SHE never liked the title "First Lady of the American Theater." When Helen Hayes received it, courtesy of an overeager press agent, there were several "first ladies" on Broadway: Ethel Barrymore, Katherine Cornell, Lynn Fontanne, to name only three.
Perhaps it was because, as Helen Hayes Brown, she'd gotten a head start in the theater. By 1920 she was a full-fledged, name-above-the-title star, but I didn't meet Helen Hayes until a half-century later when I was a graduate student at Catholic University. She was in Washington to rehearse the role of Mary Tyrone, the morphine-addicted mother in Eugene O'Neill's autobiographical "Long Day's Journey Into Night," the big finish to the inaugural season of the new Hartke Theater.
I asked the director (who conveniently was also my major professor) if I might write my thesis on her interpretation of the role.
Sitting in on rehearsals, interviewing the actors and watching everyone struggle with the enormity of O'Neill's masterpiece was strong drink for a 23-year-old theater student. I remember my astonishment at discovering that even the legendary Hayes had to work through the same process as the greenest amateur, asking the same questions and straining just to learn the lines.
She once cried at the end of a rehearsal, "Oh, Mr. O'Neill, why did you put them all in one act?"
It was particularly exhausting for her because, although Mary in the play is frozen forever at 56, Hayes had just turned 70. Why, then, would she choose such a part? "I want to play Mary Tyrone," she said, "to prove to myself once and for all whether I'm an actress or just an adorable person." And on another occasion, she enigmatically announced, "I am Mary Tyrone."
It was many weeks before I learned what she meant, but in the meantime I marveled at her utter lack of pretension. At one rehearsal, still battling the lines and her memory, she more or less ad-libbed her way through a speech, looked up at the stage manager and added, "Or words to that effect."
In performance, though, her technique was dazzling. At the first public dress rehearsal, someone dropped a line in the first scene, and Hayes and Michael Higgens (playing the father) started ad-libbing wildly. Hayes looked over and saw Jason Miller (the younger son, modeled on O'Neill) hunched pathetically in a corner.
Without skipping a beat, she strode toward him, still in character, put her hands on his shoulders and said, "Don't worry, we'll find a way out of this." The line fit seamlessly into the dialogue.
She and Miller rehearsed another scene in which he was to turn away from her at one point, and it was then that I began to understand what she meant by "I am Mary Tyrone." Miller delivered his line and turned, whereupon she abruptly stopped.
"That was wrong for you to walk away," she explained. "I've had this experience in my own family. You're enraged. You want to get through to them, so you say inside, 'I'll say something to shock you.' " She understood the situation and had lived it. Both her domineering mother and her gifted, erratic husband, Charles MacArthur, were alcoholics. Without ever having been an addict, she was an expert on the addictive personality.
In the end, what impressed me more than Helen Hayes' talent or technique or years of experience was her courage. I interviewed her just after she had been hospitalized for bronchitis in the midst of rehearsals. It was that event that convinced her, as she put it, "I can't keep doing this anymore."
Here she was, her fame long since secure, battling age, fatigue and illness, in pursuit of a fleeting, intangible ideal that would be seen by a few thousand people at most. Now, 20 years later, I am still in awe of her heroism.
It's said that she wanted her epitaph to be the closing lines from "Victoria Regina": "Go it, old girl. You've done it well." But my favorite description of her comes from the critic Peter Merritt, in 1920, as she was appearing in J.M. Barrie's "Dear Brutus":
"She makes you think of yellow crocuses and little bird dandies splashing in clean country puddles. She is the Aprilest actress I have ever met."
Robin Holt writes, teaches and directs in Baltimore.