American Drama Transformed
In 1930, Sinclair Lewis defined Eugene O'Neill's place in American culture: "[O'Neill] has done nothing much in the American drama save to transform it utterly in ten or twelve years from a false world of neat and competent trickery to a world of splendor, fear and greatness ... [he has] seen life as something not to be neatly arranged in a study, but as terrifying, magnificent and often quite horrible, a thing akin to a tornado, an earthquake or a devastating fire.''
Growing up literally backstage in the theatre of his father, O'Neill knew intimately the kind of drama he did not want to write. He was repelled by the hackneyed and melodramatic plots, broad gestures, and overwrought oratory of the American theatre and responded instinctively to the realism and experimental techniques of the European dramatists Shaw, Ibsen, and especially Strindberg.
O'Neill believed that the theatre should be taken as serious art rather than pleasant diversion. He wanted to pull in his audiences, make demands on them, and commit them to the experience. He freely used experimental techniques to do so, but always in the service of a fundamental realism. From the start, O'Neill was interested in the inner drama of his characters more than their physical or social world, and he evoked psychological states through powerful metaphorical settings. His innovations and revivals of ancient techniques were legion: masks and other expressionist devices, great length, the casting of black actors, taboo subject matter, extended asides with the action frozen, and serious dramatic treatment of the poor and powerless.
For all O'Neill's disdain for his father's theatre, the "tricks" he had absorbed in his youth continued to emerge in his mastery of staging and his adaptability to the practical demands of the theatre. Even some of what he considered the less desirable characteristics of the old school colored his work. In critic Heywood Broun's words: "In many external things, O'Neill is a pioneer... But he is still the true son of the man who played The Count of Monte Cristo more than a thousand times.... Heredity has left in O'Neill the actor's greediness for every last potential twist and turn in any given situation." O'Neill himself said of the leading role in A Touch of the Poet: "What that one needs is an actor like Maurice Barrymore or James O'Neill, my old man. One of those big-chested, chiseled-mug, romantic old boys..."
O'Neill's experiments, his unblinking look at raw, and sometimes ugly truths, were theatrical blows in a broader Cultural Revolution. He worked during a time of radical change and cross-fertilization in the arts, sciences, and social thought. Modernists like Brecht and Artaud in the theatre; Joyce, Woolf, and Eliot in fiction and poetry; Stravinsky and Schoenberg in music; and Picasso and Kandinsky in painting were breaking with ancient assumptions and conventions. O'Neill was in the thick of this movement to, in Ezra Pound's words, "Make it new."
Above all, O'Neill aspired to the tragic. He was challenged by Greek and Elizabethan tragedy and by what he termed the "the first theatre that sprang, by virtue of man's imaginative interpretation of life, out of his worship to Dionysus." His great achievement, in plays like Desire Under the Elms and Mourning Becomes Electra, was to forge native materials into true American tragedy.
From Early Promise to Mature Vision
O'Neill wrote nearly 60 plays in a career spanning three decades. Listed here are some of the more important ones, with dates of composition: