Eugene O’Neill I: The Living Tragedy

  • John Orr
Part of the Edinburgh Studies in Culture and Society book series


The tragic drama of Eugene O’Neill has two distinct phases. The first is the period of his early work between 1919 and 1925 and the second that of his two great masterpieces, The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey into Might, written between 1939 and 1941. In the long passage of time between these two brief periods lies the historical dramatisation of the Electra myth Mourning Becomes Electra. But it was in these two distinct phases that he created new heights in the writing of modern tragedy. The distinctiveness is sometimes obscured by the sheer continuous output and prolific energy of a writer who had managed to produce volumes of near mediocrity during his life. The unevenness of O’Neill’s writing testifies not so much to his weakness as to his strength, his immense flair for artistic renewal when all seemed lost. In that sense, the bad does not detract from the good, as many of his critics like to suggest. In his early days he produced what no other American playwright of his time was able to—the living tragedy of contemporary American life. In his final years that same life was recalled as history in a vision at once matured and more profound—the tragic vision of the life remembered.


Modern Society Silver Bullet Sailing Ship Racial Pride Black Slave 
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  1. 1.
    See John G. Cawelti, Adventure, Mystery and Romance: Literary Formulas as Art and Popular Culture (Chicago, 1976) pp. 193ff.;Google Scholar
  2. also Leslie Fiedler, The Return of the Vanishing American (London, 1968) chaps 1 and 2.Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    For the open motifs of O’Neill’s work see the excellent study by John Henry Raleigh, The Plays of Eugene O’Neill (Carbondale, 1965).Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    See the second volume of Louis Scheaffer’s biography, O’Neill: Son and Artist (London, 1974) pp. 76–8.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© John Orr 1989

Authors and Affiliations

  • John Orr
    • 1
  1. 1.University of EdinburghUK

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