Eugene O’Neill was an American playwright, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and winner of four Pulitzer Prizes in drama. His plays were among the first to introduce into American drama the techniques of realism. They explored serious contemporary themes; included speeches in American vernacular; and involved characters on the fringes of society. O’Neill wrote only one well-known comedy (Ah, Wilderness!). Nearly all of his other plays involve some degree of tragedy and personal pessimism. It is said that O’Neill’s plays derived directly from the scarring effects of his family’s dysfunctional relationships–his mother and father, who loved and tormented each other; his older brother, who loved and corrupted him and died of alcoholism in middle age; and O’Neill himself, torn between love for and rage at all three.
O’Neill was known for his depressive and addictive behavior. In college at Princeton, he once went on an absinthe bender, smashing up all the furniture in his room to smithereens. (Absinthe is a liquor of very high alcohol content as well as the wormwood compound thujone, thought to induce psychosis.) It took three other students to pin him to the floor and get him put to bed.
He married twice, and both of his sons committed suicide; one was addicted to alcohol and the other to heroin. (His daughter Oona married Charlie Chaplin, who was O’Neill’s age, after which O’Neill disowned her.)
Ten years before his death of cerebellar cortical atrophy (a genetic neurological disease), O’Neill said he lost his inspiration to write. But he made a mark on literary history long before, with such works as The Emperor Jones, Mourning Becomes Electra, The Iceman Cometh, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, A Moon for the Misbegotten, and Desire Under the Elms.
He died at the age of 65 in 1953.
Visit The Eugene O’Neill Electronic Archive here for the most complete set of online resources on O’Neill, including e-texts, an audio archive, newsletter, study companions, and an international listing of upcoming productions of his plays.