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Master of the Misbegotten

O’Neill: Life with Monte Cristo1

1.

The life of Eugene O’Neill describes an arc which resembles the world of his plays with their atmosphere of fatality. The plays upon which his reputation rests most securely—A Touch of the Poet, Long Day’s Journey into Night, The Iceman Cometh, A Moon for the Misbegotten—were drawn from his past or from his imagination of family, but they were written at the end of his career in such time as was spared to him by the devastating neurological disease which would first shackle and then destroy his physical ability to write. At the end, silent and eloquent, he would be locked in upon himself, like a character in Poe or in his own early plays. A dreadful end, but not beyond the range of an imagination which from the first had lived among extremities.

The plays were written in Tao House, which he and his wife Carlotta Monterey had built in 1937, in a coastal range east of San Francisco following their move from Sea Island off the Georgia coast. It is a pleasant house, now lovingly preserved, a blend of the Chinese and the Spanish, but a stiff one, despite Carlotta’s striving for a studied informality. A Life photograph shows the Nobel laureate—“the Mah-ster” as she always referred to him—still remarkably handsome but looking ill-at-ease; Carlotta is grand, theatrically composed, faintly erotic. They are surrounded by books, and what she described as “all my beautiful, very delicate and graceful Chinese furniture.”

One room, the smallest, still has a comfortable feel, as though it had been wafted there from the gimcrack and ramshackle house on the New London shore where O’Neill had spent the summers of his youth and where he would set Long Day’s Journey. It is dominated by a gaudily painted player piano, rescued from a New Orleans whorehouse, on which he played rolls of vaudeville tunes, Tin Pan Alley hits. The wall behind it held photographs of friends, done with the dramatic backlighting of the Thirties—Carl Van Vechten, Sean O’Casey, George Jean Nathan, Alla Nazimova, who had taken the lead in Mourning Becomes Electra (1931).

The facing wall is thick with photographs from an earlier era of the American theater, that of his father, the actor James O’Neill, as celebrated in his day as the son was later, if differently. The son of famine-driven Irish peasants, he had risen by a combination of talent, need, and the looks of a matinee idol into the first tier of the stage, a possible successor to the great Booth, with whom he once played Othello and Iago on alternating nights. He had trained himself into the wide Shakespearean range, but, again like Booth, was fit for a variety of other roles. Then, on a star-crossed February night in 1883 (appropriately, in Booth’s theater), he took the part of Edmond Dantès in The Count of Monte Cristo. For the next thirty years he was to play the part continually. It made him a rich man and destroyed him as an actor. The photographs show him in his prime, handsome and dashing, then gradually thickening.

O’Neill’s study looked across the Las Trampas Hills toward Mount Diablo, the tallest peak in the range. Like his study on Sea Island, it was intended to suggest a sea captain’s cabin. There were models of tall-masted schooners on the walls and his certificate of qualification as an able-bodied seaman, folded, refolded, fading. On good days, there would be a sliver’s glimpse of bay, but the feeling is mountainous, not marine. This is strange, because from the first, water was his element. A skillful and powerful swimmer, often reckless in his distances, he now had only a swimming pool.

As a young man, he had had his memorable time aboard schooners and tramp steamers, had been an out-of-work sailor on the beach at Buenos Aires, had served his watches aloft. Bound East for Cardiff, the play which first attracted the Provincetown Players in 1916, had been based on an Atlantic crossing, and the best of the other early plays had come from his time at sea. Anna Christie came from his all-too-familiar knowledge of waterfront dives. Even Monte Cristo Cottage, as the family called its New London house, was close to water, where the river spills into Long Island Sound. Once New London had been a whaling town, second only to New Bedford, and it was still a port. His trilogy of plays, Mourning Becomes Electra, is set in the pillared mansion of a shipbuilder “on the outskirts of one of the smaller New England seaport towns,” and aboard a clipper ship moored along a Boston wharf. Throughout the three plays runs the chanteyman’s song, “Shenandoah.” His head was as full of sea chanteys as of Tin Pan Alley.

O’Neill brought with him to Tao House plans, notes, sketches, drafts, scenarios, for what had swelled, in his ambitions for it, into a cycle of eleven plays, to which he gave the title, “A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed.” It would tell the story of the Harfords, well-born but grasping New Englanders, carriers across the land of that specifically American materialism which was the culture’s fatal illness, a hybrid born of Calvinism and avarice. A fatal intermarriage had added to the blood “a touch of the poet,” the wild and reckless spirit of the Irish.

The bulk of the preliminary material was in time destroyed by O’Neill, his physical tremor being now so severe that his wife had to assist, her eyes brimming with tears. Some inconclusive judgments have been formed. Travis Bogard, the dean of O’Neill scholars, expressed a widely held opinion: “That O’Neill could not complete the historical cycle as it was designed is one of the greatest losses the drama in any time has sustained.”2 Perhaps. What we do know from what survives is that the success of Mourning Becomes Electra‘s three closely linked plays had shown him what had been missing from his earlier work, or at best only weakly present—a sense of history, of time at work on America.

Early on, he had sent a warning note to Lawrence Langner of the Theatre Guild: his cycle will be the history of a family, just that:

What larger significance I can give my people as extraordinary examples and symbols in the drama of American possessiveness and materialism is something else again. But I don’t want anyone to get the idea that this Cycle is much concerned with what is usually understood by American history, for it isn’t.

Especially, he added, it will not be much concerned with economic history, “which so many seem to mistake for the only history just now.”

By “just now” he meant the Thirties. His fellow-Irishman, the cantankerous old Fenian John O’Leary, claimed that a gentleman could be an anarchist but not a socialist; O’Neill was instinctively on O’Leary’s side. Profoundly nonpolitical, he retained a sentimental reverence for Greenwich Village’s heavy brew of anarchism and an affection for the disillusioned Wobblies who had battled against cops, hired guns, and Pinkerton spies. In the Village and on the waterfront, he had drunk with Dorothy Day and argued with Emma Goldman; in Provincetown, he had slept with Louise Bryant and moved scenery with John Reed. Shortly, he would summon up those years, their hopes and betrayals, in a play far outside the planned cycle.

By the time of Mourning Becomes Electra, O’Neill had become one of the world’s most respected dramatists, although no one—least of all, American critics—seems to have known quite why. They—John Mason Brown, Richard Lockridge, Brooks Atkinson—had little in common beyond a tweeds-and-briar-pipe prose, but Joseph Wood Krutch, who should have known better, was the most unrestrained, reaching impatiently beyond Ibsen to Shakespeare as O’Neill’s only equal. Electra, John Mason Brown wrote, “boasts the kind of radiant austerity which was part of the glory that was Greece.” Difficult to refute. But when he was judged to have failed, as with Dynamo, Mourning Becomes Electra‘s immediate predecessor, critical language flailed about as wildly: “It is sometimes ludicrous, frequently raving….” Dynamo is, in truth, dreadful stuff, like Marco Millions and Lazarus Laughed. But other plays of his “middle” period, like The Great God Brown, fail, indeed risibly so, because of a wild, breathtaking, perhaps necessary ambition. It was not merely plays that he was trying to create, but a theater.

He had rejected in its entirety the theater, the theatrical style, the stage tradition which his father had not merely represented but embodied. But memory lasts longer than rejection, as of all people Robert Benchley reminds us in his shrewd and poised New Yorker review of Mourning Becomes Electra. Benchley, before he decided to fritter away his time in Hollywood’s Garden of Allah, was a critic of taste and intelligence:

Are we not forgetting one very important source of inspiration, without which he might perhaps just have been a builder of word-mountains? Was there not standing in the wings of the Guild Theatre, on that momentous opening night, the ghost of an old actor in a white wig, with drawn sword, who looked on proudly as the titanic drama unfolded itself, scene by scene, and who murmured, with perhaps just the suggestion of a chuckle: “That’s good, son! Give em the old Theatre.” The actor I refer to needs no introduction to the older boys and girls here tonight—Mr. James O’Neill, “The Count of Monte Cristo” and the father of our present hero….

In this tremendous play,” Benchley goes on, “he gives us not one thing that is new, and he gives us nothing to think about (unless we are just beginning to think), but he does thrill the bejeezus out of us, just as his father used to….”3

Benchley had probably seen the endearing old melodrama more than once; The Count of Monte Cristo was a rite of passage, like seeing Joe Jefferson’s Rip van Winkle. But for O’Neill it was a part of his past. He had been born into the production and spent his first seven years traveling with the company. Scattered parts of his early life had been spent selling tickets and acting as assistant manager, trying to get his older brother on-stage sober, taking walk-on parts himself. According to an unfounded theater legend, the brothers had to crawl under blue canvas to suggest the raging sea through which the Count makes his spectacular escape. As a dropout from Princeton, he had stood beside his father in the bars of theatrical hotels as the father told of his days playing Shakespeare with Booth himself, the great Booth.

2.

A sense of homelessness came to O’Neill quite naturally. Hotel bedrooms, rented houses, strict Catholic boarding schools, the bars of flophouses, the flimsy clapboards of Provincetown shacks, a “bastard Spanish peasant style” house off the coast of Georgia, a French château. Tao House, he said, would be his first real home.

  1. 1

    O’Neill: Life with Monte Cristo is the first volume of an intended three-volume expansion and revision of their 1962 biography, O’Neill. There is also a two-volume biography which the reviewer highly recommends: Louis Sheaffer, O’Neill, Son and Playwright (Little, Brown, 1968), and O’Neill, Son and Artist (Little, Brown, 1973). All quotations from O’Neill’s plays in this review are from the three-volume Library of America edition.

  2. 2

    Travis Bogard, Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O’Neill (Oxford University Press, 1972).

  3. 3

    The New Yorker, November 7, 1931, p. 28.

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