Eugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts
Robert M. Dowling
New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014
“Tragic. Bitter. Pessimistic. Fatalistic. Gloomy. Take your pick from the run of adjectives trotted out to describe Eugene Gladstone O’Neill, the Irish American ‘master of the misbegotten,’ ‘dean of dysfunction,’ ‘black magician,’ ‘apostle of woe,’ ‘poet laureate of gloom’ ” (p. 9), writes Robert M. Dowling of his subject. Dowling points out that O’Neill, as the dramatist himself claimed, was no pessimist. O’Neill “embraced suffering as an avenue toward exaltation” in his work and described himself a “tragic optimist” (p. 10). Dowling’s copiously researched book unravels this seemingly antithetical description, while nakedly examining O’Neill in all his glory and baseness, revealing a man of vast talent and heartbreaking failings. Those acquainted with O’Neill are most familiar with his stripped-down, massively dense late career dramas drawn from his family life and personal experiences; however, as Dowling demonstrates, O’Neill was a daringly experimental playwright critical of America’s failure to live up to its own exalted ideals. Aggressively capitalistic and imperialistic, bigoted, and prudish, America, in O’Neill’s view, wandered away from its ideals in its attraction to false idols, leaving his troubled characters in search, often in vain, for transcendence and meaning.
During decades of post-mortem scholarship on O’Neill, beginning in the aftermath of the first productions (Swedish and American) of his posthumous masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1956), some things have become clear. First, sixty years on, scholars still have much to discover and the plays continue to offer considerable riches for critics and theatrical producers, not to mention audiences. Dowling’s biography benefits from prior scholarship (most particularly biographies by Arthur and Barbara Gelb  and Louis Shaeffer ), but also from his own dogged research on this elusive, brilliant, and contradictory genius of American drama. Dowling succeeds as a biographer, eschewing excessive analysis of O’Neill’s dramatic works, presuming, it would seem, that mountains of criticism have already plumbed those depths. He only delves into plays especially revealing of O’Neill’s life experiences—or those, like his race-themed plays, The Emperor Jones (1920) and All God’s Chillun Got Wings (1923)—that provide rich anecdotes (in these cases on censorship and racism).
The result is a biography that equals its predecessors and, in the eye of this reader, supersedes them, at least insofar as reevaluating and knitting together the complex threads of O’Neill’s turbulent life. Failed marriages, alienation from his children (two sons committed suicide), financial woes, persistent health problems, strains of an ambitious workload, and, of course, the complex bond with his parents and brother memorably drawn in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, are explored with insight supported by concrete research. Dowling peels away hearsay in favor of proven accuracy and the result is a memorable portrait of his subject.
Dowling’s penetrating text is accompanied by multiple illustrations, refreshingly crisp reproductions unlike the usual blurry black masses too often seen in current publications, and the book is an important addition to O’Neill scholarship. Though his life was rife with tragedy, much he himself caused, Dowling leaves the reader impressed with the life and accomplishments of this tragic optimist.
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro