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.