xiv: The Country Squire
In the summer of 1922 Agnes and Gene decided to buy a house. It was to be a place in which they could settle down during the fall, winter, and spring -- or, as some of his friends put it, where O'Neill could become a country squire. It was an aspect of the playwright which so intrigued The American Magazine that it assigned Mary B. Mullett to write "The Extraordinary Story of Eugene O'Neill."
Miss Mullett went to Peaked Hill for the interview and was much impressed with the solid citizen she found. Under the heading "They All Have to Come to It -- Even Geniuses!" the story said:
O'Neill has a regular habit of work. The craving for freedom, for the indulgence of his own desires, which controlled his early manhood, is subordinated now to the good of his work. He, who used to be a rebel against routine, voluntarily follows a routine now in this direction. Like the rest of us, he has found that he must follow a regular habit of work if he is to accomplish anything.
An excellent description of O'Neill at this time is provided by Miss Mullett:
He is tall and dark and thin. Everything about him (except his hair and eyes!) seems to be long and thin. I believe his hands, for instance, are the longest and the most slender I ever have seen. They are the type of hands that go with the dreamer temperament.
His eyes are very dark, very intense. His hair is dark; but, young as he is, it is already showing a little gray at the temples. He is quiet and slow of speech with strangers. When it comes to ordinary "small talk" he is a good imitation of a sphinx. Even when he is interested, there are long pauses in which, unless you know his ways, you think he isn't going to say anything more. Then, unexpectedly, he begins again; and he is likely to say something so interesting that you soon learn not to break in on these pauses.
O'Neill always worried that people did not "get" what he was trying to say in his plays, and during that interview he commented that everyone seemed to have misunderstood what he was trying to say about Yank in The Hairy Ape. No, he was not trying to get sympathy for sailors. In fact, he said:
"Labor leaders have organized the seamen and have got them to thinking more about what is due them than what is due from them to the vessel. The new type of sailor wants his contract, all down in black and white; such and such work, so many hours, for so many dollars. But, under it, there has been lost the old spirit.
"Yank is really yourself, and myself. He is every human being. But, apparently, very few people get this. They have written, picking out one thing or another in the play and saying 'how true' it is. But no one has said, 'I am Yank! Yank is my own self!'
"Yet that was what I meant him to be. His struggle to 'belong,' to find the thread that will make him a part of the fabric of Life -- we are all struggling to do just that. One idea I had in writing the play was to show that the missing thread, literally 'the tie that binds,' is our understanding of one another."
In answer to a question about his methods of work, O'Neill said that he first wrote a play out in longhand. "Then, I go over it, and rewrite it in longhand. Then I type it, making a good many changes as I go along." After that, he put it away for a time.
Asked if he thought his success was a danger to him, O'Neill replied that if a writer finds the one best formula for doing something and then thinks all he has to do is to go on repeating himself, then he is in trouble. And he added, "So long as a person is searching for better ways of doing his work he is fairly safe."
Pressed to state his "fundamental scheme of life; a creed, a philosophy," he replied:
"People talk of the 'tragedy' in [my plays], and call it 'sordid,' 'depressing,' 'pessimistic' -- the words usually applied to anything of a tragic nature. But tragedy, I think, has the meaning the Greeks gave it. To them it brought exaltation, an urge toward life and ever more life. It roused them to deeper spiritual understandings and released them from the petty greeds of everyday existence. When they saw a tragedy on the stage they felt their own hopeless hopes ennobled in art."
They are hopeless hopes, O'Neill went on to explain,
"because any victory we may win is never the one we dreamed of winning. The point is that life in itself is nothing. It is the dream that keeps us fighting, willing -- living! Achievement, in the narrow sense of possession, is a stale finale. The dreams that can be completely realized are not worth dreaming. The higher the dream, the more impossible it is to realize it fully. But you would not say, since this is true, that we should dream only of the easily attained. A man wills his own defeat when he pursues the unattainable. But his struggle is his success! He is an example of the spiritual significance which life attains when it aims high enough, when the individual fights all the hostile forces within and without himself to achieve a future of nobler values.
"Such a figure is necessarily tragic. But to me he is not depressing; he is exhilarating! He may be a failure in our materialistic sense. His treasures are in other kingdoms. Yet, isn't he the most inspiring of all successes?
"If a person is to get the meaning of life he must 'learn to like' the facts about himself -- ugly as they seem to his sentimental vanity -- before he can lay hold on the truth behind the facts; and the truth is never ugly!"
For the first time, O'Neill found himself financially well-off. Not only did he have money coming from his mother's estate, but he figured his own weekly earnings from royalties at approximately $850 a week. Late in 1922 he bought Brook Farm at Ridgefield, Connecticut. About thirty-two acres went with the big, rambling white colonial house perched high on a hill overlooking the Ridgefield-New Canaan road. There were some outbuildings, a formal garden, and a large apple orchard.
The O'Neills engaged a local couple of Italian descent, Vincent and Maria Bedini, to help out on the place. Maria worked in the house, and Vincent did the gardening and occasionally chauffeured the O'Neill touring car. A Japanese butler cooked and served the meals. There was also a second maid and a laundress. Gaga was there to look after Shane. Finn, an Irish wolfhound, the royal dog of Irish kings, completed the ménage.
A fleeting gloomy glimpse of O'Neill at Ridgefield comes from Stark Young. One night Eugene was working on outlines and sketches for his plays. "He was sunk in some nervous mood," Young wrote, "and heard footsteps outside during the night going round the house, and during the day when he was writing he would feel someone looking over his shoulder."
Agnes and O'Neill were encountering some difficulties in their marriage that first year at Ridgefield. There were many pressures. Both were strong-minded and temperamental. Both were writers. And both were very much in love. But Agnes could not share O'Neill's passionate devotion to the theater. A good deal of what went on in order to get a play into production, she thought, was silly and nonsensical. There were quarrels, and at times he went at her with his fists, but afterward he would suffer terrible remorse.
The old Provincetown group was breaking up. With Robert Edmond Jones and Kenneth Macgowan, O'Neill formed his own organization, the Greenwich Village Theatre. He had finished Welded by the end of the winter of 1923 and decided to let the new group put it on. For a time he did no more writing as he worked on plans for the new theater and read scripts.
It was not until he was back at Peaked Hill for the summer that O'Neill got down to work. There he outlined Marco Millions, but he wrote only one scene. As fall approached he set to work on All God's Chillun Got Wings. He wrote Nathan that he was working eight to ten hours a day and that his plays seemed to be crowding themselves right out of the one-act form. He found writing long plays great sport. He wanted Nathan's approval more than anyone's, and he sent his plays on to the critic as fast as he could get them typed.
Jamie had retired to Riverlawn Sanitarium at Paterson, New Jersey, a confirmed alcoholic and now seriously ill from arteriosclerosis. Early in November he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, and on November 8, at the age of forty-five, he died.
O'Neill was more than ever convinced that some terrible force was at work in his life. Was he paying for his success? "Just think," he told friends, "my entire family was wiped out in three years -three out of the four of us." Now, more than ever, he felt that he was really alone.
He told Agnes he could not face going to Paterson to arrange the details and escort the body to New London. Agnes, as usual, did the chores that the sensitive O'Neill could not manage. Eugene got frightfully drunk and stayed that way. Emotionally and physically, he was unable to cope with Jamie's death.
The sanitarium shipped the body to a New York funeral home, where Agnes was horrified to discover that Jamie was clothed only in underwear; his tremendous wardrobe had been stolen or had disappeared at Riverlawn. Agnes remembers that the suit which the undertaker provided was backless. She and her sister Marjory boarded a train in New York City with Jamie's body. At New London they were met by the O'Neill relatives, the Sheridans. After a Catholic Mass, Jamie was buried in the family plot in St. Mary's Cemetery.
Jamie had died without making a will, and Eugene, being the sole surviving heir, inherited the estate, which amounted to $73,593.68. This sum represented Jamie's half of his mother's estate, which had risen in value because of the sale of the orange grove.
Eugene, now a man of comfortable means, remarked, "Booze got Jamie in the end." He was convinced that Jamie had wanted to die, that after his mother's death he had had nothing to live for.
By the end of November, 1923, the O'Neills were back at Ridgefield. Agnes was pregnant again and Eugene had plunged into the writing of Desire under the Elms. Today, in Ridgefield, the townspeople still call the house "the O'Neill place."
O'Neill was living in a New England of his own creation. Agnes thinks that his knowledge of Puritan decadence came from his acquaintance with families in New London and with those she had told him about in New Preston, where her mother had a farm.
Shane had reached his fourth birthday that fall and those who visited Brook Farm remember him as a lonely child wandering around the big house. O'Neill worked in his bedroom. Mrs. Bedini has recalled that in his room was a metal crucifix which had once belonged to his mother. He often worked in bed all morning and always demanded that the house be quiet. Gaga and Mrs. Bedini were responsible for keeping Shane out of mischief.
In some ways, Mrs. Bedini has recalled, O'Neill was something of a figure of terror in the household. If Shane cut up, just O'Neill's appearance at the stair landing was enough to quiet him. She well remembers the face of the tall, dark, silent, brooding figure in a dressing gown scowling down at his son, his eyes luminous in the gloom.
The Bedinis own son, Silvio, remembers that Shane had many toys, more toys than he, Silvio, had ever dreamed of -- an extraordinary electric train completely equipped with yards of tracks, automatic signals, a miniature passenger station and all the rest. Shane gave Silvio one of the engines but his parents made him return it for fear it wasn't a bona fide gift. In some respects, Shane was the poor little rich boy. To the Bedinis, he was "spoiled" and was "given his way too much."
What was a fairly typical weekend at Brook Farm has been described by Malcolm Cowley, who with his wife, Peggy Baird, took the poet Hart Crane to visit the O'Neills early one fall. They were met at the train station by Vincent Bedini in the Packard and taken to Brook Farm, where O'Neill greeted them. Cowley was surprised to be ushered immediately in to dinner. He had expected and rather hoped for cocktails, but none was forthcoming. The dinner was excellent, but what really impressed the visitors was Finn; it was the first time Cowley had ever encountered a dog that was taller than he, and the first time he had ever met a representative of what the Encyclopaedia Britannica listed as "an extinct breed."
Cowley, like O'Neill, was somewhat shy. He was younger than O'Neill and one of the rising postwar literary figures. After lunch on Saturday of that weekend the two talked in a window nook just off the big living room. O'Neill picked up a green textbook-type volume from the table and explained that it was William Stekel's treatises on sexual aberrations, The Disguises of Love, recently translated from the German. He said there were enough case histories in the book to furnish plots to all the playwrights who ever lived. He turned to a case history of a mother who seduced her only son and drove him insane.
He said that he had been reading the plays of the German expressionists Toller and Kaiser and Hasenclever, because he had been told that their work resembled his own. He thought their work was "bold, interesting but much too easy." Then he said a few illuminating words about Anna Christie, which he no longer cared to defend.
"I never liked it so well," he told Cowley, "as some of my other plays. In telling the story I deliberately employed all the Broadway tricks I had learned in my stage training. Using the same technique and, with my early experience as a background, I could turn out dozens of plays like Anna Christie, but I won't ever try. It would be too easy."
O'Neill took Cowley upstairs and showed him the bedroom where he worked. There were no books or pictures, and Cowley thought it "looked like an abbot's cell." He has written about that visit:
Between the two north windows is a dark mahogany secretary, with drawers at the bottom, a cabinet at the top, and drop-leaf table for writing. There are no papers on the writing surface. Gene opens the doors of the cabinet and takes out two or three medium-sized bound ledgers. "I write in these," he says. Each ledger contains several plays. Opening one of them, he shows me the the text of The Emperor Jones, written with a very fine pen, in characters so small that they are illegible without a reading glass. There are no blank lines and the text of the whole play fills only three pages of the ledger -- or is it five? I think of the Lord's Prayer engraved on the head of a pin.
O'Neill mentioned briefly that he was working on a play about New England, but he didn't pursue the matter. He was always reticent about work in progress except to say, as he generally did, that it was "the greatest" or "the finest thing" he had ever done.
Late that evening, O'Neill took Crane and Cowley down into the cellar. Vincent Bedini had gathered the apples from the orchard and had filled three 53-gallon casks with cider.
"Let's broach a cask," suggested Hart Crane, who liked alcohol even more than poetry. O'Neill, knowing his own weakness, hesitated, saying that Vincent might not approve; the cider was only three weeks old. But his qualms were quickly overcome. While Cowley tapped a barrel, O'Neill went upstairs to the kitchen and got a white ironstone pitcher and three glasses. Cowley spilled quite a little cider before he filled the pitcher. The three men held aloft their glasses.
"I can see the beaded bubbles winking at the brim," Crane said, quoting Keats. Then, Cowley wrote, "Gene takes a sip of cider, holds it in his mouth apprehensively, gives his glass a gloomy look, then empties the glass in two deep, nervous swallows. After a while we fill the pitcher again. When I go upstairs to bed, long after midnight, Gene is on his knees drawing another pitcher of cider, and Hart stands over him gesturing with a dead cigar as he declaims some lines composed that afternoon." O'Neill responded by singing some of his sea chanties. His favorite was "Blow the Man Down." When O'Neill said the line, "Way-o, blow the man down," it was like the movement of a ship breasting a big wave, and he illustrated his meaning with a wavelike gesture of his right hand. O'Neill and Crane had sealed their friendship, and Crane stayed at Brook Farm until after Christmas.
Following the cider barrel weekend, O'Neill was consumed by wanderlust. He took a train to New York and headed straight for the Hell Hole, where he got really drunk. Agnes later went there to look for him. He was "sleeping it off" in one of the furnished rooms upstairs. He told her the upstairs of the Hell Hole was a wonderful place. An aged crone, a witchlike creature, he said, wandered about there, opening and closing doors and muttering incantations. Agnes lost no time in getting him back to Brook Farm.
Recovered from his celebration, O'Neill made a start on the writing of an introduction to a book of verse by Hart Crane. Horace Liveright had agreed to publish the volume on the condition that the poet get O'Neill to write the introductory piece. But O'Neill was unable to do it; writing simple exposition was, for him, virtually impossible. In the end, Allen Tate wrote the introduction and Liveright settled for a jacket blurb from O'Neill.
In March, 1924, Agnes and Gene went to New York for rehearsals of Welded which Macgowan, Jones and O'Neill were producing in association with the Selwyns. Welded is the story of a married couple whose principal link, besides a marriage certificate, is desire. They are jealous of each other, the husband goes to a prostitute and the wife offers herself to a friend who is in love with her. But at the final moment neither is able to consummate the attempted infidelity, and the couple return to each other, forced to admit that they are, for better or worse, welded. The play is not realized dramatically. It is not felt but intellectualized, and the characters never emerge fully developed.
Doris Keane, the lead, thought the speeches the wife made in the play were too stilted. Stark Young has said that, although Miss Keane had wanted to withdraw, "she was too fine an artist to disdain a script from a sincere creator, no matter what she thought of the quality displayed. And I knew that in her tender heart, she discerned the torment that underlay the lines themselves, and sensed that the words were a misplaced travesty of some genuine feeling, the results of an uncertain taste and an uncertain sense of the banal, along with a semiadolescent ambition toward the literary."
Young watched Agnes and Gene at the rehearsals of Welded. "I knew that Gene's personal life in the period that Welded came out of had not been all smoothness -- not between two such vivid temperaments as he and Agnes, his wife, for all the love between them -- and I felt that this play was in the nature of a confession and a benediction. I can see them now at some of the rehearsals sitting side by side there in the third row and listening to every speech, good or bad, and taking it all as bona fide and their own. At least for the love of them I could wish that the mild success the play had when it was produced had been greater."
Welded opened on March 17, 1924, at the Thirty-ninth Street Theatre. In April the Provincetown Playhouse produced an O'Neill adaptation of The Ancient Mariner, and in May they produced All God's Chillun Got Wings. The latter immediately ran into censorship trouble because in it a white actress kisses a Negro actor's hand; O'Neill himself received threats from the Ku Klux Klan.
All God's Chillun is about the marriage of a Negro to a white girl and the troubles they encounter. It opens with Negro and white children playing together happily. In New York, in order to make things difficult for the play, the authorities refused to let child actors play the parts. As a result, the play was presented without the children appearing. Their parts were read by adult actors from behind the wings. The audience understood the problem and applauded enthusiastically.
Although the play is warm and poignant, it is also obvious and dated. The girl simply cannot adjust to being married to a Negro (at one point she attacks him with a knife). He keeps failing his bar exams, saying that the mere thought of white men watching him defeats him at the last moment. These things tend to tax the credulity of American audiences, who find the play melodramatic and overwritten. All God's Chillun has become mildly popular in the Soviet Union, because it portrays the tragedy of the Negro in America as the Russians want to believe it.
To a Princeton classmate who praised the play, O'Neill wrote:
Any appreciation of the worth of that play is doubly appreciated by me because of all the prejudiced and unjust knocks it received when it was enjoying such a storm of unwelcome notoriety. It seemed for a time, there, as if all the feeble-witted both in and out of the K.K.K. were hurling newspaper bricks in my direction -- not to speak of the anonymous letters which ranged from those of infuriated Irish Catholics who threatened to pull my ears off as a disgrace to their race and religion to those of equally infuriated Nordic Kluxers who 'knew' that I had Negro blood, or else was a Jewish pervert masquerading under a Christian name in order to do subversive propaganda for the Pope! This sounds like a burlesque, but the letters were more so.
And then when the play opened, nothing at all happened, not even a senile egg. It was a dreadful anticlimax for all concerned, particularly the critics who seemed to feel cheated that there hadn't been at least one murder that first night. And so on, ever since. The whole affair was really a most ludicrous episode -- not so ludicrous for me, however, since it put the whole theme of the play on a false basis and thereby threw my whole intent in the production into the discard.
During the summer of 1924, the O'Neill ménage moved again to Peaked Hill. Bee, Agnes' daughter by her first marriage, and Eugene junior came to visit. Both were in their teens and proved very congenial. Shane was going on five but was still being looked after by Gaga.
O'Neill had resumed work on Marco Millions. "This play," he wrote, "is an attempt to render poetic justice to one long famous as a traveler, unjustly world-renowned as a liar, but sadly unrecognized by posterity in his true eminence as a man and a citizen -- Marco Polo of Venice."
He got the idea of writing the play, which made fun of businessmen, as a result of a conversation with Otto Kahn, the fabulous millionaire patron of the arts. Kahn wanted O'Neill to write something that he (Kahn) might be proud to endorse.
"And what would you suggest, Mr. Kahn?" O'Neill asked.
"A play apotheosizing American big business and the American businessman," Kahn said. "I could take you down to Wall Street and let you attend a private directors' meeting."
O'Neill did not accept the offer, but later, in telling about the conversation, he said, "A lot I'd have learned there! Can you imagine those fellows exposing their big schemes in the presence of a suspicious-looking outsider?"
The title was O'Neill's attempt to translate the nickname which the Venetians gave to Marco Polo -- il Milione, "the millionaire." It infuriated him that people insisted on calling the play "Marco's Millions." He was now so interested in writing plays longer than the oneact form that he projected Marco so that it would run for two nights. Just before sending it on to Nathan, however, he rewrote and condensed it.
Meanwhile, Desire under the Elms, produced by the Provincetown Playhouse, Inc., opened at the Greenwich Village Theatre on November 11, 1924. It ran a year in New York and there were two road companies. Brooks Atkinson, drama critic of The New York Times, called the play "an ode to greed and lust and murder without remorse" and said that it "may turn out to be the greatest play written by an American. [It] has the grand design of a masterpiece."
In Desire under the Elms O'Neill again deals with his favorite theme -- greed. The locale of the play is rural New England in the year 1850. Seventy-five-year-old Ephraim Cabot, who has outlived two wives, has just married a third, Abbie Putnam, half his age. She is resented by the old farmer's three sons, two of whom leave the farm. The youngest son, Eben, stays on to fight for his inheritance. To obtain an ascendancy with the old man, Abbie promises him a child. She then seduces Eben and, in time, bears a son, to whom Cabot wills all his property. Meanwhile the relationship between Abbie and Eben has turned to ardent love until Eben discovers that he has been tricked into siring an heir who will pre-empt his heritage. To prove her love and placate Eben, Abbie murders her child. Eben, horrified, calls the sheriff and then assumes part of the guilt in order to share Abbie's fate. The play ends as they are led away to jail.
In one sense, this is the great American domestic horror story. Everyone is awful and everyone loses. O'Neill fulfilled his stated theorem: "There is beauty to me even in ugliness -- I don't love life because it's pretty; prettiness is only clothes-deep. I am a truer lover than that. I love it naked." In Desire under the Elms the characters are gradually stripped naked and they are not pretty. As in so many of O'Neill's really good plays, the characters are not simply true to life, they are larger than life. They are what they are, and something more. They are all of us. The last line beautifully illustrates O'Neill's central theme -- the corruption of character (even the law's character) -- when the sheriff looks covetously over the Cabot farm and says, "It's a jim-dandy farm, no denyin'. Wished I owned it!"
In the moment of triumph O'Neill
received word that Eugene junior had fallen off his bicycle near his
home in Douglaston and was in the hospital, unconscious. O'Neill
sent word to the boy's mother to spare no expense, that he would pay
all the medical and hospital bills. "That boy is brilliant," he told
Kathleen, "and I want everything in the world done to save his
life." But he did not go to the hospital.
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