Book review: Eugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts

The defining events in Eugene O’Neill’s life took place before he was born. <B>Liam Heylin </b>on an unblinking biography.

Eugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts

Robert M Dowling

Yale University, $35 

The life of Eugene O’Neill to the age of 18 would make a decent biography in its own right before he wrote any play or won any of his four Pulitzers or the Nobel Prize.

One of the key events in his life happened before he was born and the whole drama was not played out in public until after his death with the posthumous staging of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a play which he decreed should not be performed until 25 years after he was gone because of the startlingly personal nature of the play.

In the early hours of March 4 1885 O’Neill’s brother, Edmund, died at the age of 18 months in terrible circumstances that would haunt the family, including the unborn Eugene.

Parents Ella and James were in Colorado where James, an actor, was performing. They left their two children, Edmund and the older boy, Jim, in their grandmother’s care in New York.

Jim, six, had measles and was under strict instructions to stay away from his baby brother. The youngster did go into the baby’s room and the infant soon became fatally ill.

Ella was inconsolable and was prescribed morphine to ease the pain. She developed an addiction to the drug which dominated most of her life.

Eugene was not yet born but when he became aware of this part of his family’s history his view was that he had been conceived as an impossible attempt to replace Edmund and that his brother, Jim, was never forgiven by their mother for the death of the child.

At the age of 14 Eugene came home to find his mother had become hysterical as she had run out of morphine.

She fled from their New York home, shrieking and wearing only her nightgown as she attempted to throw herself into the Thames river, stopped only by the frantic efforts of her husband and two sons.

She survived. However, the future playwright renounced his deeply Catholic up-bringing and became an atheist.

O’Neill would later become a regular at a couple of cheap dives, notably The Hellhole and Jimmy the Priest’s, two filthy, dissolute pubs where the young man felt utterly at home. At school, classmates asked him why he preferred a stinking pale of garbage to a fragrant bunch of roses and he responded that both were nature.

His college bedroom had a fishing net pinned to the ceiling out of which hung debris from his early debauched lifestyle, including items of ladies’ underwear and used condoms.

He was expelled from Princeton in his first year for conduct unbecoming a student. Even at this early stage O’Neill had experiences that would inspire, if not hauntm him for life.

For Robert Dowling this biography is clearly a labour of love but Dowling is too scrupulous, clear-headed and even-handed ever to be star-struck by his subject. One could easily be.

O’Neill towers over 20th century American culture. The story of Eugene and his father is in a sense the story of American theatre as it grew from its roots in mass popular entertainment to art that could stand tall with anything Europe had to offer.

James O’Neill was apparently a very talented actor in his time but — as far as his son was concerned — he squandered it for the 30 pieces of silver of popular theatre.

Eugene O’Neill, from his earliest foray into writing, was about making art and he gravitated towards like-minded people who would support him in getting his first plays to what in today’s terms would be called the art house audience.

O’Neill’s success could not be contained and it was not long before he was bringing his innovative plays and tragedies to huge audiences on Broadway, re-defining the course of American theatre and paving the way for many others playwrights.

Dowling avoids any sense of breathlessness that would suggest O’Neill’s star was always on the ascendant. Even after great successes, O’Neill had struggles with writing, critics, three marriages, his apparent antipathy to his children — particularly when they were young — and his lifelong alcoholism. While Dowling is undoubtedly an enormous fan this is no hagiographic trip.

For instance, as soon as he relates the circumstances of O’Neill’s death, he lands a deadly quote from his last wife, Carlotta Monterey — “Don’t sentimentalise him. He was not a sweet little boy searching for mama, or a young man ever so polite.

"He was a black Irishman, a rough, tough black Irishman. He could have that smile that made him appear so young; other times he’d be as old as an oriental. He was a simple man. They make a lot of nonsense and mystery out of him. He was interested only in writing his plays.”

To put that quote in context Monterey herself beguiled O’Neill with her beauty but she was a tough piece of work, an unforgiving snob who was fierce in her protection of the playwright but fierce also in shunning his many friends from the early days, and withering of the lowlifes with whom the writer was totally at home.

Monterey also had reason not to be misty-eyed as she, like other women in his life, had felt the force of his fists after spectacular drinking binges.

The biography is an insightful companion to the greater and lesser works O’Neill.

As well as The Iceman Cometh, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Emperor Jones and The Hairy Ape and plays with which contemporary audiences would be familiar, other works emerge as fascinating. All God’s Chillun Got Wings incurred the wrath of the Ku Klux Klan who threatened to blow up the theatre in outrage at a black actor kissing the hand of a white actress in a play that dealt with the then controversial subject of inter-racial marriage.

The nine-act colossus that was Strange Interlude is described as a play O’Neill imagined as having the breadth and detail of a novel in 1927.

A challenging figure in life and in theatre, his re-imagining of Greek tragedy in Mourning Becomes Electra in 1931 spawned the apocryphal line from the woman leaving the Broadway theatre afterwards, “Gosh, isn’t it good to get back out into the depression again.”

While O’Neill’s high-minded tragedies, often dealing with those at the lower reaches, are likely to swing in and out of theatrical favour, this biography — which deals with his times, his demons, his plays, his family and his wrestles with the influential world of psychoanalysis — is a fine book to be read whether the Irish American is in or out of fashion.


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