Sunday, October 24, 2010

O’Neill’s Biography

Eugene O’Neill’s life, up to the time he became a dramatist and perhaps even after that time, provides the kind of material from which movies are made. Adventures at sea, gold prospecting, destitute on waterfronts of South America and New York City, prodigious consumption of alcohol, quick marriage and abandonment of wife and child, a suicide attempt, tuberculosis – the stuff of romance, screenplay by Jack London or Victor Hugo. The romance, however, is informed by a dark undercurrent, feelings of guilt and despair, an atmosphere of doom – the stuff of tragedy, screenplay by August Strindberg or Ing­mar Bergman. Ideally O’Neill’s biography should be writ-ten, either at sea or in a dark room, by a writer combining the talents and urges of London and Hugo and Strindberg and Bergman. Perhaps this is another way of saying that O’Neill’s biography should be written by someone like O’Neill himself – and, in a sense, it was. Throughout his career, in bits and pieces or in large chunks, in fleeting allusions or in whole plays like Long Day’s Journey, O’Neill has written himself into his plays. With the pos­sible exception of Strindberg, O’Neill is the most autobiographical of dramatists, which explains in part why his plays are often approached by way of biography. (Perhaps another reason that biography is the avenue of much O’Neill criticism is the difficulty of discussing O’Neill in the New Critical terms which continue to dominate all criticism, including dramatic criticism.) It also explains why his biography is approached by way of his plays. Travis Bogard’s book, Contour in Time, beautifully demonstrates that ‘O’Neill used the stage as his mirror, and the sum of his work comprises an autobiography.’ O’Neill has been well served by his biographers, especially the most recent, Louis Sheaffer1 and Arthur and Barbara Gelb, who have told his story with overwhelming detail, tireless devotion and fine understanding. No biography can tell the full story of a person’s life - there is always more within, especially within so complex a man as O’Neill – but these biographies tell much about this tortured genius and provide necessary reading for those interested in the man. Since my emphasis throughout is on O’Neill’s dramatic art, on O’Neill as a man of the theatre, what I present here are selected biographical facts with brief comments on some of these facts. Perhaps the most convenient place to begin such a presentation is Long Day’s Journey, his most autobiographical play, which was discussed in the previous chapter as a work of dramatic art – self-contained, unique, and needing no references to biography to ensure its status as America’s highest achievement in realistic theatre.

The long day of the play occurs in 1912, twenty-three years after Eugene O’Neill (Edmund Tyrone) was born – 16 October 1888 – in New York City in a hotel on Broadway, the appropriate place for this child of the theatre. The son of James O’Neill (James Tyrone) the famous Irish-born actor – who could have become a great Shakespearean actor, but who sold out to success in that money-maker The Count of Monte Cristo – O’Neill spent his earliest years going from hotel to hotel, nursed in the wings of many different theatres by his mother, Ella Quinlan O’Neill (Mary Tyrone), whose affluent and respectable background did not prepare her for becoming the wife of an actor; she would never get the home she longed for, nor would she consider the theatre anything but sleazy. Eugene was their third son. James O’Neill, Jr (Jamie Tyrone) was born ten years before Eugene; Ed­mund O’Neill (the dead ‘Eugene’) was born four years before Eugene, but at the age of one-and-a-half he caught measles from his brother James and died. Long Day’s Journey accurately depicts both Ella’s feeling of guilt at having left the children in order to join her husband on tour, and her suspicion that her son James purposely gave the baby measles. Eugene’s birth was a very difficult one for Ella, and started her on her drug addiction, thereby changing the lives of all the O’Neills. In this connection the year 1903 becomes significant in O’Neill’s biography because that is when he, at age fifteen, was told that his mother was a drug addict. (‘Edmund: God, it made everything in life seem rotten!’) His father and brother could not keep the fact from him any longer because one night Ella, having exhausted her supply of drugs, ran from the New London summer home in her nightdress to drown herself in the nearby Thames. Her sons and husband ran after her and prevented the suicide. That his birth began his mother’s addiction is a fact he brooded over his entire life. Knowledge of his mother’s condition also helped to turn O’Neill away from his religion – surely, his mother’s Catholicism, her devotion to the Virgin Mary, should have saved her from so desperate a plight. He never stepped into a church from that moment on except for the funerals of his father and mother. His new attitude toward the Catholicism that his father embraced in easy conven­tional fashion, that his mother embraced with deep piety, and that he was nurtured on (and that informs so much of what he wrote), is expressed by Edmund Tyrone, quoting Nietzsche: ‘God is dead: of His pity for man hath God died.’
Also 1903 is the year when he began his hard drink­ing (which he continued, on and off, sometimes with frightening persistence and intensity, until 1926, when he made a choice between alcohol and his work) and when he turned excessively rebellious toward his father. Louis Sheaffer believes that O’Neill hated his mother because of her addiction and his feeling of guilt in causing it, but could not get at her because of her aloofness and delicacy, so he turned against his father, ridiculing his stinginess and real estate deals and his father’s theatre. The last deserves attention. His father’s successful play, The Count of Monte Cristo, stood for everything that O’Neill hated in artificial, melodramatic, escapist theatre, but it fed his own dramaturgy when be became a writer. John Henry Raleigh convincingly details the characteristics of the O’Neill ‘family play’ that O’Neill absorbed by watch­ing his father act in the Charles Fechter dramatization of the Dumas novel: temporal techniques (linear narrative stretching over many years, brief strong situations, circular movement), specific devices (aside, soliloquy, disguise), the theme of revenge, the tavern setting, the ‘historic’ situation. Absorbing his father’s theatre, without con­sciously knowing it, O’Neill was learning his future craft. The Count of Monte Cristo did teach O’Neill a lesson he later acknowledged. Because the considerable amount of money his father earned from the successful melodrama ruined the actor James O’Neill artistically, O’Neill said: ‘That’s what caused me to make up my mind that they would never get me. I determined then that I would never sell out.’ And he never did sell out.
Touring with his mother and father ended when he was eight years old. He went to a Catholic boarding school, then a military school, then at age thirteen to Betts Academy in Stamford, Connecticut, one of the best boys’ schools in New England. Graduating from Betts in 1906, O’Neill attended Princeton University for nine months, being forced to leave ‘for poor scholastic standing.’ Actually he was suspended for four weeks because he, while drunk with some friends, threw a rock in the stationmaster’s window (legend made it the window of Woodrow Wilson, then president of Princeton); he never bothered to take his final examinations. There is little doubt that he was ready to quit college anyway because he believed he could learn more out of college than in it. That was the end of his formal schooling; his informal education was continuous because he was an avid reader.
From an early age O’Neill read and read and read. A frequently reproduced photograph of the O’Neill men relax­ing on the porch of their New London home finds O’Neill, age eleven, head down, engrossed in a book, while his father and Jamie are looking at the camera. He was able to lose himself entirely while reading. By 1912, the time of Long Day’s Journey, he had already read the books on display in the small bookcase in the Tyrone living-room (including Balzac, Zola, Wilde, Swinburne, Dowson, Kipling, Ibsen, Shaw, and especially Nietzsche) and books not on display, including Conrad, Melville, and Jack London. Before that date he also went to the theatre to see many plays, including those by Ibsen, Yeats and Synge.
Another well-known photograph of O’Neill finds him, at about age seven, near the New London home, sitting on a rock with sketch book in hand, looking intently at the river. Throughout O’Neill’s life and work, the sea plays an important role; it was his element. Edmund’s words in Long Day’s Journey—that he should have been born ‘a sea gull or a fish’ instead of a man—suggest O’Neill’s love for the sea and his attachment to it. The family’s New London home, situated near the river and waterfront—which he went to every summer up to the time he began Princeton—provided many boyhood memories. In later years he would choose or build most of his homes near the sea—in 1918 at Cape Cod, where he would go for long swims three times a day, in 1925 in Bermuda, in 1931 at Sea Island, Georgia, in 1946 at Marblehead, Massachusetts, on the Atlantic Ocean. When he had no ‘home’ in the earlier years, he would find himself, like Ishmael, near the sea, living along the waterfront. And, of course, his sea voyages had the profoundest effect on his life and art; unquestionably his life as a seaman was his most precious and pleasing memory. In 1910 he shipped on a Norwegian square-rigger bound for Buenos Aires. (This two-month trip helped in-spire his Glencairn plays, and gave him the mystical ex­periences that Edmund relates in Long Day’s Journey.) After working at odd jobs in Buenos Aires, and losing them all, he lived the life of a bum on the waterfront, sleeping on benches, scrounging for food and alcohol, before he sailed again, this time to South Africa. When he returned to America in 1911, he lived in a waterfront saloon on Fulton Street in New York City, called Jimmy the Priest’s, where a drink of whiskey was a nickel and a room cost three dollars a month. O’Neill later called it ‘a hell hole’. ‘One couldn’t go any lower. Gorky’s Night’s Lodging was an ice cream parlor by comparison.’ (Jimmy the Priest’s will provide the setting for Anna Christie and will provide material for The Iceman Cometh.) Then O’Neill shipped out again, now as an able-bodied seaman, to Southampton, England, on an American liner. (This trip gave him more material for his sea plays and allowed him to meet the stoker Driscoll, who will become Yank Smith in The Hairy Ape.) Back in America, he returned to Jimmy the Priest’s, where he attempted suicide by taking an overdose of veronal. Some friends, especially James Byth (who later committed suicide, and will be the model for Jimmy Tomorrow in The Iceman Cometh), saved his life by discovering him in time. After a short stint with his father’s touring company, he and his family returned to their New London summer home in the spring of 1912. Here, the one fixed place in his early years, he became a reporter for the New London Telegraph, for which he wrote a poetry column. The year 1912 in the New London home brings us to Long Day’s Journey. Up to that time, the sea allowed O’Neill to live the ‘romantic’ life that the seven-year-old boy perhaps dreamed about when he gazed at the river. The life of a seaman was the unconventional life that O’Neill seemed to need—freedom to roam, the chance to be ‘alone’, drinking and sexual bouts, and closeness to the element that gave him his most transcendental experiences.
In the interval between leaving Princeton in 1906 and boarding his first sailing-ship in 1910, O’Neill lived in New York, worked for a mail-order house, frequented many a bar and brothel with his brother Jamie, and in general en­joyed the kind of life James and Mary Tyrone criticized Jamie for showing Edmund. During this interval ‘something happened’ to O’Neill that he did not even mention in Long Day’s Journey – in 1909 he married Kathleen Jenkins and fathered a son, Eugene, Jr, born in 1910. Within a few days of the marriage, he left New York to prospect for gold in Honduras, where he contracted malaria. (O’Neill found no gold on this trip, but did take back with him impressions of the jungle that would become part of The Emperor Jones.) That O’Neill does not mention his wife and son in Long Day’s Journey is sur­prising when we consider the autobiographical nature of the play, not surprising when we think of the play as a work of dramatic art. If Edmund Tyrone had a wife and child, the emphasis on the closeness and the plight of the immediate family would have been considerably weaken­ed, detracting from the play’s intensity. For those whose bent is more psychological than aesthetic, the omission of such important autobiographical details stems from O’Neill’s guilt, his wish to erase the entire episode from his memory. (Perhaps Kathleen Jenkins does come into the play with the character Cathleen, the servant girl.) He divorced Kathleen in October 1912; she and her second husband raised Eugene, Jr, whom O’Neill did not see until he was almost twelve years old.
Just before Christmas of 1912 O’Neill developed a case of tuberculosis, which marked a significant turning-point in his life (and a crucial event in Long Day’s Journey). During his five months in Gaylord Farm Sanatorium, Con­necticut, he had the time and the desire to evaluate his life. That is when he decided to become a dramatist, a decision that in retrospect seems natural in the light of his father’s profession, his early immersion in theatre, his varied ex­perience of the world, and his artistic temperament. He methodically began to read the modern playwrights to prepare himself for his new life. It was at Gaylord that he first read Strindberg who, as O’Neill stated in his 1936 speech when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, ‘gay me the vision of what modern drama could be’. Strindberg - not only a daring playwright but also a dark soul akin in temperament to O’Neill – and Nietzsche, whom O’Neill admired and dipped into at every opportunity became the most important literary influences on him.
When he was discharged from Gaylord in the spring o 1913, he lived in New London with a private family for fifteen months, in which time he wrote eleven one-act plays and two long plays. Typically he tore up all but six one-acters. His father financed the publication of five of these six by the Gorham Press in Boston: Thirst and Other One Act Plays. (The sixth, not printed, was Bound East for Cardiff, which will begin his career as a playwright.) Then, in September 1914 at age twenty-six, he enrolled in the famous playwriting course of George Pierce Baker at Har­vard. In his letter to Baker, requesting permission to enroll as a special student, O’Neill claims to have read ‘all the modern plays I could lay my hands on, and many books on the subject of the Drama’, but he realizes that his study is ‘undirected’. Then he makes this important statement: ‘With my present training I might hope to become a mediocre journeyman playwright. It is just because I do not wish to be one, because I want to be an artist or nothing, that I am writing to you.’ The rest of his life testifies to the truth of that prophetic claim: ‘I want to be an artist or nothing’. Incredibly ambitious and energetic, filled with an integrity that never wavered, his dedication, to his art will color the rest of his life.
When he completed his year with Professor Baker O’Neill went to live in Greenwich Village, New York City, where he frequented the Golden Swan saloon, better known as the Hell Hole (which becomes the setting for The Iceman Cometh). This was the meeting place for the first Greenwich Villagers, artists and radicals, as well as low-life characters. Among these interesting people were George Cram Cook and Susan Glaspell who, in the summer of 1915, settled on Cape Cod and established an amateur theatre group, the Provincetown Players. In the summer of 1916 O’Neill moved to Provincetown – the sea always drawing him; he considered himself the ‘Sea-Mother’s Son’ – where he submitted Bound East for Cardiff to the Provincetown Players, which marks the beginning of his dramatic career. The rest of O’Neill’s biography is osten­sibly a record of his artistic development, which the following chapters will chart from ‘beginnings’ to ‘end­ings’. However, some further biographical facts are of interest.
In 1918 O’Neill married his second wife, Agnes Boulton, a short-story writer, with whom he had two children: Shane, born in 1919, and Oona, born in 1925. He divorced Agnes in 1929, and later disowned both children – Shane because of his alcoholism and general derelict behaviour, Oona because of her marriage, at age eighteen, to Charlie Chaplin, age fifty-four (O’Neill’s age at the time). (James O’Neill, whom O’Neill criticized often for being a poor father, seems to have been a better father to O’Neill than O’Neil was to his children.) O’Neill was fond of his first son when he got to know him; Eugene, Jr, a brilliant pro­fessor of classics at Yale University, eventually traveled the alcoholic path of self-ruin and committed suicide, Roman-style, in 1950. (Shane’s son, Eugene O’Neill III, died in infancy of crib death.)
The year 1920 when O’Neill became famous with Beyond the Horizon and The Emperor Jones was also the year of his father’s death. (Interestingly, his father’s dying words, spoken to his son at his bedside, are closer to the at­titude toward life of Emund and Jamie Tyrone than to James Tyrone: ‘This sort of life—froth!—rotten—all of it—no good!’) Two years later, his mother died, after having cured herself of her addiction, with the help of the Virgin Mary. Her death caused Eugene O’Neill’s brother Jamie-who abandoned the bottle when his mother aban­doned the dope - to resume his alcoholic orgies; he died a year later at the age of forty-five. (His story will be dramatized in A Moon for the Misbegotten.) O’Neill’s last wife, actress Carlotta Monterey, whom he married in 1929, survived O’Neill. She protected him from the outside world in order to give him the proper conditions for creativity. Some claim that O’Neill was her prisoner, which may have some justification, but his bondage did not pre-vent him from writing his last great plays, and his dedica­tion of Long Day’s Journey to Carlotta is the supreme compliment – the play is ‘a tribute to your love and tenderness which gave me the faith in love that enabled me to face my dead at last...’
From the 1930s O’Neill suffered from a disease which subjected his hands to a tremor, the tremor increasing with the passing years. At times he could not write, and when he did write, his script was remarkably minute. Because he could compose only in longhand, the eventual loss of his ability to put pencil on paper was the end of his writing career. For the last ten years of his life, he would write nothing, although his mind, unaffected by the disease, was filled with a multitude of ideas and plans. Although Eugene O’Neill officially died on 27 November 1953 in a Boston hotel room – ‘Born in a hotel room – and God damn it – died in a hotel room!’ – his life, which was his work, ended ten years earlier. When he was not an artist he was nothing.
In this brief account of O’Neill’s ‘journey’ I have made no attempt to sound out the heart of his mystery. He was a remarkably complex man, unknown even to those thought they knew him. His dark, deep-set eyes looke the world in a special way, and they looked in as we out. Judging from the deaths and lives of people in family, perhaps he had cause to believe he was living u some kind of curse; perhaps, in his mother’s womb, like the embryo in Dylan Thomas’s poem, was ‘sewing a shroud for a journey’. Brooding, superstitious, always looking at a mirror to see if he was really there, never home’, never free from the family he was born into (but freeing himself from the family he fathered), always ‘a little in love with death’, O’Neill lived the kind of life t has been, and will continue to be, the interesting focus countless discussions and speculations. His life fed his a and his art can tell us much about his life, but finally must be judged not by the life he lived nor by the relationship between his personal life and his art, but by the effect of his drama on an audience. O’Neill, like all serious and great writers, restructures reality for the purposes of his art. O’Neill’s ‘personal’ reality was the foundation of his dramatic art, but whatever is unique or potent in his accomplishment emerges from the products of that art. I his father would have said, with appropriate histrionic gesture, probably to Eugene O’Neill’s annoyance, ‘the play’s the thing...’.

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