Eugene O'Neill's house

Facing the ghosts: Eugene O’Neill and Tao House

by Laura Shamas

“His bedroom mirror is painted black, and the walls are grey, the color of fog,” the National Park Ranger said. I stood in Eugene Gladstone O’Neill’s former bedroom at Tao House, a National Historic Site in Danville, California. Here was his actual bed, and around the corner, a pair of O’Neill’s striped pajamas. We were about to enter the famous two-desk study in which “Gene” wrote his final, important autobiographical plays: Long Day’s Journey Into Night, A Moon for the MisbegottenThe Iceman Cometh. The ranger continued: “A black-tinted mirror is unusual. If you look at yourself in it, the image reflected back is like that of a ghost. O’Neill looked into this mirror every day.”

I’ve long been fascinated by the connection between writers and their homes. How much does a writer’s physical environment affect her or his creativity? Tao House, the only National Park Site dedicated to an American playwright, provides some interesting answers. Winner of four Pulitzer Prizes for Drama (one awarded posthumously), O’Neill is the only American playwright to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He lived in Danville from 1937-1944, from about the ages of 49-56, and wrote five plays there.

Blemie's memorialSeeking seclusion in order to focus on his writing and ailing health, it was at Tao House that O’Neill “faced his ghosts,” writing most directly about his dead parents and brother. His third wife, actress Carlotta Monterey, said she could hear “The Master,” as she affectionately called him, sobbing each day behind closed study doors as he wrote Long Day’s Journey Into Night. O’Neill lived simply at Tao House with Carlotta, household staff, and a beloved Dalmatian named “Blemie” who’s buried there at the foot of a hill. Blemie was also the inspiration for O’Neill’s famous canine will: “The Last Will and Testament of Silverdene Emblem O’Neill.”

The O’Neills built beautiful Tao House on the hilly East Bay 158-acre ranch property, with a direct view of Mount Diablo. Arranged and decorated with Feng Shui principles, the living room and guest bedroom were downstairs, and his study and two bedrooms upstairs. There was also a sizeable swimming pool on the grounds. O’Neill’s daily routine involved rising early, working until about 1 pm, then eating lunch. After his midday meal, he took a nap, swam, or took a walk with Carlotta. If he felt like he could, he’d keep writing without a break. At night, they usually stayed in, listening to music or reading.

Eugene O'Neill's house

Photos courtesy of Laura Shamas

There are three doors to pass through to reach O’Neill’s study, which afforded him much privacy at the end of the house. He wrote there by hand. The room has two desks, and he was known to move back and forth between them while writing. In keeping with his love of the sea and his early sailing days, the study had a nautical feel in shape and decoration. A model ship was displayed on top of one desk. His bedroom, painted the color of fog, also fits this oceanic motif.

O’Neill’s goal at Tao House was to complete an ambitious cycle of plays, work which he considered “soul-grinding.” Although he eventually scaled back his plans and wrote five plays there, they are considered among his very best work — an example of a formative link between home environment and creativity.

Laura Shamas

About Laura Shamas

Laura Shamas is a writer and mythologist. Her latest book is Pop Mythology: Collected Essays. She blogs about film and myth for Huffington Post. She is married to writer/professor Jon Klein. Please follow Laura on Twitter: @LauraShamas

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