Eugene O'Neill

Eugene O'NeillBorn 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. The first seven years of Eugene's life were spent travelling the country with his father who had given up his career as a shakespearean actor to tour in a less satisfying but highly profitable play called Monte Cristo. Eugene's violent reaction to everything conventional in the theatre may have been related to his intimate association with this play.

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, but when he was suspended at the end of his freshman year, he decided not to return. 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, a tramp, 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 in silence. 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 tubercular patients. It was during this time that O'Neill began to read not only the classic dramatists, but also Ibsen, Wedekind and Strindberg--"especially Strindberg" he would later confess. He then turned his hand to playwriting, quickly churning out eleven one-act plays and two full-lengths, not to mention a bit of poetry.

Then, in 1916, O'Neill met at Provincetown, Massachusetts, the group which was founding the Provincetown Players, including Susan Glaspell and Robert Edmond Jones. Shortly thereafter, the group produced O'Neill's one-act play Bound East for Cardiff in Mary Heaton Vorse's Wharf Theatre at Provincetown. Other short pieces followed at the playhouse on MacDougal Street, and soon O'Neill's plays became the mainstay of this experimental group. It was a marriage made in Heaven. 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.

With the Broadway production of Beyond the Horizon in 1920, O'Neill began a steady rise to fame. He received countless productions both in the United States and abroad, and when the Provincetown players finally collapsed, he became the Theatre Guild's leading playwright. But by the time he received the Nobel Prize in 1936--a feat which no other American playwright had been able to accomplish--his career had begun to fizzle. The new generation of critics--Francis Fergusson, Lionel Trilling, Eric Bentley--began to subject O'Neill to a closer scrutiny than their predecessors who had been satisfied simply to find an American playwright of international stature. Pushed about by this critical storm, obscurity began to settle in on the playwright, and it deepened more and more until his death in 1953. Ironically, it was during these dark years that O'Neill's real development began. Maturing in silence and motivated only by his obsessive urge to write, he developed a profound artistic honesty which would result in several genuine masterpieces of the modern theatre including A Touch of the Poet (1935-1942), More Stately Mansions (1935-1941), The Iceman Cometh (1939), A Long Day's Journey into Night (1939-41) and A Moon for the Misbegotten (1943). Most of these were not published or produced during O'Neill's lifetime.

Then, in 1956, three years after the playwright's death, a successful revival of The Iceman Cometh and the first Broadway production of A Long Day's Journey into Night, returned Eugene O'Neill once again to his rightful place at the forefront of American Drama. As George Jean Nathan noted, O'Neill "singlehandedly waded through the dismal swamplands of American drama, bleak, squashy, and oozing sticky goo, and alone and singlehanded bore out the water lily that no American had found there before him." Today, he is recognized not only as the first great American dramatist, but as one of the great dramatists of all time.

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Eugene O'Neill

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