THE CYCLE WOMEN AND CARLOTTA MONTEREY O'NEILL*
There is nothing new in the discovery that the women in most of O'Neill's plays are angels of destruction--especially in regard to the male characters. O'Neill's women characters, from the nagging Mrs. Rowland in Before Breakfast and the raving Mrs. Keeney in Ile, to the possessive Mary Tyrone in Long Day's Journey, have been consigned to the role of driving their poetic men from the homeplace to the familiar escapes of the sea, alcohol, and suicide. These and other O'Neill heroines remain housebound, and appear to be types of the mad, angelic, agoraphobic, anorexic, withdrawn female personality described by Professors Gilbert and Gubar in their book, The Madwoman in the Attic (1979). Even Anna Christie, Nina Leeds, and Lavinia Mannon, who begin as strong and independent characters, become reclusive women, tied to the domestic sphere, to their men, or to the memory of their men.
The women in the Cycle plays, although maintaining the same destructive tendencies and deference to the male ego, achieve a self-determination, an independence of spirit and an uncharacteristic ability to succeed in the materialistic male world of business and profit taking. Women like Sara Melody in A Touch of the Poet, Leda Cade in "The Calms of Capricorn." and Bessie Bowen in "Hair of the Dog" assume masculine roles, more akin to the typical male heroes of American fiction--the stoical, self-reliant killers that D. H. Lawrence makes reference to in his Studies in Classic American Literature. Frank Rich, New York Times theater critic, sees this heroic type carried over into the contemporary drama of Shepard, Mamet and Rabe, while the women characters in the plays remain the topic of locker room banter. The women in the Cycle take an active role in the shaping of their own personal and economic destinies. The men in the Cycle--Simon and Ethan Harford, Con Melody, Wolfe Harford, and Ernie Wade (Cade)--enact roles that are traditionally feminine; roles that have been ascribed to the insecure anxious authors and heroines in the Gilbert and Gubar study.
O'Neill's invention of this double role reversal pattern in the Cycle not only breaks through normal sexual stereotyping, but also appears to coincide with O'Neill's relationship with Carlotta Monterey. O'Neill's friendship with Carlotta began in earnest in 1927, the same year that the first stirrings of the Bessie character surfaced as Bessie Wilkes in "It Cannot Be Mad."1 And I have uncovered confirmation of what some scholars have surmised: that Carlotta O'Neill is enough like Sara Melody to have been O'Neill's model. But it is my opinion that in addition to being the role model for Sara, Carlotta is indeed the woman O'Neill had in mind when he created Leda Cade and the infamous Bessie (Lou) Bowen.
Like Carlotta, Sara Melody in A Touch of the Poet is both peasant and aristocrat, has thick "dark hair," a "strong body and will," a mouth that is "too large," and a nose that is "finely modelled." Louis Sheaffer admits to similarities between Sara and Carlotta and has this to say about the two women:
In addition to the fact that Sara is physically and spiritually made in Carlotta's image, she is the daughter of an educated officer in the army of the Duke of Wellington and a servant girl. Throughout the play, Sara is in charge. She manages the Inn, keeps her father in check, and ministers to the invalid Simon. Early in the play, Sara comes down hard on Con for being "the easiest fool that ever came to America." She goes on to assert that if she "were a man there wouldn't be a dream I'd not make come true!" By the end of the play, Sara has achieved her goal of securing a marriage proposal from Simon, and proved herself a mighty opponent in the contests she wages with her father. Con, on the other hand, escapes into the bar, a broken man divested of his illusions and his will to live in the real world. Simon remains an invalid.
In the next play, More Stately Mansions, Simon suffers a mental breakdown. Sara nurtures Simon in the same way that Carlotta nurtured O'Neill, but does not relinquish her ambitions. This is especially apparent in the uncut version of Mansions, and Sara continues to be active in the business world in notes to other Cycle plays. For example, she bails out Honey when his political career fails in "Nothing Is Lost But Honor," and she speculates in real estate to recover Jonathan Harford's railroad losses in "The Man on Iron Horseback."
When O'Neill created Leda Cade, the "pagan earth-spirit" of "The Calms of Capricorn," he made her the supreme manipulator on board the "Dream of the West." She possesses some of the same physical traits as Sara and Carlotta, and her ambition and determination recall the above women as well. One of O'Neill's most interesting female characters, Leda has a strong appeal for both the men and women on the ship.
The shipowner's daughter, Irma (Elizabeth in the 1935 scenario) is described by O'Neill as being repulsed by the sexual immorality of Leda (Goldie in early versions), but at the same time she is attracted to her. Irma yearns "for Goldie's love, her strength [and] vitality." The captain's wife, Nancy, is attracted to Goldie's "pagan freedom from all restraint." In outlines and notes to the play succeeding Calms, "The Earth Is the Limit," O'Neill describes Goldie as having a lesbian affair with Irma. Sheaffer, in O'Neill, Son and Artist, discusses Carlotta's friendship with Elizabeth Marbury and refers to her as "one who loved her own sex." Later in the biography, Sheaffer reports that O'Neill accused Carlotta of having more than a close friendship with the masseuse at Tao House, a woman hired to provide physical therapy for her arthritis, who would on occasion stay overnight. O'Neill fired the woman when "he found them in circumstances that suggested to him a lesbian attachment" (543-46).
There are other biographical facts that link Carlotta with Leda. The latter, according to the published scenario and revisions to the scenario, was the mistress of a banker named Graber whom she met in New York and who arranged a position for her in San Francisco. Sheaffer points out that "Carlotta was the mistress of James Speyer, an elderly Wall Street banker ... who provided her with an annual income that averaged fourteen thousand dollars" (223ff). Carlotta, like Leda, had many lovers; in fact, O'Neill was her fourth husband and she continued her liaison with Speyer during and after her marriage to her third husband, Ralph Barton.
Among other intriguing facts uncovered during my examination of O'Neill's revisions to Calms is a portrait of Leda that contains other parallels between her and Carlotta. O'Neill wrote that Leda was "brought up in country--religious well-to-do people on big farm--estate up Hudson--Dutch & French Hug. & English descents--." Carlotta's patrician father became a fruit tree farmer, and her mother was from "New York Dutch, French Swiss. and German roots." O'Neill's attempt at camouflage merely reinforces the connections implicit in the above.
In early versions of the final Cycle play, "The Career of Bessie Bowlan (Bowen)," and in a later version "Hair of the Dog," the heroine, whom I prefer to call the woman hero, is a direct descendant of Sara Melody since she is the daughter of Sarah Harford Bowen, who is the daughter of Leda Cade and Honey Harford. Bessie carries on the tradition of the female pursuit of the American dream. Later named "Lou" by O'Neill, Bessie claws her way to the top of the ladder of material success by becoming the owner and president of a large car company. She also appears on a radio program with other "great leaders of industrial America."
O'Neill indirectly joins Carlotta to Bessie by ascribing an idiosyncrasy of the former to Bessie's mother, Elizabeth Bowlan. O'Neill wrote that the "only touch of feminine coquetery is in her shoes which she sends away for and has made to order." Carlotta's obsession with shoes is again documented by Sheaffer. While the mistress of Speyer, "Carlotta spent fifteen hundred dollars for a pair of sandals inlaid with semi-precious stones," and "she owned three hundred pairs of shoes" (223).
The relationship between Bessie and her husband Ernie provides more evidence that links Carlotta to Bessie and confirms the double gender role reversal that is apparent in the Cycle. Bessie is the breadwinner in the family and a ruthless business woman. She has no interest in domestic pursuits and so delivers the "children to his (Ernie's) care." Bessie dictates Ernie's every move, and humors him by building him a workshop for his inventions. O'Neill wrote that "she puts him more and more into a state of irresponsible child-like dependence." In addition to other, more familiar anecdotes pertaining to the O'Neill marriage, Carlotta's diary entries are testaments to a similar dependence on the part of O'Neill. On April 14, 1939 she wrote, "Gene prunes 2 Walnut trees in the field! It is his sense of symmetry that makes him do things like that! That is why I taught him to prune things." Carlotta, like Bessie, referred to O'Neill as her "third child," and was as comfortable in the dominant role as O'Neill was in the recessive one.
Throughout the manuscripts pertaining to the "Bessie Bowen" play and to the later "Hair of the Dog," one is reminded of the O'Neill marriage. Carlotta in her role as O'Neill's mother and manager kept him away from his friends and the outside world in order that he continue to be a productive writer. The electrically controlled gate at the end of the long drive leading up to Tao House serves as a metaphor for Carlotta's control over O'Neill's social life. While O'Neill used his solitary confinement to create great plays, Ernie applied his talent to mechanical inventing. Like Carlotta and Eugene, the couple in the Cycle play engage in the extremes of bitter argument and terms of endearment.
Following O'Neill's path of isolation and depression, Ernie almost succeeds in committing suicide when he crashes his experimental plane. He ends his days blind, paralyzed and dependent on his wife. The story of his last days sounds very familiar. Simon Harford, an invalid in Poet and a madman in Mansions, dies of pneumonia in Calms. Wolfe Harford, Leda's husband in "The Earth Is The Limit," commits suicide. Ethan Harford leaps to his death in Calms, and O'Neill himself ends his days shut away from the world--a specter devoid of physical and mental power.
The case for Carlotta's being the inspiration for Bessie is strengthened by the likeness of Ernie Wade to his creator. O'Neill's description of Ernie in the notes to the "Bessie Bowen" play make this dramatically clear:
In all but his short stature and "bent for machinery," Ernie is O'Neill's double. This image of the playwright appears even closer to him than the portrait of Edmund in Long Day's Journey.
The Cycle women, Sara, Leda, and Bessie, share Carlotta's extremes in looks and personality, her drive, her relentless pursuit of glory through the achievements of her husband, and the reversal of the traditional feminine role in her marriage to O'Neill. By the end of his life, O'Neill, like the Cycle men--Simon, Ethan, Con, Wolfe, and Ernie--is a recluse stripped of the will to live. Like the women authors of the 19th Century, described in Gilbert and Gubar's study, who experienced an "anxiety of authorship," O'Neill followed the Cycle's male creative artists into depression, madness, withdrawal, anorexia and finally premature death.
Carlotta, on the other hand, is a type of the Cycle women she inspired. Gallantly, she survived her husband. his depressions. his ill-health. and his tantrums to realize success in the material world and to enjoy the legacy she persuaded O'Neill in 1952 to bequeath to her. In so doing, she became a paradigm of the brazen ambition of Sara Melody, the earthy strength of Leda Cade, and the relentless drive of Bessie (Lou) Bowen. Echoing Lou Bowen's cry of "Start again!" at the end of "Hair of the Dog," Carlotta played a major role in O'Neill's posthumous international success. It was O'Neill who ultimately became the madman "in the attic" of the Shelton Hotel--possessed by his woman, dispossessed of his creative genius and his sense of self. Curiously enough, when O'Neill first conceived of the feisty Bessie Bowen, he wanted Carlotta to play the part.
Gilbert, Sandra M. and Gubar, Susan. The Madwoman in the Attic. New London: Yale UP, 1979.
Lawrence, D. H. Studies in Classic American Literature. New York: Doubleday, 1953.
O'Neill, Eugene. Work Diary 1924-1943. Transcribed by Donald Gallup. Prelim. Ed., 2 vols. New Haven: Yale UL, 1981.
Rich, Frank. "Theater's Gender Gap is a Chasm." New York Times. 30 Sept. 1984, sec. 2: 1+.
Sheaffer, Louis. O'Neill, Son and Artist. Boston: Little Brown, 1974.
* This paper was delivered at the O'Neill session, chaired by Ellen Kimbel, at the Northeast Modern Language Association convention in New Brunswick, NJ, on April 4, 1986. Quotations from unpublished Cycle notes, included in the Collection of American Literature, The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, copyright (c) Yale University 1986, are printed with the kind permission of the Yale University Library. Quotations from Carlotta O'Neill's diaries are printed with the kind permission of Gerald Stram.
1 See Virginia Floyd, Eugene O'Neill at Work (New York: Ungar, 1981), pp. 172-173ff.
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