by Arthur and Barbara Gelb
Eugene O’Neill, by winter 1951, had long suffered from a degenerative neurological disorder that finally shut off his ability to write. Aggravating his depression was the fact that The Iceman Cometh, his last play on Broadway during his lifetime, was not the success he’d hoped for in 1946. Now 60, but looking some 20 years older, he was living a bleak, isolated life in Marblehead Neck, Mass., with his wife, Carlotta
She was a former actress and internationally acclaimed beauty, the same age as O’Neill,
worn out from years of catering to her world-famous, Nobel Prize-winning husband. She was afflicted with various ailments, including severe nervous tension and depression. Both were taking strong medications containing bromide, which had hallucinatory side effects of which they were unaware.
Their clash was inevitable. O’Neill, unable to give vent on paper to the dramatic furies that had driven his writing for the past 35 years, was compelled to act out the drama of his current dilemma. Carlotta, the one-time actress, a woman of capricious temperament, was his hell-sent foil. A few years after O’Neill’s death in 1953, she sardonically depicted to us the climactic (and decidedly operatic) conflict in Marblehead as “a little drama in the home.” The drama on the night in question resulted in hospital stays for both O’Neills: he with a broken leg and she for drug-induced psychosis. (The drama was depicted in a one-act opera by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori at the Glimmerglass Festival at Cooperstown, N.Y., last summer.)
Carlotta Monterey O’Neill survived her husband by 17 years. Far from being released by his death from playing the role of tragic heroine in which O’Neill had cast her, she continued to follow his unwritten script. From the beginning of their marriage in 1929 when both were 41 – a third marriage for him, a fourth for her – O’Neill and Carlotta enacted their passionate personal drama of love and fury.
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Arthur Gelb and Barbara Gelb have written two biographies of Eugene O’Neill, in addition to numerous articles, and have widely lectured about O’Neill and his plays at theaters, universities and libraries in this country and abroad. Their final O’Neill biography, By Women Possessed, is scheduled for publication by Putnam at year’s end. Mr. Gelb is former managing editor of The New York Times.