"Eugene O'Neill's knowledge of the human condition is so deep," Gabriel Byrne says. "As with all great writers, his characters are archetypes that transcend time and place. In America he's regarded as an American playwright. But in Ireland he's considered an Irish-American playwright. And for an actor, there's nowhere to hide in his plays. You have to really go deep into yourself."
The Dublin-born-and-bred Byrne proved that he could go that deep when he received a 2000 Tony nomination for O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten. Now he's returned to O'Neill and Broadway, starring at Studio 54 as Cornelius Melody, an Irish immigrant who owns a tavern near Boston in 1828, in the Roundabout Theatre Company's production of A Touch of the Poet. The director is Doug Hughes, a Tony winner last season for Doubt.
Poet is the only completed work of an 11-play cycle O'Neill planned that would have dealt with 175 years in the history of what the playwright called "a far from model American family." It was finished in 1942 but was first performed on Broadway in 1958, after the playwright's death. The production starred Eric Portman, Helen Hayes and Kim Stanley.
In the play, Melody, whose luck has seen better days, pompously and unrealistically believes he is a man of distinction. Suddenly, his daughter falls in love with the son of a rich American, and he is faced with a dilemma.
"It's a very underappreciated play in the O'Neill canon," Byrne says. "It's a play about many things. It's about man's inability to live in the present. It's about regret, yearning, loss. I think it's one of the most revealing plays about exile that I've ever come across. It's also about marriage, passion, class, disillusionment and the waning of sexual power." Another topic is "the relationship between fathers and daughters. The relationship between the father and the daughter in this play is very confrontational. O'Neill had a troubled relationship with his own daughter, Oona. She married Charlie Chaplin at age 18, and O'Neill never spoke to her again."
As in O'Neill's more autobiographical plays, the concept of love-hate relationships between spouses, and between parents and children, is a prime theme. "There's a line in A Moon for the Misbegotten," Byrne says, "about the notion of love, and that no matter how twisted it is, it's still love. O'Neill's definition of love was quite complex. The love between family members was always complicated and tortured and divisive, full of bitterness and anger."
The play is also about politics. "O'Neill isn't known as a political writer. But that doesn't mean he's not political when he wants to be. There's a line where Con [Cornelius] says, 'We live in decadent times. Everywhere the scum rises to the top.' It's a very slight political reference, but it's one that some people could agree with today — the inability, the seeming powerlessness, of the electorate to change anything. The sense that we, too, live in decadent times."
Con Melody, Byrne says, "is a very complex man. The challenge for the actor is not to be afraid to present the truth of the character as O'Neill has written him and to find the humanity behind it. In Con's case, with the cruelty and the anger and the bitterness, it's a great study in unhappiness and discontent. But somewhere inside this cruel and unforgiving man is a human being. He's vain, pretentious, a braggart, a concocter of yarns, a man who believes he is from a noble lineage. But inside is the soul of a man who has lost his way. All his melancholia and grief is waiting to come out of him. O'Neill was a great Catholic writer. His themes were very Catholic. Sin is very much a part of his work, and redemption and forgiveness — and love."
Byrne, whose film credits include "Little Women" and "The Usual Suspects," himself planned to become a priest, but was thrown out of seminary when he was caught smoking. After attending Dublin University College, he worked in archaeology and taught Spanish and Gaelic at a girls' school. He appeared in amateur theatrics and eventually joined Dublin's Abbey Theatre.
A Touch of the Poet, he says, is "tremendously relevant for today's audiences. Toward the end of the play, a very traumatic event happens for Con, and as a result he comes to see himself in a new light. That's one of the central themes of the play and of Con's character. In our world, the shocks of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina are hugely traumatic events to our psyche that are forcing us to look at ourselves in a new way. The big question is whether we learn from that change."