Brian Dennehy's Journey into Eugene O'Neill
Aliah O'Neill talks to Brian Dennehy, who is honored with this year's Eugene O'Neill Lifetime Achievement Award
If Brian Dennehy says the Irish can do no wrong, we should probably be inclined to believe him. At 72, the veteran actor of film, television and stage has not only become famous for his portrayals of the working-class Irish American, he has also starred in plays by some of the most revered Irish and Irish-American playwrights in history: Samuel Beckett, Eugene O’Neill, Sean O’Casey and Brian Friel.
Though Dennehy’s career has spanned over 60 films and more than 100 TV movies and stage plays, he is the first to admit that he has never been and never will attain the level of celebrity that many of his contemporaries have found. His reasoning behind this is straightforward (he is unsparingly honest): “I think a lot of it is the physicality… you look a certain way and you sound a certain way. I will probably never be asked to play the same parts as Kevin Kline or even Kevin Spacey…and that’s OK with me.”
Dennehy’s modesty seems to befit a career that appears fairly quiet until you get it down on paper. He’s received several accolades for his work, including Screen Actors’ Guild and Golden Globe Awards for his performance as Willy Loman in the 2001 televised version of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Dennehy is still better known to the general public for his working-class roles than for his portrayal of America’s most famous tragic salesman.
Dennehy has become renowned for bringing new life to characters on the stage who have been portrayed multiple times before. One might expect an actor to religiously abstain from watching other performances of the same characters, but not Dennehy, who wryly comments, “Sure, I would steal from anybody… sometimes you try to steal from other actors but you can’t.” He refers specifically to Jason Robards, a friend and fellow stage actor who was also famous for his interpretations of O’Neill plays; both Dennehy and Robards (who died in 2000) have acted in The Iceman Cometh, A Touch of the Poet, Hughie and A Long Day’s Journey into Night.
“I remember when I saw Iceman I was so impressed with Jason Robards’ performance [as Hickey] that I thought there was only one way you could do it. And I tried to play him in that really dark, deeply cynical way that he did, and I realized after a few weeks of rehearsal that I really couldn’t do it that way… I realized I had to play him in a different way and the way it worked for me was to play him quite the opposite – he was the happiest guy in the world, he had found the secret.”
Nowadays, after four decades of theatrical experience, Dennehy has taken over the role of the inimitable force in O’Neill’s works. In 2003, he won a Best Actor Tony for his performance in Long Day’s Journey into Night, and overall has been nominated for six Emmys in O’Neill plays. This year, he is the recipient of the aptly-named Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award, bestowed upon an actor, musician, writer, painter or other type of artist who has achieved the highest level of artistic integrity. The award is given annually by Irish American Writers & Artists, a non-profit organization dedicated to highlighting “the rich tradition of Irish Americans in all manner of artistic endeavor in the United States, from the 19th century to the present day.”
The award follows Dennehy’s most recent successful endeavor into Irish theater – a double bill of O’Neill’s Hughie and Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape earlier this year. The project began at the Trinity Repertory Theatre in Providence, R.I., where Dennehy and fellow Hughie actor Joe Grifasi paired the O’Neill play with the O’Casey one-act comedy A Pound on Demand.
Though Dennehy is a big fan of O’Casey, the audience didn’t quite see the connection between the darker Hughie and the farcical Pound. “The Pound on Demand and a couple others were written specifically for the Abbey [Players] to do on tour, usually in the more rural parts of Ireland, in the teens and 20s, because there was no radio or television in those days. They were kind of raucous Irish plays…very, very funny, but of course it’s slapstick. And we found that the audience was very confused by the juxtaposition of those two plays, so we didn’t repeat the experiment.”
Finally Dennehy came up with the idea to pair Hughie, written by O’Neill later in life, with another play characterized by an artist “looking back” – Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. Hughie, set in a small hotel in midtown New York in 1928, is a 45-minute rambling near-monologue by Erie Smith, a lowly gambler who laments his lousy circumstances to the hotel clerk Charlie Hughes. Hughes is the successor to Hughie, whose death Erie blames for his bad turn of luck, revealing in the process that his self-absorption is a cover for an intense loneliness now that Hughie is gone.
In Krapp’s Last Tape, Dennehy plays an old man who inhabits a room surrounded by reel-to-reel recordings of his reflections on his life. Krapp never leaves this room, his desk or his tape player, giving the image of a bitter old man obsessed with his younger life, which he plays back to himself on an endless loop.
Superficially, both plays appear to be equally cynical and humorless, and indeed both have been performed this way. But Dennehy’s experience with performing O’Neill and now Beckett has revealed differences in their world views that have lent themselves to interpreting these plays in a fresh way. “I’d say that O’Neill turned out to be more bitter and cynical and dark and pessimistic than Beckett. Beckett himself as a writer and philosopher accepted the world and life and humanity as he found it, whereas I think that O’Neill had that earlier attitude that somehow it was all disappointing…life did not turn out to be the way I think he felt it should be.”
Indeed, O’Neill’s life was one of tragedy and darkness. Born in a hotel on Broadway and 43rd Street (which is now a Starbucks in the heart of Times Square) in 1888, he was the son of James O’Neill, a famous actor who had grown up in extreme poverty in Ireland. Eugene’s strained relationship with his father and knowledge of the hardships he had endured may have been the reason that O’Neill himself never expressed interest in visiting Ireland, though Dennehy argues that O’Neill’s plays are infused with an “Irish sensibility”: “He was indelibly Irish, and yet he never went to Ireland. And one of the experiences which impacted the strongest on him in his youth was seeing the Abbey Theatre when they were on tour in New York. He was very young at that point, probably in his early twenties, and he thought the Abbey Theatre was superior to the Moscow Art Theatre, which also came to New York.”
Though O’Neill experienced great success in the early and middle years of his career, multiple health problems saw him fade into obscurity, even as he continued to write. He battled depression and alcoholism throughout his life, becoming estranged from his own children as he was from his parents and siblings. In the late 1930s, O’Neill barely completed A Touch of the Poet, the first in a cycle of a projected 11 plays following an American family over a 100 year period, before he lost the ability to use a pencil due to unbearable tremors in his hands. Having received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1936, he died in 1953 with relatively little attention.
“O’Neill is a man who, the older he got the darker he got, the more painful his life seemed to be,” says Dennehy. “Probably within a year to three years of his death he was rediscovered because of José Quintero and Jason Robards and his work found a whole new international audience…Usually he hated the productions done of his work – he didn’t have much affection or respect for most actors or directors. It got to the point where later in his career when he was doing his best work, he would send written copies of his plays to the critics because he wanted them to understand what he had written rather than what was produced on the stage.”
Undoubtedly, Dennehy feels an affinity for O’Neill’s works and has found a continually expanding challenge in making O’Neill’s plays work for the audience. While he has performed in many plays by Irish playwrights, Dennehy has singled out O’Neill as having particularly compelling qualities for him as an actor and as an Irish American. “I think if you’re an American and Irish American and Irish Catholic American, which I am, it’s pretty hard to avoid O’Neill. And once you begin to work with O’Neill, you realize how demanding and powerful he is. If you can do O’Neill successfully, if you can make the audience respond to his very difficult material, you can do anything. And you realize as I did early on, as I did before I was doing it, when I was watching it with Jason Robards or even Al Pacino [in Hughie], you realize what an important playwright he was. He was unsparing of himself and the audience and the actor and the director.”
“Once you’ve been exposed to that and you’ve worked on that and tried to make it succeed, it’s hard to move back to lesser material. You want to accept that challenge…you just want to explore the next trip, and I have forty years doing it. And it doesn’t always work… That’s something about O’Neill, it’s always out there hanging in front of you, and no matter how much effort you make, it’s always just beyond your grasp. But it’s good work to reach for it.”
Still, Dennehy’s career is admirably eclectic – in the past few years he’s lent his voice to the animated film Ratatouille, narrated a docudrama called Death or Canada about the escape of Irish Famine immigrants to Canadian ports, and even guest-starred on an episode of 30 Rock as a teamster, in a spoof of his working-class image. But these recent appearances in the movie and TV world now seem secondary to what has been a full and successful stage career.
In 1992, for instance, Dennehy played Hickey in The Iceman Cometh at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin to extremely receptive audiences. “It was fun to play to those Irish audiences because they were smart enough to understand what O’Neill was getting at…The Iceman Cometh is very funny – it’s very dark but it’s very funny, particularly the first act as he recounts the weaknesses of each of these individuals, as they repeat these delusions to get through their lives. The Irish audiences roared with laughter because they recognized the humor in that.”
Almost 20 years later, this December he will be returning to Ireland to perform in a John B. Keane play called The Field in a tour of Dublin, Cork and Galway. Dennehy says he could not be more excited to return to Ireland, a place he called home for about ten years. His Irish roots extend to the West and Southwest of Ireland on both sides of his family – on his father’s side, his grandfather was born in Millstreet, County Cork, and his grandmother was born in Kilmacalogue in West Cork. He knows that they “were born back in the 1850s or 1860s, and were essentially farm workers, and my grandfather emigrated I’m guessing sometime around 1900 – 1904, 1905, he was very young. All of his brothers and sisters eventually came to America and they were all factory workers – they worked for a major factory in Bridgeport, Connecticut called Jenkin’s Valve, which is no longer there.”
On Dennehy’s mother’s side were the Mannions. His grandmother emigrated from Waterford and became a domestic in the United States, a few generations earlier than his father’s people. Most of his relatives settled in Bridgeport and Danbury.
Like O’Neill’s father James, who was born in Kilkenny during the worst year of the Great Famine, 1847, Dennehy’s paternal grandfather refused to return to Ireland in his later years. “My grandfather who was an immigrant under the worst conditions didn’t go back and never wanted to go back, refused to go back, he was so bitter about his experiences as a child. I think most Irish Americans have forgotten how difficult it was for those people. But I can still remember his scars about that. That’s something that we shouldn’t forget…how difficult it was in the 1880s and the 1890s and before.”
He might not admit it himself, but the scope of Dennehy’s career speaks to the way Irish Americans have built upon that past to create a variety of images of themselves. T.J. English, author and Irish American Writers & Artists co-founder, said upon announcing Dennehy’s Eugene O’Neill award, “For over thirty years, in movies, on television and on stage, he has come to embody an iconic image of a certain type of working-class American. The cop, the priest, the fireman, the soldier – Dennehy has brought nobility and passion to these roles and established himself as the dean of American actors.”
While this is true, Dennehy’s stage career has also been a testament to the intellectualism of Irish and Irish-American artists and their exports – so he says himself when anyone’s too quick to pigeonhole the Irish as only good guys in uniforms. “They’re pretty sophisticated, Irishmen…Brendan Behan was about as smart a human being there ever was, but it doesn’t mean you’d necessarily think it if you saw him at first glance in a bar. But that’s the thing about the Irish, they can fool you like that.”
Here’s to a future of Irish artists, writers and performers who are willing to keep surprising us.
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