Irish Cross Memorial New Orleans

Irish Cross Memorial New Orleans
The Celtic Cross Memorial in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo by Adrian McGrath. Click the image for the story about the cross.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Eugene O'Neill and Tao House

US Postage Stamp, 1967

Eugene O’Neill and Tao House
By Adrian McGrath

“There is no present or future -- only the past, happening over and over again -- now.”
Eugene O’Neill from “A Moon for the Misbegotten”

“To be Irish is to know, that in the end, the world will break your heart.”
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, US Senator and US Ambassador, after the death of John F. Kennedy

“The one thing that explains more than anything about me is the fact that I’m Irish. And, strangely enough, it is something that all the writers who have attempted to explain me and my work have overlooked.”
Eugene O’Neill in 1946

Only one American has ever won the Nobel Prize in Literature as a playwright and that was the Irish Catholic American Eugene O’Neill. (He also was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Literature many times.) His plays are noted for their realism, and they are often seen as following in the style of the great Russian writer Anton Chekhov. Some of O’Neill’s plays deal with sad and defeated people, often living on the fringes of life, and usually suffering from deep tragedies and lingering, terrible emotional damage. Other plays relate to the sea, the vastness of the ocean, and life at sea -- something O’Neill experienced himself. Not unlike another well-known Irish Catholic American and sailor, John F. Kennedy, the sea always seems to surround, if not consume, the Irish as it did O’Neill.

Eugene O’Neill’s family, like President Kennedy’s, came from Ireland around the time of the Potato Famine (or Great Hunger) in the mid 1800’s; and we have to wonder to what effect the horrors and tragedies of the Famine and the prejudice faced by Irish Catholic immigrants in America influenced O’Neill directly or indirectly.

Although he was born in New York City  in 1888 (at a hotel near the intersection of Broadway and 43rd Street not far from Times Square), O’Neill lived many places during his 65 years, including on ships at sea. He attended a Catholic school in his youth and even Princeton University, and later Harvard, at least for awhile, but did not finish a degree. Most of his real education came from life itself and observing the lives of the people he knew and met. When he died in 1953, he could easily be called the greatest American playwright -- along with perhaps Tennessee Williams.

Some of the most famous plays of the 20th century belong to Eugene O’Neill. He was greatly concerned about the conditions of the working class while influencing the intellectual class. He lived with physical and mental illnesses -- including tuberculosis, mental depression, alcoholism, and later a form of Parkinson's disease or cerebellar brain atrophy which essentially ended his writing ability. O’Neill, nevertheless, tried to express his pain and philosophy through his words and dramas. Like the sea, words and dramas surrounded and consumed O’Neill and were at once positive and negative for him. He worked as a journalist and associated with Leftist political advocates, including some who were pro-Communist. But he was not a politician; he was a writer. Some of the titles of his plays ring out as legendary in the art of drama and theater: “Beyond the Horizon,” “The Emperor Jones,” “Anna Christie,”  and “Mourning Becomes Electra.”

Although he could most likely never separate himself from his Irish Catholicism, something uniquely ingrained in the Irish immigrant, especially at that time, O’Neill developed an interest in Buddhism and Taoism. Its emphasis on focusing on the present, especially seemed to influence him: " ... the past happening over and over again, now."

After he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1936, he lived near Danville, California near San Francisco at a place he created called Tao House. This reflected his interest in this Asian philosophy and religion. Here he wrote three of his greatest works -- “The Iceman Cometh,” “A Moon for the Misbegotten, “ and what is often called his greatest drama, though not performed until after his death, “Long Day’s Journey into Night.”

O’Neill’s tragic and yet great life ended in Boston due to illness. His plays perhaps helped others, who also experienced tragedy and suffering in their lives, to express their pain and maybe find some peace in this world. And, in the end, yes, the world probably did break his heart. But his plays, and his sufferings, made him immortal and America’s greatest playwright.

Tao House
Tao House, c.1938, National Park Service Photo

The Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site is called Tao House, which is located about 30 miles east of San Francisco, California. It is registered with the United States government as a National Historic Site and is operated by the US National Park Service. It has an archive of various literary material about O’Neill and even has an old-time player-piano there which came from New Orleans called “Rosie.” This musical instrument was one of O’Neill’s favorite things. See more about Tao House at the National Park Service website at

O'Neill, Tao House construction, 1937, NPS photo

The United States government in 1967 also honored Eugene O’Neill by creating a sp ecial US Postal stamp with his image on it. The postage stamp has these words on it: “Eugene O’Neill Playwright.”

Sources and further reading:
 “Eugene O’Neill” article at; “The Recorder: A Journal of the Irish American Historical Society” Vol.3, No.1, Summer 1989, New York, NY; (an online site about Eugene O’Neill); Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site website at; The Irish Times, "The Fact that I'm Irish: Eugene O'Neill US Playwright and Irish Revolutionary" by Robert M. Dowling, April 27, 2016 at
The image of the US postage stamp above with Eugene O'Neill is from Wikimedia Commons and in public domain. The photo of O'Neill at the Tao House construction site is in public domain from the National Park Service website's collection. It is listed as "Eugene O'Neill, Tao House ca. 1937 [EUON 2102]. " The other photo of Tao House is in public domain from the National Park Service website's collection. It is listed as "Tao House [EUON 1391 w], taken by O'Neill's wife, Carlotta Monterey, between 1938 to 1942. See


  1. Your piece is certainly a good summation about Gene and his life. My Grandmother was an O'Neill so we are distant cousins too via Armagh.

  2. Thanks, Daniel. You can be very proud to be related to such a great writer and thinker like Eugene O'Neill. Thanks for your comments.