xii: Portrait in Mid-Career
On a foggy day in Provincetown, about a week after the death of James O'Neill, Olin Downes, music critic on the New York Call, accompanied by a friend, walked the three miles to Peaked Hill. Surprised to see two strangers approaching the house, Eugene stepped outside. Downes quickly explained that he was a newspaperman and asked the playwright if he would talk.
"I'll try anything once," O'Neill said, and he invited Downes and his friend in. Downes asked, "Any wrecks hereabouts?" and O'Neill replied, "Not lately, or I might have a bottle with a label on it to offer you." Agnes greeted the two men and went to make tea.
Downes had come to listen and observe. He observed that the living room was like a Washington Square studio. There was a fire in the big open fireplace. The wind "hummed in the timbers" and he would not have been surprised, he wrote afterward, to see the bowsprit of the Flying Dutchman coming through the fog. O'Neill reminded him of another Eugene -- Eugene Marchbanks, the hero of Shaw Candida -- because of his "almost feminine sensibilities and his physical tremors and fears." At the same time, Downes wrote "this O'Neill is a man's man, an adventurer born, reasonably close-cropped, spare, fit-looking and very brown, loathing soiled shirts and regretting passage of the Eighteenth Amendment."
O'Neill quickly reviewed his early life for Downes. Then he told, with a trace of pride, how he had sailed from Mystic Wharf in Boston on a Norwegian barque.
"You're musical," he remarked suddenly to Downes. "Well, let me ask you, did you ever hear chanting sung on the sea? You never did? It's not surprising. There are even fewer sailing vessels now than there were ten short years ago when I pulled out for the open. They don't have to sing as they haul the ropes. They don't humor a privileged devil who has a fine voice and hell inside of him as he chants that wonderful stuff and they pull to the rhythm of the song and the waves. Ah, but I wish you might hear that and feel the roll of the ship and I wish you might listen to an accordion going in the forecastle, through the sighing of winds and the wash of the sea."
As O'Neill warmed to his subject, Downes noted that a "fey" look came into his eyes.
"They [the seamen] were fine fellows. I've never forgotten them, nor, I hope, they me. Indeed, I look on a sailor man as my particular brother and next to the passing of the Eighteenth Amendment perhaps you can put down my regret that the hangout of many of my old pals, Jimmy the Priest's down by Fulton Street in New York, has gone the way of many good things, nevermore to be seen."
He talked of his gold prospecting trip to Spanish Honduras. He said he never knew there could be such a variety of insects, of "creeping, crawling, flying, stinging things -- some of them rank poison -- in the world." Contrary to what people said, however, few died of the bite of the tarantula. The hunting and fishing were great, and now and then there was "a jaguar up on the hillside yowling you to sleep."
On his last voyage, O'Neill said proudly, he was an able seaman. "That means you can box the compass and do several other things which the ordinary seaman cannot. I sailed on a line which ran from South America to Cherbourg. It was an ugly tedious job and no place for a man who wanted to call his soul his own. I did not love it. This was a steamer, you know, and what we did mainly was to swab decks and shift baggage and mail. Those South American Germans -- they used to send the folks home souvenirs and Christmas presents which included stuffed beasts, ore, anything in the world, provided, as it seemed to me, that it would break your back for you."
He told how, when at last he came home, his father had given him a job as an actor in a Monte Cristo troupe that was touring the Orpheum circuit in the West. "In four days," he said, "on the train from New Orleans to a place in Utah, I memorized the part of Albert, son of Marcades. I was scared stiff on the stage and was a very poor actor. I'd never have been able to keep the job as long as I did if it had not been for my father. The audiences were great fun, though, and I suppose the experience of the stage was some help to me later on."
The talk turned to writing plays and O'Neill said he didn't think "any real dramatic stuff is created off the top of your head. That is, the roots of a drama have to be in life, however fine and delicate or symbolic or fanciful the development. . . . My real start as a dramatist was when I got out of an academy and among men on the sea."
Not only the sea but other experiences, O'Neill continued, served him. "As I've said," he went on, "I have never written anything which did not come directly or indirectly from some event or impression of my own, but these things often develop very differently from what you expect. For example, I intended at first, in Beyond the Horizon, to portray, in a series of disconnected scenes, the life of a dreamer who pursues his vision over the world, apparently without success, or a completed deed in his life. At the same time, it was my intention to show at least a real accretion from his wandering and dreaming, a thing intangible but real and precious beyond compare, which he had successfully made his own. But the technical difficulty of the task proved enormous, and I was led to a grimmer thing: the tragedy of the man who looks over the horizon, who longs with his whole soul to depart on the quest but whom destiny confines to a place and a task that are not his."
Listening intently, Downes became convinced that O'Neill might have been the hero of Beyond if he had stayed on in commonplace security and if he had not met "a kindred spirit in his wife." When Agnes brought Shane into the living room, O'Neill remarked that they planned to take a trip up the Amazon the following year, if Agnes' mother could be induced to take care of the baby.
Downes questioned O'Neill about his reading. Had it affected his work very much?
"Oh, yes, very much indeed, from the beginning," O'Neill said. "And with reading, as with my college studies, it was not until I had to shift, mentally as well as physically, for myself, that my awakenings came. Thus, in college, a work which made an indelible impression on me was Wilde Dorian Gray.
"Meanwhile, I was studying Shakespeare in class and this study made me afraid of him. I've only recently explored Shakespeare with profit and pleasure untold. Then there were the Russians; certain novels of Dostoievsky and Tolstoi War and Peace have become parts of my life.
"In college, Oscar Wilde, Jack London and Joseph Conrad were much nearer to me than Shakespeare. And so, later, was Ibsen."
When Downes expressed surprise at his interest in Ibsen, O'Neill said that people are too apt to think of Ibsen as merely dreadful and deep. "He's deep all right," O'Neill continued, "and sometimes dreadful, like life itself, but he's also intensely human and understandable. I needed no professor to tell me that Ibsen as dramatist knew whereof he spoke. I found him for myself outside college grounds and hours. If I had met him inside I might still be a stranger to Ibsen."
Suddenly he asked, "Why can't our education respond logically to our needs? If it did, we'd grab for these things and hold on to them at the right time -- when we've grown used to them and know we need them."
Olin Downes was most impressed that August day in 1920 by the complete integration of O'Neill's life and work. Downes wrote that he "never saw a man whose life, personality and work seemed more of a piece. I suppose I may see him some night, all dolled up, in a theater, bowing to applause, but I shall always remember him in his old duds, in the fog. Why is it, anyhow, that we read Irish plays of Yeats or Synge, marveling at their seascapes, and the sense of nature, brooding and strange and wild, which permeates every line of the stuff, and then leave it to a wandering poet to discover the same wonderful thing -- inexplorada -- in odd corners of places lying ready to hand, such as, for instance, Cape Cod?
"There are men, you know -- witness O'Neill -- whose home is, as regards the particular, nowhere," Downes concluded. "For them, home is where it is most free. His adventures will never come to an end, not while he lives nor, if he has his way, after he dies. On him is the stamp -- the curse, if you like -- of the beauty of the far-off and unknown -- the secret which is hidden just over there, beyond the horizon -- and now I'm quoting from his play."
The Downes' interview reveals
clearly Eugene O'Neill's attitude toward his past. In a way he was
stuffy about it, and sentimental, too. Certainly, he romanticized
his seafaring days for Downes and Downes went right along with him.
But, like so many writers, O'Neill had a proprietary feeling about
his past that is simultaneously personal and impersonal. As
Hemingway talks about big-game hunting and bullfighting, so O'Neill
talked about the sea and his shipmates. He was saying, "This is my
territory. I lived through it and I know how it is. I've been there,
and I'm the one to show you what it was like."
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