O Pioneer!

Eugene O'Neill: A Life in Four Acts BY Robert M. Dowling. Yale University Press. Hardcover, 584 pages. $35.

The cover of Eugene O'Neill: A Life in Four Acts

Eugene O’Neill has been heralded as the father of American theater since at least 1962. That year, Arthur and Barbara Gelb’s O’Neill championed the Irish American playwright as a hero and crowned Long Day’s Journey into Night the greatest American play—and also the most autobiographical.

There’s truth here. Long Day’s Journey alchemizes O’Neill’s tormented childhood—his hack-actor father, his junkie mother, his ne’er-do-well brother—dragging the audience through one August day and night in 1912 until the terrible yet satisfying end. But O’Neill is not just a hero, and his best play not just a theatrical selfie. The Gelbs came to realize this, revising O’Neill in 2000.

Still, the idea that O’Neill was the oversharing father of modern theater remains. Which is why I was so happy to read Eugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts, by Robert M. Dowling. This richly drawn portrait shows O’Neill as less a pater theatricalis than a driven writer radically attempting to expand the idea of what American theater could be. Dowling’s book is neither a hagiography nor a takedown. His O’Neill is kind, funny, generous. And, yes, a heavy drinker and abusive toward women. Also, for most of his life, a playwright who wished he could write novels.

O’Neill was born in 1888 in a Broadway hotel room to a mother who would become a morphine addict. In young adulthood he seemed most at home when he was homeless. Kicked out of Princeton for excessive drinking, he hung around dive bars, on banana boats and square-riggers, and on the vaudeville circuit. He eventually landed at George Pierce Baker’s playwriting workshop at Harvard. He won his first Pulitzer in 1920 for Beyond the Horizon. He would win four altogether, as well as the Nobel Prize.

During the Great War, O’Neill was a fixture in Greenwich Village and Provincetown, working on plays that examined the down-and-out, the forlorn, the lonely. In the Jazz Age, he expanded his repertoire, furiously cranking out epics that tackled social issues in a realistic-poetic style. His output slowed in the ’30s, in part because he became disenchanted with the American theater. He wrote his last play in 1943 and died ten years later, by then overshadowed by Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller.

As a biographer, Dowling is generous and inclusive. The book features cameos by writers and artists as well as O’Neill’s roustabout friends who drank with him at Jimmy the Priest’s saloon on Fulton Street, which later inspired the bleak barroom setting of The Iceman Cometh (1939). It is hard not to compare O’Neill with many other American writers who dissolved early successes in debauchery and alcoholism. O’Neill did his heavy drinking as a youth. After he finally stopped, he wrote his best plays, finishing Long Day’s Journey in 1941. Dowling elucidates how that play drew on O’Neill’s life and finds new evidence of the playwright’s early suicide attempt, which anticipated Edmund Tyrone’s in the play. But even as he notes the similarities between O’Neill’s biography and art, he doesn’t turn the book into a case study.

If O’Neill was successful and prolific, writing more than fifty plays, he was not consistent. Dowling describes his career as “uneven stretches of creative doldrums punctured by flashes of staggering brilliance.” He rightly points out that many of O’Neill’s successes were rooted in the fact that he was the first to tackle subjects such as miscegenation, prostitution, alcoholism, and drug addiction. He used masks, toyed with Expressionism, and cast black actors, a controversial choice at the time. Dowling explains that O’Neill’s 1920 play The Emperor Jones angered not just African American critics, who contended that it did not “elevate the negro,” but also the Ku Klux Klan, which fervently protested the show’s southern tour.

These pioneering efforts do not change the fact that many of the early plays, though hits in their time, are today unwatchable. The clunky, nine-act Strange Interlude, in which characters speak both dialogue and their thoughts, is rarely staged. O’Neill was aware that the theater couldn’t accommodate such detail, writing, “Crowding a drama into a play is like getting an elephant to dance in a tub.”

Dowling is ultimately better at unflinchingly describing O’Neill’s volatile relationships with women and children than illuminating the ideas underlying his work. The writer had affairs with the communist journalist Louise Bryant and the political activist Dorothy Day. He cruelly abandoned his second wife—the writer Agnes Boulton—for his third, the socialite Carlotta Monterey. He could be violent when drunk. He beat Boulton, and he psychologically tortured Monterey, who gave as good as she got. O’Neill was also indifferent to his children, two of whom later killed themselves.

If Dowling’s O’Neill can be a monster, he can also be wise, admirably uninterested in convention, and funny. Asked by Howard Hughes to write a screenplay, O’Neill used the full twenty words of his collect telegram to reply: “No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. O’Neill.” He wanted on his tombstone the phrase “There’s a lot to be said for being dead.” (Monterey replaced it with “Rest in Peace.”)

Long Day’s Journey almost never got produced. In his will, O’Neill banned publication for twenty-five years after his death and banned production forever. Speculating on O’Neill’s motives, Dowling argues that he worried publication would offend some tender-minded inhabitants of New London, where the play was set. I prefer the other motivation Dowling provides for O’Neill’s ban: anger at the small-mindedness of the commercial theater. “My interest in the productions steadily decreases as my interest in plays as written increases,” O’Neill wrote in 1929.

Monterey betrayed her late husband’s wishes, and in 1956 Long Day’s Journey was produced on Broadway, where it became a smash hit. But the soul of Dowling’s book is not that play. His O’Neill is not a father figure but an American writer daring—succeeding and failing—to reinvent the theater.

Rachel Shteir’s most recent book is The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting (Penguin Press, 2011).