Playwrights in America
Eugene O'Neill first experienced the American theater as a young child at the end of the 19th century, when he accompanied his stage-actor father James O'Neill touring as the lead in The Count of Monte Cristo.
Nineteenth Century Drama
One scholar categorized the typical American theater of that century as "fun and even thrilling, then, but child's play." As O'Neill came of age after the turn of the century, popular productions included The Wizard of Oz, Babes in Toyland, Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford, and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, which "leaned heavily on charm, sentimentality, melodrama, and corn," wrote a drama critic for The New York Times. Spurning the frivolity of the popular theater of his father's era, O'Neill turned for inspiration to the works of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen and a Swedish one, August Strindberg, who "first gave me the vision of what modern drama could be," O'Neill would state when he accepted the Nobel Prize in 1936.
Inspiration from Abroad
While escapist fare predominated from American dramatists, the theater scene of Eugene O'Neill's early years as a playwright also featured serious work. In addition to productions of major O'Neill influences Ibsen and Strindberg, U.S. stages saw several plays by the Englishman George Bernard Shaw, and Gerhart Hauptmann's The Weavers, the German playwright's examination of class conflict in the Industrial Revolution. With these works from Europe to guide them, O'Neill and other playwrights ushered in a new style of American drama.
The First American Tragedy
Theater historians point to O'Neill's Beyond the Horizon, which debuted in 1920, as the first native American tragedy. That play emerged from O'Neill's association with the Provincetown Players, one of many so-called "little theaters" that developed in the 1910s to provide alternative fare to commercial drama of the time. The Provincetown Players also produced plays by poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, novelist Edna Ferber, and Paul Green's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama In Abraham's Bosom. Another group, the Theater Guild, mounted modern American plays by Elmer Rice, S. N. Behrman, and Maxwell Anderson. These playwrights embraced character and realism, eschewing clichés and the stock heroes and villains that often populated American drama. They offered Americans a chance to see themselves on stage for the first time.
As O'Neill became a celebrated playwright in the 1920s and 1930s, other dramatists also presented new and challenging work. In the aftermath of World War I, Anderson's What Price Glory? offered the most forthright look at war from an American playwright to date. Rice's The Adding Machine satirized the dehumanizing effect of capitalism. In the midst of the Depression, other playwrights tackled social issues, such as Clifford Odets in Awake and Sing!, which he described as about a "struggle for life amidst petty conditions." In the 1930s, Lillian Hellman achieved success in the male-dominated playwriting world with The Children's Hour, about the destructive power of a child's lie, and The Little Foxes, a chronicle of a Southern family's conflicts.
The Theater Transformed
By the early 1940s, illness caused O'Neill to end a fruitful period of writing. By then, he and others had opened the world of American theater to the serious drama that would follow in the plays of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Edward Albee. O'Neill's era also led the way for the contemporary American theater, boasting such diverse talents as David Mamet, August Wilson, and Tony Kushner. And unlike the work of most American playwrights that preceded him, O'Neill's plays continue to be staged — and relevant.