Eugene O’Neill is the closest thing the United States has to a classical dramatist. His plays, produced over a period of nearly forty years, are regularly revived on Broadway and off. Actors have enhanced their reputations by performing the demanding roles he created for them, and such plays as The Iceman Cometh (1946) and Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956), which had its posthumous premiere in Stockholm, are as revered abroad as they are in the playwright’s homeland.
Selected Letters of Eugene O’Neill, edited by Travis Bogard and Jackson R. Bryer, is the first comprehensive collection of O’Neill’s letters to appear and is certain to fascinate students both of the drama and of human nature. Emerging almost exactly one hundred years after O’Neill’s birth, this gleaning from the vast abundance of O’Neill papers at the Beinecke Library and other repositories brings to light for the first time a part of the dramatist’s life that has eluded his many competent biographers and critics. It creates a picture of a growing, changing, highly passionate individual: partly the genius referred to in the editors’ brief but illuminating introduction, and partly the cranky, very human individual—a tormented lover, an angry parent, a patient, loyal friend.
Although the identifying notes are brief and the pictorial material scant, this volume of letters places O’Neill in the context of his times in the way that even the best biography must fail to do. His letters create a vivid picture of the man, showing the evolution of his personal style and of his attitudes toward the external world, attitudes that were in many ways shaped by that world. The overwhelming, curiously innocent romanticism of his early love letters seems very much a product of the early years of the twentieth century, but the young author of these letters seems to the reader to haunt the older man as, at the end of his life, he dashes off tormented notes to his third, and final, wife, Carlotta Monterey O’Neill. Despite his success and sophistication, he seems in the 1950’s still the needy adolescent who thirty-five years earlier had begged his New London sweetheart for a “something” that he might put under his pillow and dream on.
Apart from a few notes to cousins and teachers, the earliest pieces of correspondence in the book are to girls. If the young Eugene had male friends during his adolescence—and the introduction to this first section asserts that he had—he did not write to them. In fact, throughout the book, what has been left out of his letters makes what does appear far more fascinating, and forms a tantalizing subtext. His boyish, teasing letters to a Hartford friend, Marion Welch, written while he was at the Betts Academy in Stamford in 1905, speak, for example, of roughhousing in the dormitory and reading popular romances at a time when, as the editor points out, he was regularly traveling to New York on weekends and getting drunk with his brother James and his actor friends. Similarly, the large number of passionate, often-begging letters to a New London girl, Beatrice Ashe, written in 1914 and 1915, while he was learning his craft in Provincetown and from George Pierce Baker at Harvard University, are not only incongruous in the light of the ingrained bohemianism of the Provincetown and Greenwich Village crowd but also sad and a little pathetic when one remembers that he had by this time been married and divorced and was the father of a five-year-old son. “I need you as my goal, my encouragement, my ambition, my end in life,” he writes. “Comrade and Wife, over the smooth road and the flinty trail, hand in hand. . . . conquering or crushed by the same fate—that is it!” He adds, lest she be repelled by his reference to passion, that his wanting her is “holy,” that “where you are concerned, my eye is clear, can see only purity in its desire.” Ashe apparently broke off the romance, frightened perhaps by the strength of the emotion she had evoked.
What anyone familiar with O’Neill’s later plays would like to find in these early letters is some serious reference to his family, some hint of the intense frustration with his parents that would form the emotional substratum of Long Day’s Journey into Night. It is not there. In one of two letters sent to James and Ella O’Neill, from Honduras, where he had been connected with a gold-mining expedition after escaping his shotgun marriage, he notes that “he never realized how much home and Father & Mother meant until I got so far away from them.” It is only in 1920, however, after he had some success as a playwright and had become a father again himself, that they reappear in the correspondence, primarily as elderly in-laws and doting grandparents: “Mama is ’nuts’ about the pictures of Shane. . . . Of course, she thinks he looks like me.”