Mourning Becomes Electra | Study Guide

Eugene O'Neill

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Eugene O'Neill | Biography


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 French author 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 upbringing as central to his experience of the world. The other major influence was his mother's drug addiction.


O'Neill briefly attended college but dropped out and traveled the world, working 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 healthcare 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 dialogue that was common in plays of his time. He worked with an experimental theater group called the Playwrights' Theatre, but by 1920 his plays had moved to Broadway.

Professional Success, Personal Tragedy

O'Neill quickly experienced a great deal of professional success. The Emperor Jones (1920) was his first big hit. Another success followed with Anna Christie (1921), although O'Neill himself disliked the play once it was written. Between 1920 and 1943 O'Neill wrote over 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.

Mourning Becomes Electra was produced in 1931 and is O'Neill's most complete use of Greek themes and characters. It is a three-play cycle, though the plays are usually performed together.

Despite his success, O'Neill's personal life remained very 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 the famous British 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.

Death and Legacy

O'Neill died November 27, 1953, in Boston, Massachusetts. Esteemed literary critic and theorist Harold Bloom calls O'Neill "[America's] leading dramatist." O'Neill was the first American playwright of realistic drama. His approach and style inspired later playwrights like 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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