The American playwright Eugene Gladstone O’Neill is often regarded as the most important twentieth century writer for the theater. He was the son of the popular melodramatic actor James O’Neill and his wife, Ellen (Ella) Quinlan O’Neill. In O’Neill’s posthumous and frankly autobiographical play Long Day’s Journey into Night (completed by 1941 but neither published nor produced until 1956) the father appears as an improvident bohemian, lavish in speculation and with boon companions but parsimonious and unsatisfactory as the head of a family. The mother appears as a loving, somewhat conventional woman wrecked by a morphine addiction contracted during an illness and encouraged by the disorderliness of the domestic establishment.
As a young man, O’Neill was unhappy and rebellious. He sometimes accompanied his father on tour. He was educated at Mount Saint Vincent Catholic Boarding School, 1895-1900, and at Bett’s Academy in Stamford, Connecticut, 1900-1906. He enrolled in Princeton University in 1906 but was dismissed at the end of his first year and spent five years as a drifter. As a common sailor he went on voyages to Honduras, South America, and Europe, and in 1912 he worked briefly in New London, Connecticut, as a reporter on the Telegraph. O’Neill married Kathleen Jenkins in 1909, and they had a son, Eugene, in 1910, before divorcing in 1912.
The six months O’Neill spent at Gaylord Farm tuberculosis sanatorium, beginning on December 24, 1912, marked the turning point in his life. In the hospital he read widely in the modern drama; profoundly impressed by Henrik Ibsen and, even more, August Strindberg, he determined to become a playwright. Beginning in 1914 he spent some time as a student in George Pierce Baker’s dramatic workshop at Harvard University. That same year he published his first book, Thirst, and Other One-Act Plays. In 1916 he moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he saw one of his plays produced for the first time. An amateur group calling itself the Provincetown Players acted his short romantic melodrama, Bound East for Cardiff, first at Provincetown, then at its tiny theater in New York’s Greenwich Village.
While living in Greenwich Village in the fall of 1917, O’Neill met Agnes Boulton, whom he married the following spring. He and his wife had two children, Shane, born in 1919, and Oona, born in 1926, who later married Charlie Chaplin. It was during his marriage to Boulton that O’Neill wrote his greatest plays.
His first play was followed by other one-act melodramas, based, like the first, on his experience as a sailor, and in 1920 his first full-length, professionally produced play, Beyond the Horizon, won the Pulitzer Prize. He would receive this award again in 1921 for Anna Christie. Passionately committed to his task and extremely prolific, he was soon turning out a rapid succession of plays,...
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