After the suicide attempt, O’Neill moved back to his family’s home in New London, Connecticut, and, with the help of his brother Jamie, became a reporter with the New London Telegraph. “It was when I joined the staff of the New London Telegraph that I found I wanted to be a writer,” O’Neill told Charles A. Merrill in an article published by The Boston Globe in July 1923. His time with the paper was cut short when he contracted tuberculosis and was committed to a sanitorium for six months. “It gave me a chance to mull over the experiences I had had in life,” O’Neill said. “Ideas began to formulate in my head, and I wrote some one-act plays.”
He spent the fall and winter of 1915–1916 often drunk and despondent, bouncing around seedy hotels and friends’ places in New York, writing just a handful of poems. When spring came, Eugene saw his chance to escape the city with Terry Carlin, an aging anarchist and his roommate; their friend, well-known revolutionary Jack Reed; and Reed’s girlfriend, Louise Bryant. The four planned on spending the summer in Provincetown to be with friends and avoid the summer heat of the city.
The actors in Glaspell’s cabin had started presenting plays they had written in impromptu venues around Provincetown under the moniker the Provincetown Players. On July 28, 1916, the Provincetown Players debuted Bound East for Cardiff on a stage in a converted warehouse on a wharf. (O’Neill himself had the smallest role in the play as a second mate with a single line.) Glaspell, in The Road to the Temple: A Biography of George Cram Cook, recounts how perfect the warehouse setting was for O’Neill’s theatrical debut:
“The sea has been good to Eugene O’Neill. It was there for his opening. There was a fog, just as the script demanded, [a] fog bell in the harbor. The tide was in, and it washed under us and around, spraying through the holes in the floor, giving us the rhythm and flavor of the sea. It is not merely figurative language to say the old wharf shook with applause.”
O’Neill returned to New York in the fall. The next spring he convinced drinking buddy and writer Harold DePolo to venture back to Provincetown with him in March of 1917. The two stayed at The Atlantic House, and O’Neill entered a fruitful writing phase. That spring, he would complete four new plays—In the Zone, Ile, The Long Voyage Home, and Moon of the Caribbes.
O’Neill often molded his characters on people he knew in life, for better or worse. Most were spared sharing names with their fictional incarnations. But some, like Abbie Putnam, a Provincetown librarian who denied O’Neill a library card because he didn’t own property in the town, incurred his wrath. In his 1924 play, Desire Under The Elms, a married woman seduces her stepson and becomes pregnant with his child. After giving birth she becomes worried that the child will complicate her relationship and kills the child. The woman’s name is, by no coincidence, Abbie Putnam.
In 1917, as another summer came to an end, O’Neill returned to New York, only to face more heartbreak and tragedy. The heroin overdose suicide of his friend, Louis Holladay, shook O’Neill, reminding him of his own suicide attempt several years earlier. He returned to his old ways and began escaping to the Hell Hole, a favorite bar. Agnes Boulton, whom he had met in the fall of 1917, several months before Holladay’s suicide, kept him from returning to total despair by encouraging him to continue his writing. In January 1918, the two eloped in Provincetown.