The production of Days Without End in January, 1934, marked the end of O’Neill’s active life in the theatre which had begun at Provincetown in 1916. Thereafter, he lived in an isolation unbroken except for a brief return to New York for the rehearsals of The Iceman Cometh and A Moon for the Misbegotten during the winter of 1946-47. In the eighteen-year period, New York City had seen premiere performances of thirty-four of his plays, and on all of them with the exception of Dynamo, he had worked closely in rehearsals, seeing them through to their final staged form. In 1934, he was forty-six years old; after an exhausting career, it was time for a change.
Around him, changes whose consequences were to reframe the world shook old truths, generated new attitudes and to all artists brought a sense of different obligation from what they had understood before. For the first time in its history, the United States developed a form of proletarian literature that was eagerly and widely read. The easy aestheticism of the 1920’s was forgotten, and its preachers were ridiculed as précieux. The American artist tried now to describe and to understand the fact of the Depression and of a society impossibly careening toward a second world war. The social vacuum which had encapsuled Strange Interlude in 1926 was an impossibility in literature eight years later, as was the easy view of America’s materialism that had characterized O’Neill’s thinking from Fog to The Great God Brown. The Greenwich Village anarchists had passed unheeded into history, and the socio-economic attitudinizing which characterized the bulk of the proletarian art of the time gave onto a new kind of statement. The Roosevelt Administration made the Left respectable, and, in the theatre, writers proved rapidly responsive to the new direction. In 1935, the year before the Federal Theatre Project was established, the major dramatic successes were Maxwell Anderson’s Winterset, Robert Sherwood’s Petrified Forest, Odets’s Waiting for Lefty and Awake and Sing and Sidney Kingsley’s Dead End. The young playwrights were moving into a territory where O’Neill had never walked, and where he could not follow even had he chosen to do so, for he had no sense of social “cause” born from his embracing of political and economic theories. He could not cry out in such a line as the one John Howard Lawson put into the mouth of young Henry Fonda playing a Freedom Fighter in Spain: “Where’s the conscience of the world?” It was simply not O’Neill’s kind of question.
He had always been scornful of the Broadway Show Shop. His attitude was precisely defined by Con Melody’s repeated quotation from Lord Byron which in his youth O’Neill himself quoted on many a drunken occasion: “I stood/Among them but not of them. . . .“ For a time, indeed, he had led them, and in the longer reach of time, he would do so again. Now, however, the failure of Days Without End—which was significantly an artist’s, not a producer’s failure—marked the end of a major phase of his remarkable career. Although George Jean Nathan would from time to time grumble that the only thing that could save the current Broadway season was a new work by O’Neill, those he had stood among were content to forget him. He passed into that degrading limbo of lost dramatists: the academic reading list.
These were the outward signs. In fact, a change in his personal vision of experience as profound as the changes in society about him was occurring. In his own way, he began to explore, as were all serious dramatists, the sickness of his world; at the same time he explored himself, as if instinctively he knew that his answer to the larger social question was to be found only through unrelenting self-analysis. The two problems of society and the self had a single answer, for they were the same sickness. The war at its height bred in him—perhaps because he did not find satisfaction in a cause espoused—a profound depression of spirit that often made creative work impossible. He had always written in pencil in a microscopic hand, but now a growing tremor in his hands, the climax of a long period of serious illness, made sustained writing impossible. Unable to create on a typewriter or by dictation, he was often silenced.
Thus, the state of the world and of his own health induced in him that diffidence Thomas Hardy called “Unhope.” Yet somehow the work went forward on two planes, the writing of a long cycle of plays on American history, A Tale of Possessors, Selfdispossessed and another series of autobiographical plays, which if it cannot in entire propriety be called a cycle, is one in effect. In the period between 1934 and the day in early 1953 when he and Mrs. O’Neill burned the uncompleted manuscripts of the historical cycle, he worked as steadily as he could to bring both great studies of man’s life in the United States of America to completion. He failed, and the surviving texts of this period of his creative life are eloquent testimonies to the dimension of the loss. Had he completed his work, it might well have provided the only lasting crown of the theatre in the 1930’s, indeed he might again have changed the course of American drama, as he had in the 1920’s.
Thus, his retirement from the theatrical world was not a retirement from the stage. He carried it with him and made few, if any, mistakes. Retreat was entirely for the sake of his creative health. First, at Sea Island, Georgia, then at Tao House in the ridge of hills east of San Francisco Bay, he worked under constant pressure on a project of solemn magnitude with the same unsparing dedication as he had in France while writing Mourning Becomes Electra. That he took joy in it is not clear. No other play evoked in him the simple delight that he had felt in Ah, Wilderness! Was there contentment in the freedom to do nothing but write? The plays contain too much pain of body and soul to suggest contentment. Pride? In reference to the late plays, he does not ordinarily comment on their being the most profound or the biggest or the best thing he has written—comments with which he was liberal in earlier times. In the end, as he approached silence, he does not appear even to have raced against time to complete the works. He knew their magnitude, and somewhat fatalistically faced the impossibility of the task, at first ruefully with small jokes to friends as a man sometimes mocks his own labors by clowning strain.** When jokes no longer helped, with no exterior manner of lament, he opened his hands and let the work go. What could not be completed was destroyed, the frayed ends cut clean. Mrs. O’Neill once said of her husband, “He was always a tidy man.”
That Eugene 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. Goethe’s comment on Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, “How greatly it was planned,” has more relevance to A Tale of Possessors, Self-dispossessed. It was a work of astonishing scope and scale. Theresa Helburn rightly called it a comédie humaine. Nothing in the drama, except Shakespeare’s two cycles on British history, could have been set beside it. The two plays that have survived reveal something of the power of life that beat in it, but they show only vestiges of what its full plan realized would have provided: a prophetic epitome of the course of American destiny.
The agonies of the United States in the second half of the twentieth century are those described by O’Neill’s title. Today it is no longer a question of “the conscience of the world.” The world now sees the rebellion of the dispossessed as the consequence of the purchase of the world with the soul of a nation. Whatever O’Neill’s emotions while writing the cycle, in the last analysis he wrote it because it was true. Like Zarathustra reascending the mountain, O’Neill sought fuller wisdom in meditative isolation. But it was wisdom. The mature playwright had achieved that summit and could speak with truth and a note of prophecy.
With such assurance to end self-doubt, perhaps his life was somewhat eased. The total denial of ordinary good beyond that of his central creative life was an act of courage as much as it was a psychological and emotional necessity. To seek in life a mode of being where everything is deliberately wiped away except one reality—in O’Neill’s instance, the pressure of a pencil on paper—one must be driven as most men are never moved toward the source of a single, fixed illumination in which life and death are merged and resolved in one another.
At Tao House, the view across the valley was of hills covered with long, golden-brown grasses spreading up the slopes of Mount Diablo against the eastern sky.*** Below lay orchards of walnut and fruit trees, and the hot, dry summers passed quietly through the valley. Tao House commands this perspective, but the rooms in which O’Neill lived shut it away. The living-room windows were small and widely spaced. Such light as they admitted was broken by reflections in a large blue mirror on the opposite wall, so that the room had a sub-aqueous quality. In his small study, O’Neill again shut out light and separated himself from the domesticity of the house by three doors that isolated him in a soundless world. He had deliberately chosen the tragedian’s cell Lazarus describes to Caligula: “Tragic is the plight of the tragedian whose only audience is himself! Life is for each man a solitary cell whose walls are mirrors.” (309)
O’Neill had entered the cell of self before. As Dion Anthony, he had locked himself in it with Brown his mirrored image. The play was premonitory, and now in the mind, he moved in such a cell for the remainder of his time. Metaphorically, there were two cells. In the first, the outer cell, the mirrors gave on the past. In their perspective, he saw the history of his country spread out in the lives of the Harford family over many generations. Both world and time existed imaginatively in this room. Here, like Con Melody before the tavern mirror, he postured in costumes of the past and the past sprang to life in his image.
Behind the lighted room, there was another, closed, dark, hidden—a room lighted by Orin Mannon’s lamp, “burning out in a world of waiting shadows.” In this room, the only mirror was the self, and all that could here be faced beside the self were the dead.
Between the two spaces of his isolation, the room of mirrors and the room of shadows, there stood a door he contemplated obsessively. From the outer room, it opened the way to peace and forgetfulness and the end of effort. Behind it, war did not exist, nor illness. What trouble could there be among the waiting shadows? From the inner room, the door was the only escape from a loneliness so intense it seemed like madness, from fantasies like Furies, from the hell he found inside himself. In his last years, he walked compulsively back and forth from outer to inner room, through, the door which became in the end more than a metaphor.In all but two of the last plays, the door is a central scenic element. It leads from the quiet depths of Harry Hope’s saloon into the confusion of the New York streets. It is the door to Erie Smith’s room to which he clutches the key and which he cannot bring himself to enter. It is the door through which Lavinia Mannon steps to face her dead, and the door that leads from tavern to bar in A Touch of the Poet. Most crucially it is the door to the summerhouse, the “temple of liberty” in the Harford garden, through which Deborah steps to self-imposed madness. In Long Day’s Journey into Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten, there is no door. The inner room for these tales of old sorrow is sealed and there is no escape, but these excepted, in the last plays, the action centers on the movement of a central character through a door that connects a painful, hopeless world-in-time to a Nirvana of drifting illusion.
* The exceptions were Days Without End, Ah, Wilderness! and A Moon for the Misbegotten. The last two opened out-of-town in order that the actors could have adequate rehearsal time before live audiences so that laugh lines might be properly spaced.
** “Try a Cycle sometime ... A lady bearing quintuplets is having a debonair, carefree time of it by comparison,” he Wrote to Langner on August 12, 1936.
*** O’Neill called them “corduroy hills,” and the subsequent purchasers of Tao House re-named it Corduroy Hills.
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