"I think Eugene O'Neill is the American Shakespeare," Robert Falls says. "I look on him as the father of American drama — I think he almost single-handedly created it as a serious art form in the early part of the 20th century. He was the great chronicler of what it means to be an American. He came from an immigrant Irish family, but his work continually comes back to moral issues about American capitalism and family. And because I have an Irish background and I was raised as a Catholic, I have an enormous affinity for his work."
The Tony Award–winning Falls, the artistic director of the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, is talking about O'Neill because he is directing the playwright's Desire Under the Elms, starring Brian Dennehy, at the Goodman this month. The 1924 drama is also part of "A Global Exploration: Eugene O'Neill in the 21st Century," a festival of the playwright's works at the Goodman through March.
"I think Desire Under the Elms was a great turning point for O'Neill — through the play he discovered how to incorporate Greek tragedy into American subject matter," says Falls, who directed O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night and Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman on Broadway — both starring Dennehy (Falls won a Tony in 1999 as Best Director for Salesman). Most recently, he directed Dennehy in O'Neill's Hughie at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario and the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven.
In Desire, Ephraim Cabot (Dennehy) returns to his remote New England farmhouse with his third wife, the young and tempting Abbie, setting off a bitter fight among his three sons for his inheritance. His youngest son is attracted to Abbie — and therein sit the roots of tragedy.
|photo by Eric Y. Exit|
"I saw this as his first real masterpiece," Falls says. "And I knew instantly that I wanted to streamline it a bit — to do it without an intermission, to really explore the tragic roots of this play in the way of the Greek tragedies: fast, strong, powerful. It's almost a thriller, with the audience on the edge of their seats. It's a very sexy play, and there's enormous violence underneath it, of Greek tragic proportions." In addition to Desire Under the Elms, the festival includes productions of Mourning Becomes Electra, presented by the Toneelgroep of Amsterdam, in Dutch with English supertitles; the "sea plays" — Bound East for Cardiff, In the Zone and The Long Voyage Home — performed in Portuguese by the Companhia Triptal of Brazil; The Emperor Jones, by the Wooster Group from New York; Strange Interlude, produced in association with the Neo-Futurists, a Chicago theatre group; and The Hairy Ape, done by another Chicago troupe, the Hypocrites.
"O'Neill's work has inspired a lot of contemporary and avant-garde artists," Falls says. "So I thought it would be exciting to present unique and radical perspectives on his plays — to not just celebrate his work but to celebrate artists taking him on in the 21st century."
Falls has been working with Dennehy on O'Neill — as well as many other playwrights — for a quarter century. "At this point we are so connected at the hip about him," the director says. "It must be like it felt when Jose Quintero worked with Jason Robards. Brian just brings an extraordinary understanding and passion to the plays - a sense of the work's tragic size.
"I think that like me, it's his Irish Catholicism — and his understanding of the dark nature of mankind."