On Being a Tao House Fellow

Travis Bogard Artist-in-Resident David Palmer

By David P. Palmer

Published on November 7, 2016
David P. Palmer

On Being a Tao House Fellow

David Palmer, Massachusetts Maritime Academy

June 4, 2015

My Tao House Fellowship in the Travis Bogard Artist-in-Residence Program at the Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site was exceptionally valuable, not just for enabling me to pursue the project I had planned but also for the serendipitous ways it led me to new ideas.

I went to Tao House to work on part of a broader project about how understanding the evolution and functioning of the human narrative brain helps us to understand our experiences of both morality and tragedy. In Danville, I worked on O’Neill’s vision of tragedy in the Tao House plays, in particular his depictions of characters related to his brother Jim. Tao House I hoped would provide the perfect ethos for exploring O’Neill’s struggle there finally to make peace with this complex relationship.

That’s the proposal I submitted to apply for the fellowship, and that in large part is what I pursued – but two events just prior to my arrival in California led to serendipity. A few weeks before going to Danville in early April, I saw the excellent Goodman Theatre production of The Iceman Cometh at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of an event Jeff Kennedy organized for the O’Neill Society. I had planned to arrive at Tao House thinking primarily about Long Day’s Journey Into Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten, but I found thoughts of Iceman lingering with me over both those plays.

In addition, in March I had submitted an article to Dave King for the Eugene O’Neill Review about forgiveness in the plays of Beckett, Miller, and O’Neill, so shortly after arriving at Tao House I received Dave’s and an anonymous reviewer’s comments and suggestions, and I spent my first several days in Carlotta’s trunk house, which the O’Neill Foundation and the National Park Service had converted into a quite comfortable office, making revisions. The main criticism concerned how I had tied philosophical anarchism to a kind of narcissism and had tried to make this narcissism a foundation of tragedy in the Tao House plays. So, at the beginning of my time at the O’Neill National Historic Site as I explored Jim O’Neill’s life and his brother’s vision of tragedy, I found my mind wandering back over Iceman and the concept of narcissism.

One afternoon Mary Camezon, who was more than generous with her already over-stretched time, was guiding me through a section of the O’Neill Foundation’s library and archives, and by chance – one of the those moments that seems to occur only in poorly plotted movies – my glance caught a book on a lower shelf: Maria Miliora’s Narcissism, the Family, and Madness: A Self-Psychological Study of Eugene O’Neill and his Plays (New York: Peter Lang, 2000). Heinz Kohut, the founder of self-psychology in the 1970s, replaced Freud’s repressed and thwarted drives with the concept of “Tragic Man”: an individual who experiences his needs and self-concept as having remained in some way rejected, unfulfilled, or unaccepted by other people he takes to be significant. That sounded lots like the concept of a “wounded soul” that Rob Dowling speaks of in his recent biography of O’Neill and that I had used in my earlier paper for the Eugene O’Neill Review – and that’s what I now found myself thinking about.

The fields and hills around Tao House are beautiful in the spring. There is a burgeoning yet tranquil energy to the entire place that is contagious to anyone who spends extended time there. But as the sun heads down and the deer, wild turkeys, and coyotes become more active at the end of the day, I had a heightened sense of how remote the setting is on the edge of the Las Trampas Wilderness, and a kind of loneliness set in that I think O’Neill and Carlotta must have experienced, too. It was in that loneliness that I found myself drifting back over wounded souls, Jim O’Neill, the needs of our narcissistic selves, and Kohut’s tragic man.

Coming into my fellowship, I had thought I would find Jim O’Neill in the veneers of brash, self-centered bravado of Con Melody, Erie Smith, and Teddy Hickey. But in the loneliness of evenings in the Danville hills, as my mind drifted back over Iceman, I came to see that O’Neill must have experienced his brother as two different people. The public Jim was indeed like Hickey: the Broadway sport – a noisy, cynical surface hiding a more chaotically needy and desperate self. But there was also a quieter, more reflective Jim: a man who privately struggled with the disappointments that had led him to loneliness through an inability any longer to engage with the world or with himself with any kind of trust or joy. This Jim was more mature, more generous, more honest, and more self-aware than Hickey, but he was still Kohut’s tragic man: his was the loneliness of Larry Slade.

O’Neill may have been making more than an arbitrary choice when he decided – early on in his time at Tao House – to abandon his long-planned cycle of 11 plays and turn his attention to Iceman rather than to the other play fermenting in his mind: the “family play” that would become Long Day’s Journey. Iceman includes an array of character types each of whom O’Neill had known well. He needed to explore all of them once again before what he would learn could be used to help him understand the main figure with whom he needed to make peace: the person who had been the greatest influence on his youth – his brother Jim.

Harry Hope provides the arena, and Hickey certainly challenges the pipe dreams of all the denizens of Hope’s bar, but clearly the central battling figures in Iceman are Hickey and Slade – each of them a partial image of Jim, for Larry Slade, especially in his loneliness and attempted detachment, may contain as much of O’Neill’s older brother as he does of Terry Carlin, O’Neill’s aging anarchist friend.

This may explain why O’Neill had to write two “family plays” before he could complete his project of making peace with his brother. Long Day’s Journey reveals the bombast and painful underlying chaos of the public Jim: the part of Jim that is revealed in Hickey in Iceman. But that portrait by itself is incomplete. To add to that picture the wiser, more reflective tragic loneliness of the inner Jim would have made both the character and the play too complex. So, O’Neill gave that second Jim his own stage in Moon. Both portraits were needed for O’Neill to express how he had experienced his brother and to make peace with his memories of him.

That insight is not something I set out to explore at Tao House; I didn’t know it existed. It arose serendipitously from the chance combination of a variety of events over a number of weeks and the opportunity to let them percolate together in a place that makes O’Neill ever present – and that experience seems to me to be the great value of these fellowships.

Unlike grants in science, at least as I understand them, where the grantee proposes a way of testing a hypothesis and then is funded to do the experiment and report the results, humanities grants have a legitimate role in funding this kind of serendipitous percolation. I went into my fellowship with some general ideas about the role of the self as a foundation of tragedy and a set of ideas about how to explore that topic by looking at O’Neill’s relationship to his brother. But the great gift from my fellowship was a new way of understanding and exploring those ideas based on experiences I had had weeks after I sent in my application and the opportunity the fellowship gave me to patiently allow those ideas to run into each other, combine, and reconfigure. Out of that has come what is for me a new understanding of narcissism’s relationship to tragedy and a new way of approaching not only O’Neill’s plays but the concept of tragedy in general. I could not have known to look for that as I applied for the fellowship, but I am grateful that my experience at Tao House enabled those thoughts to arise. The opportunity for that kind of serendipitous progress is perhaps the fellowship’s greatest gift.

Of course none of this would have occurred without the hard work and kindness of many people who made my time at Tao House possible. I’m not sure I can express fully my admiration for the four people who were the real drivers in organizing the Travis Bogard Artist-in-Residence Program for the Eugene O’Neill Foundation: Linda Best, Wendy Cooper, Florence McAuley, and Carol Sherrill. Their determination, organization, and efficiency are stunning; their personal graciousness is unmatched. They made my time at Tao House not only productive but absolutely enjoyable, as did Mary Camezon. To all five of these people I owe my greatest thanks.

I also thank Tom Leatherman, the Superintendent of the Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site, and Paul Scolari, the National Park Service Chief of Cultural Resources at the O’Neill Site, and their staffs. They had major roles in converting Carlotta’s trunk house into a comfortable office and allowed me easy access to the Tao House grounds at times when the solitude O’Neill must have known there could be experienced most directly. The friendliness of their staff made Tao House a welcoming place to be.

The O’Neill Foundation arranged for my housing and meals to be provided by the Franciscan brothers and their staff at the San Damiano Retreat a few miles from Tao House. I appreciate the flexibility with which everyone at San Damiano accommodated my needs and schedule and the many personal kindnesses I received there.

I also am grateful to Sue Abbotson and Nelson Ritschel for their encouragement and support as my references for this fellowship.

The Travis Bogard Artist-in-Residence Program at the Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site is off to swift success because of the effort, intelligence, and generosity of all these good people. I am very grateful to have received one of these fellowships. It allowed me the freedom to bring ideas together in unanticipated ways, and it made a significant difference in my understanding of O’Neill’s late plays and the concept of tragedy. I’m certain that future fellows will find the experience equally valuable, and I am grateful to the Eugene O’Neill Foundation for initiating the program. Hurrah for Travis Bogard!

About the Author
David P. Palmer is a tenured assistant professor of philosophy at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, teaching philosophy, literature, religion, and English composition.