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Eugene O'Neill

By the end of the nineteenth century, the problem of production monopolies such as the
Syndicate and the Schubert Brothers, and their stultifying effect on theatre, had been countered in
Europe by the development of experimental and fringe theatre companies, which allowed playwrights like Strindberg, Maeterlink, Prinadello, Shaw, and later Brecht and Beckett, to produce plays which were innovative and challenging to a social order controlled by a bourgeoisie which was not in the controlling position of footing the bill for the event.

In America, it would take another couple of decades before a capitalist monopoly on theatre would be effectively countered by an independent and experimental theatre. This movement, known as the
Little Theatre movement
(and which would later be known as 'off-Broadway' theatre), inspired independent thinkers and writers in a number of cities to group together to share ideas and encourage each other. In New York City one such group referred to themselves as the Provincetown Players, and from this group emerged arguably the most significant figure in the development of a distinctive voice in twentieth-century American theatre: Eugene O'Neill.

O'Neill's first works were short, one-act plays. What drew people's attention to them was the extraordinary sense of realism they demonstrated. These early plays are sometimes referred to as the Glencairn plays, because many of them revolve around sailors , and relatives of sailors, on the ship the S. S. Glencairn. These plays were:

You can listen to a production of Bound East for Cardiff here.

The Creature Comforts animations work in a similar way to what O'Neill was trying to achieve in these plays. By creating a sense of realism in its characters which is allowed dramatic autonomy. The voices express views which are not determined by any plot structure, or by the need for dramatic development, or by an authorial determination to use their realism to create social comment (social comment is made, but through the juxtaposition of the voice-overs with the animation).

Creature Comforts: If Eugene O'Neill had started out as a stop-motion animator

In the same way, O'Neill's early plays presented a realism which gave audiences the impression of being un-directed, and as such powerfully connected to reality. This was certainly a new development in American drama. People live, die, are made happy and sad, not because they are at all symbolic of some particular aspect of human existence, but because they are tied to the very reality of existence itself. This gives audiences the sense that what is significant is not why things happen, but how the characters react to them happening.
"His characters are conceived of as characters - that is, as presentations of human beings - rather than as issues or problems dressed in human clothing. Paradoxically, this concentration of the characters as individuals and the plots as anecdotes gives the plays an unstated universality. By emphasising the realistic and familiar in characterization, O' Neill makes his characters representative - not of social or moral types, but of humanity in general. The barely articulated camaraderie of the Glencairn crew, the boundaries of their imaginations and lives, the small but significant private secrets that separate them are all recognizably human, and become the true subjects of the plays. Bound East is about death, not as a moral issue but as an experience through which the dying man must find his way and to which the living must react. Moon makes us recognize that loneliness and the attempt to find pleasure in distractions are facts of life, things that people feel and do." (Berkovitz, p. 16)

Gerald Berkovitz has suggested that if there is a consistent and perpetual theme in the work of Eugene O'Neill, it is the theme of obsessiveness. He points out that his 1917 one-act plays features a sea captain that has more than a passing resemblance to Melville's Ahab, but that even in his more subtle plays his characters are often ringed in by an obsession which either drives them into actions, or which frustrates them through their un-fulfilment. The dying sailor aboard the Gencairn is obsessed with the life ashore he feels he has been denied - and this sense on un-fulfilment leads him to despair. In A Long days Journey into Night, each character has a series of layered obsessions: Tyrone's economies, Mary's drug habit, Jamie's womanising - and alcohol fore pretty much everyone!

O'Neill on Broadway


O'Neill's early ventures into theatre with his one-act plays had proved successful enough to take him to Broadway, where he would quickly e stablish for himself a reputation as America's foremost contemporary playwright. Broadway offered O'Neill scope to develop his particular brand of realistic theatre into full-length plays - but it quickly became apparent that in longer plays the same documentary-like realism struggled to hold attention, and was liable to become muddled and indistinct.

Beyond the Horizon (1920), O'Neill's first Broadway play, returns to themes of obsessions, the sea - and to a dramatic style still very much tied into the realism of his shorter plays. Over-riding all these themes though, is the plays overall sense of inevitable doom. Robert is a dreamer, and Andrew is solid and dependable. These two bothers love one woman - Ruth. Robert is all set for an adventurous career on the seas, and Andrew wants to manage a farm in home town. Ruth marries Robert, who then has to cancel his plans to go on the seas. Andrew goes to sea instead, while the farm falls apart under Robert's management, and his marriage with Ruth crumbles. Andrew achieves minimal success at sea, and is away when Robert dies. is a pretty gloomy play, but illustrates the theme which would come to concern O'Neill greatly - the conflict between the rational and the instinctive human:
"From Nietzsche O'Neill took the view of life as a struggle between two contradictory forces: the instinctive, sensual, life-affirming Dionysian and the rational, inhibiting, life-denying Apollonian" (Berkovitz, p. 31)

The sense of doom - a doom born, yet again, from un-fulfilled obsessions - is as immense and pervasive as the idea of the sea itself, and its weight carries the play a step beyond the boundaries of the pure realism O'Neill adopted in the one-act plays. There is something almost expressionistic about it - certainly something which speaks more powerfully of a driving voice of authorial philosophy and comment. This same sense of inevitable doom and disappointment haunts many of O'Neill's works from this period.

Characters in O'Neill's plays are, as Gerald Berkovitz notes, doomed by their obsessions (Beyond the Horizon), or by their race (Emperor Jones), or by economic status (The Hairy Ape), or by social conditioning (All God's Children), limited imagination, or limited mental or physical abilities (Mourning Becomes Electra).

The consistent theme is that life is something bound by limitations - just as the land is bound by the sea on all sides - and these limitations ensure that ambition is futile, and hope often doomed. O'Neill himself once suggested that this sense of doom originated in his Catholic upbringing - and certainly with it comes a sense of repression and guilt which adds weight to other sociological or biological limitations. An exception is his 1921 play Anna Cristie. Anna a prostitute who becomes reuinted with her sailor father, who hates the sea. Anna falls in love with the sea, and then with Mat Burke, who joins ship after being shipwrecked. They fall in love, then Anna confesses to him that she has been a prostitute. Their relationship almost falls apart, but they manage to force through differences and barriers and the play ends with Anna and Burke intent on forging a seemingly happy life for themselves:

ANNA-(Awed by his manner-superstitiously.) I wouldn't have the nerve-honest-if it was a lie. But it's the truth and I ain't scared to swear. Give it to me.
BURKE-(Handing it to her-almost frightenedly, as if he feared for her safety.) Be careful what you'd swear, I'm saying.
ANNA-(Holding the cross gingerly.) Well-what do you want me to swear? You say it.
BURKE-Swear I'm the only man in the world ivir you felt love for.
ANNA-(Looking into his eyes steadily.) I swear it.
BURKE-And that you'll be forgetting from this day all the badness you've done and never do the like of it again.
ANNA-(Forcibly.) I swear it! I swear it by God!
BURKE-And may the blackest curse of God strike you if you're lying. Say it now!
ANNA-And may the blackest curse of God strike me if I'm lying!
BURKE-(With a stupendous sigh.) Oh, glory be to God, I'm after believing you now! (He takes the cross from her hand, his face beaming with joy, and puts it back in his pocket. He puts his arm about her waist and is about to kiss her when he stops, appalled by some terrible doubt.)

O'Neill himself denied that this ending was intended to be a 'happy' one - indeed, he denied that it was an ending at all. This new life that Anna and Burke are forging for themselves will be equally as 'bound' by conflict as the ones they have left behind - but even accepting this it cannot be denied that the play offers more hope for Anna, who is otherwise the kind of character who might have seemed destined for tragedy. O'Neill's own social sensibilities might in some part be the reason for this softer treatment of a girl who has been used and abused in her past. It would be a mistake to think that because of O'Neill's early preference for a realist 'slice-of-life' drama, that O'Neill himself was not interested in social comment. Even the early on-acts were fuelled by a powerful intellectual and philosophical agenda - one which prompted the development of a style of drama which allowed those philosophical ideas to be played out in the lives of specific individuals.

Now, though, that O'Neill's dramatic ambition was beginning to flex and grow on Broadway, so did his ambition to find a kind of drama which could give fullest voice to his philosophical and social ideas, and to his views of society and humanity. His brand of realism was clearly unable to provide this kind of voice in longer plays, but in a cultural climate in which there were few other American models he could turn to as alternative, the answer of how to express his view of modern American life was not clear. Consequently, the next few years saw O'Neill embark upon the most extraordinary journeys of dramatic experimentation and invention - drawing from America's extant traditions in realism and naturalism, and from:
"expressionism (The Emperor Jones, The Hairy Ape), fantasy and dream sequences (Mourning Becomes Electra), Greek tragedy (Mourning Becomes Electra), symbolic sets or lighting (The Hairy Ape, Welded, All God's Children Got Wings), masks (The Great God Brown, Lazarus Laughed, Days Without End), spoken thoughts (Welded, Strange Interlude, Dynamo), pageant-like epic staging and spectacle (Marco Millions, Lazarus Laughed)." (Berkovitz, p. 30).

Expressionism in Emperor Jones

    Reading this plot synpopsis of then play from and watch this classic adaptation of the final scenes, starring Paul Robeson (who played the role in the plays first production):

      • In what ways would you say that these extracts demonstrate a move away from realism?
      • What effects area created?

      After such experiments in more radical forms of theatre, O'Neill began to move back towards a kind of naturalism. What he seemed to be looking for was a sense of balance. He wanted to be able to express ideas and philosophies which were simply too abstract and broad for realism to give voice to - yet at the same time he wanted those ideas to have a fluid, organic relationship with the characters on stage. Gerald Berkovitz describes this as:
      "the double challenge of making his philosophical observations and tragic vision seem to grow naturally out of the events and characters of his plays rather than being imposed on them, and of making their darkness dramatically palatable to an audience without falsifying his vision ...The Emperor Jones is about the essential human reality that lies behind any façade of civilization, and the impossibility of escaping it. In this case the sophisticated black man, no matter how superior to the natives he considers himself, cannot escape his inheritance of primitive instinct and belief, which ultimately destroys him. The play is likely to offend modern sensibilities through its implicit racism, but certainly O'Neill chose a black man primarily because his story is so effectively dramatizable; it would be difficult to find as clear a set of symbols of historical regression for a white character. Jones's fall, like Icarus's, is a metaphor for the inability of any man to escape the limits imposed on him by the human condition. The expressionistic devices
      O'Neill employs makes us experience this fall from within the character, and thus recognize a common // truth, rather than allowing us the luxury of distance and dissociation " Berkovitz,

      A Long Days Journey Into Night

      A Long Days Journey into Night marked O'Neill's move away from the more abstract forms of theatre explored in The Hairy Ape and Emperor Jones, and back to a newly intensified form of naturalism. It also marked O'Neill's first new play for some time. After 1933 came a 13 year period in which no new plays were produced. After this spell, The Iceman Cometh was produced in 1946, and in 1947 came A Moon for the Misbegotten. Then in 1953, O'Neill died.

      O'Neill had certainly been writing furiously in the years between 1933 and his death but much of this work he destroyed, and the work which would later be considered by many his greatest accomplishment (Long Day's Journey Into Night) was so deeply personal to him, and so difficult to write, than on his death he requested a 25 year moratorium on any production or publication of it.

      O'Neill's widow eventually allowed the publication of her husband's unpublished work in 1956, and in that year A Long Days Journey into Night was finally produced on stage. You can watch a full adaptation of the play below. This is an excellent production, directed by Jonathan Miller. It stresses the naturalism of the language in the play, which is why the characters often seem to be talking over each other. Miller points out in his production notes, that in real life people (and especially families) do not tend to have conversations in strict sequence. You can find more production details here.

      • What is immediately noticeable about the style of this play?

      Perhaps one reason for the difficulties O'Neill experienced in writing this play, is that at some point he had come to the conclusion that the abstract forms of dramatic experimentation which he had been working with in order to carry his own weighty blend of realism, philosophy and sociology, was not as satisfactory a medium as he might be able to develop should he persist with the more conventional forms he had started his career with, and wrestle with them until he could make them do what he wanted.

      A Long days Journey into Night is very much a conventional play compared to The Emperor Jones. The setting is domestic, and dialogue realistic, and the action believable. Underpinning that realism though, is an extraordinary sense of a weighty humanitarian significance. It is not just about James being a skinflint - it is about the desperate fear of poverty and failure. It is not just about Mary's drug addiction, but about dealing with loss, and an inability to cope with the world. Perhaps for this reason, Berkovitz argues:
      "If there is such a thing as the single greatest American play, it is almost certainly Long Days Journey into Night. In this unflinchingly probing exploration of what it is like to be human, O'Neill exposes some of the most frightening truths about what we do to ourselves and each other, and then probes even deeper to find, in the horrors themselves, the means of surviving the horrors." Berkovitz, 109

      The play is as complex as it looks simple. Once again, the themes of inevitable doom and limitation emerge: from the very beginning it is clear that life is far from happy, and as the play descends into darkness, the dark deeds of the family begin to emerge as a series of crimes against each other - crimes which continue to hurt and damage, and which have placed hard boundaries on the freedoms of the characters. Mary cannot escape her drug addiction. James cannot reconcile with the sense of inadequacy brought on when he married Mary. Jamie cannot stop his Oedipal resentment of Edmund overriding his good intentions towards him, and Edmund cannot help making all those around him feel guilty because of the adolescent childishness his mothers coddling have prevented him from growing out of.

      From this darkness, though, O'Neill expresses something of - not exactly hope, but perhaps a more positive perspective on the dark cloud which hovers above the Tyrone house. Each of the hurtful acts which members of the family have committed against each other, were acts initially intended as signs of love, or as acts to benefit the other.

      It is part of the human condition that we inevitably hurt one another - and it is equally inevitable that those injuries will never heal, and never be repaired. However, the play seems to suggest, that these crimes are the consequence of the human condition relieves the individuals of responsibility. They are inevitable consequences of the human condition - as beyond the control of good intentions as the sea is beyond the control of a boat that floats upon it. What, then, should our response to such darkness be?

      Perhaps Mary's response is the most realistic of them all:

      • "James! We've loved each other! We always will! Let's remember only that, and not try to understand what we cannot understand, or help things that cannot be helped - the things life has done to us we cannot excuse or explain."
      • "It's wrong to blame your brother. He can't help being what the past has made him. Any more than your father can. Or you. Or I."

      • What themes can you see emerging from O'Neill in this play?
      • How would you describe the ways in which the family interact with each other?
      • Does this strike you as realistic?
      • What does it suggest about the human condition?
      • In what ways can the themes of this play be considered distinctively American?

      Citation: Tulloch, J. (2013). Eugene O’Neill [Internet]. Available from: <> [Accessed 6 February 2013].


      Krasner, D. (2006). American Drama 1945 - 2000: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell

      Adler, T. P. (2007) Fissures Beneath the Surface: Drama in the 1940s and 1950s. in, Krasner, D., ed.. A Companion to Twentieth-century American Drama. Oxford: Blackwell, pp.159-174

      Beard, D. M. T. (2007). 'American Experimentalism, American Expressionism and Early O'Neill', in Krasner, D., ed.. A Companion to Twentieth-century American Drama. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 53-68

      Bigsby, C. W. E. (1987). 'Eugene O'Neill's Endgame', in Bigsby, C. W. E, Modern American Drama, 1945 - 1990. Cambridge: Cambirdge, 14-31

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