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Eugene O’neil Essay, Research Paper

Eugene O’neill

Through poverty and fame, “An artist or nothing”(Miller p6), was the motto of a man named Eugene O’Neill, who wrote from his soul in an attempt to find salvation. In the year 1888, the Barrett House hotel in Time Square, New York saw the birth of a man who would be called the greatest American playwright. His father James, was an actor, and was famous across the United Sates for his role in the popular play Monte Cristo. Eugene’s mother was a beautiful woman named Ellen who was also gifted with a great artistic talent. Through out his life, he would travel all over the world, marry three women, have three children, and write some of the best American Drama that would ever be written. “Much of his life would be devoted to writing plays of tragic power”(David p11), and “His works reveal the unsatisfied searching of a soul for truth”(David p11).

When Eugene was born, he was a great inconvenience to his parents, who already had one child, and spent most of their time traveling around the country playing in different cities. As a result of this, he was raised in the care of a Cornish nanny, keeping him isolated from the rest of his family. He would continue to spend most of his youth away from his family as he would be educated almost entirely in boarding schools. When he was still a young boy, his parents enrolled him in St. Aloysius Academy for boys in Riverdale New York. He was a good student and didn’t really stand out as a youth. He passed through De La Salle Institute and actually stayed at home for the first year of school there. He attended Betts Academy which is no longer in existence today but at the time it was one of the finer preparatory schools in the nation. While he was boarding there, his family moved their home from New York City to New London Connecticut where O’Neil would spend most of his life. His problems, arose when he entered into Princeton University in 1906. He held strongly to the philosophy of “all play and no work”(Miller p4), and he was eventually suspended. This was because he was caught by the yard master breaking power cables and windows in the University train station. His suspension was to last only for two weeks but he never returned to campus. Officially he was expelled from the school for poor academic standing.

Eugene moved into a New York apartment with his friend Frank Best after leaving Princeton. He held a trivial job as secretary to the president of a small shipping company. He spent his earnings and his father’s allowance on wild living, he met James Findlater who was to become his best friend and bases for the character Jimmy Tomorrow from Iceman Cometh and was the same character in Tomorrow which was one of O’Neil’s only short stories. James would eventually introduce Eugene to Kathleen Jenkins, the daughter of a wealthy New York business man. Her parents objected to any marriage taking place and so did his. They would eventually elope though in the fall of 1909 when Eugene discovered his father was sending him to Honduras to look for gold. Fourteen days after the wedding, Eugene found himself in Mexico where he ended his journey south due to a tough battle with Malaria. He would return to New York

after his recovery, but still refused to live with his wife. He took up a job

with his father’s acting troop but that did not last long.

Eugene and Kathleen soon had a son, Eugene Gladstoone Jr. and his father would only visit him once through out his infancy. In order not to have anything to do with his son, he took on a job as a seaman on a Norwegian liner that had regular trade routs all along the coast of North and South America. After sailing for fifty seven days, Eugene jumped ship in Buenos Aires. Here he spent time doing several different jobs “considered one of the only high points in his early life”(Miller p5). He applied for jobs he was unqualified to do so in a matter of weeks he was fired, and he had to go back to sea to find a living. He spent the next several months in the south Atlantic and even made a few stops in South Africa. He eventually quit this job to wonder in poverty up and down the coasts of Argentina and Brazil. Finally returned to New York stowed on a British Liner. He still would not live his wife and son so with a three dollar a month allowance he rented a place on the docks called Jimmy the Priest’s Waterfront Dive. He still did not work and sank deeper into poverty. His father forced him to get a job so he signed on as a seaman on a trans.-Atlantic luxury liner. Eugene hated the sea so much though that he returned to Jimmy the Priest’s only to attempt suicide by massive intake of veronal. He was saved by his friend James Byth and he was now made to go travel with his father’s vaudeville company, but that did not last long due to Eugene’s poor acting ability.

Eugene’s writing talent was discovered on accident when his father got him a job with the New London Telegraph. He ran a poetry column and often filled it with his own work using several different pen names. He would also at this time supply poems to the New York Call. “The Masses,” and Franklin P. Adam’s “Conning Tower” were among his best poems written during this time. Still only writing as a hobby, he found it was a good way to fund his extravagant social life. Due to his lifestyle, his wife Kathleen became upset and once when he was with a prostitute she barged in and demanded a divorce on grounds of adultery. They were legally separated on October 11,1912. Shortly after this event, he came down with tuberculosis and was in and out of several medical institutions. He recovered in a matter of months and he went to live with his friend James Rippen. During this time, Eugene began seriously writing plays and he began sending scripts to New York with little success. “The Web” and “A Wife For A Life,” were bought but never performed. Shortly following his rejection he began writing “Bound East For Cardiff,” considered one of his masterpieces. He also applied to the Harvard drama department to study modern play writing and with the encouragement of friend Clayton Hamilton, he decided he would attend the class.

This is the time when he came up with the motto “An artist or nothing”(Miller p6), which would guide the coarse of the rest of his

life. When finally, “Thirst,” a book of one act plays was published, he was

exited to finally be published. However, the book was an immediate failure and O’Neill would prevent it ever from being released in his lifetime. When he finally attended classes at Harvard, he was unimpressed with the works of other modern poets and therefor was not very active. Spent another summer of failed romance and parties, and would eventually move into his own place in Greenwich Village. While living in the village, he frequented the Golden Swan Bar, and became an alcoholic. In fact, “the only tie he stopped drinking was when he was writing”(Miller p7).

“Bound East for Cardiff,” became Eugene’s fist hit and when it was staged by the Provincetown players it was an instant success. He stayed in Provincetown for a while and wrote several other short plays. Moved back to the village and got involved with Louise Bryant. He lived in a love triangle with her and her husband until 1918. When “Bound East for Cardiff was finally performed in the village, Stephen Rathburn of the New York Evening Sun praised O’Neil for his work. During W.W.I he was arrested in Provincetown for vagrancy and suspicion of espionage. He was released immediately but he was continuously tailed for several weeks due to suspicion.

Eugene next failure was his attempt to join the navy, he was turned down because of his earlier battles with tuberculosis. He also in this time lost what he had written of “Hairy Ape,” but his short story “Tomorrow,” which was a miniaturized version of “The Iceman Cometh,” and was published in The Seven Arts Magazine. In late 1917, he met Agnes Boulton who was to become his second wife. She was herself a writer of several short stories and pulp fictions. Finally, his first long play was performed by the Provincetown players and was his first play to be widely criticized. He now lived with Agnes Boulton and was still living on his father’s allowance. A few months later he married Agnes and he began making money on Royalties from the Provincetown Players. He rented out a flat in Provincetown and began writing “Chris,” his brother James also lived with him. One year later now living in New Jersey, his second son Shane was born. Also, in 1919 Eugene’s father James came to see Beyond the Horizon and left his son with this memorable statement “What ate you trying to do send the audience home to commit suicide” (Miller p10).

In 1920, he won his first Pulitzer Prize for “Beyond the Horizon,” but, his joy was cut short by his father’s death that August. After his father died though, he wrote several great success. “Gold,” “Emperor Jones,” “Diff’rent,” and due to its failure he modified “Chris” to make it “Anna Chrisite.” He moves around several times from Provincetown to New York, and while he was in New York reviving the short play “Hairy Ape,” he met his eldest son Eugene Jr. and begins funding his private school education. In 1922 his mother finally dies shortly followed by his brother’s death in 1924. While he was taking time off in Bermuda, the Provincetown Players dissolved and Greenwich village companies take over producing O’Neil’s plays. In 1925 his daughter Ooma was born and he had returned to his writing. Along with becoming aquatinted with his future third wife Carlotta Montorey, he also received an honorary Literary Doctorate from Yale. In order to depart from his family, in 1928, he left to go on a trip around Europe and the Orient. He refused to return to the United States until Agnes consented a divorce. After one year, Agnes was granted a divorce on the grounds of desertion. He shortly after married Carlotta and he left France to return to New York.

1937 brought on the beginning of W.W.II and a Nobel prize in Literature for Eugene O’Neil, after this he sank into seclusion with his wife. Finally he emerged with his great masterpieces in hand, in 1943, he had finally completed “The Iceman Cometh,” and “A Long Day’s Journey Into the Night.” The rest of his life was plagued by the suicide of his beloved oldest son, his only daughter married Charlie Chaplain, and he disowned his daughter and middle son. He and his wife were also in and out of several hospitals until he died in 1950 and was laid to rest in Boston never to see the success of his two greatest works. “The Iceman Cometh” is about a man Larry, who considers himself a philosopher, but his over analysis is ultimately his undoing “I was born and I am condemned to be one of those people who see all sides of a question. When you’re damned like that, the questions multiply for you until in the end it’s all a big question and no answer”(Raleigh p13). Larry moves from one dismal idea to the next until he loses site of truth and ultimately of hope. “Truth, to hell with the truth! As the history of the world proves, the truth has no bearing on anything. It is irrelevant and as the lawyers say, it is immaterial”(Raleigh p13). Larry’s final conclusion is that he is not a philosopher rather just a bum and one without hope. “By God there is no hope! I’ll never be success in the grandstand or anywhere else…I’ll be a week fool looking with pity at both sides of everything till the day I die”(O’Neil 726-727). Larry at last is desolate and broken for he does not have hope or truth, he has lost all. Larry, is in actuality a confession of O’Neil, “His works reveal the unsatisfied searching of a soul for truth”(David p11). His other great success was “A Long Day’s Journey into the Night.” This work brings about a look into the depression that was O’Neil’s life. The setting for this was his very childhood home in New London, “He revealed and analyzed the various tragedies of his family: his mother’s periodic dope addiction; his father’s sense of frustration at having been seduced from becoming a great Shakespearean actor by the financial lure of popular Monte Cristo; his older brother’s destructive and self-destructive traits which were later lead him to drink himself to death…obsession with guilt and sense of tragedy. A friend remarked “he had six senses, sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing, and tragedy.” The last was the most highly developed”(Raleigh p1).

O’Neil was not using his writing to gain public recognition, rather, he was using it as an outlet for his own life. He wrote about his personal tragedy and his personal lose he just changed the names. “His chief aim was neither popular acclaim or success, nor even literary immortality, but his own salvation. Through his writings he sought to ease his inner pressures and storms, to justify himself to himself not to the world”(Shain p2). His themes were strongly positioned on the state of mankind being one of loneliness and alienation. He spoke of the natural struggles between the sexes and between family members. As O’Neil set the benchmark, modern authors like Lorca are trying to imitate him “O’Neil was a precursor, at least in the American theater, of themes that have come to bulk large in twentieth century literature”(Shain p2).


David, Sister Mary Agnes, SSJ, ed., Modern American Drama New

York: The Macmillan Company 1965

Miller, Jordan Y., Eugene O’Neill and the American Critic Hamden Connecticut: The Shoe String Press. Inc. 1973

O’Neil, Eugene, The Plays Of Eugene O’Neil New York: Random House Inc. 1974

Raleigh, John Henry, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of the Iceman Cometh Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1968

Shain, Charles E., “Eugene O’Neill – The Man” Eugene O’Neill Theater Center Brian Rodgers , special collections Librarian, at Library at Connecticut College Internet Eugene O’Neill “An Artist or Nothing” English-9 7 April, 1997

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