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Before Breakfast

by Eugene O'Neill


O’Neill contributed to the third bill of the Players first New York season of 1916 a play he’d begun in Provincetown that summer before: Before Breakfast.  The play is unique in that it presents only one character onstage and another who does not speak and remains offstage, save for one appearance of his hand.  O’Neill read and was inspired by many plays by Strindberg during his year at the Rippins in New London from the fall 1913 to later in 1914.  Bogard writes that:

What Strindberg dramas would have meant to a young American writer in the early years is not difficult to imagine.  In the naturalistic plays, the extraordinary sharpness of focus, the strength of the major lines of action, the shocking sexuality and the psychological force of the characterization would have combined to make the work of every other contemporary dramatists pallid by comparison.  To one like O’Neill, whose taste was for a subject matter much stronger than the routines of sin and redemption that had passed for an image of life in much American theatre, Strindberg must have seemed like Truth’s original . . . he felt an instinctive, personal sympathy for what he found in Strindberg’s work . . .(1)

Most scholars believe that O’Neill used Strindberg’s The Stronger as a model for writing Before Breakfast, imitating the fact that only one person speaks during the play, though in Strindberg’s there is another non-speaking character onstage.  When accepting the Nobel Prize in 1936, O’Neill said that “It was reading [Strindberg’s] plays . . . that first gave me the urge to write for the theatre myself.  If there is anything of lasting worth in my work, it is due to that original impulse from him, which has continued as my inspiration down all the years since then.”(2)  O’Neill had to set aside Strindbergian inspiration while studying with Professor Baker at Harvard, mostly because Baker disliked the Swedish playwright.  With this play, however, O’Neill appears to be “retracing his steps in search of inspiration he had lost.”(3) Bogard does quickly qualify that when compared with Strindberg’s The Stronger, O’Neill’s play “is a paltry affair,” and that he “aped the technical manner and the superficies of Strindberg’s subject matter but caught none of its sophistication,” particularly Strindberg’s “sharply focused conflict,” of which Before Breakfast has none.(4)

Kenton reports that O’Neill one evening asked with a grin, “I wonder how long an audience will stand for a monologue?” and Before Breakfast was his experiment to find out.  She continues that as rehearsals went on, he asked, “How much are they going to stand before they begin to break?” and that by casting himself in the silent offstage role he was going to find out.  Though she calls it one of O’Neill’s “very minor plays,” she also defends it as a “deliberate experiment for a definite result—the endurance of the audience,” and the results of the experiment helped him write future plays, including The Emperor Jones, in which he uses monologue extensively.(5)

Before Breakfast is set in the early fall in a Village flat on Christopher Street beginning at 8:30am.  The play presents Mrs. Rowland, who directs all of her comments onstage to her husband, Alfred, who is offstage in the bedroom.  The unhappy Mrs. Rowland is described as shrewish by most critics as she spends the entire play berating her sensitive poet husband whose only success seems to be wooing other women.  She reveals that pregnancy forced their marriage and she bemoans the extent to which they have fallen from their former selves.  She condemns her husband’s drinking, his inability to get a job, even the flat in which they live.  At one point, the husband’s hand reaches out to be seen onstage to accept some shaving water from the wife. As she continues, the wife reveals she’s found a letter from his lover and that she will never give him a divorce.  We hear a “stifled groan of pain” and then “the noise of a chair being overturned and something [crashing] heavily to the floor” from offstage, to which the wife goes to investigate when she receives no response to her inquiry.  She discovers the husband on the floor of the bedroom, having committed suicide by slashing his throat, which sends the wife “shrieking madly,” and the play ends as she runs out their front door.  The Gelbs feel that “O’Neill himself obviously was the model of the suicidal husband,” from the wife’s description of the husband as someone who was Harvard-educated but now loafs around barrooms, to him killing time “with that good-for-nothing lot of artists from the Square,” down to the description of the “sensitive hand with slender fingers. It trembles . . .”(6)   Bogard believes that this is “the first play in two years in which something of O’Neill’s authentic voice can be heard; no other among his plays of the period so clearly anticipates the next major phase of his career.”(7)  Feinsod sees this play, along with Strindberg’s, as prefiguring “an extreme simplicity later to be seen in the works of Samuel Beckett.”  He sees Before Breakfast combined with Lima Beans allowing this bill to offer “a common style around self-imposed limitation.”(8)   

O’Neill cast the young and delicately beautiful Mary Pyne in the role of Mrs. Rowland, an odd juxtaposition with actress and character.  Deutsch and Hanau describe that “Lovely Mary Pyne drew back her red hair into a sloppy knot and gave a fine performance,”(9) and the Gelbs describe that she “concealed her alabaster complexion with makeup of a pinched virago.”(10)  O’Neill also cast himself in the offstage role of the husband.  Knowing that his father’s waning career left him with time on his hands, O’Neill invited father James to attend a rehearsal of the play.  Others who were there remember the seasoned actor’s “grandiose presence,” describing him as “a striking figure with fur-collared coat, gold-headed cane and a diamond ring on his finger.”(11)  Hutchins Hapgood describes that the elder O’Neill “did not approve the diction or “business” of the actress; he began to show her how acting was done, how points were made, with the voice and gesture of Monte Cristo.”(12)  Pyne wisely did everything he instructed, “grandiloquent gestures, melodramatic inflections and all,” and James told her “You are a most intelligent young actress.  I don’t need to give you any further instruction.”(13)  As he left, Hapgood and others spoke to him about his son’s talent, and he said “benignly, ‘Yes, yes, I think the boy has something in him.’”(14)  Deutsch and Hanau describe that while the elder O’Neill was instructing, the younger “stalked up and down, muttering his displeasure,” disagreed with his every point “in a perfect Freudian patter.”(15)  William Zorach recalls that that while James was critiquing, “Gene slumped down in his seat.  ‘That old fogy!’ he said when he left.”(16)  It’s reported that “as soon as he had done,” Eugene “redirected her from the beginning to end.”  O’Neill later denied his father was brought in to direct, calling the suggestion “nuts,” but that he was simply asked to “make suggestions on the acting,” of which he said “some I didn’t agree with, but also some I thought were fine and which the actors were glad to follow.”(17)  O’Neill’s participation as the offstage husband, sliding out his arm during play, was his last as an actor on any stage.

While this was going on, O’Neill and Bryant’s affair was in a rocky state.  O’Neill returned to heavy drinking because Bryant was very ill, and drank more heavily still when she left on November 22 to be with Reed during his operation.  When Bryant returned to New York, she began to pack up the apartment for a move to the home in Croton that Reed had purchased for them.  When she found out that Before Breakfast was to be performed, she remained in the Village and, at Cook’s request, served as the prompter for the play, Cook “hoping her presence would keep O’Neill sober through the production.”(18)  The nature of Bryant’s illness has led to much speculation by biographers, many believing it to be the result of an abortion gone bad, with O’Neill the one to have impregnated her.  She described that she could “feel her insides.”  Bryant actually wrote Reed, wondering if he had given her something during their visits; Reed’s doctor assured him this was impossible with his kidney ailment.  The Gelbs conjecture, though, that if it had been a botched abortion “in that era before antibiotics,” she probably would have died.  They believe “it is more probable she had an ovarian abscess that, given her sexual activity, as well as both Reed’s and O’Neill’s, might have been caused by a venereal disease (in those days not uncommon).(19)  Eventually she recovered and Reed returned to New York, taking her away to Croton where they both remained through the holidays.  O’Neill moved into his parents’ apartment for awhile.

© Jeff Kennedy 2007.

(1) Bogard, Contours 76-77.

(2) Gelb, Monte Cristo 404.

(3) Bogard 76.

(4) Bogard 77.

(5) Kenton 44.

(6) Gelb, Monte Cristo 566.

(7) Bogard 76.

(8) Feinsod, Simple Stage 118.

(9) Deutsch 22.

(10) Gelb, Monte Cristo 588.

(11) Gelb, Monte Cristo 588; Hapgood 399.

(12) Hapgood 399.

(13) Gelb, Monte Cristo 589.

(14) Hapgood 399.

(15) Deutsch 22.

(16) Zorach, Art 47.

(17) Gelb, O’Neill 322-23; Gelb, Monte Cristo 588.

(18) Gelb, Monte Cristo 588.

(19) Gelb, Life 590.