Eugene O`Neill and His Eleven-Play Cycle

Eugene O`Neill and His Eleven-Play Cycle: "A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed"

Donald C. Gallup
Copyright Date: 1998
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 320
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Eugene O`Neill and His Eleven-Play Cycle
    Book Description:

    From 1935 to 1939, Eugene O`Neill devoted nearly all of his creative energy to a vast cycle of plays that would trace the history of an American family through several generations. In showing the corrupting influence of material things upon its members, O`Neill would provide "a prophetic epitome for the course of American destiny." Quoting extensively from unpublished notes, outlines, scenarios, and drafts, and incorporating detailed plot summaries, this book tells for the first time the complicated story of the cycle project. It shows what the dramatist tried to do, how he went about it, and why in the end he failed."A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed" began as a single play about a clipper ship, set in 1857 and 1858, but it expanded eventually to eleven plays going back to 1754 or 1755. O`Neill completed to his satisfaction only one play (published posthumously asA Touch of the Poet), although he drafted-and then destroyed-three other double-length plays and prepared a detailed scenario for a fifth. Yet the project`s failure contained within it a victory, for in 1939 O`Neill cast off his obsession with his cycle and went on to create such masterworks asThe Iceman ComethandLong Day`s Journey into Night,A Moon for the Misbegotten, andHughie.Henry McBride Series in Modernism and Modernity

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14385-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-ix)
  3. Editorial Note
    (pp. x-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-19)

    From 21 January 1935 until 5 June 1939 Eugene O’Neill devoted almost all of his creative energy to a Cycle of plays, finally tided “A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed,” that would trace the history of an American family, the Harfords, showing the corrupting influence of material things upon its members. Its theme would be the Bible’s question: “What will it profit a man if he gain the whole world but lose his own soul?”

    Not only was the plan for the Cycle impressive, but there were good reasons for expecting that its plays, when written, would rank with O’Neill’s best....

  6. chapter one June 1931 to January 1935
    (pp. 21-37)

    On 20 June 1931, at Beacon Farm on Eaton’s Point, near Northport, Long Island, Eugene O’Neill set down in hisWork Diaryan “idea for Clipper Ship-around-Horn play” (p. 103). Probably on that day he wrote this brief description: “Play whole action of which takes place on clipper ship bound round the horn and winds up in Shanghai Brown’s boarding house in Frisco—what year best (?)—look up data on Shanghai Brown, if any.”¹ Although he did some reading on the subject of the clipper ships, he allowed this idea to germinate for almost a year. He made a...

  7. chapter two January to February 1935
    (pp. 39-61)

    Up to this point O’Neill had projected a Cycle of four plays, but as he had once admitted to George Jean Nathan, his characters, when they began to come alive, did not always follow the plans he had made for them.¹ As he thought about Simon and Sara Harford, the two indeed began to have an existence of their own. He noted in hisWork Diaryon 27 January 1935: “story of Harford & Sara before 1stplay opens—this may develope [sic] into additional 1stplay, making five in all” (p. 208).

    The next day he outlined the “Spiritual Undertheme”...

  8. chapter three February to April 1935
    (pp. 63-97)

    On 25 and 26 February 1935, O’Neill read for and made notes on the new second play and the next day got a working tide, “Oh, Sour-Apple Tree.” He finished a “very tentative skeleton” outline on the twenty-eighth but was not satisfied with it.¹ He wrote on 1 March to his friend Robert Sisk, formerly with the Theatre Guild and now a Hollywood screenwriter, about the whole six-play Cycle: “Well, I’m wildly enthusiastic just now on the new Work I’m on. I’ve been at plans and preliminaries for the past two months—switched from what I had started on to...

  9. chapter four April to July 1935
    (pp. 99-111)

    On 25 April, the day before he completed the scenario forMore Stately Mansions, O’Neill jotted in hisWork Diary, “New possible title for [the] Cycle[:] ‘Threnody For Possessors Dispossessed’(?)” (p. 216). On the twenty-seventh, he made notes for revising the scenarios of the first two plays. He spent a day on general notes and reading and then began work on the third play,The Calms of Capricorn, featuring Ethan, the oldest of the four Harford sons, as its principal character. Despite a toothache and a visit from Carlotta’s daughter Cynthia and her husband, O’Neill sketched plans for the scenes...

  10. chapter five July 1935
    (pp. 113-129)

    On 3 July 1935, after the Theatre Guild had released a publicity statement about the Cycle, O’Neill made a more extensive report to Robert Sisk:

    As to the new project, I’ll sketch it briefly for you. (To go into detail would take a book!) It’s a cycle of seven plays portraying the history of the interrelationships of a family over a period of approximately a century. The first play [then “The Hair of the Dog,” finallyA Touch of the Poet] begins in 1829, the last [formerly “The Career of Bessie Bowen,” then “Twilight of Possessors Self-dispossessed,” and finally “The...

  11. chapter six July to September 1935
    (pp. 131-149)

    On 29 July 1935, O’Neill made further general notes for the entire Cycle and prepared a Melody-Harford family tree. The next day he went fishing with neighbors and on the thirty-first began the detailed outline for the sixth play, of Jonathan Harford, “The Man on Iron Horseback.” On 8 August he came down with sore throat and worked on notes on the psychological and hereditary pattern of the whole Cycle until he felt better, resuming work on the sixth play on the thirteenth, finishing the outline on the twenty-seventh. It is doubtful that, in his plans for this play, O’Neill...

  12. chapter seven September 1935 to July 1937
    (pp. 151-185)

    In September 1935, as O’Neill now turned his attention to the other plays in the Cycle, he found once more that it was the earlier lives of his characters that most stimulated his imagination. Because he had always planned the action of “Bessie Bowen” to come up to the present, the obvious way for the “magnum opus” to expand even further in time was backward. On the seventh he recorded in hisWork Diarythat he was “Playing around with idea [for] new first play to precede ‘Hair of The Dog’ [A Touch of the Poet], to go back to...

  13. chapter eight July 1937 to October 1940
    (pp. 187-205)

    With the help of new drafting equipment, O’Neill prepared a meticulously detailed Harford family tree on 10 and 11 July 1937. From the twenty-third to the twenty-fifth, he made notes on the whole nine-play Cycle and various of its parts. The next day he took up the final play, the old “Bessie Bowen,” commented in hisWork Diarythat it would require an extra generation in the new scheme—“ ‘Honey’ to live till [the] end?” (p. 295)—and made notes for it:

    The play now opens in 1900, at Honey Harford’s bicycle shop and livery stable (he has always...

  14. chapter nine October to November 1940
    (pp. 207-235)

    In July 1940 O’Neill had written sadly to Lawrence Langner that “The Cycle is on the shelf, and God knows if I can ever take it up again because I cannot foresee any future in this country or anywhere else to which it could spiritually belong.”¹ But on 18 October he did return to the nine plays, surveying the first two and recording in theWork Diaryon the twentieth: “both as long as ‘S〈trange〉. I〈nterlude〉.’—& too complicated—tried to get too much into them, too many interwoven themes & motives, psychological & spiritual”. And the next day: “Continuing study 1st& 2nd...

  15. chapter ten November 1940 to November 1953
    (pp. 237-264)

    From these rough outlines for the first four plays of the eleven-play Cycle, it is apparent that O’Neill has altered radically the characters of both the original Harford and his son. One of the first notes made for the new plan in October 1940 (and marked marginally to apply “throughout Cycle”) reflects this changed concept: “Jonathan becomes family legend, more & more distorted, of the Great Free Pioneer—spirit of rugged individualism—while his son, Ethan, becomes in legend the Great Idealist, the Revolutionary, the lover of Liberty and defender of the Rights of Man.”¹

    Because so much of the material...

  16. Appendix: A Chronology of Composition
    (pp. 265-268)
  17. Abbreviations
    (pp. 269-270)
  18. Notes
    (pp. 271-280)
  19. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 281-294)
  20. Index
    (pp. 295-304)
  21. Permissions
    (pp. 305-306)