The New York Times, May 18, 2000
Exploring the Morning of a Long Day's Journey
By JOSEPH J. ELLIS
In 1962, only nine years after Eugene O'Neill died, Arthur and Barbara Gelb published a major study of his life and work. Crammed with interviews with O'Neill's ex-wives, boyhood friends and theatrical colleagues, driven by the conviction that O'Neill's posthumously published masterpiece, "A Long Day's Journey Into Night," was the theatrical equivalent of "Moby-Dick," the Gelbs' biography helped to establish O'Neill's reputation as the great brooding genius of American dramatic history. Like O'Neill's life, their book was a sprawling work of passion, with the rough edges still showing and its own nervous energy throbbing slightly out of control.
Now, nearly 40 years later, the Gelbs have made the highly unusual decision to rewrite their biography of O'Neill from beginning to end. Although the old book is still in print, the Gelbs wanted to include material from the O'Neill papers at Yale University that had not been available earlier, along with fresh interviews with previously unknown or uncooperative sources and, most interestingly, their own more mature perspective on the tangled dynamics of O'Neill's family life, which had served as the interpretive centerpiece of their early book.
The chief difference between the old book and the new, apart from the addition of anecdotes and an updated bibliography, is a somewhat more charitable attitude toward O'Neill's parents and a slightly harsher judgment of his multiple excesses as an alcoholic, adulterer, derelict and self-destructive American Prometheus. There is also a difference in scale. "O'Neill: Life With Monte Cristo" is merely the first in a projected three-volume work. It ends in 1918, with O'Neill as a 29-year-old aspiring playwright, poised to ascend into the American pantheon.
The major rationale for such expansive treatment of O'Neill's formative years is that for O'Neill they truly were formative. W. B. Yeats once observed that every aspiring artist must choose between "perfection of life, or of the work." O'Neill not only made an emphatic choice of work over life, but also seemed determined to make his personal life into a series of painful imperfections that then became the creative material for his most enduring work. He did away with happy endings in the American theater by studiously avoiding them as a character in his own one-man play. He learned, the hard way, that life was never too good to be true, always too true to be good.
O'Neill was literally born on Broadway, at a theatrical hotel in 1888. His father, James O'Neill, was a prominent actor who squandered his talent by playing more than 5,000 performances in the lead role of the melodramatic moneymaker "The Count of Monte Cristo." The subtitle of this book refers to O'Neill's extended dependence on his father and on the money he earned in a play that symbolized the sentimental values O'Neill learned to loathe.
His mother, Ellen Quinlan O'Neill, became addicted to morphine while recovering from Eugene's birth and thereafter assumed the character of a matronly victim of life, formidable in her helplessness. His older brother, called Jamie, was an alcoholic and womanizer whose major fraternal contribution was to introduce his brother to the saloons and whorehouses of New York. If "A Long Day's Journey Into Night" is about the most famous dysfunctional family in American dramatic history, O'Neill's inspiration began at home.
A good deal of modern biography, especially when the subject is a major literary figure, is driven by the urge to undermine the writer's artistic achievement by exposing the previously unknown details of his or her private life. Or as John Updike recently put it, literary biographies seem designed "to reduce celebrities to a set of antics and ailments to which we can feel superior." O'Neill's early life would seem to provide a veritable arsenal of ammunition for this emerging genre, which we might call "homicidal biography." Consider the following.
A solitary and sickly child, O'Neill early on adopted the posture of the self-absorbed rebel without a cause. He flunked out of Princeton after one year, abandoned his pregnant wife, wandered to Honduras and Argentina in search of gold and prostitutes, then found a sliver of serenity as a seaman on cargo ships sailing out of New York. (He often remarked that he wished he had been born a sea gull.) He cultivated his alcoholism and his alienated posture in the saloons of Battery Park, then hit bottom in 1912 when he attempted suicide.
After a brief fling as a journalist in New London, Conn., and a briefer fling as a student of playwriting at Harvard, he took up residence in a Greenwich Village bar called the Hell Hole, a place where bohemian convictions mixed easily with booze. Befriended by the radical journalist John Reed, he proceeded to begin a torrid affair with Louise Bryant, Reed's lover. All during this time he was wholly dependent on the philanthropy of his father, who was toiling away in "Monte Cristo," and whom, he apprised everyone, he thoroughly despised.
Barbara and Arthur Gelb -- he is a former theater critic who went on to become managing editor of The New York Times -- are less interested in these disreputable episodes as evidence of O'Neill's deeply flawed character than as raw material from which he created his own tragic vision. After all, they seem to say, O'Neill never tried to conceal his private sins, personal obsessions or domestic catastrophes. He put them on the stage for all the world to see. They believe that art trumps and ultimately redeems life, especially when the artist is a genius capable of producing "Long Day's Journey," "Ah, Wilderness" and "Moon for the Misbegotten," all of which transformed the neurotic history of the O'Neill family into masterpieces of the American theater.
Similarly "The Iceman Cometh" transforms the self-destructive habits of O'Neill's drunken cronies in the bars of Battery Park into a poignant dramatization of the human blend of perversity and nobility. O'Neill's demons may have got the better of him in his life, but he triumphed over them in his art.
For better and for worse -- and I think mostly for better -- "O'Neill: Life With Monte Cristo" retains the characteristic features of its predecessor. It is mercifully unburdened by literary theory. It is lumpy and aside-ish, perfectly content to go off on tangents describing the Irish-American affinity for alcohol or the pretensions of New London society. It swings too literally between the narration of O'Neill's life and the scenes he reconstructed in his plays, as if O'Neill had orchestrated the Oedipal conflicts with his parents to enrich his depiction of the Tyrone family in "Long Day's Journey." (On second thought, maybe he did.)
Though it lacks an overarching argument about O'Neill's psychological insights, apart from the fact that they derived from his own experience of tragedy, it is brimming with energy and dedicated to the idea that O'Neill, more than any other playwright in American history, deserves our abiding attention. You put this book down and nod in agreement.
Joseph J. Ellis is Ford Foundation Professor of American History at Mount Holyoke College and author of "American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson."
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