Legendary Costume Designer Jane Greenwood Dresses O'Neill's Masterpiece
MAR 8, 2016
“People say to me, ‘Why do you want to do it again?’ But it is an extraordinary play and it always seems to gather interesting people.” Jane Greenwood is talking her latest project, designing costumes for the Broadway revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which begins previews at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre April 3. And, this time, the people are very, very interesting: Jonathan Kent directs a cast that includes Jessica Lange, Gabriel Byrne, Michael Shannon, and John Gallagher, Jr.
“This is my fourth Journey,” Greenwood notes. “I first worked on it in the late ’60s for the Philadelphia Drama Guild, with Geraldine Fitzgerald and Lloyd Bridges. No. 2 was Zoe Caldwell and Jason Robards, with Jason directing. We did it out of town, and when we came in, to do it at BAM, Harold Clurman helped us a little bit with it. No. 3 was at Yale, where we did Long Day’s Journey and Ah, Wilderness! in tandem, with Colleen [Dewhurst ], Jason [Robards], Jamey Sheridan, and Colleen’s son, Campbell Scott. This is the fourth.” She laughs. “I’ve been doing this for 50 years and sometimes I think I’m meeting myself coming back.”
Indeed, since the 1963–1964 season, the native of Liverpool, England, has been a constant Broadway presence. The names above are impressive, but she kept excellent company from the first. In her Broadway debut, she designed costumes for The Ballad of the Sad Café, adapted by Edward Albee from the Carson McCullers story, starring Dewhurst. Immediately after that, she did the legendary Richard Burton Hamlet, directed by Sir John Gielgud. Since then, she has designed several shows a season while also working Off-Broadway, in regional theatres, and teaching costume design at Yale Drama School. Now in her eighties, she shows no sign of slowing down.
Greenwood is quick to point out that she is no stranger to the works of O’Neill. On Broadway alone, she has designed Ah, Wilderness!, More Stately Mansions, A Moon for the Misbegotten (twice), Anna Christie, The Iceman Cometh, and Long Day’s Journey Into Night. She may have a special affinity for O’Neill’s savage masterpiece, an undisguised portrait of his own family. Only the names have been changed: Father James Tyrone, a once-great actor who destroyed his talent by signing on for one tour after another of the potboiler melodrama that made him a star; older son Jamie, an actor and already a dissolute alcoholic; younger son Edmund, a high-strung poet afflicted with tuberculosis; and Mary, the spectral drug-addicted mother who binds them all to her with unbreakable bonds of guilt. So unsparing is the drama that O’Neill left instructions that it not be published until 25 years after his death. The playwright’s widow, Carlotta, ignoring his wishes, published it in 1956, only three years after O’Neill’s passing. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1957.
Each time she does Long Day’s Journey, Greenwood says, “I feel I go deeper. I feel that I understand it much more than I did the first time. At different ages, you see plays in different lights. And, curiously enough, as I’ve drifted through the years, I have different sympathies for different members of the family in different ways. Also, the theatre and audiences have changed, and theatre techniques have changed.” How so? “I think that there’s an attempt to make things look more natural. It’s not costumes with a capital C anymore. I think of them as people’s clothing.”
Since the characters are closely based on real people, there is a certain amount of research available. “I’ve looked at all of existing photographs that I know of, and I looked at the first [Broadway] production that Jose [Quintero, the director] did,” Greenwood says. “I’m always tempted to look at everything and I also try to look whatever show I do with a clean slate.” She adds, “O’Neill is so specific; I always read his descriptions of the clothes very carefully, and I find that, if you do that, they do you good service.”
Over the years, Greenwood had plenty of time to think about the characters. The play unfolds in 1912, but she won’t be dressing Mary Tyrone in that year’s fashions. “I don’t think she’s had much opportunity to do fashionable shopping,” she says. “She’s recently come out of a home, and she’s there in that rather remote little beach area [of New London, Connecticut]. I think she has some things she bought when traveling with her husband, but she’s not on the cutting edge of 1912. She was pretty, and she had all those nice things. But in this play, she’s sort of drifting away, like a ghost.”
Neither are the men especially well-dressed. “O’Neill talks about Tyrone in an old suit; Mary comments on that, and Jamie too. O’Neill also says that Tyrone has a neckerchief around his neck, not a collar and tie. I think those touches are very helpful.” She also listens closely to the director: “Jonathan Kent has talked about the atmosphere of the play, about the fog coming and how everything is sort of gray. You don’t think of them as dressed in light colors. Lots of times you see plays set in this period and the men are in white linen suits. Well, you know, that wasn’t really the fashion norm. I certainly don’t think it was happening in this household; I don’t think there was enough help to wash it all up!”
Greenwood adds, “I think it’s very important to let the actors have some input,” she says. “I want them to feel comfortable, because then they’ll give better performances. I listen very carefully to what they say about the characters and I pick up on words that they repeat two or three times.” She notes that she’s happy to be working again with Lange, having done A Streetcar Named Desire with her on Broadway in 1992. That production featured scenery designed by Greenwood’s late husband, Ben Edwards. Design is the family business, it seems: Their daughter, Sarah Edwards, is a film costume designer whose credits include Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and Tower Heist.
Despite her age, Greenwood remains on the go. This season, she has already designed Thérèse Raquin, starring Keira Knightley, followed by the new national tour of The Sound of Music, directed by Jack O’Brien. She currently has the new musical Bright Star, by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, in previews. Next comes Long Day’s Journey Into Night. How does she juggle it all? “Well, you do one at a time,” she says, adding that no matter what she is working on, Wednesdays are reserved for classes at Yale Drama School, where she has been teaching since the ’70s. “’If it’s Wednesday, it must be New Haven’ is a sentence that has been said many times over the years,” she says. “When I first started, Robert Brustein was still there [as dean]. He said, ‘Will you be able to come here every Wednesday?’ I said, ‘I’m not sure; I have a busy theater schedule.’ He said, ‘You’ll try.’” She adds, laughing, “This is my 40th year, so I did try!”