1. DOROTHY COMMINS, ed., "LOVE AND ADMIRATION AND RESPECT": THE O'NEILL-COMMINS CORRESPONDENCE. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1986. xxi + 248 pp. $35.00, cloth. ISBN 0 8223 0668 9.
The quotation in the title of this moving and important book comes from O'Neill's 1946 inscription to his editor and closest friend, Saxe Commins, in a copy of The Iceman Cometh. It is an apt expression of the affection and esteem that each man felt for the other and revealed repeatedly in the letters here collected, many of them now published for the first time. Their association of more than thirty-five years was as personal as it was professional; and it is without question that, as Travis Bogard notes in his invaluable foreword to the collection, "no other person except Carlotta was trusted so completely or came so close to knowing the essential O'Neill" as Saxe Commins (p. xiv). Commins was with O'Neill on the night of the Hairy Ape premiere in 1922, when a drunken Jamie arrived at Grand Central Station with their mother's coffin and the despondent playwright, caring nothing for the response to his play, poured out "with the eloquence of bitterness ... his dark memories of his family" (p. 23). And their intimate friendship, already seven years old, was to last until near the end of O'Neill's life.
Yes, the title phrase is apt indeed. But let no newcomer to the "O'Neill saga" be misled by it into expecting a saccharine tale of idyllic fraternal camaraderie impervious to all obstacles. It is that, but it is more, and the more makes the imperviousness all the more remarkable. As Mrs. Commins says in her introduction, the book offers "a story steeped in human conflicts as dramatic as any the eminent dramatist ever wrote" (p. 1). What we have is essentially a triangle story whose third member, Carlotta Monterey O'Neill, eventually drove a wedge between the two friends and inflicted wounds that Commins never fully understood and from which he never completely recovered. There can be few episodes in the annals of American letters as harrowing as the eventual rifts between Eugene and Carlotta. The physical wounds that O'Neill suffered as a result of them--a broken arm in New York City and a broken knee in Marblehead--pale in comparison to the psychic traumas induced by "scenes that could have been written by Strindberg" (Mrs. Commins' words, pp. 187-188). And because Commins was in the very center of the battling--as participant, or eyewitness, or subsequent confidant--his letters, and his memoir that is divided up to link them, provide us with the fullest and by far the closest picture yet of the internecine warfare between the playwright and his third wife.
Commins himself remains largely in the shadows, partly because fewer of his letters have survived, and partly because he was so selfless in his dedication to O'Neill that his letters and memoir concentrate on the other players in the drama. There is ample evidence of his many services to O'Neill, as dentist, errand doer, protector of privacy during and after the divorce from Agnes Boulton, editor, typist and confessor. Sometimes he is forced to center stage, as when Carlotta accuses him of stealing her husband's manuscripts (p. 224), when he had merely been following O'Neill's instructions to secure them from actual theft. Even here, though, he concentrates on the accuser:
Ultimately he preferred to keep his distance but be available whenever needed. This is clear in his last letter to O'Neill (March 2, 1948), shortly before he was barred by Carlotta from his friend's presence forever:
He signs the letter "with all devotion," and that is one of the two feelings that his contributions trace: an unwavering dedication to the playwright, and an inevitably increasing hostility toward the playwright's wife.
Those feelings doubtless color the memoir whose episodes are such a valuable part of the book. The writing is brilliant, and the events are recorded with such exquisite and telling detail that it's easy to forget that, more often than not, the writer is reporting what he had been told and had not himself witnessed. Take a 1946 incident in the O'Neills' last New York City apartment:
What splendid narration, and what verisimilitude. No wonder the incident is indelibly etched into the O'Neill biography, even though the writer had left the apartment before it occurred and only learned about it, from the victim, the next morning. And the same is true of the most memorable and ghastly moment in the saga here recorded--the night in February 1951 when O'Neill had fled from a quarrel in the Marblehead house, fallen, and broken his knee:
Again, a brilliant account, even more vividly described and detailed than the first. But also, again, a second-hand account, whose teller (and re-teller) could not be accused of unbiased objectivity. Could O'Neill, in his state, have recalled Carlotta's exact words? And don't the lighting effect and the references to proscenium and the delivery of lines smack as much of art as of life? Clytemnestra gloats again over the fallen body of Agamemnon--and in Marblehead no less! I certainly don't mean to question the essential accuracy of either event; nor to denigrate Commins's exceptional skill as a writer, which was easily the equal of many of his illustrious literary clients. This is the closest we will ever get to some momentous incidents in O'Neill's life, and it is hardly to Commins's discredit that the unadorned facts will never be known. O'Neill's was, he said in a 1951 letter to Oona, "the most meaningful friendship of my life" (p. 238), and he has served his friend admirably well.
As for O'Neill himself, the collection is an important complement to the biographies, though it does little to illuminate his thought or art. (For that, the Bryer-Bogard edition of the O'Neill-Macgowan letters is superior.) Although he is represented by 82 letters and notes written between 1920 and 1951, he has relatively little to say about his work. Aside from repeated references to the protracted Strange Interlude plagiarism suit, only four plays get substantial mention: Dynamo (pp. 50-51), Mourning Becomes Electra (pp. 68 and 84), Days Without End, and Ah, Wilderness! (pp. 136 and 138-139). However, the letters bring us as close to the man himself as we can ever get; and that man is far from the haunted olympian of popular legend. He is shy, gentle, sad, reclusive, sensitive, determined (as he notes in a 1929 letter to Commins) to develop his craft and not fall victim to the fate that ruined his father--
--and frequently troubled, especially at the end, when illness, world conditions, his children's activities and his wife's antagonism combined to still his pen. But its no tortured agonist (no "gloomy and brooding master-builder," in Bogard's phrase on the book jacket) who sends a special greeting to Saxe's son Eugene in 1932:
Much torture was to come--physical, familial and international--and it took its toll. Witness a 1939 letter to Commins from Tao House: "A very, very amusing world, isn't it? And yet, when you laugh it leaves a taste of vomit in your mouth" (p. 185). But he never lost his simple, caring humanity, nor his love and need for Carlotta, even after she had erupted in obscene frenzy against him, his mother, and his friends from the past. "Try to understand." Saxe recalls him saying; "She's sick, terribly sick" (p. 226).
It is the portrait it provides of Carlotta that makes the book a truly essential document. Because more than 100 of the 242 letters, cards and telegrams are by her, the volume offers tremendous riches to anyone seeking to solve the enigmas in her nature. "I am one of those extremists," she wrote to Commins in 1929. "all for--or--against!" (p. 61). And her assessors have aligned themselves similarly. Heroine? or harridan? or "both of the above"? I'd opt for the last answer. straddling a fence on which Mrs. O'Neill herself declined to alight. There is no question that she dedicated her life to providing an atmosphere in which O'Neill could work without discomfort or distraction. To Commins from Casa Genotta in 1932: "I give him my entire existence, thought & energy to make things & conditions so as to help his working hours & keep him as well & happy as I can" (p. 121). And from the same site the next year: "I am house maid--personal maid, under gardener,--secretary,--nurse & what not! It's good for me--I haven't time to think.--My hands are ruined but what does that matter if Gene is at peace & comfy" (p. 148). And the woman who sends a "wee cheque" to the Commins children and secures a "wee tree" for her husband's Christmas is no steely virago. Nor is the woman who responded so sensitively to the news of sculptor Edward Quinn's suicide attempt in the summer of 1929: "One never knows what is deep within another's heart" (p. 62). But how to reconcile such sentiments with the heartlessness of her attacks on O'Neill's Provincetown associates, her obscene tirades and her deep-seated prejudices?
There is a curiously prophetic comment in a 1929 letter to Commins: "Life is an amazing series of experiences--of hurts----with just enough happiness thrown in to give us the courage to go on & search for more" (p. 74). In the end she must be said to have inflicted more hurts than she received. She was determined to separate O'Neill from all human vestiges of his Provincetown and Greenwich Village past, both because she considered them low-life parasites and hypocrites and because it was a past of which she was not a part. "Elimination," she called it in several early letters to Commins, urging him to do the same:
Somehow Commins himself escaped elimination, even though he too was a representative of the past, until she began to see him as her rival as intimate, confidant and friend of O'Neill. And then he had to he discarded with all the others.
Whatever one's conclusion about the Carlotta enigma, it can be supported in these revealing pages---in the letters themselves, in Saxe's extraordinarily dramatic memoir, in Mrs. Commins's introduction and headnotes to the book's four chronological sections, in the scrupulous annotation that accompanies the text, and above all in Professor Bogard's foreword, which provides, with a marvelous blend of affection and objectivity, the ideal perspective from which to judge the events, the persons, and their words. Thanks should also go to Louis Sheaffer, who gave Mrs. Commins much biographical assistance; and to Jackson R. Bryer, who aided immensely, though unofficially, in the preparation and organization of the manuscript. Their painstaking collaboration merits celebration. The story the book tells is a sad one, and a well known one, but it has never been as richly revealed as it is here.
--Frederick C. Wilkins
2. PATER EGRI, CHEKHOV AND O'NEILL: THE USES OF THE SHORT STORY IN CHEKHOV'S AND O'NEILL'S PLAYS. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiado, 1986. $18.00, cloth. ISBN 963 05 3651 X. Distributed in the U.S. by Humanities Press International, Atlantic Highlands, NJ 07716.
This is a rich and rewarding book, and if I begin with the comment that it is misrepresented by its title, I do so only to emphasize that Professor Egri's study extends considerably beyond its officially announced confines. Granted, it begins and ends with Chekhov's early and late influence on O'Neill--early in terms of the latter's reading, late in terms of his dramaturgy (though affinity would be a more accurate term than influence); and the development of both writers' use of short-story-derived elements in their one-act and longer plays remains as a leitmotif throughout. But there are frequent and fruitful digressions into the relations between O'Neill's work and that of other writers as well, especially Conrad, Gorky, Synge and Ibsen; and the author's deep familiarity with the whole course of social and cultural history permits him to broaden his canvas periodically and show the origins and intricate evolution of the literary genres he is discussing, as well as their "generic and genetic relationship." Readers interested in the interconnections of the two genres will be amply rewarded, far more so than those who seek an assessment of O'Neill's work in toto. But the five O'Neill plays discussed at greatest length--Hughie (pp. 24-28), A Moon for the Misbegotten (39-50), A Touch of the Poet (57-67), The Iceman Cometh (102-117), and especially Long Day' s Journey Into Night (119-153)--are accorded far more than generic treatment, and specialists in those plays should not be deterred by the volume's title from acquiring or consulting it.
There are four ways that the short story--especially the genre's central structural component, "a conspicuous change in the course and direction of the action" (p. 9)--is incorporated into the dramatic works of Chekhov and O'Neill, and each is treated in a separate chapter. In the first and simplest, a short prose narrative is recreated in one-act dramatic form, the "epic turn of a short story" becoming "the dramatic climax of a short play" (p. 17), as in Chekhov's transformation of his 1887 story, "A Defenceless Creature," into the playlet entitled "The Anniversary" four years later. Many changes were entailed, including "a shift of emphasis from a funny incident to (or rather towards) a satirical comedy" (p. 14); but the play "constitutes a dramatic conflict which uses, extends, intensifies and modifies the incipient antithesis of the short story" (p. 17). Professor Egri's O'Neill example is particularly complex since the play, "Warnings," was probably inspired by another author's story, Conrad's "The End of the Tether." But the choice is especially rewarding, since the Conrad-inspired play subsequently inspired a story by O'Neill himself ("S.O.S."), so Professor Egri can show both sides of the two-way street of narrative-dramatic evolution. And since "S.O.S." remains unpublished, his detailed description and analysis of it are most welcome. He concedes that there is little that is "Chekhovian" in the mood or atmosphere of O'Neill's short story-inspired one-acts, but he notes that Chekhov's short plays aren't what we would characterize as Chekhovian either. And he concludes this part of his discussion with an analysis of O'Neill's late one-act, "Hughie," in which "the integration of the generic features of the short story and the short play was coupled with a Chekhovian atmosphere" (p. 24, italics added).
The rest of the book discusses three ways in which "short-story-like dramatic cells" are incorporated into Chekhov's and O'Neill's longer plays. The first, which the author calls the "cascade connection," is "the technique of connecting in series story-like short dramatic units into a new, meaningful whole" (p. 34). That neither playwright mastered the technique immediately is shown in the contrast between Platonov (1881) and Ivanov (1887-89), and in the even more striking contrast between O'Neill's early Servitude ("which strikes the onlooker or reader as a combination of three one-act plays with three different types of conflict"--p. 36) and A Moon for the Misbegotten. While the later play shares with the earlier an organization dividable into separate narrative-dramatic units (Professor Egri delineates seven on pp. 44-48), Moon's units are "organically linked" (p. 43), largely by the "inner duality of the [three major] characters" (p. 40). And the brilliant discussion of those dualities is one of the many bonuses I mentioned when lamenting Professor Egri's choice of title.
Sensitively detailed analyses, separately and together, of Uncle Vanya and A Touch of the Poet highlight the discussion of the second use of the short story in Chekhov's and O'Neill's long plays--"shaping the peak of the dramatic structure by making use of a short-story-like culmination involving a sudden change in the direction of the action" (p. 51). This is, of course, much like the first use, except that the plays are longer and have no specific narrative antecedents. And rather than repeat what he has already discussed, Professor Egri turns to the genre that both plays embody--tragicomedy--and traces its evolution from the classical era, through the Renaissance, to Chekhov's and O'Neill's absurdist successors. His comparison of Vanya and Poet is a brilliant tour de force--one that reveals remarkable affinities without making any risky claims of direct influence. But it is, at the very least, arresting that the climactic, short-story-like "turn" in both plays involves a gunshot by the tragicomic protagonist--Voynitsky's shooting at Professor Serebryakov, and Con Melody's shooting of his mare. This "most conspicuous" parallel is also the most important because, in each case, "three things coincide: the bursting point of the tragicomic tension, the turning point of the short story embedded in the drama, and the culminating point of the dramatic action" (p. 66). If, as George Lukacs has said, "O'Neill's tragicomedy has been through the school of Chekhov," that gunshot signals his graduation!
The final and "most intricate and refined strategy of composing a dramatic whole out of short-story-like units," which Professor Egri calls the "mosaic design," entails "a total integration of short-story-oriented elements, minor motifs, even fragmentary motives, into a dramatic pattern" (p. 68). Such a "unity created of seemingly accidental fragments" reaches its fullest brilliance for Chekhov in Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard, the latter play being his crowning achievement because it also marks the apex in his development of "lyrical tragicomedy" (p. 76). The O'Neill equivalents, both revealingly dissected, are The Iceman Cometh and Long Day's Journey Into Night. Iceman's complex, even novelistic treatment of the conflicts between illusion and reality necessitated the abandonment of any traditional, unified "plot," and its replacement by the integration of many small elements into an interconnected mosaic design that provides a unity of its own. Professor Egri relates the play to its "literary antecedents"--Conrad's story, "Tomorrow" (1903), his reworking of it as a one-act play, "One Day More" (1905), and O'Neill's story, "Tomorrow" (1917); and he also compares it to Ibsen's The Wild Duck, Gorky's The Lower Depths, and Synge's The Well of the Saints. (Long-time Newsletter readers will remember the earlier appearance in this journal of this and several other sections of the book. It is a delight to note that those sections, as revised, reverberate even more richly in their new context, which is seamless in its construction. Professor Egri doesn't simply discuss "mosaic design": he demonstrates it!)
Long Day's Journey gets a final chapter of its own, which is perhaps the richest of all, though its riches can only be hastily sketched here. Again, as in Iceman, a single pyramidal plot is replaced by "a succession of dramatic scenes with short-story-oriented insights and turning points" (p. 120); and again "mosaic design" is the unifying structural solution. Professor Egri traces four strands, four "coordinated conflicts," in the dramatic carpet: the collision or opposition of material gain and spiritual loss, of illusion and reality, of love and hate, and of human aspiration and deterministic fate. He studies the various intra- and inter-character threads in each of the four strands, revealing the extraordinary complexity in all four of the haunted Tyrones, both individually and together. And the dissection is conducted with such careful attention to detail that moment after moment is revealed in a new and clarifying light. The pigs-in-the-icepond anecdote (pp. 118-119), Tyrone's putting out of the lights (p. 126) and the play's final line (p. 134) are three such moments about which I learned a great deal under Professor Egri's wise guidance.
Chekhov and O'Neill is not an easy book, either to read or to summarize. It defies immediate comprehension or glib recital. But the careful reader will, I know, share my gratitude to Professor Egri for adding a major volume to the O'Neill bookshelf.
--Frederick C. Wilkins
© Copyright 1999-2007 eOneill.com