Saturday, October 16, 2010

In Memoriam: Eugene O'Neill

The works of Eugene O'Neill are not merely renowned but acclaimed for their bitterness and cynicism; his characters are generally downtrodden, prone to the abuse of alcohol, and generally speaking something of a sorry lot. This is probably why I have always studiously avoided them, and him. After all, it should come as no surprise to even the most casual observer of the Pop Culture Institute that its author is rather obsessed with comedy, and the reason why ought to be obvious even to the most glib of pop psychologists.

PhotobucketNevertheless, his is a name which recurs rather too often in the course of my research - especially since it so often appears in conjunction with other bold-faced names of 20th Century entertainment - and so for the sake of this blog I've decided to finally man up and face what amounts to one of my demons: the professional tragedian.

Born on this day in 1886 in a room of the Barrett Hotel in New York City's Times Square, as a child he was sent to Catholic boarding school, where naturally he found no solace in religion but plenty in books. A lengthy sojourn at sea ended when he contracted tuberculosis, following which he turned to writing to make his convalescence more bearable. A Greenwich Village bohemian long before it was a pose, in 1916 O'Neill discovered the Provincetown Players while on vacation in New England, and a memorable partnership was born...

At a time when the American theatre was still rather plagued by melodrama, O'Neill's stark realism was both a breath of fresh air and a challenge to the ruling orthodoxy - which simultaneously made him a bold innovator and a major threat. His first Broadway show was 1920's Beyond the Horizon, and its timing was propitious; as a nation embittered by its involvement in a European war entered the hedonistic Jazz Age and its government swore everyone off alcohol (wink, wink) O'Neill's dissipated vulgarians became contemporary archetypes seemingly overnight.

PhotobucketMany of Eugene O'Neill's plays were hugely successful both on Broadway and in repertory; a fair number were made into movies. The highlights of his literary career include The Emperor Jones, Anna Christie, Desire Under the Elms, Mourning Becomes Electra, Ah, Wilderness! (his only attempt at comedy), The Iceman Cometh, Long Day's Journey Into Night, and A Moon for the Misbegotten.

Given the lack of good examples from his life and the challenges he faced thanks to booze, it should be no surprise that Eugene O'Neill was never going to be either husband or father of the year; both husband and father of three, not only did his marriages scandalously overlap but his eldest son committed suicide, his middle child became a heroin addict (and also committed suicide), and his daughter Oona he disowned when she was just 18 for marrying 54 year-old Charlie Chaplin.

O'Neill was portrayed by Jack Nicholson in the 1981 film Reds; in life, O'Neill had been close friends with John Reed (and even closer to Reed's wife Louise Bryant, if you know what I mean). Reed, of course, was played by Warren Beatty and Louise Bryant by Diane Keaton. Both his Connecticut home (Monte Cristo Cottage) and his home in California (Tao House) have been designated national landmarks; even the site where he was born - at the epicentre of American entertainment, Times Square, now home to a Starbucks - is marked by a plaque. In addition to his numerous awards - including various Pulitzers as well as the Nobel Prize - The Eugene O'Neill Award named for him has been handed out annually in Sweden since 1956.

He died in November 1953.
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