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A Classic Player: José Quintero, 1924-1999

By C. CLAIBORNE RAY

José Quintero, the ground-breaking director whose life in the theater was dramatically intertwined with two other Players, Eugene O'Neill and his father, the famed actor James O'Neill, was a member of the club in the 1950s.

Quintero was one of the founders of the Circle in the Square theater company and is widely credited with reviving Off Broadway in the years after World War II. He directed influential productions of works by his friends Tennessee Williams and Thornton Wilder, and many others. He even dabbled in directing movies and operas. But it was as the savior of the reputation of Eugene O'Neill that he made his greatest mark.


As another rejected son of a critical father, Quintero came to attach himself so closely to O'Neill that for many years he wore O'Neill's wedding ring, the gift of O'Neill's widow, Carlotta. He regarded O'Neill as his symbolic father and championed his works after decades of neglect, proving his point with productions of nearly a score of his plays, both on and off Broadway.

Quintero was born in Panama to a successful self-made Spaniard who scorned his feckless son for not being the daughter he wanted and for being the darkest member of the family. While he was ineffectually studying at a California college, his father disowned him with a brutal letter declaring him dead and enclosing a final $500.

The resulting sense of liberation gave Quintero the freedom to make a life in the theater. After receiving a bachelor's degree from the University of California in 1948, he studied at the Goodman Theater Dramatic School in Chicago but soon moved to New York, where he and his friend Ted Mann, among others, opened Circle in the Square in Sheridan Square. The first production, in 1951, "Dark of the Moon," ran for eight weeks, was a critical success, and was followed by a reconciliation with his father.

His first great success was the 1952 production there of "Summer and Smoke," by Tennessee Williams, which made a star of Geraldine Page and drew the eyes of major critics to the Off-Broadway scene.


In 1956, his revival of "The Iceman Cometh," starring Player Jason Robards, was the beginning of a stunning reassessment of O'Neill, who had died in 1953 after years of growing obscurity, despite his Nobel Prize. Six months later came the American premiere of "Long Day's Journey Into Night," again with Robards, the excruciating meditation of another failed son.

The parade of O'Neill's works marched on, including several productions of "A Moon for the Misbegotten," one of which brought him a Tony in 1974; "Desire Under the Elms"; 'Strange Interlude"; "Marco Millions": "Hughie"; "More Stately Mansions"; "Anna Christie"; "A Touch of the Poet"; "Welded"; "Ah! Wilderness"; and finally "The Long Voyage Home" and "Ile," in 1996.

In 1988, Quintero lost his voice to surgery for throat cancer but continued directing and built a career as a lecturer and university teacher with the help of a speaking device.

For many years, he shared with O'Neill an addiction to alcohol. Barbara Gelb, who wrote the definitive O'Neill biography with her husband, Arthur, wrote: "When his demons converged, he hid, like O'Neill, in a bottle; he talks to O'Neill's portrait and he has been visited by O'Neill's ghost." It was his partner of many years, Nicholas Tsacrios, a former advertising executive, who eventually found him a successful treatment.


C. Claiborne Ray retired in 2008 as deputy obituary editor at the New York Times and wrote the Science Q&A column for Science Times until 2019. She has used The Players as her drawing room since 2014. She is chair of the Admissions Committee.

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