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O'Neill Son and Artist

The New York Times, November 25, 1973

Book Review: O'Neill: Son and Artist


With "O'Neill, Son and Artist," which traces the life of America's foremost dramatist from his introduction to Broadway with "Beyond the Horizon" in 1920, through his many public triumphs (three Pulitzer awards, the Nobel Prize for Literature), his several marriages and long incapacitating illness, until his death in 1953 at the age of 65, Louis Sheaffer completes a commanding two-part biography whose absorbing first volume, "O'Neill, Son and Playwright," was published in 1968.

In his first volume Mr. Sheaffer performed prodigies of research into the playwright's earlier years, going so far as to canvass not only all his classmates in all the schools O'Neill attended but also everyone who survived from among his acquaintanceship in his seafaring days and in the period of his start in the theater; indeed, Mr. Sheaffer's re-creation of the Provincetown Players and of Greenwich Village life in the 1920's is an invaluable document in American cultural history. The second volume sustains this standard of scholarship with, among other things, a newly revealing investigation of O'Neill's marriages, in particular his gruesome relationship with this third and last wife, Carlotta.

Although the use once again of the word "son" in Mr. Sheaffer's present title is awkward, it points of course to what is in effect the thesis of his study: his belief that the whole of O'Neill's work, and perhaps of his life, was an elaboration, dissimulation or confession of his earliest relation to his parents, variant upon variant of an endlessly exfoliating Oedipean obsession. Had Freud never existed, we conclude from Mr. Sheaffer's astute reading of the biographical and literary evidence he has gathered, O'Neill would have had to invent him.

But this is not to say that an explanation which restricts itself to family influence and other factors of an individual's environment is sufficient to account for O'Neill's character, or lack of it, or for the extremity of his nature, and Mr. Sheaffer has the good judgment not to let himself be limited by his Freudian bias. With tact and skill he applies the insights of psychoanalysis to O'Neill's plays; about the man himself he provides us with the abundant detailed information he has collected in countless interviews and hitherto unavailable documents but leaves it to us to decide whether a fate like O'Neill's is finally shaped by the Freudian determinism.

The playwright's father, James O'Neill, was an Irish-born actor whose substantial talent was squandered in the season-after-season performance of the same popular role, that of the Count of Monte Cristo. He was boastful, loquacious and hammy; his boyhood having been shadowed by poverty, he was always uneasy about money. Though not a drunkard--he never missed or marred a performance because of drink--he had a distinct liking for whisky. He was a devoted family man, a long-suffering and responsible if not very effectual husband and father.

The mother was more gently bred than James O'Neill. Pretty, sweet, pious, she was spoiled first by her father, then by her husband with the result that she fell drastically short of adulthood, spending much of her life in an adolescent dream of identification with the nuns among whom she had been educated. Eugene was her third son; Edmund, her second, whose name O'Neill significantly took for himself in his autobiographical play, died in infancy through what Ella O'Neill unfairly supposed was her neglect of him. Slow to recover from Eugene's birth, she was prescribed morphine and became an addict, although her habit was apparently not too exigent. For 25 years, she made many cruel attempts at medical cure. At last she was freed of her addiction by taking temporary refuge in her old convent.

The Tyrone family in "Long Day's Journey Into Night" represents the O'Neill family constellation: the parents, the playwright himself, his older brother. But in addition to distorting important aspects of James O'Neill's character, it veils the malevolence of the loutish, hard- drinking, whoring James Jr., whose mission in life would seem to have been the corruption of his rival for their mother's affections and it evades the actual history of O'Neill's coming of age.

The history was sordid in the extreme. Eugene was dropped from Princeton at the end of his freshman year for drunkenness of a peculiarly ugly and violent sort, and he spent the next years of his young manhood in the dedicated effort to drink himself to death on the waterfronts of Buenos Aires and New York--once, in fact, in the Skid Row original of the setting he would use for "The Iceman Cometh" he directly attempted suicide and was saved only by the madly improbable actions of his sodden companions. The tuberculosis he contracted, which makes a central element in "Long Day's Journey," dramatizing the emotional waywardness of O'Neill's parents, was in actuality his salvation. Consigned to a sanitorium, O'Neill began to write.

As a playwright O'Neill never ceased romanticizing his experience as down-and-outer. He drew from it not only the nourishment for his theatrical imagination but also perpetual fuel for his self- pity. And no doubt when Eugene had become a success his father, too, saw his son's young manhood through a haze of romance--we keep it in mind that this was a period when "the school of life" or "the school of hard knocks" was in general more favored as an institution for the education of young writers than it is today.

But when James Jr. And Eugene were coming into maturity James O'Neill had no ground for supposing that either of them would be capable of an orderly undertaking on his own behalf. He nevertheless supported them both: the check was small but it never failed to arrive, and this despite James O'Neill's fervent conviction that to earn a living is man's first moral imperative. The charge of penuriousness, amounting almost to criminal irresponsibility, which O'Neill brings against his father in "Long Day's Journey" is one of the play's less pleasant dramatic exaggerations, and demonstrably it represents a displacement upon James O'Neill of Eugene's own guilt as a parent.

Indeed, nothing we learn from Mr. Sheaffer's book about Ella and James O'Neill's behavior toward their children prepares us for the degree to which O'Neill conspired with his third wife, Carlotta Monterey, to empty out of their lives the children of O'Neill's first two marriages. His childless marriage with Carlotta was itself a nightmare. It makes the very definition of ambivalence: never was there a wife this much worshipped and hated, nor a husband this much served and undone.

But they palpably deserved each other. What they did not deserve was the stubbornly loving overtures of their children, not alone O'Neill's own two sons and daughter but also Carlotta's daughter by her earlier marriage. Time and again the children's advances were met with callous rejection masked in impenetrable virtue. Granted that it was Carlotta who took much of the initiative in cutting O'Neill off from his sons and daughter, sequestering their communications so that O'Neill often knew nothing of the young peoples' efforts to establish a connection, urging on him the vetoing of visits he otherwise might perhaps have allowed; the fact remains that there was no significant mitigation of his wife's insane malice in his own parental conduct. And at least everyone in their circle recognized that Carlotta was "difficult," whereas O'Neill was typically celebrated for his gentleness and kindly manners.

The lives of O'Neill's two sons had terrible outcomes. Eugene Jr., the child of his first brief marriage, on whom O'Neill had scarcely laid eyes in the boy's early years, became a distinguished scholar of classics at Yale. But he left his academic post, became an alcoholic, and at the age of 40 took his own life.

Shane, son of O'Neill's second marriage, with whom O'Neill was also but briefly acquainted in the boy's early years, became an alcoholic and then a heroin addict. His commitment to objectivity struggling with his inevitable dismay, Mr. Sheaffer gives us the whole staggering story of O'Neill's refusal to come to the assistance either of Shane himself, in his battles with the law and against addiction, or of Shane's helpless young wife, mother of four small children.

Alone of O'Neill's three children, Oona, Shane's younger sister, daughter of Agnes Boulton (O'Neill's second wife whom he met and married in his Provincetown days) would seem to have escaped the family pattern of manifest self-destructiveness. Oona married Charlie Chaplin when she was 18 and he 54; and, as we learn from Mr. Sheaffer, has been happy ever since. Because at 16 Oona consented to be interviewed and photographed at the Stork Club as the No. 1 debutante of the year, O'Neill read her out of his universe. Despite her repeated pleas, he never saw her after that date.

And yet this was the man who wrote one of the most moving of modern plays, the greatest play ever written by an American; and critical opinion would be unanimous, I think, in ascribing the remarkable power of "Long Day's Journey Into Night" to its compassionateness.

It was 1940 and O'Neill was 52 and world-renowned when he wrote "Long Day's Journey." His health was severely taxed by the strain of its composition. He wrote, Mr. Sheaffer says, with tears streaming, and he came out of his study each evening shattered by his day's work. What, we wonder, was he weeping for? The suffering of his mother and father, of his brother, his own suffering? The pain to which all of us are heir?

O'Neill's inclination to self-pity and self-exculpation was equaled only by his instinct for theater, but in the instance of his autobiographical play he transcended himself to give pity to other members of his family as well as to himself and he put his mastery of stagecraft in the service of this magnanimity. The author of "Long Day's Journey" may have been grieving for his own youth, but he spoke in his play, in most poignant terms, of the despair which we all of us, like O'Neill's parents and his brother, have to learn to endure, of the loss of hope which in one or another measure we all come to know.

It is interesting that the enlargement of spirit which made "Long Day's Journey" the great play that it is came to O'Neill on one of the two occasions in his life when he allowed himself to bring to consciousness the love for his parents, in particular for his mother, which underlay his need to blame them. The other occasion--it makes a remarkable episode in Mr. Sheaffer's narrative--was when he gave up drinking. At the age of 37, already famous but still an inordinate consumer of alcohol, he volunteered with several of his Village friends to participate in a pre-Kinsey study of human sexuality conducted by a psychiatrist named Dr. Gilbert V. Hamilton. To recompense his respondents, Dr. Hamilton offered them a few private therapeutic sessions. To O'Neill in his visits the fatherly physician explained that the playwright drank to bury his Oedipean problems, whereupon O'Neill stopped drinking forever.

Of the early memories stirred up in these sessions O'Neill made extensive cryptic notes. These notes were the working memoranda for "Long Day's Journey" which he composed 15 years later. We can suppose that just as he had been able to stop drinking because he had been forgiven by a sympathetic father-figure for the desires and aggressions of his childhood fantasy, so not, recurring to that liberating moment, he was for the one time in his career able to write about his parents with filial sympathy, without transmuting them into creatures of his dramatic imagination.

The play was a masterpiece and O'Neill's single play of lasting importance--for, at least in one view, the rest of his work has the value only of good theater. The inability of O'Neill throughout his writing career to rise above sentimentality and platitude; his failure to distinguish between facile emotionality and genuine force of feeling and to find a suitable language in which to propose the actualities of the human situation were plainly no hindrance to his winning a very high place for himself in the modern theater. But in his canon only "Long Day's Journey" transcends these inadequacies and in consequence claims a place for itself as a major work of literature.

So strong, indeed, was the force of feeling in "Long Days Journey" that O'Neill instructed his wife that the play was to be neither published nor performed until he had been dead 25 years. Three years after his death Carlotta sold it; but for this violation of trust anyone who knows the play is bound to be grateful.

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