Selected Letters of Eugene O'neill Analysis

Analysis (Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Providing a representative selection of O’Neill’s voluminous correspondence (more than three thousand of his letters are known to exist), written between 1901 and 1952 to intimate friends, family, and literary and theatrical personalities, this collection of more than six hundred letters offers new and revealing insights into the guardedly private life and thoughts of America’s greatest playwright. The letters depict O’Neill as somewhat different from the melancholy figure biographers have portrayed. As the editors state in their introduction, readers “may be surprised by O’Neill’s day-to-day appearance as an ordinary man, avowing friendships, showing concern for his children, warring with the IRS, ... watching over his health, going to ball games, ... and trying, sometimes not very successfully, to bring his diurnal existence into a reasonably coherent fiscal, personal, and spiritual order.”

Readers may be surprised, too, by how much some of these letters reveal O’Neill to have been calculatedly duplicitous in his relationships with women. In 1927, for example, when he is temporarily living in New York, having left his second wife Agnes and two children in Bermuda, he writes to her: “Darling, I do wish you were here! But don’t come! It would break us entirely just now with the bankroll so low.” A self-professed “model” husband, he neglects to tell Agnes he is having an affair with Carlotta Monterey, who would become his third wife; and a month later, back in Bermuda with his family, he writes to Carlotta: “God, how I long for you!... I am horribly lonely for you.”

The correspondence here will be of great interest both to specialists and to general readers.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. October 16, 1988, XIV, p. 1.

Kirkus Reviews. LVI, September 1, 1988, p. 1309.

The New Leader. LXXI, December 26, 1988, p. 11.

New Statesman and Society. I, November 25, 1988, p. 44.

New York. XXI, November 7, 1988, p. 92.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, November 6, 1988, p. 12.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIV, September 16, 1988, p. 70.

Time. CXXXII, November 7, 1988, p. 120.

Selected Letters of Eugene O'neill Selected Letters of Eugene O'Neill (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

ph_0111200567-Oneill.jpgEugene O’Neill Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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.”

O’Neill’s...

(The entire section is 2000 words.)

Selected Letters of Eugene O'neill Bibliography (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

Chicago Tribune. October 16, 1988, XIV, p. 1.

Kirkus Reviews. LVI, September 1, 1988, p. 1309.

The New Leader. LXXI, December 26, 1988, p. 11.

New Statesman and Society. I, November 25, 1988, p. 44.

New York. XXI, November 7, 1988, p. 92.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, November 6, 1988, p. 12.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIV, September 16, 1988, p. 70.

Time. CXXXII, November 7, 1988, p. 120.