Eugene O'Neill's America: Desire under Democracy

Eugene O'Neill's America: Desire under Democracy

Eugene O'Neill's America: Desire under Democracy

Eugene O'Neill's America: Desire under Democracy


In the face of seemingly relentless American optimism, Eugene O'Neill's plays reveal an America many would like to ignore, a place of seething resentments, aching desires, and family tragedy, where failure and disappointment are the norm and the American dream a chimera. Though derided by critics during his lifetime, his works resonated with audiences, won him the Nobel Prize and four Pulitzer, and continue to grip theatergoers today. Now noted historian John Patrick Diggins offers a masterly biography that both traces O'Neill's tumultuous life and explains the forceful ideas that form the heart of his unflinching works.

Diggins paints a richly detailed portrait of the playwright's life, from his Irish roots and his early years at sea to his relationships with his troubled mother and brother. Here we see O'Neill as a young Greenwich Village radical, a ravenous autodidact who attempted to understand the disjunction between the sunny public face of American life and the rage that he knew was simmering beneath. According to Diggins, O'Neill mined this disjunction like no other American writer. His characters burn with longing for an idealized future composed of equal parts material success and individual freedom, but repeatedly they fall back to earth, pulled by the tendrils of family and the insatiability of desire. Drawing on thinkers from Emerson to Nietzsche, O'Neill viewed this endlessly frustrated desire as the problematic core of American democracy, simultaneously driving and undermining American ideals of progress, success, and individual freedom.

Melding a penetrating assessment of O'Neill's works and thought with a sensitive re-creation of his life, Eugene O'Neill's America offers a striking new view of America's greatest playwright- and a new picture of American democracy itself.


“The theatre,” instructed Eugene O'Neill, “should reveal to us who we are.” Action on the stage can provide “a better understanding of ourselves and a better understanding of one another.” Apossibility, to be sure. Yet one wonders whether the audience attends the theater rather to be entertained than take the plunge into the depths of self-knowledge. in classical thought it was assumed that “a man is at least known to himself” (Cicero). in the milieu of modern thought in which O'Neill wrote, a recipe turns into a riddle. “We knowers are unknown to ourselves,” observed Nietzsche, “and for a good reason; how can we ever hope to find what we have never looked for?”

O'Neill may have believed that the theater would help us recognize ourselves in our emotions and desires. Curiously, however, his characters rarely do so. Instead, they feel the tug of a divided self that eludes the mind. Believing in reason, they respond to emotion; hungering for freedom, they are haunted by memory; defeated by reality, they are driven by illusion. While the characters fret and struggle, they remain unaware of who they truly might be and thus incapable of realizing their individual nature and destiny. in conventional wisdom, to obtain knowledge of one's self was both the counsel of the Delphic oracle of Greek philosophy and the imperative of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Know thyself. Every heart vibrates to that string.” But O'Neill's heart remained unmoved. “'Know thyself!' What a mortal bore life would become if you did,” O'Neill wrote to his young sweetheart Beatrice Ashe in 1914. “It is the unexpected whims which change one's perspective” and “make life fascinating.”

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