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O'Neill: Life With Monte Cristo

The New York Times, June 4, 2000
'A Giant of the Theater'
The authors' life of Eugene O'Neill is proportioned to its hero.

"No biographer ever does that,'' Stephen Spender said when Arthur and Barbara Gelb told him they were completely rewriting their biography of Eugene O'Neill. But ''O'Neill: Life With Monte Cristo'' is the first of a three-volume reworking of their ''O'Neill,'' published in 1962, a work succeeded by Louis Sheaffer's two-volume study ''O'Neill.'' If the Gelbs' other volumes equal the first in bulk, the new life will surpass their old one by 1,000 pages.

Because rewriting a life is so rare, the Gelbs explain: they were young and inexperienced when they began their original research three years after O'Neill's death in 1953. Now they have a deeper understanding of family life. Forty years ago they lacked ''the analytic acumen'' to treat O'Neill's alcoholism. Access to a key informant, O'Neill's third wife, Carlotta Monterey, was finally obtained. And archival material once restricted has been freed since she died in 1970; publication bans are lifted and new letters unearthed, including 60 youthful love letters from O'Neill to 20-year-old Beatrice Ashe. Perhaps most important, ''a giant of the theater like O'Neill, whose plays are revived constantly, deserved to be re-examined and re-evaluated in the light of the ever-changing cultural climate.''(Arthur Gelb is a former theater critic and later managing editor of The Times.)

The Gelbs begin O'Neill's life with its end: a sick, nearly burned-out genius completes ''Long Day's Journey Into Night'' in 1941 and gives the sealed manuscript to Random House in 1945 with instructions to withhold it for 25 years after his death. In 1956 Carlotta decides to have the play published and produced. This betrayal (or smart move, depending) is new information, but there is a more significant reason to begin with this play. It is the chief text the Gelbs will use to interpret the early life of O'Neill, as well as the lives of his actor-father, James, famous for playing the Count of Monte Cristo; his mother, Mary Ellen (Ella); and his brother Jamie.

As all biographers know, literary critics who insist that fiction exists in a vacuum sealed off from the oxygen of a writer's life are idiots. And all biographers resort to some extent to the fiction to interpret the life. Yet there is a real question as to what extent biography can rely on art to interpret life, even in the case of an intensely personal writer like O'Neill. One uneasy result of the Gelbs' reliance on ''Long Day's Journey'' is that O'Neill, not born until Page 116, becomes the chief interpreter of his parents' meeting, falling in love, courtship and marriage; the birth of two siblings; and his surviving brother's childhood.

Conscientious researchers, the authors state that they ''can do no more than give all the versions.'' This does mean correcting ''Long Day's Journey'' from time to time. O'Neill's version of the meeting of James O'Neill and Ella Quinlan is dramatic fiction, for example. Again: ''I was glad when he died,'' Jamie in the play says of the death of his baby brother. Yet did Jamie O'Neill really say it about his brother Edmund? O'Neill canceled the lines in the final version of ''Long Day's Journey.'' The death of Edmund became ''the defining event of his family's tragedy'' -- at least, the Gelbs must add, in O'Neill's mind. ''You were born afraid,'' his mother tells O'Neill. ''Because I was so afraid to bring you into the world.'' But, again, Mary Tyrone's words ''may not have been the literal words of his mother.''

Despite the demurrers, however, the Gelbs overwhelmingly subscribe to and quote from ''Long Day's Journey,'' a work written retrospectively at the age of 52 by an acutely self-dramatizing playwright. Even though they refer more than once to ''the family mythology,'' in this biography the O'Neills are the Tyrones. More than one play is relied on to tell the life, of course. The ''all-too-brief, bittersweet New London'' summer of 1906, for instance, turns out to be chiefly an account of O'Neill's only comedy, ''Ah, Wilderness!,'' written 27 years later. This heavy use of fictional text raises a question: If the art is so much the life, why not close this biography and simply open O'Neill's collected plays?

Another effect of using plays written in maturity to interpret O'Neill's youth is to play havoc with chronology, something the Gelbs perhaps scorn, since they title Part 1 ''The Past Is the Present.'' Certainly they get a reader off to a rocky start: James O'Neill and Ella Quinlan meet and fall in love; then James O'Neill is born; then we go back to Ireland before his birth to learn about James's ancestors. More disconcerting are constant chronological leaps between an event and O'Neill's later reaction to it. O'Neill has scarcely drawn first breath on Oct. 16, 1888, when he's in his late 30's looking up at the hotel where he was born, which, a few sentences later, is torn down in 1940. Ella takes 3-month-old Eugene to Notre Dame Boarding School to meet Jamie, and an elderly Carlotta is telling us how O'Neill treasured the press clipping of his visit. Jamie is expelled for bringing a prostitute to his college and at once, 44 years later, O'Neill is using the episode in ''A Moon for the Misbegotten.''

Again, all biographers time-travel, though the leaps can be artistically handled. And it is perhaps the Gelbs' conscientiousness that impels them to emphasize every chronological zoom. But reading this book is like trying to watch a movie with someone else controlling the VCR remote: Fast Forward -- Stop -- Rewind -- Stop -- Play. A life is after all an unfolding.

Some readers will undoubtedly approve of this biographical technique or ignore it in light of the additional evidence the Gelbs marshal to interpret the life of America's only Nobel Prize-winning playwright. Their research and dedication are impressive. They develop hosts of minor characters, like Beatrice Ashe and the journalist John Reed, to flesh out the story. They deal more extensively with the emotionally arrested O'Neill and the alcoholic O'Neill.

Yet the ''new'' Eugene O'Neill of this first volume remains essentially the tormented genius of the 1962 ''O'Neill'': a playwright who never struck less than 12 (and seldom resisted an exclamation point), who believed that the tragic alone possessed ''that significant beauty which is truth,'' and who indeed created a new American theater with the dramatic force of his tortured soul-searching.

Volume I leaves O'Neill at 29, with 20 apprentice plays under his belt, including his first truly original work, ''Bound East for Cardiff.'' He is pondering writing the tragic ''Beyond the Horizon.'' ''Now,'' the Gelbs write, ''he had only to bleed and weep endless tears for the sake of his artist's dream.''

Margot Peters's most recent book is ''May Sarton: A Biography.'' She is working on a life of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.

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