Eugene O'Neill was born in a Broadway hotel on 16th October, 1888. The son of the famous actor, James O'Neill and the actress, Mary Ellen Quinlan. Eugene spent most of his early years on tour with his father. This nomadic life and his mother's drug addiction had a profound impact on his development.
O'Neill was eventually sent away to a Catholic boarding school but he rebelled against being taught by nuns and monks. He spent his summers at Monte Cristo Cottage in New London, where he developed a love of the sea. After a spell at Betts Academy in Connecticut he went briefly to Princeton University. Suffering from depression and the early stages of alcoholism, he left university and seeking adventure he went on a mining expedition to Honduras.
According to Barbara Gelb: "He (O'Neill) had sailed to South America on a cattle ship, lived a derelict's life in Argentina and near the docks of lower Manhattan, sailed between New York and England as an able-bodied seaman aboard passenger ships, toured the country as a minor member of his actor-father's stock company."
O'Neill married Kathleen Jenkins on 2nd October, 1909. The following year a son, Eugene Jr., was born. After the failure of the marriage, O'Neill attempted suicide. He recovered only to discover he contracted tuberculosis and when he was released from a sanitarium in June 1913 he decided to become a playwright. His father agreed to provide him with an allowance of $7 a week.
O'Neill moved to Greenwich Village where he met John Reed. He was a successful journalists and he attempted to help O'Neill get his work published. He sent a copy of Tomorrow to Carl Hovey, the editor of the Metropolitan Magazine. He wrote to Reed: "I've read O'Neill's story and agree with you that he can write. This thing is genuine and makes a real man live before you." However, Hovey rejected the story because he believed the story had a "lack of either plot or a situation with suspense enough to carry the reader beyond the first pages." Later, Reed persuaded Waldo Frank the editor of Seven Arts, to publish the story in his magazine. He also arranged for O'Neill's long poem, Fratricide, to appear in the socialist newspaper, New York Call in 1914.
According to the author of So Short a Time (1973): "With his innate enthusiasm and generosity, Reed had tried to sweep O'Neill into his own creative circle. To anyone but Reed this would have seemed a highly daunting task. O'Neill at twenty-eight was morose, taciturn, and often drunk. He had few friends among the Village's artists and writers, preferring the company of stevedores, prostitutes, and hoodlums."
In 1915 a group of left-wing writers including Floyd Dell, John Reed, George Gig Cook, Mary Heaton Vorse, Susan Glaspell and Louise Bryant, established the Provincetown Theatre Group. A shack at the end of the fisherman's wharf at the seaport of Provincetown was turned into a theatre.
On 28th July, 1916 the group performed O'Neill's Bound East for Cardiff, a play written by the young playwright, Eugene O'Neill. The cast included George Gig Cook, John Reed and O'Neill, who was persuaded to play the one-line role of the ship's mate. It was the ideal play for the Provincetown Theatre. Susan Glaspell later recalled: "The sea had been good to Eugene O'Neill. It was there for his opening. There was a fog, just as the script demanded, fog bell in the harbour. The tide was in, and it washed under us and around, spraying through the holes in the floor, giving us the rhythm and the flavour of the sea while the big dying sailor talked to his friend Drisc of the life he had always wanted deep in the land, where you'd never see a ship or smell the sea."
O'Neill's next play, The Thirst, had John Reed's wife, Louise Bryant, taking the lead role. Floyd Dell, who was the literary critic of The Masses, argued in his autobiography, Homecoming (1933): "Eugene O'Neill, whose little one-act plays were superb and beautiful romanticizations and glorifications and justifications of failure."
In June 1916, John Reed went to see a doctor about his health problems. He was told that he needed an operation to remove one of his kidneys. While he was away Louise Bryant became close to O'Neill. The author of So Short a Time (1973) argued: "Louise was spellbound by O'Neill's marathon swims. Sometimes after watching him from her window, who would join him on the beach. O'Neill could no longer pretend that he was not deeply and unhappily in love with her... He was convinced that Louise, committed to Reed, would be offended by his love. He not only concealed his feelings, but tried his best to avoid her; he was the only one to whom it was not plain that Louise was pursuing him." Louise sent a note to O'Neill that read: "I must see you alone. I have to explain something, for my sake and Jack's. You have to understand." As a result of the meeting, Louise and O'Neill became lovers and soon most of their friends were aware of it. However, John Reed was completely ignorant of the affair.
Dorothy Day, who was a close friend of O'Neill during this period. She later recalled: "we were all so young. We all knew that Gene was in love with Louise, and believed that he was nursing a hopeless passion. we regarded him as a romantic figure - a genius unhappily in love."
George Gig Cook, who emerged as the leader of the Provincetown Theatre Group, believed that O'Neill was a dramatist of great promise and over the next three years ten of his plays were performed including The Fog (1916), The Sniper (1917), In the Zone (1917), The Long Voyage Home (1917), Moon of the Caribbees (1918), Shell-Shock (1918) and The Emperor Jones (1920), a play where a black actor plays the central role. Several of his plays reflects his hostility to the events of the First World War. A subject that was important to his great friend, John Reed, who was imprisoned for his anti-war activities.
In 1917, O'Neill met Agnes Boulton, a successful writer of commercial fiction, and they married on 12th April, 1918. Over the next few years the couple had two children, Shane and Oona. He continued to suffer from depression and his state of mind was not helped when his parents and elder brother Jamie O'Neill, also an alcoholic, died within three years of one another (1920-1923).
Louise Bryant arrived back in New York City on 19th February, 1918. On her return Bryant commented that the Russian Revolution had increased her belief in women's suffrage. She immediately wrote to O'Neill in Provincetown. Agnes Boulton later recalled: "Louise wrote that she must see him - and at once. She had left Jack Reed in Russia and crossed three thousand miles of frozen steppes to come back to him - her lover. Page after page of passionate declaration of their love of hers, which would never change. She had forgiven him. What if he had picked up some girl in the Village and become involved? There was no use writing letters - she had to see him! It was all a misunderstanding and her fault for leaving him, for going to Russia with Jack." Boulton persuaded O'Neill not to see Louise.
O'Neill initially concentrated on writing one-act plays but it was his first full-length play, Beyond the Horizon (1920), that established his reputation as a dramatist. This play won a Pulitzer Prize and was followed by Anna Christie (1921), The Hairy Ape (1922), Desire Under the Elms (1924), All God's Chillun Got Wings (1924) a play that featured Paul Robeson, The Great God Brown (1926) and Strange Interlude (1928).
In 1929, O'Neill abandoned Agnes Boulton and the children for the actress Carlotta Monterey. The couple moved to the Loire Valley in France, where they lived in the Château du Plessis in Saint-Antoine-du-Rocher. In the early 1930s they returned to the United States and lived in Sea Island, Georgia, before moving to Danville, California in 1937.
O'Neill continued to have problems with alcohol. His friend, Art McGinley, commented: "Gene was a periodic drinker, and once started wouldn't stop - I guess he couldn't stop - until he was really sick. He was the most trying morning-after drinker I've ever known. He would gloom up and not say a word, or else talk of suicide, he was so disgusted with himself. But when he stopped drinking, he would work around the clock. I never knew anyone who had so much self-discipline."
Agnes Boulton, his former wife claimed in her autobiography, Part of a Long Story (1953): "He never seemed to be what is called drunk, but there would be some sudden and rather dreadful outbursts of violence, and others of bitter nastiness and malevolence when he appeared more like a madman than anything else." O'Neill's health deteriorated during the 1930s. Suffering from alcoholism and Parkinson disease, O'Neill wrote little during this period although in 1936 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
In 1940 O'Neill wrote the autobiographical play, Long Day's Journey Into Night. The action takes place during a single day in August 1912 at the summer home of the Tyrone family. The members of the family are the father, an actor, the drug-addicted mother, an alcoholic son and his younger brother suffering from tuberculosis (based on O'Neill himself). O'Neill left written instructions that stipulated that the play must not be made public until 25 years after his death.
The Iceman Cometh (1946) was the first new play of O'Neill's to be performed for twelve years. The play is set in Harry Hope's downmarket Greenwich Village saloon and rooming house. The patrons, Ed Mosher, Pat McGloin, Willie Oban, Joe Molt, Piet Wetjoen, Cecil Lewis, James Cameron, Hugo Kalmer and Larry Slade, are all alcoholics. One of his favourite plays, O'Neill claimed it was an attempt to portray man as a "victim of the ironies of life and himself".
O'Neill had poor relationships with his children. He disowned his daughter Oona O'Neill in 1943 for marrying Charlie Chaplin when she was 18 and he was 54. He never saw his daughter again. Eugene O'Neill, Jr., suffered from alcoholism, and committed suicide in 1950 at the age of 40, and Shane O'Neill, a heroin addict who also committed suicide. Oona was also an alcoholic in the last years of her life.
Eugene O'Neill died in Room 401 of the Sheraton Hotel on Bay State Road in Boston, on November 27, 1953, at the age of 65. Despite the written orders that he left, Carlotta Monterey arranged for Long Day's Journey Into Night to be performed in 1956. The following year it joined Beyond the Horizon and Anna Christie in winning the Pulitzer Prize.