The first time I saw Eugene O'Neill was in the fall of 1946. It was in the offices of the Theatre Guild, a great stone mansion on Fifty-third Street near Fifth Avenue. O'Neill, who had been away from New York for more than ten years, had just returned to attend rehearsals of his latest play, The Iceman Cometh. It was the first play he had allowed to go into production since Ah, Wilderness! and Days Without End in 1933 and 1934.
I had come to the Guild offices to get material for an article on O'Neill for Picture News, a New York Sunday newspaper supplement. When I arrived rehearsals were already in progress in a large, high-ceilinged ballroom on the second floor. I paused at the top of the winding marble staircase and noticed Lawrence Langner, the head of the Theatre Guild, and his wife, Armina Marshall, talking with Joe Heidt, the Guild's press agent. I also saw Theresa Helburn, a Guild executive; Carlotta Monterey O'Neill, the dramatist's third wife; and a number of my colleagues of the press. All around the place there was much talking and hurrying and scurrying.
Suddenly, a hush descended over the entire group. The tall, spare figure of Eugene O'Neill, his handsome face cast slightly downward, strode through the hallway into the rehearsal room. I had seen his picture many times, and now I felt that I was looking at a familiar face -- the mustache and the wry, sardonic smile crossing his lean, lantern-jawed, ascetic features. And I felt that his glowing eyes took in the entire hallway and everyone in it.
Later, I peered into the ballroom and saw O'Neill sitting at a table with Eddie Dowling, the play's director, listening to the actors read their lines. Again I felt the strange, almost religious mood which enveloped O'Neill and those around him. O'Neill was the creator of an entire world -- the world of his magnificent and terrifying plays. The characters he had brought to life were, it had been said, souls speaking to one another, souls whose bodies lived, suffered and died. A literary statistician had ascertained that in the world of Eugene O'Neill's plays there had been twelve murders, eight suicides, twenty-three other deaths, and seven cases of insanity.
It seemed to me that I had lived and suffered and died with O'Neill's characters in Strange Interlude, The Hairy Ape, Desire under the Elms, Mourning Becomes Electra and the other great dramas. I was not a drama critic, just a reporter, but O'Neill's people and his plays were a part of my life. Perhaps I had never fully analyzed and evaluated these plays, but I had experienced them.
I did not attempt to speak to O'Neill that day, but rather I decided to go first to the place he had come from, the place he had spent most of his youth -- New London, Connecticut. There I talked to friends of his family, people who had known him in his youth, and the O'Neill family lawyer. From old Thomas Fortune D'Orsey, James O'Neill's friend and New London real estate adviser, I discovered the theme of my piece. "Young Eugene," he told me, "was the gloomy-type Irishman, brooding, always readin' books -- a black Irishman!"
Then I drove over to Wallingford to visit the Gaylord Farm tuberculosis sanitarium. I wanted to see and feel for myself the place about which O'Neill wrote The Straw and where he experienced the awakening of his artistic spirit. In New York, I talked with Neysa McMein, the artist; Barrett Clark, O'Neill's official biographer; Saxe Commins, his friend and editor; and Eugene junior, O'Neill's eldest child.
Young Eugene, a brilliant, charming classical scholar, was then on leave from a teaching position at Yale University. He had just edited and translated a volume of Greek dramas, and I thought he had the whole world before him. At that time I did not sense Eugene's inner torture, the torture that drove him to suicide just a few years later.
Eugene junior approved of the "black Irishman" theme I was pursuing in my article about his father. In fact, he recalled that O'Neill had once told him that "the critics have missed the most important thing about me and my work -- the fact that I am Irish." At one point I remarked to Eugene that we (and our generation) were much more optimistic than his father. "No," he said, "my father's seemingly tragic view of life covers a deep-seated idealism, a dream of what the world could be 'if only. . . .' My father not only is the most sensitive man I have ever known but also possesses the highest idealism of any man who ever lived."
At about this time I also met O'Neill's other son, Shane, and, during a dress rehearsal of The Iceman Cometh, Carlotta Monterey O'Neill. She was sitting, dressed entirely in black, at the very top of the highest balcony in the Martin Beck Theatre. She was very beautiful. In the course of my interview with her, Mrs. O'Neill cautioned me not to interpret anything her husband said, or any of his work, in political terms. Art was the only important thing, she said.
Finally, I found Eugene O'Neill himself in the wings of the stage. I spent a long time with him and experienced the same fascination so many other writers apparently had felt before me. I remember that I wanted to become his disciple; I wanted to defend him against the world. His sad, intense eyes seemed to be piercing right into me. They haunted me for days after.
The title of the long profile that I wrote was "Black Irishman," as I had known it would be almost from the start. That article was not the end of my interest and concern in the O'Neills; it was just the beginning.
During the next ten years I watched the tragedy of Eugene O'Neill. I maintained my friendship with Eugene junior, and now and then I would see Shane hurrying through the darkened streets of Greenwich Village. Perhaps because of my Irish blood, I became obsessed with the idea that here was a family on whom a terrible curse rested, and I wanted to search out the lives of the O'Neill family and learn about that curse. But nobody at that time seemed to be interested in Eugene O'Neill or his plays.
In 1956, three years after the playwright's death, there was a substantial revival of interest in Eugene O'Neill, largely as a result of the successful off-Broadway production of The Iceman Cometh and the widely acclaimed Broadway presentation of Long Day's Journey into Night, which won a Pulitzer prize and the New York Drama Critics' Circle award. I continued my pursuit of the story of the O'Neills and their curse, interviewing hundreds of people and rereading the plays. Early in the winter of 1958 I learned that Shane O'Neill and his wife and four children were living at Point Pleasant, New Jersey. Although Long Day's Journey into Night was a great success, they were living on less than twenty-five dollars a week. Shane was ill and unemployed, and I asked him if he would collaborate with me on a book about his father. Shane was puzzled; he could not really believe that anyone would be interested in his father and his family. He said he would not himself write about his father but would contribute any letters or documents he had, tell me anything he could remember, and read and correct what I wrote.
In Ireland there exists an ancient belief that when ill fortune consistently plagues a family it is the result of a curse. Some ancestor may have done some terrible deed, and generation after generation must suffer retribution. Someone who had been harmed by a member of the family might have uttered the curse, or it might have been God's curse, the most terrible of all. This is one of the famous Irish curses:
Of course, I have never found even a hint of a story about the placing of any curse on the O'Neill family, but I did come across a wonderful Irish legend about an O'Neill. In the sixteenth century, there was a famous Irish king, Shane O'Neill, called Shane the Proud. Eugene O'Neill, I know, liked to think of himself as descended from the great Shane O'Neill, and he named his second son after him. O'Neill especially enjoyed the story of Shane's swimming across a lake in competition with another Irish warrior for the hand of a beautiful princess. It was specified that the swimmer whose hand first touched the far shore would win the fair lady. After Shane had swum three-quarters of the distance across the lake, he realized his opponent was going to win. Thereupon, he took a dagger from his belt, cut off one of his hands at the wrist and flung it to the far shore -- winning the race and the princess.
I once mentioned my preoccupation with a possible O'Neill curse to Saxe Commins. "I know what you mean," he said, "but it's not so simple as a curse. It's a mystic thing." Perhaps I had been foolish to entertain such a notion for so long, but I have always half believed that the bad things that happen to one, the bad luck, are decreed by some evil force. O'Neill himself was troubled by this feeling. Our destinies are ruled by the incidental, the accidental, the fated, he used to say. If one believes in the doctrine of original sin, as I was brought up to believe and as O'Neill was brought up to believe, then one may feel that a curse rests on all mankind.
Working on the closing pages of my manuscript and looking back over its long dark journey through the lives of Eugene O'Neill and his family, I suddenly realized that what I had been searching for had been apparent all along and I had not had eyes to see it. Or perhaps I had feared to come to a conclusion too similar to one I had arrived at before in seeking to account for tragedy in others' lives -- a lack of love, or the inability to give and receive love.
In the case of the O'Neills there was something still more complex and elusive. Most of them seemed people with a great capacity for feeling deep love. But something invariably conspired to keep each one forever alone and apart. As Clifford Odets wrote me, one always felt that if one or two little moves had been made, the O'Neills could have lived happy lives together. The tragedy of the O'Neill family was not the lack of love but the lack of communication of their love. In a sense, this was the theme of so many of O'Neill's plays -- man's agonizing loneliness, his feeling of not belonging, of wanting and not wanting to belong, of being cursed to remain alone, above, and apart.
Chappaqua, New York
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