The source of A Tale of Possessors, Self-dispossessed lies deep in the torturous writing of Dynamo and Days Without End. Perhaps now it lies too deep for full analysis, for the two plays were intended as part of a projected trilogy whose unwritten third play became the point of departure for his cycle on American historical themes.
The third play, originally titled “It Cannot Be Mad” and later “On to Betelgeuse,” was conceived along with Days Without End in 1927, shortly after O’Neill had completed Lazarus Laughed. What its original inception was is not known. O’Neill did not work on it for any consecutive period until October, 1928, when he and Carlotta Monterey were sailing to the Far East. By then, Dynamo had been completed, and the concept of a trilogy was in his mind. The working title, “Myths for the God-Forsaken,” suggests that like Lazarus Laughed and Dynamo, the completed trilogy was to address the problems of belief in a modern, godless society.
He worked on “It Cannot Be Mad” and finished Act I and part of Act II in March, 1929. Then, the proofs of Dynamo arrived from his publisher. The failure of Dynamo on the New York stage led him to extensive rewriting of the proofs. At the same time, a very different trilogy, Mourning Becomes Electra, was taking shape in his imagination, and he set aside all other work for its sake. Not until it was completed and produced did he return to the unfinished trilogy, beginning the long sessions of work on the intractable Days Without End in 1932. By then, he had found a new title for the third play, “The Life of Bessie Bowen.”* In 1933, unable to complete Days Without End, which was entering its fifth draft, he turned again to the Bessie Bowen story. At the same time, prophetically, he conceived the idea for a play called “Rolling River,” which he subtitled “A play of generations.” In 1934, he reworked the Bowen scenario, but ultimately laid it aside for several years until he came at last to realize that with some modification he could use it as the final, summary play of the new “play of generations,” the cycle, “A Tale of Possessors, Self-dispossessed,” which was stretching out in O’Neill’s imagination to almost unending length.
“The Life of Bessie Bowen” appears to have been based on the career of a woman industrialist from Rochester, New York, named Kate Gleason. Whether she was the source figure of O’Neill’s heroine or whether her life provided a coincidental parallelism which O’Neill came to know at the time of her death in 1933 is uncertain. O’Neill’s notes, however, contain an account of her remarkable career provided by Saxe Commins, a one-time resident of Rochester.**Born in 1865, she grew up a tom-boy in a family of brothers. Interest in the machine tools her father manufactured caused her to enroll in Engineering Studies at Cornell University. Financial difficulties forced her to leave college and work in her father’s business, where her drive and intelligence led her to enter the masculinedominated world of the traveling salesman, with a success that helped pull the business out of its slump. Looking ahead at the competition in the manufacture of machine tools, she turned the business to a more sharply defined field, gears and gear planing machines. Shortly thereafter Bowen became the major supplier of gears and gear planers to the developing automobile industry.
By 1914 she was a
highly respected citizen of Rochester. She was the first woman to be
appointed a receiver by a bankruptcy court, taking charge of a machine
tool shop with debts of $140,000. She managed in three years to show a
profit of $1,000,000. She was the first woman to become president of a
national bank, and in that capacity supervised the building of a model
community of one hundred homes together with a golf course, club house,
and apartment buildings. The project pioneered the use of concrete for
domestic construction. Her charities were widespread and included the
town of Septmont in France, where three thousand American soldiers had
been killed in the attack on Soissons. Honors she received were
extensive. She was the first woman member of the American Society of
Mechanical Engineers, of the American Concrete Institute, and of the Verein
Although she was affable and outgoing in an Irish way, her personal life was never on display. She did not marry, and she maintained a masculine manner in all her associations. Only self-consciously did she put on the charming trappings of standard femininity and then only to gain her objectives in the man’s world she worked in. At her mansion, her room was reached by a trap door and a retractable ladder that kept her privacy impregnable.2
The interest Kate Gleason’s story generated in O’Neill’s imagination no doubt rested partly on the remarkable achievement of an Irish woman, but her successful domination of the men with whom she came in contact and her somewhat ambiguous sexual orientation perhaps provided equal stimulus. As a “Myth for the GodForsaken,” her story could be brought into line with the frantic attempts of Reuben Light in Dynamo and John Loving in Days Without End to explore the dilemma of man in a godless civilization. Reuben and John Loving both need to belong to something larger, more encompassing, more maternal than they are. Being a woman, Bessie feels no such need. Her need is to rule men and to use them as rungs in a ladder to success. Success that brings increasing wealth is the only goal: greedy possession is the only motivation. In Strange Interlude and Mourning Becomes Electra, O’Neill had taken a view of woman as man’s destroyer, but the weapon of destruction was her sexuality. Bessie Bowen attacked from a different angle, using her financial acumen rather than her sex to achieve her ends.
At some point in his
imaginative transmutation of the life of Kate Gleason, he found the
center for the cycle. Disregarding much of her career, O’Neill saw her
as an emblem of all Americans who had put aside spiritual values in a
greedy drive to possess material wealth. Greed was the motivation, and
the theme, expressive of O’Neill’s understanding of the causes that
had led to depressionridden America, was summarized by the passage
from Mark 7:36: “What shall it
profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his
own soul.” In contrast to Bessie, Nina Leeds and the Mannon women were
suffused in a romantic glow. Their destructive love affairs had only
personal consequences. Bessie’s power had important effects in a
larger world of commerce. She moved out of the boarded-up rooms and the
temporal vacuums inhabited by O’Neill’s earlier female protagonists.
The very nature of the industry she came to
dominate—transportation—gave her tentacles that extended her reach
through the country. No matter that her gain was personal loss, that she
bought her lover, that her daughter was a lesbian, her son a narcotics
addict. Bessie acted in accord with Kate Gleason’s motto: possum
Through a series of false starts and redactions, the Bessie Bowen play remained troublesome. After he had completed and seen through production Ah, Wilderness! and Days Without End, and after he had been subject to a variety of illnesses, O’Neill turned to a number of new play ideas. Some of these germinated during the autumn of 1934, but in December he returned to Bessie’s story. His work diary records a series of outlines, rewritings, and false starts similar to those that had plagued Days Without End, its intended predecessor in the “God-Forsaken” trilogy. On New Year’s Eve day, he recorded that he was “fed up on ‘Bessie’ for the moment,” and, although he continued into January trying to force the play forward, by January 20, he noted “this damned play won’t come right— not big enough opportunity to interest me—would be part of something, not itself.” On the twenty-first he wrote “will chuck B.B. out of further present consideration.”
The trouble with “The Life of Bessie Bowen” was twofold. First, it did not speak to O’Neill’s ambitions as a playwright. The extraordinary reception of Strange Interlude and Mourning Becomes Electra—both “big” plays—led him to feel that he must write drama of greater scope than that of the average commercial playwright. No doubt there was an element of vanity in such a feeling, but he was surely right in sensing that his ambition had been in the past justified by the results. The domestic intimacy, of Ah, Wilderness! was a strange by-product, so uncharacteristic that he at one time considered having it produced under a nom-de-plume. Had Days Without End succeeded, had he been able to create the “God-Forsaken” trilogy, the three together might have proved a worthy successor to Mourning Becomes Electra. However, both Dynamo and Days Without End had failed to impress their audiences, and when the projected third play showed signs of entering the same creative doldrums as had Days Without End, he surely felt the play to be small, uninteresting, and unworthy, and the proposed trilogy to be unworkable.
Another less personal concern perhaps underlay his sense that “The Life of Bessie Bowen” was too small a subject. He was increasingly alarmed at the condition of his country. He had returned from the years in France to a nation frozen by the Great Depression, and he heard the sounds of a second World War from Germany, Russia, and Spain. Like all thinking men, he was forced to ask the question: “What have we done wrong? How have we brought these things to pass?” Journalists, politicians, and many artists of lesser stature than he were facing up to a frightening world and speaking out. O’Neill’s genius brought heavy responsibilities to try to understand the modern dilemma and to warn and to teach. Such an undertaking required the greatest force he could summon from his imagination and his energies in order to present to the world the most profound and far-reaching thoughts of which he was capable. Tracing the life of a single, eccentric woman was not enough. What must be found were representative lives of those who most clearly manifested the causal guilt. On December 4 and 5, 1934, as he worked on the Bowen play, he also made notes for a series he called “The Calms of Capricorn.”
The idea produced new creative excitement, and on January 1, 1935, as the Bessie Bowen play entered its death struggles, he wrote of the new conception: “grand ideas for this Magnum Opus if can ever do it—wonderful characters!” By the month’s end, all his efforts were consumed in the new project. He quickly outlined the first two plays, and shortly conceived in plan the third and fourth plays of the series, which, he noted on January 26, were to concern “4 sons.” On the twenty-seventh, a pit opened, and he wrote “story of Harford and Sara before 1st play opens—this may develop into additional 1st play, making five in all.” The next day, he wrote that he had outlined “the spiritual undertheme” of the work, and by early February, he had found a new title for the cycle, “A Touch of the Poet,” transferring the original title to the play about a voyage on a clipper ship.
Through the rest of 1935 and until October, 1936, O’Neill worked without cessation on the cycle. Early in his work, on February 3, 1935, he decided that the new first play, then titled “A Hair of the Dog,” was a genuine requisite. By April 25, as the theme became clearer, he conceived as a title for the cyle “A Threnody for Possessors Dispossessed.” By June 9, he had in plan a sixth play, and by the end of August he felt a seventh to be essential to the scheme. This play was to be titled “Twilight of Possessors Self-dispossessed.” On September 2, he recorded that the seventh play followed the main outline of the old Bessie Bowen story and needed no further work than the revised outline he had made a year earlier.
On July 3, 1935, he wrote to Robert Sisk at the Theatre Guild, detailing the plan as it lay open before him:
It was not to be so tidy a project. On September 7, a new play rose in his mind: “Playing around with the idea new first play to precede ‘Hair of the Dog,’ to go back to 1806 and show Abigail*** as girl— marriage to Henry H(arford)—and their house & parents—Henry’s father big character—title ‘Greed of the Meek.’” He began at once, recording that the play was “forcing” itself on him. He fought against the expansion, writing on September 16 that he was “trying to put ‘Greed of the Meek’ out of mind—God knows don’t want extra play tacked on this damned trilogy (sic) unless it absolutely must be written!” Possibly he should have fought harder, but the play had its will, and he wrote on.
The work continued into 1936 with minimal interruption. The title “A Hair of the Dog” was given to the eighth play and the title “A Touch of the Poet” fixed on for the play about the Melody family. The cycle now was to be called “A Legend of Possessors Selfdispossessed.” By June 9, he had accepted the need of yet one more play, a new first play to be called “Give Me Death.” The new ninth play was to be the story of the progenitors of the Harfords in the eighteenth century.
In October, he
called a halt and went to Seattle, where he received the Nobel Prize.
Shortly after, in Oakland, California, he fell ill. He did no
consecutive writing until June, 1937, in California, when he began to
re-think the entire nine-play scheme and to revise scenarios and
outlines. On July 26, for example, he determined that Honey, the
youngest son of Sara and Simon, would live to the saga’s end and
take his place in the old Bessie Bowen narrative, but he also realized
that the final play would require the introduction of a new
generation. Extensive revisions of the nine-play scheme followed, and
by the year’s end he had completed a draft of the first play,
which was, he noted in some dismay, longer than Strange
Interlude. Leaving it for the moment, he turned to More
Stately Mansions and then to the third draft of A
Touch of the Poet, work which he finished in March, 1939. On June
5, his imagination revolted: “decide what I’ve done on 5th
Play is n.g., so tear it up. Feel fed up and stale on Cycle after 4½
years of not thinking of any other work—will do me good to lay on
shelf and forget it for a while—do a play which has nothing to do
with it.” The next day, he began work on The
In January 1940, he returned to the cycle for a month, but by March Long Day’s Journey into Night occupied his attention, and he finished its second draft in October. He returned almost at once to the cycle and was faced now with the inordinate length of many of the drafts. The first two plays presented special problems. As they were written, they could not be readily cut to an evening’s length and, further, the plays were too complex and full of material he was not willing to lose. Either he must discard them and return to the seven-play scheme or break them up and make four plays out of two. By November 1, 1940, he had decided: the cycle was to be eleven plays long.
In 1942, after he had brought Hughie and A Moon for the Misbegotten to near completion, he returned for the last time to the cycle, deciding on February 16 to rewrite A Touch of the Poet in order “to get at least one play of Cycle definitely & finally finished.” The work was completed by mid-November, and thereafter work on the cycle stopped. In 1952, with Carlotta’s help, he burned the notes, outlines, and drafts that had occupied almost two decades of his mature lifetime.****
The surviving clutter of notes on the cycle raises many questions as to the design of the whole and to its ultimate value as a work of art. Judged from such indications of its narrative as can be garnered from the seven- and eleven-play outlines, the central narrative was over-full of political, financial, and psycho-sexual maneuverings of the most lurid nature, but no work of art is to be judged from such sketchy preliminary imaginings. What is left shows O’Neill thinking his way through an extraordinary story, throwing in every fantasy and experimenting with various techniques, shifting concepts, working out relationships, introducing and then forgetting characters. The notes provide a kind of barometer of his imagination as he attempted to work out the mammoth plan. The plan, however, cannot be fully descried from what is left. No scenario can be developed from the notes. Hunches and guesses are possible but many misgivings arise. What is certain and at the same time disturbing is the extraordinary fullness of the scheme. The interweaving of character relationships, the great number of events, the vast historical panorama that serves as referential background for the central story create a great tangle.
From the notes, an approximate genealogical table of the principal characters can be drawn:
In organizing the whole, O’Neill thought of the first four plays as a thematic and narrative unit concerned with the three unmarried daughters of Naomi and an unnamed father. He referred to the unit as “The Blessed Sisters.” The next two plays he subtitled “Sara and Abigail,” and the next group of four, those plays dealing with the sons of Sara and Simon, as “The Four Brothers.” The last play, “A Hair of the Dog,” he conceived as an epilogue summarizing the cycle.
In the eleven-play
plan, the first was titled “The Poor in Spirit,” although he
considered “The Pride of the Meek” and “Give Me Liberty” as
alternatives. About 1775, Jonathan Harford, a Welsh renegade from
Braddock’s army, comes upon a farm owned by a widow, Naomi, the
mother of three daughters: Eliza, Dinah, and Hannah. Naomi wants a man
to help her on the farm and comfort her in bed. Jonathan is an
idealist who has struck into the wilderness in search of a freedom as
wild and primitive as that of the native American tribes who, in his
view, roam the land without enslaving it and so never become its
slaves. Despite his belief in a freedom without possession, he agrees
to stay with Naomi, selling out to the woman, much as Robert Mayo gave
up his dream in Beyond the
Naomi is the first of the possessors. She mocks Jonathan’s spiritual aesthestics as he talks of the beauty of the land, reminding him that a cow sees no beauty in the grass it chews. Her hope is to sell the farm and use the proceeds to enter the slave trade where profit is unlimited. As the play ends in 1757, Jonathan escapes to the wilderness, leaving his infant son, Ethan, in the care of the women.
The second play, “The Rebellion of the Humble” (alternatively titled “The Rights of Man” and “The Patience of the Meek”) moved the story to 1775, at the time of Jonathan’s return to the farm. Now he is fired by the idea of a revolution to drive the British out of the country. He adds an idealistic coda: when the British are gone, he will join with the Indians to drive out the Americans, and thereafter find a way to rid the land of all its human inhabitants, thus freeing it from any attempt to possess it. He goes to war and is killed at Bunker Hill. The play ends as the Sisters burn the farm and leave for the city.
The third play, “The Greed of the Meek,” was to be laid in Newport or Providence, Rhode Island, between 1783 and 1794. The Sisters have profited at the slave trade. Evan, who in this plan has become the meekest of retiring Christians, distresses his half-sisters by his reticence. They arrange for him to be shanghaied by a friend of Jonathan’s, a Captain Marlow, on a voyage whose hardships will make him more of a man. The experiment is a success, and on his return he seduces and later marries Kate Blaine.***** Their excitement at the outbreak of the French Revolution with its promise of freedom takes the family to France, where Ethan is imprisoned as a devoted adherent of Robespierre. He is ultimately freed as an insignificant idealist whom the revolutionaries forget to guillotine. At home, he lives in solitude in his summer house, the “Temple of Liberty” described by Deborah, praising Aaron Burr and tending his plants. His wife falls in love with the local minister, Waldo Deane, whose daughter Abigail is a child of eight.******
The fourth play, “And Give Me Death” (or “Give Me Death”), was laid in 1806 and brought into sharp focus Deane’s daughter, Abigail, whose day-dreaming of Napoleon and whose hope that her son Simon will become a poet are counterpointed by her attempt to control the Harford fortune—the motive that had led her into marriage with Henry Harford. The Sisters dread dispossession as they dread death itself, and a sordid series of intrigues follows with Abigail as the ultimate victor. The family appears to be so cursed by greed that it loses all moral restraints.
As a title for the subgroup, “The Blessed Sisters” is ironic. O’Neill saw Naomi’s daughters as a fatal trio. He planned to introduce them in the act of spinning and conceived of them as weavers of destiny, as the malevolent fairies presiding over Ethan’s birth, and as witches who cursed the family with greedy desires. In A Touch of the Poet, Deborah describes them as striving to possess her. They failed, she says, “because there was so little of me in the flesh that aged, greedy fingers could clutch.” (83) They do not fail in their possession of their half-brother or his son, and their fingers, extended by their control of transportation lines in steamships and coaches, spread through the land as they amass their fortune.
The effects of the
curse of greed are less clear in the central subgroup, “Sara and
Abigail,” than in the final group of four, “The Four Brothers,”
and in the epilogue, “A Hair of the Dog.” In his letter to Robert
Sisk, O’Neill stated that each of the plays would concern itself with
“the final fate” of one member of the family. In the epilogue of More
Stately Mansions, O’Neill sets this plan in train. Sara Harford
speaks in soliloquy of her sons:
Fine boys each of them! No woman on earth has finer sons! Strong in body and with brains, too! Each with a stubborn will of his own! Leave it to them to take what they want from life, once they’re men! This little . . . farm won’t hold them long! Ethan, now, he’ll own his fleet of ships! And Wolfe will have his banks! And Johnny his railroads! And Honey will be in the White House before he stops, maybe! And each of them will have wealth and power and a grand estate— (279)
The speech sketches the course of the action to come.
* The title and the heroine’s name varied from time to time, “The Career of . . . Bessie Bolan” being the most definitive alternate. In her diary, Carlotta O’Neill noted that the re-spelling from “Bowen” was to distinguish O’Neill’s heroine from “the other,” by whom she presumably meant Elizabeth Bowen Jumel, known in girlhood as Betsy Bowen. The career of Mme. Jumel, whose ninety-year life spanned from 1775 to 1865, has many striking parallels to O’Neill’s narrative, including her devotion to Napoleon and her alliance with Aaron Burr.
** Commins had been a dentist before he entered the publishing world. In 1921, O’Neill spent time in Rochester while Commins worked on his teeth. Kate Gleason had recently built a spectacular home, modeled on the Alhambra in Granada, which she called “Clones” after her Irish mother’s birthplace. It was a sight to see, and no doubt the swath its owner cut through conservative Rochester was a topic of interested conversation.
*** I.e., Deborah Harford.
**** The destruction of the cycle was complete except for the finished A Touch of the Poet, a typed manuscript with holographic corrections of More Stately Mansions, and the scenario of The Calms of Capricorn. In addition some notes for the seven- and eleven-play cycles exist. From these unnumbered pages some concept of the direction of O’Neill’s narrative and thematic plans can be derived. None of the notes is definitive, but they indicate the direction of O’Neill’s explorations into the material.
The characterization of Ethan varies greatly from a piratical sea
captain engaged in the slave and opium trades to the ineffectual
character described by Deborah in Act II of A
Touch of the Poet.
****** In the third and fourth plays, O’Neill devoted much time to the Deane family. Late in his work, he commented that he had made a mistake trying to incorporate two families into the narrative. The complications they introduced were unnecessary.
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