Biography of Eugene O’Neill

Biography of Eugene O’Neill


Eugene O’Neill’s writing spawned from a rebellion against the norms set down by his family and the society around him causing him to be considered the first American modern playwright. He sought to distance himself from the failures of his family life and his own psychological issues. Born Eugene O’Neill October 16th, 1888 in New York City, he was the son of James O’Neill, a popular actor and Ella Quinlan. Growing up Eugene’s life was surrounded by theater as he watched his father perform onstage. However he quickly grew a distaste for the melodramatic plays that his father performed in such as The Count of Monte Cristo and his first plays would push the very boundaries of theatricality. From the very start Eugene O’Neill’s plays rebel against the theatrical norms of American theater and seek to push plays back to a form of high art.

The rebellion in O’Neill’s early life is a close parallel to the rebelliousness of his early plays against conventional theater of the early 1900s. The melodramas were a confined form of theater and having watched his father waste his life on one particular role might have caused O’Neill to challenge the one-dimensional characters and over the top aesthetics found in American melodramas. Confined by the many expectations of his family who were of Irish and Catholic decent might have been the cause for Eugene’s reckless early life such as, “failing to complete his freshman year at Princeton, working odd jobs, and marrying…against his father’s wishes” (Puchner 927). Shortly after fathering a child, Eugene was gone again sailing off at sea, “as a crewman on a cargo ship; he spent considerable time on a number of freighters and passenger liners” (Puchner 927). This escape to the sea might have been caused by a fear of the responsibilities as an adult or a yearning for a place to belong.

In his autobiography for the 1936 Nobel Peace Prize Eugene O’Neill details how restless he felt,

“After expulsion from Princeton I led a restless, wandering life for several years, working at various occupations… After this, a period in which I went to sea, and also worked in Buenos Aires for the Westinghouse Electrical Co., Swift Packing Co., and Singer Sewing Machine Co. Never held a job long. Was either fired quickly or left quickly.”

O’Neill’s journey sounds much like the adventure of any young hero: wandering, leaving quickly, traveling out to see. One could gather that he was searching for his calling and needed a chance to see the world in order to discover what that was. Immediately following his return from his voyages out at see, O’Neill discovered that he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. It was in his recovery period that we discover a change- the motivation to become a playwright.

Much of O’Neill’s interest in becoming a playwright come from the dramaturgy research he did on Greek tragedies. This lead him to attended a seminar from George Pierce Baker of Harvard University, “a pioneer in offering workshop-like courses in modern dramatic literature.” O’Neill was soon introduced to the Provincetown Players, an experimental theater group, devoted to fostering a new American theater (Puchner 928). O’Neill would be introduced to Susan Glaspell and other playwrights who would be influential in putting his first plays on stage. Remember the failed work of his father in melodramas he pushed his work to be more than these plays produced solely for entertainment. “O’Neill was determined to enlarge the techniques of his playwriting, and this determination was sustained by a genuine need in his case to find suitable methods for expressing insights and attitudes for which realistic play structure seemed to him patently inadequate… European examples, especially that of Strindberg, was a strong influence” (Gassner 17).

These first plays are often very experimental testing the waters of the conventional theater goers. However his first major production Beyond the Horizon ended up being a success and won O’Neill his first Pulitzer Prize. “The other major event of 1920 was the production of The Emperor Jones by the Provincetown Players in November, a breakthrough play for both the playwright and the theatre that resulted in extraordinary publicity and a move from Macdougal Street to Broadway for the production, where it ran for more than 200 performances” (Murphy 178). After his sudden success with Emperor he began writing and producing continuously. The next to follow were Anne Christie, The Emperor Jones, and The Hairy Ape- all written and produced from 1920-1922 receiving more praise and earning O’Neill his second Pulitzer Prize. Many of his early plays are filled with imagery or talk of the sea such as the The Hairy Ape and The Emperor Jones or even take place on the deck of a ship such as in Anna Christie.

The Emperor Jones was O’Neill’s first step toward expressionism and incorporated many techniques and methods developed by playwrights and Greek dramatists. His plays “often conform to the neoclassical unites of time, space, and action.” (Puchner 930). This idea of neoclassical unity harkened back to Greek Tragedies. The imagery of the sea in The Emperor Jones embodies multiple symbols in this sense as both a place where the main character Brutus Jones is trying to get to and a place from where he is trying to get. “O’Neill’s taste for tragic irony, his characteristic concern with destructive obsessiveness that resembles the hybris of classic tragedy, and his fascination with the sea as a mystery and a seduction, and as a symbol of the malignity of fate” (Gassner 12). Both the time spent at sea and a journey to Honduras in 1909 helped shape the idea for this play. He wrote letters back to his parents detailing bitterly about his stay. “The incentive seems to stem from an experience in which he and the Stevenses were led through some “unexplored” country on a promise of gold that did not pan out. Eugene himself seemed to have been taken by himself to a place where the jungle was impenetrable and where he felt lost and panicky. His first reaction was the rage expressed in the letter toward the natives who had toyed with him. Much later he gave his panic to the Emperor Jones, whom he caused to become lost in a similar jungle” (Black 104).

In fact many events in his life are imprinted or hinted at in the plays that he wrote. O’Neill wrote over 60 plays during his career and in 1936 was the first American dramatist to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. “Used a great deal of styles “providing in effect a condensed history of the various stages of modern drama” (Puchner 927). He would continue writing plays until 1943 and some of these plays (The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey Into Night) are considered his best works. “Though O’Neill worked with an astonishing range of theatrical styles, he concentrated on modern tragedy, a thrust that culminated in his great late plays. O’Neill owed his tragic worldview in part to his enthusiasm for the writings of Friedrich Nietzche, who in The Birth of Tragedy advocated a revival of Greek tragedy” (Puchner 928). Sadly much of his later life was plagued with illness from depression and alcoholism as well as three failed marriages and the inability to connect with any of his children. He died at the age of sixty-five on November 27, 1953.


Black, Stephen A. Eugene O’Neill: Beyond Mourning and Tragedy. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1999. Print.

Clark, Barrett H. Eugene O’Neill; The Man and His Plays. New York: Robert M. Mac Bride &, 1927. Print.

Gassner, John. Eugene O’Neill. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1965. Print.

Murphy, Brenda. The Provincetown Players and the Culture of Modernity. Cambridge,

UK: Cambridge UP, 2005. Print.

N.d. Eugene O’Neill. Web.

O’Neill, Eugene. “Eugene O’Neill – Biographical.” Eugene O’Neill – Biographical. Copyright © Nobel Media AB 2014, n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2014.

Puchner, Martin. “Eugene O’Neill.” Introduction. The Norton Anthology of Drama. By J. Ellen. Gainor and Stanton B. Garner. Vol. 2. New York: W. W. Norton &, 2009. N. pag. Print.

-Ben Swenson-Klatt