O'Neill: Life with Monte Cristoby Arthur Gelb, Barbara Gelb
Arthur and Barbara Gelb's O'Neill: Life with Monte Cristo is the first volume of the completely rewritten biography of America's only Nobel Prize-winning playwright. The Gelbs/i>
Never before in the annals of American letters have biographers returned to their subject with the aim of radically rethinking and retelling their story form beginning to end.
Arthur and Barbara Gelb's O'Neill: Life with Monte Cristo is the first volume of the completely rewritten biography of America's only Nobel Prize-winning playwright. The Gelbs originally published the first full-scale life of the dramatist in 1962, nine years after his death. In the intervening thirty-eight years, they have conducted extensive interviews and have unearthed masses of hitherto unknown or withheld material-letters, diaries, scenarios-from which they have fashioned this supremely definitive life of O'Neill.
The Gelbs take O'Neill from his lonely childhood through his seafaring, adventure-filled, and often self-destructive youth. This new research and perspective probes O'Neill's psychological torment over his mother's rejection and his father's benevolent tyranny, his suicide attempt, his struggle with alcoholism, and his tumultuous love affairs. This first volume follows O'Neill to his first triumph on Broadway with Beyond the Horizon that set him on the path toward the ultimate brilliant achievements of The Iceman Cometh, A Moon for the Misbegotten, and what is universally regarded as America's greatest play, Long Day's Journey into Night.
Author Biography: Arthur Gelb, former managing editor of The New York Times, has edited numerous works, including Great Lives of the Twentieth Century. He is president of The New York Times Company Foundation. Among Barbara Gelb's other books is So Short a Time, a biography of John Reed and Louise Bryant.
The New York Times
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Read an Excerpt
In the late spring of 1939, Eugene O'Neill and his wife, Carlotta Monterey, were living in a Chinese-style, white concrete-block house on a 158-acre estate in California. Built on the side of a mountain thirty-five miles east of San Francisco, reachable only by a private road and guarded by electrically-operated gates, it was designed as an ideal, secluded haven where O'Neill planned to spend the balance of his creative life. He and Carlotta had moved in a year and a half earlier.
In his study O'Neill, with habitual precision, had arranged his outlines, scenarios and drafts, as well as the notebooks that accompanied him wherever he livedthe sort he had been cramming with ideas for the future since 1912 when he first began writing plays at the age of twenty-four.
At fifty, O'Neill was at the peak of his artistic power. Despite recent bouts of ill health, he managed to draw on the intellectual resources and physical determination that had sustained him throughout an astoundingly fertile career, and he was at work on a vastly complicated cycle of eleven plays, depicting the 175-year history of an Irish-American family. It was his most ambitious project to date and he expected that it would take several more years to complete. As always, his pencil could scarcely scribble fast enough the epic ideas churning in his mind.
By early June, however, his West Coast Eden was no longer serene. His physical conditiondiagnosed some months earlier as Parkinson's diseasewas worsening; a gradual breakdown of brain cells caused faulty coordinationbetween nerves and muscles.
While retaining his mental clarity, O'Neill, at ever-more frequent intervals, would lose control of his arms and legs. Reaching for a sheet of paper, his hand flew upward. Attempting to walk forward, he stumbled backward. Trying to clear his throat before speaking, his tongue clove to his palate, his voice emerging as a croak, his words unformed.
He never knew when he would be ambushed. His symptoms varied in intensity, possibly aggravated by emotional stress. Even as a young man his hands had trembled slightly, a trait he believed he had inherited from his mother and which doubtless was exacerbated by the excesses of a derelict, alcoholic youth.
Now his hands had begun to shake severely. He could not set down a creative thought except by pencil, and the tremor made writing difficult. He found it impossible to dictate or to use a typewriter and, to help control the shaking and conserve energy, he formed ever smaller letters. His calligraphy became so cramped that he found himself squeezing a thousand words onto a sheet of paper he had once filled with two hundred. Much of his writing had to be deciphered under a magnifying lens.
Abruptly persuaded that he was running out of time, that crippling illness would forestall his ability to write at all, he set aside the cycle in favor of work that held a compelling personal meaning for him. As he wrote to a friend, he felt "a sudden necessity to write plays I'd wanted to write for a long time that I knew could be finished."
On June 6, he noted in his work diary the ideas for two plays. One was The Iceman Cometh, a soulful meditation on the most destructive period of his youth, which he completed in December, 1939. The other was the play that would bare the dark family secrets that had shaped his tragic vision: his deeply troubled relationship with his famous actor-father gripped since childhood by a terror of poverty; with his morphine-addicted mother and with his cynical, alcoholic older brother.
O'Neill was wrenchingly aware that in reimagining his family's devastating interactionhusband embattled with wife, mother and father both in bitter conflict with their two sons, brother challenging brotherhe had the makings of his greatest work, the play that was to take its place as the monumental American tragedy of the century, Long Day's Journey Into Night.
O'Neill believed he had achieved a compassionate detachment that would allow him to expiate the demons of his youth while writing of his parents and brother with understanding and forgiveness. And yet he was uneasy in setting out to betray his family's heretofore hidden life. But there was really no way he could not put the story on stage, to portrayas he believed they really werehis parents, brother and himself trapped in an unrelenting dance of death.
His wife, Carlotta, a maternal, protective presence for the past ten years, was helpless to soothe his pain. A dedicated diarist, she noted on June 21, 1939: "Gene talks to me for hours about a play (in his mind) of his mother, his father, his brother and himself (in his early 20%) in New London! (Autobiography). A hot, close, sleepless nightAn ache in our hearts for things we can't escape!"
O'Neill had, in fact, been writing disguised versions of his family mythology since the beginning of a career that began off Broadway in 1916 with the one-act sea play, Bound East for Cardiffa career that was firmly launched four years later. It was in 1920, when the commercial American theater was awash in a sea of trivial melodrama and farce, that his Beyond the Horizon was staged on Broadway and was instantly hailed by critics as the first authentic American tragedy.
The play won him his first Pulitzer Prize and it was only a year later that The New York Tribune acknowledged the thirty-two-year-old dramatist's rising stature by publishing, under a two-column headline, "Eugene O'Neill's Credo and His Reasons for His Faith," a doctrine that was to govern the whole of his career, and that expressed his view that "the tragic alone" had "that significant beauty which is truth"; it was, he declared, "the meaning of lifeand the hope." O'Neill scorned the artificial glibness and hypocrisy that defined traditional Broadway melodrama, in which stick-figure men and women confronted each other with superficial problems and resolved them with equally superficial denouements. These were the sort of plays calculated by commercial producers to send audiences home feeling reassured and smug about their own lives.
O'Neill wanted no part of it. "Most modern plays are concerned with the relation between man and man, but that does not interest me at all," he once said. "I am only interested in the relation between man and God."
He was determined to substitute honest emotions and attitudes as he saw them. He wanted to demonstrate that ordinary men and women, often alienated and inarticulate, ensnared in lethal passions and striving for redemption, could be ennobled by their struggle with destiny. He exhorted audiences to confront a new native genre, defined by realistic plots and naturalistic characters in the grip of mystical forces they could not escape. Hewing to this philosophy, O'Neill went on to revolutionize the American stage. Year after year, he presented plays in which his characters met life head-on, in which they wrestled with societal constrictions and confronted their illusions usually to succumb to forces they were powerless to control.
He made it his mission to compel the American theater to grow up, to demonstrate that the stage could be as valid and powerful a literary medium as the most revealing of contemporary novels. And under his fierce and unflagging tutelage, the American theater did indeed continue to mature year by year.
As he once explained, he himself did not love life because it was pretty: "Prettiness is only clothes-deep. I am a truer lover than that. I love it naked. There is beauty to me even in its ugliness. In fact, I deny the ugliness entirely, for its vices are often nobler than its virtues, and nearly always closer to a revelation."
Unafraid to grapple with the consequences of incest, uxoricide, matricide, fratricide, infanticide and suicide, he also experimented with masks, wrote serious roles for black actors in an essentially segregated theater, audaciously borrowed the technique of Shakespearean ghosts and asides and even dared to write at Shakespearean length.
Then, in a startling turnaroundafter such well-received tragedies as The Emperor Jones (1920), "Anna Christie" (1921), The Hairy Ape, (1922) Desire Under the Elms, (1924) Strange Interlude (1928) and Mourning Becomes Electra (1931)he ventured into nostalgic comedy with Ah, Wilderness!, an homage to the carefree boyhood he wished had been his, and an instant hit on Broadway in 1933.
By that time, he had earned two more Pulitzer Prizesone for "Anna Christie" (the only title he enclosed in quotation marks, presumably because the heroine's real name is Anna Christopherson) and another for Strange Interlude. Three years later, he became the first American playwright to achieve the Nobel Prize for Literature and was embraced as Broadway's promethean emblem. His prominence was such that the Marx Brothers were inspired to parody his style in their film, Animal Crackers, and Cole Porter to celebrate him in the lyrics of "You're the Top" (along with Toscanini, Fred Astaire and Mickey Mouse).
In 1934, however, O'Neill's Days Without End was dismissed by the critics as bleak and sanctimonious. It was in fact an earnest if high-flown and overly-solemn re-evaluation of the Catholic faith that had never ceased to hound him, and O'Neill thought the critics had utterly missed the point; he was stunned and aggrieved by what he called "the barrage of idiotic reviews."
Concluding that audiences were simply "not interested in the modern theater," he jeered at Broadway as "showshop." Deciding to distance himself from the Broadway he had for fourteen years bent to his will, he vowed to withhold production of all future work. It was then that he shut himself away with his wife, evading interviewers eager to learn what might come next. At the time he began writing The Iceman Cometh and Long Day's Journey Into Night, no new play of O'Neill's had been produced in New York for five and a half years and his reputation as America's titan of the drama was in limbo.
O'Neill at fifty looked ten years older. His dark hair was streaked with white and deeply-cut lines were etched into a lofty forehead. A sparse, gray triangular mustache roofed a mouth at whose corners lurked the hint of an ironic smile. His cheekbones, under the sagging skin, were high and strong. His jaw was still firm, his chin chiseled from granite. He smiled rarely, but when he did it was like the sudden lifting of a fog.
His eyes, set wide apart under heavy brows, illuminated his face. Large, dark, immeasurably deep, they were neither critical nor disconcerting; his gaze was one of profound and gentle searching. An artist who sketched him on two separate occasions described his eyes as "circles of intense darkness" that "one sees in the faded daguerreotypes of Poe." Like Poe, too, the artist observed, "he looks as if he were surrounded by an aura of mysterious sorrow." Nothing shocked him. "To me," he once declared, "there are no good people or bad people but just people."
The California house in which O'Neill had chosen to seclude himself was staffed (until the end of 1941 when America entered World War II) by efficient servants, but the O'Neills saw few people. It was Carlotta's declared avocation to maintain an atmosphere conducive to O'Neill's work. "Orders were," she said, "not even if the house is on fire, he is never to be disturbed."
O'Neill labored on Long Day's Journey Into Night every morning, many afternoons, and sometimes in the evenings. Often he wept as he wrote. He slept fitfully, in a room adjoining his study, in a bed converted from a Chinese opium table of carved teak. It was one he had fancied and that Carlotta had bought in San Francisco to accommodate his six-foot frame. Occasionally in the night, he would go to Carlotta's room and talk of the play and of his suffering.
In interviews following her husband's death, she tried to convey his creative struggle. After eating his breakfast on a tray in his bedroom at 7:30, he shut himself into his study to work until one o'clock. "He would come out of his study looking gaunt, his eyes red from weeping. Sometimes he looked ten years older than when he went in in the morning. For a while he tried to have lunch downstairs with me.
"But it was very bad, because he would sit there and I knew his whole mind was on his playacts, lines, ideasand he couldn't talk. I would have to sit there perfectly dumb. I didn't even want to make a sound with the chair that might disturb him. It made me very nervous and it made him nervous seeing me sitting there like that. We decided it would be best for him to have his lunch on a tray, alone."
O'Neill napped during the early afternoon and then, if the weather was mild, he swam in his pool, from which he had a soothing view of the valley below. Later in the day he and Carlotta sometimes walked about the grounds and looked in on the chickens he kept as a hobby (a wistful recreation of a brief childhood effort at poultry-raising).
On some days he went back to work until dinner time. In the evenings he and Carlotta usually sat before their outsize fireplace, O'Neill reading aloud, most often from Yeats, while his Dalmatian, Blemie, lay at his feet.
"If he felt gay, he would act something out," Carlotta recalled. "He could be the worst ham you ever met. But if he was sick, he would be silent and just sit and think. Sometimes he wouldn't talk all day long."
O'Neill explained to Carlotta that he had to write the play because he had "to forgive his family and himself." He held a bone-deep, biblical belief that the sins of the father were laid upon the children, a concept nowhere articulated with more force than in Long Day's Journey Into Night.
O'Neill's focus for the play was the eventful summer of 1912 when, about to turn twenty-four, he was pulled up short by a frightening (if short-lived) attack of tuberculosis. It also marked a crucial stage in his mother's chronic morphine addiction and a time when his father was forced to confront the fading career that had soared during the late 19th century.
James O'Neill, in his son's view, was a man crippled by the fear of the poorhouse that had been implanted in childhood by the Irish famine. This fear had not only fatally obstructed his artistic development but had stunted him as husband and parent.
O'Neill viewed his convent-educated and seemingly fragile, drug-dependent mother as crushed by life's calamities but nevertheless a woman both manipulative and formidable in her helplessness.
As for his offer malicious older brother, James Jr. (or Jamie as he was known), O'Neill saw him as emotionally hobbled by his parents' blunders, an irredeemable failure at thirty-four, ruthlessly drinking himself to death.
O'Neill was equally unsparing of himself, acknowledging that he had been resentful and alienated, wrecking his health with defiant juvenile adventuring and taking refuge in the nihilism of Nietzsche.
Long Day's Journey Into Night, while not literal autobiography, in many ways does mirror the characters and events of that vividly recalled summer of 1912. It is, in fact, set in a replica of the living room of his parents' vacation home in New London, Connecticut. To heighten the tragedy, O'Neill condensed the action to a single day in August.
Steeped in Gaelic history, O'Neill named the family Tyrone, after a county in Ulster once ruled by the great O'Neill clan. He chose not to disguise the given names of his father and brother, but naming the mother proved more complex. Christened Mary Ellen Quinlan, but known since her marriage as Ella Quinlan O'Neill, in the play she is called Mary Cavan Tyrone (Cavan being another county in Ulster).
He bestowed on himself the name Edmund, the most symbolic in the play, borrowed from a brother who had died in infancy before O'Neill was born. Destined to be always "a little in love with death," O'Neill morbidly designated the dead infant as Eugene.
All four Tyrones are skilled (as were the O'Neills) in the perverse game of love-hate, with its cycles of punishment and forgiveness: the husband alternately excoriating and pardoning his wife for her addiction; the wife taunting him for his Irish-peasant parsimony and barroom carousing, then wearily forgiving him with the lament, "None of us can help the things that life has done to us."
The game is perpetuated by the sons in a sometimes vicious sibling rivalry that inevitably subsides into lachrymose reconciliation. Their father, after repeatedly berating them for ingratitude, reembraces them with the rueful acknowledgment, "a poor thing, but mine own."
In revealing what he held to be the truth, the artistic, if not in every detail the precise truth, about his own heritage, O'Neill was, in effect, justifying himself to the world for being the son of his father. "Facts are facts," he emphasized early in his career, "but the truth is beyond and outside them."
A year into the writing of the play, O'Neill summed up his satisfaction with what he had variously thought of calling A Long Day's Journey, Diary Of A Day's Journey and The Long Day's Journey: "... a day in which things occur which evoke the whole past of the family and reveal every aspect of its interrelationships. A deeply tragic play, but without any violent dramatic action. At the final curtain, there they still are, trapped within each other by the past, each guilty and at the same time innocent, scorning, loving, pitying each other, understanding and yet not understanding at all, forgiving but still doomed never to be able to forget."
What O'Neill did not mention was that by play's end no member of the household is sober. James and his two sons have been drinking all day while Mary has been poisoning herself with morphine. Even the housemaid, the fifth member of the cast, has imbibed enough to loosen her tongue (and the offstage cook has been plied with whiskey, as well). An inspired O'Neill has been dosing his characters with the truth serum that will force them to reveal both their strangled love and their naked hostility.
In fact, in one of his notes he referred to the play's progressively "shifting alliances in battle" among the father, mother and sons and even thought of giving it a bellicose title: The Long Day's Insurrection. It is hard to imagine a family more furiously embattled, more avid to wound, than the four Tyrones. But in his first draft, O'Neill presented a family even more embittered, vituperative and denunciatory of each other.
From this draft, as well as from his work notes and early scenario, it is apparent that as he continued to revise the play he achieved a perspective that had at first eluded him. In addition to deleting some of the more openly vicious accusations, he tempered the dialogue to soften the characterizations. In some instances, no doubt, he made the changes purely for dramatic balance. But he appears to have made others as he gradually came to a more compassionate understanding of his family's fated torment.
It was not until March 30, 1941 that O'Neill finished "going over" the typescript of what he described as "second & I think final draft." On that date, he noted, " like this play better than any I have ever writtendoes most with the leasta quiet play!and a great one, I believe." He appears to have made one final addition two days later: a revelatory speech for James Tyrone in Act IV.
By then, all but spent from the effort, he told Carlotta, "Well, thank God, that's finished." In his inscription of the typescript he gave Carlotta on their twelfth wedding anniversary that July, he wrote it was her love that had enabled him to face his dead at last and write the play "with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness for all the four haunted Tyrones."
Although sublimely confident of the play's sweep and power, O'Neill knew he did not want it presented during his lifetime nor did he inform his long-time Broadway producers, the Theater Guild, of its existence.
"There are good reasons in the play itself," O'Neill wrote to his friend, the critic, George Jean Nathan, "why I'm keeping this one very much to myself, as you will appreciate when you read it." Two weeks later he confided to Nathan, "I'm not even having it copyrighted so it won't be on record anywhere."
On November 29, 1945, O'Neill consigned the sealed manuscript to his publisher's safe at Random House, stipulating it be kept from the public until twenty-five years after his death. A second sealed manuscript was sent to the O'Neill collection at Yale.
While O'Neill's true reason for insisting that the play be withheld will probably never be known, one possible explanation is the overarching egotism of the artist: a fear that the play, if released without distance, would be judged as mere confessional autobiography, rather than a pure work of art.
O'Neill completed only two more works after Long Day's Journey Into Nightthe one-act Hughie in 1942 and A Moon for the Misbegotten, finished in 1943. By then, at fifty-five, illness had robbed him utterly of the ability to work.
"The worst part ... in the bad spells," he explained to Lawrence Langner, a co-director of the Theater Guild, "is the inner shakes which are so much harder to take than the outerwhen you feel it inside all over your body until even your brain seems to do the shimmy."
O'Neill had become a semi-invalid. In despair over all the work he would never finish, he began to vent his frustration on Carlotta, and she fought back. They battled with increasing intensity.
Early in 1946, the Theater Guild was still unaware of the existence of Long Day's Journey Into Night. Knowing, however, that O'Neill had completed other new works, the Guild began coaxing him to release them. With the war ended, the Guild believed it was the right time to reestablish O'Neill's voice on Broadway.
At first O'Neill refused. A Broadway production would not only again risk his reputation in the "showshop" but would further erode his precarious health. Finally, however, he was persuaded to release one playThe Iceman Cometh. With profound misgivings, he left California for New York, accompanied by an equally apprehensive Carlotta, to oversee casting and rehearsals.
Because The Iceman Cometh marked the first production in a dozen years of a new O'Neill play, let alone the reemergence into public view of its reclusive author, newspapers and magazines made much of the event, gleefully quoting O'Neill on his generally pessimistic world view.
During rehearsals O'Neill, as was his wont, strenuously resisted the Guild's appeals to cut the play; and he found fault with some members of the cast, as well as with the director.
The Iceman Cometh opened on Broadway October 9, 1946 to mostly respectful and, in some cases, laudatory reviews, but many of the critics, even those who praised it, complained that it was excessively long and repetitious; like his earlier Strange Interlude and Mourning Becomes Electra, the production required a dinner intermission. The play had an unspectacular run of 136 performances, partly attributable to the fact that in an atmosphere of postwar optimism Broadway audiences were not in a mood for literary tragedy.
O'Neill was stung by the failure of his once-loyal public to respond to the power of what he knew was a masterful work. And when, early the following year, the Theater Guild's flawed production of his final play, A Moon for the Misbegotten, closed during its out-of-town tryout, he felt himself to have been mortally wounded.
Only another writer of O'Neill's stature could have understood the severity of the blow. Experiencing a similar period of rejection, Tennessee Williams told an interviewer in 1981: "I'm very conscious of my decline in popularity, but I don't permit it to stop me because I have the example of so many playwrights before me. I know the dreadful notices Ibsen got. And O'Neillhe had to die to make Moon successful." It is true that A Moon for the Misbegotten remained grievously undervalued for more than twenty years after O'Neill's death, until it underwent a resurrection on Broadway that wrung from it every last tragic, cathartic drop and finally garnered its merited acclaim as a major work of the American theater.
Suffering under his twin disappointments, O'Neill foresaw the final withering of his reputation. Gloomily, he fled New York with Carlotta, as he had in 1934 after the failure of Days Without End. This time, however, it was to await his death in a seclusion that was almost absolute, on the rocky coast of Marblehead in Massachusetts.
By now, Carlotta was herself ailing. She could no longer summon the boundless resilience with which she had dedicated her life to O'Neill's nurture and comfort; her nerves tattered, she had lost the vitality to focus on his needs or sympathize with his temperament. Their self-imposed exile, unsurprisingly, was anything but tranquil. Dejected over his progressive frailty and unable to release the torrents of his imagination through writing, O'Neill seemed bent on wrenching what drama he could from his domestic life.
The suicide of his older son, Eugene Jr., in September of 1950, plunged him into an even deeper gloom, and he and Carlotta fell into an ever-more destructive ritual of punishment and forgiveness that seemed almost consciously to mimic the scenes of battle between James and Mary Tyrone. It was not long before the discord between O'Neill and Carlotta erupted into a humiliating public episode of marital warfare, during which O'Neill attempted to have Carlotta certified as "an insane person" and have her consigned to the care of a legal guardian. She countered with a petition for separate maintenance, charging O'Neill with "cruel and abusive treatment."
Both actions were eventually dropped, but while they were pending, O'Neill's friends, including his publisher and producers, tried to remove him from what they considered Carlotta's suffocating, if not malevolent, control (thereby invoking her eternal hatred). In the end, however, O'Neill made it clear he wanted no one but his wife to attend him. After negotiating a wary peace, he submitted himself to her stern protectiveness, clinging to her with the last of his feeble endurance.
Shortly before his death, he presented Carlotta with yet another typescript of Long Day's Journey Into Night. He addressed it to his "beloved wife" and, in handwriting that had grown infinitesimal, he wrote: "... wife, friend, helper & lover ... I have loved you for 23 years now, Darling, and now that I am old and can work no more, I love you more than ever!"
In a hotel suite in Boston, Carlotta nursed her husband during the grueling final months of his illness, a martyrdom O'Neill rewarded by willing to her the sole control of his estate.
Carlotta Monterey O'Neill, after her husband's death on November 27, 1953, took stock of her situation as the widow and heir of America's only Nobel Prize dramatist. Depleted and brimming with self-pity, she spent the next two years poring over (and editing) the daily diaries she had kept since her elopement with O'Neill in 1928, reacquainting herself with the dozens of manuscripts O'Neill had devotedly inscribed to her, and rereading the ardent love letters and poems he had written to her.
It was in the early spring of 1955, that Carlotta made up her mind to publish Long Day's Journey Into Night. As is all too often the case with the literary departed, O'Neill's mandate was cavalierly disregarded and the play was published and produced in 1956, a scant three years after he died.
Carlotta told anyone who asked that O'Neill had initially stipulated that publication be withheld to spare the feelings of his cherished older son, who would not have wished to see the secrets of his grandparents' troubled marriage laid bare. Eugene Jr. was one of the trusted few to whom O'Neill had shown the manuscript; in an entry in his work diary he wrote that his son was "greatly moved, which pleases me a lot."
With Eugene Jr.'s suicide in 1950, however, Carlotta insisted that the reason for withholding the play had ceased to exist. In this instance, her argument is negated by a letter dictated by O'Neill to his publisher, Bennett Cerf, at Random House, nine months after Eugene Jr.'s death, in which he thanked Cerf for returning various manuscripts and notes he had requested, and emphatically reiterated his earlier instructions to the firm:
"No, I do not want Long Day's Journey Into Night," he wrote. "That, as you know, is to be published twenty-five years after my deathbut never produced as a play."
There is evidence that O'Neill, at a much earlier date and before he made his stipulation, briefly did consider the possibility of a production; he left notes in which he speculated about the running time of a four-act version as against a five-act version. The fact remains, however, that there is no evidence O'Neill, having once imposed his twenty-five-year interdiction, ever lifted the ban.
In her eagerness to justify her release of the play, Carlotta further claimed that O'Neill, not long before his final illness, had made a point of assuring her she need not fear running out of money after his death, for she was to regard Long Day's Journey Into Night as her "nest egg."
True or not, it is a typically O'Neillian irony that he might well have remained all but forgotten in his own country if his instructions to withhold the play had been honored. For it was the play's premature release that revived, with full glory, O'Neill's stature. And all because his willful widow chose to contravene his wishes.
In April of 1954, Carlotta had asked Donald C. Gallup, curator of the Collection of American Literature at Yale's Beinecke Library, which housed the bulk of O'Neill's papers, to return the original typescript of Long Day's Journey Into Night. "We had been holding [it] sealed, among the materials restricted for twenty-five years," Gallup said.
It was then that Carlotta, having made up her mind to publish the play, approached Random House. After consulting her lawyer, she wrote in her diary on June 20, 1954 that she "rang up Cerf in regard to L.D.J.I.N. & sent him a letter of permission to read it! (As if he hadn't done it before! He must think me a most gullible person.)"
Carlotta worried, however, about Cerf's reaction to her instructions to break the seal. And indeed he let her know promptly that he disapproved.
On July 2, Carlotta noted that Cerf had phoned: "He is 'horrified' over Long Day's Journey Into Night!? What an uncultured brain for a supposed adult [?] publisher, no wonder his book 'list' is so poor. A harmless person but has not 'grown up'just the 'punster'!"
Although Cerf had said nothing about wanting to publish the play, she chose to assume that that was what he had in mind. Her diary entry for July 4 read: "I can't allow Random House to publish Long Day's Journey Into Nightthey haven't the understanding or the feeling for such a book!"
According to Cerf's account, Carlotta asked him to come to her suite at the Ritz-Carlton in Boston to discuss the publication, but he decided to write to her instead, expressing his dismay:
"Ever since I spoke to you on the phone over the weekend, I have been pacing up and down worrying about Long Day's Journey Into Night. Before I come to see you, I think it would be helpful for both you and myself to get my own thoughts down on paper."
Allowing that the play had "some of Gene's most magnificent writing in it," Cerf nevertheless found the portraits of his parents and brother "simply horrifying," and said he could well understand the provision O'Neill had made to withhold publication until twenty-five years after his death.
What purpose, he asked, would be served by this premature publication? The secret morphine addiction of O'Neill's mother, he said, would now be flaunted "to all the world." Even worse, the portrayal of O'Neill's father was, in Cerf's opinion, "so awful" that it would prompt "thousands of people" to say "'How could any man write that way about his own father?'"
Cerf conceded that Carlotta had the legal right to have the play published and said that if she felt "strongly enough" about it he would set aside his own objections and accommodate herwith certain provisos "for the protection of our Random House name."
He then proceeded to list them, surely aware they would infuriate Carlotta: an "explicit statement" setting forth her precise reasons for overruling the twenty-five year stipulation "set down by Gene himself"; authorization "not only to give the statement to the newspapers, but to include it in the edition of the book itself."
Mercilessly pressing his point, Cerf went on to say that while Carlotta might be indifferent to how her action was viewed, he "would resent very strongly any possible insinuation that we had published this play now either for purposes of getting publicity or making a profit on the project." Cerf ended with a half-hearted apology for sounding "harsh and uncompromising."
Needless to say, Carlottahaving recently told Cerf, "I am O'Neill"did not accede to his terms. On July 9, she wrote in her diary: "Receive the most astounding letter from Cerf! Write him in reply& then think better of it!" Instead, she sent Cerf's letter, together with her unmailed reply, to her lawyer, Robert Meserve. "Cerf will have to give up L.D.J.I.N.," she wrote.
A month later, she took a sly slap at him in a letter to Brooks Atkinson, the drama critic of The New York Times, whom O'Neill had admired. While complaining to Atkinson that Random House had allowed its set of O'Neill's plays to go out of print, she inadvertently confirmed Cerf's implication that profit was at least partly her motive for wishing to publish Long Day's Journey Into Night.
The unavailability of O'Neill's plays, she told Atkinson, had curtailed her income because if the books were not to be had in the stores, "the would-be purchaser gives up his effort of owning O'Neill's worksand Mrs. O'Neill eats lessso to speak!"
Late in 1955 Carlotta left Boston and moved to the Lowell, a serene, elegant hotel on New York's upper East Side, where she and O'Neill had stayed briefly many years earlier. On November 27, she again wrote to Atkinson: "Two years ago todayat this hourGene was dying? Will I ever be able to free myself from this manand the love I felt for him!"
Spiritual captive though she declared herself to be, Carlotta felt sufficiently empowered to give the manuscript of Long Day's Journey Into Night to the Yale University Press, which, evincing none of the qualms voiced by Cerf, published the play in February of 1956; it became the best-selling book in its history. (Carlotta deeded the income from American and Canadian publication to the Yale Library for upkeep of its Eugene O'Neill Collection and for scholarships at the Yale Drama School.)
Even before publication, however, Carlotta had decided to test the waters by granting permission for an initial staging of the play in Stockholm by Sweden's Royal Dramatic Theater, which had a long history of popular O'Neill productions (including The Iceman Cometh in 1947). In June of 1955, Carlotta had written to Karl Ragnar Gierow, the theater's director: "A few weeks before my husband died he dictated a long list of things he wanted done and not done. But, under no circumstances was [Long Day's Journey] to be produced in the theater in this country. And he gave me the reason why." (Carlotta in her letter did not specify "the reason why.")
The Royal Dramatic Theater presented the world premiere of Long Day's Journey Into Night (as translated into Swedish) on February 10, 1956 (which, coincidentally, was the same month it was published in the United States) and word of its triumph in Stockholm was not long in reaching New York.
In 1956, the off-Broadway theater was in the early fervor of a renaissance. A new wave of quixotic novices descended on Greenwich Village in search of any cheap space that could serve as an experimental arenamuch as had been the case forty years earlier when a newly-formed off-Broadway group called the Provincetown Players provided the young Eugene O'Neill with his first crude stage off Washington Square.
Radically departing from the slick productions of Broadway, the downtown idealists of the 1950's made do with sketchy sets and costumes, concentrating on the often tentative work of untested writers, and also on re-imagined revivals of plays they believed had never been produced with their authors' intended vision.
Many of the actors, as in the days of the Provincetown Players, were singular but as yet undiscovered talents. The audiences, themselves mostly young, were stalwart theatergoers willing to sit on unpadded chairs or backless benches. Anyone who participated in those fledgling days of off-Broadway understood that here was truly a case of the play's the thing.
Centered in this creative cauldron was the Circle in the Square at 5 Sheridan Square, with only 199 seats ranged along three sides of a small, open stage. Audiences felt an intimacy with the action and, if an actor stumbled, he could literally fall into the lap of a viewer in the front row. Actors quickly realized they could not hide behind the sort of tricks and mannerisms possible on a proscenium stage and, if they wanted to survive, they were forced to develop a style of absolute honesty.
Indeed, they could have done no less under their relatively inexperienced but intuitive director, José Quintero. With an equally unseasoned but stagestruck business manager, Theodore Mann, the Circle had begun presenting plays on a shoestring in 1952. Following the productions of several works that failed, Quintero was inspired to reexamine Tennessee Williams's Summer and Smoke and the delicacy of his approach gained the rapturous attention of Brooks Atkinson. The revival, which opened on May 24, 1952, enjoyed a long run and made a star of the luminous Geraldine Page.
Early in 1956, Quintero sought Carlotta's permission to revive The Iceman Cometh. The fact that it had vanished from Broadway after a relatively short run ten years earlier was a reason in itself. And the realistically bleak setting that belied the play's complexities of theme and action were challenges that the 32-year-old Quintero was eager to confront on the minimally adorned, open stage of the Circle in the Square.
Quintero, in view of his achievement with the Williams revival, did not doubt that he could obtain the rights to The Iceman Cometh. He was by now aware through news reports of both the published Long Day's Journey Into Night and the acclaimed Swedish production, but it did not occur to him, neophyte that he was, to put himself forward as that play's American director.
After seeking Brooks Atkinson's advice, Carlotta invited Quintero to visit her on March 15 and, according to both their accounts, they hit it off at once. Quintero was dazzled by her.
Much courted and thrice-married before she met O'Neill, Carlotta had been accustomed to adulation and luxury. A former actress renowned for her glamour, she was, at sixty-eight, still vital and magnetic, if decidedly mercurial.
Her hair, now steel-gray, was thick and silky and brushed straight back. Her face, pale and nearly unlined, was devoid of makeup, and she habitually wore tinted glasses that concealed the deep shadows under her eyes. While little trace remained of her once-famous beauty, she had not lost her supremely regal bearing. Her voice was theatrical and magnificently self-assured. Always known for her immaculate grooming, she now dressed only in blackthe expensively-tailored, dramatic black of resolute and wealthy widowhood.
Carlotta, for her part, was charmed by Quintero and it is easy to understand why. Despite his Panamanian heritage and Spanish accent, he bore an uncanny resemblance to the moody and intense Irishman whom Carlotta had married. Like O'Neill, Quintero was slim, dark and handsome and his piercing, deep-brown eyes reminded Carlotta of her husband's.
Quintero was also hypersensitive, recklessly self-dramatizing and as volatile as Carlotta herself. She astonished Quintero by almost at once regaling him with intimate details of her life with O'Neill, to which he responded with awed empathy. Their meeting concluded with Carlotta giving Quintero the rights to Iceman. "I trust you. I like you," she said.
Daringly casting against type, Quintero chose an unknown, 35-year old actor named Jason Robards Jr. for the pivotal role of the 50-year-old Hickey. Quintero recalled many years later the cataclysm engendered by Robards's audition: "Suddenly, my understanding of the depths of the play began to emerge. He knew more about O'Neill than I did. He added texture and I could almost feel it in my hands. I could certainly feel it resonating inside me. Not since Crime and Punishment had guilt been so tangible to me."
Robards as Hickey proved to be nothing less than magisterial; his horrifying transformation from manic salesman to fanatical purveyor of death left audiences awestruck.
The unorthodox open staging created an intimacy not only with Hickey but with all of the play's disintegrating barroom characters. The audience was so close to the stage that a patron in the front row once reached out and touched Robards. "I guess he wanted to make sure I was real," the actor recalled. O'Neill's tragic intent was at last fully realized. The play's underlying message, that hope, however forlorn, is the essence of survival proved to be timelier and far more intelligible than had been the case with the stiff proscenium staging of the original in 1946. As Quintero later noted, "Passion for life is what makes man invent the pipe dreams that keep him from dying." What was at last clear to audiences, Quintero said, was that through "the dark journey" of O'Neill's plays, "there is the echo of celebration."
Critics extolled O'Neill, Quintero and Robards, and The Iceman Cometh became the surprising off-Broadway success of the season, its author's faith in the play belatedly vindicated. The revival of Iceman opened May 8, 1956 and ran for 565 performances, an unusually long engagement for off-Broadway at that time.
Carlotta could feel well-satisfied with the way she had so far manipulated O'Neill's posthumous career (which had, in effect, become her career): within just one year, she had overseen the successful American publication and the overseas triumph of a new O'Neill play, as well as the galvanizing off-Broadway revival of an all-but-forgotten one. As a result, Carlotta was besieged by requests from Broadway producers who were eager to mount the American premiere of Long Day's Journey Into Night.
Among these producers was Alexander H. Cohen, whose offer Carlotta peremptorily (not to say speciously) rejected.
"I regret to have to tell you Long Day's Journey Into Night is not available for production in this country," she wrote to Cohen on April 7, 1956. "I am carrying out O'Neill's wishes to the letter. He wished me to publish this play but not allow it to be produced by anyone under any conditions!"
Cohen, of course, knew the play had been produced in Stockholm, and was baffled by the phrase "anyone under any conditions!" Actually, Carlotta's stated reasons for her high-handed (if admittedly astute) management of the play were many and variednot to say contradictory. And she soon found that, despite her denial to Cohen, there were, after all, conditions under which the play could be produced in Americaone of those conditions being the opportunity to further enhance her own aura and bank account. Although she lived comfortably, she constantly feared running out of money.
Gratified by the victorious revival of The Iceman Cometh and acknowledging Quintero's affinity for O'Neill, she decided to entrust him with the Broadway première of Long Day's Journey Into Night. She was confident that, despite the brevity of his career as a director, he somehow could illuminate the magic of O'Neill's demanding tragedy. She gave him O'Neill's wedding ring as a symbol of her faith in him.
Once again, her intuition proved sound. The play, which opened on November 7, 1956, left many of the first-nighters in tears; when the final curtain fell, a stunned silence of nearly a minute seized the audience, as the actors, themselves emotionally drained, paused before returning for their curtain calls. And thenin a day when standing ovations were a raritythe playgoers sprang to their feet, hailing play and players with thunderous bravos. Still wildly applauding, the audience, as if drawn by a magnet, began to surge down the aisles, pressing against the stage apron, seemingly unable to sever themselves from the overwhelming experience through which they had just lived.
The notices were, in the main, ecstatic. Brooks Atkinson, who led the chorus of cheering drama critics, wrote that with the presentation of Long Day's Journey Into Night, the American theater had acquired "size and stature." The size, he said, referred to O'Neill's "conception of theater as a form of epic literature." He described the play as "a saga of the damned" that was "horrifying and devastating in a classic tradition."
In his second-thought Sunday column, Atkinson noted the play's distinctively autobiographical derivation, and asked rhetorically how much of an audience's response was governed by this knowledge; his answer was, "Not much, probably," adding that the play stood "on its own feet as an inquiry into pain." While the material was subjective, Atkinson concluded, the method was objective. Nothing O'Neill wrote, said Atkinson, had the "size, perspective, patience and mercy" of Long Day's Journey Into Night.
Along with the other New York critics, Atkinson singled out Quintero's insightful direction and the electrifying performances of Fredric March and Jason Robards, as James Tyrone and Jamie; the production certified the Broadway stardom of Robards. Arguably the greatest play written by an American, Long Day's Journey Into Night became the unforgettable theater event of the season and brought O'Neill, posthumously, his fourth Pulitzer Prize.
With Long Day's Journey Into Night instantly recognized as a universal tragedy, Carlotta found herself not only amply nourished but restored to a role she had foresworn when she assumed that of O'Neill's protector.
She fell into step with her new life, exchanging the reclusiveness in which she had dwelt with her husband for twenty-four years for the flattering attention of directors, producers and actors. But while basking in the glory of O'Neill's resurrection, she seemed burdened with his despair as well. When she talked to friends about O'Neill's torment in writing Long Day's Journey Into Night, she appeared to experience no little torment herself. Compulsively twisting her fingers, her eyes would cloud over in pain. In some mystical sense she had, indeed, become O'Neill.
More than any other of his works, Long Day's Journey Into Night defines O'Neill as a man and an artist. While its premature release violated his wishes, it was a blessing for theater historians. In 1956 O'Neill's hidden family life was still traceable through the recollections of numerous surviving contemporaries. Had the play been buried until 1978 (the specified twenty-five years after O'Neill's death), few would have been alive, and vital information that shed light on the roots of O'Neill's genius would have been forever lost, as would the ultimate key to his tragic outlook in life and in art.
As he himself surely became aware during the creation of this "play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood," it was, after all, his family's legacy that gave him the soul-wrenching vision that inspired him to blaze forth as the greatest of American dramatists.
Meet the Author
Arthur Gelb, former managing editor of The New York Times, has edited numerous works, including Great Lives of the Twentieth Century. He is president of The New York Times Company Foundation. The Gelbs live in New York City.
Barbara Gelb is the author of So Short a Time, a biography of John Reed and Louise Bryant, and she is the coauthor of O'Neill. Barbara and Arthur Gelb live in New York City.
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