Happy Birthday, Eugene O’Neill
On this day in 1888, Eugene Gladstone O’Neill was born, and the course of American theater would change forever. O’Neill became the first American dramatist to regard the stage as a literary medium and he remains the only U.S. playwright to capture the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The son of Mary Ellen and James O’Neill, he was born into a theater family in New York City. His father, an actor, was a highly acclaimed romantic leading man, best known for playing the title role in The Count of Monte Cristo. He is recorded as having played the role over 6,000 times. O’Neill’s wife and young children followed him across the country and back again touring the show. Eugene was born in a hotel in New York City while the family was on a brief hiatus. Indeed, he spent much of his childhood in hotels in a rather insecure and rough-and-tumble lifestyle that eventually took its toll on the family.
O’Neill was sent to boarding schools and spent summers at the family’s permanent home overlooking the Thames River in New London, CT. He eventually enrolled at Princeton University but dropped out after only 10 months. His real education was to come while in a “sanitarium” during recovery from tuberculosis and alcoholism. While recuperating, O’Neill began to write plays. He called this time in his life his “rebirth.”
Eugene O’Neill’s first plays were staged in a sleepy fishing town in the village of Provincetown, Mass., where a group of emerging writers and painters had begun an experimental theater. They staged his play Bound East for Cardiff, amongst a bill of two other short one-act plays. It seemed inherently clear to the group of artists that O’Neill’s talent was extraordinary and a departure from the typical theatrical writing of his time. So that fall, the group set sail for New York City with a burgeoning talent in tow, and launched the Playwrights’ Theater in Greenwich Village.
The artists moved to New York City and turned the first floor parlor of an apartment at 139 MacDougal Street, an 1840 row house, into a theater. The building was located in the heart of the Village, next door to the Liberal Club. The group constructed a ten-and-one-half-by-fourteen-foot stage and added wooden benches to seat an audience of about 140; the benches were said to be “the most uncomfortable in the world.” The first production in the new theater opened on November 3, 1916 and included a bill of three one-act plays, including Bound East from Cardiff.
In the first two years of the enterprise, they produced 6 of O’Neill’s new plays: Before Breakfast, Fog, The Sniper, ‘Ile, The Long Voyage Home and The Rope. The little theater experienced a surge in subscriptions during these fertile two years and found the need to seek a bigger space. They didn’t need to look far. Down the block was an old stable owned by the same landlord. The company installed themselves in the new space and it was here that The Emperor Jones was first produced, which became the hit that put the company on the map. This little converted stable eventually became known as the revered Provincetown Playhouse. And it was here that O’Neill’s career really took off. As William Archer wrote in the New York Evening Post, February 24, 1921, “It’s in this “hallowed ground in the region of Washington Square, that we must look for the real birthplace of the American drama.”
To read our series about the roots of American drama in the Village click here, here, and here.