He was America’s most renowned playwright – gifted, popular, and critically acclaimed – and he found himself unable to write. In his youth, Eugene O’Neill had won three Pulitzer Prizes for Drama in the space of eight years, and before he was 50, he had received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Many of his plays – some still considered masterpieces, like Anna Christie, The Iceman Cometh, and Mourning Becomes Electra — drew from his personal experiences with family conflict, instability, depression, and substance abuse, and his work was often intense and tragic.
Shortly after he completed his most acclaimed work — Long Day’s Journey Into Night, for which he would receive his fourth Pulitzer, posthumously – O’Neill’s increasingly tremorous hands made it physically impossible for him to write any longer. He was suffering from a degenerative brain disorder, an ataxia that robbed him of control of his fingers. He could neither type nor write by hand. He attempted to use dictation but, creatively, it did not work for him. Thus, in 1943, at the age of 55 and at the peak of his artistic ability, his mind and heart still craving to create . . . Eugene O’Neill stopped writing. His biography at eoneill.com states, “O’Neill’s final years were spent in grim frustration. Unable to work, he longed for his death, and sat waiting for it in a Boston hotel”. He died there 10 years later, at the age of 65.
I learned all this two days ago. Yesterday, Robin Williams, gifted, popular, and critically acclaimed comedian and actor, died by his own hand at age 63, after struggling with depression and substance abuse.
I write about seeking fulfillment, about trying to find satisfaction and contentment in our work and in our lives. The stories I tell usually offer some hope. They are about people who have or discover some vital element – some habit or characteristic like persistence, imagination, self-confidence, or sociability – that makes the difference, and enables them to move that much closer to fulfillment. I am moved by these stories, as I hope readers are, because I am not perfect, nor am I where I want to be. These stories help me see and remember that, if I adopt or develop some of those characteristics, I, too, can move that much closer to fulfillment.
What does it mean to see stories like those of O’Neill and Williams – titans in their fields, who had the drive and the wit and the self-assuredness that I pursue, whose virtues are made manifest by their recognition and success, yet who die frustrated, miserable, and hopeless? When minds and bodies can betray such gifted people so completely that all of their good work seems to count for nothing by comparison, what hope is there for the rest of us?
Those are hard stories to hear. All those plays trapped inside O’Neill’s mind as he bitterly crumbles away. Williams’s seemingly infinite joyous creativity unable to push back the darkness that smothered him. Crushingly sad, and terrifying, in a way.
But also terribly human. Even, in another way, inspiring. Eugene O’Neill must have been horrified by the impending uselessness of his digits, yet he did not quit. He labored to complete what works he could, while he still had the ability to write, and by doing so, left the world with his most brilliant script complete. He was dealt a bad hand, but he didn’t fold, even though he must have foreseen how it would play out.
And it’s hard for me to imagine the kind of pain that Robin Williams was going through – my only point of reference is that it was apparently enough to lead him to suicide – but to think that he struggled with that pain for decades before succumbing to it, and that in that time he was still able to bring joy and laughter to a couple of billion people – well, then I have to admire the fortitude he must have had. And I have to hope that, at points along the way, he was able to experience the kind of fulfillment that was able to sustain him, at least for a while.
Maybe that’s the best we can hope for. Not nirvana, not a permanent state of fulfillment that insulates us from sorrow. Just periods of fulfillment, the memory and pursuit of which can keep us going through many long dark winters of discontent.