The mitigated highs and abysmal lows of Eugene O’Neill’s complex personal life are well established in important biographies by Louis Sheaffer and by Arthur and Barbara Gelb as well as in psychological studies like that of Stephen A. Black, political and religious contexts by John Patrick Diggins and Edward L. Shaughnessy, respectively, maritime influences analyzed by Robert A. Richter, broadly humanistic examinations like that of Thierry Dubost, and many more. What Robert M. Dowling’s new biography adds to our understanding of the only Nobel Prize–winning American dramatist is a structured context for the way O’Neill’s inner demons impacted his relationships and his work. Dowling’s creative unearthing and use of neglected documents and interview subjects, along with some never-before-published photographs, enhance the contribution he makes with Eugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts.
Robert Dowling’s virtually simultaneous coeditorship (with Jackson R. Bryer) of a monumental collection of reviews from the original productions of O’Neill’s plays informs his biographical writing on a playwright whose attention to published criticism of his own plays “bordered on the pathological” (343). It makes excellent supplementary reading alongside Dowling’s fluidly written narrative. For example, Dowling notes that after Heywood Broun’s review of Gold (1921), “O’Neill’s low opinion of Broun curdled into a rancid hatred” (226), and the reader is alerted to notice the trajectory of Broun’s increasingly negative balance of scathing versus constructive commentary over the course of his many pieces reprinted in Eugene O’Neill: The Contemporary Reviews. The timely publication of both the biography and the anthology gives rise to endless rewards of cross-referencing.
Taking a cue from O’Neill’s frequent use of the four-act structure for his plays, Robert Dowling’s biography divides his subject’s life into four parts. The exposition (act 1) covers O’Neill’s early childhood on the road with his father, [End Page 351] actor James O’Neill, who was consciously selling out his artistry for commercial success in The Count of Monte Cristo, while his mother suffered her own recriminations over the death of her second son, Edmund, and her morphine addiction resulting from the painful birth of the unwanted “replacement” son, Eugene (35). Years of boarding school, the beginning of O’Neill’s lifelong struggles with alcohol, loss of religious faith, expulsion from Princeton in his freshman year, his first two marriages (interspersed by affairs with Louise Bryant, Dorothy Day, and others), odd jobs at sea, a long stay in Buenos Aires, returning to New York and hitting bottom in a suicide attempt, a job at the New London Telegraph, six months in a sanatorium for tuberculosis, a year in George Pierce Baker’s playwriting seminar at Harvard, and another descent to the dregs in New York together comprise the action of that first act, interwoven with background material on the squalor of places he lived and the people he met who would eventually be reincarnated as characters in his plays. Act 1 also establishes the leitmotif that haunts most of O’Neill’s life story: the curse of alcohol. O’Neill consumed prodigious quantities of liquor before, during, and after Prohibition, and he went on drunken binges that lasted for days, unleashing horrifying acts of violence, destruction, and cruelty from a personality generally seen by theatre artists with whom he worked as “very gentle” and “charming” (452).
The rising action of act 2 takes us from 1916, O’Neill’s first summer in Provincetown, to his 1922 success with The Hairy Ape. This period encompasses his early one-act plays produced at Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village and a steady output of full-length plays, two of which won Pulitzer Prizes: Beyond the Horizon (1920) and Anna Christie (1921). Traditionally in the four-act structure, Act 3 is the...