Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Bound East for Cardiff

His life was simply awful, an existence bookended by a grim metaphor of rootlessness. His dying words were reportedly: 'I knew it. I knew it. Born in a hotel room, and God damn it, died in a hotel room.' Between those two rooms, the first on Broadway and the last in Boston, he struggled through sixty-five years of intermittent soul-draining misery. After an unhappy nomadic childhood, gloomy Catholic boarding school and a brief spell at Princeton University, he bummed around the world as a merchant seaman, developed a taste for liquor, and contracted tuberculosis. He was a remarkably bad poet, publishing some dud verses when working briefly for the New London Telegraph in 1912. A spell in a sanatorium led to his decision to become a writer and he was an emerging theatrical talent when his parents (both actors) and much-loved elder brother died in quick succession. Two failed marriages produced three children; his third wife, the actress Carlotta Monterey, was addicted, though not fatally, to potassium bromide, a clobbering sedative available over the counter in American drugstores until 1975. His two sons, Eugene Jr and Shane, both committed suicide, the former predeceasing his father, who later disowned his daughter, Oona. She married Charlie Chaplin (she was eighteen, he fifty-four) and O'Neill never spoke to her again. His last ten years were spent as an increasingly reclusive invalid, with a debilitating nervous condition, misdiagnosed as Parkinson's Disease, that caused his hands to tremble so violently that he couldn't hold a pen, let alone write a word. A morose alcoholic, he was subject to long depressions. A suicide attempt at the age of twenty-four informs the content of Exorcism, written seven years later.
Anyone who can read Eugene O'Neill's life story without laughing must have a heart of stone.

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