As a touring stage actor, James O'Neill exposed his son Eugene to the theater at an early age. As a playwright, his son would reject the kind of conventional melodrama his father starred in. So would James O'Neill, but much too late to bring him fulfillment.
Born in Ireland on October 14, 1845, James emigrated with his family to Buffalo, New York, at age 9. His family settled in Cincinnati and his father Edward abandoned them to return to Ireland, where he soon died. Eugene O'Neill offered his interpretation of his father's childhood through the character of James Tyrone in Long Day's Journey Into Night: "It was at home I first learned ... the fear of the poorhouse. ... There was no damned romance in our poverty."
Promise as an Actor
James O'Neill's brother-in-law offered him a job in his business selling military uniforms during the Civil War. He also paid for a tutor for James, who introduced the young man to the theater. Later, O'Neill tried to establish several small businesses, all of which failed. When he was 21, he took a small role in a production in Cincinnati. "I began the thing as a lark," O'Neill recalled, "but the stage manager prevailed on me to remain." He did indeed remain an actor, learning from one of the great American stage actors of the time, Joseph Jefferson. While still in his 20s, O'Neill earned a compliment from the greatest American actor of the day, Edwin Booth, who saluted O'Neill for the way he mastered his Shakespearean roles. But his career would never reach such artistic heights again.
Marriage and Children
The actor first met Ella Quinlan in the home of her father, a businessman in Cleveland, where O'Neill was performing at the time. He was 26; she was 15. O'Neill fell in love with Ella several years later and overcame the opposition of her mother to marry her. He also overcame a lawsuit from a former lover, Nettie Walsh, who contended that she had already married O'Neill (a judge determined there was insufficient evidence to prove the prior marriage). James and Ella had three children: James Jr., Edmund, who died of the measles while a toddler, and Eugene. Soon after Eugene was born, O'Neill took his infant son on tour with him while he played the role that would dominate his career.
Popular and Lucrative Role
James O'Neill debuted as the lead in the melodrama The Count of Monte Cristo on February 12, 1883. The public adored him. The critics did not. As the box office success compelled O'Neill to continue playing the part, one critic wrote, "He is reaping the pecuniary profit of his business sagacity, but it is at the cost of art." Another noted, "The Count's irresistible monetary fascination is fast smothering O'Neill's versatility." Nevertheless, O'Neill followed the public demand, giving more than 6,000 performances and earning more than $800,000 from the role over the course of his career.
Along with an increasingly unhappy marriage after the death of his child and his wife's addiction to morphine, O'Neill's decision to inhabit the role of the count ultimately ruined his spirit. Though he finally took solace in his son Eugene's success as a playwright, after having disparaged his earlier writing, James regretted the waste of his own talent, as he confided to his son before he died on August 10, 1920. "My father died broken, unhappy, intensely bitter, feeling that life was 'a damned hard billet to chew,'" said Eugene. "This after ... what the mob undoubtedly regard as a highly successful career." The regrets that haunted his father impressed upon Eugene "to remain true to the best that is in me though the heavens fall."