Oct. 16, 2009


by Harvey Ellis

my ancestors surround me
like walls of a canyon
stone hard
their ideas drift over me
like breezes at sunset

we gather sticks
and make settlements
what we do is only partly
our own
and partly continuation
down through the chromosomes

my son
my baby sleeps behind me
stirring in the night
for the touch
that lets him continue

he is arranging
in his small form the furniture
and windows of his home

it will be a lot like mine
it will be a lot like theirs

"ancestors" by Harvey Ellis from Sleep Not Sleep. © Wolf Ridge Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of American playwright Eugene O'Neill, (books by this author) born in a Broadway hotel room in New York City (1888). His father was a famous actor, and O'Neill spent much of his childhood in trains and hotels, following his father on tours. He went to Princeton, but he was expelled after a year. He got a series of odd jobs, then went off on a gold prospecting expedition in Honduras, where he contracted malaria. After he recovered, he tried out sailing, vaudeville acting, and writing for a small-town newspaper. In 1912, he fell sick again with tuberculosis and spent six months in a sanatorium. While he was there, he began to read classic playwrights and modern innovators like Ibsen and Strindberg.

When he was released, he began writing furiously, coming out with 11 one-act plays in just a few years. In 1916, in Provincetown, Massachusetts, he fell in with a group that would become known as the Provincetown Players, which included writers like Susan Glaspell and Robert Edmond Jones. The group began producing O'Neill's plays on a regular basis, and they helped to revolutionize American theater.

In 1920, his play Beyond the Horizon became a popular and critical success on Broadway, and it won the Pulitzer Prize. He would go on to win two more Pulitzers in the next eight years, for Anna Christie (1922) and Strange Interlude (1928). He continued to write until 1944, when he was diagnosed with a crippling neurological disease called cortical cerebellar atrophy. In 1956, his work began to be revived, and his posthumous play Long Day's Journey into Night (1956) won the Pulitzer Prize the next year.

It's the birthday of Irish writer Oscar Wilde, (books by this author) born Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde, in Dublin (1854). His mom wrote Irish Nationalist poetry under an Italian pseudonym meaning "Hope," and his dad was a prestigious ear and eye surgeon who served Dublin's poor population. Oscar Wilde studied classics at Trinity College Dublin and got a scholarship to Oxford, where he became involved in the Aesthetic Movement. He grew his hair long and dressed unconventionally. He displayed peacock feathers and sunflowers in his dorm room. He professed a belief in art for art's sake. And he began to say a lot of witty things.

He taught in London and then left for a lecture tour of North America. He'd been invited by the producer of Gilbert and Sullivan's new comic opera, Patience, a work that made fun of the Aesthetic Movement. The show had done well in New York City and was due to go on tour, but the producer wasn't sure if people around America would be familiar with the thing about which the opera was poking fun. The producer hoped Wilde's lectures would familiarize the nation with the Aesthetic Movement so that they'd all get the jokes in Patience, Gilbert and Sullivan's opera.

Twenty-seven-year-old Oscar Wilde arrived in New York in January 1882. He went to Pennsylvania, where he drank elderberry wine with Walt Whitman. He lectured to coal miners in Leadville, Colorado, where he saw a sign on a saloon that said, "Please do not shoot the pianist. He is doing his best," and called it "the only rational method of art criticism I have ever come across." He made stops in Boston, Topeka, Des Moines, Houston, St. Paul, San Francisco, and dozens of other cities.

He returned to Europe, settled in London, and concentrated on his literary endeavors. He edited a magazine, The Woman's World. He had two children with his wife, Constance Lloyd Wilde. In 1891, he met 22-year-old Lord Alfred Douglas Ross, a poet from Oxford 16 years his junior.

In those few years after meeting Lord Alfred Douglas Ross, Oscar Wilde had the most productive period of his literary life. His only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, was published the year they met, 1891. He wrote his best and most popular plays: A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895), and his masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), the first draft of which only took him 21 days to compose. Most of his writings from that time span revolve around men leading double lives.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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