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A Long Dark Journey into Light

By Janis Johnson | HUMANITIES, March/April 2006 | Volume 27, Number 2

In the late 1930s, American playwright Eugene O'Neill was at the height of his career: three Pulitzer Prizes, a Nobel Prize, accolades, and financial success. By 1956, his star had fallen and his most acclaimed works, written years after the prize ceremonies, were destined for oblivion.

O'Neill had died in a Boston hotel in 1953, ostensibly determined to control what happened to his literary legacy. The terms of his will clearly expressed that , now regarded as one of the greatest American plays, never be performed. But his wife, Carlotta, defied his last wish over the objections of O'Neill's longtime publisher Bennett Cerf, and on November 7, 1956, the curtain rose on the first American production of Long Day's Journey into Night. When the final curtain fell, most members of the audience were in tears.

"We came out to take our calls," recalled the late Jason Robards, then a relatively unknown actor: "Silence. . . . And then it went--tremendous applause--everyone got on their feet. . . . the audience started to come to the stage. This is what I never had happen before or since. . . . They were all down, looking up, and we were standing there looking down into faces of people that we knew or we didn't know. It was very strange, but it was absolutely incredible."

In the end, Long Day's Journey into Night would prove to be a watershed in American theater, reviving O'Neill's reputation and bringing him posthumously a fourth Pulitzer Prize. "This really was his resurrection year, and it's important to look back and think where we would have been without that play fifty years ago," says Ric Burns, director, cowriter, and coproducer of Eugene O'Neill, a two-hour documentary film scheduled for broadcast March 27 on PBS's American Experience.

O'Neill, acknowledged as a storyteller "of unmitigated gloom," was a literary genius because of his "courage to reach back into his own past and realize it objectively," says Burns. "That is very hard to get to, and as members of the audience we recognize that. We feel tremendous moving identification and feel, 'you know what? That's my family.'"

O'Neill's other major works, such as The Iceman Cometh and A Moon for the Misbegotten, "require the entire nervous system of a writer," Burns says. "He delved down into his own experience like an archaeologist. It took him a lifetime to access the tranquility to be able to do that."

What is "exhilarating" about plays that are on the surface "profoundly bleak," says Burns, "is the affirming power of all great tragic art that says, 'I can look into the most horrific things and not turn to stone. I can confront reality without turning away from it.'"

"I have an innate feeling of exultance about tragedy," O'Neill wrote. "What I am after is to get an audience to leave the theater with an exultant feeling from seeing somebody on the stage facing life, fighting against the eternal odds, not conquering, but perhaps inevitably being conquered. The individual life is made significant just by the struggle."

"It's catharsis," playwright Tony Kushner observes in the documentary. "And it leaves open the possibility that now something new can be born."

Burns wrote Eugene O'Neill with Arthur and Barbara Gelb, O'Neill's biographers. They tell the story of America's only Nobel Prize-winning playwright within the context of his turbulent family relationships and the social, cultural, and personal upheavals that shaped him and his writing.

The writers' single greatest challenge was to make the intensely dark O'Neill and his theatrical material lively and accessible in a television documentary. They achieved this by inviting in marquee actors--including Robards, Al Pacino, Liam Neeson, Christopher Plummer, Brian Dennehy, Vanessa Redgrave, and Natasha Richardson--and giving them the material to grapple with on live camera. Some of the actors, such as Plummer, had never performed O'Neill.

Knitting together the interpretive narrative are O'Neill specialists such as playwrights Kushner and John Guare. The documentary unfolds as a series of scenes from O'Neill's work mixed in with scholarly reflections, excerpts from letters and journals, newspaper accounts, and old photos and film.

"In the theater, the suspense is heightened because the acting is happening in real time," says Burns. "On film, we wanted to pare it away to the absolute essentials--the words the playwright wrote, the actor struggling with that and the audience listening in silence."

Looking back, O'Neill's entire life seems to have gone into the making of Long Day's Journey into Night and the masterworks he wrote late in life. The roots of these works lay in his own turbulent circumstances and those of his parents, James and Ella, and his older brother, Jamie. They also lay in the excruciating vulnerability and irresistible inner drive that were the complex coordinates of O'Neill's own character.

"In O'Neill," says Kushner, "there's this absolute, you know, sort of God-ordained mission, which is to keep searching, even if in the process he discovered that there is no God. It's a terrifying sort of mandate, but I also think it should be the mandate of all artists, and in a way, of all people."

O'Neill was born in a hotel room in 1888, in the heart of what became Times Square. His father James was a matinee idol. His mother Ella was a shy convent girl who found herself madly in love with her husband but unable to adjust to the rootless acting life.

From the start, Eugene would be haunted by events that had taken place before his birth, particularly the death of his brother Edmund. The boy contracted measles at the age of four just after Ella reluctantly decided to join James on tour, and died before she was able to get back home. She never forgave herself. Soon after Eugene was born, Ella started taking morphine and became addicted. His oldest brother Jamie also never recovered from the psychological damage of Edmund's death and eventually became an alcoholic. O'Neill saw his parents' marriage descend into a nightmare of remorse and recrimination.

With his father frequently away and his mother emotionally absent, the young Eugene took pleasure in reading and staring at the sea in his family's summer home in New London, Connecticut. He imagined that he could be as free as a seagull, according to Barbara Gelb. O'Neill was nearly fifteen, his own faith faltering, before he learned about his mother's addiction. He began his own aimless wandering, dreamed of going to sea and becoming a poet, drank recklessly and was thrown out of Princeton his first year for drinking too much and cutting classes. O'Neill married, had a son, then abandoned his family, set off to sea, and drank himself senseless.

On a freezing night in the winter of 1912, filled with hopelessness and shame , the twenty-three-year-old O'Neill swallowed a bottle of Veronal tablets in Jimmy the Priest's saloon at the foot of Manhattan and lay down to die. Instead, he lived. "That bar, which is so profoundly important in O'Neill's life . . . it's the place where he became a writer really," Kushner explains in the documentary. "That's where he hit the bottom. That's where he arrived at his own O'Neillian moment, and emerged."

The next summer O'Neill declared, "I want to be an artist or nothing." Over the next six years he would teach himself to write plays, he would marry and start another family, and would see his first full-length play, Beyond the Horizon, open on Broadway. The first American tragedy, it changed the course of American theater-and won a Pulitzer Prize. Before O'Neill "there was no American theater," says Guare.

"In America before World War I, there was a cultural resistance to theater dealing with serious things," says Burns. "After the carnage of the war, there was a tremendous reaction to the shallowness of Broadway. O'Neill decided to be true to what he knew best--granite reality."

Apprenticed during the bohemian heyday of Greenwich Village and Provincetown in the years before the war and emerging as a successful artist during the transformational social and political era afterwards, O'Neill introduced not only new forms and genres but new voices, including African Americans, women, and the working poor. He explored the hopes and dreams of sailors, prostitutes, alcoholics, criminals, fugitives, dreamers, madmen, and revolutionaries. "His theater changes as the times change, because he has a very profound understanding of the relationship between the life of the theater and the lives of society," Kushner says.

Yet O'Neill always placed the family at the very center of the body politic in the imagination of American life, a position it holds today in many respects. "What O'Neill says, and what I think great art always tells us . . . is that . . . the personal is political. And that every family is also a microcosm of society," adds Kushner.

Between 1920 and 1933, O'Neill dominated Broadway, writing eighteen new plays and seeing twenty-one of his works produced on and off Broadway. He won two more Pulitzer Prizes. The works from this period include The Emperor Jones, Desire Under the Elms, Anna Christie, Strange Interlude, and Mourning Becomes Elektra.

During this heady period, he stopped drinking because he was told by psychiatrists that his brain would turn to the white of an egg, and O'Neill, a survivor above all else, knew that without writing he would die. He also left Agnes, his second wife, and their children Shane and Oona and took up with the woman who ultimately determined his theatrical fate. The beautiful Carlotta Monterey, who had grown up poor in Oakland as Hazel Tharsing, was an independent and volcanic personality who became his protector.

In 1934, following the savagely negative reception of Days Without End, a meditation on his lost faith, O'Neill withdrew from Broadway, faced down a nervous breakdown, and eventually settled in the mountains east of San Francisco. There, in Tao House, he abandoned his plan to write a massive cycle of plays about the Irish in America and began the writing frenzy that would yield his last--and greatest plays--The Iceman Cometh, A Moon for the Misbegotten, and Long Day's Journey into Night. Two of the three were set in the year 1912, the year he attempted suicide.

When O'Neill completed Long Day's Journey into Night in March 1941, he marked the occasion with a simple entry in his diary, "Like this play better than any I have ever written--does most with the least--a quiet play!--And a great one, I believe."

O'Neill delivered the play to Carlotta on July 22, 1941, on their twelfth wedding anniversary. "Dearest," he wrote in the inscription, "I give you the original script of this play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood. A sadly inappropriate gift, it would seem, for a day celebrating happiness. But you will understand. I mean it as a tribute to your love and tenderness which gave me the faith that enabled me to face my dead at last and write this play."

The story takes place in one day in the harrowing life of a family--a father, mother, and two brothers, whom he called "the four haunted Tyrones." He directed that the play not be published until twenty-five years after his death and that it never be performed. "He wanted to make sure it was never confused as merely autobiographical," says Burns. "But Carlotta was a genius in her own right. She understood she was going to protect his literary posterity at any cost even if it meant violating his will . . . And he knew she would do whatever she wanted . . . If the play hadn't been published, there's a real possibility that his reputation would have sunk to the bottom of the ocean. The culture owes her an enormous debt."

Like King Lear, O'Neill's life was consumed by extraordinary tragedy. "If the plays hadn't been so good, we would say, what a waste . . . a nightmare of a man who destroyed his family at the expense of a career," Guare says. "But if we look at the disasters that he heaped on his wives and his children . . . you sure as hell don't want to be one of O'Neill's loved ones . . . But what he gave the rest of the world, what he gave us, why we're here today, that's the cost of that. And that's where we find the forgiveness . . . the way he's expanded our consciousness."

For many people, Burns acknowledged, O'Neill has the reputation for being too complex to understand. "The message," he says, "is to stick with it. O'Neill was uncompromising. He's often a workout, but he takes us to great places. It's the rare person who in his or her stunned silence at the end would want to go back to where they were when they walked in the door."

About the Author

Janice Johnson is a writer in Novato, California.

Funding Information

NEH provided $600,000 in funding to City Lore: New York Center for Urban Folk Culture for the production of Eugene O'Neill. It airs March 27 on PBS.