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Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953)
by Janice Albert

Mt Diablo

Mt. Diablo

One of the most complete and best preserved literary sites in California is the home of Eugene O'Neill off Highway 680 in the hills above Danville overlooking Mt. Diablo. O'Neill chose this site to build a shelter from the world, and here he did some of his best work, including the intensely autobiographical Long Day's Journey Into Night.

O'Neill was persuaded to come to California by his wife, Carlotta, who was born in San Francisco on December 28, 1888, and who grew up in Oakland.

The daughter of Danish and French/Dutch parents, she was christened Hazel Neilson Taasinge. As a young woman, she traveled to Europe to study theater. Her dark good looks lent themselves to a Spanish persona, so she changed her name to Carlotta Monterey, returned to New York, and began the round of auditions that would lead to her obtaining a small role in a play by America's leading playwright of the time, Eugene O'Neill.

Carlotta was to become O'Neill's faithful nurse, muse, and manager for the remainder of his life. After trying to find the perfect property on the East Coast, she persuaded him to cross the country in 1936 to continue their search while he worked on a projected nine-play cycle of the American experience: A Tale of Possessors, Self-Dispossessed. On November 12, 1936, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, the second American to receive this honor and the first American playwright. The award carried a cash prize of $40,000, a small fortune during the Depression. But O'Neill's health was not good. He was unable to risk the trip to Sweden, and in early 1937 spent ten weeks in Oakland's Merritt Hospital before resuming his search for a place to live.

O'Neill and Carlotta chose the hillside above Danville because of its seclusion. On their 158 acres, they built a house tailored to a writer's life. Three doors separate O'Neill's den from the house itself. Smoky mirrors downstairs create a shadowy light even on the brightest days. In contrast to the homes of California's great writer-adventurers, Jack London and Joaquin Miller, O'Neill's house was designed as the perfect environment for introspection and the inner life. He named it Tao House, and incorporated many Chinese features-a front path that makes an indirect route to the front door to ward off evil spirits, a black tile roof and accents of bright red for luck. The property, a national historic site since 1976, now managed by the National Park Service, is made available to the public by calling (510) 838-1249. Park Rangers give first-rate tours, showing their expertise not only in the surroundings but in O'Neill's work as well.

Perhaps no environment would have so felicitously permitted O'Neill to mine the depths of a childhood in the markedly dysfunctional family in which he grew up. His father, a son of "potato-famine Irish," was an actor, and young Eugene spent his childhood in a series of hotels as the family moved from one engagement to another. His parents, both Irish Catholic but from different social classes, always seemed to communicate "in code, never able to find each other's key" (Gelb, 10). At Tao House, he wrote The Iceman Cometh, A Moon for the Misbegotten, Hughie, A Touch of the Poet, and Long Day's Journey into Night, the story of the Tyrone family, later brilliantly filmed with Katherine Hepburn, Jason Robards and Ralph Richardson. Long Day's Journey tells the family story in all its complex irony--the death of the father's career through the success of a role in which he became trapped, and the mother's addiction to morphine following the difficult delivery of her second child (Eugene himself). Moved by guilt and recrimination, characters hide from and reveal themselves in a long, drunken night together.

In 1943, at the age of 55, while laboring over his brother Jamie's story, A Moon for the Misbegotten, O'Neill's work was increasingly interrupted by a tremor than interfered badly with his handwriting. He became desperate with anxiety when he realized that writing by hand was a key to his creative process. He and Carlotta tried substituting dictation, tape-recording, and the use of an electric typewriter, to no avail.

He believed his thoughts flowed from his brain through his pencil onto the page; no other method would do. On good days, he was able to control his tremor by writing in minute script. On other days, he could not write at all.

In this same year, O'Neill's daughter Oona surprised and upset him by marrying the actor Charles Chaplin, a man her father's age. His health continued to decline. World War II was underway. Tao House, a remote location at the time, became stranded from groceries and household help. The O'Neills decided to sell and move. One of the playwright's last acts was to destroy he manuscripts of the first two double-length plays of his cycle, preserving his notes and two manuscripts, More Stately Mansions (never completed) and A Touch of the Poet. In 1944, he and Carlotta moved into a suite of rooms in the Huntington Hotel on San Francisco's Nob Hill.

He lived ten more years. Among his final requests is one that states his preference not to be buried in the family plot in St. Mary's Cemetery of New London, Connecticut. Many years before he had traded his family's Catholicism for the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche.

At the age of forty he wrote to a friend "Zarathustra…has influenced me more than any book I've ever read. I ran into it…when I was eighteen and I've always possessed a copy since then and every year or so I re-read it and am never disappointed" (121). He is buried, at his request, at Forest Hills Cemetery on the outskirts of Boston.

Jean Houts

National Park Service interpreter Jean Houts at the door of Eugene O'Neill's Tao House

O'Neill's Office

O'Neill's Office

The Swedish Academy, in awarding the Nobel prize to O'Neill, commended him "for characters marked by virility, honesty and strong emotions as well as for depth of interpretation." Others have written that "before O'Neill, the United States had theater. After O'Neill it had drama."

Work Cited:
Arthur and Barbara Gelb. O'Neill, second edition. New York: Harper & Row, 1973

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