Long Day's Journey into Night | Study Guide

Eugene O'Neill

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Eugene O'Neill | Biography

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Early Life

Eugene O'Neill, born October 16, 1888, in New York City, was one of the first great American playwrights. At a time when American plays were primarily musical revues or melodramas, O'Neill wrote serious plays that presented life in a realistic manner and challenged the status quo. His father, James O'Neill (1849–1920), was a well-known actor who played the romantic lead in Alexandre Dumas's (1802–70) The Count of Monte Cristo in 1882. His mother, Ella, spent most of her life traveling with his father, settling down briefly for the birth of each of her children: James Jr. and Eugene. The boys traveled with their parents for years before being sent to boarding school. O'Neill cited his father's theatrical background and his parents' Irish Catholic method of upbringing as central to his experience of the world. The other major influence on his life and works was his mother's drug addiction.

Adulthood

O'Neill briefly attended college but dropped out and traveled the world, working in many different types of jobs to support himself. He also became an alcoholic, got married, had a child, got divorced, and attempted suicide, all in his early 20s. At age 24, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and spent six months in a sanatorium, a long-term health care facility for people to rest and receive treatment. This changed his life, and he began taking the time to concentrate on his writing. When he was released with a clean bill of health, he pursued a career as a playwright. His first plays were mostly one-acts that focused on seafarers, but he wrote realistically, using authentic American language and avoiding the melodramatic stylings that were more common in plays of his era. He worked with an experimental theater group called the Playwrights' Theater, but by 1920 his plays had moved to Broadway.

Professional Success, Personal Tragedy

O'Neill quickly experienced a great deal of professional success. Anna Christie (1922) was his first big hit, although O'Neill himself disliked it once it was written. Between 1920 and 1943 O'Neill wrote 20 plays in which he experimented with different forms and techniques. He wrote lengthy works that ran for several hours or even over multiple nights. He also drew inspiration from ancient Greek tragedy, particularly in his plays Desire Under the Elms (1924) and Mourning Becomes Electra (1931). He earned a total of four Pulitzer Prizes in Drama, for Beyond the Horizon (1920), Anna Christie (1922), Strange Interlude (1928), and one for Long Day's Journey into Night in 1957, which was awarded posthumously. In 1936 O'Neill became the first American playwright to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Despite his success, O'Neill's personal life remained difficult. Within a few years, his father, mother, and older brother all died. Two of his three marriages had ended in divorce. His eldest son committed suicide, and O'Neill became estranged from his only daughter when, at age 18, she married actor Charlie Chaplin (1889–1977), who was the same age as her father.

O'Neill suffered a professional setback in the last years of his life when health problems left him unable to write. The last play of his that he saw produced on Broadway was A Moon for the Misbegotten (1943), the sequel to his masterpiece, Long Day's Journey into Night, which, at the time, had yet to appear on stage.

Long Day's Journey into Night

O'Neill wrote Long Day's Journey into Night between 1939 and 1941. However, he never intended for it to be produced in his lifetime. He only showed the play to a few people and, to protect surviving family members depicted in the play, wrote in his will that it was not to be published or produced until 25 years after his death. While still alive he gave his third wife, Carlotta Monterey O'Neill (1888–1970), a copy of the manuscript and a dedicatory note. The note thanked her for giving him the strength to "write this play ... with deep pity ... and forgiveness for all the four haunted Tyrones." Tyrone is the last name of the family in the play, so Tyrones refers to the real family members the characters represent, including O'Neill. Long Day's Journey into Night is the most autobiographical piece O'Neill wrote. It provides an insight into the relationships he had with his disappointed actor-father, his drug-addicted mother, and his alcoholic brother. In the play the character of Edmund, who has traveled the world and come home to recover from consumption, is based on O'Neill. O'Neill died November 27, 1953, in Boston, Massachusetts, from bronchial pneumonia. After his death, his widow released the play for publication by Yale University Press and for production by the Royal Swedish Theater. Long Day's Journey into Night won O'Neill his final Pulitzer Prize.

Legacy

Esteemed literary critic and theorist Harold Bloom (b. 1930) calls O'Neill "[America's] leading dramatist." O'Neill was the first American playwright of realistic drama. His approach and style inspired later playwrights such as Tennessee Williams (1911–83), Arthur Miller (1915–2005), and Edward Albee (1928–2016). Historically, O'Neill has been one of the most widely performed playwrights worldwide.

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