Biography of Eugene O'Neill

Eugene Gladstone O'Neill was born in a hotel on the corner of Broadway and 43rd St. in New York City, a fitting start for a man 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 his successful (though artistically unimpressive) theater company.

Eugene attended Catholic boarding school and then the Betts Academy in Stamford, Connecticut. He was accepted to Princeton, but he was suspended at the end of his freshman year and decided not to return. Between 1909-12 he worked an odd assortment of jobs and traveled extensively as a sailor. Exposure to people from the working class 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, O'Neill became involved with the artists who would found the Provincetown Players in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The Provincetown Players became vital to the start of O'Neill's career. The relationship was perfect: O'Neill gained valuable experience watching his plays acted onstage, and the company had exclusive access to a brilliant young playwright.

The 1920 Broadway production of his first published play, 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. Beyond the Horizon received the 1920 Pulitzer Prize in drama, the first of four Pulitzers for O'Neill. 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 scrutinize his work much more harshly. The harsher criticism damaged O'Neill's career, and he never quite 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 posthumous recovery. In 1959, the Coronet Theatre, a mere six blocks from his place of birth, was renamed the Eugene O'Neill Theater.

Study Guides on Works by Eugene O'Neill

The Emperor Jones premiered on November 1, 1920 at the Provincetown Playhouse in New York’s Greenwich Village. The play marks a significant turning point in the career of Eugene O’Neill, routinely regarded as America’s greatest playwright. In...

Eugene O’Neil had a life before he became America’s first great playwright. A life lived on the sea. And it was during that time spent aboard ship that word arrived concerning the fate of one his fellow crewmembers from a previous voyage. That...

The Iceman Cometh is often deemed Eugene O’Neill’s magnum opus. It is a towering, profound, and lengthy work that manages to conjure up the universal and existential amidst the conversations of bums, derelicts, and dreamers at a rundown bar in...