Sunday, April 19, 2020

Brian Dennehy on Eugene O'Neill


     I only spoke with Brian Dennehy once—if you don't count my drunkenly accosting him while he was trying to eat at Petterino's to tell him how great he was. The other time was this interview that ran eight years ago, under the headline, "O'Neill's 'Palace of Pipe Dreams;' Brian Dennehy helps Chicago brace for Goodman's 'The Iceman Cometh.'" I remember being inordinately proud of my script format. I always thought there was an element of penance to his O'Neill work at the Goodman, paying for all those Hollywood potboilers with five hours of "The Iceman Cometh," which I saw both times Dennehy did it here, in 1990 and 2012.  He no doubt lured many Chicago theatergoers to O'Neill though, for me, it was the opposite: O'Neill drew me to him.


SCENEA columnist, fifty-one, the stamp of his profession unmistakably on him. Day, near Chicago, a room with doors.

ME—(too vehemently) Jees! The Goodman Theatre is doing "The Iceman Cometh." Again! More than four hours of bleak Eugene O'Neill misery and hopelessness....

SHADOW ME—(a trifle acidly) Of course you'll go. You always go. You have to. Because you're a sap, a sucker for O'Neill.

ME—(bleakly) Tickets go on sale Friday. The show opens in March.

SHADOW ME—Why bother? Just skip it.

ME—I can't. I'm compelled to go. I'm not even sure why. A bum fixation. What is it about Eugene O'Neill? (Dialing telephone).

I'm going to ask Brian Dennehy, the actor who's been starring at the Goodman in O'Neill plays for years. I saw his "Iceman" 20 years ago. Why should anyone see it again?

DENNEHY—(gruff, gravely-voiced) Chicago is probably the premier theater town in America. People have a real appetite for one of the great plays ever done. With Nathan Lane, the curiosity factor will help.

ME—(bitingly) Right. Nathan Lane, beloved Broadway comic actor, in the lead. But won't that fool people into seeing "Iceman"? That's like seeing "Schindler's List" because you loved Liam Neeson in "Star Wars."

DENNEHY—(patiently) Look, we live in a world where "Jersey Shore" triumphs. I wouldn't worry about that. There is a larger question: What is the future, what is the prognosis for serious classical theater, period? Shakespeare or O'Neill or Miller.

ME—Why not cut? Shakespeare gets cut.

DENNEHY—(mollifyingly) Yeah, sure you can. O'Neill is trimmed a great deal. There's so much repetition. He never came up with an idea he didn't want to repeat five times. But you have to be careful, because some phrases are historically powerful ... It still runs four and half hours. If done right, it only seems four hours and fifteen minutes.

ME—(with puzzled desolation) What's the appeal of O'Neill? Why do people love him?

DENNEHY—What's great about Chicago, about the Goodman and [director] Bob Falls: We always tried to do things that are hard to do. Hard to do, hard to watch. The audience has to bring its "A" game of serious theater-going. You don't just sit there and observe. You become part of the production . . . this is a tragedy in the deepest sense of the word. In fact, O'Neill jokes with the seriousness of it, the determination to be self-destructive, the self-importance that a self-destructive person creates around himself; "The universe is paying attention because I'm fucking myself up and what an incredible tragedy it is."

ME—( comprehension dawning) Yes! Tragedies are far better than "The Lion King" because you can fool yourself that you're doing something significant when of course—as O'Neill teaches us—all is bleakness and misery and failure. Is there no hope?

DENNEHY—The pipe dream is critical in his plays. Nobody gets through life without creating a bullshit world around them. What they do is they re-create themselves into some kind of person they have been or will be, and that's the way they live. The reality of life is too harsh. If you need booze, or if you need other people to believe that you are something you are not, all these things are drugs that allow a person to live essentially a fraudulent life. The only life any person lives with any happiness is a fraudulent life—the worst thing you can do to a human being is insist he gets rid of the fraud, accept your responsibilities and be the person you are."

ME—Thank you Brian. Goodbye. (Hangs up phone—to self). But why? Where did my O'Neill passion come from? (Dials telephone).

BIG SISTER—I remember the parents were going out. They said, "We'll see you." I told Mom I was going to watch the "Carol Burnett Show." And she said, 'You should really watch "Long Day's Journey into Night." ' Seeing Laurence Olivier—my life has never been the same. It was because of Mom.

ME—(hangs up, stung, blinking with surprise) I should have known. (Dials phone).

ME—Mom, hey hi, I was just wondering, why did you start liking Eugene O'Neill?

MOM—(with determined affection) The whole family was dysfunctional.

ME—(controlling a wild impulse to laugh) Oh! It always comes back to that, doesn't it?


                           —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan. 30, 2012


  1. Any time I hear about O,Neil or Arthur Miller plays, I have one thought: My life is depressing enough, I don't need three hours of that depressing beyond belief crap to make be feel suicidal!

    1. Maybe what makes your life depressing is an unwillingness to grapple with difficult, complicated issues. Or an inability to process art.

    2. Oh come on! It's not art when it depresses people. Every time Dennehy showed up in Chicago, there would be the inevitable article on why people didn't flock to this garbage!
      The answer was always, it depresses people.
      I can't imagine why anyone wants to know about the miserable life of Willie Loman!
      When I go to see something, I want to feel good afterwards!

    3. "It's not art when it depresses people." When did you become "people," Clark? As for the range of things which you cannot imagine ... I try not to do interplay. Thanks for reading, Clark, but really. It doesn't seem to be doing you much good. I think I posted a column trying to explain the allure of tragedy to folks like you. I'll dig it up. Although, to be fair, have you ever SEEN "Death of a Salesman"? You ought to. I mean, I sat through eight hours of "Tiger King." It seems only fair. Here's that column I mentioned, reposted three years ago:

    4. I attempted to watch the movie & gave up.
      It was Norman Cousins who wrote a book on how laughter saved his life.
      You should watch Sullivan's Travels, one of Preston Sturges' movies, where at the end, his hero [Joel McRae] realizes laughter is far more important than drama!

  2. My initial reaction to Clark St’s comment and Neil’s reply was that my attraction to O’Neil’s plays consisted of joy that here are people whose lives are even more screwed up than my own. But truthfully, that is a bald lie disguised as a joke. The depiction of sadness, tragedy, deserved as well as undeserved punishment appeals to some inner atavistic need to recognize our helplessness before something inexorable and beyond blame. I’m thinking Oedipus rather than Odysseus. Help from heaven is less interesting I think and the most poignant, most credible event related in the New Testament is that of Christ calling out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me.”


  3. There often is truth and wisdom in even the most depressing works. My affection for Dennehy, O’Neill, and our blog host made my decision to see “The Iceman Cometh” in 2012 a no-brainer. It was exactly what I expected, and more: terrific acting in a lengthy, challenging piece of art for which I was gratified to have witnessed.

  4. "The purification of he emotions (especially pity and fear), primarily through art."
    Aristotle's definition of 'catharsis,' which he said had a healthful and humanizing effect on the reader or viewer."


  5. What I find funny about Clark's response (I'm replying here to put a little distance between us, so maybe he'll think he has had the last word and shut up) is the pure solipsism of it. I don't like NASCAR, would not want to watch a NASCAR race. Round and round and round. But I would never, impugn that huge swatch of America who DO enjoy NASCAR races, because obviously they take something out of it that I don't see. And that's okay, because it's not all about me. Perhaps that's something that one comes to understand after watching enough tragedies. The characters in tragedies aren't really looking out for other people either. Sometimes, when something needs to be bought for one of the boys, I'll point out that the sky's the limit .... WITHIN REASON, the damning qualifier that James Tyrone puts on the kind of sanatarium where Edmund is to be sent to battle his TB. And we all smile. (How can a person not love this stuff? I'll have to take Clark on his word. But really. You'd think that most people would at least know enough to be ashamed of not getting it).

    1. OK, the last word!
      People watch Jerry Springer & Maury Povich, because the people that go on those shows are way more screwed up than any of us. But at least they make us laugh, due to their stupidity!
      Years ago, when I was spending a couple of weeks stuck in the hospital after surgery, every single tv in the building was tuned to Springer, [the doctors were fascinated by that, which is how I know that] because we could laugh at people, who were healthy, but in far worse shape than us!

  6. as you mentioned, viewing long day
    s journey into night changed my life. i loved the quotes of swineburne baudelaire and others. introduced me to a world of literature i never had encountered. the infatuation with the dark side of life spoke to me. i took many advanced literature courses in college i loved literature so much. even though i was majoring in science. the dynamic of the dysfunctional family is replayed not just in the family but in the workplace too. the universal condition i see it everywhere.... beauty and poignancy cohabit in darkness and that is what is so attractive


Comments are vetted and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.