Eugene Gladstone O'Neill (October 16, 1888 – November 27, 1953) was a Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winning American playwright. More than any other dramatist, O'Neill introduced the dramatic realism pioneered by Anton Chekhov, Henrik Ibsen, and August Strindberg into American drama. Generally, his plays involve characters who inhabit the fringes of society, where they struggle to maintain their hopes and aspirations but ultimately slide into disillusionment and despair.
Eugene O'Neill's life was intimately connected to New London, Connecticut. His father was an Irish-born stage actor named James O'Neill, who had grown up in impoverished circumstances. His mother, Ella Quinlan O'Neill, was the emotionally fragile daughter of a wealthy father who died when she was seventeen. O'Neill's mother never recovered from the death of her second son, Edmund, who had died of measles at the age of two, and became addicted to morphine as a result of Eugene O'Neill's difficult birth.
O'Neill was born in a Broadway hotel room. Because of his father's profession, he spent his early years backstage at theatres and on trains as the family moved from place to place. When he was seven, O'Neill was sent to a Catholic boarding school where he found his only solace in books.
After being suspended from Princeton University, he spent several years as a sailor, during which time he suffered from depression and alcoholism. O'Neill's parents and older brother Jamie (who drank himself to death at the age of 45) died within three years of one another, and O'Neill turned to writing as a form of escape.
While he was associated with the Provincetown Players, several of his early plays were put on by that group of actors and playwrights. O'Neill was also employed by the New London Telegraph, and dabbled in playwriting while working there. It wasn't until his experience at Gaylord Farms Sanatorium (where he was recovering from tuberculosis) that he decided to devote himself full time to writing plays. (Connecticut College maintains an O'Neill archive and the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut fosters the development of new plays under his name.)
During the 1910s O'Neill was a regular on the Greenwich Village literary scene, where he also befriended many radicals, most notably Communist Party USA founder John Reed. O'Neill also at one time had a romantic relationship with Reed's wife, writer Louise Bryant. (O'Neill was portrayed by Jack Nicholson in the 1981 film Reds about the life of John Reed, in which he served as the film's voice of anti-communism and "sobriety.")
In 1929 O'Neill moved to the Loire Valley of northwest France, where he lived in the Chateau du Plessis in St. Antoine-du-Rocher, Indre-et-Loire. He moved to Danville, California in 1937 and lived there until 1944. His house there (known as Tao House), is today the Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site.
O'Neill's first published play, Beyond the Horizon, opened on Broadway in 1920 to great acclaim, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. His best-known plays include Desire Under the Elms, Strange Interlude (for which he again won the Pulitzer Prize), Mourning Becomes Electra, and his only comedy Ah, Wilderness!, a wistful re-imagining of his own youth as he wished it had been. In 1936 he received the Nobel Prize for Literature. After a ten-year pause, O'Neill's now-renowned play The Iceman Cometh was produced in 1946. The following year's A Moon for the Misbegotten failed, and would not gain recognition as being among his best works until decades later.
Actress Carlotta Monterey was O'Neill's third wife. Although in the first years of their marriage she organized his life, making it possible for him to devote himself to writing, she later became addicted to Potassium bromide and the marriage deteriorated, resulting in a number of separations. (O'Neill always complained about her cooking, maintaining that the only thing she knew how to make was chili with cornbread.)
In 1943 O'Neill disowned his daughter, Oona (by his second wife, Agnes Bolton), for marrying the English actor/director/producer Charlie Chaplin when she was 18 and he was 54. He never saw her again.
He also had distant relationhips with his sons, Eugene O'Neill Jr., a Yale classicist who suffered from alcoholism, and committed suicide in 1950 at the age of 40, and Shane O'Neill, a heroin addict who also committed suicide.
After suffering from multiple health problems (including alcoholism) over many years, O'Neill ultimately faced a severe Parkinsons-like tremor in his hands which made it impossible for him to write (he had tried using dictation but found himself unable to compose in that way) during the last 10 years of his life.
O'Neill died from the advanced stages of Parkinson's disease in room 401 of the Shelton Hotel in Boston, on November 27, 1953, at the age of 65 (The building is now Shelton Hall dormitory at Boston University). He was interred in the Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts.
Although his written instructions had stipulated that it not be made public until 25 years after his death, in 1956 Carlotta arranged for his autobiographical masterpiece Long Day's Journey Into Night to be published, and produced on stage to tremendous critical acclaim; it is now considered to be his finest play. Other posthumously-published works include A Touch of the Poet (1958) and More Stately Mansions (1967).