A Life in Four Acts

There was a time when theatergoers in New York City must have regarded Eugene O’Neill as a magician, forever pulling a new play out of his hat. In a two-year period ending in 1918, O’Neill wrote more than twenty plays, eight produced in New York. A few years later, in the early Twenties, nine plays by the prolific playwright ran on Broadway during a two-year period. Such productiveness could not continue forever, though O’Neill wrote more plays during his lifetime than any other American playwright. Moreover, many of the plays were lengthy: often, four or five acts, sometimes more than that, at times a series of linked dramas intended to be presented over several nights. The three-volume Library of America edition of O’Neill’s plays runs to 3200 pages for the fifty collected plays, making him one of the most prolific playwrights of all times. And, yet, when he died in 1953, at age 65, he had written very little for nearly a decade.

Robert Dowling’s exhaustive study of O’Neill’s life begins with a prologue, called ‘The Irish Luck Kid, 1916,” when O’Neill was twenty-seven, a “college dropout and ex-sailor,” who “had spent the last six months lost in a whisky fog of oblivion at a Greenwich Village saloon known as the Golden Swan Café.” He was already married and divorced, the father of one child, “antisocial, alcoholic, a heavy smoker,” reliant on his father for hand-outs, pretty much a failure, though on the verge of finding himself with a theatrical group that would shortly be known as the Provincetown Players.

It hadn’t been easy, beginning with his childhood. O’Neill had been born on Broadway, in the Barrett House Hotel, in 1888. His father, the celebrated matinee idol, James O’Neill—once enormously talented—had purchased exclusive rights to a romantic melodrama called Monte Cristo, selling out his career to a role he would play over 6000 times, as he dragged his family from oneillone town to the next with his touring company. The Irish tightwad housed his family in cheap hotels, as the role became a curse on the family. Eugene‘s father laced the child with whisky to help him sleep; his mother, Ella, addicted to morphine ever since her child’s delivery, floated around in a stupor and attempted suicide when the boy was fourteen. All this became the stuff of O’Neill’s greatest play, Long Day’s Journey into Night, much, much later, including his younger brother, Jamie, the fourth member of the family. In short, Eugene O’Neill knew the theater from his childhood, perhaps the worst of it.

Monte Cristo typified the theatre in America, at the beginning of O’Neill’s own career, historical romance and melodrama: “the majority of American plays between the Civil War and World War I were written and produced with moneymaking stars in mind, and playwrights were viewed as hired guns rather than as artists, much as screenwriters were soon to be regarded during the reign of the Hollywood studio system.” O’Neill would not follow that route. Instead, he began writing about the people and places he had observed in his worldly travels as a seaman. He had already had his own bouts of depression and attempted suicide, a mild case of TB, but he had also enrolled in George Baker’s celebrated course in playwriting at Harvard. Then the Provincetown (MA) became the major force in altering the shape of American drama.

In a converted wharf, in the summer of 1916, the Provincetown Players began staging their productions. It was a radical group—according to others—more visionary than political. O’Neill’s friends included John Reed and Louise Bryant, Susan Glaspell and other young playwrights, and numerous others who would become famous for directing and stagecraft—many of them the people O’Neill would be close to for the rest of his life. Booze and promiscuity were prevalent. O’Neill met his second wife, Agnes Boulton, also a writer. After their early successes at Provincetown, the group opened a theatre in New York City, 139 Macdougal Street, and restaged many of their earlier productions and new ones at the New York location. Already, O’Neill had gained respect for his one-act plays, especially Thirst, Bound East for Cardiff, The Long Voyage Home, and The Moon of the Caribees. There were many other one-act plays written during these early years.

O’Neill’s fame skyrocketed during the early 20s. He shook up the theater with one play after another dealing with controversial subjects. Beginning with Beyond the Horizon and Anna Christie, and continuing with The Emperor Jones, The Hairy Ape, All God’s Chillun Got Wings,Desire Under the Elms, The Great God Brown, and Strange Interlude—written and produced between 1920 and 1927—O’Neill changed the face of American drama. The first two of these plays won Pulitzer Prizes. An observation that O’Neill made in one of his much earlier plays (Abortion, in 1914) sums up his worldview: “Some impulses are stronger than we are…have proved themselves throughout our world’s history. Is it not rather our ideals of conduct, of Right and Wrong, our ethics, which are unnatural and monstrously distorted? Is society not suffering from a case of the evil eye which sees evil where there is none?”

O’Neill’s plays tackled taboo subjects. All God’s Chillun Got Wingsincluded a scene with a white actress kissing a black man’s hand and unleashed a torrent of criticism, led by the Ku Klux Klan. J. Edgar Hoover began monitoring him. O’Neill remained largely nonplussed, often appearing uninterested in his works once he had written them. He wrote frantically in binges, as he drank in similar fashion. Alcohol had long taken over his life. Dowling observes, “O’Neill’s hangovers were epic.” There were also unsuccessful plays during these years.

He had married Agnes Boulton during his Provincetown years, in 1918, but hadn’t bothered to tell her of his earlier marriage. They had two children, though O’Neill was uninterested in his children, especially when they were young. (As adults, they often came back to haunt him.) O’Neill’s mother died in 1922, his brother, Jamie, another alcoholic, the following year. By the same time, the O’Neill/Boulton marriage had largely collapsed. In her words, “Gene knew how to hurt me. He knew how to hurt everybody. I think he was hurting so much inside himself, that periodically he had to lash out. After such enormities, he was so contrite, he was embarrassing to be around…. If he hadn’t had his plays in which to play out his principal hatreds, I feel very sure he’d have found his way to an asylum before he was thirty.” Boulton had tried to temper his drinking. Almost at the end of his biography, Dowling reveals that—like so many people in O’Neill’s life and in his family—she also died of alcoholism.

O’Neill met Carlotta Monterey, the woman who would become his third wife, in 1922, when she had starred in his play, The Hairy Ape. Already thrice married and divorced, Carlotta and he had a lengthy affair and eventually married in 1929. As some of his plays were beginning to fail in New York, Europeans began to adore him. These were also the years of some of his most expansive dramas, such as Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), a cycle of three plays that ran five-and-a-half hours. When the stock market crashed in 1929 and at the beginning of the Depression, O’Neill was hardly affected. What was becoming worse was his drinking. Then he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1936, the second American (after Sinclair Lewis) to win the award and still the only American dramatist. True to form, he did not attend the ceremony.

With Carlotta—who managed his affairs and his money—he traveled the world, acquiring property in several countries. By the time that World War II had broken out, he was writing his late plays upon which much of his fame would eventually rest. In 1939, it was The Iceman Commeth, followed by Long Day’s Journey into Night, 1941, though the play would not be produced until after his death. Other late plays included Hughie,A Touch of the Poet, and A Moon for the Misbegotten, which he finished writing in 1943. That was it—there were no additional plays during the final years of his life.

O’Neill suffered from melancholia, his hand had begun trembling by 1941, though a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease was never definitive. The worst of the drinking was over, replaced with prescription medicine that was abused, the same way alcohol had been earlier. The marriage to Carlotta was often violent, volatile, punctuated with separations and reconciliations. At least once, he attempted to have her committed because of insanity. He rewrote his will numerous times, making Carlotta the recipient of everything in his estate and then taking it away. His adult children had become major burdens. Eugene, Jr., from his first marriage, who had been a successful academic, also turned to alcohol and committed suicide in 1950. (His second son would commit suicide after his father’s death). Oona, his only daughter, was a wild young woman, but settled down by marrying Charlie Chaplin when she was eighteen. She had eight children and would eventually die from alcohol, as was true of so many people in his life.

Like his literary successor, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill led a destructive life that inflicted pain on both himself and others. Booze and drugs kept him going much of his life. He appears to have been happy only when he was writing. He made bad choices with the women he married—the marriage to Carlotta was the most complicated one. Was she his savior or the cause of his decline? (She was responsible for seeing that Long Day’s Journey into Night was staged three years after his death, not twenty-five years as O’Neill had insisted). When he died in 1953, at age sixty-five, in a hotel room, the cause was pneumonia and an “undiagnosed neurological illness.” Carlotta (who was at his bedside) later remarked, “He was a black Irishman, a rough tough black Irishman…. He could have that smile that made him appear so young; other times he’d be as old as an oriental…. He was a simple man. They make a lot of nonsense and mystery out of him. He was interested only in writing his plays.”

Robert Dowling’s Eugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts demonstrates his subject’s success in transforming American drama from entertainment to social concern. Watching O’Neill’s plays, audiences were forced to grapple with weighty issues the likes of which had never been presented on the American stage. O’Neill’s neuroses became their own (as, of course, they had been all along). O’Neill is still America’s greatest playwright though I have detected (and this my be a misunderstanding on my part) a recent decline in restaging his plays, especially the early ones. Some of his plays like The Emperor Jones and The Hairy Ape are anything but easy to produce. Although I admire Dowling’s attempt to replicate the structure of many of O’Neill’s later plays, his biography is overwritten and repetitive. Moreover—in spite of its length—there is very little in-depth analysis of the plays themselves. Still, Dowling’s biography is a haunting story of one of America’s greatest writers grappling with his multiple demons.

Robert M. Dowling: Eugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts

Yale, 569 pp., $35

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: clarson@american.edu.

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.