18th Eugene O’Neill Festival in Danville has Irish lilt
By Lou Fancher
The good Guinness is gone — a storytelling and music-with-stout event sold out weeks ago — but plenty of brilliant blarney remains available at the 18th annual Eugene O’Neill Festival.
Throughout September, Irish wit, wanderlust and wildly imaginative yarns will be featured in productions of Eugene O’Neill’s “A Touch of the Poet” and John Millington Synge’s “The Playboy of the Western World.”
A walk from Danville to Alamo with O’Neill Foundation Advisory Committee member Beverly Lane promises “The Secrets of O’Neill’s Danville.”
An outright hike guided by National Park Service Superintendent Tom Leatherman and former Foundation president Trudy McMahon starts in Danville and journeys its way to Tao House in the Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site. The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright penned his latest and arguably best-known plays while living at Tao House.
In addition, the Museum of the San Ramon Valley hosts an intimate display of playbills and information that illustrates Irish aspects of O’Neill’s life and plays.
Lane, who in addition to volunteering with the foundation is the San Ramon museum’s curator, says the tour she will lead includes a secret about Elliott’s Bar on Hartz Avenue. “But that’s all I’ll say. There aren’t that many secrets so I have to parse them out,” she said.
But she has plenty to say about the playwright’s history. O’Neill’s father and maternal grandfather immigrated from Ireland in the early 1850s, escaping the country’s potato blight and famine. His father, James, became an actor and after purchasing the rights to “The Count of Monte Cristo” performed in it 6,000 times.
He was typecast thereafter, but managed to instill respect and interest in classic Irish literature and legends in O’Neill. More than one of O’Neill’s plays are set in rural environments with Irish characters. Lane offers an excerpt from a 1923 Boston Globe interview: “He wrote this to his son Eugene O’Neill Jr. in 1946: ‘One thing that explains more than anything about me is that I am Irish.’”
Festival Director Eric Fraisher Hayes said that during a recent trip to Ireland he frequently heard one phrase: “Eight hundred years of humiliation.” Used in reference to past famine and British colonialism that made the Irish feel like second-class citizens in their own country, it struck him as notable. “When people come to your land and oppress you there, you have a narrative taken away from you,” he said.
Perhaps a remarkable testimony to human spirit and rising to meet a challenge, the Irish responded to oppression by creating new narratives on a grand scale, Hayes said. “It’s in the mythos of what Ireland is. It’s in their DNA to make up stories about themselves.”
Gaelic, the language brought from Ireland to Scotland in the 5th and 6th centuries AD, is embedded in Synge’s “Playboy,” Hayes said. Reclaiming identity through inflection and words braids itself into the story of a man who enters a village telling a tale of having killed his father. Villagers decide he’s the most fascinating person they’ve encountered and treat him like a hero. With twists and turns, it’s soon discovered that his fabrication — his fake news — means he’s a horrible liar. What will he do?
“I like anything that gets turned upside down,” Hayes said, hinting at, but not revealing the play’s end.
Similarly, O’Neill’s “Poet” has diametrically opposed or at least texturally contrasting themes: Irish humility coexists with American brashness. “The Irish storytelling has to do with a myth that always acknowledges certain forces and limitations. The father is in the past, in the shadow of something that’s always there. The American storytelling is supposed to be this endless horizon. The daughter talks about ambition and it’s all on you to make it happen,” said Hayes.
The battle is the same as the one that engages contemporary society and culture. What is truth? Who owns it? How are people affected by it? There’s a schism between old guard and populist uprising; between what people say or do and what they desire.
“There’s a battle about which story serves you best,” said Hayes. “The fictitious story isn’t always best. Nor is the truth, if the fictitious story keeps you down.”
Of course, there are secret solutions to combat the potentially depressing scramble and the Irish know what they are: lively music, dirty but clever stories, spectacular actors and storytellers, and if you must, the best BYO Guinness you can wrap your hands around.