By Elaine Pilkington
Eugene O’Neill’s work was shaped by an early life filled with adversities, and his greatest successes were the result of or a reaction to many of those hardships. In 1912, O’Neill’s brief marriage to Kathleen Jenkins ended, he attempted suicide at “Jimmie-the-Priest’s” saloon, and he entered a sanatorium to recover from tuberculosis (Normand Berlin in Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature ed. by George Perkins, Barbara Perkins, and Phillip Leininger [New York: HarperCollins Publisher, 1991], 808 09). O’Neill’s downward slide had begun in 1907 when he left Princeton after one academic year. Having failed to take his required exams, he was dropped for academic reasons and misbehavior, throwing “a rock in the stationmaster’s window during a drunken spree” (Berlin, 809).
In the intervening years, O’Neill was a secretary for a mail-order firm in New York, an assistant manager for a touring theatrical company, a prospector for gold in Honduras, a frequent seaman, and a reporter. He worked at various occupations in Argentina, “but usually lived the life of a bum on the waterfront, sleeping on benches, and scrounging for alcohol and food” (Berlin, 809), and he “went to South Africa, tending mules on a cattle steamer” (Joseph Wood Krutch, intr. Nine Plays by Eugene O’Neill [New York: Liveright, Inc. 1932], xiii).
In contrast, the time O’Neill spent in the sanatorium was a period of self-discovery and rebirth. “He began to mine his own psyche, searching for the answers to his life’s meaning, trying to face the sometimes painful truth about himself and the raw facts of his past.” Rather than being overwhelmed by his illness, he felt that his conquest of it “had empowered him to challenge fate on other levels—and dare to believe he could win.” Five years before his death, O’Neill “was still eager to stress that if he had not been forced to look hard at himself in the sanatorium, he might never have become a playwright” (Arthur and Barbara Gelb, O’Neill: Life with Monte Cristo [New York: Applause Books, 2000], 388-89).
Life in the sanatorium also gave him opportunities for reading and study. “During that period he began to read seriously every play he could lay hands on: the Greeks, the Elizabethans—practically all the classics—and of course all the moderns. Ibsen and Strindberg, especially Strindberg” (Berlin, 808). O’Neill credited Strindberg’s work with giving him “the vision of what modern drama could be, and first . . . [inspiring him] with the urge to write for the theater” (Gelb, 404).
After five months at Gaylord Farm Sanatorium, O’Neill had gained sixteen pounds and was certified fit to leave (Gelb, 392). Returning to the family summer home in New London, Connecticut, he began writing one-act plays, eventually seeking “help on technical matters” by enrolling in “Professor George Pierce Baker’s famous drama workshop at Harvard” (Paul M. Cubeta, Modern Drama for Analysis [New York: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, 1962], 153). In 1916 O’Neill became affiliated with the Provincetown Players who produced his plays written from 1915 to 1920 (Kenneth Macgowan, intro. Famous American Plays of the 1920s [New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1959], 25). Beyond the Horizon, his first important full-length play, was produced in 1920 and became a Broadway success (Berlin, 810). In the 1920s and 1930s, O’Neill wrote the majority of his best known plays, such as The Emperor Jones, The Hairy Ape, Desire under the Elms, Mourning Becomes Electra, and Ah, Wilderness!, and established himself as “America’s outstanding dramatist” of the period, receiving the Pulitzer Prize for Beyond the Horizon (1920), Anna Christie (1922), and Strange Interlude (1928) (Cubeta, 153). (The Pulitzer Prize for Long Day’s Journey into Night was awarded posthumously in 1957.) In 1936 he received the Nobel Prize, “a feat no other American playwright had been able to accomplish” ("Eugene O'Neill,” (www.imagination.com/moonstruck/clsc34.html).
O’Neill’s tempestuous early years served as material for his plays: his own experiences emerge in his work about the sea, his saloon days influence Anna Christie and The Iceman Cometh, and his stay in the sanatorium provides much of the plot and many of the characters in The Straw. But clearly the greatest autobiographical force in his work was his family and his relationship with them.
O’Neill was born on October 16, 1888, in a hotel room on Broadway. His famous father, James O’Neill, had traded a glowing career as a Shakespearean actor for a more financially secure role, touring in the lead role of The Count of Monte Cristo (Berlin, 808). Because O’Neill’s mother accompanied her husband, Eugene and his older brother, Jamie, attended boarding schools from an early age. The strain of this lifestyle on Mrs. O’Neill, the loss of her second son at age two, and a difficult birth with Eugene perhaps contributed to her addiction to morphine. Brother Jamie became an alcoholic whose story, softened by a gentle death, is told in A Moon for the Misbegotten.
The conflicts, sorrows, and intricacies of the O’Neill family in 1912 are mirrored by the Tyrones of Long Day's Journey Into Night, generally accepted as his finest work. “Carlotta O'Neill remembered her husband emerging from his study red-eyed and gaunt after working on Long Day's Journey into Night.” The play was part of O’Neill’s attempt both “to forgive and be forgiven” ("Eugene O'Neill: National Historic Site," [last updated 12 February 2001], www.nps.gov/euon/plays.htm). Long Day's Journey Into Night (1941) and A Moon for the Misbegotten (1943) are among O’Neill’s last plays. In 1944 a nervous disease, which had afflicted him since the 1930s, made it impossible for him to hold a pencil, and his writing career ended. He died on November 27, 1953. “His ambitions were immense and his accomplishment was greater than that of any other American playwright before or since” (Berlin, 809, 812).