Found at Sea
Eugene O’Neill came to Provincetown and found the inspiration that helped him become an American literary icon.
Standing alone in the dining room of a Provincetown cabin, Eugene O’Neill was afraid to hear the sound of his own words.
O’Neill had come to Cape Cod in the spring of 1916, a self-imposed exile from New York City. Shortly after his arrival, he found himself in a cabin owned by Susan Glaspell, a celebrated writer who had relocated to Provincetown several years earlier. While the timid O’Neill remained alone in one room, a group of amateur actors in the next read through an early version of O’Neill’s Bound East for Cardiff, a one-act play about Yank, a dying sailor recalling his five years at sea with Driscoll, his shipmate.
“Then we knew what we were in for,” recalled Glaspell after the performance had finished. The group loved the play, and they saw O’Neill’s burgeoning talent. A few months later, Bound East for Cardiff premiered in Provincetown—the first time O’Neill’s work would be performed in public.
A hundred years after penning his first play and 60 years after his death, Eugene O’Neill remains one of America’s greatest playwrights. Works like The Iceman Cometh are marked by a disregard for sentimentality and an unrelenting pessimism—natural themes for a man who battled depression and alcoholism, lost numerous family members and friends to drugs and suicide, abandoned two wives, and often lived the life of a bum while down and out in New York City. But when O’Neill retreated to the desolate dunes of Provincetown, he began to turn his inauspicious beginnings into Pulitzer Prize-winning drama.
Born in a hotel room on Broadway, O’Neill spent long stretches of his childhood traveling with parents: James, a theatre actor well-known for portraying the Count of Monte Cristo on stages around the country, and Ella, who struggled with morphine and alcohol addiction from the time O’Neill was born in 1888.
Extensive travels became a life of discontent in New York for O’Neill. In October 1909, two years after dropping out of Princeton University, he married Kathleen Jenkins. The two had a child together, Eugene Jr., in 1910, but O’Neill had no real interest in either his wife or the child, and spent much of his marriage abroad in Honduras and Buenos Aires. Their marriage ended in divorce in 1912.
To satisfy Kathleen’s lawyers and the laws of New York state, O’Neill staged an affair with a prostitute to prove his infidelity. He left the brothel battling guilt, and went back to Jimmy the Priest’s, a waterfront dive in New York where he was living, and tried to kill himself by consuming a large amount of the barbiturate Veronal.
After the suicide attempt, O’Neill moved back to his family’s home in New London, Connecticut, and, with the help of his brother Jamie, became a reporter with the New London Telegraph. “It was when I joined the staff of the New London Telegraph that I found I wanted to be a writer,” O’Neill told Charles A. Merrill in an article published by The Boston Globe in July 1923. His time with the paper was cut short when he contracted tuberculosis and was committed to a sanitorium for six months. “It gave me a chance to mull over the experiences I had had in life,” O’Neill said. “Ideas began to formulate in my head, and I wrote some one-act plays.”
He spent the fall and winter of 1915–1916 often drunk and despondent, bouncing around seedy hotels and friends’ places in New York, writing just a handful of poems. When spring came, Eugene saw his chance to escape the city with Terry Carlin, an aging anarchist and his roommate; their friend, well-known revolutionary Jack Reed; and Reed’s girlfriend, Louise Bryant. The four planned on spending the summer in Provincetown to be with friends and avoid the summer heat of the city.
The actors in Glaspell’s cabin had started presenting plays they had written in impromptu venues around Provincetown under the moniker the Provincetown Players. On July 28, 1916, the Provincetown Players debuted Bound East for Cardiff on a stage in a converted warehouse on a wharf. (O’Neill himself had the smallest role in the play as a second mate with a single line.) Glaspell, in The Road to the Temple: A Biography of George Cram Cook, recounts how perfect the warehouse setting was for O’Neill’s theatrical debut:
“The sea has been good to Eugene O’Neill. It was there for his opening. There was a fog, just as the script demanded, [a] fog bell in the harbor. The tide was in, and it washed under us and around, spraying through the holes in the floor, giving us the rhythm and flavor of the sea. It is not merely figurative language to say the old wharf shook with applause.”
O’Neill returned to New York in the fall. The next spring he convinced drinking buddy and writer Harold DePolo to venture back to Provincetown with him in March of 1917. The two stayed at The Atlantic House, and O’Neill entered a fruitful writing phase. That spring, he would complete four new plays—In the Zone, Ile, The Long Voyage Home, and Moon of the Caribbes.
O’Neill often molded his characters on people he knew in life, for better or worse. Most were spared sharing names with their fictional incarnations. But some, like Abbie Putnam, a Provincetown librarian who denied O’Neill a library card because he didn’t own property in the town, incurred his wrath. In his 1924 play, Desire Under The Elms, a married woman seduces her stepson and becomes pregnant with his child. After giving birth she becomes worried that the child will complicate her relationship and kills the child. The woman’s name is, by no coincidence, Abbie Putnam.
In 1917, as another summer came to an end, O’Neill returned to New York, only to face more heartbreak and tragedy. The heroin overdose suicide of his friend, Louis Holladay, shook O’Neill, reminding him of his own suicide attempt several years earlier. He returned to his old ways and began escaping to the Hell Hole, a favorite bar. Agnes Boulton, whom he had met in the fall of 1917, several months before Holladay’s suicide, kept him from returning to total despair by encouraging him to continue his writing. In January 1918, the two eloped in Provincetown.
Shortly after, O’Neill finished one of his first full-length plays. Beyond the Horizon brought the newlyweds financial security and would eventually win O’Neill his first of four Pulitzer Prizes. During their summer stay, O’Neill and Boulton came across the Peaked Hill Lifesaving Station, a former Coast Guard station in the dunes of Provincetown. The couple fell in love with the structure as a possible home immediately. James O’Neill, now on good terms with his famous son, purchased the building for the couple as a belated wedding gift.
Before moving into the house the following summer, Boulton revealed that she was pregnant. The two had once agreed to let nothing and no one, including children of their own, get in the way of their love. Much to her relief, O’Neill was happy to learn that he was going to have another child. Before the couple moved into Peaked Hill, sand had piled up to the roof and a lot of work needed to be done before O’Neill and his expectant wife could occupy the new house.
Shane Rudraighe O’Neill was born on October 30, 1919. Eugene O’Neill spent most of his time after the birth of the child traveling between his new home and New York while putting Beyond the Horizon into production. The show opened to rave reviews on February 3, 1920, at the Morosco Theatre on Broadway.
Time away from home greatly strained O’Neill’s marriage to Boulton. Letters—the couple’s only means of communication—detailed their anguish at each other’s absence. “If our letters are to become an added torture to our hearts already tortured by separation and by the mishaps of outside shame then we are lost,” wrote O’Neill to Boulton. The couple endured several turbulent years together and had another daughter, Oona—whom O’Neill would eventually disown after she married Charlie Chaplin—before he left Boulton for his third wife, Carlotta Monterey, in 1927.
By this time, O’Neill had won another Pulitzer and was fully dedicated to his work, which required him to be in New York, leaving Provincetown far behind. “Gene was happy at Peaked Hill, writing, living life as he wanted it, and always rather sad when it got too cold to stay any longer,” remembered Boulton in her 1958 memoir, Part of a Long Story. “I remember, too, the sunny morning the Coast Guard brought us a wire saying Gene had won his first Pulitzer Prize and how he and I looked at each other, wondering what on earth a Pulitzer Prize was.” In 1931, Peaked Hill was swept out to sea during a storm.
O’Neill’s output in the 1930s and 1940s slowed considerably, but the quality of his work remained strong. The Iceman Cometh, A Moon for the Misbegotten, and Long Day’s Journey Into Night—the latter widely considered his opus—cemented his reputation as one of the great American playwrights.
Tragedy would continue to plague O’Neill for the remainder of his life. In 1950, his eldest son, Eugene Jr., committed suicide. Shane would follow in his half brother’s footsteps in 1977, when he leaped from the fourth story of a friend’s apartment in Brooklyn. O’Neill’s own health declined cruelly and he developed a Parkinson’s-like tremor in his hands that was so severe he was unable to write for the final 10 years of his life. He passed away on November 27, 1953, at the Sheraton Hotel in Boston, where Monterey had been tending to him. Ever the pessimist, his final words were: “I knew it. I knew it. Born in a goddamn hotel room and dying in a hotel room.”
But O’Neill’s plays continue to be performed around the world, and the influence of his work endures. “The O’Neill legacy in American drama, on a national level, would be hard to overestimate,” says Stephen Borkowski, chairman of the Provincetown Art Commission. “Interest in his work remains strong, and the continued reexamination and restaging of his work certainly gives it a life in perpetuity.”
Peace and serenity had eluded O’Neill for most of his life, but he found glimpses of happiness in Provincetown. The playwright made some of his greatest strides with his work after that first fateful visit to Cape Cod, channeling his demons into masterful prose. And a hundred years later, the playwright who couldn’t share the same room as his words still has an audience that wants to hear them.
Matthew Nilsson is special sections editor at Cape Cod Life Publications.
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