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A CurtainUp Feature: Playwrights
An Overview of Eugene O'Neill's Career
By Elyse Sommer
Chronology of Produced Plays
Trademarks Of Oneill's Plays
Links To Reviews & Books
There's a tendency to link famous people with an all-encompassing descriptive tag line. The tag most often given to Eugene (Gladstone) O'Neill is "father of modern American playwriting." His claim to that tag stems from his being the first playwright to lend a serious and distinctive voice to contemporary themes and dramatize them against a background of twentieth Century America.
Eugene was the third son of an actor best known for touring in the melodrama, The Count of Monte Christo. Born on October 16, 1888 in a Broadway hotel (the Barrett House, which now houses a Starbucks but still features a plaque with his birth date next to the entrance) O'Neill seemed destined to be involved with the theater. He did in fact tour twice with his father's company, once as a stage manager and another time as a bit player, but this was not a case of a son proudly following in his father's footsteps. Young O'Neill hardly looked upon his father as a role model and family life generally was desperately unhappy and it was this unhappiness that fed the autobiographical aspects of his plays. The other great influence on his career stemmed from the three years following his brief stint at Princeton during which he worked as a seaman and roamed around Europe and South America. It was these experiences that seeded his dark sea dramas, notably Anna Christie.
It was at the end of these roving years and after a bout of tuberculosiss that O'Neill began writing seriously and playwriting, as the New York critic Brooks Atkinson put it became "not so much his profession as his obsession." This "obsessive" intensity made his later family relations as fraught with problems as his earlier years. His first two wives and his children fell victim to his self-absorbed determination to let noone interfere with his writing. It was this same temperament, of course, which gave his plays their powerful emotions.
O'Neill's career was well nourished from the start. Until his first Broadway play in 1920, (also first of four Pulitzers) Beyond the Horizon, his plays were produced to considerable acclaim at the Wharf Theater in Provincetown, MA and the Provincetown Playhouse in New York's Greenwich Village. Interestingly, he began with one-act plays and later became known for marathon-length works that required audiences to arrive late in the afternoon and return after a dinner break. Besides the three additional Pulitzers-- for Anna Christie (1922), Strange Interlude (1928) and Long Day's Journey Into Night (1958) -- O'Neill also won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936 as well as numerous other honors -- including having a theater named in his honor.
Until The Emperor Jones no American playwright had ever written a play with a major role for a black actor. The same kind of groundbreaking applies to All God's Chillun Got Wings with its integrated marriage plot.
The two other American drama greats who walk in O'Neill's footsteps are Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams (see link to our Playwrights' Album below). His own theatrical forbear was a European playwright, August Strindberg.
In 1953, Eugene O'Neill succumbed to Parkinson's Disease. The curtain went down as it rose -- in a hotel. As is evident from the number of plays reviewed at CurtainUp during recent seasons, those who dismissed O'Neill's work as irrelevant to contemporary tastes were more than a little premature. In fact, there seems to be quite an O'Neill revival and our list is by no means complete.
O'Neill's works were for several decades most closely linked to a triumvirate of theatrical talents. Two were actors -- Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst. One was a director, Jose Quintero whose own unhappy family history made him identify strongly with O'Neill whom he exalted.
His first two marriages to Kathleen Jenkins and Agnes Boulton (mother of Shane and Oona who married Charlie Chaplin) ended in divorce. His 1929 marriage to Carolotta Montgomery lasted until his death in 1953. Back to the top
Besides winning the Nobel prize for literature,O'Neill won an unprecedented four Pulitzers: The first was in 1920 for Beyond the Horizon, just two years after the prize's initiation. He won the Pulitzer again in 1922 for Anna Christie, in 1928 for Strange Interlude, and posthumously in 1957 for Long Day's Journey Into Night.
Chronology of Produced Plays
1916 and 1920 Provincetown Playhouse productions: Bound East for Cardiff, Thirst, Before Breakfast, Fog, The Sniper In the Zone, The Long Voyage Home, Ile, The Rope, Where the Cross Is Made, The Moon of the Carribbees, The Dream Kid, Exorcism. 1920. Beyond the Horizon, Morosco Theater. NYC.
1920. Emperor Jones. Selwin Theater, NYC (a transfer uptown from the Provincetown Playhouse).
1921. Anna Christie, Vanderbilt Theater, NYC. 1920-1928. O'Neill's plays continued to be produced downtown at the Provincetown Playhouse and the Greenwich Village Theater. They included: Exorcism, Diff'rent, The Straw, The First Man, The Hairy Ape, Welded, The Ancient Mariner-A Dramatic Arrangement of Coleridge's Poems, All God's Chillun Got Wings, S.S. Glencairn, Desire Under the Elms, The Fountain, The Good God Brown. 1928. Marco's Millions. The Guild Theatre. 1928. Strange Interlude. John Golden Theatre, NYC. 1928. Lazarus Laughed, Community Playhouse, Pasadena, CA. 1929. Dynamo, Martin Beck, NYC. 1928. Mourning Becomes Electra, Guild Theatre, NYC. 1933. Ah, Wilderness! Guild Theatre, NYC (note: O'Neill's only comedy and often thought to be the fantasy version of the Tyrones of Long Day's Journey Into Night ). 1934. Days Without End, Henry Miller Theater, NYC. 1946. The Iceman Cometh, Martin Beck, NYC. Jason Robards' interpretation of the quintessential pipe dreamer, Hickey, (directed by the director Jose Quintero who exalted O'Neill) was long considered without match. However, in 1998 Kevin Spacey brought new luster to the role in London. He won an Olivier award, increasing the buzz preceding the play's transfer to Broadway in April 1999. The play's essential plot first surfaced in a short story called "Tomorrow" in the June 1917 issue of the magazine Seven Arts -- twenty-two years before O'Neill wrote the play and and thirty years before its Broadway premiere.
1947. A Moon for the Misbegotten, Harman Theatre, Columbus Ohio (and in 1956 at the Bijou, NYC. 1956. Long Day's Journey Into Night, Helen Hayes, NYC (premiered in Stockholm). 1957. A Touch of the Poet, Helen Hayes, NYC. (premiered in Stockholm). 1964. Hughie, Royale, NYC, (premiered in Stockholm in 1958). 1967. More Stately Mansions (premiered in Stockholm in 1962).
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Trademarks Of O'Neill's Plays
O'Neill's earliest works especially dramatized the individual's vulnerability in the face of destiny. In his sea plays this is symbolized by his characters' enslavement to the sea Another recurring theme centers on the destructive effect of denying of one's talents. Beyond the Horizon and A Touch of the Poet are prime examples. Except for his one comedy, Ah, Wilderness, O'Neill's plays are filled with gloom. His characters are invariably caught up in the grip of the struggle and suffering that make up the tragedies of every day life.
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Links To Plays By and About O'Neill and Books you Might Want to Read
Ah, Wilderness! (DC 2012)
The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O'Neill, Volume 1: Early Plays/Lost Plays/Text by Eugene O'Neill/ Adapted by Christopher Loar f(Off-Broadway 2011)
New Girl In Town / Music by Bob Merrill. Libretto by George Abbott, based on Anna Christie.(Off-Broadway 2012)
Anna Christie(London 2011)
Anna Christie (2002)
A Moon for the Misbegotten (2016 Philadelphia)
A Moon for the Misbegotten(Williamstown 2015)
A Moon for the Misbegotten/(Pearl Theatre 2012)
A Moon for the Misbegotten (with Kevin Spacey, London & New York)
A Moon for the Misbegotten (Broadway revival, 3/21/ 2000)
A Moon for the Misbegotten (Williamstown 2015)
A Moon for the Misbegotten (San Francisco, 2005)
Beyond the Horizon(Irish Rep 2012)
Beyond the Horizon
Desire Under the Elms (London 2012)
Desire Under the Elms/O'Neill(Los Angeles, 2007)
Desire Under the Elms
Desire Under the Elms (Berkshires)
Desire under the Elms( Chicago and Broadway 2009)
Drunken With What: A Study of Mourning Becomes Electra (2016 Off-Broadway)
The Emperor Jones (Irish Rep 2009)
The Emperor Jones (London)
The Emperor Jones/O'Neill-- Wooster Group
The Hairy Ape(London 2012)
The Hairy Ape
The Iceman Cometh /Eugene O'Neill (2015 BAM in Brooklyn)
The Iceman Cometh in New York with Kevin Spacey reprising his Olivier award winning role.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night(Broadway 2016)
Long Day’s Journey Into Night(London 2012)
Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Arena Stage-DC)_ Long Day's Journey Into the Night(Broadway 2003. . . Long Day's Journey Into the Night (NATCO). . . (Irish Rep). . .London 2000. . .
More Stately Mansions
Mourning Becomes Electra (Off-Broadway New Group 2009)
Mourning Becomes Electra (Los Angeles 2005)
Mourning Becomes Electra (London 2004)
A Moon for the Misbegotten (London)
The Mourning Show -- O'Neill's Before Breakfast with Strindberg's The Stronger.
O'Neill a drama by Anne LeGault's exploring the boundaries of autobiographic writing through O'Neill's struggle with the autobiographical Long Day's Journey Into Night
Personal Equation/O'Neill, Eugene
Playwrights Theater Festival of Eugene O'Neill '99
Sea Plays: (Old Vic-London 2012)
Strange Interlude (DC 2012)
A Touch of the Poet (Broadway)
A Touch of the Poet(Off-Broadway2008)
Take Me Along, musical based on Ah, Wilderness
Oona: Living in the Shadows: A Biography of Oona O'Neill Chaplin by jane scovell. eugene o'neill was the first shadow falling over oona's life; charlie chaplin the second.
Long Day's Journey Into Night, Yale U. Paper
The Iceman ComethRandom House Paper
The Emperor Jones,'Anna Christie, the Hairy Ape Vintage Books, paper
Four Plays by Eugene O'Neill : Beyond the Horizon, the Emperor Jones, Anna Christie, the Hairy Ape Signet paper
Three Plays : Desire Under the Elms, Strange Interlude, Mourning Becomes Electra Vintage Paper Anna Christie (Dover Thrift Editions)
:Beyond the Horizon (Dover Thrift Editions)
The Emperor Jones (Dover Thrift Editions)
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Quotes From Plays
While O'Neill's language was more flat than poetic and thus less the stuff of quotations notable for their author's lyrical gifts, it's the effect and mood of his dialogue when spoken on stage, that makes some of these lines worth citing here.
None of us can help the things life has done to us . They're done before you realize it, and once they're done they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you'd like to be, and you've lost your true self forever.
--- Mary Tyrone in Long Day's Journey Into Night.
It was a great mistake my being born a man. I would have been much more successful as a sea-gull or a fish. As it is, I will always ge a stranger who never feels at whome, who does not really want is not really wanted, who can never belong, who must always be a little in love with death!
--- Edmund, the youngest Tyrone son and the playwright's alter ego, in Long Day's Journey Into Night.
Well, spring isn't everything, is it, Essie? There's a lot to be said for autumn. That's got beauty, too. And winter -- if you're togethe
-- Father to Mother in Eugene O'Neill's only comedy Ah, Wilderness! The play thought by many O'Neill fans and scholars to be the idealized family, a sort of pipe dream (a la the dreamers in The Iceman Cometh which O'Neill needed as a launch for his later and much darker family portraits (Moon for the Misbegotten and , Long Day's Journey Into the Night
It's better Anna live on farm den she don't know dat ole devil, sea-
- Chris, Anna Christie, Act 1
We's all poor nuts and things happen, and we yust get mixed in wrong, that's all. -- ibid Act 4
Man is born broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue
-- Brown, The Great God Brown, Act 4, scene 1
Love is a word--a shameless ragged ghost of a word--begging at all doors for life at any price!
--Prologue, The Great God Brown
You become such a coward you'll grab at any lousy excuse to get out of killing your pipe dreams. And yet, as I've told you over and over, it's exactly those damned tomorrow dreams which keep you from making peace with yourself
--Hickey in The Iceman Cometh, Act 3
If I had any nerves, I'd have a nervous breakdown
--Ed Mosher in The Iceman Cometh Act 1
Yank: Sure! Lock me up! Put me in a cage! Dat's de on'y answer yuh know. G'wan, lock me up!
Policeman: What you been doin'?
Yank: Enough to gimme life for! I was born, see -- The Hairy Ape. scene 7
Contentment is a warm sty for the eaters and the sleepers
--Kublail, Marco's Millions, Act 2, scene 2
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