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Eugene O’Neill

Eugene Gladstone O’Neill is regarded as one of the greatest dramatists America has ever produced. In his country, O’Neill pioneered writing tragedy constantly (Brietzke 9). Prior to his time, the most successful plays ever produced in America were either sentimental comedies or melodramas. Aside from a Nobel Prize award for literature, his works were likewise given recognition through Pulitzer Prize awards given during 1920, 1922, 1928, and 1957 for four of his plays namely, Beyond the Horizon, Anna Christie, Strange Interlude, and Long Day’s Journey into Night respectively (Brietzke 9).

The Pulitzer Prize he won in 1957 was awarded posthumously. He was born on the 16th day of October 1888 in New York City (Gassner 5). His father was a famous actor named James O’Neill. In 1906, he enrolled at Princeton University. Shortly afterwards, he left the university and engaged in different jobs instead. In 1910 and 1911, he traveled to South Africa and South America as a seaman (Gassner 8). His experiences at sea were brought to life in many of the plays he has written. His other works echo the sympathy he felt towards the failures and outcasts of society he once crossed paths with during his lifetime.

He married thrice. His first marriage was on 1909, then in 1918, and finally in 1928 (Brietzke 8). His first two marriages failed and ended in divorce. In 1912, he contracted tuberculosis and was confined in a sanatorium (Gassner 8). It was during his period of recovery when he made a decision to become a playwright. He worked with a theater group called the Provincetown Players in 1916. Through his association with the group, he was able to realize on stage his play entitled Bound East for Cardiff (Gassner 11).

O’Neill suffered from Parkinson’s disease, which is a form of palsy during the latter part of his life. It rendered him in a weak position to continue in his writings. He succumbed to death on the 27th day of November 1953 (Gassner 5). It was during the middle part of the 1930s when he wrote most of his plays (Alexander 38). The 45 plays he has written covered a broad range of different subjects as well as dramatic styles (Alexander 21). His plays vary from one act, to nine-act as in Strange Interlude, and to an 11-act play as in Mourning Becomes Electra.

He also wrote viciously realistic plays such as Desire under the Elms. His works also include expressionistic plays, satire, and autobiographical plays, like The Hairy Ape, Marco Millions, and Long Day’s Journey into Night, respectively (Alexander 149). It was in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer, both German philosophers where O’Neill’s drew influence from for his pessimistic view of life as reflected in his writings (Alexander 62). The characters he portrayed in The Great God Brown put on masks as self-expression.

O’Neill also portrayed characters who articulate their thoughts out loud, revealing their innermost feelings, as evident in the Strange Interlude. He also presented two actors playing different aspects of one personality in his work entitled In Days without End. He also employed symbols in his works, particularly in the plays he authored. For instance, the long-standing fears of the lead characters in The Emperor Jones were symbolized by the drums in the story (Alexander 152). Most of the characters he depicted on his works are in search to find the meaning of their existence.

There were his characters in Beyond the Horizon, Anna Christie, and Strange Interlude who turned to love in order to find the answer. Still, there were those who turned to religion instead as seen in Dynamo and Days without End. All of his characters suffer disappointments in their lives. In the most pessimistic play he wrote entitled The Iceman Cometh, the characters he portrayed have destroyed their lives. Nonetheless, it is in their illusion that the characters were able to find meaning. For in the absence of their illusions, despair comes close.

O’Neill regards illusion as “pipe dreams” (Gassner 38). He appears to claim that drink and death is a person’s sole “hopeless hope” (Brietzke 24). Yet he likewise appears to impart to his audience that a person who continues to live a life devoid of hope is someone who exhibits an admirable trait of heroism. When O’Neill was awarded a Nobel Prize in the year 1936, Brooks Atkinson was quoted in saying that O’Neill is “a tragic playwright with a great talent for conventional melodrama” (Brietzke 5).

Atkinson’s remark suggests a helpful means to explore O’Neill’s drama by insinuating a combination of tragic as well as melodramatic components in respective plays. O’Neill attempted to explore different techniques to challenge melodramatic theatricality during his career. Moreover, he did so in order to mirror the complex reality of life in tragic form. In a span of thirty years, he was able to deliver stunning variations in terms of quality, technical innovation, style, genre, form, and length.

Initial one acts paved the way for some of the longest plays to comprise the American literary canon, and eventually, tragic dramas along with the greatest in any language or nation. The introduction of European expressionism translated into some of the most convincing depictions of American life. With regards to tragedies, domestic comedy, histories, and travel romances patterned after Greek drama, characters differ from figures at sea, whose stories he wrote about from personal experience to historical figures in the likes of Lazarus, Marco Polo, and Ponce de Leon (Brietzke 5).

Whereas his Strange Interlude projected into the future, the plays he did towards the latter part of his life dealt with events which happened in the past (Alexadner 103). The many-sided surfaces of his plays, besides their supposed profundity of subject matter, show elements which present not only a visual payoff but a structure for deep emotional experience as well. At this point in time, only a few doubt the predominance of O’Neill as America’s most important dramatist.

Those who thread in his footsteps like Albee, Miller, and Williams, and in recent times, Tony Kushner, Davit Mamet, and Sam Shepard, among many others were one in recognizing their great debt to him (Manheim 1). However, there are those who express reservations regarding what rarely appears to be the melodramatic excess of his works, counting as well those which have been successful. Just like in all things, there will always be critics one can never please. Nonetheless, in his case, they account to the minority.

Those who are uncomfortable in the excesses of his earlier works acknowledged that he fashion such excesses to form a distinctively powerful medium which ended in the greatest tragedy that is Long Day’s Journey into Night (Manheim 1). It is best to assess Eugene O’Neill’s influence as a man of the theater in common rather than in definite terms. When he started writing, superficial realism which hardly disguised a gaudy artifice was dominant in theater scenes.

During 1918, attempts to transport the American theater to the realm of art were sporadic efforts, lacking plays which would serve to testify the truth of theory (Bogard and O’Neill 16). Initially, in his collaboration with the Provincetown Players, and then by working with Robert Edmond Jones and Kenneth Macgowan in an experimental theater, and lastly in his cooperation with the Theatre Guild, O’Neill displayed determinedly that drama may well be an art (Bogard and O’Neill 16). In effect, O’Neill was not alone in his efforts.

Over the years, earnest theater-goers in America increasingly started to notice essential presentations of the innovative theater aesthetics derived from America and Europe. In the company of innovative playwrights in America, Eugene O’Neill was certainly the leader, stressing not just in his achievements but in his failures as well that his work be regarded as an art. Works Cited Alexander, Doris. Eugene O’Neill’s Creative Struggle: The Decisive Decade, 1924-1933. Pennsylvania: Penn State University Press, 2008.

Bogard, Travis and Eugene O’Neill. Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O’Neill. U. S. A. : Oxford Univesity Press, 1988. Brietzke, Zander. The Aesthetics of Failure: Dynamic Structure in the Plays of Eugene O’Neill. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2001. Gassner, John. Eugene O’Neill – American Writers 45: University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2009. Manheim, Michael. The Cambridge Companion to Eugene O’Neill. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

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