Wednesday, November 27, 2013

This Day in Theater History (Eugene O’Neill, Nobel-Winning Playwright, Dies)

November 27, 1953Three days after barely croaking out, in a disgusted whisper, “Born in a hotel—and, goddamn it, died in a hotel!”, Eugene O’Neill—worn out from more than a decade of battling a degenerative neuromuscular disease that robbed him of the ability to write—passed away at age 65.

O’Neill died in the Shelton Hotel, along the Charles River in Boston, not that far removed geographically but quite distant psychologically from the Times Square room where his mother had given birth to him. Practically by virtue of birthplace and patrimony (father James O’Neill had earned a tidy fortune playing The Count of Monte Cristo), he must have felt born to the theater. Now, with a generation passed since he had revolutionized Broadway with his tragedies, he seemed largely forgotten, even though he was (and remains to this day) America’s only Nobel Prize-winning playwright.

Some students at Boston University, which bought the building and converted it into a dormitory after O’Neill’s death, have sworn from time to time that they have heard strange noises coming from the room he once occupied. But would it surprise anyone, really, that O’Neill should haunt these premises? If any dead person would be inclined to haunting, it was him. After all, in life he had been haunted by his mother, whose morphine addiction began when a quack doctor administered it to her to ease the pain of delivering Eugene at birth; his father, an immigrant from the Ireland of the era of the Great Famine, whose fear of poverty had pushed him toward quacks drove him to take on the role that forever typecast him as an actor; and brother Jamie, a charmer who ended up squandering his promise on booze, hookers and cynicism.

O’Neill had taken the full measure of his tortured family in two plays on which he had labored mightily but had not staged or even published in his lifetime: Long Day’s Journey Into Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten. The relationship with the woman who had created an environment in which he could produce these harrowing dramas, his third wife Carlotta, had seen her relationship to her husband deteriorate, under pressure of a disease that resembled Parkinson’s, from muse to nurse to partner in a dance of death. She had separated from him five years before, but was there now for his final struggle with death.

In a prior post, I discussed the resemblances between O’Neill and another American Nobel laureate, Ernest Hemingway, chiefly in terms of how ill health in their fifties had sidelined them from pursuing the most ambitious projects of their careers (for O’Neill, the multipart historical epic A Tale of Possessers Self-Dispossessed; for Hemingway, his “Land, Sea and Air Trilogy”).

Yet, in re-reading a phrase from that prior paragraph, “dance of death,” I’m reminded of the similarities between O’Neill and a playwright that had influenced him immensely, August Strindberg. Both the American and the Swede suffered childhood traumas related to their mothers; both had attempted suicide in their youth, and continued to be plagued by depression through the remainder of their lives; both felt keenly in adulthood the loss of their belief in the religion of their youth (O’Neill, Roman Catholicism; Strindberg, Lutheranism); both had explored Eastern mystical traditions when their faith in Western thought was shattered;  both had anguished relationships with three wives and their children; and both had experienced problematic productions of later plays that had led to critical devaluations of their work in their later years.

The last wives of Strindberg and O’Neill had, in a sense, betrayed their husbands at the end. But while Harriet Bosse broke off her relationship with Strindberg for good on the verge of a remarriage to another man, Carlotta Monterey O’Neill saved her husband’s reputation by disobeying his wishes. He had insisted that Long Day’s Journey Into Night only be published 25 years after his death; but, three years after his passing in the Shelton Hotel, she overrode the objections of Random House publisher Bennett Cerf to have this play published and staged. That production, starring Fredric March and Jason Robards, removed O’Neill from critical oblivion.

"A sense of homelessness came to O'Neill quite naturally," wrote critic-novelist Thomas Flanagan, in a piece in his marvelous essay collection, There You Are: Writings on Irish and American Literature and History. Flanagan, before finally naming the place that O'Neill regarded as the first real home of his life (Tao House, east of San Francisco), listed at length virtually everywhere else this restless heart had briefly decamped: "Hotel bedrooms, rented houses, strict Catholic boarding schools, the bars of flophouses, the flimsy clapboards of Provincetown shacks, a 'bastard Spanish peasant style' house off the coast of Georgia, a French chateau." Because of Carlotta, who shared his last anguished days in a lonely Boston hotel, O'Neill was able to occupy what now seems like a permanent place as the foremost American playwright. 

No comments: