viii: The Hell Hole and the Wharf
After leaving Harvard at the end of the spring term of 1915, O'Neill went to live in Greenwich Village, where he took a room at 38 Washington Square West. His father continued to give him an allowance of ten dollars a week. His income aside from his allowance, according to a report he made to Dr. Lyman that year, was twenty-five dollars a week. For some months he drew this sum as drama critic on a magazine which was being planned, but the project was abandoned before the first issue was published. He continued his own writing at the rate of about seven hours a day.
He saw a good deal of his brother, Jamie, who was then frequenting a bar a few blocks away at Sixth Avenue and Christopher Street where John Masefield had once worked. Officially it was called the Columbian Saloon, but in popular parlance its name was the "Working Girls' Home." One of the regular patrons has recalled that Jamie looked, at this time, like a well-dressed official of Tammany Hall. He wore a derby at a sharp angle.
Jamie was by now a confirmed alcoholic. His favorite expression, especially when he had a hang-over, was "The Brooklyn boys are after me." He would look over his shoulder, run his hands through his hair, and roll his eyes. The "Brooklyn boys" were men a foot high who wore derbies and marched rapidly in step and in single file. They could walk through walls and closed doors and windows. A friend of Eugene's, Art McGinley, has recalled that Jamie was so sarcastic at times that his remarks "could cut through a steel bar." Jamie's taste in women ran to prostitutes with large bosoms. He still talked about getting a job on a newspaper.
While he has been described as a typical, waggish Irishman, Jamie's hail-fellow-well-met air was a cover for inner torment, for he was never able to overcome his feelings of insecurity. He had felt unwanted as a boy when his parents dropped him off in the kindergarten at Notre Dame. Devoted to his mother, Jamie was acutely conscious of her drug addiction. As he grew up, he wanted to become a newspaperman, but his father wanted him to be an actor. Jamie hated the stage and was not nearly the actor his father was. And finally, when he recognized the unmistakable signs of talent in his younger brother, he could not stop himself from feeling envy. He hated himself for it, but he could not prevent it, not even by trying to drown his consciousness in alcohol.
About the middle of 1915 Eugene found his own barroom headquarters, four blocks south of the Columbian Saloon, at the Golden Swan, more commonly known as the "Hell Hole." There he was to have his last long fling -- a full year of it -- at the kind of life he had led before his stay at the sanatorium. Thirty years later he was to re-create that establishment on the stage, as Harry Hope saloon in The Iceman Cometh.
Just before settling down to his period of sustained drinking he paid a visit to his parents in New London. He also resumed his friendship with Muriel; but things had changed. She was interested in someone else and was planning marriage. It was clear that O'Neill was not, and they agreed it would be best if they stopped seeing each other. Their parting was friendly. Eugene returned all her letters; she kept his for a time and eventually burned them. As a parting gift he gave her a copy of Thirst in which he wrote: "To Muriel, in memory of all the seconds, minutes, hours and days we have spent together and which have now passed into eternity. Eugene."
even I am Beatrice!
Dante, your damozel was tall
Her eyes were not so large or gray:
I'm not denying that your queen
just to call your rhythmic bluff
His friendships with Muriel and Beatrice are both examples of O'Neill's tendency to idealize "the nice girl." At the time he was seeing Beatrice, he was twenty-seven and she was some ten years younger. Although he had been married and had a son, he appeared to be as romantically and youthfully in love with her as if they were both in high school.
A New Londoner who knew him well has said of O'Neill at this period, "He was always the gloomy one, always the tragedian, always thinkin'. My God, when that young Eugene looked at you he seemed to be lookin' right through you, right into your soul. He never said much, and he spoke softly when he did speak. Brilliant he was too, always readin' books. We're all Irish around here and know the type. He was a real 'black' Irishman."
(A black Irishman has a slightly un-Irish look about his face. Some attribute this to a possible Spanish strain, the result of Spanish garrisons in Ireland and the wreck of some ships of the Spanish Armada on the Irish coast. The typical black Irishman has black hair, dark eyes, and a mystic nature.)
In later years, one of Eugene's friends said that the playwright reminded him of a story told about the poet Dante. The people of Ravenna would cross the street when they saw the poet approaching. They didn't want to look into his eyes, which they believed had looked upon the horrors of hell.
"That's the way I feel about O'Neill," the friend added. "We'll be talking and he'll go into one of those long, staring silences of his, and I'll half expect him to turn to me and say, 'You're not a bad fellow, as far as I know, but if your eyes had seen what these eyes have seen, you'd go on home to your wife and children and not expect me to be nice.' "
On the other hand, to at least one of his girls at this time he was "a delightful companion. He was certainly not the gloomy pessimistic fellow that so many people have painted."
O'Neill's friendship with his Beatrice ended some two years after they met. She eventually married an officer, who later became an admiral, in the United States Coast Guard.
In the fall of 1915 O'Neill returned to New York and began his sojourn at the Hell Hole. He had written nothing since the spring. And for the next eleven or twelve months his principal literary occupation was reciting, from memory, Francis Thompson "The Hound of Heaven" for the benefit of truck drivers, members of the Hudson Dusters (a notorious gang of Manhattan gangsters), the usual saloon down-and-outers, and some Negroes from the Ninth Ward. Mary Heaton Vorse, who sometimes joined O'Neill and an old-time anarchist named Terry Carlin in the Hell Hole, wrote that it reminded her of a scene from Hogarth.
The Hell Hole, the last of O'Neill's series of Mermaid Taverns, was located at the southeast corner of Sixth Avenue and West Fourth Street. Above the main entrance on Sixth Avenue hung a weather-beaten sign showing the faded-gold silhouette of a swan. Inside, the place was dimly lighted by flickering gas burners. A pot-bellied stove provided warmth in winter. Next to it was a windowlike opening in the wall; by knocking on the panel in the opening, a customer could get someone to take an order for food. The bill of fare was always the same -- stewed tomatoes, spaghetti, sandwiches.
Entering by the side door, or Ladies' Entrance, a customer might see a moth-eaten, dusty stuffed swan floating on a pond of painted lily pads; he would also see an open sink, with a cracked mirror above it and usually a broken comb, a piece of soap, and a dirty towel nearby. In the back room there was generally only a couple or two, who seemed to prize their privacy; but sometimes there would be a big, noisy party.
The proprietor was John Wallace, who owned the saloon and the building above it. He was assisted by two bouncers, one known as John Bull, the other as Lefty Louis. Wallace also seemed to support a half-dozen bartenders who doubled as porters and lived in the building. The boss would join certain favored guests in drinking, talking and quarreling. They "roared at each other," according to Mary Heaton Vorse, "like aged aurochs in the spring." Long after the official closing time of 2 A.M., Wallace presented each staggering regular with a pint of whisky as he left. It was "the hair of the dog" -- supplied by the owner of the kennel.
The Hell Hole opened at 6 A.M. There were always drinkers who hadn't gone to bed and wanted one for the road, and red-faced cab and carriage drivers who wanted a morning pick-me-up. Throughout the day it was generally quiet, but at five it came suddenly to life and stayed lively until John Bull and Lefty Louis began tumbling the drunks out on the pavement. Those who sat quietly sipping their beers at two in the morning could stay on.
Although the Hell Hole was in the heart of Greenwich Village, O'Neill had very little contact with struggling artists and writers. The self-conscious Bohemianism of the Village was too arty and too effete for him. He had no liking for the long-haired men and short-haired women, no patience with their candlelight readings of poetry, and no sympathy with their grimly casual practice of free love.
O'Neill now had a three-dollar-a-month room, which he referred to as the "garbage flat" because he and his friends kept it well stocked with raw onions and oysters -- his hang-over food -- and perhaps because the peelings and shells were not always promptly disposed of. His friends were what he has called the true native Villagers, the Negro and Italian inhabitants. They were older than the people in the artistic groups and, of course, tougher. He found sympathetic spirits among the alcoholics and down-and-outers, the Wobblies and anarchists who wandered into the Hell Hole to drink and talk; but he remained too much of an individualist to subscribe to their doctrinaire political philosophies.
The unself-conscious, often primitive, behavior and talk of his acquaintances in a low-class saloon were O'Neill's best source material for his writing. But that was not what drew him there. O'Neill felt that in a saloon he "belonged." In the eyes of his barroom companions, people were divided into two classes -- those who belonged to their world, and those who didn't. O'Neill did, they agreed. He was not a literary man, nor a Princeton-Harvard man, nor the son of a famous actor. To them, he was Gene, a regular fellow. He came closer to feeling at home in the Hell Hole than he did anywhere else.
There was nothing self-conscious about the Hell Hole as an authentic part of the lower depths. The people who frequented it had their own kind of integrity, did not wear masks, and were proud of being outcasts. Thieves could mention their thievery and sense no disapproval. Truckers boasted of swiping a case of this or that from wagons. Once, on a cold winter evening, O'Neill absent-mindedly came into the Hell Hole without a coat. The Hudson Dusters had come to feel a deep affection for him and one of their members discreetly asked him what size overcoat he wore. So that O'Neill would not feel himself a recipient of charity, the man explained that the proper-size coat, with the color and fabric of O'Neill's own choosing, would be "boosted" from some rich man's store. O'Neill was touched by this solicitude but explained that he had an excellent coat in his room.
A good example of this kind of humanity was Wallace's treatment of a certain Mrs. McCarthy. Every night for twenty years Mrs. McCarthy came to the Hell Hole to fetch her "pint." Her pitcher held almost a gallon. It was always filled. The price of the "pint" was always put on tick -- "iver since, mind ya', McCarthy was killed."
According to the late Maxwell Bodenheim, poet, writer, and vagabond, O'Neill sometimes regarded his drinking companions at the Hell Hole with "mild contempt" and was, in a way, spiritually detached from them. Bodenheim has recalled an evening when he was drinking with O'Neill and some of the Hudson Dusters in the Hell Hole. The Dusters were discussing with O'Neill a man named Scotty who had cheated some of the Dusters in a furniture transaction. Bodenheim wrote that O'Neill "managed to smother their rage and induce them to forego their intended vengeance. He did this with a curious mixture of restrained profanity, mild contempt, and blunt camaraderie which showed that he shared the spirit of these roughnecks and yet failed to share it."
Bodenheim did not view the Hell Hole with the enthusiasm of Mary Vorse or Eugene O'Neill. He noted "its cheap prints of race horses and chromos of unadorned women, its round, spotty tables, and the instrument of brazen agonies that played tunes of the day when you dropped a nickel into it." He also looked with some disapproval at O'Neill, whose spirit, he thought, was made up of a mixture of "articulate proletarian" and "surface poet." To Bodenheim, O'Neill was not in any sense a "social radical"; the workers in his plays were always individuals, not working-class types.
But Bodenheim, whose Verlaine-like life was to end in drunken violence, was strongly impressed by O'Neill's drinking habits. In the Bodenheim profile of O'Neill which appeared in The New Yorker in 1926, he said that O'Neill "could imbibe from twilight to dawn without showing any effects save those of an occasional irascibility." Bodenheim watched as O'Neill's "sallowly brown face, with its small, black mustache, long nose, and black eyes crammed with humorous contempt, would seem to grow metallic beneath his words, in spite of endless drinks that he consumed."
It was almost twenty-five years before O'Neill got around to saying what he had to say about the inhabitants of the Hell Hole. The Iceman Cometh, which he wrote just before World War II, was the Hell Hole and its clients put on the stage. The title, of course, refers to death; for death -- the sudden or the lingering -- were never far from the Hell Hole.
"They manage to get drunk," O'Neill wrote of his saloon companions, "by hook or crook and keep their pipe dreams and that's all they ask of life. I've never known more contented men."
They were also, he said, the best friends he ever had.
The Hell Hole was torn down in 1930, when Sixth Avenue was widened. But the institution had died long before, when Prohibition blighted the country. Mary Vorse checked as best she could on Wallace and his bouncers. John Bull was said to have been killed in a fight. Lefty Louis opened up a speakeasy. Wallace died when the drys took over; the idea of operating a speakeasy was abhorrent to him.
It has been assumed that the year in which O'Neill spent most of his time in a saloon was a protracted bender. O'Neill's good friend George Jean Nathan has printed many colorful and perhaps exaggerated details regarding the dramatist's heavy drinking. He wrote that O'Neill went on benders that lasted an entire month, that he would sleep next to a whisky barrel and consume an eighth of its contents during the night.
While Barrett Clark was trying to get accurate facts about O'Neill's life, he asked Nathan what personal matters he should discuss with the dramatist. "Ask him what he used to drink," Nathan advised. "I know he used to take his whisky straight, but in South America he must have had strange and wonderful concoctions. Remember, if he hadn't drunk the way he did and mixed with so many kinds of people in those early days we probably should not have had his plays."
When Clark followed up the suggestion, he received a temperance lecture. "Altogether too much damn nonsense," O'Neill told him, "has been written since the beginning of time about the dissipation of artists. Why, there are fifty times more real drunkards among the Bohemians who only play at art, and probably more than that among the people who never think about art at all. The artist drinks, when he drinks at all, for relaxation, forgetfulness, excitement, for any purpose except his art. You've got to have all your critical and creative faculties about you when you're working. I never try to write a line when I'm not strictly on the wagon. I don't think anything worth reading was ever written by anyone who was drunk or even half drunk when he wrote it. This is not morality, it's plain physiology. Dope I know nothing about, but I suspect that even De Quincey was boasting what a devil he was!"
Nathan explained this unexpected turnabout on the grounds that "like many another reformed bibber, he now views the wine cup with superior dudgeon and is, on occasion, not averse to delivering himself of eloquent harangues against it and its evils."
That liquor had a serious hold on O'Neill is unlikely in the face of his work record. His indulgence probably did not often exceed the bounds of social drinking. He liked to drink with other men who were drinking. He liked the comradeship that went with it. He knew that men in their cups reveal themselves without their masks. Furthermore, in the world of seafaring men, of down-and-outers, not to drink is antisocial. It is true that a few drinks tended to set him off on a drinking spree that might last several days. But he always returned to his writing after he recovered from the physical devastation of his hang-over and from the anguish of his guilt. His saloon friendships exerted at least as much pull on him as the actual drinking. Giving up drinking meant giving up the one world in which he felt he "belonged." Nevertheless, this is what he did when the time came to protect his health and to get important work done.
One of his friends of the Hell Hole was to play a significant role in his life. This was the convivial Terry Carlin, a tall, gaunt Irishman whom the artist Peggy Beard has described as "a beautiful skeleton." There was a whitish cast to his face and the skin appeared to be drawn tightly over his skull. It was said that he had been a radical syndicalist and later a philosophical anarchist. In his youth, he told friends, he had taken a vow never to do a day's work in his life. According to an account he gave Malcolm Cowley, the one day he worked was when the boss of a saloon let him tend bar on a Saturday when the rush was on. He said he had looked forward to emptying the till toward the end of the day and pocketing what he found. But the proprietor emptied the till before Terry got to it. The experience further embittered him and he lived to be eighty without ever working again.
Terry was a great talker, although some who remember him feel that his talent lay in getting other people to talk. By listening, he acquired the reputation of being understanding as well as charming. O'Neill often bought him drinks during his year at the Hell Hole. Art McGinley has recalled that Carlin was welcome everywhere he went. Susan Jenkins (then Mrs. James Light) remembers that Carlin was "a great one for agreeing with you. He would say, 'Now you take time. What is time, really? Time is only relative. Today on this earth may be yesterday or a thousand years from now on the planet Mars.' You might make some banal observation about time and he would say, 'That's a wonderful idea, how brilliant of you.' Then on he would go about time. In many ways, he was an awful bore."
Carlin knew a number of writers and artists who spent their summers in the little fishing village of Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod. Mary Heaton Vorse had met him during her labor reporting days and had introduced him to the Provincetown group. As a result, Terry had somehow acquired possession of a shack at Truro, several miles below Provincetown. Some say it was the hull of a wrecked ship.
As the weather grew increasingly humid in New York in the summer of 1916, O'Neill told Carlin he would like to get out of town. He said he felt that if he were up on the Cape and living by the ocean he could begin writing again. Carlin invited him to share his Cape Cod shack. Soon after they were settled there, O'Neill began writing another play on his dilapidated portable typewriter. Marriage and its difficulties were still on his mind. The play was Before Breakfast; it is about a man who commits suicide under his wife's nagging.
While O'Neill worked, Terry Carlin spent his time sitting on the ridge of Truro hill, reading Greek classics in the original. Later in the summer, they were joined by another Hell Hole habitué named Hippolyte Havel, a sleek, mustached ex-radical of Greek descent who also read antique Greek. Both Carlin and Havel, like so many of O'Neill's drinking friends, were to turn up as characters in The Iceman Cometh. Carlin was said to be the original for Larry Slade and Havel the original for Hugo Kalmar.
As the days wore on, Carlin decided to take a walk up to Provincetown to see some of his friends. He didn't know it but he was about to forge another link in the chain of events which would fasten together O'Neill's past life with his future. For of all the places in the world O'Neill should have been that summer, of all the people in the world whom he should have got to know, the village of Provincetown and its little summer colony of artists and writers were exactly right for him and his career.
Before Mary Heaton Vorse discovered Provincetown in 1907, it was almost entirely occupied by Portuguese fisherfolk. Cape Cod thrusts out sixty miles into the sea "like an arm with a fist on the end," as Mary Vorse described it -- after Thoreau -- and Provincetown is on the tip. The town is three miles long and two streets wide. There, around Mary Vorse, grew up a summer colony of artists and writers. Hamilton Basso has written that she bore the same relation to early Provincetown as did Eliza Pinckney to early South Carolina.
The summer before, in 1915, a group of artists and writers in Provincetown had taken to writing plays and acting in them. The group included Susan Glaspell, the novelist, and her husband, George Cram Cook, a poet and playwright; Hutchins Hapgood, novelist and essayist, and his wife, Neith Boyce; Wilbur Daniel Steele, author, and his wife; William Zorach, the sculptor, and his wife; Robert Edmond Jones, a stage designer, and John Reed, the journalist and radical and future author of Ten Days That Shook The World, the story of the Russian Revolution. Jig Cook, as George Cram Cook was called, was the leader of the group. The first two plays produced by the group were staged in the home of Hutchins Hapgood. In one scene, the sea was the background and the audience watched the performance from the porch. One of the plays was called Constancy and was written by Neith Boyce Hapgood as a take-off on the violent love affair between Mabel Dodge (later to become Mable Dodge Luhan of Taos) and John Reed. The second play, Suppressed Desires, by Jig Cook and Susan Glaspell, was a satire on Freud, whose writings were then beginning to sweep the country.
Suppressed Desires has become a kind of classic. Theater groups all over the country have continued to produce it. Susan Glaspell and Jig Cook had previously submitted it to Broadway producers, who were sure that people would not pay to go to see it because it was "too special."
Later that summer the group decided to put on their plays in larger quarters. Mary Vorse and her husband, Joseph O'Brien, owned a fishing wharf at Provincetown which they had purchased in 1913 for fifty dollars. Like other wharves which had become obsolete as a result of the decline of Provincetown as a port, it had been converted into accommodations for summer people. On these wharves were barnlike structures which had once been used as fishhouses, storage places for coal or lumber, or as places to stow nets and other fishing and sailing gear.
The Vorse fishhouse was fifty feet wide and a hundred feet long. The planks in the flooring were so far apart that one could see the sea beneath. It was in this fishhouse, named the Wharf Theater by Jig Cook and Susan Glaspell, that the Provincetown Players flowered, writing and producing the plays that changed the character of the American stage.
The Provincetown group was driven by a creative philosophy which held that "true drama is born only of one feeling, animating all the members of a clan -- a spirit shared by all and expressed by the few for all." Jig Cook kept on dreaming of a "whole community working together, developing unsuspected talents." He hated "the commercial thing imposed from without." At the end of that first summer, he began thinking what the group would do the next year. He went to the wharf, "stepped" the fishhouse, and sifted in his mind new ways of staging future plays. "If there is nothing," he and Neith Boyce agreed, "to take the place of the common religious purpose and passion of the primitive group out of which the Dionysian dance was born, no new vital drama can arise in any people.
The next summer -- 1916 -- new members joined the group: Harry Kemp, the poet, and his beautiful wife, Mary Pyne; Louise Bryant, afterward the wife of John Reed; Frederick Burt, a writer, and the B. J. O. Nordfeldts. Still another newcomer was Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Early that summer, while Terry Carlin was taking his walk to Provincetown, he met Susan Glaspell and Jig Cook and the trio stopped to chat. It was one of those chance meetings that O'Neill believed were designed by the gods in shaping man's destiny.
"Terry," Susan Glaspell said, "haven't you a play to read to us?"
"I don't write," Carlin said. "I just think and sometimes talk. But my young friend, Mr. O'Neill, has a trunkful of plays with him."
"Then tell Mr. O'Neill to come to our place tonight and bring one." Carlin said he'd deliver the message.
The play O'Neill brought to the group was Bound East for Cardiff. It was the play which Professor Baker of Harvard had read and pronounced "not a play." Most of the writers present at the Cooks' home for this first reading of an O'Neill play have used the same adjectives in describing the playwright -- "shy, dark and goodlooking." He was dressed in cotton trousers and a sweater. Most writers are only too happy to read aloud, but O'Neill surprised the group by asking that someone else read his play. Frederick Burt read Bound East while O'Neill stayed in the dining room. Mary Vorse sensed instantly that his "tough, hard-boiled pose covered extreme sensitiveness." There was not one person in the group, Mary Vorse remembers, "who did not recognize the quality of this play." In it, he had followed the 1913 advice of Clayton Hamilton, "Write down what you know about the sea, and about the men who sail before the mast. . . ."
The reading finished, everyone in the group rushed into the dining room to cover O'Neill with their warm congratulations. He was embarrassed but pleased, and he was to show his gratitude in the years to come -- he was always intensely loyal to his friends in the Provincetown group, and he saw them until circumstances and illness broke the bond.
Of that fateful evening, Susan Glaspell has written, "Then we knew what we were for." And Mary Vorse wrote, "From that moment he took his place as an important writer."
In one respect he disappointed the group. He didn't sit around and talk about art and literature. Endless talk has always been one of the occupational vices of writers living in proximity. Here again he was following the advice of Clayton Hamilton, "Keep your eye on life -- on life as you have seen it; and to hell with the rest!"
Hamilton observed with satisfaction the behavior of the thirty-year-old playwright after the Provincetown group took him up. "He can think [at Provincetown] his thoughts and dream his dreams, in loneliness, beside the surging and suggestive sea; and he can write great dramas which the silly little world that is centered in Times Square can subsequently look upon with wonder. Eugene O'Neill has always written with eyes focused upon life, instead of writing with eyes focused on the theater."
During that summer, as well as subsequent ones, Mary Vorse and the others read O'Neill plays -- or portions of them -- aloud. Once O'Neill himself read. Harry Kemp, the self-styled "Vagabond Poet," who sometimes seemed truculent about O'Neill's recognition, wrote that the play was "frightfully bad, trite, and full of the most preposterous hokum. It was, as I remember, something about an American movie man who financed a Mexican revolution for the sake of filming its battles. One of the scenes depicted the hero's compelling the commanding generals on both sides -- both being in his hire -- to wage a battle all over again because it had not been fought the way he liked it!"
O'Neill wrote The Movie Man while at Harvard. He sent it to the Library of Congress to be registered for copyright. The copyright, which expired in 1941, was not renewed. It was Archibald MacLeish who learned of its existence and the existence of four other O'Neill plays when he became Librarian of Congress in 1939.
The Movie Man was a poor play. It was a contrived, but honest, attempt to make fun of Hollywood, a place which O'Neill never had seen and always resolutely avoided later on. O'Neill knew the play was not successful and later said it was not to be printed. His failure to renew its copyright, however, made it possible for a publisher, years later, to print it without paying royalties.
Bound East for Cardiff, the first Eugene O'Neill play ever to be produced, was given on the second bill of the Wharf Theatre in Provincetown that same summer.
"It has never been more authentically played," Mary Vorse has written, "than it was by our group of amateurs, on the old wharf, with the sound of the sea beneath it."
Susan Glaspell also wrote movingly of that night:
"It seems to me I have never sat through a more moving production than our Bound East for Cardiff, when Eugene O'Neill was produced for the first time on any stage. The sea has been good to Eugene O'Neill. It was there for his opening. There was a fog, just as the script demanded, a fog bell in the harbor. The tide was in, and it washed under us and around, spraying through the holes in the floor, giving us the rhythm and flavor of the sea while the big dying sailor talked to his friend Driscoll of the life he had always wanted deep in the land, where you'd never see a ship or smell the sea."
The warm reception in Provincetown of Bound East for Cardiff served to bring O'Neill back into productivity. He wrote four more one-act plays: In the Zone, Ile, The Long Voyage Home and The Moon of the Caribbees. They were all plays of the sea and he wrote them beside the sea. He also completed Before Breakfast, which the group decided to produce in New York during the winter.
O'Neill had not planned to accompany them to New York. Provincetown suited him, and he had taken an apartment over a grocery store. There, on the rafters, he painted some lines written by a Hindu mystic in a book called The Illuminated Way:
John Francis, the storekeeper and landlord, did not object. Francis liked and respected the artists and writers who came, in increasing numbers, to spend their summers in Provincetown. Sometimes he accepted paintings from artists in lieu of rent, and he is said to have acquired over the years an excellent collection of contemporary American art.
In that apartment O'Neill wrote tirelessly. As often as possible, he went to the dunes to stare at the sea, as though to draw spiritual strength from the sounds of the wind, the waves, and the crying of gulls. As long as the weather permitted -- and even when any reasonably cautious person might have stayed indoors -- he went swimming. He also liked to lie naked on the sand, and to paddle his little Eskimo kayak seaward.
His Provincetown friends were deeply impressed by O'Neill's moods, particularly his periods of black despair. "There was no such darkness as Gene's," Mary Vorse has said, "He would sit silent and suffering and in darkness." Part of his suffering and his uncommunicativeness was due to terrible hang-overs.
O'Neill's feeling of isolation from his fellow man at times reached morbid depths. He once told a friend that he thought it was a mistake that he had been born a human being. He wondered if he should not have been born a fish or possibly a seagull. In his lowest moments he wondered if he should have been born at all. These thoughts persisted even on the threshold of success. For now, in addition to the triumph in Provincetown -- for triumph it was, considering the men and women involved in that pioneer theatrical venture -- other recognition followed. Besides completing the four sea plays in the winter of 1916-1917, O'Neill wrote the short story entitled "Tomorrow." It concerned the Englishman he had known in his Jimmy the Priest's days; he called him Jimmy Tomorrow. The Seven Arts bought the story for fifty dollars, and it was published in the June, 1917, issue.
A few weeks later, George Jean Nathan and Henry L. Mencken bought The Long Voyage Home for their Smart Set magazine and paid O'Neill seventy-five dollars. It was published in October, 1917.
The Provincetown group had rented a run-down brownstone-front house in Greenwich Village and had converted the parlor floor into a theater seating some 150 persons. The house was located at 139 Macdougal Street, about two and a half blocks from the Hell Hole. At the suggestion of O'Neill the theater was named the Playwrights' Theatre.
In the late fall of 1916 O'Neill journeyed to New York to be present at the rehearsals of Before Breakfast. He also assumed the role of the husband, whose part consists of a few lines spoken from the wings. Someone in the group, without telling Eugene, had invited James O'Neill to the theater. At one of the first rehearsals of the one-acter there was an unhappy confrontation.
Helen Deutsch and Stella Hanau wrote in their history of the theater, The Provincetown: "Father and son, in a perfect Freudian pattern, disagreed on every point. O'Neill senior tried to instill in Mary Pyne ( Harry Kemp's wife) some of the histrionic technique of an era which the Players had no wish to revive, while O'Neill junior stalked up and down, muttering his displeasure."
Before Breakfast consists entirely of a querulous monologue addressed by a nagging wife to her husband, who is off stage throughout the play (at one point his hand is seen as it reaches out from behind a door for his shaving bowl). Just before the curtain falls, the husband is heard to moan and the wife discovers that he has committed suicide with his razor. In the premiere Mary Pyne, with her beautiful red hair done up in an untidy knot, gave a fine performance as the ugly ill-natured wife. O'Neill played the off-stage husband and later said of his bit that it was his favorite role and "my last appearance on any stage."
Although this play was one of O'Neill's earlier ones -- it was written in Provincetown in 1916 -- it is considered quite good. The monologue succeeds in drawing two characters in sharp relief and presenting a dramatic conflict between them. The idea for this play may have been borrowed from Strindberg The Stronger, but it is on the execution that O'Neill is to be judged.
Two more of his plays, Fog
and The Sniper, both one-acters, were produced after
Christmas. O'Neill had definitely arrived on the theatrical scene.
Of course, he was at yet unknown, except to a very few, and his
plays were not bringing him any money at all, but he was writing
steadily now, he was learning his craft in the living theater, and
he was imaginatively interpreting his past experiences. The
following March, accompanied by a writer named Harold de Polo,
O'Neill returned to Provincetown, where a bizarre experience awaited
© Copyright 1999-2009 eOneill.com