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Foreword: A Musical Heritage

Nobody whistles any more.  Once, in the streets, passersby made music as the melodies they carried within themselves came forth almost involuntarily in cheerful communication.  Now, with ears plugged by headphones, musical pedestrians march to the pulse of private drummers.  Jerome Kern's doubt—he worried that no layman could master an enharmonic change in his song "All the Things You Are" until he heard someone on the street whistling it perfectly—would not be so readily set at rest today.  Music that once was in the air is drowned out by amplification and by nonmusical stage effects that demand visceral rather than vocal participation.  The rock concert is a way to belong.  The charm is in the excitement of the mass, the reaching out to pop idols, the participation in a social force of seemingly great, but illusory power.  What it has replace is the music in the hearts and minds of a world of street whistlers and parlor singers.

It is not a serious matter, but the making of music in the second half of this century has changed its purposes and its directions, and much that was likable has by and large disappeared.  The discomfort of the child who struggled under the tapping of a parental metronome to learn Schumann's "The Happy Farmer" so that he might perform it for visiting relatives after a Thanksgiving feast; swains like Arthur in Ah, Wilderness! with pleasing voices, who practice on the sly so that they might shine in after-dinner concerts at their sweethearts' homes; the songfests at picnics; the ukelele in the canoe; dance music drifting over night water—at one time these were all part of a musically enhanced domestic world.

The Victrola and radio brought in music from beyond the parlor, generating excitement for listeners eager to learn the newest songs.  Music from hit shows and films would quickly be heard on the radio on the "Lucky Strike Hit Parade" or be offered as important selections on quarter-hour sustaining programs by performers whose style was nothing remarkable, but who had a devotion to making music.  There was, in short, a time when people carried music within them and brought it alive into their homes, a time when they tapped their feet and sang or whistled in participation, a time when people came together not only to listen but to make music with one another.

Eugene O'Neill came out of such a world, and both by experience and inheritance he proved particularly responsive to music.  He was Irish:  He carried within his makeup the love of singing often displayed by the Irish.  The only recording of his voice, one on which he recites a speech from Long Day's Journey into Night and an introspective poem, also contains a scurrilous Irish song mocking the Pope which he sings with out-of-tune relish while Carlotta, his wife, laughs in the background.

He was a sailor.  He had been to sea on a vessel under sail and had heard the crew sing as they worked.  He shared the sailors' admiration for a good chantyman.  The encounter between Adam Brant and the drunken chantyman in Mourning Becomes Electra sets forth the sailor's view of chanty singing as a fine art, and in the first version of "Anna Christie," a former shipmate recognizes old Chris by his singing.

Finally, he was the son of a musical mother:  Dorothy Commins, the wife of O'Neill's editor, Saxe Commins, and an accomplished concert pianist, felt that O'Neill's musical heritage was important.  "Eugene was natively musical," she wrote.  "It is a pity his mother, who had some training in music, could not guide him, at least in his early years."(1)  Hanon and Czerny exercises would not have made O'Neill a better playwright, but he had an inherited love of music which he retained and to which he responded throughout his life.

His library of records was large and eclectic.  It ranged from jazz and folk music to recherché classics.  Sometimes, in the evening after dinner, the O'Neills would sit down to a phonographic concert on their Magnavox.  Carlotta O'Neill recorded in her diary some of the programs of music she claimed O'Neill had "loved" when they were in Paris:  Falla's El Amor brujo, Ravel's Bolero, and an unlikely choice, Debussy's melancholy cantata, Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien.  At other times the program was more raucous.  One year his friend, the producer Kenneth Macgowan, gave him an album of calypso music, including a special treasure, "It's Love Alone That Caused King Edward to Leave His Throne."  Popular albums at Tao House, his California home, included "Tahitian Rhythms," "Songs of Old New York," "Songs of the South," "Old World Ballads in America," "Gay Nineties Songs," "The Southernaires in a Recital of Spirituals," and "New Orleans Jazz."  When he was living in France, he was delighted to receive from Carl Van Vechten recordings by Bessie Smith and of Louis Armstrong, singing "St. James Infirmary Blues," "The Empty Bed Blues," and "Sing Sing."  In a thank-you note, dated September 30, 1929, he asked that Armstrong be given his "fraternal benediction" and added, "It is good to have Bessie around wahooing in the peaceful French evenings.  She makes the ancestral portraits of the provincial noblesse shudder—or maybe it's shimmy!"

In a letter to Mr. Hollis, written May 20, 1945, when he was too ill to write plays, O'Neill still showed interest in building his collection of American popular music for pleasure and for possible future dramatic use:

...I don't remember exactly what I've already got.  And in thinking of a song in the 1910-20 period, or 1900s, or even 1920-30 I can't remember what year the tune appeared.  By way of guidance, the collection is especially weak in 1910-20, and of course, before that when the cylinder record prevailed which I don't want.

Of the ones you mentioned from the new record collection you discovered I would like all the Al Jolson, Frank Tinney if he has any, Nora Bayes, and "The Song Is Ended," "Wistful and Blue" & "Sam, the old Accordion Man."  I have quite a few of (Ruth) Etting already.  Re the Hoosier Hot-chas, (O'Neill's mis-hearing of "Hoosier Hot Shots") if you could send them all to me, I imagine there would be a lot I would want because they revive so much forgotten popular stuff.  The same applies to Frank Novak and his Rootin-Tootin Boys, about as terrible an aggregation of orchestra and chorus as ever drenched the air, but somehow I love them because I remember the tunes played by just such orchestras, 5th rate Ted Lewis, and joining in choruses myself which contain just as many flats.

A favorite ditty of mine was "Minnie the Mermaid"—date sometime in 20's, I guess.  You see, for the popular song collection, I like also the idiotic songs that once made me laugh in my lager & ale.

Among other items that come back in memory and connection with this or that in the past, and were popular in their day and must have been recorded, are Irving Berlin's "I Love a Piano" (around 1916)—"I Love the Ladies" (not Berlin—around 1914) "That Mysterious Rag" (Berlin—around 1913) "At the Devil's Ball" (Berlin—around 1913), Jolson's Mason Dixon Line song(2)—and above all "Don't Blame It All On Broadway" (a beautiful lament and apology for the Big Stem.  When sung with upturned eyes by a well-stewed waiter endowed with the proper adenoids, it positively wrung you to pieces!).

The particular joy of O'Neill's musical life, at least during his California years, was neither the Magnavox nor the record collection, but Rosie, a mechanical piano Carlotta purchased for him in New York.  Rosie's antecedents were as colorful as the large display of full-blown roses painted on her case.  O'Neill wrote to Robert Sisk, on October 18, 1937, "Boy, you have missed something!  It was a great moment in my life when she first burst on my sight in Wurlitzer's remotest storeroom in all her gangrenous-green, festooned with rosebuds beauty.  There sure must have been an artist soul lost to the world in the New Orleans honky-tonk or bordello she came from."

At Tao House, Rosie had a room of her own at the foot of the central stairway.  There O'Neill pedalled through the old piano rolls, and it is said that on a hot night when the windows were open, people in Danville several miles down the hill could hear Rosie clanking away at "She's the Sunshine of Paradise Alley."

O'Neill's love for popular music as it is attested by his admiration for performers and composers and for accurate dating of their songs is only an outward sign where no special external evidence is needed.  The best testimony lies in his plays, where music was continually called for to play a vital part in the texture and action of the drama.  In this he was unusual in his time.  Audiences today can anticipate the occasional lavish presence of music in the nonmusical theatre.  Tennessee Williams wielded music—the Varsouviana, and the jazz from the Paradise Ballroom—as if it were light to define areas of special emotional intensity, to mold and color.  But Williams is post-O'Neill.  In the theatre in which O'Neill matured as a playwright, music found little place.  Some plays put it to use as a plot element, as Sadie Thompson's record of "Wabash Blues" acts like a siren song on the ears of the Reverend Davidson, or as the recording of O Paradiso hold out a dreamer's promise in Clifford Odets's Awake and Sing.  In the main, however, music in that theatre came from irrelevant overtures and entr'acte concerts provided by small pit orchestras.  Suppé, Chaminade, and gems from Blossom Time, played at listless tempi in thin stock orchestrations, served to underscore the buzz of the settling audience until some stirring composition—"The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" perhaps—summoned sufficient energy to dominate the house and turn attention toward the curtain and the revelations to follow its rise.

The theatre orchestra, like the palm-surrounded ladies' string trio that lent elegance to well-bred tea rooms, was essentially a holdover from larger orchestras that provided thrill-enhancing music for the romantic melodramas of the nineteenth century.  O'Neill would have known such uses from his father's sempiternal production of Monte Cristo.  There, for example, in act 4, in the lavish scene in the conservatory of the Count de Morcerf, music plays shortly before Edmond Dantès enters to confront the villainous Danglars.  The music comes from an orchestra offstage, playing for the pleasures of the evening.  It is a naturalistic use, but when Dantès presents Danglers with a letter whose contents will ruin him, the music serves a more theatrical purpose.  As he reads the letter, Danglars exclaims, "'Tis impossible—'tis downright madness."  As the entire assemblage of guests on cue cries out "What?" the stage direction orders "Music stops."  The sudden silence underscores the melodramatic tableau in a form of dramatic punctuation that would not be in vogue again until sound film appeared.

O'Neill and his contemporaries scorned all such melodrama, and most did without music.  If they called for it, there was a problem.  Should a producer be forced to book his nonmusical play into a theatre that had been designated by the musician's union as a "musical house," he had to hire a specified number of musicians to be present during the performance whether they performed or not.  If a production required music but was booked into a "non-musical house," the theatre owner risked having the designation permanently changed by the union, with consequent additional salary thereafter, a fact that rendered many a landlord tone deaf.  This may partly explain why the works of Kaufman, Sherwood, Behrman, Odets, Kelly, Kingsley, and Howard are so musically silent.  Aside from O'Neill, only Maxwell Anderson and Lynn Riggs among the major playwrights in the 1930s found more than passing uses for music.

The Provincetown Playhouse and the Greenwich Village Theatre, the off-Broadway theatres where at the outset of his career O'Neill worked most congenially, were free from the necessity of hiring orchestras but, to judge from O'Neill's practice, music would have been a strong structural element in his plays whatever the cost.  Of the fifty complete plays that comprise the corpus of his work,(3) thirteen one-act and eight full-length plays require no music.  These are A Wife for a Life (1913), The Web (1913), Fog (1913), Warnings (1913), Recklessness (1913), Bread and Butter (1914), Servitude (1914), The Sniper (1914), Before Breakfast (1916), Now I Ask You (1916), In the Zone (1917), Shell-Shocked (1918), The Dreamy Kid (1918), Where the Cross is Made (1918), The Rope (1918), Beyond the Horizon (1918), Gold (1920), The First Man (1921), Welded (1923), Days Without End (1933), and Hughie (1942).  The remainder all use music in significant ways.  The dates for the plays suggest that after he completed his early work he came to rely continually on music as an element of his dramatic structure or characterization.

Generally O'Neill avoided the need for professional singers and instrumentalists performing composed scores.  In The Fountain, The Ancient Mariner, Marco Millions, and Lazarus Laughed he required a composer, but musical needs for the other plays are not elaborate.  Accompaniments are played on single instruments such as a concertina, a hurdy-gurdy or a small organ, or they are sung without accompaniment.  The songs came from his memory.  He took pains to ensure that the date of each was consonant with that of the action, but he did not do research to find them.  He used songs from the worlds he had known—the tunes he whistled as a boy, the chanties he heard on his sea voyages, sorting them with pleasure from the jumble of his musical memories.  This collection thus provides an unexpected glimpse behind the tragic face he turned toward the world.  These were songs in which he took delight, music he knew and loved, and carried within his heart and mind throughout his life.

Some of the plays use music in small ways as minor embellishments satisfying no more than occasional needs, but in others it is deeply embedded in the thematic structure of the play.  In some, it is designed so that the patterning of songs may in itself be accurately called a musical score.  In a few it becomes almost a character in the action.  However it is used, music is never superfluous.  Like other enhancing stage effects, it aids in providing the acted drama with a life that is not readily to be understood from the printed text.  As an anthology, O'Neill's recollections form a nostalgic, personal selection from early twentieth-century popular music and folk and chanty songs.  Their further interest is their transmutation into dramatic art.

(1) Letter from Dorothy Commins to the editor, dated January 6, 1988.

(2) When he granted Jolson permission to play a scene from The Emperor Jones on his radio program, O'Neill expressed the hope that the Emperor wouldn't start singing "Mammy."

(3) Included in this collection are songs for two uncompleted works, More Stately Mansions, which exists in an unrevised draft, and the scenario for The Calms of Capricorn.  O'Neill had the drafts of the latter play destroyed, but the musical indications in the scenario are clear and reveal an interesting late use of musical themes.


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