Sam McManis

Discoveries: Glimpse into playwright’s psyche at the Eugene O’Neill House

So much to see here at Tao House, birthplace of Eugene O’Neill’s most famous and enduring plays.

You can spend minutes, truly mesmerizing minutes, just staring at the twin peaks of Mount Diablo from behind the great man’s writing desk. You can peruse reproductions of the Asian-inspired artwork — the tribal masks, the hand-carved temple lions guarding the staircase, the eerie black mirror in his bedroom — that graced this fortress of solitude in the East Bay hills. You can even read the spines of the book titles, from treatises on dramaturgy to tales of the sea, that line the shelves.

What you won’t find is O’Neill’s liquor cabinet.

No, for the seven years the Nobel Prize-winning playwright spent holed up behind the white brick walls of this sprawling, Spanish-style ranch house, O’Neill reportedly never drank. He was as dry as the Las Trampas Regional Wilderness that borders Tao House’s grounds.

Surprising, considering he’s known today as much for his boozing and depression as he is for his finely crafted, emotionally scouring plays about boozing, depression and dysfunctional Irish American families.

Not surprising, though, once you get a peek behind the scenes of the national historic site and learn, courtesy of lead park ranger Thaddeus Shay, that Tao House was where O’Neill and wife Carlotta came to escape all that — the drinking, the fame — and to confront the demons of his turbulent past on the page.

“If anyone wanted to see her husband, they had to get through Carlotta first,” said Shay, leading the weekly Friday morning tour of the grounds. “O’Neill did have old friends hunting him down. Imagine being one of those old buddies, finding this home in 1940. There would’ve been an old ship’s bell hanging (at the front gate) from O’Neill’s sailor days. He’d ring that and Carlotta would come out and say ‘Yes?’ The guy’d say, ‘I’m here to see Gene, take him out, have a few beers.’ She’d say, ‘I’m sorry.’

“She sent many of his friends packing. She was considered the dragon at the gate. She was doing it with his permission, his blessing. It’s what he wanted, what he needed. He had important stuff to get down on paper.”

Indeed, some of the most enduring realistic dramas ever, harrowing tales of knotted psyches, were written by what biographers and historians conclude was a stone-cold sober O’Neill in the tranquility of Danville, a mile from the nearest neighbor, from 1937 through 1944.

This, truly, is hallowed literary ground. Just think: Here is where O’Neill wrote “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” “The Iceman Cometh” and “Moon for the Misbegotten” in the years immediately after he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature and became internationally famous.

No laurels-sitting for this guy. It was as if O’Neill, whose hard living and difficult childhood informed all of his works, knew his writing life was finite and needed to exorcise his familial demons before they subsumed him.

So, instead of drinking, O’Neill would lock the door of his study each morning, peer into his tormented soul and write such searing “Long Day’s” dialogue as, “If you would not feel the horrible burden of Time weighing on your shoulders and crushing you to the earth, be drunken continually.”

That Danville served as the setting — and settling influence — for O’Neill’s greatest works may at first seem unlikely. Peripatetic and restless, O’Neill and his third wife, actress Carlotta Monterey, bounced around from France, to New York to Portland, Ore., to Sea Island, Ga., before buying land near Carlotta’s native Oakland with O’Neill’s Nobel stipend.

There really was nothing much to Danville at the time, which is exactly what the couple was looking for, apparently. No distractions. No temptations. No one, save a driver and a maid, to wonder what all that commotion was going on behind the closed doors of “The Master’s” (that was Carlotta’s pet name) study.

“There was yelling, screaming and crying coming from his study,” Shay said. “Carlotta had to smooth some ruffled feathers (with the staff), saying, ‘Look, this is very cathartic for him. He needs to get all these emotions down on paper. We need to leave him alone and let it happen.”

Rare is the photo of O’Neill at the Tao House (or anywhere, for that matter) that shows him smiling. His eyes are brooding, inky pools of despond. He insisted his bedroom be painted as closely as possible to the color of fog, that a full-length black mirror be installed, perhaps so that his image could match his mood.

He and Carlotta also added Feng Shui touches: painting the roof black, having the front walkway lead in right-angled turns, installing the temple lions as sentinels.

“(Carlotta) had to keep the bad Chi (energy) from getting into the home and disturbing ‘The Master,’” Shay said.

It didn’t keep all strife at bay, though. O’Neill “disowned” his own daughter from a previous marriage, when at age 18 she announced she was marrying 53-year-old Charlie Chaplin. Shay: “He said the Chaplins would never come to the Tao House.”

Lest you think O’Neill was so dark that he’d make Edgar Allen Poe seem lighthearted, he did have a playful side.

In a downstairs parlor sits a reproduction of a Wurlitzer piano that Carlotta bought from a whorehouse in New Orleans and had installed because it reminded “The Master” of his days as a sailor. And the couple absolutely doted on their dog, a Dalmation nicknamed Blemie, who is buried, headstone and all, underneath a stately oak tree near the barn.

In a way, O’Neill enjoyed a temporarily happy family life in Danville. His seven years there — they moved in 1944 because of his declining health, among other reasons — was the longest stint the couple had in any town.

“I know a lot of people might tell you, ‘Oh, you went to Eugene O’Neill’s house today? Oh, he’s that guy who writes all those depressing plays.’ Well, that’s an easy way to write off Mr. O’Neill and the plays he wrote. But there’s a lot of love and humor in those plays.

“And, if your family doesn’t have a little dysfunction in it, maybe it’s not a normal family.”