Our Worst Great Playwright

Hammerman Collection/eOneill.com
Eugene O’Neill and Carlotta Monterey, his third wife, before they married, at Cap d’Ail, France, 1929

Of all the great playwrights, Eugene O’Neill is undoubtedly the worst. At times, even late in his career, he produced work so gauche that without his name on the playbill, one might ascribe it to an overwrought adolescent. In 1936, O’Neill won the Nobel Prize. Just two years earlier, he had produced Days Without End, a drama of religious crisis that is utterly, though alas unintentionally, hilarious. In the climactic scene, the protagonist John Loving, split into two antagonistic halves called John and Loving, wrestles with himself beneath a crucifix in a Catholic church:

John: The Cross!

Loving: The symbol of hate and derision!

John: No! Of love! Mercy! Forgive!

Loving: Fool! Grovel on your knees! It is useless! To pray, one must believe!

John: I have come back to Thee!

The exclamation marks rain down on us like arrows on a medieval battlefield. Where on earth does such preposterous stuff come from? In fact we know exactly where it comes from—The Count of Monte Cristo:

Monte Cristo: I will kill him.

Mercedes: You dare not!

Monte Cristo: Why not?

Mercedes: Because—he is your son!

Monte Cristo: My—!

In his heavily autobiographical masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey into Night, written, as O’Neill put it in the dedication to his third wife, Carlotta, “in tears and blood,” James Tyrone, alter ego of his father James, complains bitterly of “that God-damned play I bought for a song and made such a great success in—a great money success—it ruined me with its promise of an easy fortune.” The God-damned play is The Count of Monte Cristo, a melodramatic stage adaptation by Charles Fechter of Alexandre Dumas’s novel. It is the script of the Faustian pact in which, as O’Neill believed, his family’s soul had been sold for money. James O’Neill was all set to be the greatest American classical actor of his generation, but his star turn as Edmond Dantes was so lucratively popular that he bought out the rights and toured it for almost thirty years.

His son Eugene would come to see the play as the source of all the family’s grief: his father’s prostitution of his talent, the life on the road that turned his genteel mother into a morphine addict, the self-destructive recklessness of his doomed brother Jamie. And in Eugene’s self-image, his own invention of a serious, emotionally grueling American theater was a form of revenge on Monte Cristo and the harm it had done to him:

My early experience with the theater through my father really made me revolt against it. As a boy I saw so much of the old, ranting, artificial, romantic stage stuff that…

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