Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

Belonging, Possession and the Ironic Life Force: Philosophical Synthesis in the Early Period Plays of Eugene O’Neill

  • Author(s): Thornton, Ryder Williams
  • Advisor(s): King, William D
  • et al.
No data is associated with this publication.

The plays of Eugene O’Neill’s early period express the playwright’s philosophic mind, which constructed drama from the metaphysics of philosophers he had begun reading in his late teens. Three seminal thinkers stand out as having the greatest influence on the dramatist: Arthur Schopenhauer, Max Stirner, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Their philosophies enabled O’Neill to construct a worldview in which tragedy could be staged for modern audiences. This dissertation presents analyses of one-act and full length plays from 1913 to 1921 revealing the influence of these philosophers and establishes that O’Neill was a fundamentally a philosophic playwright even from his earliest dramatic sketches. Specific concepts from Schopenhauer, Stirner, and Nietzsche went into O’Neill’s shaping of character arcs and dramatic circumstances. Among them are Schopenhauer’s concept of will, Stirner’s notion of possession and Nietzsche’s principle of the Apollonian-Dionysian duality. Schopenhauer’s will was foundational to O’Neill’s construction of tragic irony, which is apparent in his first one-act plays written in 1913 and 1914. Stirner’s ideas play a distinct role as O’Neill begins writing full length plays and constructs tragic characters that are brought down by their own actions such as John Brown in the unproduced Bread and Butter (completed in 1914) and the Robert Mayo in Beyond the Horizon (completed in 1918). Nietzsche’s influence is apparent in early successes like the Glencairn plays and becomes more pronounced as O’Neill moves into full-length drama. O’Neill did not isolate these philosophers’ theories. Their ideas, as well as ideas from other traditions, operate in concert in the plays demonstrating the playwright’s unique capacity for philosophical synthesis. In “Anna Christie” (completed in 1920), for example, O’Neill combines Nietzsche’s idea of Christian decadence, outlined in The Antichrist, with his own Catholic sensibilities, his reading of Eastern philosophy and Stirner’s concepts of ego and possession. In The Hairy Ape (completed in 1921) O’Neill invokes various Nietzschean theories and complements them with concepts from Stirner and Schopenhauer.

Main Content

This item is under embargo until June 1, 2021.