Eugene O’Neill, the only American playwright to win the Nobel Prize for literature, is still a Broadway staple sixty-five years after his death, with many of his plays coming back time and again. Last season brought a successful revival of The Iceman Cometh, starring Denzel Washington, that was the play's fourth Broadway revival since the failure of its first 1946 production. And today marks the 45th anniversary of an important O'Neill milestone: that of A Moon for the Misbegotten. 1973 marked its first Broadway revival, and since its rediscovery during that cold winter week just before New Year's, it has returned three more times, tying with Iceman's total of four revivals, although still one shy of the playwright's Long Day's Journey Into Night, what has had five Broadway revivals since it premiered in 1956. Say one thing for O'Neill: even if his plays are long-winded and a bit verbose, actors want to say his lines. And that is unlikely to stop for the foreseeable future.
But forty-five years ago tonight, when the Jose Quintero-directed A Moon For the Misbegotten opened, it was not so much a revival as a reawakening to the play's merits. It too failed (like Iceman) in its Broadway premiere, and a 1968 Off-Broadway revival fared poorly as well. In fact, the play got off on the wrong foot from the very start, with its first production closing out of town ten years prior to its 1957 Broadway premiere.
In 1947, the esteemed Theatre Guild, which had been producing O’Neill’s plays since the 1920s, mounted a production of Moon in Columbus, Ohio, which was then booked to go on to Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit and St. Louis before opening on Broadway. It was rough going. The review in the Detroit Times led with a headline (in red ink, no less) that stated: “O’NEILL PLAY CLOSED FOR OBSCENITY.” Local censors were demanding that “whore” be changed to “tart”; “bastard” to “louse” and “a pig of a woman” to “a cow” (That last one is a genuine head scratcher). Variety called it “a psychopathic Tobacco Road,” which must have really made O’Neill slap his head in despair.
A Moon for the Misbegotten never made it past St. Louis and wouldn’t make it to Broadway until ten years later (and four years after O’Neill’s death) where it only managed a disappointing sixty-eight performances. Dismissed by critics as a lesser work by the master, Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times summed it up when he called it “an uneventful play that lacks the elemental power of an O’Neill drama.” It ran for two months.
The Broadway premiere of A Moon for the Misbegotten (1957)
with Wendy Hiller, Franchot Tone and Cyril Cusack.
But it was the 1973 Moon that cemented the play's reputation once and for all, with career-best performances from Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst. Nothing about the play changed as there were no rewrites, as the playwright was long dead. It was simply a matter of audiences (and critics) catching up with the piece when performed by actors who were born to play the two leads (notoriously difficult to cast). This historic production was thankfully filmed for television, and though it’s available on Amazon, it will set you back $125. Better to check it out of your local library.It is well worth watching as it captures a moment in time when actors the likes of Robards and Dewhurst roamed amongst us mortals.
The production was culled together, almost as if snatched out of thin air, and turned into something profound; not only for Robards, but for everyone involved. The story, as told to me by Robards' and Dewhurst's agent, the late Clifford Stevens, went exactly like this: “Jason called me, it was April , and he said, ‘I gotta do something to help José [Quintero]. He can’t get a job.’ José had a big battle with alcoholism, but now he was on the wagon. And I said, ‘Well, you’ve got a movie in August. What do you want to do between now and August? That’s not a lot of time to put something together.’ And he said, ‘Well, I’ve thought about doing [O’Neill’s] A Touch of the Poet.’ And I said, ‘Jason, I couldn’t give Touch of the Poet away … that’s not gonna happen.’ And he said, ‘Well, Colleen [Dewhurst] and I have always talked about doing A Moon For the Misbegotten,’ and I said, ‘That’s not an easy play either, but I have a real affection for that one.’
So I sat down and called all the usual suspects; the people who could put together a Broadway tour … Kennebunkport, Playhouse in the Park … you could get seven or eight weeks, and you could also book a play for one week. They all said, ‘Oh boy, Jason Robards, Colleen Dewhurst—how about Plaza Suite?’ As soon as I mentioned Misbegotten … they froze. So, I was about to call Jason and say, ‘I’m not going to be able to make it happen,’ and then I thought about the Lake Forest Theatre in Chicago. Brian Bedford, who I represented, did many plays there, and I would go out there a lot. So I called and said, ‘I’ve got Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst to star, I’ve got José Quintero to direct, I’ve got A Moon For the Misbegotten, these are the dates they’re free.’ I was told there was already something booked and I said, ‘Postpone it! I’m putting you on the map!’
I called Jason, Colleen, José, and said, “You’re flying to Lake Forest,’ and they all asked ‘Where is it?” I said, “It’s outside Chicago. It’s a very nice theatre.’ I never thought anything was going to happen with it. Then a few weeks later, I was in London with Betty Bacall, and she was on the phone with Jason talking about their son, Sam. And she said ‘Clifford’s here, do you want to talk to him?’ I said, ‘How’s it going?” because I hadn’t talked to him in awhile, and he said, ‘We’ve got something really good here. We’ve got something really hot.’ I said, ‘You want to go on with it?’ And he said, ‘Yeah.’
Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards in A Moon for the Misbegotten (1973).
Then the money became hard to raise. One time, when I was up at the farm with Colleen, she said, ‘When we’re in trouble, we call Roger Stevens’ [a renowned producer of the day]. I said, ‘I can call him, but the call would be much better calling from you. With me he might say he’ll think about it, but he’ll do anything for you, especially with Jason attached.’ And he gave us a booking at the Kennedy Center. That went so well that we were able to get the Morosco for eight weeks on an interim booking.
If I had to name the greatest opening night I ever went to, it was on that freezing December 29th at the Morosco. Elliot Martin [the producer] couldn’t afford a party, so Jason (who was not making a lot of money at the time), Colleen (who was practically broke), and José (who was always broke), all threw the party. There was a band, food, and then Elliot got up and read Clive Barnes’ review. And Jason said, ‘This night’s not gonna end,’ and he called his friends at the No Name Bar … we all got into taxis … and I remember … I was holding Colleen … and the front of my shirt was soaked with her tears. We knew this was not going to be just eight weeks, and she said, ‘I’ve been in this fucking business for twenty years, I’ve never been in a success.’”
Robards’ personal reaction to Misbegotten’s success was one of surprise. "Audiences must be starving for meaningful theatre," he said. "They are responding to this as though it’s a new play."
His statement at the time proved more meaningful than he could have known: over the next twenty-one years, Robards went on to star in six “old plays” on Broadway (four of them by O’Neill).
Elements of these stories were culled from two prior columns on this production and Jason Robards.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.