In Perpetuity

In Perpetuity

The Great Law of Peace was the constitution that united the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. This confederacy and its laws is said to have inspired Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine in the writing of the United States Constitution. One of the precepts of the Great Law of Peace was referred to as the Seventh Generation. This principle instructs chiefs to consider the impact of their decisions on the seventh generation to come.

Theatre is an art form that can speak directly to the zeitgeist but its ephemeral nature excludes any easy thought on how it inspires artists of future generations. However, as writers, playwrights have always had at least one foot within the realm of dramatic literature.

The first definition of legacy is money or property that is left to somebody in a will. So it is easy to conflate the market value of a work of art with its intrinsic value. But when we consider a writer’s legacy we are deliberating over the influence of his ideas on future writers and other artists not the net worth of his estate.

In Chris Durang and Marsha Norman’s recent letter to students and former students asking them to boycott submitting plays to the O’Neill Playwrights Conference a couple words were meant to stick out more than others. Of the 500 or so words of the letter only two were emphasized with all capital case letters: IN PERPETUITY.

This is a common phrase used often within the context of property law, as it is in the letter.

The O’Neill Board is determined to demand a percentage of the playwright’s subsidiary income IN PERPETUITY from any play accepted for presentation at the O’Neill.


But sticking out like that, the phrase IN PERPETUITY looks so big and scary, more befitting pact with the Devil than contract with the O’Neill. The O’Neill does represent a crossroads for the young playwright who is accepted. More so a crossroads in career than craft, what he hopes to find at the O’Neill is how to connect his work to what passes as “the market” in professional not-for-profit American theatre.

If there is a real crossroads in the creative process of a writer it is not in this confrontation with career or market. The devil is more real and personal than that.

Jean Genet found that “writing is sole recourse for those who have betrayed.” He also knew that betrayal was the greatest expression of love. Eugene O’Neill’s masterwork Long Day’s Journey into Night epitomizes the writer at the crossroads of love and betrayal. A glimpse at the enormity of the psychic cost of writing this play can be gleaned in its dedication to his wife Carlotta.

Dearest: “I give you the original script of this play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood. A sadly inappropriate gift, it would seem, for a day celebrating happiness. But you will understand. I mean it as a tribute to your love and tenderness which gave me the faith in love that enabled me to face my dead at last and write this play–write it with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness for all the four haunted Tyrones.

O’Neill’s tortured relationship to the work is underscored in his actions after completing it in 1942. He had a sealed copy of the play placed in the vault of publisher Random House. His instructions were that Long Day’s Journey into Night is not published until 25 years after his death, and never performed on stage. A formal contract to that effect was drawn up in 1945.

The early publication and eventual performance of the play violating O’Neill’s wishes is ostensibly Carlotta’s story. But the real story goes beyond the initial betrayers: Carlotta, Random House, and Yale. Ultimately all are implicated, performers and audience alike, past, present and future…in perpetuity. This implication further endows Long Day’s Journey into Night as the master tale of love and betrayal it is.

But You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby to today’s theatre market, fifty years to be exact, where not only is the betrayal of the playwright’s intent for his play forgotten but actually celebrated.

The mission of the Eugene O’Neill Foundation is to “celebrate and promote the vision and legacy of Eugene O’Neill.” So if you knew nothing about the playwright or his play you might surmise by this opening paragraph of the foundation’s newsletter that they might be organizing a protest against some group that was planning to desecrate their namesake’s vision or legacy.

Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” a play he wrote in Danville and dictated should not be published until 25 years after his death and never performed, will be presented in the Old Barn at the playwright’s Tao House estate in October, 50 years after it first opened on Broadway against his wishes.

But that’s not the case. As you learn in the next paragraph, this golden anniversary production is being presented as part of the seventh annual Eugene O’Neill Festival and produced by the Eugene O’Neill Foundation itself. The foundation obviously has no problem with the incongruity of these lines because later in the newsletter the inappropriate boast of the play’s legacy is further expanded.

In his will, O’Neill specified that “Journey” should not be published until 25 years after his death and never produced on stage. However, his wife countermanded O’Neill two years after his death and pressured Bennett Cerf of Random House, the dramatist’s publisher, to publish the work. She then transferred the rights to Yale University, thus paving the way for performances. The first was in Sweden in 1956.

So irony of ironies. The playwright’s institutionalized “family” commemorates his vision and legacy even as they betray the same.

O’Neill has been a strange mentor. He has haunted me since I stepped on stage in Long Day’s Journey in my early twenties. I have had no use for his other plays except A Moon for the Misbegotten where once again he went to the crossroads.

In these plays he reveals a primal root of theatre, the argument within the family. An argument between generations and siblings over vision and legacy that extends into the tribe and then the nation. But also an argument born within the blood and belonging primarily to the individual, the personal struggle with alcohol or prejudice or violence or any of the other poisons that have been hardwired into our DNA.

Whenever two pairs of eyes meet, a stage opens up. So that we can speak in the most elemental way to our collective vision and legacy we gather at this place in the flesh. And eyes cannot lie. Our curtsy at the curtain call is directed only partially to the present audience. The eyes we meet are just at the edge of our belief. The Seventh Generation gathers in witness to our ritual.

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