Eugene O'Neill A Life in Four Acts Robert M. Dowling

Publication date:
25 Oct 2014
Yale University Press
584 pages: 235 x 156 x 38mm
49 b-w illus.

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A major new biography of the Nobel Prize–winning playwright whose brilliantly original plays revolutionized American theater

Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize

This extraordinary new biography fully captures the intimacies of Eugene O’Neill’s tumultuous life and the profound impact of his work on American drama. Robert M. Dowling innovatively recounts O’Neill’s life in four acts, thus highlighting how the stories he told for the stage interweave with his actual life stories. Each episode also uncovers how O’Neill’s work was utterly intertwined with, and galvanized by, the culture and history of his time.

Much is new in this extensively researched book: connections between O’Neill’s plays and his political and philosophical worldview; insights into his Irish upbringing and lifelong torment over losing faith in God; his vital role in African American cultural history; unpublished photographs, including a unique offstage picture of him with his lover Louise Bryant; new evidence of O’Neill’s desire to become a novelist and what this reveals about his unique dramatic voice; and a startling revelation about the release of Long Day’s Journey Into Night in defiance of his explicit instructions. This biography is also the first to discuss O’Neill’s lost play Exorcism (a single copy of which was only recently recovered), a dramatization of his own suicide attempt.

Written with lively informality yet a scholar’s strict accuracy, Eugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts is a biography that America’s foremost playwright richly deserves.


Robert M. Dowling is professor of English at Central Connecticut State University. He has published extensively on O’Neill and serves on the board of directors of the Eugene O’Neill Society.

'Dowling has written the single most complete and up-to-date account of O'Neill's life that we have ... To call his scholarship 'sound' is vastly to understate it; his accomplishment in marshalling all this disparate and often obscure material into a well-organized and highly readable account is nothing less than astonishing'. – Jackson R. Bryer, co-editor of Selected Letters of Eugene O'Neill

'A passionate, informed author, Dowling writes the story with his blood. His palpable affection and empathy for his subject allows him to expose the tortured journey of this complicated life, giving us profound insight into the incomparable dramas of Eugene O'Neill. What sets this biography apart from others on the playwright is that it comes from a gifted disciple who identifies with his subject and brings an Irish storyteller's sensibility that feels altogether authentic. Staging the works of O'Neill is my passion. I have now found my handbook'. – Ciaran O'Reilly, Irish Repertory Theatre

'Dowling's brilliant, unvarnished yet compassionate biography, written with verve and based on exciting new research, depicts how O'Neill transmogrified his personal agonies and triumphs into the greatest American drama of the 20th century. A definitive portrait'. – J. Michael Lennon, author of Norman Mailer: A Double Life

'It's astonishing to see that the life of Eugene O'Neill lives up to the plays. He charged through the first half of the twentieth century like a man on fire, lighting up the American stage with blistering, poetic dramas that won for him a huge and grateful audience, even the Nobel Prize for Literature. Robert M. Dowling is equal to the task here, a biographer who writes with a novelist's sense of narrative momentum. In fluid prose, he summons the wild, intense, sad, and comic world of O'Neill with empathy and profound critical intelligence. This life of O'Neill will last'. – Jay Parini, author of The Last Station: A Novel of Tolstoy's Final Year

'[A] sympathetic, comprehensive portrait'. – Kirkus Reviews

'Absorbing ... insightful ... unflinchingly explores the darkness that dominated O'Neill's life'. – Publishers Weekly