George M. Cohan and Eugene O'Neill: Two Irish-Americans Who Helped Define Broadway

Though America had been a free nation since 1776, the country's artistic culture didn't start to separate itself from European traditions until the beginning of the 20th Century.

Sure, there was the occasional Mark Twain or Stephen Foster, but things didn't really start taking off until ragtime began evolving into jazz, visual artists grew more abstract and an assortment of young Manhattan wits started having daily lunches at The Algonquin.

Vaudeville houses dotted the national landscape and in New York, ethnic playhouses, especially the Yiddish Theatre, entertained the city's rapidly expanding immigrant population.

But when the city's first subway lines were introduced in 1904, with major routes stopping on West 42nd Street and Longacre Square (now Times Square), it accelerated the growth of the Broadway Theatre District we know today.

And a new theatre center required a new kind of theatre, so on this St. Patrick's Day, a pair of toasts are certainly in order for two Irish-Americans who helped establish Broadway as a center for uniquely American theatre: George M. Cohan, the Father of American Musical Comedy and Eugene O'Neill, the Father of American Drama.

Though George M. Cohan did create a stage character who sang of being "born on the Fourth of July," his own gestation period ended one day short, in 1878. His parents, Jere and Nellie, were a vaudeville song and dance team, and along with older sister Josie, The Four Cohans barnstormed the country.

Little Georgie, as he was known, took time out from the family business to get his first taste of the legitimate theatre, starring in a touring stage adaptation of humorist George W. Peck's popular troublemaker, PECK'S BAD BOY. The theatre bug bit him hard and by 1901 The Four Cohans were starring at the 34th Street Savoy Theatre in THE GOVERNOR'S SON, with a book, a score and direction by George M. Cohan.

Two years later they found themselves on 14th Street with RUNNING FOR OFFICE, again completely written and staged by George, but Cohan's biggest groundbreaking success came in 1904 with the opening of LITTLE JOHNNY JONES at the Liberty Theatre on 42nd Street, now the site of Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum.

In LITTLE JOHNNY JONES, Cohan played an American jockey traveling to London to race in the English Derby. In the song "Yankee Doodle Boy," he describes himself as a "Yankee Doodle Dandy," twisting the words of the song from 150 years earlier that British troops used to affectionately mock the lack of refinement of their colonial brothers.

Up until the 1900s, musical stage shows in America were mostly fashioned after genteel European operetta, but in LITTLE JOHNNY JONES, the brash and patriotic star belted out songs with gusto and flew across the stage in a dance style called buck and wing. The second act's emotional climax came after Cohan's character decides to stay in England to try and clear his name after rumors spread that he threw the race. "Give My Regards To Broadway," he sings to his friends boarding a New York bound ocean liner, "and say that I'll be there ere long."

George M. Cohan wasn't exactly a critics' darling, and many of his dozens of Broadway shows had brief runs that proved more popular as he took them on tour. But his outgoing song and dance man style became a symbol of the American musical comedy, and today, as it has since 1959, his jauntily-posed statue welcomes visitors to his beloved Broadway.

Nowadays, Broadway fans would be more familiar with Cohan through James Cagney's film portrayal in the bio-pic YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (the making of that film is covered in the now-previewing Off-Broadway musical, CAGNEY) and Joel Grey's stage performance in the musical GEORGE M!. but this clip from Michael Kantor's 6-part PBS documentary, BROADWAY: THE AMERICAN MUSICAL, contains footage of elder statesman George M. Cohan kicking up his feet as President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1937 Rodgers and Hart Broadway musical, I'D RATHER BE RIGHT.

Manhattan's Barrett House hotel, where Eugene O'Neill first entered this world in 1888 no longer stands, but the building that holds its place at 1500 Broadway at 43rd Street holds a plaque as the birthplace of "America's Greatest Playwright." Some may argue Arthur Miller's or Tennessee Williams' claim to that title, but there can be no doubt that as Broadway was establishing itself as the country's great theatre center, O'Neill was establishing himself as the country's first great dramatists.

Like George M. Cohan, Eugene O'Neill was born into a show business family that frequently took to the road. His father James had the potential to be a great Shakespearean actor, but audiences preferred seeing him in his signature role as the Count of Monte Cristo. With a wife and two sons to support, he set aside his artistic ambitions and played the role for as long as audiences would jam theatres to see him in it, which was most of his career.

Growing up, Eugene saw his father's frustrations turn to depression and his mother become addicted to morphine, originally prescribed by doctors to treat her postnatal depression. After a year at Princeton, young Eugene decided he wanted to see the world, so he spent six years traveling, often taking jobs on cargo ships to exotic ports, or soaking up atmosphere and alcohol at the derelict bars of New York's waterfront.

A bout with tuberculosis confined him to a Connecticut sanitarium for six months, where he began writing plays about the hardships of life on the sea, and of the drunkards, scoundrels, prostitutes and losers he'd encounter at infamous whisky houses.

Such subject matter was not considered appropriate for the stage in the early 1900s, but the theatre artists he met in Provincetown Massachusetts who produced his one-act BOUND EAST FOR CARDIFF, first in P-Town and then in New York's bohemian enclave of Greenwich Village, were not interested in what was considered appropriate. More one-acts followed, full of stark realism. Soon word of this downtown playwright traveled north and in 1920, the full-length BEYOND THE HORIZON not only opened at Broadway's Morosco Theatre, but nabbed O'Neill the first of his four Pulitzer Prizes.

With new-found fame, O'Neill brought Broadway a new kind of American drama; dark, realistic, sometimes delving into expressionism, and deeply psychological. THE EMPEROR JONES focused on the delusions of an African-American Pullman porter who declares himself the ruler of a West Indian island. THE GREAT GOD BROWN used masks to define characters by the ways they present themselves to the world. STRANGE INTERLUDE had its characters speak their lines to each other and then turn to the audience to reveal their inner thoughts. MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA was a Civil War-era trilogy based on the ancient Greek Oresteia by Aeschylus.

But he never saw the success of his greatest play, arguably America's greatest play, LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT. This was by design. So personal was this drama, based on his own family, that he desired it not be published or performed until 25 years after his death. Nevertheless, his widow Carlotta allowed the play to open on Broadway in 1956, just three years after his passing.

The Roundabout Theatre Company will be bringing LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT back to Broadway this April, in a production starring Jessica Lange and Gabriel Byrne. Here's a taste of the 1962 film version, with Katharine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson and Jason Robards.

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From This Author Michael Dale