O'Neill, American playwright
Born October 16, 1888
New York, New York, USA
Died November 27, 1953
Eugene Gladstone O'Neill (October 16, 1888 – November 27, 1953)
was a Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright. More than
any other dramatist, O'Neill introduced the dramatic realism pioneered
by Anton Chekhov, Henrik Ibsen, and August Strindberg into American
drama, and was the first to use truly American vernacular in his speeches.
His plays involve characters who inhabit the fringes of society, where
they struggle to maintain their hopes and aspirations but ultimately
slide into disillusionment and despair. O'Neill wrote only one comedy
(Ah, Wilderness!); all his other plays involve some degree of tragedy
or personal pessimism.
He was also part
of the modern movement to revive the classical heroic mask from ancient
Greek theatre and Japanese Noh theatre in some of his plays.
O'Neill was very
interested in the Faust theme, especially in the 1920s.
C Life's life was connected to New London, Connecticut. His
father was an Irish-born stage actor named James O'Neill, who had grown
up in impoverished circumstances. He became famous for playing the title
role in a stage version of The Count of Monte Cristo. His mother, Ella
Quinlan O'Neill, was the emotionally fragile daughter of a wealthy father
who died when she was seventeen. Recent research has clearly shown that
Ella's father had Armenian roots. O'Neill's mother
never recovered from the death of her second son, Edmund, who had died
of measles at the age of two. She later became addicted to morphine
as a result of Eugene O'Neill's difficult birth.
O'Neill was born
in a Broadway hotel room. Because of his father's profession, O'Neill
was sent to a Catholic boarding school where he found his only solace
After being suspended
from Princeton University, he spent several years at sea, during which
time he suffered from depression and alcoholism. O'Neill's parents and
older brother Jamie (who drank himself to death at the age of 45) died
within three years of one another, and O'Neill turned to writing as
a form of escape. Despite suffering from depression while he was at
sea, O'Neill had a deep love for the sea, and it became a prominent
theme in most of his plays, with several plays actually taking place
on ships like the ones that he worked on.
While he was associated
with the Provincetown Players, several of his early plays were put on
by that group of actors and playwrights. O'Neill had previously been
employed by the New London Telegraph, writing poetry as well as reporting.
It wasn't until his experience in 1912–13 at a sanatorium (where
he was recovering from tuberculosis) that he decided to devote himself
full time to writing plays. (Connecticut College maintains the Louis
Sheaffer Collection, consisting of material collected by O'Neill's most
thorough biographer. The principal collection of O'Neill papers is at
Yale University. The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut
fosters the development of new plays under his name.)
During the 1910s
O'Neill was a regular on the Greenwich Village literary scene, where
he also befriended many radicals, most notably Communist Party USA founder
John Reed. O'Neill also at one time had a romantic relationship with
Reed's wife, writer Louise Bryant. O'Neill was portrayed by Jack Nicholson
in the 1981 film Reds about the life of John Reed, in which he served
as the film's voice of anti-facism and cynicism.
O'Neill was married
to Kathleen Jenkins from 1909 to 1912, during which time they had one
son, Eugene Jr. In 1917, O'Neill met Agnes Boulton, a successful writer
of commercial fiction, and they married in April 1918. The years of
their marriage — during which the couple had two children, Shane
and Oona — are described vividly in her 1958 memoir Part of a
Long Story. They divorced in 1929, after O'Neill abandoned Boulton and
the children for the actress Carlotta Monterey.
In 1929 O'Neill
and Monterey moved to the Loire Valley of northwest France, where they
lived in the Chateau du Plessis in St. Antoine-du-Rocher, Indre-et-Loire.
He moved to Danville, California in 1937 and lived there until 1944.
His house there (known as Tao House), is today the Eugene O'Neill National
published play, Beyond the Horizon, opened on Broadway in 1920 to great
acclaim, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. His best-known
plays include "Anna Christie" (Pulitzer Prize 1922), Desire
Under the Elms 1924, Strange Interlude (Pulitzer Prize 1928), Mourning
Becomes Electra 1931, and his only comedy Ah, Wilderness!, a wistful
re-imagining of his own youth as he wished it had been. In 1936 he received
the Nobel Prize for Literature. After a ten-year pause, O'Neill's now-renowned
play The Iceman Cometh was produced in 1946. The following year's A
Moon for the Misbegotten failed, and would not gain recognition as being
among his best works until decades later.
In the first years
of their marriage, Monterey organized O'Neill's life, making it possible
for him to devote himself to writing. However, she later became addicted
to potassium bromide and the marriage deteriorated, resulting in a number
of separations. (O'Neill always complained about her cooking, maintaining
that the only thing she knew how to make was chili with cornbread.)
She was dramatic and shallow, but O'Neill needed her, and she needed
him. Although they separated several times, they never divorced.
In 1943, O'Neill
disowned his daughter Oona for marrying the English actor, director
and producer Charlie Chaplin when she was 18 and Chaplin was 54. He
never saw Oona again.
He also had distant
relationships with his sons, Eugene O'Neill Jr., a Yale classicist who
suffered from alcoholism, and committed suicide in 1950 at the age of
40, and Shane O'Neill, a heroin addict who also committed suicide.
from multiple health problems (including alcoholism) over many years,
O'Neill ultimately faced a severe Parkinsons-like tremor in his hands
which made it impossible for him to write (he had tried using dictation
but found himself unable to compose in that way) during the last 10
years of his life.
O'Neill died in
room 401 of the Sheraton Hotel in Boston, on November 27, 1953, at the
age of 65. (The building is now the Shelton Hall dormitory at Boston
University) A revised analysis of his autopsy report shows that, contrary
to the previous diagnosis, he did not have a Parkinson's disease but
a late-onset cerebellar cortical atrophy. He was interred in the Forest
Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. O'Neill's final words
were, "Born in a hotel room… and God dammit, died in one!"
Although his written
instructions had stipulated that it not be made public until 25 years
after his death, in 1956 Carlotta arranged for his autobiographical
masterpiece Long Day's Journey Into Night to be published, and produced
on stage to tremendous critical acclaim and won the Pulitzer Prize in
1957. This last play is now considered to be his finest play. Other
posthumously-published works include A Touch of the Poet (1958) and
More Stately Mansions (1967).
Eugene O'Neill (1888
- 1953) Playwright American playwright who brought a literary sensibility
and many experimental techniques to the American stage in his portrayals
of everything from Greek tragedy to the abysmal depths of alcoholism
Born October 16,
1888 in New York, New York Ethnicity Irish Residences Georgia, Connecticut,
Massachusetts, California, New York
Died November 27, 1953 in Boston, Massachusetts Nationality American
Other occupations Sailor, Secretary, Reporter, Mule Tender, Beachcomber,
Eugene O'Neill was
born October 16, 1888 in New York, the third son of a dysfunctional
family with strong ties to the theater.
Ellen became a life long drug addict after she was morphine by her physician
to recover from Eugene's birth. As a boy, O'Neill attended a number
of Catholic schools while the family traveled with his father, Eugene
Sr., who played the title role in a traveling production of The Count
of Monte Cristo. The instability of this life took its toll on the family,
especially on his mother Ellen whose drug use increased during this
period. Two of the greatest influences of O'Neill's early life were
his family's Irish Catholicism and his older, dissolute brother Jaime
who Eugene admired and soon took after.
In 1902, his parents
sent O'Neill to a prep boarding school in Connecticut where their wayward
son spent much of his time discovering the seedier side of life with
his brother Jaime. In 1906, O'Neill attended Princeton University, but
his interest in carousing soon took precedence. He said this period
of life was one of 'booze, books, and broads' (mostly prostitutes).
He was suspended from Princeton in 1907 for breaking a window in a railroad
After leaving university,
Eugene married Kathleen Jenkins in 1909 and continued his debauched
ways while trying to hold down a job with the New York-Chicago Supply
Company. His family disapproved of the marriage and forced Eugene to
set sail for Honduras where he was to prospect for gold. By this time,
Kathleen was already pregnant; she gave birth to Eugene Gladstone Jr.
in 1910. O'Neill returned from Honduras after contracting Malaria, but
soon set sail again aboard a Norwegian ship.
He lived for a time
in Buenos Aires, Liverpool and New York, barely surviving with a few
menial jobs and lots of begging. In 1912, Eugene almost ended his life
with an overdose of Veronal in Jimmy-the-Priest's, a dive bar where
Eugene was living in a back room. After recovering with the help of
us family, O'Neill toured with his father's company for awhile and then
worked as a reporter for The New London Telegraph, where he also contributed
poetry. O'Neill's fledgling journalistic career was sidelined when he
was diagnosed with tuberculosis at the end of 1912.
During the six months
he spent months recuperating at Gaylord Farm Sanatorium, Eugene started
writing plays and discovered his life's calling: to be a serious playwright.
Eugene's first four plays, all written in 1913, were melodramas, a dramatic
form that ruled the American stage at the time. Upon the suggestion
of critic Clayton Hamilton, Eugene privately published these early plays
under the title Thirst and Other One Act Plays in 1914, but the book
went relatively unnoticed.
With the help of
his father, O'Neill enrolled in George Pierce Baker's renowned play
writing course at Harvard in the fall of 1914, where he produced a few
plays, most of which he later destroyed. Though O'Neill valued the experience,
he did not return for the second year of the program and instead moved
to Greenwich Village in 1915 where he was a regular patron of another
dive bar, The Hell Hole. The following year Eugene moved to Provincetown,
Massachusetts where he at last found a group of performers who shared
his experimental dramatic sensibility and appreciated the depiction
of derelicts, prostitutes and God's injustice found in the playwrights
early works. The group had organized their own theater company, The
Provincetown Players, and decided to produce O'Neill's play Bound East
for Cardiff. The play debuted in July 28, 1916 and was a moderate success.
This success started O'Neill writing again and he produced two more
one act plays by the end of the summer.
In the fall of 1916,
the Provincetown Players moved to New York and produced four of O'Neill’s
one act plays in their first season, helping to established the young
author's reputation in the theatrical capital of America. O'Neill remained
in Provincetown and began living with Agnes Boulton, a young magazine
editor, in the fall of 1917. During the winter, he continued writing
at a rapid pace, producing 5 more plays, and had his first play produced
outside of the Provincetown Players. Agnes and Eugene married in the
spring of 1918, but the marriage was rocky from the start. Over the
next few years, O'Neill continued to write plays at a fairly rapid and
regular pace. Many of his plays were produced during this period and
helped establish his reputation as one of America's most promising young
In 1919, O'Neill
and his wife moved to an isolated home on the coast of Massachusetts
where the couple's drinking and fighting intensified. By this time,
O'Neill was the father of two young children, but he was a rather cold
father who saw his children as distractions from his work more than
anything else. In 1920, his father, who Eugene had recently reconciled
with, fell ill and died. In the early 1920's, O'Neill produced the finest
plays of his early period, Anna Christie, Emperor Jones and The Hairy
Ape. With these plays, O'Neill came of age as a playwright and introduced
expressionistic techniques to the American stage for the first time.
Throughout the 1920's, Eugene continued writing plays that featured
expressionistic techniques and tackled such controversial topics as
miscegenation. During this period, Eugene didn't confine himself to
contemporary settings. He wrote The Fountain about a 17th century conquistador
and based Marcos Millions on Marco Polo's journey to Asia. By the end
of the decade O'Neill had established himself as America's foremost
The 1928 production
of Marcos Millions began O'Neill's lifelong association with the Theater
Guild, a wealthy New York production company interested in promoting
new playwrights and experimental theater. The first play to prominently
feature O'Neill's trademark use of masks was The Great God Brown, produced
in 1926. O'Neill enjoyed his first popular success with Strange Interlude
The five hour long
production, which was one of the first plays to introduce Freudian themes
to the American stage, ran for 426 performances. Though a raging alcoholic,
Eugene was 'strictly on the wagon' while writing because his labor-intensive
method of composition (extensive rewrites, outlines and reams of research
notes) demanded such intense clarity and focus that he could not afford
With the help of
intense psychological treatment, O'Neill gave up drinking in 1926, with
the exception of two brief relapses. In the late 1920's, O'Neill became
involved with Carlotta Monterey, a young mentally unstable actress,
and eventually moved to France to live with her. In 1929, after a bitter
divorce from Agnes, O'Neill and Carlotta married in Paris. Carlotta
proved to be a valuable asset for her husband's literary career by managing
his daily affairs and limiting his visitors so he could concentrate
on his work.
From 1929 to 1931,
while in France with Carlotta, Eugene wrote the Mourning Becomes Electra,
a series of three plays based on the ancient Greek tragic trilogy Oresteia,
but set in the American South shortly after the Civil War. This play
marked the end of O'Neill's experimental period and a return to more
traditional dramatic techniques; gone were the masks of The Great God
Brown and the internal thoughts spoken by a chorus as featured in Strange
Interlude. O'Neill sought something simpler and more subtle in developing
a new dramatic language for modern tragedy. The couple returned to New
York in 1931 to oversee the production of the trilogy. Unfortunately,
the plays were not entirely successful and caused confusion among many
critics. Carlotta thought it best that Eugene live in isolated locations
so he could be free of distractions so the couple moved to a remote
house in Sea Island, Georgia in the early 1930's. There, Eugene began
working on Ah, Wilderness!, a lighthearted play about an idyllic rural
childhood that became O'Neill's greatest popular success when it was
produced in 1933. At the height of this popularity, O'Neill exiled himself
from the New York theater scene, disliking its increasing commercialization,
and moved to the Tau House, an estate in Danville, California.
For the rest of
the 1930's, Eugene worked on a cycle of 11 plays that was to trace an
American Family from 1800 to the present day. Unfortunately, he finished
only one play, A Touch of a Poet, before abandoning the project in 1939.
O'Neill and his wife destroyed all of the unfinished manuscripts in
the early 1950's except for More Stately Mansions, which they missed
by accident. Despite the onset of a Parkinson-like disease that made
the physical act of writing very difficult, O'Neill embarked upon an
extremely productive period in the early 1940's during which he wrote
a number of his masterpieces, including The Iceman Cometh and A Long
Day's Journey into Night. Though he had completed both of these plays
by the early 1940's, O'Neill waited for World War II to end before returning
to the New York stage, fearing that the despairing view of life expressed
in these plays would not be well received while war still raged.
After a 13 year
absence, O'Neill returned to Broadway with The Iceman Cometh in 1946.
It was to be O'Neill's last Broadway production during his lifetime.
With A Long Day's Journey Into Night, O'Neill had at last transcended
the constraints of melodrama and produced the unique dramatic statement
he had been trying to write his entire life, but, due to the extensive
autobiographical content in the play, O'Neill did not want the play
produced until 25 years after his death. His widow disregarded these
wishes and authorized a production in Stockholm, Sweden in 1956, a mere
three years after her husband's death. O'Neill also planned a series
of one act plays where a character would deliver a monologue to The
Good Listener, represented on stage by a life-size marionette, but only
one play, Hughie, came from this project. He completed his last play,
A Moon for the Misbegotten, in 1943. After the failed 1947 Off-Broadway
production of A Moon for the Misbegotten, O'Neill gave up writing altogether.
By this time, O'Neill's health was failing and he refused to use dictation,
claiming that he could not create without a pencil and paper. In his
last years, Eugene suffered through his fist son' suicide, his second
son's arrest for heroin possession and his wife's increasing mental
instability. Unable to write, Eugene retreated from his turbulent domestic
life to a Boston hotel room where he waited to die. On November 27,
1953, America's first great playwright died alone, broken and largely
forgotten, much like many of his own characters. The production in the
mid-1950's of his two last great plays, The Iceman Cometh and A Long
Day's Journey Into Night, sparked a renewed interest in O'Neill and
he was finally hailed as the true father of American theater and one
of the greatest playwrights the country had ever produced.