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Editor: Harley Hammerman
St. Louis, Missouri

Volume 0


Eugene O’Neill, 1888-1953:
A Descriptive Chronology of His Plays,
Theatrical Career, and Dramatic Theories

Charles A. Carpenter

The following is from Professor Carpenter’s Modern British, Irish, and American Drama: A Descriptive Chronology, 1865-1965. Included here are entries relevant to the emergence of serious drama in America as well as those that deal directly with O’Neill.

1883   February   The romantic actor James O’Neill plays Edmond Dantès for the first time in a revival of Charles Fechter’s version of The Count of Monte Cristo. His promising career will collapse into more than 6,000 repetitions of this sure-fire role, as his dramatic re-creation laments in his son Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

1888    October   Eugene Gladstone O’Neill is born on October 16 in a Broadway hotel room.

1891   May   After a brief tryout in July 1890 induces theatre managers to refuse to produce James A. Herne’s daring and impressive problem play, Margaret Fleming, Herne rents a hall in Boston, adapts the space for an intimate performance, advertises to the intelligentsia, and (according to William Dean Howells, who promoted the play) becomes “the talk of the whole city wherever cultivated people met.” Howells had told Herne that his drama has “the same searching moral vitality as Ibsen’s best work,” and predicted an “epoch-making effect for it.” Almost as objectionable to conservative playgoers as Ghosts, the drama involves a nursing mother, who suffers from glaucoma, and her philandering but still loving husband, who has impregnated the nursemaid’s sister. When the woman dies in childbirth, his wife learns about the affair—which exacerbates her glaucoma and causes blindness. Hearing the sick baby cry, she impulsively “unbuttons her dress to give (it) nourishment,” a scandalous stage event at the time (and long after). Even more disturbing, in the first version the baby dies, she abandons her own baby and home, and when she accidentally confronts her husband at the home of the nursemaid (who has kept her baby), even though he is penitent she drives him away. Herne changes the ending for revivals (July 1892 and April 1894) to make the play more palatable—the baby does not die; the woman does not flee; she forgives her husband and is pleased when he looks in on both children—but it never becomes popular. Because it was not published until 1930 and was later revived only in Chicago, the play had no discernible impact on the rebirth of serious American drama two decades after its initial production.

1896   August   A group of men who owned theatres across America, most notably Charles Frohman, teams up with booking agents to form the Theatrical Syndicate, which by 1900 gains control of a great number of American theatres, including all but three in New York City. In an era of sometimes multiple tryouts for new plays before risking a New York production and, afterwards, prolific touring from city to city to exploit successful plays, access to farflung venues is crucial to financial solvency for theatre companies, so that they virtually have to submit to the Syndicate’s self-serving policies. A repressive force opposed by David Belasco and Herne, among others, the Syndicate tries to insure high profits by mandating morally conventional actions with gratifying endings, and stressing spectacle and popular appeal. Their most remunerative playwrights are Bronson Howard and Clyde Fitch.

1897   February   Herne’s essay “Art for Truth’s Sake in the Drama” (Arena), recognized as a veritable manifesto of the higher drama in America, declares that drama’s mission is “to interest and to instruct” rather than simply to amuse. “It should not preach objectively, but it should teach subjectively.” If a dramatist “has a truth to manifest and he can present it without giving offence and still retain its power, he should so present it, but if he must choose between giving offence and receding from his position, he should stand by his principle and state his truth fearlessly.” This kind of drama “stands for the higher development and thus the individual liberty of the human race.”

December   The respected New York Times drama critic Edward A. Dithmar sums up the American dramatic situation by saying “We have no body of plays we can point to with pride.” The few creditable works—Augustus Thomas’s Alabama, Belasco’s The Heart of Maryland, Howard’s Young Mrs. Winthrop and The Henrietta, and William Gillette’s Secret Service—“are exceptions, and they tell a story of many years of unproductiveness.”

1899   November   In New York the Carnegie Lyceum, a lecture/concert hall run by Franklin H. Sargent, begins a subscription season of single performances of “new” European dramas (in English translations) with an 1881 play by José Echegaray, El gran Galeoto. It is followed in January 1900 by Ibsen’s The Master Builder (its American premiere), in March by Alexander Ostrovsky’s The Storm (1860) and Gerhart Hauptmann’s The Sunken Bell (1896), and in April by two one-acts, Edward Martyn’s The Heather Field (May 1899) and François Coppée’s A Troubadour (Le Passant, 1869). The venture gains little critical attention and soon expires, but serves its purpose for interested playgoers.

   September   A trial matinee of Shaw’s Candida in New York, mounted at their own expense by Arnold Daly and a young actor, gains such a positive reception that additional performances are arranged so that the play is finally given over a hundred times. Shaw’s short play about Napoleon, The Man of Destiny (1897), sometimes supplements the evening.

1904    July   In the influential symposium “A National Art Theatre for America” published in Arena, the ultra-popular Syndicate playwright Clyde Fitch surprisingly advocates dramatic realism in his essay “The Play and the Public.” He declares his belief in “the particular value . . . in a modern play of reflecting absolutely and truthfully the life and environment about us; every class, every kind, every emotion, every motive, every occupation, every business, every idleness!” Moreover, “if you inculcate an idea in your play, so much the better for your play and for you—and for your audience.” Two of his plays that follow this statement, The Truth (1907) and The City (1909), include daring realistic ingredients combined with their well-made plots and are heralded as among the best examples of American social realism so far produced.

1905   January   Arnold Daly, following his success with Shaw plays in September 1903 and a year later, gives You Never Can Tell its American premiere and scores another success. With revivals of his previous Shaw offerings starting in September and the premieres of John Bull’s Other Island and Mrs Warren’s Profession in October, Daly helps makes the year a notable one for the growing acceptance of Shaw in America, which newspapers attribute to a “Shaw cult.”

June   After vainly opposing the Theatrical Syndicate since 1898, Harrison Grey Fiske, a prosperous theatre manager, and his wife Minnie Maddern Fiske, a noted actress, join forces with David Belasco, who was fighting the Syndicate in court, and the Shubert brothers, a trio of shrewd businessmen, in an ultimately successful attempt to break the near-monopoly of the Syndicate. After many fluctuations in power, including various truces and treaties between the competitors that  dissolved sooner or later, the two aspirants for total control reached approximate equality in the mid-1920s.

1907   Spring   Eugene O’Neill sees his first Ibsen play, Hedda Gabler, and goes back nine more times. He later says that the performance”discovered an entire new world of the drama for me. It gave me my first conception of a modern theater where truth might live.”

1908   November   Edward Sheldon’s naturalistic but finally sentimental drama Salvation Nell, produced by the Fiskes and starring the strong Ibsenite Mrs. Fiske, is performed in New York. Sheldon gives credit for inspiration to George Pierce Baker’s playwriting seminar at Harvard, where Baker had encouraged him to pursue “the newer and truer methods of drama”; critics alternately praise and damn the play for its exposé of slum life, one comparing it to Gorky’s “depressing” The Lower Depths.

1909   November   America’s bastion of conservative drama criticism and relentless denouncer of advanced drama, William Winter, resigns from the New York Tribune after 44 years in the post. He confesses that his columns “relative to indecent and reprehensible plays have been, and are, framed for the purpose of doing . . . injury to the business of the persons exploiting them.”

The lavish New Theatre opens on Broadway with a performance of Antony and Cleopatra. Subsidized by a group of wealthy New Yorkers led by Winthrop Ames to fulfill the growing demand for a place to present advanced dramas, but clearly designed for huge audiences and dramatic spectacles, the enterprise makes little headway and closes in early 1911. (It reopens as the Century later that year but specializes in musical shows.)  Before closing, it presents Galsworthy’s Strife, Sheldon’s The Nigger, Ibsen’s Brand, three Maeterlinck plays, and others.

Two months after William Winter steps down, the critic George Jean Nathan begins writing a theatre column for the magazine The Smart Set (an early equivalent of The New Yorker). He will soon be recognized as America’s most influential early champion of advanced drama, “discovering” O’Neill and becoming a valued supporter of him and, later, Sean O’Casey.

December   Fitch’s sensational melodrama The City: A Modern Play of American Life is produced in New York, three months after the author’s death at the age of 43. The play incites hysterical enthusiasm (and even some fainting) and enjoys a run of 190 performances in spite of scandalous topics and language.

Sheldon’s daring drama of averted miscegenation, The Nigger, is introduced into the New Theatre’s repertory and makes a sensation. (George Jean Nathan, who reviewed it favorably, later chooses it as one of the “Ten Dramatic Shocks of the Century.”) The play depicts a (typically racist) Southern candidate for governor who is on the brink of marriage when he discovers that his grandmother was one-fourth Negro. Transformed by this coincidence, he not only convinces his fiancée that she must not marry a “nigger” but also confesses his lineage publicly and vows to dedicate himself to promoting racial harmony. Unfortunately, the final impact rests with his heroic sacrifice rather than with the existence of a real social problem.

1911   September   The Abbey Theatre begins a half-year tour of America, highlighted by the disruption of the first performance of Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World in New York in November. O’Neill sees every play and later comments on the contrast between “the old ranting, artificial, romantic stage stuff” and “the possibilities of naturalistic acting” realized by the troupe. The play that impressed him most was Synge’s Riders to the Sea, which he drew upon later in Anna Christie.

1912   January   O’Neill, in a deep depression at age 23, attempts suicide in a room over Jimmy the Priest’s bar in New York by taking a heavy dose of Veronal tablets, but is saved by a friend. (His play written in 1919 and performed in 1920, Exorcism, depicts the event and its apparent effect on him.)

December   Threatened by “the great killer” of the day, consumption (tuberculosis), O’Neill goes to a sanatorium for five and a half months, where the disease is cured. While there he immerses himself in the dramas of Hauptmann, Strindberg, Brieux, and Synge; after he returns home he begins writing plays. In early 1919 he writes a play based on these experiences, The Straw; its performance at the Greenwich Village Theater in November 1921 is reviewed negatively.

1914   Spring   Culminating a burst of trial-and-error creativity, O’Neill writes his first enduring play, the one-act Bound East for Cardiff (first entitled “Children of the Sea”) It becomes the first play of the S. S. Glencairn cycle. In 1935 O’Neill said of it, “Very important from my point of view. In it can be seen, or felt, the germ of the spirit, life-attitude, etc., of all my more important future work.”

August   O’Neill makes his first dent on the American dramatic scene by publishing Thirst and Other One Act Plays in an edition of 1,000 copies financed by his father. The volume, which sells very few copies and is reviewed only once, includes Thirst, Recklessness, Warnings, Fog, and The Web (which he later called “the first play I ever wrote”).

September   O’Neill begins Professor George Pierce Baker’s two-term playwriting seminar at Harvard, the “47 Workshop” made famous in 1908 when a play written by a class member, Edward Sheldon’s Salvation Nell, became a Broadway hit. O’Neill is wary because Baker, in evaluating his ample portfolio, had said that Bound East for Cardiff is “not a play,” and he becomes disillusioned by the emphasis on the means to attain commercial viability. When Augustus Thomas comes as guest lecturer for six hours and regales the students with methods to devise sure-fire hits, O’Neill is disgusted. Still, he profits from practical advice such as starting the composing process with detailed scenarios, and he accepts the invitation to continue the course the following year. (It turns out that he cannot afford it.)

1915   February   In New York the Washington Square Players, a group developed over the past few months by Philip Moeller, Edward Goodman, Lawrence Langner, Robert Edmond Jones, Ida Rauh, and others to provide a haven for noncommercial drama, performs three one-acts at the Bandbox Theater. They reject the first plays that O’Neill sends them, but later accept and produce In the Zone. They also reject as “too experimental” the one-act satire of Freudianism by Susan Glaspell and her husband George Cram Cook, Suppressed Desires, adding a motive for those authors to originate the Provincetown Players.

July   The as-yet unnamed Provincetown Players, a group consisting of Cook, Glaspell, Jones, Wilbur Daniel Steele, John Reed, and others, is formed (in Cook’s words) “to give American playwrights a chance to work out their ideas in freedom.” Disgusted by the mindless commercialism of virtually all American theater, and irked by the Washington Square Players’ preference for foreign plays, they look to Chicago’s Little Theatre (an amateur company begun in 1912 by Maurice Browne, a friend of Cook’s), the performances of the visiting Abbey Theatre players, and the stagecraft of Gordon Craig for inspiration.

December   Hauptmann’s The Weavers begins an eleven-week run in New York. O’Neill attends the play six times.

1916   July   The Provincetown Players offers its first plays to the public in a renovated fishhouse on a wharf in Provincetown christened the Wharf Theater. Three one-acts are presented as the first bill, among them Suppressed Desires by Glaspell and Cook. Groping for a second bill, the group is introduced to O’Neill by his friend Terry Carlin, who says he has “a whole trunk full of plays,” and listens to a reading of Bound East for Cardiff. Glaspell recalls, “Then we knew what we were for.” In August the group produces O’Neill’s already published one-act Thirst and Glaspell’s Trifles.

Bound East for Cardiff, the first O’Neill play to be produced, will come to be recognized as one of the finest one-acts written by an American. Innovative for the time, it is a drama in which setting, atmosphere, mood, and language—featuring a galaxy of dialects—replace plot. On a foggy night at sea, a badly injured seaman (the only “Yank”) is slowly dying in the presence of his vulgar mates, one of whom talks seriously to him about life as it might have been and tries to calm his fears of death. Just after Yank finally visualizes death coming as “a pretty lady dressed in black,” a seaman announces that the fog has lifted. Glaspell recalled that the fog, foghorn, and sounds of the sea at the wharf collaborated to make the first performance unusually impressive. Thirst is a three-character melodrama set on a life raft that portrays the threat of cannibalism averted, only to result in a sumptuous feast for sharks at the curtain.

November   The Provincetown Players begin a New York season in humble venues, each one designated the Playwrights Theater. Besides repeating O’Neill’s Bound East for Cardiff, they present three more of his one-acts: Before Breakfast, Fog, and The Sniper.

1917   January   David Belasco (quoted in the New York Herald) reacts to the burgeoning of noncommercial theatres in New York by describing their “new art” as “the cubism of the theater—the wail of the incompetent and the degenerate, . . . the haven of those who lack experience and knowledge of the drama.”

October   The Washington Square Players perform O’Neill’s one-act In the Zone, set on a British steamer carrying ammunition through sub-infested waters in 1915. Paranoia grips some crewmen when they suspect a superior man of being a spy; they bind and gag him, then check out an iron box that is the focus of his furtive behavior. Far from confirming their suspicions, it turns out to contain love letters from his fiancée, culminating in a recent rejection that has filled him with remorse.

November   The Provincetown Players begin their New York season with bills of one-acters that include O’Neill’s The Long Voyage Home and Ile. Critics continue to pay little attention to the company, but the Sunday drama section of the New York Times gives O’Neill his first public notice in a 400-word piece, “Who Is Eugene O’Neill?”.

December   The play awarded the first Pulitzer Prize for drama, Why Marry? by Jesse Lynch Williams, is performed.

1919   April   The Theatre Guild of New York, a group evolved from the failed Washington Square Players through the efforts of Lawrence Langner, presents its first play, Jacinto Benavente’s The Bonds of Interest, at the Garrick Theatre (its venue until the Guild Theatre is opened in April 1925). A subscription society intending “to produce plays of artistic merit not ordinarily produced by the commercial managers,” the Guild in its first few years will perform such notable foreign plays as Ferenc Molnár’s Liliom, Leo Tolstoy’s The Power of Darkness, Karel Capek’s R.U.R., Paul Claudel’s The Tidings Brought to Mary,  and Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, as well as English and American plays.

May   The publishers Albert Boni and Horace Liveright, impressed by O’Neill’s talent, issue The Moon of the Caribbees and Six Other Plays of the Sea. Reviews are uniformly enthusiastic.

1920   February   O’Neill’s domestic tragedy Beyond the Horizon, after nearly two years of delays, is performed on Broadway and hailed loudly enough by the younger critics to insure a long New York run. Then (despite its faults) it wins the Pulitzer Prize and establishes the young playwright as a potent force in modern drama. (The Pulitzer carried little weight in its early years, but O’Neill was delighted by the $1000 stipend.) In the vein of T. C. Murray’s Birthright, which O’Neill had seen in 1911, the play portrays contrasting sons of an aging farmer, one well-equipped to take over the farm, the other so much of a dreamer that he is preparing for a voyage in search of fulfillment. Because both men love the same woman and she chooses the dreamer, however, the unfit brother stays and the fit one leaves in order to forget his beloved. The love-match soon disintegrates into a Strindbergian war of the sexes, the farm goes to seed, and the husband dies of consumption—after a last gesture of triumph that he is finally free to set out “beyond the horizon.” In a November 1922 interview in American Magazine, O’Neill explains the play’s three-act, six-scene structure which had bothered critics: “One scene is out of doors, showing the horizon, suggesting the man’s desire and dreams. The other is indoors, the horizon gone, suggesting what has come between him and his dreams. In that way, I tried to get rhythm, the alternation of longing and loss.”

March   The first completed version of O’Neill’s Anna Christie, begun in January 1919 and entitled Chris Christopherson (but performed as Chris), has out-of-town tryouts but is deemed inadequate for Broadway. O’Neill revises it radically, changing the barge captain’s daughter Anna from a pure woman needing to be protected into a prostitute who finds reformation and love from life on the sea. The new play is first performed in November 1921. Also in March the Provincetown Players produce his autobiographical one-act Exorcism, based on his attempted suicide. But O’Neill quickly deplores releasing it, asks that all scripts be returned to him, and destroys them.

July   Referring to American drama of the last forty years, William Dean Howells declares, “We have a drama which has touched our life at many characteristic points, which has dealt with our moral and material problems and penetrated the psychological regions which it seemed impossible an art so objective should reach” (North American Review).

In “The American Playwright” (Smart Set), Nathan places O’Neill above the crowd of new dramatists by calling him “the one writer for the native stage who gives promise of achieving a sound position for himself.”

November   O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, composed in only two weeks, is performed by the Provincetown Players, who risk bankruptcy by constructing a plastic dome to convey the illusion of infinite space that surrounds O’Neill’s “Great Forest.” The play is received so well that it is subsequently moved to Broadway, despite the group’s fear that it would taint their enterprise with commercialism. Not only is its original combination of a naturalistic situation framing an expressionistic nightmare a striking feature to the critics, but it is the first play by a white dramatist, presented by a white theatre company, to have a black in the starring role. “Emperor” Jones, a former porter who has satisfied his lust for money and power in a West Indian island community, faces a rebellion staunchly by putting his careful escape plans into operation. But fleeing through a dark woods at night, and hearing the escalating beat of a tom-tom in the distance, he descends into a psychotic maelstrom that progresses from echoes of his criminal deeds in America to manifestations of his racial past (à la Carl Jung’s theory of a “racial memory”). He finally discovers that he has traveled full circle and is shot by natives.

1921   February   Acting as a prophet during a visit to the United States, English drama critic William Archer states that the “great hope of the future lies in the fertilization of the large by the little theater, of Broadway by Provincetown.” The “real birthplace of the New American Drama” will occur in Washington Square, Greenwich Village, “or ultimately among the sand dunes of Cape Cod.”

November   O’Neill’s Anna Christie is performed on Broadway. Despite doubts about the appropriateness of its ending and the awkwardness of the Swedish dialect, the play gains popularity and wins the Pulitzer Prize. (However, it attracts few Londoners when it was performed there in April 1923). This version of a much-revised play commences with Anna’s father seeing her for the first time in many years and telling her how “dat ole davil, sea” took his father and sons (much as it victimized the mother in Synge’s Riders to the Sea). When a rough-hewn Irishman he saved from a shipwreck falls in love with Anna, he rages against marriage to a seaman. She is provoked to disclose that she has lived as a prostitute, and even though she declares that returning the seaman’s love has made her “clean,” he curses her and both men abandon her. The two soon realize they need her and make amends, however, and she vows to make a good home for them. When some critics deplored the weakly motivated happy ending, O’Neill retorted that they ignored the father’s final reminder that only the malicious, fogbound sea knows where their lives are going; they themselves cannot know.

1922   March   O’Neill’s highly distinctive drama The Hairy Ape: A Comedy of Ancient and Modern Life is performed by the Provincetown Players and later moved uptown. Written in only two weeks, the play has similarities to Georg Kaiser’s classic of expressionism, From Morn to Midnight (which O’Neill had recently read and disliked). However, he and several critics link it more closely to The Emperor Jones because the key feature of its dramaturgy, within its thoroughgoing expressionistic context, is the complex characterization of the protagonist as he searches for where he “belongs.” A powerful stoker on a transatlantic liner, exultant in his role as the “steel” that runs the ship, is jolted from his self-assurance when a society lady calls him a “filthy beast.” On leave in Manhattan, he tries to get back at her kind by assaulting a “procession of gaudy marionettes,” but they prove impenetrable and he is suppressed by police. After a radical leftist group rejects his offer of dynamiting a steel works in their cause as the idea of “a brainless ape,” he thinks that he may “belong” with a gorilla at the zoo. It crushes him to death.

1923   March   The Austrian dramatist Hugo von Hofmannsthal commends O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, Anna Christie, and The Hairy Ape as “clear-cut and sharp in outline, solidly constructed from beginning to end” (Freeman).

May   In a New York Tribune interview, O'Neill expounds his "innate feeling of exultance about tragedy": "The tragedy of Man is perhaps the only significant thing about him. . . . What I am after is to get an audience to leave the theatre with an exultant feeling from seeing somebody on the stage facing life, fighting against the eternal odds, not conquering, but perhaps inevitably being conquered. The individual life is made significant just by the struggle."

August   In a letter to a friend, O’Neill eloquently describes his tragic view of life: “I’m far from being a pessimist. I see life as a gorgeously-ironical, beautifully-indifferent, splendidly-suffering bit of chaos the tragedy of which gives Man a tremendous significance, while without his losing fight with fate he would be a tepid, silly animal. I say ‘losing fight’ only symbolically for the brave individual always wins. Fate can never conquer his—or her—spirit. So you see I’m no pessimist. On the contrary, in spite of my scars, I’m tickled to death with life!”

1924   January   The Provincetown Players are revived by Kenneth McGowan, Robert Edmond Jones, and O’Neill (“the Triumvirate”), with the group’s name changed to The Experimental Theater. Their first offering is Strindberg’s The Spook Sonata, which baffled critics, especially since masks were used.   

February   O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings is published by Nathan in American Mercury, the successor of Smart Set, where its depiction of a white woman married to a black man is condemned by newspapers, church and women’s groups, and the president of the Society for the Prevention of Vice. Nathan retorts in the May issue (just before the performance) that the play contains nothing offensive “to any human being above the mental level of an apple dumpling,” and reminds readers of Othello. Primarily naturalistic but with strong symbolic and expressionistic elements, the drama revolves around the tortured relationship of a black with ambitions to become a lawyer and his white wife, who suffers a nervous breakdown from the pressures of their social ostracism and her inbred feelings of white superiority. The closer he comes to achieving his goal, the more irrational she becomes, even though his incentive is the same as hers for him, to “prove I’m the whitest of the white!” She finally goes insane, raving that she will kill her husband if he passes the law exams. He does not, and she plunges a carving knife into a conspicuous African mask that has tormented her; the double catharsis reconciles her to him, but only because she has escaped into childhood when their affection had no Strindbergian repercussions.

May   Ten days before their presentation of O’Neill’s highly controversial All God’s Chillun Got Wings, the Provincetown Players strategically revive The Emperor Jones, starring the actor who will play the male lead in the play, Paul Robeson. But nothing reduces the clamor of conservative opponents, among them whites who warn of possible race riots and blacks who say that the play can cause “only harm.” The publicity spurs death threats from the Ku Klux Klan and anonymous bomb warnings. O’Neill asserts publicly that anyone who reads the script intelligently knows it is not “a ‘race-problem’ play. Its intention is confined to portraying the special lives of individual human beings . . . and their tragic struggle for happiness.” Local officials finally resort to an exceptional refusal to permit the use of child actors, who are necessary in the first scene because the main characters appear as pre-teens; throughout the marred production the director has to read the (brief) scene aloud. But the performances are not disrupted, and the play goes on to a run of 100 despite very mixed notices.

October    O’Neill finishes his satirical extravaganza Marco Millions. Extra long and extremely costly to produce (as well as being atypical of O’Neill), it will not be performed until January 1928.

November   O’Neill’s naturalistic tragedy Desire Under the Elms, which he wrote in the first half of the year, is presented at the Greenwich Village Theatre, then on Broadway, and attains a run of 208 performances. (The play will be banned in Boston and refused a license in England.) Conservatives attack its daring sexual component as “immoral and obscene,” but the notoriety simply increases its audiences. Bearing resemblances in plot to both T. C. Murray’s Birthright, which had impressed O’Neill favorably in 1911, and Sidney Howard’s They Knew What They Wanted, the script of which he had recently read, the play has deeper affinities to Greek dramas of fate and retribution such as Euripides’ Hippolytus. It is set in 1850 on a tract of stony land in New England that a figure of epic proportions, the 75-year-old owner, transformed into a “jim-dandy” farm with grudging help from his wife, whom he worked to death, and three sons. When he brings home a new, young wife to give him an alternative heir, two sons leave but the third remains to claim what he considers property stolen from his mother. A powerful attraction builds up between the son and new wife; its consummation (in “Maw’s” parlor) results in the heir that the old man craved, but also prompts fierce conflict between the lovers since the son now believes she seduced him to insure her inheritance. The adultress “proves” he is wrong by killing the baby. At first horrified, but soon convinced of her love and his complicity in the murder, he decides to share her punishment. The old man, bereft of consolations (and his savings, which the son had stolen), decides to stay on the farm and be “hard an’ lonesome” like his Puritan God. Scenic devices such as two brooding elm trees and removable walls on the lovers’ adjoining bedrooms enhance several scenes.

Notable among the mixed reviews of Desire Under the Elms is one by the new drama critic of the Nation, Joseph Wood Krutch, who generalizes that “the meaning and unity of (O’Neill’s) work lies not in any controlling intellectual idea . . . , but merely in the fact that each play is an experience of extraordinary intensity.” Much more receptive to the literary and experimental qualities in plays than the usual run of critics, Krutch will publish The American Drama Since 1918 in 1939, a distinguished study for its time.

1925   February   Asked about the Freudianism in Desire Under the Elms, O’Neill replies that whatever is there “must have walked in ‘through my unconscious.’” He notes that he has great respect for Freud, but “playwrights are either intuitively keen analytical psychologists or they aren’t good playwrights. . . . To me, Freud only means uncertain conjectures and explanations about truths of the emotional past of mankind that every dramatist has clearly sensed ever since real drama began.”

1926   January    O’Neill’s complex experimental drama The Great God Brown, written in only two months, is presented at the Greenwich Village Theatre, then transferred to Broadway, for a total of 278 performances. O’Neill emphasizes that such a public response to “a mask drama, the main values of which are psychological, mystical, and abstract” seems “a more significant proof of the deeply responsive possibilities in our public than anything that has happened in our modern theater before or since.” But he is impelled to explain the play to baffled critics. The protagonist, Dion Anthony, embodies two forces that conflict and finally destroy him: masked, “the creative pagan acceptance of life” (Dionysius); unmasked, “the masochistic, life-denying spirit of Christianity” (St. Anthony). The title character represents a “visionless demigod of our new materialistic myth”; though successful, he envies the “creative life force” of the protagonist. The woman both men love is a mother-figure who prefers Dion to Brown because he is “just like a baby sometimes” but is horrified when he momentarily shows his unmasked self; the other key female is a prostitute/Earth-Mother who, although a “pariah” in social terms, accepts Dion unmasked and administers to his emotional needs. The play spans eighteen years, during which time the protagonist dissipates as an artist, goes to work for Brown and endures only because of his cherished “Miss Earth,” then dies and wills the businessman his mask. Brown “becomes” Dion Brown but, in the melodramatic dénouement, is accused of having murdered Dion and is shot. His own corpse is identified as “Man!” (In London the Stage Society will perform the play twice in June 1927.)

June   O’Neill is awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Literature at Yale, where George Pierce Baker had joined the newly established drama department. William Lyon Phelps declares, “He is the only American dramatist who has produced a deep impression on European drama and European thought . . . he has redeemed the American theater from commonplaceness and triviality.”

1927   April   Lawrence Langner, principal director of the Theatre Guild, urges the theatre’s board to produce O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, calling it “probably the bravest and most far-reaching dramatic experiment” since Ibsen’s plays and asserting that it reflects “more deep knowledge of the dark corners of the human mind than anything ever written before.” The play is accepted, and concurrently the Theatre Guild becomes the primary producer of O’Neill’s works.

1928   January   O’Neill’s Marco Millions, cut and altered drastically by the author to save production costs, is performed by the Theatre Guild. Despite serious flaws and mixed reviews, the play alternates in repertory with Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma for the rest of the season, totalling 92 performances. O’Neill’s attempt to satirize the banality and materialism of American business, represented by a crass Marco Polo, by confronting his values with those of the cultured and spiritual Orient, embodied in Kublai Kaan, brings out more shortcomings than virtues in his particular dramatic talents.

Late in the month O’Neill’s huge, innovative drama Strange Interlude is presented by the Theatre Guild (with ample cuts), attains a run of 441 performances, and wins the Pulitzer Prize. The full version, published later in the year, sells over 100,000 copies by 1931, no doubt helped by having the play banned in Boston. The production, the longest yet to reach Broadway, runs from 5:15 until shortly after eleven (with a dinner break from 7:30 to 9:00). O’Neill had first made notes for the play in 1923 and did not finish it until February 1927. An experiment in “wedding the theme for a novel to the play form in a way that would still leave the play master of the house,” the nine-act drama features extensive use of what O’Neill called “thought asides”; a third of the dialogue consists of expressions of thoughts and feelings that are unheard onstage and often contradict the words that precede them. The central figure of the play is an Everywoman who manifests the full range of female roles, from innocent virgin to Earth Mother, a conception akin to Shaw’s heroine in Man and Superman but with a sharply divergent emotional makeup. Revolving around her are four potential or actual lovers: her godlike fiancé, who died in World War I but remains as a standard for all men in her mind; the ineffectual man she agrees to marry, whose lineage reveals a strong tendency toward insanity; her doctor, to whom she proposes the experiment of impregnating her with a taint-free child, which results in a long-term, overriding passion as well as a child; and a mild, affectionate novelist who serves as a father-figure but awaits his chance. She rhapsodically sums up her often tender, more often tumultuous interactions with the three living males by saying “My three men! I feel their desires converge in me! . . . to form one complete beautiful male desire which I absorb . . . and am whole. . . . I am pregnant with the three! . . . husband! . . . lover! . . . father!” Complications arising from her son’s maturing into a duplicate of her dead fiancé, from her husband’s sudden death, and from the dissolution of her adulterous affair lead finally to her proclaiming “our lives are merely strange dark interludes in the electrical display of God the Father!”—and agreeing to marry the always-faithful novelist, who “has all the luck at last!” A London production will not occur until February 1931, and then it will run for only 35 performances.

Asked by a reporter if he had a literary idol, O’Neill replied, “The answer to that is in one word—Nietzsche.” The previous year he had told a critic that Thus Spake Zarathustra, which he had discovered in 1907, “has influenced me more than any book I’ve ever read”; several of his plays show that influence directly, among them The Great God Brown and Dynamo. After reading The Birth of Tragedy in 1925 he called it the “most stimulating book on drama ever written.” When he had finished Dynamo in September 1928 he told a friend that it was the first part of a trilogy he envisioned, perhaps to be entitled “God Is Dead! Long Live—What?” (later, “Myth Plays of the God-Forsaken”). The three plays, he told Nathan, would “dig at the roots of the sickness of Today as I feel it—the death of the old God and the failure of Science and Materialism to give any satisfying new One for the surviving primitive religious instinct to find a meaning for life in, and to comfort its fears of death with.”

April   O’Neill’s Lazarus Laughed: A Play for an Imaginative Theater is performed at the Pasadena Playhouse to largely negative reviews; it has never been performed in New York. The play makes well-nigh impossible demands upon the leading actor, who must exude rhapsodic laughter almost constantly as he reenacts the legend of Lazarus, and upon audiences, who must endure the experience. O’Neill offered the rationale that the fear of death “is the root of all evil, the cause of all man’s blundering unhappiness. Lazarus knows there is no death, there is only change. He is reborn without that fear. Therefore he is the first and only man who is able to laugh affirmatively. His laughter is a triumphant Yes to life in its entirety and its eternity. . . . His laughter is the direct expression of joy in the Dionysian sense, the joy of a celebrant who is at the same time a sacrifice in the eternal process of change and growth and transmutation which is life.” Even as he is burnt at the stake, Lazarus laughs. The play contrasts with The Great God Brown, in which the Dionysian spirit in its several manifestations is beaten down.

1929   February   O’Neill’s Dynamo is produced by the Theatre Guild but manages only fifty performances. The uniqueness of the play lies in its extravagant demonstration that science cannot replace theism as an outlet for man’s religious instincts. At its center is a young man, who abandons his father’s fundamentalist Christianity and turns to the worship of science as manifested in a hydroelectric power plant (“There is no God! No God but Electricity!”), which he also perceives as a mother-figure. His love for the daughter of an atheist finally results in his guiltily coupling with her before the dynamo, then killing her as a temptress and electrocuting himself by embracing the giant machine. A playwright/critic new on the scene, St John Ervine, protests that the “infinitely dreary dialogue” fatigued him (New York World), and Nathan pans the play as “amateurish, strident and juvenile” (American Mercury). O’Neill makes several revisions for the published version.

July   While contemplating Mourning Becomes Electra, O’Neill in a letter to Krutch expresses optimism tempered by a seemingly insoluble artistic problem: “Oh, for a language to write drama in! For a speech that is dramatic and not just conversation. I’m so strait-jacketed by writing in terms of talk. . . . But where to find that language?” In his highly favorable review (November 1931), Krutch comments: “Here is a scenario to which the most soaring eloquence and the most profound poetry are appropriate. . . . But no modern is capable of language really worthy of O’Neill’s play, and the lack of that one thing is the penalty we must pay for living in an age which is not equal to more than prose.”

1931   February   Replying to a request for comments on O’Neill’s drama, O’Casey rhapsodizes: “his work is always bearing witness to the things great and the things beautiful which have saved the Theater from the shame of a house of ill-repute and a den of thieves, and have kept the ground in and around the Theater as holy as the ground around the burning bush.”

October   In a New York Times Magazine interview anticipating the first performance of Mourning Becomes Electra, O’Neill comments on a portrait of Shaw hanging on the office wall, “I wish they would take that down; the old gentleman seems to be laughing at me.”

O’Neill’s largely naturalistic modernization of Aeschylus’s Oresteia, Mourning Becomes Electra: A Trilogy, is presented by the Theatre Guild. Although it earns enthusiastic reviews and attains a run of 150 performances in spite of its inordinate length, it does not win the Pulitzer Prize, which goes to the musical Of Thee I Sing. Written between September 1929 and April 1931, the drama consists of Homecoming (four acts), The Hunted (five acts), and The Haunted (four acts). O’Neill set the play in a seaport town in New England just after Union troops have returned from the Civil War because he thought that the still-pervasive “Puritan conviction of man born to sin and punishment” was dramatically the “best possible” milieu for a “Greek plot of crime and retribution, chain of fate.” A neo-Greek mansion that dominates the setting is described by a character as a “pagan temple front stuck like a mask on Puritan gray ugliness!” The chief dramatis personae are equivalents of the legendary Greek figures, but while stripped of their beliefs in controlling gods and predeterminied destinies, they are acutely aware of the psychological forces driving them to similar tragic ends. The play is more subject to the charge of outdated Freudianism than Desire Under the Elms or Strange Interlude because of the “deep hidden relationships” that O’Neill found in the Oresteia and focused on strongly: parents and children behave according to the Freudian Oedipus and Electra formulas, even to the extent of the brother proposing virtual marriage to his sister. But the finale puts Puritan pressures in the forefront; O’Neill deplored the fact that the Greek trilogy let Electra escape the Furies’ retribution and gave his modern Electra a “tragic ending worthy of (her) character”: she shuts herself up in the mansion forever and cries, “I’ll live alone with the dead, and keep their secrets, and let them hound me, until the curse is paid out.”

1932   March   Just before O’Neill and Hauptmann will meet at a Theatre Guild dinner during the intermission in a performance of Mourning Becomes Electra, Hauptmann states in a Herald Tribune interview that O’Neill “is one of the really great figures in modern drama. . . . The drama, under him, has found a new type of artistic expression. In some plays O’Neill is a really vital social force. I esteem his Hairy Ape as one of the really great social plays of our time. In other plays O’Neill is a sensitive poet; a really fine poet. His Negro play, All God’s Chillun Got Wings, . . . treats a very important problem intelligently, and above all, beautifully.”

September   O’Neill has been struggling to compose Days Without End since June, but on September 1 he records: “awoke with idea for this ‘Nostalgic Comedy’ & worked out tentative outline—seems fully formed & ready to write.” By the end of the month he had completed the first draft of Ah, Wilderness! He does not finish Days Without End to his satisfaction until October 1933.

November   In his “Memoranda on Masks” (American Spectator), O’Neill writes, “I hold more and more surely to the conviction that the use of masks will be discovered eventually to be the freest solution of the modern dramatist’s problem as to how—with the greatest possible dramatic clarity and economy of means—he can express those profound hidden conflicts of the mind which the probings of psychology continue to disclose to us. . . . For what, at bottom, is the new psychological insight into human cause and effect but a study in masks, an exercise in unmasking?” In a followup two months later he makes the claim that masks would give actors “the opportunity for a totally new kind of acting,” unfolding “many undeveloped possibilities of their art,” since “the mask is dramatic in itself, is a proven weapon of attack. At its best, it is more subtly, imaginatively, suggestively dramatic than any actor’s face can ever be.”

1933   October   O’Neill’s only comedy, Ah, Wilderness!, is staged by the Theatre Guild, enjoys a run of 289 performances, and is revived frequently. The intense 17-year-old protagonist quotes Wilde, Shaw, Swinburne and Omar Khayyam to scandalize his conventional parents (à la the young O’Neill), but avows innocent intentions when the father of a girl he is infatuated with shows them a “dissolute and blasphemous” poem he had sent her (“Why, I—I love her!”). Still, he risks alienating them after he receives a rejecting letter from the girl: he gets drunk and goes to a brothel for revenge. However, all ends well when he cannot go through with his plan, and he soon learns that the girl’s father made her write the letter. The reunion with her is tender and the reconciliation with his parents as sentimental as even an atypical O’Neill can get. The playwright tells a friend that the play’s “whole importance and reality depend on its conveying a mood of memory in exactly the right illuminating blend of wistful grin and lump in the throat.”

1934   January   O’Neill’s semi-expressionistic Days Without End is staged by the Theatre Guild, evokes a host of negative reviews, and manages only 57 performances. (In London it is staged just twice in February 1935.) The playwright described it as a “modern miracle play” which “reveals a man’s search for truth amid the conflicting doctrines of the modern world and his return to his old religious faith.” The two-sided protagonist, a Faust-figure who strives for spiritual enlightenment combined with a Mephistophelian second self (a masked actor only he can see), goes through phases of atheism, Socialism, and Nietzscheanism until he finds a soul-mate with whom he unites in apparently perfect love. However, when he yields to the temptation of adultery, his wife is propelled to the brink of death by a traumatic loss of faith and, stricken with guilt, he dominates his alter ego and confronts the figure of Christ in a Catholic church to beg forgiveness and find divine love. His wife intuits his spiritual state, forgives him, and regains her health. His return to the faith of his childhood strikes his second self mortally, and the good news about his wife prompts an exultant curtain line: “Life laughs with God’s love again! Life laughs with love!” O’Neill later pronounced the last act “a phony.” A Catholic reviewer heralded the drama as “the great Catholic play of the age,” but a more typical reaction was that of John Mason Brown: “almost everything that was simple, straight-forward and disarmingly poignant in the miracle plays of old becomes tedious . . . turgid and artificial in this fakey preachment of our times.”

1935   January   O’Neill begins planning and writing unquestionably the most ambitious dramatic opus magnum ever conceived: an epic cycle of dramas (progressing as the years pass from five to eleven long plays) which will depict the generations of an Irish-American family, representative of the United States throughout its history, living out the nation’s “ironic tragedy” of a preoccupation with material gain in a land of plenty at the expense of humanistic values—and of the women caught in the web. As he describes the project in a July letter to a friend, when he visualizes seven plays encompassing 1829 to 1932, “Each play will be, as far as it is possible, complete in itself while at the same time an indispensable link in the whole. . . . Each play will be concentrated around the final fate of one member of the family but will also carry the story of the family as a whole.” The theme is conveyed by the title he ultimately decides upon, “A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossesed,” and by a biblical saying he applies to the cycle, “For what shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” O’Neill finishes preliminary drafts of several of the plays in the next eight years, but is fully satisfied with only one, A Touch of the Poet. His increasing physical problems in the 1940s will make him realize that he is unable to finish the others; he therefore destroys all the unfinished manuscripts except the one for More Stately Mansions. He leaves explicit directions for that to be destroyed in case of his death, but a copy survives and his wife authorizes an abridged version to be published in 1964.  

1936   November   O’Neill is awarded the Nobel Prize. In his acceptance speech (delivered for him in Stockholm, since he was too sick to travel there), he expresses his debt to “that greatest genius of all modern dramatists, your August Strindberg. . . . It was reading his plays, when I first started to write back in the winter of 1913-14, that, above all else, first gave me the vision of what modern drama could be, and first inspired me with the urge to write for the theatre myself.” During an interview, he speculates that Mourning Becomes Electra was probably the crucial reason why he was chosen for the award, but notes that he had gained more personal gratification from writing The Great God Brown.

1940   January  O’Neill finishes writing The Iceman Cometh, which he had begun in June 1939. He tells Lawrence Langner that it is “one of the best things I’ve ever done, perhaps the best. . . . There are moments in it that suddenly strip the secret soul of a man stark naked, not in cruelty or moral superiority, but with an understanding compassion which sees him as a victim of the ironies of life and of himself. These moments are to me the depth of tragedy, with nothing more that can possibly be said.” Judging that the play would not be welcomed by war-conscious playgoers, and dreading the strain of New York rehearsals, he postpones a stage production until 1946.

1941   March   O’Neill finishes Long Day’s Journey Into Night to his satisfaction—“like this play better than any I have ever written–does most with the least—a quiet play!—and a great one, I believe.” He had begun making detailed notes and a scenario in July 1939, and after months of concentrating on The Iceman Cometh, had proceeded with the agonizing process of composition in March 1940. He had told his wife that he was “bedeviled” into writing the deeply autobiographical play to come to terms with the members of his family. According to her “it was a most strange experience to watch that man being tortured every day by his own writing. He would come out of his study at the end of the day gaunt and sometimes weeping.”

1942   June   O’Neill finishes revising his short play Hughie, the first one-act he has written since 1918. He had planned eight monologues in a series to be called “By Way of Obit,” but completes only this one. It will be performed in Stockholm in 1958 and published in 1959, but not staged in America until December 1964. 

1943   May   O’Neill finishes A Moon for the Misbegotten, which is published in June 1952 but not produced in New York until May 1957. (Out-of-town tryouts in February and March 1947 convince him and the producers that the casting is unsatisfactory.) Due to an extreme preoccupation with the war, an increasingly severe tremor in his hands, and an inability to compose satisfactorily on the typewriter or by dictation, it is the last play O’Neill will write.

1945   November   O’Neill deposits a copy of Long Day’s Journey Into Night with Random House with the proviso that it must not be opened until twenty-five years after his death, at which time it could be published; however, it could never be performed.

1946   June   Eric Bentley's seminal study of modern drama, The Playwright as Thinker, is published and stirs controversy over its contentions that "art and commodity have become direct antagonists" and that, in America at least, "the theater is dead." ("We have been fooling ourselves into believing that the period 1920-1940 was a great period of drama, particularly of American drama. It was not.") He calls O'Neill's tragic dramas of the thirties "tragedies transported to the intense inane."

October   O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, completed in early 1940, is produced by the Theatre Guild and manages a run of 136 performances despite flaws in presentation and what some critics perceive as inordinate length and repetitiveness in the script. The event represents a switch from obscurity to center of controversy for O’Neill, who has not been in the public eye since winning the Nobel Prize in 1936.  The drama is a thoroughgoing naturalistic tragedy (laced with comic incongruities) grounded in a deterministic view of life, with a cross section of the dregs of humanity struggling against despair by repeatedly voicing their “hopeless hopes” to emerge from the depths by returning to their professions and their families, or just freeing themselves from alcoholism. An intruder comparable to Gregers Werle in Ibsen’s The Wild Duck forces them to pursue their pipe dreams, thus killing their false aspirations and bringing them “peace.” But the play embodies a basic O’Neillian thesis, which is explicitly stated in the first minute by a nihilistic “old Foolosopher”: “The lie of a pipe dream is what gives life to the whole misbegotten mad lot of us.” The ensuing action portrays one man after another returning from a vain attempt at realizing his dream with a grim and phlegmatic indifference tantamount to a state of living death. Moreover, the enlightened evangelist turns out to have killed his wife because, once too often, she foisted upon him her own indestructible pipe dream that he would return to fidelity and abstinence. This revelation, and the new delusion that he must have been mad, allows all but one of the lowlifes to restore his dream—and his semblance of life—before the final curtain. Only the old Foolosopher is left with nothing. When the director Kenneth Macgowan asked O’Neill to compress Act One, the playwright justified its apparent prolixity as necessary to build up “the complete picture of the group as it now is in the first part—the atmosphere of the place, the humour and friendship and human warmth and deep inner contentment at the bottom”; lacking this, “You wouldn’t feel the same sympathy and understanding for them, or be so moved by what Hickey does to them.”

November   Nathan in American Mercury uses the occasion of O’Neill’s reappearance on Broadway to compare his gifts with Shaw’s and O’Casey’s: “the great body of his work has a size and significance not remotely approached by any other American. . . . he is plainly not the mind that Shaw is, not by a thousand leagues . . . he is not the poet O’Casey is, for in O’Casey there is the true music of great wonder and beauty. But he has plumbed depths deeper than either; he is greatly the superior of both in dramaturgy.” O’Casey responds in a private letter, “I think you are right in saying that he goes far deeper than Shaw or I do. I’ve often envied him this gift. I’ve pondered his plays and tried to discover how he came by it, and, of course, never could. . . . It is a powerful gift and Gene . . . uses it with power and ruthless integrity.”

1948   April   Reviewing the published version of O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, the anonymous drama critic of the prestigious London Times Literary Supplement launches an arresting diatribe on the playwright, generalizing from the play that the entire O’Neill world is a “dirty pub, frequented by drunks and disorderlies and shiftless loafers.” O’Neill himself is a “puritan” whose “fury against puritans is so fierce that it appears to be pathological,” and whose “philosophy” is a “mass of undisciplined emotions and jejune opinions.” Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times supplies the most eloquent rejoinder: the genius of O’Neill is “the raw boldness and elemental strength of his attack upon outworn concepts of destiny. . . . The peevish article in the Times Literary Supplement overlooks the one thing in O’Neill that is inescapable: the passionate depth and vitality of his convictions. Nothing said about him is worth the paper it is printed on unless it recognizes the vitality he has brought into the theater.”

1953   November   O’Neill dies on November 27 of a disease resembling Parkinson’s, complicated by pneumonia, at the age of 65.

1956   February   O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night is published by Yale University Press and produced by the Royal Theatre in Stockholm. The book becomes a bestseller, and the play is performed in New York in November, giving theatregoers, students, and the general public its first acquaintance with the dramatic work which comes to be widely considered the greatest American play. Carlotta O’Neill’s controversial release of the script two years after her husband’s death, almost surely in defiance of his wishes, leaves knowledgeable critics and scholars shaking their heads with disapproval but also with awe and gratitude for the forbidden fruit. At first she refuses to allow a performance in America, but she soon yielded to demands and the prospect of great profit.

May   The revival of O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh by José Quintero attains a run of 565 performances Off-Broadway and contributes greatly toward restoring his high reputation. Played on the arena stage of the Circle in the Square without a break for supper, and starring Jason Robards in the leading role, the values of the drama are realized much more than they were in 1946. After that production the New Yorker critic, Wolcott Gibbs, judged the play not one of O’Neill’s best, but after this one he called it “a great play . . . a tragedy that, for all its defects, states a terrible truth with extraordinary power and compassion.”

November    O’Neill’s reputation rises to an apotheosis with the first American production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night in the Helen Hayes Theatre, directed by Quintero. It attracts almost universal acclaim, runs for 390 performances, and wins the Pulitzer Prize, O’Neill’s fourth. (Its London production beginning in September 1958 manages a run of only 103.) One of the greatest naturalistic tragedies ever written, and possessing unique interest as the intimate portrait of the playwright’s own family (“this play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood”), the drama is cathartic for playgoers and readers as it was therapeutic for O’Neill. Its naturalism is in the analytical mode of Ibsen’s Ghosts, revealing and exploring the full skein of motivations for the characters’ present misfortunes, conflicts, and torments. As the play unfolds and the crossfire of blaming and defending  leads more and more to exoneration, these cause/effect relationships emerge in reverse chronological order, from very recent to the distant past. The fatalistic premises are explicitly stated by the mother: “None of us can help the things life has done to us,” and “The past is the present. . . . It’s the future, too. We all try to lie out of that but life won’t let us.” The chief demonstration is her own addiction, which began after her younger son’s birth and which she has vainly sought to cure again and again; the exquisitely pathetic finale, with her “drowned” in morphine worse than ever before, confirms the futility of trying to escape it. This is also striking evidence that O’Neill was willing to suppress autobiographical truth for the sake of thematic autonomy, since his mother actually did succeed in curing her addiction a few years after the time of the play.

1957   May   The last play O’Neill finished (in 1943), A Moon for the Misbegotten, is finally presented on Broadway but draws mixed reviews and runs for only 68 performances. The revivals of June 1968 and July 1974, with runs of 199 and 314 performances respectively, are better productions that enhance respect for the play as one of his most moving dramatic works. The chief male character reenacts the guilt and self-loathing that O’Neill’s brother experienced after he reverted to dissolution and drunkenness when his mother suffered her fatal illness, which culminated in his whoring on the train that bore her coffin and getting too drunk to attend her funeral. His anguished confession of this is the climactic incident in a non-autobiographical plot that anticipates his death and provides him with the absolution he seeks. An oversized but presentable farmer’s daughter who has secretly loved him reveals that the image of bold promiscuity she has promoted is false; she is a virgin and desires him passionately. He has also loved her “in my fashion,” he pretends, but knows he will pollute their love if he fulfills her wishes. This prompts his cathartic self-revelation, which leaves him in a state of “death-like repose.” They have their night together, but it is spent with her cradling him on her breast as he sleeps. The dominant scenes of pathos in the play alternate with exchanges of sarcastic bantering as he and the woman, along with her father, poke and prod one another’s protective facades.

1958   October   O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet , completed in the early spring of 1936, is finally staged on Broadway and—hailed as a “magnificent” discovery—attains a run of 284 performances. The play was the only part of O’Neill’s huge abandoned cycle that he considered finished. Set in a seedy tavern within an Irish enclave near Boston in 1828, it depicts a “long day’s journey into night” for the proprietor, his incurably loving wife and their rebellious daughter. The protagonist is a figure of epic pretensions, the displaced son of a nouveau riche Irishman who keeps his family in poverty by maintaining a thoroughbred mare and by radiating scorn for his uncultured customers. His daughter has fallen in love with the son of a well-to-do Yankee, and when the rich man insults him by offering cash to prevent the match he insures his comeuppance by challenging the man to a duel. Beaten by police, he is humiliated out of his Byronic pretensions of being “a lord wid a touch av the poet,” shoots their chief symbol, the mare, and reverts to his lowborn Irish ways. His wife, habitually treated as a contemptible servant but insistent that “there’s no slavery in it when you love,” looks forward to the prospect of equal status and perhaps a return of his affection, while his daughter, who has learned the tenacity of love by unscrupulously seducing her beloved to insure the marriage, shows understanding for her mother’s unconditional love and compassion for her father’s loss of pride.

1964   December   O’Neill’s one-act Hughie, written in 1941, is finally performed in New York. The play is a counterpoint of virtual monologues, with a seedy hotel guest babbling on to a night clerk who rarely listens, and the clerk alternating his perfunctory responses with “secret thoughts” heard only by the audience. The stimulus for the guest’s ruminations is the funeral of Hughie, the previous clerk, from whom he gained admiration for his gambling lifestyle; when the new clerk reveals that his name is Hughes and shows empathy for the loss of his predecessor, the guest quits “carryin’ the torch for Hughie” and happily rolls dice with his replacement. The play is quickly recognized as a masterpiece of its genre, with some critics heralding the surprisingly absurdist qualities of the incommunicative dialogue and cyclical structure.

1967   October   A concocted version of the rough draft of O’Neill’s More Stately Mansions, half as long as the original (which dates from 1938), is staged on Broadway by José Quintero to largely negative reviews, but manages a run of 142 performances. The abridgment, already published in 1964, has more than curio value since its action occurs after that of A Touch of the Poet, and the two together give rich food for speculation about the abandoned multiplay cycle of which they were integral parts.



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