BY Barbara Gelb
FROM The New York Times, October 29, 1967
When Eugene O'Neill died on November 27, 1953, his
legacy to the theater included the unproduced manuscripts of two major
plays -- "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and "A Touch of the Poet."
Unknowingly, he had also left, along with a vast collection of work
diaries, scrapbooks, letters and playscript notes, a copy of the
enormously long draft of a manuscript called "More Stately Mansions."
O'Neill's death was not sudden. He had been
ill for 10 years and unable to write during most of that time. For
many months before his final illness, his chief preoccupation was the
disposition of the finished and unfinished work on hand. O'Neill
wrote multiple drafts of most of his plays and he chose to preserve the
early versions of a number of them, fully aware of both their market
value their future interest to scholars.
He had an almost religious faith in his own
artistic immortality and he took the greatest pains to safeguard that
immortality. In 1945, two years after a severe palsy had caused
him to stop writing, he deposited the sealed manuscript of "Long Day's
Journey Into Night" with his publisher, Bennett Cerf, and instructed him
not to break the seal until 25 years after his (O'Neill's) death.
"A Touch of the Poet" he had entrusted, the year before, to his
producer, Lawrence Langner, for presentation at some future dater that
And what O'Neill believed to be the only surviving
copy of "More Stately Mansions" he tore to bits in the late fall of 1953
in the Boston hotel room where he died. His wife reluctantly
helped him with the destruction. "It was like tearing up
children," she said later.
No one, O'Neill told her, must be allowed to
"finish" his plays after he was gone. There was, however, a second
typescript of "More Stately Mansions," a draft about five times the
length of a conventional play, and with much of its language and action
earmarked in exhaustive accompanying notes for revision.
Apparently O'Neill had forgotten its existence, or
else felt safe about leaving it when, after his death, it was catalogued
at the Yale University library's O'Neill collection, it was found to
contain a leaf inscribed: "Unfinished Work. This script to be
destroyed in case of my death! Eugene O'Neill."
Ghosts rarely go unchallenged these days, and the
restriction on "Long Day's Journey Into Night" went unheeded. It
was published, then produced (with no conscious intention of bad faith
on anyone's part) within four years of O'Neill's death. And the
surviving manuscript of "More Stately Mansions," instead of being
destroyed, was (with Mrs. O'Neill's permission and encouragement)
"finished" for O'Neill in 1962 by Karl Ragnar Gierow, then director of
the Swedish Royal Dramatic Theater, and produced in Stockholm. Two
years later, after additional editing and revision by Donald Gallup,
curator of the O'Neill collection at Yale, it was published in the
In his introduction to the published version, Mr.
Gallup stated that he and Dr. Gierow had scrupulously followed O'Neill's
own notes to himself in revising and cutting the manuscript, while
conceding that "had O'Neill lived to see the play published and staged,
he would certainly have revised and rewritten extensively, as he always
did . . ."
These same notes were subsequently made available,
also with Mrs. O'Neill's blessing, to the director, José
Quintero, who spent a year preparing the version of the play that will
open Tuesday on Broadway and that departs in a number of major instances
from the version published in 1964.
Mr. Quintero, like Dr. Gierow, is justifiably
regarded by Mrs. O'Neill as a champion of the dramatist. The
Swedish theater has been a staunch and consistent producer of O'Neill's
plays since his earliest writing days. And it was Mr. Quintero's
revival, off Broadway, of "The Iceman Cometh" that restored O'Neill's
faded reputation in this country and brought him forcibly to the
attention of a new generation of playgoers.
It is probably safe to say that O'Neill would have
entrusted his manuscript to either of these two men if he had wanted to
entrust it to anyone. It could also be argued that O'Neill, had he
lived a few more years, might have changed his mind about destroying the
manuscript of "More Stately Mansions." He was fickle about many of
his plays and frequently had second and third thoughts about those
already produced or published.
Mr. Quintero, in any case, is convinced that the
play he has distilled from O'Neill's manuscript is essentially what
O'Neill himself would have arrived at. (He says he has cut and
rearranged the play, but the words are all O'Neill's own).
Leaving aside critical or artistic judgments,
"More Stately Mansions," even in the rough form in which it survived,
is, at its core, characteristic and unmistakable O'Neill. It falls
implacably into place in the scheme of his lifework, probing, as always,
the conflict between the idealist and the materialist, exploring the
tortured relationships between parent and child, husband and wife, that
was climaxed by the almost literally autobiographical "Long Day's
Journey Into Night."
"More Stately Mansions" can, in a sense, be
regarded as a fantasy version of "Long Day's Journey Into Night."
In it, the mother (called Deborah Harford rather than Mary Tyrone) finds
escape from reality in daydreams that reach near-hallucination, rather
than in drug-addiction. Deborah flirts with the idea of
self-induced insanity, as Mary courts the prospect of the drug dose that
will, finally, be enough to release her.
Deborah disparages the geed of her wealthy
merchant husband in essentially the same terms in which Mary jeers at
the stinginess and acquisitiveness of her successful actor husband.
And Deborah's feeling for her son, Simon, are characterized by the same
divided sense of bewildered love and resentment as Mary's toward Edmund
in "Long Day's Journey Into Night" (and, of course, Ella O'Neill's
toward her son, Eugene).
Even O'Neill's physical descriptions of Deborah
and Mary are in large part interchangeable. Deborah's face "is
framed by a mass of wavy white hair . . . Her forehead is high . . . Her
eyes are so large they look enormous, black . . ." And Mary's
"high forehead is framed by thick, pure white hair . . .her dark brown
eyes appear black. They are unusually large . . ." Deborah
has "a full-lipped mouth" and hands that are "small, with thick, strong,
tapering fingers," while Mary's mouth is "wide with full lips" and her
once-beautiful hand have "long, tapering fingers." And both women
are clothes-conscious, Deborah being "dressed simply but with a sure
sense of what becomes her."
Significantly, "A Touch of the Poet," to which
"More Stately Mansions" was to have been a sequel, centered on a
similarly fantastical portrait of O'Neill's father. Both plays
were written by O'Neill between 1935 and 1941, and while they were
conceived as part of a projected cycle of eleven plays with a broad
historical theme, they both are filled with autobiographical intimations
of a different sort of play that was brewing in O'Neill's mind. He
did, in fact, put aside the project in 1939, in order to write a play
that he felt was more urgent. After drawing fantasy portraits of
his parents all of his creative life, he had finally decided to portray
them undisguised in "Long Day's Journey Into Night," which he completed
in 1941. And having presented the shatteringly final portrait of
his mother in that play, it is possible that even if his health had
permitted, he would never have completed "More Stately Mansions" at all,
for Deborah, as O'Neill left her, is less a fully realized character
than a bizarre, if fascinating, sketch for a Mary Tyrone.
Before giving up the cycle, O'Neill had written
scenarios and drafts and made detailed notes for the 11 plays that were
to follow each other chronologically, span a period of more that 175
years and be presented on consecutive nights under the over-all title,
"A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed." It was to be the saga of
what he termed "a far from model American family" and it reflected
O'Neill's disenchantment with the state of the world and with the United
States in particular.
"I am going on the theory that the United States,
instead of being the most successful country in the world, is its
greatest failure," he said in an interview soon after beginning work on
the cycle. "Because it has always been in a state of rapid
movement, it has never acquired real roots. Its main idea is that
everlasting game of trying to possess your own soul by the possession of
something outside of it, too. America is the foremost example of
this because it happened so fast here and with such enormous resources.
The Bible has already said it much better: "For what shall it profit a
man if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?"
O'Neill began work on the cycle in 1935, in an
elegant, Spanish-style house his wife had build for him in Sea Island,
Georgia, that was designed to give him absolute privacy and year-round
ocean swimming -- two he had been seeking for most of his adult life.
He was 47, not in robust health, but still the most virile dramatist
American had ever produced. He had the recent productions of three
startlingly dissimilar plays behind him ("Mourning Becomes Electra," the
Greek-inspired trilogy, produced in 1931, "Ah, Wilderness!" the
nostalgic comedy, produced in 1933 -- both hits; and "Day's Without
End," a mystical-religious tragedy, produced in 1934 and a dead
His third marriage (of six years) to a beautiful
actress his own age, Carlotta Monterey, was at a romantic plateau.
Late that year he inscribed a typescript of "Mourning Becomes Electra"
to her: "To Carlotta -- With again, as ever . . . my heart's and
soul's gratitude for her love, which is this Stranger's only home on
this earth!" Nothing -- not even an 11 play cycle -- seemed
unattainable, although O'Neill's idea of attainment and success was not
exactly the conventional one.
"Any dream that can be completely realized is not
worth dreaming," he once said, adding, "A man wills his own defeat when
he pursues the unattainable. But his struggle is his success!"
Considering the projected scope of the cycle, it
can be regarded as O'Neill's most spectacularly successful failure.
At the beginning he envisioned only a five-play
cycle. It was, however, to be the crowning achievement of this
career and he was ready to devote years of work -- even the rest of his
life -- to it. He began by making detailed charts of his "far from
model American family," whose name was Harford. "The Calms of
Capricorn" would be the title of the first play, set in New England and
San Francisco during 1857; the second play would be called "The Earth's
the Limit," set in San Francisco and atop a pass in the Sierras during
1858-1860; the third, called "Nothing is Lost Save Honor," was set in
San Francisco, New York and Washington during 1862-1870; the fourth was
"The Man on Iron Horseback," set in New York, Paris, Shanghai, and the
Midwest between 1876 and 1893; the final play, "A Hair of the Dog," was
set in a mansion in the Midwest and brought the cycle to modern times,
covering the years from 1900 to 1932.
The cycle's central figure was to be Sara Harford,
a key character in "A Touch of the Poet" and a member of the triangle
that forms the heart of "More Stately Mansions."
"Gene wanted to write about different phases in
the history of America," Mrs. O'Neill once explained. "How women
entered the field of industry, how the great automobile empires evolved,
about (banking and shipping and the decline of the
By late spring of 1935, O'Neill had nearly
completed the scenarios of three of the cycle plays. Carlotta
O'Neill was concerned about the effect of the unanticipated Georgia heat
on her husband's health and considered a trip to a cooler climate, but
finally decided, with him, to try to bear the southern summer rather
than interrupt his trend of thought. He was deep in books about
the political, financial, spiritual and cultural history of the United
The cycle had now been expanded backward to
include two more plays. ("If you keep going back," his wife chided
O'Neill, "you'll get to Adam and Eve.") The first play was now to
be set in 1828 and was called "A Touch of the Poet." The second
play was to be "More Stately Mansions," set between 1837 and 1846.
(Later revisions pushed the time back further.)
O'Neill finished his first draft of "A Touch of
the Poet" in the spring of 1936 and immediately began writing the
dialogue for "More Stately Mansions." Working like a man
possessed, he would often write straight through the night.
"I would find him exhausted in the morning when I
brought in his breakfast," Carlotta O'Neill has said.
O'Neill found himself haunted by the character of
Deborah Harford (not surprisingly, since she was his mother) and decided
to begin his cycle even further back, in order to explore Deborah's
roots. This mystical haunting by his mother, in an atmosphere
physically dominated by his wife, became part of the fabric of the "More
Stately Mansions" triangle. During one scene of confrontation
between Simon's mother and Simon's wife, the wife says: "He's mine, now.
He has nothing left but me and my love. I'm mother, wife, and
mistress in one." A letter O'Neill wrote to Carlotta soon after
moving to "Sea Island reads: "Mistress, you are my passion . . . Wife,
you are my love . . . Mother, you are my lost way refound, my end and my
Now O'Neill went even further back and outlined
two more plays. There would be nine in the cycle, beginning in
1755 with a play called "The Greed of the Meek" and followed by a play
called "And Give Me Death," set between 1783 and 1805, and introducing
Deborah at 17.
By August of 1936, having settled on nine plays,
O'Neill went back to the dialogue of "More Stately Mansions." It
was hot work.
"A hell of an oppressive summer," he wrote to
Lawrence Langner. "We just continually drop and drip." He
added a progress report on the cycle:
"It is primarily the history of an American
family. What larger significance I can give my people as
extraordinary examples and symbols in the drama of American
possessiveness and materialism is something else again . . .
"Try a Cycle sometime, I advise you -- that is, I
would advise you to, if I hated you! A lady bearing quintuplets is
having a debonair, carefree time of it by comparison."
That fall, O'Neill and Carlotta decided to give up
Georgia. The heat was too much, and O'Neill's health was
deteriorating. They rented a house in Seattle. In November
O'Neill was notified that he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature --
the second American writer and the only American dramatist ever to win
it. He used the accrued cash award of $40,000 to pay taxes and
declined, for reasons of health, to travel to Sweden to make an
acceptance speech; before the end of the year he was hospitalized for
appendicitis, kidney trouble, a prostate condition and neuritis.
O'Neill made a partial recovery that lasted long
enough for him to settle into another house build for him by Carlotta --
this time a pseudo-Chinese edifice on the side of a mountain about 35
miles from San Francisco -- to put "A Touch of the Poet" into final
shape and write "The Iceman Cometh" (in 1939), "Long Day's Journey Into
Night" and "A Moon for the Misbegotten" (in 1943). He had divided
the first two plays of the cycle into four and had been making outlines
and notes for all of the cycle, which now comprised 11 plays, with only
"A Touch of the Poet" completed.
By 1944 O'Neill's physical and mental health had
further deteriorated. He believed he had Parkinson's Disease (an
autopsy disclosed that he had suffered from a rarer motor disease) but
his symptoms, in any case, proved to be increasingly debilitation.
He found he could not hold a pencil and his writing -- literally his
reason for being -- was finished. He suffered intensely over World
And suddenly his marriage fell apart --
spectacularly and publicly, of course, because a petty domestic rift,
for an O'Neill, would have been unthinkable. Tormented, dying,
O'Neill humbly patched up what was left of his relationship with
Carlotta. The O'Neill's were briefly reconciled in Boston, where
they saw almost no one but the doctors and nurses who attended O'Neill,
and ghosts -- the ghosts of O'Neill's mother, father, brother, the ghost
of his suicide son, the living ghosts of his disinherited son and
O'Neill longed for death. He spoke
yearningly, as he had his youth, of committing suicide by swimming into
the Atlantic in the wake of the moon. But he was no longer capable
of making even the gesture. Besides, he had been born and raised a
Catholic and while, all of his adult life, he was an avowed disbeliever,
he found suicide intrinsically unacceptable.
The final dramatic gesture of his almost
incredibly dramatic life was the destruction, or so he thought, of "More
Stately Mansions." Its disinterment is perhaps the final irony.