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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Arthur and Barbara Gelb

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-03-21

Arthur and Barbara Gelb have been married for 60 years, and 53 of them have been spent seeking the flight of Eugene O'Neill's life and times.

"A magnificent arc of life," Mr. Gelb said yesterday of the only American playwright to have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

"He remains a symbol of integrity, honesty - and courage," Mrs. Gelb said.
Their characterizations, along with those of several major figures of theater, are woven into the narrative of a new two-hour film by the auteur Ric Burns. It will be aired next Monday on PBS - the first definitive broadcast treatment of the avoirdupois of O'Neill's life, according to Mr. Burns.

The Gelbs co-wrote the documentary with Mr. Burns over a 10-year period. They hadn't expected to alchemize their own research - which had previously produced two acclaimed editions of an O'Neill biography - into a new medium. They were at work on the next volume of their O'Neill opus; besides, Mr. Gelb was completing a memoir of his long - and legendary - years at the New York Times - HBO is a making a feature film of that book, "City Room" - and Mrs. Gelb was busy with her own books, magazine articles and lectures.

Mr. Burns, too, was pursuing various projects. One of them was a short film on the New York Times; it was to be shown on the 100th anniversary of the acquisition of the paper by Adolph Ochs. But Susan Dryfoos, an influential member of the Ochs-Sulzberger family that owns the Times - and a documentary maker in her own right - had reservations about the film. Mr. Gelb was asked to adjudicate the issue.

Aware that the problem was irreconcilable, Mr. Gelb asked Mr. Burns: "Why don't you make a film about Eugene O'Neill?"

Mr. Burns told The New York Sun yesterday: "I knew within a heartbeat that I would do the film. I just had a gut instinct about it."

The Gelbs, of course, had been seized with their obsession with O'Neill before Mr. Burns - who is 50 now - had even been born. On the evening of Nov. 7, 1956, after seeing O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night," Mr. Gelb - then an assistant to the Times' drama critics, Brooks Atkinson - rushed to tell his colleague how moved he was by the play. Atkinson disclosed that Cass Canfield of Harper & Brother (now HarperCollins) had invited him to write O'Neill's biography.

The playwright had died in 1953, in the Shelton Hotel in Boston, which is now used by Boston University as Shelton Hall dormitory. (Inside Shelton Hall there is a plaque dedicated to O'Neill and the 4th floor where he died is now the Writers' Corridor. He was buried in the Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts.)

The Gelbs knew that O'Neill's career as a playwright consisted of three periods. His early realist plays utilized his own experiences, especially as a seaman. In the 1920s he rejected realism in an effort to capture on the stage the forces behind human life. His expressionistic plays during this period were influenced by the ideas of philosopher Freidrich Nietzsche, psychologists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, and Swedish playwright August Strindberg. During his final period O'Neill returned to realism. These later works - which many critics consider his best - depend on his life experiences for their story lines and themes, according to the literature.

By the time they began working on their biography, the Gelbs also knew that it had been 13 years since O'Neill wrote his final play: in the late 1930's O'Neill was stricken with a debilitating neurodegenerative disease known as cortical cerebellar atrophy, which restricted his writing.

"His had been a tragic and dramatic life," Mr. Gelb said. "The idea of capturing that life in a biography was daunting."

"We were obsessed from the start," Mrs. Gelb said.

Unlike her husband, she had actually met O'Neill. Her stepfather, the playwright S. N. Behrman, was staging a play, "Dunnigan's Daughter" on Broadway, and O'Neill was attending rehearsals of his own play, "The Iceman Cometh."

"This is my daughter," Behrman said to O'Neill, introducing Barbara, who was barely in her teens.

In recalling that brief encounter, Mrs. Gelb said that she was struck by how remote O'Neill seemed. He proffered his hand, murmured a polite greeting - and that was it.

But the Behrman connection proved useful when Mrs. Gelb and her husband embarked on their ambitious biography.

"We got remarkable access," Mr. Gelb said.

One such access was to O'Neill's widow, and third wife, Carlotta Monterey.

She was skittish about cooperating at first, but then warmed up to the Gelbs. Mrs. Gelb said that she rarely took notes in order to make Monterey feel at ease, but her photographic memory enabled her to later reproduce the conversations in telling details.

When he took his own turn later at interviewing Monterey, Mr. Gelb brought a clunky 35-pound tape recorder.

"There were no miniature recorders then," Mr. Gelb said.

Some of his recordings were used by Mr. Burns in the documentary. Mr. Gelb said that a few years ago, he had those tapes restored.

Monterey's husband also appears in the documentary - Mr. Burns said that he was able to track down archival footage that has been rarely seen by the public.

What the public will see, too, is a cavalcade of stars reading from O'Neill's plays. They include Zoe Caldwell, Vanessa Redgrave, Liam Neeson, Natasha Richardson, Robert Sean Leonard, Al Pacino, and Christopher Plummer, who also narrates the film.

The fact that such stars participated in the project is a tribute to the persuasiveness of Mr. Burns and also the Gelbs.

"No one refused us," Mr. Gelb said.

The reporter smiled as he heard this, recalling in his mind his own days - very long ago - as a young reporter at the Times when Mr. Gelb was metropolitan editor (he later became managing editor). Mr. Gelb had a well-deserved reputation of getting the most cantankerous journalist to pursue the most unappetizing story through a blend of coaxing, flattery and implied incentives.

Those skills were surely employed by Mr. Gelb when it came to getting Mr. Pacino to join the cast of Mr. Burns' documentary.

Was it a difficult assignment?

Mr. Gelb smiled.

"Al Pacino had moved next door to us," he said. Broadway producer Ted Mann approached Mr. Pacino, who agreed.

That may have been serendipitous, of course. But the effort required of Mr. Burns and the Gelbs to write the documentary's script was demanding - and not only on account of the new research.

"The script involved writing of a totally different kind," Mrs. Gelb said, noting that she and Mr. Gelb first had to turn out an 80-page treatment.

Mr. Burns, the producer and director, said last night that he was amazed by the passion and commitment the Gelbs brought to the project.

"Arthur and Barbara have unstoppable energy," Mr. Burns said. "O'Neill's life has this radiant darkness - and the Gelbs have made us understand him by shining on his life their own special light."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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