A Moon for the Misbegotten Essay - Critical Essays

Eugene O’Neill

Critical Context

The third of three intensely autobiographical plays that Eugene O’Neill wrote between 1939 and 1943, A Moon for the Misbegotten has as its two autobiographical predecessors The Iceman Cometh (pr., pb. 1946) and Long Day’s Journey into Night. All three plays represent what O’Neill called faithful realism: the starkly realistic portrayal of individuals and their environments, stripped of all romantic hues except those the given characters themselves impose upon their situations.

While some critics have suggested that most of O’Neill’s plays are realistic in form, and while he began his playwriting career in 1913 by writing realistic one-act plays, much of his career was marked by his experimentation with dramatic technique. From the realism of his earliest efforts, he moved into the tragic fatalism of such full-length plays as Beyond the Horizon (pr. 1920) and Anna Christie (pr. 1921, pb. 1923); he experimented with expressionistic techniques in The Emperor Jones (pr. 1920, pb. 1921); he complemented his expressionism with choral speeches, recognizable social types, and symbolic settings in The Hairy Ape (pr., pb. 1922); he employed Freudian psychology in Desire Under the Elms (pr. 1924); he complemented his expressionistic techniques with masks for the major characters in The Great God Brown (pr., pb. 1926); he experimented with stream-of-consciousness asides in Strange Interlude (pr., pb. 1928), and in Days Without End (pr., pb. 1934) he went so far as to have two actors portray the conflicting sides of one character’s mind; and he attempted to retell in modern terms the Aeschylus trilogy about the house of Atreus in Mourning Becomes Electra (pr., pb. 1931).

Not without valid reasons do many consider O’Neill the father of modern American drama and one of the greatest playwrights of the twentieth century. That his last plays were his most painfully personal, and yet were rendered with the least amount of artistic contrivance of any but his earliest plays, suggests that he achieved mastery over both his craft and his turbulent past.