Last reviewed: June 2017
October 16, 1888
New York, New York
November 27, 1953
The American playwright Eugene Gladstone O’Neill is often regarded as the most important twentieth century writer for the theater. He was the son of the popular melodramatic actor James O’Neill and his wife, Ellen (Ella) Quinlan O’Neill. In O’Neill’s posthumous and frankly autobiographical play Long Day’s Journey into Night (completed by 1941 but neither published nor produced until 1956) the father appears as an improvident bohemian, lavish in speculation and with boon companions but parsimonious and unsatisfactory as the head of a family. The mother appears as a loving, somewhat conventional woman wrecked by a morphine addiction contracted during an illness and encouraged by the disorderliness of the domestic establishment.
As a young man, O’Neill was unhappy and rebellious. He sometimes accompanied his father on tour. He was educated at Mount Saint Vincent Catholic Boarding School, 1895-1900, and at Bett’s Academy in Stamford, Connecticut, 1900-1906. He enrolled in Princeton University in 1906 but was dismissed at the end of his first year and spent five years as a drifter. As a common sailor he went on voyages to Honduras, South America, and Europe, and in 1912 he worked briefly in New London, Connecticut, as a reporter on the Telegraph. O’Neill married Kathleen Jenkins in 1909, and they had a son, Eugene, in 1910, before divorcing in 1912. Eugene O’Neill
The six months O’Neill spent at Gaylord Farm tuberculosis sanatorium, beginning on December 24, 1912, marked the turning point in his life. In the hospital he read widely in the modern drama; profoundly impressed by Henrik Ibsen and, even more, August Strindberg, he determined to become a playwright. Beginning in 1914 he spent some time as a student in George Pierce Baker’s dramatic workshop at Harvard University. That same year he published his first book, Thirst, and Other One-Act Plays. In 1916 he moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he saw one of his plays produced for the first time. An amateur group calling itself the Provincetown Players acted his short romantic melodrama, Bound East for Cardiff, first at Provincetown, then at its tiny theater in New York’s Greenwich Village.
While living in Greenwich Village in the fall of 1917, O’Neill met Agnes Boulton, whom he married the following spring. He and his wife had two children, Shane, born in 1919, and Oona, born in 1926, who later married Charlie Chaplin. It was during his marriage to Boulton that O’Neill wrote his greatest plays.
His first play was followed by other one-act melodramas, based, like the first, on his experience as a sailor, and in 1920 his first full-length, professionally produced play, Beyond the Horizon, won the Pulitzer Prize. He would receive this award again in 1921 for Anna Christie. Passionately committed to his task and extremely prolific, he was soon turning out a rapid succession of plays, all somber in tone but otherwise exhibiting a great variety of themes and styles. Some were commercially produced, others by amateur and semiamateur groups, but all helped make him the most discussed American playwright of his time.
Among the more notable plays of this period were The Emperor Jones, The Hairy Ape, and The Great God Brown as well as his first great popular success, Anna Christie, which differed from these other plays in being realistic rather than experimental and expressionistic. The success of Desire Under the Elms in 1924 led to his association with the Theater Guild, the leading art theater, which produced his two most widely discussed plays, the enormously long Strange Interlude in 1928 and, in 1931, the trilogy Mourning Becomes Electra, a modernization of the Greek legend as told by Aeschylus. Less notable plays followed before O’Neill achieved another great success with The Iceman Cometh in 1946. In 1936 he became the first American playwright to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.
His successes as a playwright were not, however, mirrored in his personal life. His father died in 1920, followed by his mother in 1922 and his older brother James in 1923. Soon after receiving a divorce from Boulton in 1929, O’Neill married Carlotta Monterey, the actress who had played the heroine in The Hairy Ape. Ill health resulting from Parkinson’s disease made writing increasingly difficult for O’Neill; after 1944 he was unable to write at all.
O’Neill was the author of one comedy, Ah, Wilderness!, but even this play is by no means a merry work. The most persistent characteristic of his life-work is its tragic view of life, presented in various ways and seeming to range from prosaic, pessimistic naturalism through the classic version of human beings redeemed and ennobled by suffering, to the mystical exultation of Lazarus Laughed.
In one way or another, and in all of O’Neill’s plays, the phrase of his master Strindberg, “Men are pitiable creatures,” is always implicit. The great and even bewildering variety of styles and subject matter is, like the presence of different sociological and psychological theories, less the result of changes in thought than simply of repeated attempts, none found quite satisfactory, to objectify and express his tragic sense of life. Human beings are seen as pitiable creatures for many reasons but most significantly because they want something the universe does not seem to provide. O’Neill stated that it was this “maladjustment” to the universe rather than any political or social maladjustment that interested him most.
What does seem to change from play to play is the conclusion to be drawn from the human situation in an alien universe. Sometimes, as in The Iceman Cometh (the most nihilistically pessimistic of the plays), O’Neill seems to say that only the deluded are either happy or wise; in other plays he seems to imply that human aspiration toward the unattainable is justification and glory. Alternatively, as in Lazarus Laughed, he implies that the universe does hide a saving secret, which the occasional individual can penetrate.
O’Neill’s greatness was not always recognized, and during the decade before his death some insisted that he had been greatly overestimated. The surprise occasioned by Long Day’s Journey into Night—one of the most impressive of his plays—stimulated a debate that probably swung the ultimate judgment definitely in his favor. His unfriendly critics have brought many charges, accusing him especially of overambition in his attempt to rival the great tragic writers of the past, of relying too heavily upon Freudian psychology, and of a lack of either precision or beauty in the writing of dialogue. To the first of these charges it is sometimes replied that high ambition was precisely what the modern drama, too content with small subjects and small themes, most conspicuously lacked and that the Freudianism evident enough in some of his best-known work is not a doctrine being preached but simply an effective use of what is, after all, one of the most important ways in which modern individuals are accustomed to looking at themselves and their problems. The third charge was more serious. O’Neill wrote rapidly, sometimes clumsily and repetitiously. There is little wit and in the words, little of that poetry upon which tragedy is sometimes said to depend. However, the effectiveness of his plays was demonstrated at the time when they were new and continues to be demonstrated by both the posthumous plays and revivals.