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Teacher's Guide: Suggestions for Active Learning

Portrait of Eugene O'Neill as child about 5 years old Eugene O'Neill provides insights into topics including changes in American culture and society during the first half of the twentieth century, the history of the American theater, Greek tragedy, controversies surrounding artistic expression, alcoholism, and more. You can use part or all of the film, or delve into the rich resources available on this Web site to learn more, either in a classroom or on your own.

The following activities are grouped into three categories: history, literature, and society. You can also read a few helpful hints for completing the activities.


History | Literature | Society

  1. O'Neill's life and times.
    The United States experienced dramatic changes in the 65 years between O'Neill's birth in 1888 and his death in 1953. To look for connections between O'Neill's life (and work) and changes in the country, divide the class into groups and assign each group an equal portion of that time period. Each group should use the timeline of O'Neill's life, the list of his plays, and other sources to prepare a timeline of its assigned time period that shows (a) the three most important events in O'Neill's life during that period and (b) the three most important developments in the country during that period.

    When the groups are finished, assemble the timelines into a single timeline and review O'Neill's life as a whole. Do you think O'Neill's life and the plays he wrote were shaped more by changes in the country, or by events within his family?

  2. O'Neill and his family.
    What kinds of relationships did Eugene O'Neill have with his family? Select the family member who interests you the most -- his father or mother, one of his three wives, or one of his three children -- and write a letter from that person to O'Neill. Your letter should address what you think was the most important issue (either positive or negative) between that person and O'Neill.

  3. O'Neill and Greek tragedy.
    O'Neill once complained that while the public attended his plays, they did not see "the transfiguring nobility of tragedy in as near the Greek sense as one can grasp it".

    To understand O'Neill's statement more fully, begin by finding out more about ancient Greek tragedy. Divide the class into three groups and assign each group one of the following topics to research and report on for the class: (a) What is a "tragedy," as the philosopher Aristotle defined it, and what do the terms "catharsis," "fate," "hubris," and "tragic flaw" mean in the context of a tragedy? (b) Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides are generally seen as the three greatest writers of Greek tragedies. When and where did they live, and what themes guided their work? (c) Among the best-known Greek tragedies are "Oedipus the King", "Oresteia", and "The Trojan Women". For each of these plays, outline the plot and describe the play's main theme(s).

    Once the groups have reported their findings to the class, discuss what you think O'Neill meant by his statement above. How can tragedy be both "transfiguring" and "noble"?


History | Literature | Society

  1. Scenes from O'Neill's masterpiece.
    Two of the most powerful scenes in "Long Day's Journey into Night" occur in Act 4: the conversation in which Edmund Tyrone, Sr., explains to his son Edmund why he has always been concerned about money, and the conversation in which Jamie (Edmund's brother) explains to Edmund why he has always had mixed feelings about Edmund. Have two pairs of volunteers perform staged readings of the two scenes for the class. After the readings, discuss the scenes as a class: how would you describe each of the three men based just on these scenes? How do they view their own lives, and what do they think of each other?

    Finally, how do you think these scenes support O'Neill's statement, quoted in the film, that the play's characters are "trapped within each other by the past, each guilty and at the same time innocent, scorning, loving, pitying each other, understanding and yet not understanding at all, forgiving but still doomed never to be able to forget"?

  2. Recent classics of the American stage.
    While O'Neill dominated the early years of the Pulitzer Prize in drama, new generations of American playwrights have emerged since World War II. To learn more about these more recent playwrights and their work, divide the class into small groups and assign each group one of the following persons: Edward Albee, Margaret Edson, Tony Kushner, David Mamet, Arthur Miller, Marsha Norman, Tennessee Williams, and August Wilson. Each group should prepare a brief biography of its assigned playwright to present to the class. It also should read one of its playwright's plays and select a scene from that play to read for the class.

  3. The magic of the theater.
    View the film clips of actors discussing O'Neill's work and reading from his plays. People involved in the theater often use words like "electricity" and "magic" when describing the experience of putting on a play, whether they are appearing on a Broadway stage or painting scenery for a community theater.

    If you have participated in a play, write a description of the experience: what was most rewarding, and most surprising? What, if anything, did you not like about the experience? If you have not participated in a play, interview a friend or family member who has, and write up their memories of the experience. Then circulate your descriptions among your classmates -- what do the descriptions have in common, and how do they differ?


History | Literature | Society

  1. Interracial romance.
    O'Neill's play "All God's Chillun Got Wings" generated a storm of controversy when it opened in 1924 because it depicted a relationship between a black man and a white woman. The play was only one of O'Neill's works to raise protests.

    Today, is it still uncommon for relationships between blacks and whites to be depicted in books, movies, plays, popular songs, television shows, or advertisements? Have each member of the class come up with one or more examples of an interracial relationship from any of those sources. Then review and discuss these examples as a class: what do they tell you about changes in Americans' attitudes toward both race and sex?

  2. America's "confessional culture."
    Take the poll on whether O'Neill should have presented intimate details about his family in his plays. In writing about his family, O'Neill was attempting to understand himself and his family better. Some social critics, however, complain that the United States today suffers from a "confessional culture," in which people expose intimate details of their lives simply in order to gain public attention.

    When is it appropriate to reveal personal details in public, and when isn't it? Working with a partner, find an example -- from a current or recent movie, television show, magazine or newspaper, book, Web site, popular song, advertisement, or other public source -- of a person revealing personal details in a way you think is appropriate. Then find an example where you think it was inappropriate for the person to reveal these details. Present your two examples to the class and explain your selections.

  3. Alcoholism, a family -- and national -- problem.
    Eugene O'Neill suffered from alcoholism, as did all three of his children. As one of O'Neill's best-known characters -- Hickey in "The Iceman Cometh" -- says, "If anyone wants to get drunk, if that's the only way they can be happy, and feel at peace with themselves ... [t]hey have my full and entire sympathy. I know all about that game from soup to nuts. I'm the guy that wrote the book."

    Millions of Americans continue to suffer from alcoholism today, and for many of them, the road to alcohol addiction began when they were very young. To help inform your younger brothers and sisters and other young people in your community about alcohol and alcoholism, work as a class to prepare a guide for middle-school students on the subject.

    Begin by deciding what kinds of information you want to include and start collecting that information. (For example, you may want to include relevant statistics, such as the number of Americans who suffer from alcoholism or are killed in alcohol-related car accidents each year; basic information on how alcohol affects the brain; first-person stories from people whose lives have been harmed by alcohol; and information on how people can resist the pressure to drink that can come from peers or advertisers.) Then decide how you want to present the information, and what illustrations you want to use. When your booklet is complete, show it to school principals, librarians, and other officials in your community and ask them to make it available to the young people who use their facilities.

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