Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,081

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,081


This is the grave of Eugene O’Neill.

Born into an acting family in New York in 1888, O’Neill was around theater his entire life. In fact, he was born in a hotel where his parents were staying while his father acted on Broadway. His father was a huge drunk and not a great guy even when he wasn’t touring a play so he was mostly raised by his mother. Strong Catholics, they made sure their kids went to the top Catholic schools in New York. Upon graduation, O’Neill was accepted into Princeton but he was kicked out after a year. No one really knows why, but there’s a long-standing rumor that he threw a beer bottle into the window of its current president, Woodrow Wilson. I really hope this is true. Maybe even ol’Woodrow got splattered with beer.

In any case, O’Neill wasn’t really college material at this time. He had wanderlust and he had wild oats to sow. No better place to do that than joining a ship and sailing the world. He spent years at sea. These weren’t great years. He had daddy’s penchant for booze and the sea is pretty boring day after day, so he became a drunk himself. He also had some serious depression issues, which I am sure the booze did not help. He developed a sympathy for the working class and even joined the Industrial Workers of the World, which had a significant presence on ships and which helped spread its ideology around the world. The Marine Transport Union was his part of the IWW and they were known to engage in job actions at the point of production to take over a ship and make immediate demands for improved conditions.

O’Neill did of course have other life options than the sea. He came back and worked on a newspaper for a bit in Connecticut. He also contracted tuberculosis. So in 1912, O’Neill gave up the sea life and started writing plays more seriously. He had written as a past time for quite awhile, he knew the theater life, and he knew how to write a play. So he thought he’d take a real shot at it. To say the least, good call.

O’Neill first figured he should return to college and become more professional. So he enrolled in a theater program in Harvard and then dropped out after a year. He moved to Greenwich Village and became involved in the artistic ferment of that place and time. Jack Nicholson plays him in Reds, just as a sense of how central O’Neill was in this artistic and political world. He knew John Reed and Louise Bryant, thus the Reds appearance. He summered in Provincetown, where he was deeply involved in that artistic community too.

It took a couple of years, but O’Neill got himself established pretty fast. In 1920, his play Beyond the Horizon opened on Broadway. It was a huge hit and it made O’Neill’s name. He won the Pulitzer for it, his first published play. The Emperor Jones came immediately after and was an even bigger smash hit, notable as well for taking on the unjust and imperialistic U.S. occupation in Haiti. The hits came again and again–Anna Christie in 1922, Desire Under the Elms in 1924, Strange Interlude in 1928, Mourning Becomes Electra in 1931.

It wasn’t just that O’Neill was considered a good playwright. It was far more than that. He rapidly gained a reputation as perhaps America’s greatest living writer (which is high praise considering this was also the era of Hemingway/Fitzgerald/Faulkner/Steinbeck/etc) and one of the great writers in the world. For his work, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1936, which is crazy young for that award. He wasn’t even 50 and he hadn’t even started his best work yet.

Later, O’Neill started working on A Long Day’s Journey Into Night. He wrote that between 1939 and 1941. It’s of course a brilliant production, one of the finest pieces of literature ever written by an American. This autobiographical play of alcoholics and drug addicts could not have been easy to write. It’s also probably why O’Neill wouldn’t publish the thing. He also wrote another masterpiece, The Iceman Cometh, in these years.

O’Neill’s personal life was pretty messy. He had a couple of marriages and a lot more affairs. His real love affair though was with the bottle, only making all these relationships worse. He was rich which bought good schools for the kids and governesses and all that stuff, but it most certainly did not make him a good father. His young daughter Oona married Charlie Chaplin, who had a very creepy thing for young women, when she was just 18 and he was 54. O’Neill was so outraged that he cut off contact with her entirely. Oona stayed with Old Man Charlie for the rest of his life though, a 34 year marriage in the end. He never saw his daughter again. This was probably the best of his relationships with his kids. His oldest son also became a drunk and killed himself in 1950. His second son was a heroin addict and also killed himself. Yikes.

Although still young, O’Neill’s work declined significantly after 1945. He was a nonfunctional drunk by this time and all the years of drinking brought on Parkinson’s disease or something like it, making it impossible for him to type. He had hoped to write a cycle of 11 plays (!!) about a family in America since the nineteenth century, but only ever completed two of them. The last meaningful play he completed was another autobiographical masterpiece, A Moon for the Misbegotten, in 1943. Then, very sadly, he had his wife destroy all copies of his uncompleted plays. What a disaster. By the end, O’Neill was living in a hotel room in Boston. His last words on his death bed were “”I knew it. I knew it. Born in a hotel room and died in a hotel room.” At least he had a sense of humor about the whole thing. This was 1953. He was 65 years old.

Shortly after he died, in 1956, A Long Day’s Journey into Night was published. People’s jaws dropped. Perhaps the most brilliant play in the American canon, it was the right way to remember O’Neill. Part of that is that it did not cover up his own many failings and certainly not that of his family. An amazing but brutal discussion of family trauma, alcoholism, and drug use, it gets to the corrupt heart of American life like few other works. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1957. Then in 1962, Sidney Lumet directed what I consider a great adaptation of the play for the screen, with Katharine Hepburn‘s amazing performance as the mother, with Ralph Richardson, Jason Robards, and Dean Stockwell also starring. I never feel this film gets quite the respect it deserves.

Eugene O’Neill is buried in Forest Hills Cemetery, Boston, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other playwrights, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Arthur Miller is in Roxbury, Connecticut and Tennessee Williams is in St. Louis. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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