Between the Lines: A Moon for the Misbegotten

BETWEEN THE LINES – A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN: A weekly look at the creative process through a literary lens.


Director Gordon Edelstein has had a decades-long relationship with Eugene O’Neill’s work, helming productions at various theatres across the country, including Long Wharf Theatre (of which he is the Artistic Director). As rehearsals for A Moon for the Misbegotten reached their halfway mark, WTF Literary Assistant Rachel Wiegardt-Egel caught up with Gordon to chat about his interest in revisiting the piece, the origin of this new look at the show, and the importance of continuing to explore our country’s seminal plays.

What was your first experience with O’Neill? What struck you about his work when you first encountered it?

My first experience with O’Neill was reading his plays when I was school-age. My best recollection is that the first O’Neill play I saw was the seminal revival of A Moon for the Misbegotten with Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst on Broadway—I don’t recall seeing something before that. I am sure I didn’t fully understand the play when I first saw it, but I was mesmerized by the performances and the inescapable power of the event. I’ve been fascinated by O’Neill ever since. He’s certainly the first truly American playwright—before O’Neill, American playwrights were merely copying European forms. O’Neill began an American vernacular for the stage. Some people consider him the greatest of all American playwrights. I don’t like to play those games: “greatest,” “second greatest.” He’s a very great playwright and a great and intrepid artist.

[RW] What most attracts you to this piece?

[GE] I find this play profoundly moving. I am moved by the deep and abiding love at its center. And by the gesture of love and regret that was the generative engine behind the creation of this play: O’Neill’s emotionally tortured and dissolute brother, Jamie, who is represented by Jim Tyrone in the play, had died and O’Neill came out of retirement to create this valedictory work. His attempt to resurrect him in dramatic fiction and to offer him the solace and forgiveness that he, in life, never achieved is overwhelmingly moving to me. The play’s depiction of an impossible love between two lost souls remains one of the great sad love stories in modern dramatic literature.

[RW] This play has such a fascinating progression in tone, from funny and broad to tender and heartbreaking. As a director, how do you navigate those tonal differences?

[GE] Just trust the music. You could say the same of the difference in tone in some of the great symphonic works, from the brisk and bright Allegros to the mournful Andantes in a Beethoven or a Mozart symphony or one of their piano concerti. Most of the great artists, in their work, portray numerous, sometimes contradictory, aspects of human experience. I think you just have to read the music of the play carefully, and trust O’Neill.

[RW] The play has previously been so deeply anchored in the Irish-American experience—what inspired your new approach to this WTF production?

Gordon Edelstein at Long Wharf Theatre. [Photo by T. Charles Erickson]

[GE] I have had a long relationship with A Moon for the Misbegotten and the work of Eugene O’Neill, and when Mandy Greenfield and I began discussions about a way to present this work with revitalizing eyes, we began to explore the notion of making the Hogans African-American tenant farmers. It is certainly true that a minor theme in the play is the relationship between representatives of two classes of Irish-Americans in early twentieth century America. Those distinctions are lost on contemporary audiences much like the historical context in which Shakespeare wrote his plays is, for the most part, lost on us today. We hope the juxtaposition of whites and blacks in this production illuminates O’Neill’s themes of class and power with an even greater clarity. The music of the language can be heard anew, much like when you hear a refreshing new interpretation of a piece of music that you thought you knew—further proof of the fungibility of great theatrical art. Great plays are about human beings and it’s the human experience that is being portrayed here, always shifting depending on who is doing it and how it is being done.

[RW] It sounds like this rehearsal process has led to some revelatory discoveries for you about the play itself.

[GE] Yes, absolutely. The thing about directing great work is that you have to absolve yourself when you begin, because you’re never going to get all of it. These plays are always going to be greater than you are. Each time you try to climb the mountain, so to speak, you know the trails, but you’re different and the season is different and the day is different. It’s all going to be different. And I’m learning all kinds of things about the play. This cast is teaching me all kinds of new things about the play that I just never knew.

[RW] How exciting.

[GE] It is. And so much fun and so richly compelling for me. It’s a joy.

[RW] The play deals so much with the pain of lost souls. Do you think it’s purely a tragedy?  

[GE] O’Neill is a tragic writer, and his personal life was tragic, as was his world view. But he made lemonade out of lemons. He made great art out of the human experience and human sadness and disappointment and heartbreak, and the forging of great art is glorious and an act of faith, in and of itself. The play is glorious and open-hearted. It is also very funny. O’Neill dramatizes moments of the deepest human love: love of a father for a daughter, a daughter for a father, the deep love of two misbegotten souls for each other. Even though nobody gets exactly what they want, the individual exchange among these characters is inspiring.

[RW] We’ve touched on how this production is unlocking new things for you. Speaking a bit more broadly, perhaps, why do you think it’s important to revisit our classics?

[GE] These great works are our holy books. In their own way, they tell the story of life, much like the religious texts do. We return to them to understand ourselves better, and ourselves in relation to them better. My impulse is not to do something unconventional, but my job is to take these plays and ask, “What’s the best way that we can tell this story so people see it afresh?” How can I deliver these great works to an audience so that they really see and hear and experience the author’s work? It is not enough just to put atrophied and dutiful revivals on the stage.

[RW] A Moon for the Misbegotten is a sort of sequel to O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Is there anything you’d like the audience to know about Journey going in?

[GE] I don’t think they need to know anything. They just need to watch the story. I think, ultimately, it’s very simple. For me, the play is, on some level, a religious ritual—of confession, expiation, absolution, forgiveness, and grace. That’s really the journey.

[RW] What do you hope the WTF audience will experience in this production?

[GE] I hope that they are moved. I hope that they’ve had a real journey, that they’ve gone up the mountain with us. And I hope that they walk away thinking about what an extraordinary play this is—what a great writer O’Neill is.