by Andy Piascik
For most of the first thirty years of his life, Eugene O’Neill spent summers at the home his family owned in New London. It 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 took his wife and sons with him whenever he went on the road. When James was engaged steadily in New York City, the family generally resided in hotels.
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 throughout much of Connecticut’s history. The O’Neills actually owned two houses in New London built next to one another 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 fifty yards from the Thames and two miles from the gateway to Long Island 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. A statue made by sculptor Norman Legassie in 1988 of O’Neill as a boy sitting on a rock looking out over the water, pen and notebook in hand, is located not far from the two O’Neill houses.
The influence of New London is apparent in the many plays O’Neill wrote (some of which he wrote in New London) that were either set on ships or in seaports. The lure and power of the sea is especially notable in early works such as Bound East for Cardiff and Beyond the Horizon, the play that earned him the first of four Pulitzer Prizes for Drama. Seamen were regulars in his plays as well and he also drew vivid portraits of an assortment of waterfront characters in a number of them.
The summer of 1917 was the last that O’Neill spent significant time in New London. He had written four plays by then and achieved recognition as a playwright of note the following year with Beyond the Horizon. He was also drinking heavily, putting him at odds with his father who ultimately asked him to leave Monte Cristo Cottage.
New London in O’Neill’s Plays
O’Neill drew 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 play 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 1980s.
Museum and Theater
Still known as the Monte Cristo Cottage, the O’Neill home 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. Nearby Waterford is home to the Tony-award winning regional theater, the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. The Theater features the National Playwrights Conference, a program instrumental in launching the careers of August Wilson, Wendy Wasserstein, John Guare, and other prominent dramatists.
Bridgeport native Andy Piascik is an award-winning author who has written for numerous publications and websites over the last four decades and is the author of several books. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.