An article published in 1920, just as the author was first coming to fame


This article was originally published in Theatre Magazine, Vol. 31, No. 4. Ed. Arthur Hornblow. New York: Theatre Magazine Company, 1920. p. 264, 302.

"LIFE is a tragedy -- hurrah!" is blazoned on the escutcheon of Eugene O'Neill, the young American who, at the age of thirty-one, has made important contributions to the dramatic literature of the world. All his work shows him a realist, with Strindberg and Ibsen as his acknowldeged forebears; but he does not sit on their peak of bleak psychology. Thoroughly American in outlook, neither morbid nor moralistic, he writes of "things as they are" with fine seriousness. Even in his tragedies there is room for laughter. But not laughter for its own sake -- comedy relief. O'Neill is interested in comedy only when it expresses character; for it is life itself he records -- how man, the mixture of good and evil, the compound of vitality and aspiration, copes with the accidents that make up his life.

Though practically unknown until a month ago when John D. Williams presented his first full length play "Beyond the Horizon" at a series of special matinees, O'Neill is more than a figure of promise. He has two other long plays to his credit, "Chris" and "Straw" which George Tyler has scheduled for production this Spring. And there are two volumes of one-act dramas which show the thoughtfulness of his beginnings and the sturdiness of his development. The first of these "Thirst" published in 1914, contains six plays of widely different locales, all theatrically effective and indicating a grasp of the problems of life as dramatic material; but the characters are types of abstractions rather than persons. "The Moon of the Caribbees," published in 1919, contains five of the best short plays written by an American.

IN these O'Neill has found himself, master of the theatre as his medium and of individuals as his material. "Bound East for Cardiff," "The Long Voyage Home," "In the Zone," "Ile" and the title play "The Moon of the Caribbees" he combines a rare technical skill with an extraordinary vividness of characterization. Here are real people -- you know their appearance, their walk, the flavor of their talk and the secrets of their thoughts; and you see them at a crisis in their lives, inevitably contributing to a situation both powerful and poignant. Most of these short plays reached the stage by way of the Provincetown Players, the Washington Square Players and the Greenwich Villagers, and proved even more effective in the theatre than in the library.

The power of showing character development was all that O'Neill needed to become master of the full length drama. This he achieved with marked success in his first long play "Beyond the Horizon." Though not as closely knit as his two later plays, it proceeds with the inescapable logic of Fate. In a sympathetic and discerning review the critic of the New York Times points out that it has "the mood, the austerity, and all in all, the stature of a novel by Thomas Hardy," and relates the story of the play from this viewpoint:

"Beyond the Horizon" he writes "unfolds the tragedy of a young, farm-born dreamer, whose romantic mind and frail body yearn for the open sea, the swarming ports of the mysterious East, the beckoning world beyond the line of hills which shut in the acres of his home. By all that is in him, he is destined for a wanderer's life, but Fate, in wanton mood, tethers him to this little hill-cupped farm and watches coolly the misery and decay this means for all his house. You meet him first at this cross-roads of his life and see him take the wrong turning. To him, on the night before he is to set sail for a three years' cruise around the world, comes love in the form of a neighbor's daughter whom he and all his people had thought marked rather for his brother.

BLINDED by the flame kindled in that moment of her confession, he lightly foregoes all thought of the world beyond the horizon, plans to settle at once on the farm with his jubilant bride, and watches serenely enough while his heart-wrenched brother sets forth on the cruise that was to have been his -- the bluff, unromantic brother, who irony of ironies, is a true son of the soil, born to do nothing but work its fields and sure to whither if uprooted.

"Then you follow through the years the decay of that household, the tragedy of the misfit. You see the waning of love, the birth of disappointment, the corrosion of poverty and spite and disease. You watch the romance burn itself out in an ugly cinder. You see the woman grow drab and dull and sullen, and you see the man, wasted by the consumption another life might have avoided, crawl at last out of the hated house to die on the road he should have traveled, straining his eyes towards the hills he never crossed.

"All this is told with sure dramatic instinct, clear understanding, and a certain quite unsentimental compassion. To an extent unfamiliar in our theatre, this play seems alive. This is not merely because truth works within it nor because of the realness of its people. It is rather because of the visible growth and change that takes place as the play unfolds.

"The aging of the people is evidenced by more than the mere graying at the temples and the change of clothes, those symbols by which the theatre is wont to recognize, if at all, the flight of years.

IN a hundred and one ways, it is evidenced as well by the slow changing of character and the steady deteriorization of the souls a progression of the spirit which, by the way, asks great things of the actors, and, for the most part, asks not in vain. O'Neill paints his canvass with what Henley called 'the exquisite chromatics of decay.' You might almost say, then, that the play is alive because it follows the inexorable processes of death. Not since Arnold Bennett's 'Old Wives' Tales' has any book or play given us quite so persuasively a sense of the passage of time."

"Chris," O'Neill's second long play is of cheerier theme. A character study of an old Norwegian deep-sea sailor of the clipper ship days -- a simple soul of a man who meets his disillusionment with the hurt surprise of a child, but bravely goes on with life hiding the ache in his heart. "Straw" which O'Neill feels is his best piece of work, he describes as "a tragedy of human hope." It is a play of tuberculosis, and all the action takes place in a sanitorium. At the same time it is not morbid nor in any sense pathological. "My whole idea" he says "is to show the power of spiritual help, even when a case is hopeless. Human hope is the greatest power in life and the only thing that defeats death."

And what of this young author who fulfills all our thumb-rule measurements of genius -- who at the age of thirty-one looks upon life with deep-seeing eyes and peoples his plays with those who yearn and those who strive, the lusty and the weak from many ranks and stations -- in brief, who has sounded the depths of both the theatre and the world.

Though not striking in appearance, Eugene O'Neill is not a usual type. Lack of robustness gives his five-feet ten inches an added heighth; his clothes, which hang loosely from his well-proportioned frame, suggest neither dapperness nor the conscious carelessness of the artist. Hands well manicured and white from a winter indoors; but his face retains a tinge of summer tan. His forehead high and rounded calls to mind pictures of Edgar Allen Poe; it narrows at the temples where his crisp black hair is tinged with white.

CHIN and nose are well defined though not aggressive; a narrow black moustache marks his upper lip but cannot hide the extreme sensitiveness of his mouth -- a sensitiveness that is intensified in his large brilliant eyes, the whites of an opaque clearness contrasting with the rich glowing brown of the iris. These eyes have seen both sunshine and suffering of the world -- they say "Life is a tragedy -- hurrah"!

His knowledge of the theatre came to Mr. O'Neill by way of inheritance. He is the son of James O'Neill, the veteran of "Monte Cristo" fame. As a boy, the stage was his playground, and he unconsciously absorbed a knowledge of the mechanics and technique of the drama. In this atmosphere, too, he gained an early sophistication denied to the farm-bred lad who yearns for the life of the city. All the dreams of young Eugene O'Neill were of ships, the scent of spices and the glamour of foreign ports. At twenty he left Princeton, served for a time as stage manager of "The White Sister" in which his father was acting, and spent his leisure reading Jack London's tales of the sea. At twenty-one he shipped as an ordinary seaman on the Charles Racine, a Norwegian bark, from Boston to Buenos Aires.

Four years of roving followed, with never a thought of playwriting or spinning stories. "I hadn't any particular idea or ambition" he explains, "just to keep moving. I drifted about Buenos Aires for two years, doing anything that came to hand, manual work for the Swift Packing people, drafting for the Westinghouse Electric Company and office work for the Singer Sewing Machine Company. I wasn't doing much choosing, just grabbed whatever came along. I shipped as an ordinary seaman on a British tramp steamer for Durban, South Africa, I've forgotten the name of the ship; she was loaded with mules. You have to have $100 to be admitted to South Africa, so I came back to Buenos Aires and shipped on another tramp for New York where I became an able seaman on the American line ships. When in New York I lived in a little waterfront dive and finally went to New Orleans to join my father, who was playing a condensed version of "Monte Cristo" in vaudeville. I played the juvenile very, very badly, but I had a good time and when we got back home I did a little newspaper work. Then came tuberculosis -- I spent six months in a sanitorium and after I had beaten it, I started to write one-act plays. I had played in some of them. I have been a member of the Provincetown Players ever since they were organized, four or five years ago."

It is near the congenial atmosphere that fostered his talent that Mr. O'Neill makes his home in summertime, two miles along the shingle from the village is his cottage by the sea. In the winter he brings his wife and baby and typewriter to the Provincetown Inn. He no longer yearns for the life of cities and strange ports; his happiness is bound up in his home and his work. It is gratifying to know that success cannot touch him but to strengthen him and that American literature will be enriched by much sincere work from this interpreter who sees man as "one alien to the earth beneath his feat who has not yet pierced the skies above his head," yet calls out lustily: "Life is a tragedy -- hurrah!"

Purchase Books by or about Eugene O'Neill


Home · Theatre Links · Script Archive · Bookstore · Email · © 2002