Eugene Gladstone O’Neill was born in a Broadway hotel at a corner of Times Square on October 16, 1888. His father, James O’Neill (1846-1920), came to the United States from Ireland when he was ten and established himself as a talented Shakespearean actor, expected to inherit the mantle of Edwin Booth. In 1883, the elder O’Neill opened as the protagonist Edmond Dantès in a dramatization of The Count of Monte-Cristo (1844-1845), by Alexandre Dumas, père. The play proved a spectacular success, and James O’Neill toured with it for the next fifteen years, earning up to forty thousand dollars annually to assuage his incessant fear of poverty. Later, the father came to believe that he had sacrificed his opportunity for greatness upon the altar of materialism. His son took this regret as a cautionary lesson and resolved never to compromise his artistic integrity for money.
Eugene’s mother, Ellen Quinlan O’Neill (1857-1922), was a devout Catholic, educated in a convent in South Bend, Indiana, where she won a medal for her piano-playing but seriously considered becoming a nun. She fell in love with the dashing James O’Neill when his company toured South Bend. She accompanied her husband on his road trips for many years, all the while resenting their nomadic itinerary of frequent one-night stands, hotel rooms, and irregular meals. Eugene, once established as a playwright, developed an emphatic fondness for settled routine and a detestation of trains and hotels.
Ellen O’Neill found an escape from her aversion to theatrical traveling by becoming an increasingly addicted morphine user. She withdrew from many of her child-rearing responsibilities, leaving Eugene to be mothered, during his first seven years, by a Cornish nursemaid, Sarah Sandy, who exposed her charge to sensational horror stories. The elder O’Neill sent his son to Catholic preparatory schools in New York and Connecticut. In 1906, Eugene entered Princeton University, drank heavily, and studied very little; after a brick-throwing episode, he was failed in all of his courses and never returned to the university. For the next two years, he spent most of his time touring Manhattan in the company of his alcoholic older brother, James, Jr. (1878-1923).
On October 2, 1909, Eugene secretly married the non-Catholic Kathleen Jenkins, the beautiful daughter of a once-wealthy New York family. Two weeks later, the bridegroom left her to prospect for gold in Honduras. There he found not shining metal but a severe case of malaria; he was to use his knowledge of the tropical jungle in The Emperor Jones (1920). Even though Kathleen gave birth to a son, Eugene, Jr., on May 5, 1910, O’Neill refused to live with them upon his return, ignoring his firstborn until after the child’s eleventh birthday. On July 10, 1912, Kathleen Jenkins was awarded an interlocutory divorce decree.
The year 1912 proved to be the crucial year of Eugene O’Neill’s life: The nuclear O’Neill family—father, mother, two sons—spent the summer together in O’Neill’s parents’ New London, Connecticut, home, with Eugene writing for the local paper. In December, 1912, he was diagnosed as tubercular; Ellen O’Neill refused to accept the physician’s findings, withdrawing into morphine-induced fantasies. Miserly James O’Neill first placed Eugene in Connecticut’s Fairfield County State Sanatorium, a bleakly depressing charity institution, many of whose patients died. After staying there from December 9 to 11, Eugene had himself discharged. On Christmas Eve, James entered his son in a private institution, Gaylord Farm, which proved distinctly more therapeutic: Eugene was discharged as an arrested case on the third of June, 1913; The Straw (1921), one of his most deeply felt early plays, is a heavily autobiographical depiction of his stay there.
During his sanatorium stay, O’Neill crystallized his career goal: he would be a playwright. His most pervasive influence was the intense, self-tortured, somber Swedish writer, August Strindberg . In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature, awarded to him in 1936, O’Neill singled out Strindberg as “that greatest genius of all modern dramatists.... It was reading his plays ... that, above all else, first gave me the vision of what modern drama could be, and first inspired me with the urge to write for the theater myself.”
After his discharge from the institution, O’Neill boarded for a year with a private family and used this time to write thirteen plays, of which he included six one-act plays in a volume, Thirst (1914), subsidized by his father; he later disowned this collection, preventing its republication during his lifetime. From September, 1914, to May, 1915, he was a student in Professor George Pierce Baker’s playwriting class at Harvard, remembered by classmates as handsome, thin, shy, and restless.
In 1916, O’Neill fell in love with the high-spirited journalist Louise Bryant, already the mistress and soon to be the wife of the celebrated war correspondent John Reed (1887-1920). The two men liked each other, and the trio formed a turbulent triangle which persisted close to the day of O’Neill’s second marriage to Agnes Boulton on April 12, 1918. Indeed, Agnes reminded O’Neill of Louise: Both women were slender, pretty, and sophisticated; Agnes, however, was quiet and softly feminine, in contrast to Louise’s strident manner. The marriage to Agnes Boulton lasted eleven years; its first two years are vividly described in her account, Part of a Long Story (1958). The union resulted in two children. Shane O’Neill (1919-1975) was never able to settle on a career and became a hopeless heroin addict. Oona O’Neill (born 1925) married Charles Chaplin (1889-1977). O’Neill’s firstborn son, Eugene O’Neill, Jr., tall and handsome with a resonant voice, began a brilliant career as a classicist at Yale but turned increasingly alcoholic, resigned his academic post, and, in his fortieth year, committed suicide. O’Neill held himself apart from his children throughout his life, although he did make sporadic, intense, but always short-lived attempts to reach them intimately.
O’Neill’s first important play, The Emperor Jones, dramatizes, in eight scenes, Brutus Jones’s fall from “emperor” of a West Indian island to a primitive savage who is slaughtered by his rebellious people. Jones is a former Pullman porter who escapes imprisonment for murder, finds his way to the island, and there establishes himself as a despot by exploiting the natives’ fears and superstitions. While the play’s first and last scenes are realistic, the intervening six are expressionistic, consisting of Jones’s monologues and the visions of his fearful mind as he struggles through a tropical jungle. O’Neill manages to merge supernatural beliefs with psychological effects in a powerful union that shows his dramatic affinity with two noted German expressionists, Georg Kaiser (1878-1945) and Ernst Toller (1893-1939).
Desire Under the Elms (1924) is usually considered O’Neill’s finest play of the 1920’s, his first in the classic Greek mode. It is a modern treatment of the Phaedra-Hippolytus-Theseus myth, set on a New England farm in 1850. The father, seventy-five-year-old Ephraim Cabot (Theseus), returns to his farm with a passionate new wife, thirty-five-year-old Abbie (Phaedra), who falls in love with her twenty-five-year-old stepson, Eben (Hippolytus). Like Phaedra, Abbie confronts the young man in a...