event musings: a visit to monte cristo cottage

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Conference wanderings: Pictures, Prizes, and Hauntings
Sunday July 28, 2013
Monte Cristo Cottage, 325 Pequot Avenue, New London, CT

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During my visit to the O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut last month, I bunked in a dorm room at a small college in New London, just a few miles away. Visiting artists and headliners have rooms on the O’Neill campus itself. Most of the Conference staff is bivouacked as I was a little further away from the O’Neill performance spaces, using the dormitory accommodations of nearby colleges: modest rooms, little or no air conditioning, communal showering, twin beds. No one is wasting anyone’s money, and everyone is here for the love of the craft — new play crafting, cabaret, puppetry, or simply observing the adventure. My assigned post this distance from the main O’Neill campus at first seemed a disadvantage and a disappointment. Then I woke up to the fact that the short window of time I was to be resident in my New London dorm room overlapped with the short Sunday hours a groovy O’Neill-related location would be open for tours and wanderings. It was fated; I was appeased; I stayed the entire two-hour opening time; I am still transfixed by the experience.

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A block away from my dorm room stands the boyhood summer home of Eugene O’Neill, named the Monte Cristo Cottage for the evergreen role of Edmond Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo played for decades by the playwright’s actor father James. The Cottage was registered as National Historic Landmark in 1971, so the tour materials tell me, and is the setting for two of O’Neill’s plays (which no one needs to tell me): Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Ah, Wilderness!. On the Sunday of my visit, I was the first tourist to arrive when visiting hours commenced, and the last to leave when they were to end.

Our charming tour guide, a summer staffer from the Theater Conference, provided a range of historical tidbits during the house tour. From the well-known — e.g. O’Neill’s Anna Christie gave us Greta Garbo‘s first lines in a talkie (“Gimme a whisky, ginger ale on the side, and don’t be stingy, baby!”) — to the less well-known — James O’Neill’s terrible architectural skills that placed a first floor window in a position where it is almost entirely covered by the stairs that rise to the second floor. I was reminded, in a Geraldine Fitzgerald narrated video shown on the premises, about the potent legacy the location has for actresses approaching the role of morphine-addicted fictionalized matriarch Mary Tyrone. Many seem to make a pilgrimage to the house. Fitzgerald provides visceral observations in the tour video such as “although no one lives in the house, it is not empty” and “the past in this house does not feel so very far away.” Before my visit, I had heard stories from my friend Albert Poland about the cast of the Robert Falls 2003 Broadway revival visiting the house through a day and a night, reading the text aloud, and at one point following Vanessa Redgrave-as-Mary through the house and up the stairs to the second floor bedrooms. And all the stories and observations enrich my own time spent padding over the softly creaking floor boards of this gently protected structure.

Several costumes designed by Jane Greenwood for Colleen Dewhurst in 1988 Centennial productions of Ah, Wilderness! and Long Day’s Journey Into Night are displayed in room corners. Set models (ah I do adore set models) for productions include Ming Cho Lee‘s design for George C. Wolfe‘s Chinese production of Anna Christie and a Michael Yeargan 1988 design for Ah, Wilderness!. Books fill bookshelves; period furniture populates the simple rooms; the spirits of the human beings who lived lives, and multiple theatrical evocations of those lives fill the air. It is a spare and yet almost impossibly laden place. I shall allow my snap shots and their specific annotations to continue the story.

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South end of front porch, peering around the corner to the outside windows into the main sitting room featured so prominently in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”
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Front porch, looking north.
From hallway into the sitting room the tour guide called
From front hallway looking into the sitting room the tour guide called “The Long Day’s Journey Into Night Room” — its dimensions and basic entrances and exits comport almost exactly with the stage directions for that play, we are told.
The main stairway that was so absent-mindedly designed it covers up a window and has bannisters and handrail slightly shorter than standard.
The main stairway designed so absent-mindedly by actor James O’Neill that it covers up a window and has banisters and handrail slightly shorter than standard.
Several rooms on the second floor are bedrooms -- Eugene and Jamie's at the front of the house and the master toward the back. A single bathroom is also at the back of the house, to the right of the stair way when you rise. The most intriguing room to me is the room with closed door pictured here, now holding scripts from the O'Neill Theater Center, which was once the room to which Eugene's mother would retreat during her time addicted to morphine.
Several rooms on the second floor are bedrooms — Eugene and Jamie’s at the front of the house and the master toward the back. A single bathroom is also at the back of the house, to the right of the stair as you rise. The most intriguing room to me is the room with closed door pictured here, now holding scripts from the O’Neill Theater Center, which was once the room to which Mary Tyrone’s real-life counterpart would retreat during her time addicted to morphine. In my mind there was some humorous connection to be drawn between dramaturgical efforts and a morphine haze.

A portrait of Eugene O’Neill as a boy reading becomes the model for a statue and in turn an award bestowed by the O’Neill Center.

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“Eugene at 7, on the grounds in front of Monte Cristo Cottage, overlooking the Thames River.”
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Photograph’s image replicated in bronze.
Set Model by Michael Yeargan for Ah, Wilderness! (1988) at Yale Repertory Theatre.
A set model presents Michael Yeargan’s design for the 1988 Centennial production of “Ah, Wilderness!” for the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.

As already noted, Jane Greenwood costumes for Colleen Dewhurst in 1988 Centennial productions of Ah, Wilderness! and Long Days Journey Into Night haunt the Cottage front hallway and the main living area. Eugene’s mother in her fictional guise haunting in a theatrical way. What a brilliant idea.

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The “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” room. In the far corner, making corporeal the haunting already extant in this house: costume by Jane Greenwood for Colleen Dewhurst as Mary Tyrone in 1988 Centennial production of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” Another mannequin with a very similar costume resides in the Cottage front vestibule, also designed for Dewhurst, also by Greenwood, also in 1988, for the Yale Rep production of “Ah, Wilderness!”

Playbills abound in cases under glass.

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Playbills honor performances by Frederic March to Brian Dennehy and so many luminaries in between.
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Ah, the Lemmon.

Katharine Hepburn is present, but of course.

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Production photograph: Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962) with Katharine Hepburn and Ralph Richardson, directed by Sidney Lumet.
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Lobby Card: Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962) with Katharine Hepburn and Ralph Richardson, directed by Sidney Lumet.

A production poster for a Lithuanian production of Anna Christie fascinates.

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This image haunts for many reasons: it communicates through another language the lurking passions of the O’Neill sea-going original and it is a lovely timeless design.

As well-curated house museums can do, one feels the human scale lives of the individuals who dwelled for a time within these walls. One of the individuals created art out of the pain and the triumph of his years in this location. Some of this family members through their fictional counterparts have an enduring theatrical legacy. Eugene O’Neill’s Nobel Prize for theater based his life, and the reality of his family history, stand in this house side by side.

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Documents associated with O’Neill’s Nobel Prize for Literature bestowed December 10, 1936.
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“O’Neill at eleven on the veranda of Monte Cristo Cottage with his father and brother, James Jr. Eugene, even at this early age, is typically absorbed in a book.”

© Martha Wade Steketee (August 20, 2013)

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