x: The Second Marriage
Agnes Boulton Burton was a twenty-four-year-old widow with a year-and-a-half-old daughter when O'Neill met her in the fall of 1917. Of a Philadelphia family, she had been born in London on September 19, 1893, while her parents were abroad on a trip. Both her parents were of English descent. She was the great-niece of Margery Williams Bianco, the author of several classic children's books, whose husband, Francesco Bianco, wrote poetry in Italian. Agnes' father, Edward W. Boulton, was an artist of some distinction who had exhibited in both Philadelphia and New York. He had been a protégé of Frederick Eakins, whom he assisted in taking Walt Whitman's death mask. He helped found the Philadelphia Art Students League and was elected its first president.
Agnes was brought up by governesses in her very early years. Later she attended the Convent of the Holy Child at Sharon Hill near Philadelphia. Her mother, a Catholic, had dedicated Agnes to the Virgin Mary for the first seven years of her life. Her father, not a Catholic, did not share his wife's deep faith. Agnes eventually drifted away from the Church.
She studied art at the Philadelphia School of Industrial Arts but changed her mind about being an artist and decided to become a writer. When she was sixteen she sold her first short story, and in a few years she was making a reasonably good living writing stories for the pulp magazines published by Frank A. Munsey. She also wrote literary short stories for Smart Set and other magazines. Two of her stories were included in the annual Best Short Stories collections of Edward J. O'Brien.
In 1917, Agnes was living on a 350-acre farm at Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut, near her father and mother, who had a farm in nearby Woodville. Now and then she would leave her baby daughter with her mother and go into New York to see magazine editors and look up old friends.
At the end of October, 1917, Agnes came to New York and took a room at the Hotel Brevoort. When she telephoned her friend Christine Ell, Christine suggested that Agnes meet her at the Hell Hole, describing it as"one of the new amusing Village hangouts."A lot of writers were congregating there, she said. Christine gave Agnes specific instructions on how to gain admission to "the back room."
Agnes arrived at the Hell Hole before Christine. The strange looking clients and the sinister atmosphere of the place interested her. She particularly noticed a thin, dark-complexioned, mustached man who was casting glances in her direction. It is not surprising that Eugene O'Neill noticed this unfamiliar figure in the Hell Hole. Agnes was a strikingly handsome woman with a well-formed figure, dark-blond, wavy hair, clear blue eyes, and an interesting angular face with high cheekbones.
When Christine arrived, O'Neill walked over to their table. Christine introduced him to Agnes and he sat down with them. It was clear that he had been drinking, but he was not objectionable. One of his ways of entertaining his friends in the Hell Hole was to recite poetry. He particularly liked to recite the rolling, rhythmic lines of Francis Thompson "The Hound of Heaven," which he had first read at Gaylord Sanatorium five years before:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter. . . .
O'Neill must have recited it with more than ordinary barroom eloquence. One of his listeners about this time, a writer named Dorothy Day, was so stirred by his recitation in the Hell Hole that she says she took stock of her whole life and eventually embraced the Catholic faith. She founded and became editor of The Catholic Worker, and she established a settlement house for homeless men on New York's Bowery.
The next night he met her at a party given by Christine Ell. Many of the Provincetown Players group were there -- George Cram Cook, Lawrence Vail(who later married Kay Boyle), Mary Pyne, Susan Glaspell, Saxe Commins (who became O'Neill's lifetime friend and editor, and whose play, The Obituary, was produced by the Players in 1916), among others. O'Neill arrived late and drunk. In those days he carried a flask or a pint of whisky around New York to help him face people. Apparently, whisky helped him foster the illusion that he was a different person.
Many at the party immediately noted the resemblance between Agnes and Eugene's old love, Louise Bryant (who had gone off to Russia with John Reed). At one point during the evening, with a theatrical flourish he turned back the hands of a big clock and cried, "Turn back the universe and give me yesterday."He offered no explanation, but those who were present assumed that it was the time of his association with Louise Bryant that he wished to return to.
It seemed to Agnes that he wore "the mask or echo of a sardonic laughter, at times ribald and again becoming painful, etched on his restless face."She walked up to him and said, "Remember me?"
"It's a cold night -- good night for a party!" he answered. "The iceman cometh." That was all they said to each other that evening, but already she loved him.
During the next weeks and months, Eugene continued to recite poetry to Agnes, making love to her with the words of Ernest Dowson, Byron and Shelley. She was struck by his painful shyness and his need for protection. Agnes saw in O'Neill a sensitive poet and also a revolutionary. Although he appealed somewhat to her maternal instincts, he was also a man -- forceful and slightly rough. But what interested her more than anything, she has said, "is the creative thing in people, in artists and writers, the creative drive."She would cope with the world for him, for she believed that art was the ultimate reason for living. Agnes listened gravely, with a reassuring smile, as O'Neill talked. She exuded faith and hope and affirmation of life.
O'Neill spoke to Agnes of the terrors that stalked him. "He saw life as a tragedy and had neither the desire nor the curiosity to go beyond the limits of his own vision. He loved his own tragic conception of life and would not have given it up for the world."She greeted his fears and his searing depressions with friendly laughter. As he wrote to her, "With a laughing breath you blew my 'cursed hill' away and here we are!"Courting Agnes that winter, O'Neill appears to have been happier than he ever had been before, and yet he was an erratic lover. Once, after an all-night drinking session, he directed "a tirade against [her] in language that he had learned at sea" for no apparent reason at all. "He was full of spite (at times), even of hatred. . . and made ironic and unkind comments about supposed friends--people to whom he was charming face to face."
On the other hand, Eugene told Agnes shortly after he met her, "You are the only one who can make me sure of myself -- sure about everything. . . . I want you alone -- in an aloneness broken by nothing. Not even by children. I don't understand children, they make me uneasy and I don't know how to act with them."Like so many of Eugene O'Neill's words, these proved prophetic.
In that fall of 1917 O'Neill did very little writing, and toward the end of the season he grew uneasy. He wanted very much to return to Provincetown, and he wanted Agnes to go with him. He was in no financial position to marry, for the Provincetown Players paid no royalties; in fact, he still required the dollar-a-day allowance from his father. Nevertheless, Agnes agreed to go.
Before they could leave, however, Eugene had to keep a promise made earlier to spend an evening with a friend, Louis Holliday. He had been out of town and wanted now to celebrate the happy resolution of a romantic problem. On the day of Holliday's return Eugene saw him briefly and the two men arranged to meet again in the evening. But that date was never kept. Holliday's bright expectations were suddenly crushed by the woman he loved, and a few hours later he committed suicide in a Village restaurant. A friend who was with him then immediately rushed to O'Neill and asked him to hurry over to the restaurant. But O'Neill was so shaken -- as he always was, in any association with death -- that he refused. Instead, he went to the Hell Hole and got horribly drunk. It was several days later when Eugene and Agnes left for Provincetown.
They spent that winter of 1917-1918 in a stove-heated studio rented to them by John Francis, and they were very happy. In the spring they received word that the vaudeville rights to In the Zone had been sold. It was to play for forty weeks on the Keith-Orpheum circuit and royalties would be fifty dollars a week. Eugene at once asked Agnes to marry him. The details were arranged by Alice Woods Ullman , a writer whom Agnes remembers as a "charming woman with blond-gray hair and a gay, kind face. . . , pretty and bright-looking." On the evening of April 12, 1918, in the home of a Presbyterian minister Eugene and Agnes were married.
O'Neill had been writing steadily since his return to Provincetown, and early in 1918 he had completed two one-act plays, Where the Cross Is Made and The Dreamy Kid. In the former, the son of a retired sea captain is arranging with a doctor to have the old man committed to an insane asylum. We learn that the father had once been marooned on an island, where he found a great treasure and buried it, and that he had brought home a map showing where it lay. The captain later sent out a crew to unearth the treasure, but their ship was lost and all hands perished; after that, he gave his son a copy of the map and shut himself in an attic room, which is a replica of his ship's cabin. Now the old man has lost his mind, and the son is troubled by his own involvement in his father's dream -- and greed. To free himself, he burns his map and resolves to devote himself to his own dream, the completion of a book which he has been writing.
Just as the asylum attendants arrive to take him away, the father dies. In his hand is another copy of the treasure map. The son sees it, his greed is reawakened, and he cries, "It isn't lost for me after all. There's still a chance--my chance. . . . I'll go and find it."
This is a far too obvious statement of the O'Neill theme that man is corrupted by the lust for gold. The characters announce their intentions to the audience before undertaking any action, and what with insanity, buried treasure and three maps, the long arm of coincidence suffers multiple fractures.
The Dreamy Kid is a melodramatic story, set in Greenwich Village, of a Negro murderer who returns home to see his dying grandmother. He is being pursued by the police, and his girl comes to warn him. He refuses to leave because, as he says, if he goes before his grandmother dies, her dying curse will bring him bad luck the rest of his life. The police come. His grandmother begs him to pray for her. She tells him he got the nickname Dreamy when he was a baby because of his "big eyes jest adreamin' and adreamin'." (The dialogue is in awkward Negro dialect -- probably better spoken than read.) As the police make a noise outside the door, the grandmother dies. Dreamy holds his pistol in one hand and his grandmother's hand in the other. "Dey don't git de Dreamy! Not while he's 'live! Lawd Jesus, no suh!"
O'Neill thought well enough of the play to include it in the 1934 three-volume collection of his plays. It is not very profound and too obviously melodramatic.
O'Neill was working on Beyond the Horizon, Agnes was turning out pulp stories, and their lives were proceeding placidly enough when one day a letter arrived from Louise Bryant. She wanted Eugene back and wrote that she had come "three thousand miles across the steppes of Russia" to see him; he must meet her in New York right away. O'Neill was considerably disturbed. He let Agnes know that Louise had told him that although she was married to John Reed, he was ill and unable to have sexual relations. Understandably Agnes refused to let Eugene go to New York, but agreed to a meeting in Fall River. Louise was furious and soon returned to Russia. John Reed died in 1920, and in 1923 Louise married William C. Bullitt, later United States Ambassador to Russia. Years later they were divorced and she ended her days in the bistros of Paris.
It was not long after this that O'Neill completed a draft of Beyond the Horizon. He had got the idea for it from a Norwegian shipmate on the voyage from Buenos Aires to New York. The sailor habitually cursed the day when he left his farm and went to sea twenty years before. This was a familiar lament among seamen, and O'Neill realized that this man was too much "a creature of the God of Things as They Are" to have stayed at home. But the playwright began to speculate about "a more intellectual, civilized type" in a comparable situation. In such a man, the "inborn craving for the sea's unrest" would be "intellectually diluted into a vague, intangible wanderlust. His powers of resistance, both moral and physical, would also be correspondingly watered."
Out of this speculation grew the story of two brothers and a girl -- Andrew Mayo, practical man and promising farmer; Robert Mayo, dreamer and poet; and Ruth, the girl who is expected to become Andrew's wife. Robert has signed up for a berth on his uncle's ship; he is about to begin his search for "the secret which is hidden . . . beyond the horizon." On the eve of his departure, however, he tells Ruth that he loves her, and she decides that she really loves him. She agrees to marry him, and Robert puts aside his dream of wandering. Andrew, when he is told about this, gives up his place on the farm and goes to sea in Robert's stead. A few years later Andrew, who has grown wealthy, pays a visit to the farm. Robert, who has inherited the farm, has ruined it by his mismanagement and has fallen ill of tuberculosis. Ruth has become embittered; she has come to hate her husband, and she now realizes that she should have married Andrew; but Andrew has long since recovered from the "silly nonsense" of love. In the final scene Robert drags himself to the crest of a hill, to look once more at his beloved horizon. Ruth and Andrew find him there. The dreamer tells his brother to be kind to Ruth because she has suffered; as for himself, he welcomes his approaching death as a release. Robert dies, and Ruth looks at Andrew "dully with the sad humility of exhaustion. . . ."
Beyond the Horizon, although it eventually won O'Neill his first Pulitzer Prize, cannot be numbered among his better plays. When he prepared it for publication, he cut one fifth of it. In addition to its prolixity (a weakness O'Neill was never able to overcome completely), the drama sinks beneath the weight of its allegorical intentions; the poet husband and the materialist brother become obvious representations instead of dramatically satisfying characters. However, as the sixth full-length play O'Neill wrote, it represents an important advance in his ability to deal with his own inner material.
One may speculate on the significance of this play in relation to O'Neill's own life at this time. He had just recently undertaken to settle down and stay put for a while. Perhaps he was again feeling that "inborn craving for the sea's unrest." And perhaps he imagined himself in the position of the character he visualized when he first thought of the play: a man who "would throw away his instinctive dream and accept the thralldom of the farm, for -- why, for almost any nice little poetical craving -- the romance of sex, say." He certainly gave no indication of any dissatisfaction with married life in his inscription on the flyleaf of the book when Beyond the Horizon was published two years later. It read:
To Agnes -- This our play in memory of the old mad studio days when it was written -- but much more in memory of the wonderful moment when first in your eyes I saw the promise of a land more beautiful than any I had ever known, a land of which I had dreamed only hopelessly, a land beyond my horizon.
O'Neill sent the manuscript of Beyond the Horizon to producer John D. Williams, who quickly took a six-month option on it, whereupon Eugene and Agnes left immediately for New York. They had planned to stay for two weeks, but Gene and his brother, Jamie, went on a week's bender at the Garden Hotel. At the end of their third week in New York, Agnes got Eugene back to Provincetown, and Jamie went with them. The three of them moved into Gene's old apartment above Francis' store, the brothers "dried out," and Gene went back to work. That summer he wrote much of The Straw and conceived Chris Christopherson. Jamie soon moved to an apartment next door, remained quite sober and spent the days pottering about the beach. He did not return to New York until the end of the summer, and the three lived in close amiability.
Jamie had been in love with Pauline Frederick, the actress, and they had been engaged. She told him he would have to choose between the bottle and herself, and Jamie chose the bottle. "Pauline is just an image that you fool around with in your sentimental moments," Gene told Jamie. "You convince yourself that if she married you, you wouldn't be hanging on to Mama and letting her secretly hand you out a quarter a day." Jamie's devotion to his mother was perhaps unnatural.
Eugene and Agnes often took long walks along the Provincetown dunes, and occasionally they walked out to the Peaked Hill Bars Coast Guard station, which was buried up to the windows in sand drifts. It had been completely redecorated and they both thought it would make an ideal home, as it would afford O'Neill the complete seclusion he needed for his work. In order to get to it, one had to walk or ride horseback. If they ever got hold of enough money, they would buy the place.
They returned to New York in November when Jim Cook urgently requested O'Neill's presence at rehearsals of Where the Cross Is Made. There was something about the city that invariably brought out the worst in O'Neill. The Provincetown group held a party to welcome back their playwright, and sometime during the evening Eugene took violent exception to Agnes' supposed attentions to Teddy Ballantine, an actor and painter. He swung his arm "as hard as possible" and hit her across the face with the back of his hand. Later, after Agnes had returned to the hotel, Eugene turned up full of whisky and remorse. "I saw a sick man standing in front of me," she says. She had seen him tortured and bitter, but she had never expected to see his bitterness turn against her. It was only the beginning.
The next day Eugene was in no condition to visit his parents at the Prince George Hotel, as had previously been planned. Agnes phoned them and made the excuses--something she was to do very often during their ten years of marriage. They went the following day, though. Agnes found the O'Neills a sweet, attractive, charming elderly couple, and James and Ella were delighted with their daughter-in-law. "There was certainly no indication," Agnes has said, "when I saw Ella then, or later, of any drug addiction. I recall that Gene had talked vaguely about his mother having had some trouble with drugs many, many years before. She was in fine shape when I saw her. Nothing in her behavior seemed unusual. . . . She was a beautiful person."The visit was somewhat marred when Jamie turned up drunk.
Several days later, Eugene and Agnes went to Old House, the Boultons' summer home at West Point Pleasant near Barnegat Bay in New Jersey, It is an old farmhouse with big rooms heated by fireplaces and stoves and a large studio with a skylight. Point Pleasant is less than two hours by train from New York, and O'Neill was able to get into the city, when necessary, and return the same day. At the end of November he was traveling into New York to attend rehearsals for Where the Cross Is Made and hurrying back to Agnes in Point Pleasant, where he continued to work on the first draft of The Straw. A full-length play based on his experiences at Gaylord Farm Sanatorium, it was the first play in which he expressed a strong affirmation of life. The Straw and Ah, Wilderness!, which he wrote much later, are often coupled together as the only plays in which O'Neill did not project the theme of defeatism which dominates his work, although Lazarus Laughed is suffused with a fatalistic optimism about Life with a capital "L." Agnes was at least partly responsible for the strain of hope in The Straw.
Life wasn't as grim as he made it in his plays, she often told him. O'Neill agreed that the way things were going for Agnes and himself, life was good. In his plays, he said, it was a matter of "Life is a tragedy. Hurrah!" This became a private joke between them and was called upon during rough times.
Unquestionably O'Neill's plays reflected his state of mind when he was working on them, and a good index to his marital happiness that winter when he was writing The Straw is the last line of the play. The heroine tells Stephen (a thinly disguised Eugene O'Neill of the sanatorium days), "I'll have to look out for you, Stephen, won't I? From now on."
Things were looking up for O'Neill. Boni and Liveright scheduled a book containing six of his one-act plays -- The Moon of the Caribbees, In the Zone, Where the Cross Is Made, The Rope, The Long Voyage Home, and Ile.
The Moon of the Caribbees opens with an odd singing effect, keening (an effect very much like the organ in The Long Voyage Home and the drumbeats in The Emperor Jones). A ship is docked in the Caribbees and a native funeral is in progress on shore. Some native women come aboard offering rum and their bodies for sale, and there is a knife fight and a riot. One sailor, incidentally, calls another a "hairy ape." Smitty, "the exquisite Englishman" O'Neill had met in Buenos Aires, is an alcoholic, pining away for the love of a good woman in London. His memories haunt and torture him (in much the same way as Jamie O'Neill was torture the riot, Smitty staggers back to his bunk, and in the stage directions O'Neill wrote that on the boat deck there was silence, broken only by the brooding music. It is far off now, getting fainter "like the mood of the moonlight made audible."
This is a successful play. The seamen immediately characterize themselves vividly, the violent action seems plausible enough, and the over-all mood is intense and real. O'Neill himself attached great importance to The Moon because it was his "first real break with theatrical traditions. Once [I] had taken this initial step, other plays followed logically." How rapidly O'Neill was improving is evident if one compares his first sea plays (Warnings, Thirst, Fog) with the plays of the Glencairn cycle.
The Rope is particularly interesting because it anticipates one of O'Neill's best plays, Desire under the Elms. Here, too, is one of his favorite themes -- the corruption of character by greed. This is the story of Abraham Bentley, a miser and Scripture-quoting New England hypocrite, who owns a farm bordering on the sea. He has been married twice and has a daughter by his first wife and a son by the second. The son steals money from his father and runs away, and Bentley puts a rope, fashioned into a noose, in the barn. He tells his daughter that the son must use the rope to hang himself. When the prodigal son returns he makes a pact with his sister and her husband to torture the old man into revealing where he has hidden some new money obtained from mortgaging the farm. Meanwhile, an eight-year-old grandchild wanders into the barn and plays with the rope, which "seems to part where it is fixed to the beam. A dirty gray bag tied to the end of the rope falls to the floor with a muffled, metallic thud." Mary, the child, is delighted because she discovers the gold pieces are better than skipping-stones. One by one, she skips them into the ocean, and the play ends.
The Rope, written in the winter of 1917-18, was the last of The Moon of the Caribbees cycle of plays. Despite its easy ironies, the play is impressive, not only as a prelude but in its own right.
There was another sign that winter that O'Neill's literary fortunes were on the rise. John D. Williams gave him a contract, which called for the production of Beyond the Horizon and gave Williams an option on all O'Neill's future plays.
Meanwhile, O'Neill was writing one of his great and enduring successes, drawn from his experiences at Jimmy the Priest's. He titled this play Chris Christophersen. Later he learned from the American-Scandinavian Foundation that the last syllable should be spelled son. This play was rewritten and produced as Anna Christie in 1921. (In 1957 it was made into a musical comedy called New Girl in Town.)
Chris was an actual person, with the same name, whom O'Neill had once known. "He had followed the sea so long," O'Neill said of the real Chris, "that he got sick at the thought of it. When I knew him, he was on the beach, a real down-and-outer. He wouldn't ship out, although it was the only work he knew, and he spent his time getting drunk and cursing the sea. 'Dat old devil,' he called it. He got terribly drunk down at Jimmy's one Christmas Eve and reeled off at about two o'clock in the morning for his barge. On Christmas morning he was found in the river, frozen to death. He must have fallen in."
Eventually, Anna Christie, whom O'Neill created as a fictional daughter of Chris Christopherson, came to dominate the play. Her father had deserted Anna and her mother in Sweden and had gone off to sea. After the death of Anna's mother, Chris brought the child to America, to live with relatives on a Minnesota farm. There she was debauched by her cousins and fled to the city, where she got a job as a nurse in a family home. There, too, she was violated by the men of the family. Again she fled and she eventually turned to prostitution. Finally she seeks out her father and, when the two meet, Chris tries to explain why he deserted her when she was a baby, and why he did not keep in touch with her after her mother's death. The best explanation he can give is "dat ole davil sea make dem crazy fools with her dirty tricks." In the barge home of her father, Anna meets the stoker Matt Burke, and the two fall in love. She is purified by her love and by her wholesome contact with the sea, and the two lovers are betrothed as the story ends.
Despite it Hollywood ending, Anna Christie is a fine play. The dialogue is immensely improved, becoming lyrical and dramatic at the same time; the characters are simply themselves and yet representative of all that O'Neill thought was inherent and inescapable in human nature. To a vast public, Anna has become well known in the likeness of Greta Garbo, who portrayed her so effectively in the motion picture. Like Tennessee Williams' Blanche DuBois, Anna is an instantly memorable person, one of O'Neill's truly great creations. The direct force of her characterization in the development of the play overcomes the premise of a somewhat gaudy background. She is what she is, and there is no denying Anna as an unforgettable personality in dramatic literature.
O'Neill felt that he had lost face, especially with his literary friends, because of what the critics called the play's "happy ending." Couldn't people understand that ultimately the Furies would get Anna and her sailor friend? "The decision," he wrote, "still rests with the sea, which has achieved the conquest of Anna." He explained to George Jean Nathan, "The happy ending is merely the comma at the end of a gaudy introductory clause with the body of the sentence still unwritten."
There was still a very much
unwritten sentence in O'Neill's own life. Like Chris, O'Neill had
deserted his wife and baby and gone off to sea, and had seen his
baby just once. Eugene junior was living with a man he thought his
real father. Years later, when the sentence was finally completed,
there was no happy ending. There have been no happy endings for any
of the O'Neills.
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