“The fog was where I wanted to be. Halfway down the path you can’t see this house. You’d never know it was here. Or any of the other places down the avenue. I couldn’t see but a few feet ahead. I didn’t meet a soul. Everything looked and sounded unreal. Nothing was what it is. That’s what I wanted—to be alone with myself in another world where truth is untrue and life can hide from itself. Out beyond the harbor, where the road runs along the beach, I even lost the feeling of being on land. The fog and the sea seemed part of each other. It was like walking on the bottom of the sea. As if I had drowned long ago. As if I was the 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.”
One night at The Writing and Drinking Conference down south, a playwright friend asked me over the obligatory evening round of gin and tonics whom I considered my "biggest influences" as a writer. I said James Merrill (he nodded). Then I said "Eugene O'Neill," causing a comic double-take that threatened to have my friend sporting Eau de Juniper and Quinine for the rest of the night. Which, given that both the playwright and the conference are heavily involved with Tennessee Williams, might not have been entirely out of order, but no one wants a wet shirt on a humid night, so luckily it stopped short of a gin downpour. For some reason people don't expect a poet to name a playwright among their forebears. I have no idea why. O'Neill -- the only American playwright ever to win the Nobel Prize -- had the pacing, the sense of image and metaphor, the love of ambiguity and the sheer sense of language as magical that I think is part of what makes a poet a poet and not an accountant or an auto mechanic or a line cook.
I've written elsewhere about the pivot-point I experienced as a thirteen year old high school freshman I crewed the spring production of Ah, Wilderness! O'Neill's only comedy, commonly brushed off as a lightweight Long Day's Journey Into Night, was an incredibly serious affair for me -- not light, just lit. Illuminating. It taught me that words weren't cheap at all, and that poetry could be a portal to absolutely anywhere. O'Neill was a verbal alchemist. He transfigured pain and longing and loss into something unbelievably beautiful. The more you know about his real life the more astonishing it becomes that he had the capacity or the motivation for it. Thank God he did.
Those two plays in particular form a poignant dyad: one is an intensely personal and wrenchingly sad autobiography. The other is a fantasia, his life as he wished it had been. Both, in my opinion, are masterpieces. And both, I realized halfway through my stay in Stonington, were set in avatars of the front parlor of Monte Cristo cottage, O'Neill's childhood home in New London,CT, just a few miles away. O'Neill's last home, Tao House, sat in the hills directly above my own childhood home in the San Francisco Bay Area (what better place for "fog people," after all?). His watering hole of choice was walking distance from where we lived. I had somehow forgotten that this place was where he had begun.
Luckily it came up in conversation while I was hanging my shingle on Water Street. I owe a debt of gratitude to Merrill House committee member and irrationality guru Stuart Vyse for getting a small group of us invited to tour the old house. Named after the role Eugene's actor father, James O'Neill, played on tour for most of his life, Monte Cristo was meant to be a summer cottage, but, with the family following James around on tour nine months out of the year, there was never a more permanent one.
We walked in. It was freezing inside. The docent apologized, adding sheepishly that we were his first tour group. After watching a video about the O'Neill family and the history of the house, we were set loose to explore. There were the tiny upstairs bedrooms, the narrow hallways, papers of O'Neill's, photographs, posters from his plays.
So, did O'Neill's ghost haunt the tiny rooms and rickety staircases of Monte Cristo?
No, not to my senses. Even what actual memorabilia remained in the house (most O'Neill artifacts are archived at Yale; much of what remained in the house was replica) seemed to be there under duress and keen to vanish into the mists of time.There was, indeed, a "ghost within a ghost" feeling to the place. But the ghost within the ghost that the house was -- it wasn't Eugene. Wherever he is, it isn't here.
The house's primary specter is those two plays. That front parlor, setting of sentimental comedy and burning tragedy, was so familiar to me it was hard to believe I hadn't been there before. In the two front rooms, as if to emphasize the hall of mirrors effect of the two works placed side by side, were the costumes worn by Colleen Dewhurst, as jovial, no-nonsense Essie in Wilderness and morphine-addled, ghostly Mary in Journey. (They're pictured here, pardon my clumsy photography: one guess which is which) I had been here, in these rooms, through reading and watching and performing those works.
O'Neill was, himself, a haunted man. Sketchy postpartum care after his own birth had left his mother a morphine addict for over a quarter century; she attempted to drown herself in the nearby Thames river one night as her husband and children watched. Eugene felt responsible for her addiction, none of which was helped by a bad case of survivor's guilt after his baby brother Edmund died of measles, having been exposed to the infection by his older brother, Jamie. (It's no coincidence that in Long Day's Journey, O'Neill's autobiographical protagonist is named Edmund, and the dead baby, Eugene.) His father was an acoholic and he followed suit, living much of his life in a deeply soused and extremely depressed state (I know of at least one suicide attempt; he might have made others). O'Neill's sons, one from each of his first two marriages, both killed themselves. The man endured enough tragedy to make anyone want to lapse into a dense fog.
"A little in love with death." In one way or another I suppose most poets are -- at least, it is something we all seem keen to make sense of, though it's not particularly possible, and arguably something that motivates people to create art generally; the desire for posterity, the chance to in some sense outlive yourself or at least leave something of value behind. O'Neill says less about it but he was also, clearly, in love with love. And with mystery, with veiled things, fogged-in things, that he could reveal and obscure at will.
It's said he hated Monte Cristo Cottage; that other than his father, the whole family did. Certainly it held few happy memories for Eugene. And I don't think any of us particularly found him there, although as we drove through New London I was pretty sure I could guess at places that had been the models for his beaches and brothels and bars. It was almost as though once those places were on the page, and on the stage, he maybe got to leave them at last. I don't know. I guess I think the impulse to write springs from some combination of a wish to preserve things and wish to get them the hell out of your system. I've had the experiecne of writing fairly personal, autobiographical work, details altered as needed to protect the innocent and retain narrative integrity -- and finding later that I wasn't even sure any more whether those events had happened or whether I had invented them. It's a disconcerting feeling, but not always a bad one.
I don't beleive artists need to be troubled or tragic to be good artists. I think that's a total myth. But if there were ever a redemptive value to years of tragedy and guilt and melancholy, the stunning body of work Eugene O'Neill left behind would have to qualify.
The house his dad built? Just a house.
But he says it best. Give the clip below a click: it's a stunning rendition, by the wonderful Robert Sean Leonard of Edmund's atomic bomb of a monologue from Long Day's Journey.