xi: Death of the Count
Eugene O'Neill said that he wanted to show in his plays the impelling, inscrutable forces behind the things that happen in life. He was always acutely conscious of what he called the Force. He was not sure whether this Force was Fate or our biological past creating the present, but he believed strongly in a central mystery that often revealed itself through accident.
It may have been that on December 6, 1918, some such compelling, inscrutable force caused James O'Neill to be struck by an automobile. He and Ella were getting off a streetcar at Broadway and Twenty-seventh Street. They had been on their way to their hotel, the Prince George at Twenty-eighth Street just east of Fifth Avenue. Helped by passersby, James and Ella took a taxi to the hotel, where a doctor found lacerations of the hands, knees, and right foot. Although the doctor said that the injuries were not as serious as was at first expected and that the seventy-three-year-old actor would be out of bed in a day or two, James O'Neill never fully recovered.
Eugene and Jamie hastened to their father's bedside. So that he might get to New York more frequently -- partly on his father's account -- Eugene stayed at West Point Pleasant well into the spring, instead of proceeding to Provincetown. During that winter he had been working steadily on his play about Chris, and in April he completed it. He had it typed and he arranged for a copy to be sent to Nathan. He noted in his letter to Nathan that Williams' dilatory tactics had driven him to using an agent -- the American Play Company. Meanwhile, he was sending along two copies of the newly published book of his plays, The Moon of the Caribbees, for Nathan and Henry L. Mencken. Eugene wanted to show his gratitude to the two editors for their encouragement and constructive criticism. He had not yet met either of them in person, and he told Nathan that he would drop around at his office in the hope of meeting him. He also wrote Barrett Clark and George Tyler, his father's old producer, that he would like to see them while he was in New York.
In March, 1919, Agnes learned that she was pregnant. The doctor told her the baby was due about the first of October. Unlike most expectant mothers, Agnes did not rush home to tell her husband the good news. But then, the O'Neills were not only unlike most people; they were unlike everyone else. They lived in a world of their own making. Eugene had just received a most encouraging letter from Barrett Clark and he was finishing the last scene of The Straw. Agnes did not want to disturb him, and she remembered that he wanted her alone, without children. She told him the next day. "His first reaction was that the doctor had made a mistake; his second reaction was silence."
The elder O'Neills, however, were made very happy by the news. Perhaps, at last, their strange, wayward, wandering son was going to settle down with this nice woman and have babies and live like a proper Irish Catholic.
Eugene and Agnes went to New York for several days during the middle of May, 1919. O'Neill dropped around to the Smart Set's "editorial chambers," as Nathan called his offices, at Eighth Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street.
"I found O'Neill to be an extremely shy fellow," Nathan has said, "but one who nevertheless appeared to have a vast confidence in himself."
Nathan was a man who appeared to have a vast confidence in himself, too. He was dark and handsome, and he probably was the most urbane man in American letters; he had a patrician manner, a quiet but mordant wit, and a long black cigarette holder. Nathan, an acquaintance has remarked, was a connoisseur, a gentleman and a scholar.
O'Neill and Nathan liked each other immediately and chatted for almost an hour. They had in common a strong desire to get serious drama onto the American stage. Before O'Neill, the American theater had been cheap, sentimental and tawdry. It was "afraid of its own emotions," as Eugene said, and Nathan could not have agreed with him more. It would not be too great an exaggeration to say that the emergence of an important American theater is due in very great measure to the efforts of these two men -- O'Neill with his honest and moving dramas, Nathan with his pointed criticism and his belief in O'Neill as the first fine American playwright.
O'Neill promised Nathan that he would show him everything he wrote. "This he did," said Nathan. "O'Neill is a deep-running personality -- the most ambitious mind I have encountered among American dramatists -- an uncommon talent." Eugene found the critic "warm and friendly and human," and he admitted that he had been "three-quarters blotto" at the encounter. Later, Nathan wrote O'Neill to say that he was glad to know that Eugene was as proficient at drinking cocktails as he was at concocting dramas. The suspicion remains that, despite the cordial correspondence between the two men, O'Neill had been very nervous about meeting the formidable Nathan.
Before O'Neill and Agnes left for Provincetown, Eugene arranged to have The Straw typed. It began to go the rounds of the producers. Williams had turned down Chris, but he had liked The Straw. He did not take an option on it, however.
It was James O'Neill's old friend, Tyler, who showed interest in Chris. Tyler, a veteran Broadway producer since the 1880s, had been the producer of some of the elder O'Neill's plays, and he had been on tour with James and Ella when Eugene, then a year-old baby, turned almost black in a Chicago hotel room. Tyler went out in search of a doctor at four o'clock in the morning. Ella was frantic; she thought Eugene was dying, but the doctor said it was only colic. In later years Tyler enjoyed kidding Eugene about saving his life.
Tyler also had some criticisms of Chris, and all through the summer and into the fall O'Neill rewrote the play to accord with Tyler's views. The trouble lay in the ending, which Tyler felt should be strengthened. He also objected to the fact that Chris was left in the last scene with very little to do or say. In one version, O'Neill made the climax of the play what one director called a "rather theatric and ultimately futile attack with a knife." William Farnum was asked to play Chris but, although he liked the play, he was unable to fit it into his schedule. Later, Emmet Corrigan was hired. It was O'Neill's opinion that, from an artistic standpoint, Corrigan was better than Farnum, who had spent too many years in Hollywood.
In May, Eugene and Agnes went to Provincetown again and were met at the station by John Francis. Gene had asked him to find a house for rent on the dunes. Francis told them they didn't have to rent a house, and he handed them the deed to the Peaked Hill cottage that Gene had mentioned to his parents as a place he longed for. He had also let it be known that it was for sale. Ella had convinced James that Eugene needed a home for Agnes, and James had sent Francis a check in full payment for the house and had had the deed made out in the name of Eugene Gladstone O'Neill.
The description of the property lines in the deed used words which, in a very real sense, also describe the boundaries of the murky, lost world of Eugene O'Neill and his plays: "Bounded on the East by land unknown. . . on the South by land unknown. . . on the West by lands unknown. . . bounded on the North by the Atlantic ocean. . . ."
The place had been owned by a wealthy New York financier and art patron named Sam Lewisohn. Mabel Dodge had lived there for a short time with her painter husband, Maurice Sterne. It was she who had first found the place, in 1914. Then, it was half covered with sand, "lonely and aloof on the high sand above the beach, wild enough to suit anyone." Sam Lewisohn, a friend of Sterne's, told her to buy and do over the station and they would take turns using it as a summer place. He would pay the bills.
It turned out that the building was in excellent condition, tight and shiplike. Mabel Dodge had had the interior walls painted white and blue and the hardwood floors cleaned and waxed. From Boston she had sent down a complete set of Italian dishes decorated with fish. At the end of the living room she had built a great brick fireplace. She had furnished the room with low couches and cushions in blue and white; two of the couches were from the "Ark," the home of Isadora Duncan. There were also huge majolica platters hung here and there. She had even had books on the sea placed on the bookshelves.
Eugene and Agnes settled at Peaked Hill. Once a week they walked to town and then, laden with groceries, hired a wagon to take them back. O'Neill was delighted with his new home -- his first home, actually -- and told friends that it was a strange toy which Sam Lewisohn, "the millionaire," had fixed up and had grown tired of. He boasted of having the Atlantic as his front lawn and miles of sand dunes as his back yard. He didn't have to wear clothes, as there were no houses within sight and there were none of "the unrefined refinements of civilization." He described the three-mile walk to town, up and down over sand dunes, as the penalty one paid for communication with the world of people.
At the end of September, John D. Williams, the producer, who still held an option on Beyond the Horizon, told O'Neill he was about to begin casting the play. Then he procrastinated. Tyler, meanwhile, was still holding back on the production of Chris. O'Neill with two proposed Broadway productions, was just on the edge of the big time, but he couldn't seem to get over the edge.
He and Agnes moved into Provincetown, where they rented a heated house from a Portuguese fisherman. He wrote Tyler he could not go to New York for the rehearsals of Chris. Hadn't the Governor, as he called his father, told him he was going to have a grandchild? O'Neill was saying, at the end of September, that he expected the child any day and that he wanted more than anything to remain with Agnes during her confinement. Really, Agnes has said, he wanted more than anything to get his work done. He used her pregnancy as an excuse. The Provincetown Players produced The Dreamy Kid in New York on October 31, but O'Neill did not attend those rehearsals either.
At this point, Williams offered him a small advance on The Straw but Eugene turned the offer down. He asked Richard Madden, his play agent, to send the script to Tyler. Tyler wrote that he had the script and was praying for Agnes and her unborn child. In thanking him, O'Neill made a special plea that he read The Straw. In many of his letters, O'Neill has indicated that he believed few producers or actors read the plays that were sent to them. He said The Straw was ten times better than Chris.
All during September, O'Neill worried not only about the coming birth of his child but about money. In the Zone was no longer bringing him royalties. The flu epidemic had cut audiences down, and with the ending of the war the play had become outdated. Tyler offered to let him have some money, but O'Neill refused. If he did reach such dire straits where an SOS was necessary, he wrote, he would apply to Tyler, not as to a theatrical manager but as to a friend.
Early on the morning of October 30, 1919, Agnes gave birth to their long-awaited baby. Being overdue, he weighed about ten pounds. His voice carried, O'Neill told a friend, farther than his old man's. O'Neill had asked James Stephens, the Irish poet and novelist, with whom he had corresponded, for some good Irish names. Stephens had sent him a list of first names for both sexes, among them the one O'Neill chose for his new son, Shane Rudraighe O'Neill. He was a dark-haired, delicate-featured little baby with black eyelashes. He was, in fact, a black Irishman like his father; even as a baby he had what O'Neill often referred to, in descriptions of the characters in his plays, as an "Irish look." He sent word to Tyler that the great event had taken place, and that now he knew that "a theatrical manager's prayers are given the big time on High." If O'Neill thought of his first son, Eugene junior, at this time, he never mentioned it to anyone.
In November Tyler read The Straw, liked it, and said he would produce it. He thought, and O'Neill agreed, that it should come into New York in the wake of Chris. On November 13, Tyler gave O'Neill a check and a contract for the production of Straw. O'Neill, in thanking Tyler, said he was glad he had not had to borrow money from anyone during this trying period. He knew that if he had appealed to his father he could have had money, but he would never allow himself to need money that much. Meanwhile, although O'Neill now had three plays under contract, none seemed to be going into production. Williams had still not cast Beyond, which he had been sure he was going to open that fall. Tyler was still having trouble with the script of Chris. In the last scene of the latest rewrite, Chris was to call out "Dat ole davil sea, she ain't God." O'Neill was for having a steamer's whistle answer just before the collision. There would be an impressive pause that would give suspense before the curtain. But the actors objected; they wanted, not silences, but something to say. Tyler confessed it was extremely difficult trying to get the play into shape without having O'Neill on hand.
It is scarcely any wonder that O'Neill spent the winter working on a play he called Gold. The last act of the play is a rewrite of Where the Cross Is Made. The old sea captain confesses that he murdered two men where the treasure is buried. He has saved a bit of the treasure and, dying, he shows it to his son, who tells him that his "gold" is worthless junk. The old man dies, the son is saved, sobbing, "What a damn fool I've been." The corruption of character by greed is a theme underlying many of O'Neill's plays and Gold is a blatant example. Nathan thought Gold showed an advance in O'Neill's work but Barrett Clark disagrees, saying that in none of his previous plays were O'Neill's "basic shortcomings as a playmaker more strikingly evident."
Gold is a very poor play indeed, awkward and unconvincing in every aspect. Naturally, it possesses the same faults as Where the Cross Is Made. The plot is so contrived that the characters could not be made convincing or sympathetic even if their dialogue were good, which it is not.
O'Neill well knew the power for evil and the cancerous corruption that can lie in both the possession of money and the striving for it. If anything was successful, if it made money, O'Neill was suspicious. Even when some of his own work was commercially successful, he was troubled. "When everybody likes something," he often told friends, "watch out!"
Williams eventually put Beyond the Horizon into rehearsal in January, 1920. He began the O'Neill invasion of Broadway by stealth. His plan was to offer the play in a series of matinees. If it looked as if it were going to be successful, he would put it on at night.
O'Neill, leaving Agnes and Shane in Provincetown, in the care of a nurse, went to New York. He managed to attend rehearsals and also to see a good deal of his mother and father at the Prince George. For the first time in his life he was beginning to come to terms with his father. The old actor's respect for Eugene had been mounting steadily in proportion to the attention that professional producers were giving to his son's plays. James O'Neill was far more interested in a play's commercial success than in its artistic merits. Furthermore, it looked as if his son had finally settled down. Certainly he was working hard.
James O'Neill's pride in his son reached a climax when Beyond the Horizon opened at a matinee performance on Saturday, February 2, 1920, at the Morosco Theatre. Richard Bennett, who had helped persuade Williams to produce the play, was the lead. James not only attended the opening but took an entire box. Seated with the happy, smiling old actor were his wife, Jamie, George Tyler and other friends.
James O'Neill was probably not aware of it, but he was seeing the passing of his kind of American theater with its old-fashioned, flamboyant acting. Melodrama, pathos, blood and thunder, hearts and flowers were already a little passé. They were yielding to the neorealism -- to the interpretation of contemporary experience -- that constitutes the serious aspect of Broadway today, and which his son was inaugurating. Naturally, Beyond the Horizon puzzled James O'Neill with its sadness, its frustrations, its tragic ending. It was easy for him to sense that the audience responded well, but his reaction was unfavorable according to Eugene's report of their conversation after the performance. "It's all right," the old man said, "if that's what you want to write, but people come to the theater to forget their troubles, not to be reminded of them. What are you trying to do -- send them home to commit suicide?"
"I didn't try to answer my father," O'Neill later commented. "He and I hadn't got along so well. We had had a running battle for a good many years, and I know there were times when he's just about given me up. Not that I can blame him. If anything, he was too patient with me. What I wonder now is why he didn't kick me out. I gave him every chance to. And yet, as sometimes happens, we were close to each other -- we were a very close family. My father, somehow or other, managed to believe in me.
"When he read the plays in Thirst, which he hadn't seen before they were published, he threw up his hands. 'My God!' he said. 'Where did you get such thoughts?' But he encouraged me to go ahead. I didn't expect him to like Beyond the Horizon, which wasn't the sort of thing he could like, so I wasn't surprised by what he said. All the same, I think he was pleased."
At The Players, the actors' club on Gramercy Park, where James occasionally dropped in for a drink, he reveled in the role of the proud father. He was particularly pleased when it was announced that Beyond the Horizon had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Clayton Hamilton was one of those who congratulated James on his son's success, as they stood at the bar in The Players. Hamilton, too, felt pride in the young playwright, whom he rightfully regarded as a protégé. James O'Neill became expansive with fatherly pride.
"My boy Eugene -- I always knew he had it in him!" the old man said. "I remember, Clayton, how I always used to say that he would do something big some day. People told me he was wild and good for nothing, but I always knew he had it in him, didn't I?"
Hamilton did not remind him that he could remember a day when the father was convinced that Eugene would never amount to anything.
Soon after the opening of Beyond, Williams put it on the boards six nights a week. It ran for 111 performances. The box-office gross was $117,071. Eugene's share, including out-of-town performances, was $7,600.
Although this was one of the happiest periods in Eugene's life, his finely attuned ears heard the distinct roll of thunder. You always paid for success -- hadn't he said so himself? For one thing, he was having misgivings about whether Beyond was really a good play, despite the fact that it had been hailed enthusiastically. Some of Eugene's friends had reservations. Barrett Clark thought Beyond was "overpraised and too long," and Richard Dana Skinner said it was the first fully rounded, "if somewhat vague, statement of the poet's problem." True, George Jean Nathan and Clayton Hamilton praised the play without reservation.
"The people of this play," Hamilton wrote, "are absolutely real and utterly alive. The action is absorbing from the outset. The dialogue is masterly in its simplicity and in its strict fidelity to character. Here is a play which Americans may well be proud of. It is the first great tragedy that has been contributed to the drama of the world by a native American playwright." But Nathan and Hamilton had been on his side from the first and, like so many artists, good and bad, Eugene continued to have self-doubts. Perhaps if no one had liked Beyond the Horizon, he would have thought it a good play.
O'Neill was in Provincetown when he received the news that he was getting the Pulitzer Prize. He said that he thought it was simply "some wooden medal or something." When he heard that five hundred dollars came with it, he "nearly fell in the ocean." The money came in "damn handy," he said, for he had a lot of bills to pay off.
If Eugene really feared that success brought its own form of retribution, his fears were soon enough realized. Shortly after the opening of Beyond, his mother fell ill of the flu. Eugene, who had been staying at the Prince George, caught it from her. Bedridden in New York, he worried about his wife and child in Provincetown. At the same time, George Tyler, who had decided to produce Chris Christopherson, wanted Eugene to make changes in the script.
Just as Ella and Eugene began to recover, James O'Neill, who had never completely regained his health since his accident the previous spring, suffered a stroke. Eugene had begun to attend rehearsals of Chris. Agnes, meanwhile, wrote from Provincetown that life without her husband was increasingly difficult.
Eugene talked at length to his father, now bed-bound, about what he was trying to do in his plays. He said he wanted to follow the dream, to live for the dream alone. In time, after long hard work, he might be able to conquer the problem of expressing his own real, possibly significant, bit of truth. He knew it would be a long struggle. Meanwhile, he said, he would try and have the guts to ignore what he called "the magaphone men" and all that they stood for.
James, who like his son was a romanticist, said he understood perfectly. He, too, had wanted to follow the dream. There had been a time when it was thought that he would become the finest Shakespearean actor of his time. Had he not listened to the "megaphone men," he might have stood alongside Edwin Booth as one of the theater's greats. As it was, James said, he had fallen for the mirage of easy popularity and easy money by going on playing, season after season, The Count of Monte Cristo. This play, which he knew in his heart was tripe, had been, he said, his curse. By playing in it, he had supported a group of actor-yokels in his old age. And what made it all the harder to face was the fact that he had benefited little from the riches the play had yielded. Much of the money had been thrown away, lost in ridiculous speculations. He had never found time to find out how to invest wisely. He had trusted incompetents.
His father's bitterness made a deep impression on Eugene. He told himself that he would never sell out, and that he would never stay put at any one successful stage of his career.
Early in March, Agnes fell ill in Provincetown and Eugene left New York to be with her and Shane. He knew it was important to stay in New York for the rehearsals of Chris. Agnes, however, was bedridden and there were no trained nurses available anywhere near Provincetown. When he was chided for not being on hand for the final rehearsals of Chris, he said that Agnes' call on him was stronger than all the plays he could ever write. Agnes later remarked that "O'Neill returned to Provincetown because he was ill from the flu and too much booze." Again, she feels, he used her as an excuse.
Chris Christopherson opened at Atlantic City on March 8, 1920, to an audience of what one producer called gum-chewing sweethearts and tango lovers, and moved on to Philadelphia. O'Neill didn't see the performances; he sent Richard Madden, his play agent to view it for him. The notices were fair but the play never came into New York. O'Neill charged that Tyler had cut it injudiciously and thus had spoiled the characterizations. The producer, he said, had taken all the "quality and guts out of the play." Eugene also said that Chris's failure was largely a matter of bad luck. He was obsessed, as he was always to be, by the idea that doom was haunting him. The truth was that Tyler should probably not have been working with O'Neill as a producer. The two men stood for different kinds of theater, different values, even different ages.
The Provincetown Players produced his Exorcism at the end of March. Although O'Neill was receiving no royalties from the Provincetown productions of his plays, he insisted on working with his old group. Exorcism is the story of a young man who, unable to abide living in the slums, takes poison in his tenement flat. Two friends find him unconscious and call a doctor, who gets there just in time to save his life. This was a play that O'Neill thought less and less of, with considerable justification.
As the spring wore on, O'Neill became convinced that ill fortune was hounding him. He was deeply depressed. Agnes remained bedridden, although she was somewhat better toward the end of March. He was unable to get any writing done. The failure of Chris disheartened him. The Straw which Williams and several other producers talked about producing, appeared to be a lost cause.
From New York came word that a number of specialists had conferred regarding his father's illness and were considering the question of surgery. Eugene was torn by remorse over all the years that he and his father had lived in misunderstanding. Now, just when he and his father were finding some kind of common ground, the gods were threatening to take him away.
At about this time Tyler decided he would produce The Straw, perhaps try it out with a few matinees in Boston. O'Neill objected vigorously; obviously, Tyler was showing lack of confidence in the play. "Wouldn't it be unfair to have to give up a month's hard work at creative writing for one experimental-acting matinee?" O'Neill wanted the rehearsals held in New York. His parents were there and he felt more at home in New York than in Boston. He insisted that he was "the only one who can tell the cast what, how and why they ought to behave." Referring to the fact that he was ill when rehearsals for The Straw were scheduled, Eugene wrote, "I'll come into town, hell and high water -- if I have to be carried in on a stretcher."
He also objected to the idea of Helen Hayes playing Eileen, the lead. The role, he said, was so tremendous and its requirements were so many that only one of the best dramatic actresses in America should be cast in this part. Using Helen Hayes would be "in the nature of a hunch bet, a radical experiment, a gambling on the unknown."
He was convinced that his bad luck would doom The Straw, and his letters to Tyler were full of complaints. Some were even hostile. At times he would grow remorseful over his treatment of his father's old friend, who was, after all, only trying to produce his plays. He explained his behavior on the grounds that his nerves had been so frayed and frazzled ever since the previous fall that he could not even get along with himself. Now that he was beside the sea again and breathing salt air, he felt he was returning to sanity. He even went so far as to write Tyler that he didn't blame anyone but himself for the failure of Chris.
By the end of April doctors decided nothing good could come of an operation on James O'Neill. This was the old actor's death warrant and he knew it. Jamie gave Eugene the news in a letter and Agnes decided to go down to New York, taking Shane with her, since James had never seen his grandchild. Perhaps the sight of what Eugene called the lusty heir to this branch of the clan would "cheer up the Governor." Ella was also extremely anxious to see Shane. It had been a long time since she had held an O'Neill baby in her arms.
James O'Neill made a great to-do over Shane. The old actor recited to the infant all the "glorious deeds of Shane the Proud and all the other O'Neills." The part of the ancient and dying patriarch was a great role for James. He was the chief clansman seeing the last of his line that he would ever lay eyes on. "Remember, lad," he said to Shane, "you are a descendant of Irish kings. In your veins flows the blood of John the Proud, Lord of the Red Hand. You'll carry the line on and on into the future."
It was an odd but happy family group. Ella and James agreed to visit Agnes and Eugene at Peaked Hill the next summer. When they left, Agnes took Shane to New Jersey on a visit to her mother and father at Point Pleasant before going back to Provincetown.
George Tyler visited the elder O'Neill's while Eugene was in Provincetown. He had a long talk with Jamie about The Straw. He described it as a Romeo-and-Juliet-type play with a lot of "coughing and spitting" in it. Of course, he said, the weighing scene in the first act would have to be cut out.
Jamie, who often teased his younger brother about his pretensions as a serious playwright, reported the conversation to Eugene, who was, naturally enough, furious. He swore that there were only a few coughs and not one spit. He wrote Tyler an intemperate letter in which he proposed to pay back his advance to Tyler and withdraw the play. Furthermore, this time there would be no tryout before the gum-chewing sweethearts of Atlantic City. There would not be any rewriting. The Straw was his play and he would fight for it, line by line. He could get it published in book form and that was the way he would have the play judged. At the end of the letter, he insisted he was writing with no "bitterness or any animus whatsoever."
Tyler thought otherwise. It may have been that, besides the letter, he had heard some of the tirades Eugene had launched against him and all other money-grubbing producers. He replied that all the worry about what he (Tyler) thought of The Straw was the result of Eugene's imaginings. He was sorry that Eugene thought him an idiot manager blind to the artistic side of the theater and caring only for financial success. He felt that Eugene had reached a "perfectly stupid conclusion" about what he (Tyler) thought of The Straw. Eugene replied that no play was worth all this unpleasantness. Tyler could keep the play until his option ran out but he never wanted to hear about it again except as a book.
In June, James O'Neill took a turn for the worse and was taken to St. Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village. But he rallied quickly, and later that month he and Ella were able to go to New London. James's old friend and real-estate manager, Thomas Fortune D'Orsey, has said that James O'Neill "came back to New London to die." Perhaps a less dramatic reason was that New London was cooler than New York. James had hardly settled in New London when he took ill again and was taken to the Lawrence Memorial Hospital.
Jamie and Eugene came at once. Art McGinley has recalled that both of them did a good deal of drinking at local bars during June and July. It was about then that Eugene received a check for $1,500, part of his proceeds from Beyond. He showed it to his barroom friends as proof that he could amount to something, and he offered to share it with his old friend McGinley.
James O'Neill was bitter at being ill. From his bedside, he continued to pour out his lifelong regrets to Eugene. He felt his illness was retribution for the sins of his past life, for having had an illegitimate child, for having betrayed his talents as an actor and sold out for money. He cursed the money he had made, for it had done him no good. He had gold mines that yielded prairie dogs, oil wells that gave water and coal lands that produced rock. He seemed, to Eugene, a broken, unhappy man. He talked on and on about how life was "a damned hard billet to chew." Eugene reflected at length on the spectacle of this man, whom all the world regarded as a rich, famous, and respected actor, dying so miserably. As the hot days of July wore on, James slipped into unconsciousness. Agnes came down from Provincetown.
Shortly after midnight on August 10, 1920, James O'Neill died, with Ella, Jamie, Eugene and Agnes at his bedside. A priest gave him extreme unction. The funeral was held on the fourth day following his death, and there was a requiem mass at St. Mary's Catholic Church. He was laid to rest in St. Mary's Cemetery beside his infant son, Edmund Dantes O'Neill. Also beside James, on the high, flat ground at New London, was his mother-in-law, Bridget Quinlan, who had died in New London in 1887, a year before the birth of Eugene.
His death received good notices. The New York Times gave his age as seventy. He had lived exactly seventy-four years, nine months and twenty-seven days. The Times did not stress his perennial playing of Monte Cristo but spoke of his having played in "repertory" during the last twenty years of his career, listed Fontanelle, Virginius, Richelieu, Hamlet, The Three Musketeers, the Manxman, and Monte Cristo, and referred to his "being compelled by contract to play in the last-named piece more often than the others because of its never-ending popularity with the masses."
The obituary also touched on the fact that James O'Neill's death had helped close an era in the American theater: "O'Neill was one of the last of the old school of actors well grounded in their profession, always effective and a lover of all that is true and good in dramatic art, always holding up with authority the best traditions of the American stage."
Both Eugene and Jamie took their father's death very hard. They went on one of the most protracted benders that ever have been seen in New London. It was in the tradition of an Irish wake -- a celebration of a fine man's entering into the kingdom of God -- but, tradition or not, it was some drunk!
Eugene later revealed something
of what he felt about his father in The Great God Brown:
"What aliens we were to each other! When he lay dead, his face
looked so familiar that I wondered where I had met that man before.
Only at the second of my conception. After that, we grew hostile
with concealed shame."
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