Biography of Eugene O'Neill
Eugene Gladstone O'Neill was an American playwright and Nobel laureate in Literature.
O'Neill was born in a Broadway hotel room in New York City on October 16, 1888. O'Neill's father, James O'Neill, was one of Nineteenth Century America's most popular actors. Due to his father's profession, O'Neill was sent to a Catholic boarding school where he found his only solace in books. O'Neill spent his summers in New London, Connecticut.
In 1906 he entered Princeton but was soon expelled.Accounts vary as to why he left. He may have been dropped for attending too few classes, been suspended for "conduct code violations", or "for breaking a window," or according to a more concrete but possibly apocryphal account, because he threw "a beer bottle into the window of Professor Woodrow Wilson," future president of the United States)
He spent several years at sea, during which he suffered from depression and alcoholism. O'Neill's parents and elder brother Jamie (who drank himself to death at the age of 45) died within three years of one another, not long after he had begun to make his mark in the theater. Despite his depression he had a deep love for the sea, and it became a prominent theme in many of his plays, several of which are set onboard ships like the ones that he worked on.
He married in 1909 but divorced within three years, however he did have a son during the time he was married. By 1912, O'Neill had held a multitude of odd jobs, including one as a gold prospector in Honduras. He had also become a regular at New York City's flophouses and dingy saloons. That same year he became ill with tuberculosis and was inspired to become a playwright while reading during his recovery.
During the 1910s O'Neill was a regular on the Greenwich Village literary scene, where he also befriended many radicals, most notably Communist Labor Party founder John Reed. O'Neill also had a brief 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.
His involvement with the Provincetown Players began in mid-1916. O'Neill is said to have arrived for the summer in Provincetown with "a trunk full of plays." Susan Glaspell describes what was probably the first ever reading of Bound East for Cardiff which took place in the living room of Glaspell and her husband George Cram Cook's home on Commercial Street, adjacent to the wharf (pictured) that was used by the Players for their theater.
Glaspell writes in The Road to the Temple, "So Gene took Bound East for Cardiff out of his trunk, and Freddie Burt read it to us, Gene staying out in the dining-room while reading went on. He was not left alone in the dining-room when the reading had finished." The Provincetown Players performed many of O'Neill's early works in their theaters both in Provincetown and on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village. Some of these early plays began downtown and then moved to Broadway.
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 first major hit was The Emperor Jones, which ran on Broadway in 1920 and obliquely commented on the U.S. occupation of Haiti that was a topic of debate in that year's presidential election. 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 well-known comedy, Ah, Wilderness!, a wistful re-imagining of his 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, such as The Great God Brown and Lazarus Laughed.
O'Neill was very interested in the Faust theme, especially in the 1920s.
His career as playwright consisted of three periods. During his realist period, the plays utilize his own experiences, especially those he had as a seaman. In the 1920s he decided to try his hand at expressionism in am effort to capture the forces behind human life on stage. These plays were influenced by ideas of Freidrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Swedish playwright August Strindberg. During the final of his three periods O'Neill returned to realism. These woks are considered to be his best. The plays in his final period once again draw on his own experiences for their story lines and themes.
O'Neill was married to Kathleen Jenkins from October 2, 1909 to 1912, during which time they had one son, Eugene O'Neill, Jr. (1910–1950). In 1917, O'Neill met Agnes Boulton, a successful writer of commercial fiction, and they married on April 12, 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 (born San Francisco, California, December 28, 1888; died Westwood, New Jersey, November 18, 1970). O'Neill and Carlotta married less than a month after he officially divorced his previous wife.
In 1929, O'Neill and Monterey moved to the Loire Valley in central France, where they lived in the Château du Plessis in Saint-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, Tao House, is today the Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site.
In their first years together, Monterey organized O'Neill's life, enabling him to devote himself to writing. She later became addicted to potassium bromide, and the marriage deteriorated, resulting in a number of separations. 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, 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.
Illness and Death
After suffering from multiple health problems (including depression and alcoholism) over many years, O'Neill ultimately faced a severe Parkinsons-like tremor in his hands which made it impossible for him to write during the last 10 years of his life; he had tried using dictation but found himself unable to compose in that way. 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 three largely 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 Sheraton Hotel on Bay State Road in Boston, on November 27, 1953, at the age of 65. As he was dying, he, in a barely audible whisper, spoke his last words: "I knew it. I knew it. Born in a hotel room, and God damn it, died in a hotel room." (The building later became the Shelton Hall dormitory at Boston University. There is an urban legend perpetuated by students that O'Neill's spirit haunts the room and dormitory.) 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.
Dr. Harry Kozol, the lead prosecuting expert of the Patty Hearst trial, treated O'Neill during these last years of ailment. He also was present for the death and announced the fact to the public.
He is interred in the Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston's Jamaica Plain neighborhood.
In 1956 Carlotta arranged for his autobiographical masterpiece Long Day's Journey Into Night to be published, although his written instructions had stipulated that it not be made public until 25 years after his death. It was produced on stage to tremendous critical acclaim and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1957. This last play is widely considered to be his finest. Other posthumously-published works include A Touch of the Poet (1958) and More Stately Mansions (1967).
The United States Postal Service honored O'Neill with a Prominent Americans series (1965–1978) $1 postage stamp
Museums and Collections
O'Neill's home in New London, Monte Cristo Cottage, was made a National Historic Landmark in 1971. His home in Danville, California, near San Francisco, was preserved as the Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site in 1976.
Connecticut College maintains the Louis Sheaffer Collection, consisting of material collected by the O'Neill 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.
Eugene O'Neill's Works:
Bread and Butter, 1914
The Personal Equation, 1915
Now I Ask You, 1916
Beyond the Horizon, 1918 - Pulitzer Prize, 1920
The Straw, 1919
Chris Christophersen, 1919
Anna Christie, 1920 - Pulitzer Prize, 1922
The Emperor Jones, 1920
The First Man, 1922
The Hairy Ape, 1922
The Fountain, 1923
Marco Millions, 1923–25
All God's Chillun Got Wings, 1924
Desire Under the Elms, 1925
Lazarus Laughed, 1925–26
The Great God Brown, 1926
Strange Interlude, 1928 - Pulitzer Prize
Mourning Becomes Electra, 1931
Ah, Wilderness!, 1933
Days Without End, 1933
The Iceman Cometh, written 1939, published 1940, first performed 1946
Hughie, written 1941, first performed 1959
Long Day's Journey Into Night, written 1941, first performed 1956 - Pulitzer Prize 1957
A Moon for the Misbegotten, written 1941–1943, first performed 1947
A Touch of the Poet, completed in 1942, first performed 1958
More Stately Mansions, second draft found in O'Neill's papers, first performed 1967
The Calms of Capricorn, published in 1983
The Glencairn Plays, all of which feature characters on the fictional ship Glencairn -- filmed together as The Long Voyage Home:
Bound East for Cardiff, 1914
In The Zone, 1917
The Long Voyage Home, 1917
Moon of the Caribbees, 1918
Other one-act plays include
A Wife for a Life, 1913
The Web, 1913
The Movie Man: A Comedy, 1914
The Sniper, 1915
Before Breakfast, 1916
The Rope, 1918
Shell Shock, 1918
The Dreamy Kid, 1918
Where the Cross Is Made, 1918
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The sunset gun booms out in hollow roar
Night breathes upon the waters of the bay
The river lies, a symphony in grey,
Melting in shadow on the further shore.
A sullen coal barge tugs its anchor chain
A shadow sinister, with one faint light
Flickering wanly in the dim twilight,
It lies upon the harbor like a stain.