Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 910
Eugene Gladstone O’Neill was born in the Barrett Hotel in New York City in 1888, son of James O’Neill, an actor celebrated for his portrayal of the count of Monte Cristo, and Ella Quinlan O’Neill, a sensitive woman who became a narcotics addict shortly after Eugene’s birth. His older brother Jamie was Eugene’s early idol; another brother, Edmund, had died in infancy, evoking a great guilt in his mother. As a child, Eugene toured much of the year with his parents and spent the summers in New London, Connecticut. At the age of seven, partly to protect him from knowledge of his mother’s drug addiction, he was sent to a boarding school outside New York City. Lonely and frightened, he retreated to his imagination and into the world of books. The discovery of his mother’s addiction, when he was almost fifteen, was traumatic; it resulted in his rejection of the Catholic faith and infused his life thereafter with grief for her suffering and guilt for his part in it.
After a year at Princeton University, O’Neill prospected for gold in Honduras, leaving behind a pregnant wife, Kathleen Jenkins, who named their son Eugene, Jr. Shortly after O’Neill’s return, he shipped out to Buenos Aires on the Charles Racine, one of the last sailing ships. The two-month voyage was a high point in his life, and the sea figures prominently in many of his plays, from Bound East for Cardiff (1916) to Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956). Back in New York, he drifted aimlessly, drinking and loafing in saloons such as Jimmy-the-Priest’s, which became the setting for Anna Christie (1921) and The Iceman Cometh (1946). Eventually, after cooperatively providing Kathleen with grounds for a divorce, he fell into a deep depression, culminating in a suicide attempt.
When he recovered, his father found him a job as a reporter on the New London Telegraph, but after a few months O’Neill contracted tuberculosis and spent the first half of 1913 at Gaylord Farm Sanatorium in Wallingford, Connecticut. Perhaps it was this confrontation with mortality that encouraged him to focus his literary talents. He wrote several one-act plays and in the fall of 1914 enrolled in George Pierce Baker’s famous playwriting course at Harvard University, a serious step for a young man now determined to be “an artist or nothing.”
When financial concerns made a second year with Baker impossible, O’Neill became acquainted with a group of Greenwich Village artists and intellectuals who, in the summer of 1915, had founded the Provincetown Players. Recognizing O’Neill’s talent, they were happy to produce his Bound East for Cardiff and a number of his plays thereafter, both in Provincetown and in New York.
O’Neill’s first Broadway production, Beyond the Horizon (1920), was a starkly realistic drama set in rural New England, in which two brothers live out each other’s dreams. The play earned for him a Pulitzer Prize and critical recognition as a serious dramatist. The 1920’s were productive years for O’Neill. He wrote constantly, saw productions on and off Broadway of eighteen of his plays, and was awarded two more Pulitzer Prizes: for Anna Christie, a somewhat romantic play about a prostitute who is reformed by the sea and the love of a good man, and for Strange Interlude (1928), an experimental effort using stream-of-consciousness techniques. During his second marriage, to Agnes Boulton, he had two children, Shane and Oona. The marriage was not a happy one, and as the decade ended, O’Neill divorced Agnes and took a third wife, Carlotta Monterey. Theirs was a stormy and passionate relationship, which endured until his death.
The 1930’s began with successful productions of the monumental Mourning Becomes Electra (1931) and Ah, Wilderness! (1933), the only lighthearted comedy O’Neill ever wrote. Days Without End (1934), a somewhat autobiographical story of a struggle with faith, was harshly criticized, and twelve years passed before another O’Neill play was seen on Broadway. In 1935, O’Neill began working on a cycle of eleven plays that would follow the history of an American family from the Revolution to the twentieth century. Titled A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed, the plays were to focus on American materialism and greed through the generations, played against a background of national events. Unfortunately, only A Touch of the Poet (produced posthumously in 1957) was completed.
When the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded him in 1936, O’Neill was already in the grip of a degenerative nerve disease. As he was accustomed to writing his plays in a minuscule longhand, the tremors of the progressive disease made him increasingly unable to hold a pencil, and thus to pursue his profession. Forced to abandon the cycle, from 1939 to 1941 he struggled with the creation of several plays, among them his two masterpieces, The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey into Night (produced and published posthumously in 1956 and awarded a fourth Pulitzer Prize). When the Broadway production of The Iceman Cometh was not particularly successful, O’Neill retired into seclusion; his final days were spent under the care of his wife in Boston’s Hotel Shelton. Shortly before he died, he noted, “Born in a hotel room—and God damn it—died in a hotel room!” Death came on November 27, 1953.
In tribute, The New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson wrote, “A great spirit and our greatest dramatist have left us, and our theater world is now a smaller, more ordinary place.”