O'NEILL'S STATELY MANSIONS, 1977-1978
Not only do O'Neill's plays span the North American continent; his homes do, too, and two of them are particularly noteworthy. One is Monte Cristo Cottage in New London, Connecticut, the summer home of James O'Neill, Sr., where the young playwright-to-be spent a memorable boyhood that he later recorded in several of his plays. The other is Tao House in Danville, California, not far from San Francisco, which O'Neill built in 1937 with money he received from his 1936 Nobel Prize for literature, and in which he and his wife Carlotta lived until 1944, when he sold it to an Oakland woman. (See Travis Bogard's description of the house in the May 1977 issue of the Newsletter, pp. 3-5.) Appropriately, considering O'Neill's stature in the nation's drama, both houses have received national recognition, and both are currently undergoing restoration that will make them, not only memento-clad memorials to the late playwright, but also centers for future scholarly study and for the nurturing of new dramatic and theatrical talent. The following reports describe recent activities at both houses.
I. Monte Cristo Cottage. O'Neill's boyhood home is a simple structure of modest proportion, undistinguished architecture and appalling construction. Despite these negative aspects, it is a Registered National Historic Land-mark because of its profound significance in the life of the O'Neill family, whose ownership extended from 1884 to 1921, when the house and its contents went on auction.
The Eugene O'Neill Center [in nearby Waterbury] persuaded Lawrence White, owner of the Cottage, to sell it to the Center in 1974, giving Mr. White lifetime use of the residence. He passed away early in 1975.
When the White family removed the contents from the dwelling, we realized what we faced, and immediately hired a professional engineer and a prime contractor to survey, measure, make architectural drawings of the entire structure, and outline what measures had to be taken at once before the Cottage fell into irretrievable decline and deterioration. This meant an earnest and frantic effort at fundraising as well as praying for the best possible of New England weather because of the badly leaking roof and the ensuing water damage.
Restoration began in the summer of 1976. The Cottage at present has a new wood shingle roof and a new porch section; every rotted outside clap-board has been replaced, and all barge work, mill work and Victorian ball decorations have been restored or replaced. Problems such as a tree acting as the main support of the sitting room have been resolved and removed. The building inspector informed us that structurally we had "an elephant held up by toothpicks." Therefore, there are now steel underpinnings under the main structure, and triple wooden joists supporting the porch that "wraps halfway around the house." We are about to begin the rewiring and exterior painting and hope that within the twenty-fifth anniversary year of O'Neill's death--or, better, by the celebration of his ninetieth birthday in October 1978--the Monte Cristo Cottage will reflect both the happy times of Ah, Wilderness! as well as the tragic drama of "the four haunted Tyrones" of Long Day's Journey Into Night.
We sincerely invite all readers to visit the Cottage at 325 Pequot Avenue, New London, Conn. 06320, now or at any time in the future. You may contact me or write to the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, 305 Great Neck Road, Waterford, Conn. 06385. We look forward to seeing as many friends of Eugene O'Neill as possible.
--Sally Thomas Pavetti, Curator
II. Tao House. "The legislative history of Tao House is long and torturous," writes Lois Sizoo, Secretary of the Eugene O'Neill Foundation in Danville. Between 1968 and 1970, three bills were introduced in the U.S. Congress to award the house national recognition and protection, but none was ever voted out of committee. "In May of 1971," the Secretary reports, "Tao House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and in August of 1971 it was included on the list of U.S. Landmarks." But these designations provided neither financial support nor legal protection for the property. It was the companion bills of Congressman George Miller (July 31, 1975) and Senator Allan Cranston (September 24, 1975) and the acquisition of the property by the State of California (September 22, 1976) that led to the designation of Tao House and fourteen surrounding acres as a National Historic Site, in a document signed by President Ford on October 19, 1976.
Though the house and grounds are now the property of the State of California, and the National Park Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior will be involved in the planning, the administration of the site and the development of programs there will be the responsibility of the Eugene O'Neill Foundation, Tao House, whose president is Darlene Blair.
Travis Bogard, a member of the Foundation's board of directors, articulated the group's aspirations in the February 1977 issue of the Foundation's news-letter: "Here, some of us hope, a program can be formed where young actors and writers, designers and directors, have an opportunity to further perfect the disciplines and skills essential to fulfillment of their talents. How-ever reclusive and somber O'Neill was, he was never deaf to the needs of young theatre people to be heard in worthy enterprises by an understanding public."
The first two events to realize that hope, and to provide funds for its further development, were performances at the Tao House site of The Hairy Ape (by the Hanover College Theatre of Indiana in July, 1976; see a report on that performance in this issue), and A Moon for the Misbegotten (by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival Association in September, 1977).
On November 29, 1977, the first public meeting on the master plan for Tao House was held in Danville and included members of the Foundation, county and state administrators, and the National Park Service. The main points of discussion were (1) access to Tao House (especially the need for public transportation, since roads and parking facilities are scanty, and local residents, already concerned about "the flow of the curious," do not want Kuss Road to become a pilgrimage parkway); and (2) planning for future activities (who should participate; what size audiences to accommodate; how to fund activities without using tax money; and what additional construction, such as a staging area, should be contemplated). A second meeting will be held early in 1978.
Anyone interested in further information on the past, present and future of Tao House should write to Darlene Blair, Tao House, P.O. Box 402, Danville, CA 94526; or to Ron Mortimer, National Park Service, Box 36063, 450 Golden Gate Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94102.
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