Published in the Globe Magazine


Long heralded as the “founder of American drama,” Eugene O’Neill lived a life that was as dramatic as anything he ever wrote.   His biography includes adventures at sea, gold prospecting in Honduras, destitution on the waterfronts of Buenos Aires and New York, hard drinking, three wives, a suicide attempt, tuberculosis and a final illness that, with its concomitant hand tremors, prevented him from writing.

But it was his family history that attracted most attention, from biographers and critics alike.

Eugene Gladstone O’Neill was born in 1888 in a hotel room on Broadway, an appropriate birthplace for this child of the theatre. His father, James O’Neill, was an Irish-born thespian who could have become a great Shakespearean actor, but he sold out to appear in crowd-pleasers, which brought him wealth and fame, but wrecked his character.   Eugene’s mother, in extreme pain during his birth, was given morphine, to which she remained addicted for the rest of her life.   His older brother Jamie never forgave him for that; Eugene carried the guilt and wrote it into his plays.

Jamie was a profound influence on Eugene, introducing him, at a very young age, to hardened prostitutes and helping to solidify a hatred of their father. Their middle brother Edmund died at the age of 12, after Jamie exposed him (some thought deliberately) to the measles.   Later, Jamie became a dissipated alcoholic who, desperately devoted to his mother, spiraled downward quickly after her death and died in a sanitarium. O’Neill’s inability to prevent his brother’s downfall added to his burden of guilt.

The playwright’s adult life was as rocky as his childhood.   He abandoned his first wife several days after their marriage and never saw his first offspring, Eugene, Jr., until he was 12 years old. That son went on to travel the familial alcoholic route of self-destruction, and committed suicide in 1950. Eugene later divorced his second wife and subsequently disowned their two children (Shane because of his alcoholism and derelict behavior, and Oona because of her marriage, at age 18, to Charlie Chaplin, age 54, O’Neill’s own age at the time).

Dysfunctional family relationships feature prominently in O’Neill’s plays which won him four Pulitzer Prizes (“Beyond the Horizon,” “Anna Christie,” “Strange Interlude” and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”) as well as the Nobel Prize for Literature.  

But it was, perhaps, his brother Jamie who haunted him most. The character James Tyrone, Jr., in “A Long Day’s Journey into Night,” represents Jamie O’Neill in his youth. “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” which can be viewed as both epilogue and epitaph, chronicles Jamie’s final decline.

Written in 1943, “A Moon” was O’Neill’s last play, an intensely personal piece suffused with an elegiac tone.   Although critics do not generally consider “A Moon” to be as high an accomplishment as “Long Day’s Journey” or “The Iceman Cometh,” they were written in the same time period (1939-1943), and share dramatic characteristics:   realism, a vivid picture of tormented souls, the need for human contact, the appeal to the emotions. In his review of the 1957 production, critic Richard Watts said, “A Moon” solidifies O’Neill’s reputation as “one of the titans of theatre.”   Even novelist Mary McCarthy, no great fan of O’Neill, conceded that “A Moon for the Misbegotten” “exacts homage for its mythic powers, for the element of transcendence jutting up in it like a great wooden Trojan horse.”

The last plays all begin in a comic vein, what O’Neill himself called “a big kind of comedy that doesn’t stay funny very long.”   In “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” we meet tenant farmer Phil Hogan, a little bull of an Irishman and his big, raw, “giantess” of a daughter, Josie.   The verbal and physical encounters between Phil and Josie lead to the poignancy and lyricism of Josie’s encounter with their landlord, the dissolute James Tyrone, Jr., in the play’s climactic third act.

In this tragic love story of sorts, a full moon shines for Jamie, the most misbegotten member of the misbegotten Tyrone/O’Neill clan.   At the end, he finds peace in Josie’s arms. Josie takes on mythic proportions, an immense Everywoman, both strong and sensitive, the virgin playing the whore, part lover, part mother. Critics have called the work O’Neill’s Pieta. The playwright himself said, “I wept a great deal over Josie Hogan and Jamie Tyrone as I wrote the play.”

In the original 1947 production, which opened in Columbus, “A Moon” unexpectedly shocked Midwestern audiences.   In Detroit, it was closed after one performance because of “obscenity” (the words ‘mother’ and ‘prostitute’ were used in the same sentence).   When the producer pointed out that the playwright had won the Nobel Prize, the censor made a small contribution to theater history by saying, “Lady, I don’t care what kind of prize he’s won; he can’t put on a dirty show in MY town.”   The play continued after eight words were deleted, but it closed shortly afterward in St. Louis, and only made it to New York (posthumously) ten years later. In 1952, a year before his death, O’Neill broke his own precedent and allowed “A Moon” to be published before it appeared on Broadway.

Like the earlier plays, it has been criticized as overly long and excessively melodramatic. As a theatrical work, it is one of O’Neill’s most difficult creations.   The casting of Josie according to the playwright’s literal specifications has always been problematic.   He described her as “so oversize for a woman that she is almost a freak… more powerful than any but an exceptionally strong man… but there is no mannish quality about her.   She is all woman.”

“A Moon for the Misbegotten” was the last play produced in the playwright’s lifetime.   The last line of the drama, the last words O’Neill was to write for the stage, can be read as the playwright’s hope for all the Tyrones (and perhaps for all the O’Neills): “May you have your wish and die in your sleep… May you rest forever in forgiveness and peace.”

©1997 Patté Productions Inc.