Before Eugene O'Neill's work first hit the Broadway stage in 1920, audiences typically came to the theater in search of amusement and distraction -- and got what they were looking for. When his father James O'Neill gained popularity as in actor in the 1870s, one reporter observed why many people flocked to the romantic roles he portrayed: "He was the patron saint of the matinee girls. He was the ideal of the town -- this curly-haired, robust, handsome young Irishman." In the many melodramas of the period, audiences hissed the villains and shouted warnings to the heroes when trouble lurked. Occasionally, actors would fall out of character to rebuke patrons for talking during the performance.
The turn of the 20th century heralded a new urbanization in the United States. Advances in transportation as well as commercial and industrial expansion brought people from the farms to the cities. Millions of immigrants also swelled the urban centers, with many cities doubling or even tripling in population in a generation's time. Theater -- particularly Broadway -- boomed with the times. In New York, a score of new theaters were built, and the number of productions tripled from the turn of the century to the 1920s. In that decade, Broadway staged nearly 2,500 productions, with a peak of 297 in 1926-27. (Forty years later, one Broadway season would feature only 42 productions.) The work of Eugene O'Neill was at the center of that artistic and popular revival.
Commercial, Critical Success
Though O'Neill's plays included such challenging subjects as race relations, adultery and individual alienation, they found a willing audience on Broadway. Most ran for more than 100 performances, with several running for more than 200. Strange Interlude, a nine-act play that examines a woman's tormented love life, played for more than 400 performances and earned O'Neill a then-blockbuster $275,000. O'Neill's commercial success was paved by organizations like the Provincetown Players, in which O'Neill was a member, and the Theatre Guild, which staged plays of artistic merit in the 1920s. Critics championed serious works, as did organizations like the Drama League of America, formed in 1909 to stimulate interest in modern drama. By the time O'Neill's early plays premiered, American audiences were ready to follow their European counterparts in considering the theater more than just a pleasant distraction.
Moving a Crowd
Though audiences supported his work at the box office, O'Neill complained that they did not properly appreciate it. The public did not recognize his "original rhythms of beauty where beauty apparently isn't," he said. They did not see "the transfiguring nobility of tragedy in as near the Greek sense as one can grasp it, in seemingly the most ignoble, debased lives." Nevertheless, O'Neill's work provoked strong audience reaction, a reason producer Arthur Hopkins staged his work. "I want people to leave my theater actually quarreling about what they have seen," he said. "There is nothing more tragic to me than the complacent, unmoved faces that pour out of our Broadway theaters after a play." That was one tragedy O'Neill didn't have to face.