O'Neill, Eugene (Gladstone) 1888-1953
O'NEILL, Eugene (Gladstone) 1888-1953
PERSONAL: Born October 16, 1888, in New York, NY; died of pneumonia, November 27, 1953, in Boston, MA; son of James (an actor) and Mary Ellen (Quinlan) O'Neill; married Kathleen Jenkins, October 2, 1909 (divorced, 1912); married Agnes Boulton (a writer), April 12, 1918 (divorced, 1929); married Carlotta Monterey (an actress), July 22, 1929; children: (first marriage) Eugene Gladstone, Jr.; (second marriage) Shane Rudraighe, Oona. Education: Attended Princeton University, 1906-07, and Harvard University, 1914-15. Hobbies and other interests: Swimming, fishing, boating.
CAREER: Playwright. New York-Chicago Supply Co. (mail order firm), New York, NY, secretary, 1907-08; prospector in Honduras, 1909-10; worked in father's theater company as assistant stage manager, 1910, and actor, 1912; sailor, and manual laborer in Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1910-11; New London Telegraph, New London, CT, reporter, 1912. Co-manager of Provincetown Players, beginning in 1923.
MEMBER: Authors League of America, American Academy of Arts and Letters, American Philosophical Society, National Institute of Arts and Letters, Dramatists Guild, Irish Academy of Letters.
AWARDS, HONORS: Pulitzer Prize, 1920, for Beyond the Horizon, 1922, for Anna Christie, 1928, for Strange Interlude, and 1957, for Long Day's Journey into Night; Gold Medal from National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1923; Litt.D. from Yale University, 1923; Nobel Prize in literature, 1936; New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and Antoinette Perry Award for Best Play, both 1957, both for Long Day's Journey into Night, 1957; Antoinette Perry Award nomination for Best Play, 1959, for A Touch of the Poet.
Thirst and Other One-Act Plays (contains Fog [first produced in New York, NY, at Playwrights' Theatre, January 5, 1917], Recklessness, Thirst [first produced in Provincetown, MA, at Wharf Theatre, August, 1916], Warnings, and The Web), Gorham Press (Boston, MA), 1914.
Bound East for Cardiff (one-act; first produced in Provincetown, MA, then in New York, NY, at Playwrights' Theatre, 1916), published in The Provincetown Plays, First Series, F. Shay (New York, NY), 1916, revised version published in The Moon of the Caribbees and Six Other Plays of the Sea, 1919.
Before Breakfast (one-act; first produced in New York, NY, 1916), published in The Provincetown Plays, Third Series, F. Shay (New York, NY), 1916; published in The Complete Works of Eugene O'Neill (also see below), 1924.
The Sniper (one-act; first produced in New York, NY, 1917), published in Lost Plays of Eugene O'Neill, 1950.
In the Zone (one-act; first produced in New York, NY, 1917), published in The Moon of the Caribbees and Six Other Plays of the Sea (also see below), 1919.
The Long Voyage Home (one-act; first produced in New York, NY, 1917), published in Smart Set, October, 1917; published in The Moon of the Caribbees and Six Other Plays of the Sea, 1919; published in The Long Voyage Home and Other Plays, Dover (New York, NY), 1995.
Ile (one-act; first produced in New York, NY, 1917), published in Smart Set, May, 1918; published in The Moon of the Caribbees and Six Other Plays of the Sea, 1919.
The Rope (one-act; first produced in New York, NY, 1918), published in The Moon of the Caribbees and Six Other Plays of the Sea, 1919.
The Moon of the Caribbees (one-act; first produced in New York, NY, 1918), published in Smart Set, August, 1918; published in The Moon of the Caribbees and Six Other Plays of the Sea, 1919.
Gold (four-act; preliminary version of Act Four first produced as Where the Cross Is Made in New York, 1918; complete work first produced in New York, NY, 1921), Boni & Liveright (New York, NY), 1921, extensively revised version published in The Complete Works of Eugene O'Neill, 1924.
The Dreamy Kid (one-act; first produced in New York, NY, 1919), published in Theatre Arts, January, 1920; published in Contemporary One-Act Plays of 1921 (American), Stewart Kidd (Cincinnati, OH), 1922; published in The Complete Works of Eugene O'Neill, 1924.
The Moon of the Caribbees and Six Other Plays of the Sea (contains Bound East for Cardiff, Ile, In the Zone, The Long Voyage Home, The Rope, and Where the Cross Is Made), Boni & Liveright (New York, NY), 1919.
Beyond the Horizon (three-act; first produced on Broadway, 1920), Boni & Liveright (New York, NY), 1920, reprinted, Dover (New York, NY), 1996.
Anna Christie (four-act; preliminary version produced as Chris in Atlantic City, NJ, 1920, and published as Chris Christophersen, Random House (New York, NY), 1982; final version first produced in New York, NY, 1921), published in The Hairy Ape, Anna Christie, and The First Man, 1922; published as Anna Christie, Dover (Mineola, NY), 1998.
Exorcism (one-act; later destroyed by the author), first produced in New York, NY, 1920.
The Emperor Jones (eight scenes; first produced in New York, 1920), published in Theatre Arts, January, 1921, revised version published in The Emperor Jones, Diff'rent, and The Straw, published as The Emperor Jones, Dover (Mineola, NY), 1997.
Diff'rent (two-act; first produced in New York, 1920), published in The Emperor Jones, Diff'rent, and The Straw, 1921.
The Straw (three-act; first produced in New London, CT, then New York, NY, 1921), published in The Emperor Jones, Diff'rent, and The Straw, 1921.
The Emperor Jones, Diff'rent, and The Straw, Boni & Liveright (New York, NY), 1921.
The First Man (four-act; first produced in New York, NY, 1922), published in The Hairy Ape, Anna Christie, and The First Man, 1922.
The Hairy Ape (eight scenes; first produced in New York, NY, 1922), published in The Hairy Ape, Anna Christie, and The First Man, 1922.
The Hairy Ape, Anna Christie, and The First Man, Boni & Liveright (New York, NY), 1922.
Welded (three-act; first produced in Baltimore, MD, 1924, then New York, NY at Thirty-ninth Street Theatre, 1924), published in All God's Chillun Got Wings and Welded, 1924, extensively revised version published in The Complete Works of Eugene O'Neill, 1924.
The Ancient Mariner (adapted from "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge; first produced in New York, 1924), published in The Unknown O'Neill, 1988.
All God's Chillun Got Wings (two-act; first produced in New York, NY, 1924), first published in American Mercury, February, 1924; published in All God's Chillun Got Wings and Welded, 1924.
All God's Chillun Got Wings and Welded, Boni & Liveright (New York, NY), 1924.
Desire under the Elms (three-act; first produced in New York, NY, 1924), published in The Complete Works of Eugene O'Neill,, revised version published separately, Boni & Liveright (New York, NY), 1925.
(And selector) The Complete Works of Eugene O'Neill (contains revised versions of later plays), Boni & Liveright (New York, NY), 1924.
The Fountain (eleven scenes; first produced in New York, NY, 1925), published in The Great God Brown, The Fountain, The Moon of the Caribbees, and Other Plays, Boni & Liveright (New York, NY), 1926.
The Great God Brown (four-act; first produced in New York, NY, 1926), published in The Great God Brown, The Moon of the Caribbees, and Other Plays, Boni & Liveright (New York, NY), 1926.
Marco Millions (three-act; preliminary two-part, eight-act version published as Marco's Millions in The Unknown O'Neill, 1988 [also see below]; final version first produced on Broadway, 1928), Boni & Liveright (New York, NY), 1927.
Lazarus Laughed (four-act; preliminary version of Act I published in The American Caravan: A Yearbook of American Literature, Macaulay (New York, NY), 1927; final version first produced in Pasadena, 1928), Boni & Liveright (New York, NY), 1927.
Strange Interlude (nine-act; first produced on Broadway, 1928), Boni & Liveright (New York, NY), 1928.
Dynamo (three-act; preliminary version first produced on Broadway, 1929), final version, extensively revised, Boni & Liveright (New York, NY), 1929.
Mourning Becomes Electra (trilogy; contains Homecoming, The Hunted, and The Haunted; first produced on Broadway, October 26, 1931), Liveright (New York, NY), 1931.
Ah, Wilderness! (four-act; three-act stage version first produced in Pittsburgh, PA, then on Broadway, 1933), Random House (New York, NY), 1933.
Days without End (four-act; first produced in Boston, MA, 1933; produced in New York, NY, 1934), Random House (New York, NY), 1934.
The Iceman Cometh (four-act; first produced on Broadway, October 9, 1946), Random House (New York, NY), 1946, reprinted, Vintage (New York, NY), 1999.
A Moon for the Misbegotten (four-act; first produced in Columbus, OH, then in New York, NY, 1957), Random House (New York, NY), 1952, reprinted, Vintage (New York, NY), 2000.
Lost Plays of Eugene O'Neill contains one-acts Abortion, The Movie Man, The Sniper, and A Wife for a Life and three-act Servitude), introduction by Lawrence Gellert, New Fathoms Press (New York, NY), 1950.
A Touch of the Poet (four-act; first produced in Stockholm, Sweden, 1957; produced on Broadway, 1958), Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1957.
Hughie (one-act; first produced in Stockholm, Sweden, 1958; produced on Broadway, 1964), Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1959.
More Stately Mansions (unfinished; edited versions first produced in Stockholm, Sweden, 1962; produced in Los Angeles, CA, 1967), Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1964, complete transcript published as More Stately Mansions: The Unexpurgated Edition, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1988.
The Calms of Capricorn (unfinished), transcription by Donald Gallup, Yale University Library (New Haven, CT), 1981, edited with additions by Gallup, Ticknor & Fields (New Haven, CT), 1982.
Eugene O'Neill: The Unfinished Plays contains The Visit of Malatesta, The Last Conquest, and Blind Alley Guy), edited and annotated by Virginia Floyd, Ungar (New York, NY), 1988.
The Unknown O'Neill (includes The Personal Equation, Marco's Millions [eight-act version], and The Ancient Mariner, with prose and poetry), edited by Travis Bogard, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1988.
Eugene O'Neill: Complete Plays (includes Bread and Butter, Now I Ask You, and Shell Shock), Library of America (New York, NY), 1988.
Ten "Lost" Plays (includes A Wife for a Life, Thirst, The Web, Warnings, Fog, Recklessness, Abortion, The Movie Man, Servitude, and The Sniper), Dover (New York, NY), 1995.
Three Plays (includes Desire under the Elms, Strange Interlude, and Mourning Becomes Electra), Vintage (New York, NY), 1995.
Early Plays (includes The Moon of the Caribbees, Bound East for Cardiff, The Long Voyage Home, In the Zone, Ile, Where the Cross Is Made, The Rope, Beyond the Horizon, The Straw, The Emperor Jones, Anna Christie, and The Hairy Ape), edited and with an introduction by Jeffrey H. Richards, Penguin (New York, NY), 2001.
(Author of introduction) Benjamin DeCasseres, Anathema!, Gotham (New York, NY), 1928.
(With Ralph Sanborn and Barrett H. Clark) A Bibliography of the Works of Eugene O'Neill, together with the Collected Poems of Eugene O'Neill, Random House (New York, NY), 1931.
Inscriptions: Eugene O'Neill to Carlotta Monterey O'Neill, privately printed, 1960.
Poems, 1912-1944, edited by Donald Gallup, Yale University Library (New Haven, CT), 1979, revised, Ticknor & Fields (New Haven, CT), 1980.
Work Diary, 1924-1943, edited by Donald Gallup, Yale University Library (New Haven, CT), 1981.
Eugene O'Neill at Work: Newly Released Ideas for Plays (notebooks), edited and annotated by Virginia Floyd, Ungar (New York, NY), 1981.
"The Theatre We Worked For": The Letters of Eugene O'Neill to Kenneth Macgowan, edited by Jackson R. Bryer, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1982.
"Love, Admiration, and Respect": The O'Neill-Commins Correspondence, edited by Dorothy Commins, Duke University Press (Durham, NC), 1986.
"As Ever, Gene": The Letters of Eugene O'Neill to George Jean Nathan, Farleigh Dickinson University Press (Rutherford, NJ), 1987.
Selected Letters of Eugene O'Neill, edited by Travis Bogard and Jackson R. Bryer, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1988.
The Last Will and Testament of an Extremely Distinguished Dog, illustrated by Adrienne Yorinks, Holt (New York, NY), 1999.
(With Agnes Boulton) A Wind Is Rising: The Correspondence of Agnes Boulton and Eugene O'Neill, edited by William Davies King, Associated University Presses (Cranberry, NJ), 2000.
Contributor to periodicals, including Seven Arts and New York Times. Associate editor and contributor to American Spectator, beginning 1932.
ADAPTATIONS: Anna Christie was adapted for film in 1923, and, starring Greta Garbo, 1930; Strange Interlude was adapted for film, starring Clark Gable, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), 1932; The Emperor Jones was adapted for film, starring Paul Robeson, United Artists, 1933; Ah, Wilderness! was adapted for film, starring Lionel Barrymore, MGM, 1935, and, as Summer Holiday, starring Mickey Rooney, MGM, 1948; Bound East for Cardiff, The Moon of the Caribbees, In the Zone, and The Long Voyage Home were adapted for film as The Long Voyage Home, directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne, United Artists, 1940; The Hairy Ape was adapted for film, starring William Bendix and Susan Hayward, 1944; Mourning Becomes Electra was adapted for film, starring Raymond Massey, Rosalind Russell, and Michael Red-grave, RKO, 1947; Desire under the Elms was adapted for film, starring Sophia Loren, Tony Perkins, and Burl Ives, Paramount, 1958; Long Day's Journey into Night was adapted for film, directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Ralph Richardson, Jason Robards, Katharine Hepburn, and Dean Stockwell, Embassy, 1962; The Iceman Cometh was adapted for film, directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Lee Marvin and Fredric March, 1973. Before Breakfast was adapted, with August Strindberg's The Stronger, for the stage by Stephen Kennedy Murphy as The Mourning Show, 2001. Several of O'Neill's plays have been adapted as audio books.
SIDELIGHTS: Eugene O'Neill wrote more than fifty plays, won the Nobel Prize and several Pulitzer prizes, and earned a place as the first American dramatist of lasting, international stature. His work culminated with The Iceman Cometh and Long Day's Journey into Night, two of the most powerful portraits of despair ever created for the stage. Despite such accomplishments O'Neill's reputation has always been mixed. The playwright, wrote Mary McCarthy in the Partisan Review, has not "the slightest ear for the word, the sentence, the speech." "[He] is no thinker," wrote director Eric Bentley in the Kenyon Review. "Look at the fruits of his thinking; his comparatively thoughtless plays are better." However, as biographer Frederic Carpenter observed in Eugene O'Neill, the playwright's primary goal was not to be an intellectual playwright but an emotional one. "Our emotions are a better guide than our thoughts," Carpenter quoted O'Neill as saying. "They are the deep undercurrent whereas our thoughts are often only the … surface reactions." Rarely successful as a poet or philosopher, O'Neill still excelled at conveying the anguish of being alive. O'Neill, wrote a Time reviewer, could "seize a blase Broadway crowd and wring it dry, half from fatigue, half from an emotional buffeting that no other American playwright ever inflicted on an audience. [He] could do what only a major artist can do: make his public share in the life of his private demons."
Until his mid-twenties O'Neill wrote little, but he encountered a great deal of pain that informed his later work. His torments began with his family, displayed as the Tyrone clan in Long Day's Journey into Night. So painful and personal was this work that O'Neill would not allow it to be made public until after he was dead—preferably, not for decades after. O'Neill's father, James, rose from poverty to become one of nineteenth-century America's most popular actors. Obsessed with financial security, he toured the country for years performing The Count of Monte Cristo, a crowd-pleasing melodrama of betrayal, suffering, revenge, and triumph. Critics bemoaned the waste of his artistic talent, and, too late, he came to agree. As a young man James wed Mary Ellen Quinlan, known as Mary Tyrone in Long Day's Journey into Night and as Ella during her lifetime. Born to wealth and educated in Catholic convent schools, Ella was ill prepared to marry an itinerant actor and became terribly isolated. While recovering from Eugene's birth, she became addicted to morphine. O'Neill's older brother, Jamie, was pampered as a child and became utterly irresponsible, fixated on his mother, and was unable to accept any other women but prostitutes. With his father's influence he gained minor acting roles, but heavy drinking often ruined his performances. Surrounded by such disappointment, O'Neill acquired what might be termed a "tragic sense of life": that people are doomed to suffer intensely, mocked by dreams they cannot attain. "None of us can help the things life has done to us," noted Tyrone. "They're done before you realize it, and … they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you'd like to be, and you've lost your true self forever."
The young O'Neill shared his parents' transient way of life as he shuttled between hotels attended boarding schools. He noticed Ella's distractedness and feared she was going insane, but he did not learn of her addiction until he was fourteen years old. That year when the family gathered at their only real "home," a summer house in New London, Connecticut, Ella ran out of morphine and tried to drown herself. O'Neill promptly renounced his Catholic faith, since his mother's devotions had failed her. From then on, observers suggest, he considered himself an emotional outcast, seeking replacements for the mother and the God who had disappointed him. In Long Day's Journey into Night O'Neill appears as "Edmund," actually the name of his brother who died in infancy. "It was a great mistake my being born a man, I would have been much more successful as a sea gull or a fish," Edmund says. "As it is, I will always be a stranger who never feels at home, … who must always be a little in love with death." O'Neill began to flout his parents' proprieties, as Jamie taught him about drinking, prostitutes, and iconoclastic writers. He soon discovered Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher who said Christianity was in decline and offered a new faith based on confidence in one's inner resources. O'Neill also valued the pessimism of Sweden's August Strindberg, whose plays mix love and hate as couples are joined in sexual desire and then battle each other for domination. For O'Neill, these plays were essentially his own family history.
After flunking out of Princeton University, O'Neill eloped with Kathleen Jenkins, one of the few "respectable" young women he knew. Overwhelmed by marriage, he refused to live with his wife and their infant son, Eugene Jr. O'Neill's father found him work in an office, in the theater, and in a Central American gold-mining expedition, but O'Neill proved unenthusiastic until his father agreed to pay his passage on a tramp freighter. Enlisted to help the sailors, O'Neill found he enjoyed the work and the companionship; moreover, observers suggest, the sea became like a new god to him, its vastness offering the promise that he could transcend his own existence. Ashore O'Neill continued to disintegrate. He identified morbidly with poor and rootless men, and after living in poverty in Buenos Aires he shipped back to New York City and moved into a wretched boardinghouse and barroom. To receive a divorce under New York law, he arranged with his wife that he should be caught by her attorney with a prostitute. He then attempted suicide, surviving to find that he had tuberculosis.
Sent to a sanitarium to recover from his illness, O'Neill reassessed his life and decided to become a playwright. In 1914 he published his first one-act plays—once again using money from his father. O'Neill's apprentice works are generally mediocre and melodramatic, but as Travis Bogard observed in Contour in Time, they display basic themes that would dominate his later writings. Characters are manipulated by forces beyond their control; families are racked by conflict; those who betray their true nature are destroyed. Of particular note is Bound East for Cardiff, a play whose plausibility, focus, philosophical undercurrents, and careful use of emotion give it genuine power. The play unfolds aboard the S.S. Glencairn, where sailors watch over a dying shipmate. As the men converse they realize how the sea has bound them together and influenced their lives. The play succeeds despite its minimal plot, underscoring that O'Neill could build effective works entirely around the psychological interactions of his characters. The philosophical issues arise naturally from the setting. Bound East for Cardiff is not only the first proof of O'Neill's skill as a dramatist: it is also one of the first successes in realistic American drama.
O'Neill's ambitions soon outstripped his talent. He developed an experimenter's fascination with theatrical techniques and a wide-ranging imagination that often seemed unable to develop an idea slowly, plausibly, and completely. Ignoring his natural flair for heartfelt emotion, O'Neill tried a new series of plays that would be more "impersonal," as Baker wished. The results, according to Bogard, are abhorrently shallow and mechanical: the worst is probably Now I Ask You, a drawing-room comedy that mocks the author's interest in Nietzsche. O'Neill's talent revived when he returned to the bars of New York, where he now often drank with the young intellectuals of Greenwich Village. His friends included Terry Carlin, an old anarchist whose search for personal freedom had ended in quiet resignation. In the summer of 1916 the two men visited Provincetown, Massachusetts, where Carlin introduced O'Neill to the Provincetown Players, a group of theater enthusiasts who hoped to create an audience for innovative American drama. They were anxious for producible scripts, and soon their summer theater—a shack on a Provincetown wharf—premiered Bound East for Cardiff. O'Neill had found his first appreciative audience, and when the Players returned to Greenwich Village for the winter they awaited more of his work.
Seemingly driven by his own pain, he continued to fill his plays with unhappy marriages, madness, and death; but, surprisingly, his most effective early works are "Dionysian" evocations of the mysterious power of the sea and of human dreams. Three such plays—In the Zone, The Long Voyage Home, and The Moon of the Caribbees—once more involve sailors of the Glencairn. In Caribbees, the author's longtime favorite, the ship anchors off a Caribbean port while music wafts from shore. The sailors smuggle women and liquor aboard and engage in an orgy of mindless pleasure and brawling. The only unhappy man is pining for a lost girlfriend and refuses to participate. Like most of O'Neill's early works, the Glencairn plays are simple one-acts, ideally suited to a small company like the Provincetown Players.
His success brought larger ambitions, and in 1918 O'Neill completed Beyond the Horizon, a full-length tragedy in which two brothers destroy themselves by ignoring their dreams. Robert Mayo, a young poet with wanderlust, decides to marry and tend the family farm; as a result his brother Andrew, who hoped to be a farmer, must work at sea. In the end, Andrew is embittered and Robert welcomes his own untimely death, hoping to find poetry and transcendence beyond the grave. O'Neill waited two years to open the work on Broadway, achieving national fame and his first Pulitzer when it appeared in 1920. James O'Neill saw the work shortly before he died, and his approval helped to reconcile father and son.
O'Neill's lyrical realism peaked with Anna Christie, a 1921 romance that is considered one of his most popular plays and O'Neill's second Pulitzer Prize winner in 1922. The title character, who falls into a life of prostitution on land, is redeemed by becoming a sailor's wife. Her fate confounds her immigrant father, a sailor who sent her inland to protect her from "dat old davil sea." O'Neill was disturbed to see his play become a happy-ever-after story, which he did not intend. Thereafter O'Neill ceased to celebrate the dreamers of everyday life. Instead, observed Bogard, he embraced the new American doctrine of "Art Theatre," which questioned not only the light entertainment of James O'Neill's day but also a half-century of realism as perfected by dramatists in Europe. Seeking truths that lay beneath everyday reality, Art Theatre encouraged playwrights to compose philosophical works and to explore unusual techniques of presenting plays.
Two of O'Neill's early Art Theatre plays were highly successful—a mixed blessing, Bogard noted, that encouraged his later excess. The Emperor Jones is a nightmarish monologue loosely inspired by the author's experience in the Central American jungle. Brutus Jones, a strong-willed black American laborer, takes control of a Caribbean island by exploiting the inhabitants' fear of magic and spirits. When his subjects revolt, he escapes to the jungle, but he is overcome with terror and has a series of hallucinations—culminating in the appearance of a crocodile god—that make him easy prey for the rebels. The play was a huge success for the Provincetown troupe and offered the first major dramatic role for black actors on the white-dominated stage. In a similar vein, The Hairy Ape shows the emotional collapse of a workingman who is fiercely proud of his ability to shovel coal for a steamship's engines. Derided by a prim woman passenger, he rages at society for making him feel freakish. He tries to express his despair to both rich churchgoers and poor revolutionaries, then becomes wholly irrational and is crushed to death when he seeks the friendship of a gorilla at the zoo. Both plays convey emotional chaos through an atmosphere of unreality—the churchgoers, for instance, behave like automatons—but both are also based on real people whom O'Neill met during his wayfaring days. Even when O'Neill made broad statements about the human condition, he needed a realistic context to be most effective.
Soon O'Neill's experiments were defeated by the scope of his own ambition: like Nietzsche, he wanted to resolve the world's religious unrest by finding a new faith. In a series of grandiose, almost unproducible works—including Welded, The Fountain, The Great God Brown, Lazarus Laughed, Dynamo, and Days without End—O'Neill portrayed various spiritual quests. In Dynamo, the alienated son of a minister embraces the false god of modern science, symbolized by an electrical power plant; in Lazarus Laughed, the biblical Lazarus arises from the dead to proclaim his freedom from the fear of mortality. Inspired by Art Theatre, O'Neill slighted realistic characterization in favor of his ideas. For dramatic power he used theatrical devices: a power-plant set for Dynamo, a booming laugh and crowds of followers for Lazarus, and an elevated poetic diction that he was ill-equipped to sustain. Repeatedly the plays failed even when the ideas were interesting. In Welded, for instance, playwright Michael Cape enacts the dilemma of O'Neill's second marriage—Cape wants a total spiritual union with his wife, while she fears for her individuality. "Welded is a finely conceived but over-intellectualized study, not a well-rounded three-dimensional drama about human beings," said biographer Barrett Clark in Eugene O'Neill: The Man and His Plays. "It is the skeleton of a possibly fine play."
Eventually O'Neill saw that Art Theatre had not served him well. "No more sets or theatrical devices as anything but unimportant background," he told Kenneth Macgowan, as recorded in "The Theatre We Worked For": The Letters of Eugene O'Neill to Kenneth Macgowan. "Hereafter I will write plays primarily as literature to be read—and the more simply they read, the better they will act."
O'Neill's most successful work had continued to come from his forays into realism. Strange Interlude, like The Emperor Jones and The Hairy Ape, combines artistic experiment with social reality. The play's dialogue is punctuated with "interludisms"—asides during which the characters describe their thoughts. This technique, O'Neill realized, was ideal for portraying the self-conscious intellectuals he had known in Greenwich Village. The play centers on Nina Leeds, modeled on the free-loving Louise Bryant. Nina searches narcissistically for the perfect man, and since he does not exist, she surrounds herself with men—a rich husband, an ambitious lover, a fatherly confidant, a son—each of whom gives her partial fulfillment. Eventually most of her men forsake her, and she realizes that life consists of quiet disappointment. As Carpenter observed, O'Neill's artistic vision had grown more pessimistic since the days of Anna Christie, and he now wrote of dreams gone wrong. Strange Interlude is an astonishing nine acts long, designed to rival the intricacy of a novel. When the play debuted on Broadway—complete with a dinner break—it was a massive success, partly because of the sheer novelty of its psychological revelations. The play also won O'Neill yet another Pulitzer Prize, in 1928.
"Interludisms," O'Neill decided, were not a likely basis for more plays; historical drama, by contrast, became a lasting source of inspiration. As Bogard suggested, a period setting gave some much-needed structure to O'Neill's imaginings. Desire under the Elms reveals the passions beneath the calm surface of a nineteenth-century New England farm family. "God's hard, not easy!" cries old patriarch Ephraim Cabot, toughened by years of labor. Meanwhile his passionate new wife has an affair with her adult stepson; in the shocking finale, she kills the illicit offspring of the affair, then goes hand-in-hand with her lover to prison. Desire under the Elms was decried on moral grounds, but scandal only increased its popularity. Joseph Wood Krutch praised the play without trying to discover a redeeming social message. "The meaning and unity of [O'Neill's] work," he wrote in the Nation, "lies not in any controlling intellectual idea and certainly not in a 'message,' but merely in the fact that each play is an experience of extraordinary intensity."
In his next historical drama, Mourning Becomes Electra, O'Neill consciously seeks the intensity of ancient Greek tragedy. He adapts the "Oresteia" trilogy of Aeschylus—a tale of passion, murder, and divine retribution which suggested to O'Neill the family's buried relationships. For O'Neill, the psychology of family life, not the ancient gods, determines each character's fate. When General Ezra Mannon returns to his New England home after the U.S. Civil War, he is killed by his adulterous wife, Christine. Their daughter, Lavinia—"Electra" in the old Greek version—thirsts for revenge and, with reluctant help from her brother, Orin, she drives Christine to suicide. Brother and sister then make a futile effort to find peace in the dream-world of the South Seas. Soon they return to New England, where Orin kills himself and Lavinia confronts the ugly Mannon heritage by shutting herself inside the family homestead. When Mourning Becomes Electra debuted on Broadway in 1931, noted Carpenter, it garnered better reviews than any previous O'Neill work; nevertheless, the play closed fairly quickly and was seldom revived. "The very logical perfection of its artistic design," Carpenter explained, "may constitute its greatest fault": the characters are so relentlessly grim that they may lose the sympathy of the audience.
By the early 1930s O'Neill had written many plays about troubled families and spiritual quests. Biographers generally agree that his inspiration was autobiographical: he wished to deal with his "private demons" by using his life experience to make broad statements about human nature. If O'Neill wrote too coldly in such plays as Welded and Mourning Becomes Electra, in other works he was probably too close to his subject. In 1920 he released Exorcism, a thinly veiled account of his suicide attempt, then withdrew the play and destroyed the scripts. He followed with All God's Chillun Got Wings, a symbolic account of his parents' marriage that shows a black man—"Jim"—and a white woman—"Ella"—who struggle to love each other despite their differences. Unfortunately O'Neill could not dramatize the pain of the relationship without resorting to melodrama and reduced both characters to unconvincing madness. Finally, from 1932 to 1943, he wrote several openly autobiographical plays that are considered his finest work. As director Robert Brustein observed in The Theatre of Revolt, the author "had to write badly in order to write well."
Success gave O'Neill the leisure to write as he wished. Strange Interlude made him wealthy. One morning in 1932, as he was mired in writing the philosophical drama Days without End, he awoke with the idea for a nostalgic comedy loosely based on his youth in New London. Within a month he completed Ah, Wilderness! The main character is Richard Miller, a good-natured seventeen-year-old who prompts a minor scandal by quoting "decadent" poetry to his girlfriend. Chastised by adults, he rebels by visiting a bar and a prostitute with a heart of gold. When he comes home drunk, his alcoholic Uncle Sid gently sees him to bed. Here images of O'Neill's tormented early years are transformed into figures of benevolence. Richard's father, for instance, is not based on the unhappy James O'Neill but on Fred Latimer, a hearty New London newspaper editor who shepherded the young O'Neill through a brief stint as a reporter. "It is as if," Carpenter observed, "the man who wrote the play were also watching over his characters to see that they did not follow his own dangerous path." Ah, Wilderness!, wrote Brustein, "prefigures [O'Neill's] transformation into an objective dramatic artist": only a mature writer, in full control of his material, could turn painful memories into a comedy with a life of its own.
Though O'Neill lived for twenty years after Ah, Wilderness! debuted in 1933, it was the last successful premiere he would see. Both his pessimism and his philosophizing were unsuited to the America of the Great Depression and World War II, when audiences craved dramas of social activism or positive statements about the national character. After Days without End failed in 1934 he withdrew from the theater, more concerned with writing plays than seeing them produced. When he received the Nobel Prize in 1936, some found him unworthy, including Saturday Review critic Bernard De Voto. "What does he tell us, what does he show us, that we did not know before?" De Voto wrote. "Nowhere do we encounter the finality or the reconciliation of great art, nowhere is any fragment of human life remade for us in understanding."
O'Neill's first post-Nobel effort was the "Cycle," a projected cycle of eleven historical dramas called "A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed." The saga would span American history, showing the gradual corruption of the country's idealism by greed. By 1939, after years of preparation, O'Neill was close to completing only one play, A Touch of the Poet. Frustrated and bored, he largely abandoned the "Cycle" in favor of his autobiographical dramas, beginning with The Iceman Cometh.
Set in a dingy New York barroom, The Iceman Cometh centers on a group of steady drinkers like those O'Neill knew in his youth. Barman Harry Hope is based on a Villager who spent much of his life secluded in lodgings upstairs from his saloon. The patrons include Larry Slade, whose eloquent pessimism recalls that of failed anarchist Terry Carlin. Each of the regulars comforts himself with a hopeless "pipe dream": a politician awaits his public, a black man awaits interracial brotherhood, and so on. Into their world comes traveling salesman Theodore Hickman ("Hickey"), a besotted old friend who has suddenly become bright-eyed and energetic. With a salesman's skill and a preacher's zeal, Hickey convinces his friends to abandon their delusions in the name of truth. Having thus made them miserable, he proves himself to be the most deluded of all. In one of the most famous monologues in American drama, Hickey explains that he has shed his own delusion—guilt—by killing his wife, whose patient suffering made him feel guilty. He is immediately arrested, after which the patrons resume their drinking and dreaming, having decided that Hickey is insane. "All the old truisms of morality and philosophy seem suddenly to crumble," as Carpenter observed: if even the bringer of "truth" is a madman, what is left to believe in? "To hell with the truth!" says Larry Slade. "The lie of a pipe dream is what gives life to the whole misbegotten mad lot of us, drunk or sober."
The Iceman Cometh has attracted more interest among literary critics than any other of O'Neill's works. Completed in 1940, it anticipates by a decade the flowering of existentialism, a philosophy holding that humanity must create its own sense of purpose in a godless and chaotic universe. By abjuring philosophy in favor of his own concrete experience, O'Neill had at last created an intellectual masterpiece. The seeming nihilism of The Iceman Cometh, Bogard speculated, may have inspired O'Neill to write Hughie, a more hopeful oneact on a similar theme. In the lobby of a cheap New York hotel, Erie Smith tells the new night clerk about his predecessor—Hughie—who enjoyed Erie's posturing tales about the world of high-stakes gambling. The clerk tries to ignore Erie but finally relents. A sympathetic ear on a lonely night, O'Neill seems to suggest, is the only hope one person can offer another.
Next O'Neill turned to Long Day's Journey into Night, the play he may have spent his life preparing to write. Abandoning his old experiments, O'Neill here observes the classic unities of time, place, and action, evoking years of misery in the events of a single day. The play is set in 1912 in his family's New London, Connecticut, summer house. As day begins the Tyrones try to be kind to each other, but ugly memories repeatedly emerge and inspire intensifying rounds of soul-searching, recrimination, and apology. The audience can hope that young Edmund may escape the family's despair, but the others are clearly trapped: James Tyrone, Sr. by fear of poverty and regret for his wasted talent; Jamie by decadence and self-hatred; Mary by morphine and memories of her innocent girlhood. Finally that night the men watch helplessly as Mary appears in a drug-induced stupor, dragging her old wedding gown and recalling her lost youth. The Tyrones "become larger than their own small lives," wrote John Chapman in the New York Daily News. "They become humanity, looking for something but not knowing exactly what it is looking for." He declared: "This is O'Neill's most beautiful play…. And it is one of the great dramas of any time."
In contrast with Edmund's youthfulness, Jamie is the jaded villain of Long Day's Journey into Night. "Kid…. Beon your guard," Jamie says, confessing that he introduced Edmund to alcohol and prostitutes out of a resentful urge to destroy him. Perhaps wishing to show more compassion for Jamie, who drank himself to death when their mother died, O'Neill wrote an epilogue to the play titled A Moon for the Misbegotten. This play is set in 1923, as an exhausted, middle-aged Jamie meets a hulking Irish-American farm girl named Josie Hogan. To compensate for her ugliness Josie claims vast sexual experience, but as an old fraud Jamie understands her lies at once. The two spend a chaste night discussing their sorrows and regrets. After Jamie leaves, Josie pronounces a sad blessing: "May you have your wish and die in your sleep soon, Jim, darling. May you rest forever in forgiveness and peace." Though criticized for an excess of sentiment, A Moon for the Misbegotten moved even Mary McCarthy, who wrote in the New York Times Book Review that "this play exacts homage for its mythic powers, for the element of transcendence jutting up in it like a great wooden Trojan horse."
As O'Neill composed A Moon for the Misbegotten he struggled against an increasing tremor in his hands. By the time he completed the play in 1943, his hands were virtually useless, and he refused to dictate any new work to others. Having come to terms with his family, he wrote no more. His last years were as painful as anything he had known in his youth or created for the stage. Writing, biographers speculate, had been a crucial emotional outlet for him, and once deprived of it he lost the will to live. He disowned two children: Oona had married Charlie Chaplin, an actor as old as her father, and Shane had become an aimless heroin addict. Meanwhile Eugene, Jr. was unable to fulfill his early intellectual promise and committed suicide. Ill health compelled the O'Neills to sell their isolated California home in 1944; thereafter, to stay close to hospitals, they often lived in the sort of urban apartments O'Neill had hated ever since his father's days as a traveling actor.
While living in New York City in the mid-1940s O'Neill helped with rehearsals for The Iceman Cometh and A Moon for the Misbegotten, but both plays, in keeping with his fears, met with indifference from the general public. When A Moon for the Misbegotten failed during out-of-town tryouts he withdrew all his new work from further consideration, publishing the play only because he needed money. O'Neill and his third wife, Carlotta, moved briefly to a home on the Massachusetts shore and eventually to a Boston apartment where he stayed in seclusion. When he died in 1953, he seemed a figure from the distant theatrical past.
In the years since his death O'Neill's reputation quickly revived, virtually giving him a new career, as John Gassner observed in O'Neill: A Collection of Critical Essays. In 1956 director Jose Quintero, actor Jason Robards, and other newcomers staged an acclaimed Off-Broadway revival of The Iceman Cometh, and to an audience familiar with existentialism the play seemed contemporary and important. The American premiere of Long Day's Journey into Night premiered the same year, earning O'Neill his fourth Pulitzer in 1957 and confirming his status as America's greatest playwright. In his last plays, admirers declared, O'Neill transcended his stylistic weakness through the strength of his battered humanism. "He had the writer's one indispensable gift," wrote Joseph Wood Krutch in the New York Times Book Review. "He 'communicated'—the situation, the characters, and above all the depth of his concern with them." Krutch concluded: "An O'Neill who wrote better would have been a better O'Neill. But he will last longer and mean more than many who can, in the ordinary sense, write rings around him."
O'Neill's plays continue to be performed around the world. In 2003, on the fiftieth anniversary of the playwright's death, A Long Day's Journey into Night was revived on Broadway. As a critic writing for United Press International noted, "The journey of a splendid cast into the playwright's black night of oblivion is one that theater-goers will never forget, and this soul-searching revival of the most memorable of all of O'Neill's more than fifty plays is not to be missed." In reviewing O'Neill's life and work in the Southern Review, Romulus Linney pointed out how wrong contemporary literary critics were when they consigned O'Neill and his plays to the dustbin of literary history. Linney especially praised A Long Day's Journey into Night and noted, "Someone will no doubt know better, but I can't think of any other writer who labored in fields so traditional and then crowned his life's work with a masterpiece so utterly radical."
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Bogard, Travis, Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O'Neill, revised edition, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1987.
Bowen, Crosswell, The Curse of the Misbegotten: A Tale of the House of O'Neill, McGraw Hill (New York, NY), 1959.
Brustein, Robert, The Theatre of Revolt: An Approach to the Modern Drama, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1964.
Cargill, Oscar, N. B. Fagin, and W. J. Fisher, editors, O'Neill and His Plays: Four Decades of Criticism, New York University Press (New York, NY), 1961.
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Clark, Barrett H., Eugene O'Neill: The Man and His Plays, Dover (New York, NY), 1947.
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New York, September 5, 1994, p. 52.
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