Eugene O’Neill Festival
O’Neill and the Automobile
By Charlie Fontana
Those of O’Neill’s generation had a front-row seat to the advent and increasing popularity of the automobile. Just as today’s playwrights will surely include references to Facebook and iPhones in the memory plays they will create 25 years hereafter, O’Neill could scarcely avoid incorporating some significant mention of the emerging auto into his writings.
As the then-modern alternative to the horse and buggy – or for that matter to a walk, bicycle or train – cars figure prominently in several O’Neill works. His short play Recklessness (1913) ends with what critic Harold Bloom describes as “a constructive murder by automobile.” In The Iceman Cometh (written in 1939, set in 1912), Harry Hope, terrified of facing the world, seeks refuge in his saloon, falsely claiming that he’s narrowly escaped being run over by a drunken (or crazy) motorist. And in Moon for the Misbegotten (written in 1941, set in 1923), earthy Phil Hogan’s unrestrained wrath is directed at a rich man: “Keep your place and be soft-spoken to your betters! You’re not in your shiny automobile now with your funny nose cocked so you won’t smell the poor people.”
Both Ah, Wilderness! and Long Day’s Journey into Night take place during New England summers, when the simple pleasure of temperate breezes cooling the auto’s occupants as it rolled through town and country would have been most appealing. But the appeal went further, particularly in the first decade of the new century when the mere presence of a car spoke loudly about its (usually male) owner, automatically bestowing upon him an air of wealth, status, and modernity. One who owned an auto was seen as a man in control with a spirit of adventure, in short, the beneficiary of the Industrial Revolution.
The lure of the open road – or as Henry Ford would have it, “God’s great open spaces” – was tempered by some plain truths. During the early 1900s, roads suitable for driving were a rarity. The first transcontinental roadway, the Lincoln Highway, included both paved and dirt roads and wasn’t a reality until 1913. As automotive design steadily progressed beyond the horse-drawn carriage, the potential for speed became an increasingly threatening prospect. While many American towns held to a frequently ignored speed limit of 12 miles per hour, top speeds of early cars, surprisingly, were as high as 60 mph. Henry Ford’s 999 racing vehicle broke the land speed record at 91 mph, and in 1907 the Thomas Flyer set a world record by traveling 997 miles in 24 hours.
Where Nat Miller’s gleaming new Buick in Ah, Wilderness! is a source of fun and pride for the Miller family, James Tyrone’s automobile in Long Day’s Journey is an embarrassment to his family. Tyrone looks at his purchase of a used Packard and the hiring of a chauffeur to drive it as extravagances he could ill-afford. “I had it waiting for you when you came back from the sanatorium. I hoped it would give you pleasure and distract your mind,” he tells Mary, his wife. But she sees the unqualified chauffeur as disreputable and the secondhand car itself as a cause for resentment. Humiliating as a ride in the car is for her, she is not however above making use of it and the driver to obtain drugs at the local pharmacy. Just how contemptible the vehicle is remains a matter of interpretation, as the Tyrones’ maid, Cathleen, describes the Packard as “fine” (in the 1912 sense of the word).
Whether showpieces or clunkers, Americans then and now have frequently measured their lives in terms of the vehicles they’ve owned or aspired to own. Births, deaths, graduations, and other milestones are often remembered by the cars that ferried participants to and from an event. For Nat Miller’s children, the America of roadside attractions, remote vistas, and neon outposts would still be off in the future, but a Sunday afternoon road excursion with Dad – to grandma’s or to the downtown soda fountain – would be a small affirmation of the promise of a great nation at the dawn of the 20th century.
Charlie Fontana is a literary volunteer with Arena Stage. A hardcore expatriate, he recently returned to the D.C. area after eight years producing and directing theatrical productions for the U.S. Department of Defense in Wiesbaden, Germany, and five years in a similar capacity in Tokyo. Charlie’s career has also included thirteen fun-filled years hosting American performers touring military installations throughout Japan.
Extras & Insights is funded, in part, by a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities.