A two-story house with shutters and an upper porch. Plants and bushes are seen along with a brick pathway.
The Eugene O'Neill Tao House in Danville, California.

NPS Photo/Luther Bailey

The Tao House: Eugene O'Neill's Sanctuary

Finding a Permanent Home

The Tao House was one of the few places that held a profound significance for Eugene O'Neill, a man who spent much of his life in constant movement. In early 1937, he and his wife Carlotta were living in a San Francisco hotel, feeling rootless and homeless. "No roots. No home," Carlotta wrote as they searched for a place to settle down. Drawn to the serene surroundings and mild climate of the San Ramon Valley, they purchased a 158-acre ranch near Danville, California. Here, O'Neill hoped to find his final refuge.

Eastern Philosophy: The Inspiration Behind Tao House

The name Tao House reflects O'Neill's interest in Eastern philosophy and Carlotta's passion for Oriental art and decor. Taoism, one of China's great religious traditions, inspired the name. "Tao," generally translated as "The Way," refers to the primal reality that gives birth to the visible world. O'Neill was aware of Taoist concepts, some of which paralleled his own dramatic ideas. For him, the sea symbolized "the impelling, inscrutable forces behind life, which it is my ambition to at least faintly shadow ... in my plays."

Architectural Fusion: Spanish and Oriental Influences

While O'Neill focused on his writing, Carlotta channeled her creative energy into designing the house. She combined a Spanish colonial exterior of adobe-like blocks with an interior featuring deep blue ceilings, red doors, tiled or black-stained floors, and Chinese furniture. She called it her "pseudo-Chinese house." Due to Carlotta's sensitivity to light, most of the shades were kept drawn, creating a shadowy, enclosed atmosphere that some visitors found unsettling. The darkness and ghostly images reflected by colored mirrors added to the house's unique ambiance.

Daily Life: A Routine of Creativity and Solitude

Although the O'Neills rarely spent a night away from Tao House and Carlotta often kept people at arm's length, especially when the "Master," as she called him, was at work, the couple was far from reclusive. They were visited by relatives, friends, and O'Neill's old theatre colleagues. O'Neill enjoyed gardening and attending football games, where he could enjoy a rare anonymity in the crowd. Despite these activities, his primary focus remained on his writing. His health permitting, he immersed himself in his plays, working on several at a time. Enclosed by thick walls and three doors leading to his study, with Carlotta ensuring his isolation was undisturbed, his creative energy flowed unchecked for days, even weeks.

O'Neill's typical day began early. He worked uninterrupted from morning until about 1 p.m., after which he usually napped, swam, or walked with Carlotta. Sometimes, he worked without break into the night. He also devoted time to his beloved dog, Blemie, who was like a surrogate child for the couple. Evenings were usually spent reading or listening to their collection of jazz and blues records.

Turning Away from the Theatre World

During his time at Tao House, O'Neill refused requests to produce the plays he wrote there. He wanted to complete five plays in his cycle before allowing any to be staged, and he preferred to wait until after World War II. He turned his back on the "show shop," his term for the theatre world, dedicating himself instead to the "soul-grinding" work of writing. During these years, he transformed his own past into the autobiographical plays that cemented his reputation as America's most important playwright.

The Tao House was more than just a residence for Eugene O'Neill; it was a sanctuary where he could immerse himself in his creative process. Influenced by Eastern and Spanish aesthetics, it provided the perfect backdrop for his intense work regimen. O'Neill's time at Tao House was marked by significant literary production, contributing to his enduring legacy. The house stands today as a testament to his life's work and the personal struggles that fueled his extraordinary talent.

Last updated: July 13, 2024

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Danville, CA 94526


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