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Eugene O’Neill Takes His Place in Poets’ Corner

By Pam Patterson

Published on December 8, 2016

What better company could a playwright ask for than the likes of Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Tennessee Williams and James Baldwin! In November, The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City inducted Eugene O’Neill into Poets’ Corner, celebrating his legacy and place among the luminaries of American literature.

O’Neill’s induction was held during the Cathedral’s traditional Evensong service, with the Cathedral Choir singing the African American spiritual, “My Lord, What a Morning.” Following the service, guests and congregants made their way to Poets’ Corner to see the unveiling of the stone honoring O’Neill.

The stone, as is customary with all honorees, was engraved with a quote by the author. O’Neill’s was chosen from Long Days Journey Into Night: “For a second you see—and seeing the secret, are the secret.” It is notably the same quote contained in a commemorative sculpture the Foundation placed in a park in downtown Danville in 2005.

Eugene O’Neill Foundation President Merilyn Milam, thanking the Cathedral board for its honor, wrote, “Having enjoyed the majesty of the Cathedral twice before, it is exciting to me that O’Neill will be among the illustrious writers in Poets’ Corner. It is somehow reassuring to know that there are other O’Neillians at work to preserve the memory of his amazing talent.”

On the night following his induction, Marilyn Nelson, the Cathedral’s Poet in Residence, was joined by actors from the O’Neill Theatre Center in Waterford, Connecticut to perform excerpts from Fog, one of O’Neill’s earliest plays, and from Moon for the Misbegotten, one of his greatest and final plays, written at Tao House. Joining the assembled actors, authors and critics for the celebration were a number of the distinguished writers who make up the Cathedral’s Board of Electors to the Poets’ Corner.

Born in New York in 1888, O’Neill spent most of his childhood in hotel rooms while his father, James, a successful touring actor, traveled from city to city to perform. O’Neill’s first published play, Beyond the Horizon, opened on Broadway in 1920 to great acclaim, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the first of four Pulitzers O’Neill would ultimately receive. In 1936 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the only American playwright ever to do so.

The American Poets’ Corner, beloved by visitors, was created in 1984, and is modeled after a similar alcove at Westminster Abbey in London. Honoring American fiction writers, essayists, and dramatists, Poets’ Corner “memorializes the literature of our nation in all its surprise, wit and beauty.” Cathedral poetry events have become an integral part of the literary landscape of New York. We think O’Neill would be pleased to be in such good company. To learn more about Poets’ Corner and the Cathedral, visit their website here.

photo credit: Janet Roberts