Eugene O’Neill

Thanksgiving Memories

People will describe numerous signs of aging to you. To my mind not wanting to have Thanksgiving dinner at home makes the top spot on that list. After all: it takes days to prepare and possibly twice as long to clean-up. I had the pleasure of spending this past Thanksgiving with my Dad and Step-mom. We went out to a local Charlie Brown’s for the “All You Can Eat Turkey Special”. (If I may put my food critic’s hat on for a moment: it lived up to its name. The limitless supply of turkey, potatoes and stuffing couldn’t have been better. The unlimited amount of vegetables, I could’ve lived without, though.) Knowing I could gorge myself to capacity without having to help with the tidying afterwards enhanced my turkey day enjoyment. So did the company. We all live busy lives and dinner gave us the opportunity to catch up on things.

During the course of our conversation, our thoughts drifted to those no longer able to join us for dinner. My Dad brought up my favorite holiday story. Our Uncle Tom Connelly (my paternal grandmother’s brother) had an interesting tradition. When he felt full during Thanksgiving Dinner, he’d excuse himself from the table and take a walk around the block. Upon his return, he’d sit down and resume his meal. I didn’t have the privilege of meeting him personally, but family members all describe him as “thin”. Uncle Tom must’ve had a pretty good metabolism. I’ve been jogging for over 25 years, but nobody describes me that way.

In the course of discussing Uncle Tom’s Thanksgiving weight loss routine, I remembered my grandmother, Marguerite Stephany, telling me about him. I recall her sharing that story every Thanksgiving. She lived for that holiday. It seemed like she spent all year getting ready for the last Thursday in November. I wouldn’t be able to see the dinner table because of all the food she’d put there. While I was only 12 the last time she cooked dinner at her home, I remember at least three t.v. trays full of vegetables. Granted, at least eight people showed up for Thanksgiving dinner, but there were still plenty of leftovers for everyone. They lasted us close to a week after the holiday.

Several years ago, I started working for a gentleman who purchased my grandparents’ home from the couple they sold it to. While living there, he refurbished the place. When he found out that the house belonged to my grandparents, the first thing he asked me about was the oven. I felt a tinge of sadness when he mentioned removing it. “A lot of great Thanksgiving Dinners got cooked in that stove,” I told him. While writing this I could still smell the scent of my grandmother’s turkey and stuffing wafting through the cool autumn air.

I get sentimental every Thanksgiving. The last time I ever saw my grandfather, Ed Stephany, was on Thanksgiving of 2003. At the time, we had it at my Aunt Marguerite’s house in Reading, PA. (She lived half-way between my parent’s home and my grandparents’ new residence up the Poconos, so we opted to have dinner there.) I remember my grandfather lamenting his health. I didn’t believe him. The guy was a machine. Rarely, and I mean very rarely, would he sit still. He served as an officer with the Kingswood Lake Association, he volunteered as the treasurer for a local branch of the VFW and held the rank of Captain of the Kunkletown Fire Police. He did most of these things in his late seventies! Apparently, years of eating all the vegetables my grandmother cooked, really paid off. Sadly, he passed away of Christmas Eve of that year at the age of 81.

Thanksgiving of 2012 was one of the last times I saw my grandmother. On the cusp of turning 90, we’d retired her apron for her. We had dinner at the Inn in Reading. As my aunt went to get her dinner, she told my grandmom, “You gave us so many great Thanksgivings, let us wait on you.” My grandmother volunteered her time in many of the same organizations as my grandfather. In spite of raising two children and working as a supervisor for a publishing company, I thought she worked harder after she retired. She passed away in September of 2013, just two months shy of her 91st birthday.

I really miss my Mom on Thanksgiving. Her birthday sometimes falls on the holiday. This past November 24th would’ve been her 70th birthday. I vividly remember visiting her grave on that date the year she passed. In the distance I noticed a school bus drive by. It reminded me of my youth. I’d get home from school early and would look forward to spending Thanksgiving with the whole family. For the first time I realized that many of the people I spent Thanksgiving with were no longer part of my life.

Eugene O’Neill once wrote: “When you’re 50 you start thinking about things you haven’t thought about before. I used to think getting old was about vanity – but actually it’s about losing people you love. Getting wrinkles is trivial.” Ironically, this Thanksgiving Day marked the 61st anniversary of his passing.

A lot of people complain about the frenzied nature of the holiday season. Some with large families tell me that they have breakfast at one of their kids’ homes, lunch at another’s and then dinner at someone else’s place. They don’t realize that’s a good problem to have. The end of the year may be a little hectic, but it’s a great opportunity to spend time with loved ones.

Whenever I reflect on Thanksgivings past I’m reminded of an expression from Dr. Seuss. I like it so much that I quoted it when I eulogized my Mom. “Don’t be sad because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” While I miss kicking off the Holiday Season by breaking bread with my Mom and grandparents, the times I did enriched my life. I’m a better person today for having the opportunity.

I had a great time with my Dad and Step-mom yesterday. I’m already looking forward to next Thanksgiving.

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Drama Review – Abortion by Eugene O’Neill

Quite possibly, the most traumatic choice a person can face in life is the decision to have an abortion. The repercussions can haunt a person for the remainder of one’s life. Who better to write a fictional account of a topic this horrible than Eugene O’Neill? In 1914, he did just that. As only O’Neill could, he presented a dramatic work that unified both the carefree nature of youth along with the harsh reality of the consequences of it.

This is an interesting review for me. I thought the characters one dimensional and stereotypical. Yet, I still enjoyed the play. It took a high level of skill from the dramatist to manage this feat. The fact I read the piece in only twenty minutes may have helped in this regard, as well.

The drama centered on Jack Townsend, a popular college athlete with a great life ahead of him. I thought O’Neill’s choice of conflict creative. Instead of resorting to the trite “he’s got a great future and gets a girl pregnant,” the tale dealt with events that transpired after the event and following Jack’s response to the unexpected pregnancy. I give O’Neill credit for not resorting to a banal story arc.

The overall narrative reminded me a bit of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. In Dreiser’s story, a man with the opportunity to move up in society by marrying a wealthy woman impregnates a poor girl with whom he worked.  Abortion pre-dated it by eleven years. Jack longed to marry the more sophisticated Evelyn, but the after effects of his affair with a secretary interfered. I won’t spoil the rest of the story for those who wish to read it or see it performed.

I really liked the choice of Jack as a protagonist. I thought O’Neill’s decision to make him a college athlete outstanding. Attending college is widely held in high regard. In addition, we live in a society that glorifies sports people. Interestingly, though, it’s difficult to consult the news without seeing a story about one who’s behaving badly. O’Neill wrote Abortion one hundred years ago! It amazed me to read about the same kind of mentality in American life. Not surprising, after the major tragic event of the play, the students sang “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” to Jack.

On a personal level, I consider myself pro-life. I do not believe it’s right to terminate a pregnancy through abortion. That’s what I think. What I know is that I don’t have the right to force my views on others. There are some issues that are best left between a person and his/her conscience and/or his/her god. I find it troubling that in a nation where SCOTUS has ruled that abortion is legal under the Constitution, many states have resorted to bizarre contortions of zoning laws to make it illegal in everything but name. O’Neill’s tragedy about back-alley abortion clinics and the ruined lives that result from them provided a much sadder commentary on our own time than his.

Drama Review – Strange Interlude by Eugene O’Neill

Whenever someone tells me (s)he is about to read a work by Eugene O’Neill, I worry. I make sure to tell him/her to have someone hide all sharp objects within a five mile radius. For those planning on reading Strange Interlude, I would caution readers to stash all the blunt ones, as well. While I cannot deny O’Neill’s genius, there’s no ignoring the depressing nature of his work. In 1936, the Nobel Prize committee presented O’Neill with the award in Literature, “for the power, honesty and deep-felt emotions of his dramatic works, which embody an original concept of tragedy.” Strange Interlude exhibited all these traits.

            Eugene O’Neill was the first and, to this day, only American playwright to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. Four of his works earned him the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. Strange Interlude did so in 1928. While I found the overall story unique and creative, I didn’t think it one of O’Neill’s best. I certainly wouldn’t put it in the same category as Beyond the Horizon or The Iceman Cometh. The first time I read Long Day’s Journey into Night, the drama engrossed me so much, I felt like I had a drinking problem when I finished. While interesting, Strange Interlude lacked the same impact.  

            As typical of O’Neill’s plays, a number of lines struck me as very philosophical. In the first act, Marsden thinks, “The square thing…but we must all be crooks where happiness is concerned!…steal or starve!…” (Page 76). In Act Two, Nina says, “Life is just a drawn out lie with a sniffling sound at the end.” (Page 104) I already warned my readers to hide all sharp and blunt objects. Lines like these serve as a good sampling of the overall tone of the play.

            Like in Beyond the Horizon, O’Neill jolted the audience with a major plot twist. After entering into an unhappy marriage to Sam Evans, Nina decided to have a child in the hopes it would improve their relationship. She then discovered insanity runs in Sam’s family. Therefore, she got a friend, Dr. Edmund Darrell, to, ahem, serve as the child’s biological father. They would allow Sam to raise the child thinking it his own. Even he didn’t know about the insanity in his ancestry. Before readers applaud Dr. Darrell for graciously giving up his time to serve as the, ahem, biological father of Nina’s child, this wasn’t the altruistic act in may appear to be. It turns out the doctor loved Nina as well. I thought this mix made for a compelling drama. I turned the pages in anticipation of the emotional catastrophe to come.

            I thought the repeated, and I emphasize repeated, asides by the various characters rather annoying. As any author knows, the hardest part of writing drama is that the audience or reader doesn’t know the inner thoughts of any character. O’Neill chose to remedy this through numerous soliloquies. I found them distracting after a while. Granted, unlike Gao Xinjian, at least he didn’t reject the Stanislavski system. That would’ve made the incessant inner monologues insufferable.

                 At the end of the play, Nina explained the title. “Strange interlude! Yes, our lives are merely strange dark interludes in the electrical display of God the Father.” (Page 255) Yeah, not real life-affirming stuff, yet it showed the essence of O’Neill’s work. I’d recommend Strange Interlude to people already familiar with O’Neill’s plays. It’s a good drama, but not one of his best. Keep in mind he penned masterpieces such as Beyond the Horizon and The Iceman Cometh. Even as a critic, I admit it’s not entirely fair to fault him for not consistently crafting work up to their superlative level.