A Long Day's Journey to Eugene O'Neill
By Steve Bergsman
My quest to visit with the ghost of American playwright Eugene O'Neill was almost a long day's journey into night, but in reality I was back at my hotel in Stamford, Connecticut, before the ebony curtain descended. You see, right there, I was trying to be poetic in the O'Neill kind of way. I always liked this line from his most famous play, "Long Day's Journey Into Night": "The fog was where I wanted to be."
O'Neill, the only American playwright to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and author of such other plays as "The Iceman Cometh," "Ah, Wilderness" and "Moon for the Misbegotten," was born in New York in 1888. While he was growing up his family took a summer residence in New London, Connecticut, called Monte Cristo Cottage. It is still there and open to the public -- sometimes.
My wife and I journeyed to Monte Cristo and pulled up to a Victorian house painted light gray with white trim. It was set back from a street and up a slight rise. One could see the waters of the Thames River from the front yard. We joyfully trudged up a path to the front door only to find it locked. We had checked the times of operation before we arrived, so this was a surprise. We peered through the windows looking for someone but only noticed copies of O'Neill's published plays.
Eventually we found a sign taped to the outside wall that read this was a week when the house went dark. This was a disappointment to me because the house is important in the totems of the playwright. O'Neill's father was an actor whose most popular role was as Edmond Dantes in "The Count of Monte Cristo," hence the name of the cottage. The cottage is used as the setting for a number of his plays, most importantly "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and "Ah, Wilderness!"
The house has a long front porch common to Victorian homes and two rockers looking lonely and unused. I sat in one and rocked back and forth as I imagined a young O'Neill might have done while contemplating his first play sometime in his future.
I got another shot at O'Neill a week later when we traveled east again from Stamford to the town of Waterford, Connecticut, and the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. This is rambling campus that includes cottages for residents and is dedicated to help aspirants become the theatrical wellsprings they want to be. The campus represents the National Theater Institute. Among the plays that premiered here are John Guare's "The House Of Blue Leaves," August Wilson's "Fences" and Lin-Manuel Miranda's "In the Heights."
Once again our timing was off. We arrived between sessions, so the only person we saw was a young man lounging on a chair and smoking a cigarette.
It certainly looked as if my search for O'Neill was -- to quote the man himself -- "Beyond the Horizon." Then the next day we got a phone call. A private tour of Monte Cristo cottage could be arranged. It was worth the wait.
The cottage is only about 2,220 square feet separated into nine rooms, four of which are upstairs bedrooms. A wooden stairwell connects the two floors. Some of the furniture is original, but most are just period pieces. The highlight was what might be called the family room, with its original wood floor and walls. It is sometimes called the "Long Day's Journey Room" because it is the model for the setting of that play. As our guide, John R., told us, "There are few places in the country where you can step into a play." Indeed, the opening of the play describes this room down to the nails.