Eugene O’Neill was in some ways a terrible man and in many ways a tremendous dramatist, and in each case for the same reason. The family he evoked in his autobiographical Long Day’s Journey into Night – miserly father, embittered and self-destructive brother, morphine-addicted mother who offloaded her guilt and resentment onto everyone else – combined with an emotionally intense temperament to leave him dangerously damaged. Yet he was prepared to make creative use of that damage. Can we see his plays as a cumulative attempt to confront his origins and find explanations for the baffling universe that had left him floundering in what he regarded as a modern House of Atreus? I think so. So, I feel, does Robert Dowling, the American academic who has written this authoritative, readable and altogether excellent biography.
Dowling opens with a ‘prologue’ that’s much more than that, since it evokes the O’Neill of early 1916, a lost 27-year-old seeking oblivion alongside prostitutes and cocaine-fuelled hoodlums in a Greenwich Village bar known as the Hell Hole.