W. D’s” AT TAO HOUSE
“I want a house,” Mrs. Eugene O’Neill told her architect, “That has room for eight thousand books and three hundred pairs of shoes.”
She spoke of the projected home to be set on one hundred and sixty acres in the hills on the west side of the San Ramon Valley above the town of Danville. Here, she and her husband planned to build a luxurious retreat where the playwright could work undisturbed on the massive dramas he had in plan. It was to be called “Tao House”--the name, reflective of O’Neill’s interest in oriental philosophy, means “The Way,” the right way of life--and while the exterior conformed to the Spanish style of architecture of much California building, inside the rooms were to be decorated in the oriental manner. The walls were to be stark white, the doors lacquer red, and the rooms were to be furnished expensively with the finest oriental furniture available from Gump’s in San Francisco.
When it was completed late in 1937 it proved to be a home of great elegance, yet one which achieved its effectiveness by simple means. It was set low in the hills and preserved as much of the natural landscape as was possible for an eighteen room dwelling. Its entrance through a thick gate on which were fixed the Chinese symbols for “Tao” led into a bright, walled courtyard, around a large lawn surrounded by orange trees. Inside, the house was dark, for all its white paint. The thick basalite bricks that formed the walls cloistered its inhabitants. Windows were small for the size of the rooms and screened in such a way that a subaqueous light was filtered in and reflected through the rooms by dark mirrors. The “views,” so beloved of most California architecture, were deliberately rejected, including a magnificent panorama of Mount Diablo looming above the walnut orchards. To see this sight, one had to move outside, but it is notable that each of the main rooms and all the bedrooms open out onto a deck or terrace or balcony where the light and the ingratiating countryside can be enjoyed.
O’Neill was to live at Tao House only until 1944, a little over six years. In 1937, he was at the height of his powers. The sum of his work to that year had gained for him the Nobel Prize, and his plays, both in performance and book form, were best-sellers. More important, he had in plan the great cycle of eleven plays on American historical material which he proposed to call A Tale of the Possessors, Self-dispossessed. Turning in his mind as well was a series of works that were to be both historical and autobiographical, telling his own story and that of his family in thin dramatic disguises.
His journals record
the uninterrupted periods of intense work. At the end of each month,
there appears the cryptic notation “c.w.d. 30” which means that he
had 30 consecutive “creative working days.” Virtually the only
breaks were the periods enforced on him by illness. His sickness grew
increasingly severe and the tremor in his hands increased until he was
unable to write at all, yet in the six-year period he finished A Touch of the Poet and drafts, now destroyed, of several
others of the cycle, including the unfinished but surviving script of
More Stately Mansions. The cycle plan was nearly as arduous
to write as the plays themselves, involving as it did endless
readjustments and revisions as his sense of the whole changed with
time. Scenarios alone ran to 20,000 words. As if this were not enough,
he also wrote the great autobiographical tragedies, Long Day’s Journey into Night and
A Moon for the Misbegotten, together with Hughie and The Iceman Cometh. The “way” at Tao House was undeniably
the way to greatness.
His illness, complicated by the deprivations of war--servants, transportation--finally made living at Tao House impossible. The O’Neills sold the house and the furniture and moved to New York City. The new owners renamed the holding “Corduroy Hills,” and changed the style of the house to French provincial. They increased the land to a thousand acres, and turned O’Neill’s retreat into a full-scale working ranch. When they in turn moved away, much of the acreage was sold to the county and became part of the Las Trampas Wilderness area, with the result that Tao House has remained protected from encroaching developments in the isolation which it has always had.
The decision of the National and State governments to aid interested citizens in the San Ramon Valley to purchase the house and hold it, as a National Historic Site, as a memorial to the playwright has turned the house back toward its original “way.” Both the state and the national bills have specified that it shall become a center for the performing arts. Thus, in addition to the many problems of renovation and restoration, the board of directors of ‘The Eugene O’Neill Foundation, Tao House” has been concerned to develop a program which will prove of use to both professional and amateur performing artists.
To aid in developing a program which will be truly responsive to the needs of these artists, a wide variety of persons connected with performing arts in the Bay Area and from elsewhere have been invited by ones and twos to walk through the house and its grounds and to suggest possible uses for the facility. The ideas so far gathered have ranged from the simple to the highly developed, from the contemplative to the most aggressively performance-oriented. What has been interesting and moving is the response all visitors have had to the potential of the house and grounds as a place in which serious work can be carried on. Although most traces of O’Neill’s residence have disappeared in time, something of his creative energy still remains to be tapped. It should not be long until there can again be totaled the number of “c.w.d’s” spent at Tao House.
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