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
"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.
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.
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!"
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
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
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.