The Site of My Scholarship--History of O'Neill and Me

The Site of My Scholarship--a keynote address at Department of Theater and Dance graduate recruitment conference--Feb. 8, 2020

This is the site of my scholarship, or I could call it The Situation of My Scholarship in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night at Tao House. 

And so this is the site of my scholarship.

It’s a nice-enough house, and it has performed well on the real estate market twice. A realtor would describe it as a four bedroom, three-and-a-half bathroom, Spanish colonial house with 360 degrees of beautiful views of the Las Trampas Wilderness Area, an hour east of San Francisco. Large living room, family room, dining room, and tons of closet and storage space. Two-car garage. A gorgeous walled-in garden courtyard leads to three separate patio areas (“Entertain your friends!”), while a stunning fourth patio commands a sweeping view of the San Ramon Valley and Mt. Diablo. Separate fully equipped wing to house three servants. Secluded at the end of a long private road, on 158 acres of a former walnut ranch, with large barn, chicken coop, dedicated water supply, and a swimming pool with fully equipped changing houses, this property has endless possibilities for development. In today’s market, purely as a piece of property, it might sell for fifteen to twenty million dollars. The second and last time it was sold, the purchaser was the NPS, which has maintained it as a historic site since the 1970s. They were persuaded by a group of O’Neill scholars and local enthusiasts, who formed the Eugene O'Neill Foundation, that the place where this leading American playwright wrote The Iceman Cometh, Long Day's Journey Into Night, A Touch of the Poet, Hughie, and A Moon for the Misbegotten should be restored as much as possible to its original state and preserved for history. You can take a guided tour and be right there. 

tao house
tao house
me at tao house

I am there right now. It is my site. It is my situation. It is the site of my scholarship, in this sense. What I am working on is the question of how EO’s LDJ came to be written in this house on approximately 147 days between 1939 and 1941. How does it happen that a house built in 1937 in the foothills outside of Danville, CA, came to be the place where this play could be written? LDJ has been called the consummate or quintessential American play by many. Tony Kushner is one of them, but he goes on to declare that the play is a “theatrical manifesto,” with an urgent message to those who dwell in an American Dreamy world of entitlement and self-satisfaction, in short, the people of the United States. That is, “wake up and stop selling your soul to the fantasy.”

The house was built in 1937 by Eugene O’Neill and his wife Carlotta Monterey, and O’Neill’s study is here. This is where the work of writing those plays was done. 

O'Neill's desk

So, more particularly, this is the site of my scholarship. You see it? Right there, this chair. 

Many people are surprised when they find out that the late plays of EO were written in California. They were written on this desk. Most people associate O’Neill with the Eastern US.

barrett house
E. O'Neill plaque

l. The former Barrett House Hotel, where O'Neill was born; it was on Longacre Square, now Times Square

r. Plaque on the site, next to a Starbuck's


He was born in a residential hotel on what is now Times Square. (That building is gone, but there is a a commemorative plaque alongside a Starbucks, and nearby, human beings dressed like the Statue of Liberty or Sponge Bob attempt to cadge 20 dollar bills out of tourists.) At the time O’Neill was born, this area was just becoming the epicenter of Broadway and all the business defined by that term—the businesses of show. His schooling was in New York and New England. Two of hose famous late plays are set in New England, and a third is set in a lowdown bar in lower Manhattan.

So this, too, is a site of my scholarship, what we call the East.

Going farther East, O’Neill’s cultural ties go mainly to Europe, the plays of Ibsen, Strindberg, and Sophocles, the poetry of Swinburne and Nordic sailors, the philosophy of Nietzsche and Irish whiskey. O’Neill identified as Irish-American, and his mother was first generation, and his father was Irish-born. [slide—JO birthplace] This is a picture taken last year in Ireland. James O’Neill’s family left that oppressed and enraged region of what was then Great Briatain because of the potato famine. Eugene got his education in Catholic schools in New York and Connecticut. Princeton—well, let’s just say he never became a sophomore. He made his reputation as a writer in Greenwich Village and soon graduated to Broadway, where his father had been a Romantic actor, a  star. The whole focus of Eugene’s life was far to the east of California. But his mind, in writing even his early plays, fixed on a feeling of homelessness—or placelessness—in the United States. Not personal—an existential recognition.

tao house

And so, at a crucial point in his career, when he was not yet fifty, just after he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, he moved to California, and he and his wife Carlotta Monterey built this house, which they called Tao House. About a dozen years earlier, around the time when Gene broke away from his earlier marriage to Agnes Boulton [slide—EO and AB](who was the subject of my earlier research) and when he married Carlotta [slide—CMO], (her fourth marriage, his third), the scandal made it uncomfortable to live in the US, so they went to France for about three years (again the eastward association with Europe), but at one point they took a long journey halfway around the world, as far as Shanghai. They both had a long-standing interest in things Chinese, the philosophy and art. Their trip to the far East was an effort to find a way to be at home with each other—to have a sense of home, which is an experience both of them lacked. Instead, on that journey, in the chaos of torn emotions, they almost lost each other permanently. 

Agnes Boulton
Carlotta Monterey
Gene in chinese costume

But they did come back—with souvenirs.

plan of tao house

Their relocation a few years later, in 1937, to the Bay Area of California fits together with a reconceptualization of home and a reconfiguration of drama as a site of home. This reconceptualization was informed by an understanding of Taoism, which is the philosophy or religion that gave them the name for their house. The front gate holds Chinese characters that mean something like “a big house of Tao.” The O’Neills went west in the United States at a point when both were convinced of the truth of what Oswald Spengler called “the decline of the West,” that is, the end of a vast and hegemonic empire—a “superorganism”—that imposed a lens through which world history was read. The First World War convinced many, including Spengler, that this entity called the West was at its endpoint. The signs of an approaching Second World War, the ongoing Great Depression, and many circumstances in his personal life convinced O’Neill that the demise was continuing. He had no illusions that California would offer an escape from the decline of the West, but at least he would be far from the commercial pressures of New York theater and publishing, away from the stupid politics of Washington, away from the clamor in Europe, and away from his ex-wife, his dysfunctional kids, and countless unhappy reminders of his childhood. 

They chose the Bay Area, because Carlotta had grown up in and around Oakland. This new home was meant to be a place for a new beginning, apart from history, where creation could take pace. It soon became clear that the Nobel Prize money would not be enough to build what Carlotta dreamed of, which was a Chinese house. 

O'Neill at construction site

The architects they hired and the contractors lacked the knowledge and craftsmanship and materials to build such a house, And so they wound up with what Carlotta called “a sort of pseudo-Chinese house,” which is, in exterior form, what is known as a Monterey colonial home—that is, a style in keeping with the Spanish colonizers of old California. But in certain respects they followed principles of feng shui to construct a space that would offer the unnameable sort of energy flow called Tao.

Long Day's Journey cover

This 1937 photograph of O’Neill is inscribed to the contractor Lloyd Simpson, who is addressed here as “the old Master Builder” (capital M, capital B). He alludes to the 1892 masterpiece of modern drama by Ibsen in which Master Builder Solness has dedicated himself to building “homes for human beings.” In the play, Solness understands his end is upon him, as O’Neill understood his end was upon him, but there is one final house on which he must lay the wreath, and that consummate work for O’Neill was his play of home, LDJ.

So, this, too, is the site of my scholarship. Though it was finished in 1941, the play was, at O’Neill’s insistence, not to be released for publication until 25 years after his death, which happened in 1953. But his widow, Carlotta, decided to override his demand and release it for publication by Yale University Press in 1956. 

I was speaking my very first words that year. 

o'neill on balcony

Some thought it was outrageous that Carlotta would contravene his stated request, but otherwise the play would not have emerged until 1978, the year after I graduated from Yale College and the year before I entered Yale Drama School. I feel certain that I would not have gone to Yale Drama School if the play only came out then, and I might not have even gone to Yale College. I would almost certainly not be standing here today if not for this play, which I read here when I was fourteen years old.

eaton cottage

So this too is a site of my scholarship, a lonely dormitory room at a New England boarding school. Ohio was, for me, a nullity,  a void, an O-hi-O, as in O-thell-O, except for the scars of some family pain, and LDJ gave me the realization that something called Art could do a certain amount to fill that void. I read LDJ on a Saturday evening—right there, third floor, center window, a psycho-single, as we called them then—and I reread the play on Sunday evening, and over the next several years I read every Eugene O’Neill play and a good deal of the secondary literature. He was an O’bsession, both foundation and obstacle to my emerging ego. 

Eugene Gladstone O’Neill                                                

     [a sickness of my]                                                                    One ill schoolboy

     E.           G.           O.


—How does a play, a story, which is a knowing, first come into your knowing? It seems kind of personal, and it surely is, but that initiating moment—in place and time—is inevitably a site of your scholarship.

And so this is a site of my scholarship, the house in Ohio where I grew artlessly to the age of 14. Then I read O’Neill’s play, and it changed me. Fortunately, half a century later I can say that I came to this more proximate but not more intimate site of my scholarship, UCSB, in California, in a way that incidentally permits me to go back there to my own family history, just as O’Neill came to California in a way that enabled him to go back here--Monte Cristo Cottage.

canton house
monte cristo cottage
Count of monte cristo

And this, too, is the site of my scholarship—because the place of LDJ is the place of this house in New London, Connecticut. O’Neill’s bedroom was here. The house was called Monte Cristo Cottage, after the play that made—and ruined—his father’s reputation as a fine actor.


O’Neill drew from memory this floorplan of the house you just saw, and it’s quite correct, but here he gives it the title of his play. This drawing is the opposite of a mise en scène or stage set. It’s the topos from which he drew the story. It’s the house of his father, named for his famous play, but now with a new title—Long Day’s Journey Into Night. This is the living room of that remembered house, which is also a national historic site, currently maintained by the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center. And O’Neill created the drawing of that room in a house that also has a title, Tao House. 

O'Neill's diagram
tao house living rm
living room w bluemirror

The play takes place in the living room, and here is the living room at Tao House. What I look for in my scholarship is a site that is a living room, a site of living. These living rooms are the places where family convened in love and conflict in the midst of a world on the verge of world war. You can hear the faint echoes of those scenes when you occupy these living rooms. In act 4 of LDJ, Jamie says, “What’s the use coming home to get the blues over what can’t be helped.”  {Extemp on the blues in this room. In Feng shui, blue is a mourning color, but also stands for growth and new beginnings} Just upstairs from this living room, O’Neill needed to map the origin space of his living so that he could intersect it with the time of his drama and convert it to a scene of memory.

o'neill in 1915

The resultant mise en scène would be the dramatized story of his origins as a writer, and it would also be the culminating work of his career. {extemp on the diagram as a map}

o'neill as boy
gene and carlotta
o'neill work diary

The passage from Nirvana to Tao goes through this moment: June 6, 1939, when O’Neill’s Work Diary makes a first mention of the play that would become LDJ. It’s a stopping point as much as it is a beginning. On the day before he had written: “Decide what I’ve done on the 5th play is n[o]. g[ood]., so tear it up. Feel fed up and stale on Cycle after 4 1/2 years of not thinking of any other work—will do me good lay on shelf and forget it for a while—do a play which has nothing to do with it.” So he ended this thing he called the Cycle and began Iceman (here called the Jimmy the Priest—Hell Hole—Garden idea) and the New London family one, which is LDJ.

These timelines, too, are sites of my scholarship, because “site” occupies time as well as space.

O'Neill diary

Here is the exact place where he wrote that diary entry. You see the two desks. He used one desk for his current project and the other for future projects. One looks to the east where the sun would rise, across the valley, over Mt. Diablo. And the other looks to the west, where the sun would set, across the courtyard, behind one of the foothills of the Wilderness Area. To create his play of a day in that space between the beginning of day and the end, between this play that looks to the moment of his origin in family and his originating moment as a playwright, and the future, which would be his death and the posthumous arrival of his play twenty-five years later—that is what it is to be in the moment, to be in Tao. 

view of mt diablo
Tao House courtyard

l. view toward Mt. Diablo

r. view toward courtyard; the barn in the distance

O'Neill's desk

This place was the hospitable place where the play could be written. It was the locus amoenus—the amenable place. This literary topos has roots in classical literature. It was identified by Ernst Curtius in European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (published in 1953–the year of EO’s death). In such a refuge from the crush of history and social pressure, also from mortality and morality, the soul could flourish. The locus amoenus can have a sexual dimension—the oblivion of love-making—but also a generative dimension in the creation of beauty and art. It’s the “green world” of Arden and Eden and the Song of Songs. Greek and Latin and modern European languages require this term because it expresses that elusive space of peace and fulfillment, but it’s as well expressed by the concept of Tao. [slide—mandala] The very first words of the Tao te Ching say that Tao is essentially unnameable—that definition is impossible. At once if you define it you pronounce opposition to what it is not, but Taoism is all about eliminating opposition. Day slips into night in this space in an infinite cycle, while the finite human being passes through a linear sequence of those days and night. The title, or subtitle, of my book is The Days and Nights of Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

O'Neill's study

These two desks, where the play was anticipated and then written, are opposed, but the thing that removes or resolves their opposition is the writer who inhabits that present moment between morning and night, between east and west, between the past and the future. Long Day's Journey comes about in that space as a mediator between 1912 (the year in which the play is set) and 1956 (the year in which it first comes out). The play holds the mid-point present, according to the mode Lao Tse describes as the way of the sage: wu wei, an active inaction. That phrase, “active inaction” or “inactive action,” is an approximation of an idea that also cannot be translated. One scholar, whom O’Neill relied on for his understanding of Taoism, says this about wu wei

It most certainly does not signify idleness . . . but rather action, activity—that is to say: ‘inactivity of the perverted unnatural passions and desires,’ but ‘activity in the sense of natural movement proceeding from Tao.’ Thus, in the ‘Nan Hwa King’ we find the following: “The heavens and the earth do nothing” (in the evil sense ‘and’ (yet) ‘there is nothing which they do not do.'" (Borel).


In writing Long Day's Journey, O’Neill brings the immanent past to the projected future, private experience to public recognition. His impulse to withhold the play from publication until long after his death is a sign of how this writing is not meant to be taken as an assertion or imposition—it’s not motivated by those “unnatural passions and desires,” such as fame, wealth, dominance. In a sense, this writing is neither active nor passive. The material of the past, in the form of memory, passes through him to become the scene of the future play to be acted and read. But even that is too dualistic to express the tao of it. What is present in him of the past flows into what is present of the future performance, which is an evocation of the past, which ends and yet does not end, which begins and yet has already begun. The play is, in that sense, an expression of the wu wei. O’Neill’s study at Tao House was the site where that knowing could flow. The play comes to know by being at home, and my project has been a quest to know that site.

Much of my book is about how Tao House came to be created as the place where that flow was possible, if only for a short time. The home made way for the play.


Look at 3 down.

Gene and Carlotta

The New York Times crossword recently had this clue for 3-down: “This is the way.” And the answer was “TAO.”  My book in large part deals with the way O’Neill found himself at Tao House in the right moment, the right place—in the kairos—to write Long Day's Journey. That is what my book is about. I argue that the play should be read as a co-creation of Gene and Carlotta—that, at times, troubled dualism, which resolved, if only momentarily, with that other co-creation, Tao House.


They dwelt alongside and within each other in that house, and the result is a play of a house in which we can dwell alongside and within each other every time we read or perform it.

So this, too, is a site of my scholarship, here beautifully mapped.

Trunk Room
tao house courtyard

l. The "Trunk Room"--storage for Louis Vuitton trunks; now used for artist-in-residency office

r. Gene and Carlotta in the courtyard, 1941


A wonderful opportunity I had to work on this book was two summers ago when I was a Travis Bogard Artist in Residence at Tao House. For four weeks I was allowed to work in this building, which is called the Trunk Room because it housed the O’Neill’s traveling trunks. It’s on the corner of the garden courtyard.  From this not glamorous but functional office I could look out the door and see the study where O’Neill wrote the play I was writing about. This too is a site of my scholarship. As is this, my study here in Santa Barbara. This is where I was able to bring together both the critical edition and the multimedia edition of Long Day's Journey. 

long day's journey critical ed
multimedia ed. cover

Yale University Press editions

o'neill in study
my study

A contrast in studies--O'Neill's and mine.

o'neill office
view from office

l. Trunk Room office--with my mess on the desk.

r. view from inside the office, looking at guest room; O'Neill's study above.

O'Neill's study

To compound the pleasure of situating my scholarship at Tao House, last summer I had the opportunity to work as dramaturge of LDJ in this barn, which is semi-converted into a theater space. For three weekends in September the play was performed there, all performances sold out, and then the production went to the Eugene O’Neill International Festival of Theatre in New Ross, County Wexford, Ireland. On opening night I took a seat in the barn from which I could see a light burning in the window of the room where the play was written.

tao house barn
house from barn

l. barn from the house.                                             

r. house from the barn.

seminar room

I take up this topic today, in part, because I imagine you all have asked—or are asking—the question of why you came to California to do your scholarship. Why are you here? And what is the site of your scholarship? These are questions I have asked myself and, in a way, continue to ask myself every day. I want to suggest that these are profound questions and ones you will always be asking.

Why is this, too, the site of my scholarship, and perhaps yours, too?


UCSB Department of Theater and Dance seminar room.


At one point in his important essay, “On the Use and Abuse of History,” Friedrich Nietzsche writes and highlights in italics: “You can explain the past only by what is most powerful in the present.” A page later, he adds: “The language of the past is always oracular: you will only understand it as builders of the future who know the present.” My first reading of Long Day's Journey, one evening in 1970, in some way understood my standing here. Why do I sit in this situation? I do not return to 1970 to sort out 1970, and 1970 does not take me to 1956 to sort out a first edition, and 1956 does not take me to 1912 to sort out Eugene O’Neill, born in 1888, from his damaged family, and I do not go to the ruins of his father’s house to sort out the weeds from the stones. Instead, all those dates come to now to sort out now. It is the power of O’Neill’s use of history that enabled him to come downstairs in 1940 to a world in rupture. Bring some version of tragedy to that. That play comes downstairs to now. And the wreckage of history has only piled higher.

Walter Benjamin

Nietzsche’s essay was influential on Walter Benjamin, who in “Theses on the Philosophy of History” wrote words that I quoted so often in my earliest published writings, especially my book about Henry Irving, that I finally had to stop quoting it or else seem monomaniacal, but the idea has long been central to my ethic as a historian: “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’ (here he’s quoting Leopold von Ranke, who has been called the father of modern historiography). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.” What both Nietzsche and Benjamin express is the necessity of doing history, not as a quaint and curious diversion from the present but as an imperative responsibility to the future. The criticality of the historian’s work is exemplified especially by Benjamin who, in the same year he wrote these words, took his own life rather than be taken by the Nazis. The day he committed suicide, in September 1940, was a day when O’Neill was writing the last act of Long Day's Journey, and he was doing it here, in this place between two desks.

Benjamin, on that day, had no desk, and it would not be long before O’Neill had no desk either. Benjamin gives one way of expressing what O’Neill was doing with the play—seizing hold of a memory as it flashed up at a point of danger. He was facing the world historical danger of WW II and the mortal danger of his health breaking down and the emotional danger of the further dissolution of his family. The play he wrote is set in 1912, also on the verge of world war, also at a point when he was in danger of dying (of consumption—or tuberculosis), and at a point when his family was truly dissolving. So the time and place of Long Day's Journey—that nexus—constitutes a scene of personal and world history, and the gesture of making contact with the past through that work of art was, as Benjamin expresses it, an effort at redemption. Is my effort to make contact with that place and time also an attempt to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a point of danger? Let that be a postulate, and I know well, as they say, where that is coming from. I have been to the site. I have seen the sights. But this particular node has disclosed for me an alternate postulate for what I am doing here, at the site of my scholarship. It lies in Taoism. And so these two postulates come from Eastern philosophy and from Western philosophy, or geographically they come from the west and from the east—the two windows that admit the sunlight to the study, that illuminate this dark piece of writing, giving it “oracular” form, to use Nietzsche’s term.


The site of my scholarship is both occupied and empty; it requires me to stand back and learn, and it requires me to intervene and teach. I must seize hold, and I must release.  An index of this alternation, this presence/absence, comes from the historical materialism of Benjamin, who writes: “The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again. . . . every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.”


It also comes from Taoism:



Push far enough towards the Void,

Hold fast to Quietness,

And of the ten thousand things none but can be worked on by you.

I have beheld them, whither they go back.

See, all things howsoever they flourish

Return to the root from which they grew.

This return to the root is called Quietness; 

Quietness is called submission to Fate;

What has submitted to Fate has become part of the always-so.

To know the always-so is to be Illumined;

Not to know it, means to go blindly to disaster.

He who knows the always-so has room in him for everything;

He who has room in him for everything is without prejudice.

To be without prejudice is to be kingly;

To be kingly is to be of heaven;

To be of heaven is to be in Tao.

Tao is forever and he that possesses it,

Though his body ceases, is not destroyed.


            Chap. XVI, Tao Tê Ching

            (Arthur Waley translation)