Eugene O'Neill

Often regarded as the father of American drama, Nobel laureate Eugene O’Neill helped drama become a legitimate form of American literature. His Pulitzer Prize-winning tragic masterpieces, such as Strange Interlude (1928) and Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956), introduced psychological realism and expressionist theater to the American stage.

Eugene O'Neill Eugene O'Neill

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Table of contents

    Eugene O’Neill: Biography

    Much of the tragic content in Eugene O’Neill’s work can be traced to his own tumultuous personal life.

    Eugene O'Neill's Early Life

    Eugene Gladstone O’Neill was born on October 16, 1888, in a New York City hotel room at Broadway and 43rd Street, now the heart of Times Square. He was the third of three sons, although the eldest had died of measles before O’Neill was born. His parents were of Irish descent.

    O’Neill’s father was an alcoholic and an actor, and his mother was addicted to morphine, which she began taking during O’Neill’s difficult birth. As a child, O’Neill toured with his father’s theatre company for the first years of his life, but in 1895, O’Neill’s parents sent him to a Catholic boarding school in the Bronx. He then attended the De La Salle Institute in Manhattan and finally a prep school in Connecticut.

    In 1906, O’Neill began attending Princeton University but dropped out without finishing his first year. He was rumored to have committed various misdeeds and rarely attended classes. This would be the end of his formal education.

    Eugene O'Neill, Princeton University, StudySmarterO'Neill very briefly attended Princeton Univerity in New Jersey. Pixabay.

    After leaving Princeton, O’Neill spent several years fumbling through various jobs. He married his first wife, Kathleen Jenkins, in 1909. The following year the two had a son, Eugene O’Neill, Jr. Throughout their marriage, O’Neill worked at sea, including stints in Liverpool and Buenos Aires. He began drinking heavily and suffered from depression. He even attempted suicide.

    In 1912, O’Neill and Jenkins separated, and O’Neill was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He spent the next six months in a sanatorium, recovering, and emerged with the plan of becoming a playwright.

    The Start of Eugene O'Neill's Literary Career

    Eugene O’Neill went to Harvard in 1914 to complete a playwriting course but, again, dropped out after less than a year. O’Neill continued writing, however, and his first play was produced in 1916. A small, experimental theater group that would become known as the Provincetown Players produced the one-act play Bound East for Cardiff in Massachusetts and later in New York City, along with some of O’Neill’s other early plays.

    During the start of his career as a playwright, O’Neill also married his second wife, the writer Agnes Boulton. They had a child, another boy named Shane.

    In 1920, O’Neill made his Broadway debut with Beyond the Horizon. The play was a great success and won O’Neill his first Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Beyond the Horizon began a string of hits that included two more Pulitzer Prizes for Anna Christie (1922) and Strange Interlude (1928).

    It is important to keep in mind that prior to the early 20th century, drama did not play a significant role in American literature. American drama consisted mainly of melodramas, classics such as Shakespeare, and comic variety shows.

    O’Neill was the first American playwright to recognize the literary potential of drama. He was greatly influenced by European playwrights such as Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906), August Strindberg (1849-1912), and Anton Chekhov (1860-1904). They were experimenting with form and structure, setting aside traditional theatrical conventions to write plays that delved more deeply into the human psyche. O’Neill was the first writer to bring this new style to the United States.

    During the 1920s, O’Neill produced an impressive body of work consisting of more than a dozen plays. He and Boulton also had their final child, a daughter, Oona, in 1925. However, in 1929, O’Neill left his family. He divorced his wife to marry the actress Carlotta Monterey, and the two moved to France until the early 1930s.

    In 1943, Oona O’Neill became the fourth wife of the renowned actor and director Charlie Chaplin. He was fifty-four years old (the same age as Oona’s father), and she was just eighteen. Eugene O’Neill disowned his daughter after the marriage, and the two never saw one another again. Oona and Chaplin had eight children and remained married until Chaplin died in 1977.

    In the early part of the 1930s, O’Neill continued writing. He produced the epic Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), a rewriting of the Greek tragedy Oresteia set in New England during the Civil War, and his only well-known comedy Ah, Wilderness! (1933).

    Eugene O'Neill, photo of the playwright, StudySmarterEugene O'Neill remains the only American playwright to have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Wikimedia Commons.

    In 1936, Eugene O’Neill became the first American playwright to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

    From 1933 to 1946, however, O’Neill’s production began to slow down. He started an ambitious project that would involve eleven plays telling the story of an American family beginning in the 1800s, to be performed on eleven consecutive nights. However, just one of the installments, A Touch of the Poet (1942), was completed, and the second, More Stately Mansions (1964), was never finished but performed posthumously in 1967.

    Eugene O’Neill’s End of Life and Cause of Death

    By the mid-1940s, O’Neill’s health began to fail, including tremors in his hands that made writing nearly impossible. He abandoned the eleven-play saga and turned his attention to writing The Iceman Cometh, produced in 1946. A Moon for the Misbegotten was published in 1952, and it was the last of O’Neill’s works to be produced while he was alive. O’Neill’s final work, his autobiographical masterpiece Long Day’s Journey into Night, would premiere in 1956, after the playwright’s death.

    O’Neil’s health deteriorated for nearly a decade preceding his death. The tremors he experienced were thought to have been a result of the playwright’s lifelong struggle with alcoholism. However, in 2000, a new study revealed that O’Neill actually suffered from a rare neurodegenerative disorder called cerebellar cortical abiotrophy.

    O’Neill died on November 27, 1953. He passed away in a hotel room, just as he was born, at sixty-five years of age.

    Eugene O’Neill: Plays

    Eugene O’Neill wrote a great number of plays (more than fifty!) over the course of his career.

    Strange Interlude (1928)

    Strange Interlude tells the story of a woman, Nina Leeds, whose fiancé dies in World War I. Nina then begins a string of affairs before choosing a man to marry and becoming pregnant with his child. She learns, however, that insanity runs in her new husband’s family, meaning that their unborn child is at risk. Nina decides that she will abort the child and conceive a new one with a different man, in secret from her husband.

    The play’s themes, such as abortion and female sexuality, were highly controversial when Strange Interlude premiered in the 1920s, and it was banned in several cities. Strange Interlude has nine acts and runs for approximately five hours when performed in full. It earned O’Neill his third Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

    Ah, Wilderness! (1933)

    Ah, Wilderness! is Eugene O’Neill’s only well-known comedy. The play is set in 1906, on the Fourth of July, and tells the coming-of-age story of sixteen-year-old Richard.

    The Iceman Cometh (1939)

    The Iceman Cometh is one of Eugene O’Neill’s later plays. It was written in 1939 and first performed in 1946. It tells the story of a group of alcoholics living in a New York City boarding house in 1912. One of the men, Hickey, gets sober, tries to convince the other men to do the same, and then confesses to murdering his wife.

    Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956)

    Long Day’s Journey into Night was first published and performed after Eugene O’Neill’s death in 1953. The playwright was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1957. Long Day’s Journey into Night is semi-autobiographical and tells the story of the Tyrone family, molded after O’Neill, his elder brother, and their parents. Over the course of one day in August of 1912, the Tyrones struggle with their complex, dysfunctional family dynamics.

    The play is often considered O’Neill’s best, and it is regarded as one of the greatest works in American drama.

    Eugene O’Neill: Quotes and Themes

    Many of the reoccurring themes in Eugene O'Neill's work are drawn from the playwright's own life. They include the sea, tragedy, and family life.

    The Sea

    I lay on the bowsprit, facing astern, with the water foaming into spume under me, the masts with every sail white in the moonlight, towering high above me. I became drunk with the beauty and singing rhythm of it, and for a moment I lost myself -- actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the sea, became white sails and flying spray, became beauty and rhythm, became moonlight and the ship and the high dim-starred sky! I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of Man, to life itself!" Long Day’s Journey into Night (Act Four)

    The sea is a reoccurring theme in much of O’Neill’s work, particularly his early one-act plays. After dropping out of Princeton University, O’Neill worked at sea for a time and undertook several voyages from the United States, Europe, and South and Central America.

    Eugene O'Neill, the sea, StudySmarterO'Neill's time at sea greatly influenced his work as a playwright. Pixabay.

    When he began his playwriting career, O’Neill was inspired to write about the working class and the common man. His experiences at sea and working with sailors heavily influenced his later work in playwriting.


    To hell with the truth! As the history of the world proves, the truth has no bearing on anything. It’s irrelevant and immaterial, as the lawyers say. The lie of a pipe dream is what gives life to the whole misbegotten mad lot of us, drunk or sober." The Iceman Cometh (Act One)

    Most of Eugene O’Neill’s plays are considered modern tragedies. Many of his most celebrated works, such as Long Day’s Journey into Night, The Iceman Cometh, and The Hairy Ape (1922), examine the tragedy of contemporary American life among the working class, adapting influences such as Shakespeare and Greek tragedies to modern characters and experiences.

    O’Neill’s tragic vision was influenced by his own personal life, which was littered with tragedy, including his father and brother’s alcoholism, his mother’s addiction to morphine, his eldest son’s suicide, and the disownment of his daughter.

    Family Life

    I know you, Vinnie! I’ve watched you ever since you were little, trying to do exactly what you’re doing now! You’ve tried to become the wife of your father and the mother of Orin! You’ve always wanted to steal my place!" Mourning Becomes Electra (Homecoming: Act Two)

    Many of O’Neill’s plays, for example, Mourning Becomes Electra, which retells the Oresteia trilogy of Greek tragedies, and the masterpiece Long Day’s Journey into Night, explore complex and dysfunctional family dynamics. O’Neill had no shortage of inspiration in his personal life, with three marriages and difficult relationships with his parents, brother, and children.

    Eugene O’Neill: Interesting Facts

    • Eugene O’Neill won four Pulitzer Prizes over the course of his career, including one after his death.

    • Eugene O’Neill was and is still the only American playwright to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

    • Eugene O’Neill was born into theater; his father was a successful touring actor.

    • Many of O’Neill’s plays, including The Iceman Cometh, Long Day’s Journey into Night, and Mourning Becomes Electra, have been adapted into movies.

    • Eugene O’Neill was married three times and had three children.

    Eugene O'Neill - Key takeaways

    • Eugene O’Neill was born in New York City on October 16, 1888.
    • Eugene O’Neill spent his young adulthood traveling at sea, working various jobs in New York, Liverpool, and Buenos Aires, and drinking heavily.
    • Beyond the Horizon, O’Neill’s Broadway debut premiered in 1920 and won O’Neill the first of four Pulitzer Prizes.
    • O’Neill was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936.
    • Eugene O’Neill died on November 27, 1953.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Eugene O'Neill

    What is Eugene O’Neill best known for?

    Eugene O’Neill is best known as the father of American drama. His plays, such as Strange Interlude, The Iceman Cometh, and Long Day’s Journey into Night, helped to turn American drama into a legitimate literary form.

    Who is Eugene O’Neill?

    Eugene O’Neill was a Nobel Prize-winning American playwright.

    What did Eugene O’Neill win the Nobel Prize for?

    Eugene O’Neill won the Nobel Prize for his dramas that utilized a unique sense of tragedy and portrayed strong human emotions.

    What is Eugene O’Neill’s importance to the American theater?

    Eugene O’Neill is often regarded as the father of American drama. Before O’Neill, American theater consisted mainly of melodramas, Shakespeare performances, and variety shows purely for entertainment. Inspired by the realist playwrights working in Europe, O’Neill was the first playwright to bring literary merit to the American stage.

    How did Eugene O’Neill die?

    Eugene O’Neill died from pneumonia after suffering from a rare neurodegenerative disorder called cerebellar cortical abiotrophy.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What was Eugene O’Neill’s middle name?

    Most of Eugene O’Neill’s plays are ______.

    True or false? Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night was first published and performed after the playwright’s death.

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