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A Mint From the 'Misbegotten'

 
BY Barbara Gelb
FROM The New York Times, May 5, 1974

Twenty years after his death, O'Neill's 'Moon for the Misbegotten' brings over $3,200 a week to his estate.  Who gets it?

The disposition of funds from the substantial literary estate of Eugene O'Neill is still affected, more than 20 years after his death, but the chaos and turbulence of his relationships with his third wife and his two children from an earlier marriage.

When O'Neill died on Nov. 28, 1953, he left a will making his wife, Carlotta, his sole heir and executrix.  He had made the will in 1951, explicitly disinheriting his two surviving children, Shane O'Neill and Oona O'Neill Chaplin, and "their issue now or hereafter born."  He was angry about Shane's dissolute lifestyle and he was angry at Oona for having married Charlie Chaplin, a man twice her age.

O'Neill had recently become reconciled with Carlotta after a bitter and protracted battle, and was feeling desperately guilty toward her.  With the exception of a $77,000 bequest to the Yale University Library for the maintenance of the O'Neill collection, he left everything to Carlotta as a gesture of expiation.

Today, with Carlotta O'Neill three years dead and with the O'Neill children disinherited, the question arises as to who now profits from the author's estate -- an estate that has fattened with this season's lucrative revival of "A Moon for the Misbegotten."

The answer is both complex and ironic, as anything connected with O'Neill's life and work is apt to be.  Nothing about O'Neill has ever been easy.

For one thing, O'Neill's disinherited children are profiting from what has turned out to be the estate's latest and perhaps biggest money-maker to date; due to a legal technicality, they are the sole owners of "A Moon for the Misbegotten, " one of Broadway's major hits.  But royalties from O'Neill properties flow in from many sources other than the current revival of "A Moon for the Misbegotten."  There are returns from both domestic and foreign stage revivals of other plays, movie and television adaptations and sales from the published versions of the plays.

There is no single source that can furnish even a rough estimate of the total worth of the O'Neill literary estate.  The estate is hedged by a tangle of copyright laws, awash with producers, publishers, university trustees, deans and curators and it is guarded by the Scylla and Charybdis of two law firms.

In 1964, six years before her death on Nov. 18, 1970, Carlotta O'Neill made a will designating Yale University as the beneficiary of the royalties from such of the O'Neill properties that her estate should have in its control when she died.  Yale had been selected as the recipient of the bulk of O'Neill's manuscripts and other documents in 1926, when the university have him an honorary degree, "as a creative contributor of new and moving forms . . . and the first American playwright to receive both wide and serious recognition upon the stage of Europe.

O'Neill's erratic academic career had included a year at Princeton in 1906 -- he was kicked out for failing to complete his freshman coursed -- and a year at Harvard in George Pierce Baker's postgraduate playwriting course in 1914.  Baker had moved his theater workshop to Yale in 1924, and it was at his urging that O'Neill accepted the degree.

Mrs. O'Neill directed that after her death the royalties from her husband's plays go partly to maintain and add to Yale's O'Neill collection, partly to establish Eugene O'Neill scholarships for "worthy students of playwriting" at the Yale School of Drama and partly "for such other purposes connected with" the library and the drama school as Yale "may determine."

O'Neill's widow had forcefully implemented her literary trust during most of the 17 years by which she survived her husband.  Sometimes she acted astutely, sometimes capriciously, but the cumulative effect was to enhance and solidify O'Neil's reputation, and this has been reflected in the years since her death by the accumulation at Yale University of a fund of $280,000.  Shane O'Neill and Oona Chaplin, on the other hand, are jointly receiving over $3,200 a week from "A Moon for the Misbegotten" alone; that represents the author's royalty of 6 per cent of approximately $56,000, which is what "A Moon for the Misbegotten" takes in weekly.  If "Moon" runs to the end of the year, as all signs indicate it will, it will gross close to three million dollars; the author's royalty will be nearly $180,000.  Friends of Oona Chaplin say she uses her share to assist her brother.

It is through a vicissitude of the copyright laws that Carlotta O'Neill's estate lost control of "A Moon for the Misbegotten," as well as all or partial control of a number of other O'Neill plays.  By the same quirk of law, however, all future profits from "Long Day's Journey Into Night," among other plays, are secured exclusively to Yale.  It is all a question of who took out the original copyright, and who renewed it 28 years after its expiration for a second 28-year term.

In the case of "A Moon for the Misbegotten," the play was copyrighted by O'Neill in 1945, two years after he completed it.  The copyright expired in 1973, by which time Carlotta O'Neill was dead.  Under law, O'Neill's children had the right to renew the copyright and to become the sole owners of the play.

Apart from the earnings from "A Moon for the Misbegotten," a couple of random examples indicate what other kinds of money are brought in by the O'Neill estate.  There is the American film Theater's "The Iceman Cometh," for instance, whose future profits Ely Landau, the producer, is reluctant to estimate; he will say only that his company pays a fee of "in the neighborhood of $30,000" for the properties it films.  there was also the recent British-made television production of "Long Day's Journey Into Night."

And there are the domestic book sales.  Michael Pratt, assistant sales manager for trade books at Random House, O'Neill's publisher during his life time, says that 67,000 copies of O'Neill plays in paperback were sold last year.  The company is currently readying a paperback of "A Moon for the Misbegotten" and it also keeps several hardcover editions of the plays in print.  the Yale University Press is the publisher of "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and A Touch of the Poet," both issued posthumously.

"A Touch of the Poet," which is likely to be the next big O'Neill money-maker, is, like "A Moon for the Misbegotten," owned wholly by Shane O'Neill and Oona Chaplin; the original copyright, taken out by O'Neill in 1946, was renewed by them this year.  A production of "A Touch of the Poet" is planned by the producer, director and star of "Moon" -- Elliot Martin, Jos Qintero and Jason Robards.

The O'Neill children are also part owners of some of the other O'Neill plays.  "The Iceman Cometh," for example, falls into this category.  The play was originally copyrighted by O'Neill in 1940 and became due for copyright renewal in 1968, when Carlotta O'Neill was still alive.  Under the law, when the original copyright holder -- usually the author -- has died before the original copyright term has expired, and regardless of the stipulations of the author's will, the author's children share with the author's widow in the term of the new copyright.  Thus, "The Iceman Cometh" is now owned jointly by the children (two-thirds) and by Carlotta O'Neill's beneficiary, Yale University (one-third).

As for "Long Day's Journey Into Night," that play was never copyrighted by O'Neill, because he did not want it produced or published until 25 years after his death.  He locked it up in a vault in the office of Random House.  His widow, who owned the manuscript under the terms of O'Neill's will, decided to ignore the injunction.  She took out the original copyright in 1955, when she authorized publication of the play.  Because she was in this instance the original copyright holder, the play remains part of her estate and the author's children cannot share in it.

Things get even more confusing regarding book royalties.  The best seller among the Random House paperbacks is an anthology that includes "Mourning Becomes Electra," "Strange Interlude" and "Desire Under the Elms"; it sold 31,000 copies last year.  That particular volume, priced at $1.95, earned $60,450 in the year.  The author's royalty is seven and a half per cent, or $4,533.75.  Carlotta O'Neill's estate shares one-third/two-thirds with O'Neill's children in "Mourning Becomes Electra" and "Strange Interlude" (copyright expired after O'Neill's death) but collects the full royalty for "desire Under the elms" (copyright renewed by O'Neill a year before his death).

Robert Brustein, dean of the Yale School of Drama, is wistful about the small sum that was turned over to him last year for the first Eugene O'Neill scholarship, when the university finally earmarked $2,500 for that purpose.  An additional $5,000 will be divided between the O'Neill collection and the Yale School of Drama library.  According to David Storrs, Yale's assistant controller, the return is low at the moment, but is expected to grow with the growth of the common stock in which most of the capital is invested.

"It's barely enough to keep one student," Dean Brustein says.  He is now trying to select that "worthy student of playwriting" for the coming academic year.

Dr. Donald Gallup, curator of the O'Neill collection at Yale, is pleased to have the somewhat larger annual sum allotted to him (a yearly $3,200 from the original O'Neill bequest of $77,000, plus $2,500 from Mrs. O'Neill's bequest) but he, too, wishes it were more.

The firm that drew up Carlotta O'Neill's will, and that was originally designated as her trustee, is Cadwalader, Wickersham and Taft.  Jacquelin Swords, a member of the firm, explains that the trusteeship was transferred to Yale two years ago, in order to avoid tax penalties.  Cadwalader, W. and T. were run ragged during the final years of Carlotta O'Neill's life, when she wandered rather spectacularly in her mind and developed a tendency to give away the rights to plays several times over; the law firm was frequently on the brink of litigation.

It is to Cadwalader, W. and T. that application must be made for permission to produce those of O'Neill's plays owned wholly or in part by Mrs. O'Neill's estate -- if anyone can figure out which ones they are.  For permission to produce the plays owned wholly or in part by Shane and Oona, application must be made to their attorney, Herbert Jacoby.  Mr. Jacoby is affable but noncommittal.  He would not want the information about Shane's and Oona's earnings from "A Moon for the Misbegotten" to be attributed to him, and indeed it does not come from him; it comes, indirectly, form co-producer Elliot Martin, who confirms the play's weekly gross and the author's percentage of royalty -- no secret, really.

In 1946, three years after O'Neill wrote his final play, and knowing he could probably never finish another on, he reminisced about his very earliest works -- half a dozen one-act plays -- written in 1913 and 1914.

"That's the year I thought I was God," he said.  "I'd finish them and rush down to the post office to ship them off to Washington to be copyrighted before somebody stole them."

It was not until much later that he discovered the pitfalls of copyright.  He never bothered to renew the copyrights on those early plays when they expired after 28 years and inevitably somebody did "steal" them.  In 1950, when the plays had acquired, if nothing else a curiosity value as the earliest works of America's only Nobel Prize-winning dramatist, and obscure publisher issued them as "The Lost Plays of Eugene O'Neill."  O'Neill, who regarded the plays as groping failures, and who had chose to forget them, was irritated, but could do nothing about it.

He did, however, try to make sure nothing like that would happen again, and a few months before his death he tore to pieces the manuscripts of the unfinished plays in a  projected eleven-play cycle called "A Tale of Possessors, Self-Dispossessed."

"Nobody must be allowed to finish my plays," he told Carlotta.

She helped him tear them up, bit by bit.  "it took hours," she later said.  "It was awful.  It was like tearing up children."

 

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