Eugene O'Neill
Eugene O'Neill; drawing by David Levine

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.

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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….

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“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.

The sense of homelessness had its roots in heritage and history, and so too perhaps his fascination with masks. James O’Neill the actor had been born in County Kilkenny in 1845, the first year of the Famine, and at the age of seven had been swept overseas with the rest of his family, victims of one of the worst calamities of the nineteenth century. By the time of their emigration, typhus, dysentery, and cholera had been added to starvation to cut Ireland’s population and to drive survivors across the ocean on the notorious “famine ships.”

Kilkenny, a beautiful and historied Norman town, had turned in those years into a charnel house, whose workhouse enjoyed a lurid reputation, filled to overflowing with the helplessly indigent. But James O’Neill, the celebrated and prosperous actor, chose to remember an imaginary Kilkenny, conjured up from Romantic travel guides: “Kilkenny, smiling Kilkenny, where I was born one opal-tinted day….” One almost hears the saloon-bar eloquence, the accents of W.C. Fields. He remembers, O’Neill says, “the romance of Kilkenny’s mossy towers where walked the shadowy ghosts of Congreve and Bishop Berkeley, of Dean Swift and Farquhar—Irishmen all.”

It was the father, self-educated but well-read in theatrical lore, who first taught the boy that theater in ancient Greece had begun with masks, depended upon them for effect. “One’s outer life,” Eugene O’Neill would one day write, “passes in a solitude haunted by the masks of others; one’s inner life passes in a solitude haunted by the masks of oneself.”

James O’Neill, on stage or in performance, was a skilled and disciplined professional, a coarse, unlettered immigrant who had combed from his speech “an Irish brogue you could cut with a knife,” who had educated himself upon the plays of Shakespeare, the comedies of Sheridan and Farquhar (Irishmen all!), able to play an Italian bravo, a Regency fop, a wicked French marquis, even, fatally, the Count of Monte Cristo—“that God-damned play I bought for a song and made such a success—a great money success.” Even the Count was a mask, hiding Edmond Dantès, a seaman hungry for revenge. Like all actors, he was a mask, many masks.But he wore a different mask off-stage, which was not really a mask at all, the Irishman of English and American stereotype—witty, gregarious, quick tempered, patriotic, with a battery of Irish jigs and come-all-yous, ready to “drown the shamrock” on Saint Patrick’s Day. That O’Neill, as a stage direction tells us about the James Tyrone of Long Day’s Journey, “was by nature a simple, unpretentious man whose inclinations are still close to his humble beginnings and his Irish farmer forebears. But the actor shows in all his unconscious habits of speech, movement, and gesture.”He never spoke in public of those beginnings, nor of the horrible poverty of the early years in America, first in Buffalo, then in the cities of Ohio. But in Monte Cristo Cottage, James Tyrone had much to say on the subject, in words which, the playwright told his wife, were copied almost verbatim from his father:

Twice we were evicted from the miserable hovel we called home, with my mother’s few sticks of furniture thrown out into the street, and my mother and sisters crying. I cried, too, though I tried hard not to, because I was the man of the family. At ten years old! There was no more school for me. I worked twelve hours a day in a machine shop, learning to make files. A dirty barn of a place where rain dripped through the roof, where you roasted in summer, and there was no stove in winter, and your hands got numb with cold, where the only light came through two small filthy windows, so on grey days I’d have to sit bent over with my eyes almost touching the files in order to see!… And my poor mother washed and scrubbed for the Yanks by the day, and my older sister sewed, and my two younger stayed at home to keep the house. We never had clothes enough to wear, nor enough food to eat.

Things were not quite that bleak, thanks to the determination and resilience of the older sister (so we are assured by the Gelbs, in the first volume of the planned expansion of their earlier biography), but they were bleak enough. “Well I remember one Thanksgiving, or maybe it was Christmas, when some Yank in whose house Mother had been scrubbing gave her a dollar extra for a present, and on the way home she spent it all on food.” For James O’Neill and most of his generation of immigrant Irish, their English overlords had been replaced by another superior class, drawn from the same blood and religious tradition. He nursed a quiet, settled hostility toward the English, but the Yanks were a palpable presence, silent assurances of social inferiority whatever his success on stage. He took care to confine his heavy drinking not to the second-rate local club which had accepted him, but to the taproom of the local hotel, blazing a path which his sons would follow.

And the sons, Eugene especially, shared his view of the matter, if they shared little else with him. Something of the power of Eugene O’Neill’s portrayal of the American stock, whether rural as in Desire Under the Elms or patrician as in Mourning Becomes Electra, derives from his sense of a people with whom he is at home and yet alien. Certainly in those plays which place the two cultures in conflict, as in A Touch of the Poet, A Moon for the Misbegotten, Long Day’s Journey, his sympathies are with the Irish, for all their bluster and mendacity.

The family of Ella Quinlan, O’Neill’s mother, offered a variation on the theme, Irish immigrants settled in Cleveland, where Thomas Quinlan showed that indomitable stuff from which the bourgeoisie was shaped, transforming a newsdealer’s shop into a general store, and that into an emporium dealing in “fancy goods” and wine, spirits, and tobacco. Emphasis should perhaps be placed on the word “spirits”: Cleveland was more relaxed than eastern cities, but the liquor trade, wholesale or retail, was best left in the hands of the Irish, traditionally its most avid clients. Fate, in the form of the alcoholism which O’Neill learned early to regard as the special curse of his people, carried off Thomas Quinlan while his daughter was still at her convent school. He and James O’Neill had been pals in the old days: “It’s true he never touched a drop till he was forty, but after that he made up for lost time. He became a steady champagne drinker, the worst kind. That was his grand pose, to drink only champagne.”

His will bequeathed to Ella “One Piano Forte.” In time, she had it moved to Monte Cristo Cottage. In the final minutes of Long Day’s Journey she moves toward it, deeply gone into morphine, her enormous eyes glistening like black jewels, her face “a marble mask of girlish innocence.” Her horrified husband and sons listen as she fumbles her way into a Chopin waltz.

Ella, who was thought to have musical gifts, was sent to Saint Mary’s Academy, near the University of Notre Dame, where the piano instructor, Mother Elizabeth Lilly, encouraged her to think of a concert career. For a time though, and perhaps encouraged by the example of Mother Elizabeth, an English-born widow, she considered taking the veil, a common daydream of convent-bred girls. The play’s final words are hers: “That was in the winter of senior year. Then in the spring something happened to me. Yes, I remember. I fell in love with James Tyrone and was so happy for a time.”

Something, indeed. From the intense religiosity and the discreet, faintly romantic gentility of a convent school, rosaries, and the scent of roses, she was thrust into the life of a theatrical company, on the road with a husband who preferred bars to bungalows. And it was in a hotel room on New York’s Great White Way, in 1888, that she gave birth to Eugene, in a delivery so painful that the hotel doctor—that “quack” in family history—administered the first shots of the morphine to which she quickly, perhaps voluptuously, surrendered. Her husband and sons would in time become persuaded that Eugene’s birth was the proximate cause of what became a serious addiction. She had already persuaded Jamie, the older boy, that he was accidentally responsible for another child’s death in infancy. Thus, within a few short years, she had sown various deep and abiding guilts throughout the entire family—her husband, the two surviving sons, and herself. A virtuoso performance, even by the exacting standards of Irish Catholic motherhood. And yet, in both life and the play, she was a woman capable of great charm and vulnerability.

O’Neill would one day say to his own son: “The thing that explains more than anything about me is the fact that I’m Irish. And strangely enough, it is something that all the writers who have attempted to explain me and my work have overlooked.”4 Arthur and Barbara Gelb are determined not to compound the oversight, but it is heavy going for them:

Eugene fitted the somewhat mythologized designation of “black Irishman” that is vaguely based on looks, temperament and adherence to the church. The looks are dark (arguably the result of intermingling with Spaniards who reached the shores of Ireland after the defeat of the Armada in 1588), the temper is reputed to range from moody to morose (with alcohol often a factor); and the Faith has lapsed.5

O’Neill fits the description, although like most descriptions of ethnicity it is essentially circular. He possessed a fierce pride in ancestry and one which he often used to justify his excesses, and his “lapse from the Faith” began early and never yielded. When the mood struck him, in Jimmy the Priest’s or in the Hell Hole, he was given to reciting Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven,” a lachrymose and somewhat hysterical account of God’s remorseless pursuit of a soul strayed from grace. It was the hypnotic versification and giddy imagery that drew him, though, and not any possible resemblance to his own circumstances. God may not have died for him, but the Church had, and with unwavering finality. He and Dorothy Day, at present a candidate for that Church’s canonization, used to drink and recite the poem to each other: a subject for the pencil and pen of Max Beerbohm.

Some time while a student at the Christian Brothers’ De La Salle Institute in Manhattan, he declared “that he would no longer submit to the yoke of Catholic indoctrination.” There, as earlier at Mount Saint Vincent, on the Hudson, he had shown himself a quiet, reflective boy, not inclined toward rebelliousness. All this changed with a dramatic and puzzling suddenness. The following summer, he decided that the time even for a pretense at religious conformity had ended, and his father’s attempt to haul him off to Sunday Mass in New London resulted in an undignified scuffle which brought them both to the floor. His belated discovery of his mother’s addiction to the needle was devastating for the young boy: it confirmed his growing quarrel with a supposedly benign Providence.

O’Neill completed the final years of his schooling at the academy in Stamford maintained by William Betts, an able and ferociously loyal alumnus of nearby Yale, with a handlebar moustache and a bulldog devotion to the classics. O’Neill was popular at Betts, despite a fondness for solitude, and was developing into a remarkably handsome young man, “tall, lean, with darkening brown hair and uncannily luminous eyes.” He had become, as all his life he would remain, a prodigious reader, but of Nietzsche now, rather than the Baltimore Catechism. Billy Betts did not notice. Too slender for most sports, he was a strong and would become a daring swimmer. From the first, as readers of his plays know, the sea held a powerful attraction for him, life-giving and life-destroying.

It was in the summer of 1903, with Eugene home from Betts, that the event occurred which the speeches in Long Day’s Journey evoke with hallucinatory intimacy. Ella (or Mary), her supply of morphine exhausted, ran down in her nightdress to their dock, apparently to throw herself in the river. The language and its voices evoke the hour—night, water, fog, the sound of the foghorn. It was “the spiritual turning point of his life”: he said as much to his wife and to Elizabeth Sergeant, an early and sensitive biographer. Like most turning points, though, it was less discovery than crystallization, drawn from many sources.

A classmate would later say: “We had a few Roman Catholics at school besides Gene, but he never went to Mass with any of them.” Billy Betts’s muscular Protestantism, though, would have had far less appeal to him than the Church he was leaving. He would surely have said, as Joyce supposedly did, that it was his faith he had lost, not his mind. Like adventurous youths everywhere, he was turning to Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, Ibsen and Shaw. Every man, so it was coming to seem to him, existed within an arctic solitude of negation and self-doubt, a universe stripped bare of the consolations and certainties of all religions. There existed, but only for the brave, a specifically modern form of heroism, bleak yet exultant.

It was thus far only the posturing of a young iconoclast, swathed in Byronic melancholy and scorn, like young Richard Miller in Ah Wilderness! (1933), who awaits the day when “the people bring out the guillotine again and I see Pierpont Morgan being driven by in a tumbril.” This play, his only comedy, in its abundant and nostalgic evocation of a long-gone 1906 Fourth of July, is of course, as he himself said, the tormented world of Monte Cristo Cottage turned inside out, down to the wallpaper with its “cheerful, ugly blue design.” The older brother, home from Yale, with his football lineman’s build and collegiate manner, has replaced Jamie O’Neill, sarcastic, self-destructive, the odor of whorehouse talcum clinging to him. Uncle Sid gets tipsy again and again proposes to prim, sweet-tempered Lily, but the family is understanding and protective. “Miller and his wife and the children are all roaring with laughter.” At the play’s close, Miller and his wife “move quietly out of the moonlight into the darkness of the front parlor.” We will enter that front parlor in Long Day’s Journey, but into a different kind of darkness.

In the back room of a doubtful hotel, Richard had had a bad quarter-hour with a prostitute, conjuring up, for those who know O’Neill’s life, journeys from Princeton to New York’s Tenderloin. In this play, though, Richard moves within a magic protection, although a stage direction offers us a dark ethnic messenger: “The bartender, a stocky young Irishman with a foxily cunning, stupid face and a cynically wise grin, stands just inside the entrance.”

O’Neill’s one college year was a disaster. Princeton had little to offer a young man who was bringing his explosive reading to bear on his own life. He would never regard universities with much respect, holding toward them the autodidact’s derision flecked with fear. Instead, he would join that central American tradition which includes Melville, Whitman, Twain, Hemingway, Dreiser, solitary readers through the night. Like them, he was to become a man of wide, self-guided culture. Like them, he would create his own language.

3.

In June of 1910, O’Neill shipped out from Boston aboard the Charles Racine, a Norwegian steel barque and one of the last of the square riggers, bound for Buenos Aires with a cargo of lumber. His later voyages, to his disappointment, were made under steam.

The powerful hold of the sea upon his emotions and his imagination is extraordinary. He tried often to put it into words, in Bound East for Cardiff and The Moon of the Caribbees, in Anna Christie and The Hairy Ape, and never with entire success. It went deeper than language and had been with him from the first. A small boy, he had watched ships making ready for sea in New London, and in his Catholic boarding school, he could watch from the height as ships moved between New York and the river towns stretched along the Hudson. Part of him would always be the young fellow in the rigging of the Charles Racine or alone in its crow’s nest fumbling for words remembered from Conrad’s Youth about the glamour of the sea. Or Paddy, the old sailor in The Hairy Ape, remembering in a phony stage-brogue the days of sail:

Or the full of the moon maybe. Then you’d see her driving through the gray night, her sails stretching aloft all silver and white, not a sound on the deck, the lot of us dreaming dreams till you’d believe ’twas no real ship at all you was on but a ghost ship like the Flying Dutchman they says does be roaming the seas forevermore without touching a port.

No sooner had O’Neill stepped on board the Charles Racine in Boston than he discovered his abiding image of human felicity—water, wind, and language.

He would always believe that long voyage to be the most intense of his experiences, and close behind it his eight months on the beach in Buenos Aires, where he had quickly run through his pay on booze and whores, so that he ended those days begging for money and his nights dodging the cops and the waterfront toughs. When he got back to New York, he holed up at Jimmy the Priest’s, a Fulton Street flophouse which later served as one of the models for the setting of The Iceman Cometh. In July 1911, he shipped out for Southampton aboard the New York, and returned a month later aboard the Philadelphia, with able-bodied seaman papers.

That was the sum of his life at sea, considerably less than Melville had spent aboard the Acushnet and in the islands of the South Seas. Less, for that matter, than Darwin, who would never have called himself a sailor, spent aboard the Beagle. Far longer, though, than the week or so which Hemingway spent under machine-gun fire on the Italian front. But calendar measurements are irrelevant in the creation of identity. For O’Neill, as for Hemingway, these were the weeks that shaped a core of being, with all its truths, lies, exaggerations, masks, mirrors.

But the years that followed his return to New York were to test that core, or anyone’s, to the shattering point, years spent at Jimmy the Priest’s or else the saloon in Greenwich Village nicknamed “the Hell Hole,” where, as the Gelbs say, “he slid by degrees into a state of mindless alcoholism.” Those who have experienced The Iceman Cometh may be excused for believing that he lived entirely inside, seeing sunlight only when the doors were swung briefly open. But there was a bit more than that going on. Thus in late 1911 he had to stage a “discovery” with a prostitute in a hotel room, in order to verify the adultery charges which would allow himself and a young woman named Kathleen Jenkins to dissolve an early and unfortunate marriage. And a few months later he would attempt suicide and almost succeed. (A child by that marriage would grow up, become a professor at Yale, and then, in his turn, commit suicide. Generation by generation, it would prove itself an unlucky family. Cursed might be a better word.)

There were a few affairs and romances; the Gelbs, nothing if not hard-working, have dug up the details. In the summer of 1912, O’Neill and Jamie were on tour with the father, playing bit parts in a cut-down vaudeville version of Monte Cristo. He was a newspaper reporter for a while. On the Christmas Eve of that year, having been diagnosed as tubercular, he entered Gaylord Farm, a sanitarium in Wallingford, Connecticut. He began writing plays and for a time was a student in George Pierce Baker’s drama workshop at Harvard. His father, by no means the tightwad the son made him out to be, had the early, and pretty bad, plays published, in a volume called, with gruesome accidental appropriateness, Thirst.

Somehow in those years he contrived at the same time to educate himself as a dramatist and to drink himself almost to death in, to use his own words, a port of last call “for sailors on shore leave or stranded; longshoremen, waterfront riffraff, gangsters, down-and-outers, drifters from the ends of the earth.” His instinct for the kind of theater he needed was faultless—Wedekind, Ibsen, Strindberg, Hauptmann. He went six times to see The Weavers—Hauptmann’s five-act play about the revolt of Silesian weavers in 1844—and every performance by Dublin’s Abbey Players during their New York engagement—Yeats’s one-act plays, those by Lady Gregory and the gifted but now forgotten T.C. Murray, and, most to the point, Synge’s Playboy of the Western World and Riders to the Sea. These were plays of atmosphere and their rhythms would linger in his mind. “They’re all gone from me now,” Maurya says at the close of Riders, “and there isn’t anything more the sea can do to me.” It was the language that created the atmosphere. Alice Brady, the Irish actress who played Lavinia in Mourning Becomes Electra, would one day say of it that it is “not like any ordinary play where if you drop a word you can substitute another. You must say every word exactly as it is written. Otherwise you throw the whole rhythm of the play out.” It was a lesson O’Neill learned from Yeats and Synge and one which had never been taught on his father’s stage.

The father’s connections, of course, secured passes for him to the Irish and the other plays. Whether in the crow’s nest of the Charles Racine or on the beach in Buenos Aires or in the back room of Jimmy the Priest’s, and whether the son liked to admit it or not, he always had an ace to play—a middle-class father prepared, however grudgingly, to bail him out. Like many another young man, he was a gentleman-ranker out on a spree.

That 1912 attempt at suicide was a different matter though. The Gelbs think it was “more like a macabre gesture than a sincere effort,” but it looks pretty real to me. When you take a heavy overdose of Veronal and stretch out on a flophouse bed, you are likely to end up on a slab up the avenue at Bellevue. He was discovered, passed out, by a friend who would himself commit suicide a year later. At Jimmy the Priest’s, that sort of thing was contagious. After he got seriously to work as a writer, though, we hear no more about suicide.

The Hell Hole, more formally the Golden Swan, was as disreputable, but, significantly, it was located not on the waterfront but in Greenwich Village, then in its first full flowering as the capital of America’s Bohemia. It was still the watering hole of a peculiarly vicious gang of Irish toughs, the Hudson Dusters, still boasting of their youthful days as stickup men and bullies, but reduced now to ordinary thievery and the election-day destruction of Republican ballots. The other half of a severely segregated clientele was composed of the regulars and casuals who populated the Village and would stroll through every memoir—John Reed and Hippolyte Havel, George Bellows and Max Eastman, an assortment of anarchists and Wobblies, poets, scenery designers, heavy drinkers and hangers-on, novelists and and fantasists. Beyond the doors lay the now legendary geography of the Village—the office of The Masses, Mabel Dodge’s salon, little theater groups of which one, the Provincetown Players, would soon become famous thanks in part to O’Neill. That he was giving his patronage, these days, to the Hell Hole suggests a growing readiness for the stage.

O’Neill moved within the heady mix of art and political extremism, but without really being a part of it, although later legend would bestow full membership upon him. His deep sympathy for philosophical anarchism had begun years earlier on visits to Benjamin Tucker’s bookshop, with its swaying shelves of Kropotkin, Tolstoy, Proudhon. Tucker, a sweet-tempered pacifist, was dedicated to nonviolence, but this could not be said of Emma Goldman and Big Bill Heywood, around whom clung wisps of cordite and dynamite, rendered romantic by time and distance. The radicalism of that time and place would one day be central to The Iceman Cometh, but ideas had real consequence for O’Neill only when they were embodied. They were embodied with bewildering diversity in the person of his closest friend, an Irishman named Terry Carlin—ex-Wobbly, Irish rebel, sometime syndicalist, poverty-stricken pal of hoodlums and poets, and a drinker of heroic capacity. Carlin’s beliefs had passed beyond cynicism, then despair, to surface as hilarity: “Cheer up, Gene, the worst is yet to come.” But it never came. Within a few years, O’Neill had established himself as a playwright, and was making a brutally painful but successful battle against the bottle.

4.

In the summer of 1916, a few months after O’Neill and Carlin had drunk to the memories of the Irish rebels of Easter Week, they traveled to Provincetown and looked up the group of actors and writers whom George “Jig” Cook had gathered around him. Almost anyone who wanted to help was added to the company by Cook and his more talented, or at least more savvy, wife, Susan Glaspell. Jack Reed was in the company, of course, home after having ridden with Pancho Villa and helped to organize the silk strike in Paterson. He was sleeping with Louise Bryant, as O’Neill soon would be, a striking brunette whose theatricality was not limited to the stage. As for Jig Cook, he was one of those great-hearted, silly people who were creating a theater for America.

The group was reading plays toward a second season at the Wharf Theatre, and O’Neill asked them to look at a one-acter called Bound East for Cardiff. Too nervous to read it aloud himself he waited in another room, for an actor to read it. Everyone present had afterward an account of the evening: it was a foundational moment for the theater in this country. “Why,” someone said, “it’s like the Irish Players.” And not by chance: he had studied the working of a noncommercial play, one which depended for effect upon silence, upon speeches which leaned against each other to form structure. Nor did it hurt that the play, set in a tramp steamer’s forecastle, would soon be performed in a barn which had once been a fishhouse, with water moving beneath the floorboards. Susan Glaspell said it best: “Then we knew what we were for. We began in faith and perhaps it is true that ‘all these things shall be added unto us.”‘

He awoke to find himself famous, like Byron, whom he did not otherwise resemble. News has always traveled quickly between Provincetown and Broadway. “Who is Eugene O’Neill?” asked a New York Times headline, the perkiness of its theater section already established. Mencken and George Jean Nathan published the texts of The Long Voyage Home and The Moon of the Caribbees in the Smart Set, and in Nathan O’Neill acquired a powerful interpreter, affected perhaps, but precise in his judgments. “In even the poorer of O’Neill’s plays—and he has written poor plays as well as brilliant—one feels a trace of power and bravery. He may on occasion work weakly but he never works cheaply. Always there is perceptible an effort at something original and distinguished.”

Would that the Gelbs had taken writing lessons from Nathan. When they roll up their sleeves to talk about the qualities of a particular play, there is just no holding them back. They close their first volume with the composition of Beyond the Horizon (1920) which earned him his first Pulitzer, and which “was perceived as a play of such tragic sweep and grandeur that it dwarfed the efforts of American playwrights who had come before.” Like others who have written about him, they constantly seek to emulate his own frequent strivings toward some distant Something or Nothing, it seems not to matter which.

He was an artist of the first rank, whose very intensity of vision and willingness to risk allowed him to surmount a battery of verbal limitations. Mary McCarthy, reviewing The Iceman Cometh in 1946, nailed the central problem, which a universal respect for the Nobel Prize writer had kept under wraps: “To audiences accustomed to the oily virtuosity of George Kaufmann, George Abbott, Lillian Hellman, Odets, Saroyan, the return of a playwright who—to be frank—cannot write is a solemn and sentimental occasion.” Or, she might have added, the leaden yet squishy pentameters of Maxwell Anderson. She places O’Neill in the unhappy company of Farrell and Dreiser, without quite acknowledging that all three were powerful writers despite this embarrassing impediment. “How is one to judge the great, logical symphony of a tone-deaf musician?” But her own words turn against her: “The Iceman Cometh is indeed made of ice or iron; it is full of will and fanatic determination; it appears to have been written at some extreme temperature of the mind.” As backhanded praise, this is both felicitous and exact.

But it is unfair to measure the Gelbs against Nathan or McCarthy, showoffs of language. The Gelbs are journeymen, with uncertain control of their instruments. At times they are content with a careless flatness, as when they seek to evoke life within the O’Neill family: “Monte Cristo Cottage had become less a haven of togetherness than a pressure cooker in which the four O’Neills fed upon each other’s neuroses.” But at other times, they strive for the grand effect: “Now he had only to bleed and weep endless tears for the sake of his artist’s dream.” The trouble is not merely one of style: the more one reads about O’Neill, either here or in Louis Sheaffer’s two-volume biography, the more impressed one is by the mysteriousness, the elusiveness, of our greatest—perhaps, with the exception of Tennessee Williams, our only great—playwright. Surely, though, the biographers cannot be faulted for lack of research: the list of those consulted would populate a city the size of Terre Haute.

This Issue

October 5, 2000

  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. 

  4. 4

    Quoted by the Gelbs from Croswell Bowen, PM (1946). 

  5. 5

    The Gelbs rest their definition of “black Irish” “upon interviews with numerous American-Irish.” Such interviews offer evidence only of the eagerness with which the American Irish seize upon whatever seems likely to glamorize them. As for the myth that dark-haired Irish are the product of intermingling with Spaniards who reached the Irish shores from the wrecked Armada, there were a few survivors, but they were promptly decapitated and their heads, packed in barrels, dark hair and all, shipped off to Dublin as proof by the Irish of their loyalty to the Crown. Or so I have heard, and I am black Irish myself.