“He is by nature and preference a simple, unpretentious man, whose inclinations are still close to his humble beginnings and his Irish farmer forebears. But the actor shows in all his unconscious habits of speech, movement and gesture. These have the quality of belonging to a studied technique.” (From O’Neill’s description of the character James Tyrone)
Biographer Barbara Gelb has called the role of James Tyrone “O'Neill's Lear,” because of the actions and emotions it challenges an actor to perform. While strong paternal figures loom heavily in many of O’Neill’s plays, his robust characterization of Tyrone stands apart as his most powerful statement about his father, James O’Neill, and their complicated relationship.
A RAGS-TO-RICHES TRAGEDY
Although he became a successful American actor, James O'Neill lived his entire life haunted by a fear of poverty. Uncertainty remains about his actual birthdate, because he was vague in talking about his past; he was probably born on October 15th of 1845, in County Kilkenny, during the worst of the Irish potato blight. His father, Edmund, was a poor tenant farmer whose wife, Mary, was 17 years his junior. The family had five daughters and three sons, of which James was the youngest.
The O’Neills made a difficult sea voyage to America, arriving in Buffalo, New York when James was six. Like most Irish immigrants, they confronted prejudice and disdain and could find only the lowest paying jobs. Edmund became a dock worker. After five years and the death of oldest son Richard, Edmund abandoned his family and returned to Ireland, where he died in 1862. Ten-year-old James went to work in a machine shop to help support the family. As he watched friends and neighbors move to the poor house, James’s fear of poverty grew.
His older sister, Josephine, was determined to improve conditions for her family. She married a successful businessman and moved to Cincinnati, taking 16-year-old James along. Her husband gave James a position selling military uniforms in his store and hired a private tutor to educate him. Like many success stories, James O’Neill rose as a result of hard work and some good luck.
His theatre career began in 1867, when, responding to a friend’s dare, he took a job as an extra in a play. He quickly discovered an inclination for acting, and the stage manager recognized his talent. Over the next decade James apprenticed with some of the great actors of the age: Edwin Forrest, Joseph Jefferson, and Edwin Booth. He developed his craft, overcame his Irish brogue, and memorized over 50 roles—including most of Shakespeare’s heroes. His talent, good looks, and charm earned him the respect of his peers and popularity with audiences.
James was well-liked by women, both onstage and off. One actress recalled, "When played with other Romeos, I thought they would climb up the trellis to the balcony; but when I played with Jimmy O'Neill, I wanted to climb down the trellis, into his arms." Fifteen-year-old Ella Quinlan, the daughter of a Cleveland businessman, caught James’s eye. Two years later, they met again in New York and a long courtship followed. Against her mother’s wishes, she married James in 1877. By this time, he had become a leading man in a theatre company, earning an impressive $195 a week. Their newlywed happiness was soon jeopardized when Nettie Welsh, a former lover, brought a lawsuit claiming that James had already married her and fathered a 3-year-old son. Welsh lost the case due to insufficient evidence, but the scandal hurt the marriage—even as it helped James’s box office appeal. James and Ella had three children: James Jr., Edmund (who died of the measles as a toddler), and Eugene, born in 1888. Despite Ella’s dislike of the theatrical lifestyle and her long struggle with addiction, James remained a devoted and faithful husband.
In 1883, James first played Edmond Dantes in the melodrama The Count of Monte Cristo, based on Alexandre Dumas’ novel. Over the next 30 years, he performed the role over 6,000 times and earned more than $800,000 —a fortune for a man who started as a penniless immigrant. But it became a Faustian bargain: he had sold out artistic aspiration in exchange for financial security and felt trapped by the role. Still, he played Dantes until the production finally closed down in 1916. In 1920, with his self esteem broken and his spirit destroyed, James O’Neill died of intestinal cancer.
Long Day's Journey into Night is now playing at The American Airlines Theatre. For tickets and more information, visit our website.
2015-2016 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Long Day's Journey Into Night