- Journey (an excerpt from a three-act play)
Life in itself is nothing, it is the dream, that keeps us fighting, willing, living.—Eugene O’Neill
During my senior year at Vassar, I directed a production of O’Neill’s Dynamo in the Powerhouse Theatre. During the research phase, I became fascinated with the relationship of O’Neill’s life and work. After college I ended up writing and producing an Equity showcase Off-Off-Broadway production of Dreams of the Son: A Life of Eugene O’Neill in New York City. Fred Wilkins, editor of the Eugene O’Neill Newsletter, noted in the Summer-Fall 1984 edition that this was the first play to be produced about O’Neill: “The play deals with O’Neill’s life, including his relationships with his father, mother, brother, Louis Halliday [sic], Agnes Boulton, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Terry Carlin, Carlotta Monterey and others.”
In that play, my first, I attempted to take on the entire scope of O’Neill’s life and canon, adhering to the “well-made play” structure and applying melodramatic storytelling and characterization techniques. This time I am approaching my play about O’Neill in a more fragmentary and postmodern manner.
I have learned over the years that the best innovative plays find a way to marry subject and form. That is, a play about chaos not only examines chaos but suggests the chaotic in its shape, tempo, rhythm, and feel. At Tao House in 1944, Eugene O’Neill wrote, in a poem called “Fragments”: “All this, as I have [End Page 256] said before, happens where silence is; Where I, a quiet man, in love with quiet, live quietly among the visions of my drowned, deep in my silent sea.”
My play journeys from 1937 to 1944 at Tao House, where O’Neill, as we all know, completed his greatest plays but where he also encountered his family, both the living—his children, Shane, Oona, and Eugene Jr.—and the dead—his father James, mother Ella, and brother Jamie. It is made of fragments, pieces of the fractured, disjointed memory of Eugene O’Neill, including all those figures of a drowned past.
A narrative thread takes up Eugene O’Neill’s life and work from the moment he picks the site for Tao House in Danville, facing Mount Diablo, and takes us through the building and furnishing of the home, the completion of The Iceman Cometh, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and A Moon for the Misbegotten. O’Neill encounters his living children and haunting ghosts, his obsession with the rise of Hitler and the war, and many of his tempestuous— loving/hating—encounters with his third wife, Carlotta Monterey O’Neill. We come finally to the last day at Tao House in 1944.
Entwined in the fabric of this play is a dance of memory that reconstructs the past through fleeting moments and stealthy ghosts that make their presence known only on the periphery of the mind’s eye. I hope this way of seeing dramatically relates to the amazingly complex thought process of Eugene O’Neill, for whom the past is the present and the future, too.
Cast of Characters
Eugene O’Neill, male, 50s
Carlotta O’Neill/Ella, female, 50s
Sanders/Driscoll/Father, male, 50s
Freeman/James, male, 50s
Oona, female, 20s
Shane/Young O’Neill/Dorm Mate, male, 20s
Eugene, Jr./Young Jamie/Older Dorm Mate, male, 30s
Kitty/Sister, female, 20s
Jim/Dark Figure/Voice in the Trunk/Voice in the Dark, male, 40s
Lights rise on an empty stage. Whistling wind. Eugene O’Neill climbs a ladder, footed by his driver Freeman, and looks out.
Here. (Carlotta O’Neill enters suddenly.)
Gene! Are you mad? (O’Neill grins like a madman.) Freeman, are you just going to stand there? [End Page 257]
He’s not just standing there, he’s footing the ladder. (Simpson, an architect, enters, bearing stakes and cord.)
This wind won’t let up for hours, if not days. Perhaps we should reschedule.
Reschedule? We’re already so far behind.