October 16, 1888 – Birthday of Eugene O’Neill

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.

Eugene O'Neill

Eugene O’Neill

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.

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13 Responses to October 16, 1888 – Birthday of Eugene O’Neill

  1. Jenny says:

    Aw, happy birthday to him! It’s Oscar Wilde’s birthday today too, though I can scarcely imagine two more different people. 😛

  2. Eugene O’Neill does not seem to have much to admire as a person. I guess his writing in his saving grace. As I was reading I actually felt sorry for him. I can’t imagine having both of my children commit suicide. A tragic life but he gave the world a great deal.

  3. Marie says:

    Thanks for this post. I’m a great admirer of his writing.

  4. Alyce says:

    I haven’t ever seen any of his plays, and the only thing I knew about him prior to reading this post was that he was a playwright. What a sad and sorrowful life he had!

  5. Ti says:

    I was quite the thespian back in my high school / college years and read many scenes written by O’Neill. I also remember the scene from Tootsie where Dustin Hoffman does not get the part for The Ice Man Cometh. That of course has nothing to do with your post but I love that movie and I just thought of it!

  6. Nymeth says:

    Thank you for linking to that electronic archive – what an amazing resource! I love how well-structured it is.

  7. Belle says:

    I have a battered volume of O’Neill’s plays lurking on my bookshelves somewhere. It sounds like he experienced such sadness in his life.

  8. Jenners says:

    Well, that was depressing.

  9. uninvoked says:

    Aww, who could blame him for turning to alcohol when he suffered a life like that? I hope he found joy somewhere in his life.

  10. Lisa says:

    What a sad life!

  11. Staci says:

    I often wonder how these people made it through such torturous existences!!

  12. Dawn says:

    I didn’t realized the extent of his family tragedies; how horrid!

    Incredibly talented playwright, but at what cost was his inspiration?!

  13. Vasilly says:

    This post is perfect timing for me. I just read Long Day’s Journey Into Night last week and enjoyed it! Thanks for posting.

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