Winner of four Pulitzer Prizes and one Nobel Prize, playwright Eugene O'Neill is a major figure in American drama. In this lesson, we'll look at his tumultuous life and review the most notable plays from his acclaimed career.
Class, race, gender - Eugene O'Neill never shied away from difficult, controversial topics. With evocative expressionism, devastating realism and brutal honesty, O'Neill rocked the American Theater throughout the early 20th century. There's so much to cover, let's jump right in.
Eugene O'Neill was born in a hotel room in 1888 in what is now New York City's Times Square. Alas, the site is now a Starbucks. But in 1888, it was a hotel. His parents were James O'Neill, an Irish immigrant and actor, and Mary Ellen Quinlan, who suffered from a morphine addiction. Because of his father's profession, O'Neill spent his youth on the road, in hotels, backstage at theaters, and in a generally transient state. But he was also very much born into the theater.
He did attend a few different boarding schools. He also went to Princeton University, though he only lasted a year there. There's a rumor that he had to leave because he threw a beer bottle through the window of a professor and future president named Woodrow Wilson, but it might just be a good story.
As a young man, he mirrored his childhood vagabond lifestyle by setting out to sea, hitching rides to everywhere, from England to Argentina. He even went gold prospecting in Honduras. Rather than striking it rich, he got malaria. But while at sea, he saw the world, as well as the bottle. He battled alcoholism and depression, and never held a job for very long. He got married in 1909, but that only lasted a few years.
In 1912, he contracted tuberculosis. While recovering in a sanitarium, he decided he wanted to be a playwright. I mean, why not, right? He knew the theater from his childhood and he had amazing life experiences to draw from. Plus, the odds of getting malaria are much lower in the theater.
O'Neill first honed his craft while hanging out with left-wing artists and writers in Greenwich Village, then in Provincetown on the tip of Cape Cod. His earliest work of note is Bound East for Cardiff, a one-act play that was first performed in Provincetown in 1916. The play draws on O'Neill's experiences at sea.
In 1920, O'Neill published his first play: Beyond the Horizon. It's about two brothers who fall for the same woman. It was popular at the time and won him his first Pulitzer, but it's not fondly remembered. A New York Times review of a rare recent revival said, 'It's a naturalistic, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other march into an irony-rich destiny that even Thomas Hardy might have judged a tad harsh.' Yeesh. Fortunately, the works that followed have fared much better and there are many still-popular plays to mention.
In fact, still in 1920, O'Neill's The Emperor Jones debuted. Another big hit, this play is about an African American man who escapes prison and goes to a Caribbean island where he makes himself the emperor. It's an expressionist work, in that emotional experience trumps objective reality. The play and eventual movie helped establish Paul Robeson's acting career as the first African American leading man.
In 1921, O'Neill premiered his second Pulitzer Prize-winner, Anna Christie. This one's your typical 'hooker with a heart of gold' tale, though it manages to fit in a bunch of sea voyages as well. 1922 brought The Hairy Ape. Another expressionist work, this one is overtly about class and society. It centers on a steamship's coal stoker whose life is thrown into chaos after a rich woman visits the stokehold and calls him a filthy beast.
In 1924, O'Neil published two notable plays. One is Desire Under the Elms, a play steeped in realism and good old fashioned New England bitterness. The other is All God's Chillun Got Wings, a still-controversial play about a black man, first played by Paul Robeson, married to a racist white woman. There was a big uproar first about a black man and white woman on stage together, but even more so because at one point she kisses his hand. In the era of the KKK and Jim Crow, this was a bold move.
Aside from race, though, it's worth noting here that while O'Neill was great about writing major roles for women, he wasn't always great about making those female characters likeable. And that wouldn't change over time. O'Neill pulled off the Pulitzer hat trick with 1928's Strange Interlude. This experimental, four-hour play covers sex, abortion, more sex, insanity and more sex.
All this while, since 1918, he'd been married to his second wife, Agnes Boulton. They had two kids, including daughter Oona O'Neill. Here's a fun fact: when she turned 18, Oona married Charlie Chaplin - he was 54. Eugene O'Neill disowned her over this and never saw her again. She ended up having eight children with Chaplin, and her granddaughter, Oona Chaplin, played Robb Stark's wife on Game of Thrones. So she's Charlie Chaplin's granddaughter and Eugene O'Neill's great-granddaughter.
O'Neill would divorce Agnes in 1929 and immediately marry Carlotta Monterey, whom he'd stick with until his death. But anyway, O'Neill the playwright's highly productive period began winding down with 1931's retelling of Aeschylus' Greek tragedy The Oresteia, called Mourning Becomes Electra, and a rare O'Neill comedy, Ah, Wilderness! in 1933.
Later Career and Death
There was a long quiet stretch in the 1930s and early 1940s. O'Neill was struggling with alcoholism and ill health. He had something like Parkinson's disease that made it very difficult for him to write. However, O'Neill did win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936.
Three of his best works still remained. In 1946, The Iceman Cometh premiered. Drawing on O'Neill's life, the emotionally challenging play is about a group of downtrodden alcoholics. Then there's Long Day's Journey Into Night, which premiered posthumously in 1956, and A Moon for the Misbegotten, which premiered in 1947. The latter play is actually sort of a sequel to the former, but O'Neill didn't want Long Day's Journey Into Night released during his lifetime.
Both plays are heavily autobiographical. Long Day's Journey Into Night, which is often considered O'Neill's greatest achievement, is basically about O'Neill's family, with characters representing O'Neill, his parents, and his brother. As in real life, the father is a frustrated actor and the mother is a morphine addict. One of the brothers is an alcoholic, like O'Neill's own brother, who drank himself to death. The other, like O'Neill himself, contracts tuberculosis. O'Neill died in 1953. His fourth and final Pulitzer came for Long Day's Journey Into Night, after his death.
In summary, Eugene O'Neill left an indelible mark on the American theater. His plays covered expressionism, racism, class and much more. They were mostly tragedies, but then, he lived a difficult life. Alcohol played a big role, but he managed to produce a multitude of significant works despite his obstacles. Among his many notable works are The Emperor Jones, Anna Christie, The Iceman Cometh and Long Day's Journey Into Night.
After finishing the lesson, you should be able to:
- Understand the life and times of Eugene O'Neill
- Identify dramatic works of O'Neill's
- Recognize his importance to American theater