Biography of Famous Playwrights: Eugene O'Neill Part 2

About the famous American playwright Eugene O'Neill, history and biography about the master of drama.

Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953)

The overriding theme of O'Neill's work was tragedy. In Mourning Becomes Electra, he used the classic Greek drama of Aeschylus, transposed to a post-Civil War setting. Lairnia discovers that her mother has committed adultery, and then has poisoned her husband. When Lavinia's brother Orin shoots his mother's lover, his mother commits suicide. Now Lavinia--or "Electra"--is free to be herself, but Orin's incestuous love for her drives him to suicide and Lavinia retreats into herself again. The 5-hour play, written in 13 acts, actually was subdivided into 3 units: The Homecoming, The Hunted, and The Haunted. O'Neill called for a formal intermission, sending the audience out for dinner.

At age 45, O'Neill surprised the theater with his one comedy about adolescence, Ah Wilderness! Its run of nearly 300 performances compensated for the controversies that had surrounded his other recent offerings. All God's Chillun Got Wings, with its theme of racial miscegenation, provoked fears of race rioting, and this resulted in a reluctance to stage it. With Desire Under the Elms, he was banned in Boston and the entire cast was arrested in Los Angeles for engaging in indecent entertainment. The Nobel Prize Committee decided to view O'Neill's achievements as a whole when it awarded him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936.

Eugene O'Neill's creative decline came quickly, spurred by the collapse of his family life. He disappeared from public view until the appearance of The Ice Man Cometh in 1946. It failed in its debut, but gained some measure of success when revived in 1956 with Jason Robards, Jr., as Hickey. For its plot, O'Neill had retreated again to the scene of his youthful exploits as a seaman--the waterfront bar of Jimmy-the-Priest in New York City.

At 56, a victim of Parkinson's disease and completely unable to hold a pen--the only way he could create--O'Neill slowly gave way. After vainly trying to complete a mammoth new cycle of 11 tragedies, based on the life of an American family from Colonial days to the present, O'Neill succumbed to bronchial pneumonia, dying at 65.

His death released the restriction he had placed on the staging of Long Day's Journey into Night, a largely autobiographical work he'd written before 1941. Posthumously, it won for him his 4th Pulitzer Prize in 1957.

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