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O'Neill's Father Shaped His Son's Vision

 

BY Barbara Gelb
FROM The New York Times, April 27, 1986

In ''Long Day's Journey Into Night,'' Eugene O'Neill's thinly disguised portrait of his family, there is no hint of how vital an influence the acting career of the father - in the play called James Tyrone - was to become on the writing career of the son. Indeed, to heighten the play's tragedy, O'Neill implies that the son - self-described as a mere stammerer, a man without even ''the makings of a poet'' - probably will die young of tuberculosis.

Yet in truth the stammerer lived to revolutionize the American theater, to become his country's first literary dramatist, and to acknowledge, in ways both direct and subtle, the impact of his father's personality and career upon his own.

James O'Neill's ghost haunted his son's plays in many guises: as the embittered farmer, Ephraim Cabot, locked in Oedipal battle with his son in ''Desire Under the Elms''; as Cornelius Melody, the proud, self-deluded, and ultimately self-defeated Irish innkeeper of ''A Touch of the Poet,'' to mention only two of the vividly tragic characters based by the son on the father.

But it was also the aura and flavor of the theater of the late 19th century, James O'Neill's life's blood, that helped shape his son's theatrical genius. Only someone steeped, as Eugene O'Neill was, in the grandiloquent gestures and extravagant melodrama of that era would have thought it possible to impose a monumental native drama upon the trivial American theater of the early 1920's.

O'Neill seized on elemental themes derived from Greek tragedy, boldly dramatized incest, infanticide and adultery, dragged his protagonists into heroic confrontations with God, revived Shakespearean ghosts, and meted out fatalistic retribution - all against a native American background, and frequently in a form that took four or five hours to unfold.

''Long Day's Journey Into Night'' was completed in 1941, when O'Neill himself was ill and had become a prematurely old man of 52. He sensed that his ability to write was almost gone (he completed only one more play, ''A Continuued on page 00 Moon for the Misbegotten,'' in 1943) and his view of life, in those years, was at its gloomiest. He felt compelled, before he died, to write unsparingly about his family's tragedy, which had plagued him all his days, and at whose center he saw his father, looming larger than life.

He boiled down James Tyrone's tragedy into the course of a single summer's day in 1912, a day during which Tyrone is forced to realize that his wife has relapsed into drug addiction, his younger son has been stricken with tuberculosis, and his shiftless, alcoholic older son will never reform.

James O'Neill, like Tyrone, did have a troublesome family. He had a wife, Ella, who became addicted to morphine (a tightly kept family secret) and two sons: James Jr., who was, as in the play, a cynical ne'er-do-well (and who died of alcoholism at the age of 45, 11 years after the events of the play); and, of course, Eugene (called Edmund in the play), who did suffer from tuberculosis in the summer of 1912, but recovered within six months of entering a sanitarium and decided to become a playwright.

And yet, life was not unrelievedly beastly for James O'Neill, as it is made to seem for James Tyrone in ''Long Day's Journey.'' Much of the time, despite his wife's illness, and two difficult sons, James O'Neill enjoyed a lusty, hard-drinking, convivial, ego-gratifying life. He was, after all, for more than 30 years an acclaimed leading man, a huge box-office draw, applauded by his fans and welcomed as a celebrity in cities from New York to San Francisco.

It was not until late in his life that James O'Neill confronted, as does Tyrone in the play, his pathological terror of poverty, induced by a desperately deprived childhood. This fear, Tyrone confesses, caused him to sell out the youthful talent that could have made him a great Shakespearean actor, on a level with his contemporary and idol, the renowned Edwin Booth.

''That God-damned play I bought for a song and made such a great success in - a great money success - it ruined me with its promise of an easy fortune,'' Tyrone declares toward the end of ''Long Day's Journey,'' adding, ''What the Hell was it I wanted to buy, I wonder . . .''

The play was ''The Count of Monte Cristo,'' and James O'Neill toured in it for years, back and forth across the country, even after he looked too old to play the youthful role of Edmond Dantes.

Though not tall, James carried himself with a natural grace that gave him stature and he had, in addition to classical good looks, a magnetic stage presence. His son described him as being ''broad-shouldered and deep-chested,'' with ''a big, finely-shaped head, a handsome profile, deep-set, light-brown eyes.''

James had the kind of charm that communicated itself palpably across the footlights, and by the age of 24 he had already established a reputation among theater managers as a box-office draw, particularly with the ladies. But he was also working doggedly at his craft, ridding himself of all vestiges of brogue and learning to pitch his voice resonantly. Before he was 25 he had - as was expected of a serious actor in that day - 50 roles committed to memory, including most of Shakespeare's protagonists.

A theater fan who saw James play Macduff to Edwin Booth's Macbeth in Chicago recalled the experience in a letter to a newspaper that James clipped and pasted into a scrapbook:

''The house was packed to the doors and when Macduff announced the foul murder, the curtain went down on a roar of applause, which continued until Mr. Booth stepped before the curtain - when, all at once, the applause ceased. Mr. Booth walked across the stage from left to right and disappeared. Then the applause was renewed in tones of thunder. Men and women stood up, waving their handkerchiefs and crying, 'O'Neill, O'Neill! ' ''

As for James's Romeo, it so impressed the English-born actress Adelaide Nielson, the most popular Juliet of her time, that she begged him to join her company. For reasons of his own, he declined, but years later Miss Nielson publicly singled him out, describing him as ''the greatest Romeo I ever played with.'' Characterizing him as ''a little curly-haired Irishman,'' she added: ''When I played with other Romeos, I thought they would climb up the trellis to the balcony; but when I played with Jimmy O'Neill, I wanted to climb down the trellis, into his arms.''

The actors of that era, though not regarded as entirely respectable by their middle-class patrons, nonetheless provided considerable glamour and excitement in an age innocent of movies or television. James O'Neill could be said to have been the Richard Burton of his day, an actor with great sex appeal, inclined to coast on his charm, often wasteful of his talent.

Inevitably, like Burton, James tended to attract women and scandal. He began to acquire a somewhat rakish reputation when an actress named Louise Hawthorne was said to have killed herself over him in 1876. But there was worse to come.

In ''Long Day's Journey'' Tyrone's wife, Mary, reproaches him: ''And then, right after we were married, there was the scandal of that woman who had been your mistress, suing you. From then on, all my old friends either pitied me or cut me dead.''

The woman in question was a Nettie Walsh, who, in the fall of 1877, three months after James's marriage to Ella, went to court, claiming that James had married her five years earlier, when she was only 15, and that he was the father of her 3-year-old son. She said she wanted a divorce and alimony.

The 31-year-old James was now the leading man in a New York-based theater company, earning the munificent wage of $195 a week. He told a reporter who interviewed him backstage, ''The whole thing is a piece of blackmail and an old story that has been tagging me around ever since I began to acquire prominence in my profession.''

Nettie Walsh lost her case and the publicity, although it wounded James's young bride, enhanced his reputation as a romantic leading man.

It was six years later, in the winter of 1883, that James, now 37 and the father of a legitimate son, James Jr., was offered the role of Edmond Dantes in ''The Count of Monte Cristo.'' It seemed like just another in a series of swashbuckling roles that had come his way, but it turned out to be a money trap from which James never was able to extricate himself. His captivity in the role, obliging him to tour the country endlessly, became a profound influence, as well, on the life of his son Eugene.

James took off a few days between engagements of ''Monte Cristo'' when Eugene O'Neill was born on Oct. 16, 1888, and as soon as his mother regained her strength, she and the baby joined James on the road. Eugene's earliest memories, as he later recalled, were of his father on stage, ''dripping with salt and sawdust, climbing on a stool behind the swinging profile of dashing waves. It was then that the calcium lights in the gallery played on his long beard and tattered clothes, as with arms outstretched he declared that the world was his. This was a signal for the house to burst into deafening applause that drowned out the noise of the mechanical storm being manufactured backstage.''

O'Neill remembered, as well, that audiences were willing to sit for three and four hours, cheering their favorite players in familiar vehicles, and he saw no reason, later, why they should not sit raptly through his first double-length play, ''Strange Interlude.''

James did, periodically, try other roles, but none was as successful as Edmond Dantes, and he kept returning to ''Monte Cristo.'' At 65, he made a motion-picture version of the play for the Famous Players Film Company, and soon after he went into the Broadway play, ''Joseph and His Brethren.'' It was a biblical spectacle with a cast of 90, supported by walk-on camels, sheep, donkeys and an elephant, and James played both Pharaoh and the 106-year-old Jacob.

He toured in the play until 1916, when its producers' bankruptcy ended the run. The following year James, now 70, appeared in another biblical drama called ''The Wanderer,'' about the prodigal son. James played the father. It was his last acting engagement.

Meanwhile, his son, Eugene, was gradually establishing himself as an innovative playwright. He'd had several one-act plays produced by the Provincetown Players in their Greenwich Village theater between 1916 and 1919, including the short sea plays, ''Bound East for Cardiff,'' ''The Long Voyage Home'' and ''The Moon of the Caribbees.'' And finally, his first full-length play, ''Beyond the Horizon,'' was produced on Broadway on Feb. 3, 1920.

Instantly hailed as an original American tragedy, the play was welcomed by many critics as a coming of age for the Broadway theater. It was as though that was what James, all along, had been waiting for. He sat in a box at the Morosco Theater, beaming with pride, and he wept as the final curtain came down. One week later he suffered a stroke, and it was found that he had intestinal cancer.

His father's illness was a grievous blow to Eugene.

''This sickness of the Governor's is really hell to me,'' he wrote to the producer George Tyler. ''The thought that there is a chance of losing him just at the time when he and I, after many years of misunderstanding, have begun to be real pals - well, you can imagine.''

James went home to New London to die.

''It was the greatest satisfaction to him that I made good,'' his son later said. ''I thank whatever gods may be that 'Beyond' came into its own just in time for him.''

''Well, lad, I tried to drag you in by the back door of the theater and now you're on the stage,'' James said to his son.

It was during these final days of his life that James told Eugene how bitterly cursed he felt at having allowed himself to be trapped in ''Monte Cristo.'' James's final words were: ''Eugene - I'm going to a better sort of life - this sort of life - here -all froth - no good - rottenness!''

O'Neill wrote to Tyler, ''My father died broken, unhappy, intensely bitter, feeling that life was a damned hard billet to chew.'' O'Neill added that his father's dying words were ''written indelibly - seared on my brain - a warning from the Beyond to remain true to the best that is in me though the heavens fall.''

James Tyrone was, in a sense, O'Neill's Lear, which is why such of our finest actors as Fredric March, Laurence Olivier and Jason Robards have seized the opportunity to play him. James was a man destined to be outshone by his son, but the son - not thankless - chose to immortalize the father.
 

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