For most of the first thirty years of his life, Eugene O’Neill spent summers at the home his family owned in New London. In many respects, the family’s house there was the closest thing the young O’Neill had to a real home. His father, the noted stage actor James O’Neill, was constantly touring and when he was on the road he generally took his wife and two sons, Eugene and James, Jr., with him (a third son Edmund died in childhood). When James was engaged steadily in New York City, the family generally resided in hotels. Eugene was born in one such hotel near Times Square in 1888 and died in another a short distance away in 1953, an irony he couldn’t help but point out to those close to him in the last hours of his life.
Situated near the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean and Long Island Sound at the mouth of the Thames River, New London has been an important seaport since at least the first European settlement there in the 17th century. The O’Neills actually owned two houses there that were right next to each other on Pequot Avenue. The family lived first in the smaller of the two and then for a longer period in the larger house called Monte Cristo Cottage after the stage production James O’Neill toured in for many years, The Count of Monte Cristo.
Beckoned by the Sea
The two houses were located 50 yards from the Thames and two miles from the gateway to the Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. Young Eugene used to sit for hours at a time at water’s edge watching the comings and goings of ships of all sizes. When he was 21, he signed on to a Buenos Aires-bound Norwegian ship called the Charles Racine. It was the first of a number of voyages he made.
The influence of New London is apparent in the many plays O’Neill wrote that were either set on ships or in seaports, some of which he wrote in New London. The lure and power of the sea is especially notable in early works such as Beyond the Horizon, the play that established O’Neill as a playwright and earned him the first of three Pulitzer Prizes for Drama. Seamen were regulars in his plays as well and he also drew vivid portraits of a vast assortment of waterfront characters in a number of them.
O’Neill came to adulthood during a time of great working class upheaval and the radical politics of the time influenced him during the years he spent in New London. He knew many socialists, Wobblies and revolutionaries, and radicals appear in a number of his plays. O’Neill was no believer in the possibility of social transformation, however, and the former Wobblies and broken down socialists in The Iceman Cometh and other plays are generally embittered and defeated.
The summer of 1917 was the last that O’Neill spent significant time in New London. He had written four plays by then but it would not be until the following year that he achieved success with Beyond the Horizon. He was also drinking heavily and at odds with his father, who finally asked him to leave Monte Cristo Cottage.
New London in O’Neill’s Plays
O’Neill would draw on New London for the rest of his writing career. The text of Mourning Becomes Electra, for example, situates the play “on the outskirts of one of the smaller New England seaport towns” and O’Neill stated in interviews that the setting was based on New London. His 1933 play Ah, Wilderness! also takes place in New London and features many characters that are based on real people O’Neill knew. Similarly, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, written in 1941 and first performed in 1956, is an autobiographical one that takes place in a home drawn on Monte Cristo Cottage.
Aspects of O’Neill’s New London even appear in plays that are not set in the city and which otherwise have no direct connection to it. Such is the case with the massive elm trees that are described in the stage notes of Desire Under the Elms and which were so vividly brought to life in the 1958 movie version of the play. There were, in fact, several similarly large elms on the grounds of Monte Cristo Cottage that lived until the 1980’s. Other landmarks such as the foghorn of the New London Lighthouse appear in both Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Ah, Wilderness!
Museum and Theater
One bit of local irony that O’Neill likely would have appreciated concerns the mansion and sprawling estate of railroad and shipping magnate Edward Hammond in neighboring Waterford. O’Neill and Hammond shared a mutual dislike and the playwright based characters in at least several of his plays on Hammond, characters who, naturally, were wholly unsympathetic. Twenty-two years after Hammond’s death in 1940 and nine years after O’Neill’s death in 1953, Hammond’s family sold the mansion and it was there that the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center was established in 1963.
The Monte Cristo Cottage, meanwhile, is now a museum that features “a permanent exhibition on the life and works of Eugene O’Neill and an extensive collection of artifacts and memorabilia.” The interior is designed to reproduce the house in Long Day’s Journey Into Night as spelled out in the set directions and as drawn by the author in production sketches. Many other places in New London that were either a part of O’Neill’s early years or found their way into his plays await exploration by anyone curious about the Connecticut port city’s influence on one of the country’s foremost playwrights.
Bridgeport native Andy Piascik is a long-time activist and award-winning author whose most recent book is the novel In Motion. He can be reached at email@example.com.