Father of acclaimed playwright had fateful meeting with Monmouth lawyer
MONMOUTH, Ill. — The career of one of America’s greatest playwrights might have taken a completely different path had his father listened to a Monmouth attorney.
Eugene O’Neill, Nobel laureate and author of The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey into Night, was born in 1888 near the New York City theater district, where his actor father, James O’Neill, was a matinee idol, famous for his portrayal the Count of Monte Cristo.
A native of Ireland, James O’Neill had emigrated at age 5 to America with his family of eight siblings during the potato famine of 1851. After settling in Buffalo, New York, the oldest brother died, sending his father into depression and he eventually abandoned his wife, returning to Ireland. To help support the family, 10-year-old James and his siblings took menial jobs.
Good fortune intervened when James’s older sister, Josephine, married a successful saloonkeeper and moved to the growing city of Cincinnati. The rest of the family soon followed and each of his mother’s married daughters took in a younger sibling, with James moving into Josephine’s affluent household. It was there that he was introduced to Shakespeare and the theater.
At age 21, James took a small role in a production in a local Edwin Forrest production. “I began the thing as a lark,” he recalled, “but the stage manager prevailed on me to remain.” In 1867, he made his formal acting debut in a production of Boucicault’s The Colleen Bawn, when the actors of Cincinnati’s National Theatre were on strike. Later that year, he joined a traveling stock company.
The troupe ran into trouble at Quincy, Illinois, in 1867, when the actors’ trunks were confiscated by “exacting landlords.” Reminiscing years later, O’Neill said: “I certainly thought that I should have to walk home. The manager left for Monmouth, Illinois, promising to send me the wherewithal to pay my board bill.”
Meanwhile, O’Neill met a prominent politician in Quincy, who lent him enough money from him to pay the landlady and purchase a railroad ticket to Monmouth.
“While in Monmouth,” O’Neill recalled, “a wealthy old gentleman, the head of a prosperous law firm, took a great fancy to me. He invited me to his home to dinner and offered to adopt me if I would agree to give up the stage and study law in his office. He had no children of his own, and said if I proved worthy he wished me to take his name and become his heir.”
The attorney, as best as I can determine, must have been Solon Burroughs, a prominent Monmouth Republican from Vermont, who resided on the northeast corner of North 2nd Street and East Archer Avenue. He was only 46 at the time, but was certainly wealthy, and according to census records, he and his wife were childless. All of the other prominent Monmouth attorneys in the Civil War era had children.
O’Neill was enticed by the offer, but when the attorney gave him just 24 hours to make a decision, his love of acting prevailed and he decided to decline.
Burroughs was understanding of the decision and gave O’Neill train fare to Cincinnati, along with enough money to put him on his feet again.
“He died shortly thereafter,” O’Neill said, “but I had the pleasure of returning the money before his death.”
Burrough’s wife, Frances, died of consumption just two years later and he moved to Aurora, where he died in 1874, so the timeframe seems consistent with Burroughs having been the benefactor.
After returning to Ohio, the dashing young O’Neill met his future wife, Ella, at the home of her father — a Cleveland businessman — when he was performing in that city. She was only 15 at the time but immediately developed a crush on the actor. But O’Neill left for a theater company in Chicago, where he was praised by none other than Edwin Booth for his Shakespearean performances.
By 1877, James and Ella had reunited and were married. They began a life together on the road, where James developed an alcohol problem. When Ella experienced difficulties giving birth to Eugene O’Neill, she became addicted to morphine.
The dysfunctional parents would become the models for James and Mary Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s semi-autobiographical Pulitzer Prize-winning play Long Day’s Journey into Night.
Had the young James O’Neill taken up the Monmouth attorney’s offer to become his apprentice, perhaps he would have retired from acting, settling down in the Maple City and living a comfortable, sedate life. Any children he had might never have been exposed to acting or playwriting, and the literary and theatrical world would have been deprived of the formidable works of Eugene O’Neill.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 40 years.