Eugene Gladstone O’Neill was born on the 16th October, 1888, in a room of the Barrett hotel on the northeast corner of 43rd and Broadway in Longacre Square, which would later become Times Square. The site of his birthplace, though now owned by a coffee chain, bears a plaque in commemoration of his birth and describes him as “America’s greatest playwright”. His parents were James O’Neill, an actor who had immigrated from Ireland, and Mary Ellen Quinlan. O’Neill had two elder brothers, James Jr., born in September 1878 in the home of one of James Sr.’s actor friends, and Edmund Burke, born in 1883 in a hotel in St. Louis.
The nature of James’s work meant he was constantly on the road, which explains the circumstances of the boys’ births. In the winter of 1885 and before Eugene’s birth, Mary and James Sr. left the children in New York with her mother while they ventured out on the road, pursuing James’s acting career to Denver. First James Jr. and then Edmund contracted measles, though only Edmund Burke died. Ella was unable to disassociate the blame from James Jr., who she believed had intentionally exposed Edmund to the disease while he had been suffering from it. This assumption was consistent with the irrational resentment she felt towards her elder son, who shortly thereafter was sent away to boarding school. Though at this time she resoled not to have any more children, she went on to have Eugene. His birth was so painful that she was administered morphine to help her cope with the birth, and she developed an addiction to the drug which would last several years. As a teenager, O’Neill once even walked in on his mother injecting herself with the drug.
Eugene was also sent away to school. He attended the Catholic boarding school St. Aloysius Academy for Boys in the Riverdale area of the Bronx, and it was during his time here that he took an interest in the written word, finding solace from the realities of a tough schooling and distant parents. He was an unexceptional student, trawling through his years at the Academy without applying himself particularly to any area of his formal education, choosing instead to pursue his interest in reading. He went on to study at Princeton University though this was only for one year. There are various accounts as to why he left, ranging from poor attendance to misconduct to vandalism, but the most interesting of these is that he threw a bottle of beer into the window of the then Professor Woodrow Wilson, who would go on to become President of the United States. O’Neill spent his summers in New London, Connecticut, where he wrote part-time for the New London Telegraph.
Having left Princeton without qualification, O’Neill went to sea for several years. During this time he became a member of the Marine Transport Workers Union of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), an industrial labour organisation union which was formed in 1905 with the interest of abolishing wage labor, uniting the working class and fighting against their conceived oppression and at the time was focusing on improving living conditions for the working classes. O’Neill found himself turning more and more frequently to alcohol to cope with the conditions at sea which inevitably led to fully-fledged alcoholism, and in turn depression. He developed a deep love for the sea despite all the and illness he dealt with while sailing, and it would become a major theme throughout his writing career, both the sea and boats themselves acting as backdrops to his drama.
On 2nd October 1909, O’Neill married Kathleen Jenkins, with whom he had a son, Eugene O’Neill Jr. However, this marriage only lasted three years and they divorced in 1912. The prolonged alcohol abuse and exposure to the elements at sea had had a negative effect on his health and in 1912-13 he spent time recovering from tuberculosis at a sanatorium. Having had a lengthy period of rest he resolved to focus his efforts on writing full-time. Having previously enjoyed employment by the New London Telegraph for which he was a journalist and a poet, he decided to enrol at Harvard University where he attended a courts in dramatic writing technique, delivered by Professor George Baker. However, he previous form with formal education prevailed and he left after only one year, again failing to complete his education. However, during this time he remained a frequent member of the literary establishment and society of Greenwich Village, where he encountered several prominent authors and radical thinkers in an environment of cultivation. One of these figures was John Reed, the founder of the Communist Labor Party of America, and for a time O’Neill was romantically involved with Reed’s wife, fellow writer Louise Bryant. This was not unusual for the group were intellectual supporters and often practitioners of the principles of free love, and Reed, on hearing of the tryst, responded by inviting O’Neill to dinner with him and his wife, indicating his support of the relationship.
In 1914 O’Neill’s first play, the one-act Bound East For Cardiff, was performed at a small theatre on a wharf in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Having arrived in Provincetown with “a trunk full of plays”, he presented Bound East to George Cram Cook, a theatre producer, and Susan Glaspell, his actress wife. She describes what is likely to be the play’s first ever reading, which took place at their home in Provincetown on Commercial Street. Their house as adjacent to the wharf in which the Provincetown Players would give the play’s first performance. Glaspell wrote of the reading “so Gene [O’Neill] took Bound East for Cardiff out of his trunk, and Freddie Burt read it to us, Gene staying out in the dining-from whole reading went on. He was not left alone in the dining-room when the reading had finished.” Clearly the play had a profound effect on Cook and Glaspell, for they ensured its performance soon after. Following its success, O’Neill and the Provincetown Players enjoyed a healthy wiring and performing partnership for some years, performing them both in Provincetown and a theatre on MacDougal Street back in Greenwich Village. Several of these early world enjoyed such success that they progressed from downtown to Broadway. The success of Servitude (19140, The Personal Equation (1915), Now I Ask You (1916), all full-length plays, and In The Zone (1917) and The Long Voyage Home (1917), both one-act plays, was key to O’Neill’s developing reputation as a playwright. Among the burgeoning success of his writing was the news of his mother’s rehabilitation from her crippling morphine addiction. She had been undergoing a cure throughout 1914 and by the end of the year was free from the grip of the drug.
O’Neill met Agnes Boulton, a commercial fiction writer, in 1917 in the Golden Swan Saloon, colloquially known as The Hell Hole, and they married on the 12th April 1918 in Provincetown, Massachusetts. They lived in Spithead, Bermuda. His first child with Boulton, Shane O’Neill, was born the same year. He wrote Beyond The Horizon during the first year of their marriage, which became his first full-length play to hit the Broadway stage and in 1920 it won him the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Though Beyond The Horizon was so well received by the critics, it wasn’t as much of a commercial success as The Emperor Jones which ran on Broadway in 1920. its popularity was due in part to the way it dealt with the U.S. occupation of Haiti, a topic of hotly contested debate in the presidential election which took place that year. Interestingly, the President at the time of these debates was Woodrow Wilson, through whose window O’Neill had thrown a bottle some years before.
In 1919 O’Neill’s mother Ella had undergone a mastectomy to rid her of breast cancer, which had been successful. Following James O’Neill’s death from intestinal cancer on the 11th August Ella handled James’s financial affairs until she too died on the 28th February, 1922, of a brain tumour. Amidst the sadness of his mother's death O’Neill was awarded a second Pulitzer Prize, this time for his play Anna Christie, also on Broadway. By now O’Neill had become interested in Faustian themes and the mechanics of Greek tragedy, and his play Desire Under the Elms (1924) is set in a contextual retelling of the myths of Phaedra, Hippolytus and Theseus. It is now considered a classic in the American dramatic canon. O’Neill enjoyed continued success on Broadway and beyond throughout the 1920s, with several more plays in production, often simultaneously. On the 14th May 1925 he and Boulton had their second child, Oona. In 1928 he was awarded his third Pulitzer Prize, this time for Strange Interlude, which he had finished in 1923 but which was not produced until that year. The nature and explicit details of its protagonist Nina’s sexual proclivity in her sordid affairs following her fiancée’s death led to the play being censored or banned in cities outside New York. Nevertheless, it was critically well-received.
O’Neill divorced Boulton in 1929, abandoning her and their children in favor of Carlotta Monterey, an actress from San Francisco. Only a month after his divorce from Boulton, O’Neill and Monterey were married. In the first years of their marriage Monterey acted as O’Neill’s secretary, managing many of his affairs and enabling him to devote far more time to his writing. They moved to the Loire Valley in central France in 1929 and lived in the Château du Plessis in Saint-Antoine-du-Rocher, Indre-et-Loire, one of the departments of France drawn up at the end of the French Revolution. However, by the early 1930s they had returned to the United States where they settled at a house called Casa Genotta in Sea Island, George Island. On the 26th October 1931, his latest play Mourning Becomes Electra debuted at the Guild Theatre on Broadway. It retold the Oresteia by Aeschylus, with parallel characters relocated to rural America. It mirrors the Oresteia in its structural aspects too, being a cycle composed of three plays. The play marks the culmination of O’Neill’s study of Greek drama, and is arguably his best of use its forms and themes. Two plays, Ah Wilderness! and Days Without End (both 1933) followed. Ah Wilderness! was O’Neill’s only comedy, a wistful reimagining of his childhood as he wished it had been. After these two plays began a lengthy period of literary inactivity.
In 1936 O’Neill was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature. He and Monterey moved to Danville in California in 1937. By now Monterey had developed an addiction to potassium bromide which meant she no longer managed O’Neill’s affairs in the way she had done previously. This arguably was a factor in O’Neill’s decreased literary output, for he now had less time to write and far more responsibility. They lived in Tao House while in Danville, and remained there until 1944. The house is now the Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site. As Monterey was in the throes of her potassium bromide addiction the couple went through several separations and the relationship was in ruins. Despite this, they never formally divorced, and regularly reunited with each other.
By now O’Neill, having suffered various medical ailments throughout his life, was contending with a Parkinson’s-like trembling in his hands which rendered writing nigh-impossible. Finding himself unable to compose by dictation, his plans for a project of an eleven-play cycle fell apart after he had completed only two of the intended eleven, A Touch of the Poet and More Stately Mansions, both in 1942. Disenchanted by his inability to work as he wished, he rushed three more, largely autobiographical, plays, The Iceman Cometh (written 1939), Long Day’s Journey Into Night (written 1941) and A Moon for the Misbegotten (written 1943). He finished A Moon for the Misbegotten just before he left Tao House and the ability to write. Eugene requested that Carlotta destroy the drafts of several other plays. Though he had had little contact with either Shane or Oona since he left them and their mother years before, on learning that Oona, voted “The Number One Debutante” of the 1942-43 season at the famous Stork Club had gone to Hollywood to become an actress and married Charlie Chaplin, the fourth wife of a man 36 years her senior, O’Neill immediately formally disowned her to register his outrage.
Ten years after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1946 The Iceman Cometh, which had been published in 1940, was produced. Its positive reception encouraged the production of A Moon for the Misbegotten the following year, though it was a box-office and critical failure and only came to be considered one of his greatest works decades later. His son Eugene Jr., a classicist at Yale, committed suicide at the age of forty in 1950 after having suffered from alcoholism for several years. Shane, now a heroin addict, moved into the Spithead home he had grown up in, and subsisted by selling the furnishings to fund his heroin habit. O’Neill chose to disown him too, and Shane later committed suicide by throwing himself out of a window. The Spithead estate ultimately fell to Oona. On the 27th November 1953 O’Neill, now 65, was lying in bed in Room 401 of the Sheraton Hotel on Bay State Road in Boston. He knew he was dying, even uttering the words “I knew it. I knew it. Born in a hotel room and died in a hotel room.” At the time his death was attributed to Parkinson’s, the disease which it was believed had ended his writing career, but posthumous analysis of his autopsy report indicate instead that he suffered a late onset of cerebellar cortical atrophy, a genetic neurological disease in which nerves in the brain controlling aspects of coordination and motor skills die off.
Three years after his death Carlotta, in defiance of Eugene’s orders that it be allowed to wait 25 years, arranged for the publication of Long Day’s Journey Into Night. A production by the Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden was met with a tremendous response from the public and high acclaim from critics, and the play won O’Neill a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1957, which was his fourth. The play is now widely considered his finest. Alongside the instruction in his will that Long Day’s Journey Into Night be kept private for 25 years were the rights to it, which he gave to the Royal Dramatic Theatre. He did so in thanks for their continued support of his work, staging more of his plays than any other theatre in the world, and having appreciated his work even before he was fully recognised in America. Finally, he made provisions for the Eugene O’Neill Award, bestowed upon Sweden’s most deserving actors. The first two actors to receive it were those who gave the debut performances of the two leads in Long Day’s Journey Into Night in February 1956. The award is bestowed yearly on O’Neill’s birthday, and is just one memorial to his exceptional contribution to the American canon and to literature and drama as a whole.