vi: "Hill Farm" Sanatorium
The only "heroic" thing about his entering Gaylord, O'Neill has said, was that it happened on Christmas Eve. And then he immediately minimized the importance of that circumstance. "To an actor's son, whose father had been on tour nearly every winter, Christmas meant less than nothing. As a boy, I never disbelieved in Santa Claus. I hardly heard there was one -- we never had much chance for a winter home, and so Christmas was just a holiday without the usual associations."
It is possible that if he had not entered Gaylord immediately upon acceptance he would have missed his turn, for there was, as a rule, a waiting list there. But there were other reasons for getting him out of the house; a letter written by James O'Neill at this time indicates that the father was apprehensive that Eugene's mother would become infected if speedy action were not taken. This painful suggestion apparently was made to Eugene himself, for he remembered it when he was ready to return home.
The admitting doctor at Gaylord asked Eugene how he thought he had contracted tuberculosis. He replied that he "may have got infected while visiting dives and tenement houses as a reporter." Years later, in 1927, O'Neill told a friend that he had got "a dose of t.b. germs" in New York while living at Jimmy the Priest's with "lungers" who "were numerous among the lodgers of its airless rooms which were, in effect, cells." Later, he said, when he got ran down after a long siege of "booze" and a theatrical tour with its "strain of free -- not always -- love and pretending to be an actor, the little bugs got me." He thought that he had only "contracted a very slight incipient case."
O'Neill gave his father's address as The Lambs club in New York and said his nearest friend was Charles Thompson of the New London Telegraph. He reported his earnings as twenty dollars a week.
The doctor noted that he was "nervous, gets to sleep easily but wakes up 6 or 7 times at night; no headache except on the 'morning after'. . . used to drink beer and whisky but has taken very little for past 8 months." He was only a few pounds underweight. His right lung had a dullness when thumped, but his left lung gave a "good note." There were rales (noises) heard in his right lung. A "good chance of arrest" was predicted.
The treatment of Gaylord was the best that science then had to offer, but its precautions against infection could not have been better calculated to deepen O'Neill's lifelong trait of "feeling alone, and above, and apart," of considering himself "a stranger who never feels at home," of assuming that he "is not really wanted." But in characteristic fashion he gave only oblique expression to his emotional reaction. Certainly he was voicing more than a humorous reflection on sanatorium routine when he wrote the parody:
glass of milk and thou
In his play The Straw, he dramatized the experiences of a tuberculosis patient. One scene focuses attention on the heroine's horror at being given her own cup, being cautioned about her coughing -- in short, at learning that a consumptive is a pariah. The dreary routine of constant physical examination is emphasized, with specific concentration in one scene on the daily weighing ritual. In this part the action takes place in the recreation room, where a player piano is playing; suddenly the music stops and a platform scale is wheeled on stage.
The hero of The Straw is O'Neill himself, under the name of Stephen Murray, a newspaper reporter. His description of Murray is a description of himself at this time:
A tall, slender, rather unusual-looking fellow with a pale face, sunken under high cheekbones, lined about the eyes and mouth, jaded and worn for one still so young. His intelligent eyes have a tired dispirited expression in repose but can quicken instantly with a concealment mechanism of mocking, careless humor whenever his inner privacy is threatened. His large mouth aids this process of protection by a quick change from its set apathy to a cheerful grin of cynical good nature. He gives the impression of being somehow dissatisfied with himself but not yet embittered enough by it to take it out on others.
One of the rules at Gaylord was so important it was called the "special" rule and it was stressed in the book of regulations given to Eugene when he entered. Dr. Lyman felt very strongly that his patients should resist the temptation of falling in love with each other. His special rule, which he defended on the ground of long experience with patients, held that "love affairs have no place in a sanatorium. Flirtations and love affairs do not go well with the cure." It was printed in bold type in the rule book: "SCATTER YOUR ATTENTION; DO NOT CONCENTRATE." O'Neill concentrated his attention on Mary Clark, the head nurse.
In The Straw, O'Neill has Eileen Carmody, the heroine, fall in love with Murray. Murray is attentive but not serious. The newspaperman starts to write the things he always wanted to, gets well, and leaves the "san." As soon as he leaves, Eileen's health declines. He returns for a visit and the head nurse tells him that Eileen is to be sent to the state farm, where she will die. Here, Eugene availed himself of one of the tragic aspects of Gaylord policy: The institution retained only those who responded to treatment; those who did not were sent to the state tuberculosis hospital at Laurel Heights. "It was known around Gaylord, by the patients' grapevine, that if a patient was transferred to Laurel Heights, it was curtains -- he was on the way out," of them has said.
There is no doubt that The Straw was based on reality. O'Neill had taken Mary Clark, Gaylord's head nurse, completely into his confidence. He showed her the short stories and poetry he was writing and she typed his manuscripts. His correspondence with Mary, to whom he inscribed a copy of The Straw, indicates they were very friendly. There is some suggestion that the young women patients wished he had turned his attention to them. One of them, who noted his interest in the head nurse, told another, "Perhaps I'm just as well off. My mother always tells me to beware of somber-eyed young men." Another young woman remembered him as "quiet, naturally aloof but generally admired." But Camilles never did seem to catch his fancy. He preferred strong women.
It is a tradition at Gaylord that Kitty McKay, of Waterbury, Connecticut, was the prototype for Eileen Carmody. The facts of her life and the circumstances surrounding her being at Gaylord certainly fit the heroine of The Straw. At the time she was at Gaylord, Kitty had four sisters and five brothers. Their mother had died, and Kitty, as the eldest sister, was looking after her father and the other children. She was stricken with tuberculosis and was sent to Gaylord, where she immediately won everyone's heart and Dr. Lyman found her "an exceptionally good girl, an excellent patient." Kitty's health improved and she returned home, where she resumed her backbreaking household chores. When she went back to Gaylord for a checkup, Dr. Lyman found she had "steadily, recently rather rapidly, lost ground and unless a quick change is made her life will be a short one."
Dr. Lyman wrote to Gaylord's visiting nurse in Waterbury, asking her to find some way to "give the girl a chance for her life." He didn't think her family realized that unless she was hospitalized "they will before long not only have to do without her services but [have] to nurse her besides." Kitty had told Dr. Lyman that she simply could not leave her family, that her father could not afford to let her go away. Dr. Lyman was so distressed about the situation that he offered "to look after her bills until we can see whether she has relapsed too far to respond to treatment." He was prepared to keep her a year "if necessary to get her on her feet."
In The Straw, Eugene dramatizes this tragic situation by having a scene take place in the patient's home, where the doctor confronts the father.
DR. GAYNOR. She'll have to go to a sanatorium at once. She ought to have been sent months ago. . . . She kept on doing her work, I suppose -- taking care of her brothers and sisters, washing, cooking, sweeping, looking after your comfort -- worn out -- when she should have been in bed. . . . The damage is done.
BILL CARMODY. . . . It's all nonsense you're stuffin' me with, and lies, makin' things out to be worst in the world. She'll not move a step out of here, and I say so, and I'm her father!
The doctor finds it necessary to threaten the father with action by the Society for the Prevention of Tuberculosis. The father yields, and there is talk of money -- the fee at the Hill Farm is seven dollars a week -- "the price of a few rounds of drinks," the doctor bitingly adds. When the father balks still more at losing his daughter-housekeeper, the doctor says he will foot half the bill. The "bogtrotter" father finally yields to pressure, and Eileen goes to Hill Farm.
Kitty McKay died at her home in Waterbury just two years after O'Neill left Gaylord.
In The Straw, the head nurse asks Murray to tell Eileen that he loves her and wants to marry her. He can take her, she says, to some private sanatorium where "she'll be happy to the very last." Her father won't pay for her going anyplace. In a highly dramatic scene, Murray tells Eileen he loves her -- and then discovers that he really does. He also lies and tells her he still has the disease himself. The play ends on the theme of what O'Neill called "the significance of human hope and the t.b. background." The head nurse, distressed at the situation she has brought about, wonders whether she has done a "great wrong by that lie" that has become a truth. The newspaperman replies," Come now, confess, damn it! There's always hope, isn't there? What do you know?"
Dr. Lyman did not care for The Straw, and he said so. He made it forbidden reading at Gaylord. He objected to it because it romanticized the very thing that he had continually cautioned his patients about -- falling in love. It confirmed his belief in "the special rule for use in trying to avoid such complications, the heroine in The Straw having been one of the unfortunate cases for whom an apparently harmless flirtation developed into disastrous consequences."
O'Neill retorted, "I intend to use whatever I can make my own, to write about anything under the sun in any manner that fits or can be invented to fit the subject. And I shall never be influenced by any consideration but one: Is it the truth as I know it -- or, better still, feel it?"
O'Neill did a great deal of reading at Gaylord. He told Hamilton Basso that he read Strindberg for the first time there and that after it he was not the same man. "It was reading his plays," he said, "that above all first gave me the vision of what modern drama could be and first inspired me with the urge to write for the theater myself. The influence of Strindberg runs clearly through more than a few of my plays and is plain for everyone to see."
George Jean Nathan and Barrett Clark both noted that O'Neill's hospitalization had had a profound effect on his development. He had matured, intellectually and psychologically, in his stay at Gaylord. He went in a youth and came out a man.
Although O'Neill suffered only "a very slight incipient case" of tuberculosis, he always felt the bond which ex-patients seem to have with one another. In 1930 he wrote an old friend, "I can really sympathize with your t.b. experience. I belong to the club, as you might say." To a writer for the Journal of Outdoor Life who asked him, in 1923, if he had any "message" for tuberculosis patients, he replied with both a message and a warning:
Win out and God bless you! And here's my loudest cheers!
Don't get snobbish! I remember I used to sort of despise the untutored ignorant folk who did not have or had not had t.b. I looked down upon such unfortunates as an unexperienced, inferior lot who, after all, couldn't know much about life or anything else. They simply didn't belong, thought I with a superior sniff -- until one day a friend, an eminent t.b. specialist, sensing my attitude, maliciously told me the truth -- that autopsies reveal the democratic fact that nearly everyone has had it! Which leaves us only one point of superiority to brag about: We know it and rest of them don't.
At the end of six months at Gaylord, on May 24, 1913, O'Neill was examined for the last time and found to be in "A-1 shape; no symptoms, moderate exercise, no fatigue, breathing much easier and stronger; looks and feels perfectly well." His left lung had suffered "some impairment of note at apex front and back and below scap." It was noted that he was going home to take a rest cure for the summer at his father's cottage at the seashore. He was advised against strenuous exercise of all kinds for the next year "but can resume work in Fall."
Four words ended the report: "Discharged arrested. Prognosis excellent."
When Eugene learned that he was going to be discharged as cured, he immediately wrote to his father at the Hotel Ascot on Madison Avenue in New York City to tell him the good news. He had "been declared absolutely free from contagion. . . so thoroughly cured that no one -- not even [my] ailing mother can become infected with tuberculosis by living in the same house and eating at the same table with [me]."
James O'Neill, however, wrote to Dr. Lyman to ask "if this is true. I do not wish to jeopardize my wife's health; and our plans for the summer will depend on your reply which I hope will be as soon as possible."
Dr. Lyman answered that the son's case was known as "closed tuberculosis." There was "no sputum with bacilli, and in consequence no danger of contagion. I do not believe your son is absolutely cured, or that any case is in less than three or four years' time. But in his present condition he would not be a menace to anyone."
Although James O'Neill may have
seemed unduly squeamish -- and somewhat unsympathetic toward his son
-- in asking the doctor's reassurance before consenting to Eugene's
return to the family, his attitude was not unwarranted. Tuberculosis
in those days was a terrifying thing, and it was not unreasonable
for a man to be concerned about the possible infection of his wife,
even from their son. Eugene understood that, and, as it turned out,
James did take his son back into their New London home. But Eugene
never completely forgave his father for that qualified reception.
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