Feb. 20, 1956—When Yale University Press issued Long Day's Journey Into Night, it capped a nearly two-year backstage drama that saw the widow of playwright Eugene O'Neill disregard the express wishes of her husband and the protests of his longtime publisher that the heavily autobiographical tragedy not be made available for scholars until 25 years after his death.
But under the terms of the will of O’Neill, who had died in 1953, the manuscript was left in the hands of Carlotta Monterey O’Neill. When Random House editors Bennett Cerf and Saxe Commins balked at going against his long-expressed wishes, she withdrew the manuscript from their hands and submitted it to Yale University Press.
Perhaps just as important, in the same month, despite her husband’s desire that the heavily autobiographical tragedy never even be performed, she allowed it to be staged in Stockholm by the Royal Dramatic Theatre, whose productions he had admired.
Many regarded Mrs. O’Neill’s actions not just as high-handed, but even as a betrayal of the man for whom she had been mate, muse and, as his health declined, nursed. (In particular, Cerf was so incensed by her move that he unsuccessfully used Random House director Frederick B. Adams, Jr. to urge fellow members of the Board of Governors of the Yale University Press not to publish the play.)
But had Carlotta not taken this course, it’s an open question whether O’Neill’s reputation would ever have come out of the decline into which it had sunk since he won the Nobel Prize in 1936.
As an example of the posthumous fate that could have awaited O’Neill, one need only look at another Irish-American, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright just a year his senior: George Kelly. Like O’Neill, Kelly’s name had shone brightly on Broadway in the 1920s, and he had sought to leave a thumbprint on his plays so distinct that directors felt self-conscious about departing from this vision. (O’Neill wrote extraordinarily detailed instructions about sets, costumes, even line readings; Kelly simply cut out the middle man and directed his own plays.) Both experienced critical and popular failures in the following decade. Both attempted comebacks right after WWII, but receded from the stage when their effort failed.
But unlike O’Neill, Kelly lived on until 1974, a single (and, likely, gay) man with no widow who would fight to keep him in the popular memory as tenaciously as she had once fought her husband himself. The result, as I explained in this prior post, is that when a Kelly play is performed again, as New York’s Mint Theater has done in the past few years, an air of fustiness and datedness clings unfairly to the production, even when it is staged admirably.
Over the years, a host of questions have gathered around both O’Neill’s original embargo on the play and Carlotta’s decision to relax it. Let’s deal first with the various explanations for what may have motivated O’Neill:
*He didn’t want members of his family to be hurt by the play. Both Commins and critic George Jean Nathan recalled O’Neill having told them this. But the three people with the most cause for concern—his parents and brother—had all died in the early 1920s, and in his last play staged while he was alive, A Moon for the Misbegotten, O’Neill disclosed some of the most embarrassing details about Jamie’s alcoholism, including a bender as he escorted his mother’s remains on the train back from California after her fatal stroke. Nor were Eugene’s own children too young to deal with the highly personal disclosures: Eugene Jr. had predeceased his father by three years (and, in any case, had read and been moved by the play in 1941), Shane was in his early 30s, and Oona had become permanently estranged from her father and stepmother because of her marriage to the much older Charlie Chaplin.
*Another person not associated with his immediate family could have felt hurt. O’Neill’s cousin, Agnes Brennan, is not depicted in the play, but her family is alluded to. Most theatergoers or even those more familiar with O’Neill would have guessed this, but the citizens of New London—and especially Ms. Brennan (the only relative that her husband ever saw, Carlotta acknowledged)—would have known. In the play, the character modeled on O’Neill’s mother, Mary Tyrone, declares that she hates New London “and everyone in it”—which, in the real-life Connecticut community in 1912, included Brennan (privy to all the details of the morphine addiction of Eugene’s mother). Indeed, Agnes, when Carlotta showed her the manuscript before publication, spent “hours weeping,” according to O'Neill's widow.
*O’Neill felt too much disgust with theater contemporaries to trust them with his plays anymore. While the last reason may be most likely, this one cannot be dismissed. Unsuccessful productions of The Iceman Cometh and A Moon for the Misbegotten confirmed O’Neill in his longstanding dislike of actors. More than that, he believed that postwar audiences were not ready for material that challenged, disheartened or disillusioned them, as his almost always did.
As for why Carlotta disobeyed O’Neill’s ban on releasing the play, a recent biographer of the playwright, Robert Dowling, offers cogent evidence, pro and con, for the following reasons:
*Carlotta needed or wanted the money. This motive was frequently proposed by people who disliked her—a very sizable group. The only problem was that she did not live lavishly, and she even donated the proceeds of the Swedish premiere to charity.
*Carlotta wanted publicity. But she largely avoided giving press interviews.
*She wanted to forestall any financial claim by O’Neill’s second wife, Agnes Boulton. Eugene and Carlotta both felt that his second ex was, with her escalating alimony and child support demands, bleeding the playwright dry. In Agnes’ possession was his preliminary treatment, all the way back in 1927, of the play. By having the play published—with, at Carlotta's insistence, his inscription of the play to her, on their 12th wedding anniversary in July 1941—she would get a jump on her rival for any future financial claim on the work.
*Even following Eugene’s death, she wanted no competition for his love. One of the couple’s major blow-ups, as Eugene’s physical condition deteriorated, occurred over his close, if non-physical, relationship with the young woman hired to be his nurse. Carlotta’s discovery that he had written a love poem to the nurse led to her confronting him, followed by physical grappling that could easily have ended in either’s death (her, by his loaded handgun; him, by her butcher knife). His death would bring to the fore biographers who would inevitably turn up past lovers. She wanted no doubt about who had been there for him when it counted.
*She realized how truly great the play was. A former actress, Carlotta knew great theater when she saw it. She agreed with her husband that it was the best thing he had ever written.
*By reaffirming Eugene’s importance to the world, Carlotta implicitly underscored her status as his muse. One after another, the playwright’s friends and even children had found themselves cut off by Carlotta, who not only carefully guarded his health but his access. All the revelations that were to come out about him, if she had anything to do with it, would, nevertheless, have to admit that the playwright had done his deepest, greatest works with her as his mate.
But Carlotta cannot necessarily be seen as the only individual responsible for her abrogation of her husband’s wishes. One of O’Neill’s biographers, Barbara Gelb, believed that he had even expected Carlotta to do so. After all, she told the makers of a PBS documentary about the Irish-American playwright, he knew well what kind of woman Carlotta was—and, more specifically, that she was fully capable of turning around almost immediately after his death and releasing the play to the world.
In a sense, Carlotta may have released this tragedy populated by the ghosts of her husband’s family because she herself felt haunted by his memory. Jose Quintero, who directed Long Day's Journey for its first Broadway production in the fall of 1956, told New York Magazine in a 1977 interview that, before she gave him the exclusive American rights to stage the show, Carlotta met him in her apartment, where she conducted raging arguments aloud with O’Neill, whose ghostly presence she was certain was in the room even then.
After the final curtain at the Broadway premiere of Quintero’s production, the cast stepped onto the stage for their bows. For more than a minute, an unsettling silence fell over the Helen Hayes Theatre.
What the cast and crew may not have realized is that there was such a heavy silence because so much stifled sobbing going on in the audience. As soon as this could be processed, what began as scattered claps gathered in intensity into a continuous roar. One curtain call after another followed for the five-member cast, exhausted by their four-plus hours onstage with perhaps the most emotionally shattering lines they’d ever had to learn and repeat. Then something even more extraordinary followed: For the first and only time in his six-decade theatrical career, Jason Robards Jr. (who played the character based on O'Neill's older brother, Jamie) remembered, a mass of theatergoers flocked toward the stage.
Theatergoers that night sensed correctly that O’Neill had dispensed with masks, drumbeats, stream-of-consciousness soliloquys, and the other devices of his earlier plays. There was no distance between them and this raw material, any more than there was between them and the actors this night.
Long Day's Journey Into Night won for O’Neill, posthumously, his fourth Pulitzer Prize for Drama, as well as a Tony Award for the Best New Play in 1957 (and another Tony for Best Revival of a Play in 2003). No matter the circumstances in which it came before the world, we have his third wife and literary executrix to thank for it.