I’m standing in playwright Eugene O’Neill’s office when the tour guide says he wants to show us how quiet the room can get. “For the next 60 seconds, no one say anything,” he says. “Just listen.”
The silence is indeed engulfing. Out the window I can see the freeway across the California hills, but I can’t even hear a bird singing. When O’Neill built this house in 1937—now part of the Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site—his office was designed for quiet. To even enter it, you have to walk through two empty rooms first. The house is located on top of a mountain that at the time was only accessible by private road. O’Neill was not exactly a people person.
I’m relieved when the tour guide begins talking again. Being in this room for too long would make me nervous. Like many people who grew up immersed in technology, I’m uncomfortable with silence. For years, I’ve struggled with the fact that writing requires concentration, patience, and contemplation, things that work best in a quiet room. This office, with the plays written in it—most notably Long Day’s Journey Into The Night—can attest to that fact easily enough.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of O’Neill’s death. Today it’s easy to forget how he revolutionized American theater in the early 20th century. Before him, theater was all melodrama and vaudeville. O’Neill presented the first American tragedies, plays with realistic characters dealing with social issues and grappling with forces beyond their control. His work sobered the American theater in the 1920s, a decade not without similarities to today’s obsession with celebrity and money. He challenged the theater of his day to grow up, and over time, it did.
Even his furniture indicates a devotion to focus and work. The office has two large oak desks, each designated for a different work-in-progress. O’Neill would sit between the desks so that if he got stuck on one play, he could swing around to work on the other. When he moved to this house, he planned to write an 11-play cycle that would follow an American family through 175 years of history. He had the plays mapped out and had even written some drafts when he developed a Parkinson’s-like tremor in his hand that made it difficult to put pen to paper. Soon it became clear that O’Neill was losing his ability to write.
When he realized he was running out of time, O’Neill abruptly abandoned the 11-play project and turned his attention to a different subject: his past. In this house, he wrote The Iceman Cometh, about his dissipated youth, A Moon for the Misbegotten, about his alcoholic brother, and Long Day’s Journey into the Night, based on his dysfunctional childhood. The play follows the Tyrone family through a day in the life, exploring issues of alcoholism, illness, and cruelty against the ominous background of the mother’s morphine addiction. It’s a remarkable play, laying equal blame and forgiveness on all the Tyrones, including Edmund, O’Neill’s stand-in for himself.
The tour guide shows us a Xeroxed page from one of O’Neill’s drafts. It’s a testament to determination: hundreds of tiny words are jammed on the page, the lines of each letter crooked from a shaking hand. It would take a magnifying glass to decipher it all. There was emotional toll in writing this highly personal work, too. Carlotta, O’Neill’s wife, said of that period, “He would come out of his study looking gaunt, his eyes red from weeping. Sometimes he looked ten years older than when he went in in the morning.”
For the last decade of his life, O’Neill was unable to write. His mind was sharp, but his body wouldn’t cooperate. For a man who built everything, even his house, around writing, this must have been devastating.
As the shuttle takes me away from the park, I find myself envying O’Neill’s focus and creative confidence. He said in an interview in 1930: “The playwright must dig at the roots of the sickness of today as he feels it–the death of the old God and the failure of science and materialism to give any satisfying new for the surviving primitive religious instinct to find a meaning for life in, and to comfort one’s fears of death.” This is surely the root of O’Neill’s monastic creative life: he had a spiritual seriousness toward art that feels refreshing to me, a writer working today, as it was when it was new.
And I’m sobered too. While I have been conditioned to distrust and avoid silence, O’Neill sought it out at all costs. It provided the peace that allowed him to work despite health problems, mental illness, and alcoholism. Most strikingly, it was silence that helped him push the last plays out before he was forced to stop writing altogether. Compared to that, my difficulty focusing seems childish by comparison. The truth is, it’s too easy to blame my perpetual distraction on technology. It’s simply more comfortable to flail along the surface of ideas with a lot of noise to distract me than it is to summon the rigor necessary to take on issues like the ones O’Neill was talking about. And what, I think as the gate of the Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site closes behind me, would be different for me as a writer if I learned to love silence the way O’Neill did?
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