Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953), the first American Nobel laureate in Literature (1936), was an Irish-American playwright whose 38 plays – most of them grim dramas in which murder, disease, suicide, and insanity are frequent themes – were among the first to introduce realism into American drama.
Aside from Mourning Becomes Electra (see below), which many critics consider his supreme masterpiece, O’Neill’s greatest works include four plays for which he won the Pulitzer Prize – Beyond the Horizon (1920), Anna Christie (1922), Strange Interlude (1928), and Long Day’s Journey into Night (1957) (posthumous) – as well as Ah! Wilderness (1933), The Iceman Cometh (1946), and Moon for the Misbegotten (1947).
The first American dramatist to regard the stage as a literary medium, O’Neill played a fundamental role in developing American theater and expanding Broadway offerings beyond unnatural and forced melodramas, musicals, and farces. Manifesting deep psychological acumen in addressing the complexities of civilization and culture, his plays were among the first to include orations using the American vernacular and to involve characters on the fringes of society, many of whom struggle to maintain their hopes and aspirations but ultimately fail, finding only disillusionment and despair.
In a March 8, 1919 letter to John Francis, his former Providence landlord, patron, and benefactor, O’Neill instructs him to be careful about taking a detailed inventory of all the effects related to the just-purchased abandoned guard station in Cape Cod (the “Francis Letter”):
I judge that by the inventory which is attached to the mortgage document, Mr. [Sam] Lewisohn intends that all that is in the buildings at present shall be our’s [sic]. Of course, I have no means of telling this, and will have to depend on you. Naturally, I wish to buy the place as I saw it, and not give him any chance to take out stuff which is not specified in the inventory, after I am there.
This may sound mean, Mr. Francis, but I have had too many dealings with Jews, and millionaire Jews, too, in the theatrical business, to trust one of them any farther than I could throw your store with my little finger. [Emphasis added]
Lewisohn – whom O’Neill couldn’t trust because he was a “millionaire Jew” – was an American lawyer, financier, philanthropist, art collector, and non-fiction author known for founding the American Management Association and serving as its first president. His father, a mining magnate and renowned philanthropist, was an important “shtadlan” in world Jewish affairs and an important advocate for persecuted Jews in Czarist Russia.
It is interesting – and perhaps telling – that in his compilation of the playwright’s correspondence, O’Neill’s biographer, Louis Sheaffer, accurately cites the Frances Letter… except for the italicized paragraph. Some critics claim that the omission was unintentional and that the controversial segment was inadvertently overlooked, but that explanation seems most unlikely, given the sensitivity of the subject matter and Sheaffer’s competency. As such, we are left with two puzzles: Why did O’Neill write it – specifically, was it generated by an anti-Semitic animus – and why did his biographer exclude it?
There are a number of theories put forth by the critics to explain why Shaeffer omitted it: that his own reputation was so entwined with that of his subject that any reduction of O’Neill’s status due to bigotry would concomitantly reduce Shaeffer’s own status, or that his subject’s prejudice might even somehow be imputed to him; that since the hateful paragraph was wholly extraneous to any meaningful analysis of O’Neill’s work (which, of course, is sheer nonsense), it would only confuse any true assessment of the playwright’s oeuvre; or that he may have believed that O’Neill’s racist statement was so uncharacteristic of who he was and how he lived his life that he could not permit a single statement to tarnish the playwright’s reputation.
Some critics suggest that O’Neill’s language in the Francis Letter merely reflected his general contempt for wealthy and stingy men, but they do not explain why he would choose to employ an ugly Jewish stereotype in characterizing such individuals. Others argue that, in using such racist language, he was merely reflecting the mores and prejudices of the time and therefore cannot be viewed as racist but, as I have previously written in these pages, I do not agree that the “everybody’s doin’ it, doin’ it” defense ever justifies rank expressions of bigotry.
Some commentators also see evidence of O’Neill’s prejudice in his work, but one must always exercise great caution not to ascribe traits and qualities of fictional characters to their author. In the few cases I have researched, exhibitions of bigotry and racism by O’Neill’s protagonists are consistent with the complexities of their inner character. And in Lazarus Laughed – a story about events following the raising of Lazarus from the dead which features mostly Jewish characters – there is actually no evidence of anti-Semitic profiling, ethnic caricaturing, or bigotry, even when Jews (and others) test Lazarus’ faith.
However, the Francis Letter is not the only example of anti-Semitism in O’Neill’s work. In a postscript to the manuscript of Tomorrow sent (ironically) to Jewish editor Waldo Frank, O’Neill referred to a booking agent as a “fat little Jew.” The September 1933 issue of The American Spectator, a monthly literary magazine listing O’Neill among its joint editors, featured Editorial Conference (With Wine), a roundtable discussion addressing possible solutions to “the Jewish problem,” including the movement to create a Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael. O’Neill’s statement (and others), which was criticized as anti-Semitic, was both openly disdainful of the Jewish people and derisive of their desire to form their own nation.
In a withering letter vilifying Otto Kahn, a prominent Jewish investment banker, O’Neill wrote: “Kahn, I think, is a two-faced tin-horned kike whom you can trust not to double-cross you about as far as a worm can walk on its hands.” In a correspondence to his agent complaining about his Jewish publisher’s response to a request for an advance on his royalties, he wrote: “All he sent was a lousy $200 – which is no way to treat me even if he is a Jew.”
And, thinking that he had lined up a buyer for their home, he wrote to Agnes, his second wife whom he was divorcing, that his agent “has a rich Jew in tow who seems to mean business,” but when the deal fell through, he wrote that “the damned Jew changed his mind.”
Whatever the extent of the debate on O’Neill’s anti-Semitism, there is no dispute as to the virulent Jew-hatred of his third wife, actress Carlotta Monterey, who may have later influenced her husband. When Carlotta decided that Saxe Commins, the respected Jewish senior editor of Random House who worked with many of the leading writers of the time, had taken some of her husband’s manuscripts, she called him “a crook and a Jew b[_____],” threatened him with prison, and complained generally that Hitler had not killed enough Jews.
In a January 9, 1933 letter to George C. Tyler, she wrote that an inaccurate report about O’Neill’s plan for a play “must have sprung from his little Jew-lawyer [i.e., Harry Weinberger] who was here for two days to talk business.” Referring to New York Jews, she wrote to one of her husband’s friends, “I have never in my long and varied experience come across such tactless, thick-skinned people.” Even if he was not influenced by such spousal disgorging, the question remains how a decent man could see fit to wed such a spouse, let alone tolerate her bigotry.
Ironically, O’Neill’s views on Jews may have changed in response to Hitler, as he took a leading position in advocating for Jews during the Holocaust. In a prominent December 7, 1942 ad published in four major newspapers across America, he joined the ranks of 1,500 prominent signers of the Bergson Proclamation of the Stateless and Palestinian Jews, which excoriated the Allied governments for not allowing 200,000 Jews to fight for a nation of their own. The signers, who included Harry Truman and Herbert Hoover, pledged that “we shall no longer witness with pity alone…the calculated extermination of the ancient Jewish people by the barbarous Nazis.”
Interestingly, in a pro-Hitler election appeal, O’Neill had been called a Jew by the Nazi organ Voelkischer Beobachter (1933). Charging that the Jews have degraded the German theater, the paper listed O’Neill’s Emperor Jones as a prime example of the work of a Jewish playwright and listed several other non-Jewish playwrights as Jews. (Amusingly, in a famous comedic routine decades later in which he ruminates on the differences between Jews and “goyim,” Lenny Bruce commented, “Eugene O’Neill – Jewish.”)
Notwithstanding the evidence of O’Neill’s anti-Jewish animus, anti-Semitism would seem to be inconsistent with his deep involvement with enlightened social movements that advanced tolerance for all and his great admiration for social reformers, particularly Emma Goldman, one of many in his circle of Jewish friends. Notwithstanding the usually hollow trope asserted by many Jew-haters that “some of my best friends are Jews,” many pundits argue that, indeed, a man with so many close Jewish friends could not be an anti-Semite.
One of O’Neill’s Jewish friends with whom he maintained a very close relationship was Rabbi Louis Israel Newman, to whom he writes this rare December 29, 1931 correspondence on his personal letterhead: “…Thank you for sending me the script of your discourse. I have read it with the keenest interest and wish to express my gratitude for your sympathetic understanding of ‘Mourning Becomes Electra’ and your appreciation of its values.”
In Mourning Becomes Electra, universally considered one of O’Neill’s greatest masterpieces, the playwright takes the Greek catharsis of Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy to New England during the Civil War to analyze moral predicaments and ethical dilemmas and to express the complexity of contemporary family life. Specifically, he brilliantly uses classic Greek forms, themes, and characters, including the heroic leader returning from war only to be murdered by his adulterous wife and his weak incestuous son, who is goaded by his repressed and vengeful sister to matricide and then suicide.
Upon its October 26, 1931 debut at the Guild Theater on Broadway, Mourning Becomes Electra received excellent reviews and, with packed crowds, it ran for 150 performances during a five-month span. An early audience attendee was poet, playwright, and spiritual leader Newman who, on November 22, 1931, discussed the play before his congregation at Temple Rodeph Sholom in a sermon titled “The Ethical and Spiritual Themes of Eugene O’Neill’s Masterpiece,” the script of which he apparently sent to the playwright.
Newman (1893-1972) became an assistant to Rabbi Stephen Wise at the Free Synagogue (1917) and was ordained by Wise despite having no formal rabbinical training. He served pulpits at the Bronx Free Synagogue (1917-21) and at Temple Israel in New York City (1921-24) and was affiliated with the faculty of the Jewish Institute of Religion in New York from its 1922 inception where he served as a professor of apologetics. After leaving to serve as rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco, he returned to New York to become the rabbi at Temple Rodeph Shalom, where he remained until retirement.
During the 1930s, Newman became identified with the Zionist revisionist movement, championing Zionism as primarily a political movement and advocating for the creation of a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael. He served as chair of the Palestine Mandate Defense Fund; as honorary chairman of both the Revisionist Tel Hai Fund and the American Friends of a Jewish Palestine; on the American advisory committee for the Hebrew University; and as a vice president of the American Jewish Congress.
He also compiled and translated The Hasidic Anthology: Tales and Teachings of the Hasidim, a classic work which has become a standard textbook for courses in Jewish studies, and was a poet and playwright as well, creating numerous plays and cantatas. Newman frequently used O’Neill’s plays as fare for his sermons.
In conclusion, it is, at best, curious that in addressing the question of O’Neill’s anti-Semitism, his defenders and apologists seem to focus on finding ways to explain away the Francis Letter while essentially ignoring the breadth and depth of his anti-Jewish expressions. The totality of the circumstances dictates that O’Neill, as great a playwright as he was, must take his place in the bigots’ hall of shame.