THE LEGACY OF O'NEILL*
For me to presume to deliver a speech on O'Neill to O'Neill scholars is quite a presumption indeed--something on the order of speaking French to the Academie française. It is a well-known fact, in certain circles, que je parle français comme une vache espagnole. And it will soon be evident in this particular circle que je parle Eugene O'Neill comme deux vaches espagnoles. So if you've come tonight expecting opaline insights into "Hughie," or "Moon" or "Emperor Jones," let me, now and forevermore, dash every hope you have.
So why am I here? I could recite stanzas of ottava rima. AB AB AB CC. I could dance the tarantella. I could stop now and ask for questions. Much flew through my imagination when I faced my typewriter in London this past week, facing the onerous honor of speaking before such a distinguished group of playwright-lovers--O'Neillophiles, yet, in search of O'Neilllight. (Why does this sound like a line of customers in the 1950s at a local Thom McAn shoe store?)
My purpose for the next 29 minutes will be to share with you some thoughts about growing up in O'Neill's shadow.
When I was born, in 1939, O'Neill had already established himself as the American Master. By June of my birth-year, O'Neill had already written down his plans for "Iceman" and "Long Day's Journey." I am not yet on solid food, and O'Neill is three years past his Nobel Prize, a quarter of a dozen Pulitzers, and outlines for two of the three best plays ever written in American English. I look out of my crib and notice all of this. I write in my notebook, "O'Neill will be tough competition."
What was it like--and what IS it like--to formulate a life as a playwright in the shadow of O'Neill's greatness? After all, these are not paleographics we consider when we consider O'Neill's plays: these are living, breathing dramas. Just a few weeks ago, "Long Day's Journey" once again split the critics and is, according to its producer, Manny Azenburg (who was my houseguest in Gloucester last night), "racking a nice advance."
To view O'Neill as a colleague and
competitor is far more realistic than it might be to view O'Neill as
Parnassian--or even as a Parmesan cheese. He is what he is: the most
extraordinary of America's playwrights, to date. In a very American
word: Eugene O'Neill is the best--to date.
Two strong influences on my writing are clearly Eugene O'Neill and Samuel Beckett. (Could there be better objective correlatives for a Yankee Jew such as toi-même?) And there are such great similarities between O'Neill and Beckett--but that is a subject for one of you Celtic fans, not me.
But do let me pause here to tell you a story of Beckett and me--about writers, writing, and influences.
I moved to Paris in the early 1970s, to be near Beckett, among others--and. of course, to be an American writer in Paris. Beckett and I met each Tuesday evening and talked about writing and about life.
In need of money, I had agreed to do a reading of some poems of mine at the American Cultural Centre, rue du Dragon; $50, I think, was my fee. I was ashamed to tell Beckett that I was doing the reading. I knew he wouldn't approve of such a public display--certainly not for $50! The reading was on a Tuesday night, at 9 p.m. We met at 7 p.m. ... usual bar ... he drank his brandy and I drank my Badoit (gazeuse). On arrival, he seemed a bit glum. Contrary to polularist opinion, Mr. Beckett is not a glum sort. He doesn't wear a clown-suit--but, nevertheless, not glum. This night he was.
Of course I hadn't, because I was ashamed of myself for doing the reading in the first place, and also because Beckett never goes, as they say, "out." I sensed his feelings were hurt and quickly countered with "I'd love to have you listen. Will you come to the reading?"
And then he startled me with a request. "Please, would you recite one of the poems for me?" (Beckett is extremely forthright with his friends. He once asked me to run for him so he could watch my stride. He knew I was about to run in a marathon.)
I chose a four-line poem (one he would later translate into French)--a poem about my bumping into a girl on the street and literally knocking both of us down. (We rose to our feet and each ran in separate directions.) My inferior English version went something like this:
"The last line of my poem-- 'our love lives within the space of a quietly closing door.' That's from your Dieppe poem--'we shall live our lives in the space of a window that opens and closes.'"
I wrote a novel when I was 13 years old and sent it off to a publisher in New York--Simon and Schuster, in fact, as they had published some or another book I'd read and admired. They had a summer editor in their employ--Bob Gottlieb, then 20, an undergraduate, soon to become the wunderkind of Knopf, editor of Updike and Heller--but then 20 and brilliant. He wrote a letter of rejection to me. I, of course, didn't know Gottlieb was 20, and he, of course, didn't know I was 13. He praised my novel for what he called "its wonderful, childlike quality." The unkindest cut of all! He savaged my career in prose fiction with that one remark. Failed, I turned to the drama and never turned back.
I titled my first play, summoning my most powerful subtlety, "The Comeback." I was 17 years old, and the play was performed on this very stage upon which I stand before you now. "The Comeback" was a father/son play. The characters were a father/son acting team, in the midst of a failure with a two-character play about a father and son. In the play within the play, the son kills the father. They accuse each other for the failure of their play within the play, and they agree to reverse roles. Once the roles are reversed, they find a true passion--one that goes beyond the limits: the son actually kills and is killed by the father. Both lie dead, in a laundry-like heap, at the play's conclusion.
I played the son, and then-Suffolk University theatre instructor Peter MacLean played the father. We toured the play to Emerson College, where we were curtain-raiser to Arthur Miller's "A Memory of Two Mondays." Our own curtain rose--but never fell. I recall lying dead atop Peter MacLean, asking, "What should we do? They don't know the play is over!" And MacLean, an old pro at 26, replied, "Stand up and bow." And so we rose from the dead, and we bowed ... but they still didn't know the play was over. And so we exited, and never returned, and soon enough they intuited and they knew.
That night I asked my girlfriend, "Who is this Arthur Miller? Is he as good as O'Neill?" She was an O'Neill buff. On her birthday in '53, when she was a high school freshman, O'Neill, a look-alike to her father, died of drink and other complications--as would this girl's father--as would this girl herself. She answered, "No, nobody is as good as O'Neill."
On November 27th in '53, my friend George Lodge was a cub reporter working the obit desk at the Boston Globe. (George is Dossy Peabody's father. Dossy is of late starring in my play, "Park Your Car in Harvard Yard," at the Gloucester Stage Company.) George's boss rang his line: "Lodge, get over to the Shelton. Eugene O'Neill just died."
When George got to the room, the door was open. The fireplace was ablaze. Carlotta was still] turning manuscript pages into ash. George was allowed to view O'Neill. A nurse led him into the back bedroom, where O'Neill lay unceremoniously dead on the floor. Carlotta stayed at her labor, which was a vast stack of scripts.
The next day, George took Carlotta on a rowboat ride and they chatted. What she had burned was work O'Neill had written after the Parkinson's disease destroyed his skills: work that O'Neill felt was "no good." And there was also work that O'Neill had written earlier but had felt was not for a world to ever see.
It's silly and futile to think of O'Neill had he lived with word-processors and Xerox ... or Mozart with a drum machine....
What O'Neill has left us is a canon of some fifty plays, more than one out of each ten what we call "great"--High Art--an extraordinary outpouring even for a man of 19th century influences, even for a man who would grow up in Ibsen's shadow. You all know. I'm sure better than I, how very many echoes of "Hedda Gabler" and "The Wild Duck" are said to exist in "Now I Ask You" and "Iceman," plays that basically bracket O'Neill's entire oeuvre.
I take calm comfort in these echoes, as should you. These are the echoes still ringing in Beckett's "I stole it from Dante meself!" This is the passing of the baton. This is the greatest hope we writers have. And this was the humanity of O'Neill.
If James O'Neill was Eugene O'Neill's father of chance, it seems to me that Ibsen was Eugene O'Neill's father of choice. In truth, "The Count of Monte Cristo" counts for a lot. From James's great commercial success, Eugene seems to have learned to take success in stride. Success seems to me to be the second greatest killer of American playwrights. From Ibsen, Eugene O'Neill learned a great seriousness of self.
What I have learned from both Ibsen and O'Neill, as well as from Beckett--three fathers of choice--is an utter seriousness of self. I am simply human. My experience is simply human experience. What is for me is for humanity, no more, no less...
We are taught that love conquers all. We observe in O'Neill a tremendous hatred--of overbearing, cruel father, of complicitous mother. In dialogue: "Help me, mother ... protect me from him..." And the mother can only reply, "I love him, first. I cannot protect you any more than I can protect myself ... I refuse."
This special set of childhood circumstances should, by all that's Freudian and holy, produce prisoners, not playwrights? Absolutely right ... absolutely wrong...
I was amazed, recently, in researching a murder in Gloucester's Dogtown, to discover that the psychopathic killer had almost precisely the same history as the late Roger Babson, the philanthropist...
Energy turns this way or that...
It is striking that O'Neill wrote out of so little love--my euphemism for his writing out of so much hatred--and yet his writing is so moving to so many. Can the human condition be described in terms of "Protect me against him! I can't! I won't!"?
If not next to impossible, it is certainly silly to separate O'Neill's life from his creations for the stage. O'Neill threatened us all, constantly: "Take care of me, or I will kill myself ... I will drink myself to death ... I will die!" And a world responded with Pulitzers and Nobels and farms in Connecticut and seaside houses on this coast and that. The threat, and the response, continues.
The deal is made, the die is cast, the perfect compound--polymer--sets up: a world responds and O'Neill continues his part of the bargain ... not unlike the woman we beg for protection, he cannot exist without the cruelties against him, he cannot--will not--protect himself against the pain. He welcomes it, it feeds him, it gives him sustenance, strength ... it continues a connection to his youth.
O'Neill's fathers of choice were powerful and talented: Ibsen, Nietzsche, Aeschylus, and of course Strindberg. O'Neill, in accepting his Nobel Prize, called Strindberg "the greatest genius of all modern dramatists..." (Have you ever read "Recklessness"? Of course you have.) These are all men of seriousness of self, all excellent models for O'Neill. We attribute an Irish stereotype to O'Neill's drink, and to his sharing Joyce's typically Irish observation, "Your mind is supersaturated with the religion you say you disbelieve..." But where is the lilt of Joyce or even Goldsmith? Where is the edgy laugh of Swift and Sterne? No, it seems to me that O'Neill's fathers of choice were clear, consistent choices--men of unbending, unrelenting seriousness.
Consider this fact: before James O'Neill spent 15 years as a romantic swashbuckler (whatever that is) in a dramatization of Dumas' "Count of Monte Cristo," he played both Iago and Othello with great success. He must have lectured young Eugene about standards of Art ... and later lectured a less young Eugene about a loss of these standards. And if there was not a forthright lecture, there was certainly a forthright life for O'Neill to observe. Of O'Neill's 50 plays, only one--"Ah, Wilderness!"--can be categorized as cheerful, as light entertainment, from a man now visibly capable of great good humor, a man now visibly capable of irony and of wit and of beery good cheer.
One finds, in a fancy edition of "Ah, Wilderness!" an introduction by O'Neill which seems to me to be pure bullshit, in which O'Neill waxed on and on about his purpose being "to write a play true to the spirit of the American large small-town at the turn of the century"--something about his own generation passing "from adolescence to manhood." It's the sort of bullshit I spew forth when asked to explain why I've chosen to write this or that. The cover reveals nothing more than itself. What is clear, however, is that Eugene O'Neill had considerable comic talent, and that a light, commercial, sitting-room comedy was well within his capability. That he set aside "Days Without End" in order to start and complete "Ah, Wilderness!" is in itself no laughing matter. It is, in its own way, Eugene the son saying to James the father, "Look, you, I am able to eat one salted peanut and no more." How hideous that this man of such wisdom, of such seriousness of self, of such remarkable self-control, could redefine an audience's tastes, could bring reward from high places, and yet could choose to drink away a dignity with such visibility, such purpose.
Serious dramatists have few secrets. What they feel, they show. What they are, they display. Such is the nature and condition of the work serious dramatists do: it comes with the territory.
O'Neill's notebooks, housed in the Manuscript Libraries at Yale University, reveal the man, the plan, the canal. Ideas for projects outline work for ten lifetimes. It all fits. It is hardly possible that even O'Neill's great fecundity could have given birth to so many plays without so much planning.
Consider the fierce loneliness of O'Neill's creation. Alone, writing; alone, planning; alone, in drink; alone, in sleep. It is said that a child, on seeing a lion roar for the first time, registers fear, cries, and quickly roars--"owning" the thing that caused the fear, as soon as possible. It seems not to have been James O'Neill's roar that Eugene was bound to imitate, but the elder O'Neill's terrible loneliness.
O'Neill's love was a love of the theatre, of what he was: a playwright. Perhaps the holiness missing from the religion in which O'Neill so fervently disbelieved was found--better said, was placed or located--in O'Neill's beloved work.
For me, the legacy of O'Neill is the holiness of being a playwright. What I have taken from O'Neill is seriousness of self and a great pride in the work that I do. And where else does the serious American playwright go for this sort of inspiration if not to O'Neill? Certainly not to Broadway, or to Hollywood. To have had O'Neill as a standard, as a colleague and competitor, has been my great good fortune.
The old Jews tell us we should pick a friend if we're looking for an excellent enemy, as friends know exactly where to strike. O'Neill was the ultimate loner: for himself, his own best friend, his own best enemy.
O'Neill was a natural, bred for the drama (and for really nothing else) by father and mother alike. But acting, as every writer knows deep down, is whoring. There is a necessary hunger, and a necessary loss of self. No actor, O'Neill. Vain and from time to time dandy as Joyce himself, but still, not by any stretch of the imagination--not even his own--was he an actor.
For Eugene, the son, life was to be looked at ... to be slowed down ... studied ... controlled ... which is to say written. The boy Eugene's voice seems omnipresent to me: "Look, you, father, this is not acting! This is living!"
What character had O'Neill written for himself? From "Long Day's Journey": "I will always be a stranger who never feels at home, who does not really want and is not really wanted, who can never belong, who must always be a little in love with death." From "Strange Interlude": "Dive for the gutter just to get the security that comes from knowing she's touched bottom, and there's no farther to go." And, of course, from "Iceman": "No one has to worry where they're going next, because there's no farther they can go. It's a great comfort to them."
For O'Neill, hitting bottom carried with it the sense of safety that a pilot must feel when his plane's wheels touch down to Earth. Yes, it's safe. But it's not flying...
How odd and frightening it is that so many artists create their greatest work and then either die, or stop creating. Rossini stopped composing after "William Tell." Sibelius, as well, created his greatest work and then stopped, surviving himself, as it were, for another 30 years. Mozart, as we know from the movie, knocked out his greatest work, his last three symphonies, in six weeks, before his death. It is as though we are all circling some great truth. Once the truth is touched, there seems no reason to go on. Or to go on, to break through into the absolute unknown, is just too frightening...
There is a story I know--some might even call it a joke--about two Jews who were prisoners in Buchenwald together, at the end of the War. Their families and friends were all lost in the gas chambers there. They were, themselves, beaten and tortured. But, miraculously, the war ended and neither of the two was yet dead, which is to say they were both alive.
One Jew went to Russia, the other Jew went to the United States. Forty years passed. The American Jew, Goldberg, grew to be wealthy, calm, secure. He made a trip to Russia with two young grandsons--sort of a grand tour centered in Eastern Europe, in the places of the man's birth.
In Moscow, Goldberg stayed with his grandsons in a posh, expensive hotel. He took a morning stroll, early, as old men do, at 6 a.m. One morning, he spied a familiar-looking old man--a messenger--carrying a delivery parcel. The old man was Finklestein, Goldberg's friend from Buchenwald: Goldberg was certain of this. He called out, "Finklestein! Finklestein!" And just as Goldberg started across the street, a KGB van--unmarked but for silent flashing lights--whizzed to the curb beside the old messenger. Four KGB man leapt from the van and beat Finklestein to the ground, pummeling him with punches, bruising him with kicks. As suddenly as they had appeared, they left.
Finklestein was on the pavement, bloodied, barely alive. Goldberg ran to him, stooped down and cradled the old man's head in his arms, calling to him, softly, "Finklestein, Finklestein, it's me, Goldberg ... from Buchenwald..."
And the old man opened his eyes, looked up at Goldberg, and smiled, lovingly: "Ahhhhhhh, Buchhhhenwallllddd..."
I am a writer. I offer my insights to you in metaphor. I am a playwright. I offer my insights to you in entertainments...
It has been said that O'Neill was never happier, really, than he was here in Massachusetts, in Provincetown, when he and Agnes and baby Shane lived in the place Shane called "the house where the wind blows." While it seems, finally, brilliantly, mystically appropriate that this house O'Neill loved so--Peaked Hill Bars Station--one day slipped into the sea; first tilted toward the sea and then fell and rolled, lapped up by hungry waves, was devoured ... but really, finally, hit bottom and rested. Yes, brilliantly, mystically appropriate... How do we playwrights create these odd facts of our own lives?
But Peaked Hill Bars Station's fall to the bottom wasn't nearly so striking to me as this gorgeous, sublime fact of Eugene O'Neill's life there. Every so often at Peaked Hill Bars--sometimes every few weeks--the swirling sand would cause the windows of O'Neill's beloved home to become opaque. Sometimes, O'Neill would replace the glass. But more often than not, he would allow the opaqueness ... until some visitor or another would comment...
While researching and tossing this salad of responses together for tonight, I stared at photo after photo of O'Neill and his family. Watching the appearance of James's moustache on Eugene's face made an imprint on my brain.
It is as though Eugene finally made an odd sort of peace with James, responding to the constancy of the father's cruelty--the "Ahhh, Buchenwald" of his particular life. Forgiving the complicitous-duplicitous mother was quite another matter. It seems so fitting that "Long Day's Journey" and "Moon" and "Iceman" should be, for O'Neill, what his last three symphonies were for Mozart: a closing down of shop ... the greatest of the goods are gone from the inventory ... and the absolute bottom is within easy reach. Just, simply, reach.
We make our choices, each of us. We are all dramatists of our own essential characters. Eugene O'Neill was actually a genius--which is to say that, of the expert playwrights to have walked about on this Planet Earth, Eugene O'Neill was one of the most expert.
All knowledge does indeed flow through the trunk of the tree. To know one thing completely is to know everything. Like Bach's Chaconne, there are some 29 variations to the essential theme... How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? 29.
How did O'Neill incite pity and terror among those of us looking at his life as well as his plays? Expertly... And how he threatens us still. "Treat these plays well or I will do worse than die! I am, after all, dead. You failed to protect me!"
And to me, O'Neill speaks and says, "Protect this holy thing, playwriting, with great dignity. Or else, I will die and I will die and I will die..." And I do protect this thing, playwriting. I do. I will. I swear it.
I would like to thank Professor Fred Wilkins for this assignment. Normally, I approach schoolwork with little enthusiasm. This was, for me, an assignment to cherish and to be remembered. And I thank you all.
*A talk delivered as part of the "Tribute to O'Neill" on Saturday, May 31, during the 1986 conference on "Eugene O'Neill--the Later Years" at Suffolk University in Boston. Massachusetts. Copyright (c) 1986 by Israel Horovitz.
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