Albert and Shirley Small Speial Collections Library
actors graphicCreating America's Theatre
actors graphic
Introduction to the Exhibit
Early American Theatre
A Novel Idea
Musicals
Setting the Modern Stage
A Voice of Their Own
Picks and Pans
Playbills and Programs
Regional Theatre in Virginia

Setting the Modern Stage

Eugene O'Neill

As the son of the celebrated actor James O'Neill, playwright Eugene O'Neill grew up in the theatre, spending the early years of his childhood traveling across the country from theatre to theatre with his family. Born in New York City on October 16, 1888, Eugene Gladstone O'Neill was profoundly affected by the stress of this traveling theatrical life, as well as his family's alcohol and drug abuse and his parents' marital difficulties and betrayals. The themes that he drew on in his plays grew out of these childhood traumas and the restlessness that followed him into his adulthood.

Upon leaving Princeton University in 1906 after less than a year's attendance, O'Neill found himself drifting from job to job, prospecting for gold in Honduras, marrying, becoming a father, divorcing, and signing on to various ships as a seaman. Not until 1913, when a bout with tuberculosis required an extended stay in a sanatorium did O'Neill take stock of his life and creative ambitions. It was during this period that he decided to focus and channel his writing into the theatre. After first drawing on nineteenth-century melodrama, O'Neill turned for inspiration to the early modernist plays of August Strindberg, Henrik Ibsen, and George Bernard Shaw; he began to experiment with the development of characterization rather than plot. Over the next four years, O'Neill wrote twenty-four plays, though none was staged until the summer of 1916 when he became involved with the newly formed theatre group the Provincetown Players.

With this bohemian group of artists and writers who summered in the fishing village of Provincetown, Massachusetts, Eugene O'Neill staged a successful performance of Bound East for Cardiff, one of his one-act sea plays, a success which propelled him onto the American theatre scene. By 1920, his three-act play Beyond the Horizon opened on Broadway and earned O'Neill his first Pulitzer Prize. The stage was set for a theatrical legacy which includes titles such as The Emperor Jones, Desire under the Elms, Strange Interlude, Mourning Becomes Electra, The Iceman Cometh, A Moon for the Misbegotten, and O'Neill's autobiographical and best-known play A Long Day's Journey into Night, which was produced posthumously.

Over his lifetime, Eugene O'Neill built a body of work that changed the face of American theatre. He wrote innovative plays, experimenting with realism, expressionism, and symbolism, explored different theatrical techniques, and created unique characterizations of the human condition. O'Neill won three more Pulitzer Prizes and, in 1936, received the Nobel Prize for Literature. For the last decade of his life, O'Neill suffered from various illnesses, including Parkinson's disease, which eventually prevented him from writing. He withdrew from the world of the theatre and died in 1953. Paving the way for succeeding generations of playwrights to experiment with form and content, Eugene O'Neill stands as the greatest pioneer of modern American theatre.

Bound East for Cardiff


One of four sea-plays that make up O'Neill's S. S. Glencairn series, Bound East for Cardiff was the first O'Neill play to be staged by the Provincetown Players. Produced during the summer of 1916 in their theatre on Lewis Wharf, this one-act play takes place on a steamship.

 

O'Neill, Eugene G. Bound East for Cardiff, A Sea Play. In The Provincetown Plays, The First Series. New York: Frank Shay, 1916.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

 

Production photograph of the Provincetown Players' staging of Bound East for Cardiff. [Provincetown, MA], 1916.
Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.
Eugene O'Neill is pictured on the far left.

 

Beyond the Horizon

The first of O'Neill's plays to be produced on Broadway, Beyond the Horizon opened at the Morosco Theatre on February 2, 1920. The play ran for 111 performances and won the 1920 Pulitzer Prize.

 

Typed manuscript of "Beyond the Horizon" by Eugene O'Neill. With author's initials and autograph correctio.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

 

Production photograph of staging of Beyond the Horizon by White Studio. [New York], 1920.
Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

 

Anna Christie

Anna Christie was O'Neill's second play to open on Broadway. The critical success of its run of 177 performances in the Vanderbilt Theatre from 1921 to 1922 earned O'Neill his second Pulitzer Prize. Pauline Lord played the title role of Anna, the prostitute daughter of a sea captain.

 

Pen-and-ink drawing of Pauline Lord, as Anna Christie, by Ellen Graham Anderson. No date.
From the Papers of Ellen Graham Anderson.


Thirst

In 1914, James O'Neill financed the publishing of this volume of his son's plays. The Provincetown Players first staged the title play, Thirst, along with O'Neill's Bound East for Cardiff.

 

O'Neill, Eugene G. Thirst, and Other One Act Plays. Boston: Gorham, 1914.

 

From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

 

 



Mourning Becomes Electra and The Great God Brown


In 1931, the Theatre Guild produced O'Neill's five-hour trilogy Mourning Becomes Electra, based on the model of Aeschylus' Oresteia. All three plays, The Homecoming, The Hunted, and The Haunted, were performed in one evening with an hour dinner break between the first two plays. In The Great God Brown (1926), O'Neill intrigued audiences with his use of masks to contrast the characters' outer and inner selves.

 

Typed letter, signed, from Eugene O'Neill to E. J. Halter. 17 May 1945.

 

From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

 

O'Neill discusses which of his plays he considered to be his best, writing:


If I had to throw overboard all my plays but one I'm afraid the strain would be too great and would end by my jumping overboard with one of these plays under each arm.

 

The Great God Brown. Playbill. [New York]: Greenwich Village Theatre, [1926].

 

From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

 

 

The Theatre Guild, Inc. Presents "Mourning Becomes Electra." Playbill for the Guild Theatre. [New York]: New York Theatre Program, [1931].

From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

 

 

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