Eugene O'Neill

Menu Bar

A Word to the Reader

 

The general facts of Eugene O'Neill's life (1888-1953) have been pretty well established since the early 1970s. Amendments of fact offered here tend to be adjustments based on re-examination of evidence. A slightly different date for an event may be given, for example, than has been stated in other works. Frequently, an oft-repeated anecdote or detail is rejected because, when traced backward from biography to biography, it appears to have originated in the imagination of a feature writer or interviewer. What is new in this biography is the interpretations made both of numerous small matters and of the large patterns of O'Neill's life, interpretations that grow partly out of their author's professional training and experience as a literary scholar, a psychoanalytic researcher, and, for a time, a clinician.

O'Neill has been an irresistible subject for biographers since he first received public attention in the early 1920s. At first he was known for being the son of a famous father, educated in good schools, who had gone to sea several times, had many love affairs, known celebrated radicals and bohemians, prospected for gold, and lived the rough life in Honduras, Buenos Aires, New York, and elsewhere. He could claim to know firsthand something about the people he made his characters: sailors, gangsters, down-and-outers, and others whose lives seemed at once exotic and pertinent to playgoers of the time. While America in the 1920s danced, drank, and prospered, O'Neill became famous for dark, serious, tragic plays, plays that ran against the grain, plays that important critics respected and argued about, plays that won frequent literary prizes (and eventually the Nobel Prize). In spite of all this, O'Neill's plays were sometimes immensely popular with more ordinary audiences and readers, and O'Neill himself was among the best-known literary figures in the world. When he went through an ugly divorce in the late 1920s, the scandal made headlines east and west.

After his death he attracted even more biographical attention, largely because of the posthumous publication of Long Day's Journey into Night, now his most famous work. It is a work that is explicitly and admittedly autobiographical, as we know from a private dedication written to his widow  that she had printed with the text, written to her when he gave her the manuscript. In it he thanked her for the "love and tenderness . . . that enabled me to face my dead at last and write this play . . . with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness for all the four haunted Tyrones." Tyrone was the name he gave the O'Neill family. James O'Neill and James O'Neill, Jr. (Jamie), his father and ten-year-older brother, he called James and Jamie Tyrone. Mary Ellen Quinlan O'Neill (called Ella O'Neill) became Mary Tyrone. To himself he gave the name of a third O'Neill son, Edmund, who had died in childhood before the future playwright was born. In the play he told the story of his mother's long struggle with morphine addiction and his father's lost dream of being a great Shakespearean actor (rather than the romantic idol he was), and O'Neill also told something of his and his brother's wild youthful lives. Once he had written the play (in 1940-1941), O'Neill allowed fewer than half a dozen people to read it. He believed it to be his finest work and had every reason to assume that it would bring money and honor. Yet a lifelong passion for privacy led him to conceal the play. With evident ambivalence, he had the manuscript sealed away in the vaults of his publisher, Random House. Notarized and countersigned instructions ensured that it was never to be performed, and not to be published until at least twenty-five years after his death, an instruction he repeated in his will. This, he told various people, was to protect living relatives and safeguard the memory of the O'Neills in the minds of people who might survive him. Eugene O'Neill was at once the most tireless and the most secretive of autobiographers.


O'Neill himself unwittingly prepared the way for a second wave of biographers, beginning in the late 1950s with Doris Alexander and Croswell Bowen, who verified that, in general and with certain exceptions, Long Day's Journey was a truthful autobiographical document. Among other things, the biographers, and certain other scholars, including Judith Barlow, Travis Bogard, Virginia Floyd, Michael Manheim, and several others, discovered that not only Long Day's Journey into Night but nearly all O'Neill's earlier plays were deeply and deliberately autobiographical, although the family portraits had been so well disguised that almost none of the playwright's contemporaries had recognized them.

The first major biography, O'Neill, by Arthur and Barbara Gelb (1962), corrected numerous errors that had been passed on from one biographer to  another since the 1920s; they added impressions from interviews with numerous friends of the playwright and included a great deal of information about O'Neill and his times. The Gelbs were the first to present generally accurate details about Ella O'Neill's morphine addiction, and their sense of Eugene's life still seems fundamentally sound.

The late Louis Sheaffer, who began work in the mid-1950s, wrote an outstanding two-volume biography, O'Neill, Son and Playwright (1968) and O'Neill, Son and Artist (1973). He conducted exhaustive interviews with hundreds of people and formed lifelong friendships with many of O'Neill's relatives and friends. In the process, he corrected errors and uncovered many additional facts; he deepened our knowledge of the playwright. Sheaffer's has been considered a biography that will never be superseded, because of the richness of detail it gives about the man, his friends, and his circumstances. Sheaffer's copious collection of interview notes, photos, personal letters, newspaper clippings, and other documents, filling numerous file boxes, now reposes in the Sheaffer-O'Neill Collection at the Shain Library at Connecticut College in New London, O'Neill's hometown. Exhaustive as his thirteen-hundred-page work was, Sheaffer once noted that his files contained enough information for two more volumes about O'Neill. And now the Gelbs, working with their own sources as well as Sheaffer's, are said to be nearly finished with a three-volume, twenty-four-hundred-page expansion of their biography.

A further commentator on O'Neill's life must be mentioned, the psychoanalyst James W. Hamilton, who published three fine essays in 1975, 1976, and 1979. They are among the very few analytic works before the present biography to approach O'Neill's life from the standpoint of modern psychoanalytic theory.

When work on the present biography began in the mid-1970s, the author, was a professor of literature and a research candidate beginning nearly nine years of academic and clinical training in psychoanalysis at the Seattle Psychoanalytic Institute. At the time, a few people who had known O'Neill were still alive (some are still). A decision was made to avoid attempting to interview any of them, on the grounds that personal accounts by witnesses might seem more vivid than the published testimony of the dead and so might bring additional sources of bias to the project. As it happened, Sheaffer passed away in 1993, and his papers, including very  extensive interview notes, became available to scholars. On the evidence of his notes, Sheaffer was a remarkably perceptive and empathic interviewer. In nearly all cases where I quote or refer to Sheaffer's published opinions or impressions, I have examined the relevant interview notes and other documents. In some cases I have used material in the notes that did not find its way into his published volumes and have indicated such instances by the parenthetical phrase "(LS papers)." In a certain sense, Sheaffer inevitably became a "character" in this narrative, for the use of his published and unpublished work necessitated examination of his conclusions, impressions, and interactions with witnesses.

At least five friends of the young Eugene died between 1913 and 1919, three (or possibly four) of them by suicide. During this period O'Neill was teaching himself to write plays and was gradually achieving a belated independence from his family. Nothing was harder for him than accepting the losses and mourning his dead. Early difficulties in his life, especially his mother's morphine addiction, greatly affected Eugene's growth toward autonomy and his ability to mourn when death claimed close friends and members of his family.

Just as he had begun to establish his independence, around 1919-1920, a series of new losses beset him. He witnessed his father's prolonged, painful illness and death. Eighteen months later, his mother--youthful-looking and much younger than her husband--who had been free from her morphine addiction for eight years, died of a brain tumor. At once, Jamie O'Neill, Eugene's older brother, determined to drink himself to death, something he managed to do in less than two years. O'Neill lost all the members of his parental family in just over three years. It seems obvious that such a concatenation of losses would greatly affect someone of O'Neill's temperament and background. Yet the losses and their implications have been little noticed and less understood by biographers. The thesis presented in this biography is that O'Neill spent most of his writing life in mourning.

From those terrible days forward, O'Neill was obsessed with his losses, and with the process of mourning. Unable to let the dead remain dead, he showed his preoccupation in everything he did and especially in everything he wrote. He peopled his plays of the 1920s with characters  haunted by the dead, like Eben Cabot of Desire Under the Elms, who speaks daily to his long-dead mother. Like their creator, Nina Leeds and Charley Marsden of Strange Interlude (1926-1927) can neither finish mourning nor cease repeating with others the relationships they had with the dead. The first character O'Neill created who could even attempt to confront her dead was Lavinia Mannon in Mourning Becomes Electra (1929-1931). At the very end of the play, Lavinia has herself sealed in the family home, determined to remain there until she has looked her dead in the face and come to know them and her relations with them.

Such is the "work" of mourning, as psychoanalysis calls it, and such is the task O'Neill set for himself. O'Neill had several encounters with psychoanalysts in the 1920s, and in various remarks he made it clear that he thought of his playwriting as a form of self-psychoanalysis. Shortly after creating Lavinia, O'Neill himself turned inward and ceased to write for immediate production or publication. At this time, also, his health started to break down. He began to experience episodes of profound depression that he told his son seemed to him different from the melancholy he had always known. At the same time, a nameless, idiopathic neurological process, which caused a debilitating tremor, increasingly afflicted him. As will be seen later, the depression and the tremor were almost certainly related.

During this time O'Neill also suffered from a succession of more common ailments. Following an ordinary attack of appendicitis in 1937 and an apparently successful appendectomy, he nearly died of peritonitis and was three months in the hospital recovering. He was in bed when the Swedish consul brought him the Nobel Prize medal and read a presentation speech.

The tremor would eventually make impossible the physical act of writing and later affect his ability to walk or speak or swallow. Despite being often sick from various illnesses, he worked from 1935 to 1939 on a vast series of interrelated plays known as the Cycle, in which he set out to give an account of American economic and political history beginning in 1755 and ending in 1932. He evidently completed drafts of as many as six or seven of the plays, only one of which survives in the original form. If the survivor, More Stately Mansions, is any indication, the account of American history would have been filled with ghosts of the O'Neills, ghosts studied in almost unbearably intimate detail. Writing Mansions and the others was  O'Neill's way of completing the work of mourning.

In 1939, almost casually, O'Neill set aside the Cycle and in the next three years wrote three plays unlike anything he had written before. These were The Iceman Cometh, Long Day's Journey into Night, and Hughie. There would be two more plays before illness made further writing impossible--a revision of the Cycle play A Touch of the Poet and A Moon for the Misbegotten. In these plays O'Neill mourned his dead and moved beyond mourning and tragedy to that remote dramatic continent discovered by Sophocles at the end of his working life, when he wrote Oedipus at Colonos, or by Shakespeare when he composed The Winter's Tale. The growth of O'Neill's artistic powers from the best plays he wrote in the 1920s to the plays of the late 1930s and early 1940s was such that critics and the public only now seem gradually to realize how very remarkable the late achievements are. O'Neill's finest plays were written after he had received the Nobel Prize.

O'Neill fashioned plays from his circumstances that interpreted his own life and the lives of those close to him. Writing plays allowed O'Neill to find in his life an aesthetic coherence resembling that which he gave the materials of his plays. O'Neill probably did not often recognize the internal psychological structures gradually evolving in himself, and he surely had in mind no general aim or plan. But by dint of extraordinary commitment to his work and daily writing stints, he brought himself, little by little, into harmony with events. More than simply developing his talents, O'Neill created a life in which he became congruent with his circumstances.

To put the matter in different terms, the terms of this biography, O'Neill found a way to use the writing of plays as a form of self-psychoanalysis. The analysis was successful to the extent that it allowed him to mourn his dead and to create in his last plays work that must have come very close to fulfilling even so large a talent as his.

It remains to say a little about psychoanalytic object relations theory, the aspect of psychoanalysis most pertinent to understanding mourning. To put it simply, object relations theory has to do with the gradual process by which people grow from a state of almost total dependency in infancy to whatever degree of autonomy they reach in later  life. Mourning, from a psychoanalytic point of view, is the process of separating one's mental images of oneself from one's mental representations of the lost person. Because the images referred to are as much unconscious as conscious, the work of separating self-representations from representations of the dead can never be straightforward and always partly escapes intellectual control. The study of such images and their vicissitudes is called object relations theory. The word object is taken from traditional philosophical categories, subject and object distinguishing me from not-me. It is meant neither to imply coldness toward the other nor to reduce the other's personhood. Distinguishing the me from the not-me is one of the necessary achievements of human development in the first twenty or thirty years of life.

In our early lives, our images of ourselves are often fused with our images of our parents; that is, as children we often cannot distinguish our internal, intuitive sense of self from our intuitive interpretations of a parent. Out of these images of self and others, identity forms itself. In optimal circumstances, the representations enlarge and grow more complex with new experiences and impressions of our parents. Each new experience may add something to what we know of the parent and may complicate our sense of who and what the parent may be as a person.

The word object does not refer to a person but to an internal representation, a subjective interpretation of a person by a child, a person whose view of the world little resembles an adult's perspective. An infant will not immediately connect various discrete images of nursing with the idea "mother" before having reached a certain developmental stage. In passing through the first years, the child becomes increasingly skilled at assimilating and integrating the various experiences out of which parental images are formed. The child's growing ability to create complex parental images is at the center of development toward autonomy. The more integrated the interpretations, the less the child continues to need its parents, and the closer it is to being ready for unsheltered experience. Anything that inhibits development prolongs the period of dependency.

All kinds of events may inhibit development, with varying consequences. The death of a parent generally has a powerful effect on a dependent child. The child's real experience of the parent ceases with the death, and as a consequence the child cannot continue to modify its  internal images of the parent. The child may continue to develop its power to interpret and integrate experience, but it will be partly cut off from its image of the lost parent. The child's internal sense of the relation between itself and the parent is likely to remain unchanged after the loss, at least until the mourner approaches emotional autonomy.

If the unconscious childhood impression of the lost parent is ever to change, and if mourning for the parent is ever to be completed or resolved, the bereaved will probably have to make a conscious and deliberate effort to reconstruct the old relationship. The "work" of mourning is especially complicated when it occurs before one is independent. One must eventually try to reimagine the past from the standpoint of one who is no longer dependent, to allow old images to be seen from a present point of view. One can eventually change one's understanding of the dead: the parent who abandons a needy child becomes a particular person who died leaving a dependent child. To relinquish the old image, one must, among other things, acknowledge one's past and current dependency and understand the particulars of one's needs. The mourner must constantly struggle against the wish to deny the loss and the attendant grief.

The phenomenon of blaming the person who died for abandoning the survivor is a common one. If the bereaved is still arguing with the lost person, he or she in effect denies that the loss has taken place. Fighting with the dead is made simpler when the lost person lives exclusively "in one's head," rather than partly in the outside world. Even so, a death may not be the hardest loss to understand or resolve, simply because it is something we know to be universal and fundamental that forces the separation. Not all losses result from death. One cannot blame death when the lost person remains alive, as in the case of a loss through divorce.

Eugene's problem was still more difficult. He lost his mother when he was fourteen, neither to death nor to a divorce, but to the discovery of her addiction. It reduced and simplified the images he was forming of her. It led him to substitute unspoken code words like weak or fragile or ill or evil for the more complex representations of a highly intelligent adolescent struggling toward understanding. The discovery caused him to place his relationship with his mother partly in suspension, for she could not stand the rough and tumble of reciprocity with an adolescent, and he could not stand the guilt of knowing his power to harm her.

The discovery altered Eugene's relations not only with his mother but with the entire environment in which he was trying to grow up. One of the basic necessities for growing up is a sense of safety. A child feels safe when it knows that whatever it does, others in the world will not be permanently harmed, nor will the child have to suffer the worst consequences of its aggression. The sense of safety coexists in uneasy alliance with what is called childhood omnipotence, a subjective belief in the power of one's thoughts to alter the world that expresses itself in, say, a little boy's cockiness or in a teenager's risk-taking. One aspect of the belief in the omnipotence of one's thoughts is that it allows one to acquire gradually, rather than too quickly, the knowledge that reality is largely indifferent to the needs and wishes of a person who (in reality) is small and powerless. Whatever sense of safety Eugene may have felt before he knew of his mother's addiction he lost afterward. There was the realistic concern, any time his mother was free from the morphine, that an upset in the family might send her back to the drug.

An even more profound loss than the loss of the sense of safety occurred with the discovery of her addiction, and that was the knowledge that simply by being born he had caused her addiction and permanently changed her life and the lives of his father and brother. There is such a thing as too great a feeling of childhood omnipotence, the consequence of which may be inhibitions, anxiety, and neuroses. Such was Eugene's situation when he learned of his mother's addiction. He lost himself and his parents and then spent the rest of his life recovering them in order to be independent.

The process of transformation that leads from dependency to individuation and autonomy involves a host of issues inescapable in the age of skepticism. The medium of transformation for O'Neill was his writing, the work that occupied most of his time from 1913 until 1943. O'Neill remarked more than once, with as much sincerity as irony, that writing was his vacation from living or that living was something he endured in order to write. It was a complaint about poor health, and it turned post-Puritan and post-Victorian attitudes toward work topsy-turvy. But the remark also implied that the process working gave the playwright enough satisfaction and happiness to compensate for anything else life might do to him. O'Neill had something like an Aristotelian attitude toward happiness, which he  thought of not only as moments of pleasure, but as a continual pursuit of arete, the complex notion of "excellence," the search for which was assumed to lead to a deeper happiness. (It was arete that Jefferson meant by "the pursuit of happiness.") Whatever happiness O'Neill may have reached, the pursuit gave coherence to his life.

Return to "Eugene O'Neill: Beyond Mourning and Tragedy"

 

Copyright 1999-2007 eOneill.com