Eugene O'Neill Biography

Early life

Eugene Gladstone O’Neill was born on 16 October 1888 in a Broadway hotel room New York, USA. He was the third son of James O’Neill, a well-known stage actor and his wife Ella, the daughter of a Cleveland businessman. Their second child, Edmund, had died of measles as an infant and his death, along with the morphine addiction that Ella developed during O’Neill’s birth and his father’s alcoholism, would come to inform much of the playwright’s later work, particularly his last work and masterpiece “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”

O’Neill’s love for drama was born when he attended a production of Henrik Ibsen’a ‘Hedda Gabler’. O’Neill later wrote “That experience discovered an entire new world of drama for me, It gave me my first conception of a modern theater where truth might live.”
O’Neill’s youth was an eventful one. He travelled the world, filling his time with alcohol and sex. Aged twenty-four, O’Neill was a patient at the Gaylord Farm sanatorium, recovering from tuberculosis. While at the sanitorium, he discovered the plays of Swedish expressionist writer August Strindberg. It was this discovery, he said, that inspired him to become a playwright.

When well again, 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. His involvement with the Provincetown Players began in mid-1916 who performed many of O'Neill's early works in their Greenwich Village theaters.

Best known plays

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. “Anna Christie”, the story of a cynical, desperate ex-hooker from Minnesota won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922.

The loss of both his parents and his brother in the space of three years sent O’Neill into a deep depression during which he began working on “Desire Under the Elms” which premiered on Broadway in 1924. The play was described by critic Travis Bogard as “the first important tragedy to be written in America.”

“Strange Interlude” (Pulitzer Prize 1928), O’Neill’s five-and-a-half-hour epic play, was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature eight years later.
O’Neill didn’t write another play from 1936 until 1946, although it is these later plays for which he is most often remembered: “The Iceman Cometh” was produced in 1946 and the following year “A Moon for the Misbegotten”. His harrowing exploration of his parents’ embattled relationship, “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night” was so deeply personal that O’Neill left instructions for the play to be withheld from publication and production for twenty-five years after his death. However, his wife eventually gave permission in 1956 and the play became a best-seller, winning O’Neill his fourth Pulitzer Prize and a lasting legacy as perhaps the finest American playwright.

Eugene O'Neill - his life, work and legacy