- Who Does Little but ListenPlaying O’Neill’s Hughie
My father was a storyteller, famous within his circle of family and friends, and I grew up hearing, now and again over the years, about the night he nearly killed Eugene O’Neill. The tales with which Father entertained us usually had to do with the passage of one Maloney or another from Irish immigrant to New England mill foreman to (in his father’s case) Dartmouth-educated statesman. He would also go on about his own childhood in Chelsea, Massachusetts, and his life in the theater in the early years of the twentieth century. A proverbial black sheep, Father gave up on formal education halfway through high school. Dropping his surname, so as not to be confused with his lawyer/legislator father, he became, in a daring act of self-invention, David Keating, actor.
It was during a season of summer stock on Nantucket that he had his encounter with O’Neill.1 The year was 1925. After performing in Shaw’s Candida with the Nantucket Players, he had partied with fellow cast members (including Burgess Meredith, who was playing Marchbanks) and was heading home to Siasconset, at the east end of the island. He was driving a Ford “New Model” Tudor sedan belonging to Mrs. Clarissa Rood Moran, at whose cottage in ’Sconset he was staying. The night was dark, the road was rutted, and in the light from the headlamps the fog was like a white wall just inches from the automobile’s front bumper. Suddenly, the figure of a man appeared in front of the car. Simultaneously hitting the horn and the brakes, Father turned the steering wheel hard to the left as the shadowy figure, crying out, fell to the right. Stopping the car in a ditch, Father got out and crossed to the ditch on the other side of the road. There lay the man who obviously had, as had my father, “drink taken.” Despite that fact, or perhaps because of it, neither man was hurt. The young actor David Keating helped the older man to his feet, introduced himself, then gave the playwright Eugene O’Neill [End Page 145] a ride to his destination. During the years that followed, Father continued to read and admire O’Neill’s works as they appeared, and when I left home to begin my own career as an actor he gave me his copy of Nine Plays, each play ranked by him with from one to four penciled stars.
Fifty years after that incident on Nantucket, I appeared on Broadway opposite stage and screen star Ben Gazzara in O’Neill’s two-character play Hughie, and my parents came to New York for the opening. Checking into their hotel, my father, who for years had patiently endured my performances with an avant-garde company in which I had often appeared barefooted, or even naked, happily exclaimed, “At last you’re acting in a real play!”
Fathers and sons. It comes down to generational conflict, the age-old story. Eugene O’Neill, born in a trunk, swaddled in stage curtains, lives much of his first seven years of life on the road. Grows up in shabby dressing rooms, watches his famous father stare into a mirror as he paints his handsome face. First a layer of cold cream (“Just a little,” my own father cautioned me as he made up), then flesh-colored base from one of the fat cardboard tubes of Stein’s greasepaint; liner from the skinny ones (white for highlights, blue for shadow); a dot of red at the corner of each eye near the nose, and finally, just before the call to “Places,” the cloud of powder, the puff in his father’s hand making a muted slap/slap/slap as he “fixes” his makeup against the sweaty ordeal that is The Count of Monte Cristo. The child watches from the wings, sees his father
dripping with salt and sawdust, climbing on a stool behind the swinging profile of dashing waves. It was then that the calcium light in the gallery played on his long beard and tattered clothes, as with...