RAS Lecture

RAS Salon with Professor Robert M. Dowling

“Uncharted Seas: Eugene O’Neill and China”

Eugene O’Neill, the only American dramatist to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, held a lifelong fascination with the Far East. “Europe somehow means nothing to me,” he told to his second wife Agnes Boulton when she expressed a desire to transplant to Europe. They were living in Bermuda at the time, where in 1925 O’Neill’s curiosity over China and its history inspired him to write Marco Millions. A biting satire of America’s obsession with wealth in the 1920s, the tragi-comic play was set in thirteenth-century China during the reign of the emperor Kublai Kahn. Marco Millionspremiered on January 9, 1928, at the Guild Theatre, the most respected theater company in New York, and was, despite its politically charged subject matter and enormous production costs, an unexpected box office triumph.

Then, in October of 1928, O’Neill persuaded his soon-to-be third wife Carlotta Monterey to join him on a fateful voyage that would consummate his desire to explore the Far East. For O’Neill, the months-long journey, with its maladies, relapsed drunkenness, heavy gambling losses in Shanghai, and perpetual warfare with Monterey, was, in the end, a great success. “I met all kinds of people of all nationalities,” he said, “and I got the feeling from the East that I was after that made it real and living to me instead of something in a book. I’m full to the brim with all sorts of vivid impressions of sound, color, faces, atmosphere, queer experiences that pursued me.”

ROBERT M. DOWLING is professor of English at Central Connecticut State University. His biography Eugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Actswas named a Los Angeles TimesBook Prize Finalist for biography in 2015. Dowling has written and edited several other books on O’Neill, as well as numerous articles on the playwright for such publications as The Eugene O’Neill Review,The Irish Times, Irish America,The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, and The Dramatist. He serves on the editorial board of The O’Neill Reviewand as president of the Eugene O’Neill Society. Nanjing University Press has just released a Chinese translation of Eugene O’Neill by esteemed translator and American drama scholar Professor Shiyan Xu of Nanjing Normal University.

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