Eugene O’Neill: An Existentialist Playwright

By: Cassandra Baggaley

    Eugene O’Neill spent the first seven years of his life in hotels or on trains with his mother.  His father was a famous romantic actor, and although his mother accompanied him on tour she didn’t like the theater.  As a child he went to Catholic school.  Then finishing that, he went on to Princeton University.  O’Neill was expelled after one year.  From here on he floated around job to job, not really ever staying with one thing.  Sometimes he was fired from the job, and other times he’d just quit.  One can imagine what his financial situation must’ve been like at this time, and could speculate it contributing to his plays in the future.  In 1912 he contracted tuberculosis, and spent six months in a sanitarium.  It was shortly after his release that Eugene wrote Bound East for Cardiff, which according to him was “the only one of the plays written in this period which has any merit.”  (Eugene O’Neill)  It was this play that started everything.  His first play on Broadway was “Beyond the Horizon”.  People loved his plays and he won a Nobel Prize in Literature.  Still, Eugene O’Neill’s plays contributed to the existentialist movement that was affecting America after war time.

       Everyone was sick of war.  World War 1 had just ended.  It was the war to end all wars.  People were celebrating.  And ism’s were sprouting all over the place.  While some people were dancing away, others were thinking.  These people had grown hard during the war.  They looked at the world skeptically.  This was the world that existentialism blossomed in.  “Existentialism, therefore, may be defined as the philosophical theory which holds that a further set of categories, governed by the norm of authenticity, is necessary to grasp human existence.” (Crowell)  Existentialism has always been around.  But it became a bit thing in the 1920-1940s.  People were turning to look at the world in a different way.  They saw the individual as a free agent, and the world as a deterministic, meaningless place to dwell.  They stressed personal experiences, responsibilities, and demands that are made on the individual.  Eugene O’Neill was an existentialist.  His plays reflected these views.  They added to the movement that was being made right after World War 1 towards the individual.

     In O’Neill’s play The Hairy Ape, is an example of a popular play of his that was very existentialist.  It starts out with Yank, the main character, falling from his high perch where he knew who exactly he was.  The audience gets to know  this coarse everyman, through his long silences, and  changes in his environment you see what he is thinking.  It is also one of the darkest plays O’Neill wrote.  His plays were very popular, but they were also existentialist and contributed to the fad that was growing in America.

  Works Cited

  • Crowell, Stevens. “Existentialism.” Stanford University. Stanford University, 23 Aug. 2004. Web. 03 Dec. 2013.

  • “Existentialism.” The Free Dictionary. Farlex, n.d. Web. 06 Dec. 2013.

  • O’Neill, Eugene. “Eugene O’Neill – Biographical.” Eugene O’Neill – Biographical. Nobel Prize, n.d. Web. 06 Dec. 2013.

  • Sollars, Michael D., PhD. “O’Neill’s Existential Man, Distinguished or Extinguished.” Laconics. N.p., 2010. Web. 6 Dec. 2013.

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