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The 'Child' O'Neill Tore Up

 
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 seemed propitious.

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 country.

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, Jos 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 failure).

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 clippers."

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 States.

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 beginning."

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 War II.

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 daughter.

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.

 

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