The big question for many people is, “How autobiographical is it?” I say it's inspired by O'Neill's life, but he's a playwright and he took license with it.


Long Day's Journey into Night is now playing at The American Airlines Theatre. For tickets and more information, click here.


Related Categories:
2015-2016 Season, A Conversation with, Education @ Roundabout, Long Day's Journey Into Night


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