The Iceman Cometh | Study Guide

Eugene O'Neill

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Eugene O'Neill | Biography


Early Life

Eugene Gladstone O'Neill was born in New York City on October 16, 1888. He was the third son of Mary Ellen (Ella) Quinlan O'Neill (1857–1922) and James O'Neill (1849–1920). The couple's second son, Edmund, contracted the measles from Jamie, the O'Neills' first son. Edmund died in 1885 at age two. At Eugene's birth, three years later, Ella was given morphine and developed an addiction she did not overcome until 1914.

Both Ella's and James's families were Irish immigrants. Born to a shopkeeping family in New Haven, Connecticut, Ella was educated at Catholic schools in Cleveland, Ohio, where her family had settled. Ella also studied piano. James O'Neill, from an impoverished Irish family, was virtually uneducated though handsome, resourceful, and gifted. He began acting in 1866. In 1885 he purchased the rights to British actor and theater manager Charles Fechter's (1824–79) dramatic adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo (1844–46) by French author Alexandre Dumas (1802–70). The purchase provided a sometimes lucrative career for James, who, by 1912, had traveled across the country, performing the lead role over 6,000 times. Although James became a well-known American actor, Eugene saw his father as a jaded sellout for choosing the tried and true melodrama over more challenging roles of which James was capable. However, the older O'Neill, having suffered dire hardship and poverty in his childhood, was determined that that state of affairs would not be repeated.

In the early years of the family's itinerant life in the theater, Jamie, 10 years older than Eugene, was left in boarding school. Ella and the infant Eugene traveled with James, whose success came at a high price for the family. Because of Ella's addiction, a nurse was hired to tend baby Eugene and to help the distracted mother. For his part, James shouldered his responsibility to his family and his work but also enjoyed alcoholic binges. Since the family lacked a stable address, Eugene's memories—recorded and expanded in many of his plays—begin with the pain of rootlessness. Meanwhile, Ella—who suffered privately—offered little comfort in Eugene's early years. A product of a Catholic education and devout parents—James's Irish Catholicism and Ella's more refined, spiritual piety—Eugene lost his cherished faith as he grew up. Guilt and anger were the poles across which his creativity was stretched. The details of family antagonisms and the O'Neill family's intimate dependencies along with the tortured people he met in his far-ranging travels provided the materials for Eugene's characters and themes.

Marriages and Children

Eugene O'Neill secretly married Kathleen Jenkins in 1909, and Eugene Gladstone O'Neill Jr. was born in 1910. The young father visited once after the birth of the baby, and the marriage ended with a contentious but mutual agreement. O'Neill allowed himself to be caught with a prostitute so that Kathleen had grounds for divorce. Eugene Jr. died by suicide at 40.

O'Neill married Agnes Boulton in 1918. They had two children—Shane in 1919 and Oona in 1925. Shane, who habitually used narcotics and alcohol, committed suicide at age 57. Oona married Charlie Chaplin (1889–1977), the film star and producer, who was the same age as her father. As a result, O'Neill broke off all communication with Oona.

O'Neill married Carlotta Monterey less than a month after his divorce from Agnes in 1929. Although the initially passionate and dedicated relationship was troubled by alcoholism, poor health, and provisional separations, the couple remained together until his death.

Early and Lasting Success

O'Neill's success came early. He first appeared as a playwright with a group of writers and actors who started an experimental theater in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in 1916. That winter the group formed the Playwrights' Theater in New York's Greenwich Village. In the following four years, the group produced all of O'Neill's one-act plays. In 1920 his first full-length play, Beyond the Horizon, was produced on Broadway and won the first of his four Pulitzer Prizes. From 1913 to 1943, Eugene O'Neill completed 50 plays. Many of O'Neill's plays were made into films starring major screen personalities.

Major Awards

O'Neill's work was recognized with Pulitzer Prizes in 1920 for Beyond the Horizon, 1922 for Anna Christie, in 1928 for Strange Interlude, and 1957 for Long Day's Journey into Night.

He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1936, the only American playwright ever to be so honored. Other major recognitions included the gold medal in Drama from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1922, as well as an Outer Critics Circle Award, a New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, and a Tony, all for Long Day's Journey into Night, in 1957.

Death and Legacy

Eugene O'Neill died on November 27, 1953. He is remembered for the unvarnished realism of his work, most properly defined in his rejection of melodrama—the well-balanced play with a happy ending. Instead, what O'Neill's biographers Arthur (1924–2014) and Barbara (1926–2017) Gelb called "his own view of tragedy's tonic effect" rests in his embrace of a godless universe in which American tragedies were cast.

The Gelbs trace O'Neill's "devotion to the dramatic form [of tragedy]" to as early as his 1913 bout with tuberculosis, a bacterial lung disease. After Beyond the Horizon, for which he won his first Pulitzer, O'Neill identified the central dramatic principle of his art: the "tragedy of Man is perhaps the only significant thing about him ... What I am after is to get the audience to leave [sometimes written "an audience leaving"] the theater with an exultant feeling from seeing somebody on the stage facing life, fighting against the eternal odds, not conquering but perhaps inevitably being conquered. The individual life is made significant just by the struggle." The Iceman Cometh, with its diverse cast of brave and purposeless sufferers, epitomizes O'Neill's sense of the tragic hero.

O'Neill's work modernized the American theater not only in theme but with innovative production values as well. Most notably, in 1919, a time of acute racial division in the United States, the Provincetown Players staged The Dreamy Kid with an all-black cast. Moreover, in these difficult and often heartrending plays, O'Neill compellingly employs a lyric language that in its repetitions and refrains is often closer to poetry or song than to ordinary speech. Hickey's long speeches in The Iceman Cometh, for example, with Parritt's echoes and Larry Slade's refrains, establish a rhythmic beauty amid the pain of a narrative of dead ends, murder, self-delusion, and betrayals.

O'Neill's plays have been seen in revivals worldwide. American actor Denzel Washington (b. 1954) played Hickey in the 2018 New York revival of The Iceman Cometh.

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