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Eugene O'Neill

Eugene Gladstone O'Neill (October 16, 1888–November 27, 1953) was a Nobel-prize winning American playwright. O'Neill's plays were among the first to introduce into American drama the techniques of realism, associated with Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, and Swedish playwright August Strindberg. His plays were among the first to include speeches in American vernacular. His plays involve characters who inhabit the fringes of society, engaging in depraved behavior, where they struggle to maintain their hopes and aspirations but ultimately slide into disillusionment and despair. O'Neill wrote only one comedy (Ah, Wilderness!): all his other plays involve some degree of tragedy and personal pessimism.

Birth

Eugene O'Neill was born in a Broadway hotel room in Times Square. The site is now a Starbucks; a commemorative plaque is posted on the outside wall. The plaque states, "Eugene O'Neill, October 16, 1888 ~ November 27, 1953 America's greatest playwright was born on this site then called Barrett Hotel, Presented by Circle in the Square." Because of his father's profession, O'Neill was sent to a Catholic boarding school where he found his only solace in books.

Youth

Eugene O'Neill spent his summers in New London, Connecticut. After being suspended from Princeton University, he spent several years at sea, during which he suffered from depression and alcoholism. O'Neill's parents and older brother Jamie (who drank himself to death at the age of 45) died within three years of one another, and O'Neill turned to writing as a form of escape. Despite his depression he had a deep love for the sea, and it became a prominent theme in most of his plays, several of which are set onboard ships like the ones that he worked on.

It wasn't until his experience in 1912–13 at a sanatorium (where he was recovering from tuberculosis) that he decided to devote himself full time to writing plays. O'Neill had previously been employed by the New London Telegraph, writing poetry as well as reporting. (Connecticut College maintains the Louis Sheaffer Collection, consisting of material collected by O'Neill's most thorough biographer. The principal collection of O'Neill papers is at Yale University. The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut fosters the development of new plays under his name.)

During the 1910s O'Neill was a regular on the Greenwich Village literary scene, where he also befriended many radicals, most notably Communist Party USA founder John Reed. O'Neill also at one time had a romantic relationship with Reed's wife, writer Louise Bryant. O'Neill was portrayed by Jack Nicholson in the 1981 film Reds about the life of John Reed.

Work and family life

His involvement with the Provincetown Players began in mid-1916. O'Neill is said to have arrived for the summer in Provincetown with "a trunk full of plays." Susan Glaspell describes what was probably the first ever reading of "Bound East for Cardiff" which took place in the living room of Cook and Glaspell home on Commercial Street, adjacent to the wharf (pictured) that was used by the Players for their theatre. Glaspell writes in The Road to the Temple, "So Gene took Bound East for Cardiff out of his trunk, and Freddie Burt read it to us, Gene staying out in the dining-room while reading went on. He was not left alone in the dining-room when the reading had finished." The Provincetown Players performed many of O'Neills early works in the their theaters both in Provincetown and on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village. Some of these early plays began downtown and then moved to Broadway.

O'Neill was married to Kathleen Jenkins from October 2, 1909 to 1912, during which time they had one son, Eugene Jr. (1910-1950). In 1917, O'Neill met Agnes Boulton, a successful writer of commercial fiction, and they married on April 12, 1918. The years of their marriage—during which the couple had two children, Shane and Oona—are described vividly in her 1958 memoir Part of a Long Story. They divorced in 1929, after O'Neill abandoned Boulton and the children for the actress Carlotta Monterey (born San Francisco, California, December 28, 1888— died Westwood, New Jersey, November 18, 1970). Eugene and Carlotta married less than a month after Eugene officially divorced his previous wife.

In 1929, O'Neill and Monterey moved to the Loire Valley in central France, where they lived in the Chateau du Plessis in Saint-Antoine-du-Rocher, Indre-et-Loire. During the early 1930s they returned to the United States and lived in Sea Island, Georgia, at a house called Casa Genotta. He moved to Danville, California in 1937 and lived there until 1944. His house there (known as Tao House), is today the Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site.

O'Neill's first published play, Beyond the Horizon, opened on Broadway in 1920 to great acclaim, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. His best-known plays include "Anna Christie" (Pulitzer Prize 1922), Desire Under the Elms 1924, Strange Interlude (Pulitzer Prize 1928), Mourning Becomes Electra 1931, and his only comedy, Ah, Wilderness!, a wistful re-imagining of his own youth as he wished it had been. In 1936 he received the Nobel Prize for Literature. After a ten-year pause, O'Neill's now-renowned play The Iceman Cometh was produced in 1946. The following year's A Moon for the Misbegotten failed, and did not gain recognition as being among his best works until decades later.

He was also part of the modern movement to revive the classical heroic mask from ancient Greek theatre and Japanese Noh theatre in some of his plays.

O'Neill was very interested in the Faust theme, especially in the 1920s. He is also known for the very poetic names of many of his plays.

In their first years together, Monterey organized O'Neill's life, enabling him to devote himself to writing. However, she later became addicted to potassium bromide, and the marriage deteriorated, resulting in a number of separations. She was dramatic and shallow, but O'Neill needed her, and she needed him. Although they separated several times, they never divorced.

In 1943, O'Neill disowned his daughter Oona for marrying the English actor, director and producer Charlie Chaplin when she was 18 and Chaplin was 54. He never saw Oona again.

He also had distant relationships with his sons, Eugene O'Neill Jr., a Yale classicist who suffered from alcoholism, and committed suicide in 1950 at the age of 40, and Shane O'Neill, a heroin addict who also committed suicide.

Illness and death

After suffering from multiple health problems (including depression and alcoholism) over many years, O'Neill ultimately faced a severe Parkinsons-like tremor in his hands which made it impossible for him to write (he had tried using dictation but found himself unable to compose in that way) during the last 10 years of his life. While at Tao House, O’Neill had intended to write a cycle of 11 plays chronicling an American family since the 1800s. Only two of these, A Touch of the Poet and More Stately Mansions were ever completed. As his health worsened, O’Neill lost inspiration for the project and wrote the three large autobiographical plays, The Iceman Cometh, Long Day's Journey Into Night, and A Moon for the Misbegotten. He managed to complete Moon for the Misbegotten in 1943, just before leaving Tao House and losing his ability to write. Drafts of many other uncompleted plays were destroyed by Carlotta at Eugene’s request.

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. (The building is now the Shelton Hall dormitory at Boston University.) There is an urban legend perpetuated by students that O'Neill's spirit haunts the room and dormitory. A revised analysis of his autopsy report shows that, contrary to the previous diagnosis, he did not have Parkinson's disease, but a late-onset cerebellar cortical atrophy. He was interred in the Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. O'Neill's final words were reputedly "Born in a hotel room, and Goddammit, died in one!"

Although his written instructions had stipulated that it not be made public until 25 years after his death, in 1956 Carlotta arranged for his autobiographical masterpiece Long Day's Journey Into Night to be published, and produced on stage to tremendous critical acclaim and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1957. This last play is widely considered to be his finest. Other posthumously-published works include A Touch of the Poet (1958) and More Stately Mansions (1967).

O'Neill's home in New London, Monte Cristo Cottage, was made a National Historic Landmark in 1971. His home in Northern California was preserved as the Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site in 1976.

Selected works

One-act plays

The Glencairn Plays, which all feature characters on the fictional ship Glencairn:

Other one-act plays include:

  • A Wife for a Life
  • Fog
  • Thirst
  • Before Breakfast
  • The Sniper
  • Ile
  • The Web
  • The Movie Man

Full-length plays

Other works

  • The Last Will and Testament of An Extremely Distinguished Dog, 1940

This was written in 1940 by O'Neill to comfort Carlotta as their "child" Blemie was approaching his death in December 1940. An edited version of this was published in hardcover (The Last Will & Testament of a Very Distinguished Dog by Eugene O'Neill (Author), Adrienne Yorinks (Illustrator), 48 pages. Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.; 1st ed edition (October 29, 1999). Language: English. ISBN-10: 0805061703)

Last Will and Testament

I, Silverdene Emblem O'Neill (familiarly known to my family, friends and acquaintances as Blemie), because the burden of my years is heavy upon me, and I realize the end of my life is near, do hereby bury my last will and testament in the mind of my Master. He will not know it is there until I am dead. Then, remembering me in his loneliness, he will suddenly know of this testament, and I ask him then to inscribe it as a memorial to me.

I have little in the way of material things to leave. Dogs are wiser than men. They do not set great store upon things. They do not waste their time hoarding property. They do not ruin their sleep worrying about objects they have, and to obtain the objects they have not. There is nothing of value I have to bequeath except my love and my faith. These I leave to those who have loved me, to my Master and Mistress, who I know will mourn me most, to Freeman who has been so good to me, to Cyn and Roy and Willie and Naomi and - but if I should list all those who have loved me it would force my Master to write a book. Perhaps it is in vain of me to boast when I am so near death, which returns all beasts and vanities to dust, but I have always been an extremely lovable dog.

I ask my Master and Mistress to remember me always, but not to grieve for me too long. In my life I have tried to be a comfort to them in time of sorrow, and a reason for added joy in their happiness. It is painful for me to think that even in death I should cause them pain. Let them remember that while no dog has ever had a happier life (and this I owe to their love and care for me), now that I have grown blind and deaf and lame, and even my sense of smell fails me so that a rabbit could be right under my nose and I might not know, my pride has sunk to a sick, bewildered humiliation. I feel life is taunting me with having over lingered my welcome. It is time I said good-by, before I become too sick a burden on myself and on those who love me.

It will be sorrow to leave them, but not a sorrow to die. Dogs do not fear death as men do. We accept it as part of life, not as something alien and terrible which destroys life. What may come after death, who knows? I would like to believe with those of my fellow Dalmatians who are devout Mohammedans, that there is a Paradise where one is always young and full-bladdered; here all the day one dillies and dallies with an amorous multitude of houris, beautifully spotted; where jack-rabbits that run fast but not too fast (like the houris) are as the sands of the desert; where each blissful hour is mealtime; where in long evenings there are a million fireplaces with logs forever burning and one curls oneself up and blinks into the flames and nods and dreams, remembering the old brave days on earth, and the love of one's Master and Mistress.

I am afraid this is too much for even such a dog as I am to expect. But peace, at least, is certain. Peace and long rest for weary old heart and head and limbs, and eternal sleeps in the earth I have loved so well. Perhaps, after all, this is best.

One last request I earnestly make. I have heard my Mistress say, 'When Blemie dies we must never have another dog. I love him so much I could never love another one.' Now I would ask her, for love of me, to have another. It would be a poor tribute to my memory never to have a dog again. What I would like to feel is that, having once had me in the family, now she cannot live without a dog! I have never had a narrow jealous spirit. I have always held that most dogs are good (and one cat, the black one I have permitted to share the living-room rug during the evenings, whose affection I have tolerated in a kindly spirit, and in rare sentimental moods, even reciprocated a trifle). Some dogs, of course, are better than others. Dalmatians, naturally, as everyone knows, are best.

So I suggest a Dalmatian as my successor. He can hardly be as well bred, or as well mannered or as distinguished and handsome as I was in my prime. My Master and Mistress must not ask the impossible. But he will do his best, I am sure, and even his inevitable defects will help by comparison to keep my memory green. To him I bequeath my collar and leash and my overcoat and raincoat, made to order in 1929 at Hermes in Paris. He can never wear them with the distinction I did, walking around the Place Vendome, or later along Park Avenue, all eyes fixed on me in admiration; but again I am sure he will do his utmost not to appear a mere gauche provincial dog. Here on the ranch, he may prove himself quite worthy of comparison, in some respects. He will, I presume, come closer to jackrabbits than I have been able to in recent years. And, for all his faults, I hereby wish him the happiness I know will be his in my old home.

One last word of farewell, Dear Master and Mistress. Whenever you visit my grave, say to yourselves with regret but also with happiness in your hearts at the remembrance of my long happy life with you: 'here lies one who loved us and whom we loved.' No matter how deep my sleep I shall hear you, and not all the power of death can keep my spirit from wagging a grateful tail.

Notes

Servitude (1980)

Further reading

  • Bogard, Travis, ed. Eugene O'Neill: Complete Plays 1913-1920 (Library of America, 1988) ISBN 978-0-94045048-6
  • Bogard, Travis, ed. Eugene O'Neill: Complete Plays 1920-1931 (Library of America, 1988) ISBN 978-0-94045049-3
  • Bogard, Travis, ed. Eugene O'Neill: Complete Plays 1932-1943 (Library of America, 1988) ISBN 978-0-94045050-9
  • Black, Stephen A. (2002). Eugene O'Neill: Beyond Mourning and Tragedy. Yale University press. ISBN 0-300-09399-3.
  • Clark, Barrett H. (1932). "Aeschylus and O'Neill". The English Journal XXI (9): 699–710. – Scholar search}}
  • Floyd, Virginia. (editor) (1979). Eugene O'Neill: A World View. Frederick Unger. ISBN 0-8044-2204-4.
  • Floyd, Virginia. (1985). The Plays of Eugene O'Neill: A New Assessment. Frederick Unger. ISBN 0-8044-2206-0.
  • Gelb, Arthur & Barbara. (2000). O'Neill: Life with Monte Christo. Applause/Penguin Putnam. ISBN 0-399-14912-0.
  • Wainscott, Ronald H. (1988). Staging O'Neill: The Experimental Years. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-04152-7.
  • Winther, Sophus Keith. (1934). Eugene O'Neill: A Critical Study. Random House.

See also

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