Blog Post Jennifer Errick Jan 2, 2020

The Only Nobel Prize-Winning U.S. Playwright

Two-thirds of America’s national park sites were created to preserve history and culture — but relatively few represent achievements in the arts and humanities. One notable exception is the park site preserving the home of Eugene O’Neill, the only U.S. playwright to win a Nobel Prize.

Eugene O’Neill was an enormously influential figure in U.S. theater, catapulting into the limelight in the 1920s with a series of innovative, acclaimed plays and continuing to enrapture audiences and critics alike throughout his decades as a writer.

O’Neill’s realistic and empathetic portrayals of marginalized characters, his fierce and emotional writing style, his expressive use of props, and his desire to experiment and challenge staid conventions earned him widespread success and admiration. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936, the highest international honor for creative achievement. The award recognized his two decades of work to date, though some of his greatest plays were yet to come.

O’Neill’s talent also won him an astonishing four Pulitzer Prizes — a record he shares with just four other authors, including the poet Robert Frost. O’Neill’s first three Pulitzers recognized works from his early career: “Beyond the Horizon” in 1920, “Anna Christie” in 1922 and “Strange Interlude” in 1928. He earned his fourth, along with a Tony Award, for the posthumous release of “A Long Day’s Journey into Night” in 1956. This autobiographical play went on to become one of his most widely read, produced and revered works of all time. Collectively, O’Neill’s plays inspired other celebrated writers, such as Arthur Miller, Lillian Hellman and Tennessee Williams, and he remains one of the most produced playwrights in the country.

O’Neill started his life in New York City. The son of a popular matinee idol, O'Neill grew up in a household where his father was generally absent and touring with theater companies, and his mother struggled with a long-term addiction to morphine, which she began using during Eugene’s painful birth.

O'Neill was a rebellious youth, dropping out of Princeton and drinking heavily. He worked for a while as a journalist and as a crewman on steam ships. He had a brief, failed marriage starting in 1909 and attempted suicide in 1911 before becoming sick with tuberculosis in 1912 at age 24. It was during his time recovering at a sanitarium from his illness that he found time to reflect on his life and decided to devote himself to writing plays.

After his recovery, he joined a small theater group in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he wrote a series of one-act plays based on his time at sea. The troupe produced his first play, “Bound East for Cardiff,” in 1916, followed by many others. The early success of these plays, including popular productions at the troupe’s Greenwich Village location near Broadway in New York City, helped launch O’Neill’s career, leading to his first two decades of professional success.

The national park site preserving the home O'Neill shared with his third wife, Carlotta, sits on a wooded 158-acre parcel of land in a bucolic valley in Contra Costa County, California — land the couple purchased with the $40,000 in prize money that came with the Nobel Prize. The couple designed the home to be private and secluded, with an unusual mixture of adobe-inspired Spanish architecture and Asian-style furnishings and art. They called it Tao House, named for the Chinese religious tradition of Taoism, and they lived there for six years with their beloved Dalmatian, Blemie.

O’Neill wrote some of his most acclaimed work at Tao House, including “A Long Day’s Journey into Night,” “The Iceman Cometh” and “A Moon for the Misbegotten.” He also worked passionately on a series of 11 plays that ultimately overwhelmed him. He eventually abandoned the series, burning most of his work on the project.

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O'Neill wrote nearly 60 plays in all, until 1943, when worsening health, including tremors in his hands, made it impossible for him to continue his work. Though he attempted typing and dictation, writing longhand was essential for his creative process. His declining health eventually forced the couple to sell Tao House, moving to a hotel, where O’Neill died in 1953. “A Moon for the Misbegotten” was his last completed work.

The Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site is one of the least-visited national parks in the country, largely because visitors must arrange in advance to see it. The home is only open for guided tours twice a day, four days a week, and for self-guided tours once a week, on Saturdays. Visitors must make reservations ahead of time and take a shuttle to the property, as no private vehicles are permitted on the grounds. Both the tours and transportation are free. Learn more on the National Park Service website.

About the author

  • Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications

    Jennifer co-produces NPCA's podcast, The Secret Lives of Parks, and writes and edits a wide variety of online content. She has won multiple awards for her audio storytelling.

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