I've often felt that O'Neill is to Shakespeare as Van Morrison is to Bob Dylan. Van wears his grumpy soul on his sleeve while the guy from Minnesota will always dazzle us with his poetic, kinetic footwork.
For many of us, though, O'Neill is the man - probably because we recognize so much of ourselves in his writings. His characters almost leap off the stage into our addled heads, there to be measured against the memory of long gone family members. His father and mother figures are not totally identical to grandparents of mine, but all the traits are there – the grandstanding, liquored-up, disappointed males holding centre stage in the kitchen, while the secretive, troubled, fading and regretful women throb with resentment over in the corner.
There were many good evenings in my grandparents' kitchens but they fade to insignificance when measured against volcanic whiskey midnights when secrets came flushing out never again to be successfully put under lock and key.
O'Neill captured those nights so well, aye, and with them the interred secrets; for he instinctively recognized that all drama springs from family. You may go out into the world, cross oceans and continents, and battle with giants; but, in the end, it's what you learned at the hearth that enables you to exist in such company, pick yourself up when knocked down, nurse the resentments, reinvent yourself one more time, and come back swinging in the final rounds.
I once had a troubled director squire one of my plays onto the boards. Come to think of it, aren't most directors troubled in some way or another? Anyway, he had some personal issues, as they say, and was hourly awaiting redemption. Although I'm a great believer in the big R myself, this particular play almost sent him off the deep end, for it mirrored my feeling that 99% of people never escape heredity. It's as if they're in quicksand, the more they try to escape the deeper they sink.
I love O'Neill but I don't always wish to attend his post-mortems. He stirs up memories and forces me to confront issues long buried. And yet, I'm one of his bastard children: perennially at home in saloons, particularly in the witching hours when the booze banishes all inhibitions and we walk with God, sons and daughters of kings and cardinals. I also inherited his sweet sixteenth sense for approaching trouble; though it may not materialize for a score of years I can spot its signs etched deep in the soft faces of boys, though rarely girls.
I see it in my own writing and, even worse, in my life – that desire to break free and be myself without always being yanked back by some rapacious ancestor. O'Neill wrote the book on that curse – hence, the ineffable despair that permeates all his writing.
There's little irony in Eugene, he's all passion spiced with regret. In our current age of anorexic irony and humorless comedy, he is an anomaly and perceived as outdated and lumberingly old-fashioned. To hell with such naysayers! O'Neill had little time for fashion or fads, he was always his own man - all thunder and lightning, obsessed with the heroic, but preposterous idea that we've been placed here for a reason.
O'Neill didn't need kings or queens like Shakespeare. They were already present in his family, posturing and striding across grand stages of their own imaginings. By placing them in the glare of the footlights, he peeled back layers of skin and calcification, and showed us ourselves as we really are. In so doing, he lit a way for those of us who have chosen to measure our small selves next to his giant footprints.
Rave on, Gene O'Neill, in the worst moments it's helpful to know that you suffered more than any of us; in the best, what a thrill to realize that, despite it all, you triumphed.