Eugene O’Neill: A Documentary Film

In a tragic life that spawned works of astounding tragedy, Eugene O'Neill's dedication to extolling the darkest depths of truth came at significant personal cost, a fact Ric Burns' startlingly affecting doc "Eugene O'Neill" eloquently captures.

A correction was made to this review on Mar. 27, 2006.

In a tragic life that spawned works of astounding tragedy, Eugene O’Neill’s dedication to extolling the darkest depths of truth came at significant personal cost, a fact Ric Burns’ startlingly affecting doc “Eugene O’Neill” eloquently captures. Playwriting consumed him, forcing him to give up a life outside the written word as well as relationships with his parents, brother and children — the very relationships that would inform his greatest works — giving his life meaning solely as an artist.

Burns, with the assistance of divinely articulated insights from playwrights, biographers and actors, with distinctive narration by Christopher Plummer, makes a convincing case not only about O’Neill’s supremacy to other American playwrights, but about the dedication any individual must have to achieve greatness.

Lloyd Richards, who ran the O’Neill Center in New London, Conn., and staged well-received O’Neill revivals at Yale Rep during his tenure there in the 1980s, notes, “Truth is clear, but it’s hard, and he spoke the truth about those closest to him. … Not everybody is willing to look that deep into themselves.”

The lives O’Neill shaped into characters all had their impact on him within the first 23 years of his life. His father was an actor who gave up a shot at being a prominent Shakespearean thesp, instead opting for the financial security of touring in “The Count of Monte Cristo. Mother was a morphine addict who never recovered emotionally from the death of a child; his brother, affected by that death as well, cowered in the bottle and in brothels until his death at 45.

Scarred by his father’s compromise and his mother’s erratic behavior, O’Neill took an isolated route until, after a suicide attempt, he decided to teach himself how to write. He devoured, as his plays would reveal, classic Greek style. But by the end of his artistic life, at age 55 — 10 years before his death — O’Neill would reinvent American playwriting in style, tone, diction, depth and drama.

Half of the two-hour doc covers O’Neill’s life through three Pulitzers, a move to the California mountains and the awarding of the Nobel Prize. The final hour covers O’Neill’s faltering health and his plans for a massive play cycle that would cover a single Irish family over the course of 150 years, an undertaking derailed by his Parkinson’s-like trembles, which made writing painful.

He chose instead to outline two works that he could complete; they would become his best-known works, “The Iceman Cometh” and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”

As is observed in the doc, one has to wonder if O’Neill knew his whole life was just preparing him to allow those masterpieces to pour out; that for all the good work that preceded them, none so completely spoke so universally to the human condition. Not only were both completed, he still had the energy and drive to bang out three more, including “Moon for the Misbegotten” and “Hughie.”

At the time of his death, in 1953, O’Neill’s legacy was badly tarnished. His plays of the 1920s and ’30s had been devalued, and he was remembered for writing as many bad plays as good ones.

His widow Carlotta, determined to reclaim his reputation, got “Long Day” published and produced in 1956 despite the playwright’s wish that it not be published until 25 years after his death and never produced. Jason Robards, who starred in its first production, gives a chilling account of the reaction to the play; in many ways it was a redemption for O’Neill that has not dissipated over the last 50 years.

Buoyed by fabulous writing by O’Neill biographers Arthur and Barbara Gelb, Burns bookends his piece with brilliant insights. At the opening, they serve as reminders for anyone who has ever seen or studied an O’Neill play of his brilliance and effect on the stage. At the close, however, those insights concern commitment and effecting change, to some degree a clarion call for anyone who calls himself an artist to take a deeper look inside at what drives him.

In this well-assembled film, Burns takes a singular life and how that life was translated, in a universal sense, to the page, and subtly asks his audience to raise questions about their own lives, much as O’Neill does in his masterpieces.

O’Neill is praised during the doc for being ruthlessly honest and deeply dramatic. Ric Burns deserves similar praise.

Eugene O’Neill: A Documentary Film

PBS, Mon., March 27, 9 p.m.

  • Production: Filmed in various locations by Steeplechase Films for American Experience. Executive producers, Ric Burns, Donald Rosenfeld; producers, Marilyn Ness, Steve Rivo, Robin Espinola, Mary Recine; director, Burns; writers, Arthur Gelb, Barbara Gelb, Burns.
  • Crew: Camera, Buddy Squires, Peter Nelson, Allen Moore; editor, Li-Shin Yu; music, Brian Keane. Running time: 2 HOURS.
  • Cast: <B>Narrator:</B> Christopher Plummer
  • Music By: