TWO PEN PORTRAITS OF EUGENE O'NEILL, BROADWAYITE
Brief sketches of the more illustrious and notorious denizens of Broadway are nothing new; they have regularly appeared--in playbills, magazines, and the entertainment pages of newspapers--since the beginnings of star-dominated professional theatre in the United States. And some, like the two that follow, even make their way between hard covers for the enlightenment--or at least the delectation--of posterity. Given the multiple success that attended the opening of Strange Interlude at the John Golden Theatre on January 30, 1928--succes d'estime, de scandale and de boxoffice--it is not surprising that Eugene O'Neill quickly became a darling of such show biz caricaturists as Samuel Marx and Sidney Skolsky.
Marx's sketch, in his characteristic "all-in-one-breath-style," appeared in his Broadway Portraits (New York: Donald Flamm, Inc., 1929), a collection of mini-articles that had previously been printed in New York Amusements. Skolsky's arrived a year later in Times Square Tintypes (New York: Ives Washburn, 1930), a gathering of newspaper articles of his in The Sun and The News. I don't know which piece originally appeared first, but it seems likely from internal evidence that one author had seen the other's article before completing his own. Both volumes are illustrated by Alex Gard, whose full-page caricature accompanying the Skolsky essay appears on the cover of this issue. Reproduced at the left is the smaller, kinder drawing of 1929.
Given the exaggeration inherent in the caricaturist's art, neither sketch is offered here as a challenge to, or an expansion of, the biographical record so ably traced by Barrett Clark, the Gelbs and Louis Sheaffer. But they do suggest what about O'Neill was uppermost in the unscholarly public mind at an important moment in his career, and they also evidence that the craft of journalistic characterization has become, in our own later day, a considerably diminished thing. I hope that, for both reasons, readers will enjoy the brief respite they provide from the usually more serious concerns of the Newsletter! --Ed.
"EUGENE O'NEILL, That Strange Interlude Man,"
He was born only a few steps from the Provincetown Playhouse where his first play was produced, his mother attended a convent with the mother of George Jean Nathan, his mustache is black, his hair is gray and black, his complexion is a sallow brown, he always seems embarrassed, even when he is fully dressed, he has never committed an heroic act, when he doesn't wish to be disturbed he hangs a sign on his door, it says simply, "Go to Hell!" he is the son of James O'Neill, the actor, 'Gene's early plays were rejected by George C. Tyler without being read, Tyler explained to him that "Plays by actor's sons are never good!" his favorite authors are Jack London and Kropotkin, he never goes to the theatre, but he reads every play he can get his hands on, he is a good analyst of his own work and has tremendous faith in himself, he never doubted the success of "Strange Interlude," but he wanted it done as two separate plays, he was expelled from Princeton in his freshman year, he is always seeking new methods of revealing the complete characters he draws, like the masks in "The Great God Brown" and the soliloquy in "Strange Interlude," he is the only American playwright taken seriously abroad, he can't stand restaurant food, his first long play, "Beyond the Horizon," was inspired by an idiot boy, the first job he ever held was secretary of a mail order concern, he did not hold it long, despite his liking for liquor, he is always cold sober when he sits down to write, he hates to re-write anything, he's a sap for tall, sensuous women, he swims like a fish, has often slept well on the floor of a saloon, when the Guild rejected one of his early plays he swore never to let them produce anything else he ever wrote, he sought gold in Honduras, his family looked upon him as a tramp, he takes his hat off whenever in the presence of women, he was the world's worst actor, Luther B. Anthony predicted he would some day distribute disease germs to an audience to get them into the spirit of his plays.
"THE GREAT GOD O'NEILL,"
Eugene O'Neill. He is the only Broadway playwright who was born in Times Square. He was born in the Barrett House, now the Hotel Cadillac, at Forty-third Street and Broadway. The date: October 16, 1888.
He always wears dark clothes.
When writing he uses either pen and ink or a typewriter. It merely depends on which is handy. Revising a play annoys him.
His father was James O'Neill--an actor famous for his portrayal of the Count of Monte Cristo. Her [sic] mother, a fine pianist, attended a convent with the mother of George Jean Nathan.
He's a great swimmer and doesn't mind cold water.
Night life doesn't appeal to him. He made one tour of the night clubs. It was his last.*
Never attends the opening of his plays. In fact he seldom goes to a theater. He'd rather read a play than see it performed.
While at Provincetown, a feeble-minded lad of six took a great liking to him. One day while sitting on the beach the boy asked: "What is beyond the Point? What is beyond the sea? What is beyond Europe?" O'Neill answered, "The horizon." "But," persisted the boy, "what is beyond the horizon?"
Could grow a beard in ten days if he didn't shave.
His father, who said he never would be a great playwright, lived to see his son's first great success, Beyond the Horizon.
He hasn't touched a drop of liquor in the last three years.
In his youth Jack London, Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling were his favorite authors. Today Nietzsche is his literary idol.
He can't walk a mile without meeting an old friend who asks for money. He gives.
After the opening of Strange Interlude he chanced to meet an old seafaring friend. O'Neill asked what he was doing, and the friend replied: "Oh, I've married and settled down. Got a nice little business and doing pretty good. And you, Gene, are you still working the boats?"
Reads all the reviews of his plays. He claims he knows the good critics from the bad ones.
He seldom talks unless he has something to say.
While writing he hates to be disturbed. When working at Provincetown he tacked this sign outside his door: "Go to Hell."
Is crazy about prize fights and the six-day bicycle races. When in town he will go to anything at Madison Square Garden. The only person he ever expressed a desire to meet was Tex Rickard.
His full name is Eugene Gladstone O'Neill. Lately he discarded the middle name entirely.
Once, when a mere infant, he was very ill in Chicago. George Tyler, then his father's manager, ran about the streets of that city at three in the morning for a doctor.
Is always making notes for future plays. He wrote the notes of his first plays in the memorandum section of that grand publication, The Bartender's Guide.
He likes to be alone.
He had three favorite haunts. One was Jimmy the Priest's saloon, a waterfront dive. He later made use of this locale in Anna Christie. Another was "Hell's Hole," a Greenwich Village restaurant. The third was the Old Garden Hotel, which was situated on the northeast corner of Madison Avenue and Twenty-seventh Street. Here he met many people of the sporting world. A former bicycle rider (now a megaphone shouter on a sightseeing bus) he met there is still a pal of his.
It took him three years to write Strange Interlude. He had only six of the nine acts completed when he sold the play to the Theatre Guild.
He is especially fond of fine linen.
When in New York he lives at a secondary hotel. A place no one would ever think of looking for him.
He has huge hands.
For every play he draws sketches suggesting designs for the sets.
Of his own work he prefers, The Hairy Ape, The Straw (this he considers the best of his naturalistic plays), Marco Millions, Strange Interlude and Lazarus Laughed. The last is to be produced next year by the Moscow Art Theatre.
He takes great delight in recounting droll stories. Tells them with feeling and skill.
While attending Professor Baker's class at Harvard he almost ruined the college careers of John Colton and Johnny Weaver by filling them full of beer.
Is now living in France. He does not intend to return to America for some years.
His first book, Thirst and Other One-Act Plays, was published at his expense.
All of his original manuscripts are in his possession despite offers in five figures for them.
He writes important messages which are not to be breathed to a soul, on the back of a postal card.
In Shanghai, on his recent trip around the world, he was called a faker posing as Eugene O'Neill.
* The Gelbs, on pp. 620-621 of O'Neill (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), offer illuminating background to this cryptic paragraph. In 1926, Claire Luce persuaded O'Neill to celebrate his birthday with her at a 52nd Street nightclub, where the chore of being the center of attention grew increasingly intolerable for him. (See p. 621 for one of the playwright's best real-life exit lines.)
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