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A playwright who paid the ultimate price

Tonight, Ric Burns leads us on a stunning descent into the hell of our greatest playwright, Eugene O'Neill. It is a vast place, and Burns could have consumed two hours poking through the more lurid wreckage of the man's life. Instead, he cleaves tight to the signal question posed by director Lloyd Richards: ''What did being Eugene O'Neill cost Eugene O'Neill?"

Everything. Tennessee Williams said that O'Neill ''gave birth to the American theater, and died for it."

Before him, there was nothing American of note on the stage. People saw Shakespeare and sentimental fare like ''The Count of Monte Cristo," performed ad nauseam by O'Neill's father, the popular actor James O'Neill, who squandered real talent for easy money. The son then gave them a searing look into the bitter truths of life.

Burns delivers a rich film brimming with large judgment and fine detail that dramatically increases our understanding of America's only playwright to win the Nobel Prize. Six years, on and off, in the making, it is a definitive piece of filmmaking that in its relative economy can stand with anything Burns's more famous brother, Ken, has done in his leviathan documentaries.

To do so, he fielded a nonpareil team of O'Neill experts -- actors, directors, and producers steeped in his work -- who say smart things well. Included on this roster are the late Jason Robards, John Guare, Robert Brustein, Christopher Plummer, Sidney Lumet, Zoe Caldwell, Tony Kushner, Al Pacino, Liam Neeson, and Robert Sean Leonard, among others. (Plummer also narrates.)

Anchoring the film are the O'Neill biographers Arthur and Barbara Gelb, who co-wrote the documentary with Burns and inject tremendous insight into the man who won four Pulitzer Prizes, including one after he died, utterly spent, in a Boston hotel room in 1953 (the Shelton Hotel on Bay State Road, now a BU dormitory).

A delight are the iconic black-and-white still photographs of O'Neill that are now part of the American canon. They come from the golden age of theatrical portraits, brilliantly backlit, and the haunting darkness of O'Neill, nattily dressed, emerges through the artistry of Edward Steichen and Arnold Newman.

The architecture of the film properly puts great weight on O'Neill's two late, monumental masterpieces, ''The Iceman Cometh" and ''Long Day's Journey Into Night," at the expense of his early career. (''Long Day's Journey" was performed for the first time on Broadway 50 years ago. The first performance of the play was in Stockholm, but that's another story.)

''This film stakes its flag on the late, great plays," confirms Burns. This construction makes sense given their brilliance and importance as lenses into O'Neill's psyche. Plummer delivers for this show a famous monologue from ''Long Day's Journey." Robards, the definitive O'Neill actor, recalls opening night.

O'Neill grew up in a disaster of a home on the Connecticut shore with a bitter drinker of a father and vacant, morphine-addicted mother. One older brother died young and the other became a severe alcoholic who later succumbed to the disease. O'Neill was an unwanted child who would attempt suicide and become a vagabond for the rest of his life. It is this household that he re-creates in the unsparing ''Long Day's Journey." And it is his life as a hopeless regular at a seedy New York bar that he re-creates in ''Iceman."

He was a terrible husband and father, a drunk until age 40 who abandoned two wives. His third wife, Carlotta, stayed with him to the end through ugly times. He was happiest as a young man alone on a ship sailing to Buenos Aires, free of responsibility and relationships of any depth.

O'Neill wrote the pair of plays after he had exhausted everything else. He had devoted years in his early career to dramatic experimentation and later wrote more than a million words for a cycle of 11 plays spanning 150 years in the life of an Irish-American family, most of which he ultimately destroyed. He had enjoyed huge success in the '20s and subsequent decline. In the late '30s, his reputation in eclipse and his health failing, he finally confronted the dystopia of his family and his alcoholic wandering. By then, notes Guare, ''I've had the feeling that all the fat is burned away."

The pain in his life is no different from that of countless miserable artists. What separates him is his creative achievement. He sacrificed everything for his work. Was it worth it? That's the wrong question. He had no choice.

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