Eugene O’Neill (1888–1953)

Eugene Gladstone O’Neill is generally considered the United States’ first great playwright. His plays continue to be revived around the world, more than 50 years after his death in 1953. O’Neill was the first American playwright to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. It may be striking to today’s audiences that when he received the prize he had not yet written the plays now considered to be his masterworks, and for which he may be best known: Long Day’s Journey into Night, The Iceman Cometh, and Moon for the Misbegotten.

O’Neill was born in a hotel in New York City on October 16, 1888, but he was also born into the theater—his father James was a matinee idol who toured the country mostly starring in his signature role, Edmund Dante, in a stage adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo, the classic revenge novel by Alexandre Dumas, père.

As a boy, he attended boarding schools and spent summers at the family’s home in New London, Connecticut. He then attended Princeton University, from which he was expelled after one year, for poor academic performance—not for throwing a beer bottle through then–Princeton (and later, U.S.) president Woodrow Wilson’s window, as theater critic George Jean Nathan, O’Neill’s friend and champion, widely publicized. “I liked Woodrow Wilson,” O’Neill told Hamilton Basso, who interviewed him for the New Yorker. “I would never have done a thing like that, if I had been swimming around in a lake of vodka.” O’Neill had actually thrown a rock at a barking dog, breaking the window of a Pennsylvania Railroad superintendent.

After leaving Princeton, O’Neill led what he called “a restless, wandering life for several years,” working at odd jobs—a secretary at a mail-order company and later as a vaudeville performer and small-town newspaper reporter. He never held a job for long—he was “either fired quickly or left quickly.” He then embarked on a series of overseas adventures, prospecting for gold in Spanish Honduras—“Found no gold but contracted malarial fever,” he wrote—and worked for several American manufacturing companies in Buenos Aires and as a sailor on trans-Atlantic ocean liners. But he became ill and in 1912 was admitted to a sanitarium for tuberculosis, where he spent six months.

Eugene’s playwriting career began when his father sent him to Harvard in 1914 to study playwriting with George Pierce Baker, whose famous students include John Mason Brown, Philip Barry, and Thomas Wolfe. O’Neill dismissed the plays he wrote in Baker’s class as “rotten,” but said that Baker encouraged him personally to keep writing.

Eugene ONeill was the United States first great modern playwright to achieve international stature.

Eugene O’Neill was the United States’ first great modern playwright to achieve international stature. (Library of Congress)

O’Neill’s first produced play to be produced, a one-act “sea play” Bound East for Cardiff, was presented by the Provincetown Players, an experimental theater group launched by young writers and artists, at their tiny Wharf Theater in Provincetown, Massachusetts. The Players, many of whom were based in New York, founded the Play-wright’s Theater in Greenwich Village, where O’Neill’s short sea plays were all performed between 1916 and 1920.

O’Neill’s first full-length play, Beyond the Horizon, a realistic tragedy about two brothers in love with the same woman, was produced on Broadway in 1921 and won O’Neill the first of his four Pulitzer prizes in Drama—the others were for Strange Interlude, Anna Christie, and (posthumously) Long Day’s Journey into Night.

O’Neill’s plays departed from American theater convention of the time by focusing on characters from “the lower depths” (and apparently influenced by the play of that name by Maxim Gorki)—prostitutes, alcoholics, derelicts. His psychological dramas veered more toward the tragic than the melodramatic, as most American dramas did then. In Anna Christie, for example, the heroine reveals she turned to prostitution after being raped and is condemned both by her seafaring father, who abandoned her as a child, and by Mat, the man who wanted to marry her.

Beyond the Horizon’s success not only cemented O’Neill’s reputation in the theater world, but it was also a source of pride for his father, who suffered a stroke one week after the play’s Broadway opening and was diagnosed with intestinal cancer. The elder O’Neill died not long afterward. “It was the greatest satisfaction to him that I made good,” his son later said. “I thank whatever gods may be that ‘Beyond’ came into its own just in time for him.” His father told him, “Well, lad, I tried to drag you in by the back door of the theater and now you’re on the stage.”

O’Neill’s other major plays include:

Strange Interlude (written in 1923; produced in 1928) is considered one of O’Neill’s most challenging works, because of its long running time (more than 4 hours) and its style—characters speak their dialogue as part of the play’s action but also deliver soliloquies expressing their hidden thoughts directly to the audience. When it was first staged, the play shocked audiences—and was banned or censored in some cities, because of its main character’s actions. After her fiancé is killed in World War I, Nina Leeds becomes sexually promiscuous and then marries, only to abort her pregnancy after learning mental illness runs in her husband’s family. She then becomes pregnant through a passionate affair with another man—and raises the child as her husband’s, unbeknownst to him. Toward the end of the play, Nina, now old, says, “Our lives are strange dark interludes in the electrical display of God the Father!”

Desire under the Elms (1924) is a retelling of a Greek myth depicted by Euripides’s tragedy of love between a woman (Phaedra in the Greek myth; Abbie Putnam in O’Neill’s play) and her stepson (Hippolytus; and Eben Cabot). Not only do Abbie and Eben consummate their relationship—unlike Phaedra and the chaste Hippolytus—but Abbie also resorts to infanticide, murdering the child her husband considers to be his own. The play, considered scandalous in its day, was threatened with censorship or closing but was still a critical and commercial success.

Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), which Per Hallström, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, called O’Neill’s “grandest work,” was the playwright’s retelling of the Aeschylus’s monumental trilogy, The Oresteia. O’Neill set the revenge tragedy around the time of the Civil War. “Both in the story it unfolds and in the destiny-charged atmosphere enshrouding it, this play keeps close to the tradition of the ancient drama, though in both respects it is adjusted to modern life and to modern lines of thought,” Hallström said. These modern lines of thought included “the natural-scientific determinism of the doctrine of heredity, and also upon the Freudian omniscience concerning the unconscious, the nightmare dream of perverse family emotions.”

The Iceman Cometh (1939) is set in Harry Hope’s Last Chance Saloon in Greenwich Village where down-and-out alcoholics drink themselves into a stupor, and characters discuss anarchism and socialism and the death of ideals, while confessing to acts of betrayal and violence. The play’s dramatic peak is the long (more than 20 minutes), devastating monologue by salesman Theodore “Hickey” Hickman near the end of the play.

Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956): universally recognized as O’Neill’s masterpiece, this autobiographical work plumbs the emotional depths of O’Neill’s family, tracing the decline of the Tyrones. Like O’Neill’s father, patriarch James Tyrone is a leading man of the American stage, having sacrificed his acting talent for commercial success—“That God-damned play I bought for a song and made such a great success in—a great money success—it ruined me with its promise of an easy fortune,” Tyrone says toward the end of the play.

Mary Tyrone, like O’Neill’s mother Ella, drifts into the oblivion of drug addiction; James Tyrone Jr., like Eugene’s older brother Jamie, is a ne’er-do-well alcoholic and cynic, torn up inside by his mother’s addiction; and Edmund, the younger brother who represents Eugene, is about to be sent to a state sanitarium for tuberculosis because his miserly father will not pay for a better, more expensive place.

The play cut so close to the bone that O’Neill gave his publisher Bennett Cerf a sealed envelope with a manuscript of the play and instructions that it not be produced until 25 years after O’Neill’s death. However, his widow Carlotta transferred the rights to the play to Yale University, and it was published in 1956, just three years after his death. It premiered at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, Sweden, in February 1956 and first appeared on Broadway that November. The work enhanced O’Neill’s reputation as a modern master of tragedy.

Moon for the Misbegotten: Completed shortly before O’Neill’s death, the play, in some ways a sequel to Long Day’s Journey into Night, revisits the character of James Tyrone Jr.—once again, the stand-in for O’Neill’s brother Jamie, who died at the age of 45 after a long struggle with alcoholism, wracked with guilt over his drunken and debauched behavior around his mother’s death. It has been suggested that the play is a belated offering of redemption by O’Neill to his lost brother.

Other plays by O’Neill include his only comedy Ah! Wilderness as well as The Great God Brown, The Emperor Jones, Hughie, and The Hairy Ape.

Toward the end of his life, O’Neill was working on a monumental nine-play cycle A Tale of Possessor Self-Dispossessed. The cycle was to follow one family, which O’Neill called “a far from model American family,” throughout American history. With the help of his wife Carlotta, O’Neill reportedly had destroyed six of the plays. “It was like tearing up children,” his widow Carlotta later said. Two plays that were not destroyed, Touch of a Poet and More Stately Mansions, have been performed—the latter being edited down from a 10-hour performance time, based on O’Neill’s notes about the play, despite his prohibition that no one be allowed to “finish” the plays.

A copy of another of O’Neill’s plays thought to have been destroyed by the playwright was found and published in the New Yorker in 2011. This autobiographical short play, Exorcism, about a man headed on a path toward self-destruction, was staged at the Provincetown Players in 1920 and hailed as “Uncommonly good” by critic Alexander Woollcott in the New York Times.

The Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to O’Neill in 1936 “for dramatic works of vital energy, sincerity, and intensity of feeling, stamped with an original conception of tragedy.” O’Neill was, unfortunately, too ill to travel to the prize presentation ceremony held in 1937. His written acceptance speech acknowledged his debt to the Swedish playwright August Strindberg, whom he called “the master.”

Like the characters in his plays, O’Neill’s family life was also punctuated by tragedy. He was married three times and divorced twice. Eugene O’Neill Jr., his son with his first wife Kathleen Jenkins, committed suicide at the age of 40. He and his second wife Agnes Boulton, whom he left for the actress Carlotta Monterey, had two children from whom he would become estranged. Shane was arrested for heroin possession and committed suicide, and he considered his daughter Oona, who was named “debutante of the year,” to be “a spoiled, lazy, vain little brat.” O’Neill cut off ties with her after she married Charlie Chaplin who was 36 years her senior. “Oona broke Gene’s heart,” said Carlotta. “He never mentioned her name after her marriage.”

Many years later, Oona O’Neill Chaplin wrote Jack Nicholson, who played O’Neill in the film Reds, “After a lifetime of acquired indifference, the inevitable finally happened. Thanks to you, dear Jack, I fell in love with my father.”

Eugene O’Neill died on November 27, 1953, in Boston.

—Sheldon Lewis


“American Masters: Eugene O’Neill.” .

Black, Stephen A. Eugene O’Neill: Beyond Mourning and Tragedy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999.

Eugene O’Neill Foundation. “Tao House.”

Frenz, Horst, ed. Nobel Lectures, Literature 1901–1967. Amsterdam: Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1969.

Gelb, Arthur, and Barbara Gelb. O’Neill. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1962.

Leonard, J. D. “George Pierce Baker: Prism for Genius.” Harvard Crimson. November 4, 1957.

National Park Service. “Tao House Museum.”

O’Neill, Eugene. “ An Electronic Eugene O’Neill Archive.”

Wilkins, Frederick. “Nicholson’s O’Neill: A Survey of Critical Reactions.” The Eugene O’Neill Newsletter, vol. VI, no. 1, Spring 1982. .