‘Degas in New Orleans’…the scandalous tale as told by playwright Rosary O’Neill

June 27, 2016 | By FRENCH CULTURE NEW ORLEANS

Playwright Rosary O'Neill, is proud to be a seventh generation, bilingual, New Orleanian. Though she now lives and works in New York City, she maintains a soft-spot for people who were associated with Louisiana, such as the famous voodoo witch Marie Laveau. At present, Rosary is working on a project involving the famed French Impressionist artist Edgar Degas, who visited New Orleans in 1872.

Recently, Rosary O’Neill took the time to speak to the Consulate General of France in Louisiana about her experiences working on “Degas in New Orleans” and being a writer in general:

Meagen Moreland-Taliancich (M.M.): As an accomplished writer and playwright, your work has brought you to New York and Europe for the past several years. Despite being pulled away, would you say your roots are in New Orleans?  

Rosary O’Neill (R.O.): Absolutely. I'm from seven generations of New Orleanians, drinking mint juleps and cafe au laits and loving the warm river breeze and rain in the afternoon…you never get that out of your blood.

M.M.: One of your current projects, "Degas in New Orleans" is based on the brief period French impressionist painter, Edgar Degas, spent in the Crescent City in 1872. What attracted you to this subject, and why do you think it makes great theatre? 

R.O.: I was stunned to find out that Edgar had a mother from New Orleans and that his cousins from New Orleans had spent summers in Paris with the Degas boys. Since my earliest childhood--and education with the Sacred Heart nuns on St. Charles Avenue--I have been enamored by Paris. I majored in French at Newcomb College just so I could spend a year in France. So, finding out that Edgar had these deep ties to New Orleans was a delight to me. The story of Edgar's time in New Orleans makes great theatre because the trip occurred at a prime time in Edgar's life. He was 38 and his younger brother Rene--who had married their cousin Estelle--was 26. So the trip to New Orleans occurred during a pivotal time in Degas' life at an age in which he was leading man material. His life could have spun into glory or regret. Edgar was still dreaming of living in New Orleans, having a Southern family, and joining with his two brothers in Louisiana. Edgar's three cousins in their late twenties and early thirties were also full of beauty and possibility.

M.M.: Next year, 2017, marks the 100th anniversary of Degas’ death, followed in 2018 by the New Orleans Tricentennial celebration. Why do you think Degas’ story is particularly poignant now, at this momentous intersection of our city’s past, present and future? 

R.O.: Edgar still has over 30 descendants in New Orleans and even 100 years later the secret of his visit and the scandal of his brother's betrayal all are known. Moreover, many creative people who are now living in New Orleans claim lineage from this great artist. 

M.M.: You are hoping to produce “Degas in New Orleans” in Paris next year with high school students. Is educating French students on this link between our cultural heritages important to you? 

R.O.: Yes, the teen years are the important years where we learn whom we love and whom we come from and I think it is important for Louisianan and French teens to know how long our history goes back together and how much Edgar Degas loved Louisiana and its people. His first great painting titled The Cotton Exchange was bought by the Musee de Pau in France. It was a painting of his maternal uncle's bankrupt cotton office, in New Orleans, done when Edgar came to America to save the business and failed. It's also important for teens to see how failure can be the source of great beauty and art.

M.M.: Where can people find more information about your work, and get involved with the project? 

R.O.: People can find out more information on my website or with the French Louisiana Association in Paris or the American Studies Program of the Sorbonne which are sponsors of the project.

The Consulate General of France in Louisiana would like to thank Rosary and journalist Meagan Meehan for their participation in this interview and contribution of the information below.

About Rosary O'Neill:

Rosary Hartel O’Neill, Ph.D., is the author of twenty-five plays and three nonfiction books; her text “The Actor’s Checklist” is used in schools nationwide. Rosary has received numerous awards and her plays have been produced all over the United States and abroad. Moreover, she has showcased work at the New York City Fringe Festival known as FringeNYC. Rosary is also a Professor of Drama and Speech who once taught at the esteemed Loyola University. Rosary was also the Founding Artistic Director of the Southern Repertory Theatre, the leading Equity theatre in New Orleans where she was born and raised.

About "Degas in New Orleans":

Edgar Degas’ visit to New Orleans was not pleasant, but it was certainly eventful and the details of the scandalous trip remain engrossing. Rosary’s play, “Degas in New Orleans,” is a work of fiction that is based on fact and set during his ill-fated journey to The Big Easy. Rosary researched the story for ten years under five Fulbright Fellowships and one from the American Academy in Rome.

A dedicated scholar, Rosary even lived for several months in Degas’ family home on Esplanade in New Orleans. She subsequently developed a broader work of narrative nonfiction--although the initial play was the crux of the story’s success, having been published by the esteemed Samuel French Inc. The play chronicles actual events in the life of Edgar Degas, who was both fascinating and tragic. The plot centers on recently exposed scandals that were hidden for over 100 years due to dishonor, bankruptcy, and betrayal.

Edgar Degas was the only French Impressionist with American relatives. His mother was from New Orleans and his uncle was in the cotton business. From the time he buried his mother at the age of twelve, Edgar pined for Louisiana yet he only visited the land once when he was 38 years old.  

The year was 1872 which was not long after the end of the American Civil War. During this “Reconstruction” era, Edgar was not yet famous and New Orleans was wracked with poverty. Fifty banks went out of business, currency had depreciated by 1000%, the cotton business failed, and fortunes were lost. In this dark time period, his uncle’s cotton business was bankrupt and Edgar arrived in the United States with money from his father’s French banks to help. Yet Edgar’s troubles went deeper than debt; during his trip he fell in love with his sister-in-law, Estelle Musson, nicknamed “Telle,” who was the wife of his brother and also the Degas’ first cousin.

Ultimately, Edgar’s family went bankrupt, his beloved sister-in-law went blind and birthed a dying child, his brother squandered the remaining fortune--whilst carrying on an illicit affair with his wife’s best friend--and his uncle joined the White League, a racist militant organization. The stress of these toxic situations caused Edgar to suffer from insomnia and the brutal New Orleans heat damaged his eyes.

Yet he continued to paint, mostly to help his father in Paris who had been rendered broke by his attempts to help his in-laws. Despite all of his troubles, Edgar salvaged his senses and found a new direction for his painting and a deeper meaning in his life. Ultimately, his story is one of resilience in the face of adversary and overcoming tragedy.

Rosary was captivated by Edgar’s story due to its drama and rich historical merit. Her main goal is to have her play performed in France to help European high school students understand their deep ties to New Orleans. Ideally, the play will be performed in both French and English. Rosary is planning a visit to France in September of 2016 to make this dream project a reality on a residency with the Irish Cultural Center in the Latin Quarter.

She is working with Annick Fourier, Chair of American Studies at the Sorbonne and Joseph Roussel of the French Louisiana Association.

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