Drunk Boy vs. Eugene O'Neill

In a booze-besotted Broadway battle, a trendy young MTV baby with a bad bleach job takes on "A Moon for the Misbegotten."

Published March 30, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

I saw Eugene O'Neill's "A Moon for the
Misbegotten" in its new Broadway
incarnation, starring stage legend
Cherry Jones, Gabriel Byrne and a real
kick-in-the-pants Royal Shakespeare
veteran by the name of Roy Dotrice. If
you're going to see it and you don't
want the whole thing ruined for you,
don't read on.

It was a fine, respectable production, a
top-shelf cast, everybody did their jobs
just fine, but this play doesn't work at
all. Period. It lacks emotional logic.
O'Neill was either too drunk or too
maudlin or too Catholic or had his head
too far up the collective O'Neill family
ass when he wrote "Moon." There's no
saving this play, even if the cast were
Eleanora Duse, John Belushi and Jesus
Christ himself. No actor, no matter how
magical, can act his/her way out of a
big dead dog.

The play, O'Neill's last, was composed
as an attempt to reconcile the
playwright's relationship with his
brother the failure, Jamie O'Neill, an
actor and a cynical, unregenerate alky.
Nobody liked the play when it came out
in 1947; it was even shut down in
Detroit by a police censor who called it
a "slander on American motherhood." Some
dirty words were removed and the show
went on, but it was doomed to wallow in
its own lameness anyway, and it died
ignominiously in St. Louis before it
ever made it to New York.

In the '40s, O'Neill was unpopular;
critics derided his work as ham-fisted,
clunky and teeming with problems. Even
after two highly successful revival
productions in the 1950s of "The Iceman
Cometh" and "Long Day's Journey into
Night," critics weren't convinced that it would be worth
sitting in the dark
for two hours to see "Moon," and a shoddy production
in 1957 confirmed this suspicion. "Moon"
finally had its day in the sun in 1973,
in a production starring Colleen Dewhurst and the actual
alcoholic (but wholly ingenious) Jason
Robards, and the
critics finally dubbed it a Major Work
of American Theater. But I believe this
was mainly because the '70s were just as
stupidly self-indulgent, whiny and
gratuitously overwrought as the play is.

The play follows Josie, a gigantic,
strong farm girl, the brash town slut
with a heart o' gold. Her father is a
crusty old drunk, a loudmouthed,
thieving Irish scalawag with a heart o'
gold. The other guy in the play (Byrne)
is a wealthy fellow and their landlord, a
lying, conniving, bitter Irish drunk
with a heart o' gold.

Josie is a dismal paean to the nice
girls back home for Eugene O, a
romanticized blot of nostalgia for a
time and place where the women were big,
dumb, sweet and honest in a cow-eyed
kind of way. Josie has a warm breast
for any lonely man to chew on, or at
least that's what she tells everyone.

In the midst of a rowdy prank on one of
the neighbors, Josie and Jamie (Byrne)
decide to hook up for the night for a
good ol' shag o'rooney in the shack.
This is all OK with old drunk Dad
because he loudly
wants his daughter to snag Jamie and take
all his money and land, etc., etc.

Josie is game; you can tell she kind of
likes Jamie anyway. After a lot of
rustic hi-jinks and hollering, Jamie
slinks in the moonlight over to Josie's
shack, Josie wearing her best dress like
a big sad girl trying hard to look
purty, and Jamie begins what is the meat
of the play: a mewling, self-pitying,
pathetic, whisky-dribbling diatribe of
piss-weak moaning that would be tiresome
in any venue, even if the drunk were your
own beloved brother the fuck-up.

First Jamie badgers Josie until she
confesses that she is a virgin, and that
her whole Town Slag routine is a mere
act. This is presumably for obtuse
Catholic reasons that O'Neill surely
related to; I didn't. Then Jamie yowls
on and on about the death of his dear
old Mama in a way that makes the
tear-jerking Bowery tunes about dead
babies in the 1890s sound like refined
pep songs of the Royal Air Force. Then
it's intermission.

At the performance I attended, there was
an actual drunk in the audience, one of
those really scary drunks who seems
perfectly sober but is so filled with
malevolent weirdness and fuming with
barely contained paranoia and violence
you know he's having a grand-mal

He was a trendy young asshole, a fat
28-year-old MTV baby with a bad bleach
job who looked like a career fuck-up, a
smart guy who deliberately ruined
himself on a regular basis. He looked
like one of those bookish skateboard
dudes pushing 30 who still works at
Kinko's and has a real chip on his
shoulder. He was wearing an untucked
T-shirt, trendy sneakers and little
wire-rimmed glasses.

Anyway, at the bar, a fussy little man
timidly approached him and muttered
something along the lines of, "Could you
maybe be a little more quiet during Act
II? You're really distracting our
enjoyment of the show."

"Could you maybe eat shit and die?"
loudly announced Drunk Boy.

"I had a feeling you'd say something
like that."

"Why don't you go fuck yourself?" Fussy
little man backs up, Drunk Boy lurches
forward and stops. Then there's another
advance, lurch and stop, the false-start
dance of an aborted tussle. Christ, did
he really mean to beat up this guy in a
crowded lobby at a Broadway theater

Drunk Boy had friends in the audience,
who chuckled at him as if he were merely
acting like a slightly more amplified
version of his normal charming self.
Drunk Boy went back to the bar, aglow
with barbarian might. He was friends
with the female bartender.

"What were you doing that made him come
up to you?" she asked.

"Oh, causing trouble. Laughing at the
wrong times. Having too much fun."

"Here's your gin and tonic."

Back in the theater, after a few more
pages of dialogue, the moment is deadly
serious; the whole audience is holding
its breath. Jamie is quietly weeping on
Josie's lap about his terrible sins, and
Josie the Virgin of Rural Connecticut is
redeeming him, and they're both having a
Catholic epiphany in the moonlight, and
right when you could hear a pin drop in
the velvety, dark-golden womb of the
theater, there was a choking sound that
came from the back of the orchestra

It was Drunk Boy, violent kid, and he
was laughing, loudly and derisively, a
sputtering, insulting laugh that was
aimed at the stage and the whole
audience. It was truly shocking; a
public unraveling, a person announcing
that he was fucked up to the level of
police intervention. The trance of the
play popped like a balloon.

At that moment (and I've felt that
moment before, in audiences, when a
member of the audience explodes)
everyone's hair stiffened on their necks
because they knew the drunk young
bastard had no social boundaries holding
him together and was capable of
anything. Nobody would have been
surprised if he'd gotten up and started
randomly executing people. People half
expected it, I think, such is the
commonness of morally retarded wackos
with guns.

In any case, the play had a big hole in
it and was sputtering out into space,
and the crazy fucker got dragged into
the lobby and was yelling behind the big,
thick doors. Only super-unflappable pros
like Byrne and Jones could possibly have
kept going at full gallop -- lassoed,
captured and swung the attention of the
frazzled audience back to themselves --
and they did. That was quite impressive,
a great save on par with any seen on the
Wide World of Sports.

But back to the play. In retrospect, if
I were a terrible drunk asshole, I might
have started guffawing at that point,
too. After the big moonlight redemption
scene, where Josie's love heals all of
Jamie's sins and forgives him on behalf
of his dead mother, Jim wakes up and
it's a new morning; he feels fresh and
alive. But do they live happily ever
after? Noooooo. Do they even attempt to
pursue health, wealth, happiness and
hope? Nooooooo.

Josie speaks to her father of the "great
miracle" that occurred during the night:
"A virgin who bears a dead child in the
night, and the dawn finds her still a
virgin. If that isn't a miracle, what
is?" The idea being that Jamie is so
habitually drunk, guilt-ridden,
bitter and set in his rotten ways that
he is already actually dead -- totally
unsalvageable -- and even Josie's great,
simple matronly love can't save him.

This is contrary to the logic of
humanity, contrary to any human heart.
It's enough to make you want to chew up your
program and spit it at the stage. The
last line of the play is the worst.
Jamie walks away into the sunrise after
they both gush how much they truly love
each other, and Josie stares into the
light and says, "May you have your wish
and die in your sleep soon, Jim. May you
rest forever in forgiveness and peace."

Die in his fucking sleep? Didn't she
just spend the whole night resurrecting
him? What is this ridiculous
hopelessness, where a vital young man
walking around under his own power with
a heart full of love is sent off to die
in his goddamned sleep?

Maybe it's just a thing of the past;
maybe in O'Neill's day, willfully
unhappy people like old Eugene's brother
Jamie were tolerated and even
romanticized. Nowadays, a drunk like
that would be peer-pressured into AA,
given intense, excoriating batches of
psychotherapy, tough love and
antidepressants, and not indulged in
the boozy pity patch he keeps crawling
into. He'd be kicked around and nobody
would hang out with him anymore until he
got sober, and he would clean up in a
mildly shamefaced manner, and life would
go on.

Why would we tolerate the end of this
play, if we won't tolerate the
snickering, drunk MTV bitch having a
meltdown in the back row? Why
romanticize any form of egomaniacal
self-destruction, in any decade?

If we lived in Eugene's world, we'd be
shooting people for broken legs. O'Neill
tries to portray his brother as somehow
noble for totally giving up and drinking
himself to death, but any
Oprah-watcher knows it's much more
difficult and heroic to get your shit
together and claim happiness for
yourself, especially when True Love is
aiming both barrels down your throat.

There is no excuse for this play. I say
Eugene O'Neill is a pathetic sot, and "A
Moon for the Misbegotten" should be
interred with the rest of the bad habits
of the early 20th century, like
unnecessary hysterectomies and
segregated drinking fountains. Selah.

By Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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