Eugene O'Neill drew on the tragic events of his dysfunctional family's life to produce some of the most powerful dramas of the American theater.
Born in a Hotel Room
O'Neill's difficulties began almost from the time of his birth on October 16, 1888 in a New York hotel in what later became known as Times Square. Soon after the delivery, his mother, Ella O'Neill, became addicted to morphine. (Decades later, Eugene would dramatize her tragedy through the character Mary Tyrone in Long Day's Journey Into Night.) Throughout Eugene's childhood, his stage-actor father, James O'Neill, toured in the lucrative but ultimately disappointing lead role in The Count of Monte Cristo. Eugene traveled with his father for his first seven years, an experience that would influence the future playwright's work. "As a boy, I saw so much of the old, ranting, artificial romantic stuff that I always had a sort of contempt for the theater," he would later recall.
School and Religion
Entering a strict Catholic boarding school, St. Aloysius Academy for Boys, in September 1895, O'Neill would rebel against the demands of school and religion. After learning as a teenager of his mother's drug addiction, O'Neill defied his father by refusing to go to church. His struggles with God and religion would later prove to be a frequent theme of his plays. He enrolled in Princeton University in September 1906 but was kicked out after his first year, owing to poor academics and heavy drinking. Aside from a course in playwriting that O'Neill later took at Harvard, he would have no other formal education.
O'Neill married just before turning 21, but he did not settle down. In fact, soon after he wed Kathleen Jenkins against his father's wishes, he set sail for Honduras and then South America aboard a ship called the Charles Racine. His wife gave birth in May 1910 to a son, Eugene O'Neill Jr., whom his father did not see until the boy was 11. O'Neill preferred the simple life of sailors and the sea to family life, but heavy drinking drove him to despair. After returning to New York and living the life of a derelict, O'Neill in 1912 attempted suicide in his room at Jimmy-the-Priest's boarding house and saloon, which — together with the Hell Hole — would one day become the setting for his play The Iceman Cometh. That same year, he and Kathleen divorced, and he contracted tuberculosis. It was during his recovery at a sanatorium — which he came to regard as his "rebirth" — that he determined he would become a playwright. "I want to be an artist or nothing," he said.
Success as a Playwright
After Eugene O'Neill attended a playwriting course at Harvard in 1914, followed by a frustrating and mostly drunken year in New York's Greenwich Village attempting unsuccessfully to have his one-act plays produced, he joined an experimental theater group in Provincetown, Massachusetts, which produced his one-act sea play Bound East for Cardiff. The group formed the Playwrights' Theatre in Greenwich Village and staged several O'Neill productions in the following years. During this period, O'Neill married his second wife, writer Agnes Boulton, in 1918, with whom he had two children, Shane and Oona. O'Neill's first full-length play, Beyond the Horizon, premiered on Broadway on February 3, 1920, at the Morosco Theater. The play, which features two brothers who love the same woman, won O'Neill the first of four Pulitzer Prizes in drama.
A week after Beyond the Horizon opened, James O'Neill suffered a stroke. Before he died in August 1920, he shared with his son Eugene the bitterness he felt over his lost potential as an actor. Two years later, O'Neill's mother died; the next year his brother, Jamie, an alcoholic, died at the age of 45. O'Neill would dramatize the lives of his family members in his plays, most vividly in Long Day's Journey Into Night.
After the debut of his first play on Broadway, O'Neill wrote prolifically, completing 20 long plays and many shorter ones over a span of 23 years. These plays included The Emperor Jones, The Hairy Ape, Desire Under the Elms, Mourning Becomes Electra, and Pulitzer Prize-winners Strange Interlude and Anna Christie. He won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1936, the first — and only — American dramatist to win the honor. During this period, he also met the woman who would become his third wife, Carlotta Monterey, an actress who played a role in the Broadway production of his play The Hairy Ape. He left his wife Agnes in 1928 and set sail for Europe with Carlotta, whom he married the next year. They remained together in an often turbulent relationship until his death, with Carlotta providing O'Neill the protective environment he required to sustain his art.
Haunted by his painful upbringing and embattled family life, O'Neill faced troubles with his own children that coincided with his physical deterioration. He completed three of his great tragedies, The Iceman Cometh, Long Day's Journey Into Night, and A Moon for the Misbegotten, between 1939 and 1944, before a neuromuscular disorder increasingly impeded his ability to write. In 1943 he disowned his daughter Oona for marrying film star Charlie Chaplin, who was about her father's age. His son Shane was arrested for heroin possession in 1948 and estranged from his father, while his first-born child Eugene O'Neill Jr. committed suicide in 1950.
Died in a Hotel Room
In 1953, his health failing, O'Neill lived his last days in a hotel room in Boston with Carlotta tending to him. He instructed her not to bring a priest to his funeral. "If there is a God and I meet Him," he told her, "we'll talk things over personally, man to man." He died on November 27, 1953, having left instructions with his publisher that Long Day's Journey Into Night should not be published until 25 years after his death. Carlotta, however, took the play to another publisher, Yale University Press, which published it in 1956. It opened the same year on Broadway and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.