A portrait of a playwright inspired by suffering.
When Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953) began writing plays in 1913, American theater featured hackneyed melodramas with audience-pleasing happy endings. O’Neill’s dark themes—oppression, racism, alienation—and innovative staging revolutionized the genre, paving the way for such later iconoclasts as Tennessee Williams and Thornton Wilder. In this authoritative biography, Dowling (English/Central Connecticut State Univ.; co-author, Critical Companion to Eugene O’Neill, 2009, etc.) traces the trajectory of O’Neill’s career: his two semesters in George Baker’s noted playwriting seminar at Harvard; his professional growth with the Provincetown Players; the production of his first full-length play, Beyond the Horizon (1920), which won a Pulitzer Prize; and his prolific output for the next two decades, including the Pulitzer-winning Anna Christie (1920) and Strange Interlude (1927) and ending with A Moon for the Misbegotten (1943) and the posthumous production of Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956). Critical acclaim did not assuage the demons that haunted O’Neill from childhood, however. Desperately lonely, “besieged by hideous attacks of rage, guilt, and fear,” he drank. “The stranglehold alcoholism had taken over O’Neill by the early twenties is nearly impossible to overstate,” Dowling writes. He felt spiritually and emotionally bereft. He was married three times, the last to the domineering Carlotta Monterey, who vowed to “construct a fortress around her husband” to protect him from annoyances, including his children from previous marriages. Both sons committed suicide. His daughter, Oona, who eloped with Charlie Chaplin when she was 18, also succumbed to alcoholism. O’Neill was stridently critical of America, calling it “the greatest failure….Its main idea is that everlasting game of trying to possess your own soul by the possession of something outside of it….”
Although O’Neill claimed he was a “tragic optimist,” Dowling’s sympathetic, comprehensive portrait reveals a man beset by self-hatred and despair, struggling—and failing—to find salvation.