Menu Bar

 

xxx: The Last Play: A Moon for the Misbegotten

The last play Eugene O'Neill wrote and the last play produced in his lifetime was A Moon for the Misbegotten. This laying bare of his brother's tortured soul has been called a requiem for James O'Neill II. When casting began early in February, 1947, a young actress named Mary Welch told the Theatre Guild people that she wanted to play Josie, the Irish giantess. She was not encouraged. Mary Welch, a dedicated actress, was a tall, handsome, strapping girl in her early twenties; she was of Irish descent and had an Irish pug nose to prove it. Her only failing was that she needed at least fifty more pounds to qualify for Josie. In 1946, she had played in Philip Barry's The Joyous Season, and was, as she said, "full of youthful arrogance."

Josie is a "great mother-earth symbol," one of the casting directors told her, "and the actress who plays her should have a range from farce to Greek tragedy."

Mary Welch insisted, and she was introduced to O'Neill, whom she regarded as the greatest playwright who ever lived. "He seemed more bone than flesh," she has written. "I liked him immediately; I like the look of men who carry no excess baggage."

The part of Josie, however, was written for a woman who carried plenty of excess baggage. Josie "is so oversize," O'Neill wrote in his casting directions, "that she is almost a freak -- five feet eleven in her stockings and weighs around one hundred and eighty. Her sloping shoulders are broad, her chest deep with large, firm breasts, her waist wide but slender by contrast with her hips and thighs. She has long smooth arms, immensely strong, although no muscles show. The same is true of her legs. . . . She is all woman. . . . The map of Ireland is stamped on her face." O'Neill required that all members of the cast must be of Irish descent.

Miss Welch felt "purified" when she saw O'Neill staring at her. "Are you Irish with that pug nose?" he asked her. "What per cent? From what part of Ireland are your people? I want as many people as possible connected with my play to be Irish. Although the setting is New England, the dry wit, the mercurial changes of mood and the mystic quality of the three main characters are so definitely Irish."

Miss Welch replied that she was one hundred per cent Irish "County Cork." O'Neill gave her the play to study and told her to come back and read. Two weeks later she read the part and one of the Guild officials commented that Miss Welch was "too normal for Josie's problem of feeling misbegotten." Another said she was not enough of a giant.

"That doesn't matter to me," O'Neill said. "She can gain some more weight, but the important thing is that Miss Welch understands how Josie feels. These other girls, who are closer physically to Josie, somehow don't know how tortured she is, or can't project it. The inner state of Josie is what I want. We'll work the other problem out in clothes and sets. I think the emotional quality is just right."

Apparently O'Neill was much taken with Miss Welch. He had her summoned to his penthouse before the final reading. "Hello Miss Welch -- Mary," she reported him as saying. "I thought we'd just have a chat and a cup of tea before the final inquisition." He showed her his new television set, given him by a friend "so I can watch the fights."

He appeared to wish to impress her with his liberal views. (To have been anything but very leftish in the theater at that time was almost a social error.) His face took on a bitter and forceful expression, Miss Welch has said, "as he recalled how some of the New York professional crowd" had received his early plays about the Negro problem.

"They didn't really understand what I was writing. They merely said to themselves, 'Oh, look! The ape can talk!' " O'Neill said, with what Miss Welch thought was "true bitterness." She construed the outburst as an attempt by him "to furnish [me with] the pride and arrogance I lacked in meeting the demands of the part of Josie."

At the initial reading, under the direction of Arthur Shields, James Dunn read the part of Jamie Tyrone, and when he came to the part where the drunken Jamie had a prostitute in his stateroom on the train which was bringing his mother's body back east, he began to cry. Mary Welch also cried. O'Neill walked over to comfort her.

"Oh, here we go again!" he said. "I wept a great deal over Josie Hogan and Jamie Tyrone as I wrote the play."

The reading and the weeping continued until, according to Langner, Dunn said, "We're all crying now. I guess it will be the management's time to cry later." He spoke the truth.

During most of the three-week rehearsal period O'Neill was too ill to attend. He managed to get out of bed and to the theater on three occasions, to give the cast notes. Invariably, when he was not on hand to supervise his plays, it seemed that something happened to them. Something was wrong now, and Langner insisted that the play be tried out in the Middle West. O'Neill didn't like the idea, but he consented. He came to say good-by to the cast and talked a long time with Mary Welch.

"I know you will play Josie the way I want it," O'Neill told her.

"We embraced," Miss Welch told this writer, "and I told him some of the personal reasons why the part meant so much to me -things I have told no other person." Miss Welch noted after one meeting with O'Neill that "this man compels me to behave at my best level, to express the absolute core of whatever is my soul. I can only be me -- honest, sincere, no matter how revealing."


After her long, intimate talk with O'Neill, Miss Welch felt "an unaccustomed relief on shedding all the layers of convention I had felt it necessary to assume for contact with other people." On opening night, he sent her a dozen red roses with a note reading, "Again, my absolute confidence."

In A Moon for the Misbegotten, Jamie is shown at the end of his days. His mother has died and he is doing his best to drink himself to death. Jamie comes to visit a farm left him in his father's estate and to see the old Irish tenant farmer and his mountain of a daughter, Josie. She soon loves Jamie. The father is afraid Jamie wants to throw him off the farm; he knows that a wealthy neighbor, an Englishman, wants to buy the place because the old man's pigs keep getting into his pond. (O'Neill drew upon his memories of a similar family and a similar situation in the New London of his boyhood, when he wrote this scene.)

The old man tries to get Josie to seduce Jamie, so that they can blackmail him into letting them keep the farm. At the end of the second act, Jamie comes, long after midnight, to keep a date with the big farm girl. He is drunk and prepared to treat her like a whore. Suddenly, thinking about the waste of his life, he quotes Keats:

Now more than ever seems it rich to die
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
In such an ecstasy!

The last words in the second act are Jamie's muttered opinion of himself: "You rotten bastard!" Above the set a full moon shines for this most misbegotten member of the misbegotten O'Neill clan, and Jamie falls asleep in Josie's arms.

Jamie reveals that he has had no intention of turning them off the farm, and Josie, who has loved him all the while, resolves that no advantage will be taken of him. In a most moving last scene, she bids him good-by. "May you have your wish and die in your sleep, Jim, darling. May you rest forever in forgiveness and peace." There is the final suggestion that the old man's design has been inspired only with the best interests of his daughter in mind. He wanted her to marry Jamie, and he was willing to lose her, all he had left in the world, if she could be happy.

Lawrence Langner thinks A Moon for the Misbegotten is "one of the greatest plays O'Neill has ever written. . . one of the few truly great tragedies written in our times." This is probably an overstatement but, given the weird components, A Moon is a strikingly effective play. Again it is too long, and again O'Neill indulged himself in too much of other people's poetry, but the play's early scenes are as funny and as broad as anything he ever wrote. And it is surprising how tender are the scenes between Jamie and Josie, a drunk and a freak. Only a very great writer could take these two and make them so sympathetic and so important to the audience.

When the play opened in Columbus, Ohio, on February 20, 1947, a number of people in the audience left the theater at the end of the second act. Langner asked the doorman why they were leaving. "I don't know," the doorman said. "They just said they were Irish."

Langner had feared that the robust, earthy language of the bogtrotter Connecticut Irish farmer, Josie's father, might offend them; lace-curtain Irish-Americans often took a dim view of the Irish characters in O'Neill's plays. Several cities later, the matter of the play's language arose to smite its producers.

In Detroit, the police ordered the play closed for obscenity. Armina Marshall -- Mrs. Langner -- who was acting as the associate producer of the show, met with the police officer who had issued the order. His principal objection was that the words "mother" and "prostitute" had been used in the same sentence.

"You've allowed Maid in the Ozarks to play here," Mrs. Langner said, "and yet you will not allow a play written by Eugene O'Neill, the greatest playwright in America, who won the Nobel Prize?" Maid in the Ozarks was a patently salacious play about the romance between a moonshiner and a slightly soiled waitress. It was advertised as "the worst play in the world."

"Lady," the police officer said, "I don't care what kind of prize he's won, he can't put on a dirty show in my town." He explained that he had "helped rewrite that play [Maid in the Ozarks], and we finally let it stay here." He lectured the cast of A Moon on what they could and could not say. Mary Welch noted down one of his edicts -- "You can't say tart but you can say tramp."

The play closed in St. Louis on March 29, 1947. It was not until 1957 that it was presented on Broadway; then it had Franchot Tone, Wendy Hiller and Cyril Cusack in the major roles.

In that spring of 1947 O'Neill was ill at frequent intervals. The Guild said it would engage a new cast and reopen A Moon, but O'Neill said no. "Gene asked us," Langner has said, "to defer this until he was feeling better, and he also asked us to postpone the production of A Touch of the Poet for the same reason." And so A Touch of the Poet was not produced.

During the late spring, the summer and the fall, O'Neill cooperated with Hamilton Basso in assembling material for a three-part profile of himself for The New Yorker. This was the last time O'Neill was to work with a biographer. Beginning in June, Basso saw O'Neill in his apartment for a full afternoon every week until the end of December, 1947. Basso, a scholarly and gentle Southerner, was a great admirer of O'Neill's work.

Basso told O'Neill that, twenty-one years before, he had passed the dramatist in Times Square. It was in the spring of 1926. Basso had just attended a performance of The Great God Brown, and was enthusiastic about it. Walking out of the theater into the balmy spring night he repeated to himself a line from the play which had particularly struck his fancy. It is in the last act, when Cybel, the mother, says, "Always again! Always, always forever again! -- Spring again! -life again! but always, always, love. . . again." When Basso reached the subway entrance, he shouted the lines at the top of his voice. Suddenly he noticed that a man with deep-set eyes was staring at him; there was a faint smile on the man's face. It was Eugene O'Neill. The story pleased the playwright because it fitted in with one of his beliefs -- that much of what happens to us in life is the result of accident.

Basso made voluminous notes during his interviews, some of which have survived. In his notebook occurs one of the best contemporary impressions of O'Neill, under the date, July 9, 1947.

"When I saw O'Neill this time," Basso wrote, "he seemed more subdued than on my previous visit when, discussing mutual remembrances and mutual friends, he was very cheerful and animated. He had a bad case of the New York blues, for he doesn't like the city and misses California a great deal. It's sad to hear him tell about the house he had out there. Being confined to his apartment and unable to work and without anything to occupy himself with, inevitably makes for a feeling of depression.

"It was one of those hot, muggy July days in the city and we sat in the living room of his apartment instead of out on the terrace."

"Although he is only in his late fifties, he looks like a man approaching seventy, at least. Remembering how he looked when I first saw him, over twenty years ago, and recalling the stories I had heard of his rather strenuous physical activity (he was an expert swimmer, for one thing) I was reminded of a clipper ship on the rocks." Basso noted that despite the playwright's infirmity, "he is still a handsome man; a thin, straight six-footer with a quiet air of authority. He is the only person I know whose face, in repose, wears an expression of almost unbelievable intensity. This largely comes from his eyes."

But, to offset this, Basso noted, O'Neill possessed a wonderful smile. "It lights up his whole face. If you want to go as far as Buck (Russel) Crouse (as I wouldn't) it lights up the whole room."

Over the months, Basso observed that the rigidity and shaking in O'Neill's hands and arms were now worse, now better. Generally, it gave him the appearance of "a man with palsy. He can hardly strike a match and, when it's very bad, impossible for him to lift a glass without spilling its contents all over."

O'Neill told Basso that "the severe racking palsy" was a violent aggravation of something he had had "all his life." Even when he was a young man, his hands trembled slightly. His mother's hands trembled in the same way, O'Neill said, and the failing may have been inherited. "But I'm sure," O'Neill told Basso, "I didn't help it any by drinking as much as I did."

It distressed Basso when O'Neill showed him his desk which was kept in readiness for the day when the trembling would stop and he could write again. "When I am writing I am alive," O'Neill had said. "I don't have to take vacations. For me writing is a vacation from living."

The desk was modern, of a light-colored wood. "There is something very sad about that desk," Basso wrote in his notebook. "O'Neill keeps his notebooks in the drawer and showed them to me. They are bound in red leather and contain the synopsis of his intended cycle of plays, now abandoned. His writing before his present illness was microscopically small. It is very beautiful handwriting."

At one of the last interviews, O'Neill talked about how it feels to be a playwright. A late autumn dusk was descending on Manhattan. He had never, he said, attended a performance of any of his plays. He satisfied himself with staying with them until the final dress rehearsal, offering suggestions and advice on matters of acting, directing, costuming, lighting and stage design. Then he let them go their own way.

"After you've finished a play," O'Neill told Basso between long silences, "and it goes into rehearsal it begins to go from you. No matter how good the production is, or how able the actors, something is lost -- your own vision of the play, the way you saw it in your imagination."

"I don't think acting is as good as it used to be," O'Neill continued. "Type casting is a bad thing. You don't get actors and actresses by asking them to go out on the stage and play themselves. You just don't. It's not a good thing either for playwriting. The playwright comes to depend on the physical presence of the actors to fill out their characters for him, instead of writing his characters into the script. Whether my plays are good or bad -- though I hope some of them are good -- I've tried to do that, anyway. I've always tried to write my characters out. That's why I've sometimes been disappointed in the actors who played them -- the characters were too real and alive in my imagination."

The talk of the two writers turned to length. It was always a problem in writing novels, but perhaps not as much so as in writing plays, Basso thought. "As for length -- well," O'Neill said, "if you can't hold an audience for three minutes, three minutes is too long. If you can get them to listen to you for three hours, three hours may not be long enough."

Toward dinner time, Carlotta came into the apartment. She had been out shopping. "But Gene," she asked, "why are you sitting in the dark? Why don't you turn some of the lights on? It's so gloomy," As she went from lamp to lamp Basso watched O'Neill's face emerge from the shadows.

"Iím supposed to be gloomy," O'Neill said. "Hadn't you heard?"

"You can be gloomy enough, sometimes," Carlotta answered. "But why do they always have to exaggerate? Nearly everything that has been said about you is all wrong. Have you had coffee? Oh, Gene, you never think of anything! I'll get it for you."

"What Carlotta just said is true," O'Neill said, snuffing out his cigarette in an ashtray. "Nearly everything that has been said about me is all wrong."

Basso noticed that two shelves of books back of O'Neill were given over to English and American poets, and the talk turned to poetry.

"Richard Dana Skinner has written a book about me," O'Neill said, "It's called Eugene O'Neill: A Poet's Quest. I don't agree with many things he says, but that just about sums it up. It has been a poet's quest."

The smell of percolating coffee drifted into the living room.

"It's very hard right now," O'Neill said, "not being able to work. I want to get going again. Once I get over this thing -- these shakes I have -- I feel I can keep rolling right along."

It was Basso's last visit. Before the time came for his next session, he received a telephone message that O'Neill was ill and would be unable to continue the interviews. Fortunately, Basso had enough material to complete the profile, which was published in The New Yorker the following February and March after the manuscript had been sent to O'Neill for approval.

The illness that abruptly terminated the interviews was the indirect result of an unhappy event in the life of O'Neill and Carlotta. One afternoon, they were sitting in their living room entertaining friends. The phone rang and Carlotta, as usual, answered.

"Gene, it's for you," Carlotta said, with an edge to her voice. "It's one of your old friends."

There was some reason for her sarcasm. Ever since their return to New York, two years before, old friends ranging from school friends and Hell Hole companions to old Provincetown Players had been trying to reach him -- wanting money, a favor, or just to see him.

O'Neill walked to the phone, and one of those present that afternoon heard him say:

"Why yes, Fitzy. Oh. . . .

"Certainly, Fitzy, will one hundred be enough?

"I'll mail it to you right away. Where?

"Oh. Yes. Mount Sinai Hospital."

The person calling that afternoon was more than just an "old friend." She was M. Eleanor Fitzgerald, who, with Robert Edmond Jones, Kenneth Macgowan and O'Neill, had opened the Provincetown Playhouse in New York in 1921. "It was Fitzy who kept us all working together," Macgowan said when she died in New York in 1955, "in some sort of harmony. . . Everyone loved Fitzy and Fitzy loved everyone but she took no nonsense from any of us." Edmund Wilson has said that Miss Fitzgerald "though practical, was a pure idealist. . . everybody. . . who knew Fitzy was touched by an essential nobility that seemed proof against bitterness and disappointment."

It is doubtful whether Carlotta grasped all this. There were bitter words between O'Neill and Carlotta after O'Neill had hung up. Her jealousy of all O'Neill's old friends became uncontrolled when he defended Fitzy and the others. Finally Carlotta left the apartment. She did not return that night or the next day. O'Neill tried in every way to find out where she was; he even hired private detectives to locate her. Later, in January, he had still not found her. His paralysis agitans grew alternately better and worse. Sometimes it was partly remedied by his drinking hot black coffee. Saxe Commins, Walter, "Ice" Casey, and Bill Aronberg came to his apartment as often as they were able. One night, while only Walter Casey was present, O'Neill slipped and fell in his bedroom, and fractured his right arm. Casey called Dr. Shirley Carter Fisk, who in turn called Saxe Commins. Dr. Fisk said O'Neill, who was in great pain, would have to go at once to the hospital. Saxe Commins went along to Doctors Hospital with O'Neill in the ambulance and signed his admitting papers. O'Neill's arm was set and put in a cast but because he remained in frightful pain, Commins spent the night at his bedside. A spokesman for the hospital told The New York Times that, in addition to his broken arm, "Mr. O'Neill was facing a nervous breakdown." It was also rumored at the time that O'Neill had gone off the water wagon for the first time since his spree in Shanghai in 1928. Whatever the exact truth, O'Neill was to remain hospitalized for fifty-three days.

Carlotta has offered some explanation of O'Neill's violent behavior toward her at this time. She has said that O'Neill, who was thinking of death a great deal during the late 1940s, was so disturbed that he could not work. This was enough to drive him to irrational acts.

Agnes noticed early in their marriage that O'Neill possessed a marked sadistic streak in him. On several occasions he struck her. Carlotta told friends that his mood changed, sometimes, with the moon. His outbursts of sadism continued, as might be expected, into his third marriage. Ordinarily he was gentle, almost childlike, soft-spoken. Then in a flash he could change, and his behavior has been described, by those who witnessed it, as savage. Afterward would come the overwhelming guilt and no man was more miserable than O'Neill when guilt provoked his self-torture.

Both Carlotta and Agnes have expressed the view that O'Neill, like many sensitive people, was capable of extreme cruelty. A really sensitive person, they feel, can move in opposite directions simultaneously, expressing joy and sorrow, hate and love, cruelty and tenderness, almost in an instant. Others have suggested that O'Neill's great attraction for women was just this curious mixture of cruelty and tenderness.

Eugene junior went to see his father at Doctors Hospital. After talking about what had taken place between himself and Carlotta, O'Neill said: "Go find her! Carlotta is many things but I cannot live without her."

But even before O'Neill left the hospital he and Carlotta were reconciled. Apparently she became ill herself, and she took a room next to his. She had been staying at a hotel not far from their penthouse. On April 19, 1948, O'Neill was discharged, and he and Carlotta resumed their life together. When Shane came to call, the doorman announced him on the house phone and then said Mr. and Mrs. O'Neill were not in. Shane refused to believe this. He went upstairs and knocked on his father's door. No answer. He paced up and down in the hall for several hours. Aronberg, his father's attorney arrived and told Shane that he would have to leave, that his father did not want to see him. There was a mild scuffle but, in the end, Shane went away.

O'Neill and Carlotta now definitely decided to leave New York. The playwright said he was more than ever convinced that he hated the place. He felt sick and run-down. Late in April he went to Boston to be treated at the Lahey Clinic. He and Carlotta stayed at the Ritz-Carlton in rooms overlooking the Boston Common. They took every precaution to keep their whereabouts a secret but that did not prevent Langner from visiting in the summer of 1948 in hopes of getting an O'Neill play into production again. O'Neill told Langner that he was glad to be out of New York and talked about how much he enjoyed living in Boston; it was like home, for he had once spent a year there when he was studying at Professor Baker's Workshop. But he did not feel like having any of his plays produced.

On August 10, 1948, a telephone call was received at the O'Neill apartment in the Ritz-Carlton. It was from Aronberg. Shane had been arrested and imprisoned in New York City by the Federal authorities for possessing heroin.
 
Shane's Pipe Dreams
 

© Copyright 1999-2009 eOneill.com