Eugene O'Neill

Banquet speech

As the Laureate was unable to be present at the Nobel Banquet at the City Hall in Stockholm, December 10, 1936, the speech was read by James E. Brown, Jr., American Chargé d’Affaires

It is an extraordinary privilege that has come to me to take before this gathering of eminent persons the place of my fellow-countryman, Mr. Eugene O’Neill, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, who unfortunately is unable to be present here today.

It is an extraordinary privilege because the significance and true worth of the Nobel Prizes are fully recognized in all advanced parts of the world. The Prizes are justly held in honor and esteem, for it is well known that they are awarded without prejudice of any kind by the several committees whose members generously devote much time and thought to the task in their charge.

In addition to being a stimulus to endeavour and a high recognition of achievement, the Prizes are valuable in another respect. Owing to the complete absence of partiality in the awarding of them, they induce people of all countries to think in terms of the world and mankind, heedless of classifications or boundaries of any character. The good influence of such conspicuous recognition of a particular achievement thus spreads far beyond its special purpose.

Mr. O’Neill has been prevented from being here today principally because the state of his health, damaged by overwork, has forced him to follow his doctor’s orders to live absolutely quietly for several months. It is his hope, and I follow his own words in a letter to me, that all those connected with the festival will accept in good faith his statement of the impossibility of his attending, and not put it down to arbitrary temperament, or anything of the sort.

In view of his inability to attend, he promptly sent a speech to be read on his behalf on this occasion. Mr. O’Neill in a letter to me said regarding his speech, «It is no mere artful gesture to please a Swedish audience. It is a plain statement of fact and my exact feeling, and I am glad of this opportunity to get it said and on record.» It affords me great pleasure to read now the speech addressed to this gathering by Mr. Eugene O’Neill.

«First, I wish to express again to you my deep regret that circumstances have made it impossible for me to visit Sweden in time for the festival, and to be present at this banquet to tell you in person of my grateful appreciation.

It is difficult to put into anything like adequate words the profound gratitude I feel for the greatest honor that my work could ever hope to attain, the award of the Nobel Prize. This highest of distinctions is all the more grateful to me because I feel so deeply that it is not only my work which is being honored, but the work of all my colleagues in America – that this Nobel Prize is a symbol of the recognition by Europe of the coming-of-age of the American theatre. For my plays are merely, through luck of time and circumstance, the most widely-known examples of the work done by American playwrights in the years since the World War – work that has finally made modern American drama in its finest aspects an achievement of which Americans can be justly proud, worthy at last to claim kinship with the modern drama of Europe, from which our original inspiration so surely derives.

This thought of original inspiration brings me to what is, for me, the greatest happiness this occasion affords, and that is the opportunity it gives me to acknowledge, with gratitude and pride, to you and to the people of Sweden, the debt my work owes to that greatest genius of all modern dramatists, your August Strindberg.

It was reading his plays when I first started to write back in the winter of 1913-14 that, above all else, first gave me the vision of what modern drama could be, and first inspired me with the urge to write for the theatre myself. If there is anything of lasting worth in my work, it is due to that original impulse from him, which has continued as my inspiration down all the years since then – to the ambition I received then to follow in the footsteps of his genius as worthily as my talent might permit, and with the same integrity of purpose.

Of course, it will be no news to you in Sweden that my work owes much to the influence of Strindberg. That influence runs clearly through more than a few of my plays and is plain for everyone to see. Neither will it be news for anyone who has ever known me, for I have always stressed it myself. I have never been one of those who are so timidly uncertain of their own contribution that they feel they cannot afford to admit ever having been influenced, lest they be discovered as lacking all originality.

No, I am only too proud of my debt to Strindberg, only too happy to have this opportunity of proclaiming it to his people. For me, he remains, as Nietzsche remains in his sphere, the Master, still to this day more modern than any of us, still our leader. And it is my pride to imagine that perhaps his spirit, musing over this year’s Nobel award for literature, may smile with a little satisfaction, and find the follower not too unworthy of his Master.»

Prior to the speech, Robert Fries, Director of the Bergius Foundation, remarked: «It is difficult to explain the vital processes in the living organism; it is difficult to interpret the inmost essence of matter, but it is perhaps most difficult to sound the human mind and to understand the soul in its shifting phases. With passionate intensity and impulsive genius Eugene O’Neill has done this in his dramas, and one cannot but be captivated by the masterly way in which he deals with the great problems of life.»

From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1901-1967, Editor Horst Frenz, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1969

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