O'NEILL, EUGENE 1888-1953
The Greatest American Dramatist
American drama is divisible into two periods: before and after Eugene O'Neill. The son of James O'Neill, a popular actor, Eugene O'Neill was born in a hotel at the corner of Broadway and 43rd Street and grew up in the theater. Rejecting the crowd-pleasing melodrama form, O'Neill enlarged the scope, material, and technique of American drama while setting high aspirations for himself and writing masterpieces that included The Emperor Jones (1920), Anna Christie (1921), Desire Under the Elms (1924), Strange Interlude (1928), Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), The Iceman Cometh (1946), A Moon for the Misbegotten (1947), and Long Day's Journey Into Night (1956).
O'Neill was dismissed from Princeton during his freshman year and spent his young manhood as a sailor, alcoholic, and beachcomber. The destructive love and guilt of his family inspired O'Neill's later family dramas: the father believed he had wasted his talent in moneymaking roles; the mother was addicted to morphine; the alcoholic son Jamie was an embittered failure. O'Neill began writing plays in 1913, developing themes of family guilt and strife, the destructive power of love, the constrictions of marriage, the necessity for sensitive and gifted characters to escape their environments, the need for "pipe dreams," and—perhaps his main recurring theme—the tragic effects on people who betray their temperaments or violate their natures. His most memorable characters are obsessed by fixed ideas or romantic ideals. It was necessary for O'Neill to develop new techniques for the revelation of the inner lives of his characters.
While for the most part retaining realistic speech and detail, O'Neill moved from his early realism and naturalism to "supernaturalism"—the systematic use of symbolism in a realistic work. He introduced expressionistic techniques into American drama in his endeavor to objectify the inner experience of his characters; expressionism employed distortion, simplification, exaggeration, and symbolic settings. The Emperor Jones is regarded as the first American expressionist play, followed by The Hairy Ape (1922). In his endeavors to expand the scope of American drama, O'Neill recovered techniques from the classics and gave them expressionistic treatments. In The Great God Brown (1926) masks indicate the characters' efforts to hide their conflicts of mind and soul. Lazarus Laughed (1927) employs masks and chorus. The effective use of spoken thoughts—O'Neill's version of the aside—in Strange Interlude solidified his reputation as a technical genius. O'Neill also rejected the structural requirements of the conventional well-made plays; Strange Interlude ran from 5:15 to 11 P.M., with a dinner break. Mourning Becomes Electra was inspired by Aeschylus's Oresteia; O'Neill described this trilogy as the "modern psychological approximation of the Greek sense of fate."
O'Neill married actresss Carlotta Monterey—his third wife—in 1929. She managed every aspect of his life in order to facilitate his work, and she made it possible for him to give up alcohol. He became a virtual recluse in France, Bermuda, Sea Island, and California. O'Neill won the Pulitzer Prize four times—once posthumously. In 1936 he received the Nobel Prize in literature. During the 1930s he worked on a nine-play cycle, "A Tale of Possessions Self-Dispossessed"—a study of the soul-destroying influence of business and property. But a tremor made it impossible for him to hold a pencil during his later years, and the work in progress on the cycle was destroyed, except for A Touch of the Poet and the unfinished More Stately Mansions. The last new play produced on Broadway during O'Neill's life was The Iceman Cometh, his most effective examination of the pipe-dream theme. The play concludes that humans require self-lies to sustain them; life without pipe dreams is too terrible for most people. This great play ran for only 136 performances in 1946, but subsequent productions have established its proper high position in the O'Neill canon.
During 1940-1943 O'Neill wrote two of his most personal plays about his family, renamed the Tyrones: Long Day's Journey Into Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten. He left instructions that Long Day's Journey Into Night was not to be performed until twenty-five years after his death; nevertheless, his widow allowed 1956 productions, and the success of this play solidified O'Neill's reputation with audiences who had not seen his plays in the 1920s or 1930s. A Moon for the Misbegotten closed on the road in 1947, but it was effectively revived in the 1950s. Both plays examine the open wounds that tormented the O'Neills and found expression in the most important body of drama since the death of William Shakespeare. Eugene O'Neill did not merely enrich American drama: he reinvented it and prepared the way for the playwrights who followed.
Louis Sheaffer, O'Neill: Son and Artist (Boston: Little, Brown, 1973);
Sheaffer, O'Neill: Son and Playwright (Boston: Little, Brown, 1968).