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Book Review: Eugene O’Neill – A Life in Four Acts

By (November 1, 2014) No Comment

eugene o'neill coverEugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts
by Robert M. Dowling
Yale University Press, 2014

That Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953) was the greatest American playwright was calmly asserted by the only person qualified to do it: the second-greatest American playwright. As Robert Dowling relates in his new biography of O’Neill:

Williams, to whom O’Neill wrote a congratulatory note after A Streetcar Named Desire appeared in 1948, would speak of O’Neill, even after the ascendancy of such dramatic talents as Thornton Wilder and Arthur Miller, as his only true American superior: “O’Neill gave birth to American theatre,” Williams said, “and died for it.”

O’Neill, who won a Nobel Prize in Literature and a shelf of Pulitzers for Drama, led a tortured and fiercely unhappy life, three times married to disastrous women, morose and distant father to a handful of unhappy children, hopelessly addicted to alcohol and tobacco, characterized as the very blackest of the country’s coterie of “black Irish” writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and John O’Hara, dogged by depression and brooding. Any reader who trudged through Louis Scheaffer’s enormous two-volume biography of the man will know already what they face in Dowling’s book: a relentless onslaught of misery and physical decay playing in the background as the playwright created one transcendent play after another. Dowling has been studying O’Neill for years – he’s on the editorial board of the Eugene O’Neill Review and the board of directors of the Eugene O’Neill Society – and he knows his subject with easy, complete confidence (was it over-confidence that prompted him to omit a Bibliography from this volume? We’ll never know, not that it matters: it’s jarringly unprofessional no matter what prompted it).

He’s an excellent guide to the long string of brilliant works O’Neill produced – More Stately Mansions, A Moon for the Misbegotten, The Iceman Cometh, Morning Becomes Electra, Desire Under the Elms, The Emperor Jones … and of course his towering posthumous masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey Into Night – and a dozen more works of scrupulous genius and a bleakness so endemic that it stabs itself into the audience’s memory (unfortunately, this applies equally to the few ill-advised comedies O’Neill wrote). O’Neill had been lucky enough to have proprietary access to an excellent stage troupe – the Provincetown Players – and although he was fond of saying “my only thought about the Art of the Drama is Fuckit,” the serious respect he had for that art is evident throughout Dowling’s book.

The book itself is smoothly engaging to read, certainly the (one-volume!) O’Neill biography to read. Dowling can turn a very pretty phrase, and, fittingly enough, his scene-setting is first-rate. He’s far from the first person, for instance, to write about the Provincetown that O’Neill loved so much in his youth:

Casting their eyes along the curve of the shoreline, the ragtail Irishmen no longer knew which direction they were facing – and no longer cared. “Sand and sun and sea and wind,” O’Neill wrote later of the rolling dunes and seascapes encircling the town, “you merge into them, and become as meaningless and as full of meaning as they are. There is always the monotone of surf on the bar – a background for silence – and you know that you are alone – so alone you wouldn’t be ashamed to do any good action. You can walk or swim along the beach for miles, and meet only the dunes – Sphinxes muffled in their yellow robes with paws deep in the sea.”

O’Neill himself wasn’t ashamed to do any good action. Provided you weren’t married to him or related to him, he was an unhesitatingly generous and caring person. Nightmares stalked his life even from his feckless months at Harvard as a very young man, and Dowling does an excellent job of bringing to life the mind-boggling fact that O’Neill somehow never let those nightmares strangle his prodigious talent. Eugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts, like any O’Neill biography, is essentially a protracted story of a weak man somehow managing to do great work. It’s not by any stretch enjoyable reading, but there’s an intensely recognizable heart to it.