Essay, Research Paper: Eugene O'Neil


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Through poverty and fame, “An artist or nothing” (Miller p6), was the motto
of a man named Eugene O’Neill, who wrote from his soul in an attempt to find
salvation. In the year 1888, the Barrett House hotel in Time Square, New York
saw the birth of a man who would be called the greatest American playwright. His
father James, was an actor, and was famous across the United Sates for his role
in the popular play Monte Cristo. Eugene’s mother was a beautiful woman named
Ellen who was also gifted with a great artistic talent. Through out his life, he
would travel all over the world, marry three women, have three children, and
write some of the best American Drama that would ever be written. “Much of his
life would be devoted to writing plays of tragic power”(David p11), and “His
works reveal the unsatisfied searching of a soul for truth”(David p11). When
Eugene was born, he was a great inconvenience to his parents, who already had
one child, and spent most of their time traveling around the country playing in
different cities. As a result of this, he was raised in the care of a Cornish
nanny, keeping him isolated from the rest of his family. He would continue to
spend most of his youth away from his family as he would be educated almost
entirely in boarding schools. When he was still a young boy, his parents
enrolled him in St. Aloysius Academy for boys in Riverdale New York. He was a
good student and didn’t really stand out as a youth. He passed through De La
Salle Institute and actually stayed at home for the first year of school there.
He attended Betts Academy which is no longer in existence today but at the time
it was one of the finer preparatory schools in the nation. While he was boarding
there, his family moved their home from New York City to New London Connecticut
where O’Neil would spend most of his life. His problems, arose when he entered
into Princeton University in 1906. He held strongly to the philosophy of “all
play and no work”(Miller p4), and he was eventually suspended. This was
because he was caught by the yard master breaking power cables and windows in
the University train station. His suspension was to last only for two weeks but
he never returned to campus. Officially he was expelled from the school for poor
academic standing. Eugene moved into a New York apartment with his friend Frank
Best after leaving Princeton. He held a trivial job as secretary to the
president of a small shipping company. He spent his earnings and his father’s
allowance on wild living, he met James Findlater who was to become his best
friend and bases for the character Jimmy Tomorrow from Iceman Cometh and was the
same character in Tomorrow which was one of O’Neil’s only short stories.
James would eventually introduce Eugene to Kathleen Jenkins, the daughter of a
wealthy New York business man. Her parents objected to any marriage taking place
and so did his. They would eventually elope though in the fall of 1909 when
Eugene discovered his father was sending him to Honduras to look for gold.
Fourteen days after the wedding, Eugene found himself in Mexico where he ended
his journey south due to a tough battle with Malaria. He would return to New
York after his recovery, but still refused to live with his wife. He took up a
job with his father’s acting troop but that did not last long. Eugene and
Kathleen soon had a son, Eugene Gladstoone Jr. and his father would only visit
him once through out his infancy. In order not to have anything to do with his
son, he took on a job as a seaman on a Norwegian liner that had regular trade
routs all along the coast of North and South America. After sailing for fifty
seven days, Eugene jumped ship in Buenos Aires. Here he spent time doing several
different jobs “considered one of the only high points in his early
life”(Miller p5). He applied for jobs he was unqualified to do so in a matter
of weeks he was fired, and he had to go back to sea to find a living. He spent
the next several months in the south Atlantic and even made a few stops in South
Africa. He eventually quit this job to wonder in poverty up and down the coasts
of Argentina and Brazil. Finally returned to New York stowed on a British Liner.
He still would not live his wife and son so with a three dollar a month
allowance he rented a place on the docks called Jimmy the Priest’s Waterfront
Dive. He still did not work and sank deeper into poverty. His father forced him
to get a job so he signed on as a seaman on a trans.-Atlantic luxury liner.
Eugene hated the sea so much though that he returned to Jimmy the Priest’s
only to attempt suicide by massive intake of veronal. He was saved by his friend
James Byth and he was now made to go travel with his father’s vaudeville
company, but that did not last long due to Eugene’s poor acting ability.
Eugene’s writing talent was discovered on accident when his father got him a
job with the New London Telegraph. He ran a poetry column and often filled it
with his own work using several different pen names. He would also at this time
supply poems to the New York Call. “The Masses,” and Franklin P. Adam’s
“Conning Tower” were among his best poems written during this time. Still
only writing as a hobby, he found it was a good way to fund his extravagant
social life. Due to his lifestyle, his wife Kathleen became upset and once when
he was with a prostitute she barged in and demanded a divorce on grounds of
adultery. They were legally separated on October 11,1912. Shortly after this
event, he came down with tuberculosis and was in and out of several medical
institutions. He recovered in a matter of months and he went to live with his
friend James Rippen. During this time, Eugene began seriously writing plays and
he began sending scripts to New York with little success. “The Web” and “A
Wife For A Life,” were bought but never performed. Shortly following his
rejection he began writing “Bound East For Cardiff,” considered one of his
masterpieces. He also applied to the Harvard drama department to study modern
play writing and with the encouragement of friend Clayton Hamilton, he decided
he would attend the class. This is the time when he came up with the motto “An
artist or nothing”(Miller p6), which would guide the coarse of the rest of his
life. When finally, “Thirst,” a book of one act plays was published, he was
exited to finally be published. However, the book was an immediate failure and
O’Neill would prevent it ever from being released in his lifetime. When he
finally attended classes at Harvard, he was unimpressed with the works of other
modern poets and therefor was not very active. Spent another summer of failed
romance and parties, and would eventually move into his own place in Greenwich
Village. While living in the village, he frequented the Golden Swan Bar, and
became an alcoholic. In fact, “the only tie he stopped drinking was when he
was writing”(Miller p7). “Bound East for Cardiff,” became Eugene’s fist
hit and when it was staged by the Provincetown players it was an instant
success. He stayed in Provincetown for a while and wrote several other short
plays. Moved back to the village and got involved with Louise Bryant. He lived
in a love triangle with her and her husband until 1918. When “Bound East for
Cardiff was finally performed in the village, Stephen Rathburn of the New York
Evening Sun praised O’Neil for his work. During W.W.I he was arrested in
Provincetown for vagrancy and suspicion of espionage. He was released
immediately but he was continuously tailed for several weeks due to suspicion.
Eugene next failure was his attempt to join the navy, he was turned down because
of his earlier battles with tuberculosis. He also in this time lost what he had
written of “Hairy Ape,” but his short story “Tomorrow,” which was a
miniaturized version of “The Iceman Cometh,” and was published in The Seven
Arts Magazine. In late 1917, he met Agnes Boulton who was to become his second
wife. She was herself a writer of several short stories and pulp fictions.
Finally, his first long play was performed by the Provincetown players and was
his first play to be widely criticized. He now lived with Agnes Boulton and was
still living on his father’s allowance. A few months later he married Agnes
and he began making money on Royalties from the Provincetown Players. He rented
out a flat in Provincetown and began writing “Chris,” his brother James also
lived with him. One year later now living in New Jersey, his second son Shane
was born. Also, in 1919 Eugene’s father James came to see Beyond the Horizon
and left his son with this memorable statement “What ate you trying to do send
the audience home to commit suicide” (Miller p10). In 1920, he won his first
Pulitzer Prize for “Beyond the Horizon,” but, his joy was cut short by his
father’s death that August. After his father died though, he wrote several
great success. “Gold,” “Emperor Jones,” “Diff’rent,” and due to
its failure he modified “Chris” to make it “Anna Chrisite.” He moves
around several times from Provincetown to New York, and while he was in New York
reviving the short play “Hairy Ape,” he met his eldest son Eugene Jr. and
begins funding his private school education. In 1922 his mother finally dies
shortly followed by his brother’s death in 1924. While he was taking time off
in Bermuda, the Provincetown Players dissolved and Greenwich village companies
take over producing O’Neil’s plays. In 1925 his daughter Ooma was born and
he had returned to his writing. Along with becoming aquatinted with his future
third wife Carlotta Montorey, he also received an honorary Literary Doctorate
from Yale. In order to depart from his family, in 1928, he left to go on a trip
around Europe and the Orient. He refused to return to the United States until
Agnes consented a divorce. After one year, Agnes was granted a divorce on the
grounds of desertion. He shortly after married Carlotta and he left France to
return to New York. 1937 brought on the beginning of W.W.II and a Nobel prize in
Literature for Eugene O’Neil, after this he sank into seclusion with his wife.
Finally he emerged with his great masterpieces in hand, in 1943, he had finally
completed “The Iceman Cometh,” and “A Long Day’s Journey Into the
Night.” The rest of his life was plagued by the suicide of his beloved oldest
son, his only daughter married Charlie Chaplain, and he disowned his daughter
and middle son. He and his wife were also in and out of several hospitals until
he died in 1950 and was laid to rest in Boston never to see the success of his
two greatest works. “The Iceman Cometh” is about a man Larry, who considers
himself a philosopher, but his over analysis is ultimately his undoing “I was
born and I am condemned to be one of those people who see all sides of a
question. When you’re damned like that, the questions multiply for you until
in the end it’s all a big question and no answer”(Raleigh p13). Larry moves
from one dismal idea to the next until he loses site of truth and ultimately of
hope. “Truth, to hell with the truth! As the history of the world proves, the
truth has no bearing on anything. It is irrelevant and as the lawyers say, it is
immaterial”(Raleigh p13). Larry’s final conclusion is that he is not a
philosopher rather just a bum and one without hope. “By God there is no hope!
I’ll never be success in the grandstand or anywhere else...I’ll be a week
fool looking with pity at both sides of everything till the day I
die”(O’Neil 726-727). Larry at last is desolate and broken for he does not
have hope or truth, he has lost all. Larry, is in actuality a confession of
O’Neil, “His works reveal the unsatisfied searching of a soul for
truth”(David p11). His other great success was “A Long Day’s Journey into
the Night.” This work brings about a look into the depression that was
O’Neil’s life. The setting for this was his very childhood home in New
London, “He revealed and analyzed the various tragedies of his family: his
mother’s periodic dope addiction; his father’s sense of frustration at
having been seduced from becoming a great Shakespearean actor by the financial
lure of popular Monte Cristo; his older brother’s destructive and
self-destructive traits which were later lead him to drink himself to
death...obsession with guilt and sense of tragedy. A friend remarked “he had
six senses, sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing, and tragedy.” The last was
the most highly developed”(Raleigh p1). O’Neil was not using his writing to
gain public recognition, rather, he was using it as an outlet for his own life.
He wrote about his personal tragedy and his personal lose he just changed the
names. “His chief aim was neither popular acclaim or success, nor even
literary immortality, but his own salvation. Through his writings he sought to
ease his inner pressures and storms, to justify himself to himself not to the
world”(Shain p2). His themes were strongly positioned on the state of mankind
being one of loneliness and alienation. He spoke of the natural struggles
between the sexes and between family members. As O’Neil set the benchmark,
modern authors like Lorca are trying to imitate him “O’Neil was a precursor,
at least in the American theater, of themes that have come to bulk large in
twentieth century literature”(Shain p2).

BibliographyDavid, Sister Mary Agnes, SSJ, ed., Modern American Drama New York: The
Macmillan Company 1965 Miller, Jordan Y., Eugene O’Neill and the American
Critic Hamden Connecticut: The Shoe String Press. Inc. 1973 O’Neil, Eugene,
The Plays Of Eugene O’Neil New York: Random House Inc. 1974 Raleigh, John
Henry, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of the Iceman Cometh Englewood
Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1968 Shain, Charles E., “Eugene
O’Neill - The Man” Eugene O’Neill Theater Center Brian Rodgers , special
collections Librarian, at Library at Connecticut College Internet Eugene
O’Neill “An Artist or Nothing” English-9 7 April, 1997
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