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Eugene O’Neill was the son of a stage actor whose work meant that the family led a difficult life on the road. O’Neill would later deeply resent his insecure childhood, pinning the family's many problems, including his mother’s drug addiction, on his father. Educated at boarding schools, O’Neill gained admission to Princeton University but left after only one year to go to sea. He spent his early twenties living on the docks of Buenos Aires, Liverpool, and New York, sinking into alcoholism, which brought him to the point of suicide. Slowly O’Neill recovered from his addiction and took a job writing for a newspaper. A bout of tuberculosis left him incapacitated and he was consigned to a sanitarium for six months. While in recovery, O’Neill decided to become a playwright.
O’Neill wrote his first play, Bound East for Cardiff, in 1914, premiering it in 1916 with a company in Provincetown, Massachusetts, that took it to New York that same year. In 1920, O’Neill’s breakthrough came with his play Beyond the Horizon, for which he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Historians of drama identify its premiere as a pivotal event on the New York stage, one that brought a new form of tragic realism to an industry almost entirely overrun with stock melodramas and shallow farces. O’Neill went on to write over 20 innovative plays in the next 20 years, to steadily growing acclaim. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1936.
The more famous works from O’Neill’s early period include Anna Christie (1920), about a former prostitute attempting to change her life, which won O’Neill a second Pulitzer Prize in 1922; The Emperor Jones (1920), the story of an African American train porter who proclaims himself the emperor of a Caribbean island; The Hairy Ape (1922), about a brutish laborer trying to find his place in an uncaring society where the rules favor the wealthy; Desire Under the Elms (1924), a tragic tale of incest, infanticide, and fateful retribution; The Great God Brown (1926), a study in the conflicts between idealism and materialism; and Strange Interlude (1928), an ambitious 36-hour saga on the plight of the Everywoman.
In 1933, O’Neill’s most atypical work, Ah, Wilderness! premiered. A rare O’Neill comedy, it describes a happy turn of the century family living in New England. Some had suggested it represents the kind of upbringing that O’Neill himself might have wanted to have. It represents a stark contrast to the turn of the century, New England family he would present in Long Day's Journey into Night (1956), the posthumously published and painfully autobiographical tragedy of a family haunted by a mother’s drug addiction.
O’Neill had written Long Day's Journey into Night in 1941, and after its completion he started in on a sequel that he finished in 1943, A Moon for the Misbegotten, although it wasn’t performed on Broadway until 1957, a year after the premiere of Long Day's Journey into Night and four years after O’Neill’s death in 1953. It would become his last completed work, as O’Neill’s health continued to worsen.
O’Neill’s other major work—which some consider his masterpiece, although other believe that distinction more rightfully belongs to Long Day's Journey into Night–was The Iceman Cometh, which was written in 1939 but not performed until 1946. It an Ibsenian portrait of man’s hold on his pipe dreams that is set in 1912 in a New York saloon and flop house populated by a group of down-and-out characters that likely was heavily influenced by O’Neill’s own experiences before his life changed and he took up playwrighting.
O’Neill wrote morality plays and experimented with the tragic form. O’Neill’s interest in tragedy began as early as 1924 with his Desire Under the Elms but would come to full maturity with his monumental revision of Aeschylus’s Oresteia and/or Sophocles’s Oedipus trilogy, Mourning Becomes Electra (1931).
O'Neill chose to focus on the character of Electra because he felt that her tale had been left incomplete. More generally, as his diary notes indicate, O'Neill understood his exercises in tragedy as an attempt to find a modern analogue to an ancient mode of experience. Thus, Mourning Becomes Electra aims to provide a "modern psychological approximation of the Greek sense of fate" in a time in which the notion of an inescapable and fundamentally non-redemptive determinism is incomprehensible.
Accordingly, the American Civil War setting for the “Homecoming,” “Hunted,” and “Haunted” trilogy in Mourning Becomes Electra springs from O’Neill’s attempt to negotiate the chasm between ancient and modern. For O’Neill, the Civil War provided a setting that would allow audiences to locate the tragic in their national history and mythology while retaining enough distance in time to lend the tale its required epic proportions. Mourning Becomes Electra also provided O’Neill with an occasion to abandon the complex set design of the Art Theater, which he had long bemoaned as a constraint on the playwright’s creative freedom.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Iceman Cometh!