Manheim, Michael, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Eugene O’Neill. New York: Cambridge UP, 1998. Print.
This is an excellent resource for focused discussions on Eugene O’Neill. It is a collection of 16 articles about America’s foremost playwright. The articles are arranged somewhat chronologically, so they begin with an overview and a discussion of writers who influenced him–notably Strindberg and Ibsen. It then goes from his early plays to his posthumous plays. Like some rock and film stars, death was a career move for O’Neill. The book ends with some thematic essays and detailed bibliographical information.
For the more casual reader, probably the most helpful chapter is “O’Neill on Screen” by Kurt Eisen. Here is a list of most of the productions and recordings made for film and television. As anyone who recalls drama shows from the 50s and 60s like Playhouse 90 or even The Twilight Zone, or anyone who is a fan of BBC and PBS miniseries, Eisen notes that television is often a more suitable medium for a play than a film because a television studio has many of same effects and limitations that a stage does.
The chapter outlining the various stage productions of his plays is not only of historical interest, but might contain ideas for someone directing or producing one of O’Neill’s plays (or, for that matter, other plays with similar themes like many of Tennessee Williams). Somehow, they omitted the 1968 production of A Touch of the Poet by the Lincoln-Sudbury Players…
A few of the focused scholarly pieces are on topics like O’Neill’s treatment of women, blacks, and Irish. O’Neill was one of the first theater people to insist that actors playing black parts were actually African-Americans, rather than “serious” white actors in dark makeup. “A Tale of Possessors Possessed” by Donald Gallup outlines what we know of the scope of O’Neill’s projected family cycle of nine plays based on the history of an American family from the 18th through 20th century. Only one play, A Touch of the Poet, was completed, and a rough draft of More Stately Mansions was preserved. Few people have access to the papers Gallup had access to, so this information would be hard to find elsewhere.
Not all essays are complimentary. Matthew Wikander’s “O’Neill and the Cult of Sincerity” criticizes O’Neill for being shallow and melodramatic. O’Neill might not disagree with the accusation of melodrama in some of his works, but he bled when he wrote. His characters often wore masks, literally in some plays, figuratively in all. Most in O’Neill’s audience would probably understand there was a depth behind the mask. Most audiences are able to pick that up.
For someone doing research on O’Neill, there is an extensive bibliography and notes at the end of each chapter. The last chapter is a detailed, referenced discussion of O’Neill criticism.
There are two chapters devoted mostly to A Long Day’s Journey into Night, generally considered O’Neill’s best work and considered by many (including most of the contributors to The Cambridge Companion to Eugene O’Neill) the best piece of American drama ever. These chapters are well worth it for the appreciation of this beautiful work. Even the demanding T. S. Eliot said, “Long Day’s Journey into Night seems to me one of the most moving plays I have ever seen.” (204) I have never seen it, but I was nearly moved to tears just by reading it a few years ago. To paraphrase Martin Luther, I would think that anyone who was not moved by it should place his hand inside his shirt and check his heart to see if he is still alive.