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|WHERE the CROSS is MADE
a play in one-act
SUE: But, Nat, there’s nothing. Not a ship. See.
NAT: I saw, I tell you! From above it’s all plain.
SUE: Nat! You mustn’t let this -
You’re all excited and trembling, Nat.
[She puts a sooth-ing hand on his forehead.]
NAT:[Pushing her away from him roughly.]You blind fool!
Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953)
Eugene O’Neill was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1936, the only American Playwright so honored. He provided the following biography for the ceremony's program that year:
"Born October 16th, 1888, in New York City. Son of James O’Neill, the popular romantic actor. First seven years of my life spent mostly in hotels and railroad trains, my mother accompanying my father on his tours of the United States, although she never was an actress, disliked the theatre, and held aloof from its people.
From the age of seven to thirteen attended Catholic schools. Then four years at a non-sectarian preparatory school, followed by one year (1906-1907) at Princeton University.
After expulsion from Princeton I led a restless, wandering life for several years, working at various occupations. Was secretary of a small mail order house in New York for a while, then went on a gold prospecting expedition in the wilds of Spanish Honduras. Found no gold but contracted malarial fever. Returned to the United States and worked for a time as assistant manager of a theatrical company on tour. After this, a period in which I went to sea, and also worked in Buenos Aires for the Westinghouse Electrical Co., Swift Packing Co., and Singer Sewing Machine Co. Never held a job long. Was either fired quickly or left quickly. Finished my experience as a sailor as able-bodied seaman on the American Line of transatlantic liners. After this, was an actor in vaudeville for a short time, and reporter on a small town newspaper. At the end of 1912 my health broke down and I spent six months in a tuberculosis sanatorium.
Began to write plays in the Fall of 1913. Wrote the one-act Bound East for Cardiff in the Spring of 1914. This is the only one of the plays written in this period which has any merit.In the Fall of 1914, I entered Harvard University to attend the course in dramatic technique given by Professor George Baker. I left after one year and did not complete the course.
The Fall of 1916 marked the first production of a play of mine in New York – Bound East for Cardiff – which was on the opening bill of the Provincetown Players. [At the right below, from left to right: Eugene O’Neill, Fred Burt, David Carb, and George Cram Cook in Bound East for Cardiff in Provincetown Wharf Theatre. 1916. Museum of the City of New York. ] In the next few years this theatre put on nearly all of my short plays, but it was not until 1920 that a long play Beyond the Horizon (Right, Below) was produced in New York. It was given on Broadway by a commercial management – but, at first, only as a special matinee attraction with four afternoon performances a week. However, some of the critics praised the play and it was soon given a theatre for a regular run, and later on in the year was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. I received this prize again in 1922 for Anna Christie and for the third time in 1928 for Strange Interlude.
The following is a list of all my published and produced plays which are worth mentioning, with the year in which they were written [NOTE: As of 1936, when he received the prize]:
Bound East for Cardiff (1914), Before Breakfast (1916), The Long Voyage Home (1917), In the Zone (1917), The Moon of the Carabbees (1917), Ile (1917), The Rope (1918), Beyond the Horizon (1918), The Dreamy Kid (1918), Where the Cross is Made (1918), The Straw (1919), Gold (1920), Anna Christie (1920}, The Emperor Jones (1920), Different (1920), The First Man (1921), The Fountain (1921-22), The Hairy Ape (1921 ), Welded (1922), All God’s Chillun Got Wings (1923), Desire Under the Elms (1924), Marco Millions (1923-25), The Great God Brown (1925), Lazarus Laughed (1926), Strange Interlude (1926-27), Dynamo (1928 ), Mourning Becomes Electra (1929-31) , Ah, Wilderness (1932), Days Without End (1932-33)."
Biographical note on Eugene O’Neill, after the Nobel Prize: After an active career of writing and supervising the New York productions of his own works, O’Neill (1888-1953) published only two new plays between 1934 and the time of his death. In The Iceman Cometh (1946), he exposed a prophet’s battle against the last pipe dreams of a group of derelicts as another pipe dream and managed to infuse into the Lower Depths atmosphere a sense of the tragic. A Moon for the Misbegotten (1952) contains a strong autobiographical content, which it shares with Long Day’s Journey into Night (posth. 1956), one of O’Neill’s most important works. The latter play, written, according to O’Neill, "in tears and blood… with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness for all the four haunted Tyrones", had its premiere at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm. Sweden grew into an O’Neill centre with the first productions of the one-act play Hughie (posth. 1959) as well as A Touch of the Poet (posth. 1958) and an adapted version of More Stately Mansions (posth. 1962 ) – both plays being parts of an unfinished cycle in which O’Neill returned to his earlier attempts at making psychological analysis dramatically effective.
[NOTE: This was taken from Nobel Lectures, Literature 1901-1967, Editor Horst Frenz, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1969. This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and first published in the book series Les Prix Nobel. It was later edited and republished in Nobel Lectures. https://www.nobelprize.org /prizes/literature/1936/oneill/biographical/]
Provincetown Discovers O'Neill: A Trunk Full of Plays
[References for this section: Out of Provincetown: A Memoir of Eugene O'Neill by Harry Kemp, 1930 Theatre magazine, April 1930; Modern American Writers: Eugene O'Neill by Barrett Clark, 1926, Robert McBride & Co.; https://spartacus-educational.com/Jbryant.htm]
O'Neill was reserved in his gratitude for the Provincetown Players, though they were the first to produce his work and provide him the launching pad for his legendary career. In 1926, he assessed their relationship, "I owe a tremendous lot to the Players - they encouraged me to write, and produced all my early and many of my later plays. But I can't honestly say I would NOT have gone on writing plays if it hadn't been for them. I had already gone too far ever to quit."
In 1926, Edna Kenton, Press Agent and chronicler of the Provincetown Players, described in more practical detail the Players' contribution:
"But there is no doubt at all that, had he not had our Playwrights' Theater and our experimental stage to use always precisely as he wished to use them, he would have reached Broadway by quite another road and with quite other plays ... he had not only our stage; he had our 'subscription list,' and he used its members, bill after bill, season after season, in ways they could never dream of; played with them and on them, with never need for a thought of them except as stark laboratory reactions to his own experimentations. No other American playwright has ever had such prolonged preliminary freedom with stage and audience alike."
It is equally true that if it hadn't been for the plays of O'Neill and Susan Glaspell there would have been no reason for the continuance of the Theater - and probably no subscribers.
How did the Provincetown Players discover Eugene O'Neill? Depending on the source, there are variations in the telling, though the timing and the results are certain.
O'Neill spent the winter of 1915 - 16 in and around Greenwich Village, New York , where he found congenial companions primarily among the radicals of the Labor movement, I. W . W .' s and the Anarchist group, as well as among the true native villagers. He was a frequent member of the literary establishment and society of Greenwich Village, where he encountered several prominent authors and radical thinkers in an environment of cultivation.
In the summer of 1916 O’Neill came to Provincetown, a fishing village on the tip of Cape Cod, with his friend and drinking buddy Terry Carlin — a legendary anarchist. Since WWI made the European resorts objectionable, Provincetown had become a popular summer destination among the New York bohemians. The previous summer John Reed and Jim Cook organized an amateur theater company here, looking to create a space where avant-garde artists and writers could work free from the censorship of the money that fueled the professional show business. In despair of finding a stage in New York, O’Neill decided to come to Provincetown for a change of scenery.
Harry Kemp, American writer, the "Vagabond Poet" popular literary figure, member of the Provincetown Players, who lived year-round in Provincetown, takes it from there:
"On the porch of a cottage in open day, sat a group of writers and artists who were planning an organization subsequently to be known as the Provincetown Players gathered on the beach, Susan Glaspell, Neith Boyce, "Hutch" Hapgood, Mary Heaton Vorse and dominating them. George Cram "Jig" Cook, "their future director, a huge-bodied man, eager and kindly.
Shyly and diffidently there approached a new member to join them. All the rest had achieved somewhat in the artistic and literary worlds. This young fellow was as yet utterly unknown, except that he was the son of James O'Neill, the old-time actor who won fame and fortune by playing Monte Cristo. It was easy to see that, at first contact, the group were dubious of their new member's ability and doubtful of his future worth to them. Nowadays they will hardly recall that reaction. All like to haven been in on a winner.
The way O'Neill arrived was, even by our unconventional group, taken for no remarkable augury. He had been a sailor, it was said. He was evidently one of those half-baked youngsters who persisted in believing in their genius despite an equipment pitiably scant of education and general culture. That he proffered us a book of one-act plays for perusal, for the printing of which he admitted he had somehow paid, did not materially forward his case. That, too, was the usual stunt of people without ability.
At one of our meetings [hosted by John Reed] O'Neill won less favor by reading a play that was frightfully bad, trite and full of the most preposterous hokum.
At the next meeting something decidedly clicked. O'Neill, wearing an old sweater and cotton trousers, sat motionless in a wicker chair while he delivered in his low, deep, slightly monotonous but compelling voice the lines of a one-act play about seamen in a ship's fo'c'stle, (Note: the forward part of a ship below the deck, or 'forecastle'), traditionally used as the crew's living quarters.the climax being the death of one of them in his bunk. We heard the actual speech of men who go to see; we shared the reality of their lives; we felt the motion and windy, wave-beath urge of a ship. This time no one doubted that here was a genuine playwright."
Susan Glaspell, upon first hearing Bound East to Cardiff, saw the possibility of the Provincetown Players: "... when the reading had finished ... Then we knew what we were for. We began in faith, and perhaps it is true, that when you do that all these things shall be added unto you."
Clearly the play had a profound effect on Cook and Glaspell, for they ensured its performance soon after. On July 28th, 1916, O’Neill’s first play, the one-act Bound East For Cardiff, was performed at a small theatre on the wharf in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
Bound East for Cardiff that summer was well received by Boston Globe drama critic A.J. Philpott, who wrote:
Many people will remember James O’Neil, (sic) who played “Monte Cristo.” He had a son—Eugene O’Neil (sic)—who knocked about the world in tramp steamers…and saw life “in the raw,” and thought much about it…He is one of the Players, and he has written some little plays which have made a very deep impression on those who have seen them produced here.
Over the next two years, O'Neill quickly followed up the reception of Bound East for Cardiff with seven one-act plays for the Provincetown Players, Thirst, Before Breakfast, Fog, The Sniper, The Long Voyage Home, ‘Ile and The Rope.
O'Neill and his Loves
However, it was not only the critic from the Boston Globe who took a liking to O'Neill that summer. John Reed, who had invited O'Neill into the Players, appeared in O'Neill's play, which shared the bill with The Game, written by John Reed's partner, Louise Bryant. Earlier that summer, John Reed had left the cape to have surgery. While he was away Bryant became close to Eugene O'Neill. Barabara Gelb writing in So Short a Time (1973):
"Louise was spellbound by O'Neill's marathon swims. Sometimes after watching him from her window, who would join him on the beach. O'Neill could no longer pretend that he was not deeply and unhappily in love with her... He was convinced that Louise, committed to Reed, would be offended by his love. He not only concealed his feelings, but tried his best to avoid her; he was the only one to whom it was not plain that Louise was pursuing him."
Bryant and O'Neill became lovers and soon most of their friends were aware of it. By most reports, John Reed ignored the affair. See picture left of Bryant, O'Neill and then O'Neill and Reed. Reed and Bryant married that fall, November, 1916.
But O'Neill continued the affair, up until Bryant left with Reed for Russia in August, 1917 in time to witness the Russian Revolution several months later.
AGNES BOULTON, the SECOND MRS. EUGENE O'NEILL
[NOTE: This section is based on The O'Neill of Pulp Fiction by William Davies King, The Eugene O'Neill Review, Vol. 26 (2004), pp. 105-117, Published by Penn State University Press]
In October In 1917, Agnes Boulton (1893-1968), a "pulp" fiction writer of sketches, short stories and novelettes for popular women's and young people's magazines, met her future husband at a bar.
In her 1958 memoir, Part of a Long Story, she described meeting Eugene O'Neill at the Golden Swan Saloon, better known as The Hell Hole, 6th Ave. and 4th St., a dive bar to which members of the Provincetown Players repaired after meetings and performances. (See John Sloan's pen and ink drawing to the left, with a mustachio'd O'Neill upper right.):
"The place smelled of beer and stale tobacco smoke. I felt a little uneasy being in the back room of a bar, not being used to it. Then I noticed that a man was staring at me from where he sat in a far corner of the room. He was so close to the stained darness of the wall and so motionless that I had not seen him. He was dark an was wearing a seaman's sweater under his jacket. There was something startling in his gaze, something at the same time both sad a cruel ... I felt that here was something that I did not understand."
The dark man was O'Neill. There was conversation, then some walking in the cold night, and at last she and Gene arrived at the Brevoort Hotel, where Agnes has a room. Agnes put out her hand to say good night: "He was sad, and when he looked away from me his eyes were dramatic. He had his hands in his pocket and he obviously felt cold. I began to worry about him and I said I must go upstairs. But he kept me there a moment longer, his dark eyes looking at me directly now. His voice was low but very sure. "I want to spend every night of my life from now on with you," he said. I mean this. Every night of my life.""
He had just ended an affair with the journalist, Louise Bryant. Agnes was warned by friends of O'Neill that she "bore a strong physical resemblance to" Bryant. O'Neill wanted to marry Agnes but she told Alice Woods that he was still in love with "that girl". Woods later recalled: "She wasn't subtle enough to play the game that Gene seemed to be playing."
Louise Bryant arrived back in New York City on 19th February, 1918. She immediately wrote to Eugene O'Neill in Provincetown. Agnes later recalled: "Louise wrote that she must see him - and at once. She had left Jack Reed in Russia and crossed three thousand miles of frozen steppes to come back to him - her lover. Page after page of passionate declaration of their love of hers, which would never change. She had forgiven him. What if he had picked up some girl in the Village and become involved? There was no use writing letters - she had to see him! It was all a misunderstanding and her fault for leaving him, for going to Russia with Jack." Boulton persuaded O'Neill not to see Louise.
O'Neill and Boulton married some six months later, on April 12, 1918, at Provincetown, Massachusetts. Thus began their ardent, volatile marriage.
She gave birth to Shane O'Neill in 1919 and Oona O'Neill in 1925. The marriage came to an end when O'Neill left Boulton for the actress Carlotta Monterey in 1928, and they divorced in 1929.
According to Boulton's memoir, O'Neill's Where the Cross is Made was based on her work.
O'Neill appropriated a draft of her story, The Captain's Walk, for his own re-working. In return he gave her the unfinished Now I Ask You, a three-act farce comedy, saying "it's not my sort of stuff, but it's a damn good idea for a popular success." It is a rare O'Neill comedy, about open marriage and "free love" in the upper classes. There are critics who believe Boulton worked on it through 1920, and finally abandoned it for an unrelated novelette, To Have Your Cake and Eat It Too, "and I got paid too - two hundred dollars - which made me feel quite rich and quite defiant."
O'Neill took her outline and wrote Where the Cross is Made.
The Provincetown Players Present Where the Cross is Made
[NOTE: The following is from http://www.provincetownplayhouse.com/wherethecross.html Dr. Jeffery Kennedy, Assistant Professor at Arizona State University in the Program in Interdisciplinary Arts and Performance. Experiment on Macdougal Street: The Provincetown Players' 1918-1919 Season, The Eugene O'Neill Review, Vol. 32 (2010), pp. 86-123 (38 pages), Published by: Penn State University Press]
November 22, the opening night of the 1918-1919 season in the newly built, furnished and decorated Provincetown Playhouse at 133 Macdougal Street began with the one-act The Princess Marries the Page by Edna St. Vincent Millay. The middle play of the bill was O’Neill’s Where the Cross is Made.
A BRIEF DESCRIPTION of the PLAY and its THEMES
Where the Cross is Made is about a sea captain who obsessively stands looking out to sea every night on a roof deck of his house. In his madness, he claims he’s waiting for his ship to return with a treasure he and his crew had buried on a South Pacific island. His son, Nat, aware of his father’s madness, goes so far as to burn the map with the cross that shows where the treasure is buried. However, his father’s relentlessness has caused Nat to become equally possessed. Only his sister seems able to stand apart from the delusion and tries to help them.
Contemporary critics have noted how the central image of buried treasure is a direct reference to O'Neill's life:
In 1909, O'Neill joined a mining engineer in San Francisco who was then setting out on a gold-prospecting venture to the Spanish Honduras. Hopeful and elated, they traveled south and entered Central America. They had not penetrated very far however when O'Neill contracted tropical fever and made it impossible for him to push on with his friend.
Hidden treasure, too, is the plot conceit that reverses the fortunes of Dumas' Count of Monte Cristo, a play in which his father James O'Neill famously toured for 40 years. Critics suggest it may have brought a melodramatic and old-fashioned style into the play - as well as references to the father's domination of his son and his obsession with 'gold' to the detriment of his health and his family's well-being.
O'Neill's lifelong dramatic themes are all here: the struggles of a son against a father's domination; the toll taken on a family by an emotionally troubled member; and the consequences of obsession with material success.
REHEARSING at the PLAYHOUSE
While still in Provincetown in early November, Eugene O’Neill received a letter from "Jig" Cook, the Players producer, that insisted he come to New York to supervise the casting and rehearsals of Where the Cross Is Made. Cook reported there were “strong disagreements” between many members as to how O’Neill’s play should be staged, and Cook wanted O’Neill there to “back him up."
Susan Glaspell received a similar letter from Cook the same day, and she visited the O’Neills to urge them to travel to New York as soon as possible. O’Neill had also just found out that his mother was afflicted with cancer, so he and Boulton, whom his parents had yet to meet, made plans to come to the city and visit them as well. When they arrived in New York, there was a party in the unfinished theatre to welcome O’Neill back.
A few days later, James Light, an actor in play, came by the O’Neills’ hotel room to fill them in on the objections some of the Players were having to aspects of Where the Cross is Made. O’Neill and Boulton visited the theatre that day. She described the scene as they entered:
". . . chaotic happy hammering and painting and moving around of scenery and stage effects going on. . . . Everyone seemed in a daze—but it was the absorbed daze of a fixed purpose. They were getting the place ready for their first bill. They were already more than two weeks behind in their schedule; if you spoke to someone, he answered you, but his attention was not on you but on a place on the wall where electric wires were being hung, waiting for a fixture; or on the shade of yellow paint that was being applied to finish the walls; or on watching burly truck men carrying in more lumber, as if wondering if there was room for it somewhere."
Boulton also describes workmen attaching the benches to the floor and others installing a switchboard, this being supervised by the Players newly-hired part-time secretary, Mary Eleanor Fitzgerald. Cook took about an hour to describe to O’Neill what the finished theatre would look like and to discuss the technical aspects of Where the Cross is Made on the new stage. As O’Neill rejoined Boulton in the back of the theatre, Ida Rauh, who was directing and performing in Cross, entered and began verbally attacking O’Neill: “You’ll have to do something about the ghosts, Gene. The boys never can look like ghosts, you know it. The audience will simply laugh at them . . .” O’Neill responded:"Everyone in the play is mad except the girl. Everyone sees the ghosts except the girl. What I want to do is hypnotize the audience so when they see the ghosts they will think they are mad too! And by that I mean the whole audience! Remember—[quoting from the Players’ by-laws] “The author shall produce his plays without hindrance, according to his own ideas.”
At the climax of the play, O’Neill calls for all the lights to turn green and the ghosts of three sailors who were killed in the shipwreck to appear, carrying a treasure chest. O’Neill’s stage directions read:
"The forms [of the ghosts] rise noiselessly into the room from the stairs . . . . Water drips from their soaked and rotten clothes. Their hair is matted, intertwined with slimy strands of seaweed. Their eyes, as they glide silently into the room, stare frightfully wide at nothing. Their flesh in the green light has the suggestion of decomposition. Their bodies sway limply, nervelessly, rhythmically as if to the pulse of long swells of the deep sea."
As the ghosts enter, both the father and son believe their ship has come home. The father dies of a heart attack and his son sadly replaces him, now mad with his own nightly watch of the sea.
Edna Kenton, press agent for the Players, called rehearsals for Cross “one prolonged argument.” In a letter from O’Neill to Nina Moise, who left the Players in May to move to the west coast, he writes that “The direction of my first two plays on the first two bills of this season was ‘punk.’ Ida Rauh did the first and played a part. It was too much for her to do both at once.”
As the play was rehearsed, it became evident that the last thing the ghosts could do on a wood-slat stage was carry a chest up the stairs “noiselessly” and “glide silently.” Most of the company pleaded with O’Neill at the dress rehearsal to get rid of the ghosts “as if it were a favor to the dying.” O’Neill refused and said that “perhaps the first rows will snicker—perhaps they won’t. We’ll see.” O’Neill did not wait to find out if they did or not: he and Boulton left town after that final dress rehearsal on November 21, 1918.
CRITICS and AUDIENCES RESPOND
Heywood Broun, drama critic for the New York Tribune praised the play as “among the best things which the Players have done” and singles out the final scene with: “we sat so close that there was little visual illusion, but the sweep of the story and the exceptional skill with which the scene of the delusion is written made us distinctly fearful of the silent dead men who walked across the stage.” He cites “telling” performances by Collins as the Captain and Rauh as his daughter. Other reviews were not as generous.
The Morning Telegraph headline read: “Only the Captain’s Daughter Stays Sane” and in the review states “If you would like to enjoy the sensation of going mad you’ll find the want supplied in the bill with which the Provincetown Players began their fifth season.”
The Dramatic Mirror called Cross the “latest of Eugene O’Neill’s remarkably vital sea plays,” and that it was the “most notable” of the evening. The review goes on to say “The room, fitted up to resemble a ship’s cabin, provides a realistic setting.” Though the designer of the set is not credited, it was most likely created collectively by Cook and many of the Players, using O’Neill’s stage directions as guide. The Dramatic Mirror says that the play “is written with the skill and directness O’Neill usually employs and may be ranked among his best works.”
Audiences enjoyed the play, perhaps more for the ghost story than for the family tragedy, but it was very popular. In a letter to his friend, Nina Moise, January 17, 1919: "I have several new plays, notably Where The Cross Is Made, which appeared in the opening Provincetown Players bill this year to great success. It's one of my best."
The play was later produced as part of a "review bill" by the Provincetown Players, for their sixth and final bill of the 1919-1920 season, starting April 23, 1920. Following the custom of the previous three years, the review bill was made up of plays for which there had been an insistent demand from their audiences. For fourteen performances the Players would end their seasons with full houses and grateful loyal subscribers.
There was another company in New York which added When the Cross is Made to its repertory, May 21, 1920. Directed by Gustav Blum, who also founded the East-West Players in 1916, a group that performed one-act plays, including English translations of Yiddish plays. The East-West Players won the Belasco Cup at the first Little Theater Tournament in 1923. Blum also produced and staged Broadway plays, and worked as a drama teacher in high schools from 1909 until his retirement in 1958.
George Jean Nathan and Broadway Gold
O'NEILL'S "FIRST RAY of RECOGNITION"
[NOTE: References for this section from https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/literature-and-arts/journalism-and-publishing-biographies/george-jean-nathan; Eugene O'Neill: A Life in Four Acts, by Robert M. Dowling, Yale University Press);[From Library of America http://storyoftheweek.loa.org/2013/10/the-long-voyage-home.html]
Where the Cross is Made was first published in 1919 in a collection, The Moon of the Caribbees and Six Other Plays of the Seas: The Long Voyage Home, The Moon of the Caribees, Bound East for Cardiff, In the Zone, The Rope, Ile and Where the Cross is Made, which (according to its blurb) singly and as a cycle, are part of the permanent repertory of drama groups in all parts of the world and are a striking illustration of O'Neill's remarkable ability to create dramatic tension and atmosphere.
It was re-printed in 1921 and again in 1923, with an introduction by theatre critic George Jean Nathan.
George Jean Nathan (1882-1958) was the leading American drama critic of his time. Active from 1905 to 1958, he zealously practiced what he called "destructive" theater criticism. Nathan wrote during the most important period of U.S. theater's history and set critical standards that are still being followed. In 1908 he joined The Smart Set as its dramatic critic and met H.L. Mencken, its book reviewer. The two became friends and in 1914 assumed joint editorship of The Smart Set. Here was one of the great partnerships in American letters, for Mencken and Nathan were the arbiters, if not dictators, for what 1920s America deemed culturally worthwhile. In the pages of their magazine appeared the most influential and artistically promising writing of the era.
It was Nathan who discovered James Joyce's Dubliners, who published F. Scott Fitzgerald's first fiction. As a theatre critic, Nathan championed the plays of Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, George Bernard Shaw, Eugene O’Neill, Sean O’Casey, and William Saroyan. Nathan liked very little, but when he decided to champion a playwright—or a performer—there was nothing he would not do. He never hesitated to use his influence with producers to get plays put on, nor did he hesitate to give suggestions to authors or directors about revisions or casting before plays went into rehearsal.
More than any other critic, George Jean Nathan was responsible for the emergence of Eugene O'Neill to the forefront of the American theatre. He blew the trumpets for him season after season, badgered the Broadway producers to do him, shamed the Theatre Guild into sponsoring him, and then watched the momentum of all these campaigns culminate in the Pulitzer, and eventually, the Nobel Prize. (They are pictured together, right.)
Eugene O'Neill came to Nathan's attention in 1917.
After struggling for nearly four years to be a writer, Eugene O’Neill’s fledgling career, as well as his financial situation, took a notable turn for the better in 1917. With the help of John Reed, O'Neill's short story, Tomorrow, appeared in the June issue of a new magazine called The Seven Arts, and O’Neill received fifty dollars—the first substantial sum ever paid for his writing. (Although the year marked a turning point for O’Neill, the magazine didn’t fare as well; it folded after the October issue.)
Around the same time that the story was accepted in the magazine, the poet Louis Untermeyer, editor of The Seven Arts, stopped by the offices of The Smart Set, dropped off some of O’Neill’s writing, and “suggested trying to recruit him,” recalled the magazine’s co-editor H. L. Mencken, who sent off a friendly letter to the playwright. O’Neill responded,
"I am taking advantage of your kind letter asking to see more of my stuff to enclose two one-act plays. They are units in a series the first of which was Bound East For Cardiff, produced in New York last season by the Provincetown Players. They deal with merchant-sailor life on a tramp steamer as it really is—its sordidness inexplicably touched with romance by the glamor of far horizons. . . I have never seen anything of this kind in The Smart Set and I have small hope of it being the type of material you desire. But I do hope, and hope it strongly, that you will read them. I want these plays, which to me are real, to pass through your acid test because I know your acid is “good medicine.”
The “series” mentioned by O’Neill in his letter includes, in addition to Bound East for Cardiff, In the Zone and the two plays he sent to Mencken, The Long Voyage Home and The Moon of the Caribbees. Contrary to O’Neill’s expectations, Mencken was impressed by both plays and handed them to his co-editor George Jean Nathan, who accepted them along with Ile, a third play O’Neill had sent separately. The first to appear in print was The Long Voyage Home in the October 1917 issue of The Smart Set.
For the publication rights, the magazine paid O’Neill the then-unimaginable sum of $75—for each of the three plays. He later acknowledged to an interviewer that the publication of his plays in The Smart Set represented his “first ray of recognition.”
In addition to three plays, Nathan arrange to publish two of Agnes Boulton's stories as well.
And it was through the interest and enthusiasm of Nathan that Beyond the Horizon (pictured to the right) and Gold were brought to the attention of Broadway financier John D. Williams (and Nathan was instrumental in placing Anna Christie and The Fountain.)
O’Neill and Nathan didn’t actually meet until May 1919, as O’Neill would recollect:
"I can’t for the life of me recall much about my first meeting with Nathan. It was with John D. Williams at some restaurant, I believe, and I was three-fourths “blotto.” . . . The second meeting was at the Royalton at his apartment, and I still have a letter written by Nathan a few days later in which he speaks of being gratified at discovering that I was as proficient at drinking cocktails as at concocting dramas."
For the next three decades they met, talked, and continually corresponded: O’Neill sending Nathan scripts and Nathan responding with detailed critiques, which O’Neill claimed to value but rarely followed. When in 1920 Nathan was instrumental in bringing O’Neill’s full-length play Beyond the Horizon to the attention of Broadway producer Williams, he sent a “thank you” letter, calling Nathan the play’s “godfather.” Nathan’s support for O’Neill’s first and only comedy, Ah, Wilderness!, in 1933 led him to dedicate the play to Nathan.
O’Neill fell out of favor in the 1940s as years passed without him producing a new play. When he returned in 1946 with The Iceman Cometh, the reception was cool, except for Nathan. His 1947 review begins:
"The Iceman Cometh . . . makes most of the plays of other American playwrights produced during the more than twelve-year period of O’Neill’s absence look comparatively like so much damp tissue paper. . . It is, in short, one of the best of its author’s works and one that again firmly secures his position not only as the first of American dramatists but, with Shaw and O’Casey, one of the three really distinguished among the world’s living. The Iceman Cometh would be the last new work of O’Neill’s produced in his lifetime."
WHERE THE CROSS IS MADE GOES TO BRODWAY
George Jean Nathan was instrumental in raising money for the Broadway production of Eugene O'Neill's Gold a play in four acts (completed 1920; first produced 1921)
It completed a project begun with Where the Cross is Made. That one-act 'ghost' play produced in 1918 by Provinceton Players, contains virtually the same setting, characters and plot with some revisions as the final act of Gold. When O'Neill co-opted his wife's short-story The Captain's Walk, he wrote up a four-act scenario and then turning the last act into Where the Cross is Made before finally returning to the original structure for Gold.
In a letter to George Jean Nathan, dated 20 June 1920, Eugene O’Neill dismissed his 1918 one-act ghost play saying, "where did you get the idea that I really valued Where the Cross is Made? It was great fun to write, theatrically very thrilling, an amusing experiment in treating the audience as insane — that is all it ever meant to me."
"I suppose I shall be credited on all sides with having made Where the Cross is Made into a long play, yet the reverse is the real truth. The idea of Gold was a long play one from its inception. I merely took the last act situation and jammed it into the one-act form because I wanted to be represented on the Provincetown Players' opening bill two seasons ago. I mention this only because I know how impossible it is to expand a natural short play into a long one, and would hardly make such a futile mistake. Gold was always full length to me."
Gold's first producer, John D. Williams, was an alcoholic in his own right, and he might have been more "pickled" than usual when he advertised the play in newspapers as "Eugene O'Neill's greatest drama ... the greatest dramatic event of the year!!"
The absurd hyperbole of this statement was laid conspicuously bare on opening night. "Talky, balky, tiresome and impossible," brayed Variety. The Nation accused O'Neill of beginning to sound like a broken record, "We cannot rid ourselves of the feeling that we have heard all this before." When George Jean Nathan told O'Neill that he actually liked aspects of Gold, even its author responded with terse finality, "You're wrong. It's a bad play. I'm telling you." Heywood Broun was goaded by the play into calling for a moratorium on the "great-great-grandchildren of Ophelia ... Madness to be sure is a stage convention much abused. Ophelia really ought to have heeded the advice of Hamlet and got her to a nunnery. She has left too many grandchildren to the dramatists of all succeeding centuries."
The best summation of the critical response is in a letter from Oscar Firkins, highly regarded literature professor, essayist and critic, dated June 3, 1921:
"I went to the Frazee Theatre to see the second performance of Eugene O'Neill's Gold, the last new play of interest that I am likely to see from weeks outside of Provincetown. Gold begins like a Stevensonian romance of buried treasure and ends with a characteristically O'Neillian picture of contagious insanity in an American household. The two parts do not spiritually cohere, though the material coherence is passable enough. The first act is excellent, and the second act really good; the last two acts allowed the plot to subside and overdid the pathology."
Eugene O'Neill, Legacy
O’Neill was the first American dramatist to regard the stage as a literary medium and the only American playwright ever to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Through his efforts, the American theatre grew up during the 1920s, developing into a cultural medium that could take its place with the best in American fiction, painting, and music. Until his Beyond the Horizon was produced, in 1920, Broadway theatrical fare, apart from musicals and an occasional European import of quality, had consisted largely of contrived melodrama and farce. O’Neill saw the theatre as a valid forum for the presentation of serious ideas. Imbued with the tragic sense of life, he aimed for a contemporary drama that had its roots in the most powerful of ancient Greek tragedies—a drama that could rise to the emotional heights of Shakespeare. For more than 20 years, both with such masterpieces as Desire Under the Elms, Mourning Becomes Electra, and The Iceman Cometh and by his inspiration to other serious dramatists, O’Neill set the pace for the blossoming of the Broadway theatre.[From https://www.britannica.com/biography/Eugene-ONeill/Legacy Arthur Gelb and Barbara Gelb]
And from George Jean Nathan, in his effusive introduction to the 1923 publication of The Moon of the Caribbees and Six Other Plays of the Seas:
"The essential difference between O’Neill and the majority of his contemporaries in the field of American drama lies in the circumstance that where the latter think of life, where they think of it at all) in terms of drama, O’Neill thinks of drama in terms of life. Thus,where his contemporaries succeed only in writing the kind of play that makes of life a mechanical and spirit-less thing of rubber-stamp exits, entrances, bunch-lights and drop-curtains, O’Neill succeeds in producing life itself. The life that he so produces is often not to the taste of the American audience, for it is not always a sweet and pretty life—the life which that audience cherishes across the footlights—but life it is none the less. It pulses from his stages; it quivers from his adjectives and verbs. And it makes his manuscripts warm, beating and vital things. Many American plays have heart. It has remained for O’Neill, to no little extent, to add the blood."