Eugene O'Neill came to Provincetown and found the inspiration that helped him become an American literary icon
STANDING ALONE IN THE dining room of a Provincetown cabin, Eugene O’Neill was afraid to hear the sound of his own words.
O’Neill had come to Cape Cod in the spring of 1916, a self-imposed exile from New York City. Shortly after his arrival, he found himself in a cabin owned by Susan Glaspell, a celebrated writer who had relocated to Provincetown several years earlier. While the timid O’Neill remained alone in one room, a group of amateur actors in the next read through an early version of O’Neill’s Bound East for Cardiff, a one-act play about Yank, a dying sailor recalling his five years at sea with Driscoll, his shipmate.
“Then we knew what we were in for,” recalled Glaspell after the performance had finished. The group loved the play, and they saw O’Neill’s burgeoning talent. A few months later, Bound East for Cardiff premiered in Provincetown—the first time O’Neill’s work would be performed in public.
A hundred years after penning his first play and 60 years after his death, Eugene O’Neill remains one of America’s greatest playwrights. Works like The Iceman Cometh are marked by a disregard for sentimentality and an unrelenting pessimism—natural themes for a man who battled depression and alcoholism, lost numerous family members and friends to drugs and suicide, abandoned two wives, and often lived the life of a bum while down and out in New York City. But when O’Neill retreated to the desolate dunes of Provincetown, he began to turn his inauspicious beginnings into Pulitzer Prize-winning drama.
Born in a hotel room on Broadway, O’Neill spent long stretches of his childhood traveling with parents: James, a theatre actor well-known for portraying the Count of Monte Cristo on stages around the country, and Ella, who struggled with morphine and alcohol addiction from the time O’Neill was born in 1888.
Extensive travels became a life of discontent in New York for O’Neill. In October 1909, two years after dropping out of Princeton University, he married Kathleen Jenkins. The two had a child together, Eugene Jr., in 1910, but O’Neill had no real interest in either his wife or the child, and spent much of his marriage abroad in Honduras and Buenos Aires. Their marriage ended in divorce in 1912.
To satisfy Kathleen’s lawyers and the laws of New York state, O’Neill staged an affair with a prostitute to prove his infidelity. He left the brothel battling guilt, and went back to Jimmy the Priest’s, a waterfront dive in New York where he was living, and tried to kill himself by consuming a large amount of the barbiturate Veronal.