BY Edward L. Shaughnessy
James had been cut from coarser cloth. The place and time of his birth have never been satisfactorily resolved. The "smiling Kilkenny" birth site is itself open to question. On his second European trip with Ella, he wrote back to playwright James Slevlin, "I have been down to the old home (in Thomastown, Co. Kilkenny) and found every familiar place the same. I sat for hours on the old porch last night, thinking of the dear ones departed..." (New York Times, 8 July 1906). O'Neill was never unwilling to romanticize his origins as a "laughing gossoon" from that "same little town in old Leinster" ("Personal Reminiscences," 338). Two problems surface. Even if his family's emigration occurred just after the worst of the famine in 1850 (Manley W. Mallett, 1974), it is hard to suppose that he could recall "every familiar place" (his birth year has generally been accepted as 1846). A present-day O'Neill of Thomastown casts further doubt on the accuracy of the remark: "Houses in that neighborhood in the mid-19th century did not have porches" (Larry O'Neill, Personal Interview, June, 1989). His death certificate gives his date of birth as "October 14, 1845; age 74, 9 months, and 27 days." His parents are given as Edward and Mary O'Neill of Ireland. The "informant" is "Mrs. O'Neill."
James always refused to describe the trans-Atlantic crossing with his parents and siblings; he claimed (no doubt, with justification) that it was too terrible to speak about. If 1845 were the year, his recollection of the terror, however, appears a little more plausible. At any rate, it seems that, if anyone would have the biographical facts straight, his wife of 43 years seems likeliest. O'Neill's obituary in the New York Times, 11 August 1920, gives his birth date as 15 November 1849, his age as 71 (9). The Boston Pilot (Catholic weekly) and the New London Day (11 August 1920) repeat these "facts." Perhaps the source of much of this misinformation is a 1908 story in Theatre Magazine. Here O'Neill claimed to have come to America as a boy of three. It is all quite fanciful: "It was because my father died and I had to go to work that I am an actor, not a priest" (102).
Over the years the discrepancies grew like Topsy. Two weeks after James's funeral, The Literary Digest (citing the authority of the New York Tribune) observed: "Mr. O'Neill was born at Kilkenny, Ireland, on Nov. 15, 1847, the son of Edmond and Katherine O'Neill.... The family settled in Cincinnati, Ohio." His father had abandoned wife and children in Buffalo. Mallett "found no evidence that the O'Neills were in Cincinnati before about 1859 nor that the father Edmund ever saw that city" (2). As early as 1895 James had given an interview in which he responded to the question about the place and date of his birth: "In Ireland, on Nov. 15, 1849 (sic). I was brought to America by my parents when I was five years old. I went to school in Buffalo and afterwards in Cincinnati. It was the desire of my parents that I should enter the church but I followed my own inclinations and went upon the stage" (New York Dramatic Mirror 2). These data were not corroborated in a piece published three years later in the Chicago Times: "James O'Neill was educated for the priesthood before he became an actor" (n.p.). But things have a way of sticking. The New York Sun, 15 November 1909, marked a special occasion with the headline, "James O'Neill Celebrates His Sixtieth Birthday To-Day" and thus reinforces the 1849 "error." Moreover, the story suggested an even more precocious acting debut: "Mr. O'Neill has been on the stage ever since his 15th year, beginning his remarkable career as a member of John Ellsler's Cleveland stock company in 1865" (n.p.) Finally, an obituary observed that James O'Neill died "in his 71st year.... He was born in Kilkenny, Ireland, November 15, 1849.... Mr. O'Neill was married to Ellen Quinlan in Cincinnati forty-five years ago" (New York Dramatic Mirror, 21 August 1920, p. 329). (This last account would indicate that the wedding had taken place in 1875, not in 1877, as it did.)
Louis Sheaffer has gone a long way, of course, in establishing a reliable record. Among the authorities he cites is Manley W. Mallett, grandson of James O'Neill's sister, Anastasia (Stasia) Kunckel. Mallett's genealogical work has thrown light on James's siblings and his very limited contact with them after the Civil War years. In the 1908 Theatre Magazine interview, James recalls that a sister's husband "who kept a clothing store in Norfolk, Va., sent for me (in Cincinnati) ... and gave me a good salary and provided a tutor for me" (102). (James was then 14, he says; the year would then have been 1859 or 1860.) And he credits this brother-in-law with taking him to the theatre "twice a week." All of this helps to clear up the question of James's education, for we have no record of his attending school. He certainly had, however he acquired it, an impressive capacity to read quite sophisticated texts.
James O'Neill began his professional career in Cincinnati in the mid-1860s. In the 1866 city directory he is identified as an actor living with widow "Mary O'Neil" at 238 E. Pearl Street. (Depending on the 1845 or 1846 year of birth, he was then 20 or 21 years old.) He got a great deal of mileage from the story of his playing pool in a room close by the National Theatre on Sycamore Street. The management, caught short of extras, would pay 25 cents to any who would take the bit.
Is the story true? We cannot know for certain. Perhaps, however, it makes no great difference. For it served James O'Neill's purpose, as most of, his recollections did. And it contained every trope of the Horatio Algerism popular at the time. Whatever he said in various interviews about career preferences and opportunities (the priesthood or the law), James O'Neill found his proper métier in the professional theatre. He got into it, he said, by chance, but he was blessed with superb natural endowment: voice, memory, nimbleness of wit, appearance, and a prepossessing modesty. He exploited their full range.
James appears to have left the city for good around 1869 (the year the Cincinnati Red Stockings were organized as the first professional baseball and funeral. In view of his expressed (and undoubtedly deep) devotion to Mary O'Neil-(probable spelling), it remains something of a mystery why this event is never mentioned by the biographers. Mallett indicates that she was buried with her daughter Anna (born 1838), who married a James C. Jones, filemaker; all are said to be buried in St. Joseph (Irish) Cemetery, in the same lot. St. Joseph officials have not been able to verify this information.
This account brings us up to 1880 but tells nothing of James's time in Cleveland; his various stints with John Ellsler's Academy of Music there are well documented, however. By the mid-1870s he had played with the nation's greatest actors: Edwin Forrest, Edwin Booth, Barry Sullivan, and Joseph Jefferson; with Ms. Cushman, the British actress Adelaide Neilson, Louise Hawthorne, and Clara Morris. Whatever else may be said, his achievement by the standards of any day was remarkable. He was a young man who had had virtually no formal education and whose professional training was gained on the job. Here is but a small sampling of the plays in which James O'Neill appeared over the years.
By the mid-Seventies James was courting Ellen (as she called herself during the Academy years), who had lost her father and had taken her final honors at St. Mary's. But he had been working at Ellsler's much earlier—"Everyone in Cleveland had been talking about him since his first appearance there in September, 1870" (Alexander 4)—and worked there in the summers of '73 and '74 (when Ellen had lost her father). But in 1871 (when Ellen Quinlan was just 14) James had begun living with another Cleveland teenager, a daring and already "veteran" lover named Nettie Walsh (age 15)! That this affair was ill advised for many reasons James would long have reason to acknowledge.
The Walsh affair surfaced at the worst possible moment to deflate the happiness of the O'Neills in 1877. The tender sensibilities of the convent school graduate were assaulted. This, combined with her growing realization of James's love for post-performance imbibing, established second thoughts about the wisdom of marriage to an actor. If she believed Nettie's claim that James had married her, Ella must see herself as the victim of bigamy. His relations with Miss Walsh had never been legitimized, however. James, on the other hand, had got his own life going splendidly; he was becoming the man he had hoped to become. Now the newlyweds would be galled by reminders of Bridget Quinlan's admonitions to her daughter about marrying an actor.
This premarital history came to haunt the O'Neills, especially given Ella's rapid disillusionment with the romance of theatrical life. It tormented James for years. Soon after their wedding in June, 1877, the New York Clipper published rumors about O'Neill's "marriage" and his desertion of Miss Walsh and their child (Alexander 8). In 1897 the business surfaced again: Nettie's son, Alfred Hamilton O'Neill, brought suit against James for restitution (Sheaffer 1, 74-75). This episode would provide great merriment for James, Jr., who exploited its implications in defense of his own libertine excesses.
Both James and Ella were devoted believers ("cradle Catholics," as persons baptized in infancy used to be called). The point has paramount importance for their relations with Jamie and Eugene in later years. "The nuns praised her schoolwork and her piety. Ellen wore a large cross on a heavy gold chain around her neck, and she took a grave delight in praying in the Holy House of Loreto.... Sometimes she and her friend Daisy Green talked of becoming nuns like Mother Elizabeth Lilly..." (Alexander 5). Among the few friends she made among James's theatrical associates was an actress named Grace Raven. A few years after his mother's death, Eugene, writing to Sr. Mary Leo Tierney, O.P. (who was teaching at Rosary College near Chicago), recalled this woman. "I remember that one of my father's leading ladies in Monte Cristo—Grace Raven—left the stage to enter a convent of the Good Shepherd (I think) and later became the Mother Superior there. But I have not heard of her in years and perhaps she may be dead by this (time)" (Selected Letters 192). It is not surprising that Ella sought out Miss Raven or that the latter once accompanied James and Ella on a trip to visit Jamie in South Bend (see Notre Dame Scholastic, 7 May 1887, p. 561).
Such a reputation was not Ella's alone among the O'Neills. A close friend to many priests over the years, James took considerable pride in having established, along with George M. Cohan's father, the Catholic Actors' Guild. Brandon Tynan, a young Irish actor whom James began to look upon as a favored son, several times confirmed that the elder O'Neill practiced his faith admirably. In the days when they were playing together in Joseph and His Brethren (1913-14) Tynan tells what pleasure he took going to Mass with "the Governor ... every Sunday, even on the road" (Sheaffer I, 268). This is but one of many testimonials to his fidelity: "James attended Mass every Sunday at St. Joseph's Church, contrary to Eugene O'Neill's description of James Tyrone, who is pictured as being negligent about his formal observance of religion. Ella's relatives, in fact, were constantly after James to bring Ella with him to church. (They had long since given up on Eugene)" (Gelbs 219). It had been in 1903 that James O'Neill had wrestled his 15-year-old son down the staircase of the Monte Cristo cottage on Pequot Avenue, insisting that the lad accompany him to Mass. This dreadful moment occurred about a year after Eugene learned of his mother's morphine addiction. Whether the father's behavior was justified is a difficult question, of course. It seems fair to believe, however, that James was indulging no self-righteous authoritarianism in this matter. He believed that Sunday attendance was obligatory and that, by heaven, the boy would attend. Well, of course, he did not. Nor did these scars heal very soon. Jamie seems to have had similar early experiences: "... Mama used to drag me to Mass. `Be a good little boy! Be nice to everybody!'—that's what it all boiled down to, didn't it?" (Boulton 152). Jamie's cynicism notwithstanding, their faith meant much to the senior O'Neills.
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The bungled affair of The Passion (1879), the play by Salmi Morse in which James played the Christus, must therefore have devastated the young bride and groom. Here was a David Belasco extravaganza that would in later years be eclipsed only by C. B. DeMille movie epics. The Passion was produced in San Francisco, where James had played earlier when Hooley's had moved there in 1875. This experience left scars. James never quite got over this several-layered disaster. Of course, the very seriousness with which he undertook the enterprise made the sting of later ridicule all the greater. Indeed, as we review what happened more than a century ago, it is difficult now to appreciate the gravity with which they all approached the task. Morse, a strangely intense individual, "was a man with a mission.... In January, 1879, hoping to enlist the powerful support of the Catholic Church, he read the play at St. Ignatius College. He was well-received by the Jesuit fathers ... but it remained for such stalwarts as James O'Neill and Tom Maguire to launch The Passion on its short and hectic career" (Timberlake 70-72).
The effects of the spectacle were themselves dramatic, and often bad. So disturbed were some of O'Neill's Irish supporters when they beheld the crucifixion "that they stormed from the theatre and visited their newly kindled wrath on the Jewish population of San Francisco" (Timberlake 74). As James appeared with crown of thorns and halo, some members of the audience in the Grand Opera House (mainly women) fainted or fell to' their knees. The play was soon closed down for managing to offend nearly everyone on some grounds. Protestant clergymen charged Belasco, Morse, O'Neill et al. with blasphemy. Given Belasco's and Morse's Jewish heritage, the entire business was made to appear even more eccentric. They discreetly closed it down, but then with a show of bravado opened again a month later. In the meantime the city's Board of Supervisors passed a prohibitive ordinance against "any play or performance or representation displaying or intended to display, the life or death of Jesus Christ...." This time O'Neill was arrested, along with seven other members of the cast. (Christus was fined fifty dollars, Judas five.) James, who had set out to make a great gesture, took some time to recover. The doggerel and criticisms were vicious:
William Winter was no gentler in characterizing the man who played a part "to which he considered himself peculiarly fitted" (115).
No benefit is to be gained retelling the story of James O'Neill's journey into oblivion aboard that vehicle which carried him so far off his true path for some 23 years. His coming into the part of Edmond Dantes became a baggage that unsuited him for nobler things. For his promise was surely real; the plaudits of his celebrated contemporaries confirm the fact that his talents were everywhere acclaimed in the years before 1883.
Every success costs something, of course. What O'Neill gained in the exchange of his talent for wealth constituted a tragic mistake. In any sense of the word, it denied him his integrity. The stage version of Alexandre Dumas' romance, The Count of Monte Cristo, was an adaptation done by Charles Fechter. O'Neill eventually purchased it from John Stetson, the manager of Booth's in New York. Charles Thorne, Jr., originally assigned to play Dantes in the 1883 production, had become ill and was replaced by James. It is not possible to determine precisely how great a fortune James made from Monte Cristo over the years: in today's equivalent, probably between two and three million dollars. This windfall made possible his sending his sons to fine boarding schools and colleges; and made possible purchasing the property in New London, where Ella's mother had moved to be close to her relatives; and made possible the comparative luxury of living in apartment-hotels in New York for two thirds of the year over several decades. But the damage to his self-esteem and the negative effects upon the O'Neills' intimate familial life are equally incalculable. Whatever else may be said, however, the effects in sum were terrible. And no one knew this better than James O'Neill himself.
How could it have happened? For this man was immensely talented. In addition, he was a natural charmer, not a cynical exploiter. He was exceptionally handsome (perhaps today the word would be charismatic). Lillie West, who had been Ella's classmate at St. Mary's and who later became a theatre critic (she took the professional name of Amy Leslie), was in a position to speak with special authority on "Jimmie."
As Margaret Ranald observes, the damage was both self-inflicted and forgivable: "Popular demand and O'Neill's congenital terror of the poorhouse enslaved him to the creaky but lucrative melodrama" (566).
If we have any sense of the tides of time, we cannot deny a truth pointed to earlier: that the lessons of history are in the end personal. Thus in this story we come back to the Ireland of the famine. We recall once more the starving time, 1845-1855 (see Kerby Miller, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America, 1985). Among the thousands, perhaps a million, who left were the Quinlans of Tipperary and the O'Neills (of Kilkenny?). It will not do to sentimentalize this once terrifying moment only because its horror no longer freezes the memory. Those who do not know the history of the potato famine cannot well estimate the survivors' paralyzing fear of starvation and poverty. James O'Neill, himself a survivor of that calamity, had been with parents and siblings forced off the native sod. Had they been given an "American wake"? Whatever the particulars, James never lost touch with that racial memory. Nor did he ever conquer the shame of being abandoned by father, humiliated by eviction, or devastated by hunger. To be driven and then abandoned! How heart-scalding, then, to be ridiculed by one's own son, who had himself never known such disgrace or sorrow: "I know it's an Irish peasant idea consumption is fatal. It probably is when you live in a hovel on a bog, but over here, with modern treatment..." (LDJ 34). The greatest Irish sin (not that taught in the catechism but that learned from experience) is the sin of betrayal.
If the actor's life often separated James from his sons, Monte Cristo had an even harsher effect on parental-filial relations. And, if James, Jr., and Eugene in their early years often felt abandoned and betrayed, neither knew that sense of things more bitterly than their father (and mother). And none knew better than the aging actor how he had betrayed himself. His first appearance in the Fechter role was separated by nearly three decades from his last. He tried mightily to free himself from the shackles of this tyrant play, but to little avail. In early 1886 he played Hamlet in Mobile and took up many other parts between 1883 and 1900 (Alexander 62). But the money that would keep him from the poorhouse was in the ever more rickety vehicle called The Count of Monte Cristo. As late as 1912 he was still touring in an even more debased version of the show (Ranald 568). Later that year (with the son named for him) he put the travesty on film.
Never a quitter, James enjoyed his last years. He found solace, moreover, in Eugene's marriage to Agnes Boulton, a success for the moment that catapulted the aged actor into a new role, that of grandparent to Shane O'Neill. And he was made proud and happy in his final spring (1920), when he and Ella sat in a box at the Morosco Theatre and basked in the reflected glow of their son's Pulitzer Prize play, Beyond the Horizon (even if James did complain about its gloom).
His funeral at St. Joseph's Church was a convincing Catholic moment: "Solemn high funeral mass was sung at the church with Rev. William C. Fitzsimmons as celebrant. Rev. Timothy M. Crowley, D. D., deacon, Rev. John McGrath as sub-deacon and Rev. William J. Fox as master of ceremonies" (New London Day, 12 August 1920). The Pilot (Boston diocesan weekly) reported that "the funeral was held Thursday morning, August 12, with Solemn High Mass of Requiem in St. Joseph's Church, where Mr. O'Neill had been a parishioner for many years" (14 August, p. 12).
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A few months before filming Monte Cristo, James had returned to play Cincinnati. That was a moment for nostalgia, which he indulged by walking over to the old National Theatre on Sycamore Street. To an interviewer he confessed, "I suppose I stood down there an hour. I was wondering where, had I not gone on the stage, I would be now.... You can't help such thoughts, you know, at this time of life."
National Theater, Cincinnati (circa 1860s), where James O'Neill
made his acting debut.
Cleveland Academy of Music, where James O'Neill played leading man with
The English Opera House, Indianapolis, where James and James, Jr., appeared together on at least two occasions (in 1908 and 1914). Courtesy of Indiana State Library.
St. Joseph's Church, New London, from which James O'Neill was buried, 12 August 1920. Photo by A. Vincent Scarano. Courtesy of Monte Cristo Cottage (a project of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center).
O'Neill family stone, St. Mary's Cemetery, New London, marking graves of Bridget Lundigan Quinlan, Edmund Burke O'Neill, James O'Neill, Sr., Ella O'Neill, and James O'Neill, Jr. Photo by A. Vincent Scarano. Courtesy of Monte Cristo Cottage (a project of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center).
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