ii: The Early Years
Eugene Gladstone O'Neill was born October 16, 1888, in a third-floor corner room of Barrett House, a family hostelry at Forty-third Street and Broadway with a view of Times Square. It was a mile and a half from the northern limits of the theater district, which then centered around Fourteenth Street; but in a few years O'Neill's birthplace was to be surrounded by theaters, some of which would present his tragedies. The uptown march of the theaters was beginning in the year of his birth, when the New Broadway Theatre opened on the southwest corner of Broadway and Forty-first Street, with Fanny Davenport playing the lead in Sardou's La Tosca.
In 1888, New York was essentially a sprawling collection of easygoing, intimate little communities. But on Broadway life seemed to be leaping forward and reaching out impatiently toward the future. One by one the dignified brownstone family homes were giving way to garish new business buildings. On the sidewalks pedestrians swarmed and streamed in controlled disorder. Out in the street smart carriages behind fast-stepping pacers darted in and out among the lumbering drays and horsecars. All about was movement and bustle, a chattering of wheels and a jangle of bells as the turbulent stream surged up and down in confused purposefulness. And as nighttime came, myriad flickering gaslights flared out to hold back the dark and make their own bright day in a Great White Way.
In 1888, Benjamin Harrison, a Republican, was elected President of the United States even though his opponent, Grover Cleveland, received a larger popular vote. New York got a Tammany mayor, Hugh J. Grant, who succeeded the respectable Mayor Hewitt, candidate of the reform Democrats. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, far uptown on Eighty-second Street, opened its south wing. The spires of St. Patrick Cathedral on Fifth Avenue had just been completed. The New York State Legislature passed a bill that criminals sentenced to death would no longer be hanged but electrocuted.
It was the year the venerable Edwin Booth, who had helped to launch James O'Neill on his theatrical career, purchased the Valentine Hall mansion at 16 Gramercy Park. He remodeled it and willed it to the "Players," a gentlemen's club used by "actors and friends of the drama." At its bar Eugene's father would one day boast about the playwriting talents of his son.
The birth of Eugene O'Neill proved to be a difficult one, and his mother was ill for some time. The child was given the middle name Gladstone because, as his father was fond of explaining, the British Prime Minister was the only Englishman with a brain in his head. Gladstone went down to defeat trying to get Parliament to pass a home rule bill for Ireland. A hotel doctor, apparently not understanding the nature of her illness, prescribed morphine. That, at least, was the story young Eugene grew up with and eventually wove into Long Day's Journey into Night. But many patent medicines of the day contained narcotics (the Federal Food and Drug Act had not yet come into being) and his mother's drug habit may have originated in them, as was the case with hundreds of Americans of that era.
Eugene was taken on tour with his parents. His earliest recollection was of feeding the squirrels in the park in Memphis, Tennessee. "My first seven years," O'Neill has written, "were spent mainly in the larger towns all over the United States -- my mother accompanying my father on his road tours in Monte Cristo and repertoire, although she was never an actress and had rather an aversion for the stage in general. A child has a regular, fixed home, but you might say I started in as a trouper. I knew only actors and the stage. My mother nursed me in the wings and in dressing rooms."
A Scottish nurse, with Eugene until he was seven, entertained him with horrible tales and "sordid episodes, from the latest murder to the farthest terror that her whimsey could contrive."
Eugene often recalled these years as a succession of one-night stands, of perpetual waiting in the wings, dirty dressing rooms, stuffy trains and shoddy hotels. Yet the elder O'Neill was the idol of the American stage all the time his son was growing up. People never tired of seeing Monte Cristo rip the sack in which he had been thrown into a canvas ocean.
"I can still see my father," Eugene recalled, "dripping with salt and sawdust, climbing on a stool behind the swinging profile of dashing waves. It was then that the calcium lights in the gallery played on his long beard and tattered clothes, as with arms outstretched as he declared that the world was his. That was the signal for the house to burst into deafening applause that overwhelmed the noise of the storm manufactured backstage."
Young Eugene grew to hate the world of false sentiment which his father's play represented. Later, he knew that what he had seen merely reflected the times -- "an age ashamed of its own feeling. The theater reflected its thoughts. Virtue always triumphed and sin always got its just deserts. It accepted nothing halfway; a man was either a hero or a villain, and a woman was either virtuous or vile."
James O'Neill tried to imbue his two sons with the romance and glory of the stage, and his greatest ambition was to see them follow in his footsteps as actors. But Eugene was to look back on this as an almost inhuman attempt to bend them to his will. "It reminds me," he was to say years later, "of the oppression of the Jesuits and of the saying, 'Give me a child until he is seven and then you can have him.' They meant, of course, that he would be true to the faith."
The elder O'Neill's desire to build a theatrical dynasty is understandable in the light of the fact that his acting -- whatever his sons thought of its artistic merit -- provided an excellent livelihood. He was earning up to $40,000 a year.
Eugene grew up in the golden age of the American theater. Towns with a population of no more than two thousand saw Shakespeare presented by professionals; billboards throughout the country were heralding Edwin Booth as Hamlet, Mary Anderson as Juliet, Lawrence Barrett as Cassius and Clara Morris as Camille. Between 1880 and 1900 there were more touring companies in the country than at any other time. The number of actors increased from five thousand to fifteen thousand. (Some of them must have turned in substandard performances. A Minnesota drama critic wrote: "Thompson's Uncle Tom's Cabin appeared at the opera house last night. The dogs were poorly supported.")
When the time came for Eugene to go to school, his parents chose the boarding school conducted by the Sisters of Charity at Mount St. Vincent-on-Hudson at Riverdale, New York. Here he received his first formal Catholic indoctrination and acquired the Catholic conscience that runs strongly through his plays. He learned that despite the redemption of man through Christ's suffering, man possessed free will and freedom of choice; but he also learned that God knows the future of all His creatures. The conflict between predestination and free will was an essential element in the development of O'Neill as a playwright. Ultimately he came to believe that man is doomed, that free will or no, he moves inexorably to destruction.
When Eugene was twelve and in the sixth grade, he was deemed ready to receive his first Holy Communion. His father at the time was taking a respite from his perennial playing of Monte Cristo and was starring in an adaptation of another Dumas novel, The Three Musketeers, in New York City. Eugene was given free passes and he invited three of his classmates to go along. One of the sisters at Mount St. Vincent was so horrified at their going to the wicked theater that she refused to let Eugene and his friends receive Communion the next morning. It was a shattering experience for Eugene, not only because he felt that he had done nothing wrong, but because the sister's form of punishment suggested that his father was wicked in the eyes of the Church. The experience undoubtedly added to his lifelong feeling of unworthiness. He had already been made aware that he had been ushered into the world to replace Edmund. Soon he would be told that his birth had been the cause of his mother's illness, that she had used morphine for the first time to alleviate her pain, and that, in effect, he was responsible for his mother's addiction to drugs.
Eugene always retained an affection for the boys he knew at Mount St. Vincent. He roomed with a boy named John A. McCarthy who shared his enthusiasm for Kipling Jungle Book. They were kept in line by Sister Mariti and Sister Gonzaga, who, Eugene recalled in later years, "used to knuckle us on the bean." Another classmate was Stephen Philbin, later a distinguished New York attorney, who has recalled that his contemporaries were conscious that Eugene was the son of "a famous actor, but otherwise he was like any of the other boys."
In 1900, after his three years at Mount St. Vincent, Eugene entered De La Salle Institute on Fifty-ninth Street in New York City as a day student, and the following year he became a boarder there. In the fall of 1902 he transferred to Betts Academy in Stamford, Connecticut, as a boarder. Betts, now out of existence, was a typical New England prep school, whose primary purpose was to get boys into an Ivy League college. O'Neill fell quickly into the role of a prep-school boy of that era. He wore a boater straw hat with his school colors on it, put great effort into dressing well, and was almost immaculate. He was giving evidence, at this time, of being studious. "His nose is always in a book," his father liked to say.
Eugene told Lawrence Langner that he read a great deal about Bernard Shaw when he was a student at Betts. In his last year there he read Quintessence of Ibsenism and underlined in red ink the passages wherein he agreed with Shaw. At the end of the year, he said, almost the entire text was underlined.
"Whenever Gene indulged in an argument [at Betts]," Langner wrote, "he would slay his opponents by quoting Shaw, and, indeed, he gained a reputation for being Mephistophelean among the other boys by his apt quotations."
While at Betts, Eugene was apparently able to get into New York a good deal. His brother Jamie, who had vague notions of becoming a newspaperman, was by this time a recognized habitué of all the saloons on Broadway. He had a large acquaintance among chorus girls and took it upon himself to instruct his brother in the way of the world. "Gene learned sin," Jamie told a friend, "more easily than other people. I made it easy for him," he added.
"While most boys my age were in love with a pure girl," Eugene once said, "or shivering into a fit of embarrassment at the mere thought of a show girl, I really was a Broadway wise guy."
Eugene was graduated from Betts Academy in June, 1906, with marks sufficiently high to permit him to be admitted to Princeton. He was not yet eighteen, and like many other eighteen-year-olds he had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. But unlike most of his contemporaries, Eugene was rootless. Except for the O'Neills' summer place in New London, the family had no permanent home. Even there he experienced the mild ostracism which the local Yankees accorded not only summer people but also, and especially, theatrical people; and, to make matters worse, many of the townspeople knew that his mother was a drug addict.
Academically, Eugene was well
prepared for college; emotionally he was ill prepared. Certainly
Princeton, which at that time cherished a strong tradition of
drinking and general hell-raising in the local taverns, was unready
for the problems of Eugene O'Neill.
© Copyright 1999-2009 eOneill.com