November 27, 2013 marks the 60th anniversary of the death of Irish American playwright and Nobel laureate Eugene O’Neill. His plays, which generally feature characters from the fringes of society and plots dense with tragedy and pessimism, are still celebrated and performed today.
Eugene Gladstone O’Neill was born on October 16, 1888 in a hotel room on Broadway, in New York City. His parents were Irish immigrants, James O’Neill and Mary Ellen Quinlan and he spent his early years traveling with his father’s theater company.
After attending Catholic school in the Bronx, O’Neill went to Princeton for one year before leaving for reasons scholars still debate today. For several years he worked odd jobs never, staying in any position very long. O’Neill then spent several years at sea while suffering from depression and alcoholism. He briefly recovered and worked for the New London Telegraph as a reporter and contributor to the poetry column for several months.
He married Kathleen Jenkins in 1909 and they had one son, Eugene O’Neill, Jr born in 1910. They separated in 1912. In the fall of 1914 he started a course on dramatic technique at Harvard University, but left after a year before finishing the course. Soon after O’Neill began to make a name for himself in theater, his parents and elder brother Jamie died within three years of one another.
O’Neill married commercial fiction writer Agnes Boulton in 1918 and they moved to Bermuda. They had two children together, Shane and Oona. They divorced in 1929 after O’Neill abandoned them for actress Carlotta Monterey. O’Neill married Monterey in 1929, less than a month after his divorce from Boulton was official.
In the middle of the First World War he became involved with the Provincetown Players, who performed many of O’Neill’s works at their theaters in Provincetown, MA and Greenwich Village in New York.
His first published play, "Beyond the Horizon" opened on Broadway in 1920 and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. His play "Anna Christie" won the same award in 1922 and "Strange Interlude" won in 1928. His plays examined a character’s struggles with safe options and 'the road not taken.'
After a brief move to central France, Monterey and O’Neill moved to Georgia in the early 1930’s and later moved to California in 1937. His health began to deteriorate, which affected his writing. O’Neill’s autobiographical plays written during this time, "Long Day’s Journey into Night," "The Iceman Cometh," and "A Moon for the Misbegotten," are some of his best work. In these plays, characters fight to preserve some hope for their unattainable goals.
O’Neill died in the Sheraton Hotel in Boston on November 27, 1953 and was buried in the Forest Hills Cemetery. O’Neill left instructions that "Long Day’s Journey into Night" was not to be made public until 25 years after his death and Monterey, claiming he had changed his mind on his death bed, published it early. The play was produced onstage and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1957.
His home in New London was made a National Historic landmark in 1971 and his home in Dawnville, CA was converted into the Eugene O’Neill National Historic site five years later.
At the time of his death O’Neill was already viewed as one of the greatest playwrights of the twentieth century and time has not diminished his reputation. His characters’ ambitions and struggles are still brought to life in study in the classroom and on stage and will likely continue to be revived for another sixty years.
No Irish Need Apply? Not anymore