By Joseph Goodrich
“By Women Possessed” by Arthur Gelb and Barbara Gelb; Putnam hardcover; 896 pp; $50.
“The demand that I make of my reader,” James Joyce once wrote, “is that he should devote his whole life to reading my works.”
Playwright Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953) found his ideal readers in Arthur and Barbara Gelb. After six years of research, their landmark biography “O’Neill” was published in 1962. Over the next five decades the Gelbs periodically revised and reworked the book as new information became available. “By Women Possessed,” their latest volume, was published on Nov. 1, 2016.
O’Neill believed that “only a work of art is happy.” His troubled origins explain that belief. His father James fled post-Famine Ireland only to find poverty in Buffalo, New York. By dint of talent and determination, he achieved fame on the stage. The specter of penury led him to forego his promise as a Shakespearean actor for a hugely profitable – but artistically crippling – career playing Edmund Dantes in a touring version of “The Count of Monte Cristo.”
Ella, O’Neill’s mother, was a convent-educated innocent from New Haven who quickly adapted to life on the road with her actor husband. This was no easy task in an age when actors were treated like social outcasts. The O’Neills were forced to stay in the meanest rooms and subsist on the cheapest grub. Eugene’s birth was difficult, and Ella was given morphine to ease the pain. Her subsequent addiction was a dirty little secret that tortured the O’Neill family and blighted Eugene’s youth.
Rather than focusing on the sorrow and disorder of O’Neill’s early years, “By Women Possessed” views the playwright’s twisted psyche through the lens of his marriages. We follow Gene and Agnes Boulton, his second wife, from their meeting in 1917 to his abandonment of her a decade later – for sometime-actress and socialite Carlotta Monterey.
Much happened for O’Neill during these years. George Cram Cook and Susan Glaspell of the Provincetown Players produced his one-act plays of the sea. “Beyond The Horizon” made it to Broadway in 1919 and won the playwright the first of four Pulitzer Prizes. He was widely considered to be America’s leading playwright.
Arthur Gelb and Barbara Gelb in Trinity College Dublin.
© GELB PERSONAL COLLECTION 2016
Marriage and fatherhood held little charm for O’Neill. All he wanted was a woman who would take care of him. The stylish and capable Carlotta, O’Neill’s third wife, supplanted the hapless Agnes. Carlotta knew how to arrange for steamship tickets, pack trunks, and safeguard the playwright’s working hours without creasing her handmade silk blouse. But Gene’s marriage to Carlotta was as unstable and volatile as his marriage to Agnes: repulsion vied with attraction, lust with scorn.
This dichotomy was exacerbated in later years by O’Neill’s worsening health. A neurological disorder resembling Parkinson’s made his hands shake so badly he couldn’t write. As his condition worsened, the simplest tasks – tying a shoe, holding a spoon – were impossible for him. A despondent O’Neill became more and more dependent on the resentful and sometimes violent Carlotta. Friends tried to separate the two, but never succeeded. The couple’s hold on each other was born of the fiercest love and the blackest hate. At the end of O’Neill’s life, Carlotta’s role as lover, wife, and mother had melded into one all-powerful figure. She possessed the sick and aging man by keeping his friends and colleagues at a distance. After his death, she did her best to control his plays and his reputation.
Carlotta had a lot to cover up. The Gelbs don’t hide the fact that O’Neill was a piece of work. Severely alcoholic, prone to verbal and physical violence, a bad husband and a worse father, the playwright can only be admired for his devotion to his craft. Not every play was a success, financially or artistically. Many of them collapse under the weight of their pretensions, and his dialogue is often flat-footed. Good or bad, the work is true to O’Neill’s painful vision of the world. His final plays are his best: “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” “A Moon for the Misbegotten” and “The Iceman Cometh.” Each of them dragged O’Neill through the purgatory of his past; each was written “in tears and blood.”
His achievement is beyond question. O’Neill singlehandedly turned America’s frivolous, formulaic theater into a vital scene that rivaled the innovative drama of Europe. Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and the playwrights who followed owe him a profound debt.
Barbara and Arthur Gelb in their
New York apartment in 2011.
PHOTO: PETER MCDERMOTT
It was a hell of a life, encompassing self-destructive drinking binges in Greenwich Village to receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Gelbs capture the travails and the triumphs in great and telling detail. One is hard-pressed to think of another writer who has been so scrupulously studied – and so well served.
Arthur Gelb died in 2014. Barbara Gelb saw the manuscript through completion and publication. Scholars of the theater and students of American Literature take note: the ghosts that haunted Eugene Gladstone O’Neill have once more been called forth to tell their sad, secret stories. “By Women Possessed” is a fitting capstone to a lifetime’s study of the strange and tormented man who revolutionized the American Theater.
Joseph Goodrich is an award-winning playwright whose work has been produced across the United States, in Canada and Australia. A former Calderwood Fellow at the MacDowell Colony, he recently completed a study of S. N. Behrman’s 43-year relationship with the New Yorker magazine.