We, in the East Bay, love to honor our local
playwright. After all he won four Pulitzer Prizes and the
Nobel Peace Prize. Eugene O'Neill was only the second
American and the first playwright to win the Nobel. It's
somehow motivating and reassuring to know that his
seven years, living on the hills above Danville, gazing at
Mt. Diablo, were the most productive of his life. Usually
there is a spate of articles about O'Neill in the spring and
summer - to remind us of the ensuing Eugene O'Neill
Festival held each year. It seems appropriate to have his
plays presented in the very location where he wrote them
- Tao House - his home on the Western side of town.
O'Neill's wife is usually mentioned briefly. Who was Carlotta - the woman who lived on the hill with O'Neill? Why care? Because we doubt if he could have accomplished what he did accomplish without her help and support. If you've ever read or seen O'Neill's plays, this was not a laugh-a-minute kind of guy. Even his father, after seeing his son's play "Beyond the Horizon," asked if he was trying to drive the audience to suicide. Eugene was a brooding man who spent his days writing about, what he considered, the futility of life and the fleeting nature of happiness. At the end of a hard day of writing, we don't picture him leaning over the stair railing and calling……….. "Hey honey, let's have the gang over tonight for a game of Twister."
The first woman in his life, Ella O'Neill, gave birth to Eugene in a hotel room in New York. His delivery was so painful that his mother was given morphine and became addicted to it for years. There had been two sons born before Eugene. The second son Edmund, caught chicken pox from the eldest son Jamie, and died. Eugene always felt he was a poor substitute for the lost son. Jamie never got over the guilt. His mother acted as if he had infected his little brother on purpose. Jamie drank excessively and died at forty-five. This family of four is whom Eugene depicted in all their agony in "Long Days Journey into Night," for which he received his fourth Pulitzer Prize.
Eugene married his first wife, Kathleen Jenkins, in 1909 when they discovered she was pregnant. He was twenty-one years old. Kathleen was the daughter of a wealthy businessman. Both sets of parents objected to their children marrying - so the pair eloped. Eugene had discovered his father's plan to send him to Honduras. He was sent on the trip anyway but his journey was interrupted in Mexico when he came down with malaria. Returning to New York, he refused to live with his new wife. Soon, Eugene Gladstone Jr. was born. As an infant, O'Neill saw his son only once. The young father set out to sea once again. During these years, Eugene attempted suicide but was discovered by a friend. Also, Kathleen barged in on O'Neill with a prostitute and demanded a divorce. The couple separated in 1912. Soon after this O'Neill came down with tuberculosis. After recovering, he began to write plays in earnest and devoted himself to becoming an artist. He attended classes at Harvard but became an alcoholic. It was said the only time he didn't drink was when he was writing. He spent much of his time in saloons and flophouses.
In 1917, Eugene met Agnes Boulton who was to become his second wife. She was a writer as well and had written several short stories. He married Agnes and in 1919 their son Shane was born. A year later he received his first Pulitzer for "Beyond the Horizon." By now he had started funding education for private schools for Eugene Jr. - his first son. By 1925 his third and last child, Oona was born. Sadly, between 1920 and 1924, O'Neill lost his father, his mother, and his brother. This was an overload of grief for an already fragile man. He realized he had to make changes in his life. After a period of psychoanalysis, he quit drinking. A few months later, the summer of 1926 arrived - a landmark time in his life. Eugene got to know Carlotta. This summer he had decided he needed to get away and write. Eugene had gone with Agnes, Shane (6) and Oona (2) to summer at Belgrade Lakes in Maine. His oldest son Eugene Jr. came to visit as well. Working on his play "Strange Interlude," he found it hard to concentrate with the noise and confusion of children around. The older children were sent home. Enter Carlotta Monterey, recently divorced and attractive. She was vacationing at the lake as well. Two years later, Eugene and she left for Europe. Eugene refused to return until Agnes granted him a divorce. After a year, she gave him a divorce on the grounds of desertion and he and Carlotta were married three weeks later. They returned to the U.S. and lived in Georgia.
Carlotta was the reason O'Neill moved to California. She was from this area. Born in San Francisco, December 28, 1888, she was raised in Oakland - however, not with such an exotic name. Her given name was Hazel Neilson Tharsing. She traveled to Europe to study acting as "Hazel" but returned as "Carlotta." Her dark good looks matched her new stage name. Returning to the States and New York, she began auditioning for parts. Now in her early thirties, she got a part in "The Hairy Ape," a play by America's leading playwright, O'Neill. During rehearsals she caught his eye. Now years later, their paths crossed again that summer and she caught his eye for good.
tumultuous relationship. They were together until his death. O'Neill did appreciate Carlotta's creating an oasis of peace for he and his creative muse at Tao House. When taking the tour of the house, visitors can see the office where O'Neill poured out his heart onto the paper. The office is upstairs, situated at one end of the house with several doors between his peace and quiet - and the rest of the house. They lived there from 1937 until 1944. Danville had barely 2,000 residents at the time and they owned 158 acres. The bucolic solitude of the country life suited them. It was the first real home O'Neill had lived in and they intended to remain there. He created his last six masterpieces in Danville. Two circumstances contributed to their having to move away from their beloved home. When the war began their faithful driver went into the service, leaving them without transportation - neither one of them drove. They both needed medical attention and needed to be near doctors. O'Neill was having more severe tremors (either from years of drink - or Parkinson's.) He found it almost impossible to write. Eugene believed he needed the connection between the paper and his pencil to be able to create his dramas - so dictating or typing did not suffice. On the tour of Tao House one can see a sample of his miniscule handwriting. The fact that Carlotta would use a magnifying glass to transcribe his tiny writing is impressive. Could he have written his greatest works without the help of this woman? Would he have stayed sober without her steadying influence?
Sadly, O'Neill's two sons led lives more tragic than their father. Eugene Jr. showed alcoholic tendencies, like his father and his father before him. After three divorces and a failed career in television, he committed suicide in 1950, two years before his father's death. His second son, Shane, had been a heroin user. In 1977 he committed suicide as well. O'Neill's daughter fared better - but was estranged from her father in her teens. O'Neill's daughter, Oona, was advanced for her age. At the age of sixteen, she had a relationship with J.D. Salinger. Salinger, another author known for dismal plots, was twenty-two. But she soon left him and married Charlie Chaplin, the famous comedian and actor. (She probably just wanted to have fun). Oona was seventeen and Chaplin was fifty-four and a renowned womanizer. Eugene O'Neill strongly opposed the marriage and disinherited Oona.
Ironically, Oona seems to be the only family member that seemed to find some semblance of happiness. As unlikely as the marriage seemed, the couple remained married, happily, for thirty-four years (until Chaplin died.) They had seven children. Chaplin held unorthodox political views and had been falsely accused of being a communist. Ten years after they married, they boarded a ship to visit his home country, England. When they got out to sea, the U.S. State Department rescinded his reentry permit. The government would have seized all of his assets, which were enormous, but Oona returned to the states, gathered all their assets, and liquidated everything she could. They relocated to Switzerland where they lived for the remainder of their lives. Oona renounced her U.S. citizenship. In the same year, Charlie Chaplin was awarded the World Peace Council Prize. One of their daughters, Geraldine Chaplin is an actor. At twentyone she was Omar Sharif's dark haired wife in Doctor Zhivago. Her mother, Oona died at the age of sixty-six of pancreatic cancer. After renouncing his only daughter - O'Neill had never spoken to her again.
A documentary on O'Neill was recently shown on PBS. The project was created by Ric Burns, who along with his brother Ken, had produced the epic "Civil War" for PBS. Ric's collaborators on the O'Neill project were Arthur and Barbara Gelb. The trio worked on the project for ten years. O'Neill had a profound effect on the American stage. Until the introduction of his plays, theatergoers saw either Shakespeare or stylized "run-Nellie-run" dramas. O'Neill exposed the heartwrenching human dramas of contemporary people and put them on the stage for dissection. The documentary points out that he was "America's Shakespeare." He may have been a brooding, depressed man, but through his suffering and introspection, he did expose the suffering and struggle that the human condition can bring. Burns did point out one ironic fact in his talk after the screening in San Ramon. "Although O'Neill lived in California, he was far from the sunny California type." Hopefully, you will get an opportunity to see the production. If you look closely, in a scene from "The Ice Man Cometh," you catch a quick look at a young Robert Redford.
On their 12th wedding anniversary, Eugene gave Carlotta his completed transcript of "Long Days Journey into Night." He had painfully exposed his soul on paper in his most autobiographical of all of his plays. His dedication shows that he did appreciate her devotion and the fact that she created an environment in which for him to write. His feelings for her can best be seen in his dedication.
For Carlotta on our 12th anniversary.
Dearest: I give you the original script of this play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood. A sadly inappropriate gift, it would seem, for a day celebrating happiness. But you will understand. I mean it as a tribute to your love and tenderness which gave me the faith in love that enabled me to face my dead at last and write this play - write it with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness for all the four haunted Tyrones. These twelve years, Beloved One, have been a Journey into Light - into love. You know my gratitude, and my love. Gene
Tao House, July 22, 1941
Eugene O'Neill died on November 27, 1953. Carlotta died in 1970. They were married twenty-five years. He had written fortyfive plays.