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To O'Neill, She Was Wife,
Mistress, Mother, Nurse

 
BY Barbara Gelb
FROM The New York Times, October 21, 1973

It is accidental, but entirely appropriate, that Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh," both as a new film and as a stage revival, should appear at this particular time.  The producers of neither venture were aware that their scheduling coincided with the 20th anniversary of O'Neill's death on Nov. 27.  The American Film Theatre's movie version of "The Iceman Cometh" will open Oct. 29 and the Circle in the Square production will open Dec. 13.

O'Neill, who did not believe in accidents, would have called it "Kismet" or "Fate," terms he often applied both to the events of his life and the events of his plays.  Since the iceman of the title was O'Neill's symbol for death, and the play itself a kind of threnody, it would seem that O'Neill's Kismet is still calling the shots.

O'Neill's close friend, Dudley Nichols, who adapted two of his plays for films, once wrote an illuminating analysis of "The Iceman Cometh," based on conversations with O'Neill during the writing of the play.  "The iceman of the title is, of course, death," Nichols observed.  "I don't think O'Neill ever explained publicly, what he meant by the use of the archaic word, 'cometh,' but he told me as the time he was writing the play that he meant a combination of the poetic and Biblical 'Death cometh' -- that is, cometh to all living -- and the old bawdy story of the man who calls upstairs, "Has the iceman cometh yet?' and his wife calls back, 'No, but he's breathin' hard.' "

O'Neill had intimations of his impending death when he wrote "The Iceman Cometh" at 51, and he did not flinch from them.  It was one of three final plays that he managed, by a tremendous effort of will, to complete, before a debilitating illness forced him to give up writing four years later.  Significantly, all three of these plays end with the imminent death of their protagonists.

O'Neill had an uncanny gift for foreshadowing, in his plays, the tragic events of his own life.  As early as 1929, when he was at the peak of success and romantic happiness, he foretold his fateful final years through Lavinia in "Mourning Becomes Electra": to lock himself away from the world, with the ghosts of his ill-fated parents and brother.

And that, indeed, became his fate.  In his final years O'Neill took center stage in a tragedy to which, perhaps, only Sophocles could have done full justice.  In the words of his fellow dramatist, Arthur Miller, "O'Neill was the great wrestler, fighting God to a standstill."

For five years O'Neill had been working on an enormously ambitions cycle of eleven plays, dealing with several generations of a doomed American family.  By 1939, his illness was causing a severe palsy that made it difficult for him to hold a pencil.  At fist, diagnosed as Parkinson's Disease, and later as a less specific, degenerative disorder of the nervous system, the condition made him doubt his ability to complete the project.  "I felt a sudden necessity to write plays I'd wanted to write for a long time that I knew could be finished," he wrote to a friend.

The necessary plays, in addition to "The Iceman Cometh" (1939), turned out to be "Long Day's Journey Into Night" (completed in 1941) and "A Moon for the Misbegotten" (1943) -- his three masterworks.

With the completion of "A Moon for the Misbegotten," O'Neill's health grew steadily worse.  He mustered enough strength, in 1946, to oversee the Broadway production of "The Iceman Cometh."  It exhausted him and he did not have a really well day for the rest of his life.  At 58, he went into virtual seclusion, frequently invoking his own death, joining the Euthanasia Society of American, contemplating various forms of suicide.

O'Neill, as a young man, had led a dissolute and alcoholic life.  He himself often blamed his later breakdown in health on this fact.  Although he recovered from a bout of Tuberculosis at 25, his health thereafter was never robust and when he could not find actual medical evidence of illness, he tended to develop hypochondriacal symptoms.  A sore throat put him into a panic -- he thought his TB was recurring.  He worried about his heart.  He told a psychiatrist friend that his heart was "out of place" (located in the middle of his chest) and asked the psychiatrist for reassurance.  He collected doctors the way a hunter collects animal pelts.

"When I first began seeing O'Neill, he had a cold," his third wife, Carlotta Monterey, recalled.  "He always had a cold."

While it is hardly conceivable that O'Neill consciously wished to be chronically ill, it is a fact that he seemed to relish his symptoms.  Like all hypochondriacs, he was inclined to a global self-pity.  But at least he made effective artistic use of his various illnesses.

The young hero of "Long Day's Journey Into Night" is dying of tuberculosis, and many of the plays most poignant moments revolve on this clinical point.  In several earlier plays, notably "The Straw" and "Beyond the Horizon," consumptive protagonists cough themselves to death.  The aging hero of "A Moon for the Misbegotten" is dying of alcoholism.  His condition is the fulcrum of that overwhelming tragedy.  Alcoholism is the chief affliction of most the the characters in "The Iceman Cometh" -- and also motivates the heroes of "The Great God Brown" and "A Touch of the Poet."

O'Neill gave up drinking in his early thirties, when a doctor warned him that to continue would be to "turn his brain into egg white."  The warning took effect because by then O'Neill was deeply committed to his writing,  he was able to stay sober with scarcely a regret.

His period of sobriety and relative health lasted about 25 years -- long enough to write 20 full-length plays and more than a dozen shorter ones.  The physical decline that coincided with his work on "The Iceman Cometh" was preceded by consecutive operations for the removal of his appendix and prostate, shortly after he had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936.  The presentation was made in his hospital room by the Swedish Consul in San Francisco.  A prostate condition can produce melancholia and a sense of doom even in an optimistic disposition.  O'Neill was not an optimist.

For a fiercely creative man like O'Neill, who literally lived for his work, the physical suffering his disease caused him was secondary.  The depression over no longer being able to write was the crueler affliction.  The burden of caring for this very ill man fell to his wife, Carlotta.  She was probably the only person equal to it.  Actually, she had been mothering him and nursing him for 20 years.

With a temperament as volatile and dramatic as O'Neill's, Carlotta was as beautiful as O'Neill had been handsome.  She was worldly, ruthlessly efficient, jealous, possessive and always, like O'Neill, poised for a confrontation.  Carlotta had seized, from the beginning of their complicated courtship, the role in which O'Neill cast her.  "What Gene needed was someone to manage his life," Carlotta said, some years after O'Neill's death.  She became, in her own words and in O'Neill's, his "wife, mistress, mother, nurse."

O'Neill and Carlotta spent the years of O'Neill's decline, awaiting the iceman of death, in an atmosphere of steadily heightening gloom.  In their desperate search for isolation, the O'Neills bought what Carlotta described as a "small house by the sea," in Marblehead Neck, Mass., about 25 miles from Boston.  In July, 1948, shortly before moving in, O'Neill gave Carlotta a copy of "The Iceman Cometh" inscribed thus:

"To Carlotta, my love and my life -- Out of great sorrow, and pain, and misunderstanding, comes a new vision of deeper love and security and above all, serenity, to bind us ever closer in our old age."  But the serenity was short-lived.

Carlotta renovated the Marblehead house, installing an elevator between the first and second floors for O'Neill, who by then had difficulty in walking.  In the spring, summer and early fall, the house was splendidly picturesque.  O'Neill, who had a passionate affinity for the sea, could gaze out at Marblehead Harbor from a glass-enclosed porch Carlotta had added.  But during the long winter, the house could be a terrifying place.

"The house was so much on the water," Carlotta once said, "that it was tied to rocks by steel cables and when the storms came up, they came right up over our heads -- we expected to go out to sea at any moment."

It was not long before the grimness of their isolation began affecting the emotional and physical health of both the O'Neills.  They quarreled and sulked, forgave, and quarreled again.  They rarely saw anyone except their family doctor.

Toward the end of 1949, Carlotta responded to an inquiry about her husband from the press: "He hasn't worked for three years -- and God only knows if he ever will be able to.  It's terrible.  It gets worse.  The hands tremble and then the feet."  She added that if made O'Neill nervous to have anyone but her in the house.

With his Christmas gift to Carlotta that year, O'Neill enclosed a note, in the shaky handwriting of grievously ill man: "To 'Mama' -- and still as over all the year, 'Sweetheart' and 'Darling' and 'Beloved Wife' and 'Friend,' too! -- in these days of sickness and toil (on your part) and despair. . ."

The following fall, O'Neill received a lacerating blow.  His 40-year-old son, Eugene O'Neill Jr., a Greek scholar and the only one of his three children with whom he had a relationship, committed suicide.

By the end of 1950, the little house on Point O'Rocks Lane had become a trap of smoldering emotions.  Carlotta's arthritis caused her severe pain.  Both Carlotta and O'Neill were taking pain-killing and sedative drugs; neither was award of the hallucinatory side effects of the medication.

That Christmas there as no written greeting of love from O'Neill to Carlotta.  The O'Neills, now both past their 63d birthdays, managed -- but only just -- to get through the first month of the year 1951.  Early that February, O'Neill, suffering from drug psychosis in addition to palsy and melancholia, attempted to leave his house and fell and broke his leg.  Carlotta, also suffering from a drug psychosis that took the form of hallucinations, was found wandering in the road, dressed in her nightgown.  Both O'Neills wound up in hospitals -- Carlotta in a psychiatric facility, O'Neill in a general hospital (for the broken leg), attended by a visiting psychiatrist.

The drama of the situation was compounded and prolonged by the manipulation of pro-O'Neill and pro-Carlotta factions, but after a three-month tug of war, during which both O'Neills were withdrawn from drug therapy, they were reconciled.

That June, O'Neill gave Carlotta a set of bound galley proofs of "A Moon for the Misbegotten," inscribed to "my beloved wife, whose love I could not possibly live without, is a spirit of the humblest gratitude for her love which has forgiven my recent shameful conduct toward her. . . ."

O'Neill spent the final two and a half years of his life in a Boston hotel suite, attended by his doctors, a nurse and Carlotta.

New York City was having a newspaper strike when O'Neill died at 65, and there were no local obituaries, no appraisals of his overwhelming contributions to the theater.  Carlotta kept the burial secret, at O'Neill's request, and there was no memorial service.

But as if to rectify this lack of public commemoration, Carlotta spent the 17 years by which she survived O'Neill in keeping his memory alive.  Often erratically, she released the rights to his unpublished plays, authorized the "editing" of an unfinished manuscript, gave permission for revivals, for screen versions and for musicals based on O'Neill works.  She had never been a thoroughly rational woman, and with age her eccentricity grew more pronounced.

Yet out of this sometimes misguided zeal, she somehow managed, before her own death, to re-establish O'Neill's reputation.  Significantly, it was the Off-Broadway revival, under Carlotta's aegis, of "The Iceman Cometh" in 1956 that led to the O'Neill renaissance.  And in spite of what as often construed by O'Neill's friends as venality, she was, beyond doubt, as passionately loyal to O'Neill in death as she had been in life -- after her fashion.

Carlotta began her crusade to polish up O'Neill's tarnished image six months after his death.  From the Boston hotel suite in which O'Neill had died, she wrote to her old friend, Brooks Atkinson: "Have been working hours a day -- up to 11 or 12 at night. . . A heartbreaking job -- beginning Feb. 10, 1928; until Gene's death.  But this must be done -- I found the diaries were fading!  And it must be done right and honestly."  (Carlotta told at least one friend, in a burst of candor, that she was deleting certain diary entries of O'Neill's later years "to avoid scandal.")

Late in 1955 Carlotta moved from Boston to the Lowell Hotel on East 63d Street in New York.  She and O'Neill had stayed there briefly years earlier, and now his ghost moved in with her.  On Nov. 27, she wrote to Atkinson: "Two years ago today -- at this hour -- Gene was dying!  Will I ever be able to free myself from this man -- and the love I felt for him!"

But she did not really with to free herself.  Her memories of O'Neill, though often painful, were precious.  She tried to share some of them with this writer in a taped interview at the end of 1961, when her mind was still clear, her voice dramatically self-assured, and her collapse into a haunted past still some years off.  (She became senile in her late seventies and died, at 82, in a nursing home.)

These memories -- random, rambling, but throbbing with the wonder and exultation of having captivated and been held captive by the extraordinary man who was her husband -- are a fitting epitaph for both O'Neills.

"He asked me [in the fall of 1926] if he could come to tea.  He came, and he drank four cups.  And he sat there, looking like Hamlet in distress.  And he started talking, and began with his birth, almost, with his earliest memories of babyhood.  And he talked and he talked and he talked, the whole time looking as if he were tortured.  Then suddenly he looked at the clock, and said, 'Oh, my God, I've got to go,' and off he flew.

"Then he rang up again, asking if he could come up to tea again.  I thought, what is this, that poor man.  So I said, 'Certainly.'  He came to tea and he began right where he'd left off the last time.  He looked so tortured.  He looked so unhappy.  And he was dressed -- almost shabby.  He didn't have the right things on.

"And then I didn't see him for months.  And then he asked me if I'd have lunch with him.  And he was staying at a funny, rat-trap hotel.  And I said, 'Why yes, I'd be delighted.'  And I became interested in him -- what was he like, this man who had this talent?  But he was not the kind of man you fall in love with.  I don't think any woman could fall in love with him, because they were all frightened.  Even after I married him I was frightened.

"I wish you'd seen his suitcase.  It had nothing in it but a couple of frowzy, torn pajamas -- no dressing gown, no bedroom slippers, no anything.  That's what got old, maternal Monterey, you see.  We went downstairs and had a not-too-good luncheon.  And I said, 'Thank you so much, what size is your neck?'  And I went over to Abercrombie and Fitch and I bough him a dressing gown and God know what else, and sent them to him.  Why, he nearly had fits when he got them.  He'd never seen such things.

"I think O'Neill looked upon me at that time very much as a savior and a mother.  I really do.  He had Mama there to help him.  And Mama was pleased to help him.  I didn't do him any favor.  It was a joy to help him in his work.  I married him because I was proud of his work.  And that is a much deeper feeling than having a wild flame for a man and marrying him.  I really wanted to marry that man and stick to him and help him.  And I think I did.  This may sound boastful, but I do think I did help him. . ."

 

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