Eugene O’ Neill (1888-1953), was very successful on the professional level but his life was a failure (fallimento) as he had drinking problems, difficult relationships (he had several wives) and diseases (malattie). Eugene O’Neill was born in New York. He was familiar with the stage at an early age, as his father was an eminent Irish-born stage actor. Educated in Roman Catholic schools and briefly at Princeton University, he did various jobs before spending a year at sea (1910-11), during which 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. Despite his depression he had a deep love for the sea, and it became a prominent theme in most of his plays. After entering George Baker’s dramatic workshop at Harvard (1914), O’Neill formed a productive association with the Provincetown Players who staged his first one-act play (1916) and later transferred his activities to the Greenwich Village Playhouse.
In 1943, O’Neill also disowned (diseredò) his daughter Oona for marrying the English actor, director and producer Charlie Chaplin when she was 18 and Chaplin was 54. He never saw Oona again. He also had distant relationships 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. In 1936 he received the Nobel Prize for Literature. O’Neill died in Boston, on November 27, 1953. O’Neill was part of the modern movement to revive the classical heroic mask (maschera eroica) from ancient Greek theatre and was influenced by the Japanese Noh theatre in some of his plays. He was also very interested in the Faust theme, especially in the 1920s. In Strange Interlude (Pulitzer Prize 1928) O’Neill experimented with the stream of consciousness technique to depict internal conflicts on the stage. Mourning Becomes Electra (1931) is an adaptation of the Greek theme of the Oresteia, a trilogy of plays by Aeschylus. AlsoO’Neill’s tragedy is made of three plays – Homecoming (ritorno), The Hunted (cacciato), and The Haunted (il perseguitato) – never produced individually; each of them contains four to five acts and involves a lot of characters. In 1956, three years after his death, his autobiographical masterpiece (capolavoro) Long Day’s Journey Into Night was published and produced on stage to incredible critical acclaim (richiamo). It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1957 and is now considered to be his finest play. It chronicles a day in the life of the Tyrone family, during which family members inexorably confront one another’s mistakes and failures (errori e fallimenti).
O’Neiil gave a new originality to the stage mainly as to the language and the setting. He was part of the modern movement to revive the classical heroic mask from ancient Greek theatre and Japanese Noh theatre in some of his plays. He was also very interested in the Faust theme, especially in the 1920s. His plays combine realism with expressionism, the metaphysical with the poetic. Set in America they describe the society of the first decades of the 20th century, a society which started being oppressive and dehumanizing (disumanizzante). O’ Neill denounces the fragmentation of families, the difficulty of relationships, the profound racial divisions showing his interest in S. Freud’s theories and Ibsen and Strindberg’s plays. The characters who populate his plays are eternally lost children; they wander like haunted (perseguitati) by pathos, futility and frustration. They become representative of Man, universal figures. O’Neill used stylized settings (ambientazioni stilizzate), masks, strange sound effects, choruses, interior dialogue and dance to intensify his message and stimulate the subconscious of the audience.
O’ Neill’s first published play, Beyond the Horizon (1920), opened on Broadway to great acclaim, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It pictures the disastrous consequences when two young men are assigned destinies for which they are totally unsuited.
● His naturalistic tragedies of frustration include Anna Christie (Pulitzer Prize 1922), a study of a New York prostitute; The Hairy Ape (1922), about the violent life and death of a stoker, Desire Under the Elms (1925), about incest, infanticide and nemesis.
● Strange Interlude (Pulitzer Prize 1928), where O’Neill experimented with the stream of consciousness technique to depict internal conflicts on the stage.
● Mourning Becomes Electra (1931) is an adaptation of the Greek theme of the Oresteia, a trilogy of plays by Aeschylus. O’Neill’s tragedy is made of three plays, Homecoming, The Hunted, and The Haunted, which are never produced individually, but only as part of the larger trilogy. Each of them contains four to five acts and involves a lot of characters, so Mourning Becomes Electra is often cut down when rarely performed.
● Ah, Wilderness! (1933) is O’Neill’s only domestic comedy set in ‘a large small-town’ in Connecticut in which he re-imagines his own youth as he wished it had been.
●The Iceman Cometh was produced in 1946 After a long pause from the stage. It is a study of religious hope and illusion. The following year A Moon for the Misbegotten (1947) failed, and did not gain recognition as being among his best works until decades later.
In 1956, three years after his death, his autobiographical masterpiece Long Day’s Journey Into Night was published and produced on stage to tremendous critical acclaim. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1957 and is now considered to be his finest play. It chronicles a day in the life of the Tyrone family, during which family members inexorably confront one another’s mistakes and failures.
● Other posthumously-published works include A Touch of the Poet (1958) and More Stately Mansions (1967).
Seven one act plays
At the start of his dramatic career, Eugene O’Neill wrote seven one-act plays (atti unici): The Long Voyage Home, The Moon of the Caribees, Bound East for Cardiff, In the Zone, The Rope, Ile and Where the Cross is Made. All these plays form a cycle and are a striking illustration of O’Neill’s remarkable ability to create dramatic tension and atmosphere. The American-Irish playwright wrote these plays in 1916-17 after spending a year at sea (1910-11), during which he suffered from depression and alcoholism. Moreover O’Neill’s parents and older brother died within three years (entro tre anni) of one another, and O’Neill turned to (si diede) writing as a form of escape (fuga). But despite his depression, he had a deep love (profondo amore) for the sea, and it became a major theme in most of his plays. The plays were performed (furono recitate) first in Provincetown Players theatre then in Greenwich Village Playhouse. The real only hero of all these plays is the sea. The first four plays share (condividono) the same setting, the ship S.S. Glencairn, and some characters, the mariners Driscoll, Cocky, Ivan, Smitty and Olson. The plots are simple: a man is dying and recalls his past life; a young mariner would like to stop and settle down in a farm but is drugged and delivered (drogato e trasportato) on a boat with no return; a crew (ciurma) is obsessed by the war time(tempo di Guerra) paranoia and is frightened (spaventata9 by an unreal U-boat (sottomarino); a mariner is never involved (coinvolto) in the usual past times of his fellows but is always alone hiding a secret; a man – and his son – is haunted (perseguitato) by the idea of a treasure; an old man is waiting for the arrival of a son who only wants his money and a captain does not want to sail back without the proper load of whale oil (giusto carico di olio di balena) and drives his wife mad (fa diventare pazza la moglie). The real novelty is the language which follows these characters and depicts their personalities and their changes. O’Neill reproduces the language heard on ships by uneducated, illiterate people, who cannot express their hidden feelings and anguish. The setting is simple, bare (spoglio), stylized.
In Bound East for Cardiff (1914), O’Neill depicts the last thoughts of a man, Yank, fatally injured after falling into the hold assisted by his companion Driscoll. Yank recalls their adventures, the hardships of the sailor’s life, and their dream: leaving the sea and setting themselves up together on a farm in South America. The play is set on the ship sailing toward the Welsh port city through a thick fog. Upon Yank’s death, the fog lifts (alla morte di Yank, la nebbia si alza). In The Zone shows a man victim to the wartime paranoia of his fellows who persuade themselves that he’s a German spy trying to betray their ship, crossing the Atlantic with ammunition, to the prowling U-boats. The Long Voyage Home, is set in a squalid Docklands bar where a Swedish sailor, Olson, has decided to leave his sailor’s life, but he is drugged and delivered on a ship which is going to set its sail for on a hazardous voyage Cape Horn. Moon of the Carribbees (1917) focuses on the Englishman Smitty, a very quiet sailor, who seems to conceal (celare) a mystery in his past – perhaps romantic disappointment (delusion amorosa). In a port the sailors relax drinking rum with some local prostitutes. Smitty resists the advances of one of them and finds his relief (sollievo) in conversation and in a bottle of rum amidst the confusion and the dances and the fights around him.
All these plays share the same setting, the ship S.S. Glencairn, and some characters, the mariners Driscoll, Cocky, Ivan, Smitty and Olson.
The other three plays are different, they only share the real hero: the sea. The Rope deals with an ungenerous father, Abraham Bentley, waiting for the return of his prodigal son, Luke. Old Bentley has hidden his fortune at one end of a rope in the barn (stalla) –the noose (il cappio) at the other end is in plain sight (dall’altro capo è ben visibile). The old man shows his joy for Luke’s return but also urges (lo sprona) him to hang himself (impiccarsi). Luke does not understand: he nearly kills (quasi uccide) the old man before being taken by a furious attack of rage (attacco di nervi). It is the small granddaughter (nipotina) , Mary, who finds the gold at the end of the rope and throws it into the ocean. Ile is about a crew who is going to mutiny if the Captain won’t turn back and head for home after two years. The Captain’s wife is also on the verge of madness but the Captain does not want to return without a full load of whale oil (un carico complete di olio di balena). After a further rebellion he almost relents, when the crew sight whales ahead. The Captain gives the command to move northward, while his wife begins to play wildly the organ, in an almost hypnotic state.
In Where the Cross is made an old man is going to be taken to an asylum because thought totally mad. He is always talking about a treasure : Nat, his son, is almost convinced while his sister insists saying he is not dangerous. After the old man’s death, Nat’s real nature is revealed: he is insane and maniacally concerned for finding the Captain’s treasure: Nat’s disintegration is shown both in thoughts and language. The plots are linear and predictable, but the writing crackles with tension and atmosphere; O’Neill’s use of popular speech sounds a bit hackneyed to us, but was revolutionary in its day.