Biography of Eugene O'Neill

Eugene O'Neill was born in a hotel on the corner of Broadway and 43rd St. in New York City, a fitting start for someone who was to become one of America's greatest playwrights. He was the son of James O'Neill, one of the most popular American actors of his day. For the first seven years of Eugene's life, the O'Neill family toured with James during his stint with the successful (though artistically unimpressive) Monte Cristo.

Eugene attended Catholic boarding school and then the Betts Academy in Stamford, Connecticut. He was accepted at Princeton, but he was suspended at the end of his freshman year and decided not to return. Between 1909-12 he worked in an odd assortment of jobs and traveled extensively as a sailor. Exposure to working class people made a deep impression on O'Neill, and in later years he would draw on these experiences when creating his characters. Frail health was a recurring problem: tropical fever sent him home from his 1909 gold-prospecting trip, and in 1912 he entered a sanatorium to be treated for tuberculosis.

During his recuperation, O'Neill read voraciously. His reading ranged across the whole Western dramatic canon, but he devoted special attention to Ibsen, Wedekind, and above all, Strindberg. He began to write in earnest, working on one-acts, full-length plays, and poetry. In 1916, Eugene O'Neill became involved with the people who would found the Provincetown Players. The Provincetown Players became vital to the start of O'Neill's career. The relationship was perfect: O'Neill got a venue for his plays, and gained valuable experience watching his plays acted out onstage. The company got a brilliant young playwright.

The 1920 Broadway production of Beyond the Horizon marked the start of O'Neill's ascent to fame. O'Neill was well-received in both America and Europe, and American critics heaped lavish praise on his work; before him, there were no real American playwrights of stature, and for drama critics who had long been frustrated by the void, O'Neill could do no wrong. He won the Nobel Prize in 1936, the first American playwright to receive the honor. But around this time, a new generation of critics began to subject his work to much tougher scrutiny. The harsher criticism damaged O'Neill's career, and he never really recovered. And yet during this period O'Neill was producing some of his most powerful work. Some of his most famous works, like The Iceman Cometh (1939) and Long Day's Journey Into Night (1939-41), were written during this period. Many of these works were not produced during the playwright's lifetime. O'Neill died in 1953.

Three years later, the first Broadway production of Long Day's Journey Into Night was a great success. The Iceman Cometh was revived that same year. Between these two productions, new interest in O'Neill was sparked, and his reputation enjoyed a post-humus recovery.


Study Guides on Works by Eugene O'Neill