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Eugene O'Neill

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Eugene O'Neill
Portrait of O'Neill by Alice Boughton
Portrait of O'Neill by Alice Boughton
BornEugene Gladstone O'Neill
(1888-10-16)October 16, 1888
New York City, U.S.
DiedNovember 27, 1953(1953-11-27) (aged 65)
Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.
EducationPrinceton University
Notable awardsNobel Prize in Literature (1936)
Pulitzer Prize for Drama (1920, 1922, 1928, 1957)
Tony Award for Best Play (1957)
Kathleen Jenkins
(m. 1909; div. 1912)
(m. 1918; div. 1929)
(m. 1929)
ParentsJames O'Neill
Mary Ellen Quinlan

Eugene Gladstone O'Neill (October 16, 1888 – November 27, 1953) was an American playwright. His poetically titled plays were among the first to introduce into the U.S. the drama techniques of realism, earlier associated with Chekhov, Ibsen, and Strindberg. The tragedy Long Day's Journey into Night is often included on lists of the finest U.S. plays in the 20th century, alongside Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire and Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.[1] He was awarded the 1936 Nobel Prize in Literature. O'Neill is also the only playwright to win four Pulitzer Prizes for Drama.

O'Neill's plays were among the first to include speeches in American English vernacular and involve characters on the fringes of society. They struggle to maintain their hopes and aspirations, but ultimately slide into disillusion and despair. Of his very few comedies, only one is well-known (Ah, Wilderness!).[2][3] Nearly all of his other plays involve some degree of tragedy and personal pessimism.

Early life[edit]

Birthplace plaque (1500 Broadway, northeast corner of 43rd and Broadway, New York City), presented by Circle in the Square
Portrait of O'Neill as a child, c. 1893
Statue of O'Neill as a boy, sitting and writing, overlooking the harbor of New London, Connecticut

O'Neill was born on October 16, 1888, in a hotel, the Barrett House, at Broadway and 43rd Street, on what was then Longacre Square (now Times Square) in New York City.[4] A commemorative plaque was first dedicated there in 1957.[4][5] The site is now occupied by 1500 Broadway, which houses offices, shops and the ABC Studios.[6]

He was the son of Irish immigrant actor James O'Neill and Mary Ellen Quinlan, who was also of Irish descent. His father suffered from alcoholism; his mother from an addiction to morphine, prescribed to relieve the pains of the difficult birth of Eugene, who was her third son.[7] Because his father was often on tour with a theatrical company, accompanied by Eugene's mother, in 1895 O'Neill was sent to St. Aloysius Academy for Boys, a Catholic boarding school in the Riverdale section of the Bronx.[8] In 1900, he became a day student at the De La Salle Institute on 59th Street in Manhattan.[9]

The O'Neill family reunited for summers at the Monte Cristo Cottage in New London, Connecticut. He also briefly attended Betts Academy in Stamford.[10] He attended Princeton University for one year. Accounts vary as to why he left. He may have been dropped for attending too few classes,[11] been suspended for "conduct code violations",[12] or "for breaking a window",[13] or according to a more concrete but possibly apocryphal account, because he threw "a beer bottle into the window of Professor Woodrow Wilson", the future president of the United States.[14]

O'Neill spent several years at sea, during which he suffered from depression, alcoholism and despair. Despite this, he had a deep love for the sea and it became a prominent theme in many of his plays, several of which are set on board ships like those on which he worked. O'Neill joined the Marine Transport Workers Union of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), which was fighting for improved living conditions for the working class using quick 'on the job' direct action.[15] O'Neill's parents and elder brother Jamie (who drank himself to death at the age of 45) died within three years of one another, not long after he had begun to make his mark in the theater.


After his experience in 1912–13 at a sanatorium where he was recovering from tuberculosis, he decided to devote himself full-time to writing plays (the events immediately prior to going to the sanatorium are dramatized in his masterpiece, Long Day's Journey into Night).[9] O'Neill had previously been employed by the New London Telegraph, writing poetry as well as reporting. In the fall of 1914, he entered Harvard University to attend a course in dramatic technique given by George Piece Baker, but left after one year.[9]

During the 1910s O'Neill was a regular on the Greenwich Village literary scene, where he also befriended many radicals, most notably Communist Labor Party of America founder John Reed. O'Neill also had a brief romantic relationship with Reed's wife, writer Louise Bryant.[16] O'Neill was portrayed by Jack Nicholson in the 1981 film Reds, about the life of John Reed; Louise Bryant was portrayed by Diane Keaton. His involvement with the Provincetown Players began in mid-1916. Terry Carlin reported that O'Neill arrived for the summer in Provincetown with "a trunk full of plays", but this was an exaggeration.[9] Susan Glaspell describes a reading of Bound East for Cardiff that took place in the living room of Glaspell and her husband George Cram Cook's home on Commercial Street, adjacent to the wharf (pictured) that was used by the Players for their theater: "So Gene took Bound East for Cardiff out of his trunk, and Freddie Burt read it to us, Gene staying out in the dining-room while reading went on. He was not left alone in the dining-room when the reading had finished."[17] The Provincetown Players performed many of O'Neill's early works in their theaters both in Provincetown and on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village. Some of these early plays, such as The Emperor Jones, began downtown and then moved to Broadway.[9]

O'Neill's first play, Bound East for Cardiff, premiered at this theatre on a wharf in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

In an early one-act play, The Web, written in 1913, O'Neill first explored the darker themes that he later thrived on. Here he focused on the brothel world and the lives of prostitutes, which also play a role in some fourteen of his later plays.[18] In particular, he memorably included the birth of an infant into the world of prostitution. At the time, such themes constituted a huge innovation, as these sides of life had never before been presented with such success.

O'Neill's first published play, Beyond the Horizon, opened on Broadway in 1920 to great acclaim, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. His first major hit was The Emperor Jones, which ran on Broadway in 1920 and obliquely commented on the U.S. occupation of Haiti that was a topic of debate in that year's presidential election.[19] His best-known plays include Anna Christie (Pulitzer Prize 1922), Desire Under the Elms (1924), Strange Interlude (Pulitzer Prize 1928), Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), and his only well-known comedy, Ah, Wilderness!,[3][20] a wistful re-imagining of his youth as he wished it had been.

O'Neill was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1935.[21] In 1936, O'Neill received the Nobel Prize in Literature after he had been nominated that year by Henrik Schück, member of the Swedish Academy.[22] O'Neill was profoundly influenced by the work of Swedish writer August Strindberg,[23] and upon receiving the Nobel Prize, dedicated much of his acceptance speech to describing Strindberg's influence on his work.[24] In conversation with Russel Crouse, O'Neill said that "the Strindberg part of the speech is no 'telling tale' to please the Swedes with a polite gesture. It is absolutely sincere. [...] And it's absolutely true that I am proud of the opportunity to acknowledge my debt to Strindberg thus publicly to his people".[25] Before the speech was sent to Stockholm, O'Neill read it to his friend Sophus Keith Winther. As he was reading, he suddenly interrupted himself with the comment: "I wish immortality were a fact, for then some day I would meet Strindberg". When Winther objected that "that would scarcely be enough to justify immortality", O'Neill answered quickly and firmly: "It would be enough for me".[25]

After a ten-year pause, O'Neill's now-renowned play The Iceman Cometh was produced in 1946. The following year's A Moon for the Misbegotten failed, and it was decades before coming to be considered as among his best works.[citation needed]

Time cover, March 17, 1924

He was also part of the modern movement to partially revive the classical heroic mask from ancient Greek theatre and Japanese Noh theatre in some of his plays, such as The Great God Brown and Lazarus Laughed.[26]

Family life[edit]

O'Neill in the mid-1930s. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1936

O'Neill was married to Kathleen Jenkins from October 2, 1909, to 1912, during which time they had one son, Eugene O'Neill, Jr. (1910–1950). In 1917, O'Neill met Agnes Boulton, a successful writer of commercial fiction, and they married on April 12, 1918. They lived in a home owned by her parents in Point Pleasant, New Jersey, after their marriage.[27] The years of their marriage—during which the couple lived in Connecticut and Bermuda and had two children, Shane and Oona—are described vividly in her 1958 memoir Part of a Long Story. They divorced on July 2, 1929, after O'Neill abandoned Boulton and the children, for the actress Carlotta Monterey (born San Francisco, California, December 28, 1888; died Westwood, New Jersey, November 18, 1970). O'Neill and Carlotta married less than a month after he officially divorced his previous wife.[28]

In 1929, O'Neill and Monterey moved to the Loire Valley in central France, where they lived in the Château du Plessis in Saint-Antoine-du-Rocher, Indre-et-Loire. During the early 1930s they returned to the United States and lived in Sea Island, Georgia, at a house called Casa Genotta. He moved to Danville, California, in 1937 and lived there until 1944. His house there, Tao House, is today the Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site.

In their first years together, Monterey organized O'Neill's life, enabling him to devote himself to writing. She later became addicted to potassium bromide, and the marriage deteriorated, resulting in a number of separations, although they never divorced.

The Chaplins and six of their eight children (Jane and Christopher are absent) in 1961. From left to right: Geraldine, Eugene, Victoria, Chaplin, Oona O'Neill, Annette, Josephine and Michael.

In 1943, O'Neill disowned his daughter Oona for marrying the English actor, director, and producer Charlie Chaplin when she was 18 and Chaplin was 54. He never saw Oona again.

He also had distant relationships with his sons. Eugene O'Neill Jr., a Yale classicist, suffered from alcoholism and committed suicide in 1950 at the age of 40. Shane O'Neill became a heroin addict and moved into the family home in Bermuda, Spithead, with his new wife, where he supported himself by selling off the furnishings. He was disowned by his father before also committing suicide (by jumping out of a window) a number of years later. Oona ultimately inherited Spithead and the connected estate (subsequently known as the Chaplin Estate).[29] In 1950 O'Neill joined The Lambs, the famed theater club.

Child Date of birth Date of death
Eugene O'Neill Jr. May 5, 1910 September 25, 1950
Shane O'Neill October 30, 1919 June 23, 1977
Oona O'Neill May 14, 1925 September 27, 1991

Illness and death[edit]

Grave of Eugene O'Neill

After suffering from multiple health problems (including depression and alcoholism) over many years, O'Neill ultimately faced a severe Parkinson's-like tremor in his hands that made it impossible for him to write during the last 10 years of his life; he tried dictation but found himself unable to compose that way.[citation needed] While at Tao House, O'Neill had intended to write a collection of works he called "the Cycle" chronicling American life spanning from 1755 to 1932. Only two of the eleven plays O'Neill proposed, A Touch of the Poet and More Stately Mansions, were completed.[30] As his health worsened, O'Neill lost inspiration for the project and wrote three largely autobiographical plays, The Iceman Cometh, Long Day's Journey into Night, and A Moon for the Misbegotten, which he completed in 1943, just before leaving Tao House and losing his ability to write. The book "Love and Admiration and Respect": The O'Neill-Commins Correspondence" includes an extended account written by Saxe Commins, O'Neill's publisher, in which he talks of "snatches of dialogue" between Carlotta and O'Neill over the disappearance of a group of manuscripts that O'Neill had brought with him from San Francisco. "When the table was cleared I learned the cause of the tension; the manuscripts were lost. They had disappeared mysteriously during the day and there was no clue to their whereabouts."[30]

O'Neill stamp issued in 1967

O'Neill died at the Sheraton Hotel (now Boston University's Kilachand Hall) on Bay State Road in Boston, on November 27, 1953, at age 65. As he was dying, he whispered: "I knew it. I knew it. Born in a hotel room and died in a hotel room."[31] He is interred in the Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston's Jamaica Plain neighborhood.

In 1956, Carlotta arranged for his autobiographical play Long Day's Journey into Night to be published, although his written instructions had stipulated that it not be made public until 25 years after his death. It was produced on stage to tremendous critical acclaim and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1957.[32] It is widely considered his finest play. Other posthumously published works include A Touch of the Poet (1958) and More Stately Mansions (1967).

In 1967, the United States Postal Service honored O'Neill with a Prominent Americans series (1965–1978) $1 postage stamp.

In 2000, a team of researchers studying O'Neill's autopsy report concluded that he died of cerebellar cortical atrophy, a rare form of brain deterioration unrelated to either alcohol use or Parkinson's disease.[33]


In Warren Beatty's 1981 film Reds, O'Neill is portrayed by Jack Nicholson, who was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance.

George C. White founded the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center in Waterford, Connecticut in 1964.[34]

Eugene O'Neill is a member of the American Theater Hall of Fame.[35]

O'Neill is referenced by Upton Sinclair in The Cup of Fury (1956), Dianne Wiest's character in Bullets Over Broadway (1994), by J.K. Simmons' character in Whiplash (2014), by Tony Stark in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), specifically Long Day's Journey into Night, and O'Neill's play, Long Day's Journey into Night, is referenced by Patrick Wilson's character in Purple Violets (2007).

O'Neill is referred to in Moss Hart's 1959 book Act One, later a Broadway play.

Museums and collections[edit]

O'Neill's home in New London, Monte Cristo Cottage, was made a National Historic Landmark in 1971. His home in Danville, California, near San Francisco, was preserved as the Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site in 1976.

Connecticut College maintains the Louis Sheaffer Collection, consisting of material collected by the O'Neill biographer. The principal collection of O'Neill papers is at Yale University. The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, fosters the development of new plays under his name.

There is also a theatre in New York City named after him located at 230 West 49th Street in midtown-Manhattan. The Eugene O'Neill Theatre has housed musicals and plays such as Yentl, Annie, Grease, M. Butterfly, Spring Awakening, and The Book of Mormon.


Other works[edit]

  • Tomorrow, 1917. A short-story published in The Seven Arts, Vol. II, No. 8 in June 1917.[39]
  • S.O.S., 1918. A short-story based on his 1913 one-act play Warnings.
  • The Ancient Mariner, 1923, a dramatic arrangement of Coleridge's poem.
  • The Last Will and Testament of an Extremely Distinguished Dog, 1940. Written to comfort Carlotta as their "child" Blemie was approaching his death in December 1940.[40]
  • Poems: 1912-1944, published 1980.
  • The Calms of Capricorn, unfinished play, published in 1983.[41]
  • The Unfinished Plays: Notes for The Visit of Malatesta, The Last Conquest and Blind Alley Guy, published in 1988.[42]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Harold Bloom (2007). Introduction. In: Bloom (Ed.), Tennessee Williams, updated edition. Infobase Publishing. p. 2.
  2. ^ The New York Times, August 25, 2003: "Next year Playwrights Theater will present an unproduced O'Neill comedy, Now I Ask You, a comic spin on Ibsen's Hedda Gabler."
  3. ^ a b c The Eugene O'Neill Foundation newsletter: "Now I Ask You, along with The Movie Man, ... is the only surviving comedy from O'Neill's early years."
  4. ^ a b Gelb, Arthur (October 17, 1957). "O'Neill's Birthplace Is Marked By Plaque at Times Square Site". The New York Times. p. 35. Retrieved November 13, 2008.
  5. ^ Simonson, Robert (July 23, 2012). "Ask Playbill.com: A Question About Eugene O'Neill's Birthplace, in a Broadway Hotel". Playbill. Retrieved November 8, 2016.
  6. ^ Henderson, Kathy (April 21, 2009). "The Tragic Roots of Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms". Broadway.com. Retrieved November 8, 2015.
  7. ^ Londré, Felicia (2016). "Eugene O'neill: A Life in Four Acts by Robert M. Dowling, and: Eugene O'neill: The Contemporary Reviews ed. by Jackson R. Bryer and Robert M. Dowiling (review)". Theatre History Studies. 35: 351–353. doi:10.1353/ths.2016.0027. S2CID 193596557.
  8. ^ "Eugene O'Neill". American Society of Authors and Writers.
  9. ^ a b c d e Dowling, Robert M., Eugene O'Neill: A Life in Four Acts, Yale University Press, 2014 ISBN 9780300170337
  10. ^ "Spelled Freedom" From: Stamford Past & Present, 1641 – 1976 The Commemorative Publication of the Stamford Bicentennial Committee (Stamford Historical Society)
  11. ^ Manheim, Michael, ed. (1998). The Cambridge Companion to Eugene O'Neil. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 97.
  12. ^ Bloom, Steven F. (2007). Student Companion to Eugene O'Neil. Westport: Greenwood Press. p. 3.
  13. ^ Abbotson, Susan C.W. (2005). Masterpieces of 20th-Century American Drama. Westport: Greenwood Press. p. 8.
  14. ^ O'Neill, Eugene (1959). Ah, Wilderness!. Frankfurt am Main: Hirschgraben-Verlag. p. 3.
  15. ^ Patrick Murfin (October 16, 2012). "The Sailor Who Became "America's Shakespeare"". Heretic, Rebel, a Thing to Flout. Retrieved November 8, 2016.
  16. ^ Dearborn, Mary V. (1996). Queen of Bohemia: The Life of Louise Bryant. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. p. 52. ISBN 978-0-395-68396-5.
  17. ^ Glaspell, Susan (1941) [1927]. The Road to the Temple (2nd ed.). New York: Frederick A. Stokes. p. 255.
  18. ^ "The Web by Eugene O'Neill."Sex for Sale: Six Progressive-Era Brothel Dramas, by Katie N. Johnson, University of Iowa Press, IOWA CITY, 2015, pp. 15–29. JSTOR.
  19. ^ Renda, Mary (2001). Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. pp. 198–212. ISBN 0-8078-4938-3.
  20. ^ van Gelder, Lawrence (August 25, 2003). "Arts Briefing". The New York Times. Retrieved November 8, 2016.
  21. ^ "APS Member History". search.amphilsoc.org. Retrieved June 7, 2023.
  22. ^ "Nomination Database". Nobelprize.org. Retrieved November 8, 2016.
  23. ^ O'Neill, Eugene (February 20, 2013). The Emperor Jones. Courier Corporation. ISBN 978-0-486-15960-7.
  24. ^ Eugene O'Neill (December 10, 1936). "Banquet Speech". The Nobel Foundation. Retrieved July 12, 2010.
  25. ^ a b Törnqvist, Egil (January 14, 2004). Eugene O'Neill: A Playwright's Theatre. McFarland. ISBN 978-0-7864-1713-1.
  26. ^ Smith, Susan Harris (1984). Masks in Modern Drama. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 66–70, 106–08, 131–36, index S124. ISBN 0-520-05095-9.
  27. ^ Cheslow, Jerry. "If You're Thinking of Living In/Point Pleasant, N.J.; A Borough With a Variety of Boating", The New York Times, November 9, 2003. Accessed January 25, 2015. "The most famous Point Pleasant resident was Eugene O'Neill, who married a local girl named Agnes Boulton and grumbled about being bored through the winter of 1918-19, as he lived rent free in a home owned by Agnes's parents."
  28. ^ "Eugene O'Neill Wed to Miss Monterey". The New York Times. July 24, 1929. p. 9. Retrieved November 13, 2008.
  29. ^ "Bermuda's Warwick Parish".
  30. ^ a b Black, Stephen A. (1999). Eugene O'Neill: Beyond Mourning and Tragedy. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. pp. 394, 481. ISBN 0-300-07676-2.
  31. ^ Sheaffer, Louis (1973). O'Neill: Son and Artist. Little, Brown & Co. ISBN 0-316-78337-4.
  32. ^ "Long Day's Journey into Night | play by O'Neill". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved February 24, 2019.
  33. ^ Los Angeles Times, 13 April 2000. Retrieved September 10, 2020
  34. ^ "Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center Website". Retrieved March 4, 2014.
  35. ^ "Theater Hall of Fame members".
  36. ^ Title as in original typescript and title page of Modern Library edition
  37. ^ "Exorcism". Yale U. Library Acquires Lost Play by Eugene O'Neill. Chronicle of Higher Education. October 19, 2011. Retrieved October 22, 2011. (The play, set in 1912, is based on O'Neill's suicide attempt from an overdose of barbiturates in a Manhattan rooming house. After its premiere in 1920, O'Neill canceled the production and, it had been thought, destroyed all copies.)
  38. ^ "Exorcism". The New Yorker. October 10, 2011. Retrieved January 6, 2024.
  39. ^ O'Neill, Eugene (1917). The Seven Arts (June 1917 ed.). New York: The Seven Arts Publishing Co. Retrieved March 5, 2020.[permanent dead link]
  40. ^ O'Neill, Eugene; Yorinks, Adrienne (1999). The Last Will and Testament of an Extremely Distinguished Dog (First ed.). New York: Henry Holt and Co. ISBN 0-8050-6170-3. Archived from the original on February 23, 2014. Retrieved November 16, 2008.
  41. ^ Black, Steven A. The Eugene O’Neill Review, vol. 19, no. 1/2, 1995, pp. 150–52. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/29784556. Accessed 29 Dec. 2023.
  42. ^ Wilkins, Frederick C. The Eugene O’Neill Review, vol. 13, no. 1, 1989, pp. 77–80. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/29784342. Accessed 29 Dec. 2023.

Further reading[edit]

Editions of O'Neill[edit]

Scholarly works[edit]

External links[edit]

Digital collections
Physical collections
Analysis and editorials
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Awards and achievements
Preceded by Cover of Time magazine
March 17, 1924
Succeeded by