Gabriel Byrne was born to play the old ornery, verse-spouting main character in O''Neill''s A Touch of the Poet.
An Interview by
Gabriel Byrne seems marked by a touch of a certain poet. When the 55-year-old actor first came to the United States from his native Ireland about 20 years ago, he found people had trouble saying his name. Instead of pronouncing it “burn,” Americans would call him “Byron.” Now resettled in Brooklyn, and helping raise the two children he had with ex-wife Ellen Barkin, the actor laughs at the irony of being mistakenly called Byron. That''s because the Romantic Lord Byron''s work is continually being recited by Con Melody, the James Tyrone-like Irish blowhard at the center of Eugene O''Neill''s A Touch of the Poet, whom Byrne will portray as his follow-up to his recent Tony®-nominated Broadway debut in O''Neill''s A Moon for the Misbegotten. To compound the association further, Byrne has even portrayed the dark and tormented Lord Byron on screen—in Ken Russell''s cult classic, Gothic (1986). Some might say it was typecasting.
Byrne will remind you that poetry is a revered profession in Ireland. “I''m no different from anyone else,” the soulful film star insists. “I would love to be a poet, but I''m not.” But he does put poetry into his performances. Just more than 25 years ago, Byrne walked away from his first fulltime profession, teaching school kids literature, to become one of Ireland''s most respected actors. He''s been cast in dozens of films over the last 25 years from historical sagas like Excalibur, Man in the Iron Mask, and Lionheart to suspense thrillers like The Usual Suspects and Point of No Return. He''s played an impressive variety of roles, from priests to Satan himself. But for pure poetry in performance, re-view Byrne''s virtuoso screen turn as Tom Reagan in the Coen brothers'' classic Miller''s Crossing. The character is an elegy and an ode, a gangster who juggles moral codes.
Clearly, Byrne could have found a comfortable career in Hollywood. That doesn''t seem to satisfy what clearly is a restless, impatient soul. Why, for one thing, does he have a bunch of independent film producing credits? “I wanted to produce those films (Into the West, The Name of the Father, among others) because they were projects I felt passionate about and no one else wanted to do them.” That same passion, now focused on bringing A Touch of the Poet back to Broadway for Roundabout, was evident when Front & Center talked to Byrne this summer.
FRONT & CENTER: You came to acting relatively late in life. Didn''t you begin at 29 or 30?
GABRIEL BYRNE: Yes. I was working as a teacher and I would take my students to see plays, which I liked, but I had no ambition to be an actor. Then I was asked one night by a friend to come along with him to an amateur theatre group. So I thought I''d go along because it wouldn''t be a bad way to spend an evening. And after, I thought this was the kind of thing I was interested in. So I took a year off from teaching to try acting and I never went back.
Did you ever formally study acting?
No, I never did. I don''t know whether you can actually teach acting or not. I don''t know if you can''t. But I think making your mistakes in public is probably the best way to learn.
Do you remember any important early lessons you learned in public?
One lesson was never try to anticipate the audience. A lot of people are influenced by what they think an audience is feeling. They''ll say, “Oh, it''s a good house tonight” or “Oh, they don''t like it.” In the best circumstances, you hope the audience has a collective experience and you hope they''re moved by what they see onstage. But the audience is made up of individuals and you have to serve the writer, not the audience. You have to try to please the author and his intentions.
Do you remember your first performances?
Yes. I got to do those great classic plays. I played Aufidius in Coriolanus and Jack Worthing in Importance of Being Earnest. In The Playboy of the Western World by Synge I did the father because I was the oldest in the group so they gave me the old man role. I played all these roles with absolutely no agenda except the enjoyment of it.
Have you managed to keep some of that sense of joy after becoming a professional?
Now that it''s my livelihood I see acting in a different way. The enjoyment is a different sense now-it''s like climbing hill... if one makes it.
Gabriel Byrne and Cherry Jones in the Broadway production of Eugene O''Neill''s A Moon for the Misbegotten.
You performed in A Moon for the Misbegotten for your Broadway debut. How did another O''Neill play come across your desk?
I saw A Touch of the Poet for the first time in 1982 in London with Tim Dalton and Vanessa Redgrave and I really loved the production, but I was unsure of the play. And I didn''t think of myself in connection with it at all until Roundabout approached me about a year ago. It''s been around for awhile and Roundabout wanted to do it because it hasn''t been seen in New York for so long.
My first impression reading it was that it''s a really difficult play to make work. I felt that it was perhaps too abstruse, but the more I read it, the more I was intrigued. Like all of O''Neill''s work, one-tenth of what''s happening is on the surface and 90 percent is underneath, waiting there like an iceberg. It makes me admire O''Neill all the more.
Speaking of Coriolanus, Melody reminded me of that character because of the way he disdains the common man and insists on a certain aristocratic arrogance.
What''s brilliant about O''Neill''s writing is that he writes archetypes that on the surface look like real people but they''re composed of many complex facets. Now, I see Con Melody as a combination of many characters-he''s not that far removed from Captain Boyle in Juno and the Paycock or Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. He''s both Byronic and by turns foolish, but there''s something admirable about someone who holds onto something that doesn''t exist anymore. I see him as a many-sided individual.
It''s an unusual play in that the kind of Irish accent that the characters use means a lot, whether it''s American, an Irish brogue, or an English upper class accent. It''s unusual for an American play to use accents to describe status or class.
That''s something very difficult to pull off. American audiences aren''t attuned to the subtlety of Irish accents. Con''s adopted accent is a particularly snobbish accent and I don''t know how it will sound when at the end he reverts to an Irish peasant accent. I don''t know if it''s possible to do this role and not be Irish. Even in the production that I saw in London with Dalton, as good as he was in many ways, there was an element missing because he was an English actor.
A lot of what O''Neill was writing about in that character is really about his father, who was a romantic star of Broadway. Having come directly from a small village in Ireland, James O''Neill had to change his accent to be acceptable to American theatre audiences. But the character of a vain, swaggering Irishman is inspired by his father. The role demands a barrel-chested romantic actor like his father and his comrades were. In fact, a lot of Con Melody is performance-he''s a kind of actor acting different roles.
“In Ireland there was traditionally great respect for the poet. In Gaelic the word for poet is file or filidh—which comes from the word for “a seer,” someone who sees into the future.”
That brings up the question, especially in the end, where Melody seems almost schizophrenic, of whether you think O''Neill, who dabbled in expressionism, meant that to be played realistically or impressionistically?
That''s a hard thing to get a hold of. What kind of play is it? Is it stylized? How do you make the transitions Melody makes at the beginning? Realistically? There''s not a lot of variety of emotions he shows. And structurally, there''s a lot of repetition. He keeps getting caught in front of the mirror: with Sara, with Gadsden. There are three situations that are almost the same dramatically. On the other hand, the man is cruel, kind, loving, sexual, but cannot live in the present or the future. His past is more real to him. He''s full of this faux Irish patriotism and he''s an exile between countries. He has a real problem with his daughter–like O''Neill did in real life. When Oona married Charlie Chaplin, O''Neill didn''t speak to her again for 23 years. That''s a very complex relationship in the play. He''s pathetic and charming, tragic and funny. It''s a daunting role to contemplate–so you just go for it.
It''s still a ways off to the first rehearsal yet you''ve clearly thought about this role quite a bit. How much do you prepare before your first rehearsal?
I hope to be off the book at that point. It allows you to concentrate on what you''re doing instead of struggling for words and walking around with a script in your hands which is awkward. I have no idea what I''m going to bring to rehearsals or the first performance. It is frightening, and yet that''s what''s so exciting about it.
I do think it''s a great play about longing and loss and exile. I''ll need all of Con Melody''s loquacity and verbosity and yearning. Anybody who has lived as an exile or has moved from village to city can relate to his character. You can''t go back to where you''ve come from.
Of course, I don''t know how any of that is going to come out. I hope we make people think about these themes that are in the play and reassess it as a piece of drama.
Are there other plays you have on your shelf that you''d like to do?
I''d loved to do Waiting for Godot. And I think I''d like to do something like An Enemy of the People. I''m a great Ibsen fan. Ibsen, Chekhov, and O''Casey are my favorite classic playwrights.
Who would you play in Godot?
Estragon or Vladimir, it doesn''t really matter. To me, Beckett is funny. When some actors or directors approach his plays with reverence they''re missing something. The rhythms and music of the plays are Irish, even if Beckett wrote Godot in French originally. I''ve also always wanted to do Macbeth. It''s a brilliant play about the corruption of power.
That is the same theme in Ibsen''s An Enemy of the People.
Yes. Those are two incredibly relevant plays for today''s times.
O''Neill repeats the title of the play often when different characters talk about Con Melody or Sara''s Yankee suitor having “a touch of the poet.” What do you think that means?
In Ireland there was traditionally great respect for the poet. In Gaelic the word for poet is file or filidh-which comes from the word for “a seer,” someone who sees into the future. A poet was both hugely admired and feared. He had the gift of writing and immortalizing. He could make or destroy your reputation. He had the same kind of power as a so-called witch doctor in some African communities. The poet''s job was to crystallize the experiences of the community and articulate its deepest fears and joys, and record the everyday events of their lives.
I remember growing up in Dublin, my mother and father would quote Gaelic poetry often, not in a pedantic way but just as part of the fabric of everyday life. In one of O''Neill''s speeches he writes, “although he''s called poet and it''s so noble... there''s no living to be made by its practice.” When O''Neill was talking about the poets, it was poet as artist, as the one who as Shakespeare says, holds the mirror up to nature. That''s what O''Neill does in his writing. The actor''s job is to be faithful to his vision and get at what he''s writing about. The poet is regarded as someone who has the key that no one else does that can unlock the secrets of reality. O''Neill was a huge admirer of the Abbey and O''Casey and Irish literature and felt himself a huge part of that tradition, even with his feelings about his father. You can feel his sneaking regard for that kind of poet, even in his portrayal of Melody as a fool.
Perhaps that is why the Irish culture has produced so many gifted writers?
I think it came out of that clash of cultures and languages, the clash between the old Gaelic traditions and English. Up until the 18th century Ireland wasn''t a predominantly English- speaking country. Basically, in a hundred years Ireland produced all those playwrights we talked about. There''s something in the innate storytelling tradition. They have an innate sense of drama. An Irish person describing a dog crossing the road will turn it into something dramatic. Yet we''ve never produced a great painter or sculptor. But between Joyce who changed the novel, Beckett who changed the theatre, and Yeats who changed poetry-all in a hundred years-we didn''t have a bad run of it.