By Joseph Hurley
A group of theatrical notables gathered in a light rain at the northeast corner of 43rd street and Broadway on Oct. 16 to take part in the unveiling of a plaque marking the birthplace of Eugene O’Neill, the Irish-American literary giant who is, almost beyond dispute, the finest playwright this country has ever produced.
Present were, among others, Jason Robards, the contemporary actor most closely identified with O’Neill’s tormented heroes; Arthur and Barbara Gelb, co-authors of an O’Neill biography more than 40 years ago, and now of "O’Neill: Life with Monte Cristo," the massive first part of what is projected as three-volume reinvestigation of the playwright’s life and times; plus producers Ted Mann, Robert Whitehead, and Paul Libin, all of whom have been instrumental in various stagings of O’Neill’s plays. Representatives of Connecticut’s Eugene O’Neill Centre were also present.
Several TV camera crews attended, drawing a small, moist crowd, most of whose younger members could hardly have been expected to have known who O’Neill was, much less what all the fuss was about.
Two young women shoppers requested an explanation, and having received one, said simply, "OK," then turned away and moved on up Broadway an instant before Robards pulled aside the square of black fabric that had obscured the bronze memorial, with its shining bronze profilic likeness of the dramatist, from view.
The morning’s uncertain weather was suitable, according to the Gelbs’ research, since, on Oct. 16, 1888, when O’Neill was born on the fourth floor of a family hotel called Barrett House, "an intermittent light rain turned the day gray and dreary."
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The area was known as Longacre Square in those days, and wasn’t renamed Times Square until 1904. As for Barrett House, it merged with an adjoining structure in 1890, two years after O’Neill’s birth, and was thenceforth known as the Cadillac. In 1940, the building was torn down and eventually replaced by a block of stores, with a massive electrical sign advertising Kleenex perched on top.
O’Neill was fond of telling interviewers, after the hotel had vanished, that, "There is only empty air now where I came into this world," and, while the hotel was still standing, on at least one occasion, acting on impulse, he led a companion up to Room 236, knocked on the door, and politely requested permission to show his friend the room where he’d been born.
The playwright once told a friend, "I was born in a theatrical hotel and my mother put me in a bureau drawer on two pillows for my cradle. I was fed and dressed and put to sleep in hotel rooms. I can’t see that a theatrical life on the road is such a marvelous thing."
Actor James O’Neill, the playwright’s father, moved his wife, Ella, into Barrett House in late August, 1888, to await the birth of her third child, while he went on tour with "The Count of Monte Cristo," the theatrical vehicle that had made him famous and, at the same time, had imprisoned him and limited his career.
At eight stories in height, Barrett House, built in 1883, was a rather startling addition to New York architecture, since both iron skeletal structuring and elevators had only recently been introduced into the building industry, allowing buildings to rise beyond three or four floors for the first time in the city’s history.
Leaving his wife at Barrett House, James O’Neill toured with his play continuously until Saturday, Oct. 13, giving a performance that night in Worcester, Mass. He returned to New York the following day, Sunday, Oct. 14, to celebrate his 43rd birthday with Ella, who had turned 31 a month earlier.
On Monday, Oct. 15, O’Neill played Brockton, Mass., and it is generally assumed that he returned to New York in time to be present at the birth of Eugene Gladstone O’Neill the following afternoon.