A superb 2-hour electronic biography of playwright Eugene O'Neill is itself a long day's journey into the night that was his personal life. Eugene O'Neill -- A Glory of Ghosts (PBS, Monday, 9-11:30 p.m., check local listings) is a masterwork of a documentary about the man who in his lifetime won four PulitzerPrizes and the Nobel Prize for Literature but still died sad and unfulfilled.
Director Perry Miller Adato has taken an incisive script by Paul Shyre and turned it into a definitive profile of O'Neill, one that future scholars might well consult in their search to understand the man.
Archival footage, snapshots, and enacted excerpts from key plays are integrated into an what appears to be an honest search for truth. Using many of O'Neill's own words, a narrator tells the playwright's story and explores the psychological torments he experienced throughout his career. Since O'Neill was such a personal writer, autobiographical segments from various plays have obvious relevance in understanding the man.
Performers such as Geraldine Fitzgerald, Zoe Caldwell, and Blythe Danner (terribly miscast as Anna Christie) portray the people who influenced O'Neill's life the most. Jason Robards plays O'Neill. Robards and Caldwell (as Carlotta O'Neill), in particular, are magnificent.
Much of the story is seen through the eyes of critics George Jean Nathan and Kenneth MacGowan.
And with utter candor Colleen Dewhurst, Robards, and Walter Abel also discuss the profound effect O'Neill had on their professional and private lives. Locations such as New London, Conn., Greenwich Village, N.Y., and Provincetown, Mass., are visited for authenticity of place.
``Eugene O'Neill'' is part of the ``American Masters'' series, which has almost single-handedly pulled summer TV out of the doldrums. Producer/director Adato, America's leading literary filmmaker, is also responsible for the excellent Georgia O'Keeffe film in the same series. Viewers may remember her best for her documentaries on painter Picasso and poet Sandburg in recent years.
Eugene O'Neill was one of the most enigmatic figures on the American literary landscape, and ``Eugene O'Neill'' doesn't yield to the temptation to oversimplify the complex elements which made him so.
But itdoes move viewers one step closer to the truth -- and perhaps to the realization that, as O'Neill said, ``The past is the present; its future, too.''