xix: The Mandarin in the French Château
In May, 1929, Saxe and Dorothy Commins visited O'Neill at Cap d'Ail. O'Neill told Bio De Casseres how devoted he was to Saxe. "A fine person, Saxe! And his wife is too." Commins remarked that O'Neill seemed to be preparing himself for still another role, the very antithesis of that of his seafaring and Hell Hole days.
As early as May 10 O'Neill and Carlotta were planning to move into a château in Touraine where they hoped to live, he wrote Bio, "for three years." Later it was reported that he and Carlotta had leased it for thirteen years. The place was the Château de Plessis at St. Antoine du Rocher, twenty-five miles from Tours. There was a six-hundred-acre game preserve with it, one of the finest in France. In the château were several towers, a number of rooms with marble floors, and forty-five bedrooms, but no electric lighting, no heat, and no bathroom. Carlotta's first improvement, after they moved in, was to convert one of the bedrooms into a bath.
O'Neill had been reluctant to rent such an imposing residence.
"He had never lived in a château," Carlotta has explained, "and the idea of a château he thought was chichi and putting on airs." But, as Carlotta has put it, "though he was a rather tough Irishman, he saw that you could really be polite and live in a charming place, and you didn't have to be ridiculous, and he loved it."
Arrangements for renting the château were made when O'Neill and Carlotta signed a contract before they were married. At Carlotta's insistence, the Countess de Bonville (the owner of the château) reluctantly agreed to the installation of a swimming pool, a roof garden and a garden and a gymnasium. Carlotta had "insisted" on a thirteen-year lease, but the Countess "didn't want to grant it" and apparently didn't yield on that.
O'Neill quickly became enthusiastic about the château idea and began to endow it with his own brand of romanticism. He told friends he would be living in the real French countryside, in the beautiful valley of the Loire, the land of Rabelais and Balzac. He spoke glowingly of the woods, the streams, and the farm run by the Countess de Bonville. It was a lovely country house with "grand furniture." The annual rental would be insanely low for a comparable place in United States. He seemed to be enjoying his bargain.
He was hardly unpacked when the wings of his vultures began to flap about his ears. A woman writer in New York sued him for $1,750,000, alleging that he had plagiarized Strange Interlude from a novel she had paid to have printed. "Blackmail!" cried O'Neill. He cabled Harry Weinberger that the woman was crazy. What especially infuriated him, he said, was that she was getting a million dollars' worth of publicity for nothing.
A revised edition of Barrett Clark biography reached O'Neill on May 29, 1929. Most of the material in it O'Neill had seen, checked, discussed, revised and re-revised, but he wrote a long letter to Clark about it. One of his deletions was a favorable reference to Agnes. But what especially annoyed O'Neill was that Clark had written, "That such fame has already done him some harm cannot be doubted, but I hardly think it can seriously alter his determination to pursue his own course in his own way." O'Neill said it "got his goat." Why, he had spent a great part of his time ducking fame so he could get on with his work. All fame had ever done for him was to subject him to petty bothers, irritating nuisances and dirty, low-down publicity. He well knew the danger of being influenced by fame and assiduously avoided it. He also wrote that it was too bad that Clark had not written a chapter in the book telling all the details of how the production of O'Neill plays in so many countries had resulted in "around-the-world recognition of an American playwright for the first time in history." O'Neill insisted Clark could put in what the critics from foreign lands had said against his plays as well as criticism favorable to his plays.
In June, O'Neill continued to write his friends in the United States that he was expecting them to visit him at his beautiful place. It had an atmosphere, he said, of calm and peace, of life, centuries-rooted in the soil. He asked Clark to come over, Horace Liveright, Stark Young, Eleanor Fitzgerald, and others.
In his letter to Young he expressed some of his old contempt for the "respectabilities." The ladies of the Countess de Bonville's family, had not been in the château's kitchen for three years, and it had taken no end of water, scrubbing, and whitewash, to get it in shape. The sewage tank was inside the house, over the great salon. The only way you could tell when it needed emptying was by the stains which began to spread down the ancient tapestries.
Only a few days after O'Neill moved into the château, he told a friend, he felt perfectly at home. It was precisely what his spirit had been longing for for years. George Jean Nathan came to visit in June, as did Lillian Gish. Dr. Alexander Renner, the Austrian psychiatrist who had treated him for alcoholism in Shanghai, and Renner's wife, also were visitors. When Liveright cabled him congratulations on his divorce, O'Neill thanked him and added that he was working on "something big and new -- the most ambitious stuff I've ever tackled." He asked Liveright how much he thought he could get for all his play manuscripts. A dealer had already offered him "fifty grand." Couldn't he maybe get one hundred? He needed the money.
Every morning at Le Plessis O'Neill was at work by nine, and he remained at work until half past one, when he knocked off for lunch, which was very formal, the food beautifully prepared and served. A menu, written on a little marble tablet, was set before each person. He finished the scenario of the first of the Electra trilogy on June 20 and called it Homecoming. On July 11, he finished the second part and called it The Hunted. In August, he finished the third part, The Haunted, noting that he had given his Yankee Electra "a tragic end worthy of her -- and Orestes, too."
She claimed to be a poet and cited that in one month she had written to one man seventy-five love sonnets and that all were "in the Elizabethan style." She told of her "shock and amazement when I went to see Strange Interlude, for the first time, three months ago. Eugene O'Neill had used my material but used it all wrong. He took a beautiful ideal and brought it so low that I was shocked and scandalized. He has pandered to the licentious. He made a travesty of my work and turned pure English into the argot of the day."
She claimed that she had sent her novel, The Temple of Pallas Athenae, to Lawrence Langner of the Theatre Guild and that he had given it to O'Neill to dramatize. Fortunately, Langner looked in his library and found he had not returned the volume to her. The pages were still uncut. But despite the absurdity of the woman's allegation, the case eventually went to trial in March of 1931.
O'Neill noted that he finished the first draft of "M.B.E.," as he called Mourning Becomes Electra in his work diary, on February 21, 1930. He was dead tired, he told a friend, and had never worked so hard for a continuous stretch on any of his plays before. He had lived night and day with the writing of it for four months steady, seven days a week. He put in seven hours each day. This, he said, was grueling for most any kind of writing, let alone "intense stuff," as O'Neill called what he had put in "M.B.E." When he finally inscribed the finished manuscript to Carlotta, he gave some indication of what it had been like while he was working on the play. The inscription read:
In memory of the interminable days of rain in which you bravely suffered in silence that this trilogy might be born -- days when I had my work but you had nothing but household frets, and a black vista through the salon windows of Le Plessis with the black trees still and dripping, and the mist wraiths mourning over the drowned fields or days when you had self-forgetting love to greet my lunchtime, depressing such preoccupations with a courageous, charming banter on days which for you were bitterly lonely, when I seemed far away and lost to you in a grim savage gloomy country of my own, days which were for you like hateful, boring, inseparable enemies, nagging at nerves and spirit with an intolerable ennui and life sickness which poisoned your spirit!
For a vacation, they motored through parts of France that the playwright had never seen before. Carlotta had lived in France when she was a girl and she loved taking him on guided tours of the country. They also made a short visit to Spain and then returned to spend two weeks in Paris.
Carlotta often wondered whether O'Neill really enjoyed the trips she took him on during these years in Europe. "I said to him once -- half jokingly -- 'I have dragged you about Europe, I have worked like anything to show you all [the] beautiful spots, and I have never heard you say once that you like this or that or the other.' 'Well,' he said, 'I liked them, but they weren't very exciting.' So that was that."
It never ceased to amaze Carlotta that O'Neill liked to tell friends stories of his seafaring days, his being penniless on the beach at Buenos Aires, his being a down-and-out drunkard at Jimmy the Priest's, and his living in the "garbage flat." " Gene's pride seemed to be in those years," she said wistfully, four years after he died.
O'Neill and Carlotta returned to Le Plessis, at the end of February. His spirit was refreshed, he told a friend, and he had a bit of perspective with which he could look at his first draft.
On February 27, 1930, he noted that he had read over the first draft of "M.B.E." and found it "scrawny stuff" but thought it served the purpose as a first try. Parts of it were "thrilling" but "lots more [were] lousy." It needed meat. Aegisthus' counterpart was "hackneyed and thin."
O'Neill finished the second draft of Mourning Becomes Electra on July 11, after three months of concentrated writing in which he worked morning, afternoon and night without letup. He noted that he had never worked so intensively over such a long period. He wished he hadn't attempted "the damn thing."
He was also having trouble with his teeth and went to a Paris dentist for treatment. This was the best antidote for pernicious brooding over one's inadequacies, he related. His suffering of recent months would seem a positive delight compared with his agony when the dentist's drill bore down on the O'Neill teeth.
From many of the reports about the O'Neills at the ancient Château de Plessis, one gets the feeling that they were playing roles against an Old World theatrical set, not only for each other but with visitors as audience. O'Neill wore the robes of a Chinese mandarin when receiving guests. Sometimes Carlotta wore the dress of a Chinese princess; at others, according to one visitor, she wore big floppy hats along with "simple dresses for gardening."
Theresea Helburn and her husband, John B. Opdycke, visited the O'Neills at this time. Miss Helburn, an executive of the Theatre Guild, took back to New York an outline of Mourning Becomes Electra. O'Neill told her he was getting homesick and would probably stay in France only long enough to see one more spring at Le Plessis and in Paris.
Another visitor was the New York drama critic Richard Watts, Jr., who wrote:
Of all the genuinely distinguished writing men of our time it is probable that only Eugene O'Neilll and William Butler Yeats live up to what one hopes for their physical appearance. The bronzed, handsome, graying Mr. O'Neill is pretty much the ideal of what a great melancholy and brooding playwright should look like, just as the fine, ecstatic brow of Yeats gives, to its possessor, the ideal manner and appearance of an Olympian poet.
Not all callers were so complimentary in their reports. Some of the actresses who visited Le Plessis came back to America with accounts of the theatricality of the O'Neill ménage. They told of sitting in the beautiful garden with Gene and Carlotta dressed in their startling royal Chinese robes and drinking what was apparently the only nonalcoholic beverage available in France at the time, an American importation known as Moxie. O'Neill was very much on the wagon.
O'Neill's old friend, James Light, in France on a Guggenheim Fellowship, came with his wife. He told the O'Neill's that one of his projects was the establishment of a French equivalent of the Provincetown Playhouse near the Café du Dôme in the Montparnasse section of Paris. Eugène Jolas, he said, was contemplating financing the project.
Carlotta was immediately hostile to the idea. "Don't try and start a Provincetown Playhouse in Europe, the Provincetown is dead and gone," she said.
Light, somewhat taken aback, started to protest, "But Carlotta --"
"From now on, Mr. Light," Carlotta said stiffly, "I am Mrs. O'Neill to you."
Eugene junior came that summer of 1930 to stay at Le Plessis. A news photographer took his picture beside the swimming pool with his father. Young Gene looked like his father and was almost as tall. He had just completed his sophomore year at Yale, where some verse he had written for The Helicon, an undergraduate publication, was given considerable publicity. Like the verse he had written at Horace Mann, it was not cheerful. Titled "The Song of the Freight," some of its lines, in the Light of future events, are revealing:
short howls of mournful hopelessness,
song of the freight is the moan and the broken cry
Singing of all the places and people that he has seen
Gene junior was learning to live with the famous name he bore. That spring, during the nights when the junior fraternity delegations called at the dormitory quarters of the sophomores, he had been visited by virtually all of them. But when the bids were sent out, Eugene did not receive a single invitation to join. Later, some of the fraternity men admitted that they had called on him "just to see what the son of Eugene O'Neilll looked like."
Far more serious than this, however, were the difficulties that young Gene had recently encountered at home. For several years, his stepfather had been an invalid, unable to work, and his mother had taken a job on a newspaper on Long Island. His stepbrother, George Pitt-Smith, Jr., who also had become ill, had jumped or fallen to his death one day from a window in the anteroom of a Manhattan doctor's office. Eugene had been devoted to his stepbrother, and he took his death very hard. However, he told friends, his stepbrother's death had served to bring him closer to his Uncle George, as he had called his stepfather ever since he had learned the identity of his real father. felt like his son after that," said.
O'Neill, who paid for Eugene junior's trip to France, always seemed partial to his first-born child. For one thing, there had been no apparent bitterness between him and his first wife. Then, too, the father and son shared a strong mutual interest in literature, especially drama and poetry. O'Neill urged the fledgling scholar to steep himself in the Greek writers and philosophers. Eugene junior took this advice literally and made the study of the Greek classics his life's work. The son's visit with his father that summer of 1930 was a happy one. They took walks in the countryside, swam in the Château's pool, and visited Paris together.
Meanwhile Shane had entered St. Peter's Parochial School at Point Pleasant, run by the Sisters of Charity. Agnes' decision to send him there was based on a number of considerations: She understood it was a better school than the Point Pleasant public school; there was closer supervision, and the students were kept occupied longer in the afternoon; and Agnes had been a practicing Catholic for much of her life. As for Shane, he adjusted easily to St. Peter's. His already fertile Irish imagination, his natural love of color and music and pageantry, found satisfaction in the ancient rituals of the Church. He made his first Communion and was confirmed.
Shane wrote his father often in 1930. He told him jokes that he heard in the school and said he was going to submit them in a joke contest. Oona had cut the whiskers off the cat. O'Neill replied that he thought Shane's jokes were very funny, and said he wished he had a snapshot not only of Shane and Oona, but also of the cat "with his close shave."
"Do you think," he asked, "you could get the cat to pose for a picture without whiskers? I imagine she (or is it a he?) would not want to, because she'd feel naked and ashamed as if she had lost her clothes. Poor Pussy! Oona should not do that. Cats are very sensitive and delicate when it comes to their whiskers."
O'Neill waxed enthusiastic about his racing automobile. He spoke of it almost as if he were one teen-ager talking to another. Soon, he said, he would send a snapshot of it so that Shane could see what it looked like. "It is a beauty and very fast," O'Neill wrote, "and I have a lot of fun driving it. It isn't dangerous to drive fast here because the roads are fine and straight and there is very little traffic and they have no speed limits except going through towns."
In that letter he did not say exactly how fast he drove the car, and he must have understated the danger involved; on the other hand, he did not mention the benefit he derived from his fast driving. Carlotta has recalled that "when he was very nervous and tired, he would go out in this racer and drive ninety-five, ninety-eight miles an hour, looking nineteen years old and perfectly relaxed." However, when she went with him she was terrified. O'Neill had a marvelous time, speeding over the open roads; but after he left France he never drove again, because he hated driving in traffic.
In the spring Shane got odd jobs, weekday afternoons and on Saturdays, on the waterfront, getting the charter boats conditioned, carrying things for the workmen on the docks and doing a little painting. He wrote his father with pride that he was making money. He had become more aware of how his father earned his living, and he asked when he was going to have another play produced in New York.
Shane didn't hear from his father again until school was almost out. At the end of May, O'Neill answered Shane's inquiry about his work in considerable detail. He said the play he was working on, Mourning Becomes Electra, would not be ready for production by the next season so he would not have anything on Broadway unless someone produced Lazarus Laughed. He said there was some talk of Lazarus being done but he doubted that anyone would really have the nerve to put it on.
About Electra, he told Shane, "The thing I am writing is the biggest and hardest I have ever tackled and, after working on it almost a year now I am only one-third through the second draft. As I intend to do a third draft, too, you will see I still have a lot to do.
"I know I am a bum," he said, "for not having written you in so long. I am getting to be a lazier and lazier letter writer as time goes on, I guess. But I really have this excuse that I have been working harder on my new plays than I ever worked before and usually when I get through for the day my head and eyes are so tired I don't want to write anything else that day. And so it goes on day after day, and the letters I ought to write don't get written."
Once again, O'Neill reminded Shane how well Eugene junior was doing. He asked Shane how he was doing in school. Was it a good school? Eugene, he said, was studying very hard at Yale and was eighth in a class of five hundred. Didn't Shane think that was awfully good? Of course, Shane would work as hard as Eugene when he went to college. Incidentally, what college did he like best?
Looking at O'Neill's letters in 1930, one is struck by the fact that, in writing about his work to Shane, he spoke almost on the same level as to his literary friends, Barrett Clark and Ben De Casseres. He told Shane about Europe's not having much use for American plays -- "except cheap or bad ones." But, he said with pride, the Kamerny Theater of Moscow was touring Europe and on the morrow (May 28, 1930), he was going up to Paris to see them do All God's Children and Desire under the Elms. The Kamerny, he said, was one of the most famous theaters in the world and of the three serious plays they were doing, two of them were his. "And so this," he wrote, "is an unusual honor to me."
He suggested that Shane send snapshots of himself and Oona, and he asked Shane to tell Oona he had received a letter from her quite sometime ago. He had not answered it, but he wanted Shane to tell her, "I know it would be a good letter if I could read the language she writes in." Oona was then going on five. Also Shane was to ask her if she got the birthday present he sent her on the fourteenth of May; two weeks had gone by and she had not written to thank him. In any case, Shane should kiss Oona for him, and he enclosed a check for Shane.
O'Neill's demands on himself in writing Mourning Becomes Electra were rigorous in the extreme. He wanted the words used in dialogue to be simple words in a monotonous driving insistence "in thought repetition," similar to the tom-tom in The Emperor Jones. In an early version of Electra, he had had the characters speak in asides as they had done in Strange Interlude. Now he decided to cut out all the asides. He began rewriting the entire play and continued at it all summer. He told a friend he was engaged in the most ambitious piece of work he had ever undertaken and would remain in Europe until it was completed.
On September 16, he finished this rewrite, and four days later he was staying in Paris at the Hôtel du Rhin. While Carlotta shopped, he visited with George Jean Nathan in the latter's rooms on the Avenue Maréchal-Foch. Nathan asked him what he would like, more than anything else, out of life. The Nobel Prize, perhaps?
"On careful consideration, and no sour grapes about it because I have no hopes," O'Neill replied, sipping his tea, "I think the Nobel Prize, until you become very old and childlike, costs more than it's worth. It's an anchor around one's neck that one would never be able to shake off."
The talk turned to theatrical criticism. Would O'Neill perhaps wish for more intelligent criticism of his plays?
"When they knock me," O'Neill said, "what the devil! They're really boosting me with their wholesale condemnations, for the reaction against such nonsense will come soon enough."
(O'Neill once told Nathan that he was neither much disturbed by adverse criticism nor unduly elated by favorable reviews, prizes, or other honors. Like George Bernard Shaw, he believed that he was his own most reliable critic. Praise was pleasant and disapproval was superfluous, when they coincided with his own estimate; both were fatuous when they didn't.)
That afternoon, O'Neill talked at great length about how happy he was, how he had, for the first time, got what he wanted in life -- existence "as a living being quite outside of the life in my work." At this point, Nathan wrote, Carlotta came in, put her arm around him, and kissed him. "Where've you been?" O'Neill asked. Nathan noticed that his face suddenly lapsed into "that perverse little-boy expression." Carlotta let him have another little kiss. "I've been shopping for dresses, Genie dear," she said, "blue ones."
After a week in Paris, O'Neill returned to Le Plessis and on September 23 began still another rewrite of Mourning Becomes Electra, which he finished on October 15. Soon after that, he and Carlotta left for a month's trip through Spain and Morocco. Spain -- particularly Andalusia -- delighted him, and he decided that Spain was the most interesting country in Europe.
On November 19, he again read the play and was only "fairly well" satisfied; he wanted more quality in it. He began his fifth writing. In December of 1930, when the writing was in its last stage, he told a friend it was an exhausting job. He had lost all perspective on it; in fact, he had about as much perspective on what he had written as a fly had on a sheet of flypaper to which he had become stuck; all effort must be made to get unstuck. He worked straight through the Christmas holidays, but he made one concession as always when working on his plays -- he didn't work on Christmas Eve.
In January, 1931, the weather matched the gloom of Mourning Becomes Electra. It had been raining for what seemed like months and O'Neill remarked that the sunny land of Touraine looked very much like a bog. In the midst of this gloom, word came from the United States that a fifty-mile gale accompanied by a heavy tide had swept the New England coast. Great waves had washed over Peaked Hill at the tip of Cape Cod and a portion of his house there had been washed out to sea. Then some visitors from England brought with them, O'Neill was convinced, "a simon-pure London species of grippe," and both O'Neill and Carlotta were struck down by it as if they had "both been hit over the head with a croquet mallet." Their illnesses were so severe that they went to Paris, Carlotta to enter the American Hospital and Eugene to stay at the Hôtel du Rhin.
Although he was still suffering from the after effects of his grippe, O'Neill worked steadily through the latter part of January. Page by page he passed his manuscript to a typist, till the job was completed early in February.
By February 7, 1931, O'Neill and Carlotta were home, seeing the "black vista through the salon windows." Although he was generally run-down, O'Neill continued to study the manuscript of his new play. Perhaps his depression colored his outlook on his work, but he decided that most of the "new stuff" he had written into the play added too many complications, too many new values; some of the effects were blurred; he would revert to the former version entirely.
On February 20, he and Carlotta set out for a visit to the Canary Islands. They stayed at Las Palmas, and there he worked on the typed script of Mourning Becomes Electra. The typed play looked different, somehow, from the longhand version -- it seemed more dynamic; but it needed condensing. He noted that he was getting no vacation because of the work he was doing.
By March 26 he had finished this final revision, and Eugene and Carlotta returned to France, with stopovers at Tangier and Casablanca. They went by ship to Marseilles and by train to Paris, where they arrived on April 4. There he made one last change -- Scenes One and Two of Act One of The Hunted became Acts One and Two. He had the entire script retyped once more, and on April 9 he sent copies to the Theatre Guild. Reporters in Paris tried to get him to say what the title of his new play was but he said only, "It is really three separate plays which will require three consecutive nights for presentation." By April 14, 1931, O'Neill and Carlotta were back at Le Plessis.
Suddenly, the sun was shining and the vultures were scattered. Word came that the $1,750,000 plagiarism suit which Gladys Adelena Selma Lewys had launched against him had been dismissed as "preposterous," and that she had been ordered by Judge John M. Woolsey (later to become famous for his Ulysses decision) to pay $17,500 in counsel fees to O'Neill's lawyers. Naturally, O'Neill and Carlotta were delighted. Lawrence Langner had taken the stand and had offered in evidence his copy of the novel with the pages uncut. He said a circular came with the book describing its contents in somewhat suggestive language. "I read the circular," Langner testified, "and had an idea that it was one of those privately printed naughty books, but after reading one or two pages, I found it wasn't naughty and I didn't finish it."
A few days after winning the suit, O'Neill received word from Langner, as head of the Theatre Guild, that once he had started to read Mourning Becomes Electra, he had not been able to put it down. He read all three of the plays one after the other. "The effect," he said, "was to knock me silly for the rest of the day." The Guild wished to go into casting and production immediately. O'Neill sent word that he would come on to New York and "assist in the production." He had had enough of France and Europe. He would sail for America, where the sun was shining. "I have been able to get a good perspective on America," he told an interviewer, "by staying in France, and I have been able to see it more clearly. But, also, I can appreciate it a devil of a lot more now." As for plans, he said that he might settle in Virginia or in California, where Carlotta's mother lived. In any case, he would be going home.
Once again O'Neill enthusiasm had
collapsed, again his dream of settling down was shattered. Although
he was at the height of his creative powers and he had made what now
seemed a most successful marriage, after all the unpleasantness and
despair that surrounded his divorce from Agnes, O'Neill still felt
essentially "alone and above and apart . . . a stranger . . . who
did not really want and [was] not really wanted, who can never
belong. . . ." And yet O'Neill, at this time, was almost joyful and
serene, for he looked forward hopefully to starting all over with
Carlotta in America.
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