Gladstone O'Neill was born in New York City in the twelfth year of his
parents' marriage, on October 16, 1888, in the Barrett House, a
residential hotel at Forty-third Street and Broadway. Mary Ellen Quinlan
O'Neill had turned thirty-one in August. Ella, as she was called, had
been not yet twenty when she married Eugene's father, James O'Neill, a
celebrated actor, on June 14, 1877, in St. Ann's Catholic Church in New
York City. Bride and groom were both Irish, but they had little else in
common at the time of their marriage.
in New Haven on August 13, 1857, Ella grew up in Cleveland, where her
parents moved while she was still an infant. Thomas Joseph Quinlan, a
prosperous entrepreneur and an indulgent father, provided his daughter
with a classical education at a fine boarding school; and when she
showed a talent for music, he bought her a grand piano.
grew up in privilege, James in slums. Several searches, most recently by
Edward Shaughnessy, have revealed no birth information. James O'Neill
celebrated his birthday on October 14; he gave his birthplace as
Kilkenny, Ireland, and said variously that he had been born in 1844, in
1845, and in 1846. He was the son of Edward and Mary O'Neil (as the
family name was then spelled). On his death certificate in 1920 Ella,
the official informant, gave the year of his birth as 1845 (Shaughnessy
was the third son and sixth child in a family of three sons and six
daughters. Fleeing famine, the O'Neils came to a Buffalo slum from
Ireland about 1850. Edward O'Neil worked on the docks and drank heavily,
and his wife "scrubbed for the Yanks" as her grandson wrote
much later, in Long Day's Journey
into Night. About 1856, Edward had a premonition that he was
nearing death, and he decided he wanted to end his days in Ireland. He
returned to Kilkenny, where he did die, after someone mistook rat poison
for biscuit flour. So went the odd story told afterward by James, who
claimed to remember his father only with contempt. The story may have
been meant simply to conceal a suicide. Something about the story,
perhaps its hint of mysticism and tragic inevitability, led James's son
to repeat it in Long Day's Journey into Night.
After Edward left, the eldest daughter, Josephine, who had married a saloonkeeper, sent from Cincinnati for her mother, James, and some of the sisters. James, who was about eleven, became an apprentice file maker in a Cincinnati machine shop, and his mother worked in the homes of the well-to-do. But even with fewer children to feed, there was seldom enough to eat. James later remembered that they had twice been evicted from the hovels they were living in. About 1859 or 1860, James went to Norfolk, Virginia, with Josephine and her husband. During the Civil War, he worked in an enterprise that supplied uniforms to the rebels. He may have received some tutoring at that time. He was highly intelligent, a voracious reader all his life. But he was probably his own most constant tutor.
After the war, James returned to Cincinnati with his sister and brother-in-law. As he often told it, a chance event about 1865 led him to be given a role as a supernumerary in a performance at the National Theatre. James took to theatrical life with single-minded dedication and quickly emerged from the ranks. A year after he first walked onstage, he listed himself in the city directory as "actor." By the late 1860s he was playing major roles. Eventually he would be famous throughout the land for a single role, that of Edmond Dantes in a dramatization of The Count of Monte Cristo; he played it more than four thousand times over a period of thirty years.
the operatic theater of the mid-nineteenth century, voice was nearly
everything. People in cities and towns showed up year after year to hear
Edwin Forrest or Charlotte Cushman or Junius Brutus Booth (father of
Edwin and John Wilkes) rattle the walls, with voices that were compared
to trumpets. Local actors stood about the stage in arrangements
determined by the visiting idol; otherwise the play had no director and
little rehearsal. Sustained interaction between the characters was as
ritualized as in Italian opera. Audiences attended to vocal nuance with
the same aural sophistication they brought to the opera house. The
origins of the theater in bardic storytelling were still perceptible,
even if the repertoire ran to melodrama, sentimental fluff, and
bowdlerized plays from Shakespeare.
this world the young James O'Neill caught the notice of visiting actors.
Joseph Jefferson, with whom James played in Boucicault's Rip Van
Winkle, coached him in comedy. The formidable Charlotte
Cushman taught him to play Macbeth. He performed Virginius with
Edwin Forrest. Rheumatic, bitter, and scandal-ridden at the age of
sixty, Forrest paid few compliments, but he rumbled to someone that if
James O'Neill would get rid of his brogue and work hard he could be an
excellent actor. Anecdotes like these told by the Gelbs (23-25) imply
that the young James had an unmistakable talent as an actor and that he
could charm prominent people and persuade them to take him seriously.
his long career, James was liked and admired by his colleagues and noted
for his kindness to young actors. He helped other actors make the most
of their parts, advised them about career decisions, and was lavishly
generous with drinks and money. No biographer has found evidence that
James was ever otherwise in his professional life. As the Gelbs
concluded: "Not an
actor, manager or agent ever had anything but glowing praise for his
character and generosity, which was remarkable in a profession where
petty jealousies and vindictive gossip are so prevalent" (Gelbs,
44). He had everything he needed to earn his rapid rise.
1870, the twenty-four-year-old James was hired by John Ellsler to play
first or second leads at the Academy of Music in Cleveland. It was a
respected theater, and the move was momentous for James in several
respects. In Cleveland he played with Forrest, Jefferson, Jean Davenport
Lander, and others, and studied Shakespearean roles.
Cleveland James also met two women who greatly affected his life. The
first was a professional actress, Nettie Walsh, with whom James began to
live in 1871. The second was Mary Ellen Quinlan, his future wife, then
fourteen. Nettie Walsh was said to be fifteen when she and James became
lovers, and he was twenty-three. Later, when they were no longer
friendly, James swore that he had by no means been Nettie's first or
only lover and added that both had known other lovers during their
1872 James moved to McVicker's Theatre in Chicago, the leading theater
west of New York, where he remained through 1874. It was at McVicker's
that James played alongside Edwin Booth in circumstances made famous by
James's son Eugene in Long Day's Journey into Night (1941).
Drawing on conversations held with his father in 1919-1920, Eugene
showed the character James Tyrone looking back to his youth, when he and
Booth alternated in the leading roles, night after night, in Julius
Caesar and Othello; above all, James recalled the
artistic idealism that had once guided him. Eugene believed that playing
Shakespeare with Booth was the high point of his father's career. In
writing Long Day's Journey into Night, he has James Tyrone
tell his son Edmund:
James Tyrone as for James O'Neill, Booth's praise had represented the
apex of the younger actor's career. In his old age, James seemed to feel
that within a few years of that point he had slid into successful
had in his youth kept his eye on prosperity, it is true, but in 1874 the
main chance involved no obvious artistic compromise. After James
O'Neill's success with McVicker's, Richard Hooley, J. H. McVicker's
chief competitor in Chicago, offered James the chance to form a
Shakespearean repertory company that would play in Hooley's Opera House
and would also tour. In 1875, when Hooley's company went to San
Francisco, James went with them. James's star was still rising, and it
continued to do so for several years.
James moved to Chicago in 1872, Nettie Walsh remained in Cleveland, but
she visited James from time to time. In the meantime, James was becoming
romantically involved with a respected married actress, Louise
Hawthorne, who was noted for performances of great intensity and for a
disfiguring scar that marked one side of her face from chin to temple.
The scar was popularly believed to intensify the depth of her
performances. James brought Louise into the repertory company he formed
for Hooley and took her to San Francisco with him.
the move west, Nettie Walsh visited James in Chicago for a stormy
reunion. As James became involved with Louise Hawthorne, and as his
celebrity increased, his patience with Nettie diminished. Problems came
to a head in 1874 when she demanded
support for her son, whom she called Alfred Hamilton O'Neill. According
to Alexander (1962, 7-8) James offered to raise the child himself, if it
was his, but on the condition that Nettie renounce any claim to the boy
or to him. She refused, and James must have hoped it was the last he
would hear of her. She returned to Cleveland, where she was living with
a man called Alfred Seaman. At some point she began calling herself Mrs.
James O'Neill. In letters she pressed James for money.
1875 Louise Hawthorne went to San Francisco with James and the Hooley
Shakespearean players, and she remained with him over the next winter.
In San Francisco and on tours, James's fame continued to spread; he was
now known widely as a leader among his generation of actors. Early in
1876 James was offered the chance to move, in October, to New York, to
join A. H. Palmer's respected stock company, which performed at the
Union Square Theatre. James's feelings for Louise Hawthorne were
apparently cooling, although she remained ardent. She returned to
Chicago, while James remained in San Francisco; when James returned to
Chicago, she watched him perform on June 27. James, who was staying at
the same hotel as Louise, the Tremont House, said later that he had
visited Louise in her room that night. He was apparently the last person
to see her alive. It has been assumed that at their last meeting he
confirmed what she already knew, that he wanted their affair to end. She
fell that night from the window of her sixth-floor room, and although
her death was ruled accidental, rumor thereafter held that she had
killed herself for love of James O'Neill.
Hawthorne's death must have greatly shaken James. Everything we know
about him suggests that guilt was for James as deep and inescapable as
fear of the poorhouse, and guilt and dread were intertwined: nemesis and
retribution. His sense of metaphysical justice told him that Fortune's
wheel would reclaim all it had allowed him to gain and would return him
to the slums.
his life, in adversity or public conflict James
would deny all and put the best face on things, whether in
conversation with intimates or in interviews with the public press. But
denial solved a problem only for the moment. James brooded ever after in
private. He hid his guilt from others, whether he felt it for real
misdeeds or injurious wishes; but he could never rid himself of old
remorse. If he could explain to himself that Louise Hawthorne's death
was consistent with the pattern of her life, he could probably never
fully convince himself.
it must have been also with Nettie Walsh's demands. Knowing of her other
lovers, he would have believed it foolish to acknowledge the boy she
said was his. Yet his offer to raise the child implies that he could not
feel much conviction in denying her claim. As with most things
throughout his offstage life, he did a bit of this and a bit of the
other, shifting from remorse to denial to self-justification before
finally half doing something impulsive and kind.
Chicago and San Francisco, James in his late twenties must have felt
himself the envy of men: the lover of a celebrated married actress who
traveled with him across the continent; pursued by another mistress, who
traveled from Cleveland to Chicago for a touch of his hand. Other
conquests may have lingered in his memory and fantasies. He was idolized
by schoolgirls all over the country; brought from convents to see him
perform, the girls waited afterward to hear a word or catch a smile. But
he could never escape the sense that Nemesis and retribution awaited.
With Louise Hawthorne's death Fortune's wheel turned a little.
were apparently James's state of mind and circumstances when, in October
1876, he moved to begin his New York engagement at Palmer's Union Square
the time James had lived in Cleveland, he had become friendly with
Thomas Quinlan, one of whose enterprises was a tobacco and liquor shop
that attracted a theatrical trade. Thomas was about twelve years older
than the twenty-four-year-old
actor, but both were immigrant Irish and self-made men. James could only
admire Thomas as an example of the success he himself sought. Thomas,
for his part, liked the young actor well enough to bring him to his
home. In the Quinlan household, the children enjoyed a prolonged
dependency, a luxury neither Thomas nor James could fully understand,
even though each created such conditions for his own children.
Thomas knew that James was living with a very young actress, probably no
hint would have been given to the Quinlan children. James's manners and
charm were all that the Quinlan children needed to know of him. They
were sheltered but they were not uninformed. They knew that James was an
actor, and no further caution would have been needed. Thomas must have
prided himself that the prosperity and position he had worked for had
brought his family safety and sophistication.
the Quinlans arrived in Cleveland, they lived over a store on Ontario
Street, where Thomas sold books, stationer's supplies, magazines and
newspapers, baked goods, and sweets. Bridget Lundigan Quinlan seems to
have been several years older than her husband, and an executor of
discipline and common sense in the household.1 William Joseph
Dominick Quinlan, Ella's younger brother, was born in 1858, probably
after the move to Cleveland. In 1868 Thomas became manager of
circulation for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The position, and the
profit from his other enterprises, allowed him to move his family into a
fine house at 208 Woodland Avenue and furnish it with luxuries that
included a library and the piano. In the boom that followed the Civil
War he made lucky investments in real estate, and he and a partner
opened Quinlan and Spirnaugle, the liquor and tobacco shop through which
he met James O'Neill. An open, accessible man who didn't drink at all
but enjoyed being with friends who did, Quinlan was popular with church
and commercial leaders. He read widely and liked to talk about the books
he read. He made friends with many of his customers, and he and the
young James O'Neill must have felt they had many things in common. Like
Thomas, James was clearly on the path to
success. It must have pleased Thomas to bring the unassuming and
charming young man to meet the Quinlan family, to see the fine home a
hard-working immigrant could make in a baker's dozen of years. The
visits probably began in the fall of 1871, because Mary Ellen was
apparently fourteen when
she first met James; late that fall she went to South Bend to boarding
must have noticed the young Quinlan daughter. A school friend, Lillie
West, later remembered her as "a tall, superb creature with a kind
of burnt-gold hair in profusion and deep brown eyes" (Alexander
1962, 5). A photograph taken about the time of her marriage shows a slim
girl who looks much younger than her age. She has the dark eyes and
abundant hair that Lillie West mentioned. Something unsettled in the
line of the mouth suggests shyness and the mobile features of one who
has not learned to pose or to hide her feelings. Her face is oval; she
has a long brow and straight nose, high cheekbones, and a short upper
lip. The picture hints at an innocent flirtation with the photographer.
In Long Day's Journey, Mary Tyrone's husband recalled his
wife as a schoolgirl as "a bit of a rogue and a coquette."
all, the picture shows girlishness and immaturity. Lillie West said that
"Ella Quinlan . . . was almost a child when she married
O'Neill" (Alexander 1962, 9). Biographers have found nothing to
contradict the impression. The Gelbs wrote of the young Mary Ellen:
"No trace of the rugged adaptability that had brought her parents
from Ireland could be found in her pliant personality or in her delicate
features" (13). Even more than her beauty, James would have seen
and been touched by an innocence that betokened her upbringing in a
gentle world in which the young were not thrust into workhouses but
sheltered, a world to which he, like Thomas, could aspire as a newcomer.
The innocence also implied a lack of internal resources, which made
frustrations hard to bear and would leave her vulnerable, years later,
to recurring morphine addiction. But the dangers of her immaturity would
not have been evident to James in 1877
when he married her.
would have seen in her a child who was incomparably less worldly than
Nettie Walsh. From James's point of view, Ella knew nothing of
"reality"--and so much the better! To James, reality was
hardship and the threat of returning to the slums.
her part, Ella might have said that James knew nothing of reality. That
was the force of Ella's repeated complaints throughout her marriage that
her husband would not buy the home she wanted and indeed had no idea
what a home was. Her manners and sense of society referred to a world of
family, school, and friends, a reality that pushed James's to the
margins. Ella's middle-class manners and sheltered self-assurance would
not have permitted her to show that she knew James did not understand
her world, if she indeed did know it. James surely respected the middle
class and aspired to join it, and yet he must simultaneously have
thought its assumptions about reality to be those of an inspirational
tale for children.
James's nor Ella's version of reality was adequate for living in a time
of change; nor was any better theory of the world available to them. The
conflicting visions of reality of Mary Ellen Quinlan and James O'Neill
came close to typifying the split views of the world that resulted in
the political, social, and philosophical revolutions of the nineteenth
and twentieth centuries. Their cosmological incompatibility made for an
anxious marriage. At the level of dramatic art, their youngest son would
make the marriage stand, in Long Day's Journey into Night,
for the most intense crises of the Age of Anxiety. That was all in the
future, however. Meanwhile, James, a guest in the Cleveland home of
Thomas Quinlan, gently won Ella with the same charm and kindly
condescension that had conquered the theater-going public.
they first met, Ella lived in her father's house and had not yet begun
boarding school. James may have been a frequent visitor in the Quinlan
home, but he probably did not see Ella often or converse with her
intimately, and he would have
been unlikely to consider himself her suitor. Ella would have been an
unusual schoolgirl if she had not developed a crush on James, a safe
enough attachment, given that he was her father's friend. Not long after
the first meeting, Thomas sent Ella to boarding school in South Bend,
Indiana, half a day's train trip west of Cleveland.
renowned St. Mary's Academy was one of the finest convent schools in the
Middle West. Not yet accredited as a college, St. Mary's offered higher
education for young women when it was still uncommon. Non-Catholic as
well as Catholic families, including the parents of Ella's friend Ella
Nirdlinger, sent their daughters to South Bend. Ella Nirdlinger's son
George Jean Nathan became an important theater critic, one of Eugene
O'Neill's first advocates and a lifelong friend, as his mother had been
to Ella Quinlan O'Neill. J. H. McVicker had sent his daughter Mary there
to school a few years earlier (she would later marry Edwin Booth, go
mad, and die young). Lillie West, Ella's seatmate and confidante at
Saint Mary's, went on to become, under the pen name of Amy Leslie, a
respected theater reviewer for a Chicago newspaper. Ella Quinlan
maintained until her death epistolary friendships with Ella Nirdlinger,
Lillie West, and several other women she had met at St. Mary's. Although
she was not so friendless as Mary Tyrone complains she is in Long
Day's Journey into Night, Ella O'Neill must often have felt
at St. Mary's in Ella's time received a broad Catholic education ranging
from catechism to general history, mental philosophy, trigonometry,
French, geology, and astronomy. Ella had a special talent for music (a
gift that her son Eugene would inherit), and her father arranged for
piano lessons, over and above her regular studies at the conservatory of
music. She studied with Mother Elizabeth Lilly, a descendant of George
Arnold, who was organist to Elizabeth I. A cultivated and sophisticated
English widow, she had converted and come to America, where she founded
an instructional program in music that continued at St. Mary's for a
by Mother Elizabeth, Lillie West imagined going on the stage in light
opera; Ella Quinlan decided that she would become either a nun or a
concert pianist. From the standpoint of talent, Ella's aspiration may
not have been unrealistic, for she graduated with the gold medal in
music and played a Chopin polonaise at commencement. But her aspiration
to be a nun or a professional musician raised other questions, which
also intrigued her son.
Long Day's Journey into Night Mary Tyrone speaks with adoration
of Mother Elizabeth. Late in act 4 O'Neill has her say, "It may be
sinful of me but I love her better than my own mother." Long
Day's Journey gives us an exceptionally full and complex
interpretation of Ella O'Neill, but one of the most striking aspects of
the portrait is that it shows Mary Tyrone almost entirely ignoring her
mother. If a usual thing is absent, the absence may have meaning.
Assuming that O'Neill's representation is accurate, a possible
explanation is that Ella had never made a significant differentiation
from her mother but remained psychologically identified, herself in a
dependent role. The wish to be either a concert pianist or a nun implies
that Ella made an adoring identification with Mother Elizabeth. She
seems to have abandoned her music after she graduated, and it seems
clear that she lacked the single-minded drive and commitment required
for a career as a professional musician.
identification with Mother Elizabeth also implies something unsettled in
her feelings toward her own mother, a reluctance to be like her mother,
which at the time meant making her own home and having and rearing
children. Discomfort at the thought of following in her mother's
footsteps implies a struggle to find her own identity. To find it, she
would have to separate her self-image from her internal image of her
mother and abandon or at least come to terms with a wish never to have
to leave the protected state of childhood. It was a change she would
have to make in order to become the protector of her own children. The
struggle to find oneself is a nearly universal problem for adolescents
who have enjoyed a prolonged dependency.
The dependency and lack of separation from her mother might eventually
have been outgrown in the ordinary course of things. But circumstance
interfered with the ordinary.
went to St. Mary's in the fall of 1872 and returned each fall until she
graduated in June 1875; she spent summers and holidays at home in
Cleveland. Circumstances were not the same when she returned in June
1873. Her father, previously a teetotaler, had begun drinking, and his
health had taken a turn for the worse. By the summer or fall of 1873 he
probably already had a rapidly developing case of consumption. Ella
returned to St. Mary's in September, and on the following May 25, her
father, aged forty, suddenly died. She never recovered from the loss.
went home to Cleveland for the funeral and did not return to the convent
until fall. Like many a young person overwhelmed by a loss, Ella
probably did not often show grief, but there must have been times when
denial failed and she felt lost or angry or overwhelmed or all of these
at once. School friends may have felt uncomfortable about her loss and
confused about how to act with her. Judging by patterns of the next two
years, Ella and her mother spent a good deal of money; shopping was a
specific against sorrow. A few days after the funeral, the family heard
Quinlan had made his will in autumn 1872, just after Ella went off to
college. To his son he left his books, and to his daughter the piano.
The rest, money and property, was to be his wife's, unless and until she
remarried, at which point it would be divided between his children. The
will stipulated that the children should have every chance to finish
their education, and the wish was observed. In autumn, Ella returned to
South Bend for her final year at St. Mary's.
added a final statement to his will which indicated his awareness that
his children were far less prepared for life than he had been at their
ages. He admonished them "that they each of them shall use the
talents which they possess and the
education which they may acquire to earn for themselves when they
arrive at an age proper for them to do so an honest, honorable and
independent livelihood, not relying upon their mother nor upon such
share of the property as may descend to each after her demise nor before
then" (Gelbs, 15). Thomas need not have worried about his son
Joseph, who eventually prospered; at his death in 1911 he left his
sister a sizable estate.
for Ella, Thomas may have been so smitten with her musical gifts that he
believed she might support herself with a career in music, but it is
hard to guess what career she might actually have made. Perhaps he
thought she might become a teacher, like Mother Elizabeth, and
conceivably one aspect of Ella's wish to be a nun was a desire to teach
music. If so, none of her son Eugene's portraits of his mother suggest
that she might have expressed such a thought. As for her becoming a
concert pianist, Thomas Quinlan, the friend of traveling actors, knew
well how rough that life was, and how little his daughter was prepared
for so strenuous a career.
must have felt lost indeed when she thought about her father's death.
Living without her father's love at the center of her emotional life
must have been unimaginable, even without the injunction that she become
self-supporting. Among the reactions that were psychologically possible
for her, one we might consider was presented dramatically much later by
her son in several characters whom biographers and critics believe are
based on his mother. Characters such as Emma Crosby in Diff'rent,
Ella Downey in All God's Chillun Got Wings, and Mary Tyrone in Long
Day's Journey into Night evince a striking ability to alter what
they perceive as real when reality is unbearable.
brief scene in Long Day's Journey shows Mary refusing to accept
that her son Edmund is seriously ill, and creating alternate realities
for herself, changing from moment to moment, to escape what the others
consider real. Late in act 2, scene 1, Mary notices a drinking glass
near Edmund and asks him sharply:
behavior attributed to Mary seems so improbable, so self-contradictory,
and so specific, that it is hard not to take it seriously as an attempt
to represent something the author believed he had seen. It also makes
sense, considered psychologically. In this brief episode Mary tries to
balance her dread that her youngest son Edmund might have tuberculosis
against the need to deny that T.B. killed her father, and more
importantly, to deny that her father is dead at all.2 Such
episodes occur throughout the play. Near the end of act 3 Edmund tries
to tell his mother that the doctor has confirmed that he does indeed
have consumption. Mary rails against doctors, claims that they make you
an addict and then force you to beg for the drug or go crazy, and
finally scolds Edmund for being melodramatic--all in the service of not
letting him say aloud what all the Tyrones already know. In despair he
tries to make her listen to him: "People do die of it. Your own
father--" Mary interrupts him: "Why do you mention him?
There's no comparison at all with you. He had consumption."
is a shocking moment; in performances, the remark usually stops
everything, onstage or in the audience. Nothing that we ever learn about
Mary Tyrone or Ella O'Neill suggests that either would consciously or
deliberately be so cruel. Mary is certainly not lying or deliberately falsifying. The only
remaining explanation is that for the instant she has no idea at all how
such a remark might affect Edmund. Apparently, she has no other resource
for protecting herself against pain than denial, and because it does not
work very well, it forces her to evacuate the world she finds herself in
and move to one less painful. When she thinks of her father, she no
longer recalls the world in which Edmund can be hurt by casual cruelty.
does not seem far-fetched to assume that what was the case for the adult
was also true when Ella was seventeen. She would not have been unusual
for an adolescent if she met painful circumstances with her gift to
re-create the world; not merely to deny pain and its cause, but to
abolish the whole world in which it existed and substitute a more
pleasant one in its place.
the fall Ella returned to St. Mary's, and her friends record no striking
change in her personality such as might reflect a loss she would never
get over. She seems to have denied the loss of her father altogether.
She graduated with honors the next June, received the gold medal for
music, and performed her polonaise. So ended the portion of her life
that would ever after be the world to which she retired when the here
and now became unbearable.
is known of the summer and fall that Ella spent after she returned to
Cleveland from the convent. After Thomas died, Bridget Quinlan no longer
cared to remain in Cleveland. Ella, away from the ordered life at the
convent and separated from the order her father represented, must have
felt at loose ends. Up until then her life had been organized around
gaining the readily available approval of her father and Mother
probably continued with her music, but there was no one in particular
left to please, and nothing indicates that she sought a teacher who
might have prepared her for the concert stage. Unable then as later to
set goals of her own, and lacking direction or any real ambition to take
up a career, her life would have seemed empty. The family had relatives
in the East--in New Haven,
New London, and New York. In the fall Bridget and Ella decided to move
to New York, and there they went early in 1876. The Gelbs report a
series of large checks drawn on the Quinlan estate that testify to the
style in which Bridget and Ella established themselves (Gelbs, 16).
Bridget now controlled a sizable fortune.
have written that Ella persuaded her mother to move to New York because
James O'Neill had gone there; but in fact, she and her mother were
already there when James, who was working in San Francisco, was offered
his position with Palmer's repertory company. If they had heard anything
of James, it would have been scandalous rumors of the suicide of Louise
Hawthorne, or the accusations of Nettie Walsh. In all likelihood they
heard nothing at all, occupied as they were by their personal losses and
the bustle of settling affairs in Cleveland and moving.
James arrived the following autumn, Ella remembered him and arranged for
someone to take her to his play. Afterward, she had herself escorted to
his dressing room, and the two renewed their acquaintance; the former
schoolgirl was now a "tall, superb creature," and the former
provincial leading man was thirty and a leading man on a New York stage.
By all accounts, they fell in love at once and were soon engaged.
vast differences between the actor and the convent girl were obscured at
the renewal of their acquaintance. Circumstances had put each of them in
a prime situation to be drawn toward marriage with the other. Ella saw a
man handsome, charming, and successful, the idol of a million
schoolgirls, and her father's friend. Like her father, James adored her.
By marrying James, she could sidestep mourning; she could avoid
acknowledging that her father was permanently lost to her, and could
expect to restore to her life the structure and order she had felt in
her father's home and then the convent.
had reasons as compelling as Ella's to be drawn toward marriage now.
Strongly sexual and needing more than prostitutes or casual flings,
dreading loss and abandonment himself, he had
chosen women who were decidedly clinging. Nettie Walsh could not
let their affair end but pursued him shamelessly and caused a scandal;
and Louise met a terrible death after James ended their affair. James
had found women damaged by fate; to his conscience, it must have seemed
that though he had not abused them, he had seized the opportunity to
play at marriage with them while trying to avoid the full consequences;
and he had come away from his ventures full of guilt and chagrin.
remorse new worries were now added. The New York theater critics did not
find him an effective actor. His beauty and voice did not impress them,
and they complained that he did not match his style to the parts he
played. If he thought he had mastered the art of acting, he had to think
again. It was a warning never to take success for granted, and it fit
with the need he felt to change the way he lived his life. Ella,
daughter of the prosperous and successful Thomas, knew advantages of
background unimaginable to Nettie or Louise, which showed in her
charming self-assurance. James must have assumed she had inherited the
strength and resilience that had carried her parents to success. He must
have been certain that marrying Ella would bring him the middle-class
stability he envied. He surely expected that with her musical gift and
her Irish blood, she could respect his art and survive the rigors of
being an actor's wife. In marrying Ella, he must have felt he was
bringing his personal life into harmony with the success he was reaching
for in his career. With his decision to marry, James prepared himself to
enter his prime.
the whole, Long Day's Journey into Night is accurate in matters
of fact about the author's parents' lives. Eugene apparently intended to
work from the facts as he knew them to discover whatever understanding
might emerge from unconscious thoughts and feelings as a consequence of
re-creating habitual family patterns. There is, however, a cluster of
interesting inconsistencies between facts about the senior O'Neills an
dramatic facts about the Tyrones. In act 3 where Mary Tyrone
tells the servant, Cathleen, of her meeting with James Tyrone. As
Mary describes it, she was at the convent when her father wrote to say
that he had met the famous James Tyrone, whom all the other girls at the
convent used to rave about, and that when she came home from school, her
father would take her to meet him. And he did; he took her to a play
about the French Revolution; she cried and was afraid her eyes would be
red when her father took her backstage to meet the actor.
we know from a private autobiographical document that O'Neill wrote for
his own psychotherapeutic use about 1926, Eugene believed that his
mother's father was still alive in the early years of the marriage.
Eugene continued in this belief in 1940, when he wrote Long Day's
Journey, and he apparently never learned that his grandfather had
actually died in 1874.
error is interesting, because until the end of his life Eugene was known
for having nearly total recall. One must infer that he frequently heard
his mother speak of her father as still alive at the time she married,
and never heard any other information about his grandfather's death. The
mistaken fact implied an important psychological reality for his mother,
that to her, her father had not died before she married but in fact had
introduced her to her husband and bought her wedding dress.
in act 3 Mary reminds her husband about the wedding and her dress.
"My father told me to buy anything I wanted and never mind what it
cost. The best is none too good, he said. I'm afraid he spoiled me
Quinlan might well have indulged his daughter had he still been alive,
but it was Bridget Quinlan who wrote a check for a thousand dollars for
Ella's trousseau (Gelbs, 38), a sum that in 1877 would have bought a
good house. Assuming that Eugene recorded what he had heard, many
questions arise, including this one: Did Ella recall the details
accurately and yet deliberately tailor them to reflect her adoration of
her father and condescension toward her mother? Or did she rearrange
unconsciously? Perhaps there was a bit of each. Following this
hypothetical line of reasoning, let us assume that if pressed, Ella could probably have forced herself to
remember that her father had actually died three years before she
married James O'Neill. But in a certain way, Ella's distortion tells the
real truth of her world: that her father never did die, that if her
mother wrote the check, it was still her father who had wanted nothing
but the best for her and who had earned the money that bought the dress.
By marrying James O'Neill, Ella kept Thomas Quinlan eternally alive and
postponed forever acknowledging her loss.
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