xvii: The Exile
Two decades had passed since Eugene O'Neill had shipped out to foreign ports. That February of 1928, when he boarded a vessel for England, he was within a few months of his fortieth birthday. To Carlotta he played the role of "a rather tough Irishman," as she put it. He chuckled at the idea of the old able-bodied seaman sailing first class, and he looked longingly at the roustabouts on the docks and at the sailors on deck performing their chores.
He refused to eat in the ship's dining room; he said it made him nervous. This was painfully true, as Carlotta soon found out.
O'Neill "didn't care anything for being with people," she said years later. "He had this terrible nervous disease. In a public dining room his hands would begin to shake and his face would sink, and he would get circles under his eyes and begin to sweat. We could never go to the theater here. We never saw one of his plays open. We saw the dress rehearsal, and when the dress rehearsal was over, the car would be outside, and we would hop in and go. He always used to say to me, 'If only I could just write and never bother to go to New York.'"
It was certainly true that there were few uptown people -- the "respectabilities" -- with whom O'Neill could feel at home. As for his distress in going into public dining rooms, there was good reason for this. He was a fastidious man and he was also extremely self-conscious, almost to the degree of psychosis. The trembling of his hands, noticeable even then, made eating and drinking difficult. Nathan said that when he lifted a highball glass to his lips, his hand shook the ice in it so hard that he sounded "like a Swiss bell ringer." Naturally, the thought of people watching him drop food from his fork was abhorrent to him.
When O'Neill arrived in London, he later told Nathan, Carlotta urged him to go out and buy the things that he had never permitted himself to have. She believed it was especially important for him to be well dressed; she thought it would give him greater poise and self-confidence. At first he resisted her suggestions, but Carlotta eventually persuaded him to have his suits made by a tailor of whom she approved. O'Neill complained to Nathan that she was making a "gigolo" out of him, and when she suggested that he have his shoes made to order he put his foot down. But the foot was soon up again and being fitted for the first of the seventy-five pairs of shoes that were to be made for him during his stay abroad.
O'Neill never acquired a taste for elegance in dress, but he did learn that one can be well dressed without being affected; in fact, good grooming, at least in public, became a habit of his.
One of the things O'Neill had wanted all his life was a carriage dog, a spotted Dalmatian such as he had seen running alongside the carriages of the rich when he was a boy in New London. That year he bought Blemie, just such a dog, who was to remain with O'Neill and Carlotta for the next two decades.
O'Neill did his banking with the Guaranty Trust Company and arranged for its London branch at 50 Pall Mall to forward all his mail but to keep his exact whereabouts secret. At the end of April he was staying at Guéthary, in the Basque country of southwest France, where he set to work writing Dynamo. The play is about a young man who loses his faith in God and places it in science, as symbolized by a dynamo. He falls in love with the daughter of an atheist family. His love for his mother and for the dynamo fuse into the same sort of all-embracing emotion. He kills the girl, after denouncing her as a harlot (as his mother has done), and then flings himself into the dynamo. His cries are swallowed in the hum of the dynamo. Many meanings can be read into this play -- altogether too many, in fact. But, as one of the playwright's friends said, "At least you grant that O'Neill was not afraid to come to grips with great themes." In this instance, his grip was not too firm.
Although it was one of his poorest plays, when he sent it to Langner O'Neill said it was "the real stuff." The idea for it had come to him near Ridgefield, where he saw a dynamo powered by a river. He heard its eerie hum and had the feeling of looking at some modern god. Dynamo, O'Neill wrote, was a
. . . symbolical and factual biography of what is happening in a large section of the American soul right now. It is really the first play of a trilogy that will dig at the roots of the sickness of today as I feel it -- the death of an old god and the failure of science and materialism to give any satisfying new one for the surviving, primitive, religious instinct to find a meaning for life in, and to comfort its fears of death with. It seems to me that anyone trying to do big work nowadays must have this big subject behind all the little subjects of his plays or novels, or he is simply scribbling around on the surface of things and has no more real status than a parlor entertainer. The other two plays will be Without Ending of Days [O'Neill later changed this to Days Without End] and It Cannot Be Mad.
As Clark noted, "There was an ominous note in all this. O'Neill seemed to be worrying too much about God and his own soul. I believe he was doing too much of his own private thinking aloud, playing an autobiographical Strange Interlude with long asides." Clark suggested that O'Neill simply could not let his philosophy mature but "must out with it incontinently."
Did O'Neill relate any of his deep concerns about morality to his own personal situation? At the end of April, 1928, while he was at Guéthary, he had to apologize to his friend De Casseres for having failed to keep his promise to write the introduction to De Casseres' book. He couldn't get settled down or get his mind on an even keel. He was all shot to pieces over his "gathering domestic troubles" and the unceasing barrage of the "hounding yellow press." They were constantly on his tail -- so much so that at times his brain was unable to concentrate. Hate appeared to be suffocating him.
From what he told many of his friends, he felt that Agnes was his enemy, the "agent" of his vultures. Some of the people who knew him then have remarked that it was almost as if he were furious with Agnes and the children because he had deserted them. He quoted Agnes as having said she was going "to take him for all he's got." (Agnes has denied she ever said anything of the sort.) He said that she was "evidently" going to take advantage of his present situation in spite of the pledge on which their marriage had been made -- that when love ended they would break clear. He wanted things to be arranged without friction and "the inevitable publicity." He was being "forced to stand up for his economic rights." Otherwise his entire economic future would be mortgaged, he complained.
To some of the people to whom he wrote letters he said he was in Prague, although he was in Guéthary. To others he confided his real whereabouts, but he cautioned them against ever telling anyone. He felt like a rabbit in an open field being sniped at and unable to run. This internal strife and frustration had been going on, he said, a half year before he left New York. As he used to say, over and over again, "it was raining boxing gloves."
By July, he was able to finish his introduction to De Casseres' book, Anathema of Litanies. In sending it off, he told De Casseres to change it any way he liked. Things seemed to be going better for him, O'Neill said, although he had to be constantly moving about Europe.
In the middle of September he reported that he had finished Dynamo and that it was "one of my ones." He seemed to take delight in the idea that he would catch it "down his neck" for what he had written. The fundamentalist brethren already thought of him, he said, as some sort of Antichrist. He had thought up an over-all title for the trilogy of which Dynamo was a part: God is Dead! Long Live -What?
The irony of O'Neill's putting himself in a position to judge the American soul at this juncture of his life may never have occurred to him. He perhaps explained the magic formula of the lenses through which he looked at life by a rhetorical question he asked a friend at this time -- "And what is truth but a point of view after all?" Eugene O'Neill played by different rules, and it is perhaps irrelevant to judge him by our conventions, for he danced to a different music, his own music.
At times he felt that the gods of happiness were about to smile on him. He thought that he had found exactly what he was looking for-love and peace to support him and give him strength in his weak moments. No longer would he have to live and dream just by his own effort.
But just the thought of Agnes was like a rock splashing the serenity of a garden pool. When he had managed to put her out of his mind and had re-established some degree of equanimity, something always occurred to change his mood -- a letter, a talk with a friend, a cable from his lawyer in New York. O'Neill complained that he had been double-crossed and annoyed by Agnes in every conceivable way. The manner in which she had treated him had hurt his pride and had upset his faith in human nature. Until now, nobody had ever taken him for a ride -- that is, in anything but inconsequential matters. In dealing with whores and bums, he said, he had always got an even break when he had had occasion to lay himself open to "the works." He was sure that back in New York tall tales were being circulated about his "cruelty and parsimony." His friends, or anyone who knew his family life, would know such talk was all the bunk. But women were like that -- always had to get sympathy for themselves -that is, some women. And the most fantastic thing of all was that he, O'Neill, had not wanted to fight but had been forced to; the whole thing was Agnes' fault.
Actually, the only real indictment O'Neill could make against Agnes was that she existed. If anything, she tended to be too submissive in dealing with O'Neill's lawyers. For some time, at O'Neill's insistence, Harry Weinberger acted for both of them. He was supposed to be a go-between arranging a "friendly divorce." Agnes did feel she should protect the economic futures of her children. As for herself, she wanted only enough money to keep her until she could start writing again. Many of O'Neill's friends told Agnes that he should and must properly provide for her and the children. There was some gossip about what was going on, but mostly, one suspects, O'Neill's conscience was producing his own hellish fantasies of Agnes as a woman scorned. For, after all, no matter how much he told himself that he needed another love, Eugene O'Neill was still a man who had deserted his wife and children and had run off to seek his own separate happiness.
On October 4, Langner cabled O'Neill that Dynamo had been accepted by the Theatre Guild "with enthusiasm." O'Neill received the message as he was boarding ship in Marseilles to sail around the world. As he told Langner, he planned to settle down in Hong Kong and do some writing. It was going to be a romantic adventure, something he had wanted to do all his life -- travel in style to the far-off and unknown. He was going to see the East of Kipling, the seas of Conrad. Already he was quoting from the "Road to Mandalay." To Carlotta he said that he longed to watch "the dawn come up like thunder out of China 'cross the bay." He wrote a card to Langner on "a balmy Mediterranean day" and mailed it in Egypt. His plan, he said, was to visit India and China and perhaps South Africa.
Postcards from all the strange faraway places fluttered from his pen like autumn leaves. Some went to Shane and Oona, some to Bio and Ben De Casseres. From Singapore he wrote Oona that he hoped she had thought of him a few days before, on his birthday, October 16. From Saigon in Indochina he sent De Casseres a card showing a native smoking opium. He said the man looked as if his "brand of Nirvana was not altogether wrong." He liked Saigon better than any place he had seen.
The romantic idyll of this trip to the Far East began to fade as O'Neill's ship made its way through the Suez Canal, down the Red Sea and into the vast Indian Ocean. His mind was not entirely on Kipling's mysterious East nor on his own great love. His mind was on himself and his guilt. Also he really didn't much like being a tourist. He was not free -- free to get drunk, free to forget who he was and what he was doing in all these strange places. Probably out of boredom, perhaps partly in self-loathing, O'Neill turned to his notebook. If he could not abide the reality of his trip, of his situation, of his life, then he could create his own reality within his mind. And yet, like typical tourists, he and Carlotta bought native costumes, tribal masks and drums, and all sorts of junky oddities. O'Neill went around the world not unlike one of his characters, Marco Millions.
In his notebook, he datelined his entries according to the sea he was crossing. Late in October, in the "Arabian Sea en route for China," he wrote: "Greek tragedy plot idea -- story of Electra and family psychologically most interesting -- most comprehensive, intense basic human interrelationships -- can be easily widened in scope to include still others."
In November, under "China Sea" he wrote: "Greek plot idea -give modern Electra figure in play tragic ending worthy of character. In Greek story she peters out to undramatic married banality. Such a character contained too much tragic fate within her soul to permit this -- why should the Furies have let Electra escape unpunished? Why did the chain of fated crime and retribution ignore her mother's murderess? -- weakness in what remains to us of Greek tragedy that there is no play about Electra's life after murder of Clytemnestra. Surely it possesses as imaginative tragic possibilities as any of their plots!"
Not until six months later did O'Neill do any extensive thinking about his magnificent American version of a Greek tragedy. The Furies in his own unmanageable universe began to buzz around him. In Saigon he was ill, he didn't like Singapore, and he liked Hong Kong less. He had entertained the idea of stopping in Hong Kong and writing, but when he got there he found it not very interesting and the climate "hot now and damp and enervating"; this was not the place to work. He sent Langner a postcard saying he was off to Kobe and Yokohama and would probably settle in Japan.
At Saigon, reporters tried to interview the world-famous dramatist who had deserted his wife and children. O'Neill seemed outraged that anyone should pay the slightest heed to his whereabouts or to the identity of his companion.
He arrived in Shanghai about the middle of November and registered at the Astor House, where a Mr. Wasser, the manager, took him under his wing. O'Neill's ability to inspire friends to protect him from the world and to look after him was still working for him.
Something serious happened to O'Neill in Shanghai soon after he arrived there. The record shows only that he fell off the wagon. He went into a local bar and filled up. One report held that he announced to his fellow drinkers that he was Eugene O'Neill, the playwright, and by God he didn't care who knew it. He was sick and tired of traveling under assumed names in weird disguises and ducking newspaper reporters. Several of the habitués of this Shanghai equivalent of the Hell Hole told O'Neill that he was "a bloody faker." If he was Eugene O'Neill they were the King of England and the Archbishop of Canterbury, he afterward related. But the whole experience was not funny; he was missing for about two weeks, and Carlotta was at a complete loss as to what to do.
When, at length, he was found, he was deathly ill from alcohol and a bad case of bronchitis. Doctors said he was in the process of a slight nervous breakdown. O'Neill said his brains were "woolly with hatred." He was placed in the hands of Dr. Alexander Renner, an Austrian nerve specialist (as a psychiatrist was then called), and was treated "for alcoholism." Later, O'Neill described his stay in the hospital in China as being of five weeks' duration. Whatever the illness which struck him -- physical, mental, or both -- it was devastating.
When insight came to him, he was to describe his state of mind as "a continual inward state of bitter fury and resentment. . . . I was blind." His accounts of what had happened to put him in a hospital varied according to the person to whom he was writing. He told his agent, Richard Madden, that he got a sunstroke from swimming in the sun; "wasn't it a damn-fool thing for a man approaching forty to have done?" He made many allusions to his age at this time; the idea of having reached forty plagued him.
Art McGinley cabled him that the newspapers had reported him dead in China. He replied that he would have to say with Mark Twain that "reports of my death were greatly exaggerated."
His mental state was not helped by the fact that on December 10, 1928, news of his illness was flashed around the world. The next day The New York Times reported that he was "improved." Two days later it was reported that he was leaving for Hawaii. Dr. Renner was issuing statements that O'Neill was "rapidly recovering." By this time, O'Neill was undergoing treatment in his hotel room in the Astor House.
According to the Associated Press correspondent, O'Neill sent word by messenger that he was leaving Shanghai immediately. He was furious because so many persons were seeking to interview him, so many people were inquiring into his personal affairs. Because of what he called Shanghai's "wholesome virtues," he felt that that city was no place in which to accomplish his work, even though he was "well physically." He was sorry to leave without saying good-by to Dr. Renner but he was sailing that day for Honolulu in quest of "peace and solitude which, if I do not find them there, I will find if I have to proceed to the South Pole."
He had come to China "seeking peace and quiet and hoping that, here at least, people would mind their business and allow me to mind mine. But I have found more snoops and gossips per square inch than there is in any New England town of one thousand inhabitants. This does not apply to American newspaper correspondents who have been most decent, carrying out their duties in a most gentlemanly manner." Later he changed this slightly to read that he was "deadly ill of being a public personage" and being written about by "the murderous reporters."
The manager of the Astor said O'Neill had sailed for Hong Kong on the President Monroe. At the Dollar Steamship Line's local office, it was said that O'Neill had not sailed aboard the President Monroe. Then it was reported that the American dramatist and his secretary, Mrs. Drew, who had described herself "as a Swedish masseuse and a graduate physician serving Mr. O'Neill as secretary," had left the Astor on December 12. Four days later the President Monroe docked im Hong Kong, but there was no O'Neill aboard.
In New York, Lawrence Langner was worried about his missing or dead dramatist. He cabled a business associate, A. Krisel, in Shanghai, to find O'Neill and see that he got good medical care. But it was the vigilant Associated Press that finally located O'Neill on a German steamer, the Koblenz, in Manila Harbor. He was traveling as "the Reverend William O'Brien." He stayed aboard ship in Manila, and by Christmas Eve he had disembarked at Singapore. Langner's cable was rerouted to him at Singapore. Obviously, O'Neill was embarrassed by the world-wide publicity he was getting. He complained in a cable to Langner about the "idiotic publicity of my discovery disappearance kidnaped bandits death etc." Anyway, he added, "Merry Christmas to Langner and his family!"
O'Neill dropped the idea of going on to South Africa. He would return to France instead. Carlotta was sure she could find peace and happiness for him there. The China experience was over and he felt that it had done many things for him, "done a lot for my soul." It had matured him as an artist. He could live now, and living would collaborate with writing instead of always being an obstacle to be overcome and beaten under by writing. Forty, he now said, was the "right age to begin to learn." And he added, "I've regained my sanity again."
Perhaps a significant indication of the effects of O'Neill's illness in China lies in something he wrote to Shane, at that time nine years old. He told Shane to tell his mother that "when I was very sick in the hospital in Shanghai all the bitterness got burned out of me and the future years will prove this."
By the end of January O'Neill was back in France at the Villa Mimosa on the Boulevard de la Mer in Cap d'Ail. Among the people to whom he sent this "confidential address" was Horace Liveright, his publisher. Carlotta wrote in longhand for O'Neill a letter asking Liveright to send a complete set of O'Neifl plays to two people who had been extremely kind to him in the East and to whom he owed much gratitude. O'Neill added a postscript to the letter saying that he had had a wonderful trip and had got a lot out of it "in spite of snooping reporters and severe illness on way out."
The villa he lived in at Cap d'Ail faced the sea but, O'Neill wrote Shane, it was too cold to go in swimming. In back of his house were high mountains and he could walk all the way to the top of them on some days. He told Shane there were all kinds of boats off the shore, "big steamers and sailboats and speedy motorboats -- like Bermuda only more of them."
From New York, O'Neill received word that Dynamo had opened at the Martin Beck Theatre on February 11, 1929, with Claudette Colbert in the lead. O'Neill resented the fact that some critics paid more attention to Miss Colbert's legs than they did to the real meaning of Dynamo. The Theatre Guild, which had produced Dynamo, closed it "reluctantly" after fifty performances. It was not popular with audiences, and O'Neill's artistic friends didn't like it, either. That spring of 1929 he was writing letters furiously, defending Dynamo. Although he did admit to Langner that he had written it "in a distraught state of mind," he ascribed its failure to his not having been present at rehearsals.
In discussing Dynamo with De Casseres, O'Neill complained that a play was written as a living thing but on the stage it was acting, no matter what. He cited the fact that in his sea plays he had written sailors, real sailors, into them. But were the actors who played in those plays sailors? Absolutely not! Maybe they seemed like sailors to audiences who didn't know sailors. In all the various productions of The Hairy Ape, O'Neill said, he had never seen a "Yank" who even remotely resembled the real-life Driscoll. At another time, however, he listed Louis Wolheim, who starred in the first production of the play, as one of the "only three actors who managed to realize the characters they played as I originally saw them"; the other two were Charles Gilpin, in The Emperor Jones, and Walter Huston, in Desire under the Elms.
One of the interesting comments O'Neill made in defense of Dynamo was that his hero's psychological struggle began when he was betrayed by his mother. He cast her off along with his father's God. In the end the boy was forced to sacrifice his girl, whom his mother hated, "to a maternal deity whom he loves sexually." What makes it more interesting is that in a few months O'Neill was to marry a woman whom he was to hail as his mother in an inscription to his new play.
Along with his heavy correspondence, O'Neill was filling his notebook, that spring of 1929, with final ideas for the theme and structure of Mourning Becomes Electra. In April he noted again that it would be a "Greek tragedy plot idea." It would be, primarily, a drama of hidden life forces -- fate -- behind the lives of the characters. The background would be the "drama of murderous family love and hate." Later in the month he decided he would lay the scene in a New England shipbuilding town. He seems to have had New London in mind. The family would be the best in town and their money derived from shipbuilding. The house would be the Greek-temple front which was part of the Greek Revival period, circa 1840, in American architecture. He then outlined how he would translate or adapt the "Greek plot of crime and retribution, chain of fate -- Puritan conviction of man born to sin and punishment -- Orestes, Furies within him, his conscience -- etc."
He also drew on the Freudian ideas communicated to him by his friend Dr. Hamilton, the psychoanalyst. In Dr. Hamilton's scholarly paper on marriage he had said that "The examiner recalls a family in his birthplace that was cursed in this way through five generations. Perhaps it led even farther back, but at any rate, the great-grandmother had not loved her husband and had held him up to ridicule before her daughter. That daughter and her daughter's daughter went through the same experience. A happy marriage was impossible for these women. Here, indeed, were the sins of the mother visited upon the children even unto the fourth and fifth generations."
Life had merged with plot, for
O'Neill was passing along, unconsciously, to his own children a
heritage of insecurity similar to that which his own parents had
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