The generous financial support of BAAS has allowed me the opportunity to explore Yale University’s Eugene O’Neill Collection and his extended period of sobriety, which was particularly formative for the author’s late-career works, says Grant Gosizk, recipient of the 2015 Malcolm Bradbury Award.
The work conducted during this research trip supports my Ph.D. dissertation ‘Addicts on the American Stage,’ a piece which explores a shift in the dramatic representation of addiction in American theatre after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. At this time playwrights departed from the didactic moralism of the temperance movement’s theatrical propaganda and moved towards a depiction of the addict as a symbol of nationalized political and social anxieties. Through chronological author-centric case
studies, I investigate the various manifestations of addiction in American stage drama and suggest that after Prohibition and prior to the War on Drugs, the addict was an important symbol of American life. Working within the catalogs of Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Sam Shepard some of America’s most popular Broadway dramas are read as historical documents in this transition. The generous financial support of BAAS’s Malcolm Bradbury Award has allowed me the opportunity to explore one of these author’s archives in depth: The Eugene O’Neill Collection at the Yale University Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript Library.
Yale University’s Eugene O’Neill Collection maintains the most extensive body of literary ephemera relating to O’Neill and his work. This includes sensitive documents pertaining to the author’s personal, spousal, and filial relationships to addiction, as well as the drafts, proofs, and stage designs of the author’s most popular addict-centric plays. While much research has been conducted to uncover the autobiographical addiction narratives of O’Neill’s work, particularly those of his childhood under the maternal care of a morphine addict or of frequenting Greenwich flop houses as an alcoholic young-adult, far less attention has been paid to an extended period of sobriety in the author’s life, one which was particularly formidable for the author’s late-career works.
Between 1926 and 1953 O’Neill maintained sobriety, but addiction was never far from his mind. For, throughout this period O’Neill’s son, Shane, developed a criminal heroin addiction, his oldest son committed suicide after a long battle with alcoholism, his third-wife suffered from Bromide toxicity, and his second-wife developed alcoholism. Often overlooked, this gap in criticism not only neglects an enormous portion of the author’s biography, but fails to recognize the ways in which these daily experiences with addiction informed various formal and philosophical approaches to the subject in O’Neill’s highly acclaimed late-career works, particularly The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey Into Night. It was with this period which I was primarily concerned.
In the Agnes Boulton Collection, one of the three archival bodies composing the O’Neill library, and that which preserves the correspondence and ephemera of the author’s second wife, I uncovered detailed documentation of Eugene O’Neill’s alcoholic rehabilitation which had previously only been referenced to peripherally in biographies on the author. These records showed that in 1926, under Boulton’s recommendation, Eugene O’Neill attended several sessions with the psychoanalyst G.V. Hamilton with hopes of curing his alcoholism. Here, in addition to being prescribed Bromide – a minor-tranquilizer later discovered to be highly addictive and toxic – O’Neill was encouraged to read Freud’s Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis and The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Meticulously kept expense reports from the period show that O’Neill filled this prescription and read several of Freud’s publications over the next few years. While the author belittled Freudian readings of his plays, this strong association between Freudian psychoanalysis and addiction invites, and perhaps validates, readings of formal symmetry between O’Neill’s late-career representations of addiction and Freudian metapsychology.
Research into the Carlotta O’Neill archive, O’Neill’s third-wife, proved similar fruitful. For, according Carlotta’s correspondence and financial records, O’Neill financially supported many of his childhood friends, those who, unlike O’Neill, never moved beyond their days as alcoholic Greenwich bohemians. Paying for funerals, picking up bar-tabs, and covering rent for a number of the alcoholic leftists who O’Neill associated with in his youth for nearly twenty years kept memories of dypsomania and New York’s addict culture indelible, even in the authors most sober years.
Likewise, much of my research into O’Neill’s unpublished correspondence has offered an alternative narrative to popular perspectives of the author, which often portray him as a solitary creative, willfully outside the social circles of the mid-twentieth century intelligentsia. Rather, unpublished letters from Theodore Dreiser, Hart Crane, Arthur Davies, Marjorie Stevens, William Faulkner, Therése Bonney, and George Bellows begin to trace the contours of a playwright who was far more central, at least for a period of time, to the American tastemakers and intellectual elite.
I am currently in the process of incorporating these findings into my dissertation and will be seeking publication soon after. Many thanks to BAAS for their generous support and Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript Library for their cooperation, for without them this research would not have been possible.
Grant Gosizk is a second year Ph.D Candidate at the University of Kent’s Centre for American Studies and School of English. His dissertation explores the afterlife of temperance drama, and particularly the representation of addiction, in post-Prohibition America theatre. Other research interests include masked performance, and the interactions between visual cultures and literature in twentieth century America.