Eugene O'Neill Festival
The American ShakespeareO'Neill's Influence on Theater
By Michael Tillmon
Frequently dubbed “the American Shakespeare,” renowned playwright Eugene O’Neill had an enormous impact on the development of American theater with his expansive and unparalleled body of work. A recipient of four Pulitzer Prizes and a Nobel Prize in Literature, an unprecedented feat for an American playwright, O’Neill is often credited with single-handedly transforming the American drama into a respected, urgent art form. With his work, O’Neill tenaciously explored the darker aspects of the human condition, embedding his plays with wide-ranging themes such as alcoholism, depression, prostitution and race relations. In fact, nearly all of O’Neill’s plays are distillations of personal tragedy, each tinged with the darkest shadings of melancholy and sorrow drawn heavily from his experiences.
With his use of realism, O’Neill wrote plays that diverged drastically from traditional productions of the early 20th century. Realism, initially associated with Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, Norwegian playwright Henrik Isben and Swedish playwright August Strindberg, began as a late 19th-century movement that cultivated a set of dramatic and theatrical customs aimed to create productions ingrained in social and psychological aspects of real-life situations. This was a significant evolution from the typical entertainment-based focus of earlier American theater. Realism would remain the principal movement in comedies and tragedies throughout the 20th century, and O’Neill’s early works, which found him carving out characters and themes with tremendous psychological depth, brought international acclaim to this “new” American drama.
Among these early works is 1920’s Pulitzer-winning Beyond the Horizon, largely regarded as O’Neill’s first successful full-length production, which drew plaudits for its bold vision of tragic realism. O’Neill tells the story of two brothers who separate and experience a role reversal of sorts when one marries the love of his life, only to find bitterness, disenchantment and disappointment. The play is also derived from O’Neill’s exploits, including his deadly bout with tuberculosis and his sea voyages. During one of these voyages, he meets a Norwegian sailor who criticizes his choice of going to sea instead of staying on his family’s farm. Using this experience as a touchstone for the plot, O’Neill recounts missed opportunities and failed dreams between the two brothers. Robert, a poetic but sickly dreamer, ventures out to sea on a quest to explore the world and improve his well-being. His brother, Andrew, is a born farmer who wants to marry his sweetheart and work on the family farm and dreams of starting a family. However, because both brothers love the same woman, each chooses to go against his nature. Thus, Robert stays on the farm, while Andrew goes to sea.
Later in the 1920s, O’Neill would reject the notions of realism and begin a foray into expressionism, abandoning the lifelike qualities of previous successes in favor of distorting human consciousness. Exploring the depths of Freud’s psychoanalysis theory, O’Neill would use his ideas to lay the foundation for much of his later work, including productions such as The Hairy Ape and Emperor Jones. Toward the end of his career, however, O’Neill returned to realism and delivered some of his most celebrated work, most notably 1956’s masterpiece Long Day’s Journey into Night, published posthumously after his death from a rare
neurodegenerative disorder in 1953. It would win the playwright his final Pulitzer Prize.
Before Eugene O’Neill, most American theater consisted of bland farce or melodrama. O’Neill is almost universally acknowledged as the first great American playwright. Some argue there was no American theater before his time. O’Neill embraced theater as an undervalued aspect of American tradition and turned it into a prominent cultural institution. Rooted firmly in American history and his extraordinary personal life, Eugene O’Neill brought psychological depth, poetic symbolism and expressionistic technique to the American drama, lionizing American theater into a most transformative experience, changing its face forever.
Michael Tillmon is currently pursuing a master’s degree in journalism at Georgetown University. He works part-time as the operations associate at Arena Stage.
Extras & Insights is funded, in part, by a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities.