With no further impediments to their marriage, Carlotta and O’Neill say their I do’s (in this case a simple “Oui!”) in Paris on July 22. They exchange thin gold bands, both engraved with the same quotation from Lazarus Laughed: “Life laughs with love!” (Nine years later, in anticipation of their anniversary, Carlotta and O’Neill changed their wedding bands for new ones inscribed with an alternate quotation from Lazarus Laughed: “You are my laughter—and I am yours.”)
Carlotta and O’Neill spend the night in their suite at the Hotel du Rhin, then motor back to Le Plessis the following evening during a fearsome thunderstorm. O’Neill, terrified of thunder and lightning, cringes. But Carlotta, unperturbed by the supernal fury, rejoices in her diary: “Mr. and Mrs. Eugene O’Neill at home.” Earlier, she had declared that their marriage was “to be for each of us until death! Thank God!”
O’Neill authorizes his lawyer, Weinberger, to announce the marriage to the American press (instructing him to include the purposely misleading information that he and Carlotta will travel to the Tyrol for a honeymoon), and the New York newspapers carry the story on July 24. He also cables his friend the portrait photographer Ben Pinchot to release a photograph for which he and Carlotta sat before leaving for Europe; it will appear in the next issue of Vanity Fair and subsequently be reprinted in newspapers worldwide.
In the photo, O’Neill is almost surrealistically handsome—a movie star version of himself. He wears a superbly tailored dark suit, white shirt, and wide striped tie. Gazing into the camera’s eye, he allows the barest suggestion of a smile to lurk at the corners of his sensual mouth; his eyes are speculative; his hair lies in a thick wave over his right temple, its silver beginning to spread; his mustache, still dark, is immaculately trimmed.
Carlotta ignores the camera. Stunningly beautiful, her gleaming ebony hair brushed sleekly away from her creamy brow, chin tilted upward, swan’s neck extended and encircled with jewels, she gazes adoringly, possessively, at O’Neill, with her lovely shadowed (myopic) eyes.
Between them, Carlotta and O’Neill, both nearing their forty-first birthdays, have begun to create a legend about the remote château- dwelling expatriate, secluded in work and in love. For most of the next quarter century, Carlotta will devote herself to perpetuating this fable, while O’Neill perversely—more than once—will attempt to sabotage it. For now, however, all is harmony.
Two months before the wedding, O’Neill, in consultation with Carlotta, had formulated a design for living. To begin with, he would no longer allow anything but his own creative tempo to determine his output. Reflecting that he had written eighteen long plays during the past eleven years, he concluded it was “too much”; he had often forced the plays just to keep himself occupied. Writing would always come first (his “vacation from living”), but he would rest and relax in the periods between creation. “America has had a bellyful of my stuff for a while,” he told friends.
What he really wished he could avoid—an oddly contrary wish for a dramatist—was the process of moving his plays off the written page and onto a stage. “My interest in the productions steadily decreases as my interest in plays as written increases,” he had explained at that time to Eleanor Fitzgerald, the executive manager of the Playwrights’ Theatre, with whom O’Neill had a close friendship.
“I am a bit weary and disillusioned with scenery and actors and the whole uninspired works of the Show Shop,” O’Neill told Fitzgerald. He was thinking, he said half-seriously, that he might end up “writing plays to be published with ‘no productions allowed’ in red letters on the first page,” even if it meant holding back plays from production (and even publication) until he was forgotten.
Sick of being a public personage, he was planning life ahead so that he could go back to his old private life of “unpestered artist.” Forty, he said, “is the right age to begin to learn and I think my new work is going to show more poise, more patience with itself to reach at perfection, more critical analysis of itself and contemplation, more time given it for gestation and genuine birth, more pains.” It was time, said O’Neill, to achieve “a more mature outlook as an artist.”
For a man who treasured his privacy, O’Neill was surprisingly open with certain friends, not only about his work but about his personal outlook. To Fitzgerald, he confided it had taken a complete upheaval of his life to attain his new mind-set. He could now look forward to years of undisturbed work, lovingly protected by his Carlotta. “I’ve everything to back me up now,” he concluded, “love of the kind I’ve always wanted, security and peace.”
Only five days after explaining his new vision to Fitzgerald, he made his first significant entry in his Work Diary about the play he’d been contemplating since 1926. “Virtually decide on Mourning Becomes Electra as title—trilogy—with separate subtitle each play.”
During the next two months, he completed a scenario of Electra, and was dreaming of achieving a poetic resonance for his modern-day Greek characters worthy of their tragic fates—a language that would transcend any dialogue he had ever written. But he was far from certain he could ever overcome what he perceived as his own particular inadequacy. For that reason, among others, he was not yet ready to grapple with his new project full-time.
In a singular outpouring to the critic Joseph Wood Krutch, he conveyed his frustration:
“Oh for a language to write drama in! For a speech that is dramatic and isn’t just conversation! I’m so strait-jacketed by writing in terms of talk! I’m so fed up with the dodge-question of dialect! But where to find that language?”
His use of dialect to give voice to the inarticulate women and men whose lives he knew so well and for whom he appointed himself spokesman—although arresting in its time—was restrictive (Swedish- American for Anna Christie, street-black for The Emperor Jones, seaman’s vernacular for The Hairy Ape, fumbling New England back-country for Desire Under the Elms).
There was much he wanted to think about before beginning on the actual dialogue of Electra. “It is going to be difficult, this!” he con- fessed to George Jean Nathan on August 31. “It would be so easy to do well. The story would see to that—and that’s the danger I want to avoid. It has got to have an exceptional quality to lift it above its easy possibilities and make it worthy in some sense of its classic antecedents—or it will be a rank f lop in my eyes no matter what others may think of it. So I’m going to do a lot more of tentative feeling out and testing before I start.”
But he had another reason to delay his return to the trilogy and full-time writing, and that was his sense of obligation to his new marital state. He wished to indulge Carlotta’s desire (and also his own) to show off the grandeur of their torturously achieved matrimonial bliss.
Among the series of guests he and Carlotta entertained at Le Plessis were the Carl Van Vechtens, Philip Moeller, and Theresa Helburn, as well as Eugene Jr., on vacation from Yale, who had just been staked by his father to a tour of Germany, and who visited him and Carlotta for two weeks in late August and early September.
O’Neill was proud of his nineteen-year-old son, who had grown to six feet two inches and weighed 180 pounds. To O’Neill’s delight, his son and Carlotta hit it off; she took him sightseeing and shopping for clothes. “A fine youth truly!” O’Neill wrote to Nathan. “He fits in very well with us. . . . So all’s well.”
* * * *
Zealous in the performance of her duties as hostess and secretary, Carlotta appointed herself gatekeeper as well. She began slicing away those of O’Neill’s friends she regarded as disloyal because of their ties to Agnes.
* * * *
Her function as gatekeeper was relentless. It was always she who spoke or wrote the dismissive or severing words, claiming she did so on O’Neill’s behalf. She was performing what Strindberg, in his Spook Sonata, graphically described as “the labor of keeping the filth of life at a distance”; it was a labor that some of O’Neill’s friends believed she pursued with too much relish.
In almost every case, however, the severing was administered because O’Neill desired it, either actively or passively. “Neither God nor the angels could have kept anyone away from O’Neill that he wished to see,” Carlotta once protested. If he deferred, in some cases, to Carlotta’s dislikes and prejudices, it was the natural deference of a loving husband.
As Carlotta told Saxe Commins, she and O’Neill were looking forward to peace and work in “a new world” of their own making; this, she wrote spitefully to Commins, meant “cutting loose the rotten drift wood” that comprised O’Neill’s Greenwich Village coterie.
“We would be delighted if we never heard a word from or about these people again,” she said, adding that O’Neill was going through “a new development—new pleasures—new richness.” There were “new subjects of study” entering his life; the “old skin [was] being shed!”—and with it, she hoped, “the old parasites!”
And what were these “pleasures,” this “richness” of O’Neill’s new life? First, according to Carlotta, was his work environment. In his tower studio, Carlotta installed a chair, custom-made in England—a contraption described with amused wonder by the visiting George Jean Nathan as “a cross between a dentist’s and a barber’s chair with all sorts of pull-in and pull-dash contrivances attached to it, and with a couple of small shelves for reference books.”
The chair had an attached board “so arranged that it can be maneuvered in front of him and on it he rests his pad.” The pad to which Nathan referred was a blotting tablet held in a leather frame that lay on O’Neill’s desk, an accessory that graced all the desks in his subsequent homes.
“It was his writing desk, so to speak,” according to Carlotta, who once explained that O’Neill could only write when seated in “a particular chair” with his feet on a footstool and the leather blotting pad on his knees; in that position he could write “for hours at a time,” she said, adding that O’Neill had been using “this particular pad” since May 1928 (presumably changing the blotter paper itself from time to time). “He could never write at a table or desk! I bought him various styles of each— but it was wasted money.” (He occasionally wrote on the tablet in bed.)
From BY WOMEN POSSESSED: A LIFE OF EUGENE O’NEILL. Used with permission of G. P. Putnam’s Sons. Copyright © 2016 by Arthur Gelb and Barbara Gelb.