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Eugene O'Neill sitting in the grass, holding a book.
Black and white faded photo of O'Neill sitting on grass in striped bathrobe, holding book in left hand. Possibly taken by Carlotta. Given to Robert Sisk by Carlotta. NPS Photo. (EUON 2104)
 
 

The Long Day's Journey of Eugene O'Neill

America's greatest playwright

Until he came to Tao House in Danville, California, America's greatest playwright had been a wanderer. Eugene O'Neill was born in New York City on October 16, 1888, the son of James O'Neill, an actor who, like other major stars of the time, spent his life on extended tours of the country. The young O'Neill spent his infancy in hotel rooms and the wings of theatres. As he grew older, Eugene was sent to private Catholic boarding schools and to Princeton University. His growing realization that his father's considerable talent had been cheapened by repeated performances of the melodrama The Count of Monte Cristo, and his shocked discovery that his mother was addicted to the morphine prescribed for her painful recovery from Eugene's birth, proved realities too great for the young man to endure. He ran from them.

Eugene O'Neill ran to Honduras in 1909 on a gold-prospecting expedition, to South America in 1910, sailing on one of the declining number of commercial wind-powered ships, and to England in 1911 on the crew of a passenger ship. He tried to escape by drinking and, for a time, he lived in a flophouse on the Manhattan waterfront. Once he attempted suicide. In 1912, when he was 24, he fell ill with tuberculosis. In the sanitarium, for the first time, he was forced to pause.

His illness was quickly arrested. During his convalescence, Eugene began to write plays, testing himself in the theatrical world he had long watched from the wings. In the summer of 1916, at Provincetown, Massachusetts, he joined a group of amateur actors who staged his short play about the sea, Bound East for Cardiff, with such success that his playwriting ambitions were affirmed. Critical and popular success followed rapidly. In 1920 he received the first of his four Pulitzer Prizes for the tragedy Beyond the Horizon, a play that combined the real and the poetic in a manner that Broadway playgoers had not seen before. In 1922, the tragic but comic "Anna Christie" won a second Pulitzer Prize.

O'Neill rapidly became known as America's most exciting dramatist. Actors and scenic designers were taxed by the demands of his imagination, but he was not less demanding on himself. Writing was everything. The scope of his plays is wide: Marco Polo's voyage to China (Marco Millions, 1928); a play of contemporary life, using masks in the Greek manner (The Great God Brown, 1926); a nine-act drama in which the characters speak their thoughts aloud (Strange Interlude, 1928, for which he won his third Pulitzer Prize); and a gentle comedy about young love in turn-of-the-century New England (Ah, Wilderness!, 1933). By the time he came to California in 1936, 35 of his plays had been produced. Including those that remained incomplete or had been destroyed, he had written nearly 60 plays.

By 1936, with no clear idea of when or how it would be produced, O'Neill had begun work on a cycle of plays about the history of a family in America. Ultimately 11 plays long in plan, its theme was announced in its title, A Tale of Possessors, Self-Dispossessed. While writing it, he often had to work on several plays simultaneously, and he needed isolation so that concentration could be continuous and undisturbed. In 1936, while he was visiting Seattle, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. With the stipend, he and his wife Carlotta were able to build the home he came to call his "final harbour," Tao House.

During the early years in California, O'Neill worked single-mindedly, at times almost desperately, on the historical cycle. But, he was plagued with health problems and the overwhelming task he had set himself was draining him of energy and spirit. After completing A Touch of the Poet, he shelved the cycle (he burned the plays before leaving Tao House) and in rapid succession wrote the autobiographical plays that rank among the highest achievements of the English speaking theatre: The Iceman Cometh, Hughie, A Moon for the Misbegotten, and Long Day's Journey Into Night. For the last play, he received his fourth Pulitzer Prize, awarded posthumously following the New York premiere in 1956.

O'Neill never completed another play after 1943. A worsening tremor in his hands slowly robbed him of the ability to write, and he found himself blocked when he was unable to set pencil to paper. The coming of the war cut off life support systems at Tao House: servants were unavailable, and neither of the O'Neills could drive. Suffering from a rare degenerative disease, O'Neill had to leave his sanctuary and once again move on. In a hotel room in Boston, he destroyed the drafts and notes for his unfinished plays. Carlotta said it was like "tearing up children." Effectively silenced by illness, O'Neill died there in Boston in 1953.

 

Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936

In 1936, Eugene O'Neill was the first American playwright to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Nobel Prize is the highest international recognition given to honor the creativity of the human mind.

On November 12, 1936, O'Neill received word that he had won the Nobel Prize while living in Seattle, Washington. At the time, he was not able to go to Stockholm to receive the award, but did write the acceptance speech. On February 17, 1937, O'Neill received his Nobel Certificate while in Oakland Merritt Hospital.

After O'Neill won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936, the demands on the famous playwright became even greater. He wanted only time and solitude to write his plays while he was still healthy. Tao House and Carlotta's protectiveness were what he needed. "He doesn't like giving out energy," she wrote, "that could be, and should be, kept for his work." O'Neill was temporarily discouraged by World War II, believing the theatre frivolous in the face of the world's "tragic drama," but was soon working again, observing, "You can't keep a hophead off his dope for long."
 

O'Neill: 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.

 

List of Plays

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:

Bound East For Cardiff - 1914
In the Zone - 1917
The Long Voyage Home - 1917
Ile - 1917
The Moon of the Carribees - 1918
Beyond the Horizon - 1918
The Emperor Jones - 1920
"Anna Christie" - 1920
The Hairy Ape - 1921
All God's Chillun Got Wings - 1923
Desire Under the Elms - 1924
Marco Millions - 1924
The Great God Brown - 1925
Lazarus Laughed - 1926
Strange Interlude - 1927
Mourning Becomes Electra - 1930
Ah, Wilderness! - 1932
More Stately Mansions (unfinished) - 1939
The Iceman Cometh - 1940
Hughie - 1941

Long Day's Journey Into Night - 1941
A Touch of the Poet - 1942
A Moon for the Misbegotten - 1943

 

List of Films

Anna Christie - 1923
Anna Christie - 1930
Strange Interlude - 1932
The Emperor Jones - 1933
Ah, Wilderness! - 1932
The Long Voyage Home - 1940
The Hairy Ape - 1944
Mourning Becomes Electra - 1947
Desire Under the Elms - 1958
Long Day's Journey Into Night - 1962
The Iceman Cometh - 1973
 

Recommended Reading


Primary Readings
  • Black, Stephen. (1999). Eugene O'Neill: Beyond Mourning and Tragedy
  • Bogard, Travis. (1989). Eugene O'Neill at Tao House
  • Bogard, Travis. (1988). Contour in Time
  • Chappell, Gordon. "Historic Resources" Cultural Resources Study
  • Ranald, Margaret. (1984). The Eugene O'Neill Companion
  • Heller, Adele & Rudnick, Lois. (1991). 1915: The Cultural Moment: The New Politics, the New Woman, the New Psychology, the New Art, and the New Theater in America
Collected Works
  • O'Neill, Eugene. (1988). The Complete Plays (3 vols.)
  • O'Neill, Eugene. (1988). The Unknown O'Neill
  • O'Neill, Eugene. (1979). Poems
  • O'Neill, Eugene. (1960). Inscriptions: Eugene O'Neill to Carlotta Monterey O'Neill
  • O'Neill, Eugene. (1981). Work Diary, 1924-1941.
Letters
  • Bryer, Jackson. (1982). The Theater We Worked For...
  • Commins, Dorothy. (1986). Love, Admiration and Respect
  • Roberts, Nancy and Arthur Roberts. (1987). As Ever, Gene
  • Bogard, Travis and Jackson Bryer, eds. (1988). Selected Letters of Eugene O'Neill
Unfinished Plays
  • Floyd, Virginia. (1981). Eugene O'Neill At Work
  • Floyd, Virginia. (1988). The Unfinished Plays
Biography
  • Gelb, Arthur and Barbara Gelb. (1962, 1974). O'Neill
  • Sheaffer, Louis. (1968). O'Neill, Son and Playwright
  • Sheaffer, Louis. (1973). O'Neill, Son and Artist
Information on Carlotta
  • Quintero, Jose. If You Don't Dance They Beat You
  • Kellner, Bruce. (1991). The Last Dandy - Ralph Barton
  • Gallup, Donald. Pigeons on Granite: Memories of a Yale Librarian
Additional Readings
  • Alexander, Doris. The Tempering of Eugene O'Neill
  • Barlow, Judith. Final Acts: The Creation of Three Late O'Neill Plays
  • Bogard, Travis. The Unknown O'Neill
  • Boulton, Agnes. Part of a Long Story
  • Bowen, Croswell. The Curse of the Misbegotten
  • Carpenter, Frederic. Eugene O'Neill
  • Clark, Barrett. Eugene O'Neill
  • Commins, Dorothy. What is an Editor: Saxe Commins at Work
  • Floyd, Virginia. The Plays of Eugene O'Neill: A New Assessment
  • Manheim, Michael. (1982). Eugene O'Neill's New Language of Kinship
  • Wainscott, Ronald. (1988). Staging O'Neill: The Experimental Years, 1920-1934

Last updated: July 12, 2017

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