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The four-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel laureate for literature in 1936, Eugene O’Neill is considered a ground-breaking figure in American dramatic literature. He enlarged the scope, material, and technique of American drama while setting high aspirations for himself. Many of O’Neill’s plays focus on the anguish and pain experienced by sensitive people. His work did not merely enrich American drama: he reinvented it and prepared the way for the playwrights who followed. O’Neill’s master-pieces include Anna Christie (1921), Strange Interlude (1928), Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), and Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956).
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Born Eugene Gladstone O’Neill in a New York City hotel in 1888, he was the third son of James and Ella Quinlan O’Neill. His father was an outstanding romantic actor, best known for his portrayal of the lead in the stage version of The Count of Monte Cristo six thousand times, and O’Neill spent the first seven years of his life on tour with his parents. Although he received much exposure to the theater, he disliked living in hotel rooms, and the constant traveling drove his mother to become addicted to drugs, particularly morphine. Throughout his childhood, his family life was dysfunctional and tormented.
From the age of seven to fourteen, O’Neill was educated at Catholic schools. He then rebelled against any further Catholic education, and his parents sent him to high school at the Betts Academy in Connecticut. O’Neill began spending time with his elder brother James, a heavy drinker, who introduced him to debauchery. O’Neill’s formal education ended in 1907 with an unfinished year at Princeton University, which ended with his dismissal from the school. By this time, his only interests were alcohol, books, and women, though he also held a job for a mail order firm.
Focus on Playwriting
After his 1909 marriage to Kathleen Jenkins, O’Neill left for Honduras to mine for gold. He later worked at sea and held odd jobs in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Over the years, nearly half of his published plays show his interest in the sea. In 1912, O’Neill’s marriage broke up, he attempted suicide, and he developed tuberculosis. (Tuberculosis was a bacterial lung infection for which the only current treatment was bed rest. Antibiotics had not yet been developed, limiting treatment options.) By the time he was released from the hospital after a six-month hospital stay in June 1913, he had decided to become a dramatist.
O’Neill began to read every modern play he could find and wrote constantly. With his father’s help, five of O’Neill’s one-act plays were published in 1914. After spending a term in George Pierce Baker’s playwriting class at Harvard University, O’Neill planned on returning in the fall of 1915, but instead lived at a bar and hotel in New York City known as the ”Hell Hole.” There, he drank heavily and produced nothing.
Success as a Playwright
During this period, World War I was being fought. This conflict began in Europe in 1914 after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Because of political tensions and entangling alliances, nearly all of Europe soon became involved in the conflict. In 1917, the United States joined the war on the side of Great Britain and France after Germany’s naval fleet began sinking American merchant ships in British waters. Ultimately, ten million soldiers died and twenty million were wounded during the course of the ”Great War.”
O’Neill resumed his playwriting when he joined the Provincetown Players in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. (He later became the co-manager of the Provincetown Players, beginning in 1923.) There, several of his plays about the sea were produced, including Bound East for Cardiff (1916), which made him well known by 1918. Also in 1918, O’Neill married his second wife, Agnes Boulton, with whom he had two children, Shane and Oona.
Popular Full-Length Plays
Until this point, O’Neill concentrated heavily on the one-act form. In 1920, his first one-act play, Beyond the Horizon, was produced, for which he won his first Pulitzer Prize. This play was similar to the one-act form in its structure, but by adding a poetic and well-spoken character, O’Neill was able to reach high dramatic moments.
Over the next fifteen years, O’Neill wrote twenty-one plays. Some were brilliant successes, such as Anna Christie and Strange Interlude (1928), both of which won Pulitzers. Other significant plays include Desire Under the Elms (1924) and Mourning Becomes Electra (1931). Other plays, such as Diffrent (1920) and All God’s Chillun Got Wings (1924), received mixed reviews, while his plays Dynamo (1929) and Days Without End (1934) were outright disasters. Yet, O’Neill’s importance as a dramatist was confirmed with his winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1936.
O’Neill’s personal life was turbulent as well. During the early 1920s, O’Neill’s father, mother, and brother all died within a three-year span. His marriage also became troubled, and he divorced Boulton in 1929. O’Neill married actress Carlotta Monterey soon after. She brought a sense of order to his life, managing it in order to facilitate his work. Her care helped him remain productive and also made it possible for him to give up alcohol. Suffering ill health after 1937, O’Neill became a virtual recluse in France, Bermuda, Sea Island, Georgia, and California.
O’Neill continued to write original works until 1943 when he was prevented from writing by a hand tremor resulting from Parkinson’s disease. However, few of these late plays were produced during his lifetime. For example, O’Neill wrote about his tormented upbringing in his tour-de-force autobiographical play, Long Day’s Journey into Night. While the play was written in 1940, he ordered it withheld from production for twenty-five years. However, in 1956, a few years after his death, his widow allowed its first staging in New York.
One late original play that was produced in New York was The Iceman Cometh, which was written earlier but first produced in 1946. This play fascinated audiences despite its length. It concludes that humans require self-lies to sustain them; life without pipe dreams is too terrible for most people. At the time of his death, O’Neill had six unfinished original plays. When he knew that death was near, he tore up the plays rather than have someone else rewrite them.
O’Neill died of pneumonia on November 27, 1953, in Boston. In the years after his death, a number of his late plays were produced to acclaim and great success. For example, O’Neill won his last Pulitzer posthumously for Long Day’s Journey into Night. The success of this play— which also won the Antoinette Perry Award for best play—solidified O’Neill’s reputation with audiences who had not seen his plays in the 1920s or 1930s.
Works in Literary Context
O’Neill’s plays focus on themes of family guilt and strife, the destructive power of love, the constrictions of marriage, the necessity for sensitive and gifted characters to escape their environments, the need for ”pipe dreams,” and—perhaps his main recurring theme—the tragic effects on people who betray their temperaments or violate their natures. His most memorable characters are obsessed by fixed ideas or romantic ideals. Many of O’Neill’s plays are extremely long—running typically four or five hours on stage—and tend to feature marathon monologues and profound themes touching on the human condition. His early plays employed realism and naturalism, using realistic speech and detail. However, later plays featured ”super-naturalism”—the systemic use of symbolism in a realistic work. As an author, O’Neill was influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche, August Strindberg, and historical dramas. The destructive love and guilt of his family also especially inspired O’Neill’s later family dramas.
O’Neill introduced expressionistic techniques into American drama in his endeavor to objectify the inner experiences of his characters. Expressionism is an artistic style that departs from the conventions of realism and naturalism and seeks to convey inner experience by distorting, rather than representing, natural images. In expressionistic works, such as O’Neill’s plays, distortion, simplification, exaggeration, and symbolic settings are employed. His The Emperor Jones (1920) is regarded as the first American expressionist play; it was followed by The Hairy Ape (1922). In The Emperor Jones, Brutus Jones moves from reality, to conscious memories of the past, to subconscious roots of his ancient heritage, as he flees for his life. The play ends with the reality of his death. O’Neill also employed techniques from the classics and gave them expressionistic treatments. In The Great God Brown (1926), masks indicate the characters’ efforts to hide their conflicts of mind and soul. Lazarus Laughed (1927) employs mask and chorus.
Autobiographical Troubled Families
In the 1930s and 1940s, O’Neill wrote many plays about troubled people and their families, inspired by his own life. He was dealing with his ”private demons” by using his own experience to make broad statements about human nature. All God’s Chillun Got Wings, for example is a symbolic account of his parents’ marriage that shows a black man—”Jim”— and a white woman—”Ella”—who struggle to love each other despite their differences. While Mourning Becomes Electra is an adaptation of the ”Oresteia” trilogy of Aeschylus, the tale of passion, murder, and divine retribution suggested to O’Neill his family’s buried relationships. For O’Neill, the psychology of family life, not the ancient gods, determines each character’s fate. Long Day’s Journey into Night portrays even more tragic family dynamics. Set in New London, Connecticut, on one day in 1912 at the home of the Tyrone family, the members of the family try to be kind to each other as the day begins, but ugly memories repeatedly emerge and inspire intensifying rounds of soul-searching, recrimination, and apology. Not all plays with this theme were dark, however. The nostalgic comedy, Ah, Wilderness! (1933), was inspired by his youth in New London, Connecticut. The main character is Richard Miller, a good-natured seventeen-year-old who prompts a minor scandal by quoting “decadent” poetry to his girlfriend. Chastised by adults, he rebels by visiting a bar and a prostitute with a heart of gold. When he comes home drunk, his alcoholic Uncle Sid gently sees him to bed.
Works in Critical Context
While O’Neill is now generally considered among America’s foremost dramatists, his plays were not always well received when originally produced. Despite receiving the Nobel Prize in literature in 1936, O’Neill’s reputation as a playwright declined steadily after 1935, reaching an all-time low shortly after his death in 1953. However, a number of his late plays were produced for the first time beginning in the mid- to late 1950s. The O’Neill revival in the late 1950s credited him with making American drama into literature and with bringing the combination of personal and cultural memory to the American stage. Critics downplayed his so-called morbidness by emphasizing the theme of salvation through tragedy. His detractors, however, claimed that O’Neill was over-ambitious, that his plays were too long and obscure, faulting his strange combination of mysticism and melodrama and calling his writing thin. Furthermore, feminist reassessments pointed out O’Neill’s vilification of women, questioning the possibilities for women in realism itself. Nonetheless, most critics agree that his influence on American theater history is undeniable.
Desire Under the Elms
Regarded as one of O’Neill’s best early dramas, Desire Under the Elms established his reputation as one of the foremost American dramatists of the twentieth century. Because of its controversial themes of incest and infanticide, the play was unfavorably reviewed on its debut but has subsequently been regarded as what Travis Bogard in Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O’Neill terms ”the first important tragedy to be written in America.” Contemporary critics were more divided, with commentators like the Nation’s Joseph Wood Krutch praising the play without trying to discover a redeeming social message. He wrote that ”The meaning and unity of [O’Neill’s] work lies not in any controlling intellectual idea and certainly not in a ‘message, but merely in the fact that each play is an experience of extraordinary intensity.” Noting that the play transcended its themes and setting, Krutch concluded, O’Neill’s play is ”interested less in New England as such than in an aspect of the eternal tragedy of man and his passions.
Long Day’s Journey into Night
When Long Day’s Journey into Night made its premiere in 1956, O’Neill’s reputation among critics was that of an outdated, over the hill, third-rate thinker. After the play made its debut in Boston, and then in New York City that fall, critics changed their thinking about the playwright and his talent. From its earliest productions, Journey was regarded as a masterpiece. In the New York Daily News, John Chapman wrote that the Tyrones ”become larger than their own small lives. They become humanity, looking for something but not knowing exactly what it is looking for. Chapman concluded, ”This is O Neill s most beautiful play. . . . And it is one of the great dramas of any time. Similarly, Harold Clurman in the Nation wrote, ”The play is the testament of the most serious playwright our country has produced. Over the years, critics remained impressed by the play, with LerS Miralas noting in Eugene O’Neill’s Critics: Voices from Abroad, ”It would be difficult to point out a piece written more at the margin of all conventions, more contrary to all the tastes of the public, more bitter, and more painful, which cleanses the soul and at the same time is constructed without the least deference to theatrical canons, classical forms, and patron saints of theatre.”
- Alexander, Doris. Eugene O’Neill’s Creative Struggle: The Decisive Decade, 1924—1933. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992.
- Bagchee, Shymal, ed. Perspectives on O’Neill: New Essays. Victoria, B.C.: University of Victoria, 1988.
- Black, Stephen A. Eugene O’Neill: Beyond Mourning and Tragedy. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 1999.
- Bogard, Travis. Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O’Neill. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.
- Dubost, Thierry. Struggle, Defeat, or Rebirth: Eugene O’Neill’s Vision of Humanity. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1996.
- Mirlas, Le6n. ”The Scope of O’Neill’s Drama.” In Eugene O’Neill’s Critics: Voices from Abroad, edited by Horst Frenz and Susan Tuck. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984, pp.101-09.
- Sheaffer, Louis. O’Neill, Son and Artist. Rev. ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 2002.
- Chapman, John. Review of LongDay’s Journey into Night. New York Daily News (November 8, 1956).
- Clurman, Harold. Review of LongDay’s Journey into Night. The Nation (March 3, 1956).
- Krutch, Joseph Wood. ”The God of the Stumps.” The Nation (November 26, 1924): 578-80.
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