xv: Flight from Himself
Although Eugene O'Neill felt that his life was controlled by mysterious external forces, it is by no means certain that he was ever able to identify these personal Furies. And in a very real sense, he gazed unblinkingly at his life sliding impersonally by before him.
Now he had reached a new phase of urgent restlessness. The life of a "country squire" had palled completely. He was going more and more often to New York; and whenever he did so he found himself, at journey's end, brooding in the gloomy depths of the Hell Hole. The stage was now set for the long flight from himself, an ordeal from which his family was to suffer even more savagely than himself. For it was at this juncture that he received a letter from his old Greenwich Village companion, Harold de Polo, who wrote from Bermuda that the island was a great place for writers. Why not come down?
O'Neill went, taking his family with him. It was December, 1924. The O'Neills took a cottage called Campsea, on the South Shore, Paget West. It suited O'Neill, who wrote Nathan and others that they should come down for a winter vacation. The climate was "grand," and he highly recommended the German bottled beer and the English bottled ale. He spent the winter working on The Great God Brown.
Gaga was looking after Shane then, for Agnes was carrying her second child by O'Neill. Shane's life was showing a startling parallel to that of his father at the same age. His parents had been continually on the move. Now he was in school in Bermuda and, like his father before him, he was being taught by convent nuns.
Late in the evening of May 13, 1925, Oona was born. Shane recalls that he was awakened by his mother and told that he would have to spend the rest of the night in his father's bedroom. Although Shane was five and a half, the events of that night vividly impressed themselves on his mind.
"It was very dark, I remember," Shane has said. "Mother woke me up and said, 'You must go in and sleep with your father.' Then, I recall being in the bedroom with my father and talking with him. He was terribly worried. He didn't like the waiting. There was a lot of activity going on in Mother's room. We could hear it. My father got very confidential with me, told me how worried he was.
"We talked the rest of the night. Finally, somebody called my father and told him the baby was born. It was a girl. The arrival of the baby was kind of a letdown after all the excitement of the night. I remember when they took me into Mother's bedroom and showed the baby; she had dark hair and dark eyelashes. Then they took me right out again."
By the end of May O'Neill was sure he wanted to live permanently in Bermuda, and he looked around for a bigger house. He told friends that he was not going to keep Agnes in any boxy little house like the New London home that his father had provided for his wife. Wherever he lived the houses he bought were always big, as if their very size would insure stability and permanence. They never did.
That spring he was disturbed because The Fountain had been rejected by most of the producers, including the Theatre Guild. He told Nathan he thought there was a jinx attached to the play. The Fountain is a dramatization of Ponce de Leon's search for the fountain of youth. In the O'Neill version of the story, Ponce de Leon learns that, although he does not find what he was searching for, the effort was worthwhile; he also discovers that "there is no gold but love." O'Neill filled the play with poetry, but not first-rate poetry. In general, he seemed to be writing of the poet's eternal aspirations and exultations -- something he seems not to have felt himself, but to have thought he should feel. As a result, the play is emotionally and imaginatively unsatisfying.
By letter and cable, he carried on a petty dispute with Horace Liveright, the publisher, over the number of sheets O'Neill had signed for the limited edition of the Complete Works of Eugene O'Neill. Liveright afterward said he had sent 1,250 sheets to Bermuda for O'Neill to sign. But O'Neill claimed he got suspicious at the size of the package and, as a result, he and Agnes counted them. They figured there were at least 1,700 sheets, and perhaps 1,800. As a result, O'Neill told his agent, Richard Madden, that he thought there was something "on the queer" with all these so-called limited editions and he didn't want to be a party to them. He also thought he had been short-changed by Liveright on the matter of royalties. Furthermore he told Madden not to deposit any more of his royalties in the bank at Ridgefield because it was a small bank and for all he, O'Neill, knew, the teller might be playing the horses! If so, using O'Neill money would be sure to put the "hoodoo" on him and the teller would lose his shirt "on the bangtails."
Although Oona was only a little more than a month old, the O'Neills left for the States at the end of June, 1925. In New York Eugene told reporters that he had completed The Great God Brown and was going to produce it in partnership with Robert Edmond Jones and Kenneth Macgowan. Agnes and the children went to a rented house at Nantucket (the O'Neills had decided not to return to Provincetown), and Eugene stayed in New York, where he was treated by a doctor for his "nerves." Family life made O'Neill nervous, he was an extremely uneasy father, and relations between him and Agnes were not uniformly peaceful. He went to Nantucket after a short time and there resumed his writing.
In the fall of 1925, O'Neill wrote half of the first draft of Lazarus Laughed. As always, he was "searching for better ways of doing his work," and he had decided to write a play of ideas. Lazarus attempts to come to grips with the question of living for the present or living in anticipation of future judgment. Lazarus rises from his tomb with this doctrine (as stated by the chorus):
Laugh! Laugh! There is only life!
This philosophic concept is not the most original in the world, nor is affirmation (of life) by exclamation point necessarily the most effective way of stating it. Lazarus Laughed is, as O'Neill said, a play for the imaginative theater. It is perhaps best read, best left in the theater of the mind, despite the many old and interesting stage devices (chorus, masks, etc.) employed. Even Barrett Clark, O'Neill's devoted admirer, was forced to admit that the playwright's "ideas as contributions to contemporary thought are negligible" and that he should be content to portray "life with truth and passion." Lazarus Laughed was never produced on Broadway. O'Neill always insisted, however, that it was one of his great plays and that it had a great message.
In a Provincetown Playhouse playbill, O'Neill blasted the commercial theater -- the eternal showshop, as he called it. This was an "era when the theater is primarily a realtor's medium for expression. One mistake and then comes the landlord with a notice of eviction. He is usually not an artist in the theater, this landlord! He could see Shakespeare boiled alive in Socony gasoline and have qualms only as to our diminishing national Standard Oil reserves." The answer to the difficulty, O'Neill felt, would be the inauguration of a repertory theater. Then he went on to voice one of his lifelong complaints about the American theater: the quality of acting. "Great acting has frequently made bad plays seem good," he said, "but a good play cannot penetrate bad acting without emerging distorted."
The magazine New Masses was launched that fall of 1925 with a million and a half dollars provided by a young Bostonian, Charles Garland, who had refused to accept an inheritance from his father and had donated the money to a fund to be used "for the benefit of all." O'Neill was featured as a contributing editor along with Sherwood Anderson, Van Wyck Brooks, Carl Sandburg, Boardman Robinson and Max Eastman. Besides containing criticism of the arts, the magazine announced it would carry "first hand reports of big strikes and other national events." Although O'Neill was friendly with the leading liberals and radicals of his day, he was not a doctrinaire left-winger. If his heart was with members of the lower classes, it was with those who didn't work because they didn't want to.
In December, of 1925 O'Neill, Kenneth Macgowan and Robert Edmond Jones, in association with A. L. Jones and Morris Green, produced The Fountain at the Greenwich Village Theatre. In a program note, O'Neill tried to explain what the play meant. His explanation was not very successful, except when it was about what the play was not. "I wish to take solemn oath," he said, "right here and now that The Fountain is not morbid realism." Even Brooks Atkinson wrote that the austere self-criticism that prompted Mr. O'Neill to destroy sixteen of his dramas as unworthy of production has in this instance indulged him too freely."
As for The Great God Brown, not only the commercial producers but the leading New York patron of the arts, Otto Kahn, refused to back it. With Jones and Macgowan assisting, O'Neill produced it himself, defraying much of the cost of the production out of his own pocket. Clark told O'Neill he figured the play would run about two weeks, long enough for O'Neill fans to take a look at it.
The Great God Brown is a strange play which O'Neill never quite succeeded in explaining. Its principal innovation was the introduction of masks, which, according to Kenneth Macgowan, were used for the first time "to dramatize changes and conflicts in character. O'Neill uses them as a means of dramatizing a transfer of personality from one man to another." O'Neill himself wrote that "the use of masks will be discovered to be the freest solution of the modern dramatist's problem as to how he can express those profound hidden conflicts of mind which the probings of psychology continue to disclose to us. What, at bottom, is the new psychological insight into human cause and effect but a study in masks, an exercise in unmasking?" He said he wanted to reveal "the mystical pattern which manifests itself as an overtone in The Great God Brown, dimly behind and beyond the words and action of the characters."
The Great God Brown was written in 1925. Certainly one must read and reread the play to grasp not only its meaning but even its plot. The play presents the families of two partners in an architectural firm. Their sons are opposites: an idealist and a materialist. The girl, Margaret, is in love with Dion Anthony. Billy Brown is in love with Margaret. Dion wears the mask of a wastrel but beneath it he is terribly sensitive. Margaret, it seems, loves the Dion who wears the mask of Pan. (There is little doubt that O'Neill was thinking of himself when he wrote the part of Dion. Perhaps he was trying to explain the curious combination of drunken saloon habitué and shy, retiring man too sensitive to function in the rough-and-tumble everyday world).
Dion Anthony wastes his life in dissipation. Only with a prostitute, Cybel, is he able to discard his Pan mask. Margaret has destroyed him by loving only his mask. At the end of the play, Dion dies and gives his Dion mask to Billy Brown so that he can live with Margaret, who loves Brown-Dion much more than she ever loved Dion Anthony. Brown dies -- killed by the police for allegedly murdering Dion. Margaret kisses the mask of Dion (which is all she has ever seen) and says, "You will sleep under my heart."
Needless to say, the play is taxing to an audience. It is certainly one of O'Neill's most challenging plays, breaking new frontiers in the drama. The Great God Brown represented the best lyrical writing he had done, the style well fitted to the theme and the action. But still the play is often awkward, tedious and always self-conscious. Actors and audience spent too much time wondering what O'Neill was trying to say ever to get emotionally involved in the lives of the characters. O'Neill himself appears to have had difficulty in explaining the play. "It is a mystery -- the mystery any one man or woman can feel but not understand as the meaning of any event -- or accident -- in any life on earth." Whatever that means it does not do much to clear up The Great God Brown. At another time he said that the play was a mystery but, instead of dealing with crooks and police, "it's about the mystery of personality and life." One thing is sure: The play is mysterious.
O'Neill had the last laugh on Barrett Clark as to how much of The Great God Brown the public would take. The play moved uptown and ran nearly a year. Clark himself liked to tell the story of the two shopgirls who went to see it. After the third act, one of them said, "Gee, it's awful artistic, ain't it?" To which her friend answered, "Yes, but it's good all the same."
For their second winter in Bermuda, the O'Neills rented a house called Bellevue, a big Victorian mansion with Greek columns and a wide porch and set off by a spacious lawn. While living there, O'Neill negotiated the purchase of a larger place which he planned to make his permanent home. His choice was a big stone palace on thirteen and a half acres of land overlooking Hamilton harbor. Spithead, as it was called, had been built early in the nineteenth century by a Captain Hezekiah Frith, who was reported to have made a fortune from privateering. The main house, containing several dozen rooms, is at the very edge of the water. There was also a small house next to it and a gardener's cottage on the side of a hill. The estate had been abandoned for some years and was in need of extensive repairs. O'Neill was soon conferring with architects and builders about plans for restoring Spithead to its old grandeur. Always the romanticist, he was excited by the history that went with the old place. He told Agnes that he thought he would be at home in a pirate's house. Perhaps, he said, Spithead would turn out to be one place where he at last belonged.
He was now at work on Strange Interlude, for which he had made notes in the fall of 1923. "It was in the previous summer," he said, "in Provincetown, that I heard from an aviator, formerly of the Lafayette Escadrille, the story of a girl whose aviator fiancé had been shot down just before the armistice. The girl went to pieces from the shock. She later married, not because she loved the man but because she wanted to have a child. She hoped through motherhood to win back a measure of contentment from life."
Strange Interlude was the most ambitious play O'Neill had undertaken up to this point in his career. It carries four characters through searing emotional crises in their lives over a period of twenty-eight years. Like the girl O'Neill had heard about, Nina Leeds, the beautiful daughter of a college professor, had been engaged to an aviator who was killed in World War I. Her stern and Puritanical father had not permitted her to marry her fiancé and had prevented them from making love. She leaves home, becomes a nurse, and turns rebel and promiscuous. She eventually marries a man she doesn't love, in order to settle down and have children, but after the marriage the husband's mother tells Nina that she must not have children because there is insanity in the husband's family. Nina has a child by her lover and lets her husband think it is his. Toward the end of the play, the child has become a man and he slaps his real father without knowing him to be his father. The play ends with the boy flying away in a plane with his fiancée. Nina has been defeated by time and by the spirit of youth in her son -- the same spirit which caused her to rebel in her own youth. The characters all speak their thoughts aloud, a development of the old-fashioned asides used in the theater of James O'Neill's day. It is also notably an outgrowth of the stream-of-consciousness writing that James Joyce had begun to employ so effectively, as had Arthur Schnitzler, the Viennese novelists, dramatist, and friend and admirer of Freud.
"My people," O'Neill said in discussing the device, "speak aloud what they think and what others aren't supposed to hear. They talk in prose, realistic or otherwise, blank verse or hexameter or rhymed couplets." The dialogue in Strange Interlude is occasionally powerful enough to make one gasp. As Arthur Hobson Quinn has said, "You always apprehend that a soul is speaking who has something important to say."
Strange Interlude will probably always stand out, with Mourning Becomes Electra and Long Day's Journey into Night, as one of O'Neill's three great plays. All three are Gargantuan; they center upon large families and deal with at least two generations. Perhaps Strange Interlude will again become popular when it is at last permitted to be cut. It will become a better play, at any rate. If it is dated, it is dated in the peculiarly memorable way of Scott Fitzgerald The Great Gatsby. In both, one finds real clues to the temperament of the 1920s and upper-class society.
O'Neill's biography by Barrett Clark was now in page proofs. Clark, a painstaking researcher, had been most judicious in quoting from pieces written by critics and journalists who had interviewed O'Neill. Yet O'Neill proved difficult to please. He began by praising the job Clark had done -- the writing had a fine intelligent quality, the main part of the biography was excellent in every way. Then he proceeded to tear to shreds much of what Clark had written, especially where competent interviewers had quoted O'Neill directly. Most accounts of his early life were legend, he said; the truth would be more interesting, more incredible, and he (O'Neill) should really write his own biography and shame the devil.
On the other hand, maybe he should not write about himself. When his memory brought back this or that episode in his life, he could not, or would not, as he said, recognize the person as himself or understand the acts as his. Reason told him he had done this or that, said this or that, but the feeling that it was another person remained. Although some of those who had quoted him were the best reporters in the country, O'Neill wanted to edit the quotes they had attributed to him. He kept wanting to change what he had said so that it "better expressed the truth."
He wanted Clark's biography to be more concise, and to be a more "interest-catching piece of writing." Though he thought a photograph of himself ought to go into the book, he wanted to "O.K. it, as some of the photos of me are very poor." He strongly recommended an enlargement of a snapshot which Nicholas Muray had taken at Peaked Hill. It was the best of all, O'Neill thought, and "really represents me."
Clark wrote O'Neill that he was most discouraged. He said it was difficult, in a biography, "to get anyone" unless the biographer had lived alongside his subject from childhood up. O'Neill replied that he didn't see any reason for Clark to be discouraged. With a flash of insight, he observed that a man reading his own biography resembles a man looking into a mirror while he has on a new hat. He inevitably looks "a bit queer and ridiculous to himself" and wonders who the stranger is. Clark went ahead with publication, but the volume he published in the fall was pitifully thin, because of the deletions which O'Neill had demanded.
Something of O'Neill's state of mind at this time may be seen in some paragraphs, full of sour notes as they are, by John V. A. Weaver in the New York World. "Something has happened to O'Neill," he wrote. He had seen him only twice since he had studied with him at Harvard, and he found him "a stranger."
"Gone is the old swaggering zest, vanished is the charming swashbuckling. He looks tired and tortured. Probably it is my fault but he finds little beyond monosyllables to say to me. Even his infuriated sense of humor seems to have lost all its edge." Weaver explained all this on the ground that O'Neill was surrounded by "sycophants, his Village yes men. No human could withstand, I suppose, the frightful adulation which has been his lot. His work looks bad, too, these days."
Weaver said he had not seen The Great God Brown. Nevertheless, he felt free to pass judgment on it. "From what I hear," he said, "there is too much in it of this artificial, manufactured Great God O'Neill. As for Welded, All God's Chillun, Desire under the Elms and The Fountain -- well, they all have the appearance, to me, of rungs down a ladder into sterility." This was harsh, and Weaver knew it. "I'm sorry," he wrote. "One cannot help a little sadness over the spectacle of a high, exuberant spirit becoming lacquered. I would like to hear that he had vanished, full of hooch and hellishness, for parts unknown, beyond some new horizon, to touch the earth again and return plain Gene and not the deity of Washington Square."
Weaver had written, that year, an unsuccessful musical comedy called Love 'Em and Leave 'Em. He had written it cynically, he said, to prove to his friends that he could write a hit musical comedy. It was the only play he was ever to have on the boards. He suggested that O'Neill go to see this play and then sit with him over "a flock of beers and tear hell out of it. But I guess he will not. We aren't highbrow enough, I'm sure, for this strange, literary O'Neill. We wouldn't be worth bothering about. Things change."
As O'Neill pushed through the first half of Strange Interlude in the spring of 1926, he also completed all the details of his purchase of Spithead. The big house in Bermuda would take some months before it could be made ready for occupancy. Meanwhile he moved Agnes and the children into the small house next to it. Brook Farm had not been sold, but he proceeded with Spithead nevertheless.
"He really loved Bermuda," Agnes has said. "He told me he was convinced that Spithead was where he wanted to spend the rest of his life. Conferring with workmen and architects on doing over Spithead gave him a great deal of pleasure."
On June 15, 1926, O'Neill and Agnes sailed for New York. Shane was six, Oona a year old. The family went directly to Ridgefield. O'Neill had a day in New York and conferred with Clark. On June 23, he and Agnes drove in a rented limousine to New Haven, where he received an honorary degree from Yale. As usual, the prospect of appearing in public, to be "on view" before a large audience, distressed O'Neill and he worried and fretted all the way to New Haven. It would be awful. What would he do? Would he not make a fool of himself? Agnes tried to reassure him.
They were the house guests of Professor Baker. Also receiving an honorary degree was Andrew Mellon, Secretary of the Treasury under President Hoover. James Rowland Angell, president of Yale, gave a luncheon for his distinguished guests, among them the Crown Prince of Sweden. Later, at the commencement exercises, the degree of Doctor of Literature was conferred upon O'Neill with the words (probably written by William Lyon Phelps):
"As a creative contributor of new and moving forms to one of the oldest of arts, as the first American playwright to receive both wide and serious recognition upon the stage of Europe. . ." As the citation was being read, O'Neill looked desperately from side to side, then bowed his head in terror. But when he mounted the platform to receive the parchment and heard the applause, a smile spread over his face. He even took a little bow.
He and Agnes stayed on in Baker's house for several days. After dinner one night, and after Agnes had gone to bed, O'Neill took a walk around the Yale campus. According to George Jean Nathan, O'Neill noticed a number of old Yale grads "having a hot reunion with themselves." Three of them, in particular, drew O'Neill's attention because they were "so grandly stewed." One was the president of a big bank, another was a vice-president of one of the big railroads, and a third was a United States senator. Nathan did not make it clear how O'Neill knew their names and exact titles.
"After playing leapfrog for about ten minutes," Nathan wrote, "during which one of them fell down and rolled halfway into a sewer, the three, singing barber-shop songs at the top of their lungs, wobbled across the street to the opposite corner, where there was a mailbox. Whereupon the senator proceeded to use the mailbox for a purpose generally reserved for telegraph poles and the sides of barns."
According to Nathan, O'Neill delighted in telling this story. After finishing it, he would always break into boisterous laughter -- the only occasions Nathan ever saw him do so. O'Neill's delight in presenting and exaggerating three ultra "respectabilities" as vulgarians is characteristic of him.
The summer of 1926 O'Neill and his family spent at Belgrade Lakes, near the heart of the pine region in Maine. The period should be labeled, Agnes has said, with the name of the cabin they lived in -- "Lune Lodge."
Supposedly, O'Neill was hard at work finishing the second half of Strange Interlude. Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, the biographer, visited Lune Lodge that summer and found him sitting by the Maine lake "with Shane, pulling perch off shore, and a well-ordered domestic life in full swing up the hill."
All the children were in the house that summer. Gaga, too, was there. During most of the day, the children were required to stay away from the lodge. There was to be absolute quiet while O'Neill worked.
Propped up in bed with pillows, he spent the morning writing in longhand. While Agnes took care of Oona, Gaga took the other children for walks through the woods or down to the lake to swim.
Besides his daily writing stints, O'Neill was also carrying on a steady correspondence with the architects and builders who were doing over Spithead. On some afternoons he received writers and journalists who came up to Maine to interview him.
There was some social life at Belgrade Lakes. One of O'Neill's neighbors was Elizabeth Marbury, a wealthy and fashionable New York spinster who was a theatrical producer and author of the recently published book My Crystal Ball. Her house guests included Florence Reed, star of the Broadway hit Shangai Gesture, and Lady Mendl. Also included in the Marbury household that summer was the recently divorced wife of the New Yorker caricaturist Ralph Barton -- Carlotta Monterey.
This second meeting of O'Neill and the actress who had starred in The Hairy Ape took place in the living room of Lune Lodge. Miss Marbury and her house guests came to call, Carlotta among them. She was the same age as O'Neill, thirty-eight; she was a successful actress of stage and screen; and she was spectacularly good-looking.
Carlotta Monterey has given the date of her birth as December, 1888, and the place as San Francisco, whose records were destroyed in the Great Fire. She made her debut on the stage in London when she was only sixteen and proceeded to study acting, voice culture and pantomine in London and Paris. Her first New York stage appearance was with Lou Tellegen in Taking Chances, which opened at the Thirty-ninth Street Theatre in June, 1915. She played Lucy Gallon, and her role was described as that of "a picturesque, petulant and pouting adventuress." She then succeeded Lenore Ulric in the leading role of The Bird of Paradise. After playing several vampire parts, she retired from the stage for two years, during which her name was linked with that of a well-known millionaire philanthropist of the period. About 1920 she returned to the Broadway stage in Mr. Barnum, and subsequently she played in Be Calm, Camilla, A Sleepless Night, Bavu, and Voltaire.
In her book Past Imperfect, Ilka Chase states that Carlotta was born Hazel Tauzig, but in an interview he gave the Kansas City Star Ralph Barton said her maiden name was Neilson Tassinge. Carlotta Monterey is most probably a stage name although it has already been chiseled on her tombstone in a Boston cemetery alongside the name of Eugene O'Neill. Her first husband is reported to have been named Chapman; by him, she had a daughter named Cynthia. Her second husband is said to have been an Englishman named Coates.
During the two years Carlotta and Barton were married she met most of the members of the group around Harold Ross, editor of The New Yorker, and his wife, Jane Grant, but the group took an unsympathetic view of her seemingly violent jealousy. Carlotta didn't fit in.
During the year preceding her visit to Belgrade Lakes, she had played in several motion pictures. She had parts in Soul Fire with Richard Barthelmess and in The King on Main Street with Adolphe Menjou. In a Broadway play, The Red Falcon by Stark Young, she was in the same cast with Ilka Chase. Miss Chase, who had two minor parts-a nun and a serving maid -- found Carlotta "kind and funny, remarkably ribald. . . she dressed like a Dutch burgher's wife. . . had strong capable hands and feet and superb dark eyes."
Carlotta liked to dress in immaculate white linen and had her shoes made to order of a special leather. Her neck, Ilka said, was the neck of a Javanese or a Russian, whereas "her body was Dutch or Danish." Carlotta often told friends that her mother was of Dutch descent and her father was Danish. Miss Chase noted that Carlotta's apartment always "shone like a minted coin." One of the most interesting observations Miss Chase made about Carlotta was that "she hated the theater."
O'Neill himself was getting fed up with the theater that summer -- at least that's what he told Nathan. The eternal showshop, he termed it, from which nothing ever emerged but more showshop. Agnes could write her short stories and send them off, to be published or not. Fiction writers had the best of it all, he said. It was humiliating for an artist to have to put up with what he was going through. The Theatre Guild was dallying over when and whether to produce Marco Millions. The Actors Theatre was trying to raise money to do Lazarus Laughed but was having a hard time getting it from "the ranks of million-talking jitney-giving Lorenzos."
Agnes has recalled that when Carlotta came to their house that summer afternoon with Elizabeth Marbury and the others, they all seemed a rather strident, mannish group. She was unaware that Carlotta had made any particular impression on her husband.
The children, however, were more observant. They buzzed among themselves about the beautiful woman who wore a bathing suit the likes of which they had never seen before; it was one piece and there was "so little of it." They had noticed her when she came to call with the fashionable ladies. Down at the lake, they had seen her talking to Father and he had seemed quite taken. But if O'Neill's children were instinctively aware of something unusual, there is no suggestion in the pieces written about O'Neill that summer that he was preoccupied with anything but his work and his family.
"When O'Neill steps lightly along some pagan shore with Shane," Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant wrote of her visit with him, "he walks a little behind, a tall figure in a bathing suit, with limbs burnt to a pagan blackness; and on his face the look, not of a 'father' but of some trusting child who has grown up into a strange world." Miss Sergeant worried about Shane during her visit to Lune Lodge that summer. He seemed a lonely little boy, lost among the older children and the celebrities trekking to O'Neill's doorstep.
When David Karsner came to do a long magazine piece on O'Neill for the New York Herald Tribune, he talked first with Agnes on the wide porch of Lune Lodge. Karsner found her "a girlish woman with a manner as straightforward and unassuming and unaffected as I have ever encountered." They heard footsteps, and Agnes quickly disappeared.
Karsner saw O'Neill step "briskly forward, attired in loose-fitting trousers, white sneakers and a sweater. His greeting was cordial and unaffected, and yet, I had the feeling that it was quite detached and aloof, albeit unconsciously so." Karsner was more disturbed by O'Neill than by any of the celebrated people he had ever interviewed. "I cannot recall a single person whose burning eyes, intense, almost nervous exterior had the same effect upon me. . . . It was what gave those eyes of his their burning luster and what contributed to his intense, almost jerky exterior that mattered. You felt the deep tone of his nature, like the mid-regions of the sea that are solid and tranquil."
"Every person," O'Neill told him, "has within him his own kind of truth, and that truth has little if any application outside its possessor." He added that no longer did he have any fixed opinions about anything. There were always too many things to consider from which opinions are derived.
In general, Karsner decided at the end of their talk, "the theme which furnishes the basis of nearly all of O'Neill's plays is man's rebellion against his environment."
Darkness descended as the two men talked. O'Neill was silent for what seemed like an hour to Karsner, who likewise remained silent. It was an effect that other writers had experienced on meeting O'Neill. Stark Young has said, "As was usual in his case I felt vaguely an emotion of pity and defense. Though there was nothing particularly to defend him against, I wanted to defend him, to take his part."
Lawrence Langner, head of the Theatre Guild, had a similar feeling of admiration and protection for O'Neill. "The kindness of his smile," Langner said, "the gentleness of his spirit, the philosophical detachment of his mind, his Olympian view of human destiny, were not only inspiring but so endeared him to you that you wanted to lay down your life in his service."
"Night had come," Karsner wrote, "and laid a dark hand over the lake among the pines in the Maine woods. He sat gazing at the still water and listening to it splash upon the shore and run back again to its own. In that unforgettable hour there seemed to hang over us like a blanket the balanced pain of the world.
" 'There can be no such thing,' O'Neill suddenly said, 'as an ivory tower for a playwright. He either lives in the theater of his time or he never lives at all.' "
O'Neill and Agnes stayed on at Belgrade Lakes until the end of September. He accomplished little besides catching up on his correspondence. Lazarus still had not been sold, although O'Neill had hopes that S. Hurok might put it on with Chaliapin in the lead. He heard that Max Reinhardt was interested in doing it -- the German impresario was coming to New York to put on a revival of The Miracle. But nothing of O'Neill's was to be put on the boards for two years.
Something was troubling him. Jimmy Light wrote to cheer him up. What especially pleased the playwright was that Light said there was so much of the real O'Neill in Lazarus. O'Neill told his old friend Fitzie -- Eleanor Fitzgerald of the Provincetown -- that Light's words had cheered him no end and were worth "a gallon of licker" in overcoming self-pity and self-indulgence. He resumed working.
Although he put all his creative energies into finishing the second half of Strange Interlude, O'Neill was already conceiving Mourning Becomes Electra. The previous spring in Bermuda, when he began Interlude, he wrote in his work diary that he might write a "modern psychological drama using one of the old legend plots of Greek tragedy." He asked himself if it would be possible to "get a modern psychological approximation of [the] Greek sense of fate" into this sort of play. The problem was that a modern audience possessed no belief in gods or in supernatural retribution. For the Greek sense of fate, the concept of the Furies and the avenging gods, he would substitute "the Puritan conviction of man born to sin and punishment." He would also throw in some of the tenets of the enemy of Puritanism, Dr. Sigmund Freud. He would have his characters trapped psychologically, using the Freudian concept that a man's adult relationship with a woman is in part predetermined by the development of his unconscious sexual strivings for his mother, and that a woman's relationship with a man is predetermined in complementary fashion.
One might assume that, if O'Neill was thinking in such Freudian terms when he was writing Strange Interlude, that play, too, would have a Freudian orientation. In fact, the critic and teacher Joseph Wood Krutch believed that it did, and he wrote that "the intellectual framework [of Strange Interlude] is supplied by Freudian psychology." But Doris Alexander, an O'Neill scholar, has written that Interlude is based squarely on the philosophy of Schopenhauer, who believed that "all love, however ethereally it may bear itself, is rooted in the sexual impulse alone." In O'Neill's Interlude, the characters are not motivated, according to the Freudian rationale. Rather, as Doris Alexander points out, they "are at the mercy of irrational forces." Darrell, the psychiatrist, fled his affair with Nina, the heroine, and supposedly went to Europe to study. He returns years later and confesses to Nina, "I didn't study! I didn't live. I longed for you -- and suffered." The ending of Strange Interlude, an ending of sheer exhaustion, as John Gassner has said, is the perfect expression of the pessimistic philosophy of Schopenhauer.
There is no doubt that O'Neill was steeped in the writings of Schopenhauer along with those of Nietzsche. He discussed their work in an introduction he wrote to Benjamin De Casseres' Anathema! Litanies of Negation. They mixed, he said, despair and rhapsody. He told De Casseres that Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra had had more influence on him than any other book he had read up to 1927. He had found it on the shelf of a Greenwich Village bookshop run by Benjamin Tucker. Sometimes, O'Neill confessed, he thought his work -- and his life -- a pitiful contradiction of the Zarathustra influence. Nonetheless, he read his copy every year or so and was "never disappointed," which was more than he could say for any other book.
During the writing of Interlude, O'Neill was also reading Freud. He read Beyond the Pleasure Principle and probably A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis. Through Kenneth Macgowan, he became friends with a practicing analyst, Dr. Gilbert van Tassle Hamilton, who was doing a study called A Research in Marriage, a psychological investigation of the love and sex behavior of two hundred married men and women. Agnes and O'Neill allowed themselves to be questioned. In return, Dr. Hamilton said that any of those who helped in the study could have, at its conclusion, a free analysis. O'Neill not only took him up on the offer, but also consulted Dr. Hamilton on certain psychological aspects of Strange Interlude.
In October, O'Neill and his family moved to Ridgefield. Despite the fact that it was a time of prosperity, Brook Farm had found no buyers. At the end of November, the O'Neills boarded the Furness-Bermuda liner Fort St. George bound for Bermuda. At the sailing, O'Neill talked to the ship-news reporters about Spithead. He described it as a house that was old "when Admiral Paul Jones was flying his flag in West Indian waters," and he spoke of its having been occupied by "a man named Frith who made a fortune out of the prizes he took when he commanded a privateer." For all his shyness, O'Neill was never at a loss in providing good copy for the press.
After settling in Spithead, O'Neill fitted out a study in the big house at the water's edge. His windows looked out over the docks where the boats were tied up and where his guests went swimming. That winter and into the spring of 1927, he worked on his final draft of Strange Interlude.
There were many visitors in the spring. James Light came down with his bride, a Philadelphia-born society girl and artist, dark-haired and pretty. Bessie Breuer, novelist and editor, came with her husband, Henry Varnum Poor, the painter. She loved both O'Neill and Agnes, but she saw, as Stark Young had seen, that some terrible tension, a disturbing jealousy, existed between them.
"Gene could get jealous of Agnes," Miss Breuer has said, "just watching her smoke a cigarette. They would fall to arguing and be late for a dinner party. Then Gene would want her to hurry and she would lose her shoe and there would be more arguing. Then she would find the shoe under the bed. By then it would be almost midnight.
"Agnes was as much his sister as a woman could be. They were like two children. Both were delicate, beautiful creatures. Agnes was so beautiful. She had long tapering fingers, a lithe, thin body. As for Gene, when I think of him I always see his eyes. They were always turned inward. They were bottomless. He spoke with his eyes. He received you into his face with his eyes. As you talked with him, you entered into another life. That was the kind of profundity he had.
"Gene was a person of love, not just personal love. Nobody he ever knew did he leave untouched. He always left on them the imprint of his purity. There was always a tentative distance between himself and others, however. He had, of course, great, great reserve.
"Gene starts in a world of pain. He created a world of love and pain everywhere he went. He had in him the poetry of life, the poetry of passion. Of course, he was destroyed in the end. This kind of poetry cannot be translated into ordinary life. As for what happened to his children, he couldn't help them because he couldn't help himself."
One of the O'Neills' guests has recalled that Eugene junior, then seventeen, used to break out into recitations of poetry loud enough for his father to hear. "It was as if the boy," the guest has observed, "was making love to his father with poetry. O'Neill would stop work and come down to the dock to listen to his son. He was delighted and would declaim a few lines of poetry himself."
Some of the poetry Eugene junior recited was his own:
They did not recognize me,
Jesus Christ come again to Earth.
But on the chair I laughed at them.
"Did you have a funny dream, Eugene,
Did I not see something down there?
Young Eugene's deification of his father was well developed by that summer. In Douglaston, where he lived with his mother, stepbrother and stepfather, he was introduced at a party at a neighbor's house as "the son of Eugene O'Neill, one of our best dramatists."
"What do you mean," young Eugene quickly interjected, "one of our best? My father is the greatest dramatist in the entire world."
For Shane, who was not quite eight, that summer was one of the happiest in his life. Like his father, he had taken the sea as his own. He swam almost as well as an adult. He fished off the dock for "yeller grunts," though they were not big and not good to cat, and his chief ambition was to catch a shark. He had a bulldog named Bowser, who wandered off now and then for a few days but always came back. He also had a girl friend, Peggy Ann, the daughter of a neighboring family named Hulburt, with whom he played a great deal. The grownups smiled, and they told each other that it was a "match." Shane missed Gaga, who was in Provincetown, and Gaga missed him even more. Agnes reported details of Shane's life to Gaga by letter.
Shane was only vaguely aware of the shadow that was beginning to fall over his mother and father that year. He recalls there was a good deal of talk about "that woman," but there were other interesting things going on that made greater impressions. A famous actress was thinking of doing one of Daddy's plays called Strange Interlude. Then, all of a sudden, a man named Lawrence Langner of the Theatre Guild in New York came to Bermuda and held long conferences with Daddy. Mr. Langner refused to go into the ocean although Daddy urged him to join the family in their afternoon swim. One evening he took Strange Interlude back to his hotel. That night there was a terrible storm, and in the morning when it had cleared, Daddy and Mother were in good spirits. Mr. Langner said he was going to put Strange Interlude on Broadway.
Before Mr. Langner left Bermuda to return to New York, he came down to the beach and took moving pictures of Daddy swimming. Daddy swam extra well that afternoon. There always seemed to be a lot of picture-taking in Bermuda. Everybody who came down brought a camera, and soon Daddy and Mother, Shane and Oona, were being asked to stand here and sit there. Some of the pictures turned up in newspapers and magazines.
Jimmy Light, unlike so many of the important people who came to Bermuda to see Daddy, paid a lot of attention to Shane. He was sympathetic to Shane's idea of catching a shark but, like Shane, he settled for catching "yeller grunts." Daddy seemed more cheerful with Jimmy Light, and so did Mother. The Lights stayed two months. Shane, especially, was sorry to see them go.
When summer came to Bermuda, the heat drove many of the inhabitants off the island -- but not the O'Neills. Shane noticed his father getting restless and bored. "Here in Bermuda," O'Neill told a friend, "one rarely gets the chance, especially now in the slack season, to say a word to a human being above the intellectual and spiritual level of a land crab and this solitude gets damned oppressive at times."
In August, Shane had no guests with whom to swim or fish. Daddy was sick in bed for ten days. "I've had a rather rotten time of it," O'Neill told a friend, "generally bunged up and no pep. Summer flu, particularly in this climate, is not what I would wish on anyone seeking the well-known joy of living."
Shane was used to being alone; he seemed most at home between the sea and the shore. His father noticed it, too. "One of these days," he said to Shane, "I expect you'll turn into one of 'them yeller grunts' yourself and swim out and leave us, and then we'll have to set the fish font to catch you and bring you home again!" At times like these, father and son laughed easily together. It was not difficult for O'Neill to communicate with his son when he thought to do it.
Late in the summer of 1927, O'Neill read an article about himself by Ben De Casseres. In general he liked it, but he objected to De Casseres' saying that "nerves" had landed him in a sanatorium; it was "T.B. bugs," O'Neill answered, which he had picked up at Jimmy the Priest's. He also wanted to take issue with De Casseres for having said that O'Neill had shoved off the vultures which were ready to feed off his fame and corrupt him. The O'Neill vultures were still flapping around and thank God! They were still hungry and undaunted but, O'Neill insisted, he was proud of them because they were a test -- they justified his existence. Should they desert him, he would feel he was a success and "a complete loss." As yet, they had not been able to gorge themselves "fat and comfortable" on what the reporters called fame. O'Neill said his birds luckily fly from the "great dark behind and inside and not from the bright lights without." He anticipated one last visit of these vultures when their wings would blot out the sky and they would tear loose the last of the O'Neill liver.
O'Neill postponed his departure from Bermuda several times that summer because he was ill. But he had to get to New York because the Guild was preparing to cast Marco Millions and Strange Interlude. School opened before he left, and Shane brought his copybook home and showed it to his father. O'Neill only glanced at it. If only he did not have to leave Spithead, he said, and go to that terrible city. . .
The day of departure came. He
kissed Agnes and Oona and Shane and boarded the ship for New York.
He was off on a journey that would take him around the world, a long
day's journey that would plunge him and his family into night.
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