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Editor: Harley Hammerman
St. Louis, Missouri

Volume 0
1999-2005


(CONTENTS)

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:

It is precisely as if, in the distant future when written records have been lost, scientists want to determine when American constitutional government began.  All they have to work on is a marble plaque giving the names of the sixteen Presidents, the fact that Lincoln (the sixteenth President) ended his term in 1865, and the law that a President was elected for a term of four years.  Using these data, the scientists would multiply sixteen by four and subtract that number for 1865; they would thus deduce that our nation started in 1801, which is too late.

Then let us suppose that one clever scientist discovers that Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe each served eight years.  He might conclude that all did and decide that the nation started in 1737, which is too early.

Let us now suppose that another scholar finds that the two generals, Harrison and Taylor, died shortly after being elected and should therefore not count in the series.  There would thus be only fourteen Presidents, each serving eight years, which would give a starting date of 1753, which is better but not yet close to the true date.

However, 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...

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.


An example.

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.

After seeing a number of O'Neill productions, (Madden) sought out the author one night, after a performance of Moon of the Caribbees, to say how much he liked his work.  The two men adjourned upstairs to Christine's restaurant, where they talked for hours.  At the end O'Neill asked Madden to become his agent and they shook hands in agreement.

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:

We have asked Weinberger to get in touch with you so you can tell him what you know about stolen letters.  We are terribly upset about all this -- it is the main fault of Madden & The American Play Co. -- that so many letters are about.  They gave (or allowed) one office boy to have a handful (1918-1919-1920) as souvenirs!!!

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:

My dear Mr Madden:  Through delay in forwarding your letter never reached me until this morning. The other letter you speak of never reached me at all. So much for the Provincetown Players as mail distributors!

I am not only not opposed to meeting an agent but extremely desirous of having a talk with one in a business way; and if I can add to this the pleasure of meeting you personally -- all the merrier!

I will arrive in New York Wednesday for a three day stay. Will call you up sometime that afternoon. In case you are out, will you leave word for me in your office what time on Thursday or Friday I can get in touch with you?

With kindest regards, I remain,  Very sincerely yours,  Eugene G. O'Neill.

December 16th
1918

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:

Enclosed find the contract with Williams for my play, BEYOND THE HORIZON, about which I spoke to you on Saturday.

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..."

(CONTENTS)

 

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