O'NEILL'S STATELY MANSIONS: A VISITOR'S REMINISCENCES
[In May, 1976, Winifred Frazer delivered a lecture at the University of Florida as part of that year's series of talks by President's Scholars. Entitled "The Making of a Monograph; or, With a Little Bit of Luck, You Too Can Be a Scholar," it related the chance discovery that inspired her research into the influence of Emma Goldman on the young O'Neill--research that resulted in the well-known monograph, E.G. and E.G.O.: Emma Goldman and The Iceman Cometh (University of Florida Press, 1974) and bore additional fruit in two subsequent articles: "'Revolution' in The Iceman Cometh" (Modern Drama, March 1979), and "A Lost Poem by Eugene O'Neill" (The Eugene O'Neill Newsletter, May 1979).
The series of events, searches and inquiries that led to the definitive establishment of Goldman's influence (early and late) on O'Neill, and to the attribution of Hugo Kalmar's leitmotif in The Iceman Cometh ("The days grow hot, 0 Babylon!/'Tis cool beneath thy willow trees") to German socialist poet Ferdinand Freiligrath (whose words are significantly altered by the playwright), equals in complexity and excitement the best of detective yarns. And it all began with a "little bit of luck"--a photograph of O'Neill's study at Casa Genotta in Sea Island, Georgia, which revealed, amid the hundreds of indecipherable spines in a wall bookcase, the bold title of just one--the two-volume Living My Life, Emma Goldman's autobiography, published by Knopf in 1931. If the Knopf editor had not chosen such large lettering, the book would have suffered the anonymity of its fellows. If the photographer had stood a few inches from where he did, it would have been hidden behind a huge post, simulating a ship's mast, that stood in front of the case. Luck indeed!
The rest, as they say, is history, and the results have been a boon to subsequent O'Neill scholars. The photograph was one of a set of twenty that Professor Frazer had acquired from the Atlanta architectural firm of Abreu and Robeson. A selection from the set, showing Casa Genotta at the time of the O'Neills' occupancy, follows this extract from the 1976 lecture--a personal survey of O'Neill's American domiciles, which seems as apt a preface to the pictures that follow as it was to the tale of scholarly sleuthery it introduced when originally delivered. The editor is grateful to Professor Frazer for sharing her experiences with the Newsletter's readers and for providing the descriptive captions that accompany the photos of Casa Genotta, surely one of O'Neill's stateliest mansions! --Ed.]
Before relating the lucky events which led to the monograph E.G. and E.G.O.: Emma Goldman and The Iceman Cometh, I must describe an attempted project at which I had no luck. For several years I speculated about literary artists--Eugene O'Neill in particular--and the relation of their art to their environment. I asked myself whether the physical structure which O'Neill called home affected the plays he created during his residence there. O'Neill seemed to have been always in search of a home. Since he lived (he thought each time permanently) in a series of houses ranging from New England to Southern Georgia, from the far Northwest to California, from Bermuda to the Loire Valley in France, and since he wrote many dramas in different styles during his lifetime, he seemed an admirable subject for testing whether the immediate environment influences the artist's work.
I therefore visited half a dozen of the homes where America's only Nobel Prize-winning playwright had lived. His childhood home in New London, Connecticut, looks very like the Broadway and film settings for Long Day's Journey Into Night, the autobiographical play about his family that is set there. The current owners allowed me to wander around, to look at the rooms, and to view the industry grown up on the shore of the tidal river across the street. I could envision the boy, Eugene, sitting on the porch with his nose in a heroic Irish historical novel or a Shakespearean play, but his own writing at the time was confined to imitative radical or romantic poetry printed mostly in the "Laconics" column of the local New London Telegraph.
Far out beyond Provincetown on Cape Cod, the isolated old Coast Guard station where Agnes and Gene lived while he wrote his early plays has long since fallen into the sea. Traveling out by dune jeep to the approximate site, I could gaze at the cold ocean where E.G.O. used to swim, even through the fall weather. In Provincetown, I could see the rooming house where the playwright inscribed on the ceiling a mystical passage from a tract given him by Terry Carlin--"Before the soul can fly, its wings must be washed in the blood of the heart!"--but no mystical insights stirred my mind.
I visited the great estate called Brook Farm in Ridgefield, Connecticut, where Eugene and Agnes spent a few stormy years in the early twenties, and again was permitted to wander around the grounds and the first floor of the house. About O'Neill, the present owner knew only that he had thrown his wife down the stairs, but she did not know which stairs, nor which wife. O'Neill, trying to play the role of lord of the manor, had even bought a huge Irish wolfhound to add authenticity. But the great multi-roomed house with servant quarters and the thirty-one acres of wide lawns, pasture, woodland, a four-car garage, stable and other outbuildings could obviously not be cared for by a couple of Greenwich Village Bohemians; and although Desire Under the Elms (1924) was set on a New England farm, the differences between the little rocky-soiled Cabot homestead and Brook Farm were so vast as to make unnecessary and similarities-are-coincidental disavowal.
Three strikes would seem to make an out, but I persisted, hoping still that luck would be with me. One hundred and fifty miles north of Gainesville, Florida, at Sea Island, Georgia, is the home named Casa Genotta, Casa in honor of the Spanish architecture and Genotta, of the perfect union of Eugene and Carlotta, newlyweds, who came in the early thirties, thinking to have found the idyllic permanent domicile. Here it appeared that home might have reinforced art. The only religious return-to-the-foot-of-the-cross play by O'Neill, Days Without End, might indeed have been inspired by living in this Spanish monastery-like structure on the sea, where it was written. Living at the elegant, rambling Cloister Hotel on the island, and later in a rented house, the O'Neills supervised the building of their $100,000 "cottage."
Closed in on the sea side by high brick walls which form a courtyard and garden with niches on either side for small religious icons, the patio-like enclosure, except for three grated windows in the wall, protects the house and garden from the outside world on all sides. The guest bedrooms downstairs are small, each giving on a corridor and each, like a monk's cell, having a small peephole which may be opened from within. Having given up liquor and with Carlotta fending off all but a few publishers, O'Neill, in keeping with the atmosphere, lived something of a monastic existence here. But in spite of the message of Days Without End--finding oneself in Christ--and in spite of three visits to this home, I pursued the elusive subject without luck.
At the edge of a colder Atlantic in Marblehead Neck, Massachusetts, on a jutting rock, stands a small house often covered with spray in a bad storm. What plays O'Neill might have written here, with the nearby lighthouse testifying to the danger of the rocks! But alas, he was past his productive years, and my visit proved to me only that O'Neill's love of the sea persisted to the end of his life.
At Tao House, high in the hills west of San Francisco, Eugene O'Neill wrote his two greatest plays--Long Day's Journey Into Night and The Iceman Cometh. Here, where he thought to live the way of peace, the tao, was the home I most wanted to see; but being met at the gate by a Western hombre with rifle and a word about trespassing, I at once retreated down the steep, twisting road. In the end O'Neill himself, as he wrote George Jean Nathan, had parted from Tao House with relief: "We had loved it but we were getting to hate it because we were slaves to it.... We are just eager to get away from here and change our luck." Nothing seemed to change the luck of this hapless creator, who was born in a Broadway hotel room and is said to have exclaimed, shortly before he died in Boston's Shelton Hotel, "Born in a hotel room--and God damn it--died in a hotel room."
And nothing seemed to change my luck either. In spite of having hoisted all sails, I was becalmed. So I took the folder--Eugene Gladstone O'Neill HOMES, labeled it requiescat in pacem, and consigned it to a dead file.
Some years later a faculty development grant gave me leisure to investigate O'Neill's taste in books. This playwright, who was aware that his initials spelled ego, was nevertheless surely influenced by what he read. I therefore disturbed the repose of the HOMES folder to haul out some twenty eight-by-ten photographs purchased from the architectural firm in Atlanta which had built Casa Genotta and photographed it as furnished by the O'Neills. Several reveal filled bookcases in the halls leading to the baronial front room, in the playwright's upstairs bedroom, and particularly in his large upstairs study, three walls of which are lined with books. This study, by the way, unlike the Spanish cloister style of the lower floor, is patterned after a ship captain's cabin in memory of O'Neill's voyages as an able-bodied seaman. Jutting toward the sea, windows curve out in a bow shape. Beams across the ceiling, and, at the back, a metal spiral stair-case leading to the roof, add authenticity. In view of this contrasting architecture to the Spanish loggia below, perhaps the playwright imagined it a Spanish galleon above.
Of the some 1500 volumes extending from floor to ceiling on three sides of the study, the titles of all but one are indecipherable. Blowing up some details of the photographs made the titles too blurred to read, and the negatives, which might give better results, appear to have been permanently lost from the files of the Atlanta architectural firm and the Georgia Blue Print Company from whom I purchased them. As luck would have it, how-ever, by some fortuitous design of an Alfred Knopf editor, the title of one work is written in large letters lengthwise on the spine of each of two thick volumes. A huge post, simulating a ship's mast, stands almost in front of these two books, and one of the belaying pins attached to the mast extends down between the volumes, almost obscuring one. If the photographer had stood a few more inches to the other side of the mast, neither volume would have been visible. The work is entitled Living My Life (1931); its author, Emma Goldman.
Anarchist, feminist, spokesman for labor and the poor, Emma Goldman is mentioned in the biographies of O'Neill as being a radicalizing influence on his youth. At the time when he began to win fame as a Pulitzer Prize playwright in 1920, she had been deported from the country for anti-conscription activity prior to World War I. Consequently any connection between them was an early and tenuous one, consisting of his undocumented claim of an original poem in her little monthly magazine Mother Earth, and his friendship with her nephew and niece, Saxe Commins and Stella Ballantine. So I had no idea of making any spectacular discoveries when I casually leafed through a one-volume edition of Living My Life; but a heading caught my eye. Although the book is only slightly and abominably indexed, the editor supplies at the top of each page a heading whereby the reader can in brief follow the life of E.G., as her friends called her. After items like "I help the Welsh Players," "The conference of the unemployed," and "I learned of the massacres at Ludlow (Colorado)," I came upon, "Donald betrays our comrades." Did my mind flash to the important co-plot of The Iceman Cometh? There Donald Parritt betrays his anarchist mother and her comrades to the police. E.G.'s angry mention of Detective William J. Burns may have reminded me that O'Neill's characters also refer to Detective Burns who hired the betrayer of the West Coast anarchists charged with the 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times building.
If the brain is a computer, how many of the properly punched cards must be inserted for the instrument to make the needed electric connections? Maybe luck plays its part in the punching. Perhaps in my mind E.G.'s indignant exclamation--"The son of our old comrade Gertie, raised in anarchist circles and a guest in our house, turned Judas!"--superimposed itself in my mind on the curse of O'Neill's character Larry Slade: "I'd swear there couldn't be a yellow stool pigeon among them.... May his soul rot in hell!" In any case, evidence piled up that O'Neill had seen Emma Goldman as the betrayed anarchist mother in his play of old memories. I could not help speculating as well on the possibility that E.G.'s autobiography, which O'Neill possessed at Sea Island sometime between 1931 and 1936, connected the circuit in E.G.O.'s brain which led to the creation of The Iceman Cometh in 1939.
In The Iceman Cometh, Larry Slade, the old Foolosopher, "always croaking about death," is said to be the voice of the playwright. If early in the play Larry's "The best good is never to be born" is a pose, after the betrayal of Rosa Parritt, whom he had long loved, but left, he is in truth "a real convert to death." If Rosa Parritt is modeled on Emma Goldman, can it be O'Neill who suffers for her downfall? He admired her in his youth. Did he feel he had betrayed her in turning from her ideals in his age? It is well documented that an old Irishman named Terry Carlin, a great talker, a former anarchist, a sponging hanger-on when O'Neill knew him, had been the model for Larry Slade. Terry and Eugene had hung around together at various bars and slept in uninhabited New York City tenements one winter, and had gone to Provincetown in the summer, Terry being the one to mention to the Provincetown Players that his friend had a trunkful of plays waiting to be produced. But it had not been known that Terry Carlin was a friend of Emma Goldman.
By the greatest good luck, I got to see a few odd loose copies of Mother Earth, dating between 1907 and 1916. Although few in number, they do include several dealing with the anarchist betrayal at the home of Emma Goldman. In the issue of January 1916, E.G. explains that she had allowed Terry Carlin and Donald Vose, son of her old anarchist friend Gertie Vose, to live temporarily in a little farmhouse she had been given at Ossining, north of New York City. They came to the place she rented in upper Manhattan on a day when several liberals, including Matthew Schmidt, Hutchins Hapgood, and Lincoln Steffens were there. At this time, Vose slyly obtained the address of Schmidt, one of the men he betrayed to Detective Burns. Terry Carlin no doubt told O'Neill of this incident in which E.G. felt herself to have been betrayed. Perhaps he also read her invective in Mother Earth--"Donald Vose, you are a liar, traitor, spy.... You will roam the earth accursed, shunned and hated."
As an Irishman, O'Neill would have viewed betrayal as the most
iniquitous of crimes.
From the mid-thirties O'Neill had been trying to write a series of history plays to illustrate the failing of the American dream through successive generations. The over-all title, A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed, placed the blame upon Americans for their materialism and desire for power and failure to live up to the promise of the new land. One wonders if it was not E.G., the great dominating figure of his youth, whose fate proved to him what had happened to America.
[EDITOR'S NOTE. Just a moment of interstitial musing before the pictures, inspired by having just read for review 1,691 pages in reference works, to the accompaniment of Hamlet's reply to Polonius' "What do you read, my lord?" "Words, words, words." Aside from biblioshots in Atkinson and a lone portrait in Ranald, that's all there was. Not that I'm averse to words: the more the better. But I do feel the time is ripe for a visual O'Neill compendium like Gay W. Allen's for Melville, Justin Kaplan's for Twain, and the Whitman portrait gallery in Godine's edition of Specimen Days. The Newsletter will try to fill the bill in the interim, but someone should hop the centennial express and gather the pieces of the visual record--O'Neill, his family, friends and homes, scene designs, and shots from stage and film productions--in a book that can complement the words, words, valuable words that will continue to burgeon. There's enough for a sumptuous tome, and we need it badly.]
CASA GENOTTA IN THE EARLY 1930S: VIEWS OF THE O'NEILLS' SEA ISLAND, GEORGIA HOME AT THE TIME OF THEIR OCCUPANCY
© Copyright 1999-2007 eOneill.com