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Who is Eugene O'Neill?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 17, 2024
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Eugene O'Neill is an American playwright, best known for his plays Beyond the Horizon, Strange Interlude, The Iceman Cometh, and Long Day's Journey Into Night. He was born in 1888 in New York City, and died in 1953, and over the course of his 65 years he won a Nobel Prize, four Pulitzer Prizes, and numerous other awards and distinctions. O'Neill is recognized as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, American playwright, and his plays continue to be performed throughout the world to much acclaim.

Born in a hotel room on Broadway, it was almost inevitable the theatre would rule the life of Eugene O'Neill. His father, James O'Neill, was an actor, and he was immersed in the world of theatre from an early age. He attended Princeton University, but was expelled soon after entering, and over the next few years he experienced life at an accelerated rate. In the course of six years he had married and divorced, had a son, worked as a sailor for years, been a gold miner in Honduras, and been diagnosed with tuberculosis. While recovering from tuberculosis, and coping with the death of his parents and his brother, he began to write as a way to process his depression.

His early plays are in a very realist vein, drawing heavily from his own experiences in life. His first play, a one act entitled Bound East for Cardiff, was written in 1914, and was produced by the Provincetown Players in 1916. The players continued to produce and perform his plays, with a number of small plays produced over the next few years, including Servitude, The Personal Equation, Now I Ask You, and Bread and Butter.

In 1920 his first professional production, of the 1918 play Beyond the Horizon was produced on Broadway. It would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize, his first of four and the first major recognition of his career. From then on, Eugene O'Neill became the touchstone name of American theatre. In 1922 he won his second Pulitzer, for Anna Christie, followed by a third in 1928 for Strange Interlude, and a final one just after the end of his life in 1957 for the 1941 play Long Day's Journey Into Night. In 1936, after twenty-five plays and changing the face of American theatre, Eugene O'Neill was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, making him the first playwright to receive the distinction.

Although Eugene O'Neill was plagued by depression and alcoholism throughout his life, he remained optimistic throughout, often noting how much he enjoyed the act of living. Although his work deals with the dark themes of human experience, aside from a single comedy, Ah, Wilderness, they often contain glimmers of hope sprinkled throughout heart-wrenching tragedy. Although his early works are consistently recognized as gems of theatre, it was in later years, after his fame had stopped keeping critics at bay, and a deeper depression set in, that he truly matured as a writer. It was during this late period that his most renowned works, including A Touch of the Poet, The Iceman Cometh, A Moon for the Misbegotten, and A Long Day's Journey Into Night were written.

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