Eugene O’Neill was born in a trunk, or pretty close to one, in a cheap theatrical hotel right on Times Square in New York City on October 16, 1888. His father was James O’Neill, an Irish born actor who had early success as a matinee idol leading man, but settled into staring in an adaptation of the Count of Monte Cristo in more the 6000 performances on stages great and small. He was constantly on tour, except for an annual summer hiatus at Monte Cristo House, a comfortable summer cottage he built in New London, Connecticut. Young Eugene toured with his family until he was old enough to be sent to Catholic boarding school. He hated the experience and soured on the Church, but found solace in reading.
At his father’s insistence, O’Neill enrolled at Princeton but was suspended for drunkenness and rowdyism before completing this first year. To escape his father’s ire, he headed to Honduras to try his hand as gold prospector. That ended with a bout of malaria. After recovering O’Neill signed on the first of several tramp steamers.
He spent a few years as a merchant seaman, a brutally arduous job—especially in the hellish boiler rooms where men spend hour upon hour hand stoking coal into the burners. As evidence from the plays he set in this milieu suggest, O’Neill joined the Marine Transport Workers Union of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), which was fighting kind of a guerilla war for livable conditions with quick on the job direct action.
During his down time on board these ships he battled depression, read, and began to write. He also fell into the sailor’s life style of periodic, intense, binge drinking in port, going broke and having to return to sea to eat. He did find enough time “on the beach” to marry Kathleen Jenkins in 1909 and father a son, Eugene O’Neill, Jr.
A few years of this broke O’Neill’s health. He spent several months in 1911 and ’12 in a sanitarium recovering from consumption—tuberculosis. While hospitalized, he invented his own regime of reading the Greeks, Shakespeare and other classic drama and then the daring new European realists—Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov. He began writing furiously; crafting one act plays based on his experiences at sea. Within a few years he would have “a trunk load” of scripts.
After leaving the hospital, O’Neill soon shed his wife and settled in the fertile, bohemian environment of Greenwich Village, where he mingled freely with other writers, artists of all sorts, and passionate radicals. Among his closest friends was the young Oregon born journalist Jack Reed. In 1913 Reed produced the Patterson Pageant which brought hundreds of actual strikers from the great IWW silk workers’ strike in Patterson, New Jersey to the stage of Madison Square Garden to re-enact dramatic episodes of their on-going struggle. O’Neill was involved and is believed to have written unaccredited dialogue.
He also had a brief affair with Reed’s lover and future wife, the radical writer Louise Bryant. Despite the proclaimed commitment of all three to the free love promoted anarchist Emma Goldman and her lover Alexander Berkman—who was also Louise’s editor as a regular contributor to The Blast—the triangle was emotionally draining for all of them. O’Neill’s dalliance ended when Bryant married in Reed in 1917 and the couple went to Russia to cover the Revolution.
But before Reed left, he invited O’Neill to join him and Bryant in Provincetown, Massachusetts in the summer of 1916. It was to be the second season of the Provincetown Players, an ambitious, avante guarde theater project meant to bring new work to the stage. Several other Greenwich Village writers and artists also made the trip including painter Marsden Hartley, artists William and Marguerite Zorach, the Hobo Poet Harry Kemp, editor of The Masses Max Eastman, and critic and novelist Floyd Dell. They joined George Cram Cook, Susan Glaspell, and others who had begun producing plays on a ramshackle pier the year before.
The group had already rejected plays that O’Neill had published privately with the help of his father. But he had plenty more stashed in that famous trunk. One evening in Cook and Glaspell’s home, O’Neill pulled out Bound East to Cardiff, a one act play about a dying sailor. One of the group read the play aloud in the front room as O’Neill paced nervously in another. The group was stunned by the simple power of the play. It was produced on the pier that summer, begging O’Neill’s long relationship with the Provincetown Players.
That fall, the Players launched a New York City venue on a makeshift stage in a Greenwich Village brownstone at 139 MacDougal Street. Bound East to Cardiff was among the first plays produced. Over the next two years O’Neill had six one-act plays presented: Before Breakfast, Fog, The Sniper, ‘Ile, The Long Voyage Home, and The Rope.
The Provincetown Players, although a great nursery for new ideas and playwrights, was limited in its early years by amateur acting. After Reed left for Russia and other founding members drifted away, however, new attention paid to performance and acting improved the quality of productions and began to get the attention of Broadway producers.
In 1920 his first full length play Beyond the Horizon opened on Broadway. It was a domestic tragedy of two very different but devoted brothers in love with the same woman. The play was not only a success, it won the first of four Pulitzer Prizes for Drama awarded for his work.
He was now engaged in intense, non-stop writing and would produce an astounding body of work over the next few years. At his side in the early ears were his second wife, writer Agnes Boulton who he married on April 12, 1918 and their two children Shane and Oona. Oona grew up to marry Charlie Chaplain. The marriage was troubled by O’Neill’s heavy drinking and obsession with his work. In 1929 O’Neill abandoned the family and married actress Carlotta Monterey who had appeared as the object of obsession in his play The Hairy Ape.
Meanwhile, O’Neill’s plays triumphed. His first big commercial success was The Emperor Jones about the rise and tragedy of a sleeping car porter to dictator of a Caribbean Island that was obviously Haiti opened in 1922. His devastating retelling of the prostitute with a heart of gold cliché, Anna Christie, won a second Pulitzer in 1922 despite O’Neill’s dissatisfaction with it as “too easy.” 1924 brought Desire Under the Elms, in which he used the conventions of Greek drama for the first time.
O’Neill’s most experimental play yet, Strange Interlude opened in 1928 starring Lynn Fontanne. The four hour play was produced with a dinner break and Greek masks and featured the inner dialogues of a woman playing out all of the roles of her life—daughter, lover, wife, friend, mother. Its heavy use of Freudian symbolism and frankness about sex shocked audiences, but it won yet another Pulitzer.
Mourning Becomes Electra in 1931 returned to the Greek drama for form. It is really a cycle of three plays based on the Oresteia trilogy by Aeschylus but set in the Civil War era in a small New England town with the Townspeople acting as a Chorus. The plays were performed in one very long night of theater.
The next year, O’Neill set out to prove that he could also write comedy. Ah, Wilderness! was almost a fantasy of what his own youth might have been—if his father was sober and wise. The play landed an unexpected star—George M. Cohan in one of his last parts and one of his few appearances as a dramatic actor in a play he did not write. Young Elijah Cook, Jr., now best remembered as the gunsel in the film The Maltese Falcon, was the stand-in for the youthful O’Neill.
O’Neill and Carlotta lived, fought, separated and reunited in various retreats where he tried to stay sober and write. First was a chateau in the Loire Valley of France, then a home at Sea Island, Georgia called Casa Genotta. In 1937 they moved to Tao House in Danville, California using the prize money from his 1936 Nobel Prize in Literature.
A Tao House, O’Neill began work on his most ambitious project—an 11 play cycle chronicling an American family since the 1800s. Only two of these, A Touch of the Poet and More Stately Mansions were ever completed. Other plays exist only in fragments, outlines and notes. As he worked, O’Neill’s health deteriorated badly. Not only did he continue to suffer from depression and alcoholism, his lungs had been damaged by tuberculosis. Most devastating of all, he was developing a Parkinson’s like tremor that was making it hard to hold the pencil he used to compose in longhand. In despair he abandoned the play cycle and turned to introspective pieces, all of them plainly autobiographical.
He completed and published The Iceman Cometh in 1940, but it was not produced for seven years. Set in a desperately rundown Greenwich Village saloon in 1912, the play is famous for the long, confessional soliloquy of Hickey, the charismatic salesman. Many consider it to be O’Neill’s masterpiece. It has competition for that honor with O’Neill’s next play.
Long Day's Journey Into Night was not produced until 1956, when it created a sensation. It is the reality flip side to the comedy Ah, Wilderness! and is transparently autobiographical. Set in the summer retreat of an actor—obviously O’Neill’s father—and his family in 1912, the period just before O’Neil entered the sanitarium for treatment of his tuberculosis. The father and the two competitive sons are all alcoholics. The mother is addicted to morphine. In one long night the family disintegrates amid mutual recriminations, self-denial, and occasional flashes of anguished affection. The play earned O’Neill a last, posthumous, Pulitzer.
O’Neill never finished a final draft of Moon for the Misbegotten, a sort of sequel to Long Day’s Journey focusing on the character based on his older brother. Despite O’Neill’s instruction that the manuscript be destroyed, the play was produced on Broadway in 1957, and like the other last plays, has often been revived.
In 1943, O’Neill’s palsy had progressed so far that he could no longer hold a pencil. To his despair, he discovered that he could not compose by dictation. He left Tao House and began living in isolation in San Francisco hotel rooms. The last ten years of his life, one of his children dead and estranged from the other two and in an evermore tenuous relationship with his often absent third wife, were literal horrors.
O'Neill died in the Sheraton Hotel in Boston, on November 27, 1953, at the age of 65. As he was dying, he reportedly murmured, “I knew it. I knew it. Born in a hotel room, and God damn it, died in a hotel room.”