Master of the Misbegotten

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

O’Neill: Life with Monte Cristo1


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…

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