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i: The Count and the Convent Girl

Any way you spell O'Neill -- with or without an O, with Mac or Mc, with Niall or Neale or Nihill -- the name means champion in Gaelic. James O'Neill, the father of Eugene O'Neill -- who always addressed him as "Governor" and referred to him as "Monte Cristo" -- was born in 1846 in Thomastown, Kilkenny County, Ireland. James's father was probably the Thomas O'Neill who in 1851 held several acres of land and a house in the hamlet of Grennan, a part of Thomastown. James O'Neill used to tell his publicity men that he came from yeoman parents and his sons that he came from a family which raised horses.

The O'Neill family left Ireland following the potato famine years of the middle nineteenth century. Poverty-stricken, they sailed to the New World by steerage about 1854. James used to say that a coil of rope served as his bed on that voyage. The family landed in New York and soon afterward journeyed upstate to settle in Buffalo. James had two older brothers, who left the family and struck out for themselves not long after they arrived in the United States. He also had two older sisters and five younger brothers and sisters. In their new home the family again found only utter poverty. Soon the father decided that if he stayed any longer he would die of the "white plague"' -tuberculosis, which in those days was considered the curse of the Irish, because so many of them, weakened by years of malnutrition, succumbed to it. So Thomas, who was remembered by his son James as superstitious and impetuous, left his wife and eight children and went back to Ireland, where, it is thought, he died of the disease he had tried to run away from.

As the oldest remaining male after his father left, James became head of the family and had to go to work to help support it. Only ten years old, with but a few years' schooling, he settled for a job as clerk in a store. The mother worked as a domestic and the two older sisters worked as seamstresses. It was a harsh existence. Twice, James afterward remembered, his mother and the children were evicted from the hovels in which they lived. One Christmas his mother received an extra dollar, and she at once spent it for food; it was the first full meal the family had ever enjoyed.

When the chance came along, James quit his job as clerk and went to work in a machine shop for a bigger salary -- fifty cents a day. He spent his few hours of recreation in a pool hall next door to a theater. When theatrical companies came to Buffalo, the stage manager would walk into the pool hall and hire his supernumeraries on the spot. James was always available. The reward was high -- a dollar a night. His first appearance on the stage as a super was in the company of Edwin Forrest in 1865. Fascinated, he began to think about becoming an actor.

James O'Neill became friends with some of the actors and talked to them about going on the stage. One of them -- it was a family tradition that it was either Lawrence Barrett, who was playing Cassius in Julius Caesar, or Edwin Booth in Hamlet -- encouraged him. "If you want to be an actor," he was told, "get rid of that Irish accent and learn how to talk. Learn something from Shakespeare, and when we come here next year I'll listen to you."

The following year James recited a soliloquy from Hamlet in an audition and he was added to the Forrest troupe.

He made his debut as a member of the company in the National Theatre in Cincinnati. He continued with the company on a barnstorming tour of the country, until it became stranded -- an occupational hazard of the theatrical profession in those days -- somewhere in the hinterland.

James somehow made his way back to Cincinnati, got a small part in the company of a "Colonel" Bob Miles and was soon promoted to the position of "walking gentleman." He then went on to Ford's Theatre in Baltimore where he played leading juvenile parts. In Cleveland he joined the company of Edwin Forrest again, filling important roles in Macbeth. In 1871 he played in McVicker's Theatre, Chicago, in a company that included Charlotte Cushman and Adelaide Neilson. He alternated with Edwin Booth in playing Othello and Iago. One night, as O'Neill played Othello, Booth turned to the theater manager and said, "That young man is playing the part better than I ever did." The manager told James, who was so pleased that he insisted it be written down. He carried the paper around in his wallet for years and showed it, with perhaps pardonable pride, wherever he went.

In 1873 he joined Hooley's Stock Company in Chicago, playing Hamlet and Richelieu, then went on to San Francisco. The following year he joined the stock company of A. M. Palmer at the Union Square Theatre in New York City. For two seasons he played with Charles R. Thorne, Jr., taking the parts of the Prince in The Danchieffs, Jean Renaud in A Celebrated Case, and Pierre in The Two Orphans. His portrayal of the last-named part was said to have been one of the greatest pieces of character acting ever seen on the American stage.

James O'Neill was a devout Catholic -- in his youth he had even thought for a time that he had the calling for the priesthood -- and he always went to Mass on Sunday, even when he was on tour. At one period early in his theatrical career, however, he lapsed in the strict observance of his Church's commandments and became the father of an illegitimate child. The mother was an actress, presumably a member of a troupe to which O'Neill belonged. The extent of her emotional involvement is not recorded, but it is of some significance that the child, a boy, was given the name James O'Neill, Jr. Understandably, the whole episode remained a secret shared by a very small number of persons, the details have nowhere been completely recorded, and the boy himself died in early childhood. But it was not a casual or momentary relationship that had existed between the two principals. Whatever the circumstances of its ending, O'Neill did assume at least some of the responsibilities of a parent. Even afterward James O'Neill was to be troubled recurrently by the moral implications of his participation in the affair.

It was some time after the ending of that liaison, apparently, that he met the father of the girl who later was to become his bride. While coming out of church one Sunday morning in Cleveland, where he was performing at that time, he struck up an acquaintance with Thomas J. Quinlan, a prosperous wholesale grocer. He invited his new friend to come backstage after a performance, and the two Irishmen became warm friends -- so warm, in fact, that Quinlan wrote to his eighteen-year-old daughter, then in a convent at South Bend, Indiana, that when she came home for the Easter vacation he would take her to see his friend the famous actor James O'Neill in one of his plays. Later, he added, he would take her backstage to meet this friend in person.

Ella Quinlan, who was to become Eugene O'Neill's mother, was born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1857. The family later moved to Cleveland. An only child, she entered St. Mary's Academy at South Bend in September, 1872, when she was fifteen. St. Mary's, founded in 1844, was run by the Sisters of the Holy Cross, a French order. It later became St. Mary's College and is today one of the most distinguished Catholic women's colleges in the country. The academy accepted girls of any faith, and only about fifty per cent of them were Catholic. The girls were taught Latin, modern languages, art, science, and music, including the harp, violin, voice, and piano. Ella studied the piano and became an accomplished performer. She played at the commencements of 1874 and 1875.

One of her most intimate friends was Ella Nordlinger, the mother of George Jean Nathan, a lifelong champion of the plays of Eugene O'Neill and one of the dramatist's most intimate friends. Nathan said his mother told him that Ella Quinlan was very beautiful and one of the most pious girls in the convent.

In the winter of her senior year at the convent, Ella went through an experience many an adolescent Catholic girl has known. She received the calling -- or what she thought was the calling -- to become a nun. She had a vision; she felt, as she knelt before the statue of the Blessed Virgin standing in the lake, that it had come alive, and the Virgin smiled on her, she afterward said, as though in approval. She took the matter up with the Mother Superior, for whom she had formed a deep attachment, and whom she loved more than she did her own mother.

When she had heard Ella's tale, the Mother Superior told her that the vision was not enough, that the girl must make sure that she really had the calling. She advised Ella to put herself to a test, after graduation, by going to dances and parties with young men. If she still felt the same in a year or two, they would discuss it again. In Long Day's Journey into Night Eugene O'Neill fictionalized his mother's vision. He visualized this scene as taking place in the grotto of the Catholic boarding school that he himself attended as a young boy.

During the Easter vacation Ella was taken by her father to a performance of A Tale of Two Cities. When she saw James O'Neill thrust into prison in his handsome nobleman's costume, she wept bitterly. Afterward, when she told about this, she used to say that she was mighty sorry that she had cried, for she was sure her eyes and nose were red when she went backstage with her father.

The actor and the convent girl were immediately attracted to one another -- or so they told each other and everyone else in the years that followed. She returned to St. Mary's, where the following year, on June 23, 1875, she was graduated with honors, including a gold medal. But her dream of becoming a nun was over.

She was in love.

In 1875 James O'Neill was a likely man for any girl to fall in love with. He was the John Barrymore of his day, but with a reputation for steadiness and good morals -- he was known to be a devout and practicing Catholic. A contemporary described him at the time he married Ella Quinlan as "a quiet gentleman of medium height, well-proportioned figure, square shoulders, and standing very erect. He has black hair, black eyes, rather dark complexion, a black mustache, and a fine set of teeth, which he knows how to display to advantage. He dresses with taste on and off the stage."

It is reported also that he kept himself somewhat aloof from the general run of actors and actresses, who never felt free to approach him as an equal. On the other hand, he was said to be very kind and helpful to actors just starting out on their careers. It was acknowledged that no actor in the world could walk down a stage stairway, especially a winding one, like James O'Neill. The way he touched the balustrades, the hesitant or forthright step, the sideways glance, the tilt of the chin-every movement, gesture and look added to the characterization he was portraying. His voice was remarkably fine and resonant. Wilton Lackaye, one of his colleagues, said that "James O'Neill's voice is a gift of God."

Although it was said that James O'Neill "took his wife out of a convent," actually there was a discreet two-year interval between their first meeting and their marriage. In 1875 he went to San Francisco, where he joined Hooley's Comedy Company, opening at Maguire's Opera House, later known as the Standard Theatre, on Bush Street.

Back in Cleveland, Ella had two years to think over her decision. No doubt the Quinlans were hesitant about letting their daughter marry an actor, even if he was James O'Neill. But since her meeting with O'Neill, Ella lived in a dream. She told her friends that her betrothed was handsome, different from ordinary men, and like someone from another world.

When Ella Quinlan and James O'Neill were married in New York City June 14, 1877, the Quinlans "did it up right." Ella had the finest bridal gown that money could buy. It was a beautiful dress of white shimmering satin trimmed with duchesse lace and pulled into a bustle at the back. The basque was boned and very tight. She wore white slippers and there were orange blossoms on her misty white veil.

Ella kept her wedding dress all her life and lived in the hope that she would have a daughter who would one day wear the dress at her own wedding. It was kept in the attic of their New London cottage and Eugene grew up aware of its presence in the house. He had it brought out to appear in Long Day's Journey into Night.

After the wedding, James and Ella O'Neill went to San Francisco, where he joined E. J. Baldwin's company. Ella did not mingle with the actors and actresses because she thought a well-bred girl should not associate with stage people. She was beginning what was to become a lonely existence, and it was to get lonelier as time went on -- the hotel existence of an actor's wife.

Along toward Christmas of 1877 Ella knew that she was pregnant. Her first child, whom Eugene O'Neill was to portray as the hero of A Moon for the Misbegotten, was born in San Francisco on September 11, 1878. He was christened James O'Neill II. The "II" was James senior's tacit -- and perhaps penitent -- acknowledgement of his Wegitimate son.

It was in San Francisco that O'Neill assumed the role of the Christus in an adaptation of the Oberammergau Passion Play. In later years he always seemed most proud of having played this part, claiming to have been the "only actor on the English-speaking stage who has impersonated our Saviour."

The production was staged by David Belasco. It appeared to be scheduled for a long run but "the ragged-edge preachers' -- as James O'Neill called the vocal Protestant clergy -- "not the important clergymen of the city," inveighed against the play as the profanation of a sacred theme. One night a policeman came to James O'Neill's dressing room, arrested him and took him to jail in a cab. The rest of the cast were also arrested and jailed. The next day O'Neill was bailed out and some days later fined fifty dollars. The Passion Play closed.

As late as 1918, James O'Neill still felt very strongly about the desirability of putting on this play. He declared that "it would be a relief after all the filth we get on the stage, and especially in vaudeville and the movies. People have seen so much lewdness on the stage that they have become nauseated with it."

In 1882, the impresario John Stetson offered him the part of Edmond Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo at Booth's Theatre in New York City. The role and the play were decisive in the life and fortunes of James O'Neill. It brought him wealth and fame; but, paradoxically, it embittered not only his own life but the life of his dramatist son. For James O'Neill wrecked his character along with his career on the glittering shoal of this immense success. According to one report, he played the part of Dantes six thousand times. He told his son Eugene that the play had been his "curse"; that because of it he had taken the easy (money) way out, and ruined what might have been an impressive theatrical career. But in 1882 at Booth's Theatre, he sensed that the play was his fortune and at once proceeded to purchase the dramatization rights, and later the entire production.

In December, 1883, Ella became pregnant a second time. A second son was born in September, 1884, and they named him Edmund Dantes O'Neill. The O'Neills were now suddenly prosperous, but they paid a heavy price for their wealth. The play was constantly on tour, and Ella insisted on accompanying her husband. Jamie had been cradled in the bureau drawers of hotel rooms; now there was another baby to care for.

The family traveled back and forth across the United States. There was a nurse to help Ella, but the protracted tours, with their one-night stands, were t6 take their toll on the sensitive mind of the convent-bred wife. As she persistently refused to join in any kind of social life with the actors and actresses in her husband's company, she was often desperately alone. One of the things that most distressed her on these tours was that, as the wife of an actor, she was not welcome in the home of girls she had known at St. Mary's.

"She was deeply hurt," Eugene O'Neill told his second wife, Agnes Boulton, "that girls from wealthy families she had known in school dropped her after she married my father."

In March of 1885, while on tour with his parents, little Edmund contracted measles and died. O'Neill's sons later chided him for the "cheap hotel quacks" he used when members of his family became ill. Edmund was buried in St. Mary's Catholic Cemetery in New London, Connecticut, where James O'Neill had purchased a plot thirty-two feet square for a family burying ground. The grave was marked only by a headstone, but in 1930 Eugene O'Neill purchased an expensive monument for the plot. In Long Day's Journey into Night O'Neill chose Edmund -- the name of the infant brother he had never known -- as the name of the character representing himself.

Following the death of Edmund, the O'Neills sent Jamie, as he was called by the family, off to boarding school. They chose the elementary school then being conducted at Notre Dame University, which also maintained a high school on the campus. The younger boys were known as "minims," probably a contraction of the Latin word minimus (smallest). There were also "lifers" -- a child could be dropped at Notre Dame and left until virtually grown up. Jamie was to stay at Notre Dame nine years.

Ella's third child, it was said repeatedly in the family, was conceived "to replace Edmund." For now, once again at Christmas time, in 1887, Ella Quinlan O'Neill was pregnant.
 

The Early Years
 

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