A Late Day For Regrets

No other work in American literature has haunted me like this one. 

It is our Great American Play, I think. It’s truths are eternal, and the shock of recognition is terrifying.

It is a family play, set in 1912 in a house in New London, Connecticut. The story is deeply autobiographical. The characters are facsimiles of O’Neill’s family: the father, James, a once-promising Shakespearean actor who squandered his talent in exchange for an easy buck; the mother, Mary, a morphine junkie wrecked by addiction after the death of a young son; Jamie, the alcoholic and cynical older brother; and Edmund, the wayward, seafaring youngest son with a deep poetic streak, who is the playwright himself, but who takes the name of O’Neill’s real-life dead brother in the play.

O’Neill wrote “Long Day’s Journey” in the early 1940s, in the last decade of his life while in the throes of a severe neurologiocal disorder, after he’d been awarded the Nobel Prize. He never wanted it to be performed. His widow, determined to enshrine his legacy as one of the great American artists after his death, insisted that it be produced on the stage. It was, and it was a smash, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1956, O’Neill’s fourth.

The play, like much of O’Neill’s work, is about what you’re left with after all illusion has been stripped away. It’s about saying everything you’ve ever wanted to say to your loved ones, but couldn’t. It isn’t always pretty.

As Tony Kushner said in a PBS documentary: “[O’Neill’s idea is that] there are great complexes and abysses of meaning under the surface of life, and our job as artists and people is to dig, and go deep, and to dive, as Melville kept saying, deeper and deeper and deeper, and the more deeply you dive the more you’re at risk of being dismantled and crushed. But that’s what your job is and you don’t flinch from it … O’Neill is our Shakespeare, he sets the standard.”

It’s been said that O’Neill invented American theatre, that he was our first serious playwright. It’s interesting to note that most of the major American writers of his vintage saw their talent flame out as they aged (Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald); O’Neill’s only improved, despite a worsening battle with a Parkinson’s-like disease. That is heroic. 

O’Neill died in a Boston hotel along the Charles River in 1953, with his wife Carlotta at his side. “Born in a hotel room,” he told her before passing, “and goddamnit, died in a hotel room.”

#eugeneoneill #longdaysjourneyintonight #tonykushner #americandrama #broadway #jasonrobards #katherinehepburn #sidneylumet @americanexperiencepbs

When You Wake

This book taught me about the musical possibilities of the English language: that the sound and rhythm of words on a page could take on an almost symphonic-like power in the hands of a master.

I first read “All The Pretty Horses” as a senior in high school. It was a Christmas gift from a close family-friend — thank you, Mrs. Stacie — who strongly felt that I should read it before going off to college. I’ve returned to it many times since.

The soaring nature of the language ignited something in me that had only been lit by music up to that point, on songs like “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Thunder Road” and the video for “November Rain,” when Slash is in the desert alone with his Les Paul, ampless in front of a white chapel.

It was never my dream to just “stick around,” and perhaps this book also spoke to a maladaptive sense of wanderlust. Part of me always wanted to wander the earth like my partial-namesake Kwai Chang Caine in the ’70s tv show “Kung-Fu.” But it was not to be.

In the book there are the brilliant evocations of the land and wildlife and a long disquisition on the history of Mexico (“They kicked [Francisco Madero’s] dead body and spat upon it. One of them pried out his artificial eye and it was passed among the crowd as a curiosity.), as well as a reckoning with the fragility of our relationship with our sister republic. McCarthy’s vision of the world can be incredibly dark but it is punctuated with flashes of breathtaking beauty.

As he wrote:

“He thought that the world’s heart beat at some terrible cost and that the world’spain and its beauty moved in a relationship of diverging equity and that in this headlong deficit the blood of multitudes might ultimately be exacted for the vision of a single flower.”

#alltheprettyhorses #cormacmccarthy #kwaichangcaine #kungfutvshow #franciscomadero

The Ties That Bind

Continuing my theme of firsts (first base, first love, first smoke and beer will come later), this was the first cassette I remember purchasing myself. It was 1986, and I was about seven.

I had become obsessed with a song called “At This Moment” which appeared on this album. I first heard it one night on tv at my grandmother Mama Telle’s house in Panama City, likely during the holidays. The song played near the ending of an episode of “Family Ties,” a show I hadn’t seen till then as it ran past my bedtime. But I caught it that night, and I liked it immediately, mainly, I think, because it starred  Michael J. Fox — a familiar face from “Back to the Future” and the very definition of cool to a seven year old.

Some time after we got back home, I got my mom to drive me to the Record Bar in her blue Ford station wagon. I recall the embarrassment I felt when, asking a clerk where to find it, I referred to Vera’s backing band as the Beatles. He laughed, then pointed me in the right direction.

“At This Moment” is a piece of maudlin, blue-eyed soul, and a really weird song for a kid to dig. But we like what we like, as they say. I don’t think I cared for any other tunes on the album, especially hating one number called “Peanut Butter.”

I forgot about the song for a long time. Then one night, around the time I got married in 2005, my now ex-father-in-law randomly mentioned at dinner that it was his favorite song. It was clearly personal to him, and likely spoke to the regret he felt over some things not voiced that night. I kept mum about my own history with the tune. #atthismoment #billyveraandthebeaters #familyties #michaeljfox