Brian McFarlane reviews 'Eugene O'Neill' by Robert M. Dowling

Brian McFarlane reviews 'Eugene O'Neill' by Robert M. Dowling

Eugene O'Neill: A Life In Four Acts

by Robert M. Dowling

Yale University Press (Footprint Books), $53.95 hb, 580 pp, 9780300170337

It seems unlikely that anyone ever emerged from the performance of an O’Neill play saying happily, ‘Laugh! I nearly died.’ Robert M. Dowling’s fine biography helps to account for this: the life behind the writing of those plays was not conducive to a hilarious outcome. To have survived the life he lived would have been remarkable enough, let alone turning out some of the century’s most searing dramas.

For some, O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956) remains one of the unforgettable theatrical experiences. Two moments remain indelibly fixed on my mind. One features sixty-three-year-old Laurence Olivier as James Tyrone in Michael Blakemore’s 1971 production. His Tyrone, always complaining of wasted electricity, is cautiously standing on a table to change a light bulb, then jumps off it backwards, capturing the former matinée idol’s bravado along with his age and parsimony. The other was of the great actress Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies, in the 1958 London production, as drug-dimmed Mary Tyrone, who enters in the play’s last moments with her wedding dress over her arm, saying quietly: ‘Then in the spring something happened to me. Yes, I remember. I fell in love with James Tyrone and was so happy for a time.’

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Published in May 2015, no. 371
Brian McFarlane

Brian McFarlane

Brian McFarlane’s latest book is Four from the Forties: Arliss, Crabtree, Knowles and Huntington, Manchester: MUP, 2018. He has had three overlapping careers, as teacher, academic, and writer. He is the author or editor of over twenty books and hundreds of articles and reviews on film and literature and related matters. He co-edited The Oxford Companion to Australian Film and was compiler, editor and chief author of The Encyclopedia of British Film. His most recent books include: Twenty British Films: A guided tour and Double-Act: The remarkable lives and careers of Googie Withers and John McCallum. He is currently serving as Adjunct Professor at Swinburne University of Technology and as Adjunct Associate Professor at Monash University.