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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Eugene O'Neill

“The best play by an American we have seen,” raved the Brooklyn Eagle; “an exceedingly juvenile performance,” lamented the New York Post. The mixed reviews of The Hairy Ape’s first production in Greenwich Village in 1922 were not unusual for a new O’Neill play during that decade. Despite winning three Pulitzer Prizes for drama between 1920 and 1928, O’Neill repeatedly battled not only skeptical critics but also hostile censors, who resisted the staging of plays depicting interracial marriage (All God’s Chillun Got Wings, 1924), infanticide (Desire Under the Elms, 1924), and infidelity and abortion (Strange Interlude, 1928). The controversy continues today, though its focus now is literary. O’Neill simultaneously spiritualized and democratized the modern stage by discovering “the transfiguring nobility of tragedy” in “seemingly the most ignoble, debased lives”—such as that of Yank Smith—thereby forging a trail later followed by Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. O’Neill’s keen ear for native dialects (like the Bronx accent of Yank) brought numerous varieties of spoken American English onto our stage in a serious way for the first time, an achievement comparable to that of Mark Twain in fiction.

If O’Neill’s literary merit is the subject of debate, his work’s autobiographical nature is not. His father was the famous actor James O’Neill, who became a wealthy man—and sacrificed much of his talent—by touring in the title role of the melodrama The Count of Monte Cristo, which he performed over 5,000 times. Perhaps the young O’Neill’s taste for strong theatrical effects, so evident in Ape’s stage directions, can be traced to his early, repeated exposure to this source; certainly, the polar conflict between Yank and Mildred (typical of the extreme oppositions in O’Neill’s plays) is the stuff of melodrama, though here it dramatizes psychological, social, and philosophical issues rather than moral ones. The central conflict also points toward the playwright’s mother. Ellen Quinlan O’Neill’s long-lasting addiction to morphine caused a frequent personal remoteness that deeply wounded her youngest son—who was sent off to Roman Catholic boarding schools as a young boy, partially to prevent his knowledge of her condition. His traumatic discovery of it at fourteen was comparable in his mind to the biblical fall from grace (a recurrent motif in his work): and Yank’s sense of not “belonging” anywhere after his encounter with the ghostly Mildred projects the spiritual anguish that subsequently tormented O’Neill throughout his life. He never fully forgave his mother, and the women in his work frequently embody cultural stereotypes that reveal O’Neill’s deep fear and mistrust of women. He also grew to resent bitterly the Christian God who, he felt, permitted his mother’s addiction and failed to answer his prayers to cure it. Later, this disillusion took the form of a restless quest for alternative faiths—not unlike Yank’s agonized search—that led him to the works of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Jung, Freud, and Asian mystical religions, systems which inform his drama throughout the twenties.

O’Neill’s discovery of writing as his vocation occurred only after a period of alcoholism, sea travel, and bohemianism culminated in 1912 in a failed suicide attempt and his contracting of tuberculosis. Recovering from the disease, he started reading ancient and modern drama—Sophocles, Aeschylus, Wedekind, Ibsen, Shaw, and (especially) Strindberg—and, with the help of George Pierce Baker’s drama workshop at Harvard, began writing his own plays, many about the sea. One of them, Bound East for Cardiff, was produced on Cape Cod in 1916 by the Provincetown Players, one of numerous, idealistic “little theater” companies formed in America after 1900 to produce and promote artistic drama without regard for commercial considerations. As guided by George Cram Cook, the Players helped develop O’Neill’s sense of theater’s sacred mission; more important, they encouraged his experimentation and established his reputation when they began producing his plays in New York in the fall of 1916. Within four years, O’Neill had scored his first Broadway success with Beyond the Horizon, a realistic tragedy. Within two more years, the original Provincetown Players had disbanded, but not before producing two of O’Neill’s most daring expressionistic works, The Emperor Jones (1921) and The Hairy Ape. Even after his plays moved permanently to Broadway, O’Neill continued to take artistic risks, though he now often turned to classical sources for inspiration. The Great God Brown (1926) used masks to explore psychological conflicts within and between the characters; Strange Interlude (1928) borrowed the Elizabethan soliloquy for prolonged “thought asides” that resembled the stream of consciousness technique in modernist novels; and Mourning Becomes Electra (1931) drew on Aeschylus’ Oresteia for a tragic trilogy that explored the Freudian family romance in an aristocratic nineteenth-century New England clan. All were essentially religious dramas that focused on inner, spiritual conflicts, seeking to “interpret Life in terms of lives”; only with Ah, Wilderness! (1933), his mature comedy, did he relax.

In his final plays, written during a period of withdrawal from the stage between 1934 and 1946, O’Neill returned to the mode of realism. He worked assiduously on a cycle of eleven plays tracing the history of an American family, “A Tale of Possessors Self-dispossessed,” but destroyed most before his death in 1953; only A Touch of the Poet (completed in 1942, produced in 1957) survived in finished form, though More Stately Mansions (1963) and The Calms of Capricorn (1982) have been completed and published with the help of O’Neill scholars. But O’Neill produced his most powerful work when he courageously faced his personal ghosts in The Iceman Cometh (1939), Long Day’s Journey into Night (1941, published and produced 1955), Hughie (1942), and A Moon for the Misbegotten (1943). The latter two exorcise the demon of his older brother Jamie, an alcoholic “Broadway loafer” who had died in 1923; the former two, set in 1912, are even closer to home. Revisiting the Bowery bar where O’Neill had attempted suicide, Iceman dramatizes a self-deluding salesman’s attempt to rob derelicts of their sustaining life-lies; revisiting the New London, Connecticut, home where O’Neill grew up, Journey depicts his mother’s readdiction to morphine upon discovery of his tuberculosis. Appropriately, the climactic acts of both plays revolve around confessions, for here O’Neill confronted not only harrowing memories but (in Journey) the radical cause of his alienation and his tragic vision: his guilt over being born, the original sin that had first caused his mother to take morphine in 1888.

Within two years of completing Journey, O’Neill had to end his writing career due to Parkinson’s disease; within another ten years, he was dead.

James A. Robinson
University of Maryland

In the Heath Anthology
The Hairy Ape (1922)

Other Works

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Electronic Eugene O'Neill archive containing much of his work, a forum for discussion, and more.

Eugene O'Neill
Resources for studying O'Neill and other prominent American playwrights.

Eugene O'Neill, American Playwrite
An extensive resource, with a biography, links, and lists of books and videos relating to O'Neill.

Secondary Sources

Doris Alexander, "Eugene O'Neill as a Social Critic," American Quarterly: 6 (1954)

Travis Bogard, Contour in Time, 1988

Jean Chothia, Forging a Language, 1979

Joel Pfister, Staging Depth: Eugene O'Neill and the Politics of Psychological Discourse, 1995

John Henry Raleigh, The Plays of Eugene O'Neill, 1965

Louis Sheaffer, O'Neill, Son and Playwright, 1968

Louis Sheaffer, O'Neill, Son and Artist, 1973

Timo Tuisanen, O'Neill's Scenic Images, 1968

Ronald H. Wainscott, Staging O'Neill: The Experimental Years, 1920-1934, 1988