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The Eugene O'Neill Society is holding its International Conference on Eugene O'Neill in New London for the first time - and it bestowed its Medallion Award Thursday to "some local gems," as conference chair Robert A. Richter phrased it.
The society gave the award to George C. White, founder of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center; Sally Thomas Pavetti, curator of the Monte Cristo Cottage; Lois McDonald, associate curator of the Monte Cristo Cottage; and Brenda Murphy, past president of the Eugene O'Neill Society and professor of English emeritus at the University of Connecticut.
The award honors "distinguished individuals who have dedicated significant portions of their careers to furthering the knowledge and appreciation of Eugene O'Neill."
This marks the ninth society conference, which happens every three years. It has been held at various locations - New York City, France, California, Bermuda.
O'Neill Society President Jeff Kennedy said the group "always selects for conferences a city or area that is important to O'Neill studies. Obviously, that makes New London prime real estate for us."
To wit: The Monte Cristo Cottage in New London was O'Neill's boyhood home. The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford was named for the playwright. And Connecticut College has an O'Neill collection that includes the research of O'Neill biographer Louis Sheaffer.
Beyond that, as Richter noted, the people and places in New London turned up in O'Neill's plays. His "Long Day's Journey Into Night" is, of course, set in the Monte Cristo Cottage. Conference members are visiting the cottage and the O'Neill Center.
In honoring the award winners at the Thursday ceremony, actor Brian Dennehy spoke about White. They are long-time friends, and Dennehy said White is one of his favorite people. He said that whenever he's asked to talk about White, he looks up a detail or two "as my memory sails off into the sunset." Each time, he said, "I am astounded anew by this man, by his life, his accomplishments ... the sheer volume of his activities and his achievements."
Dennehy talked about "the treasures of his talents and his energy."
"George, thanks for everything, and I mean everything - because you have given everything. ... Congratulations for a life well and truly lived and so much given to us," he said.
White read a letter from New York Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson in 1967. Atkinson wrote to White about an exhibition at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum of O'Neill items assembled by White and others, including Pavetti and McDonald.
Atkisonson wrote, "Everything about him is historically important. For the American drama as a serious art began with him. ... O'Neill began it. Everyone who has written serious drama since owes something to his pioneering."
White also recalled trying to raise money for the O'Neill center five decades ago. One local farmer gave $5 and told White that he had seen one of O'Neill's plays - the farmer said, "What was the name of that show he wrote now? Uh, 'I want to get ya under them trees?'"
White added about the mangled version of "Desire Under the Elms": "When you think of it, it's a better title."
White said, "I am more than thrilled and humbled to join the company of the recipients of this medallion ... As Brian said, (my wife) Betsy is the other half of this team, and we will cherish this together."
Pavetti and McDonald were showered with praise, too, for all their work with the Monte Cristo Cottage - from helping to get it deemed a National Historic Landmark to sharing insights on O'Neill with theater professionals and scholars.
Steven Bloom, chair of the O'Neill Society's governing board, recalled that Pavetti, along with McDonald, would welcome visitors to the cottage like visitors to their own homes. No matter what those people's level of interest in O'Neill was when they arrived, he said, they would leave intrigued and with a newfound appreciation of the man, his life and his work.
"From the first time I met Sally, I recognized there were few founts of knowledge about O'Neill as rich and personal as Sally," Bloom said.
He also relayed a funny story he heard from Pavetti's husband, Fran. When the Monte Cristo Cottage was undergoing renovation, Sally Pavetti had frequent contact, back and forth, with the New London building inspector - who came to refer to her as the Countess of Monte Cristo.
Fran Pavetti told the crowd that his wife got interested in O'Neill through George White. She had earned her master's degree in American history at Yale, with a concentration in the Civil War, and planned to teach.
"She got sidetracked by George ... and it's been a love affair with Eugene O'Neill ever since," he said.
Richter said, "As I began my own scholarship in the O'Neill world, Lois (McDonald) was always supportive and encouraging. Sharing insights into many of the aspects, she also has become a really wonderful friend. I know she has done that for so many others, really beyond count."
McDonald spoke about how she and Pavetti "had the best time" with the Monte Cristo Cottage, and she applauded White for founding the O'Neill Center and for supporting the cottage. She also encouraged all the society members to visit the cottage as well as the Sheaffercollection, which she described as a treasure trove.
The O'Neill Society aims to promote and maintain worldwide study of the Nobel-winning playwright. It's an academic organization, made up mostly of scholars and professors from all over the world. Its conference aims to promote new scholarship of O'Neill's work and to introduce young scholars to the dramatist's writings.
"The conference is really an opportunity to share new scholarship and to encourage new scholarship," Richter said.
This year, the four-day conference, which began Wednesday, is drawing individuals from France, Belgium, Russia and China. It is sponsored by the Eugene O'Neill Society and is hosted by Connecticut College and the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center.
It opened in a session where Richter put O'Neill into a New London context and young actors from the O'Neill Theater Center's Theatermakers did readings from O'Neill plays. Other programs touch on such topics as "O'Neill's Tragic Vision" and "Home and Homelessness."