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Behind the Scenes of
O'Neill's Elephant Opus


BY Arthur Gelb and Barbara Gelb
FROM The Eugene O'Neill Review, Suffolk University, 2006

[The following article is based on a talk delivered to the audience following a performance of the Roundabout Theater's revival of A Touch of the Poet at Broadway's Studio 54 Theater, 10 December 2005. The audience was a mix of those familiar with O'Neill's work and others who were eager to learn about him.]

A Touch of the Poet is intricately linked in spirit and artistry to The Iceman Cometh, Long Day's Journey into Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten—the three plays universally acknowledged as Eugene O'Neill's masterworks. All four plays were written during an agonizing five-years—between 1939 and 1944.

It's startling to realize that O'Neill completed the plays after he had already received the Nobel Prize for Literature—the only American playwright ever to win that honor. Even more astonishing is that he managed to finish them at all, for it was a time when his health was seriously deteriorating. In fact, when he completed A Moon for the Misbegotten, he feared it might be his last play. At only 56, he was forced to confront his worst nightmare: he was no longer physically able to write.

It was in 1935, while still in reasonably good health, that O'Neill first began making notes and outlining scenarios for the multi-play cycle that would include A Touch of the Poet.

The cycle, as it evolved, was to be a saga of two intermarried American families—the securely rooted Yankee Harfords and the striving Irish immigrant Melodys. As their descendants prosper in America, they grow ever more materialistic, until at last they are strangled by their own greed. The cycle's overall title was to be A Tale of Possessors, Self-dispossessed."

O'Neill kept taking his story further and further back in time, until the cycle—in his imagination—grew to a grandiose eleven plays, dating from 1755 to 1932. The cycle, he said, would make his earlier, double and triple-length plays, Strange Interlude and Mourning Becomes Electra, look puny by comparison. After a while, he began referring to the cycle as his Elephant Opus.

When O'Neill began work on A Touch of the Poet, set in 1828—and initially the first play of the cycle—he was living in Sea Island on Georgia's Atlantic coast, in a mansion designed by his third wife, Carlotta Monterey, a former actress and celebrated beauty, who had been married three times. O'Neill had left his own second wife, Agnes Boulton, and their two children to elope with Carlotta in 1928 when they both were 40.

And they had lived an idyllic life ever since—with Carlotta running an immaculate household, structured around O'Neill's compulsive work habits, and protecting him—often quite fiercely—from all unwanted intrusions.

Carlotta, who typed most of her husband's manuscripts, told us in the late 1950's—during one of many interviews for our biography—that O'Neill, as she put it—"wanted to write about different phases in the history of America—how women entered the field of industry, how the great automobile empires evolved, about banking and shipping and the decline of the clipper ships."

But O'Neill's health had never been robust, and in 1935, a year before winning the Nobel Prize, he succumbed to a bout of nervous exhaustion, which he blamed on the daunting project he had set himself—and that was exacerbated by the hot and debilitating Georgia climate.

As he wrote to his producer, Lawrence Langner, of the Theater Guild: "A hell of a hot oppressive summer here. Carlotta and I are neck and neck toward the Olympic-and-World sweating record! We just continually drop and drip."

O'Neill's doctor warned him he was facing a nervous breakdown and advised him to leave Georgia for a cooler climate and to take an extended rest from work. He reluctantly set aside the cycle, and he and Carlotta put their Sea Island mansion up for sale. After a brief stay in Seattle (where, despite the doctor's caution, O'Neill did some research for the cycle) they moved into rented quarters in the Bay Area of California, where they had decided to build a new home.

At the end of 1936, not long after his 48th birthday, O'Neill was rushed to a hospital in Oakland for an appendectomy—complicated by a prostate condition, a kidney infection and various related ailments. But nothing—not even a devastating illness—could deter O'Neill, ever the compulsive writer, from making daily notations in his work diary. On January 12, two and a half weeks into his hospital stay—and apparently on the brink of death—he made this entry: "Temp[erature] up to 102,—chills—caffeine, adrenaline, codeine, morphine, atropine!—they give me the works!—Carlotta and nurses up all night—doctor at 4 am—bad sinking spell with everyone worried, but I feel too sick and ratty to give a damn whether I croak or not." (But, somehow, not too sick to record his condition for posterity.)

O'Neill was finally able to leave the hospital a month and a half later, clearly feeling very much himself—at least for the moment—and almost giddily happy to be with Carlotta at the Fairmont hotel in San Francisco.

"Shown to rooms in hotel," he wrote in his diary, "—and no double bed, in spite of my orders!—bellboys stand with bags while we kick and have bed changed!—scene for farce but both of us deadly serious and determined! Honeymoon!"

In the spring of 1937, the O'Neills found the spot where they wanted to build—160 acres in the hills near Danville, California, 35 miles east of San Francisco. While waiting for their new home to be finished, they perched in a rented house—where at last, on June 20, O'Neill felt strong enough to get back to his writing. By mid-July, he was drafting a family tree for the characters in his cycle plays.

But from that time on, he was subject to frequent bouts of miscellaneous ailments that sometimes blocked him from writing at all for days—sometimes weeks—at a time. That December, he developed severe neuritis in his arm. Frustrated, he wrote in his diary, "Try making notes but arm too painful. No go—to hell with cycle!"

It's distressing to read his daily entries. Although his primary illness was a degenerative nervous disorder that his doctors believed was Parkinson's Disease (an autopsy indicated it was a different disease, similar to Parkinson's), he was also plagued with numerous other maladies and there is seldom a day without mention of pain or disability of some kind.

By 1939, he had completed A Touch of the Poetalmost to his satisfaction. He would continue to fuss over it, on and off, during the next three years. But he believed it was the one cycle play that could stand on its own. He now realized he had little hope of completing the other cycle plays, and so he put all the very considerable accumulation of outlines and notes and drafts aside.

Instead, he summoned an almost superhuman effort to write the plays he believed he could finish, before he became too ill to write at all. They were the plays that had been in his mind for some time: The Iceman Cometh, Long Day's Journey into Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten.

The three plays are haunted by the sense of his own mortality that seemed, suddenly, to overwhelm him. They have in common O'Neill's brooding concern with his own past—particularly his difficult, often tormented relations with his parents and older brother. All three plays rumble with his youthful preoccupation with pipe dreams, drunkenness, thwarted ambition, guilt, betrayal and death.

The most revealing and personal—and to us the most universal—of the three plays is Long Day's Journey into Night. But you can trace O'Neill's absorption with his past in A Touch of the Poet as well. Most immediately striking, of course, is the echo of the title itself: While the poet's touch is attributed, in Poet, to the dreamy, idealistic offstage character, Simon Harford—in Long Day's Journey it is Edmund Tyrone who is characterized as the incipient poet. In one of the play's most moving scenes Edmund—who stands for the 24-year-old Eugene—lyrically describes his mystical sense of freedom as a young sailor and his actor father, James, half-grudgingly, tells him, "You have the touch of a poet."

As for Con Melody's verbal dueling with his daughter, Sara, throughout the play, it's a fair guess that O'Neill sharpened the hostile relationship between father and daughter in the light of his own rancor toward his daughter, Oona. It was in 1942—just around the time that he began the final revisions to A Touch of the Poet—that Oona infuriated him by making what he believed to be an opportunistic marriage.

Only two years earlier, O'Neill had been on affectionate terms with his daughter, when, at 15, she was accepted to the prestigious Brearley School in New York.

"I'm delighted you came out so well in your exams," he wrote, "because that means you must have done some hard work." He went on to confide in her about his writing, and his depression over World War II: "It's discouraging to feel that the Cycle I have been writing will have little meaning for the sort of world we will probably be living in by the time I finish it," he said. He concluded his letter: "I think of you a lot and love you a lot and am very proud of you."

Less than two years later, everything changed. O'Neill was livid over what he saw as Oona's "venture into stupid exhibitionism" when she allowed herself to be named as the number one debutante of the season by Manhattan's celebrity Stork Club.

He wrote to his lawyer—through whom he paid Oona's mother, Agnes, her alimony—that he considered it "unpardonable" for Oona to make a "cheap, silly spectacle of herself" and he condemned an interview Oona had given as "tops in empty-headed, nitwit bad taste and vulgarity."

If she really intended to go to Hollywood to try to break into the movies, instead of attending Vassar, O'Neill wrote, it would be absolutely against his wishes. "If she does, I will never write to her or see her again as long as I live! I don't want that kind of daughter. She could mean nothing to me but disgust."

A bit later, he fumed that Oona was "a spoiled, lazy, vain little brat . . . and a much sillier and bad-mannered fool than most girls of her age."

Oona did go to Hollywood in October 1943, and, at 18, she married Charlie Chaplin, who was then 52, and had recently been involved in a highly publicized paternity suit involving a 22-year-old would-be actress. To a relative, O'Neill confided that Oona had ended up in a typical Hollywood scandal and "marriage with a man as old as I am. Of course, he's rich, and that is the answer [. . .] ."

While O'Neill did not actually confront his daughter about her marriage—or hurl his bitter words in her face, as does Con Melody to Sara in A Touch of the Poet—it's not difficult to imagine his fantasizing such a confrontation, in the vicious words he put in the mouth of Con Melody: "You'd sell your pride as my daughter—! You filthy peasant slut! You whore! I'll see you dead first—!"

After her marriage, O'Neill never spoke to Oona again, and he later disinherited her.

Abruptly switching course a year or so later, although still awash in painful family memories, O'Neill turned a similar father-daughter relationship into a subject for black comedy in A Moon for the Misbegotten.

We have on the one hand the posturing Con Melody's contemptuous advice to his daughter in A Touch of the Poet to seduce her aristocratic lover, Simon, and get pregnant so that he will have to marry her. On the other hand, we have the blatantly earthy—if wily—Phil Hogan in A Moon for the Misbegotten, motivated by genuine love for his daughter, Josie, when he urges her to seduce the wealthy Jamie Tyrone. That father-daughter interplay is, perhaps, a fantasy of a relationship O'Neill had come to regret that he would never have. And of course, the rich Yankee family in A Touch of the Poet is also present in A Moon for the Misbegotten (and is mentioned in a long anecdote recounted in Long Day's Journey).

Anyone familiar with O'Neill's plays knows that Journey and Moon are set in New London, Connecticut, where the O'Neill family had a summer home. O'Neill could never forgive New London's Yankee aristocracy for snubbing his father who, as most popular touring actors in those days, was looked down on as little more than riffraff—most especially if Irish.

O'Neill's disdain was directed specifically toward two of New London's gentry in the early part of the last century, when the town was one of the East Coast's wealthiest summer resorts: the railroad tycoon, Edward Crowinshield Hammond, and the Standard Oil millionaire, Edward Stephen Harkness, both of whom had huge local estates.

It's interesting if somewhat puzzling to note that O'Neill conflated his two perceived villains symbolically, giving them three different variants of their combined names. The despised Yankee swell of A Touch of the Poet is called "Harford." In Long Day's Journey his name is "Harker" and in A Moon for the Misbegotten it is "Harder."

It's readily apparent that Con Melody is a symbolic stand-in for O'Neill's grandiloquent father, who is truthfully portrayed as James Tyrone in Long Day's Journey into Night. And it's a fact that James O'Neill was very much on O'Neill's mind when he wrote A Touch of the Poet. He even told a friend what sort of old-fashioned, bombastic actor should play the role of Con Melody—and described exactly the kind of actor James himself was.

We were amused to learn from Carlotta Monterey that O'Neill half-seriously suggested to her that she come out of retirement as an actress and play the role of the haughty Deborah Harford—for whom she was a part model, along with O'Neill's mother, Ella. I will," Carlotta retorted, "if you'll play one of the drunks in the barroom."

O'Neill, as a matter of fact, didn't think any of the actors in any of his plays were really capable of conveying the essential truths he had written. That was one of the big conflicts of his creativity. He was, in his bones, a man of the theater. Yet he often wrote more like a novelist than a contemporary playwright—giving the sort of intricately nuanced stage directions to his characters that no human actor could possibly convey. More than once, he expressed the futile wish that he could just publish his plays, and never produce them.

As it turned out, O'Neill was too ill and too heartsick over the events of World War II to supervise a production of A Touch of the Poet. But he did, reluctantly, permit the Theater Guild to stage The Iceman Cometh on Broadway after war's end in 1946.

Although O'Neill had abandoned his Elephant Opus after completing A Touch of the Poet seven years earlier, its theme of dispossession was still very much on his mind during rehearsals for Iceman. And Con Melody, the former British army major, with his "look of wretched distinction" and "brooding, humiliated pride" could easily have been one of the deluded, pipe-dreaming characters in Iceman along with Piet Wetjoen, "(The General) one-time leader of a Boer commando" and Cecil Lewis, "one-time Captain of British infantry."

In a rare press conference, O'Neill expressed his disillusionment with America's pursuit of materialism—even while aware that in that era of post-World War II optimism, his view would jangle many a nerve:

I am going on the theory that the United States, instead of being the most successful country in the world, is its greatest failure. Because it has always been in a state of rapid movement, it has never acquired real roots. Its main idea is that everlasting game of trying to possess your own soul by the possession of something outside of it, too. America is the foremost example of this because it happened so fast here and with such enormous resources. The Bible has already said it much better: "For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?"

The Iceman Cometh was only moderately successful, and was not recognized as a masterpiece until it was revived ten years later with the then-unknown Jason Robards Jr. starring as Theodore "Hickey" Hickman, the salesman of death.

The following year, with even greater misgivings, O'Neill allowed the Theater Guild to mount an out-of-town tryout of A Moon for the Misbegotten. As he had feared, the play—miscast, misunderstood and decidedly ahead of its time—closed in St. Louis. (It didn't have a Broadway production until after O'Neill's death and it wasn't until its 1974 revival that it was at last recognized for the masterpiece it is. That particular production, directed by José Quintero and starring Jason Robards and the luminous Colleen Dewhurst, became a smash hit on Broadway and it is revived regionally and abroad almost as often as Long Day's Journey into Night.)

O'Neill flatly refused to allow a production of A Touch of the Poet. "I don't believe I could live through it," he told Lawrence Langner.

Con Melody of A Touch of the Poet and James Tyrone of Long Day's Journey into Night have in common the fact that in the end, they both must confront the lie they have been living.

In Con Melody's case, O'Neill expressed the dilemma metaphorically, when he caused Melody to drop his pose finally as an aristocrat, and acknowledge his honest peasant beginnings.

In the case of James Tyrone, O'Neill used the true tragedy of his father's dilemma: James spent most of his career raking in the easy money he could earn performing in the superficial melodrama, The Count of Monte Cristo, which he played 5,000 times in his tours across the country. But he knew he could have been a truly great Shakespearean actor. And at the end of his career, he was forced to acknowledge that he had betrayed his talent.

As O'Neill wrote to a friend shortly after his father's death, in 1920: "His last words to me, when speech had almost failed him—were: `Eugene, I'm going to a better sort of life. This sort of life—here—all froth—no good—rottenness!'"

"This," O'Neill ruefully continued, "was after 76 years of what the mob undoubtedly regard as a highly successful career!—It furnishes food for thought, what? His words are written indelibly—seared on my brain—a warning from the Beyond to remain true to the best that is in me though the heavens fall."

O'Neill might possibly have thought that the ending of A Touch of the Poet was too abrupt, for at one point he considered adding an epilogue. In a draft, among the papers he sent to Yale's Beinecke Library not long before his death, Simon's mother is called Abigail—which was also her name in an early version of A Touch of the Poet.

The epilogue, which has since been published by the Yale University Press, consists of a confrontation between Abigail and Sara, now Simon's wife of several weeks. They discuss a gift of $5,000 that Sara has agreed to accept secretly from Simon's mother, under the condition that Sara persuade Simon to start a new life with her, far away.

Although she will miss her son, Abigail tells Sara, she is following her husband's instructions to banish him—so as not to embarrass the Harfords with a connection to the disreputable Con Melody.

In yet another illustration of the connection between Poet and O'Neill's other final plays, Sara describes her father to Abigail as "a dead man walking alive to a drunkard's grave"—a description that aptly fits Jamie Tyrone in A Moon for the Misbegotten. (There is also, surely not by chance, a character with the same name as O'Neill's brother, Jamie [Cregan] in A Touch of the Poet. And in at least one other instance, O'Neill inserted a character with a name that evoked the period of his youth with which he was now wrestling: the maid, Cathleen, in Long Day's Journey had the same name, although spelled differently, of O'Neill's first wife—the mother of his son Eugene Jr.—whom he divorced in 1912, the year in which both Iceman and Journey are set. O'Neill—deny it as he might—was a Freudian's dream.)

And in The Iceman Cometh, O'Neill depicts a husband/wife relationship strikingly similar to that of Con and Nora Melody: Hickey's wife, Evelyn, is endlessly forgiving of him—in her case for his faithlessness, as well as his neglect of her. But while Con shoots his mare (symbolically killing himself), Hickey shoots his wife—under the delusion that he is giving her peace—and effectively ending his own life by being arrested for murder. (Death also looms in A Moon for the Misbegotten: Jamie Tyrone is dying of alcoholism—as indeed, did Jamie O'Neill; and in Long Day's Journey into Night it is implied that young Edmund Tyrone will die of tuberculosis—in this case, a poetically licensed, symbolic death.)

O'Neill abandoned the epilogue in favor of a full-fledged sequel to A Touch of the Poet, to be called More Stately Mansions, which, sadly, he never completed. Mansions was to continue the story of the Melodys and the Harfords, with Simon Harford making his onstage appearance as Sara's husband. In the draft, O'Neill enlarged his depiction of Simon, presenting him as the embodiment of the tormented, displaced American male—not unlike O'Neill himself. But Simon resembles, even more closely, the young James O'Neill, torn between his idealist's dreams and the drive for material success. Simon's mother, Deborah, is depicted in Mansions as embattled with her daughter-in-law, Sara, for dominion over Simon.

O'Neill believed he had destroyed his overlong draft of that play. Mentally and physically exhausted, living in the Boston hotel suite that was his final home, he tore up—with hands shaking from the tremor caused by his illness—all the remaining unfinished cycle works. Carlotta helped him. "It was like tearing up children," she told us after his death. She also confided that O'Neill warned her then and there: "Nobody must be allowed to finish my plays."

Neither of them realized at the time that a draft of Mansions had inadvertently been sent to Yale earlier with other of O'Neill's papers and it was discovered after his death, along with the abandoned epilogue to A Touch of the Poet, among other papers he had sent to the Beinecke Library.

The Mansions manuscript was approximately four times the length of a conventional play and it contained a flyleaf in O'Neill's writing that read: "Unfinished Work. This script to be destroyed in case of my death! Eugene O'Neill."

Carlotta, however, chose to ignore O'Neill's instructions, and gave permission to Karl Ragnar Gierow, director of the Swedish Royal Dramatic Theater, to see if he could carve an acting version from the unwieldy script. She blithely justified her decision by declaring that O'Neill "left everything" to her. "I can do as I please," she once told us.

By then, O'Neill's mercurial widow had already flouted the most stringent of her husband's literary injunctions: A year earlier, she had wrested the sealed manuscript of Long Day's Journey into Night from the safe of O'Neill's publisher, Bennett Cerf of Random House, where—presumably because of its shocking revelations about his own family—he had deposited it with instructions that it be withheld from publication until twenty-five years after his death, which would have been 1978.

She gave the play to the Yale University Press for publication, and authorized José Quintero—who, earlier that year, had revived The Iceman Cometh off Broadway—to direct the play's Broadway premiere.

More than likely, it was the stunning success of that production on Broadway in 1956 that prompted Carlotta, a year later, to try for yet another possible posthumous hit.

As for Karl Gierow, he maintained that he could divine, from O'Neill's notes, exactly how the dramatist would have forged a finished play from the very rough and often clumsy draft of More Stately Mansions. This claim, as we have often deplored in the past, was manifest self-delusion.

For O'Neill (as Gierow should have known, and as Carlotta absolutely did know) often ignored his own notes, relentlessly rewriting, deleting, shifting scenes and acts, altering the names—and sometimes the motivations and relationships—of leading characters.

He once told Theresa Helburn, one of his producers at the Theater Guild, that he rarely showed anyone a first draft of a play. "Mine are intolerably long and wordy," he confided, "intentionally so, because I put everything in them, so as not to lose anything, and rely on a subsequent revision and rewriting, after a lapse of time with better perspective on them, to concentrate on the essential and eliminate the overweight."

In this case, he might have followed his own notes for revising, or he might have rewritten the whole thing from beginning to end or—just as possibly—he might have scrapped the draft altogether, as he had done with other manuscripts.

Even his titles were apt to undergo radical changes: More Stately Mansions (a line from Oliver Wendell Holmes's "The Chambered Nautilus") was originally called Oh, Sour-apple Tree. And A Touch of the Poet once had the unappealing title, Hair of the Dog.

O'Neill was a ruthless self-editor and it's impossible for anyone to know, notes or no notes, how he finally would have dealt with More Stately Mansions. The posthumous acquisition of an unbidden collaborator, who presumed to read O'Neill's mind, must, as we have noted more than once before, have caused his ghost to howl with fury—or possibly to split its sides in ironic laughter.

It was hard not to be both bemused and appalled when More Stately Mansions was published in 1964 as "a new play by Eugene O'Neill." In fact—as was candidly acknowledged in a Prefatory Note—this "new play" represented "less than half" of O'Neill's mammoth typescript.

When the play opened on Broadway—once again misleadingly presented as "a new play by Eugene O'Neill," and even though it starred Ingrid Bergman as Deborah Harford—Mansions was not a success.

We may be belaboring the point (no one else seems to care) but we feel that O'Neill deserves better. Whatever the merits (or faults) of the published version of More Stately Mansions, it obviously can't be evaluated as "a play by Eugene O'Neill," nor can any stage production on which it is based. It's a play adapted by someone else from a draft manuscript by America's premiere dramatist—against his clearly stated wishes—and it is, at best, a curious hybrid for scholarly rumination.

Scholars by the dozens have pored over the massive jumble of manuscripts, scenarios, work diaries, notes and fragments of plays O'Neill left behind, and many have published enlightened analyses and interpretations of the unfinished work.

Some, like Gierow, have probably sighed over the great plays that might have been—and no doubt they, too, have been tempted to "finish" the plays for O'Neill.

But for the most part, they have been content to leave it at that—not tampering with O'Neill's legacy by "finishing" the plays for him. Wisely, they recognize that this would be not only a disservice to O'Neill, but also an exercise in futility.

O'Neill, after all, left forty-nine completed plays—sufficient fodder for even the most passionate admirer to feed on—and surely enough to preclude any further cannibalizing of those plays he left uncompleted.

A Touch of the Poet did not have its Broadway premiere until 1958, two years after O'Neill's death. It starred the splendid English actor, Eric Portman, as Con Melody. Helen Hayes, the darling of the American theater, played Nora, and Kim Stanley, a brilliant young actress who went on to become a big star, played their daughter, Sara.

Sounds like the ideal cast. Unfortunately, though, the three came to hate one another and it damaged all their performances. The fact that Portman was often drunk didn't help, either. The production was not a success.

The play's only other Broadway revival, until now, was in 1977. It starred Jason Robards, who was the quintessential O'Neill actor. His creation of Jamie Tyrone in the original Long Day's Journey into Night has never yet been surpassed—nor has his Hickey in the 1956 revival of The Iceman Cometh. His Con Melody, however, was somewhat less successful.

Actually, A Touch of the Poet is the least-often revived of O'Neill's final major works. It's not an easy play—probably the most novelistic and subtle of the four. The current revival with Gabriel Byrne brilliantly portraying the tragic Melody is a brave and welcome gift to the new Broadway season.


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