To watch Eugene O’Neill plays such as The Iceman Cometh, A Moon for the Misbegotten and Long Day’s Journey Into Night is to see the depiction of alcoholism as the ultimate moral cop-out, the bottom of the barrel, physically and spiritually. Much of this attitude stemmed from O’Neill’s own worry that he was drinking himself to death. It’s been accepted wisdom that the debilitating brain disease that destroyed the last ten years of the playwright’s life (he died of pneumonia in 1953) was caused by O’Neill’s heavy drinking in his younger days. Certainly O’Neill himself felt that way, though he drank much less in his later years. Still, not only was he diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, many doctors warned him that alcohol would damage his brain.
Now the New York Times reports (April 13) that a new look at the autopsy records and slides of O’Neill’s brain showed that he had a rare “perhaps familial” degenerative disorder that was not linked to booze. A team led by Dr. Bruce H. Price, chairman of McLean Hospital’s neurology department in Boston, MA, are saying that O’Neill’s condition stemmed from unknown causes and that even his tremors were genetic rather than the after effects of delirium tremens.
Apparently, the pattern of O’Neill’s disease simply didn’t fit the pattern usually associated with alcohol-related, “cerebellar degeneration.” Dr. Price told the Times, “That’s not the way we think alcohol works on the central nervous system.”