EUGENE O'NEILL IN THE WEST
Californians display a sentiment toward their State which to residents from beyond its borders can only appear as an irrational passion. Its fruits, flowers. ocean, industries, architecture are subjects of hymn-like devotion. Even its writers are adored, sometimes out of all proportion to their worth. Jack London is a cult figure. Robert Louis Stevenson, who passed through on his way to the South Seas, is, by the Californians, considered to be one of them. They have not forgotten Robinson Jeffers. They even manage to whip up affection for William Saroyan. Yet it comes as a surprise to many Californians to learn that, by their definition of the term, Eugene O'Neill was a California Writer. In their minds O'Neill is to be identified almost entirely with the gaunt coast of New England or the shabbier reaches of Manhattan. He has little to do with the cult of the artichoke or surfable oceans or any of the carefully cultivated history of gold miners and Sierra crossings.
Yet O'Neill lived among them for eight years--from 1936 to 1944--years that were the most significantly productive in his career. In California, he wrote the Tao House plays, Long Day's Journey Into Night, A Moon for the Misbegotten, The Iceman Cometh, Hughie, and most of the destroyed cycle, A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed. It is true that little, if any, of the western experience is reflected in the completed plays, but if the Cycle had been completed O'Neill's stage might have made more of the California scene. Four of those plays were to be set in the western United State: The Calms of Capricorn, the play which was to follow More Stately Mansions, was to describe a voyage around the Horn and, as its recently published scenario reveals, it was to climax with the entrance of a clipper ship through San Francisco's Golden Gate in the year 1858. The following play, The Earth Is the Limit, was set in San Francisco between 1858 and 1860. The action of its sequel, Nothing Is Lost Save Honor, moved between Washington, D.C., New York, and San Francisco in the years 1858 and 1860. Subsequently, The Man on Iron Horseback was to be concerned with the development of the transcontinental railroad in the period between 1876 and 1893.
O'Neill's arrival in California was in a measure accidental. In 1936, he found him-self dissatisfied with his newly built, splendid residence on Sea Island in Georgia. He had made friends with Sophus Keith Winther and his wife Eline. Winther was a professor of English at the University of Washington in Seattle. His book on the playwright pleased O'Neill, and Carlotta, herself of Danish extraction, found herself drawn to the Danish professor. Both of the O'Neills admired Winther's novels of the hard lives of Danish immigrants in the Dakota territory. Thus it was that in 1936, willing to be free for a time from the problems of writing at their Georgia home, they accepted an invitation to visit Seattle, where the Winthers would see to their comfort and where O'Neill could find material for The Man on Iron Horseback.
They arrived in Seattle in early November, and on November 12 rumors came true: O'Neill was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Press pressure made it a lively visit, and the O'Neills determined to travel south as inconspicuously as possible to the San Francisco Bay Area.
There were reasons for their coming there: Carlotta Monterey had begun life as Hazel Tharsing in Oakland, California. Living in Oakland were her mother, whom O'Neill had never met, and her daughter, whom he knew and liked. The O'Neills came to San Francisco, and almost at once--the day after Christmas--O'Neill was stricken with appendicitis and placed in Merritt Hospital in Oakland.
His illness was severe. Postoperative complications were to keep him in the hospital until March, and in that time Carlotta had opportunity to travel about and find a site for a new home in a better climate than Georgia offered. She went east in January to sell the Georgia property and upon her return began to oversee the construction of their new home in the hills above the small town of Danville, about an hour's drive east of San Francisco.
In the first years of their life together, they had thought casually of coming to California. In a letter of April 27, 1938, from a villa in Biarritz, O'Neill had written to Kenneth Macgowan that California might prove a desirable place to live. He and Carlotta had extensive travel plans:
Changes there were. O'Neill, here sounding like a breathless Somerset Maugham with touches of Phileas Fogg, was merely daydreaming. He and Carlotta did journey to the Far East in September, ready to luxuriate in their unaccustomed freedom, but the voyage proved disastrous. He was unable to work. The Far East did not live up to his pictures of it. He fell ill from swimming in fetid waters. He began to drink after several years of abstinence. He quarreled with Carlotta and she left him, only to return to him when her ship and his docked together at Port Said on the return journey. His reference to a residence in California was only the finale of a dream walking.
More definitive was Carlotta's view of California in a letter she wrote to Macgowan in February 1934:
What O'Neill knew about California before he came to live there is not easily determined with precision. His father had been a fixture of theatrical stock in San Francisco in the 1870's and his brother Jamie had been born there in 1878. Eugene had memories of being sick in bed in San Francisco as a child (Sheaffer 71), presumably when he was taken on tour with his father, and he had been briefly in California in 1909. In that year he was being rusticated following his marriage to Kathleen Jenkins by being sent to Honduras to work in a mining concern there. He shipped from Benicia, a town at the Sacramento River delta that had once threatened to rival San Francisco as the Bay's chief port. There is no record of any delighted response to the north Bay town or anything else the area had to offer.
He came west again in 1912 as a super in his father's tab show version of Monte Cristo. His biographers do not indicate that he came to San Francisco, although the tour was booked on the Orpheum Circuit whose western hub was the Bay city. It is certain that he went to Utah and to Colorado, perhaps absorbing through the train window some notion of what western scenery was like. The fact that it was written with vaudeville performance in mind suggests that there may be a connection between this trip and his first play, A Wife for a Life, which is laid in the Arizona desert.
The sketch, which he wrote in 1913, the year following the tour, requires "A plain dotted with sagebrush and a lonely butte outlined, black and sinister, against the lighter darkness of a sky with stars." Add a few pieces of mining equipment and a campfire and the set is complete. Any amateur could create it. William S. Hart films, illustrations in the Saturday Evening Post, or a novel by Zane Grey would be sufficient source. Scenery out of a warehouse would be adequate. But there is, in the sense that the butte is "sinister," and in the precise differentiation between the darkness of earth and the lighter dark of the sky, the possibility of a tenuous memory which the young O'Neill held.
His next western venture was Where the Cross Is Made (1918) and its three-act development, Gold (1920), both set on the California coast. The one-act version requires a lookout at the top of a house on "A High point of land on the California coast." "Frisco" is mentioned; the year of the action is 1900. However, the Robert Louis Stevenson adventure story of buried treasure and ghosts that haunt a mad sea captain makes little use of its locale. Since madness is his subject, O'Neill turns the action inward to take advantage of the psychological thrills insanity offers.
Gold is a different matter. The final scene takes place in a captain's walk identical to that specified for the one-act version, but the earlier acts are laid out-of-doors and show what O'Neill felt California to be like. In one act, he presents the exterior of the house, facing left toward the harbor. It has a porch, supported by columns and windows with heavy green shutters, closed and barred. It is a Mannon mansion in embryo. To get to the sea from the house, the characters cross to the edge of a cliff and go over the edge by a ladder in order to descend to the beach. It is a clumsy set at best. The actors presumably must, once they approach the proscenium arch, climb onto a ladder and descend through a stage trap to the sub-stage area.
Even with such awkward elaboration, the setting is geographically murky. The cliff is said to overlook a harbor and a wharf where a schooner ready to sail is anchored. It is, one assumes, a deep water port, for sailors appear, saying things like "There's a fair bit o' breeze" or "If he don't shake a leg, we'll miss the tide." There is not really much of a hurry, for a sailor--as the action attests--can descend the cliff, board the ship and take off in a page of dialogue. Another page and the ship has "passed the pint--and now--heading' her out to sea--so'east by east. By God, that be the course I chartered for her!" (Plays 672)
"South-east by east"? From the West Coast? Some skipper! The ship is supposed to founder in the Indian Ocean, but with that course she surely came aground in an artichoke patch near Monterey.
But this is not the only puzzle. If it be asked just where there is such a bay as the one O'Neill describes, the answer is not a ready one. San Francisco is mentioned twice in the play, but its direction from the house is not specified. The Captain is an ex-whaler, and it is true that whaling was an industry on the Pacific Coast until the 1870's. There were whaling stations at Monterey and Sausalito, but the latter town is inside the San Francisco Bay, and at Monterey, the only real harbor south of San Francisco, the high cliffs are missing. To the north of the city, except for a few river mouths, there are no deep water bays where a ship can pull to a wharf and yet be round a point and out of sight in short order. The dog-hole schooners that hauled lumber, tanbark and hides down the coasts loaded offshore and had no such harbors--as their continual shipwrecks attested.
It is not perhaps much of a mystery. The play's second act is laid inside the wharf shed on the dock. The significant feature of the setting is at the back--a large double doorway looking over the end of the wharf to the bay and the open sea beyond. Double doorways may be a standard feature of boat sheds, but the one O'Neill knew firsthand was the one in the shed on the wharf at Provincetown, Massachusetts, where his first plays were produced, and whose essential features he reproduced in at least one other short play, The Rope. Writing at first for the Provincetown Players, he kept to the spaces they could use quickly and efficiently; and in moving his action to California, he transferred not only the interior but the exterior geography. The California setting is a Stevensonian fillip, chosen primarily because it was closer to the Malay Archipelago where the treasure was buried. This perhaps made the play's time scheme easier to deal with than did a long voyage around the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn to the east coast. Yet the schooner is wrecked in the Indian Ocean, west of the Malay Archipelago. Its course, to say the least, was erratic. The truth is, of course, that that countryside with its Mannon-style house, complete with Captain's Walk, the special harbor facilities, where one sails east in order to go west and approaches the Malay Archipelago through the Indian Ocean--that is New England. O'Neill's California is somewhere on Cape Cod.
O'Neill did better with his next western venture, the dream of California that sends Simeon and Peter Cabot away from their farm to seek their fortune. In Desire Under the Elms, the idea of California is only an image--of gold in the west, linked poetically with the setting sun and a woman's golden hair--that of Jenn, Simeon's dead wife. The California of this play is an image, poetically conceived and somewhat literary, not unlike the image of the South Seas in Mourning Becomes Electra--a symbol of longing and loss to contrast with harsh realities.
The west as dream, the idea of a golden California, proved to be his final use of the far west. In the complex, contorted scenario of The Calms of Capricorn, the California gold fields form a major thematic element, counterpointing the imagery of the sea as an element in man's fate. In this strange play--one whose narrative plan suggests that it was not only the size of the undertaking and his illness that gave him trouble with the completion of the Cycle--the widowed Sara Melody Harford and her sons Ethan, Jonathan, Wolfe and Honey journey to California on the Clipper Ship "Dream of the West." It is a randy Ship of Fools. Becalmed while trying to set a record run from Boston to San Francisco, the Clipper becomes something like a brothel as a whorish sensualist named Leda seduces the majority of the male members of the cast. Her doctrine is simply, if grossly, put:
Sexual possession is linked with the desire for material possession, bodily love and greed are combined in a series of quickly intercut scenes, almost cinematic in their rhythm. Leda's sexuality is linked thematically with the sea. As the play's central protagonist, Sara's son Ethan, says to his mother:
In the scenario, O'Neill is evidently thinking his way not only through the narrative and the characters but the theme as well. Ethan's words are an experiment in the motives of his protagonist and mark O'Neill's attempt to see his way through the thematic elements which would, in the end, comprise the whole meaning of the play and perhaps of the Cycle. The theme of the greedy earthbound, expressed in sexual symbolism, had been more definitively explored in More Stately Mansions; but in the sequel, the added elements of the sea and the Golden Gate added complexity and not a little ambiguity.
There is every reason to assume that O'Neill would have clarified the thematic ambiguities in The Calms of Capricorn and More Stately Mansions as he clarified them in the one Cycle play he completed, A Touch of the Poet. His thrust was toward simplicity of statement and staging, but it took him time--often years--to achieve the cleanly wrought dramatic presentation of the plays he wrote at Tao House. All that can be reasonably assumed from the scenario is that he saw the west as somehow intertwined with the materialistic motifs of the sea and sex as a force to be conquered and possessed before it could defeat its would-be possessors.
Through the action of the shipboard scenes, O'Neill held the idea of California as a materialistic Mecca before him. In the steerage section of the ship there is a crowd of men heading for the gold fields. Unseen, they serve as a chorus to the play, singing "Sacramento" and other songs almost unceasingly. Like the foghorn in Long Day's Journey Into Night or the native chant in Moon of the Caribbees or the drums in The Emperor Jones, the gold-seekers' song preys on the nerves of the onstage characters (and on the audience). At times, as a way of indicating the intertwining themes of the sea and the dream of California gold, O'Neill called for the gold-seekers' song to blend with a sea chanty, thus: "As a background is the triumphant song of the gold-seekers, dominating a subdued, beaten sea-chanty" (Calms 175). The music is a continual hymn to a betraying dream. O'Neill notes of the singers that "their leader had heard from brother in Cal[ifornia] of big new strike and he'd gotten company together of poor neighbors---it will be like first days [i.e., 1849, six years before the play's action]--poor things, I hope they have better luck than those others, that this wonderful new strike isn't just a fairy tale" (Calms 143).
The dream of California and gold is a delusion. The west is a place where a man's dreams will be knocked out of his head (Calms 140). It becomes in the end a politician's promise as Sara's son Honey--who was to become the politician protagonist of Nothing Is Lost Save Honor--turns it to his advantage, promising the gold-seekers as they enter the Golden Gate (Calms 180-181):
The play was to end as "The Dream of the West" enters the Golden Gate and as Ethan with his partner in love and crime, Nancy, commit suicide by giving themselves to the sea. California remained only at the edge of the play's vision, a lure, a delusion and a cheat.
And that was the sum of the impact of the west on O'Neill's plays. The house he built in the hills above Danville resembles in some particulars a hacienda-style ranch house. It was built on the site of an old adobe farmhouse of basalite bricks that to a degree copies the former adobe structure. But the roof had black tiles in an oriental manner and the rooms were furnished with elegant oriental furniture. The oriental, not the western world gave the house its name, Tao House, and it was designed to shut the outer world from sight. High walls surround the garden and, although the rooms command a spectacular view of the great massif of one of California's impressive mountains, Mount Diablo, the windows take little advantage of it. There were no picture windows to tempt the occupants to luxuriate in the outlook. Light entered from widely spaced double-hung windows and was caught and reflected into the room by large gray and dark blue mirrors, enabling the occupants to see themselves, not the world around them.
Brightness was further subdued by dark terracotta flooring, Chinese red lacquer doors, and deep blue ceilings. The light is subaqueous, and, although one can go out of doors directly from any room in the house--as if the O'Neills knew that sometimes claustrophobia might set in--within the house there is a cavelike quiet and darkness. O'Neill's study is the darkest and most isolated of the rooms. It is approached through three doors which shut out sound and bar intrusion. It was there that he turned away from the exterior world to explore his past and the images--memories--of New England and New York where his truth lay.
Some of Tao House found its way into his plays. The red lacquer door to the summer house in the garden of Deborah Harford in More Stately Mansions came from the doors Carlotta Monterey planned for the California home. Not long ago, the Ashland Theatre Company came from Oregon to play A Moon for the Misbegotten as a benefit for the restoration of Tao House to what it was when O'Neill lived there. It was staged in the earth by minimal stage light, but under a full moon before a dilapidated old barn that had been there long before Tao House was built. The play was never more superbly set, and the actors and audience seemed to feel that O'Neill's last play had been conceived by the sight of that barn, and that in this performance it had come home.
But so far as the west itself was concerned, O'Neill made little use of it, other than as a poetic, thematic image. California writer he was, but he remained an easterner in thought and deed.
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