Menu Bar


Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. XII, No. 1
Spring, 1988



The beginning of Eugene O'Neill's playwriting career abounds in anomalies. To begin with, there is the first play he wrote, A Wife for a Life, not really a play at all, he would later insist, but a vaudeville sketch;1 yet the copyrighted typescript in the Library of Congress carries the clear subtitle, "A Play in One Act." And, according to O'Neill's testimony, the play is anomalous in another respect: it is the only play he ever wrote "with an eye on the box office." The play itself is anomalous in another way. It is, by O'Neill's own estimate, the worst play he ever wrote,2 an opinion with which the critics have willingly agreed. On the face of it, there is no reason to disagree. As written, it is a remarkably bad play. In fact, it seems worse than it ought to be, not just because Eugene O'Neill wrote it, but because his second play, The Web, is so much better, and it seems impossible to account for this superiority simply in terms of the two months which separate the plays' copyright dates.3 But the anomalies do not stop there. In addition, there is the amount of work O'Neill completed during his first year of playwriting--nine one-act plays and two long plays. He would never complete so much work in so short a space again.4 Finally, there is the year itself, 1913. O'Neill was twenty-four when it started and turned twenty-five on October 16--a remarkably late age, it might be thought, for someone who was almost literally born in a trunk to begin playwriting. As a consequence of these many peculiarities, it seems necessary, before turning directly to A Wife for a Life, to consider the broader subject of how O'Neill's playwriting career began.

In retrospect, it seems almost inevitable that Eugene O'Neill would someday become a playwright. From a very early age, he had the requisite interest in literature and knowledge of the theatre which would seem to portend such a career. But if O'Neill was virtually fated to become a dramatist, it seems clear that he was equally fated to resist that destiny, primarily as a result of his long, recurrent quarrel with his father, James O'Neill. The normal father-son relationship which might have developed between them, and which might have led to Eugene's earlier acceptance of the attraction which the theatre obviously held for him, was marred from the beginning as a result of his mother's drug addiction.

Mary Ellen Quinlan O'Neill's addiction to morphine and the responsibility for it which Eugene attached to James O'Neill was only part of a series of causal factors which aggravated the relationship between Eugene and his father; but learning of that addiction at the age of fourteen seems to have been the essential factor in turning the natural rebellion of a son against his father into all-out psychological war.

The war lasted for almost a decade and, as a consequence, the boy whose earliest memories were of life in the theatre, the boy who became enthralled with books and reading at an early age and who began to write poetry while a youngster in preparatory school,5 did not complete his first play until he was nearly twenty-five years old.

It seems clear now, as Louis Sheaffer has hypothesized, that O'Neill had unconsciously decided to become a playwright well before the time he began to act on that decision.6 For as long as he could remember, the only thing he had ever really wanted to do was write.7 It was the only activity, primarily in the form of poetry, which retained his interest throughout his adolescence and young manhood (outside of the pleasures of liquor and women). All of his other work experiences, for one reason or another, had ended in failure. But because of the war with his father, O'Neill's interest in writing did not turn toward the drama until the complex mixture of guilt, recrimination, hatred, and love which he felt had reached a climax of personal degradation and despair. All of the evidence suggests that this climax occurred in the early part of 1912, when Eugene O'Neill attempted suicide with an overdose of Veronal.8

Upon his recovery, he returned once again, as he always had, to his family. He joined them on the Orpheum circuit,9 where his father was playing in the vaudeville version of his most famous role, the Count of Monte Cristo. This time Eugene found a father who was also reduced in stature, a man beginning to reckon the final accounts of his life, a life of professional enslavement to a single role for the money it still produced even in a cut-down, forty-five minute vaudeville act.10 Symbolically, Eugene signaled the change in his own outlook by agreeing to make his stage debut in two of the production's smaller roles. At the age of twenty-three, he was finally able to emulate his father, a task which had to be accomplished in some form before he could reasonably be expected to reveal the acceptance of his father's world which playwriting would demonstrate.

By some accounts, with the help of his brother Jamie, Eugene continued at this time to act out his resentment against James O'Neill with alcoholic performances both on and off the stage.11 If true, this is not surprising. It might take more than a few weeks to procure a genuine truce at the end of an eight-year war. Nevertheless, subsequent events make clear that this period was the turning point in their relationship, for it is during this same period that we find the first report of Eugene O'Neill's interest in playwriting. While on the Orpheum circuit, he conceived the idea for his first play, A Wife for a Life.12 Shortly after, the first publication of a Eugene O'Neill poem took place.13 Now, once again taking up his poetry in earnest, he began to regard himself generally as a writer, and his career began to proceed on all fronts. Taking pride in Eugene's first publication, James O'Neill, unknown to his son, underwrote Eugene's first position as a reporter for the New London Telegraph,14 A position which also allowed for contributions of verse to the paper's editorial page.15 At the same time, Eugene was writing poetry for his current New London girl friend, Maibelle Scott; and soon he would begin to advance from thinking about plays to making notes for characters, settings, and bits of dialogue.16

Later in 1912, it seems, his relationship with his father deteriorated somewhat as a result of disagreement over where Eugene should be treated for his newly-diagnosed case of tuberculosis. Certainly, the late autobiographical masterpiece Long Day's Journey Into Night suggests as much; but in terms of O'Neill's development as a dramatist, the most important aspect of the play seems to be what it reveals concerning the relationship between the writer-son and the actor-father. In Act IV, father and son achieve a new mutual respect and understanding, and they do so on a night in August of 1912.

In all probability, the play compresses for dramatic reasons a process which took most of the year 1912 to accomplish. But the date and the shape of the play's events are symbolically correct; the bitter quarrel over which sanatorium the tubercular son will enter is followed by the moving scene of sympathy and understanding. Thus, late in 1912, when Eugene O'Neill was first suffering the serious effects of his illness, he began making notes for plays; and upon nearing the end of his cure at the sanatorium, he began to write A Wife for a Life,17 a play calculated primarily to please his father, a further token of the peace Eugene had made and an effort to secure his father's approbation. In this effort he succeeded. James was pleased to announce, "my youngest son has written a sketch which it is quite likely I may use in the near future...."18 With his father's full support, Eugene, after some further convalescence at home during the summer of 1913, was able to begin playwriting in earnest without having to return to his work at the Telegraph.

That A Wife for a Life is very much a piece for the theatre of James O'Neill has been noted by others,19 but always, it seems, with the underlying assumption that O'Neill could do no better in his first play. Yet there are a number of facts peculiar to A Wife for a Life which suggest that in the beginning, O'Neill was not exactly fulfilling the role of serious playwright which he would soon adopt. The facts suggest, instead, that he was writing to please someone else.

We have already noted O'Neill's own report that it was the only play he ever wrote with an eye to success at the box office, and his insistence, more than thirty years after he completed it, that it was not a play at all, but a vaudeville sketch, an insistence which further suggests that A Wife for a Life was designed to make a popular appeal. In addition, the day after he received his copyright notice from Washington, he allowed his old newspaper, the Telegraph, to run a brief story which amounted to a free advertisement; the item announced that the son of the famous actor had written a sketch for vaudeville--his first effort at writing for the theatre--which he expected to sell in the fall.20 Apparently O'Neill did not similarly advertise his next script, the Web, when he received the copyright notice for it only two months later; and despite the completion of nine more plays after A Wife by the summer of 1914, the Telegraph does not seem to have run a similar item until O'Neill's first book, Thirst, And Other One Act Plays, appeared in August; and that item de clear that those plays were intended to appear in the theatre, not in vaudeville.21

Finally, there is the type of play he chose to write. Although it has not been sufficiently remarked upon, A Wife for a Life is part of an extremely well-established and popular American literary and theatrical genre, that of the frontier play, or Western. O'Neill would never again write a serious play in that mode. Taken together, all of these features make A Wife for a Life unique in O'Neill's career, and the common denominator of all of them seems to be a deliberate effort on his part to achieve commercial success, to write a popular play which would make money. Nothing else, of course, could have been so well designed to appeal to James O'Neill, a man whose respect for the theatre was never wholly outweighed by either the wishes of an audience or the attraction of money. A Wife for a Life was a play the values of which James O'Neill could readily understand and appreciate, which he readily demonstrated by publically announcing that he was willing to star in his son's effort. Ironically, of course, the play failed to arouse the interest of anyone in vaudeville, and it was not produced. Yet, surprisingly, this rejection did nothing to dampen Eugene's newly-awakened urge to write plays. He had already received, it would appear, the support and the encouragement he needed most--his father's.

As a consequence of all this, A Wife for a Life is less a real Eugene O'Neill play than an oddly fascinating mixture of both highly commercial and highly sophisticated appeals and techniques. But, as a result of O'Neill's apparent motives in writing the play, it is difficult to tell which of its many weaknesses are the result of his own ineptitude and which result from the preconditions he seems to have placed upon it. Previous commentators have tended to emphasize, not the biography which surrounds the play, but the autobiography which seems to be in it. Thus, since the man-woman-man triangle at the center of the plot loosely parallels the situation which prevailed during O'Neill's ill-fated gold-prospecting expedition to Honduras in 1909, the biographers have been inclined to read the play for the light it sheds on that experience.22 In the play, a young prospector is in love with the equally young wife of his much older mining partner. Initially, this unnamed Older Man is unaware of it, but as the play proceeds he understands. At the end, the younger man, Jack Sloan, goes off to marry the woman, never learning that her recently-divorced husband is his partner. In real life, Fred Stevens, the mining engineer who led O'Neill's expedition, and Stevens' wife, Ann, who accompanied them, were both some ten years older than O'Neill; and while he certainly admired Ann Stevens,23 it is not self-evident that he was infatuated. Even if he were, in point of fact, the protagonist of the play, who receives our sympathy, is not Jack Sloan, but the Older Man, and his plight--divorced at a distance by a woman he has wronged--closely parallels O'Neill's own situation only a few months before he began to write the play. It was in the latter part of 1912, while he was living in New London, that he learned that his New York divorce from his first wife, Kathleen Jenkins, had become final.24 And it was providing the "evidence" for this divorce which may well have precipitated his suicide attempt. Clearly, then, if autobiography is at all central to the play, it is at best difficult to conclude which of its two main characters represents O'Neill.

The fact is that the triangle at the heart of A Wife for a Life may be just as attributable to a literary source. One of the most popular frontier plays of this period, Bartley Campbell's My Partner (so popular in fact that it was filmed in 1909), concerns two prospectors in love with the same woman.25 The parallels between the two plays are so striking that Campbell's play should probably be credited as a source. In addition to the similarities of the two mining partners being in love with the same girl, in each case one partner is presented as being more educated while the other is credited with saving his partner's life at the risk of his own. Moreover, in both plays, one partner learns inadvertently of the other's illicit involvement with the woman they both love and, as a consequence, decides to leave both the woman and his share of the gold claim to his friend and rival.26 The possibility of such a direct source has perhaps been obscured by overemphasis on the autobiographical aspects of the play. This bias has also led to the charge that the play is lacking in objectivity,27 presumably because of the impassioned, prose-poem rhetoric in which Jack Sloan proclaims his love for Yvette. But these speeches, as bad as they are, can be otherwise explained, especially since it is not self-evident that Jack Sloan is O'Neill's counterpart. Jack's rhetoric is typical of the frontier play in general and of Campbell's My Partner in particular. In Campbell's play, the miner who saves his partner's life and thinks of giving up the woman eventually wins her: he closes the play with this speech: "Yes, dear! The night has been long and dark. But on the heights of happiness, where we are standing now, our love will illuminate our lives forever."28 At the same time, it is clear that O'Neill could even then write speeches of a more colloquial flavor, as in this line from the third character in A Wife for a Life, Old Pete--"I seen your campfire burning and reckoned I'd bring it right over."29 Perhaps, then, in O'Neill's defense it should be noted that the incongruity of dialect characters mixed with pretentious prose-poets in a Western milieu is part of a long-standing tradition which can be traced back to Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumppo. The fault lies, if at all, in following the tradition so slavishly. But here again, O'Neill's commercial motives must be taken into account. The audience he seems to have had in mind would probably have been disappointed if he had written in any other way.

It is now possible to see A Wife for a Life in a clearer light. That it has numerous flaws cannot be denied, but many of them seem to be the result of O'Neill's motives a writing the play. On the other hand, despite some previous opinion to the contrary,30 the play shows both talent and promise and contains many hints of what was to come. It is, in embryonic form, very much the type of play which would establish O'Neill's ultimate reputation as a modern dramatist--a realistic tragedy. The greatest strength of the play resides in the structure of its central dramatic action, the sequence of events through which the Older Man--the starring role which presumably James O'Neill would have taken--progresses during the play. It includes tension and suspense, surprise, reversal, recognition, inner conflict, self-knowledge, and in somewhat different words, the self-recognition, "I have sinned," which Robert B. Heilman has termed "the completion of essential tragic experience."31 Yet, at the same time, the plot Is heavily dependent on coincidence: that the young man who saved the Older Man's life is the same man whom the Older Man had sworn to kill; that Yvette's telegram should arrive on the very day that the prospecting adventure has proved so successful that it warrants the toast to Yvette's name. This seems too pat and improbable, the simple product of the playwright's desire to work up a big scene. The play itself never really dispels this notion; but examination of the dialogue suggests a theme which could have justified a too arbitrary sequence of events--the idea of Fate.

The key line occurs in the Older Man's final speech: "So I have found him after all these years and I cannot even hate him. What tricks Fate plays with us."32 Since this acknowledgement occurs simultaneously with the Older Man's recognition of his guilt, there is a strong suggestion that Fate has intentionally manipulated this series of chance occurrences for the explicit purpose of exacting retributive justice for the wrongs the Older Man committed in marrying Yvette in the first place. That the theme of Fate was in fact part of O'Neill's design is further suggested by the counterpoint between the Older Man's line and the aura of good fortune which is set up in the early minutes of the play. O'Neill makes use of this situation to twice bring to our attention the idea of luck in an explicit way through two speeches of the Older Man: "We're fools for luck for once," and "The luck was due to change."33 That all of this is part of a coherent design is further suggested by a speech in the opening minutes of the play which O'Neill gives to Old Pete: "You-alls ought to get rich. You know how to keep money. Now me and money could never get on noway. They cleaned me out in Lawson this time and I reckon they'll clean me out again the next time."34 After Pete's exit. the Older Man comments, "Poor Pete. Same old story. Been bucking the faro bank again. I suppose."35 This dialogue, then, which seems little more than small talk, implicitly brings out the idea of luck; while Old Pete's being "cleaned out" and the prospect of being "cleaned out" again, suggests in an oblique way the idea of Fate intertwined with personal failure. And it becomes possible to see a clear though rudimentary progression by which the audience as well as the Older Man come to understand the role of fate in the characters' lives, a progression which loosely parallels the Older Man's recognition of wrongdoing. It thus becomes possible to catch a glimpse of a potentially just universe, one almost medieval in its coherence. Such a universe, of course, is at great variance with the modern world view found in O'Neill's next dozen plays. This variance is perhaps the strongest indicator that his main purpose in writing this sketch was to acquire his father's support with a work of definite appeal for a conventional audience of the day.

Further appreciation of O'Neill's artistry in this play can be derived if we examine the theme of Fate in conjunction with the most striking aspect of the play's setting: the "lonely butte ... outlined, black and sinister against the lighter darkness of a sky with stars."36 The adjectives "lonely" and "sinister" are clearly more evaluative than descriptive, but the curious feature is their rather contradictory nature: "lonely" and "sinister" do not seem natural companions. Yet each can be related to the final situation of the Older Man. The "black and sinister" aspect of this butte which stands by itself on the horizon of a "plain" suggests a foreshadowing symbol of the Fate which is to rise up in the midst of the placid surface of the Older Man's life; the "lonely" quality similarly foreshadows the state of aloneness to which he resigns himself at the end of the play.

As Travis Bogard has explained it, "the setting ... suggests the course of [the Older Man's] destiny."37 Bogard's emphasis is on the psychological aspect of the setting, on its ability to reveal the Older Man's "inner nature"; but notice should also be given to its thematic relevance. It is the Older Man's fate which is symbolized in the "dark and sinister" aspect of the butte, not his inner nature. Bogard does not discuss the butte; for him the outstanding feature of the setting is the desert--"The Older Man is intended to be a wandering ghost in a desert of spent passion. The wasted world is all he can inherit, and the setting reflects the substance of his grief...."38 This "desert of spent passion," however, only depicts on the broader pictorial level what is also symbolized on the more immediate level of pantomime. Another feature of the setting is 'a smoldering campfire at which [the Older Man] is seated."39 At the curtain's rise, he is "Stirring the fire in a futile attempt to start it into flame."40 Similarly, at the very end if the play, "He sits down by the campfire" and shortly after "stirs the campfire."41 The symbolic nature of these actions is suggested by the Older Man's choice of imagery in his final speech: "my hand reached for my fun and all the old hate flared up in my heart.... Then my hand left my gun and the old hatred died out forever."42 His futile attempt first foreshadows and then symbolizes his final condition. Moreover, the symbolism seems clear in another respect: what is seen on the stage is "the glowing of such fire / That on the ashes of his youth doth lie." Taken together, the dying or dead fire and the desert combine to project an atmosphere of sterility an death, the second of which can also be related to the time of the events--"the night."43

The Older Man's two attempts to stir the fire into flame further illuminate O'Neill's design. The play opens and closes with the same image of night, smoldering fire, and the Older Man on stage by himself. In the theatre, there is probably nothing more suggestive of the fundamental loneliness of the human condition than the lowering of the curtain on a stage which contains only one character. Implicitly, at least, O'Neill seems to have understood this fact, but the play both opens and closes this way. Thus, these two moments provide a still, quiet frame within which the passions, tensions and suspense of the main plot are contained and through which, by means of contrast, they are heightened. In his very first work written for the stage, O'Neill exhibited the cyclical pattern which was to become his favorite.44

These, then, are some of the artistic virtues of A Wife for a Life: the gradual unfolding of the theme of Fate; the outline of a plot filled with tension, suspense, conflict, reversal, recognition, and self-knowledge; a setting rich in the projection of rather complex symbols; and a cyclical scenic structure to point up and finish the dramatic events contained within. These strengths, both potential and actual, are considerable in a first play; but they are probably not enough to overcome, even in production, the various weaknesses of the script. As apparent as these weaknesses are, however, they seem in large part the result of O'Neill's motives in writing the play, and there is no need to catalogue them further. A Wife for a Life reveals a strength in its overall design and is a clear foreshadowing of things to come. In Eugene O'Neill's first work written for the stage, there is evidence of both the strengths which would serve him and the weaknesses which would plague him for more than thirty years; and his artistic life is bracketed by its two main characters--the confident young man finding both monetary and amatory success, and the older man poking at the ashes of his projected grandiose achievements which will never be realized.

--Paul D. Voelker


1O'Neill's insistence is found in a note he wrote on the title page of the autograph manuscript of The Web, housed in the Princeton University Library. In the note, written in 1944, O'Neill classified A Wife as the first work he "wrote for the stage" and The Web as his "first play" (O'Neill's emphasis; Egil Törnqvist, A Drama of Souls: Studies in O'Neill's Super-naturalistic Technique [New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1969], p. 258, n. 10.

2Barrett H. Clark, Eugene O'Neill: The Man and His Plays, rev, and enlg. ed. (1947; rpt. New York: Dover, 1967), p. 49. The previous quotation is from the same page.

3A Wife was copyrighted on August 15, 1913 (Törnqvist, p. 258). The Web was copyrighted on October 17, 1913 (Doris Alexander, The Tempering of Eugene O'Neill [New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962], p. 184).

4As O'Neill himself later recognized; cf. Arthur and Barbara Gelb, O'Neill, enlg. ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), p. 250.

5Louis Sheaffer, O'Neill, Son and Playwright (Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown, 1968), pp. 505, 506, 89 and 72; the Gelbs, pp. 61-62.

6Sheaffer, p. 252.

7Sheaffer, p. 72.

8Sheaffer, p. 210; the Gelbs, p. 188.

9Sheaffer, p. 214; Alexander, p. 158.

10Sheaffer, pp. 216-17; Alexander, p. 159.

11Alexander, p. 160; the Gelbs, pp. 182-83. Sheaffer, p. 218, suggests otherwise.

12Clark, p. 49.

13The Gelbs, p. 189.

14Sheaffer, p. 226.

15The Gelbs. p. 198.

16The Gelbs, p. 216. Sheaffer (pp. 225-26) disagrees, primarily because it was almost a year before O'Neill copyrighted A Wife. But given the overlong period in which O'Neill avoided playwriting, it seems reasonable that it could have taken him a year to progress from notes to drafts to a copyrighted typescript, especially since other evidence suggests A Wife was not the only script in progress. The latter is my hypothesis based on a reconciliation of the conflicting reports by Alexander, Clark, the Gelbs, and Sheaffer.

17The Gelbs, pp., 215 and 216, and Alexander, p. 181, respectively. Alexander notes O'Neill's report to the head of the sanatorium that he began a vaudeville sketch on May 1, a month before he left. The Gelbs (p. 231) have O'Neill completing A Wife before discharge. Sheaffer (p. 258) and Clark (p.49) have him writing the play after discharge.

18Quoted by Alexander, p. 182.

19Travis Bogard, Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O'Neill (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1972), p. 8; Lawrence Gellert, "Introduction," Lost Plays of Eugene O'Neill (New York: New Fathoms Press, 1950), p. [9].

20The Gelbs, p. 232; •cf. Shaeffer, pp. 258-59.

21Shaeffer, p. 290.

22The Gelbs, p. 134; Shaeffer, p. 151.

23Shaeffer, p. 150.

24Kathleen Jenkins was awarded an interlocutory decree in July, 1912; the divorce became final on October 11 (the Gelbs, p. 208).

25Garff B. Wilson, Three Hundred Years of American Drama and Theater, from Ye Bear and Ye Cubb to Hair (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1973) describes My Partner (1879) as a typical example "of the general run of frontier plays" and notes it was widely popular and performed for many years, with productions in England and Germany (p. 221).

26Campbell's play can be found in The White Slave & Other Plays by Bartley Campbell, ed. Napier Wilt, America's Lost Plays, Barrett H. Clark, gen. ed., vol. 19 (1940; rpt. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ. Press, 1965). The relevant parallels will be found on pages 70, 59, 61-62, and 70, respectively.

27Frederic I. Carpenter, Eugene O'Neill (New York: Twayne, 1964), p. 44; Horst Frenz, Eugene O'Neill, trans. Helen Sebba, rev. by the author (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1971), pp. 12-13.

28Campbell, p. 98.

29Ten "Lost" Plays, by Eugene O'Neill (New York: Random House, 1964), p. 212; hereafter cited as TLP.

30The Gelbs, pp. 231-32; John Mason Brown. "Finders Keepers, Losers Weepers," rev. of Lost Plays of Eugene O'Neill, Saturday Review, 19 December 1953, p. 30.

31The Iceman, The Arsonist, and the Troubled Agent: Tragedy and Melodrama on the Modern Stage (Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 1973, p. 16.

32TLP, p. 221.

33TLP, pp. 213 and 214, respectively.

34TLP, p. 212.

35TLP. pp. 212-13.

36TLP, p. [211].

37Bogard, p. 10.


39TLP, p. [211].


41Ibid., pp. 222-23.

42Ibid., p. 222.

43Ibid., p. [211].

44Timo Tiusanen, O'Neill's Scenic Images (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1988), p. 51; cf. p. 35.



© Copyright 1999-2011