Lloyd Richards: Well, there is something that people need to ponder about Eugene O'Neill, which actually opens them up to the whole art of writing. What does it cost to be an artist? What did it cost to be Eugene O'Neill? What being Eugene O'Neill cost Eugene O'Neill was a mother, cost him a father, cost him a happy marriage, it cost him children. It cost the many wives that he tried to have because he didn't know how, he had never learned that. Now you say that happens to a lot of people; it does. But not everybody can write about it. Not everybody is really willing to look deep within themselves to see what's going on, what am I doing. And he was capable of that, and that's hard. That is hard to take a pencil and say, "This is me in the deepest part of my gut. And this was my mother and this was my father and this was all the people who were close to me, and they were all in some respect strivers and failures." And that's not an easy thing to say. And what it cost them...I am not sure that our artists are truly appreciated and recompensed for their effort.
Narrator: In the waning days of December 1937, a brooding and increasingly frail forty-nine-year-old writer named Eugene O'Neill moved with his third wife Carlotta into a remote mountainside retreat — perched high above the sparsely populated farm country of Danville, California, thirty-five miles east of San Francisco.
To most observers, the notoriously shy and reclusive playwright seemed to be at the very pinnacle of his career — the groundbreaking onetime golden boy of Broadway — the most celebrated playwright in the world by far — winner of no fewer than three Pulitzer Prizes, and the recipient that very year of the Nobel Prize itself — the only American dramatist ever to have been so honored.
And yet, as O'Neill himself more than half-sensed at the time, by the winter of 1937 — as he and Carlotta settled into the brooding edifice they called "Tao House" — everything that mattered most in his life seemed on the verge of slipping away.
In the months and years to come — as his health deteriorated, and his reputation declined, and his days as a writer seemed increasingly numbered — memories and experiences that had haunted him for a lifetime would come swarming in — bringing to a climax one of the most riveting and moving sagas in the history of American theater — and leaving behind three of the greatest tragic masterpieces ever written by an American.
Performance, Al Pacino (Hickey): I even caught myself hating her for making me hate myself so much. There's a limit to the guilt you can feel and the forgiveness and the pity you can take! I mean you have to begin blaming somebody else!
Sidney Lumet, film director: You see, an extraordinary thing happened with O'Neill. I don't know where he got the confidence to know that there was greatness lying ahead of him. It's as if he knew that those great plays were there at the end of his life to write, whatever preparation is needed O'Neill was making all of his life — in the plays that he wrote, some of them not even good plays. But he knew — he knew somewhere. That's what's so staggering.
Tony Kushner, playwright: I mean the thing that's amazing to me is that after he won the Nobel Prize he wrote his greatest work — and basically the last, or the second to last, thing that he wrote, is the greatest play ever written by an American and one of the greatest plays ever written. And it's thrilling. O'Neill's career is so enviable in that way — I mean, it is like Michelangelo, it is like Shakespeare, in the sense that it gets better and better and better and better.
Lloyd Richards: A long day's journey into the unknown — into night — and we shall eventually fold up in it. That was a play where he put himself, he put his family on the stage, in an effort to try and understand them. Now that could be described as a cruel thing because he exposed everybody. Honesty and truth are hard. Truth is clean, but it's hard and he spoke the truth about those closest to him.
Performance, Zoe Caldwell (Mary): Let me see. What did I come in here to find? I know it's something I lost. Something I need terribly. I remember when I had it I was never lonely or afraid. I can't have lost it forever, I would die if I thought that. Because then there would be no hope.
Performance, Christopher Plummer (Tyrone): Yes, maybe life overdid the lesson for me, and made a dollar worth too much, and then the time came when it ruined my career as a fine actor.
Jason Robards, actor: It's amazing, it has drawn universally everyone into the family unit somehow — or family they didn't have or did have, or reminded them of things that have happened in their family because it's a terribly, a deep family play, love and hate and how we handle these things or if we handle them.
Edward Shaughnessy, scholar: Well, in his life, O'Neill was not given the grace, opportunity, to work things through with his brother, with his mother, with his dad. Is that not the case for so many of us? In the here and now, in the tyranny of the moment, the tragedy of time, we so often can't finish that. The play finishes that.
Narrator: To a remarkable degree, Eugene O'Neill's whole life had gone into the making of Long Day's Journey Into Night — and the handful of other autobiographical masterpieces he pulled from himself only at the very end of his career — as if the truths they conveyed and feelings they laid bare were almost more than he could endure.
Haunted from the start by memories of a lonely house on the Connecticut shore, his whole life, he later said, would be a kind of "seeking flight — a restless search for meaning and identity, reality and truth" — at once an escape from and a search for the Gorgons of his past — and the oblivion he felt at the center of his soul.
"You're the most conceited man I've ever known," a friend once remarked, of his habit of continually looking at himself in mirrors. "No," he replied. "I'm just trying to be sure I'm still here."
Performance, Robert Sean Leonard (Edmund): It was a great mistake, my being born a man, I would have been much more successful as a sea gull or a fish. As it is, I will always be a stranger who never feels at home, who does not really want and is not really wanted, who can never belong, who must always be a little in love with death.
Lloyd Richards: His life was a turmoil and he spent his life trying to understand something of that turmoil and he saw the turmoil in others. He saw the torture in people because he felt it in himself. He felt it in himself the pulling apart. He was being pulled apart by the questions that he introduced into his life.
Edward Shaughnessy: These are the age-old questions of the theater itself: Who am I? And where do I come from? And what is my part in — do I have a part in — my own fate? Or am I simply a checker on the board being moved around? Do I belong to anything? To anyone? To whom do I belong now? To God, who seems to be abandoning me.
Tony Kushner: This is somebody who suffered terribly as a result of his complete fealty to a vision of the truth, to a notion that there is a depth, that there's a profundity, that there is great complexes and abysses of meaning underneath the surface of life. And that our job as artists and as people is to dig and to go deep — or to dive, as Melville kept saying, deeper and deeper and deeper. And that it hurts, and the more deeply you dive, the more you are at risk of being dismantled or crushed, but that's what your job is, and you don't flinch from it. In O'Neill, there's this absolute sort of God-ordained mission, which is to keep searching, even if in the process he discovered that there is no God. It's a terrifying sort of mandate, but it also, I think, should be the mandate of all artists, and in a way, of all people.
Performance, Christopher Plummer (Tyrone): Who's play is it? A stinking old miser! Well, maybe you're right. Maybe I can't help being, although all my life since I had anything I've thrown money over the bar to buy drinks for everyone in the house, loaned money to sponges I knew would never pay it back — But of course that was in barrooms, when I was full of whiskey. I can never feel that way about it when I'm sober in my home. It was at home I learned the value of a dollar and the fear of the poorhouse. I've never been able to believe in my luck since. But still, the more property you own, the safer you think you are! That may not be logical, but it's the way I have to feel.
John Guare, playwright: Before O'Neill, there was no American theater. The American theater was Ben-Hur, live horses on stage in a chariot race, Little Eva going up to heaven in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Serious theater was Shakespeare. Theater was James O'Neill and The Count of Monte Cristo barnstorming around the country for thirty-five years.
Tony Kushner: You can't help but conclude that in somebody who was as trapped in the family drama as O'Neill that there was an absolute necessity, given that father and that life, to be in the theater and to make that his, you know, arena of contestation. I mean, he was going to become a worker in the theater, because that's where he did battle with his father and those ghosts.
Narrator: He was born in a hotel room in 1888, in the heart of what would become Times Square — the brooding youngest son of a celebrated actor who would fail to fulfill the early promise of his career, and of his long, tormented drug-addicted wife.
From the very start, he would be haunted by events that had taken place long before his birth — by the ghost of a dead child — and by the tragically blighted lives of his parents, James and Ella — and his two older siblings, Jamie and Edmund.
Re-enactment, Mary Tyrone: The past is the present, isn't it? It's the future too. We try to lie ourselves out of that, but life won't let us.
Narrator: From the very start, life had gone as neither of his parents had expected.
His mother, Ella — a shy and retiring ex-convent girl who had fallen madly in love with her future husband practically the first time she met him — had never been able to adjust to the rootless life his acting career imposed upon the family.
His father, James — a dashing, dark-haired Irish immigrant who had risen from extreme poverty to become one of the most promising actors of his generation -- had never been able to escape the crippling fears his childhood had instilled in him — sacrificing his talent in the end for financial security.
Arthur Gelb: His father compromised his artistic talent. He was capable of succeeding America's greatest Shakespearean actor, Edwin Booth. Instead he took the easier road, and he found a play, The Count of Monte Cristo, which was one of America's most popular theater successes and the money starts rolling in, the show is sold out every night. So he can't give up the role. He plays it night after night, week after week, he travels across the country with the production, he buys it outright for a paltry sum. And every time he tries to escape from the imprisonment of that play, to try Shakespeare, the audience doesn't want him to do that. They want him back in that play
Sidney Lumet: It's interesting to me that a piece of cheap melodrama should become so central to these genuinely tragic lives — and as James Tyrone says, became his suicide in a way. He lost the ability to do Iago one night and Othello the next with Edwin Booth, the greatest actor of his day.
Narrator: In 1884, with rising profits from the new play, James overcame his morbid fear of poverty long enough to buy a drafty cottage on the Connecticut shore — where the continually itinerant family would come to rest for a few months each year.
The only home the O'Neills ever had, it was destined to become a house of heartache and pain.
Barbara Gelb: The big tragedy and the actual turning point for Ella O'Neill, even before Eugene was born, was the death of her second son, Edmund. He was two years old when Ella decided to join James on tour — and left Jamie who was four years older, and Edmund, with her mother, with their grandmother. And she was very conflicted about going, she didn't really want to leave her children but she did finally let herself be persuaded to go and be with him for a bit of his tour. And no sooner had she arrived than she had a wire from her mother saying that Jamie had measles. And, almost immediately after that, she wired that Edmund, the baby, had measles, and that of course was very dangerous in a very young child. So Ella instantly back to New York — but before she could reach New York, the baby had died. And she was devastated — she felt it was her fault — she felt guilty for having left him — and she believed that Jamie had deliberately exposed the baby to his own case of measles.
Robert Sean Leonard, actor: I think the tragedy of Jamie is that he was condemned at the age of seven for killing his brother. And I don't think she ever forgave him for it. And that's it — that's a jail sentence. I don't think you return from that, from your mother, feeling that about you. So Jamie's tragedy is I think is that he died at the age of seven and had to play out the long hours of every day of the rest of his life as a walking corpse and the only respite he found was in whores and booze.
Narrator: Jamie would never recover from psychic damage inflicted by the death of his younger brother, Edmund.
Neither, in the end, would James and Ella, whose marriage now descended into a domestic hell of guilt, remorse and bitter recrimination.
Barbara Gelb: That was something that Ella never recovered from. She felt terribly guilty about that and she made up her mind she would never have another child. And so when Eugene was conceived she immediately felt that this was terrible and that God was going to punish her for having another child, for presuming to have another child, after allowing herself to lose Edmund. And that really began the cycle of tragedy. And as soon as Eugene was born — partly because she was in a very depressed state and partially because it was a difficult birth — she started taking morphine.
Arthur Gelb: That was the environment in which O'Neill was brought into the world. He was an unwanted child — his mother blamed him for her morphine addiction and she became totally hooked on drugs.
Zoe Caldwell, actor: It must be very strange to grow up in a household — where the mother simply absents herself. And at a time maybe when you most need to talk to her, touch her, or have her sit quietly in the room beside you, she may be in the room, but she's not there, because she has chosen to absent herself from you.
Barbara Gelb: From his earliest childhood, he used to stare out to sea, he had no real home. He toured with his father and mother as an infant, until he was seven years old and was sent to boarding school. So he was a very lonely child and the only thing that he took any pleasure in or consolation in was reading and staring at the sea in his summer home in New London. I think that it first meant a sense of freedom. He would look out to sea and he would see the seagulls circling and he would think, you know, if only he could be a seagull himself, totally free, unbound to anything ashore, unbound to a difficult, uncaring mother and a rather domineering father.
Narrator: With his actor father frequently on the road — and a house filled with unexplained absences and unsaid things — the dreamlike unrealities of life and of the theater would be strangely intermingled in his experience.
Barbara Gelb: And, of course, Ella was getting more and more deeply involved with her morphine addiction. And there was an English nurse, named Sarah Sandy who took care of Eugene, and if she hadn't been there for Eugene no one would have been. And James was very much occupied with his career, as always, and he wasn't even aware that Ella was taking morphine, until some druggist said do you know that this is addictive, this medicine. It was then that he first realized that she was addicted.
Narrator: Shielded from the truth of his mother's condition by his father and brother and Sarah Sandy, he was often frightened by her mysterious withdrawals and irrational behavior, and frequently feared for her sanity.
Told of her deep remorse over the death of his older brother, Edmund, he often prayed for her recovery — to no avail.
For Ella herself, the darkest times came when, in her grief and delirium, her faith fell away entirely and she felt that God had abandoned her.
Performance, Vanessa Redgrave (Mary): If only I could find my faith so that I could pray again. Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with Thee. Blessed art Thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of Thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners. Now and ... and ...
Narrator: Two days after his seventh birthday, he was sent away to a rigid Catholic boarding school in the Bronx — where in the years to come his own faith would begin to waiver.
Barbara Gelb: He was bitterly unhappy about being sent to boarding school — more because he was taken away from Sarah Sandy than even from his mother. He stayed there until he was thirteen. He was very lonely and he mainly withdrew into reading. That was the only pleasure he had in his life.
Narrator: The turning point of his childhood came with the revelation of Ella's affliction.
Returning home from prep school one afternoon in the spring of 1901, he surprised his mother with a needle in her hand in the family's temporary Upper West Side apartment.
Two years later, in the summer of 1903, his father and brother were forced to reveal the full truth of her condition — following a garish nighttime episode in which Ella, desperate for morphine, ran out of the house in her dressing gown and tried to drown herself in the Thames River.
The impact of the revelation was cataclysmic — shattering what remained of his religious beliefs, and unleashing in a blow all the bleak phantoms of his childhood — along with a tidal wave of conflict within the family.
One Sunday morning, late that same summer, he informed his father he would no longer be attending church. James tried to force him to go, and the two nearly came to blows. But he stood his ground and his father finally marched off to church alone.
O'Neill was not yet fifteen. His seeking flight had begun.
Edward Shaughnessy: Eugene lost faith. He left the Church at fifteen years old. He never came back. It would do nobody any service whatsoever to try to reclaim him for the Church. He was an apostate. But, as he said time and time again, "Once a Catholic, always a Catholic." Those are deep roots and deep scars, if you want.
Narrator: Years later, in a poignant diagram he made during a brief, aborted attempt at psychoanalysis, he tried to sum up the nightmarish character of his childhood, and the impact it had had on him.
Re-enactment, Eugene O'Neill: World of reality practically unrealized, nightmares, terror of the dark, seven years old, complete break, school, resentment and hatred of father as cause break with mother, reality faced and fled from in fear, life of fantasy and religion in school, inability to belong to reality. Discovery of mother's inadequacy, resentment against father, hatred and defiance of father.
Narrator: For the rest of his life, trapped between the shadowy terrors of the outer world, and a disturbing sense of inner unreality, he would never be able to escape the conviction instilled in him in childhood that he had been born with something dead inside him.
John Guare: Well, but you look at him — and he looks like a ghost. He looks like a ghost haunting his own life. The same life that destroyed his mother — destroyed him in a different way. He didn't belong anywhere. So I think he dreamed of places where people belonged — why that cottage at New London meant so much to him, because it was as close to a home as they ever had.
Narrator: The first phase of his seeking flight would be a desperate headlong rush into oblivion.
For the next ten years, he would run from the bleak wreckage of the past — wandering aimlessly, drinking recklessly, and angrily courting oblivion and self-destruction — desperately looking for a purpose to his life, and for some place to fit in.
Graduating from prep school in 1906, with no plans for the future other than vague dreams of going to sea and becoming a poet, he enrolled at Princeton — but was thrown out before the end of his first year for drinking too much and cutting classes.
At twenty-one — driven by fierce gusts of emotion he could neither control nor understand — he would marry, then abruptly abandon, a young woman named Kathleen Jenkins — fleeing the responsibilities of fatherhood and marriage to the jungles of Honduras, then to South America, aboard a ship called the Charles Racine.
He would see his bewildered wife and child only once after taking to sea. He wouldn't see his son again — whom she had bravely named Eugene Junior — until the boy was eleven.
Barbara Gelb: And once he did go to sea, he felt total release, and a sense of complete freedom, being away from land, and being away from everything that was pressured and what he considered hypocritical. Sailors he found to be totally unassuming, and warm and friendly, and not demanding of anything from him. And he was able to really relax, and feel that could be himself on the sea. And then it became kind of a mystical calling. He wanted all his life after that, he tried to live near the sea. When he was away from the sea he really missed it terribly.
Narrator: Lying on the bowsprit of the Charles Racine, one night on his way to Argentina, he would have an experience that would haunt him for the rest of his life — a rapturous blurring of the boundaries between himself and the world around him — that brought with it a transcendent, heartbreakingly brief sense of belonging, and connection to something larger.
But if his days at sea were some of the brightest he ever had, the ensuing months he spent in Buenos Aires would be some of the darkest.
Arthur Gelb: He drank himself into insensibility, how he survived that period, only God knows. He barely, barely had the physical stamina to return by ship, he found a berth on a cargo ship and he barely was able to get on that ship and get himself back to New York. When he comes back what does he do — he goes to a saloon called Jimmy the Priest's on the foot of Fulton Street, and he lives there as a derelict, drinks rotgut whiskey, you know five cents a shot, and he lives upstairs with other derelicts, and he has no ambition to do anything at this point.
Narrator: On a freezing night in the winter of 1912 — filled with shame and self-disgust, and a sense of utter hopelessness — he returned to his filthy cell at Jimmy the Priest's, swallowed a bottle of Veronal tablets, and lay down to die. At a bottom-of-the-sea bar at the foot of Manhattan, which, thirty years later, would become the setting of one of his greatest plays, he had come to the end of the road. He was twenty-three years old.
Tony Kushner: That bar, which is so profoundly important in O'Neill's life, I mean, it's the place where he became a writer really, I mean, at the end of the youthful journeys on the sea, and the suicide attempt, that's where he hit the bottom. That's where he arrived at his own O'Neillian moment, and emerged either alive or not alive, depending on, you know, how you want to look at it. And in some ways clearly he felt not alive; I mean, that that's the point at which the O'Neills finally got what they deserved, which is this dead child. And, of course, thank God for American theater, and for world literature, the child didn't actually die, and went on to write plays. But there's a moment of a kind of a soul death in that bar that he then resurrects, in that completely just deeply frightening play.
Narrator: It was the beginning of a kind of rebirth, he later said. Admitted to a sanitarium later that year, with a case of tuberculosis, retribution he believed for the brutally punishing life he had led, he began to look inward, to confront the bleak realities he had been running from for years, and to see a way forward.
He would become a playwright,but the plays he would write would be unlike any his father had ever acted in.
Mining the pain and conflict he felt deep in himself and others — he would overturn the shallow commercial conventions of Broadway and create an entirely new kind of American drama — one that was ruthlessly honest — true to life — and deeply, exhilaratingly tragic.
"I want to be an artist or nothing," he declared, not long after returning to New London in the summer of 1913.
Escaping now, not into the oblivion of drink and death, but into the phantom mirror world of art, he would spend the next thirty years relentlessly plumbing the depths of his own experience — endlessly searching for a poetic language capable of conveying his deeply tragic sense of existence.
American theater would never be the same.
Re-enactment, Eugene O'Neill: What I am after is to get an audience to leave the theater with an exultant feeling from seeing somebody on the stage facing life, fighting against the eternal odds, not conquering, but perhaps inevitably being conquered. The individual life is made significant just by the struggle.
John Guare: The shape of O'Neill's life is very simple. He wrote. He was a young boy, a young man, lived in a theatrical world. Then he couldn't fit in, went away to sea, came back drank and drank and drank and drank — and then after 1916, Bound East for Cardiff at the Provincetown Playhouse — the date when O'Neill is "born." From then on he just writes. He writes to the exclusion of having a life. O'Neill's trajectory is just a man who is consumed by writing.
Narrator: Over the next six years, in one of the most tumultuous professional and personal apprenticeships in the history of American theater, O'Neill would teach himself how to write plays, see his first work produced on stage, marry and start a family of his own with a pretty young writer named Agnes Boulton, then scale the ramparts of Broadway itself and take mainstream American theater by storm.
Robert Brustein: America didn't have a playwright of consequence up until the time O'Neill came along. I mean, O'Neill was essentially America's first serious playwright in the teens and in the early twenties. O'Neill was really trying to get at the same kind of issues as the great modernists like Ibsen and Strindberg and Chekhov. Whether or not he was achieving these aims was less important than the fact that he was attempting them. And a lot of people thought he was achieving them.
Narrator: On February 20th, 1920, O'Neill's first full-length play, Beyond the Horizon, opened on Broadway, and changed forever the course of American theater. The first true American tragedy, the uncompromisingly bleak drama, about the blighted dreams of two brothers in love with the same woman, received rave reviews, brought in more than $6,000 and at the end of the season, won the Pulitzer Prize in drama.
O'Neill knew he had arrived, and so did his father, James, who had sat with Ella in the balcony on opening night with tears streaming down his cheeks.
Barbara Gelb: O'Neill had fought with his father almost up to the day that he died, but toward the end he and his father were reconciled, especially after Beyond the Horizon was produced in 1920. His father did realize that his son was talented. He was very impressed with the fact that it got wonderful reviews and that he was now an accepted playwright.
Narrator: A week after the play opened, his father suffered a crippling stroke, then learned he had inoperable cancer of the intestine, and four months later, went home to New London to die.
On his deathbed, he revealed the full extent of the bitter regret he felt at having betrayed his own talent, and his last words left a deep impression on his younger son.
"I'm going to a better sort of life," he gasped. "This sort of life, here ... all froth ... no good ... rottenness!"
Re-enactment, Eugene O'Neill: That's what caused me to make up my mind that they would never get me. I determined then and there that I would never sell out. His dying words are written indelibly, seared on my brain, a warning from the beyond to remain true to the best that is in me though the heavens fall.
Narrator: Two years later, his mother, Ella, having finally recovered from her long addiction, died of a stroke while on a trip to California. Not long after, in the fall of 1923, his brother, Jamie, nearly blind, and in the terminal stages of alcoholism, died at the age of forty-five, his life the most cruelly blighted of the four tragic O'Neills.
"Within the last four years," O'Neill wrote to a friend, "I have lost my Father, my Mother and my only brother."
Now he was alone with their ghosts. One way or another, they would continue to haunt him for the rest of his days.
Arthur Gelb: First thing you have to understand is that O'Neill is someone who can't get his ideas down on paper fast enough. They are always percolating in his mind, not one idea, but a dozen ideas, two dozen ideas. He is constantly trying to understand himself, he can't understand himself because a lot of ideas are unconscious, they come in dreams. O'Neill dreamt all of Desire Under the Elms and Ah! Wilderness. He dreamt fragments of dozens of other plays.
Narrator: Following the success of Beyond the Horizon, O'Neill's career would take off with a speed and intensity unparalleled in the annals of American theater.
Over the next fourteen years, he would write eighteen new plays, see twenty-one of his works produced on and off Broadway, win two more Pulitzer Prizes, and become the most critically acclaimed playwright of his generation.
Tony Kushner: I mean he was a hugely famous writer. He filled a cultural space that needed to be filled. We had a couple of great novelists — we had Melville, Hawthorne, Henry James, and O'Neill came along at a point when and we needed a great playwright. And he knew that, I mean, it was a created persona as well... I mean, he posed for all those gorgeous pictures of himself, and you know ... and he was an actor's son, and he really knew how to look haunted and you know driven.
Barbara Gelb: The fact that he was able to, on his own terms, overturn the very frivolous Broadway that he came into in early 1920, and that he was able to make producers accept him on his own terms, was a remarkable thing for the time and he never tried to repeat his early successes, he always wanted to try something different. Often, he fell on his face in trying. But, each time he was reaching for something bigger and beyond what he had already done for something even more important and more revealing of life.
Tony Kushner: I think that there's a necessity to experiment when you're involved in something as protean as actually literally inventing American theater.
Narrator: In The Emperor Jones, he would use Expressionist scenery and the sound of throbbing drums to highlight the disintegration of his main character, a black man haunted by three hundred years of American racism and the past.
In The Hairy Ape, he would use savagely stylized dialogue and masks to evoke the inner life of working men ground to dust by the forces of industrialization.
In Anna Christie, which would bring him a second Pulitzer, he would explore the deeply conflicted hopes and fears of a one-time prostitute, the father who abandoned her, and the strapping Irish sailor she falls in love with.
Performance, Liam Neeson : And me to listen to that talk from a woman like you and be frightened to close her mouth with a slap! O God help me, I'm a yellow coward for all men to spit at! But I'll not be getting out of this 'til I've had me word. And let you look out now how you'd drive me!
John Guare: That's where O'Neill wanted to take us, he wanted to take us to the place where the interior life of the characters was ripped open and revealed. And in this limitless America — this land without a horizon — what do we do faced with the desolate boundaries that we feel within us?
Narrator: To a striking degree, the painful inner turmoil his characters faced mirrored conflicts in his own life, past and present.
In 1924, with strains in their marriage already on the rise, he and Agnes moved with five-year-old Shane to Bermuda, where in 1925 a second child, Oona, was born, and where the conflict between them intensified.
Drinking too much, and ill-equipped for the family life he craved, he often felt as he had after the birth of Shane, "homesick for homelessness and irresponsibility," he said, and filled with regret that he had gone "in for play-writing, mating and begetting" children.
Agnes, in turn, increasingly resented the maintenance his personality required; and always more social than he, had little sympathy with his increasingly desperate struggle to give up drinking.
Arthur Gelb: O'Neill stopped cold when he was forty. He had to stop cold, because psychiatrists told him his brain would turn to the white of an egg, and he knew that without writing, he would die.
Narrator: Quitting, however, left him feeling even more strangely unsettled inside, and he compensated by retreating even more deeply into his work.
He became increasingly obsessed with masks, and with what they seemed to convey of the unnamed, undisclosed forces beneath the surface of life, conscious at times that his work itself was a kind of mask behind which he was hiding.
Haunted more than ever by the loss of his religious faith, he looked increasingly for something to replace it — restlessly searching in play after play for the "Force behind," he said, "Fate, God, our biological past whatever one calls it, Mystery, certainly."
Ransacking the literature of three millennia, in works of increasing length, complexity and ambition, he would push the boundaries of the American theater to the very limit, haunted, as he drove himself forward, by the nagging suspicion that he had still not created the masterworks of which he was capable.
Robert Brustein: No one understood better his own limitations than O'Neill. Now, the fear of being what Freud called "a pseudo-genius," someone who has all the desires to be a writer, a great genius writer, and all the ambition and all the feelings of a writer, but just can't make it, that's terrifying. And imagine living with that day by day, and not knowing whether you have it or not, and not knowing in spite of all the praise that has been lavished on you, whether you really are worthy of any of that praise. I'm sure he must have felt that.
Re-enactment, Eugene O'Neill: One's outer life passes in a solitude haunted by the masks of others; one's inner life passes in a solitude hounded by the masks of oneself.
Tony Kushner: I think that if you look at this obsession that he has with illusions and dreams, and the way that he ties this into the national question of America as a kind of hollow dream or a dream that will never be fulfilled this sort of very, very tragic and dark vision of what this country is, what this country does to people's dreams. The whole obsession with masks in the Twenties, I mean the idea of life as a kind of a failing theater, really, makes it absolutely imperative that he work in the theater and that he write plays because the theater is a perfect metaphor for him for a central question of life, which is the artifice of it, the way that we construct realities to protect ourselves, to make it possible for us to survive, and the horrible effort it requires to keep those realities intact and to enlist other people into our own "little plays", and how, finally, one loses the vigor and ruthlessness necessary to keep your dreams the dominant reality that surrounds you every waking minute, and as those dreams fall apart you realize that you've lived a lie. And you can't find a better way of expressing that than on a stage, because you're of course watching a constantly decomposing dream that cannot remain intact, that has all these holes in it that the audience is aware of, that frighten and electrify. And I think it makes the theater the perfect medium for somebody who's as heartbroken about disillusionment, who really finally on some level can't reconcile himself to the fact that there's no salvation, that there's no redemption, that there's no life after death, that everything that made life possible, bearable, is really, kind of, finally, a lie. And I think that theater is a perfect medium for somebody who's as grief stricken about that as O'Neill was.
Narrator: In the winter of 1928, Strange Interlude, his longest and most ambitious undertaking yet, opened on Broadway.
A nine-act, five-hour boldly sexual novel in play form, it would prove to be his most successful play to date — bringing him more than a quarter of a million dollars in royalties — and at the end of the season a third Pulitzer Prize.
By then, however, O'Neill himself had long since taken flight again. On February 10, 1928, he set sail for Europe aboard the steamship Berengaria. Behind him was his life with Agnes, and his children, Shane and Oona, to whom he had not even said goodbye.
With him was a woman he had fallen passionately in love with two years earlier, who would alter the course of his entire existence, and eventually help bring his seeking flight to an end.
Her name was Carlotta Monterey. For the next twenty-five years, the drama of his life would be inextricably bound up with her complex personality. Her ultimate impact on the fate of his career would be incalculable.
Archival footage, Carlotta Monterey: When I married Mr. O'Neill, I knew nothing about him, except that he was a dramatist. I'd played in a play he had. And he kept saying to me — he didn't say, "I love you, I think you're wonderful, I think you're grand" — he kept saying to me, "I need you, I need you, I need you." And sometimes it was a bit frightening. I'd been brought up in England and nobody ever sort of gritted their teeth and said they'd needed me. And he did need me I discovered. And he never was in good health, he always had a cold.
Narrator: She had made herself up in many ways — right from the beginning — like a character a play or novel of her own invention.
Though she always claimed otherwise, she had not in fact been brought up in England under genteel circumstances — nor in fact was her real name Carlotta Monterey.
Arthur Gelb: Her real name was Hazel Tharsing. She was a very elegant woman, and quite beautiful in an exotic way and she created drama for herself.
Barbara Gelb: She grew up poor in Oakland, California. Her father abandoned her family, her mother ran a boarding house. And she was quite an accomplished seductress by the time she met Eugene. Heads turned whenever she walked into a room, she was absolutely beautiful, beautiful actress -- not very talented, but she got parts because of her great beauty.
Narrator: They had met once before in 1922, during the Broadway production of The Hairy Ape, in which she had played the role of Mildred.
But it was a chance encounter on a lake in Maine four years later that had kindled their romance. He was, it turned out, exactly what she was looking for; she was exactly what he needed.
Years after he was gone, she would return in her mind to her earliest memories of him.
Archival footage, Carlotta Monterey: He asked if he could come to tea. I hardly knew the man. And he sat down and he began to talk about his early life,that he'd had no home. He had no mother in the real sense, no father in the real sense.
Barbara Gelb: And she started working on him at that point and she persuaded him that he was living the wrong kind of life and said, "you know, you need someone, this is not the life you need, you're a distinguished playwright." He should be protected, he should have serenity, he should be surrounded by beauty, he shouldn't have to smell diapers and lamb stew. And he was completely seduced by her. He always wanted to have someone who would take care of him and he finally did find that kind of woman in Carlotta, who was not interested in children and who was prepared to devote her life to being his protectress and nurse and mother and secretary, and that was the woman he ultimately ended up with.
Narrator: Though their battles could be epic — and at the very end they would inflict almost unbearable pain on each other — for much of their twenty-four year marriage they would do everything in their power to give each other what they wanted — which, in the end, could be simply stated.
He wanted beauty, serenity and protection. She wanted to be the wife of a great genius. And so they ran away together.
Barbara Gelb: And it was a very stormy beginning and they almost broke up. They went off to Europe and they began traveling around France. But he was very torn, I mean, he was not totally without a conscience about Agnes and the two children. And they had terrible battles, and she left him a couple of times. But for some reason they did manage to stick. From that point on, when they rented the house in France and he settled down to write Mourning Becomes Electra, it was a very serene, and very happy relationship for the next several years.
Narrator: It was during his sojourn with Carlotta in France, sustained as never before by his relationship with a woman, that something in him began to shift.
More and more, he was growing impatient with experimentation for its own sake. "The limits began to narrow," one man later said. "The artistic aim was no longer to find God, but to know what lay within himself."
As his imagination began to contract and turn inward, he challenged himself to go deeper, and to find a truer instrument with which to express himself. "O for a language to write drama in," he wrote to a friend in 1929, "for a speech that is dramatic and isn't just conversation! But where to find that language?"
That spring, he set to work on Mourning Becomes Elektra — a sprawling nine-act trilogy based on the Orestaia, the first and greatest of the ancient Greek tragedies -- which he had chosen to retell, he said, because "it has greater possibilities of revealing all the deep hidden relationships in the family than any other."
Increasingly now, he was being drawn back towards memory, family and the past.
Six months after the play's triumphant Broadway opening in October 1931, he and Carlotta retreated to Sea Island, Georgia, where he awoke one morning with the "idea for a nostalgic comedy" running through his head — "fully formed and ready to write" — he remembered.
It was Ah, Wilderness! An imaginary portrait of his New London boyhood, viewed through wistfully rose-colored glasses, it represented a longing "for a youth I never had," he later said, "showing the way I would have like my boyhood to have been."
He completed a first draft in a record six weeks.
John Guare: O'Neill needed to write Ah, Wilderness! He was heading back towards his, unconsciously, where he wanted to go, going back to that house in Connecticut. That I think he had to create a dream version of it, the happy version of it, the life lie.
Narrator: And still his inward retreat continued. For years, he had been growing increasingly impatient with what he called the "show shop" of Broadway.
In January 1934, following the savage critical reception of his next play, Days Without End, a solemn, overlong meditation on his lost religious faith, he vowed to distance himself from the commercial theater entirely and withhold all future production of his work.
He would not have another play on Broadway for nearly twelve years.
Barbara Gelb: He was very angry and very resentful, and he felt that this great laudatory group of people, who came to see everything he wrote and loved everything he wrote, suddenly turned on him, and, didn't go near this play and thought it was awful. And so, he felt, well, "I'll teach them a lesson, I'll just withdraw and I won't write anything for Broadway."
Narrator: Warned by his doctor that he was "teetering on the verge of a nervous breakdown," he returned to Sea Island, and threw himself into a new project, the most ambitious and ultimately ill-fated of his career — a massive cycle of plays, chronicling a hundred and fifty years in the life of an Irish American family, doomed to strangle on its own greed.
He called it A Tale of Possessers Self-Dispossessed, and for the next five years he would devote every ounce of energy he had to the constantly expanding project. "The only thing he wanted," Carlotta recalled, "was to write, write, write — and never go near a theater."
But they would soon be on the run again. In the fall of 1936, worn down by the brutally hot Georgian summers, and worried by the steadily increasing tremor in his hands, he and Carlotta set out for the Pacific Northwest, looking for a new home.
They had just come to rest in early November, in a rented house overlooking Puget Sound, when their seclusion was shattered by the news that O'Neill had won the Nobel Prize.
He was too weary to take much joy in it, however, and, in the end, too ill to travel to Stockholm for the ceremony, and by mid-December, he and Carlotta were on the move again, heading south for California, where, on the day after Christmas 1936, his health collapsed completely, and he was rushed to a hospital in Oakland, suffering from appendicitis and a host of other ailments.
He was still there ten weeks later, when on February 17, 1937, the Swedish consul general officially awarded him the Nobel Prize, in a private ceremony in his hospital room that lasted less than five minutes.
Barbara Gelb: And he almost died at one point, and he and Carlotta almost gave up thinking that they could ever live anywhere anymore. And finally he did recover, and they did find this very isolated and beautiful place in the mountains in California. As he had planned it, he was going to settle down there, and that was the last place he would ever live, and he would finish writing whatever he was going to write, until he died, and that was where he would be, with Carlotta. But I think that he did not really expect what happened to him at that point.
Robert Brustein: If he died after Ah, Wilderness! we would have thought, "Very interesting, but too bad he never made it as a great playwright." But then something happened. He went into hibernation, and did not show his face to the world, and began writing works that he may not ever have intended the world to see. And he had what was then diagnosed as Parkinson's disease, and it was causing his hand to shake badly and made the very act of writing difficult and painful. And there he was a sick man in a shuttered room, writing. And that image is very poignant because he emerged with those plays in his hands from that room and those plays were masterpieces.
Narrator: And so they came at last to Tao House, the isolated land-locked haven they had built for themselves from the ground up on a mountainside in California.
They moved into the house at the end of 1937, ensconcing his beloved player piano, "Rosie," on the ground floor, in a snug parlor at the foot of the stairs, with views of Mount Diablo.
Upstairs, in the silent, thick-walled study of his new home, he arranged the scores of outlines, scenarios and drafts he had already created for the "Cycle," along with the dozens of notebooks he had been filling with play ideas since he had begun writing at twenty-four.
And then he set to work.
For the next eighteen months, he labored over the gargantuan project, drafting one play, outlining another, doubling back to research a third, but the more progress he made, the longer and more complex the nightmarishly difficult project grew, and the further the endpoint receded.
Re-enactment, Eugene O'Neill: That's the devil of this job, the constant driving on while seeming, in the light of final completion, to be making no progress.
Narrator: All the while it was becoming increasingly clear that his body was simply failing him.
For years he been showing signs of premature old age, but now a litany of woes descended on him, including insomnia, night sweats, prostate pain and low blood pressure. He often had trouble swallowing, but even more disturbing were the steadily worsening tremors, that made it increasingly difficult to write, and that sometimes caused him to lose control of his arms and legs completely.
Unable to set down his thoughts with any other instrument than a pencil, his handwriting now grew smaller and smaller as he struggled to control the tremor — until he was squeezing more than a thousand words at a time onto a single sheet of paper. Carlotta had to use a magnifying glass to transcribe it.
By the spring 1939, he had outlined ten of the eleven plays of the Cycle, and written scenarios or multiple drafts of eight, nearly a million words in all.
But something inside him had reached the breaking point, and on June 5, 1939 he made a fateful entry in his diary. Afraid he would soon be forced to give up writing altogether, he felt "a sudden necessity," he said, "to write plays I'd wanted to write for a long time that I knew could be finished."
Tony Kushner: I think a bell goes off in his head that it's going to kill him, and it's too much for him to do, he's not going to be able to finish it. And you know he makes a decision at that point to abandon the whole "Cycle" and to go back to his childhood, to go back to the seminal moments in his life and to create these three or four titanic works.
Narrator: In the end, something in him had to finish dying for his writing to be reborn.
In the silence of his study at Tao House, confronted by the specter of his own failing body, and the hopelessness of finishing the "Cycle,"his imagination fell back helplessly into the past, and he returned in his mind to his own most powerful memories and experiences — to the shabby bar he had almost died in at the foot of Manhattan in 1912, and to his family's desolate cottage by the sea that same year.
On June 6, 1939, the day after reaching his decision to abandon the Cycle, he conceived the idea for his two greatest plays simultaneously.
Re-enactment, Eugene O'Neill: Read over notes on various ideas for single plays — decide to do outlines of two that seem to appeal most, and see — the Jimmy the Priest-Hell Hole idea — and the New London family one.
Narrator: It was the beginning of what would become The Iceman Cometh and Long Day's Journey Into Night.
Conceived when he was more than fifty — the two plays would be completely unlike anything that had come before — in tone, style, diction, structure, depth and tragic power.
Perhaps no great writer in the history of literature had ever taken so long to discover where his deepest talents lay.
John Guare: I've had the feeling that all the fat is burned away. He no longer has the need to experiment. He no longer has to find out about masks. He no longer has to find out about inner monologues. He no longer has to find out about two actors playing the same part, to show the split in modern man. The last plays are just man living with his dreams, with his anguish, with his nightmares. The last plays are just saying, "What do I do with the agony that I carry around with me?"
Performance, Al Pacino (Hickey): It kept piling up, like I said. So I got so I thought about it all the time. I hated myself more and more, thinking of all the wrong I'd done to the sweetest woman in the world who loved me so much. I got so I'd curse myself for a lousy bastard every time I saw myself in the mirror. I felt such, such, pity for her it drove me crazy. You wouldn't believe a guy like me, knocked around so much, could feel such pity. It got so every night I'd wind up hiding my face in her lap, bawling and begging her forgiveness. And, of course, she'd always comfort me and say, "Never mind, Teddy, I know you won't ever again." Christ, I loved her so, but I began to hate that pipe dream. I began to be afraid I was going bughouse, because sometimes I couldn't forgive her for forgiving me. I even caught myself hating her for making me hate myself so much. There's a limit to the guilt you can feel and the forgiveness and the pity you can take! I mean you have to begin blaming somebody else! I mean it got so sometimes she'd kiss me it was like she did it on purpose to humiliate me.
Narrator: He turned first to The Iceman Cometh — not to his own family yet, but to the family of outcasts with whom he had identified so completely in his early twenties.
Completing a rough outline in just two weeks, and the entire four hour play itself in less than six months, he knew from the start it was the finest play he had ever written -- the truest, the deepest, and the bleakest.
"The Iceman," O'Neill wrote, "is a denial of any other experience of faith in my plays. In writing it, I felt I had locked myself in with my memories."
Taking as its theme the impossibility of salvation in a world without God, the play presented a vision of existence stripped of even the remotest possibility of any kind of redemption, or life beyond the here and now — the hope for which still falteringly flickers, if only because life would be intolerable without it.
Robert Brustein: The vision of The Iceman Cometh is essentially a nihilistic vision. It's the vision of King Lear. Those two plays are twin plays. At the end of King Lear, King Lear looks into the abyss of nothingness that mere humans cannot look at without turning to stone. That's what O'Neill does in The Iceman Cometh. He looks into an abyss of life without illusion, without what he calls pipe dreams and that is death. To have life without illusion is to be in a state of paralysis, is to die, in effect. That's what he says and that's a terrifying insight. It's a very truthful insight.
Narrator: Set in a seedy rot gut saloon, like the one he had nearly died in thirty years before — which O'Neill depicted as a broken-down microcosm of the world — the action of the play revolved around the self-deluding denizens of Harry Hopes' bar — each of whom clings to one tattered illusion or another — each of which is exposed in the course of the play as utterly futile, and yet utterly necessary to his existence.
Robert Brustein: He is dealing with a single theme — namely the influence of pipe dreams on one's existence. But he has to deal with it in every possible ramification. Political pipe dreams, religious pipe dreams, social pipe dreams, romantic pipe dreams, every illusion is absolutely annihilated. In order to do this, he has to develop a kind of centrifugal pattern or form, and seem to be repeating himself, and going around and around and around and around. But what he is actually doing is getting concentric circles that get narrower and narrower and narrower until they hit a nuclear center and explode.
Narrator: At the center of the play stands the apocalyptic, unforgettable figure of Theodore Hickey, a fast-talking traveling salesman, with a terrifying secret, and an abyss of unpurged guilt.
In O'Neill's dark allegory — at once surprisingly tender, uproariously comic and devastatingly bleak — the twelve drink-sodden apostles in Harry Hope's saloon await the arrival of their ironic Messiah — Hickey, the iceman — who when he comes brings death, not life with him into the bar — trying to persuade them to give up their pipe dreams and live without guilt or illusion.
John Guare: And Hickey comes in, and tells everyone that he's discovered the truth -- he's discovered you have to take away all illusions, man has to live illusion-free. And they all, for a moment, face up to the truth and decide to move on, and they see he's mad and they all sink back into their dreams. The play becomes a plea for the life-lie that we have to get through our lives, that life is so intolerable, that if we don't create some sort of illusion in which we live, we cannot survive.
Narrator: In the long, tormented confession scene that forms the play's terrible climax, Hickey reveals the dark secret he has been carrying within him, and that he too, unable to live with the truth of his own existence, still clings to one last horrifying illusion.
Performance, Al Pacino (Hickey): That last night, I'd driven myself crazy trying to figure out some way out for her. And I went in the bedroom, I was gonna tell her it was the end. But I couldn't do that to her, she was sound asleep. I thought, God, if she'd only never wake up -- she'd never know. And then it came to me. The one only possible way out, for her sake. I remembered I'd given her a gun for protection while I was away and it was in the bureau drawer. She'd never feel any pain. She'd never wake up from her dream. So I... So I killed her. And then I saw I'd always known that was the only possible way to give her peace and free her from the misery of loving me. I saw it meant peace for me, too, knowing she was at peace. I felt as though a ton of guilt was lifted off my mind. I remember I stood by the bed and suddenly, I had to laugh. I couldn't help it. And I knew Evelyn would forgive me. I remember I heard myself speaking to her as if it was something I always wanted to say. "WELL YOU KNOW WHAT YOU CAN DO WITH YOUR PIPE DREAM NOW, YOU DAMN BITCH!" No, I never... No, that's a lie, I never said that. Good God, I couldn't have said that. If I did I'd gone insane. Why, I loved Evelyn better than anything in life. Boys, you're all my old pals, you've all known old Hicky for years. You know, I'd never...You've known me longer that anyone, Harry. You know I must have been insane, I wouldn't have said that. Don't you Governor?
Robert Sean Leonard: Of course, Hickey's pipe dream is so deeply embedded in his soul that he killed his wife because he loved his wife, when in fact the truth is he hated her. It's the thing that he must believe to continue to maintain his sanity.
Al Pacino: And in The Iceman, the entire bar is revived because the dream is still there. The reality: he was insane, Hickey was insane when he did that, yeah, he's a nut, he had to be. And so everything revives and life comes back. And the stories we tell each other is part of that. And when you bow out of that, when you leave the dream, it's an abyss. It's nothing.
Tony Kushner: The thing that makes the tragedy so powerful and true is that you're not allowed to escape what's horrible, you're not allowed any kind of denial. It's annihilating, and on one level, I don't think you leave the theater feeling in any way uplifted, and then on the other hand, you are brought to the absolute worst place that a human being can go, and you have survived, you've come out of this nightmare alive, and as I said, the stage is now sort of purged of this horror. It's catharsis. It's what Aristotle was talking about. And it leaves open the possibility that now something new will come at the end after the bombs fall and the landscape is clean. It's the nothing that gives birth to something.
Narrator: Unlike The Iceman Cometh, which poured from him with relative ease in a six-month period, the next play he wrote would be an agony to write, take nearly two years, and almost kill him.
On June 21st, 1939, as he completed the final outline for The Iceman, Carlotta made a fateful entry in her daybook.
Re-enactment, Carlotta Monterey: Gene talks to me for hours, about a play in his mind of his mother, his father, his brother and himself in his early 20's in New London! Autobiography. A hot, close, sleepless night — An ache in our hearts for things we can't escape!
Narrator: The play was, of course, Long Day's Journey Into Night.
After nearly four decades of wandering from the oblivion of his childhood, he had come home.
Tony Kushner: O'Neill's decision finally to reduce his ambition from writing this kind of great national epic, ends with trying to find the national epic in really what's finally one story, and that's the story of Long Day's Journey into Night, which of course becomes a play that I think contains every theme of any significance in American life and American democracy.
Robert Sean Leonard: I think he writes everybody, without judgment, including himself. He writes himself without judgment and strangely from a distance of some kind. The emotional naked bravery of Long Days Journey into Night is to me unprecedented even in English theater. Maybe the Greeks are the closest, but boy, it's a rare thing to find
Robert Falls: It's one of those rare, unique pieces of art that by being so completely obsessively about one family, in every bit of minutia, becomes about all families.
Zoe Caldwell: But I don't think he could've written that play a minute earlier. Something had to evolve in him, to be able to understand all of them in the house.
Re-enactment, Carlotta Monterey: And he explained to me then that he had to write this play; he had to write it because it was a thing that haunted him and he had to forgive whatever caused this, in them and in himself. It was a most strange experience to watch that man being tortured every day by his own writing. He would come out of his study at the end of a day gaunt and sometimes weeping. His eyes would be all red and he looked ten years older than when he went in in the morning.
Barbara Gelb: And he would tell her what a terribly wrenching experience it was for him to face, to confront his dead and, to finally, he said, to forgive them. I'm not sure that it is really that forgiving a play, but it certainly is an understanding, a compassionate play, to a great degree. It probably was the most horrendous emotional experience of his life writing that.
Narrator: Summarizing the story in a letter to a friend, he wrote that it was "not concerned with the present world's crisis, as the title might indicate, but the story of one day, 8am to midnight, in the life of a family of four — father, mother, and two sons — back in 1912 — a day in which things occur which evoke the whole past of the family and reveal every aspect of its interrelationships. A deeply tragic play, but without any violent dramatic action. At the final curtain, there they still are, trapped within each other by the past, each guilty and at the same time innocent, scorning, loving, pitying each other, understanding and yet not understanding at all, forgiving but still doomed never to be able to forget.
Tony Kushner: It's this thing in Proust — Proust says that there are events so big that they can't be contained in the present moment, and they have to be seen as both spilling into the past and into the future as well, and that's what the great moments in O'Neill really are. Memory engulfs, and the terror of what's to come, infused by a sense of what you've learned and what's happened, overwhelms the future.
Performance, Robert Sean Leonard (Edmund): The fog was where I wanted to be. Half-way down the path you can't see this house. You'd never know it was here. Everything looked and sounded unreal. It was like walking on the bottom of the sea. As if I had drowned long ago. As if I was a ghost belonging to the fog, and the fog was the ghost of the sea. It felt damned peaceful to be nothing more than a ghost within a ghost.
Narrator: As he returned in his mind to the cottage in New London, where his own most painful memories lay, his imagination contracted to the space of a single room — and to the duration of a single day — as if the larger world no longer mattered, and the action itself were unfolding in the theater of his own mind
Robert Sean Leonard: There are no tricks. Even the names of the characters are the same. The only theatrical adjustment is to give himself his dead brother's name says more about him than maybe anything else in the play. I mean talk about being a little in love with death. Wanting to disappear into the fog.
Narrator: Beginning hopefully, with daybreak burning off the last remnants of fog, the play descended implacably into the dark abyss of family life — illuminating the searing traumas and deeply conflicted feelings that have bound it together and torn it apart — relentlessly revealing each of the four main characters — O'Neill's proud, but miserly actor father, James; his doomed older brother, Jamie, filled with a self-loathing, and a lacerating rage, and hopelessly alcoholic; O'Neill himself as he was a twenty-four, embodied in the consumptive younger brother, Edmund; and his long-tormented, mother Mary, who in the course of the play is pulled back into the fog of her addiction — unleashing all the pent up guilt and pain in the family.
Performance, Liam Neeson (Jamie): What are you trying to do, accuse me? Don't play the wise guy with me! I've learned more of life than you'll ever know! Just because you've read a lot of highbrow junk, don't think you can fool me! You're only an overgrown kid! Mama's baby and Papa's pet! The family White Hope!
Sidney Lumet: Over and over again in both plays are the moments of self-hatred — "Mamma's baby, Pappa's pet," you know, when Jamie is attacking Edmund those periods of self-hatred are so blinding because out of those terrible moments come these bursts of revelation about all of our behavior — about us, about who we are, and what we are and the way we are and what we do to each other. And O'Neill does that fifty times in a play. He illuminates life for you like with a lightning flash.
Performance, Liam Neeson (Jamie): Think it over when you're away from me in the sanatorium. Make up your mind you've got to tie a can to me, get me out of your life, think of me as dead. Tell people, "I had a brother but he's dead." Only don't forget me. Remember: I warned you. For your sake. Give me credit. Greater love has no man than this, that he saveth his brother from his self.
Narrator: Of all the revelations in the play, none would be more powerful than his father's confession of the harrowing remorse he felt at having wasted his artistic talent.
Performance, Christopher Plummer (Tyrone): Yes, maybe life overdid the lesson for me, and made a dollar worth too much, and then the time came when it ruined my career as a fine actor. I've never admitted this to anyone before, lad, but tonight I'm so heartsick I feel at the end of everything, and what's the use of fake pride and pretense. That God-damned play that I bought for a song and made such a great success in — a great money success — it ruined me with its promise of an easy fortune. I didn't want to do anything else, and when I finally woke up to the fact I'd become a slave to the damned thing and did try other plays, it was too late. They had identified me with that one part, they didn't want to see me in anything else. And, they were right, too. I'd lost that great talent I had through years of easy repetition, never learning a new part, never really working hard. At thirty-five to forty thousand dollars net profit a season, it was like snapping your fingers! It was too great a temptation. But before I bought the damned play I was considered one of the three or four young actors with the greatest artistic promise in America. I'd worked like hell. I'd left a good job as a machinist to take super parts because I loved the theater. I was wild with ambition. I read all the plays that were ever written. I studied Shakespeare like you'd study the Bible. I educated myself. I got rid of an Irish brogue you could cut with a knife. I loved Shakespeare. I would have acted in any of his plays for nothing, for the joy of being alive in his great poetry. And I acted well in him. I felt inspired by him. I could have been a great Shakespearean actor, if I'd kept on. I know that! In 1874 when Edwin Booth came to the theater in Chicago where I was leading man, I played Cassius to his Brutus one night, Brutus to his Cassius the next, Othello to his Iago, and so on. And the first night I played Othello, he said to our manager, "That young man is playing Othello better than I ever did!" That from Booth, the greatest actor of his day or any other! And it was true! And I was only twenty-seven years old! As I, as I looked back on it now, that night was the high spot in my career. I had life where I wanted it! And after a time I kept on upward with ambition high. I married your mother. Ask her what I was like in those days. Her love was an added incentive to ambition. But a few years later my good bad luck made me find the big money-maker. It wasn't that in my eyes at first. It was a great romantic part I knew I could play better than anyone else. But it was a great box office success from the start — and then life had me where it wanted me — at about thirty-five to forty thousand net profit a season! A fortune in those days — even in these. What the hell was it I wanted...that I wanted to buy, that was worth ... well, no matter. A late day for regrets. My play, isn't it?
Narrator: He labored over the play every morning, many afternoons, and sometimes in the evenings, off and on for the better part of two years — frequently distracted by news of the war in Europe, and by his own worsening health.
Often he wept as he wrote. He slept fitfully, in a room adjoining his study, in a carved teak bed converted from a Chinese opium table, which Carlotta had bought for him to accommodate his now wraith-like six-foot frame.
Occasionally in the night, he would go to her room and talk of the play, and of the suffering he endured while writing it — of his belief that the sins of the father would be laid upon the sons, and of his overwhelming need to forgive his family and himself, for all they had done to each other.
Re-enactment, Carlotta Monterey: At times I thought he'd go mad. It was terrifying to watch his suffering. It nearly killed him to write this play. After his day's stint he would be physically and mentally exhausted. Night after night I had to hold him tight in my arms so he could relax and sleep. Thus the play was written.
John Guare: At the end, it's the family together — no outsiders, no audience, no hangers-on. Even the servants are off. It's just them. And they're quiet. And the horror of the situation has at least interrupted the constant battle, the never-ending battle of moment to moment, of just fighting for your territory. It's as she comes down in her madness, and her beauty silences them, and they have to let her speak.
Narrator: By the end of the play, Mary has sunk back completely into the delirium of her addiction — far beyond the reach of the three men — returning in her mind to her days in the convent, the last place she had ever felt safe in — before the death of her child, and the loss of her faith and the onset of her addiction.
Edward Shaughnessy: In my opinion, the greatest characterization in that play is of Ella or Mary, as she's called in the play. They all need her — and she needs them, too — but she is willing to go away from them if that can give her some peace and respite. They need her. At one point in the play, under the influence of the drugs, she comes to them trailing her wedding gown, don't you know -- and they're all sitting silent, stunned, and amazed — tragic figures at the end of the play. "Where is mother? Where is my beautiful wife? Where is she?" No one owns anybody else in this world or in the next.
Performance, Zoe Caldwell (Mary): Let me see. What did I come in here to find? It's terrible, how absent-minded I've become. I'm always dreaming and forgetting. What is it I'm looking for? I know it's something I lost. Something I need terribly. I remember when I had it I was never lonely or afraid. I can't have lost it forever, I would die if I thought that. Because then there would be no hope. I had talk with Mother Elizabeth. She's so sweet and good. A saint on earth. I love her dearly. Because she always understands, even before you say a word. Her kind blue eyes look right into your heart. All the same, I don't think she was so understanding this time. I told her I wanted to be a nun. I explained how sure I was of my vocation, that I had prayed to the Blessed Virgin to make me sure, and to find me worthy. But Mother Elizabeth told me I must be more sure that than even. That I must prove it wasn't simply my imagination. She said if I was so sure than I wouldn't mind putting myself to a test by going home after I graduated and living as other girls lived by going out to parties and dances and enjoying myself, and then after a year or two if I still felt sure, I could come back to see her and we would talk it over. I never dreamed Holy Mother would give me such advice! I was really shocked. I said, of course, I would do anything she suggested, but that I knew it was simply a waste of time. After I left, I felt all mixed up, so I went to the shrine and prayed to the Blessed Virgin and found peace again — because I knew she heard my prayer, and would always love me and see no harm ever came to me as long as I never lost my faith in her. That was the winter of Senior year. Then in the spring something happened to me. Yes, I remember. I fell in love with James Tyrone and was so happy for a time.
Robert Whitehead: He's taken that family of his, and he didn't compromise on the truth at all. It is a totally creative thing. There's not a second in it in which you could ever feel that it was calculated simply to be a successful selling play. It just has something inside both the spirit and the heart of the play that is the deadly truth, and it will be there forever.
Narrator:He completed the drama in March 1941 — marking the occasion with a simple entry in his diary. "Like this play better than any I have ever written — does most with the least — a quiet play! — And a great one, I believe."
One night at Tao House, reciting from memory the final lines of the play to a group of close friends visiting from New York, he came to the end, and stood for a long time at the window, gazing out at Mount Diablo, struggling to contain his emotion. "After a long pause," he spoke. "I think that is the greatest scene I have ever written," he said.
He also knew that he did not want his autobiographical masterpiece publicly presented, at least during his lifetime.
"There are good reasons in the play itself," he wrote to a friend not long after completing it, which is "why I'm keeping this one very much to myself, as you will appreciate when you read it."
In the end, he had the unpublished manuscript sealed with red wax and placed in a vault at Random House in New York — with explicit instructions that it not be published until twenty-five years after his death — and that it never be performed.
Barbara Gelb: I guess it cost him his life. Tennessee Williams said that "O'Neill gave birth to the American theater, and he died for it." And that's a kind of a highfalutin way of putting it, but he did expend every bit of energy and emotion on his plays. Nothing really mattered to him except his plays. The only thing that kept him going, really, was the thought that he was going to write something even better than he had written before — that he, one day, would write the absolutely greatest masterpiece.
Narrator: A few weeks after completing the play, he received the diagnosis he had been dreading for years, when he learned he was suffering from an incurable neurological disorder, not unlike Parkinson's.
Over the next eighteen months, despite his worsening condition, he would manage to finish two more plays, each a minor masterpiece — A Touch of the Poet and the one-act Hughie — then turn his attention to the work that would be his last — a haunting, guilt-ridden elegy to his doomed older brother Jamie, called A Moon for the Misbegotten — a play he would come to loathe, he said, but that would eventually be ranked among his very finest.
He finished it in the summer of 1943, and two months later was forced by illness to give up writing altogether. Though he would live ten more years, and never completely extinguish the hope that he might be able to write again, his artistic career was over. He was not yet fifty-five.
Re-enactment, Eugene O'Neill: Tough game — take sedatives and feel a dull dope — don't take, and feel as if maggots were crawling all over inside your skin. The worst part is the inner shakes, which are so much harder to take than the outer — when you feel it inside all over your body until even your brain seems to do the shimmy.
Lloyd Richards: He did not die, I do not believe, a contented writer. He hadn't completed the work that he considered to be his reason for writing. I think he still had that compulsion, whether he was capable of it or not, of getting up and sitting down with the twelve pencils and trying to go further into the understanding of these human beings who were his family and thus humankind.
Sidney Lumet: The belief in art is what's so moving to me. The redemptive quality of art. That this life of misery — I mean, we know what happened with the children, what happened with his wives, what happened to him physically. What are we talking about? We're talking about hell. And, if there would have even have been a way of asking him, I don't doubt for a minute that he would have said it's been worth it.
Narrator: On the afternoon of November 27, 1953, he died in a hotel room along the Charles River in Boston, with Carlotta at his side — raising himself slightly at the end, and whispering in a barely audible voice — "Born in a hotel room — and goddamn it — died in a hotel room." He was sixty-five years old.
By then, his life's work and literary reputation had already started to sink into obscurity. The plays with which he had made his name in the nineteen twenties and thirties had long since come to seem irrelevant, or overrated.
Of the five great works he had wrenched from himself at Tao House, three had never been performed at all — two had failed to find an audience — and the greatest of them all, Long Day's Journey Into Night, had at O'Neill's own request been consigned to theatrical oblivion.
And then something remarkable happened.
Robert Whitehead: You see, Carlotta, after he died she suddenly had some big figuring to do. And the figuring was, "How am I going to make Gene into the most important and significant writer in the history of our time?" And she was very much afraid that he was going to be passed by by time and she was absolutely determined that wouldn't happen.
Narrator: In the spring of 1955, less than eighteen months after her husband's death, Carlotta put into motion plans to have Long Day's Journey Into Night published and performed — over the strenuous objections of his long-time publisher, Bennett Cerf of Random House.
Barbara Gelb: Yes, of course, she betrayed him. But, on the other hand, I think he expected her to. He gave her everything, he made her his executrix, he had cut his children out of his will, he gave her all his plays and everything. And he knew her character, he knew exactly what kind of person she was, and I think he had a fairly good idea that the minute he was gone, she would publish Long Day's Journey Into Night.
Narrator: On the night of November 7, 1956, the curtain rose on the first American production of Long Day's Journey Into Night.
When the lights dimmed to black and the final curtain fell, most members of the audience were in tears.
Jason Robards: At the end, the curtain came down and we came out to take our calls, silence. Silence. And then it went, boom, tremendous applause, blah-ahh — everyone got on their feet. And the thing that we were standing there, we were taking a couple, three, I don't know how many calls we were doing, you lose track. And then the audience started to come to the stage. This is what I never had happen before or since, they came down to stage. They were all down there looking up and we were standing there looking down on the faces of people that we knew or that we didn't know. It was absolutely incredible.
: In the end Long Day's Journey Into Night would prove to be the unforgettable theatrical event of the season, reviving O'Neill's faltering reputation, and bringing him posthumously an unprecedented fourth Pulitzer.
Edward Shaughnessy: This is a great playwright with just this one play. So his life was a tragedy that made it worth making tragedies from, I guess. Is it confessional? Not in a self-pitying way that so many pieces of work are, I think. And when they transcend those selfish limitations, then maybe they become classics, something worth a great deal, forever monuments, as Yeats called them, of the ages — un-aging monuments of intellect and art.
Archival footage, Eugene O'Neill: You've just told me some highspots in your memories. Want to hear mine? They're all connected with the sea. Here's one. I was on the Squarehead square rigger bound for Buenos Aires. Full moon in the Trades. The old hooker driving fourteen knots.
Narrator: In the climactic fourth act of Long Day's Journey Into Night, in one of the most beautiful and quietly moving passages O'Neill ever wrote, Edmund struggles to put into words the ephemeral sense of connection with something larger that had sometimes come over him while at sea.
Performance, Robert Sean Leonard (Edmund): I was on The Squarehead, square rigger, bound for Buenos Aires. Full moon in the Trades. The old hooker driving fourteen knots. I lay on the bowsprit, facing astern, the water foaming into spume under me, the masts with every sail white in the moonlight, towering high above me. I became drunk with the beauty and singing rhythm of it, and for a moment I lost myself, actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the sea, became white sails and flying spray, became beauty and rhythm, became moonlight and the ship and the high dim-starred sky! I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of Man, to life itself! To God, if you want to put it that way. And several other times in my life, when I was swimming far out, or lying alone on a beach, I have had the same experience, became the sun, the hot sand, green seaweed anchored to a rock, swaying in the tide. Like a saint's vision of beatitude. Like the veil of things as they seem drawn back by an unseen hand. For a second you see, and seeing the secret, you are the secret. For a second there is meaning! Then the hand lets the veil fall and you are alone, lost in the fog again, and you stumble on towards nowhere for no good reason. It was a great mistake, my being born a man, I would have been much more successful as a sea gull or a fish. As it is, I will always be a stranger who never feels at home, who does not really want and is not really wanted, who can never belong, who must always be a little in love with death.
Robert Brustein: Well, there's that beautiful moment in Long Day's Journey when Edmund begins to reflect on the time when he was at sea, and he found God, or what he thought was God in the quiet and the silence and the coming together of all the elements. And his father sits and wonders at this and says, "There's a touch of the poet in you." And he says, "No, I'm not a poet. I don't even have the makings."
Performance, Robert Sean Leonard (Edmund): No...I couldn't touch what I tried to tell you just now. I just stammered. That's the best I'll ever do. Well, it will be faithful realism at least. Stammering is the native eloquence of us fog people.
Robert Brustein: It is so painfully honest in the way that O'Neill begins to admit his own defects as a writer, recognizes that he's not eloquent, that he doesn't have the gift of the poet, he only has "the makings," as he says. In recognizing that, O'Neill becomes a real poet at last, and not a stutterer, not a stammerer as he says he is in that play. He begins to soar and it's impossible to see that play without being profoundly moved by it and also moved by the eloquence of it.
Tony Kushner: He is our Shakespeare. He sets the standard, the highest that an American playwright has reached, I think, with Journey, and in a way, with the whole body of work.
Robert Whitehead: Because that body of work does say something about the world to us. If it touches any sinew in us and you follow that, the following of it changes your own life, and it never leaves your life. Every show you ever see, and every event in your life, is finally conditioned by something that was in him.
Edward Shaughnessy: O'Neill is alive. As long as there are people who love the theater and who love honesty and who love great acting and great words, that will take care of itself, I think.
Jason Robards: That's the eternal triangle — the writer, the audience, and the actor — where they join. And here's the thing, when you go in there to a three-hour and forty-five minute performance, or a 4:45 or 5 hours like in The Iceman, and if it's going right, it seems like about two minutes. You break time, and space and time. Ralph Richardson said, "Every time we go on the stage, we break time — if we do it right — we break space, and it's our time to dream. We dream, we have to be able to dream."