DRUNK BOY VS. O'NEILL
"Moon for the Misbegotten" is...Misbegotten.
This piece previously appeared on salon.com in 2000.
I saw Eugene O'Neill's "A Moon for the Misbegotten" in its new Broadway incarnation, starring stage legend Cherry Jones, Gabriel Byrne and a real kick-in-the-pants Royal Shakespeare veteran by the name of Roy Dotrice. If you're going to see it and you don’t want the whole thing ruined for you, don't read on.
It was a fine, respectable production, a top-shelf cast, everybody did their jobs just fine, but this play doesn't work at all. Period. It lacks emotional logic.
O'Neill was either too drunk or too maudlin or too Catholic or had his head too far up the collective O'Neill family ass when he wrote "Moon." There's no saving this play, even if the cast were Eleanora Duse, John Belushi and Jesus Christ himself. No actor, no matter how magical, can act his/her way out of a big dead dog.
The play, O'Neill's last, was composed as an attempt to reconcile the playwright's relationship with his brother the failure, Jamie O'Neill, an actor and a cynical, unregenerate alky. Nobody liked the play when it came out in 1947; it was even shut down in
Detroit by a police censor who called it a "slander on American motherhood." Some dirty words were removed and the show went on, but it was doomed to wallow in its own lameness anyway, and it died
ignominiously in St. Louis before it ever made it to New York.
In the '40s, O'Neill was unpopular; critics derided his work as ham-fisted, clunky and teeming with problems. Even after two highly successful revival productions in the 1950s of "The Iceman Cometh" and "Long Day's Journey into Night," critics weren't convinced that it would be worth sitting in the dark
for two hours to see "Moon," and a shoddy production in 1957 confirmed this suspicion. "Moon" finally had its day in the sun in 1973, in a production starring Colleen Dewhurst and the actual alcoholic (but wholly ingenious) Jason Robards, and the critics finally dubbed it a Major Work of American Theater. But I believe this was mainly because the '70s were just as stupidly self-indulgent, whiny and gratuitously overwrought as the play is.
The play follows Josie, a gigantic, strong farm girl, the brash town slut with a heart o' gold. Her father is a crusty old drunk, a loudmouthed, thieving Irish scalawag with a heart o’ gold. The other guy in the play (Byrne) is a wealthy fellow and their landlord, a lying, conniving, bitter Irish drunk with a heart o' gold.
Josie is a dismal paean to the nice girls back home for Eugene O, a romanticized blot of nostalgia for a time and place where the women were big, dumb, sweet and honest in a cow-eyed kind of way. Josie has a warm breast for any lonely man to chew on, or at least that's what she tells everyone.
In the midst of a rowdy prank on one of the neighbors, Josie and Jamie (Byrne) decide to hook up for the night for a good ol' shag o'rooney in the shack. This is all OK with old drunk Dad because he loudly wants his daughter to snag Jamie and take
all his money and land, etc., etc.
Josie is game; you can tell she kind of likes Jamie anyway. After a lot of rustic hi-jinks and hollering, Jamie slinks in the moonlight over to Josie’s shack, Josie wearing her best dress like a big sad girl trying hard to look purty, and Jamie begins what is the meat of the play: a mewling, self-pitying, pathetic, whisky-dribbling diatribe of piss-weak moaning that would be tiresome in any venue, even if the drunk were your own beloved brother the fuck-up.
First Jamie badgers Josie until she confesses that she is a virgin, and that her whole Town Slag routine is a mere act. This is presumably for obtuse Catholic reasons that O'Neill surely related to; I didn't. Then Jamie yowls on and on about the death of his dear old Mama in a way that makes the tear-jerking Bowery tunes about dead babies in the 1890s sound like refined pep songs of the Royal Air Force. Then it's intermission.
At the performance I attended, there was an actual drunk in the audience, one of those really scary drunks who seems perfectly sober but is so filled with malevolent weirdness and fuming with barely contained paranoia and violence you know he's having a grand-mal blackout.
He was a trendy young asshole, a fat 28-year-old MTV baby with a bad bleach job who looked like a career fuck-up, a smart guy who deliberately ruined himself on a regular basis. He looked like one of those bookish skateboard dudes pushing 30 who still works at Kinko's and has a real chip on his shoulder. He was wearing an untucked T-shirt, trendy sneakers and little wire-rimmed glasses.
Anyway, at the bar, a fussy little man timidly approached him and muttered something along the lines of, "Could you maybe be a little more quiet during ActII? You're really distracting our
enjoyment of the show."
"Could you maybe eat shit and die?” loudly announced Drunk Boy.
"I had a feeling you'd say something like that."
"Why don't you go fuck yourself?" Fussy little man backs up, Drunk Boy lurches forward and stops. Then there's another advance, lurch and stop, the false-start dance of an aborted tussle. Christ, did
he really mean to beat up this guy in a crowded lobby at a Broadway theater intermission?
Drunk Boy had friends in the audience, who chuckled at him as if he were merely acting like a slightly more amplified version of his normal charming self. Drunk Boy went back to the bar, aglow with barbarian might. He was friends with the female bartender.
"What were you doing that made him come up to you?" she asked him.
"Oh, causing trouble. Laughing at the wrong times. Having too much fun."
"Here's your gin and tonic."
Back in the theater, after a few more pages of dialogue, the moment is deadly serious; the whole audience is holding its breath. Jamie is quietly weeping on Josie's lap about his terrible sins, and Josie the Virgin of Rural Connecticut is redeeming him, and they're both having a Catholic epiphany in the moonlight, and right when you could hear a pin drop in the velvety, dark-golden womb of the theater, there was a choking sound that came from the back of the orchestra section.
It was Drunk Boy, violent kid, and he was laughing, loudly and derisively, a sputtering, insulting laugh that was aimed at the stage and the whole audience. It was truly shocking; a public unraveling, a person announcing that he was fucked up to the level of police intervention. The trance of the play popped like a balloon.
At that moment (and I've felt that moment before, in audiences, when a member of the audience explodes) everyone's hair stiffened on their necks because they knew the drunk young bastard had no social boundaries holding him together and was capable of anything. Nobody would have been surprised if he'd gotten up and started randomly executing people. People half expected it, I think, such is the commonness of morally retarded wackos
In any case, the play had a big hole in it and was sputtering out into space, and the crazy fucker got dragged into the lobby and was yelling behind the big, thick doors. Only super-unflappable pros like Byrne and Jones could possibly have kept going at full gallop -- lassoed, captured and swung the attention of the frazzled audience back to themselves — and they did. That was quite impressive, a great save on par with any seen on the Wide World of Sports.
But back to the play. In retrospect, if I were a terrible drunk asshole, I might have started guffawing at that point, too. After the big moonlight redemption scene, where Josie's love heals all of Jamie's sins and forgives him on behalf of his dead mother, Jim wakes up and it's a new morning; he feels fresh and alive. But do they live happily ever after? Noooooo. Do they even attempt to pursue health, wealth, happiness and hope? Nooooooo.
Josie speaks to her father of the “great miracle" that occurred during the night: "A virgin who bears a dead child in the night, and the dawn finds her still a virgin. If that isn't a miracle, what is?" The idea being that Jamie is so habitually drunk, guilt-ridden, bitter and set in his rotten ways that he is already actually dead -- totally unsalvageable -- and even Josie's great, simple matronly love can't save him.
This is contrary to the logic of humanity, contrary to any human heart. It's enough to make you want to chew up your program and spit it at the stage. The last line of the play is the worst. Jamie walks away into the sunrise after they both gush how much they truly love each other, and Josie stares into the
light and says, "May you have your wish and die in your sleep soon, Jim. May you rest forever in forgiveness and peace."
Die in his fucking sleep? Didn't she just spend the whole night resurrecting him? What is this ridiculous hopelessness, where a vital young man walking around under his own power with a heart full of love is sent off to die in his goddamned sleep?
Maybe it's just a thing of the past; maybe in O'Neill's day, willfully unhappy people like old Eugene's brother Jamie were tolerated and even romanticized. Nowadays, a drunk like that would be peer-pressured into AA, given intense, excoriating batches of psychotherapy, tough love and antidepressants, and not indulged in the boozy pity patch he keeps crawling into. He'd be kicked around and nobody would hang out with him anymore until he got sober, and he would clean up in a mildly shamefaced manner, and life would go on.
Why would we tolerate the end of this play, if we won't tolerate the snickering, drunk MTV bitch having a meltdown in the back row? Why romanticize any form of egomaniacal self-destruction, in any decade?
If we lived in Eugene's world, we'd be shooting people for broken legs. O’Neill tries to portray his brother as somehow noble for totally giving up and drinking himself to death, but any Oprah-watcher knows it's much more difficult and heroic to get your shit together and claim happiness for yourself, especially when True Love is aiming both barrels down your throat.
There is no excuse for this play. I say Eugene O'Neill is a pathetic sot, and “A Moon for the Misbegotten" should be interred with the rest of the bad habits of the early 20th century, like unnecessary hysterectomies and segregated drinking fountains. Selah.
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