My Eugene O’Neill Summer

In 1976, I was twenty-three years old and while many young men of that age have finished college, started families, and embarked on careers, I was not even close to such a person. In my darker moments, I believed at twenty-three that the same thing might be said of me as was said of James Joyce: that I was “a young man with a great future behind him.” I was too shy to be particularly dissolute; though I spent enough time in bars, usually drinking off someone else’s money (for I was also willfully underemployed that summer), my real vice in those days was the library.

I had dropped out of college early, yet I loved pretending I was scholarly, managing to believe —against vast evidence—that I was somehow past the point of needing to do basic coursework. (Blessed are the young and smug, for they shall learn the hard way.) Ireland had already captured my imagination and so I haunted the college library near my home, with its marvelous gabled oak reading room, its racks of journals I had never heard of, its backstacks of bound periodicals, its stained glasses depicting the titans of (mostly Catholic) literature—Hamlet, Ahab, Chesterton’s Fr Brown, and, no kidding, Mr Chips. Like most Catholic colleges, the school had strong Irish connections in its past; one of the little joys that fed my fantasy of scholarship was finding some Irish novel, say, one by Canon Sheehan, that a priest had donated back in 1910 and which no one had checked out until me.

At some point early that summer, Eugene O’Neill hove into my life. I don’t recall how; I think that a girl named Peggy Flanagan told me I looked like him (which I don’t, especially). I plunked myself down with Louis Schaeffer’s O’Neill: Son and Playwright, a book of more than 500 pages, and I was lost like Alice down the rabbit hole. Perhaps 80 percent of the way through, I noticed that this was merely volume one; there was an equally long sequel, O’Neill: Son and Artist. No matter: I plowed right into that one, too. Then I took on Arthur and Barbara Gelb’s O’Neill, a comprehensive life that totted in at around 900 pages. On sunny July mornings with the sound of the sprinkler tish-tishing outside the library windows, I marched through the O’Neill biographies like Sherman through Georgia.

The truly remarkable aspect to this story is that, at the end of the summer, I still had not read a single line of any of Eugene O’Neill’s plays. That was an unimportant detail. It was O’Neill the man who arrested my imagination, not O’Neill the playwright. I couldn’t really say that I identified with him: at twenty-three, O’Neill was already married and divorced, a much traveled seafarer and wanderer, and in the haunts of Greenwich Village, best known for being a drunkard and a frequent brothel patron. I was none of those things. What I did have in common with him was an ironclad conviction that being Irish meant being a congenital philosopher.