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Eugene O'Neill  

One of America's most important playwrights, Eugene O'Neill earned four Pulitzer Prizes and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936. His masterpiece is "Long Day's Journey into Night."
Last Updated: Dec 16, 2016 URL: Print Guide RSS Updates

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Eugene O'Neill ( 1888-1953)


Brief Biography

Eugene O'Neill's childhood and experiences as an adolescent formed his tragic view of life.  His plays brought the American theater into the twentieth century and away from the superficial, melodramatic plays that were written for many years.  O'Neill had the theater in his blood.   He was born in 1888, the son of James O'Neill, an actor and Ella Quinlan.  For the first seven years of his life, he toured with his father's theater company.  This constant touring may have been the source of some of his insecurity as an adult.  Another contributing factor to his later emotional issues was his mother's morphine addiction.  She was given morphine to ease the pain of childbirth and she quickly became addicted to the drug. At the age of seven, O'Neill was sent to a Catholic boarding school and then later to a private secular academy.   He received a good elementary and high school education and was admitted to Princeton, but already indulging in alcohol and sex as a young college student, he dropped out of Princeton even before finishing his freshman year.  Determined to gain "life experience", he became a seaman and travelled extensively, drank almost constantly and even attempted suicide.   He became sick with tuberculosis and while recovering, took stock of himself.  He realized he would not last long and was wasting his life.  He decided to write plays.  His initial efforts were poorly written melodramas, but they were about subjects he knew: sailors, bums and prostitutes.  These subjects were not part of American plays and were something new.   He attended Harvard for a short time, learning to write plays.  The academic instruction did not produce notable plays, but it kept him writing and added to his growing habit of hard work and dedication to his chosen craft.

In 1916, he joined a group of writers and painters in Provincetown, Cape Cod.  This association with what came to be called the Provincetown Players was crucial to O'Neill's development as a playwright.  While there he wrote one act plays, most notably "Bound East for Cardiff."    The actors in this small group immediately recognized the quality of the writing and in November, 1916 the play was debuted in New York City.  Other plays followed and by 1920 O'Neill's talent was recognized.  Indeed "Beyond the Horizon" was so impressive that it earned O'Neill the first of his four Pulitzer prizes.  Despite personal difficulties, O'Neill kept working. Between 1920 and 1943 he completed twenty long plays and many short ones.  Plays such as "The Emperor Jones," and "The Hairy Ape" are still produced today.

Some of O'Neill's plays evoked the themes found in classical ancient Greek drama. This can be seen in "Desire Under the Elms."  O'Neill used ancient Greek themes to draw on his experiences with his own family  Many critics rank this play as one of the great plays of the twentieth century.   While O'Neill's themes dealt with death, drug addiction and troubled families, he was capable of writing comedy, as exemplified by the charming "Ah, Wilderness."  However, this play is atypical, for his other plays such as "Hugie," "The Iceman Cometh" and his masterpiece "Long Day's Journey into Night" ( the characters taken from his own family while he was growing up) deal with dark themes.

O'Neill's talent was recognized in 1936 when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.  His personal life was, to say the least, troubled.  He was married three times. He disowned his daughter, Oona, when she married Charlie Chaplin, the actor who was O'Neill's age.   His elder son committed suicide at the age of 40 and his younger son was emotionally troubled.  O'Neill had a drinking problem for most of his adult life.  His final years were tragic.  He was unable to work due to a neurological disease.  His third wife ( Carlotta Monterey, an important person in O'Neill's life) and an assistant cared for him and he died-in the same type of room where he was born-a hotel room, in 1953.   His widow saw to it that his masterpiece "Long Day's Journey into Night" was published and produced for the stage in 1956.   O'Neill was awarded his fourth Pultzer for this play, the most autobiographical of all his plays and perhaps the best known.  

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