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NY Theater Reviews

By Women Possessed: A Life of Eugene O’Neill. by Arthur Gelb and Barbara Gelb.



Viewed through the lens of his relationships with women, this biography presents a complete and detailed portrait of Eugene O’Neill.

Arthur Gelb and his wife Barbara Gelb (parents of Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb) published O’Neill, the first major biography of Eugene O’Neill, in 1962, less than a decade after the playwright’s death at age 65. Along with the 1956 Off-Broadway revival of The Iceman Cometh directed by Jose Quintero (which transcended the botched 1947 original production) and the posthumous publication and stage premiere of his masterpiece Long Day’s Journey Into Night, the Gelbs’ biography played a critical role in solidifying O’Neill’s standing as the father of American playwriting.

In 2000, the Gelbs published O’Neill: Life with Monte Christo, a reworking of O’Neill that focused primarily on O’Neill’s formative years, growing up alongside his father, the stalwart matinee idol James O’Neill. The couple’s final work, By Women Possessed: A Life of Eugene O’Neill, which explores O’Neill via the women in his life, has now been published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons. The Gelbs make use of their research going back to their first biography, as well as additional interviews and newly released documents (including correspondence, diaries, notes and drafts).

Arthur Gelb passed away in 2014 (at age 90) as the final draft of By Women Possessed was being readied, leaving Barbara Gelb to complete it. (Mr. Gelb was also known for being a longtime editor at The New York Times, from which he produced the valuable memoir City Room.)

At a length of 759 pages (not including acknowledgements, endnotes and a preface), By Women Possessed presents a complete and detailed portrait of O’Neill. Although one can glean the trajectory of O’Neill’s entire life and work product from it, the biography is structured primarily around O’Neill’s second marriage to writer Agnes Boulton and his third and final marriage to actress/socialite Carlotta Monterey. O’Neill’s relationship with his troubled, morphine-addicted mother Mary is frequently brought up, and his early and short marriage to Kathleen Jenkins merits at least a passing mention.

This is not the only recent biography to stress a famous playwright’s relationship with the women in his life (Follies of God: Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog by James Grissom, The Partnership: Brecht, Weill, Three Women, and Germany on the Brink by Pamela Katz).

The Gelbs summarily delve into the plot and production history of each of O’Neill’s plays (all of which are worthy of extended analysis and discussion), but their focus is primarily on O’Neill as a neglectful father and difficult, self-centered, even violent husband. It opens on opening night of O’Neill’s psychological drama Strange Interlude, at which point O’Neill and Monterey are planning to abscond and begin a new life together. It then goes from O’Neill’s marriage to Boulton to his marriage to Monterey, and then the painful physical decay and turmoil leading to his death. The Gelbs also include an epilogue on Monterey’s life after O’Neill’s death, which included being sequestered in a rundown mental asylum.

According to the Gelbs, O’Neill’s marriage to Boulton was rocked by the presence of their two children and Boulton’s desire to continue as a writer herself. O’Neill demanded undivided attention and maintenance from his spouse. On the other hand, Monterey (who first met O’Neill when she entered the cast of The Hairy Ape) was more than willing to put his interests first and devote herself to being muse and caretaker. Although Monterey ignored O’Neill’s instructions to not touch Long Day’s Journey Into Night following his death, she was able to rescue his reputation and secure his legacy.

Reading a biography – be it any biography – of O’Neill is not just recommended, but mandatory for anyone who cares about the development of American drama in the 20th century and revisits these plays in professional revivals. Those who are new to O’Neill may want to begin with a straightforward recent work such as Robert M. Dowling’s Eugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts, which was published in 2014 and emphasizes the connections between O’Neill’s life and his plays. In the alternative, one can easily find on YouTube a 2006 PBS documentary on O’Neill that was directed by Ric Burns and written by the Gelbs.