Menu Bar


xxix: Past and Present: The Iceman Cometh

The apartment to which the O'Neills moved in the spring of 1946 was a penthouse at 35 East Eighty-fourth Street. It had been the home of Edward Sheldon, who had just died after a tragic lifetime of bedridden invalidism. Carlotta had the apartment entirely remodeled and redecorated at a cost of approximately $25,000. As she had done so many times before, she supervised the architecture and interior decoration, areas in which she appeared to have considerable talent and originality. The walls were redone in bright, cheerful colors and furnished with many of the things O'Neill and Carlotta had bought on their trip to the Far East. Hamilton Basso, who visited the apartment many times, noted a predominance of Chinese art objects, especially "a vaguely catlike animal mounted on a block of marble, who greets visitors with a look of innocent lechery as they step from the elevator." The cat was fashioned in stone by a Chinese sculptor centuries before Christ. O'Neill's library was full of French books, Basso noted, including complete sets of Zola, Hugo, Balzac. After talking with him, Basso concluded that O'Neill "knew French literature very well, especially Zola." He was well read also in the works of Stendhal, being particularly partial to The Charterhouse of Parma.

O'Neill's bedroom was a big, sunny room. On the walls were six reproductions of paintings of clipper ships as well as an oil painting of Broadway at the theater rush hour. O'Neill pointed to the clipper ships and to the painting and then said sadly to Basso: "It's the whole story of the decline of America. From the most beautiful thing man has ever made, the clipper ship, to the most tawdry street in the world."

For the first time, there was no dog; instead, in O'Neill's bedroom, there was a canary named Jeremiah, a gift from Carlotta. Rosie, the bawdy-house player piano, remained stored in San Francisco. In its place there was a phonograph with a large collection of records. O'Neill listed his preferences as Beethoven, Schubert, Cesar Franck and Irving Berlin.

One by one, O'Neill resumed his friendships in the East -- that is, with friends who managed to penetrate the protective screen that was set up around him.

Barrett Clark came on March 17, St. Patrick's Day, and found O'Neill in good humor, speaking "with complete clarity, to the point [with] almost complete lack of self-consciousness." He noted, in O'Neill's conversation, "a sort of tolerantly humorous attitude toward life that was somewhat at variance with his ideas as they were worked into his plays." O'Neill, despite his illness, was alert, curious, had an interest in material things, concern with books and people, the theater, politics. For a while the two men talked together as fathers. Oona was not mentioned, but O'Neill told Clark that he enjoyed "my eldest, Eugene." O'Neill again observed that "this was an ideal relationship between a father and a son."

Clark advised O'Neill to re-establish his contact with the theater because, as he afterwards wrote, "we needed him, possibly he needed us." O'Neill took this with good grace. He was enthusiastic about the casting of The Iceman Cometh. It had now been decided that this, of the recent trio of plays, would be the first to go into production. The casting problems of A Moon for the Misbegotten, originally scheduled to be produced first, were proving extremely difficult. O'Neill was loud in his praises of The Iceman Cometh. Clark would like it, he said, though he agreed there was not much action in the play. "Mere physical violence -- mere bigness," he said, "is not important. You'll see that The Iceman is a very simple play -- one set. I've certainly observed the Unities all right, characterization, but no plot in the ordinary sense; I don't need plot -- the people are enough."

Band music from the St. Patrick's Day parade drifted into the windows of the O'Neill penthouse. "And why is it," Clark asked, "that a man bearing the name O'Neill is not marching?"

O'Neill flashed the wonderful smile that had endeared him to so many people. This was one O'Neill, it was understood between them, who would never march with the rest. This O'Neill always walked alone.

Readings of The Iceman Cometh began in May. James Barton was cast in the role of Harry Hope. O'Neill was impressed with Barton's sensitive reading of the part. It was now a new play to O'Neill; it was always this way when he heard one of his plays read for the first time. Throughout the summer of 1946, the Theatre Guild, the cast and the playwright worked on the rehearsals. Everyone knew that in a sense the play would constitute a kind of reopening of the Broadway theater after the war. It would be like old times -- another O'Neill play on Broadway.

There was more pressure exerted on O'Neill than ever before to get him to cut the play. Langner gave him a copy of the play with passages marked where, in the producer's opinion, cuts were very much indicated. In a blue pencil O'Neill wrote boldly the word "no" opposite most of them. When he wrote "yes" it was in a tiny, faltering script. On the cover of the manuscript he handed back to Langner, he wrote: "The hell with your cuts! E.O'N."

In September, as the rehearsals came closer to being finished performances, Paul Crabtree, one of the actors, studied the script and figured out that O'Neill had made the same point eighteen times. He showed the fruits of his research to Langner who, he reckoned, would have the nerve to raise the point -- or rather, the eighteen repeated points -- with O'Neill. Langner has set down O'Neill's exact reaction: "Gene looked at me and replied in a particularly quiet voice, 'I intended it to be repeated eighteen times!'" Langner then observed that The Iceman Cometh, like Shaw's Saint Joan, would never be properly produced until the copyright had expired. Again O'Neill smiled. "It will have to wait," he said, "for just that."

Often the rehearsals of an O'Neill play would degenerate into a series of running battles between the playwright and the producer, the director and the actors. Invariably, O'Neill was able to stand his ground against them all.

A typical dispute during the rehearsals of The Iceman Cometh concerned the play's length, which seemed inordinate to several members of the company. When all other arguments failed, someone came to O'Neill and told him that the play was running at least twenty minutes too long and that a cut would have to be made. Why? O'Neill asked. It was then patiently explained to the author that the last commuting trains would have left Grand Central Station before the audience even got out of the theater.

O'Neill indicated succinctly that he was interested only in the play, not in whether the audience caught their trains. It was his play, and it would be done his way.

But as the rehearsals proceeded, the cast's affection and respect for O'Neill mounted. He knew the theater and he knew his play, and the actors were aware that he was part of America's theatrical heritage. Most of the time, O'Neill sat next to Eddie Dowling, the director. Dowling, O'Neill felt, tended to encourage the players to overplay their parts. The cast wanted to get the full implications of the play, its shadings and meanings, and O'Neill was always ready to explain his characters for the actors.

"Raw emotion," O'Neill said, "produces the worst in people. Remember, goodness can surmount anything. The people in that saloon were the best friends I've ever known. . . . Their weakness was not an evil. It is a weakness found in all men."

O'Neill tried to explain to the cast the meaning behind the extraordinary behavior of the habitués of the saloon -- the meaning behind their deeply troubled words.

"Revenge," he said, "is the subconscious motive for the individual's behavior with the rest of society. Revulsion drives a man to tell others of his sins. . . . It is the Furies within us that seek to destroy us.

"In all my plays sin is punished and redemption takes place.

"Vice and virtue cannot live side by side. It's the humiliation of a loving kiss that destroys evil."

An eager, aggressive actor asked O'Neill where he stood on "the labor movement." (Two of the characters in the play are disillusioned radicals.)

"I am a philosophical anarchist," O'Neill said, smiling faintly, "which means, 'Go to it, but leave me out of it.'"

At the end of September, the strain of the rehearsals began to tell on O'Neill, and he came down with flu. Karl Schriftgiesser, of The New York Times, who had only recently rewritten O'Neill's prepared obituary, called at the O'Neill penthouse and found the playwright dressed in corduroy slacks, blue sports jacket, and dark-red carpet slippers. Schriftgiesser wrote later of O'Neill's "deep, brooding eyes" which "now and again seem to lighten his thin, almost haggard face." O'Neill was chain-smoking an expensive brand of Egyptian cigarettes. In a cloud of blue smoke "an excitement suddenly lifted his voice" as he talked about the old days and the friends he had when he was living at Jimmy the Priest's and at Wallace's Hell Hole.

"I knew 'em all," O'Neill said. "I've known 'em all for years. All these people I've written about I once knew. I do not think you can write anything of value or understanding about the present. You can only write about life if it is far enough in the past. The present is too much mixed up with the superficial values; you can't know which thing is important and which is not.

"The past which I have chosen in the Iceman is one I knew. The man who owns this saloon, Harry Hope, and all the others -- the Anarchists and Wobblies and French Syndicalists, the broken men, the tarts, the bartenders and even the saloon itself -- are real.

"It's not just one place perhaps, but it is several places that I lived in at one time or another -- places I knew, put together in one.

"What have I done with this setting? Well, I've tried to show the inmates of Harry Hope's saloon there with their dreams. Some, you see, have just enough money from home to keep them going; but most of 'em keep from starving with the aid of the free lunch. This old Tammany politician who runs the place lives with his dreams, too, and he loves these people for he is one of them in his way.

"You ask, what is the significance, what do these people mean to us today? Well, all I can say is that it is a play about pipe dreams. And the philosophy is that there is always one dream left, one final dream, no matter how low you have fallen, down there at the bottom of the bottle. I know because saw it."

As O'Neill talked, he paused between sentences, editing his sentences as he spoke them. After a particularly long pause, he said, "It will take man a million years to grow up and obtain a soul." This theme was now recurrent in his conversation.

"I think I'm aware of comedy more than I ever was before," he said, "a big kind of comedy that doesn't stay funny very long." Yet before and after the production of Iceman he was in a jocular, uncharacteristically optimistic mood. "I'm happier now than I've ever been," he said. "I couldn't ever be negative about life. On that score, you've got to decide Yes or No. And I'll always say, Yes. Yes, I'm happy."

Then his tone turned gloomy and bitter. "I hope to resume writing as soon as I can. . . but the war has thrown me completely off base and I have to get back to it again. I have to get back to a sense of writing being worthwhile. In fact, I'd have to pretend." He was, he declared, enduring life "with enraged resignation. Outwardly, I might blame it on the war. . . . But inwardly. . . the war helped me realize that I was putting my faith in the old values and they're gone. It's very sad but there are no values to live by today. Anything is permissible if you know the angles."

In the light of the many provocative but conflicting statements the dramatist was making, it was scarcely any wonder that Marguerite Young, a reporter for the Herald Tribune, asked O'Neill if he didn't agree that he was "full of paradoxes."

"What did Walt Whitman say?" O'Neill asked. "He said, 'Do I contradict myself? Well, I contradict myself.'"

When Earl Wilson, the "saloon reporter" for the New York Post, called on O'Neill, the dramatist rose to the challenge. He regaled Wilson with tales of Jimmy the Priest's, describing it as "a hangout for broken-down telegraphers. I was always learning the international code from them. But it was always too late in the evening for me to be very receptive. So I never remembered it the next day."

O'Neill told Wilson that a juke box company had offered him one of its products on hearing how much he wanted one, but "someone" would not let him have it. Carlotta was occupied elsewhere in the penthouse, and O'Neill apologized for her not joining them, saying, "She's terribly busy killing cockroaches in the kitchen." Later, when Carlotta heard what her husband had said, she was furious. She telephoned Wilson and said there were no cockroaches in the O'Neill penthouse, and she had been occupied with cataloguing her husband's books.

When Wilson got O'Neill on the subject of Long Day's Journey into Night, a matter of the greatest curiosity to the theater world since presumably it would not be produced until twenty-five years after the author's death, O'Neill told him, "It is a real story, laid in 1912. There's one person in it who is still alive."

Instantly, Wilson wanted to know if it was O'Neill himself, and whether the play was his autobiography.

"I won't say a word about it," O'Neill replied.

But he permitted Tom Prideaux of Life to publish a passage from the play (which O'Neill then referred to as The Long Day's Voyage into Night). It was a passage of which he was apparently quite proud. Edmund Tyrone, the stage replica of Eugene O'Neill, is talking of his memories aboard a square-rigger while at sea. The passage ends with Edmund saying he will always be "a stranger who never feels at home, who does not want and is not really wanted, who can never belong, who must always be a little in love with death."

There were now so many requests for interviews with O'Neill that Joseph Heidt, the press agent for the Theatre Guild, decided to stage a mass interview at the Guild offices. It was the last time O'Neill ever talked to a group of reporters. The writers and reporters who turned up at the interview, many of them seasoned veterans, seemed far more nervous than O'Neill. In fact, it was O'Neill who put the group at ease by apologizing for speaking indistinctly. "Even my own family complains about it," he said.

One of the first questions brought up the matter of O'Neill's big cycle. Previously, O'Neill had described it as "a psychological drama of a family against the background of the drive toward material progress and the spiritual degeneration of the American people."

"I'm going on the theory," he now said, "that the United States, instead of being the most successful country in the world, is the greatest failure. It's the greatest failure because it was given everything, more than any other country. Through moving as rapidly as it has, it hasn't acquired any real roots. Its main idea is that everlasting game of trying to possess your own soul by the possession of something outside of it, too. America is the prime example of this because it happened so quickly and with such immense resources. This was really said in the Bible much better. We are the greatest example of 'For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul? [Matthew 16:26] We had so much and could have gone either way.

"I feel, in that sense, that America is the greatest failure in history, but we've squandered our soul by trying to possess something outside it, and we'll end as that game usually does, by losing our soul and the thing outside it, too.

"Some day, this country is going to get it -- really get it. We had everything to start with -- everything -- but there's bound to be a retribution. We've followed the same selfish, greedy path as every other country in the world. We talk about the American Dream and want to tell the world about the American Dream, but what is that dream, in most cases, but the dream of material things? I sometimes think that the United States, for this reason, is the greatest failure the world has ever seen. We've been able to get a very good price for our souls in this country -- the greatest price perhaps that has ever been paid -- but you'd think that after all these years, and all that man has been through, we'd have sense enough -- all of us -- to understand the whole secret of human happiness is summed up in that same sentence (from the Bible) which also appears in the teachings of Buddha, Lao-tse, and even Mohammed.

"If the human race is so damned stupid, that in two thousand years it hasn't had brains enough to appreciate that the secret of happiness is contained in [that] simple sentence, which you'd think any grammar school kid could understand and apply, then it's time we dumped it down the nearest drain and let the ants have a chance.

"I had a French friend, one of the delegates at the San Francisco Conference [of the United Nations] who came to see me. I asked him, 'If it's not betraying any great secrets, what's really happening at the Conference?' He shrugged his shoulders and said 'It's the League of Nations, only not so good.' And I believe it. Of course, I may be wrong. I nearly always am."

His home he regarded as New England and he added that "the battle of moral forces in the New England scene is what I feel closest to as an artist."

A woman reporter asked O'Neill how one could learn to be a playwright. O'Neill looked intently at her, and after a pause said: "Take some wood and canvas and nails and things. Build yourself a theater, a stage, light it, learn about it. When you've done that you will probably know how to write a play -- that is to say if you can."

He said that Sean O'Casey was the "greatest living playwright." (Part of O'Neill's adulation for O'Casey may have sprung from the latter's remark, "You write like an Irishman, you don't write like an American." Nothing could have pleased O'Neill more.)

Another woman reporter at the interview asked about his having been quoted by Earl Wilson as saying the Iceman "consists of fourteen men and three tarts." O'Neill who often assumed a Victorian correctness and gallantry in the presence of the opposite sex, replied, "Fourteen men and three -- uh -- ladies." Asked what he was going to do opening night, he replied, with a gleam in his eyes, "If I weren't in temperance I'd get stinko."

There were glasses, ice and whisky on the sideboard. Heidt invited the reporters to have a drink when the interview was concluded, but nobody did.

The afternoon of the dress rehearsal, I interviewed O'Neill for a long piece I was doing for Picture News, PM's Sunday magazine section. I found O'Neill on the darkened stage of the Martin Beck Theatre. Although I had interviewed many of O'Neill's friends in New London and was a personal friend of Eugene junior, I had never met the playwright before this time.

Around us were the sets by Robert Edmond Jones, O'Neill's old friend from his Provincetown days. We sat on a bench and talked about his early life. O'Neill seemed old and sick, but I disagreed with a recent description by a writer from Time who said, "his paralysis agitans involved his whole emaciated body in one miserable stammer."

He looked sharply at me as he talked, and his face was one that was difficult to put out of mind. He was well-groomed and expensively and quietly dressed in a double-breasted blue suit, but he gave the impression of a down-and-out man who had been completely outfitted the day before by some well-meaning friend.

He was still handsome. His hair was only slightly graying, a distinguished iron gray. He was thin and slightly bent over. His eyes were deep-set and sad, and occasionally he cocked his head as he eyed me. His jaw was lean and forceful.

When I told O'Neill that I was a friend of Eugene junior, and. regarded him highly, a pleased look, half proud father and half grateful child, spread over O'Neill's face. He got up and walked over to a stage bar, pulled up a stool and sat there, motioning to me to join him. As O'Neill made himself comfortable at the bar, the conversation switched to the subject of the American Dream, a concept greatly advertised that year.

"Of course, America is due for a retribution," O'Neill said suddenly. "There ought to be a page in the history books of the United States of all the unprovoked, criminal, unjust crimes, committed and sanctioned by our government since the beginning of our history -- and before that, too."

The trembling of his hands stopped. His eyes took on a new glow, a fierce intensity, as he continued. "There is hardly one thing our government has done that isn't some treachery -- against the Indians, against the people of the Northwest, against the small farmers."

As he talked he seemed in the tradition of all great half-drunken Irishmen who sound off in bars all over the world, extravagant, rambling, full of madness and violence, but studded with enough essential truth, and insight to force you to listen with troubled fascination.

"This American Dream stuff gives me a pain," O'Neill went on. "Telling the world about our American Dream! I don't know what they mean. If it exists, as we tell the whole world, why don't we make it work in one small hamlet in the United States?

"If it's the Constitution that they mean, ugh, then it's a lot of words. If we taught history and told the truth, we'd teach children that the United States has followed the same greedy rut as every other country. We would tell who's guilty. The list of the guilty ones responsible would include some of our great national heroes. Their portraits should be taken out and burned." He was fondling a prop whisky glass and a prop bottle with water and caramel syrup in it.

As his words took on more and more vigor I realized that one could say of him then what his boss on the New London Telegraph had said of him in 1912 -- "He was the most stubborn and irreconcilable social rebel that I had ever met." He wrote about oppressed workers (The Hairy Ape) and about the tragedy of color discrimination (All God's Chillun Got Wings) long before they were fashionable subjects. I got the feeling that O'Neill's social views sprang from the very depths of his soul, from a deep abiding love of humanity, from a deeply cherished dream of what the world could be.

"The great battle in American history," he said, "was the Battle of Little Bighorn. The Indians wiped out the white men, scalped them. That was a victory in American history. It should be featured in all our school books as the greatest victory in American history."

O'Neill brought his fist down on the top of the bar. "The big business leaders in this country! Why do we produce such stupendous, colossal egomaniacs? They go on doing the most monstrous things, always using the excuse that if we don't the other person will. It's impossible to satirize them, if you wanted to."

The actors and stagehands began drifting back onto the stage. Two "grips" came to move the bar and we walked to the side. The conversation shifted to religion. Had he, I asked, returned to Catholicism, as one biography had implied he might? A look of sadness came into O'Neill's eyes. "Unfortunately, no," he said. "The Iceman is a denial of any other experience of faith in my plays. In writing it, I felt I had locked myself in with my memories."

The Iceman Cometh had an advance ticket sale of $262,000, and opened not once but twice. The first performance started at 5:30 P.M. on October 9, 1946, adjourned for an hour-and-a-half intermission, during which the Theatre Guild gave a dinner at the Astor, and ended well after eleven. The second "first night" was almost as elaborate a production. All in all, it was perhaps the greatest opening in Broadway history.

There was as much interest in O'Neill himself as in his new play. Both Time and Life assigned braces of writers, researchers, and photographers to get materials ready for big stories on the playwright. Reporters from papers all over the country, foreign correspondents, local New York feature writers, besieged the Theatre Guild's press agent for special interviews with O'Neill and for biographical details about him.

All this was not difficult to understand. O'Neill's return to New York was that of a man who had preached a message long years before and then had faded into limbo. So much had happened since the world had seen an O'Neill play produced -- the depression, F.D.R. and the New Deal, the terrible years of World War II. As Samuel Grafton wrote, it was as if O'Neill had waited patiently in the wings for our little period of joy and hope to spend itself; now he comes out as one reminding us, almost with a leer, that life is a formless mess to be tempered, if at all, with alcohol and illusion."

There was one unfortunate occurrence on opening night which came close to being disastrous. James Barton, who played Hickey the salesman, entertained a party of friends in his dressing room. They included Babe Ruth, the baseball player, and his family. Barton's part was most taxing, especially in the last act. He should have been resting and especially he should have saved his talk for over the footlights. In the last act, Hickey tells the habitués of the saloon why he murdered his wife. He couldn't bear to have her forgive him over and over again for his sins. He never wanted her to wake up from her pipe dream that he, Hickey, would turn out all right. The speech, probably the longest in the history of the American theater, dominates the last act. Barton had little or no voice left when the time came to deliver the speech. At one point, he seemed to have forgotten his lines and a stage manager prompted him -- a fact which he bitterly resented.

Nevertheless, at the final curtain it was apparent that the audience was deeply moved, and there was a great ovation. O'Neill, as was his custom, did not go to the opening. Langner reported to him by phone during the intermissions. After the show, Carlotta had the Langners and a few friends in for a light supper.

The reviews were extremely favorable. Brooks Atkinson said that although "Mr. O'Neill is detached from the modern theater, he is our most dramatic dramatist." Although Atkinson had some reservations and found the play difficult, he felt that O'Neill had forcefully reasserted the high standards of contemporary American theater. Rosamond Gilder of Theatre Arts saw the ultimate meaning of the play expressed by the line: "This lie of a pipe dream is what gives life to the whole misbegotten mad lot of us, drunk or sober." Miss Gilder was undoubtedly correct.

Eugene junior saw little of his father during this period and was not included in any of the social affairs surrounding The Iceman's opening. Cathy and Shane were not being received at all by either O'Neill or Carlotta. Cleon Throckmorton, who had done so many of the sets for O'Neill plays at the Provincetown Theatre, and who was seeing a good deal of Shane and Cathy at the Old Colony, decided they ought to see the play and took them as his guests.

Cathy was surprised that it was a success because it seemed "oldfashioned" to her. Shane said he thought he knew what his father was trying to say. It was somehow summed up in some things that Hickey said to his fellow down-and-outers at Harry Hope's saloon.

"I've never known what real peace was until now," were Hickey's words. "It's a grand feeling, like when you're sick and suffering like hell and the Doc gives you a shot in the arm and the pain goes, and you drift off. You can let go of yourself at last. Let yourself sink down to the bottom of the sea. Rest in peace. There's no farther you have to go. Not a single damned hope or dream left to nag you."

Shane's health declined steadily in the winter of 1945. He worked irregularly and, as a result, was continually borrowing small sums of money. His hands trembled, and he kept losing weight. Young Gene tried to talk to him, to give him advice; Shane would listen but would seem unconcerned. At cocktail parties in the Village it was observed that he didn't drink. On the other hand, he always looked as if he had a hang-over. Some people thought he acted "kind of queer." Joy Nicholson, the actress, once invited Cathy and Shane to a cocktail party and Shane spent his time there sitting inside the fireplace, his head part way up the chimney. It was rumored he was using other things than alcohol and "tea" to summon his particular pipe dreams.

Agnes, who had rented a house at Litchfield, Connecticut, to look after her mother, was in serious financial straits. Her alimony was considerably diminished now that Oona and Shane had come of age. Under the terms of the separation agreement, alimony was to continue even after O'Neill's death; but a year before, Winfield Aronberg, O'Neill's lawyer, had expressed the view it might be a good idea to work out a flat financial settlement because, as he expressed it, "alimony prevents wives from getting married." For the sum of $17,000, Agnes signed, in 1947, a release freeing O'Neill from any further obligation to her. After Agnes had settled her mother in the house at Litchfield, she asked Cathy and Shane to visit her, hoping the country and the change might improve Shane's health. It was a happy reunion, and while the couple were visiting there, Cathy learned she was pregnant for the second time. Agnes was overjoyed. "I felt as if God," she has said, "was sending a baby to replace little Eugene O'Neill."

But Shane's depressions continued. He was not earning any money now and had no savings. The prospect of having another baby intensified his anxiety. Meanwhile, Agnes told Cathy and Shane that she was going to be married to Morris Kaufman, a man she had met in New York and had known for several years. Kaufman, by this time a Hollywood producer, flew east, and they were married by a Justice of the peace at Elkton, Maryland. Kaufman immediately returned to the West Coast because of his work, and Agnes decided to give up the house in Litchfield and take her mother to California.

Before leaving, however, she had to attend to endless details in connection with Spithead in Bermuda. An old pre-O'Neill mortgage had to be paid off. Under the terms of the separation agreement possession of Spithead had now passed into the hands of Oona and Shane. Offers for the whole place, including the waterfront, the boat house, a cottage, and the great mansion, were as high as $125,000. But it was decided to sell the cottage separately and to continue leasing the main house. Oona and Shane divided the proceeds, about $9,000 apiece, and Oona turned her share over to Agnes.

During the time Agnes was negotiating for the flat settlement which freed O'Neill from paying her any further alimony, she read The Iceman Cometh. In the early scenes, Agnes saw about what she expected. There was the "Hell Hole" where she and Gene had met. There was a little of John Wallace, the Hell Hole proprietor, in the character of Harry Hope. Larry Slade was clearly the Terry Carlin of long ago. He had often stayed with Gene and Agnes at Peaked Hill. Agnes saw that Hugo Kalmar was Hippolyte Havel, and recognized the big Negro, Joe Mott, as the leader of the Negro community in Greenwich Village. The girls also recalled people she and Gene had known. Then came the last act and Agnes felt, as she heard Hickey making his great speech, that O'Neill could have been speaking directly to her.

"God, can you picture," Hickey was saying on the stage, "all I made her suffer and all the guilt she made me feel and how I hated myself! If she only hadn't been so damned good -- if she'd been the same kind of wife I was a husband. . . it isn't human for any woman to be so pitying and forgiving."

Agnes saw something of what Rosamond Gilder saw in the play. There is a force in the world, like the love that Hickey's wife bore her wayward husband, which mingles understanding and forgiveness. Does man find such love suffocating? In the saloon, Hickey was saying, "I couldn't forgive her for forgiving me. I caught myself hating her for making me hate myself so much."

A playwright is more than popular when he has a successful play on Broadway. Attempts were made to lionize O'Neill during the winter of 1946-47, but he had little heart for the fashionable circles to which he and Carlotta were invited. Carlotta enjoyed the company of Ilka Chase, Fania Marinoff, the Gish sisters, and a sprinkling of New York society people, but that winter O'Neill longed more than ever for the Hell Hole and his old friends.

At one party he was introduced to Irving Berlin by Russel Crouse, playwright and a former Theatre Guild press agent. O'Neill asked Berlin if he remembered a song called "I Love A Piano." Berlin went to the piano and started to play the old tune. O'Neill sang. It was then nine-fifteen, and Berlin did not get up from the piano until two the next morning. O'Neill became so excited he couldn't sleep that night.

But most of the time O'Neill was worried and anxious. He was at the peak of his powers and could not set to paper the great plays which were written in his brain and in his heart. He tried again and again to dictate to stenographers, to dictating machines. Nothing worked.

His leisure, tortured though it was, gave him more time to spend with his old friends. Then too, Freeman had returned from the wars and was acting as a combination butler and chauffeur. Sometimes he took O'Neill to see the prize fights or to the postwar "swing" joints. Young Eugene was seeing a lot of his father in New York that winter, but his relations with Carlotta grew increasingly edgy. She didn't like the publicity the son was getting; she felt that it reflected on the O'Neill name. During a Sunday lunch at the O'Neill apartment there was a discussion of the various articles which had recently been appearing on Eugene O'Neill and his work. The writer of one of the articles was a friend of Eugene's and a fellow Yale graduate whom Eugene had helped with advice and research. Carlotta denounced the article and the writer, largely because the publication in which the article appeared preached a liberal political philosophy. This man, she said, had tried to get her husband involved in politics. Politics change. Art never changes.

"My husband," she said, "is an artist. He should have nothing to do with politics."

Eugene rose from the table. "I have respect for scholarship," he said. "I will not listen to my friend's being spoken of in this fashion."

He went to the front door to leave, followed by his father, who pleaded with him to stay. Would he not, for the sake of their seeing each other, forget this? Carlotta was his wife. For the sake of peace? It was a sad and awkward moment.

In the end, Eugene decided it would be best if he left the city. In Woodstock, New York, there was a piece of land which was adjacent to the home of a friend of his and afforded a magnificent view of the Catskills. Eugene asked his father to lend him eight thousand dollars to buy it with. He would build a house on it, put down roots and find serenity in the wild beauty of nature. O'Neill said that he would sign a note at the bank, but his son must keep the transaction a secret, especially from Carlotta. He said that he understood his son's wanting a place in the country, a place where he could feel he belonged.

In February, 1947, Eugene's stepfather, George Pitt-Smith, for whom he had a deep affection, died; he had been an invalid most of his life. A year later, Eugene's grandmother, Mrs. Katherine Senneth-Porter Jenkins, also died. The two deaths coming so close together, a friend of Eugene's has said, added to the sense of doom he felt was overtaking him.

He had been very close to his grandmother. During some of his early years he had lived with her on the upper West Side. She had told him stories of his family, of the courtship of his mother by Eugene O'Neill, of his descent from proud Corsican aristocrats. To her he had brought one of the first copies of his Complete Greek Drama, in which he had inscribed "To My Dearly Beloved Nana."

He was particularly distressed by the fact that his mother had no other relative in all the world but him. Furthermore, her only income was derived from her work as an editor on a Long Island weekly newspaper. What if he, Eugene junior, were to die? He brooded about this and finally took out a $25,000 life insurance policy, payable to his mother.

At times it seemed to Eugene that he was in direct competition with Carlotta for the favor of his father. When visiting at the penthouse he found himself wondering if he was in his father's house or in Carlotta's. Too often the evening ended with bickering between stepson and stepmother. At the end of one such evening, O'Neill walked to the door with this brilliant son of whom he was so proud.

"It's a strange thing," O'Neill said, "of all the women I treated badly -- and there were many -- I treated your mother the worst. And she was the one who gave me the least trouble."

There was nothing Eugene or anyone else could respond to that. Perhaps O'Neill required nothing but the saying of it, the saying of it to the son who gave him so much love and so little trouble.

The Last Play: A Moon for the Misbegotten

© Copyright 1999-2009