Eugene O’Neill:
America’s Playwright

Playwright Eugene O'Neill in his Tao House study. (Photo: Yale University Library)

By C.F. Canning, Contributor
Febuary / March 2006

Eugene O’Neill was one of those Irish-Americans who never set foot on Irish soil. And yet a good measure of his identity as an artist was defined by his Irishness — something he freely admitted: “One thing that explains more than anything about me is the fact that I’m Irish. And, strangely enough, it is something that all the writers who have attempted to explain me and my work have overlooked.”

Born in New York City on October 16, 1888, Eugene Gladstone O’Neill was as much Irish as American in origin. His father, James O’Neill, was from Kilkenny and like many of his countrymen, emigrated to America in the years following the great Famine. Eugene’s mother, a first-generation Irish-American by the name of Mary Ellen (Ella) Quinlan, married James in 1877. The couple had three children, all boys. The first, they named James, Jr. (but referred to as “Jamie”). The other two boys were given names right out of the chronicles of Irish nationalism. One was christened Edmund Burke, after the great Irish-born statesman and orator. The third son and youngest child was named Eugene Gladstone — the “Gladstone” for the British Prime Minister who had fought for Irish Home Rule.

Though James O’Neill was a very successful actor, his career imposed a difficult lifestyle on his wife and children. Ella soon discovered that the reality of life with James O’Neill, the matinee idol, was not everything that she — as a schoolgirl — had imagined. Her romantic notion of life with a handsome young actor developed into a lonely succession of hotel rooms and train schedules. Usually the O’Neills were on the road nine months a year. Because of this, the only home that the family had was a summer house in New London, Connecticut (called “Monte Cristo Cottage” after James’ perennial meat ticket, The Count of Monte Cristo, a melodramatic adaptation of the Dumas novel that James starred in over 4.000 times).

While the gypsy-like existence of an actor’s life affected all the O’Neills, Ella was hardest hit. In 1885 she lost her infant son Edmund a few short weeks after she had left New York to join her husband’s tour. The child died while she was away, and Ella never forgave herself for the infant’s death. Devoutly Catholic, she viewed Edmund’s death as her punishment for forsaking her duty as a mother.

Some three years later, Eugene was born in a New York City hotel room. Because he weighed 11 pounds at birth, Ella had a difficult time of it. To help ease the pain of a slow recovery, the hotel doctor administered morphine. Thereafter, Ella became addicted to the drug. She was addicted throughout the first twenty-five years of her son’s life. (With the help of a Brooklyn convent, Ella finally conquered her addiction in 1914.)

Eugene was sent off to a Catholic boarding school at the age of seven. After five years at St, Aloysius in the Bronx and two years with the Christian Brothers at De la Salle in Manhattan, O’Neill prevailed upon his parents to take him out of Catholic schools. Unable to reconcile a merciful God with his mother’s drug addiction, he became disaffected with Catholicism and left the church when he was fourteen. His Catholic upbringing remained vitally important to him, however. In the words of biographer Elizabeth Sergeant, O’Neill became “a renegade Catholic”; “an agnostic in search of redemption.” Years later, when O’Neill was asked to describe his work, he said, “In all my plays sin is punished and redemption takes place.”

Despite the tragedy in the O’Neill family or perhaps because of it — O’Neill’s early life seemed tailor-made for an emerging play-wright. He admitted as much when he said, “Now that I look back on it, I realize that I couldn’t have done better for myself if I had deliberately charted out my life.” Although he had just one year of college (excepting a workshop course at Harvard some years later), O’Neill received a marvelous education in what Mark Twain called “the university of the world.” To begin with, James O’Neill’s profession and celebrity afforded Eugene the most thorough training imaginable. Long before O’Neill decided to become a playwright, he had completely absorbed the ways of the theater.

Another thing that O’Neill had in abundance was life experience. Before he was twenty-five years old, he had married and fathered a son; gone off to Honduras on a gold discovering expedition; abandoned a wife and child; shipped out to sea; lived along the waterfronts of New York, Buenos Aires, and Southampton; tried to commit suicide; worked as a newspaper reporter; and spent six months in a sanatorium recovering from tuberculosis.

It was this last experience that O’Neill regarded as the turning point in his life. Holed up in the “san,” as he called it, O’Neill had his first real opportunity for reflection. After much thought, the artist chose his medium: O’Neill decided that he was going to be a playwright. Shortly after he was released from the sanatorium he told his friends, “Some day James O’Neill will best be known as the father of Eugene O’Neill.”

In 1916, just three years after leaving the sanatorium, O’Neill had his first play produced (a one-act play called Bound East for Cardiff) at the Wharf Theater in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Success on Broadway followed when Beyond the Horizon was produced in 1920. This play dramatizes the lives of two brothers who bring tragedy upon themselves by forsaking their true natures. In love with the same girl, the poetic, romantic one stays behind to run the family farm while his brother, a steadfast, natural-born farmer, goes off to sea. Both are crushed by lives contrary to their nature.

Although O’Neill received his first Pulitzer Prize for Beyond the Horizon, he was more gratified that his father lived to see his first Broadway play. James O’Neill’s reaction to Beyond the Horizon provides us with one of the most telling remarks in all of American theater. After James told Eugene how proud he was of him, James said, “It’s all right, if that’s what you want to do, but people come to the theater to forget about their troubles, not to be reminded of them. What are you trying to do — send them home to commit suicide?” Over the past eighty years, thousands of theatergoers have wondered the same thing.

What the younger O’Neill was attempting to do was to create American tragedy in the tradition of the Greeks and the Elizabethans, of Ibsen and Strindberg, and of the Abbey Players (O’Neill said in 1923, “It was seeing the Irish players for the first time that gave me a glimpse of my opportunity. I thought then and I still think that they demonstrated the possibilities of naturalistic acting better than any other company.”) O’Neill wanted to replace the theater of his father, “the ranting, artificial, romantic stage stuff,” with great tragedy. Tragedy depressing? O’Neill didn’t think so:

“It’s a sheer present-day judgement to think of tragedy as unhappy! The Greeks and the Elizabethans knew better. They felt a tremendous lift to it. It roused them spiritually to a deeper understanding of life. Through it they found release from the petty considerations of everyday existence. They saw their lives ennobled by it.”

Throughout the 1920s Eugene O’Neill dominated American theater. From 1920 to 1928 he wrote fifteen plays. So strong was his hold on New York audiences that he often had two or three plays in production at the same time. Although O’Neill won his second Pulitzer Prize for Anna Christie in 1922 and his third for Strange Interlude in 1928, most people regard The Emperor Jones, The Hairy Ape, and Desire Under the Elms as O’Neill’s early masterpieces.

The year 1928 marked another turning point in O’Neill’s life. In January of that year he resolved to leave his second wife of nine years — and their two children — for Carlotta Monterey. In February, O’Neill and Carlotta sailed for Europe. The couple spent the next three years traveling and living abroad, passing most of their time at “Le Plessis,” a 35room chateau in France’s Loire Valley where O’Neill wrote Mourning Becomes Electra. After returning to the States in 1931, O’Neill and Carlotta spent the next four years on Sea Island in Georgia. At “Casa Genotta,” the O’Neill’s 22-room mansion, O’Neill wrote Days Without End and Ah, Wilderness! In 1936 the O’Neills moved again, this time to the West Coast.

O’Neill was in Seattle when he received word that he had won the 1936 Nobel Prize for Literature. At the time he was only the second American to be so honored (Sinclair Lewis had won the award in 1930). Congratulations poured in from all over. As O’Neill biographer Louis Sheaffer recounts, “what particularly pleased O’Neill was that the Irish ambassador in Washington praised him on behalf of the Irish Free State ‘as adding, along with Shaw and Yeats, to the credit of old Ireland.’ ‘So what,’ O’Neill commented, ‘could be more perfect?'” Weened on tales of the Irish heroes of the past; heartened by the work of Oscar Wilde, Yeats, Synge, Lady Gregory, Joyce, Shaw, and O’Casey, O’Neill was proud to be included in the Irish pantheon.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about O’Neill’s career is that he wrote some of his best plays — plays that many regard as his masterpieces — after winning the Nobel Prize. It was at Tao House, O’Neill’s secluded 158-acre estate in the Danville hills east of Oakland, California, that O’Neill finished A Touch of the Poet and wrote The Iceman Cometh, Long Day’s Journey into Night, Hughie and A Moon for the Misbegotten. Three of these plays are distinctly Irish-American. In fact, A Touch of the Poet, Long Day’s Journey into Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten might be regarded as an Irish-American trilogy of sorts. All three dramatize Irish-American families in opposition to (or in isolation from) their Yankee counterparts.

In A Touch of the Poet, set in a roadhouse tavern on the outskirts of Boston in 1828, immigrant Con Melody struggles to come to terms with his new identity. In Ireland, and later with the Duke of Wellington on the battlefield of Talavera, Con had been an exalted man, a handsome officer with a large Irish estate. In Yankee New England, however, he is just one in the herd of drunken Irishmen. Ostracized by his Yankee neighbors and resented by his fellow Irish-Americans, Con fights to hold onto his self-image.

Long Day’s Journey into Night is O’Neill‘s most autobiographical play. Set in New London, Connecticut during the summer of 1912, Long Day’s Journey into Night is a masterful portrayal of O’Neill’s father, his mother, his brother Jamie and himself. While Long Day’s Journey is many things, the critic John Henry Raleigh views the play as “…the great expression of American Irish-Catholicism; it puts permanently into the shade all the stage-Irish — St. Patrick’s Day — Going My Way — Mother McCree type of sentimentality that has encircled the image of the Irish in America.”

A Moon for the Misbegotten, set in the Connecticut countryside in September of 1923, was the last play O’Neill wrote. In this great work, O’Neill dramatized the tragedy of his brother Jamie’s life. Under a full moon, Jamie makes his last confession to Josie Hogan, an Irish giantess with an earth mother’s power to forgive. Although A Moon for the Misbegotten is as tragic a play as O’Neill ever wrote, it also contains some of the most riotous comedy in all his work. When T. Stedman Harder, Standard Oil millionaire, meets Phil Hogan, pig farmer, O’Neill is at his satirical best.

O’Neill did his last writing in 1943. A tremor, brought on by a degenerative nerve disorder, ended O’Neill’s career when he was 56 years old. He died in a Boston hotel room nine years later.

Although much of O’Neill’s work was colored by his Irishness, the plays of Eugene O’Neill transcend cultural boundaries. Because his main subject was the human condition, the most important elements of his work are no more Irish than French or Spanish. Though Long Day’s Journey into Night dramatizes the lives of an extraordinary Irish-American family, everyone can relate to the tormented dynamic of frustrated love and bitter resentment among family members. Who hasn’t felt the pain of being misunderstood by someone whose approval means everything? What of the maddening isolation — that aloneness — that is something most acute when we’re with the ones we love? Why must we be apart when we are together?

It is precisely this universal quality that makes O’Neill so popular abroad. And Eugene O’Neill’s “Irishness” — far from being a provincial expression of narrowminded cultural experience — is the stuff of some of the greatest tragedy in the English language. ♦

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