Shortly after, O’Neill finished one of his first full-length plays. Beyond the Horizon brought the newlyweds financial security and would eventually win O’Neill his first of four Pulitzer Prizes. During their summer stay, O’Neill and Boulton came across the Peaked Hill Lifesaving Station, a former Coast Guard station in the dunes of Provincetown. The couple fell in love with the structure as a possible home immediately. James O’Neill, now on good terms with his famous son, purchased the building for the couple as a belated wedding gift.
Before moving into the house the following summer, Boulton revealed that she was pregnant. The two had once agreed to let nothing and no one, including children of their own, get in the way of their love. Much to her relief, O’Neill was happy to learn that he was going to have another child. Before the couple moved into Peaked Hill, sand had piled up to the roof and a lot of work needed to be done before O’Neill and his expectant wife could occupy the new house.
Shane Rudraighe O’Neill was born on October 30, 1919. Eugene O’Neill spent most of his time after the birth of the child traveling between his new home and New York while putting Beyond the Horizon into production. The show opened to rave reviews on February 3, 1920, at the Morosco Theatre on Broadway.
Time away from home greatly strained O’Neill’s marriage to Boulton. Letters—the couple’s only means of communication—detailed their anguish at each other’s absence. “If our letters are to become an added torture to our hearts already tortured by separation and by the mishaps of outside shame then we are lost,” wrote O’Neill to Boulton. The couple endured several turbulent years together and had another daughter, Oona—whom O’Neill would eventually disown after she married Charlie Chaplin—before he left Boulton for his third wife, Carlotta Monterey, in 1927.
By this time, O’Neill had won another Pulitzer and was fully dedicated to his work, which required him to be in New York, leaving Provincetown far behind. “Gene was happy at Peaked Hill, writing, living life as he wanted it, and always rather sad when it got too cold to stay any longer,” remembered Boulton in her 1958 memoir, Part of a Long Story. “I remember, too, the sunny morning the Coast Guard brought us a wire saying Gene had won his first Pulitzer Prize and how he and I looked at each other, wondering what on earth a Pulitzer Prize was.” In 1931, Peaked Hill was swept out to sea during a storm.
O’Neill’s output in the 1930s and 1940s slowed considerably, but the quality of his work remained strong. The Iceman Cometh, A Moon for the Misbegotten, and Long Day’s Journey Into Night—the latter widely considered his opus—cemented his reputation as one of the great American playwrights.
Tragedy would continue to plague O’Neill for the remainder of his life. In 1950, his eldest son, Eugene Jr., committed suicide. Shane would follow in his half brother’s footsteps in 1977, when he leaped from the fourth story of a friend’s apartment in Brooklyn. O’Neill’s own health declined cruelly and he developed a Parkinson’s-like tremor in his hands that was so severe he was unable to write for the final 10 years of his life. He passed away on November 27, 1953, at the Sheraton Hotel in Boston, where Monterey had been tending to him. Ever the pessimist, his final words were: “I knew it. I knew it. Born in a goddamn hotel room and dying in a hotel room.”
But O’Neill’s plays continue to be performed around the world, and the influence of his work endures. “The O’Neill legacy in American drama, on a national level, would be hard to overestimate,” says Stephen Borkowski, chairman of the Provincetown Art Commission. “Interest in his work remains strong, and the continued reexamination and restaging of his work certainly gives it a life in perpetuity.”
Peace and serenity had eluded O’Neill for most of his life, but he found glimpses of happiness in Provincetown. The playwright made some of his greatest strides with his work after that first fateful visit to Cape Cod, channeling his demons into masterful prose. And a hundred years later, the playwright who couldn’t share the same room as his words still has an audience that wants to hear them.