1936 : Eugene O’Neill

1936 : Eugene O’Neill

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“for the power, honesty and deep-felt emotions of his dramatic works, which embody an original concept of tragedy”



October 16, 1888

Place of birth


New York City, New York, USA



27 November 1953

Place of death


Boston, Massachusetts, USA






United States

Notable award(s)


Nobel Prize in Literature 1936


His father, James O’Neill was a theater actor of Irish origin who had grown up in the midst of abject poverty. His mother, Ella Quinlan O’Neill, the daughter was sensitive, emotionally fragile, a rich father died when she had only 17 years. Mrs. O’Neill never exceeded the deaths from measles within two years of his second son, Edmund, and became addicted to morphine after the difficult birth of Eugene O’Neill. Despite the fact that Eugene O’Neill was born in a hotel room on Broadway in New York, his childhood is closely linked to New London in Connecticut. His family had a property in this city since before he was born and before going to live there so was his final summer residence. Due to the occupation of his father, spent his early years behind the scenes in theaters and on trains in which the family was moving from one place to another. For seven years, O’Neill was sent to a Catholic boarding school in which he found as the sole consolation of reading. After suspending at Princeton University, had plenty of precarious jobs. He had a job in an office mail, the theater company from his father, moved to Honduras to search for gold, he spent several years as a sailor, he lived in Buenos Aires and during that time suffering from a depression that pushed him to alcoholism . His parents and his older brother Jamie (who drank to death after 45 years) died within three years. As a way of escape, O’Neill was devoted to writing. At the time it joins an amateur theater company, the “Provincetown Players”, which represent some of his early works, O’Neill also gets a job in New London Telegraph of Connecticut, and writes his first 7 or 8 works. Decides to devote himself to writing plays full time after his experience at the Gaylord Farms Sanatorium, where he had gone after contracting tuberculosis. During the 1910 O’Neill is a regular on the literary scene in Greenwich Village, where he meets with many friends among radicals that the most famous is John Reed, founder of the Communist Party of the United States. O’Neill also held during that time an affair with the wife of Reed, the writer Louise Bryant. O’Neill was played by Jack Nicholson in the movie 1981, Reds, of Warren Beatty, about the life of John Reed, which represents the anticommunism and sobriety. In 1914 began studying drama at harvard In 1929, O’Neill was moved to the Loire Valley, and now live in Castle Plessis, in Saint-Antoine-du-Rocher, Indre-et-Loire. In 1937 he moved to Danville, California, where they live until 1944. His house, known as Tao House, is now a museum, “Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site.” The first performance of a play by O’Neill, Beyond the Horizon, on Broadway in 1920 was an absolute success and earned him a Pulitzer Prize O’Neill obtain. His best known works are under the elms I wish, Strange interlude with which wins the Pulitzer for a second time, A Electra him feel good grief, where they note the influence of Greek drama, The Great God Brown, where a poet and a rationalist face, and her only comedy virgin land, a rewriting of melancholy childhood would have liked to have. In 1936, wins Nobel Prize for Literature. After a break of almost a decade, O’Neill wrote the play comes the man with ice in 1946. A moon the following year for the bastard is a failure, it will only be seen as his best work ten years later. The actress Carlotta Monterey was the third wife of O’Neill. Despite the fact that during the early years of his life arranged marriage by allowing be devoted to literature, was later intoxication with potassium bromide and relations deteriorated, resulting in a number of separations. About his wife, O’Neill complained that he did not know cooking, and ensured that the only thing we do know it was corn bread with chili (chili with Cornbread). In 1943 O’Neill disavowed his daughter Oona, the fruit of his second marriage to Agnes Bolton, having been the married June 16, 1943 with filmmaker Charles Chaplin when she only had 17 years and he was 54. Never seen again. Despite the age difference, they had eight children, including the well-known actress Geraldine Chaplin. They also tighten relationships with their children Eugene O’Neill Jr., A specialist in classical literature from Yale alcoholic who committed suicide in 1950 at age 40, and Shane O’Neill, addicted to heroin, which also killed himself. Having suffered numerous health problems (including alcohol) for many years, O’Neill also suffered in his final years from Parkinson’s disease, which caused tremors in his hands that prevented him from writing in their last ten years of life . He tried to dictate, but found it impossible to write that way. O’Neill died in an advanced stage of Parkinson’s disease in room 401 of the Sheraton hotel in Boston on November 27, 1953, at age 65. The building has now been transformed into a dormitory of Shelton Hall at the University of Boston. He was buried at the Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. Despite their written instructions stipulating that their works were not published until 25 years after his death in 1956 Carlotta ordered his autobiographical masterpiece, Long journey into the night on a day in the life of a family problem, for which issued, resulting in the immediate acclaim from critics, and today his work is considered more fully. Other works were published posthumously A touch of a poet (1958) and more stately mansions in 1967. With some of the money generated by these works, and following his own testamentary dispositions O’Neill, who wanted to show his appreciation to the country that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize was instituted O’Neill Award, which is awarded every year by the Theater Royal Dramatic (known as Dramaten) of Sweden.


Books in English (American editions only):

  • Thirst and Other One Act Plays – Boston : Gorham Press, 1914. – Content: Thirst, The Web, Warnongs, Fog, Recklessness

  • Bound East for Cardiff // Provincetown Plays : First Series – New York : Frank Shay, 1916

  • Before Breakfast // Provincetown Plays : Third Series – New York : Frank Shay, 1916

  • Ile – New York: Egmont H. Arens, 1918

  • The Moon of the Caribbees and Six Other Plays of the Sea – New York : Boni & Liveright, 1919

  • Beyond the Horizon – New York : Boni & Liveright, 1920

  • The Emperor Jones, Diff’rent, The Straw – New York : Boni & Liveright, 1921

  • Gold – New York : Boni & Liveright, 1921

  • The Hairy Ape, Anna Christie, The First Man – New York : Boni & Liveright, 1922

  • The Dreamy Kid // Contemporary One-Act Plays of 1921 – Cincinnati : Stewart Kidd Company, 1922

  • All God’s Chillun Got Wings and Welded – New York : Boni & Liveright, 1924

  • The Complete Works of Eugene O’Neill – 2 vol. – New York : Boni & Liveright, 1924

  • Desire Under the Elms – New York : Boni & Liveright, 1925

  • The Great God Brown, The Fountain, The Moon of the Caribbees and Other Plays – New York : Boni & Liveright, 1926

  • Marco Millions – New York : Boni & Liveright, 1927

  • The American Caravan – New York : The Macaulay Company, 1927. – Act one of Lazarus Laughed

  • Lazarus Laughed – New York : Boni & Liveright, 1927

  • Strange Interlude – New York : Boni & Liveright, 1928

  • Dynamo – New York : Horace Liveright, 1929

  • A Bibliography of the Works of Eugene O’Neill Together with the Collected Poems of Eugene O’Neill / edited by Ralph Sanborn and Barrett H. Clark – New York : Random House, 1931

  • Mourning Becomes Electra – New York : Horace Liveright, 1931

  • Nine Plays by Eugene O’Neill – New York : Horace Liveright, 1932

  • Ah, Wilderness! – New York : Random House, 1933

  • Days Without End – New York : Random House, 1934

  • The Plays of Eugene O’Neill – 12 vol. – New York : Scribners, 1934-1935

  • The Long Voyage Home : Seven Plays of the Sea – New York : Modern Library, 1940

  • The Plays of Eugene O’Neill – 3 vol. – New York : Random House, 1941

  • The Iceman Cometh – New York : Random House, 1946

  • Lost Plays of Eugene O’Neill – New York : New Fathoms, 1950

  • A Moon for the Misbegotten – New York : Random House, 1952

  • Long Day’s Journey into Night – New Haven : Yale University Press, 1956

  • The Last Will and Testament of Silverdene Emblem O’Neill – New Haven : Yale University Press, 1956

  • A Touch of the Poet – New Haven : Yale University Press, 1957

  • Hughie – New Haven : Yale University Press, 1959

  • Inscriptions : Eugene O’Neill to Carlotta Montgomery O’Neill – New Haven : Yale University Press, 1960

  • Ten “Lost” Plays – New York : Random House, 1964

  • More Stately Mansions – New Haven : Yale University Press, 1964

  • Six Short Plays – New York: Vintage Books, 1965

  • Children of the Sea and Three Other Unpublished Plays by Eugene O’Neill / edited by Jennifer McCabe Atkinson – Washington, D.C. : NCR Microcard Editions, 1972

  • Poems 1912-1942 / edited by Donald C. Gallup – New Haven : Yale University Library, 1979

  • The Calms of Capricorn / edited by Donald C. Gallup – 2 vol. – New Haven: Yale University Library, 1981

  • Eugene O’Neill At Work : Newly Released Ideas for Plays / edited by Virginia Floyd – New York : Ungar, 1981

  • Work Diary 1924-1943 / edited by Donald C. Gallup – 2 vol. – New Haven: Yale University Library, 1981

  • Chris Christophersen : A Play in Three Acts. – New York : Random House, 1982

  • The Unknown O’Neill : Unpublished or Unfamiliar Writings of Eugene O’Neill / edited by Travis Bogard – New Haven : Yale University Press, 1988

  • The Unfinished Plays : Notes for The Visit of Malatesta, The Last Conquest, Blind Alley Guy / edited by Virginia Floyd – New York : Continuum, 1988

  • Complete Plays / edited by Travis Bogard – 3 vol. – New York: Viking, 1988

Literature (a selection):

  • Winther, Sophus Keith, Eugene O’Neill : a Critical Study – New York : Random House, 1934

  • Skinner, Richard Dana, Eugene O’Neill : a Poet’s Quest – New York : Longmans, Green, 1935

  • Boulton, Agnes, Part of a Long Story : Eugene O’Neill as a Young Man in Love – London : Peter Davies, 1958

  • Falk, Doris Virginia, Eugene O’Neill and the Tragic Tension : an Interpretative Study of the Plays – New Brunswick, N.J. : Rutgers Univ. Press, 1958

  • O’Neill and his Plays : Four Decades of Criticism / ed. by Oscar Cargill … – New York, 1961

  • Gelb, Arthur, & Gelb, Barbara, O’Neill – New York : Harper, 1962

  • Sheaffer, Louis, O’Neill : Son and Playwright – Boston : Little, Brown, 1968

  • Sheaffer, Louis, O’Neill : Son and Artist. – Boston : Little, Brown, 1973

  • Critical Essays on Eugene O’Neil / compiled by James J. Martine – Boston, Mass. : G.K. Hall, 1984

  • Critical approaches to O’Neill / edited by John H. Stroupe – New York : AMS Press, 1988

  • Alexander, Doris, Eugene O’Neill’s Creative Struggle : The Decisive Decade, 1924-1933 – University Park : Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992

  • Black, Stephen A., Eugene O’Neill : Beyond Mourning and Tragedy – New Haven : Yale University Press, 1999


1936: Nobel Prize in Literature .

Presentation Speech:

Presentation Speech by Per Hallstrom, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, on December 10, 1936

Eugene O’Neill’s dramatic production has been of a sombre character from the very first, and for him life as a whole quite early came to signify tragedy.

This has been attributed to the bitter experiences of his youth, more especially to what he underwent as a sailor. The legendary nimbus that gathers around celebrities in his case took the form of heroic events created out of his background. With his contempt for publicity, O’Neill straightway put a stop to all such attempts; there was no glamour to be derived from his drab hardships and toils. We may indeed conclude that the stern experiences were not uncongenial to his spirit, tending as they did to afford release of certain chaotic forces within him.

His pessimism was presumably on the one hand an innate trait of his being, on the other an offshoot of the literary current of the age, though possibly it is rather to be interpreted as the reaction of a profound personality to the American optimism of old tradition. Whatever the source of his pessimism may have been, however, the line of his development was marked out, and O’Neill became by degrees the uniquely and fiercely tragic dramatist that the world has come to know. The conception of life that he presents is not a product of elaborate thinking, but it has the genuine stamp of something lived through. It is based upon an exceedingly intense, one might say, heart-rent, realization of the austerity of life, side by side with a kind of rapture at the beauty of human destinies shaped in the struggle against odds.

A primitive sense of tragedy, as we see, lacking moral backing and achieving no inner victory – merely the bricks and mortar for the temple of tragedy in the grand and ancient style. By his very primitiveness, however, this modern tragedian has reached the well-spring of this form of creative art, a naive and simple belief in fate. At certain stages it has contributed a stream of pulsating life-blood to his work.

That was, however, at a later period. In his earliest dramas O’Neill was a strict and somewhat arid realist; those works we may here pass by. Of more moment were a series of one-act plays, based upon material assembled during his years at sea. They brought to the theatre something novel, and hence he attracted attention.

Those plays were not, however, dramatically notable; properly speaking, merely short stories couched in dialogue-form; true works of art, however, of their type, and heart-stirring in their simple, rugged delineation. In one of them, The Moon of the Caribbees (1918), he attains poetic heights, partly by the tenderness in depicting the indigence of a sailor’s life with its naive illusions of joy, and pertly by the artistic background of the play: dirge-like Negro songs coming from a white coral shore beneath metallically glittering palms and the great moon of the Caribbean Sea. Altogether it is a mystical weave of melancholy, primitive savagery, yearning, lunar effulgence, and oppressive desolateness.

The drama Anna Christie (1921) achieves its most striking effect through the description of sailors’ life ashore in and about waterfront saloons. The first act is O’Neill’s masterpiece in the domain of strict realism, each character being depicted with supreme sureness and mastery. The content is the raising of a fallen Swedish girl to respectable human status by the strong and wholesome influences of the sea; for once pessimism is left out of the picture, the play having what is termed a happy ending.

With his drama The Hairy Ape (1922), also concerned with sailors’ lives, O’Neill launches into that expressionism which sets its stamp upon his ideadramas. The aim of expressionism in literature and the plastic arts is difficult to determine; nor need we discuss it, since for practical purposes a brief description suffices. It endeavours to produce its effects by a sort of mathematical method; it may be said to extract the square root of the complex phenomena of reality, and build with those abstractions a new world on an enormously magnified scale. The procedure is an irksome one and can hardly be said to achieve mathematical exactitude; for a long time, however, it met with great success throughout the world.

The Hairy Ape seeks to present on a monumental scale the rebellious slave of steam power, intoxicated with his force and with superman ideas. Outwardly he is a relapse to primitive man, and he presents himself as a kind of beast, suffering from yearning for genius. The play depicts his tragical discomfiture and ruin on being brought up against cruel society.

Subsequently O’Neill devoted himself for a number of years to a boldly expressionistic treatment of ideas and social questions. The resulting plays have little connection with real life; the poet and dreamer isolates himself, becoming absorbed in feverishly pursued speculation and phantasy.

The Emperor Jones (1920), as an artistic creation, stands rather by itself; through it the playwright first secured any considerable celebrity. The theme embraces the mental breakdown of a Negro despot who rules over a Negro-populated island in the West Indies. The despot perishes on the flight from his glory, hunted in the dead of night by the troll-drums of his pursuers and by recollections of the past shaping themselves as paralyzing visions. These memories stretch back beyond his own life to the dark continent of Africa. Here lies concealed the theory of the individual’s unconscious inner life being the carrier of the successive stages in the evolution of the race. As to the rightness of the theory we need form no opinion; the play takes so strong a hold upon our nerves and senses that our attention is entirely absorbed.

The dramas of ideas proper are too numerous and too diversified to be included in a brief survey. Their themes derive from contemporary life or from sagas and legends; all are metamorphosed by the author’s fancy. They play on emotional chords all tightly strung, give amazing decorative effects, and manifest a never-failing dramatic energy. Practically speaking, everything in human life in the nature of struggle or combat has here been used as a subject for creative treatment, solutions being sought for and tried out of the spiritual or mental riddles presented. One favourite theme is the cleavage of personality that arises when an individual’s true character is driven in upon itself by pressure from the world without, having to yield place to a make-believe character, its own live traits being hidden behind a mask. The dramatist’s musings are apt to delve so deep that what he evolves has an urge, like deep-sea fauna, to burst asunder on being brought into the light of day. The results he achieves, however, are never without poetry; there is an abundant flow of passionate, pregnant words. The action, too, yields evidence in every case of the never-slumbering energy that is one of O’Neill’s greatest gifts.

Underneath O’Neill’s fantastic love of experimenting, however, is a hint of a yearning to attain the monumental simplicity characteristic of ancient drama. In his Desire Under the Elms (1924) he made an attempt in that irection, drawing his motif from the New England farming community, hardened in te progress of generations into a type of Puritanism that had gradually come to forfeit its idealistic inspiration. The course embarked upon was to be followed with more success in the Electra trilogy.

In between appeared A Play; Strange Interlude (1928), which won high praise and became renowned. It is rightly termed A Play, for with its broad and loose-knit method of presentation it cannot be regarded as a tragedy; it would rather seem most aptly defined as a psychological novel in scenes. To its subtitle, Strange Interlude, a direct clue is given in the course of the play: Life, the present, is the strange interlude between the past and what is to come. The author tries to make his idea clear, as far as possible, by resorting to a peculiar device: on the one hand, the characters speak and reply as the action of the play demands; on the other, they reveal their real natures and their recollections in the form of monologues, inaudible to the other characters upon the stage. Once again, the element of masking!

Regarded as a psychological novel, up to the point at which it becomes too improbable for any psychology, the work is very notable for its wealth of analytical and above all intuitive acumen, and for the profound insight it displays into the inner workings of the human spirit. The training bore fruit in the real tragedy that followed, the author’s grandest work: Mourning Becomes Electra (1931). Both in the story it unfolds and in the destiny-charged atmosphere enshrouding it, this play keeps close to the tradition of the ancient drama, though in both respects it is adjusted to modern life and to modern lines of thought. The scene of this tragedy of the modern-time house of Atreus is laid in the period of the great Civil War, America’s Iliad. That choice lends the drama the clear perspective of the past and yet provides it with a background of intellectual life and thought sufficiently close to the present day. The most remarkable feature in the drama is the way in which the element of fate has been further developed. It is based upon up-to-date hypotheses, primarily upon the natural-scientific determinism of the doctrine of heredity, and also upon the Freudian omniscience concerning the unconscious, the nightmare dream of perverse family emotions.

These hypotheses are not, as we know, established beyond dispute, but the all-important point regarding this drama is that its author has embraced and applied them with unflinching consistency, constructing upon their foundation a chain of events as inescapable as if they had been proclaimed by the Sphinx of Thebes herself; Thereby he has achieved a masterly example of constructive ability and elaborate motivation of plot, and one that is surely without a counterpart in the whole range of latter-day drama. This applies especially to the first two parts of the trilogy.

Two dramas, wholly different and of a new type for O’Neill, followed. They constitute a characteristic illustration of the way he has of never resting content with a result achieved, no matter what success it may have met with. They also gave evidence of his courage, for in them he launched a challenge to a considerable section of those whose favourable opinions he had won, and even to the dictators of those opinions. Though it may not at the present time be dangerous to defy natural human feelings and conceptions, it is not by any means free from risk to prick the sensitive conscience of critics. In Ah, Wilderness (1933) the esteemed writer of tragedies astonished his admirers by presenting them with an idyllic middle-class comedy and carried his audiences with him. In its depiction of the spiritual life of young people the play contains a good deal of poetry, while its gayer scenes display unaffected humour and comedy; it is, moreover, throughout simple and human in its appeal.

In Days Without End (1934) the dramatist tackled the problem of religion, one that he had until then touched upon only superficially, without identifying himself with it, and merely from the natural scientist’s combative standpoint. In this play he showed that he had an eye for the irrational, felt the need of absolute values, and was alive to the danger of spiritual impoverishment in the empty space that will be all that is left over the hard and solid world of rationalism. The form the work took was that of a modern miracle play, and perhaps, as with his tragedies of fate, the temptation to experiment was of great importance in its origination. Strictly observing the conventions of the drama form chosen, he adopted medieval naivete in his presentation of the struggle of good against evil, introducing, however, novel and bold features of stage technique. The principal character he cleaves into two parts, white and black, not only inwardly but also corporeally, each half leading its own independent bodily life – a species of Siamese twins contradicting each other. The result is a variation upon earlier experiments. Notwithstanding the risk attendant upon that venture, the drama is sustained by the author’s rare mastery of scenic treatment, while in the spokesman of religion, a Catholic priest, O’Neill has created one of his most lifelike characters. Whether that circumstance may be interpreted as indicating a decisive change in his outlook upon life remains to be seen in the future.

O’Neill’s dramatic production has been extraordinarily comprehensive in scope, versatile in character, and abundantly fruitful in new departures; and still its originator is at a stage of vigorous development. Yet in essential matters, he himself has always been the same in the exuberant end unrestrainably lively play of his imagination, in his never-wearying delight in giving shape to the ideas, whether emanating from within or without, that have jostled one another in the depths of his contemplative nature, and, perhaps first and foremost, in his possession of a proudly and ruggedly independent character.

In choosing Eugene O’Neill as the recipient of the 1936 Nobel Prize in Literature, the Swedish Academy can express its appreciation of his peculiar and rare literary gifts and also express their homage to his personality in these words: the Prize has been awarded to him for dramatic works of vital energy, sincerity, and intensity of feeling, stamped with an original conception of tragedy.


Mourning Becomes Electra

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