A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions

Eugene O'Neill

Mourning Becomes Electra, one of Eugene O'Neill's greatest plays, was presented by the National Theatre in 2003 celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the playwright's death. A reworking of the “Oresteia” trilogy by Aeschylus and the Electra tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides, O’Neill’s epic American tragedy of hatred, passion, jealousy and greed is set in New England after the Civil War. Using Freud’s theories, as O’Neill had done earlier in “Strange Interlude,” he now views classical drama (as had Freud) as a rich field for exploration of character motivation.

The National Theatre production is directed by Howard Davies, and Helen Mirren stars as Christine, wife of returning Civil War brigadier general Ezra Mannon. Eve Best plays Lavinia, Ezra’s devoted daughter, who discovers her mother’s love affair with Adam Brandt. Adam, the son of Ezra’s wayward brother who had dishonored the family by his marriage to a servant, seeks revenge for the treatment of his parents. He and Christine plot Ezra’s death by poison on the evening of his return from the war. Disclosing them as her father’s murderers, Lavinia persuades her brother Orin to kill Adam, at whose loss Christine commits suicide. Although Lavinia had seemed plain in contrast to Christine’s beauty, she now grows more like her mother in appearance, and Orin, his mother’s favorite, turns his affections toward Lavinia. After his torment ends with suicide, Lavinia is left alone in their mansion, its shutters nailed closed, to “live alone with the dead… until the curse is paid out and the last Mannon is let die.”

Life and Works

  Born in New York City on October 16, 1888, the second son of popular actor James O'Neill, young Eugene sometimes accompanied his father on the national tours that were mandatory in every major actor's career.  James O'Neill's best known part was the title role in "The Count of Monte Cristo," in which he toured for many years.  The father, a famous actor and also, according to his son, a land-mad miser, in “Long Day’s Journey” delivers a long speech revealing his regret at remaining in popular but worthless vehicles at the expense of developing his talent in serious works like the plays of Shakespeare.

At eighteen, Eugene entered Princeton University and shortly after, was expelled.  In "Long Day’s Journey" the wild behavior of the younger son, who is O'Neill, is blamed on the bad example set by the older brother, would-be actor Jamie.  As a seaman, Eugene sailed the world, and worked for a while as a gold prospector in Honduras.  In New York City, he would frequent the sleazy saloons, one of which is the setting for "The Iceman Cometh."  By the time he was twenty-four, he had contracted tuberculosis, the fate suffered by the younger son in "Long Day's Journey."  Always a reader, he decided during his recuperation to become a playwright, and entered George Baker's playwriting course at Harvard University.

His early one-act plays based on his sea experiences became an excellent film,   "The Long Voyage Home." O'Neill's first big success on Broadway was "Beyond the Horizon" in 1920, which was awarded a Pulitzer prize, as were three of his later plays.  It concerns two brothers, one a sea-loving, sensitive lad, who marries and must remain home as a farmer, and the other, a born farmer who takes advantage of the opportunity to sail the world but profits nothing from his experiences.  It is interesting to note that both O'Neill and Arthur Miller had older brothers and that fraternal pairs figure importantly in the works of both men.

Although these early plays are realistic, O'Neill demonstrates in two one-acts his growing interest in the expressionism of the thirties, as seen in German films like "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari."  In the expressionistic "The Hairy Ape," in which a ship's stoker, his milieu the pounding engines and furnaces, aspires to the love of a wealthy woman passenger, but fails to find peace out of his customary environment; as the citizens of the metropolis ignore him, mechanically bent on their destinations.  He can find companionship only in the zoo, at the cage of the ape to whom he has been compared.  In "The Emperor Jones," an opportunistic black railway porter, through his cunning, takes advantage of naive jungle inhabitants to become their emperor.  But as he is pursued through the jungle by city deserters even more greedy than he, his veneer of civilization is lost, and he reverts to basic human fears.  Both these plays are preserved as good films, the latter with an impressive performance by Paul Robeson as Jones.

The naturalism that marks these one-acts is also the driving force behind the tragedy of "Anna Christie," a former prostitute who hopes to leave behind her former life in the West and live cleanly and peacefully with her father, a tugboat captain in New York.  But she is unable to escape the molding forces beyond her control,  her past and "the old devil sea" that her father believes has them in his grip. The film of the same name in the title role stars Greta Garbo, who successfully captures O'Neill's brooding heroine.

 In "Strange Interlude" (1928) O"Neill experiments with having the characters not only deliver their dialogue in interacting with others, but also speak their thoughts to the audience, thoughts that often counter their remarks to the listener.  A revival a few years ago, with Glenda Jackson as the heroine and Edward Petherbridge as her long suffering friend Charles, played both in London and on Broadway, demonstrating the power of this work in which the heroine both entraps and is entrapped by the men in her life: her domineering father, her husband, the doctor friend who is the secret father of her child, the understanding family friend, and her son.

"The Iceman Cometh" (1946)  and "Long Day's Journey into Night" (1957) are generally considered O'Neill's best plays.  The latter was produced posthumously because O'Neill left instructions with his wife Carlotta that it must not be staged until his brother died.  He wrote the story of the "haunted" family, he said in the dedication to Carlotta, with "blood and tears."  It is a searing account of a day in the life of the Tyrones, the father a famous actor, the mother addicted to morphine, the older son a wastrel, and the younger son (O'Neill) stricken with tuberculosis.  Each blames the other for his or her tragic plight: -- the father with his need to support the family, which drove him to remain in a worthless but popular work; the mother on her pain at childbirth, for which a "cheap" doctor hired by her husband prescribed morphine, to which she became addicted; the younger brother on the older, who leads him into degeneracy; and the older on the father, who forced him into acting, which he despises, and heavy drinking, in emulation of his father.

An excellent  film version stars Katharine Hepburn as the mother, Ralph Richardson as the father, Jason Robards, Jr. as the older son and Dean Stockwell as the younger.  There is also a television version, with Laurence Olivier as the father and Constance Cummings as the mother.  The play is frequently revived and always powerful in its impact.  One of the best revivals brought Helen Hayes to the Hartke Theater at Catholic University in Washington, in an unforgettably moving performance as Mary.

  "The Iceman Cometh" was revived in London and on Broadway a few seasons ago, with Kevin Spacey as Hickey. "Iceman" may seem to run a lifetime, but then it does encompass life and death   In Harry Hope's bar earlier this century, the seedy inhabitants have only their illusions, or "pipe dreams," to keep them alive.  With the help of liquor and companionship, each recalls a meaningful past and resolves upon action -- but in the future.  In the present, however, they do not venture outside the bar.  As the play opens, they await the arrival of salesman Hickey offering stale jokes (including the one about the wife and the iceman) and free drinks.

Interviewed before the play's initial opening in 1946, O'Neill described the first act as a "hilarious comedy....a big kind of comedy that doesn't stay funny very long...the comedy breaks up and the tragedy comes on."  He attempted to explain his approach to Theater Guild producer Laurence Langner:   "There are moments in it that suddenly strip the soul . . . stark naked, not in cruelty or moral superiority, but with an understanding compassion which sees him as a victim of the ironies of life and of himself.  These moments are for me the depth of tragedy, with nothing more that can possibly be said."

Hickey's visit is less and more than the denizens of the saloon expected.  This time he is selling them salvation by destroying their illusions as he has destroyed his own about his wife.  Hickey has killed his wife, he reveals, to destroy her pipe dream that he was a good man, worthy of her forgiveness. His pipe dream is that he loved his wife, until he confesses that as he killed her he told her, "You know what you can do with your pipe dream now, you damned bitch."  Immediately, Hickey retracts this slip: "I couldn't have said that.  I loved Evelyn."  He departs with the police, still holding onto the pipe dream of loving his wife. 

Goaded by Hickey, the men and women in the bar now accept their hopelessness, and are plunged into the despair they have kept at bay --  the liquor has no "kick" and  the bar seems "a morgue."  As Hickey had urged, each goes forth to face reality -- with disastrous results.  Finally, each returns to the sanctuary of the saloon to offer a "face-saving version of his experience when he went out to confront his pipe dreams."  With the help of liquor, they recover their illusions .  All but Larry, as impressively played by Tim Piggott-Smith.  Larry, who knows that "the lie of a pipe dream is what gives life to the whole misbegotten lot of us," has clung to the illusion that he is uninvolved, detached.  But by the end, he has sent Don Parritt to his death.  Facing the truth about himself, a truth that means death, Larry acknowledges that he is "the only convert to death Hickey made here."

In a remarkably skillful performance, Kevin Spacey intelligently built the character of salesman Hickey from the anticipated joviality  to the evangelical sales pitch for the biggest sale of his life:   selling the group on reality.  Their conversion spells destruction for the fragile inhabitants of   "the No Chance Saloon . . . Bedrock Bar, the End of the Line Cafe. . . the last harbor." (Larry's description)  Spacey avoided the temptation to make Hickey likeable; even his first speeches had a sinister motif that finally became the major theme.  With great attention to detail, British director Howard Davies  achieved the necessary ensemble effect for the inhabitants of the bar; this is a play which demands focus on both the group as a whole and the individuals, an effect Davies brought off to perfection.  What a pity O'Neill could not live to see this "Iceman."  He often complained about the productions of his plays, including the l946 "Iceman," with Eddie Dowling directing and James Barton miscast as Hickey.  Of the final scene in this production, O'Neill remarked, "If our American acting and direction cannot hold this scene up without skimping it, then to hell with our theater."

After a debilitating illness, O'Neill died in 1953.  He had been working on a series of historical plays designed to show that since the first settlers, the hope and idealism of America were lost in its search for material gain. Both were staged on Broadway and subsequently revived.  In  "A Touch of the Poet" (l958)  Irish officer Con Melody (Eric Portman) emigrates to the colonies with his daughter and wife, unforgettably interpreted by Helen Hayes, combining pathos and humor. The second, unfinished, "More Stately Mansions” was staged in 1967 and treats the daughter, who marries into the gentry.  Ingrid Bergman starred.

Eugene O’Neill brought stature to American drama and still stands like a monolith in the American theater scene since its beginnings in the early eighteenth century when British soldiers in their leisure time staged Restoration comedies and scenes from Shakespeare. American playwrights who emerged followed the pattern of the British comedies of the day, while in the nineteenth century melodramas prevailed, like “The Count of Monte Cristo,” in which the elder O’Neill so successfully toured.  But it was Eugene O'Neill whose work over three decades until his death in 1953 inspired later serious playwrights and gave stature and international reputation to American drama.