On this day in 1888, the great American playwright Eugene O’Neill was born. When I was young, I loved his work. I liked his dark realism and thought it was much better than Tennessee Williams, whose romanticism I didn’t understand, and therefore didn’t like. But in my 20s and 30s, I turned against O’Neill. His work just seemed so unrelentingly pessimistic. I suspect this reaction came from my efforts to suppress my own unrelenting pessimism. Now his plays just seem very realistic to me.
O’Neill’s supposed masterpiece is Long Day’s Journey Into Night. It is about the effect of a mother’s morphine addiction on the other members of the family. The play is largely autobiographical. O’Neill’s mother was addicted to morphine for roughly two decades. And she gets the best line in the play, which in many ways sums up O’Neill’s entire oeuvre, “Something I need terribly. I remember when I had it I was never lonely nor afraid. I can’t have lost it forever, I would die if I thought that. Because then there would be no hope.” Although I think it is a great play, I am not especially fond of it, and it is not what I most admire of his work.
My favorite is the four hour treatise on despair and hopelessness, The Iceman Cometh. It doesn’t tell any particular story — it just shows the lives of a group of people who drink their lives away at a Greenwich Village boarding house and bar. Everyone is excited because the semi-regular visit from Hickey — a very charismatic traveling salesman. (To give you some idea of the character’s charisma: James Earl Jones played the part on Broadway in 1973.) Much happens during the play, but ultimately, nothing happens. The characters go back to their old lives of drink and fantasies about what they will do “tomorrow.” Reread the line above from Long Day’s Journey Into Night again. There it referred to morphine, but in The Iceman Cometh, it refers to, well, everything and anything.
I don’t think that O’Neill was a very nice man. He had three wives, all of which he abandoned. Out of these marriages came three children. Both of the boys committed suicide in adulthood. (Interestingly, one of them did it the same way Don Parritt does in The Iceman Cometh.) And his daughter married the 54 year old Charlie Chaplin when she was 18. She appears to have been the most stable member of the family. But it is hard to read any of O’Neill’s work and come to any conclusion but that he was a miserable bastard. The work is still great.
Happy birthday Eugene O’Neill!