Daniel Williams

Archive for the ‘Playwrights’ Category

Eugene O’Neill: The Playwright’s Playwright

In American, Essay, Literature, Playwrights, Theatre, Writing on 09/09/2011 at 16:39

Eugene O’Neill had balls. I could probably find a more literate way of expressing this sentiment, but it gets the point across- Eugene O’Neill had balls, more so than any other American playwright of his time. His ambition exceeds every one of his contemporaries.

He started off writing naturalistic drama and won the Pulitzer Prise for Drama twice in three years; he moved onto writing experimental expressionist plays before digging deeper into the history of drama by writing a nine-act soliloquy-fest, Strange Interlude (1928), then writing a trilogy of plays, Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), which updates The Orestia (458 BC). O’Neill then planned to write a play-cycle following the fortunes of a family; his plans grew to include eleven plays in this cycle. Illness forced O’Neill to abandon the cycle and only two unfinished plays survived his burning of material. Whilst working on the play-cycle he also wrote The Iceman Cometh (1939), one of the most highly regarded plays in American theatre. With his magnum opus abandoned and a tremor in his hands making writing painful, he turned to write about what he had really been writing about his whole career, namely his own family. The play was Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1941), for which he wins the Pulitzer Prize for Drama four years after he died. What other American playwright has a career like that?

Like many of the great American writers O’Neill was a big drinker. Unlike many of them, O’Neill gave up drinking and wrote his most well-known work sober. Yet these later-plays, written while sober, are probably the drunkest plays in the history of theatre. The Iceman Cometh is set in a bar and A Touch of the Poet (1942) is set in a tavern. Long Day’s Journey features a family of two alcoholics, one heavy drinker and one morphine addict. His final play, A Moon For The Misbegotten (1943), follows one of the alcoholic Tyrone’s from Long Day’s Journey and features copious amounts of drinking. I suppose with sober eyes he could really see the effects of alcohol that caused painful tremor in his hand and caused the death of his brother. But these plays are not finger wagging ‘alcohol-is-bad’ plays. They are works of a damaged man writing about damaged people.

Sometimes my feelings towards O’Neill’s work are mixed. There’s a lot of good to say about him, but his work can be quite dry and the length of his plays really can be an endurance test. The later-plays of O’Neill’s are intense. Because they are intense and lengthy they can be painful plays to watch. I like Long Day’s Journey Into Night, but it’s so exhausting to read, I couldn’t imagine been able to sit through a full-length production. The play is quite humourless. O’Neill never really gives the audience a break. This, and other of his works, feels like O’Neill barking ‘THIS-IS-DRAMA!’ He reminds me of Dostoyevsky in that, despite the flaws, you have to admire the sheer power they create.

My favourite of his plays is A Moon For The Misbegotten. This play gets unfairly forgotten. In what material I’ve read on O’Neill, it’s normally dismissed as weak in comparison to Long Day’s Journey and Iceman, but I prefer it to both of them. I think A Moon for the Misbegotten is one of the most beautiful, sad and haunting plays I’ve ever come across. It’s not as long as the others and offers something different at the end than the other two.

Recently I finished writing a play for my thesis. This play was about a dysfunctional family. I looked at Long Day’s Journey a lot while writing this play, because, despite its problems, it is the touchstone for all semi-autobiographical plays about family.

My perspective on O’Neill is a playwrights’. I imagine an actor’s response or a critic’s response would vary. As a playwright I stand by the belief O’Neill is a playwrights’ playwright because of the sheer scope of his ambition. To conclude- Eugene O’Neill had balls.

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