Eugene O’Neill once said, “The critics have missed the most important fact about me and my work- the fact that I am Irish.”
The recipient of four Pulitzer prizes and still the only American dramatist to receive a Nobel prize for literature, O’Neill is often referred to as the "father of American drama."
Yet despite all of this acclaim, he felt like we were all missing something, and that was the effect that his Irish heritage had on his work.
Unlike John Huston and John Ford, who have been embraced into the collective Irish consciousness, outside of theatre and literary circles, very little is known about O’Neill in Ireland.
A new international crowd-funding campaign is aiming to fix that.
“Eugene O’Neill: What The Critics Missed” will be an hour-long feature documentary that will explore the fascinating life and work of Eugene O’Neill.
Born in a hotel, in 1888 in what is now Times Square, O’Neill would go onto change the face of American drama, which was, until then, largely made up of melodrama and epic romances.
It was a 1911 visit to New York by the Abbey Players that would massively influence the direction that O’Neill’s writing would take.
He said that the visit “first opened my eyes to the existence of a real theatre, as opposed to the unreal – and to me then hateful – theatre of my father.”
In fact, a lot of his work was given to trying to make sense of the complex and dysfunctional dynamics that existed in the O’Neill clan, most famously so in "Long Day's Journey Into Night."
His father James O’Neill was born in Kilkenny during the Irish Famine. The family immigrated early on to the United States, but the psychological devastation of the poverty, and subsequent abandonment by his father, would go on to have an indelible impact on how James would raise his family.
O’Neill’s mother Ella Quinlan O’Neill, was the only daughter of immigrants from County Tipperary. Her father was a wealthy greengrocer in Ohio, which led O’Neill to refer to the family as the “lace-curtain Irish.”
When Ella first met James O’Neill he was already a touring actor. Following their wedding Ella immediately went on tour with James, something that must have been entirely alien to her conservative Catholic upbringing.
Her first two children, James Jr and Edmund, were born while the family was on tour. Tragedy befell the family early on when Edmund contracted measles from James Jr. and died. Ella’s resentment towards her eldest son is one of the themes dealt with in "Long Day's Journey Into Night."
By the time Eugene was born the dysfunctional trajectory of the family was set.
As a teenager, he walked in on his mother injecting herself with morphine, an addiction she developed when it was prescribed after his difficult birth.
O’Neill developed an early reliance on alcohol. Spending the majority of his early adulthood in a stupor, he married his first wife at the age of 21 after she became pregnant with his first child. He spent 6 years working at sea between Central and South America and this chaotic period culminated in a suicide attempt.
A Tuberculosis diagnosis in 1912 saw him confined to a sanatorium for 6 months.
This period would mark his rebirth.
His early work brought characters such as prostitutes and sailors to the American stage for the first time. If he had been reborn, so too was American theatre.
O’Neill would go on to write more than 50 plays.
His works were written from an intensely personal view and dealt with themes that he believed derived from the experience of his family as Irish Americans.
Eugene believed that his father’s miserliness could be attributed to his fear of the poorhouse, born out of his experience in Famine stricken Ireland.
It was this fear that drove his father to sell-out, as he saw it, and play the Count of Monte Cristo for over 6,000 performances. A fact dealt with by the thinly veiled James Tyrone in "Long Day's Journey Into Night."
In "Moon for the Misbegotten," O’Neill attempted to deal with the tragic death of his older brother James Jr. from alcoholism.
If he was the first American dramatist to deal with realism, he was also the first celebrity dramatist.
The goings-on of his family, such as the marriage of his daughter Oona O’Neill to Charlie Chaplin when she was 18 and he was 54, made perfect material for the tabloids.
James Joyce referred to O’Neill as being “thoroughly Irish.” There is no doubt that he is one of America’s truly great dramatists. Now it is time to explore whether he is also one of Ireland’s great sons.