Column: A good man’s failing

MARTIN BURKE PHOTO

MARTIN BURKE PHOTO

Most theater folk I’ve known over the years have insisted that the greatest of all
American dramas is “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” Eugene O’Neill’s lacerating portrait of a dysfunctional Irish family, clearly based on the one he grew up in.

They never got any argument from me. I’ve been a fervent admirer of O’Neill’s masterpiece ever since I first saw it on Broadway more than 50 years ago.

If you know the play, then you’re aware that it’s driven by resentments and recriminations that have been simmering for years inside the four main characters: James Tyrone, his wife, Mary, and their two grown sons, Jamie and Edmund.

Fueled by heavy drinking — a common pastime in O’Neill’s work — their grievances flare to the surface, and as the journey moves into night, the accusations they hurl at each other become more frequent and caustic.

My favorite moment occurs in the fourth and last act when James and Edmund get into an argument about literary taste, of all things. (They had, by this time, exhausted most of their disputes over sensitive family issues.)

James, who in his youth had won acclaim as a classical actor, admires Shakespeare to the point of reverence. Whereas Edmund (generally assumed to be the playwright when he was an aspiring writer in his 20s) is attracted to Rossetti and Baudelaire and other avant-garde poets.

James sneers at these “morbid” authors, denouncing them as “drunks and drug addicts.” He urges his son to forsake these “degenerates,” and focus his attention on Shakespeare who, after all, has “already said everything worth saying.”

Edmund’s mood is now more mischievous than angry. So he responds with the goading accusation that his papa’s sacred icon was “an overrated drunk.”

Outraged by this blasphemy, James sputters his way through a defense of Shakespeare’s drinking habits. But in doing so, he concedes that the Bard had at least some fondness for booze. Or as James so deftly phrased it: “I won’t say he didn’t like his glass — it’s a good man’s failing.”

I wonder if one has to be Irish to appreciate the elegance of that line.

Probably not, but it certainly helps. Speaking for myself, I discovered how much I liked my glass during the exuberant days of my misspent youth, and since then I have been an avid imbiber.

Whenever I’ve been asked over the years what attracted me to the sauce, I’ve usually replied that two magnetic forces had lured me down the primrose path and into the raffish rituals of pub crawls and other triumphs of giddy excess, including (eventually) three-martini lunches.

Then, getting specific, I would tip my cap to the ethnic stereotype and mention that I grew up in an Irish family. As for the second powerful influence, I would point out that when it came to a line of work, I chose to write for a living.

Nothing unusual there. After all, I am hardly the only bloke who parlayed an Irish/Writer exacta into winning tickets at bars and other pleasure domes.

Which leads me to Pete Hamill, one of the most celebrated journalists of my generation and Irish to the core. Back in the 1990s, Hamill wrote a compelling memoir that he called “A Drinking Life.”

That title amused me, mainly because many of Hamill’s colleagues (even some who weren’t Irish) would have been justified in choosing those three words to adorn the covers of books about their experiences.

The rare journalist in those days was one who did not consume alcohol. In fact, in that milieu, teetotalers were often viewed with suspicion.

Hamill’s book chronicles his journey through years of excessive boozing to a critical point when, at the still-robust age of 37, he took his last drink. That momentous event occurred on the last night of 1972 while he and some friends were celebrating New Year’s Eve at one of his favorite taverns.

Pete always did have a flair for the dramatic.

And so, just like that, A Drinking Life turned into A Non-Drinking Life. The memoir was published in 1994 and by then, Hamill had been on the wagon for more than two decades.

I have no idea why so many of us journalists drank so much during those years — mainly the 1960s and 1970s. At the time, I simply assumed that it came with the territory, the same way that chewing tobacco used to be the habit of choice among major league baseball players.

Some of us, like Hamill, had the strength of purpose to embrace permanent sobriety. Others would swear off the sauce with great fanfare, and then, after a few weeks of abstinence, would quietly resume their romance with alcohol.

Still others preferred to soldier on through the perils of a drinking life until they croaked or staggered into old age. That was the course I chose to pursue, and I’ve had plenty of tipplers to keep me company.

One final note on Hamill and his memoir: I find it amusing — and perhaps even revealing — that in a book that reaches its apotheosis when he decides to renounce the drinking life, Hamill provides an eloquent tribute to the camaraderie and conversations he encountered in “the snug darkness of saloons.” Here is more of what he had to say about that in his introduction to the memoir:

“The culture of drink endures because it offers so many rewards: confidence for the shy, clarity for the uncertain, solace to the wounded and lonely, and above all, the elusive promises of friendship and love.”

Hey, I’ll drink to that!

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