Cultural tie between Ireland and US to be celebrated through drama of Eugene O'Neill

New festival in New Ross, Co Wexford will honour Irish-American playwright's roots

Family portrait of Eugene O’Neill seated with his wife, Agnes Boulton, and their two children, Oona  and Shane, outside their home in Bermuda circa 1925. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Family portrait of Eugene O’Neill seated with his wife, Agnes Boulton, and their two children, Oona and Shane, outside their home in Bermuda circa 1925. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

 

Uniting the United States and Ireland thorough the drama of Eugene O’Neill, One Festival, Two Countries plans to honour the dual inheritance of the only US dramatist to become a Nobel Laureate.

The cultural tie between the two countries will be reinforced as the O’Neill Ancestral Trust of New Ross and the Eugene O’Neill Foundation in California unite and pay tribute to O’Neill.

The annual Eugene O'Neill Festival has been taking place in Danville, California for 18 years. It will be held this September, followed by the first Eugene O'Neill International Festival of Theatre in New Ross, Co Wexford from October 11th to 14th. This will also become an annual event.

The cultural ties between the United States and Ireland were important to Eugene O’Neill and also his father, James, who left New Ross on an emigrant ship in 1851 at the age of five. By the age of 20, James was a Shakespearean actor in New York. Not bad for a young man born into poverty in the south of Ireland who had faced more hardship on his arrival in the US.

Although Eugene O’Neill never got to visit Ireland, his Irishness was very important to him, says New Ross festival director Tomás Kavanagh.

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

The dual fesivals will not make that ommission, and New Ross festival organisers will be proud to honour O’Neill’s Irish heritage, says Kavanagh.

The New Ross festival is glad to have a first up its sleeve, too. The Long Day’s Journey into Night writer’s Irish-born actor-father James was well known for his role in The Count of Monte Cristo, a stage adaptation of the Alexandre Dumas novel. The New Ross festival will feature a screening of the 1913 silent film of the play starring James O’Neill and never shown before in Ireland. The screening will be accompanied by live music.

“The festival will be delighted, in this sense, to give James O’Neill, belatedly, his New Ross debut,” says Kavanagh.

James O’Neill made the lead role in The Count of Monte Christo his own and every year he would tour the play around the US.

“Therefore the Count would age as James aged,” says Kavanagh. “ Eventually, James would be playing the lead, which was intended for a younger man, when he was well into his 50s.”

Although James O’Neill did well for a poor, Irish emigrant, Eugene, did rather better. He is still the only American dramatist to have been awarded the Nobel Prize, which he won in 1936 .

Festival organisers in New Ross will celebrate O’Neill’s Irishness, while the Californian segment of the festival,, which is held in the place O’Neill settled in later life, will allow his American side to flourish.

Appreciating the two sides that make up every coin is something that immigrants are mindful of. Eugene O’Neill knew that, says Kavanagh.

One Festival, Two Countries takes place in Danville, California (eugeneoneill.org/event/19th-annual-eugene-oneill-festival) throughout September 2018, and in New Ross in Co Wexford from October 11th-14th (eugeneoneillfestival.com).