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O'Neill, Eugene Gladstone (1888-1953)


BY Edward L. Shaughnessy
FROM The Encyclopedia of the Irish in America, University of Notre Dame Press, 1999

Dramatist.  "One thing that explains more than anything about me is the fact that I'm Irish."  Thus did Eugene O'Neill acknowledge the high importance of his Celtic heritage.  Another crucial given in his background was Catholicism.  Even after a bitter and permanent break with the church, he would later concede, "Once a Catholic, always a Catholic."  It seems quite clear, then, that O'Neill's ethnic and religious inheritance deeply affected his world view and his artistic vision.

Eugene's father, James O'Neill (1846?-1920), who became an American matinée idol, had been driven with parents and siblings from his native Kilkenny in the mid-century famine exodus.  He had suffered a deforming fear of poverty, very likely an effect of his childhood uprooting and penury.  The shadow of that trauma would later darken the lives of his wife and sons.  This history is relived in Eugene's searing family tragedy, Long Day's Journey into Night (1956).

O'Neill's mother, Ella (Quinlan (1857-1922)), was born in New Haven to immigrants from Tipperary.  She enjoyed a privileged convent education at St. Mary's Academy in South Bend, Indiana.  But, like James, she confronted a personal nemesis:  Ella O'Neill fell victim to morphine addiction, the drug pre-scribed to relieve her pain after Eugene's birth.  That event took place in the Barrett House, a hotel at 43rd and Broadway,  on October 16, 1888.

"I was nursed in the wings," O'Neill said of the years when he accompanied his parents on tour.  Among the most formative influences on the playwright-to-be was surely his father's numbing enslavement (nearly 6,000 performances) to an immensely popular recycling of the Dumas novel, The Count of Monte Cristo,  a warhorse melodrama that earned James O'Neill a fortune.  But the endless repetition of one role precluded his developing an undeniable acting talent.  Eugene came to regard his father's theater as false and shallow, but he also gained from his "house" privileges an astonishing knowledge of stagecraft and theater business.

As Ella had been, her sons were boarded at the best Catholic schools:  James, Jr., (Jamie (1878-1923)), at Notre Dame minim and prep departments, Georgetown, and Fordham; Eugene at Mount St. Vincent in the Bronx and De La Salle Academy in Manhattan.  Contented and obedient in their early years, each boy in his turn was devastated when he learned of his mother's drug addiction.  To Eugene " . . .  it made everything in life seem rotten!"  Thus, at fifteen, he lost all belief in a compassionate and personal God.  Reluctantly, James entered the young apostate in Betts Academy in Connecticut, and later in Princeton.  But, if he had gotten his way, Eugene remained forever haunted by his Catholic sensibility.  Again and again his plays offer variations on the themes of sin, guilt, and the search for redemption.

Goaded by Jamie, his "creator," Eugene had spun out of control even before leaving college.  Near the end of his first year (1907), failing academically, O'Neill was dropped from the Princeton rolls.  Yet, as he always had, he continued to read omnivorously:  in addition to fiction and poetry, Emma Goldman's anarchist magazine, Mother Earth, Shaw's Quintessence of Ibsenism, and selected works of Nietzsche.  In 1909 Eugene entered into an ill- advised marriage with Kathleen Jenkins of New York, who bore a son, Eugene, Jr.  In 1911 Kathleen sued for divorce.  O'Neill offered little protest, having  made no effort to see the boy.  He set out for Honduras on a gold-prospecting expedition but discovered there only malaria.  Over the next two years he would sign on as ordinary seaman on several voyages:  to British, African and South American ports of call.  These travels were interrupted by periods of panhandling and dereliction.  Whatever good came from these rough adventures was more accidental than planned:  an earned certificate as able seaman and, somewhat in the manner of Melville, an appreciation for the sea and ships that would provide material for his art.

By 1911 O'Neill was nearly exhausted by the psychological and physical damage he had inflicted upon himself.  For a time he lived the meanest waterfront existence, staying in a flophouse-bar called "Jimmy-the-Priest's."  Here he fell into an even more desperate state of personal degradation and once attempted suicide.  He would recall this period in Anna Christie (1921) and The Iceman Cometh (1946).  Somehow he managed a rally and moved into his family's New London headquarters in the summer of 1912.  He began working as a reporter on the New London Telegraph.  Still, the dissipation had taken a toll.  Diagnosed in November to have a mild case of tuberculosis,  Eugene entered the Gaylord Farm Sanatorium, where he remained for five months.

This period of enforced withdrawal offered an opportunity for reflection and profitable reading.  Earlier, knocking about with Jamie and others, O'Neill had taken advantage of his access to Broadway houses (via James's carte blanche). He had seen a great deal of the new drama:  Ibsen (Hedda Gabler), Shaw (Mrs. Warren's Profession) but especially the works of Abbey Theatre playwrights:  Synge, Yeats, and Lady Gregory.  "It was in seeing the Irish Players (on a first American tour in 1911-1912)  that gave me a glimpse of my opportunity.  I went to see everything they did. . . ."   At Gaylord O'Neill began to read these new playwrights in earnest.

Early Relationships, Personal and Professional

The decade 1914-1924 reveals a period of astonishing self-reclamation in O'Neill's life.  These years mark his development from theater tyro to world dramatist.  By 1922 he had already won Pulitzer Prizes for Beyond the Horizon (1920) and Anna Christie.  His path of ascendancy was not without dips but it was generally steady.  Indeed, James was so impressed by Eugene's efforts that he financed the publication of his son's first book, Thirst and Other One Act Plays, and paid his tuition as a special student at Harvard in George Pierce Baker's advanced "English 47," a workshop in playwriting.

In the summer of 1916, in Provincetown, Massachusetts, O'Neill met George Cram "Jig" Cook, specialist in Greek drama, and his playwright wife, Susan Glaspell.  Their group included poets, political writers, and idealists of all varieties--in general a crowd sympathetic to the socialist philosophy espoused by Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman:  Max Eastman and Michael Gold, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Louise Bryant, Hutchins Hapgood and John Silas Reed, et al.  Some of them had heard about and asked to read O'Neill's plays.  They read Bound East for Cardiff (1916):  "Then we knew what we were for," said Glaspell.  With O'Neill the Provincetown Players vowed to produce new American plays "of artistic, literary and dramatic--as opposed to--Broadway merit."

By 1918 O'Neill had found his path.  He met and married Agnes Boulton (1893-1968), a modestly talented fiction writer.  Like O'Neill, she had been married and had one child.  But, because each had personal ambitions to fulfill, their relations were never entirely compatible.  Shane Rudraighe was born in Provincetown in 1919.  A daughter, Oona (later Mrs. Charles Chaplin), was born in Bermuda in 1925.  Clearly, O'Neill had not severed his Irish roots.

The Provincetown Players established a regular-season playhouse on Mac-dougal St. in Greenwich Village.  O'Neill, drawing further on his sailing experiences, included three other one-act pieces with Cardiff and named the quartet the S. S. Glencairn cycle.  In November, 1920, the Provincetown of-fered The Emperor Jones, a radically experimental play, starring the gifted black actor, Charles Gilpin, as Brutus Jones.  So successful was the production that on December 27 it was moved uptown and began a Broadway run of 204 consecutive performances.

But The Emperor's  very success foredoomed the Provincetown's claim on O'Neill.  Soon he developed close working relations with two other theater geniuses, critic-director Kenneth Macgowan and designer-producer Robert Edmond Jones (the "triumvirate").  These three organized the Experimental Theatre, Inc., official successor to the Provincetown.  They produced an impressive list of O'Neill plays:  Welded, an adaptation of The Ancient Mariner, All God's Chillun Got Wings, and Desire Under the Elms (all in 1924); The Fountain (1925)  and The Great God Brown (1926).  A little later O'Neill sought the services of the Theatre Guild (a spinoff of the Washington Square Players), with its greater financial resources and professionalism.  The Guild staged Marco Millions  and Strange Interlude (in 1928), Dynamo (1929); and, with Robert Jones, Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), Ah,Wilderness! (1933) Days Without End (1934),  The Iceman Cometh, and A Moon for the Misbegotten (1947).

Bold Experiments, Dark Themes, and a Failed Search for God

In 1926, still married to Agnes, O'Neill met the actress-beauty, Carlotta Monterey (1888-1970), and pursued an affair with her. After their marriage in July, 1929, Carlotta devoted her life to O'Neill, a devotion so fierce that she often alienated his friends and children.  Guarding his reclusion (1938-1943), Carlotta acted as gatekeeper of Tao House, their retreat near Danville, California.  Here O'Neill wrote his final and greatest plays, including The Iceman Cometh and Long Day's Journey into Night.  Although their relations were often stormy, Eugene and Carlotta remained married.  They are buried side by side in Forest Hills, Boston.

Theater historians credit O'Neill with single-handedly bringing a serious American drama into being and with setting new directions in world drama.  He is regarded as a bold experimenter, especially in the 1920s, as a playwright who sought to revive the grand tragedy, and as an artist who wrestled with the question of meaning in modern life.  For, out of his own experience and as a disciple of Nietzsche, O'Neill concluded that God was dead.

Between 1920-1929, some eighteen original O'Neill plays were mounted in the New York art theaters and on Broadway, an output that virtually guaranteed a certain number of failures.  He combined the techniques of expressionism with the themes of naturalism.  The arrogant "emperor" Jones rules his West Indies "subjects" until they rebel.  As he runs for his life through the moonlit forest, all outer signs of his power shredding with his uniform, the action is intensified by a frantically accelerating beat of tom-toms.  In his last moments Jones is found a quivering mass, victim of his own fears.  Jones is both allegory and psychological realism.

Another triumph of expressionism is The Hairy Ape (1922).  A modern Neanderthal, Yank Smith, delights in his brute strength, confident that his power "makes de woild move."  By accident he discovers that capital, not brute force, controls society;  he is merely a replaceable part in the mechanistic order of things. The play examines modern man's dawning recognition that, having lost his harmony with Nature, he has lost his place in the natural order.

Desire Under the Elms, as Joseph Wood Krutch observed, treated "the eternal tragedy of man and his passions."  In this, and its theme about the wages of sin, the play is typically O'Neill.  Men and women covet what others have: land, gold, sexual partners.  To get them, they commit vile and violent acts: theft, adultery, infanticide.  American in setting, Desire Under the Elms was called a return to high tragedy--Greek in theme, Shakespearean in vision.

Perhaps O'Neill's boldest experiment was to "reinvent" the mask of classical Greek drama. The Great God Brown, brilliant but confusing, finally baffles the audience: the actors' repeated masking and unmasking only defeats the viewer's attempts to follow the play's logic.  Still, he had bravely accepted the challenge to dramatize Jung's archetypes, the persona and anima.  O'Neill was searching for "god-substitutes" which science, he said, had failed to provide.  And the idea of God-equivalents was what he hoped to advance in Lazarus Laughed (1927), Strange Interlude, and Dynamo.  Lazarus, virtually unproduceable with its 420 roles, espouses Nietzsche's doctrine of Eternal Recurrence.  The hero transcends his fear of death when he comprehends his participation in the cycle of Nature.  Strange Interlude, a Broadway smash (426 performances) and a best-seller, was a nine-act marathon. In it O'Neill re-claimed the use of asides, a device that permitted characters to speak their inner thoughts as their opposites "freeze," unaware. Dynamo, with Lee Simonson's futuristic set and special effects, offered the idea of electricity as a force to be worshipped.

O'Neill produced only three new plays in the 1930s, two that have become classics, the other a bitter failure. Mourning Becomes Electra retells the House of Atreus myth, here set in New England but with a Civil War background.  In this trilogy the author outdid his Interlude demands in a bold presentation of thirteen acts.  The evening began at 5:30, was interrupted for dinner, and finished near midnight.

Unlike all of  O'Neill's other plays Ah, Wilderness!  is all-American in its small town, home-and-hearth charm and its Fourth of July setting and remains a summer stock favorite.  It is a picture of the youth and family life the author might have preferred.  Richard Miller, a generous but hot-headed adolescent, represents young O'Neill.  In the play's 1933 Broadway première (285 performances), the father was played by perennial song-and-dance man, George M. Cohan, whose own father, with James O'Neill, had helped to found the Catholic Actors' Guild.  The following year (1934) O'Neill seemed to signal a wish to reclaim his lost faith.  In Days Without End two actors play antithetical extremes within a single character (John Loving), one part cynical and sneering, the other searching for his childhood beliefs. The unregenerate self wears a mask and can be heard by the hero (and the audience) but not by the other characters.  The play failed, as did O'Neill's search for faith.

Lonely Journey to Olympus

Although he was named the 1936 Nobel laureate in literature, O'Neill's reputation was, ironically, in decline.  Between 1934-1946, he would have no Broadway premières.  Yet the period 1935-1943 may have been his most fruitful.  For five years he was occupied with plans for a massive family saga that would cover 150 years.  Called A Tale of Possessors, Self-dispossessed, it would trace the corruption of the American soul by greed.  But ill health and a sense that he had lost focus caused O'Neill to shelve the project in late 1939.  Of  eleven projected plays, only two manuscripts have survived: A Touch of the Poet and More Stately Mansions.  The late Travis Bogard, eminent O'Neillian, observed, "(The Tale)  was a work of astonishing scope and scale. . . .  Nothing in the drama, except Shakespeare's two cycles on British history, could have been set beside it."

At Tao House, forgotten but left in welcome seclusion, O'Neill mined the tragedy of his own past and found universal themes in his personal experiences.  Now, with a full understanding of the sorrows of his parents and brother, he came to fathom the fate of everyman:  to be caught in the nets of time.  In these straits he located his family, his colleagues and friends, himself.  Two, perhaps three of his final works, have entered the world's canon of great drama.  Long Day's Journey into Night  gives us four characters (the O'Neills, here named Tyrone) who torture each other in a kind of internecine warfare.  In this towering tragedy we can see the dilemma of the human family:  One is denied love and therefore withholds love.  In this profitless enterprise, one is always self-defeated.

"The Iceman is a denial of any other experience of faith in my plays."  The pessimism of the play is terrible, for it confirms that God is dead.  Comfort is found only in the self-deception that one's life has a purpose.  In Harry Hope's Raines-Law flophouse, the "hell hole" where O'Neill himself attempted suicide, one survived only by regarding the life of his fellows as hallowed.  O'Neill had never regained faith, but he found at Hope's, not the debris of the cosmos, but  the "best friends I ever had."   The Irish-Catholic O'Neill had not lost his identity; he saw life as a vale of tears.  The dynamics of these last plays is the confessional.  In A Moon for the Misbegotten, Jim Tyrone (Jamie) confesses his  heartless binge in response to the death of his mother.  In Hughie  a second-rate Broadway sport, in a momentary casting aside of pathetic bravado, accepts his need for human connection.

O'Neill's final decade was his own hell.  He had long suffered a degenerative palsy (akin to Parkinson's) that increasingly robbed him of his capacity to write.  Losing that, he had lost his raison d'être.  Her role as protector of the artist's privacy thus cancelled, Carlotta had now become supernumerary.  In these grey years they often fell to quarreling, but she remained with him until his death (in another hotel room).  The 1946 production of The Iceman Cometh, ballyhooed for the playwright's return to Broadway, received only a mediocre reception.  The next year A Moon for the Misbegotten stumbled in its Columbus tryout and closed in St. Louis.

An O'Neill revival began in 1956 and has hardly abated. That year Long Day's Journey was given its world première by the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm. A Touch of the Poet (1957) and More Stately Mansions (1962) also premièred there.  O'Neill's reception in Sweden had been a genuine phenomenon since the 1923 Scandinavian première of Anna Christie.  (See Tom J. A. Olsson in Floyd, bibliography.)  In May, 1956, a revival of The Iceman Cometh (565 performances at Circle in the Square Theatre, directed by José Quintero and starring Jason Robards, Jr.) received rave reviews.  In November Long Day's Journey was given its American debut at the Helen Hayes Theatre (390 performances).

O'Neill stands as a giant in the modern theater, even if he has seldom won unqualified support from the critics.  To the literati his faults have been grievous:  grandiloquence (dialogue), forced seriousness of situation (bathos), and adventures in philosophy (issues beyond his depth).  O'Neill himself had wished for the grace of language: he recognized that he seldom attained literary heights.  Yet he has drawn the approval of audiences worldwide throughout the century.  Actors vie for parts in O'Neill and credit him with an uncanny sense of theatricality and a genius of character motivation.  All have praised his uncompromising integrity in the face of demands to cut his plays to win easy popularity.  No other playwright has documented so profoundly as O'Neill did the arch theme of modern drama:  the individual's anguish as he clings desperately to old answers in the face of a ubiquitous challenge to faith.

Asked in 1946 if he had returned to the faith of his boyhood, O'Neill replied, "Unfortunately, no."  He had spoken with finality and honesty.  Yet a kind of  religious sensibility had apparently remained a part of his nature.  Something serious in the theater was reborn with Eugene O'Neill, who saw the playhouse as modern man's last temple.   


Normand Berlin,  O'Neill's Shakespeare (Ann Arbor, 1993).

Travis Bogard,  Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O'Neill, Rev. ed. (New York, 1988).

Eugene O'Neill, Collected Plays of Eugene O'Neill, 3 vols. Travis Bogard, ed. (New York, 1988).

Eugene O'Neill,  Selected Letters of Eugene O'Neill, Travis Bogard and Jackson R. Bryer, eds.  (New Haven,  1988).

Virginia Floyd, ed., Eugene O'Neill: A World View (New York, 1979).

Arthur and Barbara Gelb, O'Neill,  Rev. ed.  (New York, 1973).

Michael Manheim, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Eugene O'Neill  (Cambridge, 1998).

Margaret Loftus Ranald, The Eugene O'Neill Companion (Westport, CT, 1984).

Edward L. Shaughnessy, Eugene O'Neill in Ireland: The Critical Reception (Westport, CT, 1988).

Louis Sheaffer, O'Neill: Son and Playwright (Boston, 1968).

Louis Sheaffer,  O'Neill: Son and Artist (Boston, 1973).


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