A Portrait of a Genius
One of America's finest playwrights, Eugene Gladstone O'Neill's great tragedies were greatly influenced by his own experiences with his dysfunctional family. He used these occurrences to craft one of the most successful careers in the earliest 20th century, earning countless awards including the Nobel Prize for Literature, four Pulitzer Prizes, Antoinette Perry Award and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Out of all of these Greek-like tragedies there emerged his only comedy, Ah, Wilderness!; a period piece set in his summer home of New London, CT. O'Neill referred to this play as the "other side of the coin", meaning that it represented his fantasy of what his own youth might have been, rather than what he believed it to have been (as seen in his magnum opus, Long Day's Journey into Night). These two plays are his two most auto-biographical plays, Long Day's Journey dramatizing his family, and Ah, Wilderness! paralleling it. Born in a Broadway hotel room on October 16th, 1888, Eugene O'Neill was the second child of James and Ella O'Neill. Both Irish immigrants and devout Catholics, James was an actor most famous for his portrayal of Edmond Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo, a production that ran over 6,000 performances. He later complained that "this long enslavement to one role had kept him from binding his name to Hamlet in the memory of mankind" (Durant, 49). His brother Jamie, ten years his senior, was brilliant but erratic. His birth was a particularly difficult birth for Ella, so a doctor prescribed morphine to help with the pain. She and Eugene followed James on tour for the next several years, sometimes nursing from the wings. In 1895 Eugene returned to New York to attend the Mt. St. Vincent boarding school and later the De La Salle Institute. During these years, his family summered at Monte Cristo Cottage in New London, Connecticut. When Eugene was 13, he discovered that his mother had become addicted to morphine due to the pain following his birth. Also, his learned of his brother was an alcoholic. These two events plagued him for years to come and greatly impacted his writing and alcohol problem later in life. At this time he also became engrossed in the controversial work of writers such as Ibsen, Shaw, Wilde, Nietzsche and Swinburne. Eugene attended Princeton University for a year, but when suspended following a drunken exploit he chose to not return to school. In 1912 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and spent the next year in a half in a sanatorium, where his doctor encouraged him to write plays. When released, he briefly returned home to New London where his father paid to have a collection of Eugene's one-acts produced. He then spend the next 39 years living in pubs in bad parts of New England, Greenwich Village, and France. In his life he was married three times, and had three children, Eugene Jr., Shane and Oona. By 1923 both his mother, father and brother Jamie had all died. Eugene physical and mental health declined following him disowning Oona when she married Charlie Chaplain, a man his age and Eugene Jr. committing suicide. In 1936 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature but could not accept the award in person due to poor health. He died on, November 27th, 1953 and was buried in Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston. Neither of his surviving children attended the funeral. Ah, Wilderness!, opened on Broadway in the Guild Theatre on October 13th, 1933. It received fair reviews more praise given to the strength of the actors than the actual script itself. The plot is a fairly simple one of boy rebels, boy gets caught, boy's partenta thinks it is the end of the world, everything settles naturally, the father and mother begin to remember that once they were young. However as the Times wrote: ...it hardly communicates the warmth of pity that floods through the play. He not only likes these folk, but he understands them
his recognition of the tortures of...
Cited: Atkinson, Brooks. "In Which O 'Neill Recaptures the Past in a Comedy with George M.
Cohan." New York Times 3 Oct 1933. 21 November 28, 2005 .
Durant, Will, and Durant Ariel. Interpretations of Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1970.
"Eugene O 'Neill." Britannica. 2000. eoneill.com. 28 November
O 'Neill, Eugene. Ah, Wilderness!. London: Samuel French, Inc., 1960.
O 'Neill, Eugene. Long Day 's Journey into Night. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956.
Shiach, Don, ed. American Drama 1900-1990. Fourth ed. Cambridge: Cambridge, 2003.
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