ix: O'Neill and the War
Provincetown, in March of 1917, was full of anxieties and was seething with rumors about the coming war. One of them was that German spies were flashing lights along the coast, signaling to waiting U-boats.
Because O'Neill's apartment above John Francis' store was being redecorated, he and De Polo stayed at the New Central Hotel. With time on their hands, they took long walks along the shore. O'Neill regarded with a loving and covetous eye the abandoned Coast Guard station which Mable Dodge Luhan had remodeled, at Peaked Hill Bars, three miles outside Provincetown, on the lonely "back" or ocean shore of the cape. Sometimes, when the weather permitted, he took his portable typewriter in its black case out among the dunes and wrote.
The overly patriotic town constable, Reuben O. Kelley, became convinced that O'Neill had a wireless set and was sending and receiving messages from German submarines. On March 19 Kelley went to the New Central Hotel at noon and arrested O'Neill and De Polo. The Provincetown Advocate said the constable had picked up the two writers at the request of the U.S. Coast Guard Station at North Truro, where they had been seen wandering along the shore. Kelley, who had sought legal advice on the danger of being sued for false arrest, booked them on a charge of vagrancy and locked them up in the town jail. The Boston office of the United States Secret Service was notified of the arrest and sent Agent Fred Weyand to Provincetown to examine the rooms and papers of O'Neill and De Polo. It was not until ten o'clock the next morning that he got around to questioning them. Meanwhile, it was rumored in Provincetown that the pair had produced drawn revolvers when arrested, were armed to the teeth, and possessed complete plans for the capture of all Cape Cod harbors and towns as well as all its radio stations.
O'Neill and De Polo were brought before Judge Welshin the Second District Court, were found not guilty of being vagrants, and were discharged. According to Mary Vorse, the Secret Service left an agent on duty in Provincetown with instructions to read all O'Neill's mail. The agent and O'Neill became good friends, however, and had breakfast together regularly at the Atlantic House. During breakfast, the agent would let O'Neill know what he could expect in the morning's mail.
"Well, Gene," the agent would say, "you got a letter from your mother, but your girl forgot you today. Someone sent you a knitted tie just the same."
That spring, O'Neill dramatized the theme of an innocent man accused of being a spy, in a one-act play, In the Zone. He placed the scene in the bunk room of a ship which is making its way through submarine-infested waters. The crew suspects one of their number of being a German spy because he has been seen frequently with a small black box, which he zealously guards. Finally, the man's shipmates grab him, take his black box and open it. Inside the box are letters and some rose petals, the cherished relics of a tragic love affair. One of the men reads the letters aloud -- the girl loves the man very much but has given him up because she has learned that he has failed to stop his drinking. The seaman who is hearing his personal letters read aloud moans in anguish, while his bunkmates sit in ashamed silence.
The play was theatrically effective. Its sharpest impact came not from the spoken lines but from the physical action -- when the accuser opens the sinister-looking box and a dried rose petal flutters to the deck. O'Neill later turned against the play because he thought it too facile, too conventional, "too full of clever theatrical tricks," but his greatest objection to In the Zone was that it became "a headliner in vaudeville." In the movie The Long Voyage Home, based on O'Neill's sea plays, the opening of the black box was used as a dramatic -- or melodramatic -- climax.
When on April 4, 1917, in response to President Wilson's message, the Senate approved a declaration of war against Imperial Germany by a vote of eighty-two to six, Provincetown, like the rest of the country, enthusiastically supported the President's idealistic objective of making the world safe for democracy. Thirty-eight was Provincetown's quota for the draft, but three hundred men enlisted. Although O'Neill had said bitter and cynical things about the war aims, he tried to enlist in the Navy, concealing his tuberculosis record. However, he was turned down for what he afterward referred to as "minor defects." The rejection distressed him so much that it kept him from writing. Though O'Neill would have willingly served in the Navy, the prospect of becoming a foot soldier held no appeal for him.
Eugene and his father found in the war another fertile field of disagreement. The more James O'Neill declaimed the virtues of patriotism, the more Eugene expressed antiwar sentiments. When he visited the New London draft board, he told the members that he had tried to enlist in the Navy but had been turned down. They told him that he was taking orders from the board, not the Navy; he would have to go into the Army.
Having his destiny taken out of his hands by New London "peasants" on the draft board infuriated Eugene. He told his father that he had heard that conditions in the Army camps were intolerable; men were dying like flies; anyone who was at all susceptible to tuberculosis was sure to perish. Becoming more heated by the moment, he said he would be damned before he would go into the Army. He was willing to serve his country, but he was not willing to commit suicide for it. He shouted that he would tell the draft board what they could do with their war. After calming down, he claimed exemption from the draft on the ground that he was an arrested tuberculosis case.
Eugene was drinking heavily that spring and summer, more than at any time since he had gone to the sanatorium. He quarreled not only with his father but with Beatrice, his New London girl at the time. Their divergent views about the war was one cause of their breakup. Art McGinley has recalled that he never heard anyone speak so bitterly about the war as Eugene that early summer. One night James O'Neill, obviously distressed, called McGinley and asked him to meet with him. Eugene had again been talking wildly about the war, claiming that big business interests were behind it all. Eugene's talk, his father said, was seditious. He couldn't understand how a son of his could feel this way when he, the father, was such a loyal and devoted American citizen. Of course, he added, Eugene had been drinking heavily. The night before, during an argument, he had even smashed a few things in the house. But the old actor had not entirely lost his sense of perspective.
"I think perhaps," James O'Neill said, "New London is getting on Eugene's nerves. He told me last night that I was the worst actor in America. That's a terrible thing for a father to have to hear from the lips of his own son. But I'll say this for him, he did amend that a little. He said I was the second worst actor in the country. Corse Peyton, he said, was the worst."
McGinley agreed to get Eugene out of town. Eugene, who thought McGinley was a great wit and had often urged him to do some humorous writing, had invited him to Provincetown; now was the time to go.
They left New London at an early hour on a summer morning in 1917, and at Boston they boarded a boat bound for Provincetown. En route, Eugene handed his flask of whisky to members of the crew. Everybody was having a fine time, when the captain appeared and told Eugene and McGinley that he would put them in irons if they didn't behave themselves and stop giving the crew liquor.
When they arrived at Provincetown, they were greeted by a reception committee from the Provincetown Players -- Jig Cook, Susan Glaspell, Mary Vorse, Wilbur Daniel Steele and Harry Kemp. The group proceeded to a saloon and a party began. McGinley was amazed at the devotion shown to his friend.
"These men and women," he said, "who had made their mark in literature, in art, in music and the allied fields, had a profound respect for his opinions. I never knew anyone who had such an all encompassing knowledge. Eugene was equally well-fortified if the talk happened to be of history, science, or government. It was all the more remarkable to me because he had virtually no formal education."
As McGinley got to know the Provincetown group, he became overawed by their high-sounding intellectual talk. He told Eugene that he felt mentally inferior to most of them.
"You don't have to feel inferior at all," O'Neill said to him. "What they talk about is all theory. It is not based on experience in life. You have had more experience in life and know more than they do."
Housekeeping at O'Neill's was somewhat informal. Once O'Neill put a potful of oatmeal on the stove for supper. Plans were changed and he went out to dinner. At the end of the summer the same oatmeal was still sitting on the stove.
O'Neill stopped drinking suddenly and went to work. He wrote all day and sometimes into the night. On especially hot days he took his battered portable typewriter off to the dunes, remaining out there until dark.
In getting down to work after a drinking spree, he was following a pattern he had established when he first came to Provincetown, the year before. He was to continue following it for a decade. After his sessions of drinking in New York or New London, he would return to Provincetown to fight his remorse and guilt and go to work.
Most of that summer of 1917, O'Neill struggled with another short story. This story, which contained the germ of the idea for The Hairy Ape, was never published. It dealt with a man's desire to belong. Wanting to belong and not belonging, not wanting to be alone and always being alone were themes O'Neill treated often in his work. That summer he felt particularly unwanted. The Navy had rejected him, his father was angry with him for his reluctance to go into the Army. His New London girl disapproved of him. Later, in letters, O'Neill compared his loneliness to his character's yearning "to belong."
Later in the summer, while he was sitting on the beach one day, he noticed a little boy playing near him. The child kept asking O'Neill the sort of simple but monumentally difficult questions that children ask. O'Neill was gentle and patient.
"What's beyond the ocean?" the boy asked.
"Europe" O'Neill said.
"What's beyond Europe?"
"What's beyond the horizon?"
Beyond the horizon! The phrase stayed with him. It seemed the perfect title for a play he had been planning. In the months ahead he was to write that play and to test the ideas that had inspired it.
It has been said that to grasp the importance of the part played by the Provincetown Players (who, at O'Neill's insistence, called their theater in New York City the Playwrights' Theatre) one should try to visualize what the American theater would be today without their having existed.
The group's purpose, in the words of the constitution, was "to establish a stage where playwrights of sincere, poetic, literary and dramatic purpose could see their plays in action and superintend their production without submitting to the commercial manager's interpretation of public taste."
In less than ten years the Players produced ninety-three new plays and forty-seven playwrights. They erased the stigma attached to the word "amateur," for both Broadway producers and the theatergoing public learned that these writers and actors who cultivated the theater for personal gratification were people of exceptional talent and ability.
By 1925 there were nineteen hundred "little" theaters throughout the country. The Provincetown Players had created such enthusiasm for drama that the decline of the touring companies was offset by community and college drama groups. The theater became less dependent upon the whims and decisions of the New York drama critics. The Washington Square Players, the Neighborhood Playhouse and the Theatre Guild all benefited from the Provincetown Players.
All this suggests that the Players' biggest achievement in relation to the American theater was that it introduced new ways of producing, staging and acting and, most important, new types of plays, plays with some depth, plays that had some relation to American life and thought, plays that formed the nucleus of American dramatic literature. Early in its existence, the group adopted the principle, strongly advocated by O'Neill, of producing only plays by American playwrights.
Perhaps the Provincetown Players' most signal contribution was Eugene O'Neill himself, but there were many others, among them e.e. cummings, Edmund Wilson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Susan Glaspell, Edna Ferber, Virgil Geddes, Wilbur Daniel steel, Mary Heaton Vorse, Harry Kemp, Paul Green, James Light, William Zorach, Alfred Kreymborg, Louis Wolheim, Walter Abel, Charles Gilpin, Aline MacMahon, Ann Harding. And the American theater owes an incalculable debt of gratitude to Eleanor Fitzgerald, who not only was one of the founders of the Provincetown Players but also held the many and diverse elements together and in working order.
Despite the war, the Provincetown Players carried on at 139 Macdougal Street in the fall of 1917. Their Playwrights' Theatre was attracting national attention. O'Neill came down from Provincetown to take part in rehearsals and, as a board member, to help shape plans for the new season. On one of his visits, he nearly lost his life in a scene of comic-opera violence.
An interesting character associated with the PP's, as they were called, was Christine Ell, a large woman with abundant red hair, a big mouth, and green eyes. She was neither writer nor actress but had a concession on the second floor of the theater to provide meals for the group at sixty cents a head. Her husband, Louis Ell, did some stage carpentry for productions.
Christine lodged her aged mother in a hall bedroom. Her mother regarded the entire group as not only godless but agents of the devil. One evening she learned that O'Neill had been encouraging Christine to read Nietzsche. Furious at this new attempt to corrupt her daughter, she rushed into a room where the group was gathered, wielding a meat cleaver and wearing only a suit of long woolen underwear. O'Neill tried to calm her but finally retreated.
"For a moment," according to the Misses Deutsch and Hanau, "the future of the American theater was at stake."
Later the group moved into a stable at 133 Macdougal Street, three doors away from the brownstone. While Louis Ell was helping to remodel it into a playhouse, he became annoyed at people leaving the door open. He posted a sign which read, "Cloze the door was you born in a stabel." A hitching ring had been left on one of the walls, and one of the group polished it, then posted a sign underneath reading "Here Pegasus was hitched."
The Players produced three of O'Neill's one-act plays that winter. They were In the Zone, The Long Voyage Home, and Ile, all sea plays.
In The Long Voyage Home, Olson, a sailor, yearns for the farm in Sweden where his mother and brother are living. (Every sailor means to go back to the land, but when he comes ashore with his pay he gets drunk, and back to the ship he goes.) Olson takes only a nonalcoholic drink and talks to a girl, Freda, of his farm and of his mother, who is old and might soon die. The girl slips a drug into his drink and Olson is shanghaied -- back to the sea from which he was trying to escape -- on a ship noted as the most wretched on the sea.
This play shows one half of what O'Neill has said about man's yearning for something "beyond" -- the good life. The seaman yearns for the good life on the land, on the farm; the farmer yearns for something beyond the horizon, perhaps the sea or faraway places. Technically, the play is not well constructed, because, like so many of O'Neill's early plays, it relies on coincidence; Olson's tragedy is not the outgrowth of forces within himself. The dialogue is excellent, however, the characters come alive immediately, and the play is marvelously theatrical, accomplishing a great deal in relatively few lines.
When the movie The Long Voyage Home was made, this play gave the film its feeling -- the sadness of the men who go to sea and hate it, always returning for one reason or another. O'Neill created a mood in this play that carried through Anna Christie, The Hairy Ape and several other of his more successful works. The play's ending can be justified if one considers O'Neill's later statement that retribution takes place in all his plays. Perhaps Olson's sin was that he tarried, talking to Freda, when he knew he should be returning to his mother. Freda is corrupted by greed for money. O'Neill was crystallizing a concept of life's tragedy, one which he would make ample use of in the future.
Ile, a one-acter written in the winter of 1917, is in a class with The Moon of the Caribbees, Bound East for Cardiff, and The Long Voyage Home, probably the best American one-act plays written up to that time. In the play a captain has taken his wife on the voyage. They have been at sea two years and are now waiting for an ice jam to break, and she is going mad, playing odd sounds on a hand organ. At first the captain refuses to head back for land, even suppressing a mutiny of sailors desperate for the sight of land, but when it becomes apparent that his wife is quite far gone, he relents. Then, suddenly, the ice breaks and whales are sighted five miles away. "I can't turn back now, you see don't ye?" he tells his wife, who is now quite insane, sounding wildly discordant notes on the organ. I've got to get the ile [whale oil]. Answer me! You ain't mad, be you?"
This is a play of sheer defeat. The captain's character is completely corrupted by pride and greed, and the sea wins. Again evil is punished (although it is not clear just what the wife's sin really is-perhaps her original romantic imaginings about the sea). Ile plays very well, for it is extraordinarily exciting, and the organ music is a surprisingly successful device.
Despite his position of pre-eminence with the Provincetown group, O'Neill had no enthusiasm for the art-for-art's-sake talk of its members after working hours; he still felt himself to be an outsider among them and preferred to spend his leisure hours among people with whom he felt more at home -- usually at the "Hell Hole," which was nearby. Now and then, however, he would form a casual association with one or another of the many attractive women in the group. Only one such relationship was generally regarded as an "affair" -- the one with Louise Bryant.
Miss Bryant had been married to a small-town dentist in the Midwest. She joined the Provincetown group early in 1916, and in the fall of that year the Players produced The Game, a play that she had written. She was tall and has been described as "pretty, with soft black hair and very blue eyes"; she also is said to have had an Irish beauty -- which may have been one of her chief charms for O'Neill -- and a volatile disposition. She was vigorously unconventional; according to Mabel Dodge Luhan, Miss Bryant contended that a woman could love two men at the same time and that she put that precept into practice in her relations with O'Neill and John Reed, the Harvard-educated radical and author of Ten Days That Shook the World. She had lived with Reed before the time of her reported romance with O'Neill, and as Reed's wife she later went to Moscow when Reed took a post with the Soviet government; she also remained with him there until his death in 1920.
Whatever the nature of O'Neill's association with Louise Bryant, it is known that he had more than a casual affection for her. Several women who knew O'Neill during this period have said he was not a ladies' man in the usual sense of the term, but "lovable," not exactly sensual, and capable of treating women as friends. "When you'd meet him," one of them has said, "he was like a loving brother. He would put his arms around you, maybe kiss you, but it only meant he wanted to be loving and affectionate. The women who ended up in bed with him were generally ones who had set their cap for him."
However that may be, it was in
the fall of 1917 that O'Neill met the woman who was to become his
second wife. He met her not in the Provincetown Playhouse but in the
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