1913 in a Connecticut
tuberculosis sanatorium, Eugene O’Neill came to the end of a
protracted adolescence. His illness was never disastrously severe, yet
his encounter with tuberculosis was sufficiently fearful to cause him to
fight for the first time against the drift of his life. The period at
the sanatorium was one of self-assessment, of spiritual restoration, and
of crucial decision. His recovery of health brought with it the idea of
a destiny to which, during the forty years before him, he remained
was to become a tragic destiny. To fulfill it he manufactured solitude,
and cut himself away from friends and family. His seeming indifference
became a source of pain to those about him. Suffering hardened him and
drove inward the gentleness and sensitivity that were the graces of his
nature. Illness isolated him further, and the tremor in his hand reduced
him to silence. Unable to bring it to completion, he destroyed the great
cycle of plays whose writing had occupied almost half the span of his
creative life. Then, when he could no longer write, he died, having
lived in that spirit of total obsessive dedication which, because it
renounces so much of the world’s good, men see as both heroic and
Eugene O’Neill’s life in art was more than a dedication to playwriting. Like all such consuming quests, his became an attempt to find God and to know man. It began, however, more simply. At the sanatorium, he read Strindberg, Yeats, Lady Gregory, Brieux, Hauptmann.1 Then, slowly, unskillfully and with great dependence on his reading, he began to write. In the beginning he showed little of that facility which in a tyro can be called “promise.” The critic, Clayton Hamilton, who as a friend of his father viewed O’Neill’s efforts with tolerance, at first tempered his encouragement of the young man.
from the writers who influenced him most strongly at the outset, it was
not clear that O’Neill would become a playwright. Aside from
Strindberg, whom he specifically mentioned as having revealed to him
what the drama could become, he read Ibsen and Shaw and their
philosophical progenitors Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. Equally
important, however, are the traces of non-dramatic authors, of the
novels of Joseph Conrad and Jack London, and of the kind of ironic fable
written by Guy de Maupassant and 0. Henry. The early plays reveal
characteristic tastes and foreshadow the development of techniques that
were to become essentials of his dramaturgy, but most of them suffer
from a narrative design suggestive of a short story, rather than a
play, and, indeed, for a time in his early career, O’Neill
experimented with short stories. Had it been a question of simple
predilection, O’Neill might well have moved toward the writing of
fiction. Yet, as his creative impulses strengthened and became less
dependent on the work of others, his direction centered obsessively on
the theatre. It was not entirely a matter of choice.
In his past, controlling choice, there lay the theatre of James O’Neill. For better or worse, the stage, if not the written drama, was his inheritance. Yet it was not a simple legacy. At one point, he spoke of “the hateful theatre of my father.”2 The phrase suggests more than distaste for the romantic theatricality of his father’s star melodrama, Monte Cristo. Eugene O’Neill, like a vaudevillian’s child, was in effect cradled in the trunk, carted like a property from stagedoor to stagedoor, or alternatively left in boarding schools while theatrical tours claimed his parents’ presence. In American theatrical legend and in films, such a child is supposed to triumph, happily singing and dancing his way to the hearts of multitudes. “The theatre is in his blood,” is the explanation: “He is of the dynasty.” In a peculiarly perverse way, O’Neill lived the legend through, and the claim may be made that he could no more put away the theatre than he could put away his father, for they possessed him equally. He felt of the commercial theatre that it was a cheap-jack enterprise, soul-destroying, a kind of dope, hollow, false, demanding a wasteful expenditure of spirit. His father, as he later was to present him in Long Day’s Journey into Night, had something of the same cheapness and pain-struck emptiness of soul. O’Neill’s resentment of the one extended to the other.
Men in hate are bound as deeply as men in love, for hate has in it the same positive power to compel men to its center. In the midst of hate, as for his father, O’Neill felt for the theatre a heavy dedication. He was never stage-struck, yet his feeling was sufficiently strong to bind him closely to the theatre as an institution, even to the melodramatic theatre of his father, from which he never entirely emancipated himself. The theatre was a natural atmosphere for him. He learned its language early, and thought habitually in its terms. Although he is reputed never to have seen his later plays after their final dress rehearsals, and indeed, even so early as Beyond the Horizon showed signs of reluctance to attend performances, he assiduously worked through the rehearsal period of all his plays, bringing to bear on their final crucial shaping for the stage his full knowledge of theatrical practice. He did not let others do this job for him. A Moon for the Misbegotten was withdrawn during its pre-Broadway run because O’Neill was too ill to attend to essential revisions.* His cooperation with actor, designer, and director was always great, and although he stopped abruptly short of make-peace compromise, his assertion of his integrity as a dramatist was never merely dictatorial. He understood the theatre’s necessities and came to terms with them as, in the end, he came to terms with the man his father was. Bound to them both in a profound psychological way, he had to face them, rather than to reject them and follow other creative paths.
* The only play whose staging he did not personally oversee was the Theatre Guild’s production of Dynamo, produced while he was living in Europe. He blamed its failure in part on his absence.
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