BEFORE YOU...EUGENE O'NEILL
Scene: the dining room of the Provincetown home of "Jig" Cook and his wife Susan Glaspell on a mild summer night in 1916. There are pictures on the wall upstage. Various objects about the little room suggest the home's seaside location: nets, oilskins, chests, shells, clam rakes, and so on. There is a large wooden table up-center, upon which rests an oil lamp and a drinking glass. A stool stands behind the table. A lobster trap stands down-center, flanked by two deck chairs. There is a door up-right and a window down-left, opening to the audience. A foghorn is heard in the distance throughout. Off and on, crowd murmurs are heard coming from behind the door.
Eugene O'Neill, aged twenty-eight, sports a thin moustache and has short, erratic, jet-black hair. He is tall and lean, has piercing dark eyes, and wears a dour expression at all times. He wears a short-sleeved pink Hawaiian shirt and baggy olive-green Bermuda shorts. All pockets are stuffed with small bottles. He pads about the stage in sandals, black socks reaching to his knees.
Copyright (c) by David Wheeler.
* * * * *
With a weathered nail keg under his arm, O'Neill enters Jig Cook's dining room through the door. He shuts it behind him but checks for a keyhole or a crack through which he might be able to peep. He wanders about the little room, setting the keg down on one pass by the lobster trap and then moving off in search of an outlet for his nervousness. He occupies himself with any number of time-killing gestures, such as straightening pictures, stretching, examining objects, and so on. Once aimlessness is established, he begins toying with the fingernails of one hand which is held in a closed position. From this activity (center stage) he will evolve an exaggerated mimicry of the emergence and first flight of g butterfly -- his hand held aloft, still at first, then twitching tentatively, and finally bursting forth to comically test new wings. In a blinding flash, the other hand, a tight fist, strikes the butterfly with a fury. The butterfly takes an immediate nose-dive as O'Neill states angrily:
I hate mime.
He resumes his puttering; he fiddles and diddles, then plops into the chair down-left, falling into a reverie. Eventually he stirs with yet another attempt at an amusement. The lines are spoken in a comical impression of a man of letters:
Ladies and Gentlemen, we have with us tonight Eugene O'Neill..."oft-misquoted, oft-footnoted, and oft-the-races," as he's fond of describing himself. Mr. O'Neill, before I submit to you any of my prepared questions, is there anything, let's say "free-form," you would like to share with the friends of Dramatists on Parade?
He quickly changes to the chair down-right. Emphatically in his own deep, nervous voice:
A long pause is followed by a hesitant development of the monologue, a reluctant oration that rapidly gains momentum as O'Neill unloads manuscripts from the keg, stacking them up in a towering fashion atop the lobster trap:
Just this, perhaps: down in the trenches, mime won't help you out....Words, words, words, words...words, words, words; you have to have them ready in barrels... thun-der-in' words... confalutin' words...flutterin' words...syr-in-gic words...words all trundled up in bundles, stowed away in amphorae, you have to have them ready -- stashed in cribs and racks and purses, pockets and satchels, dufflebags and mangers...in haversacks and scabbards, in Gladstone bags (Gladstone -- that's my middle name you know)...in portfolios and portmanteaux... vases and cisterns, chests and hampers, boxes and bins...in tanks and ewers and vast vats...carafes, canteens, and demijohns...words in cruets and percolators, porringers and crucibles, canterburies and whatnots, ambries and davenports...in cubby-holes, vestibules and hubble-bubbles, stash them away in firkins, have them ready in retorts...in samovars, beakers, and goblets...in reliquaries and funeral urns.
As he finishes stacking:
There...Fog...Thirst...The Sniper...a veritable leaning tower of drama upon which we might focus our discussion...
Pulling a heavily-laden paper spindle out of the keg:
a monument matched in stature only by the height and theatricality of my rejection slips.
Casually picking one from the center of the spindled papers:
"Dear Sir: We the editors here at Harpdown Publishing have been distressed of late over the ungodly but all-too-common practice of the rampaging plunder of ancient civilizations by the modern. So it is with infinite pride that we hereby restore this primitive artifact to its rightful native context."
He crumples the paper and selects another:
"Dear Mr. O'Neill: I have read your play with the greatest of interest; I have noted well how you chronicle human emotion; how you mystically wed the concrete to the abstract; how you etch your compelling portraits of the rank psychology that both suffuses and transcends the world as we know it; how you lace rich characterization with heartfelt analysis; how you mirror well the bugbears too much with us, i.e., the nagging ironies modern man faces, drifting as he is, ceaselessly in a senseless age...."
After turning the paper over in search of the non-existent conclusion, O'Neill tears up the slip and selects another:
"Dear Mr. O'Neill: I must confess I did not understand your play the first time I read it. Unfortunately, I only read it once."
Standing up and stepping forward:
It's lucky I have another career on which to rest me Irish background, should this playwringing finally leave me flat. In Eugene O'Neill, a touch-o'-the-poet...
Turning to the "moderator" whom he acknowledges as sitting in the chair down-left:
quite the scoop for any reprehensible gossip such as yourself...listen to this... you'll see....
Turning back to face the audience:
No, that isn't one of mine...I think Ring Lardner worked that out. Here's one of mine:
No, that's Emily Dickinson...memorable, my poetry....Ah! Yes. This is one...yes, I'm sure this time. It's called "Infinity"...
my last poem of the evening. Did you ever notice how apologetic poets are when they read? "I'll just read two, well maybe three more," "just two to go," and "my last poem of the evening...." I'm always tempted to jump up at that point and yell, "Thank the dear blarsted Lard in heaven!" Well, I'm different. I make no apologies. Let me just mention, however, that this poem was written under the extremely difficult conditions of hurtling back and forth across the country from one whistle stop to the next, detraining only long enough in each town for the old man to play out his pathetic road show, The Count of Monte Cristo.
You can forget about the warmth and stability of a typical adolescence in my case... private schools, an alcoholic older brother, general family turmoil, up, down, in, out, yanked in every direction at once...Christ! How was a person supposed to write a decent poem, delicate and subtle in its rendering? Anyway..."Infinity" -- my last poem of the evening...
Gently at first, then with rising frustration:
Oh, to hell with this....
Sits down in the chair down-right. To the "moderator":
Let me just say in anticipation of your first question, one concerning, I would imagine, my now-infamous loss of faith (to which I "seem so bound for celebration"), that all I can do is emphasize my belief that conflicting reports of my dramatic fall from a state of grace have succeeded only in creating undue confusion in the public mind regarding a minor event that is, at best, merely representative of man's failure not only not to see what is clearly in front of him, but also not to see what is not so clearly before him, a point that I'd like to make perfectly lucid, but am apparently unable...to make.
Stands up, crosses himself, and chants:
I only know I came into consciousness hearing that "in the beginning God created heaven and earth, that He forged man after His own appearance, that Jesus Christ died on the cross to better redeem man from his lugubrious boners, that on the third day Christ arose and ascended into Heaven, post partum infinitum, that sin and redemption are within the reach of any honest, hard working bogtrotter provided sufficient Hail Mary's are proffered indoors upon the knees or even outside in an erect stance in spiteful opposition to the weather -- inconstant, at best, in New England."
I lived with this information in perfect peace and was fairly drunk with the Spirit of the Incarnate Word until I discovered red wine one evening at age thirteen. Then and there partial truth was revealed to me -- that if the Christian ritualists do indeed go to their deaths and rise again, it is only because of the uplifting action of the Holy Yeast, ingested in quantity in the form of the blood of Christ and Eucharist wafers. Compounding this creeping realization was a statement made by one of my teachers during that day: "Man has been increasing in height three inches every century." Lying there in my boarding school stupor, I started down the long and tortuous back road of history, down through the centuries -- nineteenth, eighteenth, back and back -- and as closely as I could calculate the matter, it's impossible for Jesus Christ to have stood, even in sandals, any taller than eleven inches. It was precisely at that moment I realized here stood a figure blown way out of proportion throughout the ages.
Forget the Kierkegaardian leap of faith, I say. Skip church! Ha! I spit on your "Universal Truth!" Poot! Oh...uh...sorry...
He leans down to wipe the shoe of the "moderator."
...and, uh, looking forward to the next two questions, let me just answer the first, "What is my opinion of playwriting in America?" by saying that I think it's a great idea and that I intend to institute the practice the very second this insufferable interview is concluded. And to address your third question, I confess to have forgotten all together not only the substance of the inquiry, but in addition my carefully constructed reply, although, knowing moderators as I do, I could well suppose that it -- the question -- was composed somewhat along the following lines: "Mr. O'Neill, the audience would love to hear...is it true you came to know your literary heroes --Conrad, Ibsen, the Greek poets -- while off on your romantic voyages to Honduras, Argentina, Liverpool, and Durban?" -- a brilliant lead-in to which I would have haughtily responded, "That's entirely correct. I'd claw my way up the mast to reef the sails in roiling seas, labor for eighteen hours straight, sometimes twenty, working the deck with bleeding hands, later hauling and stacking massive timbers or shoveling mule dung out the port hole, after which I'd swill down my beef jerky and mushy hardtack, enduring the company of cutthroats in semi-darkness, and then, picking my teeth, I'd saunter into the ship's library (usually four or five thousand carefully selected volumes), there to bring down a copy of Oedipus at Colonus or The Doll's House to relax with while taking tea in the seaman's lounge. Let me set you straight on this...I've sailed up and down whole continents, criss-crossed the world's great seas, and only once did I ever see a book aboard ship, excepting the log, of course. As any sailor who's to occupy an upper bunk would be well advised to learn, hiding something under your mattress makes it immediately apparent to the resident of the lower berth. Falling into my ratty accommodation one night aboard the Ikalis, I raised my weary eyes in the general direction of the Lord (God knows why), only to see a little publication staring back at me from under the bosun's mate. Its title? So You Want To Be a Writer.
Stands up to illustrate his actions.
I managed to free it up without waking the owner and to sneak away with it into the lantern light. Introducing such chapters as "Experimental Symbolic Figures," "Interior Monologues," and "Developing Rhythm" (it was a Catholic publication), was this remarkably helpful suggestion: "Secure a reliable writing pen, find a small pad of white lined paper, and, in a quiet corner of the room, select a subject of interest to all." Over the years, I've rewritten that humble book a thousand times in my mind. This is my latest introduction: "Locate a pen that rests comfortably in your hand and forthrightly shove the blarsted thing right up your bleepin' arse! So you want to be a writer, eh? Fat friggin' chance...that's what I say. But...if you must persist, first allow your older brother to lead you into the inescapable grip of Bohemian sin; then aspire to higher education only to be thrown out of Princeton in your first year for innocently hurling a beer bottle through the wrong window; enter then into a clandestine marriage that bears not so much strange, as unexpected, unfortunate fruit; then run away to seek gold in Honduras, contract malaria, and, with your tail tucked squarely between your legs (if you still have two), return to New York to further humiliate yourself in an asinine production of Monte Cristo; ship out next to Argentina, where you will work in the company office of Singer Sewing Machine in Buenos Aires, next finding yourself shoveling it aboard a cattle boat bound for Durban, South Africa; then manage somehow a miserable return that only leaves you in a more deplorable state back in Argentina. Ship out again, this time for the Port of New York, where you immediately fall into a life of sin and destitution in a waterfront bar called Jimmy the Priest's...
Sits down atop the stool:
familiarizing yourself in all your travels with such themes as a sad man's pathetic founder in 'dat ole davil sea,' man's fall from grace in a condescending, indeed sniggering, universe, or the wayward nature of those forces shaping the dark onion of man's psyche, and then -- and only then -- get back to me! And do it all before you're twenty-five!"
Following a long pause, he turns to glare at the "moderator":
Oh, I know full well what's in your mind...objectivity, my arse...you moderators are all alike...
In the "moderator's" mocking tones:
"Jimmy the Priest's...how could he?"
Well, where else could a slobbering gob in such a wretched condition go? Home?
Leaps up to illustrate:
With the old man coming in from rehearsal dressed up as Edmond Dantes, spotting me loitering over a pumpernickel and rye, bounding up the stairs, drawing his rapier, and leaping out into midair only to catch himself at the last moment on some branch of the chandelier, all the while roaring, "Get thee back before the mast!", me wondering all this time why it's always "before the mast" that I'm supposed to be getting, since most mainmasts are 'midships, meaning that one spends as much time behind (aft) the mast or even beside (athwart) the mast as one does before (afore) the mast. You can sense from this my dilemma. At any rate, (and that's just how the proprietor termed it), it was Jimmy the Priest's or nothing.
Sits down on the stool.
A buck-fifty for a room per month, provided you didn't mind the roomies, rummies, what-ever you want to call them, five cents for a whiskey downstairs, all the raw cabbage you could eat for free. Often as not I wouldn't take a room up above...Jimmy'd let us sleep in the bar, just as long as we didn't keel over, a tendency uncommon to us salty gobs. We'd sit there insensate, the Brotherhood and myself-- a noble lot, immobile, stacked up, yah -- Brother Beith, Major Adams, Cappy Christopherson, T. J. Standard,
Jerking his thumb at the room behind the door:
the seaman Driscoll (I set him into my Bound East), Joe Smith, and Eugene Gladstone O'Neill. Speaking out of a sudsy froth, Standard said to us all one long and lazy after-noon, "I call it a good day, brothers, when I finally rise up offa this stool sometime toward the latter part of the evening and attempt to stagger across the room, forgetting as I stumble forth why it was I ever got up." And we had our bad days too, immobilized by the black Irishmen when we couldn't afford the whiskey bar.
He stands up and, pulling several flasks and odd-looking vials from his pockets, begins mixing up the strange concoction he describes, offering a benediction as he stirs the contents in a glass:
The black Irishman: one part canned heat strained through a dirty necktie..."Who made the world?"...two parts wood alcohol mixed with camphor..."God made the world"...some varnish diluted with park fountain water..."Who is this God person?" ...dash of sarsaparilla and four parts benzine..."God is the creator of heaven and earth and all thingies."
He holds the glass up to the light and then adds a little oil from the lamp on the table. As he slowly brings his face up to the rim of the glass and peers down in:
And then, ever so slowly, or not that slowly, the Brotherhood approaches the brink....
"Who made the world? God made the world."
He takes a large swig with a devil-may-care gesture and then, in a delayed reaction, whips his head back, aghast at the drink's fiery assault on his mouth and throat.
Argh! God, who made this drink! You couldn't get away with calling this "drinking"; you'd have to call this some form of rehearsal -- rehearsal for oblivion...I drank this; therefore, I was....
Tipping the glass up again in front of his face:
This is good practice for looking down the barrel of a gun and seeing annihilation bearing down on you in slow motion....
Takes a drink and then apes the optimists:
"Oh, don't be such a gloombird, Genie; everything's going to be all right."
Ha! Everything's not going to be all right. History is history...and it's not bunk, as commonly thought...history is bunker, after bunker, after bunker.
Again tipping the glass up in front of his face; now peering through it:
I see world-wide unrest....
Pans the audience:
I see an angry mob....
He sets the glass down and tiptoes to the door. He peeps through a crack and a chagrined look comes over him:
I see the Lusitania going down....
He returns to his seat atop the stool.
It was after a binge of the black Irishmen that Major Adams passed away. Our resident physician (and I use the word paramedically) said the Major died of a liver ailment, though none of us had it figured out what it was he could've eaten. In the spirit of the Major's life and times we lathered ourselves into a stupor for the funeral, and at least three of the brothers tumbled down into the grave atop the coffin and had to be rescued by the one serious mourner. I was one of the revelers, but still, a serious doubt about survival had been established. I sobered up enough soon after to sign aboard the S.S. New York, a luxury liner for Liverpool -- me, a foul and loathsome thing hulking around in the bowels of the ship, rising up only to serve the meals to the equally foul and loathsome passengers, the rank and rancid privileged class: "The treasure of Monte Cristo! Oh, ho-ho, the world is mine!"
After an hour-long debate they say, "I'll just have the chef's salad," or "I'll have a side order of cottage cheese," or "I'm flat-out interested in getting scrod." I say, "Sit tight," and pretty soon I'm back with the order.
Often it was I'd have the desire to drop my tray, to strip right out of my little sailor suit, to raise my fist and loose my radical point of view: "Land is power...free the land!" But I kept quiet; I knew the response -- the diners would rise up as a body of one, pork lips flapping in unison: "Oh, shut up young man and buy."
I shipped a return to New York as fast as I could, right back to Jimmy the Priest's...
Sits down atop the stool.
where I languished...
until training down to New Orleans with my older brother, Jamie, a model of perfection to which all morality contrasted. But as the cursed luck would have it, the old man was plyin' his part in town, and the brother and I were pressed into the service of the production. As the blessed luck would have it, however, Jamie and I were able to so badly botch our business on stage that the entire engagement had to be cancelled, and I could flee back to New York City, right back, needless to say...
After a long pause he plunks down once more atop the stool.
to Jimmy the Priest's. Back to the Booze Boys Brotherhood at Jimmy the Priest's Institute of Culture, where once more a fuzz fell over the Lord's dominion.
He becomes more and more agitated, disoriented, and shaken as he states his recollections:
In no time I was reduced to a lousy condition and was soon quaking like a teetering geezer stuck up in some old folk's home in Aspen. I'd convinced myself it was a simple case of tottering on the rim of a nervous breakthrough. Ha! My only chance for a breakthrough there was to crash through Jimmy's rotten floorboards; by this time I'd become a drinker's drinker....
He climbs atop the table where he sits facing the audience:
I allotted time to plan the approach, I was flawless in my execution, and an earlier phase, "recuperation," had been jettisoned all together. And the economics of the situation? I'd taken to comparing my poverty to the Jersey Palisades -- quite the looming majesty in spite of the deplorable state.
Working himself into the alcoholic's blather:
Money... money... money... money... money... money... money... money... money... money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money...argh! Oh, argh! Phenh! Phenh!
On top of this, up overhead, Brother Beith takes a gorgeous, heroic flying leap one night, out the window, through the air, and right onto the god-forsaken macadam. He'd fueled his flight with Pond's extract, a little whiskey and gasoline, and, upset by his wife's high-steppin' (this a woman he hadn't seen in fifteen years), Brother Beith departed the waterfront.
Oh, honey... honey... honey... honey... honey... honey... honey... honey... honey... honey, honey, honey, honey, honey, honey, honey, honey, honey, honey, honey.... Argh! Oh, argh! Phenh! Phenh!
Well, I was feelin' a bit-o'-the-old-Irish-remorse meself, and a month later I put down a bottle of Veronals, and passed away sublimely.
He lies down on the table as though dead. After a long pause he raises his head only enough to address the audience:
I awoke to find myself, however, not in the hairy arms of the Holy Spirit, but atop a frigid metal slab at Bellevue. A gorilla in dress whites lumbered into the room coughing violently. He slammed down a cup in front of me, and hacking as though to tear himself apart, choked out, "If you don't drink dis yellow stuff here, youse-a-gonna-be stone dead within the hour." "You're one to talk," was my rather distinguished remark. "Well, I'll have you know that I'm not in the least afraid to die. I hold myself responsible for my actions...I hereby refuse the antidote." "All right," he growled, "what the hell do I care?" and hunched away.
He does a quizzical and panic-stricken take and leaps off the table:
In my haste to grab up the yellow stuff, I knocked the blarsted cup to the floor. Mime won't help you out.
He dashes about, flashing a few classic mime routines, such as a man walking or caught behind an imaginary wall, and then states:
The "help!" started forming down deep in my bowels. It blew itself into a sizable bellow long before it reached my lungs, where additional gusto was provided. By the time I loosed the friggin' thing, it hit Bellevue like the wrecking ball: "HHHHHHHEEEEEEELLLLLLLPPPPPPP!" I must have had a gallon of that yellow stuff in front of me within fifteen seconds.
He climbs back onto the table and lies down again, taking several long and agonized breaths before stating:
I'm in the sanatorium now... that's sana-tor-ium. A summer has passed since my father (and I use the word paraparentally) yanked me up and out of Bellevue and forcefully plopped me down in New London, setting me to work for the Daily Telegraph. I've got tuberculosis to thank for saving the day. I had no idea how serious it was (by which I refer to working a regular job and not the TB) until it was directly upon me. I was able to convert a bad cold, however, and the next thing I knew I was being disturbed by the raucous undertones of a Catholic priest: "Do you know who it was who died to save you?" Quickly assessing the situation, I said, "Do you think this is any time for riddles?" and, rather than suffer any further conversation, I hastened away in a grand and delirious dream armada -- two punts hallucination, three punts recollection, and one galleon residue of benzine.
He staggers to his feet to illustrate:
The dreams laid claim and I soon found myself painfully lashed to something rigid and splintery, not exactly the reverie I'd had in mind. Sensing rough waters up ahead, I strained against what was either the mast of the Charles Racine or my bed at Gaylord's Tubercular Farm. The hallucinations rolled in over me, taking the form of towering thunderheads blowing up over what was now clearly the deck of a decrepit square-rigger foundering in high seas. The ugly mugs of crewmen faded in and out before me -- an assembly of wharf rats, thugs, and scalawags such as I'd never beheld. The storm hit with a force unknown to seamen, tossing the ship about like a peapod over rapids. The scoundrels were washed back and forth across the deck and were crying out to the Lord in pathetic voices, just as I, at my post, faced death with hand held high...
He is holding his right arm in front of him in a defense posture:
Just as the ship was preparing to finally pitch over in the darkness,
a bolt of
He begins a comic mimicry of a person plunged into monumental seas characterized by great peaks and troughs. To his own surprise, he is enjoying himself:
Well, you know me... how I've always loved the water... even as a little lad, miserable as I was, how I'd splash around in the washtub, sailing boats. So, fifteen-foot waves or no, drowning wharf rats, circling sharks, and thunder...I was having a whale of a time, floating on my back, spewing sea water like an exuberant putti, dreaming away atop the crests, sparring with death down in the valleys...
"Rising" and "falling" to illustrate his words:
life... death... life... death.... "Well, life has its design... happenstance ...vibrancy... sluggishness...honesty...sophistry...its specifics... its... its...."
Shaking off his hallucinatory recollections:
Well, this last statement, I awake to find, I'm babbling to the night nurse, a wonderful woman, sponging me down, breaking the fever impeding my convalescence.
As strength returned, Sophocles was before my eyes, and Strindberg. I drifted in and out of dream plays, classical treatments...and penned my first play, a worthless little melodrama, all before my six months at the tubercular farm had passed. I wrote six more one-acts, recovering now at the Rippin House in New London. Gaining momentum the following year, I enrolled in George Pierce Baker's Workshop Forty-Seven at Hahvand University, where I learned but one interesting fact -- Cambridge, Massachusetts, is the only place in the world where a certain snake is pronounced "boer constrictah."
Sitting down on the stool as he speaks of Jimmy's and immediately jumping up again:
In skirting Jimmy the Priest's Institute of Culture, Particularly the Tubercule Bacillus, I passed directly to Greenwich Village, a hoppin' town where "quickie" is said to have several meanings other than "fast drying cement mix."
Sits down atop the stool.
It was in the Hell-Hole, tavern to gangsters, drunks, and literati (not that I'm suggesting much separation), that I first heard the low and lecherous beckoning call...
He crooks his finger to create the configuration of:
"Cape Cod...Cape Cod...."
He goes to the window, leans out, and looks out onto the audience.
Only thirty wharves still standing...
1916...Provincetown, Massachusetts ...dories floundering in the wakes of Boston trawlers, carriages passing under banners... barkers yelping at a gaggle of gawkers ... twelve hawkers hooking.... I look across the street onto Lewis Wharf, past the chandler's, past the fish packers' shack, out to Margaret Steele's studio, "The Theatah." I lean back inside...
Waddling like Charlie Chaplin:
Sing a little sea chantey, rather; trying to act nonchalant as Jig Cook and his crew in the back there decide the fate of my Bound East for Cardiff....
He sneaks over for a quick peep through the keyhole and then returns to the stool.
No matter... it was just drifting (and I use the word peripatetically) that brought me out onto the Cape. I just thought I'd stick my feet in -- you know, maybe get as far out as Hyannis.... I drifted out with an aimless drunkard, Terry Carlin, a village anarchist who gained fame calling for the secret wiring up of rich folks' closets, so that when they lifted fancy items down from the hangers, small electric shocks would be administered. I met him last winter in the Hell-Hole, where talk was cheap -- pacifists canvassing seeds for the nonviolent overgrow of the central government, atheists calling God a cave painting that caught on, Irish Catholics cursing a vicious spook called Calvin, who "never fails to raise his ugly head count"; some talk of this Jig Cook, I'll admit, but mostly just jabber about the latest alcoholic rage: the rum sour, Irish whiskey, or tequila mockingbird (tequila and tequila with salt and a twist. The twist? No polluting the alcohol with the salt; that you just throw over your shoulder onto the birds behind you mocking: "Mind thee, O'Neill, hell's gaping maw," or "How's life down in the bottle, Genie?") Bah! Chit-chat was free and easy in the Hole -- talk of the Ballet Russe, Pablo Picasso, Sigmund Freud, Hindenburg and Ludendorff, talk of the little theaters, of Jig Cook and Susan Glaspell, Max Eastman, Hutchins Hapgood, Provincetowners, New Yorkers, artists, writers, and aspirants, a lot of flippin' flap over another summer season out on this god-forsaken spit of sand .... What was all of that to me?
I traveled upcape for one reason, if for any purpose at all -- to watch the tourists play out their drama on Commercial Street.
Stands up, goes to the window, and leans out.
And having done it, I'll tell you this -- it's gewgaws and knickknacks that subdue these intrepid pioneers. Trying to roll back into the bar today, I found myself in the surplus store, "Marine Curiosities." I was aghast at the spectacle -- goods fallen from the backs of wagons laid out as "specialties," horseshoe crabs two bits (free for the asking on the beach). I listened with awe to the pioneers. "Would you look at this," one of the patrons cried aloud, holding up a canvas sling used, no doubt, in the rapid deployment of stillborn calves, "maybe Edna would like one of these...." It was a seething mass of humanity -- ten, twelve strong -- children terrified by dried sea worms on display, wives scandalized by blowfish, infuriated daddies: "Don't you call Barb-Barb 'Gumball,' Peeblie!" Oh, babble on, oh pioneers, babble on.
Walks to down-center and supplicates dramatically:
Oh, Monsignor Charlatan, I confess to an all-pervasive lie today, for so it is that I'm here for other reasons than those originally stated. It is directly away from this frippery and fudge, today's "high drama," that I fade in search of my secret place, there to clarify the issues hiding beneath the banal ballet in towns and cities, aboard ships, and on stages. These issues: what is man's place in the shifting, restless eternity below the moon of the Caribbees; what's to be done with the tragedy of a man's life revealed in the zone; Just what is "the zone"? Does will exist in the long voyage home? Do grace and the miraculous play a part in the passage to Cardiff?
Backing up as he moves in large circles about the stage:
Into the Province Lands I back away, there to clarify and state my case at seaside, precisely that it should, some day, be spoken. "Have mercy on me, O God, for I know my iniquity and my sin is always before me." I back away, ever so slowly out of town and down the beach. "Create a clean heart in me and renew a right spirit within my bowels."
Backing into something that he must step over (miming):
Suffering the prostrate piles, I edge away, enduring as well
Becoming agitated; now hopping, now scratching at himself:
the stickly sand spurs, random abandoned sawfish blades, men-o'-war, broken glass, field mice, and calico crabs, those little red menaces that walk backwards -- a swarm of us walking backwards out of town.
I quietly and pensively wend my way, sometimes in circles that conform to this corkscrew geography, my path winding around like a grain of sand attached to a gossamer insect thread whipping about a blade of dune grass first one way and then the other in sea breezes. Backing, backing, down Snail Road ...what the -- !
He has stepped into something. He freezes gnd then summons the courage, still not looking at the imaginary object, to pick it up from behind his back and bring it out in front of him:
Argh! A bloody sea gull body, its ribcage working its way out through the wound, a marrow-harrow through top ground... God, it's a good thing I've got a shot or two of the concoction....
Halting before he can bring his flask to his mouth, he senses a presence "upstairs" and timidly raises his eyes to heaven. He then looks down and speaks in g booming, authoritarian voice:
Eugene O'Neill! This here is the Lord a-talkin' to thee. Dost thou not think it's about time thou put a parbuncle on thy rakery?
You know, I never really thought He actually spoke in those terms....
Raising his head to heaven:
well, my Lord, I'm more of the pint-o'-view meself, that I should ferment... debauch ere goitre and pox dispatch me.
"Wash me, O God, and cleanse me of my sin... and stop fingerin' me spirit." Backing, backing...out the back, down and out -- down Snail Road (as I've already. said), out across the railroad tracks, through those funny little trees, out across the blistering silica, past the dune shacks, past the colossal dead man's fingers (the frames of ship wrecks arching in the sun), out all the way to the backside of the Cape, where the land ("the Lord he is my firmament") ...
He has ended up back at the stool where he sits down, and, miming the activity of writing, states:
gives way to open ocean; where the sand bows down to the damp grey shroud wherein the riddle's majesty may be
secreted...SE-creted, rather; to the damp grey shroud wherein any form may take its shape. All the way out...to state my case at seaside.
He moves into his chair down-right and addresses the "moderator":
I think that's all I have to offer "free-form" to preface your first question... so, fire away, I guess...
He waits for a response and in the ensuing silence detects excitement behind the door.
Oh, God! Is that an enthusiastic murmur I hear next door? Do the Provincetown Players rise up as one -- as one aroused by my Bound East for Cardiff? Oh, the sea is up...my nerve is up....
He gathers up his plays, stuffs them into the nail keg in great confusion, and hurries toward the door to join the Players.
Words! Words, words, words, words ...you have to have them ready in barrels...
He opens the door, steps halfway through it into the next room, and turns back momentarily to address the audience before he exits:
mime won't help you out.
Groups interested in hiring Mr. wheeler to perform Here Before You... Eugene O'Neill, or any of his other monodramas -- on Cellini, Gaughin, and Audubon -- may gain information on rates and dates by writing the author, either c/o The Newsletter or Biohydrant Publications, R.F.D.#3, St. Albans, VT 05478.
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