Old friends drink again, in theater that was once a bar



Photos taken by Susan Cedrone

In bottom left photo: Bishop Joseph Galante speaks on the set of “A Moon for the Misbegotten” during a gala at the Waterfront South Theatre in Camden on May 5 before the unveiling of a painting by Brother Mickey McGrath. The image at the top depicts Dorothy Day and the playwright Eugene O’Neill sitting in a bar in Greenwich Village.

bishopgalante-webBishop Joseph Galante, declaring that art and beauty lead to God, joined more than 100 people at a gala at the Waterfront South Theatre in Camden on May 5 to unveil a painting by Brother Mickey McGrath that is now hanging in the theater’s lobby.

The painting, in Brother McGrath’s trademark bright hues, depicts Dorothy Day and the playwright Eugene O’Neill sitting in a bar in Greenwich Village, where they hung out together as close friends for several months in the winter of 1917-18. It was long before she converted to Catholicism and just before he hit fame through his writing. They are surrounded by other habitués of the bar, nicknamed the Hellhole, and by allusions to O’Neill’s life and work.

Bishop Galante, a great admirer of Dorothy Day, blessed the painting before helping Brother Mickey pull off the cloth that covered it, which fittingly sat on a stage set for O’Neill’s great tragedy A Moon for the Misbegotten.

“I’m here because I believe that the beauty expressed in the arts is what I call pre-evangelization,” the bishop said. “Souls that are touched and moved through the beauty of painting or drama or poetry or music, those souls are nurtured to be ready to take the beauty of Jesus. So for me it’s a privilege to be here.”

McGrath, whose work has been shown all over the world, said that he set up his studio on Jasper Street a few doors up from the theater at the invitation of Msgr. Michael Doyle, pastor of Sacred Heart.

“This moment is why I came to Camden in the first place,” Brother Mickey said. He said Msgr. Doyle told him, “’I want to invite you because I believe that beauty will save the world.’ I said, ‘I’m all about Dorothy Day these days.’ And he said, as only he can in the ultimate understatement, ‘She was a good lady.’”

Brother McGrath said that he “set to work right away” doing the painting to hang in the theater to depict her relationship to O’Neill. It shows the two of them, both holding cigarettes and nursing drinks, “and she’s pondering this future. She said all her life she was haunted by God and what touched her [are] the words of Eugene O’Neill.”

O’Neill would get drunk and recite The Hound of Heaven by the poet Francis Thompson, a long lament about “the heart’s restless searching for God,” Brother McGrath said.

Msgr. Doyle read an excerpt from the poem, which begins:

I fled him down the nights and down the days

I fled him down the arches of the years

I fled him down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind

And in the midst of tears I hid from him

And under running laughter.

Also at the event was Robert Ellsberg, who has edited several books of Dorothy Day’s diaries, letters and other writings. Now the editor and publisher of Orbis Books, as a young man he spent time as editor of The Catholic Worker.

He credited Day with changing his life and called her “one of the most remarkable Christian witnesses of the 20th century. A Catholic convert, founder of the Catholic Worker in 1933, she spent her life among the poor, promoting the cause of peace and justice and showing what it might look like if the gospel were truly lived.”

Ellsberg spoke of how Day began her long journey toward Catholicism during this period of her life. It was after long nights at the bar or walking the streets of New York talking with O’Neill that she first attended early morning Mass at St. Joseph’s church on Sixth Avenue, he said.

O’Neill was a Catholic who fell away from his faith, but whose work was infused with the themes of forgiveness, incarnation and redemption. Day was just 20 and 10 years younger than the playwright when they met. Ellsberg said that later in life she credited O’Neill with encouraging “an intensification of the religious life within her and helping her to gain a greater consciousness of God. This is ironic given that O’Neill is not usually regarded as a religious writer.”

In 1958, Ellsberg said, she wrote notes for an unpublished story about that period in her life.

“‘Gene’s relation with God was a warfare,’” she wrote. ‘“He fought with God to the end of his days. He rebelled against man’s fate. What I got personally from Eugene O’Neill was an intensification of the religious sense that was in me. I had never heard of the Hound of Heaven before and Eugene knew it by heart and could recite it in his grating, monotonous voice, his mouth grim, his eyes sad.’”

She wrote that “many years later she returns to O’Neill as she’s saying her rosary…since he brought to me such as consciousness of God, since he recited to me the Hound of Heaven, I owe him my prayers.”

The Waterfront South Theatre sits on the site of what was Walt’s Café, the bar owned by the grandfather of South Camden Theatre Company founder and executive director Joseph Papryzicki. In Moon for the Misbegotten, one of O’Neill’s last plays, an earth-mother figure named Josie Hogan that some scholars think is in part is based on Day, comforts and tries to lead to redemption a bereft character names James Tyrone that is based on O’Neill’s alcoholic brother.

Copies of McGrath’s painting are available through Bee Still Studios (www.beestill.org). A Moon for the Misbegotten runs through May 15.