xxv: Kismet in the Valley of the Moon
Eugene O'Neill, like so many people who settle in the San Francisco area, quite suddenly took up Oriental philosophy. He confided to his friend Nathan that he was planning "an heroic drama of ancient Chinese locale." Tao House itself, his "final home and harbor," as he termed it, stood in the locally named Valley of the Moon, with Mount Diablo (Mountain of the Devil) in plain view.
O'Neill was also fascinated by Kismet, the Arabic concept of fate or destiny. "There is a feeling around," O'Neill told a friend at this time, "or I'm mistaken, of fate. Kismet, the negative fate; not in the Greek sense. . . . It's struck me as time goes on, how something funny, even farcical can suddenly, without apparent reason, break up into something gloomy and tragic. . . A sort of unfair non sequitur, as though events, as though life, were to be manipulated just to confuse us. I think I'm aware of comedy more than I ever was before-a big kind of comedy that doesn't stay funny very long."
In the summer of 1939, it would seem that the effect of Kismet was felt in the Valley of the Moon. The year also happened to be a time of oncoming tragedy for the whole world. O'Neill was to say, later on, that his stay at Tao House was the most pleasant existence he had had in his entire life. Work on his great cycle was moving rapidly ahead in 1939. He estimated that about two more years of work would see the completion of this lifetime project.There had been up to that time, nine plays in the cycle. The first and second of these, however, had grown in scope, and O'Neill had already begun to fill in his outline with provision for dividing the material in each of these two into two separate plays. Thus, in effect, his cycle now consisted of eleven distinct dramas. The overall title was A Tale of the Possessors Self-Dispossessed, and the nine plays in the not yet altered outline were:
A Touch of the Poet, which was produced on Broadway October 2, 1958, is the story of Irish-born Major Cornelius "Con" Melody, a tavernkeeper living on the outskirts of Boston in 1828. He is pretentious, keeps a thoroughbred mare, and likes to speak of having served under the Duke of Wellington and having fought at Talavera. Con is not accepted by the New England Yankees, partly because he is a faker and his wife is obviously a peasant, but also because he is in trade -- and worse, a tavernkeeper. And yet, he regards his own kind as "Irish scum." The bridge is built between the two worlds when Simon Harfordfalls in love with con's daughter, Sara. Simon, a Harvard boy, lives, like Thoreau, beside a pond, and he is writing a book.
The Harfords oppose the marriage and, when con goes to protest, a Negro manservant beats him up. con returns to the tavern, his dreams and his pretensions shattered, and he shoots the mare, the symbol of his pride. He says he will change, disturbing his wife and daughter, who love him the way he is. In the last act, it turns out that Sara, following the guidance of her father, has seduced Simon. Thus boy gets girl after all and the Melodys are reunited in happiness.
Although this is not one of O'Neill's best plays and the plot and motivations are somewhat oversimplified, yet one is still moved by con and his family. The dialogue is sometimes awkward and the play lacks the usual O'Neill intensity, but A Touch of the Poet is both entertaining and interesting. con lives on his illusions, much as the characters in The Iceman Cometh exist on their "pipe dreams." And finally, the play is better viewed and con considered in context with the entire cycle; it was O'Neill's intention to deal next with Simon and Sara's children -- a new family is born, the blending of shanty Irish with New England Yankee.
While each play was an individual full-length drama, it was related to the others as an essential link in the entire chain. One drama authority pronounced it"probably the most stupendous task ever undertaken by a modern playwright," but only one of these plays has ever been produced, and the several others that O'Neill had completed in first draft he destroyed shortly before his death. The theme of the cycle was, in Hamilton Basso's words, the "dominant theme of O'Neill's mature philosophy -- the corruption of character by materialistic greed." Another play which O'Neill considered for inclusion on the cycle he called at the time Give Me Liberty And --. Although O'Neill later destroyed this play, he told the plot to Basso, who recorded it:
The farm is run by a young widow who badly needs a man around the place, and who, as O'Neill saw it, also needs a man. The Irishman, caught between his dream of freedom and his hunger for land, and attracted by the woman's physical allure, finally abandons his dream and settles for the land. The bleak mood of the play was summed up in its title. According to O'Neill's scheme, the seed of greed that had thus been planted was to grow and flower throughout the cycle.
In the summer of 1939, O'Neill suddenly began to feel that he had gone stale on his cycle. Not only did he have serious doubts about the plays he had written but he began to question whether the whole plan of the cycle was not faulty. One of his new decisions about the plays was that they should deal with two families and not just one.
O'Neill was distressed both by the war news from Europe and by the news of Shane. The boy had returned to Ralston that spring convinced he should go to college. Although he loved the West and wanted to own a horse and attend the University of Colorado, he returned East and made plans to re-enter Lawrenceville in September. Shane fell in love during the summer, but he was drinking too much and despite the girl was restless, lonely and depressed.
Shane did not do at all well at Lawrenceville and was dropped at the end of the winter term. He had succeeded in only one course and that was an art class, where he was able to combine his two loves by drawing pictures of horses he had observed at the school's stables.
After leaving Lawrenceville, Shane began taking courses at the Art Students League. He enjoyed the classes and made friends with the students, many of whom were habitués of the bars and the apartments of Greenwich Village. Shane started going about with them. His feeling of being without a goal and without an identity, except as the son of Eugene O'Neill, still pursued him, and he wrote his father for guidance.
My interest in art, as do all my other interests, points toward one thing -- horses. If I am to go on with it, my aim is to do illustration work such as Paul Brown, Lionel Edwards or Frederic Remington did.
The other thing which is perhaps a surer way of achieving my goal is to take a veterinary course, as I have always felt I would like to since horses became my one interest. I would of course like to raise them for myself, but this is out of the question because of the large amount of capital it takes to start a horse raising business, and the uncertainty of it once it is started. The veterinary course would take about five years, but I feel that when I had finished it I would be in line for the kind of a job I would like, and I would be more certain of being able to make a success of it than I would of illustration. Illustration is a fine line, but it is very hard to break into, unless you have real talent. You are either a good illustrator or else not an illustrator at all. There is no place for a fair man in that line. If you would like to see any of my drawings I can send them out. I wish you would give me any advice you can on this, keeping in mind that whatever I do, my main interest is horses, and I want to be connected with them as much as possible.
Shane was now shuttling between West Point Pleasant and New York, where his mother and Oona were spending the winter at the Hotel Waylin on Madison Avenue. Agnes O'Neill was busy with a daughter who was turning out to be both beautiful and popular. Oona and her classmates at Brearley were already talking, not only about boys, but about coming out before New York society. Oona had decided she would like to study art, too, and joined Shane in some of his classes at the Art Students League. Both children were invited to visit Tao House that summer, but not together. O'Neill and Carlotta seemed to prefer to have his children make their visits separately. Oona was fifteen and Shane was going on twenty.
When Shane went to the West Coast that summer he showed his father some of the drawings that he had done. O'Neill told him his judgment was not worth much in such things but he would say they "indicated you had a latent talent that would be worth trying out."
O'Neill's advice to his son was to go on with his study at the Art Students League until he felt he had proved to himself exactly how much talent he had. But taking a veterinary course would be a long waste of time. He should put horse raising out of his head for the moment because he would get nowhere trying to aim for two goals at the same time. He should concentrate on one objective.
The trouble with Shane, his father told him, was that choosing to run a horse farm was taking the easiest way. Apparently, Shane wanted to start at the top with his own farm and horses just as if he already knew the business without ever taking the trouble to learn it.
O'Neill told Shane, as he had told him before, that he "hated bawling him out." All he really wished was to give him advice for the immediate future. Illustrating was, after all, a good career and Shane might have the right stuff to succeed at it. In any case, he wanted him to know that he would be extremely interested to see what Shane would do with his drawing. It might be the answer Shane was looking for.
Herbert Freeman, the chauffeur, noticed that Shane seemed to be lost at Tao House and decided that he knew just the thing to cheer him up, the Golden Gate Exposition in San Francisco. "It seemed to Freeman," Saxe Commins has said, "that Shane was having a terrible time on that visit. Freeman was a swell guy and began taking Shane on visits to the Exposition."
Oona went out to Tao House that summer but returned rather abruptly. She seemed amused rather than hurt over the incident that terminated her visit. On the train to the Coast she had picked up some sort of itch, perhaps a heat rash -- she was never sure -- and she confided in Carlotta. Obviously, Oona reasoned, this was something to be discussed only between women. Carlotta immediately became alarmed and put Oona on the next eastbound plane. Apparently, O'Neill never knew what had taken place.
O'Neill may have thought, that summer of 1939, that he and his children were -- like the Mannons in Mourning Becomes Electra -- driven by some psychological fate. There is no doubt that he was deeply troubled.
"When he was very worried and nervous," Carlotta has said, "he would call to me to come in and talk to him. He didn't sleep well. Or, he would come in and he would talk to me about his work and about the terrible thing of whether we were going to have a World War again. It seemed to upset him no end. He was terribly disturbed that mankind was so stupid. To go through it, he said, only meant destruction for everybody. It did something terrible to him."
There is something infinitely touching about O'Neill, now cut off from his family and the outside world, waking in the night, calling to Carlotta, and telling her of his fears for humanity.
Carlotta noted in her diary for June 21, 1939, that it was a hot sleepless night. Gene, she wrote, "talks to me for hours, about a play (in his mind) of his mother, father, his brother and himself." Another time she heard him mutter -- perhaps he was half asleep -- ". . . an ache in our hearts for the things we can't forget."
At Provincetown the twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of the Provincetown theatrical group was to be celebrated with a production of Ah, Wilderness!, with Sinclair Lewis in the lead. It was to be done in the old Wharf Theatre where Bound East for Cardiff had first been played. "Only the combination of my own anniversary and the chance of seeing Lewis as an actor can get me to come back to Provincetown again!" O'Neill said. But when the time came to go east, he sent his regrets. The anniversary was held without him.
Early in September, 1939, after the German invasion of Poland, O'Neill turned, not to his cycle, but to his own past, to his Jimmy the Priest's and Hell Hole days. In despair about the world situation and convinced that the future could only be more dismal, O'Neill turned to the wretched lives of his old friends, in search for some meaning in life. He gave dramatic expression to that search in The Iceman Cometh.
The play has a surface plot of utter simplicity. In Harry Hope's saloon the habitués are getting ready for a party. Every few months a hardware salesman, Theodore Hickman ("Hickey"), goes on a bat and treats all his friends. This time, when Hickey turns up he acts rather strangely. He preaches a new message in which he tells the assorted failures, the prostitutes, Harry and the audience that they are living on pipe dreams. They are kidding themselves that everything will come out all right tomorrow. Occasionally, Hickey talks of his wife, saying she is at home in bed with the iceman. After the salesman has reordered all the characters' lives, got them to give up their pipe dreams and thoroughly depressed everyone, he gradually admits that he has killed his wife and left her dead in bed. Hickey is taken away by the police, the characters return with relief to their drunkenness and their pipe dreams, and the audience staggers out of the theater exhausted, depressed and yet somehow enriched and enlightened.
Like so many of his major and deeply moving works, The Iceman Cometh is far too long, contains several and stretches, and makes its point over and over again. But, for all that, it is one of O'Neill's really fine plays; it is a triumph of characterization and feeling, if not intellect. Hickey and Harry Hope are two of the most completely "rendered" gentlemen in modern literature. They and the the whole aura of jaunty seediness that the play exudes remain with one long after the performance, for the best of Eugene O'Neill is not so much seen as experienced.
O'Neill told Lawrence Langner that in The Iceman Cometh he was not trying to dredge up nostalgia for the "dead old days on the bottom of the sea." He did feel, however, that there were moments when the play "strips the secret soul of a man stark naked-not in cruelty or moral superiority but with an understanding of life and of himself." Such moments, O'Neill said, were for him "the depths of tragedy with nothing more that can possibly be said."
The Iceman Cometh was produced in 1946; it was the first O'Neill play to be presented on Broadway after the war. In 1956 it was revived brilliantly by José Quintero, and its off-Broadway production not only considerably enhanced the play itself, but was also greatly responsible for the current O'Neill revival and the revival of off-Broadway theater in New York.
At work again, he was happy for a time. By January, 1940; having finished The Iceman, he immediately started another play. He told a friend he was "feeling fine -- better than during any winter since we have been on the West Coast."
Shane, meanwhile, was spending more and more time in Greenwich Village. In a sense the Village was like home to him. That's where his father had spent so much time; that's where his father had met his mother. His own "Hell Hole" was the Old Colony, a bar on the north side of Eighth Street, whose habitués were rather more cosmopolitan than his father's barroom associates. When it got around that he was Eugene O'Neill's son, people continually bought him drinks.
"Shane never mentioned that he was O'Neill's son," a friend who knew him then has said, "but if you asked him if it were true, or told him you liked his father's plays, he was always pleased."
Shane himself has said that "people in the Village liked me for myself. They didn't talk about my father or ask me questions about him." Not long before his twenty-first birthday, Shane fell in love again. Marjory Straight (fictional) came from the Middle West. She resembled Agnes somewhat, in that she had the same build and the same bony structure to her face. She was also, like Agnes, beautiful, gentle, shy and sensitive. A love of painting was one of the bonds between Shane and Marjory, who was a good artist.
In September, 1940, Oona and Shane tried to think of something to send their father to let him know they were thinking of him. Shane remembered his father's interest in jazz and his pride in his collection of jazz records. They pooled their resources and sent him one of the new avant-garde jazz records. Their father sent word that the record had arrived cracked in half.
Later, in the summer of 1940, Shane went again for a visit to Tao House. Both O'Neill and Carlotta were, as O'Neill described it, keeping their ears glued to the radio. They heard descriptions of the Nazi sweep into Belgium, into the Netherlands, and then into the Loire valley. "To tell the truth," O'Neill said at that time, "like anyone else with any imagination I have been absolutely sunk by the world debacle. The cycle is on the shelf and God absolutely knows if I can ever take it up again because I cannot foresee any future in this country of anywhere else to when it could spiritually belong." The O'Neills listened as news came of the fall of town after town in the vicinity of the Château de Plessis. "I felt," O'Neill told Shane, "as though the ranch next to ours had been occupied. I loved France and was happy there."
Shane was not as much interested in the world situation as he was in what he should do with his life. He again tried to get guidance from his father.
"You must find yourself," O'Neill told his son, "and own yourself. You've got to find the guts in yourself to take hold of your own life. No one can do it for you and no one can help you. You have got to go on alone, without help, or it won't mean anything to you."
O'Neill was of the opinion that Shane should try to get a job in a shipyard where he could eventually work into ship designing. His talent for drawing would be an asset. His father pointed out to him that he'd be twenty-one on October 30. O'Neill repeated many times to Shane that he hoped his pending twenty-first birthday would be "a real day of birth of the man in you!"
By the time Shane returned east, he was convinced that he'd better get some kind of job -- any kind -- to earn money, and let his artistic career go for a while. He would try to write in his spare time; he was again nurturing the aspiration to be a writer. He and a friend from Point Pleasant applied at Camp Dix, in New Jersey, and got jobs as carpenters' helpers, building barracks for the Army. Meanwhile, following his father's suggestion, Shane sought employment at various shipbuilding yards near Philadelphia but without success. After delay, he wrote all this to his father, laboring long and hard over this letter as he did with all his letters to his father. He also sent his father a birthday present and another letter shortly before O'Neill's birthday on October 16.
O'Neill thanked Shane for his birthday letter to him but added that the present had not arrived. He said he would be delighted to have the present, whatever it might be, as proof of his remembrance. Not having received any letters from Shane in so long a time, O'Neill said, he was wondering whether Shane had hesitated to write because he could not report progress along the road to independence and was merely following the same old rut. But it was certainly good to know that Shane did have a job. He hoped this meant that Shane had started "to find himself and own himself." He didn't want to do any more advising, he had said all that could be said when Shane visited him last. It was now up to him.
"You will be twenty-one in a few days," he told Shane, "It will be a good day for you to spend a few hours alone having a frank talk with yourself and considering this, that and the other. A better day than New Year's to make some good resolutions-and then keep them!"
After a lot more advice, O'Neill ended by saying he was sending him a check for fifteen dollars in honor of coming of age. "May it be," he said again, "a real day of birth of the man in you!" He said Carlotta joined him in much love, as ever. Shane didn't cash the check for a long time although he needed the money. Marjory Straight recollects that he finally lost the check.
Shane achieved a temporary prosperity in the fall of 1940. Cleon Throckmorton, a successful stage designer, gave him a job painting "flats" or stage scenery. Shane earned stagehand's union wages amounting to some two hundred dollars a week. He lived in New York with Oona and his mother at the Hotel Weylin. Oona was then sixteen and in her junior year in high school. In another year she would be ready for Vassar.
That fall Shane acquired a new friend. One of Agnes' relatives brought a young writer, Marc Brandel, from Greenwich Village uptown to the Weylin to meet the family. The two young men struck up an instant friendship. Brandel remembers that Shane seemed anxious about doing well, very well, as a writer.
"Of course," Shane told Brandel, "I can never hope to equal my father."
"Agnes and Oona and Shane, sitting there in the living room of their apartment," Brandel has said, "seemed to me one of the most attractive families I had ever seen. Even then Oona was extraordinarily beautiful. Shane was well-dressed and well-groomed. He was handsome, shy, and girls fell all over him. After I got to know him, I realized he was extremely talented. He was always writing poetry or making sketches. He wanted to write short stories. Both Oona and Shane were very proud of their father. Once, I mentioned to Oona that I had been reading her father's plays and told her how much I admired them. Her face lighted up. She seemed pleased and proud."
Shane and Brandel did a good deal of drinking together, much of it at the Old Colony. There, Shane often talked to Brandelabout "taking off somewhere." Laughingly, he would suggest, "Let's take a slow boat to China."
"I very definitely had the feeling," Brandel has said, "that Shane's wanting to go out and see the world was part of his wanting to relive his father's life. He was a most engaging companion and I, too, thought it would be nice to go somewhere and see the world. It seemed to be going to hell fast, so why not?"
Early in December, Shane learned about an agency which provided people driving to various parts of the country with passengers who would take turns at the wheel and share gasoline costs.
"Shane had saved some money. So had I," Brandel said. "We found we could get to Mexico cheap. We took off the week before Christmas."
The car in which they headed south was owned by an attractive actress who promptly fell in love with Shane. Shane, however, didn't respond, "Shane had a real, old-fashioned, almost Victorian outlook about women," Brandel said. "He believed in absolute fidelity. He was extremely romantic and idealistic about women. He wouldn't give the actress a tumble."
They parted company with the actress at Juarez and immediately proceeded to get roaring drunk. Finally, they checked into a cheap hotel and fell asleep. In what they thought was the middle of the night, they awoke to find one of their twin beds on fire, probably from a cigarette. After quenching the fire they threw their things into their bags and cleared out. It was Christmas Day. They walked out into the streets of Juarez to wait for the dawn, but instead of getting lighter it got darker, and they realized that it was night, not morning -- they had slept around the clock. Shane and Marc took a bus to Chihuahua, got drunk again, spent another night, and took the train to Mexico City, arriving in the capital with no money. But somehow they got by. People bought them drinks or took them to dinner. Finally a check came (they don't remember from which family) and they were again solvent. They didn't do much adventuring in Mexico City, just read, got drunk, and went to the movies. "Shane was a very restraining influence on me," Brandel remembers, "He didn't want to shack up with girls or get drunk too often."
They decided on "a real trip." Shane remembered how his father had gone to Honduras prospecting for gold when he was his age. They'd go down to Acapulco and walk along the shore to Panama. They'd survive by fishing and hunting and sleep on the beach. They spent their remaining funds buying guns, fishing tackle, camping equipment and two hundred boxes of matches, took a bus to Acapulco and began walking. The nights were cold and uncomfortable. They didn't have much luck shooting game or catching fish. Finally, Shane cut his foot on a rock. An American, married to a Mexican woman, took them in for a while. Then they resumed walking south but gave up and returned to Acapulco when their last fishing line snagged on the rocks.
Shane sent off a telegram to his father, asking for the exact bus fare back to New York which amounted to about forty dollars. Shane told Brandel confidently that his father would probably send along enough for both of them with something to spare.
Shane received something of a jolt when his father's telegram came. It included a draft, but the sum was only enough, to the penny, to get him home by bus. Brandel remembers that the telegram said, in effect, "You've done it this time and we're letting you get away with it but don't ever do this again." On the surface, Shane took it as a joke. When he cashed the draft, he asked to have it in silver dollars. He and Brandel carried the dollars to a saloon and made them into little piles on the bar. One of the things they bought was marijuana cigarettes; they were easy to get. At first Shane didn't like smoking it because it made him slightly sick, but after a few more tries, he liked it. This was his first real experience with any form of narcotics.
When the money was gone, Shane sent word to his mother that he was broke. Agnes was annoyed but she sent them money to pay their way home.
Though few guests of the O'Neills ever saw his children, or learned anything about them, a member of the family they had learned to reckon with through the years was Blemie. The O'Neills had bought him in London in 1928 when he was only a puppy. "Blemie was very definitely a personality," Dorothy Gish, a close friend of the O'Neills, has said. "He was a very important part of their life together."
By 1940, the dog had grown so feeble and so fat that he could hardly walk around. He died in December of that year, to the great distress of O'Neill and Carlotta. They agreed that they would never have another. "We had loved him so much we could never love another one," Carlotta said. At Blemie's death, O'Neill wrote out a will for him which observed, among other things, that dogs didn't fear death as men do because they accepted it as part of life and not as a terrible destroying force. Dogs did not worry about what comes after death because nobody knows the answer to that. Blemie asked, in the will, for peace and eternal sleep for his weary old heart and head, for rest in the earth he loved so much; and he commented, "Perhaps death was best of all."
Carlotta regarded Blemie's "will" as "one of the best things he [O'Neill] ever wrote." She sent copies of it to a number of her friends.
In the first months of 1941 O'Neill was frequently ill. He was finishing Long Day's Journey into Night but at a tremendous price. The trembling of his hands was violent at times, apparently growing progressively worse.
"He came in and talked to me all night," Carlotta has said, "which he frequently did when he couldn't sleep. He was thinking about this play, you see, in his youth. He explained to me then that he had to write this play. He had to write it because it was a thing that haunted him and he had to forgive whatever caused this in them [his mother and father and brother] and in himself." Carlotta remembers that after his day's stint, O'Neill would come out of his study gaunt and sometimes weeping. His eyes would be all red and he looked ten years older than when he went into his study in the morning.
Thus the play was written -- it was a very large part of him. His whole life and thought were influenced by those early years. "I think he felt freer when he got it out of his system. It was his way of making peace with his family, and himself."
Carlotta has said she typed the play twice after O'Neill finished it in 1941. "I wept most of the time," she said, "which made it very difficult."
For their twelfth wedding anniversary, O'Neill inscribed a copy of the manuscript of Long Day's Journey into Night to her.
The inscription follows:
For Carlotta on our 12th Wedding Anniversary
Dearest; I give you the original script of this play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood. A sadly inappropriate gift, it would seem, for a day celebrating happiness. But you will understand. I mean it as a tribute to your love and tenderness which gave me the faith in love that enabled me to face my dead at last and write this play -- write it with deep pity and understanding for all the four haunted Tyrones
These twelve years, Beloved One, have been a Journey Into Light -- into love. You know my gratitude. And my love!
O'Neill wrote the inscription on the original manuscript and he left strict instructions, she has asserted, that she could publish and have the play produced when and if she saw fit. He did not want anyone to write an introduction to Long Day's Journey. He felt the inscription adequately presented his reasons for writing the play and his feelings about it.
Long Day's Journey into Night is autobiographical drama. As O'Neill says in his dedication, he is coming to peace with his haunted family. The play opens shortly before it is discovered that Edmund Tyrone (young Eugene O'Neill) has tuberculosis. His father, James, is parsimonious and not anxious to pay for his son's stay at a good tuberculosis sanatorium. Edmund's mother is addicted to drugs and his brother, Jamie, is an alcoholic. They all fuss at one another with seemingly endless energy, and the theater is filled for three hours with their taunts and recriminations. The father, an old actor, tells of the hardships of his boyhood, his struggle to win acclaim as an actor, and finally his defeat, his "selling out" by doing Monte Cristo year after year -- for the easy money. The mother reveals that she has married beneath her, talks of her lonely life on the road, remembers her marriage and her dead baby. Jamie drunkenly admits that he is trying to destroy his younger brother. In the end, the characters stand self-revealed, and the audience knows and feels that this family is bound together by ties of love and hate and need. Perhaps they all understand each other a little better.
The play is essentially plotless. It is not so much a story as an experience. It is autobiographical, yet O'Neill has imaginatively heightened his material and rendered a genuine artistic experience. Long Day's Journey is undoubtedly too long -- one long scene seems almost irrelevant; there is too much quoting of classic poetry; and the deliberate formlessness of it all is enervating. Still, it is a dramatic achievement of the first order, a play that will survive, a play that may well be O'Neill's greatest single work.
(When O'Neill sent the manuscript to Saxe Commins in New York, he told him that under no condition was the play to be produced or published until twenty-five years after his death. Commins and Bennett Cerf read the script and then placed it in the Random House vault with Commins's notation, "Not to be opened until twenty-five years after author's death."
After completing Long Day's Journey into Night, O'Neill turned again to the cycle. He still was dissatisfied with every one of the nine partly completed drafts he had on hand. Two of the plays, A Touch of the Poet and More Stately Mansions, and one scene in The Calms of Capricorn, could be salvaged, he decided, and on those he did some work. The other plays he put aside in order to "clear the decks" until he could again get down to sustained work on the cycle. Meanwhile, he blocked out still another series of eight plays to which he gave the over-all title, By Way of Obit. They were, he told Nathan, "an imaginative technical departure from his previous work." He completed the first play of this series and titled it, Hughie. It is set in a cheap New York hotel and contains only two characters, Ernie Smith, a small-town gambler, and a night clerk. In a long monologue, Smith reveals his own life and that of Hughie, the previous night clerk, recently deceased. The period was approximately the same as in The Iceman Cometh, the summer of 1912. Hughie was given its world premiere in Stockholm on September 18, 1958. In explaining why he kept on working even though he had gone stale on his cycle, O'Neill said you can't "keep a hophead off his dope for long." He had turned to writing scenes from his past on the ground that events had made him feel there was not enough recognizable future on which to go. He didn't want to be working on a cycle play which might take four or five years to complete. He felt an urgency to write plays which he had wanted to write for a long, long time and which he knew he had time to finish.
O'Neill took a great interest in the gloom enveloping the world. In May, President Roosevelt declared "an unlimited state of national emergency." In the following months the United States closed down the German consulates. Greece fell to the Nazis. O'Neill told friends that the world as he had known it was falling apart. How, he asked, could be go on writing when there were so many assumptions which were no longer valid? The assumptions would have to pass the test of the present debacle, but the basic truths about life remained the same.
For a time, O'Neill thought of putting the current world-shattering events in a great play. The trouble, he decided, was the rise of fascism, and he did "some work off and on" on what he called an "antitotalitarian state, anti-instrumentalist philosophy play" which he titled The Last conquest. It would be a symbolic fantasy of the future and show the last campaign for the final destruction of the spirit.
In the East, Shane and Marc Brandel arrived back in Manhattan. Brandel rented an apartment on West Eleventh Street, and Shane moved in with him. They went out for weekends to Point Pleasant, and Brandel helped Agnes with a final revision of her novel, The Road Is Before Us. For part of the summer, Shane worked on the charter boats and dreamed of getting a boat of his own. He also continued his writing, at which, Brandel remembers, he "showed great sensitivity, poetic imagination." Later Shane and Brandel obtained jobs as civilian employees on a Navy transport ship docked in Brooklyn.
Shane, at this time, was seeing more and more of Marjory Straight, who was living with another girl artist on Christopher Street. When it came time for the girls to go to bed, Shane would look so forlorn, so appealing, that they'd insist that he spend the night.
"He was gentle, boyish, and hated any kind of restriction," Marjory remembers. "For example, he never sat in a chair; he sat on it. You always had the feeling he might, at any moment, run away or just disappear. Both my roommate and myself were devoted to him. He had something rough and sexual about him that never quite came to the surface. I think women liked him because they felt a cruelty in him that was never apparent."
Once, Marjory told Shane that she found him puzzling. "All O'Neills are confusing," Shane said without amplifying the statement.
He talked little about his father but "he had an almost fanatical devotion to Eugene O'Neill," Miss Straight has said. Whenever Shane had a cold, he would be very concerned about it and ask Marjory if she had anything to cure it. "I must be very careful about catching cold," he'd say. "TB runs in my family." Then he'd add, "You know, my father had TB and had to go to a sanatorium to be cured."
One evening Shane came to the girls' apartment bringing two sticks of marijuana, which he laughingly called "tea." Everybody in the Village was taking it, he said. But he didn't seem to mind when Marjory made him hand them over and dropped them in the toilet.
Three days after Pearl Harbor, on
Wednesday, December 10, 1941, Shane and Marc went down to the Navy
offices at Church Street and obtained seamen's papers entitling them
to sign on aboard an American merchant vessel. "I'm an able-bodied
seaman," he told Marjory, with feigned nonchalance. Then he added,
"You know my father was an able-bodied seaman."
© Copyright 1999-2009 eOneill.com