Eugene O'Neill: A Life in Four Acts

Eugene O'Neill: A Life in Four Acts

by Robert M. Dowling


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A major new biography of the Nobel Prize–winning playwright whose brilliantly original plays revolutionized American theater

Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize

This extraordinary new biography fully captures the intimacies of Eugene O’Neill’s tumultuous life and the profound impact of his work on American drama. Robert M. Dowling innovatively recounts O’Neill’s life in four acts, thus highlighting how the stories he told for the stage interweave with his actual life stories. Each episode also uncovers how O’Neill’s work was utterly intertwined with, and galvanized by, the culture and history of his time.

Much is new in this extensively researched book: connections between O’Neill’s plays and his political and philosophical worldview; insights into his Irish upbringing and lifelong torment over losing faith in God; his vital role in African American cultural history; unpublished photographs, including a unique offstage picture of him with his lover Louise Bryant; new evidence of O’Neill’s desire to become a novelist and what this reveals about his unique dramatic voice; and a startling revelation about the release of Long Day’s Journey Into Night in defiance of his explicit instructions. This biography is also the first to discuss O’Neill’s lost play Exorcism (a single copy of which was only recently recovered), a dramatization of his own suicide attempt.

Written with lively informality yet a scholar’s strict accuracy, Eugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts is a biography that America’s foremost playwright richly deserves.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300219715
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 03/22/2016
Pages: 584
Sales rank: 888,610
Product dimensions: 8.80(w) x 5.70(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Robert M. Dowling is professor of English at Central Connecticut State University. He has published extensively on O’Neill and serves on the board of directors of the Eugene O’Neill Society.

Read an Excerpt

Eugene O'Neill

A Life in Four Acts

By Robert M. Dowling


Copyright © 2014 Robert M. Dowling
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-21059-0


Act I: The Ghosts at the Stage Door

It is impossible to act in the American play unless we go back and see that the American play really starts with O'Neill. But in order to get to O'Neill, you have to know what was before him.... Before O'Neill in this country, the play was for business, for success, for the star who brought in money, for its fashionableness to an audience. The theater was nothing more, and not thought of as anything more, than a place of amusement. —Stella Adler, 2010

Before Eugene O'Neill ... there was a wasteland.... Two centuries of junk. —Gore Vidal, 1959

The Treasures of Monte Cristo

Mary Ellen "Ella" Quinlan O'Neill gave birth to her third and last child, Eugene, at the Barrett House hotel in Manhattan on October 16, 1888. Situated on the northeast corner of Broadway and Forty- Third Street, the Barrett House loomed at the intersection of what would become Times Square, the theatrical center of the world. Ella's hotel room had a corner view of the neighborhood where her newborn's name would burn brightly on electric marquees as a heady draw for the theatergoing public. Two days after his birth, Eugene was swept away with his family on the first of many national tours with his father, the matinee idol James O'Neill.

One of the most celebrated actors of his day and a natural successor to the great Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth, James was born in 1845, the son of Edward and Mary O'Neill, Irish immigrants of the peasant class from County Kilkenny. In 1850, Edward had emigrated to Buffalo, New York, with his wife and their eight children to escape the devastation of the potato famine. (James was the seventh child, and his sister Margaret, born in Buffalo in 1851, made nine.) The transatlantic journey was so harrowing that James rarely spoke of it as an adult. A few years later, in the mid-1850s, Edward O'Neill returned to Ireland after his eldest son, Richard, died, leaving the rest of the family to fend for themselves. Edward himself died of arsenic poisoning in Ireland six years after his departure, most likely a suicide.

James O'Neill, at a mere ten years old, was thus compelled to help support his family by working grueling twelve-hour shifts making files at a machine shop. "A dirty barn of a place," James Tyrone (O'Neill) remembers the shop in his son's autobiographical play Long Day's Journey Into Night, "where rain dripped through the roof, where you roasted in summer, and there was no stove in winter, and your hands got numb with cold, where the only light came through two small filthy windows, so on grey days I'd have to sit bent over with my eyes almost touching the files in order to see! ... And what do you think I got for it? Fifty cents a week! It's the truth! Fifty cents a week!" (CP3, 807). By 1858, the O'Neills had relocated to Cincinnati, Ohio, where they were largely supported by James's older sister Josephine, who'd fortuitously married a prosperous Ohio saloonkeeper. It was in Cincinnati that James discovered his talent for acting at age twenty, when he made his debut in 1865 during the final days of the Civil War at Cincinnati's National Theatre and rapidly gained a reputation as a dashing leading man.

The reigning "queen of actresses," Adelaide Neilson, a British performer whose Juliet was thought to be the finest of all time, was once asked which Romeo among the many she'd played opposite was best. Neilson replied brusquely, "A little Irishman named O'Neill." In 1872, James found himself onstage with Edwin Booth, "the greatest actor of his day or any other," James Tyrone boasts in Long Day's Journey (CP3, 809). Booth, the brother of Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, and James played Othello at McVicker's Theatre in Chicago, each night alternating the roles of Iago and Othello. During one performance, while waiting for his cue in the wings, Booth remarked, "That young man is playing [Othello] better than I ever did." This single evening, after James had been informed of Booth's tribute to him, marked the high point of his acting career, perhaps of his entire life. James would never again experience such a genuine surge of professional gratification.

On February 12, 1883, James accepted a role at New York's Booth Theatre that would thrust him into the national limelight, though he would notoriously become trapped by its very popularity: Edmund Dantes in Charles Fechter's 1870 stage adaptation of Alexandre Dumas's novel The Count of Monte Cristo, the title of which, though it's offen forgotten, Fechter had reduced to the more straightforward Monte Cristo.

James had played Edmund Dantes back in Chicago on April 21, 1875, while a stock actor at Hooley's Theatre, and the reviews for that performance had been excellent. The Spirit of the Times newspaper, however, predicted of the new Booth Theatre production that "Monte Cristo will not run very long." James had been prevented by heavy snowfall from attending most of the rehearsals, and consequently he'd only had a few days to learn his part. John Stetson, the owner of the Globe Theatre in Boston, ignored the bad notices and kept the production going. Fechter's widow was brought in as a consultant, and she worked enough magic to make it a hit.

The legendary character Edmund Dantes is an upright sailor wrongly accused of treason against the king of France and cast into a dungeon at the Chateau d'If off the coast of Marseilles. His imprisonment clears the way for the villain Fernand to gain Edmund's betrothed, the Catalan Mercedes (a name that James, who spoke some French, liked to enunciate affectedly with a rolling "r"). After languishing in prison for eighteen years, Edmund makes his getaway with the help of his dying cellmate, friend, and benefactor Abbe Faria. Eventually, he reclaims Mercedes and a son, Albert, who had been conceived before Dantes's imprisonment (without, as the saying goes, the benefit of clergy). Dantes doesn't have many lines; most of the dialogue is reserved for the play's villains pacing about conspiring against one another. But the spectacular prison escape is far and away the most defining scene of James's career: "The moon breaks out, lighting up a projecting rock," the stage directions specify, then "Edmund rises from the sea, he is dripping, a knife in his hand, some shreds of sack adhering to it." He stands up on the stone pedestal and shouts exultantly to the heavens, "The world is mine!" James would enact this climactic scene to as many as six thousand audiences, thus branding his acting reputation forever.

Far more relevant to James's actual life, however, are the lines that precede the heroic declaration: "Saved! Mine, the treasures of Monte Cristo! The world is mine!" "The treasures of Monte Cristo" refer to a hidden fortune on a deserted island that Faria bequeaths to Dantes before dying in prison. After his daring escape, Dantes spends years traveling the world spending Faria's money lavishly before, apparently as an afterthought, returning to Mercedes. More than about love, then, Monte Cristo is about money, and James soon decided to acquire his own "treasure of Monte Cristo": the rights to the Fechter script for $2,000. With sole proprietorship of the play as of the 1885–86 season, James O'Neill would perform the role to packed houses for almost thirty years, earning him a profit of nearly forty thousand a year. Like Edmund Dantes, James had escaped from a prison of his own—the prison of poverty. And both men were spared horrible fates by dint of their talent, honesty, and charisma.

Charles Fechter's Monte Cristo is saturated with doses of moustache twirling by evildoers and moral posturing by good-guy swashbucklers. One line from Edmund Dantes neatly sums up the play's complexity: "Sooner or later believe me, the honest man will meet his reward and the wicked be punished." Those who surrender an afternoon to Fechter's abysmal dialogue will discover their minds drifting off and returning back to a single question: Why would theatergoers choose to see this grossly melodramatic play night after night, year after year? The script was considered just as hackneyed in those days, and the question was the same then as it is today. "The answer, of course, was my father," Eugene O'Neill explained toward the end of his own career. "He had a genuine romantic Irish personality—looks, voice, and stage presence—and he loved the part.... Audiences came to see James O'Neill in Monte Cristo, not Monte Cristo."

O'Neill's vocal contempt for his father's play once he'd grown old enough to have such opinions would be echoed by him years later in a speech by the guileless Marco Polo in the historical satire Marco Millions (1928). At one point, Marco repeats the lackluster word "good" six times to emphasize his bourgeois tastes: "There's nothing better than to sit down in a good seat at a good play after a good day's work in which you know you've accomplished something, and after you've had a good dinner, and just take it easy and enjoy a good wholesome thrill or a good laugh and get your mind off serious things until it's time to go to bed" (CP2, 431). Shakespeare similarly derided plays designed "to ease the anguish of a torturing hour" in A Midsummer Night's Dream, while in O'Neill's earliest satire, Now I Ask You (1916), Lucy Ashleigh, a pretentious adorer of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler (1890), argues against attending vaudeville shows because "those productions were concocted with an eye for the comfort of the Tired Business Man" (CP1, 451).

Some of the earliest words O'Neill remembered his father uttering were "The theater is dying." James in fact came to regard his good fortune as a "curse" that had barred him from true theatrical greatness. Although O'Neill later believed that he alone had been told of this family curse, James had been quite open to the press about it. In 1901, for instance, a reporter ran into him in Broadway Alley and asked about his future plans. "My private secretary informs me that I have played Dantes four thousand times," James said. "I have struggled to elaborate my repertoire, but what can a man do when his greatest measure of success seems to lie in a familiar rut? When a treadmill is grinding out big profits, you know, it is rather difficult to step from it."

In fact, the curse of Monte Cristo had bedeviled the actor as far back as 1885, before he'd even bought the rights to the Fechter script. Just after his second son Edmund's death, when James was at his most emotionally fragile, he was approached by a meddlesome reporter in a Chicago wine bar and, with his guard carelessly down, confided everything. The article offers a detailed exposition on the "improvidence" of actors like James, whose "great promise has never been realized" and recounts James's wistful, wine-soaked grief for his "early days," when "Jimmy O'Neill" "performed Iago to Booth's Othello with an aptness and clearness of conception that all but eclipsed the star himself." "And yet, in spite of all his successes in the 'legitimate,'" the reporter went on, "he forsook the higher walks of the drama, adopting melodramatic roles which are ephemeral as the day when compared with the true art in which he had given such promise." For the remainder of his life, James lamented his choice of profits over the nobler pursuits of the stage. "That's what caused me to make up my mind that they would never get me," O'Neill said after learning of this. "I determined then that I would never sell out."

Ella O'Neill, like her husband, James, was born into a first-generation Irish home. Her parents, Thomas and Bridget Quinlan, were also famine refugees, but Thomas thrived in the United States as a tobacco and liquor merchant in Cleveland, Ohio. Ella met the impossibly handsome James, who was twelve years her senior and by then a sought-after bachelor, in 1872 through her father, Thomas, whom James had befriended at the Quinlans' liquor shop, a popular hangout for performers within a short walk of the city's Academy of Music. Ella and James were married five years later and had three sons together—James Jr. in 1878, Edmund Burke in 1883, and Eugene Gladstone in 1888. (Charles Fechter, not incidentally, had anglicized Dumas's hero's name from "Edmond" to "Edmund." James's older brother, named Edward after their father, had died in battle during the Civil War. But James didn't choose to name his first two sons after his father or his brother, whose veteran's pension had sustained their mother Mary. Rather, he named them in effect after his dual personae, offstage and on: James and Edmund.)

On March 4, 1885, at four o'clock in the morning, Edmund, only eighteen months, died. The death of a child is an unimaginable horror for any parent, of course, but the cause of his death was especially shocking. The O'Neills had left Edmund and Jamie, as they called their firstborn, in New York under the care of Ella's mother, Bridget, while James was performing in Colorado. Jamie contracted measles in their absence, and the obstreperous six-year-old was under his grandmother's strict orders not to come in contact with his little brother. He went into the child's bedroom anyway, and only a few days later Edmund succumbed to the disease. Ella returned to New York by train straight away while James stayed on to finish the tour. "The vast audience," reported the Denver Tribune-Republican the night Ella departed, "did not know that James O'Neill ... was heartbroken. It did not know that at that moment his little child lay dead in far distant New York, and that the agonized mother had just taken a tearful farewell of him to attend the burial of the little one. It laughed and clapped its hands and paid no thought but to the actor's genius, and dreamed not of the inward weeping that was drowning his heart."

O'Neill became convinced in the years to follow that his mother never forgave his older brother Jim, as he called him, for infecting Edmund; and he himself suffered from a tormenting mixture of survivor's guilt and death envy, later naming his autobiographical character in Long Day's Journey "Edmund" and the dead child "Eugene." The reversal of names in the play appears to have an even deeper symbolic meaning for the mother, Mary Cavan Tyrone, who makes clear that she gave birth to her third son to replace the deceased Eugene, and only at the insistence of her husband James (CP3, 766). Hence O'Neill proposes that his birth was no more than a mistake made out of desperation and that his existence in her eyes was a bedeviling reminder of her guilt over Edmund. It's no wonder, then, that O'Neill later wrote down, without explanation and despite the fact that his mother was a practicing Catholic, that he'd been born in the wake of "a series of brought-on abortions." "I knew I'd proved by the way I'd left Eugene [Edmund] that I wasn't worthy to have another baby," Mary Tyrone says to James while high on morphine, "and that God would punish me if I did. I never should have borne Edmund [Eugene]" (CP3, 766).

Worse still, perhaps, a hotel doctor prescribed Ella O'Neill morphine for the intolerable pain of giving birth to Eugene, an eleven-pound baby, thus precipitating a drug addiction that would last for well over two decades and haunt Ella and the O'Neill men to all of their deaths. This was the guilt-ridden, blame-laden family substructure that O'Neill would lay bare in Long Day's Journey Into Night, a play, he wrote, "of old sorrow, written in tears and blood ... with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness for all the four haunted Tyrones" (CP3, 714).

O'Neill toured with his parents around the American theater circuit for the first seven years of his life. "Usually a child has a regular, fixed home," he said decades later, "but you might say I started in as a trouper. I knew only actors and the stage. My mother nursed me in the wings and in dressing rooms." But like any average American lad, one of his earliest memories involved ... what else? Cowboys and Indians. Most small boys from the Northeast became enraptured by the romantic lure of the Wild West by reading dime novels and magazines. O'Neill's father brought him right to the source.

James O'Neill's advance man, George C. Tyler, marveled at the storybook figures his boss fraternized with across the West. On any given night, Tyler said, he would find James in a saloon chatting with "the biggest poker player in the United States, or Buffalo Bill Cody or somebody like that—the biggest guns in any walk of life were a natural part of his background." Indian-related violence in the Montana Territory had abated after the Great Sioux War (1876–77), and James, the prosperous showman and Civil War veteran Nate Salsbury, and Colonel William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody together held lucrative shares in a Montana ranch called the Milner Cattle Company. So the three men communed together at barrooms whenever they chanced to find themselves performing in the same Western town.


Excerpted from Eugene O'Neill by Robert M. Dowling. Copyright © 2014 Robert M. Dowling. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Prologue: The Irish Luck Kid, 1916 1

Introduction: "Life Is a Tragedy-Hurrah!" 9

Act I The Ghosts at the Stage Door 27

The Treasures of Monte Cristo

School Days of an Apostate

Anarchist in the Tropics

Exorcism in New York

Return to Monte Cristo

The (Love) Sick Apprentice

It Takes a Village

Act II "To Be an Artist or Nothing" 125

Washed Ashore at Land's End

Below Washington Square

"Turn Back the Universe"

"The Town Is Yours"

Civilization Unmasked

The Theatre F(r)eud

Act III "The Broadway Show Shop" 241

Prometheus Unbound

Draining Bitter Cups

Note to the Ku Klux Klan

"God's Hard, Not Easy"

The Novelist behind the Mask

"Old Doc" at Loon Lodge

The Soliloquy Is Dead! Long Live-What?

Act IV Full Fathom Five 351

Uncharted Seas

L'Aeschylus du Plessis

The Prodigal Returns

"The Game Isn't Worth the Candle"

Pandora's Box

The Tyranny of Time

Silence's End

"There's a Lot to Be Said for Being Dead"

Postscript: Journey Into Light 473

Appendix: Selected Chronology of Works (Date Completed) 487

Notes 491

Index 555


Q: You have long been a fan of O’Neill’s work, but what prompted you to write a book about his life?
A: In the final session of the first O’Neill seminar I taught, I asked my students, "Which plays did you enjoy the most?” Without missing a beat, one raised his hand and said that O’Neill’s life was his greatest play. Many others nodded in agreement. That moment planted the seed for this book. It turns out that the dramatic structure of O’Neill’s life uncannily matches that of his best plays. And, even more fascinating for a biographer, nearly every fictional story O’Neill told interweaves with actual stories from his own life.
Q: O’Neill won the Nobel Prize for Literature—the only American playwright to do so. How is his literary achievement viewed today, some 60 years after his death?
A:  O’Neill also won four Pulitzers, yet he probably received more bad reviews than any other major American author. However, having scrutinized virtually every review of his premieres and books, I can say that even his so-called clunkers were still credited with breakthroughs that offered something unique, something never before attempted on the American stage.
O’Neill is enjoying a new “renaissance,” with dozens of revivals over the past decade. American and international audiences alike show an unquenchable desire for his plays, and there’s no end in sight for this playwright’s potential to speak to contemporary audiences as he once spoke to his own.

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