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||Eugene (Gladstone) O'Neill (1888-1953)|
One of the greatest American playwrights, restless and bold experimenter, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1936. O'Neill's best-known works include Anna Christine (pub. 1922), Desire Under the Elms (pub.1924), Mourning Becomes Electra (pub. 1931), Long Day's Journey Into Night (pub. 1956), and The Iceman Cometh (prod. 1946). His 45 plays range in style from satire to tragedy. They often depict people who have no hope of controlling their destinies.
"There's little choice between the philosophy you learned from Broadway loafers, and the one Edmund got from his books. They're both rotten to the core. You've both flouted the faith you were born and brought up in – the one true faith of the Catholic Church – and your denial has brought nothing but self-destruction." (Tyrone in Long Day's Journey Into Night)
Eugene Gladstone O'Neill was born in a Manhattan hotel into an Irish-Catholic theatrical family, the son of James O'Neill and Mary Ellen "Ella" Quinlan. His early life was restless: his father, who was an actor, spent most of his career touring in the lead role of the popular melodrama The Count of Monte Cristo. The family lived mainly in hotels. Their seaside cottage in New London, Connecticut, became later the setting for Long Day's Journey Into Night. In 1895 O'Neill was enrolled in the St. Aloysius Academy for Boys, and transferred in 1900 to the DeLa Salle Institute in Manhattan. During these years his mother's addiction to morphine left profound emotional scars on the growing O'Neill. He also found out that his own birth had precipitated her addiction. In 1902 Ella tried to drown herself after running out of morphine. At the age of 63, she spent several months at a convent, where the nuns helped cure her.
O'Neill renounced Catholic Church in his teens. After attending the Betts Academy in Stamford, a non-sectarian preparatory school, he entered Princeton University, but left it after a year, and just spent much of his time in New York waterfront bars and brothels, supporting himself by working at odd jobs, as a gold prospector, a sailor, an actor, and a reporter. In 1909 O'Neill married Kathleen Jenkins. The marriage ended two years later; at that time she was carrying their son, Eugene Jr. O'Neill went to sea in 1910, living the life of a tramp at docksides. Once he attempted suicide, overdosing in a flophouse. He stayed with his family in Connecticut, but was then forced by the onset of tuberculosis to spend six months in a sanatorium. After recovering O'Neill began writing plays. He was enrolled in George Pierce Baker's 47A Workshop at Harvard University (1914-1915), and then joined the Provincetown Players.
"The Hairy Ape was propaganda in the sense that it was a symbol of a man, who has lost his old harmony with nature, the harmony which he used to have as an animal and has not yet acquired in a spiritual way. Thus, not being able to find it on earth nor in heaven. he's in the middle, trying to make peace, taking the "woist punches from bot' of 'em." ... The subject here is the same ancient one that always was and always will be the one subject for drama, and that is man and his struggle with his own fate. The struggle used to be with the gods, but is now with himself, his own past, his attempt "to belong." (Eugene O'Neill in Playwrights on Playwriting, ed. Toby Cole, 1961)
In the late 1910s O'Neill dramas begun to gain recognition in New York. In 1918 he married the writer Agnes Boulton; they had two children. O'Neill's father died in 1921 from cancer, next year he lost his mother, and twelve months after that his brother Jamie, who suffered from alcoholism, died from a stroke. Eugene Jr. commited suicide in 1950, at the age of forty, by slitting his wrists and left ankle with a straight razor in his country cottage in Woodstock. Between the years 1918 and 1924 O'Neill wrote Anna Christie, finished in less than six weeks, The Emperor Jones, finished in about two weeks, The First Man, The Hairy Ape, The Fountain, and Welded. Nearly all his plays dealt either directly or indirectly with death, loss, and mourning.
During the early 1920s O'Neill formed with Robert Edmond Jones and
Kenneth Macgowan, a gifted producer, a "Triumvirate" that ran the
Experimental Theater at the Provincetown Playhouse. While still married
to Agnes, O'Neill used the help of his friend Macgowan to send roses to
the beautiful actress Carlotta Monterey. O'Neill's second marriage
ended in 1929. In the same year he married Carlotta, the ex-wife of the
cartoonist and illustrator Ralph Barton (plus two other husbands). They
first settled in France, then in Sea Island, Georgia, and finally in
California. During his visits to Paris they stayed at Hôtel du Rhin,
where he polished his play Dynamo (1929) and sketched his first drafts of Mourning Becomes Electra.
Most of the time they spent in the French countryside. Carlotta
had been raised in England and France, and she intended to introduce
her husband to the sophistication of Europe.
O'Neill saw his children infrequently. He disinherited his son Shane because he did not approve of his son's life style, and his daughter Oona, because at the age of eighteen she married Charles Chaplin, who was fifty-four. Oona was his fourth wife. The couple settled down in Vevey, Switzerland; Chaplin had eight children with her. O'Neill never met his grandchildren.
The Pulitzer winning Beyond the Horizon (pub. 1920) was O'Neill's first important play. The story depicts two brothers, Andrew, the elder a practical realist, and the younger, Robert, a poetic idealist. Robert is incapable of managing the family farm. When Andrew returns from a long voyage, successful and wealthy, he finds Robert dying of tuberculosis. On his deathbed, Robert still dreams of freedom beyond the horizon. After H.L. Mencken's criticism of Welded (1924) O'Neill wrote to the critic George Jean Nathan: "Damn that word, 'realism!' When I first spoke to you of the play as a 'last word in realism,' I meant something 'really real,' in the sense of being spiritually true, not meticulously life-like." (in Selected Letters of Eugene O'Neill, edited by Travis Bogard and Jackson R. Bryer, 1988)
Mourning Becomes Electra, based on Aeschylus's Orestean trilogy, was O'Neill's version of the tragedy of the house of Atreus, set in 19th-century New England. The action centers around Lavinia (Electra). General Ezra Mannon, on his return from the American Civil war, is killed by his wife Christine. Lavinia avenges her father's murder by persuading her brother, Orin (Orestes), to kill her mother's lover. The death is followed by the suicide of the mother. Orin goes mad when he discovers that he has an incestuous passion for his sister. Lavinia locks herself in the family mansion, surrounded by the ghosts of the past.
By 1930 O'Neill was so well-known that the Marx Brothers parodies his style in their film Animal Crackers
(1930) and Cole Porter celebrated him in the lyrics of 'You're the Top'
(1934), "You're the top! / You're an arrow collar / You're the top! /
You're a Coolidge dollar, / You're the nimble tread / Of the feet of
Fred Astaire, / You're an O'Neill drama / You're Whistler's mama!"
In 1935 O'Neill began work on a cycle of eleven plays, with the theme of the turmoils of American materialism. The cycle was never completed – only two plays have survived. On his final productive period O'Neill wrote the autobiographical Long Day's Journey into Night, an agonized portrait of his own family, the Tyrones in the play. Again the action takes place in one room. Mary Tyrone returns to her dope addiction: "None of us can help the things life has done to us" says Mary. Edmund, based on the author himself, is stricken with tuberculosis. The play was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1957. Hughie (pub. 1959) was a story about a small time gambler, and A Moon for the Misbegotten (pub. 1952) continued O'Neill's family history of the Tyrones.
At fifty O'Neill was at the peak of his artistic career. With his life he lived in a Chinese-style, white concrete-block house on a 158-acre estate, thirty-five miles east of San Francisco.However, his remaining creative years were characterized by long and rare disease that caused progressive deterioration of cells of the cerebellum. The Iceman Cometh, perhaps the finest of O'Neill's tragedies, was written at the early stage of his illness. The story is set in a dockside bar on the lower west side of New York City. It concerns a group of drunken derelicts who spend their time in the back room of Henry Hope's saloon where they discuss their hopeless lives. One man wants to get back into the police force, another to be re-elected as a politician. Their daily routines are shattered when Hickey, a salesman and the son of a preacher, appears as a messiah, and encourages them to start rehabilitation. They find out that their new hero is himself a madman and murderer, who has killed his wife, and lapse once more into their comfortable world of whiskey.
Poor health also prevented O'Neill from attending the Nobel ceremonies in Stockholm, Sweden. By 1943, O'Neill could no longer grasp a pencil. After a failed production of A Moon for the Misbegotten (1943), he wrote no major new plays. O'Neill became gradually paralyzed and he died on November 27, 1953 in Boston. Shane O'Neill's family biography, which came out in 1959, was entitled The Curse of the Misbegotten.
For further reading: Eugene O'Neill: The Man and His Plays by B.H. Clark (1947); Eugene O'Neill and the Tragic Tension by D.V. Falk (1958, rev. ed. 1982); The Plays of Eugene O'Neill by J.H. Raleigh (1965); O'Neill's Scenic Image by T. Tiusanen (1969); A Drama of Souls by E. Törnqvist (1968); Contour in Time by T. Bogard (1972); Eugene O'Neill by F.I. Carpenter (1979); Tragedy, Modern Temper, and O'Neill by C. Ahuja (1984); Final Acts by J.E. Berlin (1985); Eugene O'Neill: An Annotated Bibliography by M. Smith and R. Eaton (1988); Staging O'Neill by Ronald Harold Wainscott (1988); Conversations with Eugene O'Neill, ed. by Mark W. Estrin (1990); Eugene O'Neill's Creative Struggle by Doris Alexander (1992); Down the Nights and Down the Days by Edward Lawrence (1996); Eugene O'Neill and His Eleven-Play Cycle by Donald Clifford Gallup (1998); The Cambridge Companion to Eugene O'Neill, ed. Michael Manheim (1998); Eugene O'Neill: Beyond Mourning and Tragedy by Stephen A. Black (2002); O'Neill: Life with Monte Cristo by Arthur Gelb and Barbara Gelb (2002); Eugene O'Neill's One-Act Plays: New Critical Perspectives by Michael Y. Bennett and Benjamin D. Carson (2012). See also: Eugenio Montale. Note: in his Nobel acceptance speech O'Neill considered the plays of August Strindberg the source of his own inspiration. O'Neill himself was the model for later American playwrights, such as Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Edward Albee.