Menu Bar


Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. I, No. 2
September, 1977



James O’Neill, the father of the playwright, was well acquainted not only, with the romantic melodramas of Dion Boucicault which gave the stage Irishman a new lease on life on the American stage in the latter half of the 19th century; but he was very much aware of the new dramatic movement in Ireland which had been founded in the early years of this century in an effort to counteract the stage—Irish image. He was a close friend of the impresario George Tyler, who was mainly responsible for the first Abbey Theatre tour of the United States in 1911. James O’Neill’s proud boast was that he was born in the Marble city--Kilkenny--which, when in his cups, he was inclined to confuse with the aria from The Bohemian Girl--”I dreamt that I dwelt in marble halls.”

Eugene O’Neill, because of his father’s associations with Tyler, had free passes to all the Abbey performances. He had never set foot in Ireland; as a seaman on the S.S. New York he had visited Cobh (then Queenstown), but shore-leave had been cancelled. The Abbey plays, he later recalled, came as a revelation:

It was seeing the Irish players that gave me a glimpse of my opportunity. I went to see everything they did. I thought then and I still think that they demonstrate the possibilities of naturalistic acting better than any other company.

He was particularly impressed by Synge’s Riders to the Sea; and a few years later he began to write short plays based on his own seafaring experiences which were produced by the Provincetown Players, one of the first Little Theatres which grew out of the Abbey Theatre’s first American tour.

His own attempts to write dialogue in the manner and style of Synge were no great improvement on the blather and blarney of the Boucicault period. Matt Burke, the Irish sailor in Anna Christie, speaks a spurious Synge-Song which is less acceptable to Irish ears than the brogues and bulls of “Conn the Shaughraun” and “Myles na Coppaleen.”

O’Neill’s masterly portrayals of his own family in Long Day’s Journey into Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten are the obverse of the Stage-Irish currency. The brimming bonhomie and humour of Irish melodrama give place to a more sombre picture of unrealized hopes and disillusion. It is as if he were trying to exorcise a family ghost. His ambivalent feelings about his own parents are rooted in their Irish past. The penny-pinching stinginess and peasant cunning of James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey is seen as a traumatic legacy of the Irish Potato Famine of 1848. He remains one of the shanty Irish who, according to O’Neill, never quite succeed in “wiping the bog off their face.”

On the other hand, the mother, Mary Quinlivan Tryone, is a victim of the narrow convent-bred pietosity of the lace-curtain Irish, the shabby genteel bourgeois who were despised by the shanty Irish for their sycophantic attempts to ape their Yankee betters. In turn the lace curtain Irish were contemptuous of the shanty Irish who so often got in the way of their social and political ambitions.

In twenty-five O’Neill plays, some forty characters meet violent deaths and as many more endure a living death under the influence of drink or drugs. The grimmer aspects of the stage-­Irishman are reflected in A Touch of the Poet and in certain parts of The Iceman Cometh. There is the recurring conflict between life and the dream, between present misery and the land of youth beyond the horizon. It is a constant theme in Irish drama and literature.

--Micheal O hAodha



© Copyright 1999-2007