Three America Greats: On Broadway, as Elsewhere, O'Neill, Williams and Miller Still Rule the Roost

Three America Greats: On Broadway, as Elsewhere, O'Neill, Williams and Miller Still Rule the Roost By Michael Feingold

By Michael Feingold

Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller: The three giants of American playwriting are already enshrined in the theatre history textbooks. Miller, at 81, is still healthy and productive--two recent plays, Mr. Peters' Connections and The Ride Down Mt. Morgan both premiered Off-Broadway in 1998. But Williams has been dead for 16 years, O'Neill for 46. Yet all three are, once again, the toast of Broadway. A revival of O'Neill's lengthy, somber 1946 saloon drama, The Iceman Cometh, transported from London but with a largely American cast, has taken over the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. One block up, Miller's 1949 classic Death of a Salesman glows anew in a production shipped east from Chicago's Goodman Theatre, with Brian Dennehy, Elizabeth Franz and Kevin Anderson heading the cast (although the Eugene O'Neill Theatre's marquee seems to give Iceman's author top billing, as if his spirit somehow presided over Miller's mordant drama). And two blocks farther north, lighting up the long-vacant Circle in the Square, sits the most surprising Broadway success of them all: Not About Nightingales, a previously unperformed Tennessee Williams work that more than one reviewer has called the season's best new play.

Why have America's Three Greats suddenly made such a triumphant comeback at the end of what's often been called "the American century?" The answer has many parts. In the first place, obviously, they're great. Exciting to theatregoers who experience them for the first time, the trio's major plays can still grab audience members who've seen them before; their rich, complex textures always offer new revelations. Death of a Salesman, for instance, appears on so many required reading lists that most Americans might think they know it by heart from their schooldays. But Robert Falls's much-lauded production shifts its emphasis: Brian Dennehy's big, almost menacing presence makes Willy Loman less of a fall guy, more a self-willed agent of his own destruction, while Elizabeth Franz's blazing fervor turns his patient wife Linda, unexpectedly, into a kind of feminist heroine, casting a new hot light on the way the play's men downgrade women.

Mentioning Dennehy and Franz brings up a second, even more important reason for the three authors' enduring presence: All of them wrote sublimely well for actors. Miller's speeches and scenes are the backbone of every acting class. Williams, for all his poetic extravagance and often rarefied symbolism, never wrote a line an actor wouldn't relish speaking. O'Neill, in some respects the best of them all at creating vivid, playable roles, more or less grew up in the theatre. His father, 19th-century stage star James O'Neill, was legendary for his prowess at acting--and at drinking.

Both performing and drinking are memorialized to some extent in The Iceman Cometh, set in a 1912 Greenwich Village saloon, peopled by alcoholic losers and deadbeats whose barroom repartee is distinctive and flavorful enough to make each of the play's 15-plus parts worth a major actor's time. Its central role, the cunning and driven hardware salesman Hickey, climaxes in a flamboyant confessional monologue, eight pages long--such an irresistible lure to stars who want to display their knack for bravura that the current hit version, starring Kevin Spacey, is actually the play's fourth Broadway rendition, despite the work's length (over four hours) and pessimistic outlook. The role was created in 1946 by the aging, beloved vaudeville performer James Barton; Jose Quintero's 1956 Off Broadway production lifted Jason Robards to stardom and established the piece as a classic, after which Circle in the Square, having moved uptown, revived it twice on Broadway: in 1973 with James Earl Jones as Hickey and in 1989 with Robards in the role once again. But as the century moves toward its end, the traditional linkup of a familiar play and a prominent actor isn't the only way master playwrights can find themselves at the cutting edge of the art. Because of their sustained commitment to the theatre, each of our three eminences has piled up a vast archive of work, containing all sorts of unexpected treasures. While Off-Broadway troupes like The Wooster Group and New York Theatre Workshop are searching out new approaches to rarely seen O'Neill plays like The Hairy Ape and More Stately Mansions, the prizewinner in this realm is surely Williams, who had built up a trunkful of arresting scripts before he finally reached Broadway with The Glass Menagerie in 1944, and whose late works, shunned in more conventional days as too daring for the mainstream, are waiting to be explored.

The arrival of Not About Nightingales, one of the bigger items from that beginner's trunk, is a classic tale of archival recovery. The story began in the late 1980's, when Vanessa Redgrave, doing research for her upcoming role in Williams's Orpheus Descending (which she ultimately played both in London's West End and on Broadway), was struck by a reference to the earlier play in Williams's preface to the later one. Intrigued by his description of it as incomparable among his work "for violence and horror," she contacted Williams's literary executor, who found her a script. Moving Theatre, a company of which Redgrave and her brother Corin were co-founders, was soon embarked on the complex international negotiations that eventually led to the current production, a joint creation of Houston's Alley Theatre and London's Royal National, with Trevor Nunn directing a half-and-half English and American cast that hit New York after gigs in the companies' two home cities.

Written in 1937-38, as Williams's entry in a play contest sponsored by New York's fabled Group Theatre, the startling, high-pressure script reveals a young author in many ways unlike the elegiac, magnolia-steeped stereotype idea of Williams. Based on a headline-grabbing news story of the time about a corrupt prison warden's attempt to cover up the brutal mistreatment and murder of inmates under his charge, the script shows Williams cannily building on the standard prison-break genre of 30's films, choosing scenes that would appeal to the Group's taste for social drama and shaping roles to suit its company, while at the same time pouring his own youthful preoccupations into the characters. The Group never did the play, but gave Williams's entry (which also included a clutch of his early one-acts) a special cash award--the true start of his professional career as a playwright.

To say Williams began his career with a social drama designed for an actively leftist theatre is the final point that links him to O'Neill and Miller, and makes all three men as necessary now as in their heyday. Quintessentially American in their various ways, all three have had an ongoing quarrel with America--with its ethics, with its goals, with its political and social conduct. Not that they're alone: the quarrel is one every great artist has with his or her society. To raise doubts in us about the way we live is one of the principal functions of art; to call our three best-known playwrights great is to say that nobody raises those doubts more forcefully. When The Iceman Cometh opened in 1946, O'Neill made the cover of Time magazine, and what he told its interviewers so shocked Henry Luce that the eminent publisher wrote an editorial attacking the views of the man whose face was on the cover of that week's issue. Instead of being "the most successful country in the world," O'Neill told Time he thought America was "the greatest failure," because "its main idea is that everlasting game of trying to possess your own soul by possessing something outside it." Surely the authors of Death of a Salesman and Not About Nightingales would agree. And just as surely, in a world more caught up with money and material things than ever, we need to think about what they have to say. That their plays have found a new life on Broadway, so many years after they were written, must mean that the audience is willing to listen. It may even mean, by immersing themselves in the despair of O'Neill's barroom, Williams's prison and Miller's crumbling home, theatregoers are discovering reasons to hope.