xxii: The Curse and the Pattern
O'Neill returned to Sea Island, where he lived until the fall of 1936. In a sense, he had retired from "the theater of his time," in which he had once said a playwright must live. For a time he worked on a play about "the notorious Madame Jumel who caused no end of excitement in New York society over a hundred years ago." Contemporary accounts had described her as a "beautiful blonde with a superb figure and graceful carriage." As the wife of a wealthy wine merchant in New York City, she had held forth in the Roger Morris house. Her second husband was Aaron Burr.
O'Neill had titled his play The Life of Bessie Bowen. (Madame Jumel's maiden name had been Eliza Brown.) It has never been produced. According to Vogue, which published at this time a full-page regal portrait of O'Neill and his wife, Carlotta had given O'Neill considerable help on The Life of Bessie Bowen. "Mrs. O'Neill is an assiduous and perspicacious collaborator," the Vogue caption said, "in her husband's professional career." The statement was presumably approved by Carlotta; her friend, Ilka Chase, was a daughter of the late Edna Woolman Chase, then editor of Vogue.
But O'Neill abandoned the idea of completing this play and embarked, instead, on the composition of a cycle of plays, eleven in number, designed to take in the whole sweep and story of the United States from the early 1700s. He filled hundreds of pages with the scenarios of these plays. He also discussed his monumental cycle with some of his friends, telling Lawrence Langner that the characters in the plays were to be in their youth in one play and would be parents and grandparents in later plays. The main stories would be based on the lives of their children and their childrens' children. It reminded Langner of John Galsworthy The Forsyte Saga. As O'Neill described how he was tracing the effect of the grandparents on the children and their grandchildren in the scenarios for the cycle plays, it brought into Langner's mind the "Biblical prophecies as to the sins of the parents being visited upon their children unto the third and fourth generations." "I marveled," Langner wrote in his The Magic Curtain, "at the scope of the work he was attempting."
Talking to Clark about the cycle, O'Neill said he was going back to his "old vein of ironic tragedy." He was adding psychological depth and insight. He said he had abandoned the simple and affirmative views of life expressed in Ah, Wilderness! and Days Without End, which he now regarded as too conventional. What he was feeling and thinking and saying in those two plays was an interlude. But now he had found again his true god -- psychological fate -- the god to whom he had made obeisance in Electra. But in Mourning Becomes Electra he had treated only two generations of the cursed Mannon family; now he would show, in family after family, for a hundred and fifty years, the same psychological fate dogging parents, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, on down through time. This recurring theme, this constantly repeated pattern, would appear over and over again in all the plays he would write henceforth. It would be as the brush strokes in Van Gogh's paintings, the drumbeats in The Emperor Jones, the fire music in Siegfried, the moaning of the chorus in the ancient Greek plays.
O'Neill felt, as he had said in Marco Millions, that God is "only an infinite, insane energy which creates and destroys without other purpose than to pass eternity in avoiding thought." He was overcome with the "immense pessimism" of which Kenneth Macgowan and Dr. George Hamilton had written in the conclusion of their book, What Is Wrong with Marriage? Their pessimism was "despair over the way in which the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children. In this respect the family circle seems a vicious circle. It seems indeed the greatest vicious circle ever conceived; for its circumference has become the straight line of descent from parent to child, world without end."
What, precisely, O'Neill had in mind when dealing with "psychological fate" is not easy to define. In Dynamo and in Strange Interlude, he had said it was love for the parent of the opposite sex, hate for the parent of the same sex. In Mourning Becomes Electra it was the Puritan conviction of the sinfulness of sex. In Desire under the Elms, and in other plays the psychological fate was carried out in the corruption of character by materialistic greed. Most of these examples could, perhaps, be classified under the general heading of sins -- although O'Neill did not call them that. Doris Alexander has described his "psychological fate as simply the influence of parents upon their children in the most important of all relationships -- love."
There was yet another psychological fate O'Neill was thinking about in his great cycle -- a curse on the misbegotten members of a family. He had talked about such a curse in Strange Interlude when he said that "a romantic imagination has ruined more lives than all the diseases -- other diseases, I should say! It's a form of insanity." A man who looked beyond the horizon, a dreamer of dreams, courted the black vultures who would claw him to death.
But, O'Neill said, such a man has "a touch of the poet." In one cycle play, which uses just that phrase as a title, a son in the aristocratic Harford family has been cursed with this "touch." His mother tells the tavernkeeper's daughter that her son Simon, who plans to write a book denouncing the evil of greed and possessive ambition, will never write it, but it was already written on his conscience. "The Harfords never part with their dreams," the mother says, "even when they deny them. They cannot. That is the family curse."
The parents of a friend of Shane's took him to see Ah, Wilderness! in New York. One scene in particular, concerning the happy home life of the Miller family, struck the boy. After Nat Miller had finished giving his son, Richard, a bumbling, yet tender talk on the pitfalls of life, the son impulsively kisses his father, then hurries out on the porch to watch the moon. The father turns to his wife and says, huskily, "First time he's done that in years. I don't believe in kissing between fathers and sons after a certain age -- seems mushy and silly -- but that meant something." In Shane's fantasies, this was the kind of relationship he really had with his father. He did love him, but somehow never could find the right time or place to tell him. And, then, when he thought he was going to be able to speak to him about such things, nervousness and shyness made the words end up in silent mumbles.
Agnes was increasingly concerned about him. She was well aware that any fourteen-year-old boy needs a father; on the other hand, many boys in the same situation managed better than Shane. She began to feel that there must be some physical explanation. He was often ill with colds -- so frequently that it worried her because his father had had tuberculosis and her own father had died of it. Shane's erratic performance in his studies puzzled Agnes still more because she knew her son had a good mind. He seemed impervious to advice and criticism; he just smiled and went on doing whatever he had intended to do. She saw that he had a curious inner stubbornness almost identical with his father's.
"I noticed then," Agnes said, "that Shane had an extremely interesting mind. He was creative and had an original outlook. His mind had infinite possibilities." The boy loved to draw, and he seemed to have a real talent. He was very good at drawing horses.
Shane was turning out to be an extremely good-looking young man. The fact that he remained thin -- with not an ounce of superfluous fat on him -- made him seem all the more handsome. Agnes noted that he possessed the same trembling shyness that had characterized his father, whom he resembled more and more.
Agnes finally convinced herself that much of Shane's failure to do well at Lawrenceville was the result of a hip injury received while playing football. An orthopedic surgeon in Philadelphia was inclined to agree. He told Agnes to get the boy to a warm climate. This, of course, entailed transfer to another school. In the end, she decided to send Shane to the Florida Military Academy at St. Petersburg. First of all, she reasoned, the Florida weather would provide the warm climate the doctor ordered for Shane's injured hip. In addition, a military school, she felt, would maintain closer supervision of the boys, and Shane would do better perhaps if subjected to a stronger discipline. So, like Eugene junior, Shane was outfitted with a uniform while still an adolescent. Actually he seemed to do better at the Florida Military Academy in 1934 than he had at Lawrenceville. His marks were "exceptionally fine."
In his four years at that academy, Shane, in the words of Agnes, "went Southern." He became a hail-fellow-well-met, a "character." He fell in with the prevailing philosophy that girls and drinking were de rigueur for a Southern officer and gentleman, and it was there that he lost his faith, in very much the way his father had withdrawn from the Catholic Church while at Betts Academy in Stamford, Connecticut.
Shane spent another summer at Point Pleasant. He wrote to ask his father for an outboard motor. O'Neill upbraided Shane for not being more serious about his life and wasting his time on trivial things. It puzzled the boy. "I think my father loved me," Shane has said. "He sent me to expensive schools. But he didn't seem to like it when I asked him for things."
In 1934, O'Neill worked so hard that, as a result, he had "a close shave from a complete breakdown" which necessitated a six months' rest.
His "Blessed Isle" was turning out to be a cursed isle. He complained that the water in which he swam was generally sandy colored and soupy, the place was humid and hot in summer; there were swarms of insects; special bronze had to be used on the hardware in the house because ordinary metal rusted away from the salt-laden air. One afternoon, Langner noted that all the bushes in Casa Genotta's patio had been clipped close to the ground. "Why?" he asked Carlotta.
"That," Carlotta said, "is so we can see if there are any snakes under them." She went on to say that the island was full of rattlesnakes. O'Neill was listening and commented that rattlesnakes were relatively harmless compared to the little pink coral snakes which likewise were everywhere.
The summer of 1936 at Sea Island was scorching. It was so hot and oppressive that O'Neill and Carlotta were setting a new "World's and Olympic sweating record," he told a friend, "We just drip and drop and drip and drop." At the end of the summer, O'Neill was in such bad health that the doctor "ordered" him to leave Sea Island and get "a complete change of climate, to relax and forget" his cycle of plays for a while. O'Neill said he had run himself "nerve-ragged."
His "Blessed Isle" had turned out to be just another place where he didn't belong -- or perhaps didn't want to belong. Later that summer O'Neill definitely decided to settle in the West. His old restlessness was again asserting itself. He wrote Shane that he and Carlotta would like to have him come to Casa Genotta for a last visit on his way back to school. As he was moving west it might be a long time before they could meet again. O'Neill left the details of arranging the trip to Carlotta, for he was not fully recovered from his "close shave" with a nervous breakdown a year ago.
Shane still remembers the very exact and specific instructions Carlotta wrote him about the journey. First of all, he should be sure to buy a ticket straight through to St. Petersburg. He should specify that he wanted the ticket to permit a stopover at Thalmann, which is about twenty miles from Sea Island. Freeman, their chauffeur, would meet him on the 7:09 P.M. train on Saturday night, September 29. He would be taking the same train for St. Petersburg the following Wednesday night. She suggested he talk this over with his mother and be sure to get the through ticket. She also said that she was writing this letter for Gene because he "rarely wrote letters himself."
Shane was met exactly as scheduled. He had a talk with Carlotta about the business of her writing letters to him and Oona for Gene. O'Neill, she said, was too busy to write. Shane, always agreeable, said it was all right with him. Carlotta said that apparently Oona took a different view. She had received a letter from Oona, who suggested that Carlotta was interfering with Oona's correspondence with her father. "If that girl knew," Carlotta told Shane, "how I loathe writing letters to you children on behalf of your father, she would think otherwise. I write such letters only to be courteous. I will not do it any more."
Otherwise, it was a pleasant visit. "I spent a quiet time," Shane has said, "getting to know my father and Carlotta again. My father spent his mornings working, so I did not see him until the afternoon. Breakfast was sent up to my room. I liked that. I have such a hard time getting up. Late in the afternoon my father and I would go fishing and swimming."
"The main thing was the living room. After dinner we'd sit around, Carlotta and my father and myself, and listen to records. There were some classical and some jazz. Sometimes, in the afternoon, we'd go for drives around St. Simons Island. There were all sorts of forts and things. It was very interesting. Then they showed me some sort of marshes -- the Marshes of Glynn (the subject of Sidney Lanier's famous poem) or something."
But when Shane left Casa Genotta
he still did not feel close to his father. And a month later, Eugene
O'Neill was in flight again. "Coastal Georgia was no place for me,"
he said. "Working through two long successive stifling summers down
there did more than any other thing to bring on my recent complete
crack-up." In a sense, when O'Neill left Sea Island he left much of
his life behind him. He was leaving his children, the coast that he
had drawn upon for so much, and the city (New York) that was the
home of his profession. O'Neill never again actively participated in
the life of the American theater. And when he returned to the East
years later, he returned to a different world.
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