Saturday, October 16, 2010

Eugene O’Neill and George Jean Nathan: transforming American theater together

It seems uncanny that the careers of a critic and a playwright could have been as inextricably entwined as were those of George Jean Nathan and Eugene O'Neill (whose birthday is today, October 16). As co-editor and drama critic of The Smart Set, Nathan was seeking to publish the new voices of post-World War I America. Their paths crossed in May 1917 when O’Neill submitted three of his “fo’c’sle” plays to H. L. Mencken, Nathan’s co-editor:
I have never seen anything of this kind in The Smart Set and I have small hope of it being the type of material you desire. But I do hope, and hope it strongly, that you will read them. I want these plays, which to me are real, to pass through your acid test because I know your acid is “good medicine.”
Mencken read them, wrote O’Neill he liked them, and forwarded them to Nathan, who decided to publish all three: The Long Voyage Home (October 1917), Ile (May 1918), and The Moon of the Caribees (August 1918). “That was my first ray of recognition,” O’Neill later said.

O’Neill and Nathan didn’t actually meet until May 1919, as O’Neill would recollect:
I can’t for the life of me recall much about my first meeting with Nathan. It was with John D. Williams at some restaurant, I believe, and I was three-fourths “blotto.” . . . The second meeting was at the Royalton at his apartment, and I still have a letter written by Nathan a few days later in which he speaks of being gratified at discovering that I was as proficient at drinking cocktails as at concocting dramas.
For the next three decades they met, talked, and continually corresponded: O’Neill sending Nathan scripts and Nathan responding with detailed critiques, which O’Neill claimed to value but rarely followed. In 1920 Nathan was instrumental in bringing O’Neill’s full-length play Beyond the Horizon to the attention of Broadway producer Williams. In a “thank you” letter O’Neill calls Nathan the play’s “godfather.” Beyond the Horizon would win O’Neill his first Pulitzer Prize. Nathan’s support for O’Neill’s first and only comedy, Ah, Wilderness!, in 1933 led him to dedicate the play to Nathan.

O’Neill fell out of favor in the 1940s as years passed without him producing a new play. When he returned in 1946 with The Iceman Cometh, the reception was cool, except for Nathan. His 1947 review begins:
The Iceman Cometh . . . makes most of the plays of other American playwrights produced during the more than twelve-year period of O’Neill’s absence look comparatively like so much damp tissue paper. . . It is, in short, one of the best of its author’s works and one that again firmly secures his position not only as the first of American dramatists but, with Shaw and O’Casey, one of the three really distinguished among the world’s living.
The Iceman Cometh would be the last new work of O’Neill’s produced in his lifetime.

Of related interest:
Related LOA works: Eugene O’Neill: Complete Plays; The American Stage: Writing on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner (includes Nathan’s complete review of The Iceman Cometh)

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