iv: Before the Mast
Eugene decided to go "home" -- back to his family. "Home," as usual, was somewhere on the theatrical circuit. Eugene journeyed to St. Louis, where The White Sister was playing. In the cast with James O'Neill were Viola Allen and William Farnum, of early cinema fame. Jamie, too, was a member of the cast, in a minor role.
Eugene's father decided that perhaps his ne'er-do-well son could be useful in the administrative end of the business. He appointed him assistant manager of the company. It was a courtesy title. Eugene sat by the gallery door and saw that the local ticket-taker didn't let in any of his friends. He despised the job.
Though the irregular hours left him a great deal of time for reading, he appeared more idle than ever. When the company arrived in Boston, Eugene and his father had a serious and violent discussion. His father accused him of wasting his opportunities, of filial ingratitude, of giving up his faith and of becoming a drunken bum. Eugene replied that he didn't like the stage and didn't want to be an actor. Dramatically, James O'Neill told his son there was only one thing left for him to do.
"Go before the mast!" he shouted, raising his arm and pointing presumably toward the sea.
Eugene had just finished reading Joseph Conrad The Nigger of the Narcissus and the suggestion appealed to him. He went down to Boston's waterfront. "It happened quite naturally -- 'that voyage' -- as a consequence of what was really inside me -- what I really wanted," O'Neill later recalled. "I struck up at the Mystic Wharf in Boston with a bunch of sailors, mostly Norwegians and Swedes. I wanted to ship with somebody and they took me that afternoon to the captain. Signed up and the next thing we were off. . . ."
He had been signed on as a seaman aboard a Norwegian sailing vessel bound for Buenos Aires. It was a barque, or three-masted ship with foremast and mainmast square-rigged and the mizzenmast fore-and-aft-rigged. Ever after, O'Neill was most proud of his voyage; his ship was a real sailing vessel, and such craft were already fast disappearing from the seas.
"A man who hasn't made a trip on a windjammer," O'Neill said, "has never really been to sea."
He was pardonably proud of having been part of the great era of sail ships. When he finally came to ship aboard steam-powered vessels he loathed them. In his later years he collected prints of sailing ships, and a clipper ship's brass lantern adorned his study.
The trip to Buenos Aires took sixty-five days. O'Neill performed the usual chores of a seaman: He scrubbed decks, climbed the rigging, spliced ropes, and stood watch. He subsisted, like the others, on hardtack and dried codfish. At Buenos Aires he was paid off and loafed on the docks and in waterfront dives until his money ran out.
"I arrived a gentleman -- so called," he has said, "and wound up a bum on the docks in fact."
O'Neill made friends with other sailors and down-and-outers on the waterfront and drank heavily. Frank Best has said that "O'Neill was never a bum nor a borrower. He frequented the haunts of bums and seamen seeking true facts." It is true that during this period O'Neill acquired the impressions which he later put to good use in his one-act plays of the sea, but it does not necessarily follow that he was then consciously looking for material, since he did not write his sea plays until he had been writing for at least two years on other subjects. O'Neill felt at home with drifters, bums, alcoholics -- or, more accurately, with failure -- because he felt that he himself was a failure.
After his money gave out in Buenos Aires, he got a job with the local branch of the Westinghouse Electric Instrument Company by saying that he was a draftsman. The manager soon knew that he wasn't, when he put O'Neill to work tracing blueprints. In six weeks Eugene was without a job again and he moved to La Plata, "the Chicago of the Argentine." There he got a job with Swift & Company, working in the warehouse where raw hides were sorted and stored. He was to recall with vivid detail how "the smell got into his clothes, his mouth, his eyes, his ears, his nose, and his hair." The job terminated dramatically when the warehouse burned down.
Back in Buenos Aires, he got a job with the Singer Sewing Machine Company. The manager of the local branch was soon to retire, and he thought O'Neill could be trained to run the office. In explaining the magnitude of the job, he asked O'Neill, "Do you know how many different models Singer makes?"
"Fifty," O'Neill said, making a wild guess.
"Why," the manager said, "Singer makes five hundred and fifty models!"
He explained that, as part of his training, O'Neill would have to learn how to take all 550 models apart and put them back together again. After spending a few weeks with a sewing-machine repairman, O'Neill had learned just one thing: He didn't like sewing machines. In fact, he hated machinery and he was to say so over and over in his plays.
Again he loafed, stranded "on the beach." One of his favorite haunts in Buenos Aires was the Sailor's Opera, a huge café catering to seamen. "There," he has said, "the seamen yarned of adventures in strange seas, boasted of their exploits to officially pretty ladies, drank, played cards, fought, and wallowed."
In a suburb of Buenos Aires called Barracas there was another form of entertainment -- moving pictures tailored for a strictly male audience. "These moving pictures," he was to say of the Barracas entertainment, "were mighty rough stuff. Nothing was left to the imagination. Every form of perversity was enacted, and of course sailors flocked to them. But, save for the usual exceptions, they were not vicious men. They were in the main honest, good-natured, unheroically courageous men trying to pass the time pleasantly."
One of O'Neill's closest friends at this time was a young man whom he described as "an exquisite Englishman." O'Neill never revealed this man's identity but, in interviews, referred to him simply as "A." He and "A" took a room together for several months.
"When 'A' left a café", O'Neill was to say, "most of its liquor went along with him. He was very young, about twenty-five at the most, and extraordinarily handsome. Blond, almost too beautiful, he was, in appearance, very like Oscar Wilde's description of Dorian Gray, even his name was flowery. He was the younger son of a traditionally noble British family."
O'Neill took occasional jobs to get money for food and whisky. When he had no money, he slept in parks and in waterfront dives. Once he got a job on a cattle boat bound for Durban, South Africa. It was a long trip and he wanted to see Africa but, because he had no cash, he was not allowed to land. He returned to Buenos Aires and there followed what he was to describe as a "lengthy period of complete destitution -- terminated by my signing as an ordinary seaman on a British tramp steamer bound home for New York."
On one of his voyages -- there is some doubt as to just which one -- O'Neill met a stoker named Driscoll. It happened on an American Line ship.
"He was a giant of a man, and absurdly strong," O'Neill said. "He thought a whole lot of himself, was a determined individualist. He was very proud of his strength, his capacity for grueling work. It seemed to give him mental poise to be able to dominate the stokehole, do more work than any of his mates."
"The voyage after I quit going to sea, Driscoll shipped on again as usual. I stayed behind at Jimmy the Priest's. When the ship returned to New York, Driscoll was the first to swing the saloon doors open and bellow for a drink. We could usually calculate the time of the ship's docking from the moment of Driscoll's appearance. Then I drifted away and later I heard that Driscoll had jumped overboard in mid-ocean. None of our mutual seamates knew why. I concluded something must have shaken his hard-boiled poise, for he wasn't the type who just give up, and he loved life. Anyway, it was his death that inspired the idea for the Yank of The Hairy Ape."
O'Neill's destitution once reached the point where he came close to becoming a criminal. In 1948 he told Hamilton Basso, during an interview for a New York profile, that he felt it was only an accident that he had not become one.
"I remember when I was on the beach in Buenos Aires," O'Neill said. "I was then twenty-two years old and a real down-and-outer sleeping on park benches, hanging around waterfront dives, and absolutely alone. I knew a fellow who used to work on a railroad down there and who had given up his job. One day, he suggested that we hold up one of those places where foreign money is exchanged. Well, I have to admit I gave the matter serious consideration."
"I finally decided not to do it, but since you aren't given to taking a very moral view of things when you are sleeping on park benches and haven't a dime to your name, I decided what I did because I felt that we were almost certain to be caught. A few nights later, the fellow who had propositioned me stuck the place up with somebody he'd got to take my place, and he was caught. He was sent to prison and, for all I know, he died there. . . .
"There are times now when I feel sure I would have been a playwright no matter what happened, but when I remember Buenos Aires, and the fellow down there who wanted me to be a bandit, I'm not so sure."
When O'Neill returned in the United States in 1911, he was twenty-three. He was still wild, liked to drink in bars, recite poetry, and form warm friendships with "regular guys." He liked to read, but his concepts of life were not profound. His favorite authors were Jack London, Conrad, and Kipling, whom he was to quote in many of his plays. The dirty, broken-down tramp steamer aboard which O'Neill returned to the United States became, in his plays, the S.S. Glencairn. His early sea plays are known as the Glencairn cycle.
When the ship docked in the North River in New York, O'Neill again took a furnished room over Jimmy the Priest's waterfront saloon, where he did a great deal of talking, listening and drinking. O'Neill said in 1924 that this place was the original for Johnny the Priest's, the saloon locale in Anna Christie. Jimmy the Priest's was so nicknamed because Jimmy, the proprietor, with his pale, thin, clean-shaven face, mild blue eyes, and white hair, "seemed to be more suited for a cassock than the bartender's apron he wore."
"Above the saloon," according to O'Neill, "were a number of rooms rented out to seamen. . . . Jimmy the Priest's certainly was a hellhole. It was awful. The house was almost coming down and the principal house wreckers were vermin. I was absolutely down financially, those days, and you can get an idea of the kind of room I had when I tell you the rent was three dollars a month. One roommate of mine jumped out of the window. He was an Englishman and had been a star correspondent of an English newspaper syndicate. He covered the Boer War, for example. But all kinds of misfortune had got him; drink, too. When he'd get a job on a newspaper he'd last a few days and then get dead drunk on the first week's pay."
George Jean Nathan has identified him as Jimmy Beith. Beith was always just about to get shaved, have his suit pressed, and tomorrow he would get a job. He was the archetype of all the characters assembled in The Iceman Cometh, men and women who live on the pipe dream that everything will turn out all right tomorrow. His specific counterpart in the play was named James Cameron.
Once again, in 1912, O'Neill shipped out as an able-bodied seaman, aboard the S.S. New York of the American Line bound for Southampton, England. It was his last voyage. His pay was $27.50 a month. He returned on the S.S. Philadelphia of the North Atlantic Line. On leaving his ship in New York, he got his discharge paper, which designated him as Able Seaman E. G. O'Neill. He was to cherish that paper as if it were a diploma -- which, in a sense, it was. When he showed it to friends he would sigh and say, "The last one I shipped on." It was the end of his education, the end of his life among people to whom he felt he belonged. Years later O'Neill was to tell a reporter, "They were the best friends I ever had."
By way of celebrating his home-coming, O'Neill gave a party at Jimmy the Priest's. He woke up two or three days later on a train near New Orleans, where The Count of Monte Cristo was currently on the boards.
James O'Neill refused to give Eugene any money, but he offered him a job. One of the cast had disappeared into the delightful underworld of the French Quarter. This actor had been playing two roles, a jailor and a gendarme. Young Eugene took over both parts. For the gendarme, his mustache was made to twist upward into two sharp points; for the jailor, it drooped au naturel. He learned his two short parts on the train going west with the troupe.
After his first performance, which was in Ogden, Utah, O'Neill said sternly to his son, "Sir, I am not satisfied with your performance."
"Sir," Eugene replied, "I am not satisfied with your play."
When James O'Neill complained once more that he was a terrible actor, Eugene answered, "It is a wonder that in a play like Monte Cristo I can do anything at all." He always admitted to his friends, however, that he had been a terrible actor and said that he hated acting. But he liked helping to ripple the green canvas waves through which Edmond Dantes swam to freedom.
James O'Neill actually played two shows a night on the road one performance in the theater, and the other in a nearby barroom. He would greet the bartender, look slowly around, smiling, then say, "On Monte Cristo!" A little while after he had treated everybody present, he would again call out, "On Monte Cristo!" Everybody in the room would stand up, raise his glass, and drink to Monte Cristo's health. After a great many encores of this performance, James O'Neill sometimes had to be carried to his hotel room. Eugene was a witness on many of these occasions.
During this 1912 tour, Eugene and Jamie became so bored with the small towns to which Monte Cristo took them that they began to plot how to get back to New York. Jamie, particularly, was homesick for Broadway. One night they waited in the flies while their father did his great "the world is mine" scene. In it he slaps his pockets to indicate his wealth. As he came off stage, his sons told him what a beautiful performance he had put on, especially the part indicating how much money he had. Would he give them the price of railroad tickets to New York? Jamie and Eugene used to tell this story in bars. Eugene, when pressed, admitted it was their own invention. In one version of the tale, James O'Neill pulled his pockets inside out in order to prove to his sons he didn't have the wherewithal to grant their request.
At the end of a fifteen-week tour
in the Far West, the Monte Cristo company closed for the
season. In the summer of 1912 the family was together under one
roof, in their New London summer home.
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