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Danville's 20th Annual Eugene O'Neill Festival

The event celebrates the far-reaching impact of this playwright and onetime East Bay resident.


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Eugene O’Neill’s Danville residence, Tao House, which he purchased with his Nobel Prize winnings.

Photo courtesy of the Eugene O’Neill Foundation

The only American playwright to receive a Nobel Prize, Eugene O’Neill, called the East Bay home from 1937 to 1944.

The writer—who also won four Pulitzer Prizes—penned his most famous works in Danville, where he lived with his Oakland-raised wife, Carlotta, on a 158-acre property that is now known as the Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site. This month, the annual Eugene O’Neill Festival, which honors the playwright by staging his works and highlighting his impact, is celebrating its 20th anniversary.

In its early days, the festival consisted solely of O’Neill performances held over a single weekend; today, it encompasses a month’s worth of events, both at the site—which includes O’Neill’s home (called Tao House), a barn (where plays are now staged), swimming pool, and orchards—and in downtown Danville. Its focus also has evolved from academic appreciation of the playwright’s oeuvre to dramatic productions. “That’s the way to keep the house alive,” says Eric Fraisher Hayes, the Eugene O’Neill Foundation’s artistic director. “It [has become] a festival of American drama, while always putting O’Neill at the center.”

O’Neill on the property circa 1940. Photo courtesy of the Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night, one of O’Neill’s best-known works, was chosen to anchor this year’s festival, which also features stagings of The Second Girl—an O’Neill companion piece by Irish playwright Ronan Noone—and Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie. In selecting the seminal Williams drama, “I looked for other American classics with a strong autobiographical connection,” Hayes says. “Both [O’Neill and Williams] wrote about themselves, in a fictionalized version, trying to make peace with what happened to their family.” Additionally, an Irish theater company will present O’Neill’s sea plays aboard the ship Balclutha, docked in San Francisco. “It’s a total O’Neill immersion experience,” the artistic director adds.

“[O’Neill] knows how to tell a story, how to create compelling conflicts between characters and, more interestingly, conflicts within a character,” Hayes says. “It’s psychological, and that’s one of the reasons it’s so timeless. The trappings might be outdated, but the conflicts aren’t.”

 

The 20th annual Eugene O’Neill Festival runs August 24 to September 29. eugeneoneill.org.

 

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