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Eugene O'Neill | Article

The Pulitzer Prize in Drama


Columbia University awards the annual Pulitzer Prize in drama based on the nominations of a "drama jury" and the recommendations of the Pulitzer board. Eugene O'Neill dominated the early years of the award, winning three of the first 10 given.

The Honored Plays
When he won his first Pulitzer, in 1920 for Beyond the Horizon, O'Neill was not initially pleased. In fact, he had not heard of the award, which first had been given two years earlier (no drama award was given in 1917, the first year of the Pulitzers, or in 1919). "My reaction was a disdainful raspberry," he recalled later. "Oh, a damned medal and one of those presentation ceremonies. I won't accept it." He was much happier when he learned that the award came with a $1,000 prize, with no ceremony. O'Neill won the Pulitzer again in 1922 for Anna Christie, in 1928 for Strange Interlude, and posthumously in 1957 for Long Day's Journey Into Night.

Moral Standards
Though his Pulitzer awards — as well as the Nobel Prize in literature in 1936, the only Nobel ever awarded to an American playwright — cemented O'Neill's reputation as the preeminent playwright in the country, one judge was reluctant to honor the playwright's work. In its early years, the award recognized a play that "rais[ed] the standard of good morals, good taste, and good manners." Hamlin Garland, a member of the three-person drama jury, questioned whether O'Neill met the criteria, calling him "ruthless for the sake of ruthlessness." Garland later resigned as an award judge over "the pornographic drama of our day." Tensions between morality and artistic quality also surfaced in later years.

Other Winners
The Pulitzer for drama established a precedent in its first decades by honoring the best-known playwrights, such as O'Neill, Elmer Rice, Maxwell Anderson, and Thornton Wilder, but less prominent work was also rewarded. In 1927, for example, Paul Green, a 32-year-old North Carolina teacher, won for In Abraham's Bosom, a hard-hitting look at the tragic life of young black man in the South. Another play, The Old Maid by Zoe Baird, won in 1935 over favorites by Clifford Odets, Lillian Hellman, and Anderson. The award could generate box office sales — The Old Maid ran for 305 performances on Broadway on the strength of its Pulitzer — and controversy. The New York Drama Critics Circle created its own award after Baird's play won the Pulitzer, with a promise to make better choices.

Postwar Prizes
The post-World War II period brought a new generation of talented dramatists to the forefront. Pulitzers were awarded to the popular plays A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams (1948), Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller (1949), South Pacificby Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein (1950), and Picnic by William Inge (1953). In a sign of the loosening of the Pulitzer's moral standard, Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof won the award in 1955 despite its sexual themes and risqué language. Yet the Pulitzer advisory board overruled the drama jury's nomination of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf in 1963, finding the script lacked an "uplifting" quality because of its language and sexual content. After two members of the drama jury resigned in protest, the "uplift" requirement for the award was stricken the next year.

Heirs to O'Neill
The Pulitzer is not awarded in any given year if competitors don't meet a standard of excellence. In a dozen-year period in the 1960s and early 1970s, the prize was withheld six times. Albee gained the first of his three Pulitzers in 1967 with A Delicate Balance. Since 1974, the award has been presented in all but two years and has recognized plays dealing with such difficult subjects as suicide ('Night, Mother by Marsha Norman, 1986), AIDS (Tony Kushner's Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, 1993), and terminal cancer (Wit by Margaret Edson, 1999). O'Neill, who long ago exploded on the American theater scene with his forthright examination of social and personal issues, has still won more Pulitzers than any other playwright.




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