xxiii: The Pattern Continued
Having put Casa Genotta on the market, the O'Neills took the train to Seattle, where they arrived on November 3, 1936. On the fir-bordered slopes of Puget Sound they subleased a furnished, oblong, English-style house, in which the playwright's study was quickly established in a room that faced the sea. From it he could also see the Olympic Mountains.
O'Neill wanted to obtain material for some of the plays in his octology, as the cycle was now being called, and in Oregon and Washington he planned to acquire background and settings for the period between 1857 and 1880. A visitor found him intensely curious about his new surroundings. O'Neill told him he planned to visit Bonneville and Grand Coulee Dams. When he first arrived in Seattle he drove over the winding road to the glacier-crusted ramparts of Mount Ranier.
His stay in Washington seemed to renew his enthusiasm for living. He put on old clothes, chiefly sweater and slacks, and skimmed over the choppy waters of Puget Sound in a motorboat borrowed from a friend. On a fishing expedition on the Columbia River he caught a seventy-five-pound Chinook salmon.
The weather was chill that fall and O'Neill often sat in front of the huge fireplace. "It's good to hear the logs crackle again," he told a young magazine writer, Richard L. Neuberger, later to become United States Senator from Washington. "After the heat of the South, I don't even mind this fog."
On Tuesday, November 10, Richard Madden, the play agent, called O'Neill from New York to tell him that the Times man in Stockholm had heard that the Nobel prize for literature was to be awarded to O'Neill, Paul Valéry, the French poet, or F. E. Sillanpää, a Finnish author. O'Neill said he didn't put any store in the rumor -there had been similar rumors in years past.
On the following Thursday morning, Professor Sophus Keith Winther of the University of Washington telephoned Carlotta and told her that the Associated Press bureau man in Seattle had told him that O'Neill had definitely been awarded the prize, which carried with it a cash award of some forty thousand dollars. The reporters were on their way out to the O'Neill house, he added.
Dressed in a sweater and slacks, smoking a pipe, and with Professor Winther sitting beside him, O'Neill received the reporters. Marie Van Allender of Universal Service asked the traditional question, "What was he going to use the money for?"
"I'll use it to pay taxes!" O'Neill exclaimed. This and alimony were his two perennial peeves. Income taxes were then comparatively small.
O'Neill kept answering the superficial and sometimes meaningless questions. How did he feel? "I feel somehow humble before this recognition." Yes, he was quite surprised, because he had been sure that Theodore Dreiser was to have been this year's recipient. "He deserves it," O'Neill commented. Then, suddenly, he realized that he had had no formal notification. "All I have to go by," he said anxiously, "is what you newspaper folk tell me. Two years ago I even received telegrams of congratulations!"
Although he told the reporters he would go to Stockholm to receive the prize in person from King Gustav, two days later he cabled the Swedish Academy he would be unable to arrive in time. He would, instead, take a freighter in February from Seattle to Sweden via the Panama Canal. Carlotta, from the start, had been unenthusiastic about making the trip, but by February the question was taken out of the way when illness struck and O'Neill was unable to leave his bed. He wrote the committee a gracious letter -- Hamilton Basso called it "the only known example of O'Neill's full-dress style -- to be read at the presentation ceremonies:
It is difficult to put into anything like adequate words the profound gratitude I feel for the greatest honor that my work could ever attain. . . . This highest of distinctions is all the more grateful to me because I feel so deeply that it is not only my work which is being honored but the work of all my colleagues in America -- that the Nobel Prize is a symbol of the coming of age of the American theatre. For my plays are merely, through luck of time and circumstance, the most widely known examples of the work done by American playwrights in the years since the World War -- work that has finally made modern American drama, in its finest aspects, an achievement of which Americans can be justly proud. . . . For me, the greatest happiness this occasion affords is the opportunity it gives me to acknowledge, with gratitude and pride, to you and to the people of Sweden, the debt my work owes to that greatest genius of all modern dramatists, your August Strindberg. It was reading his plays when I first started to write, back in the winter of 1913-14 that, above all else, first gave me the vision of what modern drama could be, and first inspired me with the urge to write for the theatre myself. If there is anything of lasting worth in my work, it is due to that original impulse from him, which has continued as my inspiration down all the years since then -- to the ambition I received then to follow in the footsteps of his genius as worthily as my talent might permit, and with the same integrity of purpose.
Following the news of the Nobel award, O'Neill received a tremendous amount of mail and telegrams from all over the world. He felt compelled to reply to each one. Pressure on him to go out socially and to give interviews increased, and he and Carlotta fled to San Francisco, keeping their address a secret. He told friends that "the Nobel was great stuff, a help to nerve relaxation and work-forgetting" but he was feeling "pretty punk" and would probably go on feeling this way until the publicity wore off.
The vultures must have been soaring over O'Neill even as the reporters talked to him. A severe pain in the abdomen brought about his removal, shortly before Christmas, to the Merritt Hospital in Oakland, a suburb of San Francisco. The ailment was diagnosed as appendicitis, but before the appendix could be removed it burst. O'Neill said it "so poisoned me that they had to inject everything but TNT to keep me from passing out for good."
The ruptured appendix, removed the day after Christmas, seemed to start O'Neill off on "a continuous variety of ailments." He complained to a friend that as soon as one ailment died out another started, "like chain smoking." Carlotta meanwhile came down with a bad cold and was confined to a hospital room adjacent to his. When he was feeling well enough at the end of January to receive visitors, the trembling of his hands seemed more noticeable. He had lost considerable weight, and his hands appeared unusually small and slender. But in his blue pajamas, which he kept buttoned neatly up to his neck, his graying hair and mustache carefully brushed, he was as handsome as ever. On January 27, lying in bed and surrounded by an assortment of detective novels, he received reporters and photographers from the San Francisco newspapers. He mentioned his plans for settling in northern California. The most beautiful place he had seen was in the Napa Valley. "I was thinking," he said, "that I might buy a sheep ranch there and evict the sheep but that all depends on how ranches come." He apologized for Carlotta's not receiving the press with him; "she has a bad cold," he explained, "and she looks it. She doesn't want to see anyone."
Most of his talk was about his cycle of plays that would tell the story of five generations of "a far-from-modern American family." The first play was finished and he had done the first draft of two more. He preferred not to discuss the theme of the cycle, saying "To say too much about that is to give it away and to say too little doesn't mean a damn thing." The cycle would constitute about twenty hours of drama, but each play would be a conventional length. "The plan is to withdraw the first play before the second starts, even if it is a success. It [the cycle] will be noncommercial."
He praised the Federal Theater Project, which was "bringing the drama to places where the drama had been forgotten." The theater "on the Continent is dead," he said. "The only two Englishmen who amount to anything are two Irishmen, Shaw and O'Casey."
Representatives of King Gustav headed by the Swedish consul in San Francisco brought the award to O'Neill in the hospital. O'Neill got out of bed long enough to receive the gold medal and a diploma. Witnesses noted O'Neill's trembling. The consul made no formal speech of presentation and remarked that "this is one time when custom must give way to emergency." O'Neill made no speech in reply, but merely thanked him.
The comments on O'Neill's new honor were enthusiastic, but perhaps the most interesting remarks had already been made by Sinclair Lewis when he received the Nobel prize in 1930. ". . . And had you chosen Mr. O'Neill who has done nothing much in American drama save to transform it utterly in ten or twelve years from a false world of neat and competent trickery to a world of splendor and fear and greatness, you would have been reminded that he has done something far worse than scoffing -- he has seen life as not to be neatly arranged in the study of a scholar but as a terrifying, magnificent, and often quite horrible thing akin to the tornado, the earthquake and the devastating fire."
One of the people who wrote to congratulate O'Neill was Mary Clark, his nurse at the Gaylord sanatorium so many years before. He replied that "one of the nicest things the prize brought me" was hearing from her, and went on to say that she was one of the "very very few" of his "old friends" who had written. Most of them, he commented sadly, were dead or "estranged" for one reason or another.
Although O'Neill's physical ailments were ostensibly cleared up, that spring in San Francisco he was feeling "hopeless." He was so depressed that he felt he would never be able to work again and referred to this period over and over as "my recent complete crackup." The darkness in O'Neill's spirit stayed with him from the spring into the fall. When Casa Genotta was sold in December, he and Carlotta were again homeless.
In the terrifying state he was in, it is perhaps understandable that O'Neill was unable to answer Shane's letters that spring of 1937. But Shane, now eighteen, was convinced that he would be able to go out to California in the summer to visit his father despite the fact that he had not heard from him. As June approached, he wrote and asked when it would be convenient for him to come out. Prematurely, as it turned out, he wrote to his mother that he would not be coming back to Point Pleasant for a while; he was going to the West Coast to visit his father. Agnes replied that it would be all right to go, but he had better make sure that Carlotta wanted him to come.
"I wanted to talk to my father," Shane has said, "about being a writer. I thought he could advise me. I wanted to tell him about what I had been doing." But he was not asked. "You were right about Carlotta," he later wrote to his mother. "She says she has friends visiting her and I can't come. The expenses for the trip are quite high."
There was an abrupt change in Shane's behavior following this disappointment. "I think that a hard-boiled attitude," the headmaster of the Academy wrote Agnes, "is the only thing to use with Shane because I have tried the more gentle methods with rather poor results."
A fellow cadet known as "Pepper" addressed the following verse, both pathetic and prophetic, to Shane:
Here's to a guy with a gut of iron;
Shane had found that drinking eased his painful shyness. In a free verse poem about himself, he wrote:
For some time, Shane had thought he might like to be a writer.
Back at FMA in the fall, he continued to be one of the most popular members of the school and one of its chief hell-raisers. Although Shane was a senior, Agnes decided to send him to still another school where he would not have to live up to his profligate reputation. She chose the Ralston Creek School, a ranch-type preparatory school at Golden, near Denver, Colorado. Shane had now decided to emulate Eugene junior and go to Yale. Shane liked the school, but his performance there, as elsewhere, was uneven. In the fall he was reported as doing extraordinarily well, but after Christmas the headmaster reported that he "had to check him for a general let-down in effort."
Late in February of 1938, Agnes learned that Shane was entertaining the idea of staying out West and becoming a cowboy. He also wrote that he was going to visit his father and that, furthermore, his father was going to pay his way out to the coast.
Agnes wrote Harry Weinberger a long letter at the end of March asking him to "pass on to Gene" that "Shane seems to have fallen in love with the ranch life and to have gone Western -- exactly as he did in the Southern life." His father should understand that this was not a bad thing and "probably a phase." She wanted O'Neill to be sure not to encourage Shane "to give up college and stay out there and become a cowboy." She hoped that he would get at least two years of college and then, if he wanted to spend his life in the West, he would be in a better position to make such an important decision.
"It is in his father's hands," she wrote, "to encourage Shane to work hard and get into Yale. . . . Shane is going to be very easily influenced right now. Shane, as a lot of good men have been, is a little immature for his age. He really hasn't decided on what he wants to do."
On March 25, 1938, O'Neill wrote Shane a typewritten note signed "Father." It simply suggested that he buy a round trip, "intermediate ticket," from Golden, Colorado, to Oakland, Californiathis would enable him to ride part of the way in a berth. The cost of the ticket and berth would be fifty-five dollars, and he was adding five dollars for meals. Carlotta joined him in love to him and O'Neill said that it would be grand to see him again. Carlotta wrote a postscript thanking him for his letters and added their telephone number "if anything goes haywire.""I am glad I am going to see my father," Shane wrote to his mother, "because I will get a chance to talk to him about my future (and things). I will write you how things come out later." He said he had thought twice about the matter of studying and decided it would be foolish to stop. Once again Shane was looking to his father for advice and guidance; he was, in fact, pathetically eager to establish a close relationship with the man he admired most in the world.
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