2 minute read

Eugene O'Neill (Eugene Gladstone O'Neill) Biography

(1888–1953), (Eugene Gladstone O'Neill), Beyond the Horizon, Chris Christopherson, Anna Christie, The Emperor Jones

American dramatist, born in New York, the son of James O'Neill, a well-known romantic actor. After a fragmented education, including a Catholic boarding-school and a year at Princeton, O'Neill led an adventurous life as a gold prospector, beachcomber, seaman, and actor. In 1912 he suffered a physical breakdown and the enforced rest turned him to drama. His earliest work was written in association with George Pierce Baker's ‘47 Workshop’, and after 1916 with the Provincetown Players. Many of his early one-act plays reflect his experiences on ships and among outcasts, and his growing vision of life which entails a deep rejection of conventionally organized society. Success came with Beyond the Horizon (1920), a play about two brothers, which displays the sombreness of mind that was to distinguish O'Neill's best work. From this point onwards he was preoccupied with writing plays embodying man's deep reflections on religion. Among his most significant works of this period are Chris Christopherson (1920), rewritten as Anna Christie (1921), a naturalistic drama of a prostitute and her redemption; the symbolic expressionist plays The Emperor Jones (1920) and The Hairy Ape (1922), whose brutal protagonist, Yank, is shown, in a society incorrigibly wedded to machines, with no real kin other than an ape; the more naturalistic All God's Chillun Got Wings (1924), a tragedy of a black man's marriage to an arrogant white woman; and Desire Under the Elms (1924), a study of puritanism and thwarted sexuality set in New England in 1850. With The Great God Brown (1926), O'Neill's interest in the multiple personality is first given major expression. Lazarus Laughed (pub. 1927; perf. 1928) uses masked choruses to affirm life in this presentation of the story of Lazarus who, resurrected from the dead, brings news of all-important love and the ‘laughter of God’. Marco Millions (pub. 1927; perf. 1928) attacks American materialism in its reworking of the story of Marco Polo. Strange Interlude (1928; Pulitzer Prize), one of the dramatic masterpieces of O'Neill's career, demonstrates his absorption in both Freud and the Greek drama, as does his great trilogy, Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), in which Aeschylus's Oresteia is transposed to New England at the close of the Civil War as O'Neill explores the tormented relations of the Mannon family. The work can be compared with the great plays of Ibsen and Strindberg, both of whom O'Neill admired. After Days Without End (1934), with its theme of the search for faith, O'Neill was silent for some years. In 1936 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Iceman Cometh (1946) is a long naturalistic tragedy set in a Bowery bar. Long Day's Journey into Night (written 1940; pub. and perf. 1956), perhaps his greatest work, was published posthumously, as were A Moon for the Misbegotten (1953) and two in a projected eleven-play cycle, ‘A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed’, A Touch of the Poet (1957) and More Stately Mansions (1964). See also Expressionism.

Additional topics

Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Joseph O'Connor Biography to Cynthia Ozick Biography