xx: Father and Sons
When Eugene O'Neill and Carlotta arrived in the United States on the Statendam, Sunday, May 17, 1931, he was in an extraordinarily happy mood. He and Carlotta intended to tarry in New York City only a few days. Their plan was to go immediately to San Francisco to visit Carlotta's mother. They had even left instructions in France for all their mail to be forwarded directly to the West Coast. The Ralph Barton suicide that week wrecked their plans as well as their new found serenity.
That week he told a press conference at the Guild Theatre that Federal Judge Woolsey had delivered "the best possible elegy over plagiarism and Strange Interlude." He also said that he would not return to Europe at all if it weren't for the fact that his lease at Château de Plessis still had a year to run. Although he had been most enthusiastic about the original manner in which his plays had been produced by the Swedes and the Russians, O'Neill said, it was his opinion that the American theater was superior to the European theater, and that "Europe looks with hope to America's dynamic quality." He predicted that this idea would soon win wide acceptance.
"The ordinary tourists," O'Neill continued, "go over, stay only a short time and get the idea that culture is there. I have talked with a number of people in the theatrical world and they all have the feeling that the American stage has a freshness theirs lacks. This may sound like patriotic ballyhoo of the worst kind but it isn't. Before long they will be coming over here to learn from us. And the intelligent ones among them know it."
O'Neill said he didn't care where he lived in the United States as long as it was "where there is sun." He spoke of having worked on Mourning Becomes Electra "like a Trappist monk" and said he regarded it as "my pet of them all." In the play he had tried to get into it "the idea of fate."
At about that time O'Neill became involved in a lengthy, defensive discussion of his work with Barrett Clark, who had written him that Mourning Becomes Electra was rather heavily Freudian. Suppose, O'Neill replied, Stendhal and Balzac and Strindberg and Dostoievsky were writing their novels now. Think what Freudian stuff the critics would read into their work. He, O'Neill, knew enough about the behavior of men and women to have written Mourning Becomes Electra without ever having heard of Freud or Jung or any of the others. Most good authors were psychologists before the socalled science of psychology was discovered. He had read only four books by such people as Freud and Jung. Jung was the only one who interested him. He would admit, however, that a psychological writer of the past, like Dostoievsky, had had great influence on him. The interpretations in Mourning Becomes Electra were such as might occur to almost any writer "with a deep curiosity about the underlying motives that actuate interrelationships in the family."
As Manhattan grew uncomfortably hot that June, O'Neill decided to spend the summer on Long Island. Carlotta leased a white clapboard house by the sea at Northport, The location was more in keeping with his new role as a "respectability." He even bought a twelve-cylinder Cadillac limousine. When Brooks Atkinson teased him about it, O'Neill quickly explained that it was a bargain. It had been driven only two thousand miles, had an ironclad guarantee, looked brand-new, and was sold to him at a thousand dollars off the list price. He said he could not resist "this splendid gift of world depression." After all, he said, he had always been an "A-one snob" as far as cars and boats were concerned. O'Neill then painted a picture of the late James O'Neilll, Sr., as a loving father who gave his sons "only the classiest cars and boats." The Count of Monte Cristo, as Eugene referred to him, "sported the first Packard in New London." He and Jamie had taken her out on the open road and got her up to forty miles per hour. The Packard, he said, had never fully recovered.
Twenty years later, in Long Day's Journey into Night, O'Neill touched on snobbery in connection with the make of automobile one owned, when Ella Tyrone, the play's counterpart of Eugene's mother, calls attention to the Chatfields driving by in their beautiful new Mercedes. The Chatfields are the town's "swells," and Ella makes it clear to her husband and two sons that, compared to the Chatfield's, the Tyrones are social outcasts. She says that the Mercedes is far superior to the second-hand Packard that her husband has bought for her, and she chides him for hiring an incompetent helper in the garage as their chauffeur. (James O’Neill bought a Packard for his wife after she was discharged from the sanatorium to which she had been sent for treatment as a drug addict.)
That summer of 1931, O'Neill invited Brooks Atkinson out to Northport to discuss the author's basic aims in writing Mourning Becomes Electra, which was about to go into production. Most of that summer, the O'Neills sat on the beach in the sun, trying to make up for the gloomy darkness and chill of their winters at Le Plessis. They were photographed for the rotogravure sections of the Sunday papers, sitting together in bathing suits on the beach.
O'Neill's work diary shows that he put aside for a while work on Mourning Becomes Electra, his "trilogy of the damned," as he called it. When, in August, Liveright sent him the galley proofs of the play, O'Neill noted that he had not looked at it for four months. Reading the play in type made him feel that his main purpose had been achieved. There was the feeling of fate in it, "a psychological modern approximation of the fate in the Greek tragedies on this theme -- attained without benefit of the supernatural." However, some cutting was needed, especially in the first and third plays of his trilogy.
"Maybe," O'Neill told Nathan, "if I were a drinking man I would have seen it more clearly at the start. There are times in the writing of drama when a bit of cloudiness can bring a sudden gleam of light more effectively than too-long studious analysis."
O'Neill saw little or nothing of his children that summer. Young Gene had just completed his junior year at Yale and was becoming something of a person in his own right. He had been awarded the Winthrop Prize for his knowledge of Greek and Latin poetry, and he had been tapped for Skull and Bones, Yale's most exclusive senior-class society, which enrolls only fifteen members out of six hundred fourth-year men. Among those tapped with him were Frederick B. Adams, today head of the Morgan Library, and Tex McCrary, the television commentator and public relations man.
Gene junior had also become engaged. Because Yale undergraduates were then forbidden to be married while in college, he sought and obtained permission from the school authorities. His fiancée was Elizabeth Green of Forest Hills, the daughter of a wealthy paint manufacturer. Gene and Miss Green were married in Long Island City, New York, on June 15. Announcement of the wedding was made by the groom's mother, Mrs. Kathleen Pitt-Smith, who said there was no parental objection to the marriage from either side of the family. She and Miss Green's father were the only witnesses to the ceremony.
O'Neill was staying at the Madison and spending weekends at Northport, but reporters were unable to reach him and ask why he had not attended the wedding. One reporter talked to Harry Weinberger, O'Neill's attorney, who expressed surprise and, after checking presumably with O'Neill, refused to confirm or deny that the wedding had taken place.
Arranging for O'Neill to see his children had become especially difficult in the case of Oona and Shane. All communication between Agnes and O'Neill had to filter through Harry Weinberger. That summer of 1931, Oona had just passed her sixth birthday and Shane was going on eleven. After some weeks, a meeting was arranged. With his chauffeur-driven Cadillac, O'Neill and Carlotta took the two children for a ride. Shane was painfully shy, as was his father, and Oona became carsick. Carlotta tried to make them all feel comfortable, but the reunion was not a success.
Early in the summer, Agnes began looking for "a first-class American preparatory boarding school" to which she might send Shane, in compliance with the terms of her separation agreement with O'Neill. Shane remembers his mother driving with him to look over various schools. She included Lawrenceville because it was nearby and she thought Shane might be less homesick if he were not too far from Point Pleasant.
Shane seemed to like the Lawrenceville campus and buildings, but he was extremely shy when he met the masters. She noticed, as she had before, that he seemed to be developing a shyness, like his father's, about going out in public. After a long talk with W. A. Jameson, the school's registrar, Agnes agreed to have Shane tutored in English and mathematics. Jameson was to be Shane's housemaster. It was decided that Agnes would have Shane come to Lawrenceville a week before school started so that Jameson could tutor him "in an effort to put him in the best possible condition to carry on our work." Shane began his career at Lawrenceville on September 21, 1931.
Lawrenceville is one of the oldest and most patrician of American preparatory schools. Had Shane been merely the son of a wealthy father, the faculty and students would easily have taken him in stride. But he was the son of a man whom most of the civilized world had already acclaimed as a great genius. Shane was conscious of this. He was also troubled that he didn't know more about his father and his work, and he was embarrassed when people questioned him about his father, or asked him which of his father's plays he liked best. He didn't know the answers.
The first month he was there, Shane's masters at Lawrenceville knew they had an extremely difficult problem on their hands. He did fairly well in his studies at first, but his worst subject was English, in which he was expected to excel. His conduct record was satisfactory, but Jameson observed Shane's insecurity and asked Agnes to come over to Lawrenceville for a conference. The gist of what he said was that Shane "must develop far greater powers of self-reliance and responsibility." But matters did not improve. In the first quarterly report, the middle of November, all of Shane's marks dropped. He failed in English and ranked thirty-second in a class of forty-three.
A distinguished Lawrenceville master writes: "I remember Shane very well. He is one of the few boys out of 1,000 I'll never forget. I used to see him in school and in chapel. As a very small boy, he was one of the most attractive kids I'd ever seen: handsome, dark hair and eyes, appealing face, always quiet, friendly, pleasant and a nice smile. I'll never forget him as a small boy because he seemed to be just what a child that age should be." and a nice smile. I'll never forget him as a small boy because he seemed to be just what a child that age should be."
O'Neill did so much rewriting on the proofs of Mourning Becomes Electra that his publishers decided it might be cheaper to reset the entire play. Liveright sent the new set of galleys to O'Neill in September. Even then, O'Neill judged that Act Two of The Haunted needed some more work, but he decided to postpone any more rewriting until he had heard the cast read it; then it would "hit my ear," he told a friend. After the reading and his subsequent reworking of the "muzzy spots," he believed that he had made the trilogy clearer, more compact, and smoother running.
Plans for the production of the trilogy were announced by the Theatre Guild on September 9, 1931. Alice Brady accepted the part of Lavinia. She had always regretted turning down the part of Nina in Strange Interlude. Her father, William A. Brady, the theatrical producer and a friend of James O'Neill, had urged her to take the part. Alla Nazimova was cast as Christine, and Earle Larimore as Orin. Philip Moeller was engaged to direct and Robert Edmond Jones to do the sets.
O'Neill and Carlotta attended seven weeks of rehearsals of Mourning Becomes Electra. Though they both were familiar with the long, confusing, and often agonizing process of producing a play from manuscript to première, they were fascinated by what they saw and heard. O'Neill was particularly interested in the characterizations of Nazimova and Alice Brady, for their respective interpretations were at the same time more and less than what O'Neill had imagined. As always, he found that as soon as actors spoke his lines, the lines themselves seemed changed.
The three parts of O'Neill's trilogy are called Homecoming, The Hunted, and The Haunted. All of the action takes place within the year following the end of the Civil War. Ezra Mannon, wealthy ship-owner, judge, mayor and now a General in the Union Army, is about to return from the war. His wife, Christine, is having an affair with a sea captain, Adam Brant, the son of a disgraced uncle of Ezra. Lavinia, the Mannons' twenty-three-year-old daughter, who hates her mother and is abnormally devoted to her father, learns about the liaison and threatens Christine with exposure if the affair is not immediately ended. The mother pretends to submit to the ultimatum, but with the aid of her lover she plots the murder of her husband. On the night of his return, Ezra Mannon dies, and Lavinia finds the box which held the poison that Christine has administered. The doctor, however, attributes the death to heart failure.
Orin, the Mannons' twenty-year-old son, who loves his mother with more than filial affection, returns from the Army two days later. Lavinia plays upon his jealousy of his mother and enlists his aid in her plan to avenge their father's death. Together they follow Christine to a shipboard tryst with Brant and they listen to the incriminating conversation of the lovers. When Christine leaves, Orin kills Brant, and Lavinia helps him to leave evidence that causes the police to ascribe the slaying to an attack by waterfront thieves. Later, Lavinia and Orin tell their mother of the death of her lover. Christine shoots herself and her death is publicly laid to grief over her husband's death.
Lavinia takes Orin away on a year's journey in the South Seas. When they return Lavinia has become a beautiful woman very much resembling her mother, and Orin has acquired the looks of his father. Lavinia has hopes that now she and Orin will be able to build their separate futures away from the Marmon curse, but Orin, maddened by his feeling of guilt, threatens to publish the whole Mannon story unless Lavinia gives up all intentions of marrying, and he vows that he himself will not marry. He makes incestuous advances to her, and then he shoots himself. Lavinia, knowing that the dark story of the Mannon deaths will prevent her ever achieving happiness, decides to immure herself in the family mansion and never emerge from it until her death. The window shutters are being sealed and she closes the front door as the curtain falls.
Mourning Becomes Electra is a modern counterpart of the Oresteia trilogy in which Aeschylus narrated the revenge of Orestes and his sister, Electra, for the murder of their father, Agamemnon, by their mother, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus. As in the Greek drama, the O'Neill characters are shown struggling against a code, of myth -- in this case, the New England "best family" code. But the development of the new Electra is based on sound modern concepts of psychological and biological cause and effect, not upon the inspiration of the Furies. Nevertheless, he succeeded in creating an overriding impression of inevitability more powerful than the strivings of all the Mannons, and in this he caught some of the essence of classic Greek tragedy.
After a tryout in Boston, Mourning Becomes Electra was presented in New York at the Guild Theatre on October 26, 1931. The enthusiasm with which the critics received it surpassed that accorded any other new play in the history of the modern theater. Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times called it O'Neill's masterpiece and said it was "heroically thought out and magnificently wrought in style and structure." John Mason Brown called it "an achievement which restores the theater to its high estate." Joseph Wood Krutch wrote in The Nation that "it may turn out to be the only permanent contribution yet made by the twentieth century to dramatic literature." Time magazine had O'Neill's picture on its cover and called him "a mature genius at 43."
The play began at five o'clock in the afternoon and, including an hour's intermission for dinner, lasted five hours. Robert Benchley of The New Yorker said he liked the play all right but, at its end, he was "cushion conscious." Another published witticism said you had to stay in the theater until Mourning Became Electra. Alexander Woollcott reported that he overheard the conversation of two ladies lunching at the Colony restaurant. "Just tell me this, my dear," one said, "has there ever been any incest in your family?"
The play ran for 250 performances. It was so difficult to get seats that O'Neill had to buy some for the opening to give to friends. He himself left for Northport the day the play opened. When Art McGinley wrote for tickets, O'Neill replied that it was tough even for a playwright to buy seats for a Guild play when it was a hit. Guild subscribers filled the house every night for six weeks before seats were sold to the public. O'Neill said he felt pretty ragged and wished he could go on a "booze bust . . . a good antidote -- but I haven't used that way out in so many years it makes me feel old to think of them." These were his standard remarks to his old drinking friends, reflecting nostalgia more than actual intention.
Shane was extremely anxious to see the play. His fellow students jokingly asked him to get them passes. Finally he wrote his father and asked him directly whether he could come to New York to see the play. His father did not reply, but Shane received a typewritten letter from Carlotta. She began by saying that his father, as well as herself, was de Lighted to have received his letters and to hear that his days at Lawrenceville were proving happy as well as busy.
No, dear child, Carlotta told Shane, you cannot see Mourning Becomes Electra. She listed her reasons. First and foremost, Shane would not enjoy it. Anyone taking him would look conspicuous and ridiculous in the audience and would call down well-deserved and unpleasant criticism upon his own head. She pointed out that Shane's father was never conspicuous or ostentatious and those who loved him must follow his example. His father's next play, she assured him, would be one that Shane would enjoy. Then they could all make a family party and turn out in great style.
Early in November, O'Neill and Carlotta decided to live in Manhattan. He reasoned that "after two years in dismal Touraine there might be something in New York that might be good" for his work, and some things "to be done and seen," which he ought not to miss. They leased a duplex apartment at 1095 Park Avenue and spent some $25,000 in alterations.
Fred Pasley made a number of visits there to get material for a series of six articles for the Sunday News. O'Neill met him at the door of the apartment. Pasley found him "the most approachable and understanding person" he had ever encountered and described O'Neill as "six feet of sinewy physique, not fat, very slender; a finely molded head; thick black hair, tipped with gray; a heavy lock falling over the right temple, accentuating the massive brow; its height and breadth overhanging the sensitive features like a crag. Luminous black eyes, unusually large and round; unusually tense and brooding; of compelling, searching intelligence which shines through them; and they have the faculty of eloquent speech when the lips are mute." O'Neill introduced him to Blemie, his pet Dalmation. Carlotta had luncheon ready for the two men. Because Pasley had had a good deal of experience as a police reporter, the O'Neills asked him many questions about "gangsters, prohibition, and bootleg wars."
Afterward, O'Neill took his guest upstairs to his study. On the way Pasley noticed some of the furnishings -- a grotesque mask, a grinning little wooden idol suspended from the wall, a drum, cylindrical in shape and about six feet long, which the player beats while sitting astride it. In O'Neill's study were a ship's brass lantern and many pictures of clipper ships. There was also a wooden model of a clipper ship. During their talk O'Neill took his ship's discharge papers out of his top desk drawer and showed them to Pasley with pride and obvious nostalgia.
Pasley stayed the rest of the afternoon, taking notes as O'Neill talked. Carlotta brought them tea. O'Neill talked in "measured tones, whose cadences somehow reminds you of the ebbs and flow of the tides. His humor is precious and enhanced by the solemnity of his face. He has a slow-motion, whimsical grin which is always accompanied by a lifting of his bushy eyebrows. These are uncannily expressive. They actually seem to shrug themselves at times."
O'Neill poured tea and talked about the seaman who had given him the idea for The Hairy Ape. He would see a woman on the street and call out, "Hello, Kiddo. How's ev'ry little t'ing? Got anything on for tonight? I know an old boiler down by the docks we kin crawl into." Obviously, O'Neill wanted so much to be accepted by roughand-tumble guys, dese-and-dose guys, regular guys. Suddenly, he saw himself sipping tea with one of them and sensed that the man was impressed with the luxurious apartment. Then, as if reading the reporter's thoughts, he said, "They said I went high-hat because I moved uptown. I moved here simply because I found the sort of apartment I wanted."
In the middle of November, although scarcely settled at 1095 Park Avenue, O'Neill decided he needed a change. Ilka Chase suggested that fashionable Sea Island, Georgia, would please O'Neill. He could live by the sea and go swimming as much as he wanted. O'Neill said he needed a change of scene and climate to "snap me out of this slough and start me off on my new work." He couldn't "think serious" because of his "present dumb state of gray matter."
The O'Neills stopped at a few places en route. Carlotta wrote letters to Shane and Oona because O'Neill did not feel up to it. She told Shane that they had arrived at Sea Island and found the sun warm and lovely; that the water was warmer than on Long Island during the past summer -- at least, that was what his father reported -- she did not like swimming very much. She said that Sea Island was charming, with all kinds of sports -- riding, swimming, golf, tennis, shooting, fishing, and boating -- and that there was even an airport nearby.
In New York again during the winter of 1931-32, O'Neill was unable to get any writing done. In March, he was lionized, along with Gerhart Hauptmann, the German dramatist, at a sumptuous luncheon at the home of Otto Kahn. When Hauptmann sailed, he told reporters that "the two outstanding things in my visit were meeting O'Neill and attending Mourning Becomes Electra." But to Carlotta's continued puzzlement, O'Neill seemed to prefer his old friends. One of them was Walter "Ice" Casey. According to Nathan, "Ice" was the son of the iceman in New London and "remained one of Gene's favorite friends in later years, despite his wife's protestations that the fellow was scarcely of social status worthy of the O'Neill eminence." Carlotta has said that O'Neill didn't like to see people except that "sometimes what he would call his business associates would turn up from odd points of the globe and they would talk [with her husband] and then he would go back to work again."
Sometimes, O'Neill would encounter an old friend from his Jimmy the Priest's or seafaring days, and they would slip into a speakeasy to talk over old times. Most of them had not heard about his success as a playwright. One, a barker on a sightseeing bus in New York, after learning his old pal had a play on Broadway, made it a point to have the bus pass the Guild Theatre. "The greatest play in the world by the greatest playwright in the world -- Eugene O'Neill," he would bellow through his megaphone. Many of his friends put "the touch" on O'Neill and he generally responded. Carlotta took an extremely dim view of this.
In talking about those "wonderful" days, O'Neill often spoke to Carlotta of the nickelodeons they had in the New Orleans bagnios and other low dives he had frequented. He could hum or sing many of the old tunes. In an attempt to console O'Neill in his nostalgia, Carlotta went to a music store and asked if they could provide her with a player piano of this kind. In the storage room he found the very thing. A madame in a bagnio had failed to keep up her payments and her player piano had been repossessed. It was painted Green and was adorned with roses and cupids; and colored Lights flashed as it played. With it came old rolls of music, including "All Alone," "Springtime Rag," "That Mysterious Rag," "Waiting At the Church," "Alexander's Ragtime Band," and "The Robert E. Lee." Carlotta gave it to O'Neill for his birthday, saying that she wanted him to have all the things his heart desired.
O'Neill named the piano Rosie and kept a derby hat on top of it half filled with nickels. Many years later, he told Hamilton Basso that he was not sure playing Rosie so much was a good idea. "I try to remember," he said, "a beautiful verse from Verlaine and come up with a line of 'Everybody's Doing It' or 'Oh, You Great Big Beautiful Doll.'"
O'Neill had not lived at 1095 Park Avenue for six months before he was saying that he had had a "bellyful" of New York and was "yawning himself to death with boredom." They would have to move to a more satisfactory place. The alterations on the apartment had been made at great expense, but he consoled himself with the thought that if he and Carlotta hadn't tried out living in the town of his birth, they would always have regretted it. Never again would he try and live in a city! He gave expression to his disenchantment with New York in one of his infrequent little jokes: "The only time the Indians ever swindled the white man was when they sold the island of Manhattan for twenty-four dollars."
So, once again, the O'Neills were looking for a new home. Carlotta has suggested, as an explanation for this constant moving from place to place, that like many other invalids O'Neill chose to ascribe his discomfort to the nature of his environment rather than to the infirmity of his own body. No doubt there was much wisdom in her observation. But O'Neill's restlessness was life-long, and in this case there was another, more immediate cause.
At this time O'Neill was not writing, but he was thinking, he told the Guild, about a cycle of three plays, one at the time of the Revolution, another in 1840 and a third "at the present." This ambitious trilogy of plays would one day grow to eleven and dominate his life. He had already given some thought to it in France. But, there was no sea to look out upon on Park Avenue and he could not get his creative drive into motion. These plays, he said sadly, "were not yet ripe enough in my mind for doing." He continued to be ill and bedridden at frequent intervals. He complained to a friend that he was "stale and seedy." He was sick of "blind alleys."
O'Neill bought a piece of land in a secluded spot on the beach at Sea Island and, under Carlotta's supervision, an architect began building a twenty-two room house facing the sea and surrounded by a wall. Because Carlotta was deathly afraid of fire, the house was built of brick and stucco, with a roof of slate. House & Garden described it as "a combination of the early Majorcan peasant house of the sixteenth century tinctured with a flavor of the fifteenth-century monastery. . . ."
O'Neill planned to go down to Sea Island at the end of March, 1932, but he was stricken with influenza, and it was April before he and Carlotta sublet their apartment and left New York -- seemingly for good. For a time they stayed at the Cloisters, Sea Island, until their house was ready for occupancy; then, in June, they moved in. Invitations to his friends once more fluttered from O'Neill's pen. He wrote how proud he was of his new home and how anxious he was to show it off and "de Light the beholder." It was the first time he or Carlotta had ever lived in a place they had themselves designed and built. His previous homes, he related, were always "other folks' houses" which he had bought. They never satisfy -- "no matter what good luck is in the house."
They named their new home Casa Genotta, a blending of their pet names for each other -- Gene and Lotta. It was Carlotta's idea.
After a good deal of arranging of dates through O'Neill's lawyer, Shane was invited down to Sea Island for a visit at Casa Genotta during the summer of 1932. When he got off the train at Brunswick, the nearest railroad town to Sea Island, Herbert Freeman, the O'Neills' new chauffeur, met him in the big, brown Cadillac limousine and they drove the twelve miles to Casa Genotta. Shane found his father's house beautiful and immaculate, its schedule as precise as a well-run hospital.
When O'Neill finished his morning's stint of writing, he took Shane up to see his study. It was designed to simulate the captain's quarters of an old-time sailing vessel. The ceiling and walls were supported by hand-adzed timbers. A bank of windows facing the sea formed a bay that bulged like the stem of a Spanish galleon. The study was furnished with an Early American table to which was drawn a Windsor chair. Below a lookout window was a high desk at which O'Neill would occasionally write standing up. Many things in it could not have been better selected to please the heart of an imaginative, father-starved, thirteen-year-old boy. There were ship models, clocks that chimed the ship's watches, a mast running up inside the room with marlinespikes on one side, and a variety of nautical gadgets. There was even an iron spiral staircase leading up to a secret lookout where O'Neill could sun-bathe in privacy.
After lunch at Casa Genotta, a formal affair with servants, Carlotta and O'Neill took Shane for a drive around Sea Island. Shane remembers that he did not get a chance to talk alone with his father but that his concept of him as a romantic figure, to be admired and loved, grew and grew. Both were shy with each other.
Shane had been there only a short time when Eugene O'Neill, Jr., arrived with his bride of a year. He had just been graduated from Yale with the highest honors. Following his father's advice to study the Greek classics, he had won the Noyes Cutter prize "for the highest degree of excellency in interpreting the Greek of the New Testament into modern English." He also won the Soldiers Memorial Foote Fellowship in Classics and the Jacob Cooper prize in Greek. He was going to teach at Yale and take his doctorate there. In a month he would be off, with his wife, to study at the University of Freiburg in Germany.
Shane could easily see how proud his father was of his elder son and namesake, whose wife, Betty, was vivacious, beautiful, and an heiress. Eugene junior had none of the shyness that seemed to afflict Shane and their father. Eugene was extremely articulate, his voice resonant and melodious. He could quote extensively from the classics and was able to discuss literature with his father, virtually as an equal. Eugene junior seemed an overwhelming figure, indeed, for the thirteen-year-old Shane to compete with for his father's affection and attention.
Shane and the younger Eugene O'Neills ended their visit at the same time and made the trip north together. "I'll always remember that visit to Sea Island," Shane said recently, "because it was then that I first got to know my brother." Shane had had only a dim recollection of young Eugene in Provincetown and in Bermuda. As for getting to know his father, Shane felt that he had failed. He seemed unable to reach his father, to make him understand how much he loved him, how much he admired him, how much he wanted to do as well as Eugene junior in order to please him. And somehow he felt that it was all his fault.
In the fall, soon after Shane returned to the Second Form at Lawrenceville, it was evident that he was not doing well. His conduct record was poor and he failed in English and in Latin. "I think Shane was sent away from home too young," William Wyman, one of Shane's housemasters has said. "A small, shy boy has a rough time in a boarding school."
By the end of November, Shane was still doing badly. The masters at Lawrenceville take the problem of a boy who is failing as a challenge. They especially wanted to succeed with Shane. Both the faculty and Dr. Abbott, the headmaster, felt that Shane's main problem was a need for approval from his father -- to have his father notice him, pay attention to him, show him he cared. Dr. Abbott was less inclined than some of the other faculty members to take the view that Shane could pull himself out of his own difficulties. He wrote to O'Neill, saying quite frankly that Shane needed his approval very much and that, in his experience, a father's taking special pains to show concern about the scholastic progress of his son Generally worked wonders.
The reply he received told him that, under no circumstances, was there to be any direct communication between Lawrenceville and Mr. O'Neill. All communications were to be sent through the offices of Harry Weinberger, Mr. O'Neill's attorney. Dr. Abbott told Agnes of the letter. Yes, she said, O'Neill was completely cut off, not only from herself -- the mother of Shane -- but from his children.
"We have tried everything to make
Shane study," Dr. Abbott wrote to Agnes. " Shane just worships his
father. I did not know I was doing anything wrong in the letter I
wrote to Mr. O'Neill. . . . I am sorry if I should not have done
this. We cannot make Shane study. He has a brilliant mind, but he
will not study. One word from his father would have made him study
-- he worships his father so. I suppose that is all wrong, but he
does. Hereafter I shall write to no one but you."
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