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Editor: Harley Hammerman
St. Louis, Missouri

Volume 6
2011


(CONTENTS)

Interesting People on Christopher Street:
The Selling of O’Neill and the Village

Michael Schwartz
Indiana University of Pennsylvania

Historian Christine Stansell writes that in 1935, a survey of Greenwich Villagers revealed that for a good many of the residents, the concept of the “Village” wasn’t necessarily an exact geographic location, but more of a commercial fiction (Stansell 41). While the “Village” was a fiction expanded upon and encouraged by landlords and the tourist industry, it was, nonetheless and perhaps equally, a fiction generated by the “Villagers” themselves. The year 1935, perhaps not incidentally, is when the musical Wonderful Town is set—lyrics by the formidable Broadway team Betty Comden and Adolph Green, music by Leonard Bernstein, with book by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov, based on stories by Ruth McKenney. The 1954 musical’s opening number, appropriately, is a tour led through Greenwich Village. The tour guide, over a comically laborious vamp, ticks off the high points (and selling points) of the Village (and later, introduces most of the cast of characters):

Life is gay, life is sweet, interesting people on Christopher Street
Look, look, poets, actors, dancers, writers
Here we live, here we love
This is the place for self-expression
Life is mad, life is sweet…[1] 

The song is, in many ways, an accurate representation of the Village real estate boom, which was capitalized upon by the landlords who created the concept of “artists’ studios” by subdividing row houses, as well as by many of the Villagers themselves, who seized upon the financial benefits of acting like “Villagers for the benefit of the tourists (Stansell 334). It is the idea of “performing” Greenwich Village that lies at the heart of the Village myth, and it plays a large role in the myth of Eugene O’Neill as well. Both O’Neill and the Village benefitted greatly from their respective and cooperative myth-making, and the myths became virtually indistinguishable from the social and theatrical history.

Back in 1916, as Ross Wetzsteon points out in Republic of Dreams, Greenwich Village already wasn’t what it used to be. That was the year, according to Floyd Dell, co-editor of The Masses, that he was accosted by a curious uptowner with the query, “Are you a merry Villager?” (Wetzsteon 4).  As with any community of rebellion, once the vocabulary enters the popular idiom, a part of that rebellious spirit automatically dissipates. It was in the midst of this “end of an era” that an equally dissipated Eugene O’Neill entered. Nevertheless, the “Village” myth would ebb, rise, and reinvent itself with renewed vigor for at least a good 50 years, and it was with one of the first Village “comebacks” that O’Neill began his ascendancy to modern American dramatic hero. The “myth” of the Village was vital to the growth of O’Neill as a dramatist and dramatic icon, and, in turn, O’Neill’s rise—his own “myth”—amplified and augmented that of the Village. The rise of the Village and of O’Neill, and how these creation myths were engineered, is the focus of this essay.

As Stansell notes, the Village itself, as a name and a location, was a middle-class creation of escape. The working-class inhabits of the area more commonly referred to it as either the Lower West Side or the Ward. Cheaper rents and the area’s particular geography—literally off the structured Manhattan grid—attracted a group ready to create a new identity and a new principality to encompass it. In the years following 1900, the largely middle-class white residents created and built upon a “commercial fiction”—the idea of a “village” of radicals, bohemians, artists, and intellectuals. Among the creators of the commercial fiction were realtors, landlords, as well as the tourist industry—all discovering as well as peddling the attractions of random houses and colorful neighborhoods (Stansell 41).

The power of this commercial fiction also manifested itself in the outlook of its residents. For example, in the wake of one of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire of 1911, the mental geography excluded this “labor tragedy” from the Village, even though it happened right off Washington Square (Stansell 42-3). This territorial feeling is also reflected, for example, in the WPA Guide to New York City, first published in 1939, with its rhetoric of a late-19th and early 20th century middle-class haven invaded by and encroached upon by foreigners and the poor. “An area so central,” the guide points out, “could not escape the ever encroaching poorer classes. Already numbers of Irish immigrants had moved into the neighborhood, and later a Negro invasion . . . heralded the first major change in the district . . . . Then, in the 1890’s, came another invasion of Irish lower in the economic scale than the compatriots who preceded them . . .”  (128) Part of the fiction of the village was a distinction between classes and races irrespective of geographic proximity; yet an equally compelling part of the fiction manifested itself in direct assaults on class and racial order. The world of “bohemia” also proved an opportunity for those lower on the social ladder to, as Chad Heap writes, “remake their racial identities,” to reinvent themselves as bohemians (Heap 156).

A village created by those who wished to recreate themselves was as good a place as any for O’Neill to evolve from dissolute alcoholic to serious artist (while still retaining the alcoholism). As O’Neill biographers Arthur and Barbara Gelb succinctly point out, “Greenwich Village was a good place for a drunken spree” (Gelb 282). The stories of O’Neill’s drunken adventures, the flophouses he stayed in, the cast of characters of sailors, Wobblies, derelicts, dreamers and reprobates are legion, and in many cases dramatized by O’Neill himself in his work. The rise of tourism and commercialization of the village coincided with, helped, and was helped by, O’Neill’s own story. And O’Neill’s story as a working dramatist begins in earnest with the Provincetown Players and Jig Cook.

Largely through the vision and rhetoric of George Cram “Jig” Cook, a lover of theatre and hater of commercial Broadway, the Provincetown Players were born in the summer of 1915. The following summer, Cook and Susan Glaspell ran into their friend, Village “character” Terry Carlin, who did not write plays, but who had a friend and cabin-mate who did, and had a whole trunk full of them. With a few variations, that’s the story of how O’Neill and Provincetown got together (Glaspell herself told it that way, and it’s been retold by the Gelbs, Wetzsteon, and others). While O’Neill had not yet established himself as a playwright, he had already lived a great deal of the alcohol and sea-fueled life so painstakingly recreated in his work. Terry Carlin served as sort of an unofficial wastrel mentor to O’Neill, helping him nearly drink himself to death, but also introducing him to Provincetown. O’Neill, who once famously proclaimed that he wanted to be an artist or nothing, showed Cook and Glaspell and the other Players “Bound East for Cardiff.”

Cook and O’Neill were good for each other for several years, but O’Neill sought greater commercial fame and Broadway. O’Neill saw the move as a necessary professional step—the “excitement” of the downtown productions frequently translated to chaos, as Cook was gifted, visionary, and largely incoherent as a director, and O’Neill sought the more “professional” productions of Broadway; Cook saw O’Neill’s Broadway-bound machinations as betrayal.[2]

O’Neill’s view of the Village, at least a large portion of his view, might well be contained in an early “Village”-set play, “Before Breakfast.”[3] The play itself was not warmly received, and O’Neill saw it as experimental—influenced by Strindberg, he wanted to see how much monologue an audience could take. That’s one reason he wanted to play the mostly offstage role of Alfred, the poet with the slender, sensitive fingers who cuts his throat at the play’s end, so he could get a sense from the stage of how the audience was reacting. Other reasons that perhaps smack of 10-cent psychology, but might be nonetheless true, point to the idea that O’Neill did indeed see himself as that sensitive poet struggling against a cruel world (and certainly characters with “a touch of the poet” would reappear in a great deal of O’Neill’s work). But rather than a romantic Village, O’Neill gives us a stark situation devoid of all romance. The stage directions specify “[a] small room serving both as kitchen and dining room in a flat on Christopher Street,” but Alfred and Mrs. Rowland are not the “interesting people” that the tourists of Wonderful Town sing of (O’Neill 391). The mostly unseen poet, Alfred, sporting a rich family background and an Ivy League education, fell for the Village myth, and still keeps it barely alive through writing his poems, talking and drinking with like-minded friends, and, as it turns out, having affairs. Albert’s myths, and by extension, the myths of the Village, are shredded systematically by the onstage speaking character, Mrs. Rowland. By the time the final self-lie is stripped away, it is time for Albert to slit his throat to end the play.

The disillusionment O’Neill felt for talkers and idealists remained strong throughout his career, finding voice in plays from The Hairy Ape to The Iceman Cometh. But O’Neill, replaying a familiar cycle of scornful contempt and seeking acceptance, needed to experiment, and he couldn’t experiment directly on Broadway, at least not yet. He needed to remain the “downtown” genius, and he needed a place that could accommodate him. As Wetzsteon notes, “. . . though Gene felt contempt for the bohemians, radicals, and intellectuals of the Village, he needed the place’s openness, tolerance, and diversity if his long and painful struggle to find his own voice were to succeed” (Wetzsteon 157).

This was the primary reason behind O’Neill’s helping to keep the Provincetown Players going after Jig Cook, betrayed and heartbroken, fled to Greece. By now, the press for O’Neill was fully invested in his “depth” and “manliness”—both forged, presumably, by his dissolute life at sea and in the Village. The Village, or more precisely, those who could make a living selling the idea of the Village, in turn, thrived on O’Neill’s publicity and acknowledged genius to add to the allure of downtown. “In the theatre, from modest beginnings,” the WPA Guide to New York City reminds us, “the Villagers all but revolutionized the American stage,” and O’Neill is one of the key Villagers mentioned (129). The guidebook and tourist apparatus for marketing the Village as artistic, intellectual, and bohemian center had been up and running for some time, but the positioning as a theatrical center was a new, and entirely welcome, addition. The boosting of the Village, and especially of O’Neill as the foremost American playwright and pioneer of modern American drama, was a cultural coup engineered primarily by the burgeoning arbiters of intelligence and taste, the Professional-Managerial Class (or PMC).

The shift in the written and oral history from fiery meetings of those who would change the world and reform (or destroy) class structure to the search for “merry Villagers” is the essence of tourism and myth-selling. Again from the WPA Guide, the Villager movement “was to make that dingy backwater celebrated wherever the English language is spoken” (128). As the editor says at the end of John Ford’s elegiac western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Printing, disseminating, and selling the legend is one way, an effective way, to commodify a rebellion and preserve capitalist culture, a principal function of the PMC.[4] Of course, the PMC had considerable help, for the myth-building began with the self-dramatizing and self-creating Villagers themselves. O’Neill’s legend-making--both his own and that of the admiring media-- and the legend-making of the interesting people on Christopher Street, were inevitably and fruitfully intertwined.

NOTES

[1] Lyrics for “Christopher Street” from www.allmusicals.com.

 

[2] See Wetzsteon’s chapter on Cook and O’Neill: “Jig Cook, Eugene O’Neill, and the Provincetown Players” in Republic of Dreams: Greenwich Village: The American Bohemia , 1910-1960.

 

[3] References to “Before Breakfast” from Complete Plays 1913-1920 (New York: The Library of America, 1988).

 

[4] See John and Barbara Ehrenreich, “The Professional-Managerial Class,” in Between Labor and Capital, ed. Pat Walker, South End Press Controversies Series, vol. 1 (Boston: South End Press, 1979).

 

WORKS CITED

 

Ehrenreich, Barbara and John Ehrenreich. “The Professional-Managerial Class.” Between Labor and Capital.  Ed. Pat Walker. South End Press Controversies Series, vol. 1. Boston: South End Press, 1979. Print.

Gelb, Arthur and Barbara Gelb. O’Neill. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1962. Print.

Gody, Lou, Chester D. Harvey, and James Reed, eds. The WPA Guide to New York City: The Federal Writers’ Project Guide to 1930s New York. 1939. Intro. William H. Whyte. New York: Random House, Inc., 1992). Print.

Heap, Chad. Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885-1940. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009. Print.

O’Neill, Eugene. “Before Breakfast.” Complete Plays: 1913-1920. New York: The Library of America, 1988. Print.

Stansell, Christine. American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2000. Print.

Wetzsteon, Ross. Republic of Dreams. Greenwich Village: The American Bohemia, 1910-1960. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002. Print.

(CONTENTS)

 

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