The Long Day's Journey of Eugene O'Neill
Until he came to Tao House in California, America's greatest playwright had been a wanderer. Eugene O'Neill was born in New York City on October 16, 1888, the son of James O'Neill, an actor who, like other major stars of the time, spent his life on extended tours of the country. The young O'Neill spent his infancy in hotel rooms and the wings of theatres. As he grew older, Eugene was sent to Catholic boarding schools and to Princeton University. His growing realization that his father's considerable talent had been cheapened by repeated performances of the melodrama The Count of Monte Cristo, and his shocked discovery that his mother was addicted to the morphine prescribed for her painful recovery from Eugene's birth, proved realities too great for the young man to endure. He ran from them.
He ran farto Honduras in 1909 on a gold-prospecting expedition, to South America in 1910, sailing on one of the declining number of commercial wind-powered ships, and to England in 1911 on the crew of a passenger ship. He tried to escape by drinking, and for a time, he lived in a flop-house on the Manhattan waterfront. Once he attempted suicide, and in 1912, when he was 24, he fell ill with tuberculosis. In the sanitarium, for the first time, he was forced to pause.
His illness was quickly arrested, but during his convalescence he began to write plays, testing himself in the theatrical world he had long watched from the wings. In the summer of 1916, at Provincetown, Mass., he fell in with a group of amateur actors who staged his short play about the sea, Bound East for Cardiff, with such success that his playwriting ambitions were affirmed. Critical and popular success followed rapidly. In 1920 he received the first of his four Pulitzer Prizes for the tragedy, Beyond the Horizon, a play that combined the real and the poetic in a manner that Broadway playgoers had not seen before. The next year, the tragi-comic Anna Christie won his second Pulitzer Prize.
O'Neill rapidly became known as America's most exciting dramatist. Actors and scenic designers were taxed by the demands of his imagination, but he was no less demanding of himself. Writing was everything. The scope of his plays is wide: Marco Polo's voyage to China (Marco Millions, 1928); a play of contemporary life, using masks in the Greek manner (The Great God Brown, 1926); a nine-act drama in which the characters speak their thoughts aloud (Strange Interlude, 1928, for which he won this third Pulitzer Prize); and a gentle comedy about young love in turn-of-the-century New England (Ah, Wilderness! 1933). By the time he came to California in 1936, 35 of his plays had been produced, and counting those that remained incomplete or had been destroyed, he had written nearly 60 plays.
By 1936, with no clear idea of when or how it would be produced, O'Neill had begun work on a cycle of plays about the history of a family in America. Ultimately 11 plays long in plan, its theme was announced in its title, A Tale of Possessors, Self-dispossessed. Writing it, he often had to work on several plays simultaneously, and he needed isolation so that concentration could be continuous and undisturbed. In 1936, while he was visiting in Seattle, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. With the stipend, he and his wife Carlotta were able to build the home he came to call his "final harbor," Tao House.
During the early years in California, he worked single-mindedly, at times almost desperately, on the historical cycle. But he was plagued with health problems, and the overwhelming task he had set himself was draining him of energy and spirit. After completing A Touch of the Poet, he shelved the cycle (he burned two of the plays before leaving Tao House) and in rapid succession wrote the autobiographical plays that rank among the highest achievements of the English-speaking theatre: The Iceman Cometh, Hughie, A Moon For The Misbegotten, and Long Day's Journey Into Night. For the last play, he received his fourth Pulitzer, awarded posthumously following the New York premier in 1956.
He never completed another play after 1943. A worsening tremor in his hands slowly robbed him of the ability to write, and he found himself blocked when he was unable to set pencil to paper. The coming of the war cut off the life-support systems of the house: servants were unavailable, and neither of the O'Neills could drive. Suffering from a rare degenerative disease, O'Neill had to leave his sanctuary and once again move on. In a hotel room in Boston, he destroyed the drafts and notes for his unfinished plays. Carlotta said it was like "tearing up children." Effectively silenced by illness, O'Neill died there in 1953.
O'Neill at Tao House
Of all the places Eugene O'Neill called home during his restless life, Tao (dow) House was the one that held him longest, the refuge where he wrote his last plays. In early 1937 he and Carlotta were living in a San Francisco hotel. "No roots. No home," Carlotta wrote as they searched for a place to live. Drawn to the privacy and climate of the San Ramon Valley, they purchased a 158-acre ranch near Danville and planned what O'Neill hoped would be his final home.
O'Neill's interest in Eastern thought and Carlotta's passion for Oriental art and decor inspired the name Tao House. Taoism is one of the great religious traditions of China. "Tao," generally translated as "The Way," is the term given to the primal reality which gives birth to the visible world. O'Neill was aware of Taoist concepts, some of which paralleled his own dramatic ideas. The sea symbolized for him the "impelling, inscrutable forces behind life which it is my ambition to at least faintly shadow... in my plays."
While O'Neill wrote, Carlotta channeled her own creative energy into the house. Combining a Spanish colonial exterior of adobe-like blocks with an interior of deep blue ceilings and red doors, tiled or black-stained floors, and Chinese furniture, she called it her "pseudo-Chinese house." Because Carlotta's eyes were overly sensitive to light, most of the shades were kept drawn. The darkness and the ghostly images reflected by colored mirrors created a shadowy, enclosed atmosphere that unsettled some visitors.
Though the O'Neills rarely spent a night away from Tao House and Carlotta often kept people at arm's length, especially when the "Master," as she called him, was at work, the couple was far from reclusive. They were visited by relatives, friends, and O'Neill's old theatre colleagues. O'Neill enjoyed gardening and attending football games, where the intensely private man relished a rare anonymity in the crowd. His health permitting, though, he mostly immersed himself in his plays, working on several at a time. Shut away by thick walls and the three doors leading to his study, with Carlotta ensuring that his isolation was undisturbed, his creative energy flowed unchecked for days, even weeks at a stretch. He rose early and usually worked uninterrupted from early morning to about 1 p.m. After lunch he generally napped, swam in the pool, or walked with Carlotta, though sometimes he worked without break into the night. He also devoted time to his dog Blemie, something of a surrogate child for the couple. In the evenings, they usually read or listened to their collection of jazz and blues records.
While he was at Tao House, O'Neill refused requests to produce the plays he wrote there. He wanted to complete five of the cycle plays first, and he did not want the others staged until the war was over. During his years there he turned his back on the "show shop," his jaundiced term for the theatre world, giving himself to "soul-grinding" work on the cycle and transforming his past into the autobiographical plays that made him America's most important playwright.
Eugene O'Neill: American Drama Transformed
In 1930, Sinclair Lewis defined Eugene O'Neill's place in American culture: "[O'Neill] has done nothing much in the American drama save to transform it utterly in ten or twelve years from a false world of neat and competent trickery to a world of splendor, fear and greatness . . . [he has] seen life as something not to be neatly arranged in a study, but as terrifying, magnificent and often quite horrible, a thing akin to a tornado, an earthquake or a devastating fire." Growing up literally backstage in the theatre of his father, O'Neill knew intimately the kind of drama he did not want to write. He was repelled by the hackneyed and melodramatic plots, broad gestures, and overwrought oratory of the American theatre and responded instinctively to the realism and experimental techniques of the European dramatists Shaw, Ibsen, and especially Strindberg.
O'Neill believed that the theatre should be taken as serious art rather than pleasant diversion. He wanted to pull in his audiences, make demands on them, commit them to the experience. He freely used experimental techniques to do so, but always in the service of a fundamental realism. From the start, O'Neill was interested in the inner drama of his characters more than their physical or social world, and he evoked psychological states through powerful metaphorical settings. His innovations and revivals of ancient techniques were legion: masks and other expressionist devices, great length, the casting of black actors, taboo subject matter, extended asides with the action frozen, and serious dramatic treatment of the poor and powerless.
O'Neill's experiments, his unblinking look at raw, sometimes ugly truths were theatrical blows in a broader cultural revolution. He worked during a time of radical change and cross-fertilization in the arts, sciences, and social thought. Modernists like Brecht and Artaud in the theatre; Joyce, Woolf, and Eliot in fiction and poetry; Stravinsky and Schoenberg in music; and Picasso and Kandinsky in painting were breaking with ancient assumptions and conventions. O'Neill was in the thick of this movement to, in Ezra Pound's words, "Make it new."
Above all, O'Neill aspired to the tragic. He was challenged by Greek and Elizabethan tragedy and by what he termed the "first theater that sprang, by virtue of man's imaginative interpretation of life, out of his worship of Dionysius." His great achievement, in plays like Desire Under the Elms and Mourning Becomes Electra, was to forge native materials into true American tragedy.
For all O'Neill's disdain for his father's theatre, the "tricks" he had absorbed in his youth continued to emerge in his mastery of staging and his adaptability to the practical demands of the theatre. Even some of what he considered the less desirable characteristics of the old school colored his work. In critic Heywood Broun's words: "In many external things, O'Neill is a pioneer... But he is still the true son of the man who played The Count of Monte Cristo more than a thousand times . . . . Heredity has left in O'Neill the actor's greediness for every last potential twist and turn in any given situation." O'Neill himself said of the leading role in A Touch of the Poet: "What that one needs is an actor like Maurice Barrymore or James O'Neill, my old man. One of those big-chested, chiseled-mug, romance old boys...."
Early Promise to Mature Vision
O'Neill wrote nearly 60 plays in a career spanning three decades. Below are some of the more important ones, with dates of composition.
Bound East for Cardiff1914
The Tao House Plays
At Tao House, Eugene O'Neill finally wrote the plays that had been germinating for years, tapping painful memories and working them into compelling theatre. It meant reopening old wounds. Carlotta O'Neill remembered her husband emerging from his study red-eyed and gaunt after working on Long Day's Journey Into Night. His remark that "There are moments [in The Iceman Cometh]... that suddenly strip the secret soul of a man stark naked ..." reflected his own need to forgive and ask forgiveness. The five plays that O'Neill wrote at Tao House include the life studies generally regarded as his finest achievement, works of profound compassion, elegies of pity and absolution.
For Your Safety: To insure that you have a safe and pleasant visit, please note that there are uneven walking surfaces and stairs on the tour route.
Accessibility: Visitors with special accessibility needs should phone the site in advance.
Source: NPS Brochure (1998)
Brochures ◆ Site Bulletins ◆ Trading Cards
Cultural Landscape Report Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site Final Draft (2004)
Historic Furnishings Report, Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site, California (Sarah M. Olson, 1983)
Museum Management Plan East Bay Parks (John Muir NHS, Eugene O'Neill NHS, Port of Chicago Naval Magazine NMem and Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front NHP) (David Blackburn, Kent Bush, Dave Casebolt, Carola DeRooy, Lucy Lawliss, Diane Nicholson and Paul Rogers, May 2007)
National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form
Eugene O'Neill House (Tao House) (Robert S. Gamble, March 23, 1971)
Handbooks ◆ Books
Last Updated: 01-May-2021