I want to howl

John Lahr

  • BuyEugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts by Robert Dowling
    Yale, 569 pp, £20.00, October 2014, ISBN 978 0 300 17033 7

If you were throwing a pity party among American playwrights, the antisocial, alcoholic, self-dramatising misery named Eugene Gladstone O’Neill would win the door prize. At the age of 21, already making a myth of his sense of doom, O’Neill was calling himself ‘the Irish luck kid’. By then, he’d been thrown out of Princeton (‘Ego’ was his nickname), fathered a son with his divorced first wife, caught syphilis in his wanderlust around South America as a merchant seaman, and attempted suicide in a Greenwich Village fleabag called ‘the Hell Hole’ by its permanently pie-eyed denizens. Add to this that his birth in 1888 turned his mother into a morphine addict; that his father was a touring matinée idol and the apple of his own beady immigrant Irish eye; that he’d been sent away to a Catholic boarding school at seven; and, after all the other bruising losses of his peripatetic childhood, managed to lose his faith too, and you have a connoisseur of catastrophe. O’Neill embraced the romantic notion of torment as the pathway to inspiration. ‘Before the soul can fly,’ he wrote on his studio wall, ‘its wings must be washed in the blood of the heart.’ Long before his plays placed him in the American theatrical avant-garde, O’Neill had put himself into some kind of avant-garde of suffering. ‘Oh, I have tried to scream!/Give pain a voice!’ he wrote in the poem ‘Fragments’. His plays would do for pessimism what the musical did for pep: make it sensational.

O’Neill was a rangy handsome man who looked out at his bleak world with large haunted eyes. ‘They were the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen in my whole life. They were like wells; you fell into them,’ the 26-year-old Ingrid Bergman said, who had had a success in a San Francisco production of Anna Christie but wouldn’t let O’Neill lure her away from her film ambitions. At O’Neill’s melancholy core was a trifecta of turmoil – loneliness, fury, guilt – from which he was always on the run. He sought oblivion first in the bottle, then at the writing table. ‘Writing is a vacation from living,’ he said. His capacity for work was as prodigious as his thirst. It filled his emptiness. He had never known a proper home or proper nurturing. After his death in 1953 at the age of 65, his widow and third wife, Carlotta Monterey, was visited by his cousin Agnes Brennan, the only relative O’Neill regularly saw, who told her about O’Neill’s childhood. ‘Unwanted, no love or tenderness, no care, no discipline, no protection!’ Monterey wrote in her diary. ‘If I had only known this fully – not in bits and pieces!’

Eugene O’Neill with Agnes Boulton and their children (c. 1925).
Eugene O’Neill with Agnes Boulton and their children (c. 1925).

O’Neill’s public life made a show of theatrical derring-do, but his private life was a strangely defensive, childlike search for containment, for a mother, for someone who had eyes only for him. ‘I want you alone – in an aloneness broken by nothing. Not even children,’ he wrote to the second Mrs O’Neill, Agnes Boulton (1918-29), who nonetheless bore him two children (Shane, Oona) to whom he would become largely an absent presence, just as his parents had been to him. ‘Mother’ was O’Neill’s nickname for Monterey, who devoted the 23 years of their stormy marriage – they separated twice – to keeping his house and ministering to his every need; even at the end of his life, bedridden and so crippled with Parkinson’s that he couldn’t lift a pen, O’Neill said to her: ‘You’re my mama now.’ From the outset, Monterey also acknowledged a strong maternal element to their bond. ‘This Lover of mine is also my child,’ she wrote to O’Neill’s friend and editor Saxe Commins.

O’Neill’s mother, Ella Quinlan O’Neill, for whom he was a replacement child after her second son died from measles at the age of two, was drugged, detached and chronically depressed; his charismatic father, James, was more or less permanently on tour with Monte Cristo, the cash cow on which he squandered his considerable talent. In 1885 James paid $2000 for sole proprietorship of the play; over the next thirty years, he performed it to packed houses some eight thousand times, earning in the process an astonishing yearly income of around $40,000. Although O’Neill was happy to take his father’s money as he floundered in his cups (scratch a rebel and you’ll find money from home), James also had to take his son’s curled lip. ‘I am not satisfied with your performance, sir,’ James O’Neill said to his son, whom he’d rescued from the Hell Hole and employed for a while as a lacklustre actor. ‘I am not satisfied with your play, sir,’ O’Neill replied.

O’Neill had nothing but contempt for Broadway, which he called ‘a show shop’, and for the potage of commercial success which had corrupted his father’s talent and stained his soul. Monte Cristo – ‘the hateful theatre of my father’, O’Neill called it – epitomised the melodramatic, ranting, artificial folderol of early 20th-century boulevard entertainment: ‘a flashpot-and-sheet-metal theatre of noise and exclamation’, in Tony Kushner’s words in his essay ‘Eugene O’Neill: The Native Eloquence of Fog’. When the notion of being a writer first seized O’Neill’s imagination, he saw himself as a novelist, as the latest of his many biographers, Robert Dowling, points out. After a near fatal suicide attempt in 1912 – the episode is chronicled in the recently discovered short play ‘Exorcism’ – he gave up the romance of death for the romance of art. ‘So here’s looking forward to the new life, reform or no reform, as long as it’s new,’ Ned, O’Neill’s surrogate, says at the end. However, it took a bout of tuberculosis and a long reflective convalescence before his vision of his new life took the shape of playwright. ‘I want to be an artist or nothing,’ he wrote in 1914 to George Pierce Baker, applying to Baker’s famous Harvard playwriting course (tuition was paid for by the Bank of Dad).

James O’Neill (c. 1880).
James O’Neill (c. 1880).

The grandiosity of O’Neill’s plan nonetheless broadcast his Oedipal rebellion. ‘My soul is a submarine/My aspirations are torpedoes,’ he wrote in the 1917 poem ‘Submarine’. He was taking aim not just at the soullessness of the new American industrial delirium but at his father and his father’s theatrical milieu, which as well as wasting James’s talent had, to a large extent, undermined the family’s happiness, consigning the nuclear clan to the half-life of regret. ‘I will always be a stranger who never feels at home, who does not really want and is not really wanted, who can never belong, who must always be a little in love with death!’ is the way he described his spectral existence in his masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey into Night.

The dynamism which was transforming the geography of early 20th-century urban America was also changing the interior landscape of its citizens: ‘Prosperity never before imagined, speed never reached by anything but a meteor had made the world irritable, nervous, querulous, unreasonable and afraid,’ Henry Adams wrote in his autobiography (1907): ‘All the new forces, condensed into corporations, were demanding a new type of man – a man with ten times the endurance, energy, will and mind of the old type.’ When O’Neill finally emerged on the scene in 1917, after his trilogy of one-act autobiographical sea plays were staged at the Provincetown Players’ small wharf theatre, he was immediately spotted as some kind of new energised species, a titan with a tan. His plays incarnated the imperial era’s new vitality, ambition and vulgarity, that special sense of brutalising exhilaration and exhaustion which distinguished the republic. ‘Instantly, or so it seemed, the stage began to breathe again,’ the critic George Jean Nathan wrote. O’Neill’s output was Promethean. In the two years between the one-acts and his first full-length play, Beyond the Horizon (1918), which won O’Neill the first of five Pulitzer Prizes, he wrote twenty plays. By 1922, nine original O’Neill plays had appeared on Broadway. He was king on a field of corpses.

‘I want to howl: Imagination, Beauty, Daring, or bust,’ O’Neill wrote. He took enormous dramaturgical risks. To some, like the New Republic’s Eric Bentley, his bow-wow ‘big work’ was full of ‘cultural gas’, and mostly a bust. He was ‘committed in a sombre, rather moving way, to bad writing,’ George Steiner observed. Nonetheless, he used his power to bushwhack into unknown theatrical territory, to think against received opinion, and to blaze new intellectual trails for future generations of American playwrights to follow. ‘O’Neill reaches in past the skin and the viscera and operates directly with the bones,’ Tony Kushner, the current heir apparent, said of O’Neill’s terrible force: ‘he doesn’t garden and landscape and cultivate and harvest; he shifts tectonic plates.’

In the sordid world of show business, O’Neill insisted on working as a serious artist. He was the first to stage the life and vernacular of the American lower classes; the first to put the American black man on stage as a figure of substance and complexity; the first to face the soullessness of America’s material progress; the first to adapt the innovations of European drama to the American experience; and, incidentally, with Long Day’s Journey into Night, the first playwright whose great work came at the end of his long career. O’Neill never veered from his commitment to the stage or from his vow never to sell out his talent for commercial success. In 1940, by which time he had retreated from theatre production altogether to concentrate on a nine-play historical cycle with the general title of A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed, of which he completed only two (A Touch of the Poet and More Stately Mansions), Howard Hughes offered him the astronomic sum of $100,000 to write the screenplay to Hell’s Angels. Pushing Western Union’s twenty-word limit to the max, O’Neill wired Hughes: ‘No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. O’Neill.’

In her witty prosecution of O’Neill as a dramatist, Mary McCarthy grouped him with the prolix early 20th-century American novelists James T. Farrell and Theodore Dreiser. ‘None of these men possessed the slightest ear for the word, the sentence, the speech, the paragraph,’ she wrote in Sights and Sounds: Theatre Chronicles 1937-58:

All of them have, so to speak, enforced the career they decreed for themselves by a relentless policing of their beat. What they produce is hard to condemn: how is one to judge the great, logical symphony of a tone-deaf musician? … They are among the few contemporary American writers who know how to exhaust a subject: that is, alas, their trouble.

In the first flush of his theatrical celebrity, O’Neill considered giving up drama for the novel. ‘Crowding a drama into a play is like getting an elephant to dance in a tub,’ he wrote in his mid-twenties. Instead, with plays like Strange Interlude and Mourning Becomes Electra, which took up to six hours of the audience’s time, he let the elephant have the run of the house.

Dowling’s genial biography is crisply written; however, it flunks the job of criticism by mostly refusing interpretation of the plays or the man. When Dowling does stray from the facts of story into critical observation, he overshoots the runway. ‘Unlike most dramatic works, O’Neill’s plays are meant to be read in solitude as much as seen in a crowded theatre,’ he writes. No play is written to be read in solitude. A play is by definition a traffic plan for action; it exists to be performed. Dowling’s statement inadvertently shows up the limitation of O’Neill’s dramaturgy. What makes his work so ‘readable’ on the page is exactly what makes so many of his plays leaden on the stage, where the eye can’t skip over the longueurs of the ‘barbershop harmony’ – McCarthy’s phrase – of his construction. In his later years, even O’Neill preferred reading his plays to the disappointment of seeing them. Knowing that Long Day’s Journey into Night was his masterpiece, he insisted in his will that it be published 25 years after his death but never performed. Monterey, as the executor of O’Neill’s estate, allowed it to be premiered at the Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden in Stockholm in 1956. On this point, Dowling, a man of the academy and not of the Rialto, seems hornswoggled by his hero. The whole thrust of modern avant-garde drama has been to liberate it from the reading room and return it to the fairground.

O’Neill’s tumultuous life – ‘epic, crammed full of astonishing and satisfying narrative incident, triumphs, calamities, horrible tragedy, spiritual darkness, meanness, lunacy, courage’, as Kushner notes – lends itself to biography, which is why there have been at least two major ones in recent years: the pedestrian Life with Monte Cristo by Arthur and Barbara Gelb and Louis Sheaffer’s masterly Pulitzer Prize-winning two-volume account, O’Neill: Son and Playwright and O’Neill: Son and Artist. (Dowling’s biography frequently draws pure water from Sheaffer’s well.) The author of Slumming in New York and coeditor of Eugene O’Neill and his Early Contemporaries, Dowling is at his best excavating O’Neill amid the sawdust and the sots of what he called his ‘great down-and-outness’. Headquartered mainly at Jimmy the Priest’s saloon on Fulton Street, O’Neill went to school on the anarchists, socialists, bohemians, old salts, hookers and thugs who bellied up to the bar and whose personalities and palaver found their way into so many of his plays, The Iceman Cometh especially. Here, when O’Neill wasn’t passed out, he was waking up. The dive epitomised the period where the wallop of life and liquor first hit him.

For all the suave shellac of O’Neill’s public image and the scrupulous reserve with which he handled his international fame – O’Neill is the only American playwright to win the Nobel Prize (1936) – he was an unrepentant, mean drunk. His attitude to women swung between idealisation and demonisation. He was a wife-beater, and on a bender he was capable of extraordinary mayhem. He fed the manuscript of Agnes Boulton’s novel into the fire, tore up unique family photographs, smashed the cherished Thomas Eakins portrait of her father. Accused at knife-point by Monterey of flirting with his secretary, he held a loaded gun to her head, before choking her and finally knocking her unconscious with a punch to the chin.

*

Whenever O’Neill’s story crosses with Monterey’s, Dowling’s gnarly manuscript lights up. A beauty queen and occasional actress, who more or less abandoned her daughter from an earlier marriage just as O’Neill did his offspring, she played the Great Wife to O’Neill’s Great Man after they married in 1929. On the page, O’Neill is fulsome in his praise of her as an emotional bulwark and collaborator; in life, scenes from their deteriorating relationship could easily fit into Strindberg’s Dance of Death. Imperious, controlling, possessive, anti-Semitic and with a good line in racial slurs of all kinds, she was a haughty, high-strung piece of work. Together, in a series of well-run grand houses, in which she ruled as majordomo, they inhabited a deluxe solitude. Over time, their exclusive symbiotic relationship became a kind of prison. O’Neill’s publisher, Bennett Cerf of Random House, called Monterey ‘more of a jailer than a wife’. She kept faith with O’Neill’s heroic literary plan but also kept him under wraps, going so far as to embargo letters from his children and to withhold their news from him, to hide his manuscripts as punishment for perceived slights, and, once, after a row late in 1951, to allow O’Neill to languish for an hour in the snow with a broken leg after he slipped while bolting from the house in a fury. ‘I hear a little man calling in the wind,’ O’Neill recalled Monterey taunting him over and over again from the front door before he blacked out. That’s Dowling’s version; Sheaffer’s account of the same incident has Monterey saying: ‘How the mighty have fallen! Where’s your greatness now little man!’ The quotes may differ but the scene and the outcome were the same. O’Neill was taken to hospital and signed a petition – later withdrawn – to have Monterey committed. In order to win her back in the last days of his life, O’Neill had to amend his often changed will and put Monterey back in exclusive control of his estate. Her possession of O’Neill’s legacy and her place in it were enshrined in 1956 by the publication of Long Day’s Journey into Night. She insisted that O’Neill’s 1942 dedication stand alone as an introduction to his masterpiece. ‘Dearest,’ it began, ‘I give you the original script of this play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood.’ It concluded: ‘These 12 years, Beloved One, have been a Journey into Light – into love.’

One jaw-dropping example of Monterey’s ‘love’ will have to stand in for many. O’Neill’s eldest son, Eugene Jr, a professor of classics fallen on difficult times, whom O’Neill did not see for the first decade of his life but who was the favourite among his three children, committed suicide at the age of forty in 1950. (‘Never let it be said of an O’Neill that he failed to empty the bottle,’ his suicide note read, tucked under an empty whiskey bottle.) When a friend called to break the news, Monterey, who disliked Eugene Jr (she was in the habit of burning his sheets after he’d slept at their house), answered the phone. ‘How dare you invade our privacy,’ she shouted and hung up. O’Neill’s drug-addicted second son, Shane, jumped out of a fourth-floor window in 1977 at the age of 59; and his beautiful daughter, Oona, who was the Stork Club’s 1942 No. 1 Debutante at the age of 16, met and married the following year a man who trumped her father in wealth, celebrity and genius, the 57-year-old Charlie Chaplin. ‘If Hollywood is in, then I’m out – forever,’ O’Neill said. As Oedipal revenges go, Oona’s was forensic; so was O’Neill’s. He cut her entirely out of his life. ‘Au revoir’ were his last written words to her. Over the years, Oona wrote to tell him about her eight children – the grandchildren he never met – but O’Neill never received the letters; Monterey intercepted them all.

Dowling’s subtitle, ‘A Life in Four Acts’, promises a shape and a tension which the biography never delivers. Like his subject, and the creaky four-act structure O’Neill favoured, Dowling can’t organise his hard-won information into a compelling narrative; the way he tells it the story circles the airport and takes a long time to land. The arrival, not the journey, is what seems to matter. A biography has two dramas: the drama of the life in question and the subliminal drama of the biographer imposing meaning on it. Although he sometimes tells us more than is necessary (do we really need to know that O’Neill was a Yankees fan, or that while building Tao House the California air ‘throbbed with the syncopated percussion of carpenters’ hammers’?), out of the welter of event and achievement in O’Neill’s life, Dowling certainly brings some news: O’Neill’s reading, his louche friends, his romantic attachments. But he can’t seem to make new meaning out of an old, frequently told story. The biography is useful without being penetrating. ‘I just stammer … Stammering is the native eloquence of us fog people,’ Edmund Tyrone, O’Neill’s spokesman, says in Long Day’s Journey into Night, offering O’Neill’s own final judgment on his talent. Eugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts suffers from a similar sort of narrative stutter. Dowling can command the facts but not the rhythm of his complicated tale. With writing as with music, alas, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.