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Eugene O'Neill at Tao House: Journey Into Pain

August 25, 1985|WILLIAM S. MURPHY | Murphy is a Times photographer. and

DANVILLE, Calif. — Gazing across the broad San Ramon Valley from the room where Eugene O'Neill wrote his final plays, a visitor senses the solitude and isolation of the hillside estate that the National Park Service preserves as a memorial to an author many regard as America's greatest playwright.

Although only 15 miles east of Oakland, the valley with Mt. Diablo forming a majestic backdrop still has much of the rural charm that O'Neill and his third wife, Carlotta, discovered when they came here in 1937 to build a home that would offer him serenity. O'Neill was at the height of his fame.

He had won three Pulitzer prizes for his plays--"Beyond the Horizon" (1920), "Anna Christie" (1921), and "Strange Interlude" (1928). A year earlier in 1936, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. And here he would write among others, "Long Day's Journey Into Night," a tortuous revelation of his own early years and the tragedy of his family that would earn him his fourth Pulitzer. The award was presented posthumously.

Path to Righteous Knowledge

The O'Neills called their new home Tao House, a name derived from the teachings of an ancient Chinese philosopher. Tao means the right path--the way to righteous knowledge. Carlotta, a former actress, favored an Oriental decor within the house. O'Neill's bed was an ornate couch that had been discovered in an opium den. The exterior is typical of the California ranch style during the days of Spanish and later Mexican rule. Concrete blocks were used to simulate adobe, and the roof is of Oriental tile.

Since acquiring the property from the state in 1980, the National Park Service has restored the house and its interior to its original condition. It is now open to the public. Although O'Neill originally purchased 158 acres of land, the present site administered by the Park Service is 13 acres. A swimming pool below the house is shaded by pines and redwood trees that the O'Neills planted, and there are the remnants of a grove of almond and walnut trees.

"It was in pretty bad shape from neglect when we took over," said Craig Dorman, the Park Service resident ranger who is in charge of the property and who has also supervised restoration work on the house and grounds during the last five years.

Search for Furniture

The house remains unfurnished while an effort is made to locate furniture of the period when the O'Neills lived here. While the National Park Service is responsible for the operation of the site, it has a cooperative agreement with the Eugene O'Neill Foundation, which is responsible for planning and programming activities related to the performing arts. Among the foundation's future plans is development of an arts center with a residential program. Another is to establish a research and conference center with a major theater library for the study of the American theater and the life and work of Eugene O'Neill.

Travis Bogard, a vice president of the foundation, is a professor of dramatic art at UC Berkeley, where he teaches a course on O'Neill and his work.

Bogard is the author of "Contour in Time--The Plays of Eugene O'Neill" (Oxford University Press, 1972), which is a critical study of O'Neill's work.

"In the 30 years of his creative life, O'Neill completed the drafts of 62 plays," Bogard said. "Eleven were destroyed, and of those remaining over half contain discernible autobiographical elements."

In his book, Bogard wrote: "His was, in part, a quest for identity. . . . O'Neill used the stage as his mirror, and the sum of his work comprises an autobiography. In many of his plays, with a bold directness of approach, he drew a figure whose face resembled his own, and whose exterior life barely concealed a passionate, questing, inner existence. Around this figure, he grouped other characters who served as thin masks for members of his close family and for his friends and significant acquaintances."

Eugene O'Neill was born Oct. 16, 1888, in New York City. His father, James O'Neill, was a well-known actor who became typecast as Edmond Dantes in "The Count of Monte Cristo," a role he played for 25 years and came to detest. Eugene's mother, Ella, became addicted to morphine prescribed to her to alleviate complications from Eugene's difficult childbirth.

Search for Gold

The future playwright married Kathleen Jenkins in 1909, leaving her to search for gold in Honduras. A year later, he signed on as a sailor on a Norwegian square rigger. He became a beach bum in Buenos Aires and continued a dissolute life after returning to New York, living in squalid hotels and spending most of his time in cheap saloons patronized by the dregs of society. Kathleen divorced him and was left to raise their young son, Eugene Jr., who would commit suicide at 40.

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