One in a series on National Historic Landmarks in New England.
NEW LONDON, Conn. — Playwright Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953) was famously born in a hotel in New York and died in a hotel in Boston. But for a brief time in between, this gray clapboard Monte Cristo Cottage on a hill above the New London waterfront was his summer home. Eugene’s father, the actor James O’Neill, bought the property in 1884 and when renovations and expansion were completed in 1900, the family moved in.
Acclaimed for classical roles in his youth, James chose to spend most of his career in lucrative melodrama, playing Edmond Dantes in “The Count of Monte Cristo.” Indeed, a prop sword from the play hangs over one of the fireplaces like an Ibsenian shotgun over the mantle. The cottage was supposed to be the family’s respite from the long months on the road as James performed in a touring company. From the evidence of the younger O’Neill’s plays, it’s not clear whether the cottage represented real respite or a form of claustrophobic summer confinement.
“Eugene spent most of his summers here growing up,” said guide Hannah Moger. Although he never lived at Monte Cristo Cottage as an adult, the home and his troubled upbringing remained a strong presence in his life and work. In fact, it was both the setting and inspiration for the coming-of-age comedy “Ah, Wilderness!” and for his brooding masterpiece “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” which was not published or performed until after his death.
One room of the house has been converted into a display area for family photos along with playbills and publicity shots of various productions of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” (The Scandinavians seem to have a special affinity for the dark melancholy of the play.) But visitors hardly need to study the stills because the house itself may be the best place to appreciate the playwright’s most thinly veiled autobiographical work. In 1982 the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center opened the cottage as a museum to the 1936 Nobelist and three-time Pulitzer prize-winning playwright, and it has been furnished according to O’Neill’s own set directions and sketches for the play.
With its upright piano and Victorian furniture, the front parlor has the stiff formality of a room that saw little use. More striking is the back sunroom with wood-paneled walls and ceiling that Moger called the “Long Day’s Journey Room.” True to O’Neill’s stage directions, it is a comfortable space with wicker couch and chair, a glass-front bookcase with well-worn volumes, a rug with “inoffensive” design, and a round table with a green-shaded reading lamp and four chairs pulled up around it. It’s almost impossible not to expect actors to enter at any minute and launch into the opening scene.
“This is the room where the family spent most of their time and where the play took place,” Moger said. Big windows face east. “The room is light in the morning,” she noted, “but shadows get darker in the afternoon.”
It requires more imagination to picture what family life would have been like in the upstairs bedrooms. The master bedroom is furnished with dark wood antique furniture in a combination of the heavy Empire style and more rustic spindled Victorian. The locked room next to it — now used for storage — is where Ella O’Neill would sneak away to take the morphine that she had become addicted to after her son’s birth. Eugene’s own room is furnished simply. His desk from Provincetown, where he enjoyed some of his first recognition as a playwright, sits below the front window. The green desk chair was a gift from his third wife, Carlotta Monterey. Although the neighborhood has been built up since the O’Neills’ time, the window still affords a lovely view across the lawn to the boats in the harbor.
“People would kill for this property now,” said Moger.
MONTE CRISTO COTTAGE 325 Pequot Ave., 860-443-5378, www.theoneill.org . May 29-Aug. 30, Thu-Sat noon-4 p.m., Sun 1-3. Adults $7, students and seniors $5.