Monte Cristo Cottage – Dysfunctional Touchstone of American Theater

By Sharma Piersall / Photos by A. Vincent Scarano

_DSC9031Standing in Ella O’Neill’s bedroom at the Monte Cristo Cottage in New London fires up sympathy for the woman who inspired the character of Mary Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize winning play,“Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”

The windows, constructed to save money, are so low to the floor one would have to stoop down to capture a view,which barely seems worth the effort as one would be gazing mostly at the angled roof-top. It isn’t difficult to imagine Ella, the inspiration for Mary Tyrone and mother of Eugene O’Neill, pacing in the family home, properly bound in tidy Victorian clothing – suffocated not only by the confined living quarters, but by the demons of her addiction to morphine.The famed Monte Cristo Cottage in New London was the boyhood home of Eugene O’Neill, a place where reality and theatricality meet.

O’Neill’s well-known autobiographical play, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” revolves largely around the living room of the Monte Cristo Cottage on Pequot Avenue, a home now owned by the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. It is open for tours most of the year.The cottage includes replicated period clothing, costumes, and set designs throughout; the famous living room is painstakingly true to O’Neill’s specific stage design notes, down to the chairs – two of which are thought to be original to the family.The room is paneled, evincing a cabin-like warmth and intimacy to the space, which captures the optimistic rays of the morning sun.

As the afternoon shrinks to a close, the room becomes shrouded in darkness and fog, a metaphor in O’Neill’s play completed in 1942 and for which he was awarded a Pulitzer posthumously in 1957. O’Neill described the play in a letter to his wife as written “with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness for all the four Tyrones.”

“There really is no other place you can visit that is the true home and setting of a great piece of American literature – theater or otherwise,” said Robert Richter, a Eugene O’Neill scholar and author of “Dat Ole Davil Sea.”

Eugene O’Neill’s father, James O’Neill, was the dashing actor who made good money as the character Edmond Dantes in “The Count of Monte Cristo,” imparting the namesake of the cottage he bought and becoming the only home the family of a touring actor would know. From 1900 to 1920, shortly before James O’Neill’s death, the family spent nearly every summer at New London’s Monte Cristo Cottage. “Long Day’s Journey” is set in the year 1912. Yet James O’Neill, who came from humble Irish origins, could not part with his pennies as freely as he was able to afford. He raised the roof of the front parlor, dining room, and entrance to 11 feet 7 inches, creating a deceptively airy and gracious feeling to the house, given the pinched, darker quality of the upstairs.

_DSC8268Robert Dowling, a Eugene O’Neill scholar who has written four books on the playwright, likes to take his students from Central Connecticut State University to the cottage while they are studying O’Neill, allowing them to see and feel the way in which the cottage would enhance the family’s tragic circle of interaction and dysfunction. He also has them read the play in the living room where they can witness his uncanny memory for the room in stage directions, given that he had been away from the home for two decades when he wrote it, remarked Dowling.

Eugene O’Neill was shaped by his summers in New London, influenced by the seaside locale and friendships as much as he was by the atmosphere created by the discovery of his mother’s morphine addiction after she tried to plunge into the Thames River to her death. O’Neill, said Richter, belonged to a group of Bohemians who were known as the Second Story Club. They discussed literature and ideas in an apartment on Main Street, a roadway later named after him – Eugene O’Neill Drive – a renaming that was reportedly unpopular with the mayor at the time. Many locals focused on O’Neill’s penchant for the bottle rather than his reputation as the father of American theater and the third most translated playwright after Shakespeare and Shaw.

Visitors to the cottage, from all around the world, get a chance to witness the same moody environment that O’Neill experienced, including the enveloping fog that both inspired and depressed a young O’Neill.“Fog is a big metaphor in the play for escaping reality,” said Anne Morgan, literary manager at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. She also noted the sea is a large part of O’Neill’s oeuvre.
“The house itself is very much at his emotional core as both a person and playwright; and it shows up in strange ways throughout his cannon,”said Dowling, noting that O’Neill’s desire to write about the house had been brewing for decades.

Tour guides will likely point out the odd spindles when going up the stairs, or the way in which the stairwell obscures the window – all construction shortcuts to save the actor money. Upstairs, low ceilings and cheap wallpaper, a faded floral design selected by the O’Neill Theater Center to echo the original, all add to a drab existence in the family living quarters. For students and fans of O’Neill, witnessing the oddities of the cottage brings home some of the lines heard in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” such as Mary Tyrone’s complaints of her husband’s skinflint tendencies.

For set designers and actors who make regular homages to the cottage, stepping into the historic cottage is invaluable .In the play, the characters are trapped in their life situations, a fate accentuated by the shrinking aspect of the home. The play is purposeful in its progression from morning to midnight, forcefully thrusting that pain forward.

The Monte Cristo Cottage was sold in 1920 and put into auction, according to Morgan. It was then intermittently empty and rented until purchased in 1937, owned then by Dorothy and Lawrence White. In 1971 it became a National Historic Landmark, and the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center purchased it in 1974, granting Lawrence White occupancy.When White died in 1975, the theater center began fund raising for restorations. “It’s a crown jewel for us; the cottage represents a direct link to our namesake,” said Preston Whiteway, executive director of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center.

Both the home and New London were touchstones for O’Neill, who came to find the house and visit in the 1930s. He had difficulty locating it due to development; but once he did, he walked up the winding hill to the front door where he lost emotional capacity to knock and visit one last time.

“I think by returning as a writer to the setting of his work he was trying to come to terms with what his life was and what his family was,” observed Richter, remarking, like others, that O’Neill did not want “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” published until 25 years after his death; and he never wanted it produced. “It was such a personal play for him that he didn’t want to make it public while anyone was still alive to recognize it as autobiographical,” said Richter.

As it turns out, O’Neill’s third wife, the glamorous actress, Carlotta Monterey had it published only three years after his death and approved the first performance in Sweden.“She wanted to be the steward of his artistic voice,” said Morgan of Carlotta’s decision to undercut O’Neill’s wishes. It was a wise decision, at least for audiences at large, as the play is one that resonates today, even with youth studying the work for the first time.

When Dowling’s students read the play in the famous living room, he said the effect is powerful.
“The ghost of the playwright is right there with you. It’s such a personal statement of his pain…to actually sit in the room, you feel a real communion with the guy and his family and their collective pain. Frankly it’s brought my students to tears.”

Visit the Monte Cristo Cottage at 325 Pequot Avenue in New London
Hours vary seasonally. Call (860) 443-0051 for specific information

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