CORRECTING SOME ERRORS IN ANNALS OF O'NEILL (PART II)
Film Writer. In 1914, about a year after his discharge from Gaylord Farm, where he had spent five months, O'Neill received a questionnaire from the sanatorium regarding his health, type of employment, and financial situation. Eugene replied that he was working at "the Art of Playwriting--also prostitution of the same by Photo-play composition," that his average weekly earnings were thirty dollars, and he added, "I am speaking in the main of the returns I have received from the Movies" (Sheaffer I, pp. 288-89).
On the basis of this statement, Bowen (p. 72) reports that "Eugene was earning some money on the side"--apart, that is, from a weekly allowance from his father--while Gelb (pp. 253-54) ventures to say, "It is conceivable that O'Neill did try his hand at a photoplay or two." The facts are, he wrote much more than a "photoplay or two" but he never earned a penny from the movies till years later when Hollywood began to buy some of his stage works.
Hoping to make himself less dependent on his father, Eugene began turning out movie scripts--chiefly comedies and tales of derring-do à la Monte Cristo--about the same time that he dedicated himself, in 1913, to writing for the theater. Members of the Rippin family of New London, with whom he lived during the winter of 1913-1914, recall that after his film scripts came back, as they did invariably, he tore them up and dashed off another.
Later, after a playwriting course at Harvard, he made a fresh attempt at film writing, and for a time it appeared that he was on the verge of success. He told friends that Edwin Holt, a vaudeville star, had commissioned him to write some scenarios, word that was carried on July 16, 1915, in the New London Day. His first script, the paper said, has been "accepted and will soon be produced." The Day again, on August 11th: "The Eastern Film Co. of Providence, which has engaged Edwin Holt as one of its leading actors and Eugene Gladstone O'Neill of this city as a writer of scenarios, has purchased the Morning Star, a New Bedford whaling bark. The bark will be used to stage a number of moving picture scenes and actors will do all kinds of stirring deeds from the decks while she is anchored in the lower harbor [of New London]." But the Morning Star project never materialized.
Although it sounds incredible, since O'Neill was a private person and extremely shy, he at one point, according to the press, considered acting in a movie version of The Last of the Mohicans, to be made locally by actor-director Guy Hedlund, a former New Londoner and a childhood acquaintance of Eugene's. Presumably O'Neill, who was supposed to play Uncas, considered acting before the cameras in hopes of learning something about film-making. Finally, after the collapse of his various efforts and prospects, young O'Neill decided to confine himself to the theater (Sheaffer I, pp. 311-12).
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Shooting in Mexico. Despite the autobiographical bent of his talent, O'Neill occasionally got ideas for his plays from articles in the newspapers. All God's Chillun Got Wings, for example, was partly inspired by accounts of the suicide of boxing champion Jack Johnson's white wife, The Iceman Cometh by the murder case of newspaper editor Charles E. Chapin, who shot his wife, he insisted, from reasons of love. The earliest and, perhaps, clearest instance of a journalistic source in O'Neill's writings can be found in one of his slightest works, "The Movie Man," a comedy about two Americans in Mexico to film a revolutionary army's battles against the government forces. Pancho Gomez, the leader of the rebels, has been paid to cooperate with the film-makers.
Unlikely though the story may seem, it is based on fact; indeed, the reality was more ludicrous than the playwright's fiction. Shortly before he wrote his one-acter in 1914, the American newspapers ran front-page stories about Pancho Villa, the Mexican revolutionary, signing a contract with a New York movie company to wage his war only in daytime and under other circumstances favorable to the photographers. Since the movie men were dissatisfied with his appearance--ragged civilian clothes, a slouch hat--Villa meekly submitted to being outfitted with a smart-looking uniform. Faithful to his contract, he delayed an attack on Ojinaga, besieged by his forces, until the cameramen arrived; not to be outdone, a general on the other side deployed his army for a large scenic shot. (For a full account of the matter: A Million and One Nights, by Terry Ramsaye, 1926, pp. 670-73.)
Unaware, apparently, of the Pancho Villa episode, with its close resemblance to O'Neill's playlet, Gelb (pp. 262-63) never mentions it but instead declares that "The Movie Man" was "inspired" by the dispatches of John Reed, the dashing young correspondent who first won renown covering the Mexican insurrection for Metropolitan magazine. Although Reed rode for a time with Villa's men, he had no connection with the movie negotiations or contract, nor, for that matter, did he ever write about the movie deal. Gelb further says that Reed befriended O'Neill shortly before he left for Mexico and wanted the other to accompany him south of the Border. According to the best available evidence, though, the two men first met in Provincetown several years later.
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Jamie's Romance. Like the rest of the family, Jamie O'Neill was inclined to self-dramatization, a trait most evident, perhaps, in the story he spread around of his abortive romance with Pauline Frederick, a great beauty of the stage and, later, of the movies. The two had met when they appeared on Broadway in a grandiose production, Joseph and His Brethren--she as a principal, Jamie in a minor part. According to Jamie, she loved him but refused to marry him unless he quit drinking, something he was unable to do.
Eugene, who appears to have been half-skeptical about the matter, helped to circulate the story but he also said to his brother: "Pauline is just an image that you fool around with in your sentimental moments. You convince yourself that if she'd marry you, you wouldn't be hanging on to Mama, and letting her secretly hand you out a quarter a day" (Part of a Long Story, by Agnes Boulton, 1958, p. 210).
O'Neill seems, nevertheless, to have had his brother and the actress in mind when he wrote in Ah, Wilderness! of the pathetic romance between Lily, an old maid, and the bachelor uncle, a likeable alcoholic who repeatedly drinks himself out of a job (he's a nostalgic, softened image of Jamie). Although Lily loves him, she has refused for years to marry him unless he reforms.
By now, from retellings in print, particularly Bowen (p. 114), Gelb (pp. 239-40, 256) and Alexander (pp. 182, 237, 240-41, 288), the legend of Jamie's hapless love is an established part of O'Neill family history. Regardless, though, of how many times it is retold, there is ample reason for doubting that the reputed lovers ever had a close relationship. Judging, first of all, by the recollections of actors Brandon Tynan, Gareth Hughes and Malcolm Morley and of stagehand John Cronin, all of whom were associated with Joseph and His Brethren, the alleged romance's only possible basis in fact appears to have been that Jamie was secretly infatuated with the brunette star. Listen to Tynan: "I never heard a word about it, and you know what a hotbed of gossip the theater is. If there had been anything between them, I'm sure I would have known." To Hughes: "No, the Pauline Frederick story is just that--a story." To Morley: "I heard nothing about his attachment to Pauline. I'm certain there was nothing there." And to Cronin: "Polly was very democratic, well liked by the company. She had just left a wealthy husband to return to the stage. I never heard of anything between her and Jimmy, and doubt there's anything to it" (Sheaffer I, pp. 270, 429).
Even without the testimony of Cronin, Tynan and the others, various circumstances--in fact the entire shape and direction of Jamie O'Neill's life--strongly suggest that any affection he may have had for Miss Frederick must have been limited and transitory. For his heart was turned elsewhere: From childhood onward, the great love of his life was his mother. In spite of his dissolute ways and reputation as a ladies' man, he was, in the common term, a "mama's boy." Indeed, his drinking and womanizing, begun at a relatively early age, indicate that he was sorely beset. After Ella O'Neill used to take a bath, her bachelor son liked to paddle his hands in her scented bath water.
Once his father, his life-long enemy, had died and he had his mother all to himself, Jamie gave up drinking at her request, all his dissipations, and became her escort, her constant companion. For a long time he didn't touch a bottle, not until her terminal illness, at which point he resumed drinking more heavily than ever. In less than two years after her death, he achieved his own.
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Sad Homecoming. The night The Hairy Ape opened, March 9, 1922, loomed to O'Neill as an ordeal, not from concern over his new play but because that same night his brother, coming from the West Coast, was to arrive with the coffin of their mother. She and Jamie had visited California to check on some property belonging to her when she fell mortally ill. From Jamie's garbled telegrams and his delay in returning, Eugene realized that the other, who had been on the wagon almost two years, was again hitting the bottle.
Since his brother's train was due to arrive at Grand Central Terminal while The Hairy Ape was being performed, Eugene had his wife Agnes Boulton attend the premiere with his friend Saxe Commins. According to Bowen (p. 148), Agnes went to the station with her husband, while Commins (in an unpublished account) and Gelb (p. 497) report that he went alone. Instead, all three are in error, for O'Neill never met the train (Sheaffer II, pp. 85-86). Feeling in need of moral support, he had arranged for one of his parents' oldest friends, William P. Connor, to join him, but when the time came, O'Neill's nerve failed him--he couldn't face a reunion with an emotional, overwrought Jamie--and he would not be budged.
Connor, accompanied by a nephew of his, found his quarry in a drunken stupor, made arrangements about the coffin and, after depositing Jamie at a Times Square hotel, telephoned O'Neill. In the midst of his account Connor, who had loved the elder O'Neills, upbraided Eugene for not joining him at Grand Central, but he reserved his sharpest words for Jamie. When Agnes and Saxe returned from The Hairy Ape, O'Neill, relaying some of the things Connor had said, left them with the impression that he had met the train, hence the erroneous account of Commins and Gelb years later.
Jamie subsequently confessed to his brother that he not only had drunk his way across the country but, trying to blank out thoughts of his mother, had taken up with a "blond pig who looked more like a whore than twenty-five whores...So every night--for fifty bucks a night...[but] I didn't forget even in her arms!"
O'Neill would never forget his brother's torment and self-loathing as he told of his behavior on the train bearing his mother's coffin. Decades later, in A Moon for the Misbegotten, the playwright would have Jamie Tyrone (read Jamie O'Neill) retelling the story of his nightmarish journey with such agony that it all seems to have happened only yesterday.
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New York Debut. Although several critics saw the initial bill of the Provincetown Players in Greenwich Village in the fall of 1916, none of them, according to Gelb (p. 318) bothered to write about the event--a seemingly minor event that would prove historic in the American theater. In reality, though, one critic did report on the occasion. Stephen Rathbun of the Evening Sun published a long article on November 13, 1916, in which he described the group, told of its birth on Cape Cod, and reviewed its opening bill in the Village, consisting of The Game by Louise Bryant, King Arthur's Socks by Floyd Dell, and O'Neill's Bound East for Cardiff, which marked his bow in a New York theater (Sheaffer I, p. 363).
Rathbun dismissed the Bryant piece as "so amateurish that the less said about it the better," called the Dell one-actor "good fun," and saved his chief praise for Cardiff. "The play was real, subtly tense," he summed up, "and avoided a dozen pitfalls that might have spoiled it."
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From Hindsight. A few years after the playwright's death, Stark Young published a magazine article titled "Eugene O'Neill: Pages from a Critic's Diary" (Harper's, June 1957), an episodic account stringing together his memories and impressions of his subject. Young, whose career had been devoted almost entirely to dramatic criticism and fiction, recalled that he once tried his hand at directing, the occasion being Welded, among O'Neill's more autobiographical works. Inspired by the author's marriage to Agnes Boulton, Welded out Strindbergs Strindberg in its shrill, almost hysterical account of a couple with clashing personalities who are bound to torment one another and yet who find that they cannot separate; they're welded together.
The 1924 production co-starred Doris Keane, an actress best suited to costume roles (she had starred for years in New York and London in Edward Sheldon's Romance), and Jacob Ben-Ami from the Yiddish theater of Second Avenue. As Young tells it, Miss Keane had been "persuaded" by Robert Edmond Jones and Kenneth Macgowan, O'Neill's partners, to undertake a role that soon proved all wrong for her. She had, Young writes, "an almost painful tenderness toward any suffering in human beings, but these two people in Welded, with their wrangling violence...belonged to another world from hers."
After a week's rehearsal, she reportedly wanted to leave, but again Macgowan and Jones "persuaded" her to remain. "I knew," Young adds "that Gene's personal life in the period that Welded came out of had not been all smoothness, not between two such vivid temperaments as he and Agnes, for all the love between them ... I can see them now at some of the rehearsals, sitting side by side ... and listening to every speech, good or bad, and taking it all as bona fide and their own."
Another time he expressed himself more bluntly: "Those God-awful speeches! Yet Gene and Agnes drank it all in as though it were poetry" (Sheaffer II, pp. 131-32).
Since Stark Young was one of the most acute critics of his day, why, if he thought the play so bad (it is, actually, one of the author's worst), did he consent to direct it? Also, since he happened to adore Doris Keane, though only platonically, why didn't he dissuade her from assuming a role so ill-suited to her? The chief answer can be found in a letter he wrote Morgan Farley, an actor friend of his, shortly after the magazine article had appeared: "I'm so glad you liked the Gene O'Neill piece. I had no diary, of course--the form was an experiment. But I covered most of the main points about him, not too obviously, I hope" (Stark Young/A Life in the Arts, ed. John Pilkington, 1975; Letter from SY to MF, 9/10/57).
The article, in other words, was written from hindsight years after the fact, rather than being "notes from a critic's diary" written at the time. It is misleading both in things it says and what it omits. Contrary to Young's word to one writer that he assumed the direction at O'Neill's "urgent request" (Gelb, p. 543), he was eager for the assignment (perhaps, as a confirmed bachelor, he was drawn to the play by its misogynistic picture of marital life). He won his chance, at any rate, through the influence of Mrs. Willard Straight, a good friend of his and a chief backer of the Macgowan-Jones-O'Neill setup. Further, it was Young himself, not Macgowan and Jones, who talked Miss Keane into assuming the role; not that she needed much persuasion, for several years earlier she had asked O'Neill to write something for her. "I wish I had a play of yours to prepare for," she wrote him on April 12, 1921. "It would be such an incentive."
However his wife Agnes felt about the play, O'Neill, despite Young's account, was dissatisfied with the way the production was shaping up. Although usually adamant against out-of-town tryouts of his works, he was so doubtful about this one that he had it tested for a week in Baltimore. After he caught a performance, he wrote in his diary: "Saw Welded--rotten!" (Eugene O'Neill Work Diary, Yale University Library, 1981, p. 4).
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Drinking Problem. Expressing doubt that liquor had a "serious hold" on O'Neill, in view of his great productivity, Bowen (pp. 89-90) says: "His indulgence probably did not often exceed the bounds of social drinking." O'Neill himself knew better. He began drinking, he told a friend, when he was fifteen, and left the impression he meant drinking to excess. (It was shortly before he reached fifteen that he first learned of his mother's drug addiction and that it had begun unwittingly with his birth.)
Bowen is not alone in error. Taking a different tack, Gelb (p. 573) says that on January 1, 1925, during O'Neill's first stay in Bermuda, he "swore off" heavy drinking and, in an effort to control his "alcoholism," confined himself to a single glass of ale with dinner. In addition, Gelb quotes, without questioning or disputing, a statement by Dr. Louis Bisch, a New York psychoanalyst, who became acquainted with the playwright on the island: "O'Neill never drank in Bermuda." Bisch, actually, was in no position to know, for he visited his wife, a temporary resident of Bermuda, only once briefly through-out this period. The fact is, 1925, the year O'Neill wrote The Great God Brown, saw some of his heaviest, most frequent indulgence in years, as though he were under a compulsion to follow the course of Dion Anthony, the protagonist of Brown, who drinks himself into precarious health and finally to death (Sheaffer II, pp. 162, 175, 177, 179-80, 183, 187).
O'Neill knew himself to be a periodic alcoholic. During one of his short drying-out periods a Bermuda physician lent him an issue of The Practitioner (October 1924), a British medical journal, devoted entirely to the subject of alcoholism, which the playwright found "very interesting and applicable to me." His comment was probably inspired by an article by Sir James Purves-Steward on "paroxysmal dipsomania. This is a recurrent psychosis," the article says, "consisting of attacks during which the patient has an irresistible impulse to take alcohol to excess. The dipsomaniac individual some-times drinks himself into a state of acute alcoholic poisoning.
"Careful inquiry into the history of such patients shows that many of them have a marked neuropathic heredity, and that practically all of them, before they happen to acquire the habit of paroxysmal excessive drinking, have had previous neuropathic symptoms, such as phobiae, obsessions, emotional depression, visceral discomfort, etc.... the patient discovers that he can mask his deficient will-power and 'drown his sorrow' by a dose of alcohol, which comforts him for a time.... He drinks heavily for a few days until his bout is brought to an end by alcoholic gastritis.... His attack then subsides, and he is free from alcoholic craving, and full of good resolutions, perhaps for weeks or months, until his next attack. Sometimes during this interval he even has a positive distaste for alcohol. But his psychosis inevitably recurs."
Since Eugene O'Neill was one of the most autobiographical writers in theater history--images of himself, his parents and his brother recur constantly in various guises in his canon--it was to be expected that a periodic drinker should appear among his protagonists. Usually his self-portraits are easily recognizable, being tall, lean, dark, intense--the newspaperman in The Straw, the playwright in Welded, the tormented apostate in Days Without End--but once, with his counterpart in The Iceman Cometh, he did his best to be self-effacing. He did not want anyone to identify him with Theodore ("Hickey") Hickman. Short, plump, with a breezy personality that "makes everyone like him on sight," Hickey eventually reveals himself as a man driven half-mad by guilt feelings, one who periodically goes on binges that end with his resembling, in his own words, "something lying in the gutter that no alley cat would lower itself to drag in--something they threw out of the D. T. ward at Bellevue along with the garbage, something that ought to be dead and isn't!"
Through Hickey, who explains with twisted, diabolic logic that he killed his wife because he loved her (actually because she made him feel so guilty over his binges and whoremongering), O'Neill felt free--Hickey seeming so unlike his author--to voice his agony over his mother, his hostility to her, his deadly resentment over her morphinism. In becoming a drug addict, though innocently with his birth, she bequeathed to her younger son life-long guilt feelings and self-hatred, something he could never forgive. Hence the legion of dead wives and mothers in his plays, a far larger number than is generally realized, as the playwright-son took symbolic revenge again and again on addicted Ella O'Neill. Hence, too, his compulsion from time to time to punish himself by drinking himself ill (Sheaffer II, pp. 498-500).
The Practitioner article, so far as it applied to O'Neill, was mistaken in one respect. Though it says that the "psychosis inevitably recurs," O'Neill went on the wagon in 1926 and thereafter, except to fall off several times for brief periods, he remained abstinent till his death in 1953. Give up drinking, the doctors had told him, or risk an early death. Since he had an irresistible need to vent his inner torment through the written word, the autobiographical playwright took the pledge.
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Secret "Journey." As Bowen (p. 276) tells it, O'Neill on finishing Long Day's Journey Into Night in 1941 sent a copy to Saxe Commins, and after he and publisher Bennett Cerf had read it, the play was locked away at Random House with the following notation, as directed by O'Neill" "Not to be opened until twenty-five years after author's death."
This is erroneous. Saxe, one of the few privileged to read Journey during O'Neill's lifetime, typed the play while visiting O'Neill in California, but the latter kept all the copies. When he returned to New York several years later, the play was secured with sealing wax, without Cerf being allowed to read it, and stored in the publisher's vault with a note by O'Neill about its ban.
When Carlotta Monterey released Journey for publication and staging only several years after he husband's death she was criticized for violating the playwright's trust. In defense, she said that he had imposed the restriction at the urging of his elder son, who felt that it showed his paternal forebears in a severe light; but after Eugene Jr.'s suicide in 1950, O'Neill, according to Carlotta, lifted the ban. Some writers, among them Bowen (pp. 347, 361) and Carpenter (p. 158), have accepted her story; it is refuted, though, by O'Neill himself.
Writing to Bennett Cerf in 1951 (nearly a year after his son's suicide), O'Neill thanked him for returning some scripts that had been stored at Random House, and he added: "No, I do not [his underlining] want Long Day's Journey Into Night. That, as you know is to be published twenty-five years after my death--but never produced as a play."
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Misnamed. The following photographs in Gelb, between pages 264 and 265, have erroneous captions:
Beneath the photo of the Barrett House, the child at the left, identified as Eugene aged two, is really his brother Jamie; the child in the center, identified as Eugene aged five, is Kenneth Macgowan, and the young man at the right, identified as Jamie, is Robert Edmond Jones.
The house identified as the Monte Cristo Cottage was the home of the Rippins, where the O'Neill family took their meals and where Eugene convalesced one winter after his discharge from the Gaylord Farm TB sanatorium.
At the sanatorium: The young woman at the left, identified as Kitty MacKay, the real-life model for the heroine of The Straw, is a nurse whose name is unknown. This photo-graph, with the same erroneous caption, appeared in The New York Times on October 18, 1982, with a story about Gaylord Farm. (For a photo of Kitty MacKay, see Sheaffer I, p. 251).
In the beach party scene, between pages 552 and 553, the group is identified, from left to right, as follows: Henrietta Metcalf, holding Shane; Eugene, Edith Shay, unidentified man, Agnes, Frank Shay and unidentified woman.
The caption should read: Mrs. Francesco Bianco, Agnes' aunt; Shane, Eugene, Edith Shay, Frank Shay, Agnes, Mr. Bianco, and Margery Boulton, Agnes' sister.
Erroneous caption in Sheaffer I (p. 427): The infant being held by Mrs. Fifine Clark is Dona in Nantucket in 1925, not Shane in Provincetown, 1920.
(Alexander) Alexander, Doris. The Tempering of Eugene O'Neill. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1962.
(Bowen) Bowen, Croswell. The Curse of the Misbegotten. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959. (Although the title page says the book was written "with the assistance of Shane O'Neill," he had no hand in its composition.)
(Carpenter) Carpenter, Frederic I. Eugene O'Neill. New York: Twayne, 1964.
(Gelb) Gelb, Arthur and Barbara. O'Neill. New York: Harper and Row, 1962.
(Sheaffer I) Sheaffer, Louis. O'Neill: Son and Playwright. Boston: Little, Brown, 1968.
(Sheaffer II) Sheaffer, Louis. O'Neill: Son and Artist. Boston: Little, Brown, 1973.
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