O'NEILL AT WORK: A PEN IN TRUST TO ART
Eugene O'Neill died as he had lived, bereft of human understanding and comfort but totally committed to a cherished idea: the inviolability of his art. While he never mentioned the theatre in the months before his death, and the Nobel and Pulitzers, according to his wife Carlotta, meant "nothing to him--now," O'Neill took comfort in the fact that he had retained his integrity during his long career as a playwright. Carlotta states that the month before he died, when she was preparing him for sleep, "he began to recite Austin Dobson's 'In After Days':
Then he looked at me & repeated (so quietly), 'He held his pen in trust to Art, not serving shame or lust'" (Letter to Dale Fern, October 4, 1953). This line could serve as O'Neill's epitaph. His single lifelong passion was his work. All else was sacrificed to it.
Art, first of all, had the healing power to transform him. The young O'Neill, a drifter and alcoholic, seemed ill-equipped to become a playwright. In 1913 fate provided a period of reflection at Gaylord Farm Sanatorium where he learned to discipline himself and began to question his goals. He states: "It was at Gaylord that my mind got the chance to establish itself, to digest and evaluate the impressions of many years.... At Gaylord, I really thought about my life for the first time, about past and future" [Quoted in Barrett Clark, Eugene O'Neill (New York, 1926), p. 12].
When O'Neill began to write, he had only his instincts and a working knowledge of the melodramatic medium of his father to guide him. He learned his craft by a process of trial and error. Throughout his thirty-year career, the author's method of composition was consistent. He could create only by writing his ideas, and this he did in pencil.
It is not true that O'Neill's handwriting became illegible only in his later years. The first recorded idea for "Exorcism" (1919) is as difficult to read as a page from "The Last Conquest" (1942). Much of the last three plays, The Iceman Cometh, Long Day's Journey Into Night, and A Moon for the Misbegotten, however, is nearly impossible to decipher. The handwriting in the 1941 notes for A Moon for the Misbegotten, or the "Dolan play" as it was called then, is so small that it looks like lines drawn across the page. What compelled O'Neill to write so small? Apparently his hand trembled even in the early years of composition. His fingers are described in Long Day's Journey, set in 1912, as having the same nervousness as his mother's. By writing as he did, he obviously found a way to control the tremor in his hand. But psychological, as well as physical, factors were involved. O'Neill's handwriting was a sign of his own intensely introspective nature. Its illegibility protected its import. Its smallness permitted him to commit more in less time to paper.
Dudley Nichols provides the best explanation for O'Neill's unique creative process. When the dramatist was unable, physically, to complete "The Last Conquest," Nichols offered to write it out as the author told it to him and to rewrite successive drafts. Nichols says: "He could no more do this than he could dictate his work. His handwriting was a part of his mind, almost a part of his imagination, which is what makes his MSS. so fascinating. His hand stopped, his work was stopped, and he knew it."
The dramatist rarely made major revisions in his years of apprenticeship. The manuscript for Thirst (1913), originally titled "Hunger," reveals the arrogance of youth. Only a few words are inserted, omitted, or changed. The author apparently did not record his ideas systematically in a notebook those first years, 1913-1917. Had he done so, he certainly would have retained the notebook as he did the others in the Yale collection. The author's careful preservation of every idea, no natter how trivial, conceived after 1918 and the later scenarios and drafts of plays suggest his ardent belief in the inevitability of his artistic success. O'Neill was a proper grammarian in all ways save two. He had his own unique way of spelling certain words, like "crucifixion"; and punctuation marks, such as semicolons and periods, ceased, in time, to exist for him. The dash seemed the sole way to separate thoughts.
In 1914 O'Neill acquired the work method he used throughout his career from Professor George Pierce Baker in the "47 Workshop" at Harvard: to record the original idea, to write a scenario, and to set down the dialogue for the first draft. Notes for Chris Christopherson provide the first clear illustration of this method. Both the original idea and the scenario are recorded in the 1918-1920 notebook. In time, O'Neill's scenarios became more detailed. Rich with dialogue, they began to resemble first drafts. It is possible to develop some of the scenarios for late plays that were destroyed or never completed, as Donald Gallup did with The Calms of Capricorn.
Art influenced every major decision of the author's life. It determined where and how he would live. The sea mesmerized and inspired him. While writing all of the early plays, except the works done for Baker, he lived by the sea, in either New London or Provincetown. Over half of O'Neill's dramas, nineteen short and seven long plays, were written before 1919; twelve had either ocean settings or sea-related elements. Later creative years were spent by the sea at Spithead, Bermuda, in the 1920s and at Sea Island, Georgia, in the 1930s. O'Neill left Georgia for the west in 1936, stating in his Work Diary: "climate no good for work half of year--and feel jinxed here."
Art determined not only where O'Neill lived, but, possibly, with whom. Early ideas like "The Little Things" and "Silence" (1918-1920) shed light on the creative difficulties O'Neill experienced while living with his wife Agnes. At the end of "Silence," the central character walks out on the erring wife who fails to maintain a quiet, efficiently run home. His action foreshadows the author's break with Agnes, whose attempt to pursue her own writing career left her little time for worship at her husband's shrine. Even though Agnes assumed most of the responsibilities for the upkeep of their home and children, O'Neill felt beset by family obligations and resented the distractions that interfered with his creativity. The quiet sanctuary offered by the cool, attentive Carlotta Monterey in the late 1920s was a welcomed escape from the boisterous home proffered by the harried, distracted Agnes. The price Carlotta demanded for the temple to art she created was O'Neill's sacrifice of family and friends. O'Neill's awareness that he had been the guilty one, the betrayer of love, had an effect on his work. His guilt is manifested in the ideas of the late 1920s in the frequently used "Modern Faust" hero, a self-portrait. He is a man who has had taken from him "everything that makes him one with human life--wife, children, fame, money." An entry in the Work Diary, made on November 11, 1927, six days before the author left Agnes and his children, states: "Idea Modern Faust play--the selling of one's life (instead of one's soul)."
The dramatist laboriously forged the early primitive melodramas of the first period from his own experiences and familial relationships. The first plays, 1913-1919, trace the evolution of an artist and mark the stages of the author's personal development. They contain portraits of friends, family, and self: the sailors he met at sea (the Glencairn series); the husband and wife, modeled on James and Ella O'Neill, in conflict (Ile, Recklessness, Warnings); the self-centered wife who destroys her artist-husband in a marriage that was, like the author's to Kathleen Jenkins, a mistake (Bread and Butter, Before Breakfast); and three other self-portraits: the tubercular writer (The Straw); the irresponsible youth who impregnates and destroys a girl (Abortion); and the suicidal failure ("Exorcism").
Four domestic dramas dominate the early 1920s: Diff'rent, The First Man, Welded, and All God's Chillun Got Wings. Welded and, to some extent, The First Man mirror the author's own marriage at that time to Agnes. Both dramas failed, but the experimental plays of this period, The Emperor Jones and The Hairy Ape, brought him international acclaim. Not until O'Neill wrote The Fountain and Marco Millions did be consciously and systematically look beyond his own horizons: his family and friends, his sea and life experiences. The author did a considerable amount of research for these two historical dramas and for Lazarus Laughed, Mourning Becomes Electra, and the Cycle plays. The massive collection of notes for Marco Millions is surpassed only by those for the Cycle. He could, with justification, state in his 1935 letter to Leon Mirlas: "As you can imagine it [the Cycle] involves a tremendous amount of reading and note-taking--for even if I find it beside my point to use such historical fact background, still I wish to live in the time of each play when writing it." He made copious notes, still extant, from Josephson's The Robber Barons, Clark's Clipper Ship Era, two Van Wyck Brooks books (The Flowering of New England and The Life of Emerson), Byron's Childe Harold, and other works. O'Neill left pages of names for potential characters, apparently amassed in the 1930s as some names suggest: Lavinia, Jonathan, Niles, Sand, Henry, Jimmy, Larry. At the bottom of one of these pages is the notation: "My thoughts on awful subjects dwell/ Damnation and the Dead!" He jotted down hundreds of phrases--most of them Irish expressions--apparently for the Cycle plays: "Devil a doubt he does," "'Tis more you might be doin'," "Be the light that shines," "Arrah, Hawld your prate," "For the love of the Virgin!" In the 1930s the author compiled lists of songs popular in 1904, 1905, and 1906, possibly for use in Ah, Wilderness!
O'Neill consistently drew set designs for his work: crude box sets at first for the early ideas, more detailed sketches for later dramas, such as Lazarus Laughed, Dynamo, the Cycle plays and "The Last Conquest." He was often disappointed with the settings scenic designers constructed (for Desire Under the Elms, for example), and he attempted through his drawings to convey to them his conceptions of the settings.
The 1920s was a period of extraordinary growth for O'Neill. Technically, he expanded the horizon of the American theatre by introducing a host of experimental devices--masks, choruses, complex multiple sets--and forms: the nine-act play, the projected trilogy. Thematically, he went beyond the narrow perimeters of personal experiences and reminiscences of his parents, brother, and friends to depict societal concerns: the exploitation of the worker by capitalism (The Hairy Ape); the destructive effects of greed (Desire Under the Elms, Marco Millions, The Great God Brown); political oppression by totalitarian rule in historical plays (The Fountain, Lazarus Laughed); racial injustice (The Emperor Jones, All God's Chillun Got Wings). The author mounted a personal crusade in the plays he contemplated in the 1920s to combat racial bigotry: "Honest Honey Boy," "Bantu Boy," "Uncharted Sea."
At the outset of his career, O'Neill wrote hastily and carelessly. The Hairy Ape, he boasted, was written in three weeks. Discussing the choice of act or scene divisions for The Fountain in a 1921 letter to Macgowan, he states: "I always let the subject matter mould itself into its own particular form and I find it does this without my ever wasting thought upon it. I start out with the idea that there are no rules or precedent in the game except what the play chooses to make for itself." Notations in the Work Diary indicate that he spent only about six weeks on Desire Under the Elms. In the mid-twenties, however, he began to plan his work more carefully, to rewrite and revise it. He devoted two entire years, 1926 and 1927, to Lazarus Laughed and Strange Interlude. He told Macgowan in 1927 that he wrote a scene for Strange Interlude two separate times "and tore them up before I got started on the really right one! The point is my stuff is much deeper and more complicated now and I'm also not as easily satisfied with what I've dashed off as I used to be."
To O'Neill the most disappointing failure in the 1920s was Dynamo. He had wanted this "first fruit" of his relationship with Carlotta to be successful. Maya Koreneva of the Gorky Institute of World Literature observes, correctly, that "Dynamo does not fairly represent the essential qualities of O'Neill's writings of the middle period, though it does concentrate some of his grosser weaknesses." The dramatist believed the major flaw of Dynamo to be the elaborate settings, which obfuscated the meaning of the play. In 1929, after a decade of experimentation, O'Neill utters a cry of emancipation "for good":
Dynamo, finished in 1928, marks the halfway point in O'Neill's writing career. Of the fifteen plays written in the 1920s, two, the expressionistic Emperor Jones and Hairy Ape, were artistic triumphs in this country and abroad; three controversial works, Anna Christie, Desire Under the Elms, and Strange Interlude, won popular acclaim. The other ten can be classified as either moderate successes or failures. O'Neill's favorites were The Great God Brown, The Hairy Ape and Lazarus Laughed. He won his first Pulitzer Prize in 1920 for Beyond the Horizon; his third, at the end of the decade, for Strange Interlude.
The three dramas O'Neill created in the early 1930s can be labeled "self" plays, for they contain the same kind of autobiographical connotations found in the work of the mid-and late-1920s: Desire Under the Elms, The Great God Brown, and Dynamo. Mourning Becomes Electra (1930-31) proved to be his finest play, in scope and execution, prior to the work of 1939. It is one of the supreme achievements of twentieth century drama. Even though the basic story of the trilogy parallels, in general, the Oresteia, there are many autobiographical elements. These are more conspicuous in the trilogy's early scenarios as they foreshadow Long Day's Journey: the setting is identified as New London; the name of its leading family, the Chappells, prototypes for the Mannons, appears. The mother figure, Christine, is more clearly an early portrait of Ella O'Neill. There was to have been a second Mannon son, Hugh, Orin's preferred rival for the affections of the mother, prefiguring the Jamie-Edmund Tyrone relationship.
Days Without End (1931-33), in its notes and seven drafts, forms the most autobiographical extant document. Whereas Long Day's Journey focuses primarily on the author's parents, and A Moon for the Misbegotten is a memory play about Jamie, Days Without End is O'Neill's account of his own spiritual odyssey. When the hero of John Loving's autobiographical novel was fifteen, his mother, who had "an absurd obsession with religion," became ill. Despite the youth's vow to devote his life to piety were she spared, the mother died. Like O'Neill, he became a renegade Catholic, went to college at eighteen, and passed through the same radical political and spiritual stages in his attempt to find a meaningful belief to replace his abandoned faith. While writing Days Without End, O'Neill apparently desired to emulate his hero, who returns to his faith.
There is a natural explanation for the "fully formed" concept of Ah, Wilderness!, which O'Neill claims to have had when awakening on September 1, 1932. The "Nostalgic Comedy" derives from the autobiographical material the author had accumulated, both mentally and artistically, for Days Without End. Ah, Wilderness! is set in 1908. Its hero, Richard Miller, who is seventeen and preparing to enter Yale, is an early view of John Loving before he suffered the loss of his mother and became a full-fledged radical. The twenty-three-year-old Edmund Tyrone in Long Day's Journey, set in 1912, is also, like John Loving, a Richard Miller grown disillusioned with life. Ah, Wilderness! is not only the precursor but also the prerequisite for writing Long Day's Journey.
Whereas O'Neill extended the limits of the American stage in the 1920s with his experimental devices, he explored its thematic potential in the 1930s. His first trilogy, Mourning Becomes Electra, was a transitional work in time and concept. Days Without End was to have been the second play in another trilogy, the projected "Myth Plays for the God-forsaken." In the early 1930s O'Neill told Barrett Clark that he was "saving up a lot" of material, "the most dramatic episodes of my life," for "a cycle of plays I hope to do some day." While he purported to dramatize the two-hundred-year history of an imaginary American family in the eleven-play Cycle he devised, "A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed," the family was, in many respects, his own. Here, as elsewhere, O'Neill depicts his own tortured, convoluted life. His relationship to mother, father, brother, wives, and friends is dramatized in endless variations in the canon. Because all human lives pivot around the same types of familial ties and friendships, O'Neill's work assumes universal dimensions.
O'Neill died not in 1953 but a decade earlier. His wife states that when he "had to quit his job--he died--& life, since then, has been a hell for him" (Letter to Fern, October 23, 1953). In his last years O'Neill longed to resume his work. Shortly after his move to Marblehead in 1948, he told Dudley Nichols: "And now at last, with everything to the last book in place (or nearly so) we can sit back and rest a while, and I can hope to start writing plays again" (Letter of December 4, 1948).
The author's health deteriorated in the next years and so did his relationship with Carlotta. She could no longer serve his art. It is callous to say, but true: he had no need for her psychologically in those last years, and he withdrew completely from her and shut out the world. He followed the example of one of his most tragic characters, Lavinia Mannon, who immured herself with the ghosts of her parents and brother within the Mannon home, and spent the last two years of his life isolated in a Boston hotel. Carlotta described his illness as a "degeneration of the nerve tissue" and said that it affects "the muscles and slowly kills all coordination between the brain & the muscles. Hence, he starts to get out of bed in the normal way & falls on his face! He always walks with a stick, even to the bathroom.... His tremor has become so bad again it is most difficult for him even to eat solids alone" (Letter to Fern, October 15, 1953).
The author's helplessness resembles that of Tom Perkins, a partial self-portrait, in "The Personal Equation" (1915). The remark the doctor makes in the last act about his incapacitated, bedridden patient applies also to O'Neill in his last months: "He doesn't seem to have any relatives alive. It's a pity. He might have been different if he had had the influence of a home. As it is, there's no trace of who he is or where he came from. He's one of those strange human strays one sometimes runs across."
Eugene O'Neill was not pretentious or given to self-aggrandizement. He was a simple man, a deeply compassionate man who had reverence for all living things. He was a Black Irishman who fell in love with words. He used those words to articulate the sorrows of his life and those of mankind. Often he stumbled; occasionally, he succeeded; and when he did, he added new luster to the American theatre, which he, through his efforts, managed, single-handedly, to transform. Frequently he was misunderstood; at times, in the last two decades of his life, he was neglected. Herman Melville chastised nineteenth-century Americans for their neglect of another New England son, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and said: "Let America prize and cherish her writers. Let her glorify them. For how great the shame, if other nations should be before her, in crowning her heroes of the pen!" The phrase "hero of the pen" aptly describes O'Neill. Truly he held that pen in trust to art.
-- Virginia Floyd
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