Tolstoy’s famous dictum—the second half of it, anyway—that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” certainly applies to the O’Neills, in spades. Though our concern here is with the playwright Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953), the miseries of his father, James, his mother, Mary (known as Ella), and his sibling, Jamie, were spectacular enough in their respective ways, as Eugene’s supreme autobiographical masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, makes abundantly clear.
Much has been written about O’Neill, by himself and sundry others, but more keeps coming to light. Only recently—too late to be included in extant collections of his plays—the sole copy of Exorcism, a play about his failed suicide, has surfaced, and it contributes a significant novelty to Robert M. Dowling’s valuable new biography, Eugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts. The postulated four acts of the life story are seen as emblematic of the four acts in which so many of O’Neill’s plays are written.
Eugene’s early life in his family’s New London, Connecticut, home was relatively uneventful, except for the young fellow’s tuberculosis, for which his stingy father kept sending him to cheap, inadequate institutions. There was the horrible example of Irish-born father James, who could have been a great classical actor had he not chosen more-lucrative matinee idolhood in the melodrama The Count of Monte Cristo, with which he kept touring the country and becoming rich, yet miserly about a son’s survival.
Eugene and his brother Jamie were dragged from pillar to post, with their mother another terrible example, a morphine addict stemming from a hack physician’s prescription to ease her parturitional pain. So Eugene, as Dowling summarizes, became “antisocial, alcoholic, a heavy smoker. His father was a domineering overachiever and his brother an underachiever and a world-class drunk. His mother, Ella, had been a morphine addict since the day he was born.”
He lasted one year at Princeton and, later, at Harvard, in George Pierce Baker’s famous playwriting seminar, despite Baker’s considering him his best student. On he went into the merchant marine, sailoring through Latin America and hitting ground in Greenwich Village at Jimmy the Priest’s saloon, and another nearby bar known as the Hell Hole, drinking with a series of deadbeats downstairs while sharing a filthy upstairs room with a couple of them.
A chief buddy was the 61-year-old boozer Terry Carlin, from whom Eugene got the idea of “philosophical anarchism.” The two moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1916, where a theatrical group, eventually known as the Provincetown Players, had formed. It comprised a number of gifted people, chief among them the playwright Susan Glaspell, the set designer/director Robert Edmond Jones, and the political-journalist couple John Reed and Louise Bryant, the latter of whom had a brief, turbulent affair with Eugene.
It was by the Provincetown Players, who later moved to Greenwich Village, that Eugene had eight plays produced in two years. As reflected in his writing, his taste gradually improved: The early enthusiast for Swinburne and Rossetti, who memorized and would recite “The Hound of Heaven,” moved on to Strindberg and Nietzsche—albeit also to the anarchist Max Stirner. (He came to respect Freud, but, contrary to general perception, disclaimed him as an influence.)
There were women with whom he was involved—one of whom, Kathleen Jenkins, he impregnated. He lovelessly married her and showed little interest in their child, Eugene O’Neill Jr., yet he was interested in the Players, to whom he first read an unsuccessful play, and later his first success, Bound East for Cardiff (1914), one of several seafaring dramas that started his career.
Though excessively sensitive and said to “grieve like a stricken collie if you so much as looked an unkind thought at him,” O’Neill persevered. It led to four Pulitzer Prizes and, in 1936, to the Nobel Prize for Literature, which no other American dramatist had ever won.
Dowling does a nice job summing up what the O’Neill plays are about, how many of them shocked their contemporaries—making blacks their principals, having a socialite fall for a brutish stoker—and how the critics managed, with a few exceptions, to underestimate and even savage them. The plays got more and more adventurous, if not always better—Dowling is never blind to Eugene’s failings—as O’Neill’s private life, too, became more complicated.