Editor's note: Eugene O'Neill was not kind to his mother in his memoir drama, "Long Day's Journey into Night," depicting her as a hapless morphine addict with no hope of recovery. Fifty years later, Ann Harson presented a gentler portrait punctuated with courage in her play, "Miles to Babylon," which premiered at American Theatre of Actors, NYC from October 12 to 29, 2006, directed by Tom Thornton. According to many accounts, Mrs. O'Neill became addicted to morphine following the birth of Eugene, her youngest son, and became clean 25 years later in a convent.
The play prompted this article by Stephen A. Black, a prominent researcher and authority on the O'Neill family, which we think is a definitive account of Ella O'Neill's addiction and recovery.
Mrs. O'Neill's Illness
By Stephen A. Black
Stephen A. Black is author of the biography, "Eugene O'Neill: Beyond Mourning and Tragedy," published by Yale University Press. More about the author.
Ella Quinlan O'Neill, mother of Eugene O'Neill
SURREY, B.C., September 18, 2006 -- I've had the privilege of reading the unpublished script of a fine new drama by Ann Harson, "Miles to Babylon." The play deals with the mother of Eugene O'Neill, America's Nobel Prize winning playwright. Many people will immediately know that Ella O'Neill was the model for Mary Tyrone in Long Day's Journey Into Night.
Reading "Miles to Babylon" led me to reconsider some of what I had learned about Ella O'Neill, while writing a biography of the playwright. From O'Neill's best-known play, probably the most often performed of his longer plays, the public knows that Mrs. O'Neill became addicted to morphine when Eugene was born, and that she struggled for the next quarter century with a cycle of temporary cures soon followed by returns to the drug.
This went on from 1888 until early 1914 when she became permanently free from her addiction for the remaining eight years of her life. Ann Harson sets herself the challenge of trying to understand more than we biographers have managed to learn about how the old pattern of cures followed by relapses could finally have been broken. I will not give away any details about the story which Ms. Harson works out, a story which I find quite plausible and intensely dramatic. But I will review what biographers have managed to learn about Mrs. O'Neill's addiction.
No biographer, the present writer included, has claimed to have any very great understanding of how the change came about, although it seems to me that Louis Sheaffer, in the first volume of his fine biography, O'Neill, Son and Playwright (1967), reached a deeper insight into Ella than anyone else had at that time. He speculated that the "cure" that worked had not been at a medical sanitarium, as always before, but at a convent (a convent in Brooklyn, he thought). He believed that a return to the lifelong religious devotion she had maintained until the addiction began enabled her to avoid the relapse that always before had come a few weeks or months after she had finished the most recent "cure." At the convent she had apparently regained the religious faith and devotion that had marked her life before the death in childhood of her second son, and the difficult birth of her third son which led to her being given morphine. The most conspicuous difference after the 1914 cure was that she resumed going to regular mass and making other religious observances, her lifelong practice, save for the twenty-five years of being an addict.
Ella in 1877
Mary Ellen Quinlan, born in New Haven on August 13, 1857, moved with her parents to Cleveland while still an infant. Her father, Thomas Quinlan, saw opportunity in Ohio and seized it. He developed several successful businesses, including a book and stationer's store, and an establishment where men could go for a civilized drink and conversation in the evening. He seems to have had an interest in the theater and cultivated friendships with prominent and talented actors who visited Cleveland. He and the young James O'Neill liked each other and Thomas invited the actor to his home. There, James met the young schoolgirl who would later become his wife.
Thomas Quinlan became manager of circulation for Cleveland's leading newspaper, the Plain Dealer. He was able to buy a fine house for his family and to send his daughter and son to good schools. When Mary Ellen showed musical talent, he bought her a grand piano. Later, he sent her to St. Mary's Academy in South Bend, Indiana, one of the finest convent schools in the Middle West. The school had a fine music program developed by Mother Elizabeth Lilly, a descendant of George Arnold, organist to Elizabeth I.
A cultivated and accomplished musician, a well-educated woman, Elizabeth Lilly had married. After being widowed, she converted to Catholicism and moved to the American Middle West. She and Mary Ellen Quinlan seemed to have made a good match as teacher and pupil, for Mary Ellen won the gold medal in piano and played a challenging Chopin Polonaise at her graduation. Eugene used some of this material in Long Day's Journey.
Eugene had been incorporating partial or disguised portraits of his father, mother, brother and himself in many of the plays he began writing in 1913 after his discharge from the sanitarium while recovering from tuberculosis. Like many a writer, O'Neill used writing to try to understand himself and the members of his family. That would change after the early 1920s when trying to understand turned to trying to grieve. In a 39 month period, from early 1920 to late 1923, all the other members of his parental family died -- father, then mother, then brother. All died difficult deaths, particularly his brother who told everyone he was going to drink himself to death then did exactly that over a period of about 20 months. He died in an asylum from acute alcohol poisoning. Eugene, full of his own problems, could not bear to see his brother killing himself, or to know how much Jamie wanted to die.
It would take Eugene two decades to mourn his dead, and one can truthfully say that everything he wrote for the rest of his life was written to help him understand and accept the deaths. Jamie's death from alcohol especially affected Eugene, who had himself been alcoholic since his 'teens. He now knew that he had to stop drinking. He had never been able to write while drinking, and writing was the center -- one might say nearly the whole -- of his life. After the brush with TB, he apparently did stop drinking, or nearly so, for at least a couple of years, but he began drinking again in 1916 while living in New York, and continued off and on through 1925. Worry about his health, beginning in the early twenties, led to several periods of sobriety and several brief episodes of psychological therapy with psychoanalysts. A meeting with his first son, Eugene Jr., in 1921, a tall, handsome, well-behaved boy at eleven, contributed to the reform movement, as did the strong advice of several close friends. One of his first psychiatric appointments was on a day when he also had one of his first meetings with his son from his brief first marriage, Eugene Jr. (Eugene Jr., born in 1910, studied classics at Yale and was appointed to the classics faculty when he had attained his Ph.D. But after so promising a beginning, his life fell into a downward spiral that ended with alcoholism and suicide in 1950.)
Eugene Sr. drank off and on, but particularly heavily through 1925, the year his daughter Oona was born. His diary for the year often records how many drinks he had consumed that day. He made plans for treatment with an analyst recommended by several friends. Then he stopped drinking altogether on New Year's Eve, 1925. The next morning he wrote in his diary, "Welcome to a new dawn, I pray!" Except for several isolated lapses, he remained sober the rest of his life.
All of this pertains to the issue of truthfulness in the family portraits of Long Day's Journey. It was personally urgent to tell the truth to himself about himself and his kin, because it marked the first long step in mourning, a process that would underlie almost everything he did for well over two decades. Nearly all the plays O'Neill wrote in the 'twenties and 'thirties showed what can accurately be called an obsession with understanding the truth about his family and himself.
The linked processes of mourning and self-psychoanalysis culminated in the writing of Long Day's Journey in 1940, and marked the beginning of the end of the process of self- psychoanalysis that had begun with the several brief episodes of therapy with analysts in the nineteen-twenties. After finishing the play, O'Neill created stringent legal controls to ensure that Journey would never be published until twenty-five years after his death, and would never be performed on a stage.
One thing that a person soon learns in psychoanalytic treatment is that anything one thinks or says may be significant and affect any subsequent attempts to understand something, even something seemingly unrelated. Telling the truth ceases to be important because it's the right or moral thing to do, but because it avoids compounding one's misunderstandings of the world and of oneself. By the time O'Neill set out to write about the Tyrones, he had had plenty of time to learn about the process of self-analysis. So we may, I think, take seriously the understanding O'Neill expressed of his parents and brother. For example, I suspect that O'Neill reported accurately his understanding of the strong bond that he thought his mother had formed with her teacher. Eugene has Mary Tyrone speak with adoration of Mother Elizabeth in Act 4 of Long Day's Journey, "It may be sinful of me but I love her better than my own mother," Mary says. We may easily believe that O'Neill heard his mother say something of the sort either sober or while in a drug-induced regression, like that portrayed in Act 4 of Long Day's Journey.
Ella's mother, who was several years older than her husband, seems to have been the disciplinarian of her children. O'Neill shows a daughter who felt more warmly toward her father than toward her mother. The wish to be a concert pianist or a nun suggests that Ella made an adoring identification with Mother Elizabeth. Apparently, it wasn't just music, for she seems to have abandoned her playing after she graduated. It is pretty clear that she lacked the single-minded drive and commitment necessary for a career as a concert musician. It would have been a life as strenuous and rootless as that she endured with loathing when she later married a traveling actor.
The identification with Mother Elizabeth also suggests something unsettled in her feelings toward her own mother. There is no hint of her wanting to be a mother herself or to have children. Instead she seems to have been ambivalent about becoming like her mother, which, at the time implied for most middle-class women, making her own home and having and raising her own children. She thought of herself as her father's favorite, and this probably allowed her to avoid facing any ambivalence she might have felt about either becoming like her mother or taking her mother's place in a family of her own. What she wound up doing was to become her husband's traveling companion while her children were sent off to boarding schools as soon as they were old enough.
The crucial event of Ella's youth must have been the rapid illness and death of her father from tuberculosis just over a year before she was to graduate from St. Mary's. Her father, previously a teetotaler who enjoyed being with friends who were drinking, now began drinking heavily himself, probably because he knew he was dying. He was just forty when he died on May 25th, 1874.
Ella went home to Cleveland for the funeral and did not return to school until the following fall. Thomas' will left everything to his wife except his books which went to his son and the piano which went to Ella. All the money and property was Mrs. Quinlan's unless and until she remarried, in which case it all would be divided between the children. The will showed that Thomas believed his children much less capable of supporting themselves than he had been at their age, for in it he urged them to develop their talents through education so that they might support themselves without relying on any money or property they might expect to inherit from their mother. The son, Joseph, in fact prospered in business and, at his death in 1911, left his sister a sizable estate.
There is no sign that Ella considered a career. She may have told Mother Elizabeth that she wished to become a concert pianist or a nun, as Mary Tyrone says in Long Day's Journey. Mother Elizabeth may have told her to go away for a time and live like other girls and then decide whether she still wanted to live in the convent. What we know is that after her graduation in 1875, she and her mother moved to New York and they seem to have spent most of their time shopping, according to records from various fine stores. Biographers Arthur and Barbara Gelb report that a series of large checks was drawn on the Quinlan estate in 1875 and '76. Perhaps shopping helped them deal with the grief and disorientation that followed Thomas Quinlan's death.
Then, Ella saw a romantic play and went backstage with her mother afterwards to congratulate the actor, a man whom she had previously met in her father's house as a family friend. According to Long Day's Journey, she worried that tears caused by pity for James's character had spoiled her mascara, but James apparently was not disturbed, if he noticed. Before long, Bridget Quinlan wrote a thousand-dollar check for Ella's trousseau. It was a sum that in 1877 would have bought a good house.
Karen Gibson plays Ella O'Neill in "Miles to Babylon" by Ann Harson.
Ann Harson's play "Miles to Babylon" takes as its point of departure a little understood puzzle in the story of Eugene O'Neill and his family, a story that is central to the plot of Long Day's Journey Into Night. We don't know much about how it could have been that after a quarter-century of on-and-off morphine addiction (mostly on), O'Neill's mother finally and permanently rid herself from the addiction which had begun with Eugene's birth in 1888. I won't describe Ann Harson's story of how it might have happened, or how she works out the details of her play, but I will say that her general point seems a pretty convincing possibility to me, and that it makes a very convincing, attractive, even a beautiful play.
Ella experienced a very difficult childbirth in 1888, at least partly because Eugene weighed eleven pounds at birth. Ella received morphine for post-partum pain, a standard treatment then. Apparently, she became addicted very rapidly. The family apparently did not immediately recognized or acknowledge Ella's addiction or try to have it treated. Later, there were to be numerous cures in medical sanitoria, which helped briefly, until something led to a return to the drug. At the time anyone could obtain small amounts of morphine without a medical prescription, but Ella apparently always went to a doctor for a prescription, whether at home in New London or New York, or while traveling with her husband's theatrical tour. It seems reasonable, trying to look at it from her point of view, to go back to doctors for the drug since they were responsible for her having been exposed to it in the first place.
Then, early in 1914, Ella went through another cure, and this time remained free for the rest of her life (she died February 28th, 1922).
At least a couple of other questions affect our understanding of Ella's cure in 1914. Is there a connection between Ella's cure and Eugene's cure at the T.B. san a year earlier? Almost exactly a years before, Eugene had gone away to a sanitarium with a potentially mortal illness and while there, he had stopped drinking and been pronounced cured. It's not impossible that Ella took inspiration from Eugene's reform. It seems possible that knowing of her own ambivalence toward Eugene simply because he was an unwitting agent of her addiction, she took his cure, his excellent prognosis and his ceasing to drink as signs that it might be possible for her to recover from her own "incurable" affliction. Perhaps that might have allowed her to go to a convent with a more manageable burden of sin than she had thought of herself as carrying for two and a half decades.
A further matter, also worth considering, is the passage of the Harrison Act of 1914 which made the sale or possession of narcotics without medical prescription illegal. Although Ella always obtained her drugs through doctors' prescriptions, it would have been hard for her to completely ignore that blaming the doctors for her affliction could hardly be the whole truth of the matter. The Harrison act came close to making her a criminal, which, however unreasonably, would surely have increased her burden of guilt.
To reach a better understanding, it may help to consider the way the family reacted to another serious medical problem beside Mrs. O'Neill's addiction. Long Day's Journey Into Night, set in August of 1912, shows the confused circumstances surrounding Eugene being diagnosed with tuberculosis and going to a sanitarium. In telling the story O'Neill made many small changes of fact and circumstance. (For example, it was not August but October of that year when he developed the troublesome cough that led the family to call in its physicians, Drs. Daniel Sullivan and Harold Heyer. Both men were highly respected, and neither resembled the Doc Hardy of Long Day's Journey). The doctors tentatively diagnosed "pleurisy" but urgently recommended examination by a specialist who confirmed the suspicion of TB. The complaint in Long Day's Journey of Edmund being sent to a "charity dump" has a grain of truth to it. He was sent, and did go briefly to the State sanitarium at Shelton, a respected institution, but one considered inferior to private sanitoria. Before he went to "the State Farm for Pauper Patients," his father took him to the finest tailor in New London, James Perkins, and had a beautiful new suit made for him. At Shelton, from December 9-11, Eugene received a thorough diagnosis, which determined that he had a very early case, with a prognosis for a full cure if he cooperated with treatment.
Eugene checked himself out and returned home where he was examined again by two respected specialists recommended by Drs. Sullivan and Heyer. They confirmed the diagnosis, and the prognosis. Like the doctors at Shelton, they cautiously advised that a full cure was possible if Eugene cooperated with treatment. His father now sent him to Gaylord Farm, a semi-private sanitarium where he arrived on Christmas Eve. Eugene apparently cooperated fully with his treatment, which required avoiding alcohol completely and getting plenty of rest. (After his discharge, O'Neill almost completely stopped drinking for a couple years, then began to drink, off and on, ever more heavily. On January 1st, 1925, he stopped drinking permanently -- except for a few widely-separated lapses.)
He was released from the sanitarium June 1st, 1914 as "cured", and the disease never returned. Eugene's stay at Gaylord Farm cost James O'Neill $167.35. When Eugene arrived home, he received from his father the gift of a fine second-hand power boat which cost $200.
James O'Neill's erratic response to the news that Eugene was very seriously ill may say something about the care Ella got when she had relapses into addiction. With Eugene, James worried as always about money, did a little of this, and little of the opposite, then wound up (partly because he loved his son, partly in spite of himself) doing the right thing. Eugene was permanently cured.
Eugene's situation was bad enough, but Ella's, however, was even more complicated than Eugene's. A certain stigma attached to having TB; it carried the aura of being a disease of poverty because it supposedly thrived on the malnourished. But Ella suffered from something that could not be mentioned and her illness stubbornly resisted each attempt at cure. Long Day's Journey shows the Tyrones all blaming each other, including Mary, for falling back into her habit after each of the numerous cures, and that in fact seems to be what happened also in the real lives of the O'Neills.
Sensitive, prone to depression, Ella hated the constant travel of James's theatrical tours, but deeply needed to be with her husband. She seemed unable to consider living apart from him while he was on the road, and he could not bear her absence. In Long Day's Journey Mary Tyrone complains that her husband would never buy her the fine home she felt was due her father's daughter. But in fact she inherited enough money from her father, mother and brother (all of which James kept separate from his own money) that she could have bought almost any home she might have wanted. In the end she seemed happiest during the last eight years of her life when she and James lived mostly in a residential hotel in New York City. That was after the cure.
Let's consider directly what we know and what we can infer about Ella's addiction and about the cure. Louis Sheaffer learned from Agnes Boulton -- O'Neill's second wife, the mother of Oona and Shane -- that, shortly after she married in 1918, Eugene told her that "a few years earlier" his mother had freed herself from a drug addiction. Sheaffer's interview notes do not say when Agnes learned of her mother-in-law's illness, but a probable time may have been in early March, 1922, just after Ella's death. That is when Eugene told Saxe Commins, his close friend and later his editor, about the family nightmare, and Saxe himself told the story in his autobiography. With the floodgates open on the old secret, Eugene probably also told the sad story to his wife. Agnes told Sheaffer that she thought that the final cure had come in 1914 or 1915. Weighing Agnes's recollection and drawing inferences from a "flurry" of items about the O'Neills in the New London newspapers, Sheaffer judged that the time was spring, 1914.
Mary Ellen attended the Ursuline Academy at 50 Euclid Avenue in Cleveland. It was a classic incubator of Catholicity designed to foster faith and develop character. Its rigorous academic program prepared girls for advanced work at other institutions and laid the groundwork for Christian motherhood.
The scholarly controversy over whether Ella made her recovery in Ohio or Brooklyn may never be actually resolved. Ann Harson, at the time of writing her play, believed that her setting the story in Brooklyn was actually an adaptation of the truth.
For a discussion, see footnote 4 in "Ella O'Neill and the Imprint of Faith," from the website of the O'Neill Library.
Without indicating other sources of information, Sheaffer speculates that Ella went to a convent, perhaps in Brooklyn, rather than to a medical sanitarium. He argues most plausibly that a return to her childhood religion helped Ella where medical treatment had so often failed. It is reasonable that Ella, who disliked and distrusted physicians, might have found a better cure by returning to her faith than by going to another hospital. Hospitals had repeatedly ended her physiological dependency, but had not shown her how to tolerate the recurrent episodes of craving for the drug, let alone the miseries and frustrations of daily life in a difficult family, that time after time led her to resume the use of morphine. Something would have had to give her the "will-power" to confront the stresses of her life without resuming use of the drug for the remaining eight years of her life.
Trying to understand Ella's situation led me to consult, in the early 1980s, various academic and medical colleagues about the subject of addiction. I was directed to the then-standard summary of the topic, the article "Opiate Dependence" by Albert M. Freedman, M.D., in Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry III, vol. 2, 3rd edition, edited by Harold Kaplan, M.D;, et al. Baltimore and London, Williams and Wilkins, 1980, pp.1591-1614, which I understand is still considered generally accurate. Dr. Freedman wrote that withdrawal symptoms of "the abstinence syndrome" were intense for only a few days, and "generally milder" than the depictions in movies or on TV "of cold-turkey withdrawal." However, "the symptoms might persist for six months or longer" (Freedman, p. 1604). Recurring symptoms during withdrawal, of whatever intensity, would immediately be relieved by resuming the drug, only to return when the dose wore off. It may be that Ella's periods of abstinence were simply not long enough to permit her to become completely free from the recurrence of cravings. Ella's low tolerance for distress would surely play a part in her resumptions.
We know of events in the last eight years of Ella's life that would test the resolve of the strongest person. Most notably, in April, 1919, Ella O'Neill underwent a mastectomy for breast cancer. In addition to experiencing the psychological shock of disfigurement, Ella would almost certainly have been re-exposed to morphine for post-operative pain. That she did not become re-addicted is remarkable. The same is true for the year 1920 during which her husband suffered intensely for at least six months from symptoms of stomach cancer, longed to die, and did die in August. To understand how she avoided returning to morphine seems to require a fuller grasp of both her addiction and some factors that may have contributed to its cure.
It may be that physical addiction was not Ella's primary or only problem. While authorities do not agree about an "addictive" or "preaddictive" personality, they do find certain traits that consistently appear in addicts. Various authors emphasize that addicts tend to meet conflicts and anxieties about aggression, dependency, and sexuality passively, by avoiding problems rather than by aggressive behavior. Marie Nyswander, a psychoanalyst who was also an expert on addiction, believed that opiates permitted a passive adaptation to inner tensions. "Addicts seem to take advantage of the powerful action of the drug to mute and extinguish their emotions and to solve, at least in the short run, problems associated with interpersonal questions" (in Freedman, p. 1596).
The psychiatric opinions seem aptly to describe the personality of Mary Tyrone as O'Neill portrays her in Long Day's Journey Into Night. They also fit with most of what we know about Ella O'Neill. It is appropriate to mention here that the actress Florence Eldridge, consulted Dr. Nyswander while preparing to play Mary Tyrone in the 1956 American premier of Long Day's Journey. According to Miss Eldridge, Dr. Nyswander believed, on the basis of reading the play, that O'Neill had portrayed a person whose psychopathology extended beyond her addiction (Eldridge, 286-87). The article appeared in Virginia Floyd's book O'Neill, A World View (New York: Ungar, 1979, pp. 286-87). In childhood, Sheaffer tells us, Eugene accounted for his mother's erratic behavior with the belief that she was "mentally unstable" (Sheaffer, O'Neill, Son and Playwright, p. 80). In the plays he wrote as an adult, the numerous portraits of Ella show that he had not changed his mind.
Whatever his periodic bewilderment with his mother, it seems equally clear that Eugene loved her with more constancy and devotion even than exasperation and frustration, although the balance must have been close. The love is what finally shows at the end of Long Day's Journey even as strongly as the frustration of the men who can do nothing to hasten her return from the childhood world to which she retreats in flight from the frustrations of daily life with it demands and discomforts. It is why we may leave the theater when the play has ended and not want to speak or even think. Understanding his mother and his love for her helped O'Neill capture something which exists at the limit of human tolerance for hate and love, as well as for fellow-feeling, for empathy. It is what has led many a knowledgeable critic to find in the play what Aeschylus and his ancient colleagues achieved.
Stephen Black has been thinking and writing about O'Neill for more than fifty years, for many of which he was a Professor of English at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby (Vancouver), B. C., Canada. He was born and grew up in the Los Angeles area, served in the U.S. Army in the post-Korean war era, and has written several books including "James Thurber, His Masquerades" (Mouton, 1970), "Walt Whitman's Journeys Into Chaos" (Princeton Univ. Press, 1975), a reference book about O'Neill's plays in performance, "File On O'Neill" (Methuen, 1993), the biography, "Eugene O'Neill: Beyond Mourning and Tragedy" (Yale Univ. Press, 1999), edited a memorial volume of recollections and tributes, "Jason Robards Remembered" (McFarland & Co., 2002) and numerous articles and reviews of books and performances. He is a Past-President of the Eugene O'Neill Society and the sixth recipient of the Tao House Award, presented in 2006 by the Eugene O'Neill Foundation of Danville, California.