Wednesday, June 15, 2016

About the Author: Eugene O'Neill

Born October 16, 1888 in a hotel then situated at Broadway and Forty-third Street in New York City, Eugene O'Neill was the son of James O'Neill, one of America's most popular actors from the 1880s until World War I, and Mary Ellen “Ella” O’Neill. After Eugene was born, Ella developed an addiction to morphine as she had been given the drug to help her through her particularly difficult childbirth. Ella was also still grieving for Eugene's older brother, Edmund, who had died of the measles three years earlier. (The couple also had another son, James Jr.) His father continued on with his role in a touring production of The Count of Monte Cristo shortly after Eugene's birth.

After several years on the road with his father, O'Neill spent six years in a Catholic boarding school and three years in the Betts Academy at Stamford, Connecticut. He attended Princeton for a short time in 1906, but when he was suspended at the end of his freshman year, he decided not to return.

Eugene O'Neill
After leaving Princeton, Eugene O'Neill floundered for a time. He took several sea voyages, ran around town with brother James and indulged heavily in alcohol. He had a brief marriage to Kathleen Jenkins, which resulted in one son, Eugene O'Neill Jr. In 1909, he set out on a gold-prospecting voyage to Honduras--only to be sent home six months later with a tropical fever. During the period that followed, he spent time working as a stage manager, an actor, and a reporter. He also tended mules on a cattle steamer and set out on several other voyages as a sailor. It was here that he came in contact with the sailors, dock workers and outcasts that would populate his plays, the kind of characters the American theatre had heretofore passed over. But this irregular life took its toll on the young man, and in December 1912, he was forced to retire for six months to a sanatorium for patients with tuberculosis. It was during this time that O'Neill began to read not only the classic dramatists, but also Ibsen and Strindberg. He enrolled in writing class in Harvard and turned his hand to playwriting, quickly churning out eleven one-act plays and two full-length plays, as well as a bit of poetry.

Then, in 1916, O'Neill met at Provincetown, Massachusetts, the group which was founding the Provincetown Players. Shortly thereafter, the group produced O'Neill's one-act play Bound East for Cardiff. Other short pieces followed at the playhouse on MacDougal Street, and soon O'Neill's plays became the mainstay of this experimental group. O'Neill got a theatre company which would produce his plays, and the company got a playwright who would--more than any other single author--provide it with the fuel to revolutionize the American Theatre.

Also in 1916, O'Neill made a second attempt at domestic bliss. He married fellow writer Agnes Boulton, and the couple eventually had two children together, son Shane and daughter Oona. O'Neill took the theatrical world by storm in 1920 with Beyond the Horizon, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Later that year, another O'Neill masterpiece, The Emperor Jones, made its Broadway debut.

In 1922, O'Neill brought his drama Anna Christie to the Broadway stage; this play netted the playwright his second (of four) Pulitzer Prize for Drama. O'Neill suffered a personal loss with the death of his brother the following year. By this time, the playwright had also lost both of his parents. But O'Neill's private struggles seemed to aid him in creating greater dramatic works for the stage, including Desire Under the Elms (1924) and Strange Interlude (1928).
Around this time, O'Neill left his second wife and quickly began a relationship with Carlotta Monterey, whom he married in 1929.
O'Neill re-imagined the mythic tragedy Oresteia in Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), exchanging ancient Greece for New England in the 19th century. Five years later, he became the first American playwright to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was given this honor "for the power, honesty and deep-felt emotions of his dramatic works, which embody an original concept of tragedy," according to the Nobel Prize website.

O'Neill completed Long Day's Journey Into Night in the early 1940s, but he refused to have this autobiographical play produced until long after his death. Around this same time, he had a falling out with daughter Oona; he chose to end his relationship with Oona after she married actor Charlie Chaplin.
After several years' absence from the stage, in 1946, O'Neill returned with one of his most heralded works, The Iceman Cometh, a dark drama that explores the lives of a group of barflies. The following year, the playwright learned that he had Parkinson's disease, and found it impossible to write due to the tremors in his hands.
In 1948, O'Neill, never a supportive parent, cut ties with his youngest son, Shane, after Shane was arrested for drug possession. Two years later, his eldest son, Eugene, committed suicide.
Eugene Gladstone O'Neill died of bronchial pneumonia on November 27, 1953, at the age of 65, in Boston, Massachusetts, leaving behind a tremendous literary legacy of more than 50 plays. In 1957, after O’Neill’s death, Long Day's Journey Into Night was finally performed on Broadway to rave reviews; O'Neill received a posthumous Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize for the drama. His work continues to move and fascinate audiences today and he is largely considered one of the fathers of contemporary American theatre.

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