Friday, September 19, 2014

Eugene O'Neill

The literature of New York can not be discussed without including that most important of writer, the playwright! New York is known for Broadway and Eugene O'Neill was destined to be a part of that history, being literally born for it, coming into this world right in Times Square at the corner of Broadway and 43rd Street, it's now a Starbucks, but at least there's a plaque. The plaque in fact states he is "America's Greatest Playwright" and it is hard to argue with that fact. O'Neill brought the realism of plays that was being employed abroad by Ibsen, Chekhov, and Strindberg, to the United States in plays rich with the American vernacular and people on the fringes of society whose stories would usually end in tragedy and disillusionment. His most famous plays are The Iceman Cometh, Long Day's Journey Into Night, and A Moon for the Misbegotten. Though I hold a special place in my heart for The Hairy Ape, having read this play for my undergraduate degree in Theatre, and being forever amused by the death by ape ending. I think it's just the idea of having to have a man in an ape suit onstage in the 1920s that makes me laugh and oddly think of Trading Places...

Of all O'Neill's work though it's The Iceman Cometh that many hold most dear, especially if they don't find apes as funny as I do. O'Neill got his idea for this seminal work from hanging out at his local "hell hole" The Golden Swan, and immortalized it and it's owner, Thomas Wallace, in the play. Occasionally O'Neill was known for sleeping one off in Wallace's apartment above the Swan. The Golden Swan was Greenwich Village's seediest yet most influential hangout for the artists and playwrights of the Village. The patrons made the Swan famous, O'Neill being the most famous. Though O'Neill loved to refer to it by it's secondary name, "Hell Hole," and frequented it on and off throughout his life. Sadly it didn't survive the construction of the subway lines under New York that required many buildings to be torn down. 

But as often happens, if something is destroyed in New York it comes back in another form. Oddly enough the seedy bar has taken seed and grown some roots and become a garden. On the site of such former debauchery there is now the Golden Swan Garden. Next to the West 4th Street Courts at West 4th Street and the Avenue of the Americas (aka 6th Avenue) you can enjoy this little slice of wildlife. In fact, after visiting the Garden you can continue east on West 4th Street as it turns into Washington Square South and you'll be passing by Eugene O'Neill's home (think how drunk he was when he couldn't make it the two blocks home)! Sadly NYU has taken over and rebuilt many of the buildings on the south end of the park so 38 Washington Square South doesn't exist anymore, so this is more a tour of buildings that no longer exist. But as I said with Edith Wharton, the whole area around Washington Square Park retains that old world charm, and you can stalk two dead authors at the same time!

But I feel to really pay homage to O'Neill you need to go to Broadway. And I don't mean just to take in a plaque at Starbucks, I mean, go to a show! Sure Broadway is all about the magic of the musical, and I can't deny the lure, having taken in a musical almost every time I have been to New York. But Broadway is so much more. It's plays written by the greatest writers in the world performed by the most amazing talent out there. Yes, it's great to see a play anywhere and to support the arts, but if you want the pinnacle of perfection, the true theatrical experience, then you need to go to New York!

And there is one theatre you should visit above all others, the Eugene O'Neill Theatre. Located at 230 West 49th Street, it's between 8th Avenue and Broadway. Six years after O'Neill's death the Coronet Theatre was renamed after him. For awhile another great American Playwright, Neil Simon, owned it, but now it's owned by a theatrical producing company, Jujamcyn Theaters, that owns many other theatres. In recent years it has put on two very well known and successful musicals that seemed a bit outre before the reviews started flooding in, I'm talking about Spring Awakening, and the show that is still there, The Book of Morman. So, when you go to "The Great White Way" think of the fact that it would never have happened, would never have been possible if not for writers like O'Neill, out there putting stories into the world and up onto the boards. 


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