It’s the birthday of American playwright Eugene O’Neill (books by this author), born in a Broadway hotel room in New York City (1888). His father was a famous actor, and O’Neill spent much of his childhood on trains and in hotels, following his father on tours. He went to Princeton, but he was expelled after a year. He got a series of odd jobs, then went off on a gold prospecting expedition in Honduras, where he contracted malaria. After he recovered, he tried out sailing, vaudeville acting, and writing for a small-town newspaper. In 1912, he fell sick again with tuberculosis and spent six months in a sanatorium. While he was there, he began to read classic playwrights and modern innovators like Ibsen and Strindberg.
When he was released, he began writing furiously, coming out with 11 one-act plays in just a few years. In 1916, in Provincetown, Massachusetts, he fell in with a group that would become known as the Provincetown Players, which included writers like Susan Glaspell and Robert Edmond Jones. The group began producing O’Neill’s plays on a regular basis, and they helped to revolutionize American theater.
In 1920 his play Beyond the Horizon became a popular and critical success on Broadway, and it won the Pulitzer Prize. He would go on to win two more Pulitzers in the next eight years, for Anna Christie (1922) and Strange Interlude (1928). He continued to write until 1944, when he was diagnosed with a crippling neurological disease called cortical cerebellar atrophy. In 1956, his work began to be revived, and his play Long Day’s Journey into Night — published posthumously in 1956 — won the Pulitzer Prize the next year.
After Shakespeare and Shaw, O’Neill is the most widely presented and translated dramatist in the English-speaking world. His were the first real tragedies of the American stage, the first to dispense with formal language in favor of slang, and the first to use special effects like masks and dramatic lighting. He won the Nobel Prize in 1936.
O’Neill wrote to a friend: “I am far from being a pessimist. … On the contrary, in spite of my scars, I am tickled to death at life!”
And he wrote, “Life is for each man a solitary cell whose walls are mirrors.”