Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Eugene O'Neill in Georgia

I've been on a tear for the last several years to get playwright Eugene O'Neill into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. With no luck whatever, so far. 

Let me explain. I myself was elected to the HOF in 2009, and after induction, each living member is given a three-year term as a judge, joining permanent judges in selecting new members. I served my three years with a great deal of pleasure and did my duty to the best of my ability.

I told the group repeatedly that the Hall is only of some value if it continues to hold itself to the highest of standards and remains a tough institution to get into. The judges care passionately about doing the right thing and are open to hear pitches for the several dozen writers who have been nominated to the HOF but not yet admitted. 

Here is what is required to be admitted, according to the open nominations form online:

"To be eligible for nomination, a writer must be either a native Georgian or a person who has lived in Georgia and produced a significant work while residing there."

That seems pretty clear to me and a reasonable standard. Using it, the Hall has enshrined many, many fine writers and will continue to do so for decades to come. Alas, for reasons that still aren't clear to me, the Hall has seen fit to exclude Eugene O'Neill, a Georgia resident for four years from 1932-1936 and winner of four Pulitzer prizes for drama and the Nobel Prize for Literature itself. 

He wrote several significant works during his years on Sea Island, including Ah, Wilderness!, his only comedy and which is still in the repertoire. The home he and his wife built here, Casa Genotta, is still around, too.

Just as O'Neill won the Nobel Prize, he and his wife left Georgia for a vacation out West, where they soon moved. In those pre-air conditioned days, the heat and dampness of Sea Island must have been a challenge, because almost no one who ever lived loved salt air and heat more than Eugene O'Neill.

I brought up O'Neill for a vote each year I was a judge, with no luck at all. And let's be fair to those other judges: It's a subjective act, and they have every right in the world to keep him out. No, his writing when he lived in Georgia wasn't about the state of Georgia, but that's true of many people already in the HOF. So what is it that disqualifies him? Frankly, I have no idea.

I do sincerely hope that it never becomes a requirement that a member of the HOF wrote, in his or her career, about the state of Georgia. That would make us look parochial and like a branch of the Chamber of Commerce. 

Anyway, there are many fine candidates out there, and if Eugene O'Neill is never enshrined, that's just life, though I think we would all be the poorer for it. My small contribution to the effort was to write an article about Eugene O'Neill in Georgia for The New Georgia Encyclopedia

That article has just gone online and is here: http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/arts-culture/eugene-oneill-georgia.

I doubt O'Neill will ever be forgotten as an American author. But right now it is barely known that he lived and worked in Georgia for nearly half a decade. And that's a shame. 

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