George Bernard Shaw called him a ‘Yankee Shakespeare peopling his isle with Calibans’. He was dubbed ‘a fighting Tolstoy’ and ‘the great American blues man of the theatre’. Before he was 35, Eugene O’Neill had emerged as the first real titan of American theatre, a preeminence he has never lost. When Sinclair Lewis was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1930, he responded that they should have given it to O’Neill, because he had done ‘nothing much in American drama save to transform it utterly… from a false world of neat and competent trickery to a world of splendour and fear and greatness’. O’Neill’s struggle to wrench American theatre into splendour, fear and greatness is the subject of Robert M. Dowling’s excellent new life of the playwright, which elegantly balances knowledgeable readings of the plays and their social context with O’Neill’s famously turbulent life.
The ‘false’ world of 19th-century American theatre was one O’Neill knew intimately, and rejected utterly (his father was a famous touring actor who performed in The Count of Monte Cristo over 6,000 times). Repudiating what he called ‘the closed-shop, star-system, amusement racket’ of commercial theatre, O’Neill and a small group of aspiring playwrights and directors founded the Provincetown Players,
to establish a stage where playwrights of sincere, poetic, literary and dramatic purpose could see their plays in action and super-intend their production without submitting to the commercial manager’s interpretation of public taste.
Drawing on the realistic and expressionistic innovations of Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov, O’Neill eventually united them with the lessons of tragedy he learned from the ancients in order to explore the psychic and physical suffering of modern life.
His determination to tell the truth about the world he knew revolutionised the American theatre almost single-handedly. He won the Pulitzer Prize three times between 1920 and 1929, and in 1936 became still the only American dramatist to win the Nobel Prize for literature.
His best was yet to come: over the next decade he composed his triptych of acknowledged masterpieces, The Iceman Cometh, A Moon for the Misbegotten and the towering Long Day’s Journey into Night, which many of us still rank as the greatest American play ever written. In his first decade of professional writing only, he produced an astonishing 16 new plays. Most of them were both critical and commercial successes, but he never let a flop hold him back: he just doggedly kept writing. Indeed, after he had begun achieving some acclaim, he was heartened to learn that a play had failed: ‘Well, this is rather reassuring,’ he said. ‘I had begun to think I was too popular to be honest.’
The traumas of his early life are well documented, not least by O’Neill himself, who constantly mined his own suffering for his art: Long Day’s Journey has long been understood as virtually unadulterated autobiography, but Dowling reveals that if anything that play was a muted version of actual events.
Eugene, the third son of Ella and James O’Neill, and his oldest brother Jamie grew up backstage; their middle brother, Edmund, died as an infant from measles he appears to have caught from six-year-old Jamie. The child failed to heed adult warnings to avoid his baby brother, and was subsequently blamed for Edmund’s death.
When Eugene was 14, his brother and father decided to tell him of Ella’s morphine addiction. She had been prescribed the drug after Eugene’s difficult birth, which left her in physical pain and probably wrestling with post-natal depression. Young Eugene was informed that his mother’s addiction was, therefore, his fault. The results were predictable: Jamie drank himself to death at the age of 40, while Eugene battled an epic alcohol addiction his entire life. Unsurprisingly, the tragic waste of potential became one of his enduring themes. An alcoholic by the age of 15, Eugene managed to attend only one year of Princeton (where he was known as ‘Ego’, for ‘his lack of humour concerning all things Eugene Gladstone O’Neill’). After a spell in New York flophouses (to which he would return), at 21 he hurriedly married his pregnant girlfriend, and was shipped off to sea by his father.
He spent the next six years vagabonding between Central and South America and New York, drinking himself into a stupor. In 1912, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis; during his six months in a sanitorium, he resolved to become a serious playwright — with the emphasis on the serious.
After that, O’Neill’s life was fixed between the twin poles of his art and his drinking. ‘I discovered early in life that living frightened me when I was sober,’ his alter-ego Jimmy explains in The Iceman Cometh; if drinking gave him false courage, his art showed real courage. ‘Being his own worst enemy was the privilege O’Neill always retained for himself,’ one critic rightly remarked.
While working to establish his career, he married the writer Agnes Boulton, with whom he had two children, Shane and Oona. His vicious bouts of drinking led to equally vicious domestic violence: he regularly lashed out at his wives, more than once knocking them cold. His behaviour could be appalling, and as self-destructive as aggressive: one night he urinated into a bottle of whisky and drank from it.
Just as his career began to advance, his father died suddenly from cancer, and then his mother from a brain tumor. He didn’t rise to either occasion: when his mother died, he left the alcoholic Jamie to cope, and didn’t attend the funeral. Jamie had a breakdown, and died within a year. O’Neill didn’t attend that funeral either. At the age of 35, he had lost his entire family in the space of three years. He threw himself into work, and back into drink.
But his distress never made his art as solipsistic as some hold. He remained committed throughout his life to supporting the working classes, breaking down the colour bar, and championing the down-and-out. Even after his greatest successes, he denounced the hollowness of American materialism and the spiritual destruction that came in its wake. He told a press conference in the midst of the post-war glow in 1946:
We talk about the American Dream and want to tell the world about the American Dream, but what is that dream, in most cases, but the dream of material things? … We’ve been able to get a very good price for our souls in this country—the greatest price perhaps that has ever been paid.
O’Neill himself resolutely refused to sell out. When Howard Hughes offered him $100,000 to write the screenplay for Hell’s Angels, he responded with a telegram that used the maximum 20 words allowed: ‘No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. O’Neill.’
He expected as much from his audience as from himself: his plays became ever longer, more intellectually demanding, more emotionally gruelling. Mourning Becomes Electra, in 1931, which lasted five-and-a-half hours, prompted one audience member to declare when exiting, ‘Gosh, isn’t it good to get back out into the Depression again!’ A journalist who interviewed him thought O’Neill’s face seemed to say, ‘Excuse me for not being nice, but I’ve just returned from hell.’ But Dowling also chronicles moments of great charm and humour. An actress who worked with him recalled only ‘Sweetness—the greatest sweetness I’ve ever found in a human being.’ ‘Are you our foremost apostle of woe?’ he was asked in the winter of 1921–1922. ‘Well,’ O’Neill replied, ‘there’s Volstead,’ naming the man who wrote the laws of prohibition.
Dowling fair-mindedly notes that O’Neill’s final marriage, to Carlotta Monterey, safeguarded him, enabling him to produce his late masterpieces; but he also reports that all O’Neill’s old friends and his children, whom Carlotta ruthlessly excluded from his life, saw her as his jailer. One old friend who managed to visit said, ‘I’ve been watching a slow case of murder.’ O’Neill continued to drink: Dowling reports Carlotta denied the customary claims that he’d eventually overcome his alcoholism, saying he went on periodic binges until the end. ‘I knew it! I knew it!’ O’Neill cried, as he lay dying of a rare degenerative disease and a bout of pneumonia (despite his staggering alcohol intake, his liver and heart ‘were in normal condition for a man of 65’). ‘Born in a goddamn hotel room and dying in a hotel room.’
When Long Day’s Journey was produced after O’Neill’s death (and against his stated wishes), a critic wrote of ‘the grim determination that made him a major dramatist: the insistence that the roaring fire he could build by grinding his own two hands together was the fire of truth’. The fire O’Neill so ruthlessly produced still fuels his plays, which are as bitter, dark and beautiful as anything in American letters.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £17 Tel: 08430 600033. Sarah Churchwell is Professor of American Literature at the University of East Anglia, and was a judge of this year’s Man Booker prize.