SAXE COMMINS AND THE O’NEILLS
Russel Crouse, in a remark that has been quoted often, said: “O’Neill is one of the most charming men I know, and I’ve known him for twenty-five years, but I can’t say I understand him. His face is a mask, I don’t know what goes on behind it, and I don’t think anyone else does.”
If, however, anyone did, it surely was Saxe Commins. The two men met in 1916, when O’Neill began his fruitful association with the Provincetown Players and Commins was in college. A shy, bookish soul with a great love of literature, Commins, whose eldest sister was married to a Provincetown actor, used to hang around the theater. As one of the earliest to believe O’Neill would prove outstanding, as one who gave his whole-hearted devotion to those he admired, he won O’Neill’s friendship and confidence. Indeed, the playwright came to trust him implicitly, while to Commins their relationship was, after his family, the most important in his life.
Clearly, anything. Saxe Commins has to say about his friend is of value to all interested in America’s foremost playwright. Though Commins, who died in 1958, never wrote his memoirs--at least, not in full--we now have from the University of Chicago Press the next best thing: What Is An Editor?, subtitled Saxe Commins at Work, by his widow Dorothy. In fact, he is practically co-author of the book, for it contains generous helpings from his private writings--autobiographical sketches, editorial reports, inside views of the literary world, none of it ever published before--as well as letters to him from various noted writers.
Since Commins was an editor also for William Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, W. H. Auden and, among others, Gertrude Stein, the book is not concerned exclusively with O’Neill, but it devotes to him about one-third of its 230-odd pages, far more than to any other person.
After visiting O’Neill and his wife Agnes in Bermuda in 1926, Saxe noted in his journal that the playwright had begun “the groundwork” for Strange Interlude and added: “At that time An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser had attained immense success and was being discussed everywhere.... He (O’Neill) said that Dreiser had written a novel of an unexceptional man, whereas he was at work on a novel in dramatic form of an exceptional woman. His play, according to the very meticulous outline contained in his notebooks, indicated the manner in which he would extend the device of masks used in his previous play, The Great God Brown, to the use of asides which would indicate the duality of thought and spoken word of his characters.”
By coincidence, about two years after the Bermuda visit, the lives of both men changed radically. With the encouragement of his wife, the former Dorothy Berliner, a gifted pianist, Commins gave up a profitable dental practice for the precarious calling of literature. Already in his mid-30s, he had it difficult for a while--he entered the literary field during the Great Depression--but in time he proved an uncommon editor, one who, in Irwin Shaw’s opinion, was “very likely the best” in 20th century America.
Meanwhile, in 1928, O’Neill deserted Agnes and their two small children to settle in France for a while with Carlotta Monterey, who had appeared a few years earlier in his play The Hairy Ape and who became his third and final wife. Though What Is an Editor ? contains a good many interesting sidelights on O’Neill’s plays, it is perhaps most fascinating in its close-up views of the dramatist’s private life, especially of his marriage to Miss Monterey. Commins had been very fond of Agnes, but his primary attachment, needless to say, was to O’Neill and, consequently, he wanted to be on good terms with his friend’s new love.
On her side, Carlotta, a woman of extreme emotions (she never liked or disliked anything--she either “loved” it or “loathed” it), was anxious for Commins’ approval. Not only because O’Neill valued him but from her own feelings. Despite an air of majestic self-assurance, which served her as a kind of “mask,” she was deeply insecure and sought more than friends--she sought allies--in a world she always distrusted. From the outset Carlotta overwhelmed Saxe with kindness and affectionate concern; she acted toward him like a protective mother.
Eventually, however, when the O’Neills’ marriage deteriorated into pure Strindberg, with Commins siding of course with his old friend, Carlotta turned against him so vehemently that he was devastated. Lacking O’Neill’s account in his own words of certain crises in his marital life, Commins’ account, either as an eyewitness or from what O’Neill had told him, is the most reliable we shall ever have. As the playwright’s health gradually failed and Carlotta took over complete domination of his life, Saxe was shut out from his dearest friend, something that would grieve him till his own end.
Mrs. Commins, who writes well, has smoothly woven into her narrative the excerpts from her husband’s writings. One of his most vivid vignettes concerns playwright Edward Sheldon, the author of Lulu Belle, The Dishonored Lady and one of the biggest hits of the World War I era, Romance. Sheldon, who died at 60, spent the second half of his life “completely immobilized” from total arthritis in a penthouse apartment in New York. During his confinement, many came to visit him, not so much to sympathize as to draw inspiration from his spiritual strength, his inner vitality, for he possessed a zest for living that rose above years of pain.
After his death, the
apartment was occupied by Eugene and Carlotta. In a way, O’Neill was
more unfortunate than Sheldon. Writing was his life, it meant
everything to him, more than any of his wives or his children; and
then, while at the very peak of his creative powers, a tremor of his
hands forced him to stop writing. Had his mentality been affected
also, his fate, though dark, would have been only pathetic. As it was,
his mind, not the least impaired, teemed with ideas and characters for
plays he could never write. As Mrs. Commins makes clear, his life,
especially in the final years, was as tragic as anything he ever
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