American Experience
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Jason Robards on O'Neill: Part 1 (5:28) - Transcript

Jason Robards: The first O'Neill I ever saw was the original production in 1946 of The Iceman Cometh, which had a dinner break then and it was quite a long evening, and it was really what I, maybe it was that it was in a barroom that attracted me, I don't know... And when the opportunity came back for some reason to do O'Neill, to do The Iceman in 1956, a friend of mine said "Jason, Jose's doing The Iceman down at the Circle." And I was supposed to go to work, and I didn't, I went down to the Circle. The minute I heard it. And it must...something drew me right back to that, to do that O'Neill... that was my connection with O'Neill. Then all the things of being part of O'Neill started to fall into place. The fact that my father was an actor, his father was an actor. I had a younger brother and he had a younger brother. I was at sea six and a half years, and he was at sea... All of these things filtered in. I mean I never connected them at all until I started doing Iceman and Long Day's Journey into Night. So here was this connection that kept unfolding in the first three years that I did O'Neill.

I seemed to feel that O'Neill always showed me the way to do it. Where as most people would say, "Oh, he wrote too many stage directions.... blah blah blah blah." You know, they say that, "Don't listen to those things." I found that those were the things that really helped me. I made a terrible mistake once when somebody said, "Erase all the stage directions. And just you know, do something else." Well, the minute we did that, we were completely lost. So we had to go back and we had to go back and erase our scratch-outs of stage [directions], and we put them all back in, you know. Jose knew that.

I think the most universal play of all is The Iceman Cometh. Which takes in almost the world, it takes in all kind of situations: the Boer War, the English, the blacks, the whites, Italians, every strata of life. It's unbelievable what he covers in there. It's a symphony as Jose said.

Opening night or afternoon -- we opened at one in the afternoon so that they could get the reviews in by the the morning papers -- after the third act, there was a break, and I went down to the dressing room I had which was down in the cloak room [in] the Circle, this small theater. And I was getting ready to go on and the last act and I was sitting there. And then the black out went and the guys went on stage and then the lights come up -- we didn't have a curtain, the lights all came up -- and I was sitting in the dressing room, I heard a tremendous ovation went up. Incredible ovation!! And I ran from my dressing room in the cloak room up to the bar area where Jose stood and I said "Jose what the hell happened?" and he said, "They all stood, the entire audience, critics, everybody, stood on their feet when the lights came up for the beginning of the last act and cheered for almost a minute. I said "Holy Christ, they think the play's over and I haven't even got to the end yet"... "What the heck? What happened, I mean they think the play..." "No!" he said "No! No!" He said, "It's a [expletive] symphony. That's the last movement of the symphony."

He often felt that Long Day's Journey was one of the greatest plays and it was a beautiful, beautiful, string quartet, he said. And when Colleen and I were doing Moon for Misbegotten, during rehearsal he said, "You know I think I'll move all that stuff, that whole scene, that forty minute long scene, move it out over there, because it's a pavane. It's a pavane," he said. And so I said to Lois, "What's a pavane?" She said, "That's when two people," it's a twosome [dance]... So he thought in these terms, is what I'm getting to. But that was some string quartet Long Day's Journey, wasn't it? Yes.