Eugene O'Neill

Eugene O'Neill

Eugene O'Neill was born in a Broadway hotel on 16th October, 1888. The son of the famous actor, James O'Neill and the actress, Mary Ellen Quinlan. Eugene spent most of his early years on tour with his father. This nomadic life and his mother's drug addiction had a profound impact on his development.

O'Neill was eventually sent away to a Catholic boarding school but he rebelled against being taught by nuns and monks. He spent his summers at Monte Cristo Cottage in New London, where he developed a love of the sea. After a spell at Betts Academy in Connecticut he went briefly to Princeton University. Suffering from depression and the early stages of alcoholism, he left university and seeking adventure he went on a mining expedition to Honduras.

According to Barbara Gelb: "He (O'Neill) had sailed to South America on a cattle ship, lived a derelict's life in Argentina and near the docks of lower Manhattan, sailed between New York and England as an able-bodied seaman aboard passenger ships, toured the country as a minor member of his actor-father's stock company."

O'Neill married Kathleen Jenkins on 2nd October, 1909. The following year a son, Eugene Jr., was born. After the failure of the marriage, O'Neill attempted suicide. He recovered only to discover he contracted tuberculosis and when he was released from a sanitarium in June 1913 he decided to become a playwright. His father agreed to provide him with an allowance of $7 a week.

O'Neill moved to Greenwich Village where he met John Reed. He was a successful journalists and he attempted to help O'Neill get his work published. He sent a copy of Tomorrow to Carl Hovey, the editor of the Metropolitan Magazine. He wrote to Reed: "I've read O'Neill's story and agree with you that he can write. This thing is genuine and makes a real man live before you." However, Hovey rejected the story because he believed the story had a "lack of either plot or a situation with suspense enough to carry the reader beyond the first pages." Later, Reed persuaded Waldo Frank the editor of Seven Arts, to publish the story in his magazine. He also arranged for O'Neill's long poem, Fratricide, to appear in the socialist newspaper, New York Call in 1914.

According to the author of So Short a Time (1973): "With his innate enthusiasm and generosity, Reed had tried to sweep O'Neill into his own creative circle. To anyone but Reed this would have seemed a highly daunting task. O'Neill at twenty-eight was morose, taciturn, and often drunk. He had few friends among the Village's artists and writers, preferring the company of stevedores, prostitutes, and hoodlums."

In 1915 a group of left-wing writers including Floyd Dell, John Reed, George Gig Cook, Mary Heaton Vorse, Susan Glaspell and Louise Bryant, established the Provincetown Theatre Group. A shack at the end of the fisherman's wharf at the seaport of Provincetown was turned into a theatre.

On 28th July, 1916 the group performed O'Neill's Bound East for Cardiff, a play written by the young playwright, Eugene O'Neill. The cast included George Gig Cook, John Reed and O'Neill, who was persuaded to play the one-line role of the ship's mate. It was the ideal play for the Provincetown Theatre. Susan Glaspell later recalled: "The sea had been good to Eugene O'Neill. It was there for his opening. There was a fog, just as the script demanded, fog bell in the harbour. The tide was in, and it washed under us and around, spraying through the holes in the floor, giving us the rhythm and the flavour of the sea while the big dying sailor talked to his friend Drisc of the life he had always wanted deep in the land, where you'd never see a ship or smell the sea."

O'Neill's next play, The Thirst, had John Reed's wife, Louise Bryant, taking the lead role. Floyd Dell, who was the literary critic of The Masses, argued in his autobiography, Homecoming (1933): "Eugene O'Neill, whose little one-act plays were superb and beautiful romanticizations and glorifications and justifications of failure."

In June 1916, John Reed went to see a doctor about his health problems. He was told that he needed an operation to remove one of his kidneys. While he was away Louise Bryant became close to O'Neill. The author of So Short a Time (1973) argued: "Louise was spellbound by O'Neill's marathon swims. Sometimes after watching him from her window, who would join him on the beach. O'Neill could no longer pretend that he was not deeply and unhappily in love with her... He was convinced that Louise, committed to Reed, would be offended by his love. He not only concealed his feelings, but tried his best to avoid her; he was the only one to whom it was not plain that Louise was pursuing him." Louise sent a note to O'Neill that read: "I must see you alone. I have to explain something, for my sake and Jack's. You have to understand." As a result of the meeting, Louise and O'Neill became lovers and soon most of their friends were aware of it. However, John Reed was completely ignorant of the affair.

Dorothy Day, who was a close friend of O'Neill during this period. She later recalled: "we were all so young. We all knew that Gene was in love with Louise, and believed that he was nursing a hopeless passion. we regarded him as a romantic figure - a genius unhappily in love."

George Gig Cook, who emerged as the leader of the Provincetown Theatre Group, believed that O'Neill was a dramatist of great promise and over the next three years ten of his plays were performed including The Fog (1916), The Sniper (1917), In the Zone (1917), The Long Voyage Home (1917), Moon of the Caribbees (1918), Shell-Shock (1918) and The Emperor Jones (1920), a play where a black actor plays the central role. Several of his plays reflects his hostility to the events of the First World War. A subject that was important to his great friend, John Reed, who was imprisoned for his anti-war activities.

In 1917, O'Neill met Agnes Boulton, a successful writer of commercial fiction, and they married on 12th April, 1918. Over the next few years the couple had two children, Shane and Oona. He continued to suffer from depression and his state of mind was not helped when his parents and elder brother Jamie O'Neill, also an alcoholic, died within three years of one another (1920-1923).

Louise Bryant arrived back in New York City on 19th February, 1918. On her return Bryant commented that the Russian Revolution had increased her belief in women's suffrage. She immediately wrote to O'Neill in Provincetown. Agnes Boulton later recalled: "Louise wrote that she must see him - and at once. She had left Jack Reed in Russia and crossed three thousand miles of frozen steppes to come back to him - her lover. Page after page of passionate declaration of their love of hers, which would never change. She had forgiven him. What if he had picked up some girl in the Village and become involved? There was no use writing letters - she had to see him! It was all a misunderstanding and her fault for leaving him, for going to Russia with Jack." Boulton persuaded O'Neill not to see Louise.

O'Neill initially concentrated on writing one-act plays but it was his first full-length play, Beyond the Horizon (1920), that established his reputation as a dramatist. This play won a Pulitzer Prize and was followed by Anna Christie (1921), The Hairy Ape (1922), Desire Under the Elms (1924), All God's Chillun Got Wings (1924) a play that featured Paul Robeson, The Great God Brown (1926) and Strange Interlude (1928).

In 1929, O'Neill abandoned Agnes Boulton and the children for the actress Carlotta Monterey. The couple moved to the Loire Valley in France, where they lived in the Château du Plessis in Saint-Antoine-du-Rocher. In the early 1930s they returned to the United States and lived in Sea Island, Georgia, before moving to Danville, California in 1937.

O'Neill continued to have problems with alcohol. His friend, Art McGinley, commented: "Gene was a periodic drinker, and once started wouldn't stop - I guess he couldn't stop - until he was really sick. He was the most trying morning-after drinker I've ever known. He would gloom up and not say a word, or else talk of suicide, he was so disgusted with himself. But when he stopped drinking, he would work around the clock. I never knew anyone who had so much self-discipline."

Agnes Boulton, his former wife claimed in her autobiography, Part of a Long Story (1953): "He never seemed to be what is called drunk, but there would be some sudden and rather dreadful outbursts of violence, and others of bitter nastiness and malevolence when he appeared more like a madman than anything else." O'Neill's health deteriorated during the 1930s. Suffering from alcoholism and Parkinson disease, O'Neill wrote little during this period although in 1936 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In 1940 O'Neill wrote the autobiographical play, Long Day's Journey Into Night. The action takes place during a single day in August 1912 at the summer home of the Tyrone family. The members of the family are the father, an actor, the drug-addicted mother, an alcoholic son and his younger brother suffering from tuberculosis (based on O'Neill himself). O'Neill left written instructions that stipulated that the play must not be made public until 25 years after his death.

The Iceman Cometh (1946) was the first new play of O'Neill's to be performed for twelve years. The play is set in Harry Hope's downmarket Greenwich Village saloon and rooming house. The patrons, Ed Mosher, Pat McGloin, Willie Oban, Joe Molt, Piet Wetjoen, Cecil Lewis, James Cameron, Hugo Kalmer and Larry Slade, are all alcoholics. One of his favourite plays, O'Neill claimed it was an attempt to portray man as a "victim of the ironies of life and himself".

O'Neill had poor relationships with his children. He disowned his daughter Oona O'Neill in 1943 for marrying Charlie Chaplin when she was 18 and he was 54. He never saw his daughter again. Eugene O'Neill, Jr., suffered from alcoholism, and committed suicide in 1950 at the age of 40, and Shane O'Neill, a heroin addict who also committed suicide. Oona was also an alcoholic in the last years of her life.

Eugene O'Neill died in Room 401 of the Sheraton Hotel on Bay State Road in Boston, on November 27, 1953, at the age of 65. Despite the written orders that he left, Carlotta Monterey arranged for Long Day's Journey Into Night to be performed in 1956. The following year it joined Beyond the Horizon and Anna Christie in winning the Pulitzer Prize.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Barbara Gelb, So Short a Time (1973)

O'Neill regarded the Village bohemians as mostly poseurs, but he was drawn to Reed as a man of action who managed to pursue a career that did not compromise his lust for adventure. O'Neill had in common with Reed a background of poor health. Both had become excellent swimmers in compensation for their inability to excel at any other sport. Both of them had led lonely childhoods and felt special and set apart. And they shared an affinity for the downtrodden and exploited. But while Reed, with his more conventional middle-class background and his optimistic view of life, had learned how to live in two worlds, O'Neill had cynically submerged himself in the seedy world of Terry Carlin, a world only just removed from skid row. O'Neill was, in fact, close to becoming a hopeless alcoholic.

He had made one attempt at suicide and spent much of his youth in gloomy introspection and in self-destructive adventure at sea. His formal education, in addition to ten unhappy years at boarding schools, consisted of one year at Princeton University in 1906 and one year in Professor George Pierce Baker's postgraduate playwriting class at Harvard in 1914. He had sailed to South America on a cattle ship, lived a derelict's life in Argentina and near the docks of lower Manhattan, sailed between New York and England as an able-bodied seaman aboard passenger ships, toured the country as a minor member of his actor-father's stock company, and spent six months in a tuberculosis sanitarium. The first glimmering he had of a possible literary bent came during his recovery from tuberculosis in 1913, when he began writing poetry and one-act plays.

(2) Floyd Dell, Homecoming, (1933)

In Provincetown in 1915 he (George Cook) found an unknown young playwright, Eugene O'Neill, whose little one-act plays were superb and beautiful romanticizations and glorifications and justifications of failure. And now George's life had what it needed; his life was henceforth lived under the aegis of Eugene O'Neill's plays, which is dreamed of bringing to the Village and producing there.

In (1926) George Cook had come to a crisis in his life; he was spiritually centered in the plays of Eugene O'Neill, and now the young playwright had decided to deal directly with Broadway, refusing to allow the Provincetown Players to put on his plays before they went uptown. This was an entirely reasonable decisions on his part, but it broke George Cook's heart. In February, the Provincetown Theatre suspended operations, and a month later, George Cook and Susan Glaspell sailed for Greece.

(3) Mabel Dodge, Intimate Memories (1933)

People said Louise Bryant was having an affair with young Eugene O'Neill, who lived in a shack across the street with Terry Carlin and I thought Reed would be glad to see me if things were like that between him and Louise - but he wasn't...

Eugene was often drunk. Everyone drank a good deal, but it was of a very superior kind of excess that stimulated the kindliness of hearts and brought out all the pleasure of these people. Eugene's unhappy young face had desperate dark eyes staring out of it and drink must have eased him. Terry of course was always drunk. A handsome skeleton, I thought. Jig Cook was often tippling along with genial Hutch. The women worked quite regularly, even when they, too, drank; and I envied them their ease and ran away from it.

(4) Susan Glaspell wrote about Eugene O'Neill's play, Bound East for Cardiff at Provincetown in her book, Road to the Temple (1923)

I may see it through memories too emotional but it seems to me I have never sat before a more moving performance than our Bound East for Cardiff, when Eugene O'Neill was produced for the first time on any stage. Jig was Yank. As he lay in his bunk dying, he talked of life as one who knew he must leave it.

The sea had been good to Eugene O'Neill. It was there for his opening. There was a fog, just as the script demanded, fog bell in the harbour. The tide was in, and it washed under us and around, spraying through the holes in the floor, giving us the rhythm and the flavour of the sea while the big dying sailor talked to his friend Drisc of the life he had always wanted deep in the land, where you'd never see a ship or smell the sea.

(5) Heywood Broun wrote about Bound East for Cardiff for the New York Tribune (30th January, 1917).

Here is a play which owes more to the creation of mood and atmosphere than to any fundamentally interesting idea or sudden twist of plot. Eugene O'Neill has written several short plays about the sea. He strikes a rich vein, the old Kipling vein.

(6) William Christian Bullitt, Jr saw the letters that Eugene O'Neill wrote to Louise Bryant during their affair in 1915.

If the letters were sincere, and they sounded so, O'Neill was certainly at one time violently in love with her. His letters to Louise were wails of despairing, unrequited love. Louise burned them - without sign of emotion - merely because she believed that the private emotions of individuals were not the concern of anyone else.

So far as I know, Louise was never in love with O'Neill. She thought he had talent, felt sorry for him, and tried to help him. She described to me his frequent fits of drunkenness and his suicidal inclinations. On more than one occasion she helped literally to pick him out of the gutter.

(7) Barbara Gelb, So Short a Time (1973)

Almost immediately after reaching New York, Louise did a somewhat mystifying thing. She wrote to O'Neill in Provincetown, urging him to come to New York to see her. Apparently she had decided to re-establish the triangle, in spite of her protestations of loyalty to Reed.

To some of Louise's women friends, who advocated and practiced free love, her attachment to two men was perfectly understandable. But these women, for the most part, conducted their affairs quite openly. If they had more than one lover, they took no pains to conceal the fact from either one. Louise's maneuvering and deception puzzled them.

Louise's motives were complex. She seemed to have a compulsive need to court danger. Risk stimulated her. When she was not enduring such realistic dangers as traveling through a war or revolution, she created a situation in which she could evoke stress. Keeping an intense romance going with two men simultaneously, concealing the truth from both, was a way of creating such a situation. In spite of her earlier and perfectly sincere conviction that Reed was the man she wanted, it seemed that monogamy was not, for her, a fulfilling state.

But she could not confront this difficulty. She had married Reed, and apparently needed the security of that marriage. Therefore, she could not be honest with Reed and chance losing him. And she had to entice O'Neill by inventing a false picture of her relationship with Reed - or lose him. For her, it seemed to be less a question of being torn by two lovers, than of playing an exciting game for its own sake.

(8) Linda Ben-Zvi, Susan Glaspell: Her Life and Times (2005)

By the summer of 1918, Susan had known Eugene O'Neill for two years; they were colleagues, fellow workers, and the leading playwrights of the Provincetown Players. At the outset of their relationship, the younger man had kept his distance, preferring to spend time with his male friends Terry Carlin and Hutch Collins or with a number of women, including Nina Moise and Dorothy Day, who served as surrogates for Louise Bryant. However, during the preceding fall something had happened that altered O'Neill's life and his relationship with Susan. The twenty-four-year-old writer Agnes Boulton, recently widowed, had come to the Village to try to sell some of her romance fiction, in order to support her daughter, parents, and the dairy farm she owned in Connecticut. Her only contacts were Christine Ell, whom she had met previously, and Mary Pyne. At a reunion with Christine at the Hell Hole, she was introduced to O'Neill, who was immediately taken with this dark-haired woman with large, soulful eyes. "I want to spend every night of my life from now on with you," he told her, at the end of their first evening together, as they stood outside the Brevoort hotel, where she was staying." When Agnes came to a party for the Players at Christine's a few nights later, she also met Susan, who remarked on Agnes's striking resemblance to Louise. The romance between Gene and Agnes moved quickly; by January he had convinced her to go with him to Provincetown, since the battles being waged at the theatre were distracting him from writing, and the death from a heroin overdose of his good friend Louis Holladay, Polly's brother, was a shadow he wished to escape. After spending the winter together in a small studio that John Francis arranged for them, they got married on April 12, two days before Susan and jig's anniversary-dates the two couples would celebrate jointly over the next few years. By the summer Agnes and Gene had taken up residence in Francis's Flats, across Commercial Street near Susan and Jig's home.

During the summer of 1918 Gene got into the habit of visiting Susan each day immediately after both had finished their morning's work. The visits, to which Agnes was not invited, made the young bride grumpy and quiet when Gene would finally return "having stayed in that quiet restful house for too long." Gene was thirty, Susan forty-two, but that did not quiet Agnes. Agnes was aware of the soothing quality Susan exuded, her "feminine inner spirit, a fire, a sensitiveness that showed in her fine brown eyes and in the way that she used her hands and spoke." She knew of "many men who found her conversation simulating and helpful," since she could discuss "everything that was going on in the world - economics, the rights of mankind, the theatre, writing, people - and she was able to talk of them when necessary with charm and interest." Agnes, in comparison, felt herself far inferior: unworldly and inarticulate. She was then supporting Gene with her writing, mostly romance potboilers like "Ooh La La!"'; Susan wrote for Harper's. Agnes also knew it was always Susan, not Jig, whom Gene sought out for a talk. Whenever he wrote to the pair, he would invariably address the letter to Susan; his queries about his work and the Players were taken up with her. The critic Travis Bogard describes what O'Neill generally sought in friendships: "In a woman, performance of the functions of wife, mother, mistress, and chatelaine were sought; in a man, a combination of editorial solicitude, listening ability, financial acumen, and a producer's willingness to serve the demands of the artist were essential."' Susan was unique among O'Neill's relationships; all those qualities sought in men, he found in her, plus the decidedly feminine aura she radiated, which Agnes recognized. They talked about their work, read each other's finished manuscripts, and assisted each other whenever possible. She was the only playwright with whom he forged such a close personal and professional relationship.

(9) Agnes Boulton, Part of a Long Story (1958)

Louise Bryant wrote that she must see him - and at once. She had left Jack Reed in Russia and crossed three thousand miles of frozen steppes to come back to him - her lover. Page after page of passionate declaration of their love of hers, which would never change. She had forgiven him. What if he had picked up some girl in the Village and become involved? There was no use writing letters - she had to see him! It was all a misunderstanding and her fault for leaving him, for going to Russia with Jack.

(10) Art McGinley, talking about Eugene O'Neill in the 1920s.

Gene was a periodic drinker, and once started wouldn't stop - I guess he couldn't stop - until he was really sick. He was the most trying morning-after drinker I've ever known. He would gloom up and not say a word, or else talk of suicide, he was so disgusted with himself. But when he stopped drinking, he would work around the clock. I never knew anyone who had so much self-discipline.

(11) Agnes Boulton, Eugene O'Neill's second wife, wrote about him in her book, Part of a Long Story (1958).

He never seemed to be what is called drunk, but there would be some sudden and rather dreadful outbursts of violence, and others of bitter nastiness and malevolence when he appeared more like a madman than anything else.