O’Neill, Eugene (1888–1953) By King, William Davies
Eugene O’Neill is regarded as the quintessential modernist among American playwrights, and many of his works show an affinity with the themes and methods of notable modernists, but he resisted alliance with any artistic movement and ultimately resisted involvement in the theater itself. In his fervent exploration of the means of art, he seemed constantly to be rejecting the methods and even the goals of his contemporaries. Some might call his approach eclectic or experimental, but once his career had ended, it became clear that his experiments were driven by a lifelong project of self-analysis and a frustrated romantic quest for fulfillment.
O’Neill was born in New York in 1888, the third son of James O’Neill, a leading actor on the American stage at the point of its commercial boom. His convent-educated mother, by then disappointed with her husband, who would play the Count of Monte Cristo over 4,000 times in his career, had recognized the cost of commercial success in the theater—the lack of a home. A few years earlier, while they were on tour, her second son had suddenly died, and the birth of Eugene, intended to heal that loss, coincided with her becoming addicted to morphine. O’Neill was educated in Catholic boarding schools and grew up deeply alienated from the values of his upbringing: Christianity, middle-class conventions, and art of the commercial variety.