Eugene Gladstone O’Neill: Biography & Life

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      Eugene Gladstone O’Neill was born on 16 October 1888 in a hotel on Broadway in New York City. His father was James O’Neill, a professional actor, who in the 1880s had won fame and fortune in the role of the Count Monte Cristo. The son of Irish immigrants had risen from modest circumferences to success, both material and professional, as an actor, but his fear of poverty enslaved him to this one successful yet artistically inferior role. He played it for more than twenty years. This was the role they wanted to see him in, and all his efforts to act in better roles were unavailing.


      The way of life of the O’Neill family was that of the family of a road-company star, constantly on the move. Ella O’Neill, a sheltered girl who had a convent education, had fallen in love with, and married her star. The disillusionment was too much for her. An alimony suit brought against her husband soon after their marriage and the malicious publicity accompanying it, the instability of life in a road company, her husband’s drinking, and finally the death of her second child were possible factors that led her to become addicted to morphine.


      Eugene O’Neill was critical of the commercial American theatre and its successful mediocrity. Revolt against the circumstances of his personal life meant revolt against the world of James O’Neill - the American theatre of the late nineteenth century. Eugene used to say that he grew up in the wings and couldn’t see life with a touring company as being such a marvelous thing. He, as a young boy, was not attracted to the theatre; in fact, he did not seem to be particularly to do anything.


      He attended Princeton from 1906 to 1907, but left because he was about to be suspended on account of “an escapade”. In those years Eugene’s life was devoted to drinking, girls, and anarchists. He had no regular occupation, and after he had been working for a few weeks for mail-order house, his father, determined to prevent his son’s marriage to a certain Kathleen Jenkins, arranged for bim to accompany a married couple on a gold-prospecting expedition to Honduras. In October 1909, Eugene sailed from San Francisco on a banana boat, having secretly married Kathleen Jenkins just before he left. He left the company as soon as he could and signed on as a crew member of the Norwegian sailing vessel Charles Racine in Boston.


      Eugene left the ship in Buenos Aires, but this first voyage, introduced him to a world whose atmosphere was to pervade his early work, the so-called sea plays. His stay in Buenos Aires deepened his knowledge of the world of derelicts, loafers, and exiles. Eugene slept on park benches or on the beach and associated with other down-and-outs. He tried various kinds of work but stuck to none and finally returned to New York on the British steamer Kalis, which was to be the model for the S.S. Glencairn of the sea plays.


      Eugene did not get in touch with his family but lived in a saloon and rooming house on the New York waterfront known as Jimmy the Priests. This refuge was meant for unemployed seamen, prostitutes, and other outcasts of the society of his time. Many of his lodgers also appear in his plays. The Iceman Cometh contains a whole collection of them.


      In 1912 Eugene became a reporter on the New London Telegraph, but he was not very productive journalistically. The poems he published at regular intervals showed no particular talent.


      He suffered from tuberculosis and was admitted into the Gaylord Farm sanatorium. Cut off from the escape of alcohol and the company of the kind of people who lived at Jimmy the Priest’s and forced into a new lifestyle of rest and regular hours, he began to read and write. He was released from the sanatorium after six months. He returned to New London, where he finished several one-act, including Abortion, The Movie Man, and The Sniper, as well as the three-act Servitude. All his attempts to interest producers and publishers in the one-actors were to no avail, and his father finally offered to pay for the printing of Thirst, and other One-Act Plays.


      O’Neill destroyed several of his early plays. He was so uncertain of his ability as a dramatist that in 1914 he registered to be admitted to the famous drama workshop, English 47, given by Professor George Pierce Baker, Harvard’s famous specialist in drama, and went off to Cambridge with the intention of becoming ‘an artist or nothing’. O’Neill changed his mind shortly before the beginning of the semester, perhaps because Professor Baker did not show any enthusiasm for the one-actor Bound East for Cardiff, be fere he submitted with his application.

      In 1918, O’Neill married Agnes Boulton, with whom he had two children, Shane, in 1919, and Oona, in 1925; the marriage ended in divorce in 1929. In 1920, O’Neill’s first full commercial success, Beyond the Horizon, was produced, resulting in the first of four Pulitzer Prizes for its author. That year also saw the production of The Emperor Jones, which focuses on the violence in human nature. In 1924, Desire Under the Elms, which reflected O’Neill’s interest in Freudian psychology, was produced. Other important plays in the O’Neill canon include the trilogy Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), modeled on the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus’s Oresteia; the autobiographical Long Day’s Journey into Night, probably written around 1939 but produced and published after O’Neill’s death (as per decree, given the intensely personal nature of the play): and The Iceman Cometh, written in 1939, produced in 1946, and considered by many to be O’Neill’s greatest work. In 1936, O’Neill won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

      During the last ten years of his life, O’Neill was in ill health, suffering from tremors in his hands, which eventually rendered him unable to write. He died of pneumonia on November 27, 1953. He is considered by many to be America’s greatest playwright.

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