This Knol written by Jon Hopwood
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Eugene O'Neil, the winner of four Pulitzer Prizes for Drama and the 1936 Nobel Prize for Literature, is widely considered the greatest American playwright. No one, not Maxwell Anderson, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, nor Edward Albee approaches O'Neil in terms of his artistic achievement or his impact on the American theater.
James O'Neil, one of the most popular actors of the late 19th century, was his father, so one could say that Eugene O'Neil was born to a life in the theater. His father, who had been born into poverty in Ireland before emigrating to the United States, developed his craft and became a star in the theaters of the Midwest. He married Ella Quinlan, the Irish-American daughter of a wealthy Cleveland businessman whose death when she was a teenager had hurt her emotionally. She remained emotionally fragile throughout her life, which was exacerbated by a further tragedy, the loss of a child. Her life was further exacerbated by the revelation that James had lived in concubinage with a common-law wife, who later sued him for child support and alimony, claiming he had fathered her child. Both were pious and believing Catholics.
They had three sons, including James Jr. (born 1878) and Edmund (1883), who died at the age of two from measles, leaving Ella distraught. Their last son, Eugne Glastone O'Neil (his middle name a salute to the British prime minister who was in favor of home rule for Ireland), was born at the Barrett Hotel (a home of many theatrical artistes) in New York City, on October 16, 1888. Supposedly, it was a difficult delivery, and in the spirit of the times, Ella was given morphine for her pain. She became an addict.
James O'Neil made a fortune playing The Count of Monte Cristo, both on Broadway in multiple productions and as a touring show. However, he suffered an artistic death as a performing artiste through the sheer repetition of the Monte Cristo role, which he turned to repeatedly as it always proved a success. He reportedly played the role more than 4,000 times, perhaps nearly twice that number. He would provide the prototype for the character of James Tyrone, the pater familias in his son's Long Day's Journey Into Night. James O'Neil, Sr. knew that he had suffered artistically from his commercial instincts, and Eugene O'Neil never forgot that. His son remained steadfast in his own fidelity to his principles of artistic integrity.
O'Neil pere also was a notorious skinflint, worried about some calamity that would make him poor again, so hellish had been the poverty of his Irish childhood. Both young Gene O'Neil and his older brother Jamie tried their hands at acting, and though Jamie was more successful than Gene, he never developed a significant, independent career as a professional thespian due to instability caused by his alcoholism. Jamie relied on his father for work, which further fueled his drinking.
Jamie O'Neil was a full-blown alcoholic, just like his younger brother, Gene, and he drank himself to death at a relatively young age, a fate Gene managed to avoid, but not from trying. The characters of Jamie in Long Day's Journey Into Night and James Tyrone, Jr., in A Moon for the Misbegotten were based on him.
As a young man, Eugene O'Neil suffered from tuberculosis, which likely exacerbated his propensity for pessimism. (The stuff of his life became the guts of his last masterpiece, Long Day's Journey Into Night. His pessimistic, tragic outlook on life likely was hereditary: O'Neil's two sons, Eugene O'Neil, Jr. and Shane O'Neil, became substance abusers as adults: Eugene, Jr was an alcoholic and Shane was a heroin addict. Both committed suicide. (His daughter Oona Chaplin he disowned, for marrying Charles Chaplin, who was just six months younger than he. He had never had much to do with her, anyways, nor any of his children. His life was devoted to writing.)
After recovering from TB, O'Neil attended Princeton for the 1907-08 term, but was kicked out after his freshman year, allegedly for being drunk and disorderly at a reception held by the university president, future President of the United States Woodrow Wilson. For the next eight years, he led a free-booting existence, fortune-hunting for gold in South America, and plying the seas as an able-bodied seaman while trying to drink himself to death. He even made an attempt at suicide. Eventually he returned to New York City and tried his hand a writing plays, and with the financial help of his father, studied playwriting at Harvard in 1915. His father was unimpressed by the results, and died the same year his son made his big breakthrough on Broadway. (He did live to see the production of Eugene's first full-length play, Beyond the Horizon, which opened on February 2, 1920 and ran for 111 performances, and and its honoring with the 1920 Pulitzer Prize for Drama that May. James O'Neil, Sr. died on August 10, 1920. His namesake, James O'Neil, Jr., died three years later, at the age of 45.)
Where Eugene O'Neil truly learned his craft as in the writing of one-act melodramas that dealt with the lives of sailors that were performed by the Provincetown Players, who had theaters in Provincetown on Cape Cod and off of Washington Square in New York City. (John Ford made a 1940 movie out of four of his sea plays, collected in The Long Voyage Home (1940).) The theater he created was a reaction against the theater of his father, the old hoary melodramas that packed 'em in for a night of crowd-pleasin' entertainment.
Eugene O'Neil started out as a dramatist in the time when Broadway had 70 plays being performed each week. The Great White Way resembled a modern movie multiplex in that potential theatergoers would peruse the various marquees in and around Times Square seeking an entertainment for the night. For most plays, at the time that O'Neil began to establish himself in the time of the Great War and immediate post-War years were entertainment, first and foremost.
The movies and O'Neil would change that. The competition of the more sophisticated movies of the late silent era, and then the talkies, doomed Broadway and the theater as the premier venue for American entertainment. The light plays that were the equivalent of television fare became extinct. Musicals considered to thrive, as did comedies, but drama became more serious and developed a psychological depth. O'Neil was the midwife of the phenomenon.
Eugene O'Neil helped foster the process of maturation of American drama, as he incorporate the techniques of both European expressionism and realism in his work. Influenced by Ibsen and Strindberg, brought to the American stage a tragic vision that influenced scores of American playwrights that came after him.
Eugene O'Neil died in the Shelton Hotel in Boston, Massachuestts on 1953. Allegedly, his last words were, "Born in a hotel room, and goddammit! Died in one!" His health had been hurt by his alcoholism and he suffered from Parkinson's disease-like tremors of his hands that had made it difficult, if not impossible, to write since the early 1940s. It is believed that he suffered cerebellar cortical abiotrophy, a neurological disease in which certain neurons in the cerebellum of the brain die off, adversely affecting the balance and coordination of the sufferer. As a dramatist, he had flourished on Broadway from 1920, when his first full-length work, Beyond the Horizon, debuted, winning him his first Pulitzer, until 1934, when his first and only comedy, Ah, Wilderness! (debut October 1933) came to an end that June and his play, "Days Without End," was staged in repertory between January and November). After 1934, he entered a cocoon, staying away from Broadway until after World War II, when the 1946 production of The Iceman Cometh debuted. The first production of "Iceman" failed, and O'Neil's reputation suffered, but the 1956 production of "Iceman" starring Jason Robards and directed by José Quintero was a great success, as was the posthumous production of Long Day's Journey Into Night, which brought O'Neil his fourth Pulitzer. The two plays solidified his legend.