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The Theatre We Worked For

 
The New York Times, July 27, 1982
By MICHIKO KAKUTANI

Whether they were events in his own life or in his plays, Eugene O'Neill did not believe in accidents, and his first letter to the critic and producer Kenneth Macgowan was animated by this sense of the inevitable. ''I feel, somehow, as if I'd known you for a long time,'' he wrote in 1921, ''and that we were fated for a real friendship.'' The two men did, in fact, go on to become colleagues in the theater, and over the years they would exchange dozens of letters - letters now collected in this useful if somewhat limited new volume published by the Yale University Press.

Since most of Macgowan's letters and telegrams to O'Neill have disappeared, the correspondence tends to be curiously one-sided, and many of O'Neill's notes are little more than routine exchanges about finances and travel plans. Still, as the book's editors point out, the letters - buttressed by Travis Bogard's judicious introductory essays - illuminate ''the unique bond formed between these two men with a common vision of what the American theater could and must be,'' and as such provide a welcome addition to the existing canon of work on America's only Nobel Prize-winning playwright. If the resonance of these letters is greater for the reader already familiar with the details of O'Neill's story, they also serve as a pleasant enough introduction to his life and works.

When O'Neill and Macgowan first met, they were still struggling to articulate their respective careers, and their friendship would help both to achieve clearer self-definition: O'Neill as a playwright who would forge a native, tragic stage literature; and Macgowan as a gifted producer, helping others to realize their talents. Although he was the same age as O'Neill - both studied with Prof. George Pierce Baker at Harvard -Macgowan quickly became a kind of mentor for the playwright; his interest in theater esthetics, masks and psychiatry would leave a lasting imprint on many of the writer's early and middle plays.

Together with the stage designer Robert Edmond Jones, O'Neill and Macgowan soon formed the famous Triumvirate that ran the Experimental Theater at the Provincetown Playhouse during the early 1920's. The theater, in O'Neill's words, was to emphasize ''imaginative new interpretation'' and ''experimentation in production,'' and in the course of three seasons it did stage several critical and popular successes, including such O'Neill works as ''Desire Under the Elms'' and ''The Great God Brown.''

By 1926, however, commercial considerations had increasingly come to dictate the theater's policies, and after some friendly squabbling, the Triumvirate disbanded. Following a difficult period in which he floundered for direction, Macgowan went on to a substantial career in Hollywood as a producer at RKO and Twenthieth Century-Fox - he worked on such movies as ''Little Women,'' ''Life Boat'' and ''Jane Eyre'' - and O'Neill soon found a new producer in Lawrence Langner and the Theater Guild.

Even though their professional association ended, the two men remained friends, and their correspondence begins to take on a more casual, personal tone. Whereas the early letters concerning the Experimental Theater are filled with lofty philosophical speculation about the purpose of dramatic art and forgettable exchanges about the merits of casting one actor over another, the later ones give a sharper sense of the monumental passions and daily frustrations that marked O'Neill's life.

While still married to Agnes, his second wife, O'Neill enlisted Macgowan's aid in secretly sending roses to his new love, the beautiful and tempestuous Carlotta Monterey, who would become his ''wife, mistress, mother, nurse.'' Letters written during a trip to Europe with Carlotta are filled with exclamation points and informed by a spirit of romantic infatuation (''I wander about foolish and goggle-eyed with joy''); others, reviling Agnes and her friends, reveal an uglier, more paranoid side (''if she refuses to get a divorce I can eventually starve her into it'').

As O'Neill struggles to find language capable of expressing his emotions, his letters depict, in a kind of shorthand, many of his lasting concerns and preoccupations. His hypochondria, his bouts with alcohol, his contempt for actors and, of course, his furious idealism and determination to shun the middle course in favor of finding something deeper and more real - these all are portrayed.

His last letters to Macgowan, however, become considerably shorter and more cryptic. Geographical distance and diverging concerns, after all, have separated the two friends: by the late 30's Macgowan was busy producing films; and O'Neill had isolated himself at Tao House to work without distraction. A degenerative nerve disorder would prevent the playwright from finishing his long-planned cycle of 11 plays, and he spent his final days in a Boston hotel room, seeing no one except his doctor and nurse and Carlotta. He no doubt had intimations of his fate when he wrote Macgowan in 1941: ''Production isn't that important. It can always wait. Writing can't.''

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