In commemoration of the 50th anniversary year of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn.,The O’Neill: The Transformation of Modern American Theater, an illustrated history of the influential theatre organization, written by playwright and theatre historian Jeffrey Sweet, will be published in May by Yale University Press. This excerpt from the early sections of the book recounts the O’Neill’s beginnings and its stormy first summer session.
Though best known for the National Playwrights Conference, the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center has pioneered programs in puppetry, musical theatre, cabaret, international exchanges, media and criticism, as well as founding the National Theatre of the Deaf and the National Theater Institute. Each of these initiatives in turn has had a ripple effect. Indeed, much of what we now take for granted in contemporary theatre contains DNA that can be traced back to a green patch of land 125 miles from the streets of Greenwich Village, overlooking Long Island Sound in Waterford, Conn.
It began with the 26-year-old George C. White and his wife Betsy sailing in the Sound with George’s father. Betsy remembers, “His father said, ‘See that mansion up there? Remember the Hammonds used to live there?’” He pointed to a large, dilapidated structure at the top of a hill. Betsy remembers her father-in-law explaining, “The Hammonds had given the property to the town of Waterford. The town was really only interested in the beach. They didn’t know what to do with the rest of it. A lot of kids thought it was a good place to hang out and smoke pot.” White asked his father whether the town had any particular plans for the house and the other buildings on the property (including a barn). The leading idea? To set them on fire to give practical experience to the local fire department.
White, a native of Waterford, thought there had to be a better use for the place. American playwriting icon Eugene O’Neill had spent much of his young life in the area. O’Neill biographers Arthur and Barbara Gelb devote several paragraphs in their book, O’Neill: Life with Monte Cristo, to the young O’Neill romancing girlfriend Barbara Ashe on the very property White sailed past, mentioning that the long-gone railroad millionaire who owned it—Edward Crowninshield Hammond—had had them chased off the grounds.
White was a recent graduate of the Yale School of Drama, and it occurred to him that a link between the legacy of O’Neill and one of America’s leading drama schools would be a natural. He proposed that the site be used as a summer adjunct of the school. The Yale Corporation, however, refused to approve the idea.
White had to adjust his goals. In the meantime, in 1963, along with others in Waterford interested in the theatre, he did the paperwork to incorporate an organization called the Waterford Foundation for the Performing Arts as a not-for-profit. The foundation negotiated a 30-year lease at one dollar a year for the area of the park on which the buildings stood and started to raise money to begin operation, as well as figure out what that operation should be.
Initially the idea was to open a new theatre. But the funding wasn’t available to do that. “It was probably a blessing,” White comments. “The obvious thing, if we had a lot of money, would be to try to do an O’Neill play. But we didn’t, so we had to come up with something that would get us started.”
A young playwright, Marc Smith, approached White as he was trying to define a direction for his new organization. White remembers, “He said, ‘Why don’t you have a playwrights conference?’ And the reason that that sounded good to me was it was cheap.” So White decided he would invite playwrights to Waterford. But how to find the playwrights?
He recruited initial participants primarily from two organizations. One was New Dramatists. The other organization brought White into contact with Edward Albee. Albee and Richard Barr and Clinton Wilder (the co-producers of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) had channeled some of the profits from their hit into the Barr-Wilder-Albee Playwrights Unit, a group the three of them had founded in 1961. Drawing on people affiliated with these groups, as well as some White knew from his connections with the Yale School of Drama, the Waterford Foundation invited 20 writers to attempt a realization of Smith’s conference concept. White also turned David Hays, who had designed the two landmark productions that in 1956 sparked a revival of interest in O’Neill, The Iceman Cometh Off-Broadway and the American premiere on Broadway of Long Day’s Journey into Night. Both had been directed by José Quintero.
In the meantime, the foundation had been blessed with a psychological boost. In a letter dated Aug. 3, 1964, Eugene O’Neill’s widow, Carlotta, wrote, “This is to tell you that I am delighted that you wish to name your foundation for a theatre project in the name of Eugene O’Neill; could he know this, he would be more than pleased.” She ended by writing, “May you have even greater success than you expect.” Her wish would come to pass beyond anyone’s expectations.
The foundation was renamed the Eugene O’Neill Memorial Theater Foundation on Nov. 19, 1964, and received its tax-exempt status on Nov. 23. And on Aug. 4, 1965, “the O’Neill” welcomed 20 playwrights to the grounds at Waterford for the birth of the National Playwrights Conference.
It was not an easy birth.
The first John Guare heard of the inaugural National Playwrights Conference was in a 1965 letter from White. “Would I be interested in coming to Waterford, Conn., to discuss the beginning of a new possible theatre?” The idea appealed; Guare had yet to find a way to establish himself in the theatre scene that existed. “The abyss between Broadway and Off Broadway and then between Off Broadway and Off-Off Broadway was immense.” He remembers that there was the beginning of a sense of community among the young writers in New York, particularly the significant number of them based in Greenwich Village. “We were all living. Just hanging out. And feeling that downtown was a different world. I lived in a fourth-floor walk-up with a 20-foot ceiling and a skylight and a wood-burning fireplace and an eat-in kitchen and a bathroom that looked down on a garden. Thirty-two dollars a month.
“Terrence McNally lived over here and Lanford Wilson lived over there. It was being young and fun and fucking around. You’d go to the theatre every weekend. You’d go to La MaMa and Theatre Genesis and Cino and Barr-Wilder. You didn’t go to see something specific, you went to see what was there.”
As the first day of the conference approached, invitee Frank Gagliano got a call from White. “George would rent a station wagon for me if I could bring up some playwrights who didn’t drive. I think Sam Shepard might’ve been in the car, but I know that Lanford Wilson was.”
Most of the others invited, Guare remembers, boarded a bus that left from Times Square “to take us Fresh Air Fund kids to the country.” The “Fresh Air Fund” reference suggests a theme Guare often refers to about the attitude then toward helping young writers. “That new playwrights were sort of like a disease. Charity. Polio was taken, you know.”
And so the playwrights arrived in Waterford. Among the others in that first cohort were Charles Frink, John Glennon, Israel Horovitz, Joe Julian, Tobi Louis, Leonard Melfi, Joel Oliansky, Tom Oliver, Sally Ordway, Emanuel Peluso, Doris Schwerin, Sam Shepard, Douglas Taylor, and the writer who suggested the conference in the first place, Marc Smith. Lucy Rosenthal recalls, “They housed us that first year with townspeople, and the houses were quite grand, or so I thought then.” Their lodgings arranged, the writers began to look warily at what was being offered by a host many of them had never met.
Playwright Lewis John Carlino, who arrived at the conference late, wrote about his apprehensions in the Sept. 12, 1965, New York Times. “What’s to be gained by such a meeting?” he thought as he approached Waterford. “What can possibly be exchanged between me, us, and the panelists (top people in the fields of design, directing, producing, acting, agenting and writing) that hasn’t already been discussed endlessly before and shaped into all the neat, seemingly significant and wholly inane generalities usually found in Sunday supplements entitled, ‘What’s Wrong with the American Theater?’ I don’t know about these other guys, but I’ve got misgivings.”