xxi: The "Blessed Isle"
O'Neill was so pleased with Sea Island and so grateful to Ilka Chase for having urged him to settle there that he gave her a copy of Mourning Becomes Electra with the following inscription:
To Ilka -- who found our Blessed Isle for us -- with profoundest gratitude.
He and Carlotta were "installed and all set" on the first of July, 1932. From that date, he told friends, they became "adopted Georgia crackers" and were going to remain so "for the rest of our days, we hope." He said he had taken a great liking to "the folks down here. . . . The depression seems to leave them quite unhysterical, even entirely calm. They've lived in one ever since the Civil War and 'what of it? seems to be the slogan." After the "perpetual whine" of people in New York complaining about the depression, he found this attitude distinctly refreshing. But, best of all, his writing was going well, had the right feel. The play was Days Without End and he told a friend that, in it, there was "a fresh vision, a new understanding, an inner yea-saying" that intrigued and stimulated him no end. He was going to have "a grand time" writing this one.
Days Without End presents the story of a conflict within the soul of John Loving, who is torn between religious faith and atheistic rationalism. The two tendencies are personified on the stage as individual characters. As John he is dealt with by the other persons in the play; as Loving he is seen only by John (and the audience); Loving's utterances are heard by the other characters as emanating from John. The question to which John Loving is seeking an answer is crystallized in a dilemma arising from an instance of marital infidelity on his part: Should he tell his wife about it and thus lose her love and respect; or should he conceal it and thus be false to his ideal of truthfulness?
He has almost completed the writing of a novel which tells the story of his life and sets forth the questions which he has not yet been able to answer. Loving is taunting John about his indecision when John Loving's uncle, Father Baird, calls upon him at his office. The priest is quite familiar with his nephew's atheistic thinking from his close association with him in earlier years. He also is ready to discuss the questions which perplex the younger man.
John takes his uncle home with him to meet his wife, and the three spend the evening together. Mrs. Loving prevails upon John to read what he has written and in the reading she is able to discern the fact of John's infidelity. Mrs. Loving was married once before, and she divorced her husband who had been repeatedly unfaithful to her. Her unhappy memories of the previous marriage serve to intensify her shock on learning of John's infidelity. As a result, she suffers the relapse of an illness and is about to die, partly because she doesn't care to live. Eventually John, gaining the ascendancy over Loving, makes his decision and Mrs. Loving finds it possible to forgive her husband and at the same moment begins to recover.
In a final scene, John prostrates himself before a crucifix at the altar of a church, while a weakened Loving falls down beside him. "Thou hast conquered, Lord. . . . Forgive the damned soul of John Loving," he says. John then rises to become once more the whole person, John Loving.
The play is both tedious and cumbersome, and though there are some moving scenes Days Without End was not so much imagined dramatically as it was conceived in intellectual ferment. Thus the play fails on three counts: The story is uninteresting, the characters are undeveloped, and the construction is uncertain. Even O'Neill admitted to George Jean Nathan, who disliked the play, that the "hero's final gesture calls for alteration." Obviously, he was agreeing with the Great Skeptic that Loving's prostration before the cross was taking the easy way out. Ironically enough, just before Nathan died in 1958 he became a Catholic.
Days Without End proved to be the most unfortunate play O'Neill ever wrote -- both for his writing career and in terms of his own state of mind. In a sense, it was part of the Dynamo cycle of three plays which dealt with "the sickness of today." O'Neill, of course, was seeking an answer to man's quest for spiritual certainty, but closer examination of the play in relation to O'Neill's personal life indicates that he may have been seeking a solution to his own spiritual doubts. In many ways the plot and its characters suggest himself and Carlotta -- just as Welded reflected himself and Agnes.
There is some evidence that O'Neill may have been contemplating a return to the Catholic Church at the time he was writing Days Without End. Richard Dana Skinner, the drama critic for the Catholic Commonweal magazine thought so. "In Days Without End," he wrote, " O'Neill sought directly, in surrender to the Christ crucified, a truth that would set him free. But it must have been a difficult play to write."
Father Ford had several talks with O'Neill, but he has recalled that there was little discussion on the subject of Catholic faith and morals. Often O'Neill would make an urgent telephone call to Father Ford and arrange for the priest to come up to his apartment. Generally, just before the time for the appointment, Father Ford has recalled, Carlotta would telephone and say that O'Neill was not well and was unable to keep the appointment.
"It is my opinion," Father Ford has said, "that O'Neill was a long way from returning to the Church. We discussed certain matters. But you didn't tell Eugene O'Neill anything about philosophy or theology."
Skinner, who appears to have been closer to O'Neill's spiritual struggles than Father Ford, wrote a book about O'Neill's inner conflict -- Eugene O'Neill: A Poet's Quest. Skinner felt that Catholics should recognize and support "what O'Neill's change of heart means in the literary world."
"I can assure you," Skinner wrote Father Michael Earls, a Jesuit priest in Boston, "that the play [ Days Without End] was written not only with the utmost sincerity but only as a result of a terrific interior and personal struggle on O'Neill's part. It may interest you to know that his wife is working very hard to bring about his definite return to the Catholic Church, as she feels that that is his one salvation. As you know, he was born a Catholic but lost his faith rather early in life."
Skinner explained to Father Earls that O'Neill's marriages to Kathleen and to Agnes had taken place "outside the Church." As both these marriages were "subsequent to the regulations of 1908, [they] would be invalid from the Catholic point of view, and therefore, leave him free to remain with his present wife if he returned to the Church." He added, "This is a very critical period for him personally."
Father Earls advanced the notion that some of O'Neill's ideas, embodied in his plays, might be the product of a diseased mind. He regarded O'Neill as "a great poet [more] by virtue of his powerful imagination than his technique." Skinner immediately rejected the idea that O'Neill had "shown any symptoms of a diseased mind." He went stoutly to the playwright's defense, saying:
Practically all of his plays have been heavily burdened with a consciousness of sin and its effects which the truly diseased mind would certainly avoid, excuse, or evade. When we read the intimate experiences of many people who eventually became saints, we learn of the intensity of their preoccupation with temptation in various forms. I have always had the feeling that the great saint is potentially an equally great sinner and that the conquest of the lower self is all the more heroic when that lower self is powerful and malevolent. As I see it, what O'Neill has done is to give us a real transcript of the inner struggles of his soul, and I am no more inclined to call him diseased for having done this than I would be to call Dante diseased because of the visions of the Inferno which he conjured up.
Skinner again called Father Earls' attention to the fact that O'Neill's "present wife is doing all in her power to get him to return to his faith. That is probably the real answer to the good influence she is supposed to exercise over him. She really understands his inner need."
Certainly Carlotta wanted O'Neill to return to the Church, but he refused. "He was always a Christian," she has said in a memorandum on deposit at the Yale Library, "in the real sense even though he never went to church in his adult years. But he practiced Christianity in his living. I never knew such a just, all-understanding, forgiving, kind, good man! And his patience was amazing. But when he was lied to and endlessly imposed upon, he was finished and that was that."
"My husband was not a religious man," Carlotta told Brooks Atkinson. "He had been born a Catholic, naturally. He hadn't anything in his veins but Irish blood of which he was very proud." In answer to the question, "Was there any return to religion?" Carlotta replied very emphatically, "Never, never, at any time, at any moment."
All spring and through the summer of 1932 O'Neill had continued to labor over Days Without End, and he completed two drafts. By September, O'Neill was exhausted from "trying to cram too much into [the play]," and he decided to take a week off and rest. "He awoke the next morning," Barrett Clark has said, "with the story, characters, plot scheme and practically all the details of Ah, Wilderness! in his mind clamoring to be put down on paper. O'Neill went back to work and within a month had completed a first draft of Ah, Wilderness!"
Ah, Wilderness! is a classic example of the boy-meets-girl-boyloses-girl-boy-gets-girl formula. Richard Miller, the son of Nat Miller, the town's newspaper editor, falls in love with Muriel McComber. Richard, who leans toward socialism, is a great lover of poetry, and he makes love to Muriel, in person and in his letters, by quoting some of the world's lushest love poems. Without warning, Muriel writes him that everything is off. Richard, extremely disillusioned, tries to drown his sorrows in liquor and in the arms of a fallen woman, but he becomes sick and his love of Muriel, the "pure" girl preserves his innocence. Later, Muriel tells him that her father forced her to write the renunciation letter, and Richard admits his bad behavior. She forgives him, he forgives her, they embrace, fadeout.
Although the play is somewhat long and the constant poetic quotations grow tedious, there are some excellent moments: Muriel's father telling Richard's father about the boy's letters, quoting the poetry and calling it "vile" stuff; a big Sunday-dinner get-together; Nat Miller as an endearing drunk; and the last scene, when Nat Miller says to his wife, "Well, Spring isn't everything, is it, Essie? There's a lot to be said for Autumn. That's got beauty, too. And Winter -- if you're together." These are doubtlessly some of the most cheerfully optimistic lines O'Neill ever wrote.
Why did this play, Ah, Wilderness!, unlike any other play O'Neill ever wrote or was to write, well up so suddenly and so clearly in his unconscious? Bessie Breuer has said that it was probably because the play was outside of himself -- outside of the self-examination with which he was always tormenting himself. O'Neill has called the play "a dream walking" and "a comedy of recollection." He said it was an attempt "to write a play true to the spirit of the American large small-town at the turn of the century. Its quality depended upon atmosphere, sentiment, an exact evocation of the mood of a dead past. To me, the America which was (and is) the real America found its unique expression in such middle-class families as the Millers, among whom so many of my own generation passed from adolescence into manhood."
In the light of what was happening to O'Neill's relations with his son, Shane, Richard Dana Skinner's remarks are revealing:
Quite aside from the general importance of Ah, Wilderness! there is a very special significance in the emphasis laid on the father and son relationship. It is the first O'Neill play in which the father has not been a pale, stiff shadow or a narrow, stern object of hate and jealousy. What the sudden tender understanding amounts to is the development of the full-grown man in the poet's own make-up, of a man willing and eager to take up creative responsibility in life and able at last to see his own father as another individual, respected and apart, loved and admired and -- no longer an object of jealousy.
So far as O'Neill was concerned, he had, besides his spiritual struggles, worries about money. Some of his closest friends were asking him for money that fall. The depression was at a new low. O'Neill was feeling the pinch himself and had very little or nothing to give.
Electra, he explained sadly, was shut down. He was praying that when it reopened it would stay open. However, the money he was expecting to get from it was mortgaged for the first few months to "next year's direful income tax." He was also, he said, paying alimony to Agnes and tuition for his childrens' schools and didn't see how he could get on his feet again financially for a year and a half. As for his capital assets, he had real estate that could not be sold for what it was mortgaged for and securities that, if sold, would bring only four-fifths to nine-tenths of the original investment. His story, as far as money was concerned, was "the story of everyone today." Furthermore, he had no plays ready for production. There was one hope; Strange Interlude had been made into a "talkie" and if successful it might encourage the film people to buy some more of his plays. Anna Christie was the only other play they had bought -- that and a one-act play for which he got nothing. The film people, he said, were "scared to touch my stuff."
Among the people to whom he could give little or no financial help were his New London friend Art McGinley and George Tyler, the producer of his early plays and a friend of James O'Neill. Tyler said it was "humiliating" to have to ask for money. O'Neill replied that he should not feel badly but simply feel he was asking a nephew for something for which he had a perfect right to ask. He explained that foreign rights were bringing little. Just recently, Madden sent word of a shabby proposal (to produce an old play) which had come from England. Positively no, O'Neill replied, because the English were not paying any money. If Monte Cristo ever heard that his son gave the "cursed English" even the tiniest break, he would rise up from the grave and beat his younger son with a blackthorn stick.
Early in October, 1932, O'Neill sent word to Barrett Clark that he had drafts of two plays which had nothing to do with each other. He wasn't ready to submit them to the Guild or even to say what their titles were. (They were Days Without End and Ah, Wilderness!) A few weeks later he complained to Clark that he was having "to bat my brains out" on Days Without End. At the moment he was at "the becalmed stage." The theme was most difficult. He yearned for the good old days when he was satisfied to be either "simple-minded or foggily mystical," whereas now his aim was to be "clearly psychological and mystically clear, etc." It was a tough ambition!
In December, O'Neill was in touch again with Art McGinley, who told him he was getting fed up with his newspaper job. O'Neill advised him to hang on to it as a man who had a job in these depression days was just about a millionaire. He commented that it was "a hell of time to be living." They talked about their fathers. McGinley remembered the trouble he had given his father before settling down, and reminded Eugene of a row he [ O'Neill] had once had with James O'Neill. The "Old Man" and he, O'Neill explained to McGinley, had become good friends and had learned to understand each other the winter before he died. In the days McGinley was speaking of, O'Neill admitted, he was full of "a secret bitterness about him" and had not stopped to realize that the "Governor" had taken a great deal from his younger son and "kept on smiling."
Bennett Cerf, the president of Random House, flew to Sea Island to confer with O'Neill in the spring of 1933. O'Neill's publisher, Boni and Liveright, had failed, and nearly every publishing house in New York was trying to sign him to a contract. O'Neill said that if Cerf would hire Saxe Commins (his editor at Boni and Liveright), then he would be willing to come over to Random House. Cerf agreed -a decision that proved to be of the greatest importance not only for O'Neill and Commins, but for Random House and American letters as well. For Saxe Commins, who at one time wanted to be a dentist in Rochester, New York, became editor-in-chief at Random House, the editor for Nobel Prize winners Sinclair Lewis and William Faulkner, and the friend and advisor of a great many other fine writers. Only a writer with the prestige and power that O'Neill had in 1933 could have made the extraordinary demand that gave Commins his opportunity.
Lawrence Langner and his wife also visited Casa Genotta in the spring, along with an intimate friend of Carlotta's, Fania Marinoff, the actress wife of Carl Van Vechten. Again Langner was charmed by Carlotta, found her "one of those rare women who was born beautiful and will remain so all her life." He noted that all her talents and efforts went into making an attractive home and surroundings "in which Gene could have privacy for his work, and to this she dedicated herself with almost fanatic fervor." He said of his own wife, "Armina always returned from the O'Neills' with a feeling of inferiority, and would say, in despair, 'I'll never run a household as smoothly and successfully as Carlotta.'"
At the end of that spring O'Neill was still distressed over Days Without End, which he feared was controversial, "especially in its Catholic aspect." Langner, who had persuaded the playwright to submit the two plays to the Theatre Guild, sent word that the Guild had accepted both Days Without End and Ah, Wilderness! and suggested the latter be put on first. O'Neill, however, had doubts about which play should be produced first.
It was about this time that the O'Neills decided that Sea Island was not exactly a year-round place to live; the previous summer had been murderously hot and uncomfortable. Carlotta asked Ilka Chase to suggest a place for them to go to that summer. Ilka suggested the Adirondacks; she even knew some friends who would be happy to rent them their house at Faust, New York. There Carlotta and Eugene passed the summer of 1933.
According to his work diary, O'Neill had completed the final draft of Days Without End before spring, but his letters reveal he was still worrying about it. He now told Langner he wanted Days Without End to be produced first. In August he changed his mind and wrote Langner from the Adirondacks that the play would undoubtedly arouse "much bitter argument" and would be "well hated by the prejudiced." This might be fatal to Ah, Wilderness! In another letter, he said there were arguments on both sides as to which play should be first; he couldn't trust himself to judge.
It was Langner who made the decision. He began casting Ah, Wilderness! with George M. Cohan as Nat Miller, although O'Neill had meant the part of the sensitive son to be the starring role. Cohan was not overimpressed with the O'Neill play. He remarked that the humor in Ah, Wilderness! was mostly old vaudeville jokes which had been done over and over.
O'Neill and Carlotta came down to New York from the Adirondacks late in the summer of 1933 to attend rehearsals of Ah, Wilderness! They stayed again at the Madison in a forty-dollar-a-day suite. At the end of the rehearsal period it was decided to try out the show in cities outside New York. O'Neill refused to go on tour with the show, but after much urging he did make a trip to Pittsburgh to see the tryout there.
When Langner asked him why he wouldn't go to a performance of his own plays, O'Neill said it was because he couldn't stand being present in a crowded theater, could not just sit still and watch. On the other hand, Langner noted, he did not mind spending hours in crowded arenas watching prize fights or six-day bicycle races. The difference, perhaps, was that a theater struck some unnamed terror in him. Perhaps it was memories of his father playing Monte Cristo, or of his mother's aversion for the theater, or even more possibly it was fear that the play might fail. He refused to attend the dress rehearsal of Ah, Wilderness! in New York.
Ah, Wilderness! opened at the Guild Theatre on October 2, 1933, and ran 289 performances. It yielded O'Neill some $75,000, received generally excellent reviews and created a sensation on two scores. Its characters did not come to the usual disastrous O'Neill endings, and the people assumed that the great tragic dramatist had had a happy childhood after all and had written about it in the play.
Nothing, O'Neill said, could be further from the truth. "It was" he told Hamilton Basso, "a sort of wishing out loud. That's the way I would have liked my boyhood to have been."
Days Without End, which went into rehearsal immediately following the opening of Ah, Wilderness!, was "a damned difficult play to produce," O'Neill told Art McGinley. He said he had been busier than ever before, attending rehearsals every day with no time out for lunch, just eating a sandwich at the theater. In the cast were Selena Royle, Earle Larimore and Ilka Chase. Advance publicity notices described it as "a modern miracle play" which depicts "a conflict between atheism and religious faith in which the faith is triumphant."
The play was tried out in Boston during Christmas week and opened in New York at the Henry Miller Theatre on January 8, 1934. The critics panned it as much as they had praised Ah, Wilderness! One of them said that it was the sort of shoddy theatricality one might expect from the son of James O'Neill of Monte Cristo fame. O'Neill was furious when he read this review, saying that critics had a right to attack a play of his but not to attack his dead father. Langner has said that " Gene was bitterly disappointed with the reception of the play," which ran only fifty-seven performances -- just long enough for Guild subscribers to be taken care of.
Some Catholics thought that O'Neill had become a Catholic again. One critic called on all Catholics to urge people to see Days Without End because it "proves with high conclusiveness that the return to the bosom of the Church was a very necessary step in the artistic life of Eugene O'Neill, the Irish boy who is reclaiming his birthright." But it did not receive the approval of the Church, which refused to put it on its white list. Suggestions reached O'Neill that it would be acceptable if he inserted a line making it clear that the heroine's first husband, whose infidelity had so upset her, was dead, not merely divorced. The idea was abhorrent to O'Neill for two reasons: It involved his artistic integrity, and it struck at his own life, for both he and Carlotta had been divorced, not once but several times.
O'Neill was bitter, but he thanked Langner for the fine production. He blamed "the Amusement Racket" which New York "vaingloriously calls The Theater." But he thanked God that some of those for whom the play was written had heard what he had to say in Days Without End.
There is an ironic postscript to
this play. Some years after O'Neill's death, the play received
Vatican approval and was produced in Italy by Catholic Action, a lay
organization of the Church. In August, 1957, Sister Mary Madeleva,
President of St. Mary's College at Notre Dame, Indiana, from which
O'Neill's mother had been graduated three-quarters of a century
before, read both Long Day's Journey into Night and Days
Without End. Sister Madeleva wrote this writer, "I am sure
Eugene O'Neill was profoundly Catholic in mind and heart. They [the
two plays] are parts of the same story of an extraordinary soul
almost childlike in its attempt to spell God with the wrong blocks."
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