On Collecting O'Neill: Part Two
Harley J Hammerman, MD
"Collecting" O'Neill means more than the simple accumulation of desirable artifacts pertaining to a famous American playwright. It can be appropriately likened to the discipline of archaeology, which one dictionary defines as "the scientific study of the material remains of past human life and activities."
In his novel Centennial, James Michener uses the following analogy in discussing the archaeological dating of the origin of the earth:
We have an abundance of "factual" data about Eugene O'Neill -- and an abundance of books and papers have been written detailing and analyzing these data. However, it is still possible to unearth new "material remains" and demonstrate that some of these "facts" are indeed based on misconceptions.
Richard J. Madden, a partner in the American Play Co., became O'Neill's literary agent in December of 1918 -- and he remained O'Neill's agent and friend until O'Neill's death. Louis Sheaffer, in O'Neill, Son and Playwright, describes this union as having been consummated rather serendipitously.
And that was that...or was it?
In the introduction to their Selected Letters of Eugene O'Neill, Travis Bogard and Jackson R. Bryer write that "only a sampling of the voluminous correspondence with...Richard Madden has been included" and that "inevitable gaps occur in the file." The first letter from O'Neill to Madden which appears in their collections is dated March 11, 1929. Where are the early letters illuminating the origins of the O'Neill-Madden relationship?
In 1984, I purchased a large collection of materials form the daughter of Robert Sisk, publicity agent for the Theatre Guild and a close friend of Eugene and Carlotta O'Neill. Included was a letter from Carlotta to Sisk, written in the spring of 1934. Carlotta laments:
Thus, Sheaffer, Bogard and Bryer were all denied access to O'Neill's initial correspondence with Richard Madden by a young office boy who removed letters from Madden's New York office in 1934.
Early in 1990, an elderly, retired gentleman entered the office of Joseph Rubinfine in West Palm Beach, Florida. Rubinfine was a dealer in American historical autographs, and the retiree, in need of funds, had some items he wished to sell. He brought with him a group of 71 letters which had been in his possession for over fifty years. Rubinfine purchased the letters -- and then sold them to me.
These were O'Neill's early correspondence with Madden. There were 60 letters, dating from December 16, 1918 to December 15, 1920, and a smaller group form 1926. The first letter was written from West Point Pleasant, New Jersey:
So Madden's first contact with O'Neill was not a casual after-theatre conversation. He made a formal solicitation and O'Neill made a formal reply. It is not clear whether they spoke with each other on "Wednesday" or "Thursday" or "Friday" -- but they did make connection on "Saturday," as is documented in O'Neill's second letter to Madden, dated December 23, 1918, in which he states:
Saturday, December 21, 1918, was the second night of the Provincetown Players' production of Moon of the Caribbees -- and likely the night of the after-theatre meeting referred to by Louis Sheaffer.
Thus, we are closer to the true origins of the O'Neill-Madden relationship. And "regardless of the misconceptions of the scientists as they work their way through the data, they do have the proper sequence, and they are refining their judgments..."
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