John Douglas Thompson on Eugene O’Neill: Two

Reflecting on Playing Brutus Jones and Joe Mott

By: - Aug 28, 2012

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It was a Monday morning following a grueling weekend of five performances of Satchmo at the Waldorf at Shakespeare & Company. Compared to a norm of six weeks there had been only three weeks of rehearsal before opening night.

John commented that he had been averaging three hours of sleep. Asked why he described restless nights running new lines and constant changes in the first play by Wall Street Journal theatre critic Terry Teachout. It is also his first experience of performing a one man show.

“For three weeks there were just three people in that rehearsal room, Terry, Gordon (Edelstein the director) and me,” he said. The challenge of playing three characters- Louis Armstrong, his manager, Joe Glaser, and the sharply critical Miles Davis- has been exhausting. The play moves in October to Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven where it will continue with revisions and fine tuning.

Because it is still a work in progress the production at S&C0. was limited to reviews by regional media. The New York press will be invited to the New Haven opening.

Unwinding from an intense weekend, on his day off, John was relaxed discussing Satchmo as we have at times over the past few months. He has not read the reviews which are mostly raves. It means a lot to him that there have been standing ovations following every performance.

Working together we edited the second and last part of a dialogue about his performances in plays by Eugene O’Neill.

John Douglas Thompson What O’Neill has been accused of, and wrongfully so, is for writing black characters who are stereotyped. What I am trying to present is the opposite. He wrote characters that had a great deal of dimension and depth. They have an emotional resonance that helps us to understand the human condition and the plight of African Americans at the turn of the century. It seems to me that O’Neill sided with African Americans, agreeing that they have been dealt a very bad hand by the powers that be. These people are noble and dignified and deserve much better. That’s what you see in Brutus Jones (The Emperor Jones). That’s what you see in Joe Mott (Iceman Cometh), a man trapped by the racism of the day, who deserved so much better than he got.

Other white writers of the time were not writing black characters like O’Neill. They weren’t even writing black characters at all. They just said ‘the hell with it. I’m just not going to include them in my story line.’ O’Neill was incredibly brave in what he did. Not only with Emperor Jones, which was the first time that white audiences saw a black man as a lead on stage. It’s 1919. Imagine if you were sitting in the audience. You came to see Emperor Jones and you saw a black man. It would blow your mind. O’Neill did it. He emphatically said it has to be a black man. ‘I don’t want some white guy in black face playing Emperor Jones. I demand that it be a black actor.’ And they found one and a great one in Charles Sidney Gilpin.

O’Neill did a lot for having blacks portray the true dimension of black characters in American theatre. He started it and did it with Joe Mott and Brutus Jones. If you see August Wilson’s plays you have to see that they’re connected. You see a bunch of Brutus Joneses in August Wilson’s plays, or, Joe Motts. O’Neill wasn’t caught up in the racism of the day. He was trying to give a voice to the black man and that’s what I tried to articulate in both of those plays.

Charles Giuliano The Irish did not endure slavery or the Middle Passage. But, during the Potato Famine they emigrated in what were known as The Black Ships under horrendous conditions. The first waves ended up in New Orleans. There they fought blacks and poor whites for the worst jobs on the levees and docks. Because they resorted to violence in eliminating competition they became knows as Hooligans. They came to America fighting for the lowest rung on the social and economic ladder. Perhaps that’s a part of what gives O’Neill such empathy for Joe Mott and the assortment of immigrants in Iceman. Perhaps it is a refection, through O’Neill, of the Irish experience in America.

JDT Look at all the people in (Harry Hope’s) bar. There is that whole mix and he is saying ‘This is what America is.’ He had empathy for everyone in the bar. There is racism toward the Irish, British, South African, Italian, African American, everyone in that bar. Everyone gets their share.

CG So he was an equal opportunity racist.

JDT After doing this play I look back at O’Neill with awe. He wrote the play in the 1930s but it is set in 1912. He had that much empathy for all these races of people and to write them as articulately as he could. He gave them dimension, subtlety, emotion and depth. It’s genius what he was able to do. Iceman is one of his great works because the study of the human condition is so deep in that play.

The commitment of these actors that I got to share the stage with, those from New York, those from Chicago, was so fucking good and so clear. They had such a strong intention that they brought those characters to life. I was moved by their performances while I was on stage with them. This hasn’t happened to me before. It was a profound experience.

Studying the play you realize that all these characters were people he knew. They weren’t figments of his imagination. These were real lives and were his friends. He changed the names but these were real people that he was talking about.

As an actor you feel a moral obligation to play these characters  right. You have to give it your all. He was writing from a place of pain, not just for himself, but for everyone else. So when I look at what he wrote for Joe Mott he was trying to capture the pain for the African American man living in turn of the century America. And what he or she had to deal with just to survive. I think he captured that.

CG We have talked a lot about the process of developing characters from Shakespeare. You research and find your way into remote historical eras. Now we are talking about plays set in the 20th century. In this process what do you find and discover about yourself?

JDT To answer that requires taking a personal inventory which is hard for me.

CG You have to find something in yourself in order to honestly portray that character. How does it become real for you and the audience?

JDT (Pause) Let me think about that. I can’t give you now any answer that would make sense. That’s personal to me. It’s like talking about what makes you tick. I don’t know if I want to talk about that. Once I talk about that, and define it, then I’ve killed it. I want certain things to remain a mystery.

CG Why is this a difficult question for you and what do you mean by killing it?

JDT It’s personal and involves cataloguing what I do, and how I do what I do, what I’ve learned about what I do. I would like to leave that a mystery. Some of it is a mystery even to me. I want to leave it as it is. Once you go out there and define everything that you do, at least for me, I think you kill it.

CG We have talked a lot, on a number of occasions, about your work and craft. This raises the issues of boundaries between public and private. As an actor you are a public figure. For many individuals in public positions sustaining a private life is difficult. Reading the New Yorker profile, for example, I was surprised to find details we had never talked about. There was information about your family which we have never discussed. What does the public have the right to know and what’s off limits?

JDT I don’t think you tell everybody everything. It comes down to the kinds of questions you’re asked. When I did the New Yorker interview (May 21, 2012 by Alec Wilkinson) he said, specifically, “I would like to talk about your family.” I don’t think you ever asked me that question. If someone asks those questions you have the option to answer or say “That’s a little too close to home. If you don’t mind I’d rather not talk about that.” Whenever Alec asked any personal questions he said “I understand if you don’t want to talk about it.” It’s a question from you, the journalist, and then it is up to the person to address it. There are many areas of my life that I would not openly talk about. I don’t think I’ll ever talk about them. You’ve got to keep something to yourself.

I don’t consider myself a public person. I consider myself a private person. I get viewed by the public but that doesn’t mean that my life is an open book. I don’t confuse those things. I’m not on that level of attention. People aren’t in my life that way. I don’t require that and don’t want people peeping into my life.

I really do like acting. Good can come from it and the people who I do it for. This competitive animal rising to the heights, I think I’ve told you this before, that’s not me. I have no idea where my career is going to go. I’m not sitting down planning it. I’m happy for those who get wonderful opportunities be it in movies, TV, or stage. This is hard work that we do. Any time that my peers succeed on that level I’m happy for them. The only way I create opportunities for myself is by being happy for them. Not being jealous or competitive with them. There’s enough room for all of us and I’m happy with what they have and happy for what comes to me. I’m not at a point where I would share all of my information with people because I’m supposed to, or because somebody asked me to. I can still say no and hold on to what is my essence. I can keep it to myself.

So certain things I don’t want to define. Like when people ask “Tell me how you did this thing? Tell me how you created this?” I can talk around it. Even when we’re talked about Richard III or Othello, some of them are secrets even to me. Some of them are mysteries even for me. I don’t question them and don’t want to get to the bottom of them. I just let them exist as they are. Hopefully, they can serve me as I move on into the future, but I don’t have to know them. I truly believe once you define something too much you kill it. You don’t have it to go back to anymore. You’ve drained all of the water out of the well. It’s dry. Leave it alone. Let the rain keep coming down. It fills the well and you drink from it. But you don’t need to know how the water got in the well. You don’t need to know the contents of the well. You just need to know there’s water there. And you can get some water when you’re thirsty. That’s it.

This is a very interesting question which you posed to me but I haven’t even figured it out. As I was trying to come up with an answer, you know, there is no answer. Maybe you just leave that alone.

CG The first act of Iceman is very slow, dark and difficult. All of the characters are on stage slumped over and sleeping. The Brian Dennehy character sustains most of the act. Things become animated when Hickey (Nathan Lane) arrives. It takes so much patience for the audience to follow this.

JDT That’s the expertise of Robert Falls. Pacing it and building it really, really slow. Another director who isn’t as skilled as Robert might have cut some of that. If you play it faster you loose the payoff. I thought it was really smart. Considering what different directors might do with that kind of material. If you read the play there are stage directions and we followed them. O’Neill wanted companies, actors, directors to follow what he put on the page. He wanted them to follow it explicitly. We did it and the payoff is that you get an incredible panoramic view of this human story from many different angles.

CG Sitting in the audience for some four and a half hours, as your friend, I was aware of the physical demands for the performers to do that night after night. The physical challenges must be enormous. When we spoke briefly,  the morning after seeing the play, I recall that you told me that at times the actors do doze off.

JDT There are times when you get lulled and are right on the verge of sleeping. There is another part of you which is still focused on what’s going on, so you know where you need to be, and when you need to be there. It’s physically and emotionally demanding to focus yourself in that way.  That’s what rehearsals are for, to build that muscle. By doing that, you really start to come into your character. You come into the character of these people who are drunkards. They are characters who are living for the next drink wherever it is coming from.  How am I going to get my next shot of whiskey? It becomes fascinating; a real in depth study of the human psyche of an individual who is an alcoholic, and living with a pipe dream.

CG That seems so physically demanding. I noticed that Dennehy was the only one on stage with padding under his seat.

JDT It was physically demanding for all of us, young, and old. There are people from almost every age group in the play. It is another indicator of the genius of O’Neill that he could write a play that included people in their twenties as well as characters in their sixties and seventies. It’s a great play that was physically demanding for all of us. After awhile you didn’t talk about it anymore. You just do it. That was a part of the experience of the play, not only for the audience, but for the performers. There’s no easy way out.  

It’s a part of why I say you celebrate the successes of your peers because you know first hand that this is really hard work. I would like the public to know just how hard actors work at delivering a product that they can enjoy. There are hours, and hours, and hours, of physical rehearsal. Hours, and hours, and hours of mental rehearsal. That play, Iceman sums it all up for me. I want to play Hickey. I want to know what that challenge would be like for me. I desperately want to play Hickey.

CG You want to play Hickey?

JDT Absolutely. Oh yes. Of Course. That’s the thing about O’Neill’s plays. All that they demand is that you bring the truth about human conditions. That’s all he requires. And he requires you to go deep. Go as deep as you can. And, when you find that place, try to go deeper. He says that’s where I need you to go and this is really painful stuff. Hickey finally gets to the point where he tells everyone that he killed his wife. He killed her because he hated her. He built up this hate over time. My God! What a nightmare for this man to have lived through. That comes directly out of O’Neill’s experience with women. There is so much about O’Neill and women in that play that he carried around. He was writing from the depth of his soul. What that requires from an actor is to go to the depth of his or her soul and O’Neill would accept nothing less. What I like about him is that he holds your feet to the fire. He makes you go deeper than you’ve ever gone before.  

CG Are you saying that Iceman is a high point of your career?

JDT Yes. It ranks up there with Othello and Emperor Jones, without question. Of course I’ve had some really good experiences with other Shakespeare plays and some non Shakespeare plays. As you say, Joe Mott in Iceman was not a big part. But then I look at that play and there are no small parts. We all have to hold everything up for everyone else. That’s what made this production so unique.

CG The explosion of your “aria” in the third act was surely a high point of the Goodman production of The Iceman Cometh. There is anger and violence in Joe Mott. He charges out slamming the door with a, fuck you, to the drunks in Harry Hope’s bar. You are off to raise a new stake to start another black and tan club. To get back on your game and show something to all who scorned and snubbed you. Then, in the fourth act, like everyone else whom Hickey conspired to push out the door, you come crawling back looking for your old room and a shot of whiskey.

JDT That’s right. O’Neill didn’t leave anybody out. The anger and violence in that speech is what O’Neill captured so well. Not just for an African American but this is what happens when someone is put under that kind of pressure. When someone’s life is devalued and they have been made into second class citizens.  This is what happens when they become invisible. It’s what boils underneath and at some point erupts. The whole pacing of the play, and what happens to Joe Mott prior to that moment, serves as a precursor to his violent expression about racism.

CG You are talking about the character in a more broadly humanistic context than just as a black man. You are describing him as any oppressed individual.

JDT Absolutely. But it is very specific that this is an African American so there is specific language than goes along with that. What O’Neill was getting at was the repressed anger of the oppressed. Joe Mott wants everyone to know, it’s over. I’m not going to take this anymore. Everyone sits up and listens to Joe when he has that outburst. They listen to him and then he goes. He’s not coming back. I played it in my mind that he is going out and will get everything he needs to open up a gambling joint. The next time these people in the bar see him, he’ll be a wealthy man, just as he was in the old days. He’ll drop money on the bar and say, you can’t have a drink unless you’re proud to drink with a black man. Then you can have a drink.  He says that, if I come back, those are the conditions.

For me that aria, you just can’t approach it in black and white. Sometimes critics see it that way but I feel that O’Neill was looking for something more universal. The same with The Emperor Jones, this is not just an angry black guy. So many people talked with me after Emperor Jones and said it didn’t matter that he was black. He could have been Jewish or any race of people who came to this country and were marginalized. That’s who Brutus Jones is and to an extent that’s who Joe Mott is. When you look at it in those terms you can resonate with more humanity. Think about it in very strict terms, a black man speaking out about black anger, you limit yourself and the universality of what O’Neill wrote. I’m never about that. I’m about expanding the message. I truly believe he wrote a universal message about a man, who happens to be black, speaking out for all the oppressed. O’Neill was giving up on the great American experience of democracy. It doesn’t work. It’s not working for certain individuals and it’s not working for Joe Mott. Here’s a guy who should have stuff but he doesn’t. Why is that? You have to work to get it but he’s speaking in very profound terms and very emotional terms about something that failed.

CG Consider that O’Neill was friends with Jack Reed and Louise Bryant when he was involved with the Provincetown Players. O’Neill was sympathetic to the radical left, the socialists and Wobblies (The International Workers of the World or I.W.W.). There are anarchists and socialists in the mix of Iceman. It was a part of the political fabric of the play. The failed and demoralized left which was crushed by Woodrow Wilson during WWI. Brian Dennehy plays a disillusioned radical.

JDT Dennehy’s character of Larry Slade has aspects of O’Neill himself. At one time Slade was involved with anarchists.

CG Not anarchists. Sacco and Vanzetti were anarchists. O’Neill was a socialist close to the I.W.W and they were not anarchists. 

JDT There were anarchists in the bar and they reflected friends of O’Neill. The important point is that O’Neill was saying that the American dream was not working.

Link to Part One