From the 1920s until the 1950s, Eugene O'Neill was regarded as the leading playwright in the United States, and in the English-speaking world. His works have regularly shown up in big- and small-screen adaptations, not only in the United States but in various countries around the world as well, reflecting the sheer breadth of his popularity and critical recognition in the early to mid-20th century. Eugene Gladstone O'Neill was born in New York City in 1888, the son of James O'Neill, an actor, and the former Mary Ellen Quinlan. The elder O'Neill was a major star of the stage, and was especially renowned for his portrayal of the hero Edmond Dantes in Charles Fletcher's stage version of The Count of Monte Cristo, a role he played over 4,000 times. The part was too much of a good thing, essentially ruining him for anything more serious, and his life and career were blighted in later years by the awareness of a wasted talent. The young O'Neill grew up in a wretchedly unhappy home, enduring both his father's chronic disillusionment and his mother's addiction to morphine, which she'd been administered to help cope with the pain of one of her births. He was educated at various Catholic schools in a childhood that kept him traveling much of the time, and attended Princeton University until he was asked to leave.
O'Neill's early adult life was spent prospecting for gold in Central America, working various ships crossing the different oceans, and drinking a great deal of alcohol. His health deteriorated rapidly and suicide became an option that he considered, even as he pursued new career paths in journalism. There was also a failed marriage, the first of three in his life, which gave him two sons and a daughter. O'Neill ended up in a sanitarium at age 24, where he was cured of his most obvious illnesses and found a new focus for the direction of his life. While recovering, he immersed himself in the newest dramatic works coming out of Europe and was determined to become a playwright.
It was during the summer of 1916 in Provincetown, MA, when he was 28 years old, that O'Neill finally made contact with his muse, so to speak, while working in the company of writers such as John Reed and George Cram Cook. A staging of his early play Bound East for Cardiff proved a hugely inspiring event, and the result, upon their return to Greenwich Village, was the founding of the Provincetown Playhouse on Macdougal Street. It was there, in the friendly yet fiercely competitive environment of the playhouse, that he went on to write his first string of successful drama, among them the one-act play The Long Voyage Home, the four-act piece Beyond the Horizon (which earned him his first Pulitzer Prize), and, later on, Anna Christie and The Emperor Jones. The latter, in particular, was so successful that it eventually was moved uptown to a large Broadway theater. It was the first modern play with a significant lead role for a black actor, and spawned far more than just its own success; growing out of that play's initial presentation in the Village, O'Neill's friend and collaborator Jasper Deeter went onto found the Hedgerow Theater, which became one of the most important regional theater companies in America. Anna Cristie won O'Neill his second Pulitzer in 1921, and a year later came The Hairy Ape, a fascinating character study.
Amid all of these early successes, O'Neill's family was involved in a tragic destructive cycle as his father and mother, and siblings, all succumbed to the consequences of their various psychological demons, so that by the mid-'20s he was the only survivor. Even as his parents and siblings were falling from the vine, however, O'Neill was writing and producing one of his most enduringly popular works, Desire Under the Elms (which turned Walter Huston into a stage star). He was rapidly entering his most productive and celebrated period as the 1920s wore on, exploring new psychological depths i