Eugene O'Neill

Eugene O'Neill, Playwright, NYC


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Eugene Gladstone O'Neill (October 16, 1888 - November 27, 1953) was a Nobel-prize winning American playwright. More than any other dramatist, O'Neill introduced American drama to the dramatic realism pioneered by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, and Swedish playwright August Strindberg, and was the first to use true American vernacular in his speeches. His plays involve characters who inhabit the fringes of society, engaging in depraved behavior, where they struggle to maintain their hopes and aspirations but ultimately slide into disillusionment and despair. O'Neill wrote only one comedy (Ah, Wilderness!): all his other plays involve some degree of tragedy and personal pessimism.

Biography

Eugene O'Neill's life was connected to New London, Connecticut. His father was an Irish-born stage actor named James O'Neill, who had grown up in impoverished circumstances and became famous for playing the title role in a stage version of The Count of Monte Cristo. His mother, Ella Quinlan O'Neill, was the emotionally fragile daughter of a wealthy father, and he died when she was seventeen. O'Neill's mother never recovered from the death of her second son, Edmund, who had died of measles at the age of two. She later became addicted to morphine as a result of Eugene O'Neill's difficult birth.

Eugene O'Neill was born in a Broadway hotel room. Because of his father's profession, O'Neill was sent to a Catholic boarding school where he found his only solace in books.

After being suspended from Princeton University, he spent several years at sea, during which he suffered from depression and alcoholism. O'Neill's parents and older brother Jamie (who drank himself to death at the age of 45) died within three years of one another, and O'Neill turned to writing as a form of escape. Despite his depression he had a deep love for the sea, and it became a prominent theme in most of his plays, several of which are set onboard ships like the ones that he worked on.

While he was associated with the Provincetown Players and the Provincetown Playhouse, several of his early plays were put on by that group. O'Neill had previously been employed by the New London Telegraph, writing poetry as well as reporting. It wasn't until his experience in 1912-13 at a sanatorium (where he was recovering from tuberculosis) that he decided to devote himself full time to writing plays. (Connecticut College maintains the Louis Sheaffer Collection, consisting of material collected by O'Neill's most thorough biographer. The principal collection of O'Neill papers is at Yale University. The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut fosters the development of new plays under his name.)

During the 1910s O'Neill was a regular on the Greenwich Village literary scene, where he also befriended many radicals, most notably Communist Party USA founder John Reed. O'Neill also at one time had a romantic relationship with Reed's wife, writer Louise Bryant. O'Neill was portrayed by Jack Nicholson in the 1981 film Reds about the life of John Reed, in which he served as the film's voice of anticommunism and cynicism.

O'Neill was married to Kathleen Jenkins from 2 October 1909 to 1912, during which time they had one son, Eugene Jr. (b. 1910). In 1917, O'Neill met Agnes Boulton, a successful writer of commercial fiction, and they married in 12 April 1918. The years of their marriage - during which the couple had two children, Shane and Oona - are described vividly in her 1958 memoir Part of a Long Story. They divorced in 1929, after O'Neill abandoned Boulton and the children for the actress Carlotta Monterey (San Francisco, California, December 28, 1888 - Westwood, New Jersey, November 18, 1970).

In 1929 O'Neill and Monterey moved to the Loire Valley in northwest France, where they lived in the Chateau du Plessis in St. Antoine-du-Rocher, Indre-et-Loire. During the early 1930s they returned to the United States and lived in Sea Island, Georgia, at a house called Casa Genotta. He moved to Danville, California in 1937 and lived there until 1944. His house there (known as Tao House), is today the Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site.

O'Neill's first published play, Beyond the Horizon, opened on Broadway in 1920 to great acclaim, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. His best-known plays include "Anna Christie" (Pulitzer Prize 1922), Desire Under the Elms 1924, Strange Interlude (Pulitzer Prize 1928), Mourning Becomes Electra 1931, and his only comedy Ah, Wilderness!, a wistful re-imagining of his own youth as he wished it had been. In 1936 he received the Nobel Prize for Literature. After a ten-year pause, O'Neill's now-renowned play The Iceman Cometh was produced in 1946. The following year's A Moon for the Misbegotten failed, and did not gain recognition as being among his best works until decades later.

He was also part of the modern movement to revive the classical heroic mask from ancient Greek theatre and Japanese Noh theatre in some of his plays.

O'Neill was very interested in the Faust theme, especially in the 1920s. He is also known for the very poetic names of many of his plays.

In their first years together, Monterey organized O'Neill's life, enabling him to devote himself to writing. However, she later became addicted to potassium bromide, and the marriage deteriorated, resulting in a number of separations. (O'Neill always complained about her cooking, maintaining that the only thing she knew how to make was chili with cornbread.) She was dramatic and shallow, but O'Neill needed her, and she needed him. Although they separated several times, they never divorced.

In 1943, O'Neill disowned his daughter Oona for marrying the English actor, director and producer Charlie Chaplin when she was 18 and Chaplin was 54. He never saw Oona again.

He also had distant relationships with his sons, Eugene O'Neill Jr., a Yale classicist who suffered from alcoholism, and committed suicide in 1950 at the age of 40, and Shane O'Neill, a heroin addict who also committed suicide.

After suffering from multiple health problems (including alcoholism) over many years, O'Neill ultimately faced a severe Parkinsons-like tremor in his hands which made it impossible for him to write (he had tried using dictation but found himself unable to compose in that way) during the last 10 years of his life. While at Tao House, O'Neill had intended to write a cycle of 11 plays chronicling an American family since the 1800s. Only two of these, A Touch of the Poet and More Stately Mansions were ever completed. As his health worsened, O'Neill lost inspiration for the project and wrote the three large autobiographical plays, The Iceman Cometh, Long Day's Journey into Night, and A Moon for the Misbegotten. He managed to complete Moon for the Misbegotten in 1943, just before leaving Tao House and losing his ability to write. Drafts of many other uncompleted plays were destroyed by Carlotta at Eugene's request.

O'Neill died in Room 401 of the Shelton Hotel on Bay State Road in Boston, on November 27, 1953, at the age of 65. (The building is now the Shelton Hall dormitory at Boston University.) A revised analysis of his autopsy report shows that, contrary to the previous diagnosis, he did not have Parkinson's disease, but a late-onset cerebellar cortical atrophy. He was interred in the Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. O'Neill's final words were reportedly "Born in a hotel room, and God dammit, died in one!"

Although his written instructions had stipulated that it not be made public until 25 years after his death, in 1956 Carlotta arranged for his autobiographical masterpiece Long Day's Journey Into Night to be published, and produced on stage to tremendous critical acclaim and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1957. This last play is now considered to be his finest play. Other posthumously-published works include A Touch of the Poet (1958) and More Stately Mansions (1967).



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