Eugene Gladstone O’Neill never wanted for adversity or drama. The neglected offspring of a detached but overbearing father and a sullen, morphine-addicted mother, he was marked in adult life by alcohol-fueled depression, tempestuous serial romances and bouts of misogynistic rage. Yet according to Robert M. Dowling, author of this appreciative new biography, it was O’Neill’s loss of his Catholic faith at the age of 14 that forged him into an expositor of human misery whose skill wrought comparisons to Aeschylus and Shakespeare and won him multiple Pulitzers and a Nobel Prize. Far from a “natural-born genius,” Dowling contends, O’Neill’s triumph as a playwright was the hard-won product of facing down the “spiritual void” by writing plays that “gave him the opportunity to explore what, in the end, might restore meaning to his existence.”
It says much about Eugene O’Neill that his WASP-ish classmates at Princeton—where he spent the 1906–07 year building an academic record that triggered his dismissal—remembered him as a fierce defender of Catholicism despite his confirmed atheism. He was an inveterate ally of the outsider. When the United States flexed its military muscle abroad in the early decades of the 20th century, O’Neill cast his lot with nonviolent opponents of American imperialism; and when it came time to vote, his sympathies ran toward the four-time socialist candidate for president, Eugene V. Debs. Though he had roots in privileged Connecticut, his chosen companions were the misfits and outcasts of New York’s Bowery and Cape Cod’s Provincetown. His earliest productions explored the hardscrabble lives of seamen, a community invisible to most Americans. His subsequent work offered incisive critiques of American race relations, colonialism and the plutocrats who loomed large at the time of his first Broadway success in the 1920s.
O’Neill is popularly remembered for his later works, laden with heavy notes of existentialism and autobiography, plays like “The Iceman Cometh,” which premiered in 1946, and “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” posthumously produced in 1956. But Dowling gives appropriate weight to earlier plays and, in doing so, enriches our sense of O’Neill as both an artist and a man. O’Neill’s acclaimed 1920 play, “The Emperor Jones,” skillfully incorporated both the jarring style of European expressionist theater and the horrific news accounts of an American military misadventure in 1919 that claimed some 3,000 Haitian lives. “Marco Millions,” a 1928 comedy echoing themes of Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, employed the 13th-century Asian journey of Marco Polo as a vehicle for poking fun at modern big business. And then there is “Exorcism,” a one-act account of the playwright’s own 1911 suicide attempt, recently rediscovered by Dowling some 90 years after O’Neill believed he had destroyed all copies. In “Exorcism” we have a clear view of how the 23-year-old O’Neill saw himself: angry, embittered, incapable of accepting love.
As much as it is a chronicle of O’Neill’s life and work, Dowling’s book is also a narrative of American theater’s fall and rise. When O’Neill’s plays first reached the stage in the 1910s, the theater world was unabashedly a business enterprise focused on delivering undemanding entertainment without creative vision. Ironically, O’Neill’s father, the actor James O’Neill, who funded his son’s often prodigal endeavors well into adulthood, exemplified this decline. Choosing commercial success over creative integrity, he spent decades on end performing a single part in a wildly popular melodrama, “The Count of Monte Cristo,” which generated huge cash rewards but forestalled a promising artistic career. As Dowling demonstrates, the playwright O’Neill’s firm insistence on producing serious works about people on the margins and tracing the quietly unfolding calamity that pervades human experience was an early sign of renewal that paved the way for later giants like Arthur Miller, August Wilson and Tony Kushner.
In the end, it is difficult to judge how critical a role O’Neill’s early loss of faith may have played in securing his towering legacy. Others have confidently declared that his abuse of alcohol, his sad relationship with his mother or his disdain for his father’s selling-out supplied the key to success. But Dowling, who testifies to his own longstanding and deep-rooted unbelief, is right to take seriously the mysterious power that faith or its absence can have upon an artist’s oeuvre. We live in a world where critics regularly overlook, sometimes willfully, the subtle shadings and dimensions that belief or unbelief may bring to a work. As for O’Neill, when asked in 1935 if there was any truth to rumors that he had recovered his Catholic faith, he simply replied, “Unfortunately, no.”