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O'Neill's Hopeless Hope
for a Giant Cycle

 
BY Arthur Gelb
FROM The New York Times, September 28, 1958

'A Touch of the Poet' Is the Only Finished Play of Giant Cycle

"A Touch of the Poet," which opens at the Helen Hayes Theatre on Thursday, is almost certain to be the last new full-length play by Eugene O'Neill that will ever be produced.  It has been awaiting production since O'Neill revised it into final form in November, 1942 -- a Friday, the 13th.  O'Neill was, among other things, a superstitious man; the note of the date on which he finished the play to his satisfaction is in his own handwriting on a page of the original manuscript -- "November 13, 1942 (Friday)" it reads -- and indicates his ironic awareness of personal bad luck that was shortly to become disaster.

"A Touch of the Poet" is the only play of a projected Herculean cycle of eleven plays -- covering a period of more than 175 years in the history of an American family -- that its author had the strength and will to finish.  He wrote outlines or first drafts of the others, but destroyed them before he died because he did not want anyone else to finish them for him.

No Rush

In the early Thirties, when O'Neill embarked on the cycle, he envisioned it as the crowning achievement of an extraordinary career that began in 1916, when a group of passionate young writers, actors and artists in Provincetown, Mass., produced his one-act play, "Bound East for Cardiff." O'Neill had just about decided, in 1934, that he was no longer interested in quick productions of his plays.  Possibly the fact that "Days Without End," produced that year, had been coolly received, helped influence his decision.  In any case, he determined that his new project was going to be several plays long, and years away from production.

Adopting the novelist's, rather than the playwright's, approach, he started blocking out his saga of what he termed "a far from model American family," which he eventually decided to call "A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed."  The cycle's title reflected O'Neill's disenchantment with the state of the world, and with the United States, in particular.

Quoting the Bible

"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 a press interview.  "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?' "

By the middle of 1935, O'Neill, working in a house he and his wife had build in Sea Island, Ga., was at the end of the third scenario of what he then conceived as a five-play cycle.  (He often wrote detailed scenarios of his plays before setting down a single line of dialogue.)  The first play he had outlined was "The Career of Bessie Brown," set in 1900-1932.  Then he began working back chronologically, and "Bessie Bowen" became the last play of the cycle, retitled "The Hair of the Dog."  He decided to begin the cycle with "A Touch of the Poet," set in 1828.

Nothing remotely like the cycle had ever before been attempted for the American stage.  O'Neill himself was the only American dramatist who had ever come anywhere close to mounting such an epic, with his own thirteen-act trilogy, "Mourning Becomes Electra," produced in 1931.  But that undertaking was to be dwarfed by the cycle.

O'Neill's dream grew bigger as he grappled with his theme.  By 1936, he had blocked out three more plays, going further back in time -- to the Revolutionary War.  He changed and reshuffled titles and wondered if he should not go even further back in time.  He kept at the job, even through he found it hard going, particularly during the hot, damp Georgia summer.

In June, 1936, he wrote to Jasper Deeter, an old friend, and the director of the Hedgerow Theatre in Pennsylvania:

"An eight-play cycle is something I shall never choose to attempt again though I suffer one thousand reincarnations as a playwright."  And to Lawrence Langner, a director of the Theatre Guild, he wrote, in the same year: "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 debonaire, carefree time of it by comparison."

Later that year -- which happened to be the year he received the Nobel Prize for Literature -- O'Neill told an interviewer, who questioned him in Seattle, where he had gone to escape from the Georgia climate, and also to absorb atmosphere for the cycle:  "It goes on forever.  I feel I've been writing it forever.  I started out with five plays, and now it is eight plays -- that's a luckier number, anyway.  I hope it will start (to be produced) next October.  With one play a season, people can go on seeing it forever.  And when all eight plays are produced I hope they will run them off on successive nights -- that ought to knock the audiences cold.  They'll never want to see another play."

By 1937, O'Neill had changed his mind about production.  A breakdown of health had halted progress on the cycle.  Interviewed in an Oakland, Calif., hospital in January, 1937, where he had gone for an emergency appendectomy, O'Neill declared that he wanted to have five of the plays completed before the first one was produced.  But complications followed the operation, and, though he and his wife built and moved into a comfortable, secluded house facing the rugged peak of Mount Diablo, not far from San Francisco, ill health continued to plague him.

Rare Illness

He began to suffer from an illness later diagnosed as Parkinson's Disease, and still later diagnosed as an even rarer disease, of which the exact nature could not be completely ascertained.  The most obvious -- and dismaying -- symptom was palsy, affecting his hands.  Even as a young man, he had had a slight tremor in his hands, which he though he had inherited from his mother.  Now this trembling began to make it difficult, at times, for him to write.  To help control the trembling and conserve energy, he began writing in smaller an smaller letters.  Eventually, he was cramming a thousand words onto a sheet of paper the size that most people fill with 200.

As his writing grew smaller, his ideas grew bigger.  By 1939 he had finished drafts of four plays and was thinking in terms of a nine-play cycle, going back to the French and Indian War.  "I want to finish all nine plays before producing any," he told his friend, Stark Young, early that year.  "It's a tough job.  But as Al Capone said of the rackets, once you're in, you're in, and there's no way out."  Then came World War II and with it a sense of deep depression that threw him off his creative track.  He still had not gotten any of the plays into what he considered final form.

In March, 1941, O'Neill wrote his friend, the critic Clayton Hamilton, "My Cycle * * * has been on the shelf since the outbreak of the war * * *.  I still work on it for a few days of notes every now and then.  But the war made me feel there was not enough recognizable future in sight to go on with something that might take four or five more years to complete.  I felt a sudden necessity to write plays I'd wanted to write for a long time that I knew could be finished." These plays turned out to be "The Iceman Cometh" (1939), "Long Day's Journey Into Night" (1941) and "A Moon for the Misbegotten" (1943).

Like the cycle plays, "Journey" and "Moon" were an attempt -- though on a more intensely autobiographical level -- to go back to the root of an American family, in this case the O'Neill family.  "A Touch of the Poet" is concerned with many of the same themes as the autobiographical plays -- the love-hate relationship of husband and wife, parent and child; the punishment and forgiveness, the emphasis on "the whisky talking" and "ghosts haunting"; the robust Irish humor -- even Melody's old uniform, kept in a trunk, symbol of his lost glory, is like Mary Tyrone's wedding dress, a symbol of her lost, innocent girlhood.  And, whether consciously or not, O'Neill had his actor father in mind when he created Cornelius Melody, the Irish innkeeper who is the pivotal figure in "A Touch of the Poet."

"What [the play] needs," he told his friend, George Jean Nathan, in 1946, "is an actor like * * * James O'Neill, my old man.  One of those big-chested, chiseled-mug, romantic old boys who could walk onto a stage with al the aplomb and regal splendor with which they walked into the old Hoffman House, drunk or sober."

Between 1939 and 1943, O'Neill also began a series of plays, unrelated to the cycle, to be called "By Way of Obit."  Only one was completed, a long, one-acter called "Hughie," which was produced in Stockholm a little more that a week ago and will be done here at some future date.

But O'Neill could not forget the cycle.  It was still growing in his mind.

"I have not told anyone yet of expansion of idea to eleven plays," he wrote in his work diary, on May 21, 1941.  "Seems too ridiculous -- idea was first five plays, then seven, the eight, then nine, now eleven -- will never live to do it -- but what price anything but a dream!"

Unattainable Goal

The diminution of his dream of an eleven-play epic in 1941 to the production of one play in 1958 is as representative as anything can be of O'Neill's philosophy.  "It's the dream that keeps us fighting, willing, living," he had said as early as 1922, the year "The Hairy Ape" was produced, and two years after "Beyond the Horizon" had won him the first of four Pulitzer Prizes.  "The dreams that can be completely realized are not worth dreaming," he had added.  "The higher the dream, the more impossible it is to realize it fully * * *.  A man wills his own defeat when he pursues the unattainable.  But his struggle is his success!"

The struggle to bring off the cycle could not, by O'Neill's definition, have been a more successful failure.

According to O'Neill's notes for the cycle plays, which are at Yale University, "A Touch of the Poet" was finally placed fifth in the projected eleven-play series.  The Yale Library put a few sheets of notes on temporary display during the recent New Haven tryout of the play, with the permission of O'Neill's widow.

The notes, which include a detailed genealogical chart tracing various characters and their descendants through the eleven plays, show that the Harford family, represented in "A Touch of the Poet," by Deborah Harford and her offstage son, Simon, is introduced in the first play of the cycle, which is set in Rhode Island, 1755-1775.  This play, called "The Greed of the Meek," was double length and O'Neill planned to divide it into two separate plays.  Plays number three and four -- they, too, were written as one double length play entitled "And Give Me Death" -- were set in the period from 1783-1805 and contained a scene set in a hotel suite in Paris on Coronation Day, 1804.  "A Touch of the Poet," set in an inn outside of Boston, came next.  The six plays that followed were to trace Simon Harford and the girl who, in "Poet," is about to become his wife.  The girl, Sara, is the daughter of Cornelius Melody.

Play number six, covering the period from 1837-1846, was called "More Stately Mansions."  The remaining five plays of the cycle continued to trace the fortunes of Sara and Simon and their children form Boston to San Francisco, Shanghai and the Middle West; they covered the period from 1857-1932 and were called "The Calms of Capricorn," "The Earth's the Limit," "Nothing Is Lost Save Honor," "The Man on Iron Horseback" and "The Hair of the Dog."

Still Some Hope

But except for "A Touch of the Poet," these were not, according to O'Neill, in anything like produceable form.  By 1946 O'Neill could not help but suspect that his writing days were over.  The palsy had become so severe that he could no longer hold a pencil between his fingers with any assurance that it would not perversely fly from his hand in mid-sentence.  He could not bring himself to dictate, nor could he comfortably use a typewriter.  yet he still had a glimmering of hope, for in that year he wrote to Barrett Clark (who was revising a skeleton biography of O'Neill): "About the 'big' Cycle, well, I've mad lots of changes in the scheme.  I want to live to the age of seventy; to add some more things to the Cycle as outlined."

O'Neill fell short of his goal by five years.  He would have been seventy next Oct. 16.  The changes in the scheme involved the destruction, in 1943, of the two double-length plays that began the cycle and the sixth play, "More Stately Mansions."  He kept "A Touch of the Poet" because he felt it could stand alone; it was the one completed play that dealt largely with people outside the Harford family; Cornelius Melody did not appear in any of the other cycle plays.

One typewritten copy of "More Stately Mansions" somehow escaped destruction and found its way to the Yale collection; it is this manuscript that Mrs. O'Neill recently gave to Karl Gierow, director of Sweden's Royal Dramatic Theatre, on the very remote chance that a playable script might be salvaged from its rough, overlong text.

In 1953, O'Neill, ill and wasted and longing for death, destroyed the manuscript of "The Hair of the Dog" and what had been begun of the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth plays.  With the help of his wife, he tore them to pieces and burned them in the fireplace of his Boston hotel suite.  Not long after, on Nov. 27, O'Neill died in the same suite.

 

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