The thing is, I never particularly liked Eugene O’Neill.
I first encountered his plays in high school, and thought they were boring. High school theater classes involved a lot of O’Neill plays, partly because you could carve so many scenes out of them and partly because our teacher felt he’d accomplished something by suggesting Important Playwrights without explaining why they were Important.
I avoided O’Neill – there was something silly, even in the context of high school drama class, about 16-year-olds pretending to be drug-addicted mothers of alcoholic and consumptive young men. I preferred Chekhov (more fun) or Ibsen (also somewhat boring and beyond us, but foreign, and therefore marginally cooler) or Ionesco (so out there it was arguably impossible to get wrong.)
In college there remained a touch of O’Neill, but Mamet, Molière, Euripides and many others took precedence. I spent most of my time as an acting major on Shakespeare, moving professionally and personally away from anything resembling moping around your house in Connecticut.
And so, my “discovery” of O’Neill’s life story had nothing to do with studying or attempting to work in theater. It was living in New London and slowly noticing how his memory permeated the city that finally gave me some sense of connection to O’Neill. So many of his plots and characters were influenced by, or taken directly from, the summers he lived on Pequot Avenue in the early 20th century.
The O’Neill family’s “cottage” on Pequot was technically a summer house, but it was the only permanent home they had. During the winter O’Neill’s father James, an actor, brought Eugene, his mother Ella, and his brother Jamie along on tour. Monte Cristo Cottage, a house that by today’s standards (wrap-around porch! water views!) would be desirable real estate if it were not maintained as a museum, was shabbily built, and Ella was ashamed of it. It was near the fashionable Pequot Colony but not of it. O’Neill wrote of attending a “hop” at the Pequot Hotel: “I was bored to death and said ‘never again...’ ”
Long Day’s Journey Into Night, among other plays, is set here. The Tyrones are barely veiled stand-ins for the O’Neills, and the family’s evasive discussions of drug addiction, drinking, and illness that bored me in high school could be a transcript of their lives. The play feels different when you read it knowing that the ominous moan of the foghorn is coming from the Thames. Similarly, finding that O’Neill was known for staring dreamily out at the water means more, once you know exactly which water it was.
He covered the news for the New London Telegraph, though his reporting read more like poetry. Luckily the Telegraph published poems, too. After being treated for tuberculosis at a sanatorium in Wallingford, he lived for a time at a boarding house a short walk from his family’s cottage. While there he swam daily, as his doctor had ordered, even when the sand was covered with snow. And he wrote plays.
He drank everywhere, but in New London he drank especially at the (which was then, before its Prohibition closing and re-opening, called the Oak.) He drank at the bar at the , and presumably, like his father, toned down his drinking in front of the big-wigs at the on State Street, where James O’Neill was a member.
The O’Neill family attended, although Eugene stopped going to Mass in his teens. He hung out with his friends at . There is a photograph of them there, and in it – like in all the pictures I’ve seen – he looks unexceptional, betraying no hint of the innovation in his work or the turmoil in his private life.
Perhaps if I’d known in high school that O’Neill once lived in coastal Connecticut and was looked down on by the surrounding snobs and stared out at the Sound, feeling trapped – just like me! – I would have chosen him over Tennessee Williams. Though it’s possible I would have liked him even less. Art may be, as Picasso said, a lie that makes us realize the truth, but it’s more enjoyable when it’s not your truth.
I will never read The Iceman Cometh for entertainment. But when I cross Eugene O’Neill Drive now, I remember it was once Main Street, where he and his bohemian friends gathered in an apartment above an office to socialize. When I see the statue of him by the City Pier, a small boy in a then-bustling seaport, his life makes sense to me in a way those stilted, stifling scenes never did.