Chapter 8: American Drama
Paul P. Reuben
Page Links: | Primary Works | Selected Bibliography 2000-Present | Study Questions | MLA Style Citation of this Web Page |
| A Brief Biography |
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Source: Born Today - October 16
"I was born in a hotel and, damn it, I'll die in a hotel." - EO'N
Considered the foremost United States playwright, O'N was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1936, only the second American (after Sinclair Lewis) to earn the coveted recognition. He introduced psychological realism in his plays; his constant experimentation with stage craft and acting gave American plays a new vitality and originality. Produced all around the world, his plays continue to attract new generations of readers.
Primary Works (Year Written/Produced or Published )
A Wife for a Life, 1913/1958; The Web, 1913/1914; Thirst and Other One-Act Plays, 1914; Warnings, 1914; Bound East for Cardiff, 1914/1916; Fog, 1914/1917; Recklessness, 1914; Servitude, 1914/1958; Abortion, 1914/1958; The Sniper, 1915/1917; Before Breakfast, 1916; The Movie Man, 1919/1958; `lle, 1916/1917; In the Zone, 1916/1917; The Long Voyage Home, 1916/1917; The Moon for the Caribbees, 1916/1918; The Rope, 1918; Where the Cross is Made, 1918; The Dreamy Kid, 1918/1919; Beyond the Horizon (first full-length play), 1918/1920; The Emperor Jones, 1920; Anna Christie, 1920/1921; The Hairy Ape, 1921/1922; The Fountain, 1922/1925; Welded, 1923/1924; All God's Chillun Got Wings, 1923/1924; Desire Under the Elms, 1923/1924; Marco Millions, 1925/1928; The Great God Brown, 1925/1926; Lazarus Laughed, 1926/1928; Strange Interlude, 1927/1928; Dynamo, 1928/1929; Mourning Becomes Electra, 1931; Ah Wilderness!, 1932/1933; Days Without End, 1933/1934; The Iceman Cometh, 1939/1946; Long Day's Journey into Night, 1941/1956; Hughie, 1942/1964; A Moon for the Misbegotten, 19431957; A Touch of the Poet, 1935-42/1958; More Stately Mansions, 1953/1967.
O'Neill, Eugene. Ten "Lost" Plays. NY: Dover P, 1995.
Selected Bibliography 2000-Present
Adler, Stella. Stella Adler on America's Master Playwrights: Eugene O'Neill, Clifford Odets, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, et al. NY: Knopf, 2012.
Alexander, Doris. Eugene O'Neill's Last Plays: Separating Art from Autobiography. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2005.
Black, Stephen A. Eugene O'Neill: Beyond Mourning and Tragedy. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2000
Brietzke, Zander. The Aesthetics of Failure: Dynamic Structure in the Plays of Eugene O'Neill. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2001.
Diggins, John P. Eugene O'Neill's America: Desire under Democracy. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2007.
Gelb, Arthur & Barbara. O'Neill: Life with Monte Cristo. NY: Applause Books, 2000.
King, William D. Another Part of a Long Story: Literary Traces of Eugene O'Neill and Agnes Boulton. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2010.
- - -. ed. Part of a Long Story: 'Eugene O'Neill as a Young Man in Love'. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011.
Margolies, Edward. New York and the Literary Imagination: The City in Twentieth Century Fiction and Drama. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008.
Martin, Ronald E. The Languages of Difference: American Writers and Anthropologists Reconfigure the Primitive, 1878-1940. Newark, DE: U of Delaware P, 2005.
Maufort, Marc. Labyrinth of Hybridities: Avatars of O'Neillian Realism in Multi-Ethnic American Drama (1972-2003). NY: Peter Lang, 2010.
Miliora, Maria T. Narcissism, the Family, and Madness: A Self-Psychological Study of Eugene O'Neill and His Plays. NY: Lang, 2000.
American Drama and the Postmodern: Fragmenting the Realistic Stage
Detail Only Available
By: Sauer, David K. Amherst, NY: Cambria; 2011.
Shafer, Yvonne. Performing O'Neill: Conversations with Actors and Directors. NY: Maidenhead, 2001.
- - -. Eugene O'Neill: An Annotated International Bibliography, 1973 Through 1999. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2001.
Tornqvist, Per E. Eugene O'Neill: A Playwright's Theatre. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2004.
A Student Project by Jennifer Auletto
Eugene O'Neill was born in a New York City hotel on October 16, 1888. He was the son of Ellen Quinlan and the Irish-American actor James O'Neill. As the son of a travelling actor, O'Neill never knew a stable "home." He accompanied his father on theatrical tours during his youth, and at the age of seven was sent to Mount Saint Vincent, a Catholic boarding school. He did not spend much time with his parents during his childhood. He would be affected later in life by the loneliness he experienced while away from his family. He would also be profoundly affected by the strict rules and lack of emotional warmth at the school, and he later learned to associate this lack of warmth to the Catholic religion and rebelled against his Catholic heritage. At the age of fourteen, he was sent from Mount Saint Vincent to Betts Academy in Stamford, Connecticut, a non-sectarian preparatory school. From there, he went on to Princeton University in 1906, where he stayed only one year. He was suspended for four weeks for throwing a rock at a window while drunk, and never bothered to return to take his final exams.
As he went through life at Betts Academy and Princeton, O'Neill explored the cosmopolitan world of New York, and met a lot of "chorus girls" and "nice girls." He became attracted to a "nice girl" named Kathleen Jenkins on a double date set up by a friend. When he learned that she had become pregnant, he did the "right" thing and, going against the wishes of his father, married her, only to desert her almost immediately. After his marriage, he sailed to Honduras to, according to O'Neill, "prospect for gold." He actually went with a friend and the journey was more of an escape of past troubles than a search for more opportunities. This trip started him on three years of wandering and adventure which broadened his horizons. After a few months, he was sent home with jungle fever and arrived in New York, where his father tried to get him to work in the theater. He briefly served as assistant manager of a theatrical troupe organized by his father, but in 1910 he "ran away" again, this time to Buenos Aires.
While in Buenos Aires, O'Neill worked a number of odd jobs, but most of his time was spent drinking with friends on the waterfront. He returned to New York in 1911, but made no effort to see either his father and mother, or the wife who had recently given birth to his first son, Eugene Gladstone O'Neill, Jr. Instead, he took a room above "Jimmy-the-Priest's" saloon and drank steadily. In order to get a divorce from his wife, he arranged to be caught in flangrante delicto with a prostitute, since the only ground for divorce in New York State at the time was adultery. After two of his friends did so, O'Neill attempted suicide by overdosing on veronal tablets. He was taken to a hospital and treated, and later said that the attempt was a farce and wrote a one-act play, Exorcism, which dramatized the incident as a means by which the hero "exorcised" his past sins.
After contracting a mild case of tuberculosis in 1912, O'Neill went to a sanitarium, where he wrote his first plays. While there, he attempted to make himself over in the image of a new ideal. It was here that O'Neill decided that he wanted to be a playwright. After leaving the sanitarium, O'Neill studied the techniques of playwriting at Harvard University from 1914 to 1915 under the famous theater scholar George Pierce Baker. His father financed a publication of some of his early plays, and after that his rise to fame was swift.
During most of the next ten years O'Neill lived in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and in New York City, where he served as both a dramatist and a manager for the Provincetown Players. This experimental theatrical group staged a number of his one-act plays, beginning with Bound East for Cardiff (1916), and several long plays, including The Hairy Ape (1922). Beyond the Horizon (1920), a domestic tragedy in three acts, was produced successfully on the Broadway stage, as was The Emperor Jones (1920), a study of the disintegration of the mind of a black dictator under the influence of fear. In the nine-act play Strange Interlude (1928), O'Neill sought to portray the way in which hidden psychological processes affect outward actions.
After an affair with a friend's wife, O'Neill met Agnes Boulton, a young writer with whom he fell immediately in love with and married six months later. It was a marriage of individuals &endash; they both agreed that the marriage could be dissolved at any time. They had two children, Shane in 1919 and Oona in 1925. O'Neill's violent temper made the marriage tumultuous, with quarelling and insults flying around at all times, but they enjoyed each other. However, Agnes wanted to be too much of an individual according to O'Neill. During the summer and fall of 1926, he began seeing a good deal of Carlotta Monterey, who had earlier played the role of the heroine of The Hairy Ape. After refusing him a quick divorce, Agnes finally gave in on July 20, 1929. Two days later, Carlotta and O'Neill were wed in Paris.
His most ambitious work, the trilogy Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), was an attempt to re-create the power and profundity of the ancient Greek tragedies by setting the themes and plot of the Oresteia by Aeschylus in 19th-century New England. Ah, Wilderness (1933), written in a relatively light vein, was another of his most successful plays.
O'Neill's other dramas include Moon of the Caribbees (1918), Anna Christie (1921), All God's Chillun Got Wings (1924), Desire Under the Elms (1924), The Great God Brown (1926), Lazarus Laughed (1928), Marco Millions (1928), Dynamo (1929), and Days Without End (1934).
On December 13, 1953, two weeks after O'Neill's death, New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson mourned: "A giant writer has dropped off the earth; a great spirit and our greatest dramatists have left us, and our theatre world is now a smaller, more ordinary place."
Berlin, Normand. Eugene O'Neill. New York: Grove Press, 1982.
Carpenter, Frederic I. Eugene O'Neill. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1964.
1. O'Neill explained The Hairy Ape by saying that "it was a symbol of man, who has lost his old harmony with nature, the harmony which he used to have as an animal and has not yet acquired in a spiritual way. Thus, not being able to find it on earth nor in heaven, he's in the middle, trying to make peace." Discuss.
2. O'Neill said that "Yank is really yourself and myself. He is every human being." Does this explain his names, Yank and Robert Smith? The Hairy Ape was first produced in 1921. Is Yank's plight still that of man more than seventy years later?
3. "Tragedy, I think, has the meaning the Greeks gave it. To them it brought exaltation, an urge toward life and ever more life. It roused them to deeper spiritual understandings and released them from the petty greeds of everyday existence. When they saw tragedy on the stage they felt their own hopeless hopes ennobled in art." - Eugene O'Neill. Discuss whether or not this claim can be substantiated by O'Neill's work.
4. "The essence of O'Neill's dramatic output is the grim futility of human existence, cursed by alienation from self, society, and the Source-of-all-life, and made bearable only by illusion." - William R. Thurman. Do you agree? Discuss with reference to his plays.
5. "O'Neill not only lived intensely but attempted with perilous honesty to contemplate, absorb and digest the meaning of his life and ours." - Harold Curlman. Through a discussion of his plays, explain O'Neill's understanding of the meaning of life.
6. "Sometimes these (O'Neill's major works) involve what appears to be a criticism of society. Sometimes they make use of a Freudian pattern. But at their most successful, they are tragic, rather than either sociological or psychological, because at the bottom the problem is, always, not what O'Neill himself has called the problem of man's relation with man, but the problem of man's relation to something outside himself, to that something to which he must "belong" if he is to feel himself more than the cleverest of the apes." Discuss with specific references to the plays.
7. "Here (in Mourning Becomes Electra) is a series of events which become great tragedy when Aeschylus repre sents them. So far as incidents are concerned, they might have occurred as easily during the American Civil War as during the Trojan War. Suppose, then, we give them the local habitation and the names of our civilization. Suppose we avoid all the implications which depend upon the ancient ethos, and assume that whatever appears irrational has its source, not in the will of the gods, but in that layer of the human mind which lies below its consciousness. How close can we then come to achieving a tragedy, modern in the sense that it asks no suspension of disbelief in the gods, classic in the sense that its figures will seem large enough and its catastrophe thrilling enough to stir real terror and pity? To what extent can we judge how much of any disproportion between Aeschylus and O'Neill is due to the disproportion between their relative poetic gifts, how much to the possible fact that tragedy cannot happen in a world in which there is no supernatural moral order to be disturbed and the reestablished?" Write a well-argued response to the above passage.
8. Discuss what O'Neill's character Edmund calls "faithful realism" in Long Day's Journey into Night. Is this play a work of realism in the Howellsian or Jamesian sense? In what way does it extend the concerns of the earlier realists to include twentieth-century concerns?
9. O'Neill suggests that modern life is more difficult for women than for men-if morphine addiction becomes a more extreme response to the modern condition than the alcoholism of Mary Tyrone's husband James. Discuss continuities between Edna Pontellier in Chopin's The Awakening and Mary Tyrone in Long Day's Journey into Night.
10. If you have studied early-nineteenth-century American literature, locate Long Day's Journey into Night as the culmination of themes and concerns that have set a direction in American fiction from "Rip Van Winkle " on. What does the play have to say about versions of the American dream, about individual identity, about self-reliance, about social exclusion, and about the development of consciousness?
MLA Style Citation of this Web Page
Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 8: Eugene O'Neill." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. URL:http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap8/oneill.html (provide page date or date of your login).
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