Menu Bar

Onstage He Played the Novelist

BY Arthur Gelb
FROM The New York Times, August 30, 1964

Eugene O'Neill Deliberately Cast His Haunted Characters Into Painstakingly Written Scripts Intended to Be Read as Literature

Among the many conventions shattered by this greatest dramatist was the concept that a play was merely an acting script.  Unlike his contemporary American playwrights, Eugene O'Neill never regarded a stage production as an end in itself, to be tailored to the talents of a particular star or doctored to suit a box-office trend.

O'Neill wrote in the conviction that his words would live in print long after they had received their initial stage presentations.  Employing the technique of novelist, he grappled with timeless themes and characters of far broader dimensions than the usual stereotypes of the Broadway theater.  And to allow his haunted heroines and embattled heroes the scope to play out their tragic destinies, he took the novelist's license in disregarding limitations of length.  Some of his plays were double and triple the playing time of the accepted Broadway product.

Many of O'Neill's elaborate stage directions were set down for the reader, rather than the member of a viewing audience.  He described scenic effects impossible to evoke literally for an audience and physical characteristics beyond the talents of even the most gifted actor to convey.  He called for elm trees with an aspect of "sinister maternity . . . like exhausted women resting their sagging breasts and hands and hair" upon the roof of a house; he created a 28-year-old heroine "so oversize for a woman that she is almost a freak."

O'Neill did not write in this manner out of perverseness (as was occasionally suggested by a frustrated actor or producer).  He did so partly in the hope that at least some fragment of his poetic conception would be realized on stage, but, even more, because he regarded his plays as literature.  Anyone astute enough to recognize this aim earned his instant gratitude.

"Your appreciative criticism of 'Strange Interlude,' " O'Neill wrote to the critic, Joseph Wood Krutch, in 1927, "was deeply gratifying -- especially that you found that there was something of a novel's comprehensiveness in it.  What you say about the slightness of even the best modern plays is exactly the way I feel.  To me they are all totally lacking in all true power and imagination."

The successful plays have nearly always also become successful books.  they are not read for the poetry of their language, as is Shakespeare.  Nor are they read for the wit and sparkly of their intellectual thought, as is Shaw.  they are read because, aside from their power as drama, they have the solidity of concept and the unfettered sweep of novels.  and this probably accounts for the fact, also, that O'Neill is the only American dramatist to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

O'Neill always took greater care with the reading versions of his plays than he did with the acting scripts and permitted no one to change so much as a comma without his approval.  "the book has to be right," O'Neill often told the late Saxe Commins, his editor at Boni & Liveright and, later, at Random House.

"The book" was of so much greater significance to O'Neill than the acted play, that in several instances, when production of a new script was delayed for one reason or another, he sanctioned its preproduction publication.  In fact, he often complained to friends, only half-jokingly, that he wished it were possible to forego production entirely, and settle for the published version alone.

In the 30 years that comprised his writing career, O'Neill authorized for publication 22 full or double-length plays and 13 one-acters.  In addition, he left the completed manuscripts of two more long plays and a short one, all published within six years of his death in 1953.

During the final decade of his life, O'Neill suffered from a crippling nervous disorder that forced him to give up writing.  He issued specific instructions regarding the manuscripts he had compile and marked completed.  But he worried about the partly-finished plays that had accumulated.  The fear that someone might attempt to "finish" these plays became a real threat to him.  Accordingly, with his wife's assistance, he tore into bits the fragmentary or rough manuscripts he knew he could never complete, telling her that no one must ever be allowed to finish any of his work after he died.

One recently issued volume, "More Stately Mansions," is a drastically cut version of an immensely long, unfinished manuscript.  It is idle to speculate whether O'Neill would have been able to make a good play of it, had he lived.  But it is a safe bet that he would not have wanted it published in this form.  Indeed, a prefatory note by Donald Gallup, curator of the O'Neill collection at Yale University, acknowledges that the manuscript, when catalogued at Yale, contained a leaf inscribed: "Unfinished Work.  This script to be destroyed in case of my death!  Eugene O'Neill."  But nobody pays attention to ghosts anymore.

Another new volume, "Ten 'Lost' Plays," contains six, negligible one-acters first published in 1914 under the title, "Thirst."  O'Neill was sentimentally fond of the volume, but would not allow it to be reissued.

The remaining four "lost" plays, one of them a three-acter, were written between 1913 and 1915.  O'Neill had neglected to renew their copyrights, and their unauthorized publication in 1950 under the title, "Lost Plays of Eugene O'Neill" infuriated him.  This is a fact not likely to have escaped the attention of Bennett Cerf, a friend of O'Neill and his publisher for many years.  In a foreword to this volume, Mr. Cerf admits that O'Neill "had no desire for [these plays] to be preserved at all."

"More Stately Mansions" plainly is not, as the title claims, "a new play by Eugene O'Neill," and it would be unfair to O'Neill to judge it as such.  It is, rather, a collaboration between O'Neill (who never collaborated) and Karl Ragnar Gierow, former managing director of Sweden's Royal Dramatic Theater.  And it has been edited by Mr. Gallup.  Both of these men are eminent scholars and devoted O'Neillians, but neither of them is a mind reader.  They believe that by following O'Neill's notes to himself for cuts and revisions they have produced, as the preface declares, a "text . . . which O'Neill himself might well have authorized for publication."

This is highly dubious.  For while O'Neill was perfectly capable of writing and publishing very bad plays, as witness "Dynamo" and "Welded," his other work during the period to which "More Stately Mansions" belongs -- the final decade of his writing career -- indicates that he would have made something much better of the play or else dropped it.  The crudities and grotesqueries of "More Stately Mansions" as it stands are a far cry from the plays written between 1935 and 1943, masterpieces such as "Long Day's Journey Into Night," "The Iceman Cometh," or even "A Touch of the Poet," to which "More Stately Mansions" was to have been a sequel.

While neither a play nor the intact manuscript of a draft, does this volume serve any purpose?  It does, for the special reader.  The contents can be studied for insight into the gargantuan cycle that O'Neill had conceived as his masterwork.

"More Stately Mansions" would have been the sixth in a cycle of 11 plays, begun by O'Neill in the early thirties.  Several versions of the play, along with unfinished manuscripts of other cycle plays, were among the papers he destroyed during his final illness.  He left behind the completed manuscript of "A Touch of the Poet," the one rough draft of "More Stately Mansions" and notes indicating the cycle's scope.  It was planned as a crucifying condemnation of the human race for the greed and materialism that O'Neill believed was destroying its collective soul.

As in nearly all his major works, from the nostalgic, light-hearted "Ah, Wilderness!" to the stark, Greek-inspired "Mourning Becomes Electra," the basis for the cycle was his obsessive preoccupation with his own family relationships.  How obsessive this preoccupation had been during his life, and how powerful an influence on his plays, became clear after his death, with the posthumous publication in 1956 of "Long Day's Journey Into Night."  Then it was possible to see that the members of the Tyrone family in that play, openly patterned on O'Neill's own family, had also figured, in various dramatic guises, as the protagonists of many of his other plays.

"More Stately Mansions" seems to have been no exception.  Though set in and around Boston between 1832 and 1841, and dealing with the death struggle between a man's wife and his mother, the basis for plot and character is rooted in O'Neill's love-hate battle with his own mother, his childhood hostility toward his father and his subsequent neurotic relationships with women.

Simon Harford, an off-stage character in "A Touch of the Poet," embodies, in "More Stately Mansions," the tortured American male, as O'Neill viewed him, torn by the conflict of an idealist dream and the drive for materialistic success.  His mother, Deborah, a shadowy figure in "A Touch of the Poet," becomes in "More Stately Mansions" a haunted and haunting ghost unable to live with reality.  She is finally pushed over the edge -- not by narcotics addiction, as in "Long Day's Journey Into Night," but by self-willed insanity.  While the manuscript provides fascinating clues to the ferocity of O'Neill's feeling for his mother, it is structurally untidy to the point of chaos.

It is true that the words of the published text are almost entirely O'Neill's own.  (Mr. Gierow confined himself to "shortening" and rearranging.)  But that does not mean that O'Neill would not have changed them.  He often revised a play a dozen times, and the final script was apt to be a virtually unrecognizable version of an early draft.

As for "Ten 'Lost' Plays," it is a volume that might, as Mr. Cerf suggests, have served a historical purpose, except for one thing.  There isn't a clue as to the date or circumstances under which any of the plays was written.  at the least, Mr. Cerf could have arranged them chronologically so that the perceptive reader might detect signs of artistic maturity from play to play.

"A Wife for a Life," O'Neill's very first play, appears as the ninth play in the book.  A maudlin little melodrama about illicit love, is is interesting only because of its autobiographical derivation, and the fact that it was written early in 1913, when he was recovering from tuberculosis in a Connecticut sanitarium.

This play is preceded in the volume by "The Sniper," written two years and numerous efforts later, when O'Neill was attending George Pierce Baker's playwriting course at Harvard in 1915.  "Thirst," "The Web," Warnings," "Fog" and "Recklessness" were all written between the spring of 1913 and the fall of 1914, while O'Neill was regaining his strength al the home of a New London, Conn., family and forming his dream of becoming a professional dramatist.  The second, third and fourth of these -- dealing respectively with prostitution, the materialistic drive and the poetic urge -- reveal more than a glimmer of O'Neill's later and more successful themes.  The same is true of "Abortion," concerned with the tragedy of a temperamentally mismatched pair of lovers, written in the same period.  "The Movie Man," written in the summer of 1914, is O'Neill's only attempt at broad farce and is trivial but quite funny.

"Servitude," the only three-act play in the volume, also written between 1913 and 1914, has a conventional happy-ending, domestic plot, and must have been O'Neill's single attempt to prove to himself that he was not cut out to be a writer of conventional happy-ending, domestic plays.

For the sake of O'Neill's reputation, it is to be hoped that no one will resurrect any more "lost" plays whose disinherited scripts many still repose in the Library of Congress, no longer protected by copyright.  And it is unlikely that there will be any "new" plays published, unless someone attempts to assemble one from O'Neill's notebooks.


Copyright 1999-2007