From the 1920s until the 1950s, Eugene O'Neill was regarded as the leading playwright in the United States, and in the English-speaking world. His works have regularly shown up in big- and small-screen adaptations, not only in the United States but in various countries around the world as well, reflecting the sheer breadth of his popularity and critical recognition in the early to mid-20th century. Eugene Gladstone O'Neill was born in New York City in 1888, the son of James O'Neill, an actor, and the former Mary Ellen Quinlan. The elder O'Neill was a major star of the stage, and was especially renowned for his portrayal of the hero Edmond Dantes in Charles Fletcher's stage version of The Count of Monte Cristo, a role he played over 4,000 times. The part was too much of a good thing, essentially ruining him for anything more serious, and his life and career were blighted in later years by the awareness of a wasted talent. The young O'Neill grew up in a wretchedly unhappy home, enduring both his father's chronic disillusionment and his mother's addiction to morphine, which she'd been administered to help cope with the pain of one of her births. He was educated at various Catholic schools in a childhood that kept him traveling much of the time, and attended Princeton University until he was asked to leave.
O'Neill's early adult life was spent prospecting for gold in Central America, working various ships crossing the different oceans, and drinking a great deal of alcohol. His health deteriorated rapidly and suicide became an option that he considered, even as he pursued new career paths in journalism. There was also a failed marriage, the first of three in his life, which gave him two sons and a daughter. O'Neill ended up in a sanitarium at age 24, where he was cured of his most obvious illnesses and found a new focus for the direction of his life. While recovering, he immersed himself in the newest dramatic works coming out of Europe and was determined to become a playwright.
It was during the summer of 1916 in Provincetown, MA, when he was 28 years old, that O'Neill finally made contact with his muse, so to speak, while working in the company of writers such as John Reed and George Cram Cook. A staging of his early play Bound East for Cardiff proved a hugely inspiring event, and the result, upon their return to Greenwich Village, was the founding of the Provincetown Playhouse on Macdougal Street. It was there, in the friendly yet fiercely competitive environment of the playhouse, that he went on to write his first string of successful drama, among them the one-act play The Long Voyage Home, the four-act piece Beyond the Horizon (which earned him his first Pulitzer Prize), and, later on, Anna Christie and The Emperor Jones. The latter, in particular, was so successful that it eventually was moved uptown to a large Broadway theater. It was the first modern play with a significant lead role for a black actor, and spawned far more than just its own success; growing out of that play's initial presentation in the Village, O'Neill's friend and collaborator Jasper Deeter went onto found the Hedgerow Theater, which became one of the most important regional theater companies in America. Anna Cristie won O'Neill his second Pulitzer in 1921, and a year later came The Hairy Ape, a fascinating character study.
Amid all of these early successes, O'Neill's family was involved in a tragic destructive cycle as his father and mother, and siblings, all succumbed to the consequences of their various psychological demons, so that by the mid-'20s he was the only survivor. Even as his parents and siblings were falling from the vine, however, O'Neill was writing and producing one of his most enduringly popular works, Desire Under the Elms (which turned Walter Huston into a stage star). He was rapidly entering his most productive and celebrated period as the 1920s wore on, exploring new psychological depths in his work in Strange Interlude (which got O'Neill his third Pulitzer) and Mourning Becomes Elektra, and also pursued more avant-garde work through a venture called The Experimental Theatre. His work also started appearing on film during the 1920s, with early versions of Anna Christie and Desire Under the Elms coming out of Europe. In 1930, however, MGM used Anna Christie as the vehicle to introduce Greta Garbo to the talkies, and in 1932 a film of Strange Interlude was forthcoming that was successful enough to get parodied by the Marx Brothers in one of their films, and a landmark production of The Emperor Jones, starring Paul Robeson, was released in 1933.
O'Neill's 1930s works, including the comedy Ah, Wilderness! (musicalized as Summer Holiday in 1948), proved successful on-stage and onscreen (filmed in 1935), but there were also overly ambitious, highly intellectual-oriented works that were failures in this decade. Part of the change in the nature of O'Neill's work grew out of its more personal nature during this period, as he started to use his plays to help sort out the various intellectual conflicts that he felt as a lapsed Catholic, among other personal issues in his life and the history of his family. Health problems, including complications from an appendicitis attack, interrupted O'Neill's career momentum during the second half of the 1930s and the early '40s, but he was able to bring forth the earliest manifestations of such challenging autobiographical works as The Iceman Cometh (1939/1946), Long Day's Journey into Night (1942/1958), A Moon for the Misbegotten (1943/1947), and Hughie (1942/1964). All of these works featured characters and incidents that were obviously drawn from his own life and family, and secured his legacy as America's most gifted playwright of the early to mid-20th century.
On film, however, O'Neill's record of successes was spottier -- a 1935 movie of Ah, Wilderness! was a huge hit, and Walter Wanger produced a successful version of The Long Voyage Home, directed by John Ford, in the early '40s. Somewhat less successful (and undeservedly so) was The Hairy Ape starring William Bendix, and a 1947 adaptation of Mourning Becomes Elektra at RKO proved to be one of that studio's most notorious late-era failures. One other odd, unhappy connection between O'Neill's and the movie industry during this period was the marriage of his daughter Oona to Charles Chaplin, the screen legend, for which he never forgave her. On a business level, O'Neill's relationship with the screen was also less than a happy one -- he seemed to have an uncanny knack, in tandem with his business representatives, for taking flat fees for the film rights to plays that were later hit movies, while taking profit participation in the movie adaptations that generated only modest (or no) profits, and one could almost predict their fate by the degree of financial participation O'Neill had in the movie productions.
O'Neill's health deteriorated in the second half of the 1940s, and the failure of his play A Moon for the Misbegotten seemed an ignominious ending to his active career. He died at a low point in his popularity, after several years of inactivity, in a hotel in Boston in 1953, and, just as quickly, his reputation was resuscitated by a series of new productions of his plays, starting in Sweden and later in New York, and he received a posthumous fourth Pulitzer Prize for Long Day's Journey into Night in 1958. The latter was filmed by Sidney Lumet soon after with an all-star cast, including Jason Robards Jr., Katharine Hepburn, and Sir Ralph Richardson, and along with a 1958 film of Desire Under the Elms, provided a good coda to O'Neill's screen career. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi