Sunday, October 24, 2010

O’Neill: Tragic Agonist

On December 13, 1953, two weeks after Eugene O’Neill’s death, New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson mourned: “A giant writer has dropped off the earth; a great spirit and our greatest dramatist have left us, and our theatre world is now a smaller, more ordinary place.” Other critics had already expressed appreciation of the man and of his work, and many had used the word “great.”
But few had suggested so poignantly the sense of personal loss and the feeling that the spirit of the man was, somehow, greater than his work. By universal consent O’Neill had become “our greatest dramatist,” with his plays already preserved in the anthologies, and his career already chronicled in the literary histories. But the brooding spirit of the man, glimpsed in his lifetime through his dark, dreaming, yet strangely vivid and compelling eyes, seem in danger of being forgotten.
In 1953 “a great spirit” had left us, and might soon have been forgotten, along with the funeral oratory and the encomiums, except that the man had already composed the dramatic autobiography of the spirit in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Three yews after his death this play was first published and produced. From beyond the grave, as it were, O’Neill returned to act out his own life’s personal tragedy. And in the same year his semi-autobiographical The Iceman Cometh, which was suc­cessfully revived on the New York stage, seemed to reinforce the impression that all of his drama had been autobiographical. A Moon for the Misbegotten had earlier told of the tragic life of his brother, Jamie, with whose fate he had been so deeply involved. And so the dead playwright gradually assumed a new role in men’s minds, one very different from that of “our greatest dramatist” or of “a great spirit”—the role of the tormented agonist in the tragic drama of his own life.
It had long been known that the young O’Neill had sown his wild oats, and had experienced many colorful adventures at sea and in foreign lands. In 1919, even before his first full-length play had been published or produced, he had furnished a biographical sketch to Barrett Clark, which was published in successive editions of Eugene O’Neill: The Man and His plays. O’Neill’s life before the mast had obviously furnished the background for his first successful plays of the sea, and his six months in a tuberculosis sanitarium had contributed to his drama The Straw. He had cheerfully admitted to monumental drinking bouts in his youth, and he had even described his attempt at suicide as a kind of riotous farce. But, with the publication of his final autobiographical tragedies, these youthful adventures and escapades took on a new, darker meaning.
As the motives behind his escapes to the sea, his drinking bouts, and his desperate attempt at suicide became clear, the romantic aura of adventure and the comic overtones were dispelled. The physical and nervous breakdown which had led him to the tuberculosis sanitarium became the archetype of all confusion and tragedy. And what had earlier seemed the objective facts of the biographical sketch of a promising dramatist now came to seem the subjective material of tragedy itself. The playwright became the tragic agonist, and his life a drama more violently theatrical than that of any of his fictional heroes.
The remarkable success of Long Day’s Journey produced a strange effect upon the popular imagination. Although the play itself had described O’Neill’s tragedy in full, realistic detail, it appealed so vividly to men’s minds that other authors felt themselves impelled to improve upon and to elaborate it. In 1959 Max Wylie published a lurid novel entitled Trouble in the Flesh, whose hero was “Seton Farrier, the greatest dramatist of his time,” but whose family life followed closely the known facts of O’Neill’s. In the same year Crosswell Bowen published a somewhat journalistic, overwritten biography entitled The Curse of the Misbegotten: A Tale of the House of O’Neill. That some mysterious kind of curse rested upon O’Neill and his family seemed obvious; but why his father, whose life had been almost perfectly successful, married to a woman he had treated with almost perfect consideration, could have sired children and grandchildren somehow “misbegotten” remained unexplained. What was this mysterious “trouble”–this tragic “curse”?
The facts of the life are mostly known and are easily available in the biographies. But the problems and the interpretations which these facts suggest, and the challenge which they offer to biographers and readers alike, are only beginning to become clear. Therefore this chapter will focus upon these problems and interpretations, and it will narrate the biographical facts necessary for the illustration of these.
The Start of the Journey
When Long Day’s Journey was first published, many people assumed that it was pure autobiography and accepted its actions at face value. The closeness of the story to the known facts of O’Neill’s life, and the apparently simple realism of its presenta­tion easily convinced the unwary that this tragic drama was “the truth.” Gradually, of course, it became apparent that it was not the whole truth—O’Neill’s first marriage, which had already ended in divorce at the time of the drama’s action, was not mentioned. And even more gradually it became apparent that this “autobiography,” even when it told the truth as its chief protagonist may have seen it, distorted some of the facts, just as it obviously ignored others. By the very perfection of its artistic verisimilitude it emphasized the problem of the relationship of biographic fact to artistic fiction. How is life transmuted into art by the alembic of the imagination?
The central problem upon which the interpretation of Long Day’s Journey turns is that of the character and relationship of James and Mary Tyrone, who closely correspond to the actual James and. Ellen (or Ella) O’Neill, Eugene’s father and mother. The play develops their characters and relationship dra­matically, and realistically.
Like the actual James O’Neill, James Tyrone is the son of an Irish immigrant who deserted his wife when the boy was ten to return to Ireland. Like James O’Neill, James Tyrone was forced to work continuously as a boy. This childhood experience bred in him an exaggerated consciousness of the importance of money, which (in the play) is the root of all evil. And James Tyrone, like James O’Neill, continued to work hard, became a successful actor, and soon rose to the top of his profession. As he tells his son (with exact names and dates taken from James O’Neill’s actual career), he acted Shakespeare with Edwin Booth, who testified: “That young man is playing Othello better than I ever did!” But then Tyrone says: “I married your mother,” and needed even more money. Soon after this he achieved such great financial success as the hero of a romantic melodrama (exactly as James O’Neill did in Monte Cristo), that he gave up serious acting and spent the rest of his professional career making money (“from thirty-five to forty thousand net profit a season!”). Thus James Tyrone prostituted his artistic career to money-making, and lost his own self-respect. The tragedy of Long Day’s Journey, therefore, is motivated in part by James Tyrone’s miserliness and materialism. And these biographical facts almost exactly corres­pond to those of Eugene’s father, James O’Neill.
But James Tyrone’s miserliness is exaggerated far beyond the actual facts of James O’Neill’s actual life. The fictional Tyrone is accused of two cardinal sins in his relationship with his wife. Most important, he is said to have hired a “cheap quack” of a doctor to care for her when their youngest son, Edmund (the actual Eugene), was born. And this fictional quack is said to have prescribed the morphine which started the mother’s tragic addiction to dope. And even before this, Tyrone is said to have forced his wife to live in a cheap house in New London, which so humiliated her that she could never feel it was “a home”: “I’d never felt it was my home. It was wrong from the start. Everything was done the cheapest way.”
But these two fictional acts of Tyrone’s life were so exaggerated that they seem almost the opposite of the actual truth. Although the actual James O’Neill was often miserly by habit, he loved and idolized his wife so greatly that he often spent more on her than he could afford. It was precisely in order to support his wife in the manner to which she had become accustomed (her father had been a successful businessman), that James O’Neill prostituted his artistic career to achieve spectacu­lar financial success. Truth is often stranger, and more complex, than fiction.
In fact James O’Neill had always been extremely sensitive to the problems of his young bride, who, as the wife of a traveling actor, could seldom live long in any one place. This sensitiveness had been intensified when their second son had died in infancy (just as did the second son of the fictional Tyrones) while the parents were absent together “on the road.” Therefore, in order to provide his wife a permanent “home,” James O’Neill had built an expensive house for Ellen “of the finest materials. ... The Boston Times reported that the house had cost $40,000–a fortune in 1883.” Moreover, he had built it in New London, where many of his wife’s relatives lived. If Ellen O’Neill could never feel that this was “home,” the fault was not his.
The truth of the charge that the father’s miserliness in hiring “cheap quacks” had caused the mother’s addiction to morphine is more uncertain. After eighty years it is impossible to determine just what caused it, but two facts are clear. At that time even the best doctors were not fully aware of the habit-forming dangers of the drug. And when his mother was operated on for cancer of the breast, James O’Neill took her to the most famous specialists in Europe, where the operation was successfully performed. Ellen O’Neill had been sick near the time of Eugene’s birth, and she suffered from dope addiction years after; but it is doubtful that either his father’s miserliness or his own birth was the actual cause. Probably Eugene himself never knew the true facts of his mother’s tragedy and of his own “misbegetting.” And surely his autobiographical drama describes the psychological truth as he believed it. But dramatic fiction and biographical fact remain far apart.
The facts of O’Neill’s actual biography and the fictions of Long Day’s Journey approach one another somewhat more closely in the relationship of the young Eugene (named Edmund in the play) and his father. Again, miserliness is the issue, and in the play James Tyrone is described as planning, in order to save money, to send his sick son to “a state farm” for the treatment of his tuberculosis. Actually, Eugene spent six months in an excellent private sanitarium, “Gaylord Farm,” where his tuber­culosis was cured. But it is also true that Eugene was actually sent to the “Fairfield County State Tuberculosis Sanitarium” for two days before being transferred to this private sanitarium. The confused reasons are not known, but the relationship of James O’Neill with his son Eugene was–both in fact and in fiction—ambivalent.
Again, the truth was more complicated than the fiction. Although James O’Neill, like James Tyrone, was often miserly, he only shared the common experiences and attitudes of his generation, and of the American immigrant past. In 1912 thrift sometimes seemed like miserliness. And even more important, James O’Neill, in his relationship with Eugene, faced the difficult problem of bringing up the “poor little rich boy.” His older son Jamie had indeed become completely spoiled. And throughout Eugene’s youth the father sought to limit the son’s spending money and to discipline his wasteful habits in order to teach him the value of hard work. But the young Eugene, in his turn, saw only that his father had lots of money and that there was no need for him to work. Theirs was the universal conflict of two generations and of the different mores appropriate to each.
Beyond this conflict, however, loomed that of the artist with the philistine—a conflict limited to no one time or country. James O’Neill believed that his sons should work for their living; and in Jamie’s case he was right—his failure lay in not enforcing his belief. But Eugene, the future artist, was to work for a living with his imagination, and therefore, the future artist felt outraged at his father’s insistence that he should work physically to earn money. But his father believed in hard work and in success. Only after Eugene became successful and won the Pulitzer Prize shortly before his father’s death did the two become happily reconciled. Since this final reconciliation between father and son provides the dramatic resolution of the tragedy of Long Day’s Journey, it is true to the spirit—but not to the letter—of biographical fact.
The fictional mother of Long Day’s Journey, Mary Tyrone, is probably closer to actuality than is any other character. Ellen Quinlan O’Neill had been brought up in the genteel, Victorian tradition of the late nineteenth century. Aconvent-reared girl, she was beautiful, innocent, romantic, and utterly unworldly. In fact, she was the exact opposite of her future husband, who had been bred in the school of hard knocks, was experienced, practical, successful, and very sophisticated. Ellen Quinlan’s extreme idealization, both of her future husband and of life in general, partly inspired both the artistic tragedy of Eugene O’Neill and the actual tragedies of her own life and of her sons.
When Ellen Quinlan married James O’Neill, she expected the impossible, and—in so far as her husband was able to provide it by conscious effort—she got it. At the time of her marriage (to a man eleven years her senior), she knew that her future husband had lived with an actress and that there was talk of an illegitimate son; that he belonged utterly to the world of the theater, of whose morals most respectable people (including her mother) disapproved; and that his profession inevitably required constant traveling and homelessness. But the fictional “Count of Monte Cristo” was able to escape from his dungeon and to conquer the world every matinee and evening, and James O’Neill was “the Count of Monte Cristo.”
After their marriage James always did his best to protect his wife from the roughness of the theater (he forbade swearing and loose talk in her presence); he shielded her as best he could from the scandal of a paternity suit (once he had grown rich, he was a fair target); he remained perfectly faithful to his marriage vows throughout his life (Mary Tyrone remembers: “In all those thirty-six years, there has never been a breath of scandal about him. I mean with any other woman”); he provided generously for her comfort and security, in so far as money could provide; he tried to build her a “home”; and he even gave up the theater during several periods to care for her.
But he could not escape from his own past, he could not change the conditions of his chosen profession, and he could not prevent those tragedies common to all men—such as the death of his second son. Finally, he could not wholly change himself. Although he loved only his wife among all women; he continued to love sociability and the whiskey that went with it: sometimes he drank too much, and failed to come home for dinner. But by all ordinary standards, the marriage of James and Ellen O’Neill was successful, and should not have resulted in tragedy—either in actuality or in fiction. Why, then, the tragedy?
An American Tragedy 
None of us can help the things life has done to us. They’re done before you realize it, and once they’re done they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you’d like to be, and you’ve lost your true self forever” This speech by Mary Tyrone describes in colloquial terms the philosophy which O’Neill affirmed all his life and which he particularly embodied in Long Day’s Journey. Although the four characters of the autobiographical drama seem to wound and to destroy one another by their constant bickerings and conflicts, their true tragedy is caused, rather, by what “life” has done to them—by the unseen forces of their heredity and environment. And these unseen forces may also be said to have caused the actual tragedy of Eugene O’Neill. Not his flamboyant and sometimes parsimonious father, nor his gentle and defeated mother, nor his rebellious and profligate brother caused his tragic agony. The cause lay, rather, in their common heritage as Irish Catholic immigrants to an alien land, and in the conditions of life which the father’s theatrical profession imposed upon them all.
“My poor mother washed and scrubbed for the Yanks by the day,” James Tyrone remembers. And the feeling of social inferiority which this experience recalled, as well as the feeling of national antagonism suggested by the phrase “the Yanks,” echoes through all of O’Neill’s life and plays. Meanwhile, the two Tyrone brothers sneeringly call their father “The Beautiful Voice.” And although the mother pretends to defend him, she constantly harps upon the homelessness which his profession has forced upon them. Because Eugene was born the son of an Irish immigrant and because he was brought up in the homeless world of the theater, his life seemed destined for tragedy.
Curiously Eugene’s identification with his Irish ancestry grew stronger, rather than weaker, over the years. The first character to speak in the first of his “S. S. Glencairn” plays was “Driscoll,” who exclaimed “irritably”: “Will ye listen to them naygurs?” The young O’Neill sympathized with all the sailors of the ship, but this early Irishman scorned “them naygurs” as his author would never do. Later, O’Neill sympathized more completely with “the hairy ape,” who could never “belong” to American society and who embodied the psychology of the eternal outsider—of Irishman and Negro alike. But his identification with his Irish ancestry became total in his final play when Josie Hogan, with “the map of Ireland stamped upon her face,” pronounced a final benediction on brother “James Tyrone, Jr.”: “May you rest forever in forgiveness and peace.”
But his father James O’Neill had done his best to escape his Irish heritage. In order to achieve success as an actor, he had consciously suppressed his Irish brogue. Ridiculed for his country manners and his Irish accent, he had tried to make himself over into an American gentleman. And he had become universally loved and admired in the world of the theater to which he “belonged.” Nevertheless, as Long Day’s Journey suggests, he and his wife had never been fully accepted by the class-conscious society of New London. And the sensitive young playwright became acutely conscious of this rejection.
The experience of Irishness common to all the O’Neills and the feeling of alienation that went with it were typical of America at the turn of the century. By 1900 the “Yankee” society of New England had crystallized into a self-conscious, middle-class culture to which the later immigrants felt themselves alien. Their social inferiority and their cultural alienation have been described by modern novelists such as Dreiser and James T. Farrell, as well as by O’Neill. Indeed, much of the tragic spirit of modern American literature, with its emphatic rejection of the earlier optimism, may have sprung from this feeling of cultural alienation. In 1800, all Americans were immigrants from an old England to a new England. But in 1900 the new immigrants to an established America came from alien lands and spoke with foreign accents. O’Neill chronicled the tragedies of Chris and Anna Christopherson, of Brutus “the Emperor” Jones, and of Jim “Crow” Harris, as well as those of James and Edmund Tyrone.
But these Irish who came to America around the turn of the century were no ordinary immigrants. For Irishmen had long been aliens and outsiders even in their own ancestral home in “British” Isles. They had always opposed the authority and the society of their English overlords. As John Henry Raleigh has phrased it, they had suffered from a “Judas complex.” Just as James and Eugene O’Neill sought to overcome the hostile and philistine society of the new world by means of historic art and dramatic imagination, so the Irish had always sought to overcome their English conquerors. It is no accident that Eugene O’Neill’s dramas have been most highly praised by Irishmen, such as Synge and Yeats,’ but have been most violently attacked by conservative British critics.
Added to Eugene’s heritage as the son of an Irish immigrant was his heritage of the theater. Indeed, the two were often the same, since the Irish have excelled at acting. (There are curious parallels between the story of Synge’s Playboy of the Western World and O’Neill’s own story.) And this heritage of the theater helps to explain, psychologically, the mingling of actual autobiography with fictional tragedy ‘throughout O’Neill’s life. To the Irish immigrant’s uncertainty as to his nationality was added the actor’s uncertainty as to his true identity. James O’Neill became, in a sense, the Count of Monte Cristo; and his sons called him the Beautiful Voice. In identifying himself with his actor’s role, had James O’Neill “lost his true self forever”? And what, exactly, was the “true self” of an Irish immigrant actor—or of his son? Eugene would spend his lifetime seeking.
Beyond the psychological effect of his theatrical heritage, the practical effect of his father’s way of life loomed even greater. The homelessness of which Mary Tyrone complained in 1912 had been caused not by James’s parsimony but by the practical necessities of an actor’s life. And this homelessness “caused” the tragedy of the son as well as the tragedy of the mother.
Eugene O’Neill was born in a hotel in New York City where his father was acting. In Eugene’s early years he never knew a stable “home.” At the early age of seven he was sent away to Mount Saint Vincent, a Catholic boarding school. And throughout childhood he seldom lived any length of time with his parents. His most vivid, painful memory in later years was of his loneliness at boarding schools. And particularly he recalled being forced to spend Christmas vacation at his first school because his parents were away “on the road.” To his third wife he confessed forty years later the agony caused by this “betrayal” by his parents at a time when all the other children had gone home to celebrate Christmas with their parents.’ The first and deepest unhappiness of his life was that of homelessness—both psychological and physical.
But beyond the physical and the psychological homelessness caused by his Irish immigrant ancestry and his theatrical heritage, a deeper feeling of spiritual rootlessness resulted from his early experiences with Catholicism. The Catholic boarding school to which the young boy was sent inevitably became associated with his feelings of “betrayal” by his parents. And this natural association was not dispelled (as ideally it might have been) by the administration of the school. For Mount Saint Vincent emphasized formal discipline and regulation rather than the home-like warmth which the lonely child needed. In later years he recalled chiefly the black robes and the white starched collars of the nuns. And he progressively associated their lack of warmth with the Catholic religion. After five years at this boarding school and after two more at a Catholic day school, he finally rebelled against his Catholic heritage. At fourteen he was sent away to Betts Academy—a non-sectarian preparatory school in Connecticut.
Thus the one element of his heritage which might have provided him with a spiritual “home” failed him. Throughout his life he was to wrestle with the problem of religious faith, and once, in Days Without End, he seemed to be returning to the church. But from earliest childhood his life had been set in the pattern of homelessness by his parents, and Catholicism never provided a foster home. The final dramas of his later years describe his confrontation and acceptance of this tragic lot.
And yet the very elements of his heritage which most caused his personal tragedy, and set him most apart from the American society about him, paradoxically made his tragedy most American. For the typically “American” experience—as con­trasted with the typical experience of the old world—has always been characterized by insecurity and homelessness, isolation, and often alienation.’ The Irish immigration which introduced the O’Neills to an alien land, the migratory profession which necessitated his family’s homelessness, and his own consequent alienation from the religious faith which had sustained his parents—all were typically American. His own tragic agony and the imaginative dramas which he produced merely realized and greatly intensified the elements of tragedy inherent in the American experience from the beginning.
“Trouble in the Flesh”
One afternoon when the young Eugene returned early from school, he surprised his mother in the act of giving herself a “hypo” of morphine. At first unaware of the meaning of what he had seen, the later realization of it shocked him profoundly. And his mother’s addiction was certainly the precipitating fact of his own tragic emotional turmoil, as it was of Edmund Tyrone’s in Long Day’s Journey. Moreover, this fact was physical and tangible. A novel entitled Trouble in the Flesh embroidered fictionally on the life of “our greatest dramatist,” and it exaggerated this physical fact to suggest that the hero had perhaps been poisoned by his mother’s dope addiction before his own birth: that his tragedy, therefore was physically determined. The same assumption of some physical cause of tragedy is implied by the early biographer’s title: The Curse of the Misbegotten. Certainly some physical flaw in his “begetting” would more easily and simply explain his tragedy. And certainly the “trouble” which he somehow inherited did find physical expression in his own “flesh.” But, just as the dramatic tragedies which he imagined all turned on psychological causes, so probably did his own life’s tragedy.
Traditionally youth is beset by the troubles of the flesh, and O’Neill’s certainly was. And traditionally the morals of the theater have been free, as his were. A generation earlier his father had lived with actresses and had also begotten an illegitimate son before his own marriage, so why should his son be different? For Eugene belonged to the world of the theater also. Even after having been sent away to boarding school, he often went to New York for weekends; there his brother Jamie helped guide him through the world of parties and chorus girls. Meanwhile at the academy his classmates were acutely conscious of his sophistication and of the difference between his world and theirs. And so, when he went on to Princeton, he had already graduated from the school of worldly experience.
The free and easy morals of the theater came naturally to Eugene. But what made him different from his father was his consciousness of belonging also to another world. For after his marriage his father had tried to make himself over into the image of a model family man and solid citizen. And Eugene and his brother joined in rebelling against this acquired image of social propriety. Therefore their trouble in the flesh was seldom simple and natural (as the father’s had been); instead, it was rebellious and violent. James, Jr., for instance, was finally expelled from Notre Dame for squiring a famous prostitute to a formal college dance on a wager—and the act of bravado is typical. The young Eugene repeatedly indulged in similar escapades in order to taunt his father and to shock his respectable classmates.
But Eugene also loved his mother, and he clung to her image of purity, which Mary Tyrone so vividly embodies in Long Day’s Journey. Separated from the world of chorus girls, there were also “nice” girls. And as he went through Betts Academy and Princeton and explored the cosmopolitan world of New York he also met some of these. On a double date arranged by a friend, he became attracted to a nice girl named Kathleen Jenkins, and later he saw her often. When he learned that she had become pregnant, he faced the age-old dilemma. His friend who had introduced them insisted that he should marry her, but his father (remembering his own youthful troubles) advised against it. Eugene “solved” the dilemma by marrying and then immediately deserting her. Wholly confused, he wished only to forget the whole incident. Thirty years later, he omitted this episode from the autobiographical log of his Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Meanwhile the problem of liquor accompanied the problem of women, as it traditionally has. Like his Irish ancestors, James O’Neill loved his whiskey, and a bottle of it was always available in Long Day’s Journey. James sometimes drank too much, and one evening on his way home from town he fell off a railroad trestle and almost killed himself. But his drinking always remained social. His son Jamie, however, became a hopeless alcoholic and died in a sanitarium at the age of forty-five. Meanwhile, Eugene faced the problem of alcoholism all his life, and eventually overcame it. But it was a long, doubtful struggle.
Eugene’s most famous drunken escapade was probably his least important: he is fabled to have been expelled from Princeton for throwing a beer bottle through President Woodrow Wilson’s window. Actually he was only temporarily suspended (along with two friends) for throwing stones and for other minor acts of vandalism on the way home from a drunken evening in town. Moreover, the incident merely marked the climax of a series of such events—he was trying probably to get himself expelled, for he felt more at home in New York City. Even where drinking was recognized as a gentleman’s pastime, he drank in excess.
After his first marriage and just before his twenty-first birthday, he sailed away on what he later dignified as a “prospecting expedition” to Honduras. Actually he went with a friend of his father, and the journey was more of an escape from past troubles than a search for new opportunities. But it introduced him to foreign lands, and it gave him firsthand experience of the actual jungle. And even though engineered by his father and guided by others, the trip started him on three years of wandering and adventure which widened his horizon beyond that of his own country, made him aware of a “primitive” way of life unlike that of his own people, and showed him that human suffering was caused not only by human institutions but also by nature itself. After a few months he was invalided home with jungle fever and arrived in New York where his father tried to get him to work in the theater. But again he ran away—this time on his own initiative.
In the spring of 1910 he signed on a sailing ship for Buenos Aires—the Charles Racine. And during the two-month voyage South he fell in love with the sea and the life of the sailor. Like Melville and Jack London before him, he not only found escape from the confusions of the past, but he enjoyed new experiences which were to inspire his future writing. Returning to New York on the Ikala a year later, he had learned to know firsthand all the colorful crew who were to people the S. S. Glencairn; and he had experienced subjectively the exaltation of “the beauty and singing rhythm” of the sea, which he was to celebrate in Long Day’s Journey.
But meanwhile he had spent many months on the beach at Buenos Aires. During this time he “worked” unsuccessfully at a series of jobs—with Westinghouse, with Swift Packing Company, and with Singer Sewing Machine Company—but most of his time he spent drinking with a variety of friends and acquaintances of the waterfront. Many years later he inscribed a volume of his plays for an Argentine library, expressing the “doubt that there was a single park bench in Buenos Aires that had not served him as a bed.” And when he returned to New York in 1911, the same pattern of life continued. He made no effort to see either his father and mother, or the wife who had recently born his first son, Eugene Gladstone O’Neill, Jr. Instead, he took a room above “Jimmy-the-Priest’s” saloon (described in the first scene of Anna Christie), and he drank steadily with sailors and friends (many of whom later appeared in Harry Hope’s saloon in The Iceman Cometh).
For O’Neill as for Melville, the sea and the life of a sailor became symbols both of liberation and exaltation, and of frustration and continuing despair. And the next voyage for which he signed combined both. On a passenger liner plying to Europe and back, he experienced the mechanization of the modern ship, and the social snobbishness which he dramatized (in exaggerated form) in The Hairy Ape. When he finally returned to New York in October, 1911, his life on the sea had ended. And “the iceman” was at hand.
The next twelve months of his life were crucial. There seemed no place to go but down. Although he usually lived above the saloon on the waterfront, he returned to his father for financial assistance. During this time, in order to help his wife get a divorce (according to the laws of New York State, the only grounds for divorce were adultery), he arranged to be caught in flagrante delicto with a prostitute. He continued to drink even more heavily at Jimmy-the-Priest’s, and one day he learned that one of his favorite sailors, Driscoll, had just committed suicide by jumping overboard in mid-ocean. Soon after this, an old theatrical friend and roommate, Jimmy Byth, committed suicide by jumping from a bedroom window (much like Don Parritt in The Iceman). And soon afterwards, Eugene himself attempted suicide by swallowing an overdose of veronal tablets. He was taken to a hospital and revived. But although he later described the suicide attempt as a farce, and later still wrote a one-act play, Exorcism, which dramatized the incident as a means by which the hero “exorcised” his past sins, it was not very funny at the time.
After all this, his father took him away to New London for the summer and fall of 1912, where the events described in Long Day’s Journey took place. Recovering somewhat from his alcoholism and his despair, he got a job as roving reporter for a local newspaper, which he enjoyed. At this time he also enjoyed some family outings and neighborhood friendships of the kind described years later in Ah, Wilderness! But the physical and emotional effects of his recent life had undermined his health; at the end of the year he was invalided to a tuberculosis sanitarium.
During the first six months of 1913 at the sanitarium, he began to write his first plays, and having suddenly found a vocation and a reason for living, he attempted to make himself over in the image of a new ideal. But, like his father before him, he never succeeded in re-forming himself. In the years of success to come, the old black moods sometimes returned, and he escaped to some “Jimmy-the-Priest’s” or “Hell Hole,” until some friend found him and brought him “home.” Trouble always remained.
“Light on the Path”
The transformation of young Eugene from playboy and beachcomber to dedicated playwright was not so sudden as it has sometimes seemed. The six months of enforced quiet at the sanitarium during which he faced down the problems of his life did mark a dramatic break with his past. But even during his playboy years he had been unconsciously preparing for his future profession. His bookish education—especially the informal aspects of it—had helped. And the vague philosophy of life which he developed from it was more positive than it seemed.
When Eugene was eighteen, he first read Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra. Decades later he declared that “Zarathustra has influenced me more than any book I’ve ever read.” The poetic exhortations of this imaginary prophet, combined with the more sober philosophy of Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, not only inspired the young playwright but suggested his future theory of tragedy. When Zarathustra proclaimed: “You must have chaos in you to give birth to a dancing star. I tell you that you still have chaos in you,” he spoke to the young man’s present condition in terms of future prophecy. And when Nietzsche traced the birth of Greek tragedy to the pagan rites of the god Dionysus, he seemed to combine history with prophecy. For the young playwright was indeed a worshiper of Dionysus, and he felt chaos within himself. But he also felt within himself the potential “birth of a dancing star,” and he dreamed of the drunken laughter of Dionysus transformed into the liberated laughter of Lazarus. To O’Neill, Nietzsche suggested the element of transcendence implicit in all tragedy.
This transcendental philosophy which Nietzsche prophesied was, of course, tragic; and sometimes it seemed wholly pessimistic. The similar passages of poetry and philosophy which the autobiographical Edmund Tyrone declaimed to his father in Long Day’s Journey were even more emphatically pessimistic, and they were therefore branded “morbid” by the father. Yet the element of transcendence in them is more significant than their pessimism and Eugene himself may have been prepared to welcome Nietzsche by reading the volumes of Emerson in his father’s library, for the German philosopher himself had been inspired by the American. Or he may have found some of this transcendental mysticism in the Irish poets and playwrights that he read both then and later. But ultimately this mysticism derived from an Oriental philosophy which had influenced both Emerson and Nietzsche, and—later—Yeats and Synge. “The mystery and spell of the East which lures me in the books I’ve read,” may have been vague, but it was fundamental.
Just as Nietzsche’s Zarathustra influenced Eugene more than any other book he ever read, so Terry Carlin influenced him more than any other friend. Like Nietzsche, a worshiper of Dionysus, Terry Carlin had met O’Neill about 1915 in the “Hell Hole.” A fellow Irishman (born Terence O’Carolan), Terry possessed a love of mystical philosophy combined with a gift for words with which he enthralled the literate and the illiterate alike. He had been mentor to a young Hindu mystic named Dhan Gopal Mukerji, and now he preached a philosophy combining Nietzsche with the wisdom of the East. Most important, he introduced Eugene to a book of mystical theosophy entitled Light on the Path, which combined Oriental wisdom with Occidental psychology.
Neither Terry Carlin nor Light on the Path was philosophically “respectable,” but both served to introduce the young play­wright to the wisdom of the East and to develop the transcendental philosophy of tragedy which Nietzsche had first described. When Terry and Eugene settled in Provincetown in the summer of 1916, they inscribed above the door of their room a quotation from Light on the Path: “Before the eyes can see they must be incapable of tears.... Before the soul can stand ... its feet must be washed in the blood of the heart.” And they often read aloud its passages of mixed Oriental-Western religion and psychology: “Seek the life beyond individuality.... Seek it by plunging into the mysterious depths of your own being.... For within you is the light of the world, the only light that can be shed on the Path.”
This “philosophy” was not formal, and certainly its mysticism was vague; but it helped O’Neill to formulate a theory of tragedy which was to become both distinctive and modern. This theory of tragedy may perhaps, be summarized in a sentence. Through tragedy salvation may be achieved. Or, as Jean Paul Sartre was later to express the idea, “Life begins on the far side of despair.”
Meanwhile Eugene was steeping himself in the works of the great dramatists, both ancient and modern. His father, of course, had supervised his education in Shakespeare, and he once memorized all of Macbeth to win a wager from “the old man.” Similarly he read widely in classical Greek drama. But he also witnessed the theatrical production of many famous plays, ancient and modern, for his father could usually supply free tickets. When the Irish “Abbey Players” came to New York in 1911, he became an enthusiastic––attendant. He knew and admired Ibsen, both as a reader and as theater-goer. But most of all he valued August Strindberg, who, because he was less widely known and admired, became more of a personal discovery. Many years later and after winning the Nobel Prize, O’Neill took the occasion to emphasize his continuing debt to the Swedish dramatist: “For me he remains, as Nietzsche remains, in his sphere, the master, still to this day more modern than any of us, still our leader.”
The best known (hut probably the least important) aspect of his preparation for his future career was his participation in Professor George Pierce Baker’s “dramatic workshop” at Har­vard. After his decision to become a playwright, his father sent him to this pioneering experiment in the education of aspiring playwrights. But, although Eugene admired Professor Baker and wrote many dramatic compositions for his course, he learned comparatively little from it. Mostly he discovered what he did not want to do—he did not want to follow the conventional dramatists of his time. And, when the year ended, he felt little inclination ever to return to the academic life.
And so, by a series of rejections and rebellions, he arrived at the threshold of his career. Already he had written a number of apprentice plays, and his father had financed the publication of a volume of them. He was soon to enjoy his first professional triumph at Provincetown, and after that his rise to fame was swift. But during these years he continued to live in Greenwich Village, in and above the “Hell Hole.” And with Terry Carlin he continued to drink and talk with anarchists and prostitutes. And living with them, he also shared their confused ideals of free love and anarchism.
But it is important to realize that “free love” and “anarchism” were positive ideals, as well as attitudes of rebellion and negation. The free love of Greenwich Village did not include the idealization of prostitutes; rather, it imagined their redemp­tion—as later dramatized in Anna Christie. And the “anarchism” of the “Hell Hole” did not include the idealization of the Communist state; it preached the ideal abolition of all states. The individual was all-important; conventional society, nothing.
These ideals, as O’Neill practiced them at this time, found vivid embodiment in his strangely mixed relationship with his two friends, John Reed and his wife Louise Bryant. Although Louise was legally married to John, she believed in free love; and she loved Eugene. When John was away making speeches or in the hospital, she lived happily and illegally with Eugene. At Provincetown the two acted together in his first plays. Later, when she and John went to Russia together to observe and to celebrate the Revolution, John experienced and wrote his famous Ten Days that Shook the World; and there he died, a hero of the Revolution (and a victim of his weak constitution and some typhus germs). When Louise returned to America, she learned that Eugene had married Agnes Boulton; but she still loved him and expected him to share his love with her also. But now he felt differently; with the approval of Agnes he tactfully ended the whole affair.
The tangled loves of John, Louise Reed, and Eugene illustrate vividly the naively confused idealisms of the time. Many years later Eugene dramatized some of these confusions in the story of Strange Interlude, whose heroine shared her ideal love with three men. And then critics complained of the artificiality of the plot and the Freudianism of the psychology without realizing that the author had himself experienced these tragically mixed loves and idealisms. Light on the Path had proclaimed that “the feet of the soul must be washed in the blood of the heart.” This mixed but vivid metaphor may stand for the confused but genuine idealism of O’Neill’s early life.
Three Wives for Three Lives
Eugene O’Neill was married three times and divorced twice; he deserted two wives, and was deserted (for a brief period) by the third; he quarreled, ran off, returned, and made up. But never for long did he enjoy peace from the furies which drove him. The stories of his escapades, which are legion, give the impression that he rushed from one emotional experience to the other without rhyme or reason. But just as his dramas describe the conflicting emotions of tragic protagonists in significant patterns—Strange Interlude, for instance, objectifies the con­flicting loves of Nina Leeds for her “three men”—so his own emotional conflicts were objectified in his relations with his three wives. Since these conflicts persisted throughout his life, each marriage was troubled by the conflicting needs which could not be satisfied by any one relationship. But his own conflicts found expression in each of his successive marriages; and his emotional life may be described in relation to them.
That O’Neill’s character was complex, and that it included at least two different “selves,” was emphasized by Brooks Atkinson’s obituary remark: “a great spirit and our greatest dramatist have left us.” But funeral oratory traditionally speaks only good concerning the dead, and in life O’Neill was often spectacularly “bad.” Besides the two admirable selves described by Atkinson, his early self had often been violent and rebellious, and this destructive self continued to cause him trouble throughout his life. Recently Esquire magazine published an article entitled: “Portrait of a Nobel Prize Winner as a Bum.” And Croswell Bowen described this persisting aspect of the man as “The Black Irishman.” O’Neill possessed (or was possessed by) three different selves. The first was rebellious, violent, and often drunken. The second was the dedicated creative artist. The third was the compassionate “great spirit” who understood human tragedy because he himself had lived it.
These same three selves (or conflicting but complementary aspects of the single Self) were personified long ago as the three chief gods of Hinduism: Shiva, the god of destruction; Brahma, the god of creation; and Vishnu, the god of preservation. In the Elephanta Caves near Bombay a giant statue still stands, whose massive head is carved with the three separate faces of this triune God. First is the scowling face of Shiva, the destroyer; second, the impassive face of Brahma, the creator; third, the compassionate face of Vishnu, the preserver.
Like the mysterious East which he always idealized, O’Neill’s character included these three “faces,” or selves. Each of these dominated one of the three periods of his life. His youth was naturally violent, rebellious, and destructive. But about 1916, when he suddenly achieved success with his plays, he began a “new life.” From 1916 to about 1932 he devoted himself exclusively to the creation of his dramas, and during this period spent himself on his labor of creation. Then, from 1932 to 1945, he retired into himself, brooded upon the life of his nation and of his family, and produced the compassionate autobiographical dramas of his final years.
Because each of the three periods of his life was dominated by a different self (or set of motives, or way of life), it was natural that his emotional needs during each period should have been different. And although his relations with women were never simple—during his youth his affairs often seemed wholly promiscuous—his emotional life followed essentially the same pattern as his professional life. A violent hostility toward women characterized his youth, and the first play he wrote (while still in the sanitarium) was ironically entitled A Wife for a Life, and it concluded with the hero’s wife running off with the hero’s best friend. Clearly O’Neill never believed that marriages were made in heaven, but he always was fascinated by the complex psychological problems of love and marriage.
The actual pattern of his own three marriages may fairly be described, without irony, as “Three Wives for Three Lives.” Because the first period of his life was rebellious and destructive, his first marriage was hardly a marriage at all. His first wife was, figuratively, an image of purity who existed in order to be destroyed. His second wife naturally became the opposite—an image of love unlimited, herself an artist, beyond convention and beyond society. But, as he became famous and as he became older, he needed to be protected both from society and his own weaknesses. Therefore his third wife became an image of worldly wisdom. His three wives satisfied the needs of his three lives.
O’Neill early described his first marriage, in a letter to his first biographer, as “a mistake.” He never lived with Kathleen Jenkins, his first wife, and apparently he never even believed that he loved her. Like the semi-autobiographical hero of The Straw, he had persuaded a nice girl that he loved her; she became pregnant; he married her. He had, as it were, admitted his legal responsibility, but he then rejected all social respon­sibility by leaving for Honduras. And his young wife in time accepted the situation: three years later, with his active cooperation, she obtained a divorce.
The character of Kathleen Jenkins (the little we know of it) seems as symbolic as their marriage was formal. “She had big blue eyes and fair hair piled high on her head. ... At twenty, Kathleen resembled the lovely girls Charles Dana Gibson was drawing.” The daughter of a rich New York businessman, she suggests the imaginary, pure heroine of The Hairy Ape, to whose world of high society the primitive Yank could never “belong.” But in actuality it was O’Neill who rejected the formal, social world of Kathleen Jenkins—not the pure heroine who rejected the rough physical world of the hero. O’Neill’s first marriage was destroyed by his sense of the abyss between the world of American actuality and the formal world of American society, and by his identification with the former. In youth he followed the flesh, admitting only the formal demands of society. In later years he observed wonderingly that “the woman I gave the most trouble to has given me the least.” The clear reason was that this first marriage had never been more than a matter of form.
Seven years later he had spent his wanderjahre—in Honduras, on the high seas, in Buenos Aires, and in the cities of America. He had tried his hand at many trades, and succeeded in none. He had suffered a physical breakdown from tuberculosis and from too much drinking. But most important, he had begun writing plays, and had already gained recognition with them: his early one-acters had been produced by the Provincetown Players. And in the fall of 1917 he was living in Greenwich Village, sharing the bohemian life of the leading artists of the time. There he met another young writer, Agnes Boulton. They fell immediately in love, and six months later they married.
Agnes Boulton was almost the exact opposite of Kathleen Jenkins. Not only was she an artist, but the daughter of an artist. Her father was a portrait painter, and she had recently come to New York to earn her living as a free-lance writer. Like O’Neill she also had been married and had had a child. She was twenty-four years old; he, twenty-nine. They shared friends and a common background. Before their marriage he had already quarreled with and insulted her, and she had recognized his violent nature and accepted it. Neither of them expected conventional behavior of the other, or a conventional life together. Most significantly, they had agreed that, whenever either of them wished, the marriage would be dissolved. The form was nothing; love, everything.
This second marriage was one of equals, not of opposites. But, of course, it was also a marriage of individuals, with individual differences. Agnes, a writer, regarded writing as a business, not an ideal—her work was published in the pulp magazines. She admired his work, and read and praised much of it in manuscript; but she did not care for the theater, and never bothered to make his theater friends her own. He inscribed his first major drama to her “in memory of the wonderful moment when first in her eyes I saw the promise of a land more beautiful than any I had ever known ... a land beyond my horizon.” And for many years they explored together the beauty of this impossible land of romance. For almost a decade they lived together—not always happily, but always creatively. During this marriage to Agnes Boulton hewrote the plays that made him famous and that established him as “our greatest dramatist.”
To O’Neill the dramatist, Agnes Boulton’s greatest fault was that she wanted to be a separate human individual, not merely the wife of a great man. Like the heroine of Welded, she asked: “Haven’t I a right to myself as you have to yourself?” Although O’Neill the man agreed, the creative dramatist demanded a more selfless love. When the playwright hid himself away in his study to write, his wife went out with friends, or invited them to visit. When he came out of hiding to join them, she did nothing to protect him from his alcoholism, but drank happily with him. After his sessions with a psychiatrist in New York, during which he determined to end his drinking, he also determined to end his marriage with Agnes Boulton. He had grown to need protection and the nurture of his genius, not domestic love and comrade-ship.
During the summer and fall of 1926, he began seeing a good deal of Carlotta Monterey. A mutual friend of the time described her as “miraculously immaculate, and a wonderful housekeeper. There was nobody like her. Agnes’ house, on the other hand, always seemed to smell of diapers and lamb stew, and there was always a lot of noise from the kids. [Shane had been born in 1919, Oona in 1925.] It drove O’Neill almost out of his mind.” O’Neill himself casually wrote to a friend about “Carlotta Monterey, the famous beauty.” This combination of immaculate housekeeper and famous beauty was what the creative artist now needed. “One day he came to tea,” Carlotta remembered, “... and he looked at me with those tragic eyes and said, ‘I need you.’ He kept saying ‘I need you, I need you’—never ‘I love you, I think you are wonderful’—just ‘I need you, I need you.’ Sometimes it was a bit frightening.” Although such compelling love was always to remain a bit frightening, she accepted her destiny.
Actually Carlotta Monterey and Eugene O’Neill had met four years earlier when she was acting the role of the immaculate heroine of The Hairy Ape. He had scarcely noticed her then, and he had not seen her again until 1926; but there seems to have been something prophetic about her early role. She had interpreted with theatrical skill the character of that beautiful but unreal heroine—a character whom the innocence of his first wife had perhaps suggested. And then gradually, she herself had realized this beautiful immaculateness in her own life. By her mimetic art she had created— in the phrase of Henry James—“the real thing.” By falling in love with her, therefore, O’Neill was falling in love with the actualization of an ideal image which his fantasy had earlier created. In marrying her, he was marrying both an immaculate housekeeper and an ideal beauty.
The character of Carlotta Monterey is, indeed, almost as complex as that of O’Neill himself. She was not “really” even “Carlotta Monterey”: she had been born Hazel Neilson Tharsing, and she had grown up in the unglamorous surroundings of Oakland, dreaming of becoming an actress. She had then adopted a stage name to suggest the glamour and the aristocracy (a little removed, both in time and in space) of the Spanish past of her California home. Gradually she had molded herself in the image of this aristocratic ideal. She had described herself as convent-bred and Continent-educated. She had never become widely famous as an actress, but she had become a famous beauty. Already married three times, she had become independently wealthy. She had become, that is, infinitely more than the simple ideal of immaculate beauty which O’Neill had imagined earlier to contrast with his Hairy Ape. She had become America’s ideal of aristocratic grace and worldly success, and she was the perfect creature to nurture the genius of America’s greatest dramatist.
But for more than two years O’Neill was denied the opportunity for undisturbed work which his marriage to Carlotta promised, because of the difficulties (both emotional and financial) created by the refusal of Agnes to a quick divorce. Meanwhile, he and Carlotta embarked on a long voyage to the Orient—and to his old dream of perfect Beauty beyond the horizon. But suddenly the dream exploded into a nightmare: the tension involved in their unsanctioned relationship drove O’Neill to one last drunken escape, which ended in a Shanghai hospital. After his recovery, the couple returned to Europe. And finally on July 22, 1929, two days after Agnes was granted her divorce in Reno, he and Carlotta were married in Paris.
For sixteen years this third marriage brought him what peace and happiness his restless nature would allow. On their twelfth wedding anniversary he dedicated the recently completed manuscript of Long Day’s Journey to Carlotta, with the inscription: “These twelve years, Beloved One, have been a Journey into Light—and love.” But his health had become increasingly bad, and finally the diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease destroyed hope of recovery. After 1944, he lost all power to work creatively.
This final loss of creative power naturally resulted in increasing frustration, which almost caused the break-up of his third marriage. While he had been writing the later plays, Carlotta had acted as protector and guardian of his talents: she had kept away reporters and unwanted visitors; she had shielded him both from the temptations of the world and of his own nature. But in 1946, when he found himself unable to work, he suddenly threw himself into new activities. He participated actively in the production of The Iceman Cometh. And beyond this professional activity, he suddenly found new pleasure in social relationships, both with old friends and with new acquaintances. For the first time he allowed himself to enjoy the vanities of being a literary lion. And he also began flirting happily with young actresses and secretaries. But Carlotta, jealous both of new acquaintances and of old friends, and no longer able to control or to protect him, became increasingly disturbed. Finally, she deserted him. Both suffered complete physical and nervous breakdowns, and ironically both were treated in the same hospital. They recovered, and were finally reconciled. But during the last years the light, which had shone on the third stage of the long journey, faded.
The final tragedy which darkened his last years, preventing him from enjoying the rewards of his labors and calling down final doom on the house of O’Neill, was caused by the same conflicts that had troubled his earlier years. Carlotta had married him to protect him from interruption by noisy children and by sociable friends. Now when, unable to work, he needed the companionship of children and friends, she still protected him. Increasingly, he had sought to renew contacts with Eugene, Jr., and with Shane and Oona. But Oona offended Carlotta by her gay irreverence, and, when she married Charlie Chaplin (a close friend of Carlotta’s last husband, and a man as old as her father), O’Neill disowned her. Shane had already suffered from the family curse of drink and dope. But Eugene, Jr., had achieved success as a scholar, and he had won his father’s admiration and affection. But his radical politics, much like his father’s in youth, offended Carlotta, and the father was forced to choose between wife and son. He chose Carlotta, and Eugene, Jr., committed suicide. Tragedy became O’Neill.
Autobiography and Tragedy
From 1913, when he began writing his first play while still in the sanitarium, to 1920, when his first full-length drama was produced on Broadway, O’Neill wrote many plays of many different types. Most of these were apprentice pieces which have been mercifully forgotten; and, in this brief introduction, we shall not have space to consider most of them. But the reasons for their failures are significant: they illuminate the nature both or his life and of his writing.’’
It has often been said that O’Neill was an autobiographical writer—and the tremendous success of Long Day’s Journey and the other final dramas seems to confirm this. In following his early life, we have also followed the autobiographical story of Long Day’s Journey, even when his actual life diverged from it. But it is important to remember that the major autobiographical plays were all written toward the end of his career; for in his early life, his best plays were not autobiographical: The Emperor Jones, for instance, is one of the least autobiographical plays in literature. Successful autobiography requires insight into the nature of the “hero” and perspective upon his actions and his relationships with the world; but, throughout his early life, O’Neill emphatically lacked this insight. He possessed a keen power of observation of the people about him, and an extraordinary insight into the characters and motives of others; but the more of himself he incorporated into his early characters, the more confused they became; the more turgid was the style of his writing; and the more distorted was the pattern of his dramas. Only as he matured as an artist and playwright was he able to utilize successfully the subjective experiences of his early years: with the slow passage of time he achieved perspective and self-knowledge.
The failure of his early autobiographical plays is interesting. Each creates successful minor characters and physical settings of great verisimilitude. But in each the central character remains unconvincing. The autobiographical hero seems to be an abstract idea, a sentimental projection, or an idealized symbol. Throughout his early career O’Neill succeeded only when he dramatized objective characters whom he had observed, or when he projected the conflicting aspects of his own inner nature as separate, conflicting protagonists upon the stage.
The first play which he ever wrote was the brief skit entitled A Wife for a Life. It ended: “Greater love hath no man than this that he giveth his wife for a friend.” And the savage sarcasm (or, perhaps, the maudlin sentimentality) of this final speech reflected the emotional confusion of his own nature at the time. It recalled not only the recent destruction of his own first marriage, but also the confusion of his own love affair with Louise Bryant, the wife of his friend John Reed. This play failed for many reasons, but chiefly because of the author’s lack of objectivity toward his characters and their situation.
Later O’Neill attempted to dramatize the story of his own attempted suicide in Exorcism. Written in 1919 and produced in 1920, the play was never published. But Alexander Woollcott reviewed it favorably, and commented particularly on the excellence of the minor characters. The hero remained less convincing, however, because the play first described his suicide-attempt as a farce, but then asserted baldly the hero’s conviction that he had succeeded in “exorcising” his self-destructive former self. The first of O’Neill’s plays to deal with the crucial year 1912 and to attempt to dramatize the transformation of the irresponsible beachcomber into the future tragic artist, it asserted this magical transformation too abstractly, and it did not describe the tragic motives behind it. Therefore the complex character of the hero remained an idealized projection of his true self.
The Straw, written at about the same time as Exorcism, and produced one year later, went on to describe the young hero’s experiences in a tuberculosis sanitarium. Again, the minor characters, such as the nurses and doctors, are excellent, and the background realistic. The hero, Stephen Murray, seems an almost exact dramatization of the author: he is a former newspaper reporter who is inspired to write serious literature during his stay at the sanitarium and who finds in this vocation a new reason for living. Furthermore, this Stephen conducts a romance with a fellow-patient, just as the young O’Neill actually did. But the character of Stephen Murray is romanticized far beyond the actual young O’Neill, and the play is provided with a sentimental ending to fit. Stephen realizes that his romantic attentions have caused the tubercular heroine to fall seriously in love with him, and the doctor tells him that her only hope of recovery lies in his love. Nobly, therefore, he proclaims to her his true love and asks her to marry him, and he discovers in the process that he actually loves her. She happily accepts, and together they grasp at “the straw” of hope which this romantic love provides. The play ends sadly in the shadow of the heroine’s probable death, but it ends “happily” with the triumph of true love over death.
Stephen Murray of The Straw is the typical romantic hero whom the young O’Neill constructed out of the materials of his own early biography. His discovery of his true vocation as a creative writer while recuperating in the sanitarium is both actual and romantically ideal. But, except in this one aspect, O’Neill himself was never a romantic hero. Unlike the fictional hero of The Straw, he never proclaimed his true love to the actual patient at “Gaylord Farm” with whom he conducted his romance and who died soon after leaving the sanitaarium without ever seeing him again. Eugene O’Neill was a much less romantic—and a much more complicated—person than his fictional hero. Indeed, he did project something of his own complexity upon Stephen Murray, in his stage directions: “His manner, as revealed by his speech—nervous, inquisitive, alert—seems more an acquired quality than any part of his true nature.” But in the play, this conflict between “acquired quality” and “true nature” is resolved in the romantic heroism of the ending. In O’Neill’s actual life, the inner conflict was never fully resolved. The play both sentimentalized and oversimplified the reality.
The last early play to describe and interpret autobiographi­cally the experiences of the young O’Neill is Welded. Completed in 1923 and four years after The Straw, it deals with the emotional problems of his second marriage as he was then experiencing them. It marks an interesting advance over the others in conception of character and theme, but there is also an interesting regression in the use of dialogue and emotional tone. The character of its autobiographical hero is much more complex and true to life than in Exorcism and The Straw; and the conflict described—both psychologically, within the hero’s mind and dramatically, between husband and wife—is more interest­ing. But the dialogue is always rhetorical and it is often incredible: the emotion is so overstrained that it seldom falls below the level of hysteria. The play also fails because it attempts too much too soon: the deep probing of character and the dramatic analysis of emotion—which were to contribute to the later successes of Strange Interlude and of Mourning Becomes Electra—resulted only in psychological melodrama.
Michael Cape, the hero of Welded (O’Neill’s English publisher was named Jonathan Cape), is a successful playwright who is almost exactly the author’s age at the time of writing: “His unusual face is a harrowed battleground of super-sensitiveness, the features at war with one another. . . . There is something tortured about him—a passionate tension....” The stage description of his wife, Eleanor, exactly fits O’Neill’s second wife, Agnes Boulton, in age and physical appearance, although Eleanor is an “actress,” whereas Agnes was a novelist. O’Neill projected upon the fictional Michael and Eleanor Cape the fundamental conflicts of his own life: the universal conflict (always present in his mind) between romantic love and work-a-day reality; and the more personal conflict (then becoming acute in his experience) between “our greatest playwright,” dedicated only to his art, and the passionate human being in need of love, but exclusively centered upon himself and his own problems.
The failure of Welded—unlike the earlier autobiographical dramas—is caused partly by the lack of realism in the minor characters and in the background. These characters are no longer actual people, but symbols: the other man is, simply, “John,” a theatrical producer, and the other woman is, even more simply, “A Woman.” This symbolism is emphasized by the stage directions: “two circles of light, like auras of egotism, emphasize Eleanor and Michael throughout the play. There is no other lighting. The two other people and the rooms are distinguishable only by the light of Eleanor and Michael. “The realism, however, is now transferred to the emotional life of the husband and wife who quarrel violently, rush off to seek solace from others, and return to make up passionately; they follow the pattern which five years later was to destroy O’Neill’s own second marriage. The lack of verisimilitude in these auto-biographical characters is caused by the exaggerated intensity of their dialogue and, finally, by the happy ending. Once again love romantically conquers all:
cape: (leaping to his feet—intensely) My own!
eleanor: (with deep, passionate tenderness) My lover!
cape: My wife! (His eyes fixed on her, he ascends ...)
The young O’Neill used his own experiences to project upon the stage the inner conflicts which were tormenting him. In Exorcism he did not really try to understand these conflicts. In The Straw he dramatized the problems, but he romanticized the autobiographical hero and also the ending. In Welded he realized both the problems and the true character of the hero, but he melodramatized them and once again projected an impossibly romantic ending. All these plays failed dismally. But, meanwhile, he often succeeded brilliantly when he projected his inner conflicts upon opposing dramatic characters like Robert and Andrew Mayo of Beyond the Horizon. And meanwhile, in actual life, he sought by means of reading, discussion, and reflection to understand his own conflicts and those of all men.
More than most creative writers, O’Neill concerned himself with the inner thoughts and feelings of his protagonists and of himself. Many of his greatest successes explored and dramatized this inner world. Therefore, psychologists and psychoanalysts have been deeply interested in his dramas, and many critics have emphasized the psychoanalytic nature of all his writing. Negatively, he has often been criticized for excessive introver­sion and for conscious borrowing from the theories of Freud and of Jung. But the facts do not fully substantiate this criticism. Just as his use of autobiographical material was at first tentative and unsuccessful, so was his interest in—and use of—analytical psychology.
O’Neill early disclaimed any specific interest in Freud, and there is no reason to doubt his statement. But he did affirm an enthusiasm for Carl Jung: “Some of his suggestions I find extraordinarily illuminating in the light of my own experience with hidden motives.” He particularly liked Jung’s theory of the “collective unconscious,” and of the archetypal patterns and myths which precede conscious thought and literary creation. As early as 1922 O’Neill used this theory to explain his preference for emotion over conscious thought: “Our emotions . . . are the result not only of our individual experience, but of the experiences of the human race back through the ages.” But the more specific “complexes” and the more intellectual analyses of Freud seemed to him too mechanical. When he adapted elements of the Oedipus story in Desire Under the Elms, he produced (as Dr. Weissman has described it) “unconscious autobiography.”
But in 1926 O’Neill underwent six weeks of psychological analysis by Dr. Gilbert Hamilton of New York City, for the specific, practical purpose of curing his alcoholism (which was successfully cured). Although not extended enough or deep enough to be called a true psychoanalysis, these psychiatric interviews served both to clarify some of his own problems and to interest him more deeply in Freudian psychology. And this interest found dramatic expression in Strange Interlude, which he wrote soon after. This play, certainly the most consciously psychological of all, has often been criticized for its Freudian jargon and for its self-conscious theorizing. Yet even in it the fundamental emotional experiences dramatized and the psy­chological interpretations suggested were taken from the author’s own earlier experience and observation more than from mere Freudian theory, as his recent biograpahers have made clear. His extraordinarily intense personal experiences and his extraordinarily acute sympathy with the emotional problems of all people contributed more to his tragic psychology than did Freudian theory—he was not being pretentious when he wrote earlier of “my own experience with hidden motives.”
In one sense, all of O’Neill’s dramatic art is autobiographical, for it is directed toward the understanding of his own life and of his inner “self.” But in a truer sense, his unresolved inner conflicts, which troubled him throughout his life, stirred his imagination to dramatize the conflicts of all men, and, ultimately, to clarify his own.
Perhaps the contemporaneity of O’Neill and his plays is to blame: we are so close to him that we know too much about his life. It is interesting to speculate what our interpretation of Shakespeare might be today if we knew as many facts of his biography as we do of O’Neill’s. Shakespeare also married young, deserted his wife, ran off to join a troupe of actors, and eventually wrote plays about the tragic problems of troubled men such as Hamlet and Othello. We can only infer the personal conflicts of the artists of earlier times. But O’Neill’s personal conflicts are public knowledge.
“Our Greatest Dramatist”
O’Neill’s public and professional life was as orderly, responsi­ble, and reasonable as his early private life had been disorderly, irresponsible and unreasonable. The playwright always listened to serious criticism, and he learned from his professional mistakes. His relations with producers and actors were better than those of most authors. In later years, remembering the difficulties and discouragements of his own early career, he took pains to write encouraging letters to younger men whose work he admired. To readers and critics who sincerely wished to understand and discuss his art, he was unfailingly gracious. Many of the greatest writers of his time offered him their ungrudging admiration. From his first meeting with George Jean Nathan, he enjoyed the lifelong friendship of the leading theatrical critic of his time. And Theodore Drieser, who respected few men, stood in awe of O’Neill.
The disagreements which sometimes troubled his professional career were always reasonable. He judged his own work—and all criticisms of it—by one unfailing standard: did it attempt to realize the highest principles of art and literature? Or did it cater to the popular demands of the commercial theater? The paternal shadow of “The Count of Monte Cristo” hung over his professional career. With all critics and producers who expected conformity to the commercial standards that had determined his father’s career, he quarreled. But he accepted all criticisms of his work which appealed to the highest standards of art. His own earliest recorded critical judgment is typical. Professor George Pierce Baker had invited the opinions of his students concerning an apprentice work which he had just read aloud, and other classmates had given their careful criticisms. But O’Neill simply commented: “Cut it to twenty minutes, give it a couple of tunes, and it’s sure fire burly-cue.” If he thought that he detected elements of the “phony” or of the merely theatrical in his own writing (as he often did—for he was, inevitably, his father’s son), he rejected them. For this reason he grew to dislike some of his own most popular early plays such as In the Zone and Anna Christie. And for the same reason he perhaps overvalued his most experimental original plays, such as The Great God Brown.
But from childhood he had been brought up with the practical realities of the theater. Besides experiences with his father’s troupe, he enjoyed the advice of some of his father’s friends. When his first volume of plays was published, critic Clayton Hamilton praised it publicly but privately warned the young playwright: “When you send off a play remember there is not one chance in a thousand it will ever be read; not one chance in a million of its ever being accepted—and if accepted it will probably never be produced) ...” And for two years O’Neill wrote steadily but unsuccessfully.
In 1916, however, he achieved sudden success. From John Reed and Louise Bryant he had heard of the recently organized little theater group called the Provincetown Players, and in early summer he packed up “a trunk-full of plays” and moved to Provincetown. There he offered the manuscript of Bound East for Cardiff to the group, where it was read aloud. Later Susan Glaspell remembered the occasion: “Then we knew what we were for.... I may see it through memories too emotional, but it seems to me I have never sat before a more moving production than our Bound East for Cardiff. “And from this first production he was to go on from success to greater success. Contrasting with the tragic story of his private life, his public life became a story of brilliant success.
During the summer of 1916 he continued to write and to work with the Provincetown group. He himself acted in Thirst, his second play to be produced. And in the fall, when they all returned to New York, Bound East for Cardiff featured the opening bill at the Playwright’s Theatre. His father and mother, who came to see it were pleased. Critical reviews were enthusiastic, and gradually word spread that Eugene O’Neill was a new playwright to be watched. Other one-act plays of his were soon produced, and, by the second summer at Provincetown, he had already become something of a legend. The most remarka­ble aspect of his reputation, both then and later, has been the extreme respect with which he has been regarded by his peers. An old friend of his newspaper days on the New London Telegraph, who joined him that summer in Provincetown, was astonished at the veneration with which he was already regarded: “Here’s the great new American playwright in the making,” they said; and few disagreed.
One of the first full-length articles to discuss the new playwright was published by George Jean Nathan in 1920, and it included some severe criticism with its praise. O’Neill wrote Nathan to thank him and also “to make you my confession of faith ... My work is as yet a mere groping. I rate myself a beginner—with prospects.... But I venture to promise that this will be less true with each succeeding play.... And in this faith I live: That if I have the ‘guts’ to ignore the megaphone men and what goes with them, to follow the dream and live for that alone, then my real significant bit of truth, and the ability to express it, will be conquered in time.” Not only did this modest prophecy prove true, but it won Nathan over completely. Even when the two men later disagreed—as they did concerning the merits of Lazarus Laughed—they completely respected each other.
When O’Neill’s first full-length play was produced in New York, it won immediate acclaim. At first produced experimen­tally, Beyond the Horizon soon moved to a regular run in a large Broadway theater. James O’Neill, who was able to attend it six months before his death, took great pleasure in his son’s success. Soon it won the Pulitzer Prize. If some critics objected to its alternations of scenes and if James O’Neill registered his usual objections to its tragic tone, the success of the play seemed all the more remarkable for these very reasons. It went against the theatrical conventions and against the popular taste of the time. It inaugurated a new era in the American theater—one which is still continuing a half century later.
Within the year The Emperor Jones was produced in New York. It followed the same pattern as its predecessor, but won a wider success and a greater acclaim; for both its subject matter and its technique appealed beyond the limits of the American theater to the imagination of the world. The story of the West Indian Negro “emperor” had the universal appeal of folk myth, and its theatrical presentation seemed both more imaginative and more elemental than that of Beyond the Horizon. It established O’Neill as an international figure. And even today, if American drama is discussed in Tokyo or in Buenos Aires, The Emperor Jones is apt to be the first play mentioned.
One year later O’Neill’s third major play won his second Pulitzer Prize. And it appealed to a type of audience less attracted to his earlier plays. For Anna Christie, with its story of the regeneration of a “fallen woman,” its romantic sentiment, and its un-tragic ending, seemed closer to popular taste. Like Ah, Wilderness! and Strange Interlude later, it appealed to an American middle class which rather disliked pure tragedy and distrusted art for art’s sake. Fifteen years later, when Bernard De Voto wrote his “Minority Report” disapproving of the award of the Nobel Prize to O’Neill he singled out Anna Christie for praise. But O’Neill, because he always distrusted popular acclaim and sentimental success, soon turned against Anna.
His fourth major success within two years, The Hairy Ape, introduced a new aspect of the author’s genius. Modeled after the new “expressionistic” drama, it first employed those tech­niques of anti-realism, or “super-naturalism,” which his later plays were to develop—the conscious use of symbolism, the use of masks, and other techniques which would suggest the sharp division between surface reality and the subconscious mind. Like The Great God Brown and Strange Interlude, this play was aggressively experimental; and it seemed, therefore, to challenge the imagination of its audiences. And again, both its title and its subject matter appealed beyond the national audience to the international. With The Hairy Ape O’Neill achieved new success without repeating himself in any way, and he established himself as a tragic dramatist of international stature.
Only three years after the production of his first full-length play, and on the basis of only four major successes, his reputation had achieved unprecedented heights: he was universally recog­nized as “America’s greatest dramatist.” But this recognition meant comparatively little at a time when America had produced no major dramatists. The extent of his international reputation was more remarkable. Writing in Dublin Magazine in 1923, an Irish critic could dare to rank O’Neill above the greatest playwrights of the time: “Eugene O’Neill is the great discovery of the post-war drama. His is the star now in the ascendant, outshining Shaw, Synge .... and all the Continentals.” There were dissenting voices, then as always; but the depth, the breadth, and the genuine literary quality of the enthusiasm which these early dramas aroused was astonishing. And, as his new plays continued to appear throughout the decade, this early reputation continued to grow and to spread.
As O’Neill became famous, he became not only increasingly conscious of his public position but also increasingly articulate about his ideals and hopes for American drama. Moreover, his new sense of public responsibility found expression both in his writing and in his relations with producers. From the beginning, he had identified himself with the experimental theater of the Provincetown Players; now he wrote frequent letters—both to his friends and to the newspapers—to describe his ideas and hopes for the modern drama. Some of these ideas he derived from his associates—as from The Theatre of Tomorrow by Kenneth Macgowan. Others he developed from Nietzsche, Strindberg, and contemporary dramatists. But he made these ideas his own, and he gave them concrete expression in his plays from Beyond the Horizon to Lazarus Laughed. Always he emphasized his idealistic, anti-naturalistic—and, indeed, optimistic—belief that all tragic drama is essentially religious in origin and in effect. But inevitably this high conception of the drama brought him into conflict with the practical-minded producers of his time.
Having achieved fame, O’Neill now achieved notoriety. His next plays suffered attacks from the censors—All God’s Chillun, for its racial theme; Desire, for its “immorality.” Although these attacks were largely unjustified, other plays of this period suffered criticism (and sometimes failure) for better reasons. The Fountain and Welded both asserted his idealistic theories without the necessary dramatic conviction. When regular producers refused them, O’Neill formed his own company with Kenneth Macgowan and Robert E. Jones, and he personally produced them; but both inevitably failed. But The Great God Brown succeeded. However, his finest drama of ideas, Lazarus Laughed, proved both too expensive and too idealistic to produce commercially. By 1927 he had achieved fame sufficient to convince the Theatre Guild that it should produce almost any new play of his. And, at the same time, he had exhausted the missionary idealism which had impelled him to write plays which had proved either impracticable or undramatic.
With the production of Strange Interlude in 1928, his reputation reached new heights. Some critics hailed the drama with superlatives, and Nathan devoted a complete article to praising it. But even more remarkable was the sheer physical triumph of the production, which ran continuously for more than a year, even though each performance lasted for five hours (with an hour off for dinner). Three years later, when the trilogy of Mourning Becomes Electra repeated this triumph, O’Neill’s name was often mentioned with the immortals. In 1929 an Australian critic, who had written a book about O’Neill’s plays, compared him with Shakespeare. And now his modern dramatization of the Greek Oresteia challenged comparison with Aeschylus. Many objected to such lèse majesté, and later criticism has often dealt harshly with these ambitious plays. But their historical success was both undeniable and unparalleled.
The next years proved less successful. And after 1934 O’Neill’s retirement from active playwriting, which was to continue for twelve years, worked against his earlier reputation. When he received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1936, many articles were devoted to assessing his past achievement. These articles were mostly favorable, of course. But now that he had received the highest accolade possible, it seemed appropriate to call his whole work into question, and many critics repeated their earlier doubts with greater emphasis. And their critical attacks, combined with his own continued retirement and professional silence, undermined his reputation.
Moreover, O’Neill’s decade of silence between the award of the Nobel Prize in 1936 and the production of The Iceman Cometh in 1946 was dominated by two historical events which worked powerfully against his reputation. The era of the Great Depression was followed by that of World War II, and these twin disasters seemed to provide in actual life enough tragedy to blunt men’s taste for dramatic tragedy. O’Neill had earlier planned to write a tragedy to follow Dynamo in which “gold” was to supplant the “dynamo” as the modern “god”; but (as he phrased it in a letter) “the Great Depression caught up with its prophecies,” and he abandoned it. From the point of view of the pragmatic critics of the time, his tragic dramas criticizing the materialism of American life seemed almost treasonous. Of O’Neill and his colleagues it was charged: “They Turned Their backs on America.” In complete physical and spiritual retirement at “Tao House,” O’Neill sat out the depression and World War II, and his reputation suffered.
At the end of the war he moved to New York to supervise the production of The Iceman Cometh by the Theatre Guild in 1946. But this play, on which he had pinned great hopes, achieved only moderate success. And shortly thereafter A Moon for the Misbegotten closed without reaching Broadway. Perhaps the mood of the American public remained too preoccupied with war to be ready for these tragedies. Or perhaps these tragedies introduced a new technique of ironic ambivalence for which the audiences of the time were not ready. But, whatever the reason, O’Neill failed to recover his former eminence. Until his death in 1953 he lived in unhappy retirement while younger dramatists usurped the spotlight. No one seriously questioned his title as “our greatest dramatist.” But at his death the obituary notices seemed somewhat retrospective and elegiac.
In 1956, however, following the production of Long Day’s Journey, a sudden revival of his reputation occurred. The tremendous acclaim that greeted this play was both immediate and international in scope; but its single importance is easily overestimated. Even more important was the revival in this same year of The Iceman and its astonishing success with critics and audiences. It was as if a new theater going public had suddenly rediscovered an old playwright and as if a younger generation had decided that O’Neill’s genius belonged to it also. Following these successes A Moon was finally produced on Broadway, and A Touch of the Poet enjoyed a long run a year later. Meanwhile, books about the playwright began coming from the presses, and this modern revival of a reputation apparently dead seemed almost as incredible as the revival of Lazarus.
But before this sudden, native revival of O’Neill’s fame in 1956, a more gradual growth of interest and acclaim had been evident abroad. America’s greatest dramatist had long been held in greater esteem on the Continent than at home, and the decade from 1952 to 1962 saw the publication in foreign languages of six full-length books about his plays—more studies than in English. In Sweden his final plays were produced prior to their Broadway openings, and Karl-Ragnar Gierow, director of the Royal Dramatic Theater of Stockholm, was personally responsible for the first production of Long Day’s Journey. American literary history abounds in examples of the neglect of its authors by domestic audiences until foreign appreciation focuses attention on them. But O’Neill’s case was somewhat different. Early recognized and acclaimed as “our greatest dramatist,” he was later neglected. But after his death new acclaim from abroad re-established his reputation as one of the major dramatists of the modern world.
“More Stately Mansions”
Throughout his career O’Neill wrote serious tragedies and renounced the easy, commercial success of dramas such as The Count of Monte Cristo. These tragedies denounced American materialism and often satirized the acquisitiveness of the businessman. But, even while renouncing the success which his father had achieved, and even while attacking American materialism, O’Neill progressively achieved that very financial success against which he inveighed. The greatest irony in a life filled with ironies was this seemingly unsought material success. Not only did he achieve quick popular and critical acclaim in a particularly difficult and unpopular profession, but he also achieved spectacular financial success in a profession devoted to the denunciation of financial success. Much of the shrewd materialism of Marco Millions and Billy Brown seemed to lurk just under the sensitive skin of the tragic author.
In his youth he had always shared the expensive tastes of the young man about town, and had desired the money to satisfy them (which his father had refused to provide). But, for a long period following his years before the mast, he identified himself with sailors, and he often dressed in a cheap sailor’s jersey and cap. During his apprenticeship to the writing profession, his bohemian friends naturally discouraged any taste for elegance. And his second wife never cared much for appearances. But gradually, as his serious plays achieved financial success, his scale of living grew to approximate that of his father. In the Zone, one of his earliest plays of the sea, earned a small but steady income because of its long run in vaudeville. When Beyond the Horizon won his first Pulitzer Prize, he seemed unexcited at first; but, when he learned of the financial award involved: “I practically went delirious! I was broke or nearly. A thousand dollars was sure a thousand dollars!” And as success followed success, he continued to value the money as much—if not more—than the fame. He moved progressively up the scale of luxurious living, from a Provincetown cabin, to a country farm, to a Bermuda mansion. When his most spectacular attack on materialism proved most spectacularly successful on Broadway, he cheered it on: “Come on, you ‘Brown’! Daddy needs a yacht!”
The irony of his materialistic success was obvious, but it seems not to have troubled him at first. And his lifelong devotion to tragedy remained genuine—never did he compromise con­sciously with the high standards of his art, nor resort to the potboilers with which so many serious writers have pieced out their meager incomes. O’Neill continued to write pure tragedies, whether or not they succeeded financially. And the first half of his career concluded with his most unrelieved and purely literary tragedy—Mourning Becomes Electra. This major work did not succeed very well financially. But he had already achieved financial self-sufficiency.
During the period following his separation from his second wife and ending with his marriage to his third, a gradual change in his habits occurred. He had left Agnes partly because she was a careless bohemian and a poor housekeeper; he married Carlotta partly because she was an excellent housekeeper who could (and would) regulate his irregular life. But Carlotta loved elegance and luxury as Agnes never had, and to please her he learned to live and dress elegantly. A photograph of the time shows him standing in a topcoat, with a silk scarf and kid gloves, grinning self-consciously as he holds his fedora delicately with his fingertips. And his first home with Carlotta was a forty-five room chateau at Saint Antoine du Rocher, where they lived for two years. He had achieved the ultimate in financial and social success; but he seemed increasingly uneasy about it.
His uneasiness at his own spectacular affluence was reinforced by two events. In 1928 he had traveled with Carlotta to the Orient which he had always idealized, but he had been appalled by its poverty and starvation. Then, after their return to France and their establishment in the chateau, the Great Depression began. Although it did not seriously curtail his income, it increased his pessimism, and it exacerbated his despair at the evils of American materialism. He had already attacked this characteristic in Dynamo, and he now struggled to overcome it in Days Without End. He had planned a third play about “gold,” which he now abandoned; but he began a mammoth Cycle attacking the materialism of an Irish-American family, to be entitled “A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed.”
The significant quality of all these plays written just before or during the Great Depression is their complete negativism. Materialism is the enemy, but it is also the dominant force in American life. Where Billy Brown and Marco had seemed self-deluded but rather likable villains, these new protagonists were wholly to be condemned, or wholly to be pitied. The very process of “possession” was now described as self-destructive and as resulting ultimately in self-dispossession. Between the romantic self-delusion of the Irish immigrant Cornelius Melody, who still preserved “a touch of the poet,” and the materialistic self-delusion of the Yankee family into which his daughter married, O’Neill clearly preferred the romantic poet. But both delusions were hopelessly negative. After O’Neill’s failure to find the “secret hidden over there beyond the horizon” in the Orient, and after the Great Depression, his disillusion became absolute.
Of the eleven plays which he planned to constitute his great Cycle, only two have survived; and the second, More Stately Mansions, was not published until 1964 although it was produced in Stockholm in 1962, where it was not successful. But its title is richly significant, and its irony is partly autobiographical: the phrase, quoted from “The Chambered Nautilus” by Oliver Wendell Holmes, suggests all the early American idealism which O’Neill and his modern pessimism were now rejecting. “Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,/As the swift seasons roll!” Holmes had exhorted. And he had emphasized the hopeful idealism: “O my soul!” Now O’Neill, in all his tragic dramas of this period, emphasized only the materialistic American drive: “Build thee more stately mansions.”
Following his sojourn in France, during which the unpleasant­ness of his earlier divorce was gradually forgotten, Eugene and Carlotta returned to New York. And soon they proceeded to build an elaborate new mansion at the fashionable Sea Island Beach, Georgia. His early home in Provincetown had been washed into the sea in 1931, and his second home at “Brook Farm” had been sold; his Bermuda home had been made over to Agnes, and the chateau in France had been rented. Now the luxurious “Casa Genotta” (the name combined “Gene” and “Carlotta”) cost $100,000. It featured a large study built to resemble a ship’s prow, whose windows faced the Atlantic Ocean over a high protecting wall of stone. It was intended as a sanctuary both for their marriage and for his art. And they referred to it hopefully as “our Blessed Isles,” after the romantic sanctuary fondly imagined by the doomed protagonists of Mourning Becomes Electra.
But this Georgia mansion proved even less satisfactory than any of his other homes. The Southern heat was enervating, and the new cycle of plays failed to progress. Seeking fresh background for the historic cycle, he traveled to the American Northwest; and there, in 1936, word of his Nobel Prize award reached him. This ultimate proof of international fame marked the high point of his career, and it also brought a cash benefit of $40,000. This money he used—predictably—to build his most stately mansion, “Tao House” in Danville, California.
“Tao House” was as luxurious as his other recent homes; but from the beginning, it was different. The name invoked a kind of Oriental magic, “Tao” being translated as “the right way of life.” It remembered his earlier devotion to Lao-tse and the ancient mystics who had sought to advise “the great Kaan” against the materialism of Marco. And this new house was built to emphasize a new kind of inwardness. Although it faced East across an inland valley toward Mount Diablo, its hall was so designed that the devil’s mountain could only be seen reflected in darkened mirrors. And O’Neill’s new study was wholly unlike the flamboyant ship’s prow of “Casa Genotta”; it was a small grey wood-paneled room, wholly functional. In this study he faced down the ghosts of his own past and wrote his final autobiographical tragedies.
Concerning Mount Diablo, which the new “Tao House” faced, Californians assert an interesting statistic. They say that the view from the top of the mountain includes a larger area of the earth’s surface than can be seen from any other place on earth. This statistic may be true, for Mount Diablo is, technically, a monadnock, and stands high above the neighboring coastal ranges, looking out for two hundred miles across the great Central Valley, north and east and south to Mount Shasta, the Sierra, and the Tehachapis, and looking west beyond the hills of San Francisco to the Pacific horizon. In the past the devil had shown the playwright the kingdoms of the earth, and O’Neill had accepted their material wealth. But now, at last, he retired to the small grey study in the house beneath the devil’s mountain to search out his own soul.
The many mansions which O’Neill inhabited during his active life seem also to symbolize the successive stages of his long journey. In an old Coast Guard station perched on the outermost beach of Cape Cod, which he had converted into his first permanent home, he wrote his plays of the sea. In “Brook Farm” at Ridgefield, Connecticut, where the New England elmsoverhung the old house and its nearby barn, he imagined his Desire Under the Elms (while the name, “Brook Farm”, ironically recalled the idealism of an earlier New England). In the opulent surroundings of his Bermuda mansion perfectly suited for writing, he created his ideal Lazarus Laughed and his giant Strange Interlude. In the mannered elegance of a French chateau he composed the intricate acts of his most perfectly designed play, Mourning Becomes Electra. Behind the stone walls of “Casa Genotta,” he struggled with his most ambitious project for the great American Cycle, but failed. And finally in this new house in the far West facing eastward toward the devil’s mountain, he re-invoked the mysticism which he had idealized in youth, but he turned it inward to interpret the tragedies of his early life.
“Build thee more stately mansions, 0 my soul!” His William A. Brown had been a successful architect, who built luxurious mansions for rich American businessmen. But his Dion Anthony had only been a draftsman who sketched original designs, while hoping to write some great masterpiece. O’Neill himself had built many mansions during his life, but none had ever seemed to realize his dreams. In “Tao House” he looked inward to re-create his own tragic drama. And in this last mansion for his soul, he described the material cause of his tragedy.
In Long Day’s Journey, Mary Tyrone complained: “I’ve never felt it was my home.” And James Tyrone recalled his anguished hope that, for a moment, “this home has been a home again.” At this confession, “his son looks at him, for the first time with an understanding sympathy. It is as if suddenly a deep bond of common feeling existed between them....” In their feeling of spiritual homelessness, the O’Neills recognized the common source of their tragedy.
And so Eugene’s compulsive building of many mansions became more than the ironic expression of a naive or hypocriti­cal materialism. In each successive mansion he hoped to discover a true home, even while knowing that he could never feel “it was my home.” Even his most stately mansions would always seem temporary and provisional. From Bermuda in 1928 he had written with cautious enthusiasm to a friend: “Next to Peaked Hill [Provincetown] in the old days, I believe this is the most satisfying habitat I’ve struck. It really has the feeling of home to me, who usually feel in most houses like a Samoan in an igloo.” If no worldly habitat could ever be home to O’Neill, “Tao House” came closest.
He lived in “Tao House” for more than six years—longer than he had lived anywhere else. And he left largely for physical reasons. In 1944 the house was sold because of its isolation in wartime and because of his own failing health which required quick access to doctors and to hospitals. When the war ended, he moved back to New York where the final plays which he had written in “Tao House” were produced. And in New York he moved to a hotel, where, busy with the details of the production of The Iceman, he was happy for a time.
But the remaining years could bring only tragedy. When a degenerative disease destroys progressively the functioning of a creative mind, frustration and unhappiness are inevitable. After periods of quarreling with Carlotta and of treatment in hospitals, the couple left New York to live in one more mansion. On Marblehead Neck (all the names seem symbolic) where ships sailed by, to and from the Atlantic, they bought and remodeled a house; and they lived there for the remaining years of illness and loneliness. Meanwhile, his disease grew worse. Finally they moved to a hotel in Boston, where doctors could come at a moment’s notice. In this hotel, on November 27, 1953, he died.
Eugene O’Neill was born in a Broadway hotel; he died in a Boston hotel. Between his birth and death, he lived in many different houses in many different places. But none could ever become home. The New York hotel in which he had been born was later demolished to make way for modern construction, and he liked to recall that the place of his birth was now only empty air. There seems irony also in the fact that he died in Boston, where so many of his plays had been banned. But he had chosen Boston because it was the medical capital of the modern world (even though no doctors could ever cure his disease). It seems immaterial where or in what hotel or mansion he was born, or lived, or died. No physical place could have been home. For he had built his mansions of the imagination for the dwelling place of the soul.
“A Great Spirit”
When Brooks Atkinson wrote O’Neill’s obituary, he remem­bered the quality of the man before that of his work: “A great spirit and our greatest dramatist have left us.” And John Gassner echoed the conviction: “He was, above all, a unique personality.” Indeed, O’Neill’s personal magnetism impressed many men more than his excellence as a dramatist, and his enemies have recognized this personal quality as well as his friends. Francis Fergusson, who disliked most of his plays, nevertheless bore witness that “The man O’Neill is very close to a vast audience.” Those who condemned the turbulent passions of O’Neill’s early life and criticized the irregularities of his dramatic art neverthe­less have recognized his dedication to his work and his total involvement in life. Even though O’Neill’s pessimism increased with age, so that he once exclaimed that “the atomic bomb was a wonderful invention because it might annihilate the human race,” he never turned his back on the human race. Unlike Robinson Jeffers, who rejected “humanity” for “the tower beyond tragedy,” O’Neill always identified himself with humanity in its most tragic forms.
Some have described his personal quality in purely rational terms. Philip Moeller, who directed Strange Interlude, recalled: “There was no small meanness about Gene. He had tremendous integrity, was one of the most honest human beings I have ever known.” But many have reacted more emotionally: “He was gracious to everyone, and wonderfully alive.” And in 1927 Brooks Atkinson had described his first meeting with the playwright: “O’Neill’s face is marked with experience. It is not tired. It is vivid, there is something immediately magnetic about his personality.... He left me with a glow all afternoon.”
Very few famous men have produced this impression of personal sincerity and selflessness, and even fewer men of letters have done so. For most authors have labored so hard to create their literary legends that, like Hemingway, they can justly be accused of cultivating “false hair on the chest.” But O’Neill had created no fictional “persona”—the man and the work were one. And other authors have been so tormented by the struggle of creation that their egotism has blinded them to the justice of any criticism. Thomas Wolfe lashed out at the denigrations of Bernard De Voto; but De Voto’s attacks on O’Neill were passed in silence. Although naturally troubled by the hostility of destructive criticism, O’Neill was able to accept it objectively. And progressively he achieved that transcendence of personal egotism which is the hallmark of greatness.
The unique feeling of spiritual depth which O’Neill inspired in his lifetime is still suggested by many photographs of the man. The eyes still gaze with a brooding impersonality which seems to focus somewhere within, or beyond their object. Many have tried to describe these eyes—perhaps the Gelbs have best succeeded:
His eyes, always an astonishment to those meeting him for the first time, illuminated his face. Large, dark, immeasurably deep, set wide apart under heavy brows, they could stare into depths that existed for no one else. When he turned the O’Neill look on someone, he appeared to gaze into that person’s soul. But the appraisal was neither critical nor even disconcerting; it was a look of profound and gentle searching, at once penetrating and reassuring. For nothing shocked him. He was interested only in the motive behind the action.
Ultimately the man was one with his plays. And the impression that the author was often one with his audience also persists. An experience of the present writer may illustrate. In 1934 Days Without End was being tried out in Boston, and my wife and I had attended a performance. At its end we were walking slowly up the aisle, discussing our perplexity and dissatisfaction with the play’s ending, when we became conscious of a man in the aisle seat of the back row observing the audience as it filed past. For a moment the dark eyes rested on us—yet not really on us—rather on our feeling of perplexity, which his eyes seem to share. Then he rose and hurried out into the wings. Turning to each other in startled surprise, we said: “That was O’Neill.”

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