One of America’s most distinguished playwrights, Eugene O’Neill lived on Georgia’s Sea Island from 1932 to 1936. He first visited the island while on vacation with his wife, Carlotta, in November 1931, soon after his drama Mourning Becomes Electra opened on Broadway in New York City. The playwright, who loved warm weather and the sea, was looking for a new home, and he quickly decided on Sea Island. The O’Neills bought a beachfront lot, designed and built a house, and moved to the island on June 22, 1932.
Life and Work on Sea Island
Forty-three years old at the time, O’Neill was already one of the nation’s most honored writers, with three Pulitzer Prizes to his credit. (He would later win a fourth as well as the Nobel Prize for Literature, becoming the only American playwright ever to win the honor.) Yet O’Neill’s four years as a resident of Georgia remain little known. He and his wife christened their new home Casa Genotta—”Genotta” being a combination of their names. Carlotta oversaw its design and construction. When the house was finished, the O’Neills gave a series of dinners, individually inviting each executive of the Sea Island Company and his wife to Casa Genotta. According to O’Neill’s biographer Louis Sheaffer, the “Sea Island brass had hoped that the world-famous playwright would be a social lion of his community,” but in fact O’Neill was often reclusive. Nevertheless, the O’Neills hosted numerous well-known writers and others from the theater world during their years on Sea Island. These visitors included British novelist and playwright W. Somerset Maugham, writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten, and fellow Broadway playwright Russel Crouse.
From the beginning, O’Neill sought a place of quiet solitude to escape the hectic pace of New York and the theater. He found it at Casa Genotta, writing several complete plays and parts of others during his time there. His most significant accomplishment was his only comedy, Ah, Wilderness!, an affectionate portrait of small-town family life at the turn of the twentieth century. Completed early in 1933, the play opened on Broadway in October, with a film version following in 1935.
One major project O’Neill began at Sea Island was a multi-play cycle that was to include five dramas, then seven, and finally many more. Though he would work on it off and on for some years, illness finally forced him to give it up. His final play written in Georgia was a first draft of A Touch of the Poet, completed just before the O’Neills left Sea Island in 1936.
Departure from Sea Island
In the days before air conditioning, the Sea Island climate was challenging even to the well-off O’Neills. During their summers, the couple would sometimes escape the heat by heading north for weeks at a time. They also returned to New York City for theater premieres and for business. In the summer of 1936 a professor from the University of Washington in Seattle, who was working on a book about O’Neill, visited the couple at Sea Island and spoke about the Northwest. O’Neill was apparently tired of the hot Georgia summers and looking for another place to live.
The O’Neills left Sea Island late that summer and headed to New York for a time before moving into a rental house on the Puget Sound in Washington State. There, O’Neill received a telegram on November 12 announcing that he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The couple later moved to California, where O’Neill wrote some of his most distinguished plays, including The Iceman Cometh, Moon for the Misbegotten, and his most autobiographical work, A Long Day’s Journey into Night. He died in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1953.
In 2007 the Golden Isles Arts and Humanities Association put on performances of Ah, Wilderness! at the historic Ritz Theatre in Brunswick to honor the seventy-fifth anniversary of Casa Genotta’s completion. O’Neill was also an honoree at the 2012 Georgia Literary Festival, held on Jekyll Island. Casa Genotta still stands on Sea Island as a vacation rental property.