Daily English
Cultural English
Practical English

522 Topics: American Playwrights – Eugene O’Neill; The Passenger Pigeon; spare versus slender; Was I wrong!

Complete Transcript
You’re listening to ESL Podcast’s English Café number 522.

This is English as a Second Language Podcast’s English Café episode 522. I’m your host, Dr. Jeff McQuillan, coming to you from the Center for Educational Development in beautiful Los Angeles, California. Hello, California! Hello, world! Hello, Los Angeles!

Visit our website at ESLPod.com. Become a member of ESL Podcast. Why not? When you do, you can download a Learning Guide for this episode that gives you a complete transcript of everything we say. Are you on Facebook? Hey, what a coincidence! So are we! Go to facebook.com/eslpod and like us.

On this Café, we’re going to talk about one of the great American playwrights of the twentieth century, Eugene O’Neill. We’re also going to talk about something called the “passenger pigeon.” And as always, we’ll answer a few of your questions. Let’s get started.

Eugene Gladstone O’Neill was born in October of 1888 in New York City. Eugene was the second child of the actor James O’Neill and his wife, Ella. Eugene grew up traveling with his family and spent a lot of his childhood, his years as a child, living in hotels and hanging out in the back of theaters where his father was performing. His father was, remember, an actor.

He went to a boarding school as a child and spent one year, after graduating, at Princeton University. A “boarding school” is a school where children usually live at the school as well as study there. O’Neill spent five years, after leaving Princeton without graduating, traveling to places such as Buenos Aires, Argentina, Liverpool, England, and of course where he was born, New York City.

Unfortunately, he started to drink a little bit too much alcohol and became an alcoholic. He also was what we might call “suicidal” – that is, he actually tried to kill himself a few times. In 1912, he became ill with a disease that was not uncommon in this period, tuberculosis. It’s a disease that affects your lungs. Sometimes it was called “consumption,” or by the letters “TB” – tuberculosis. Many of my relatives died of tuberculosis during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was a quite common disease in America and in other places at this time.

Well, O’Neill recovered from his tuberculosis. He didn’t die of the disease, although he did spend six months in a hospital. In 1913, he left the hospital and he was what we might describe as a “new man.” He told people that he had been reborn by the illness of tuberculosis. “To be reborn” (reborn) means to be born again, literally. But here, O’Neill meant that his view of life had changed, that he was going to do something completely different – and in fact, after this experience in 1913, he began to write plays.

Most people say that the first plays that Eugene O’Neill wrote were not very good, or at least not as good as his later plays, but they featured the same kinds of characters, the same kinds of people that also appeared in his later plays. When I say they “featured” (featured), I mean these characters had an important part in the play. The characters usually had difficult lives – prostitutes, sailors, drug addicts, people who might have difficulties in their lives, especially during this period.

A “sailor” (sailor) is a person who works on a boat or a ship. Of course, not all sailors have difficult lives nowadays, but certainly back then, many jobs such as being a sailor were difficult. O’Neill’s father decided to send him to one of the best universities in the United States, Harvard University, to study playwriting with a man by the name of George Pierce Baker.

After a year at Harvard, O’Neill had a group of actors, called the Providencetown Players, perform one of his short plays, one of his one-act plays. Plays are usually divided up into different parts, called “acts” (acts). Often in plays, when there is more than one act, there is an intermission in the play. An “intermission” (intermission) is a period of ten or fifteen minutes somewhere in the middle of the play, somewhere between two of the acts, that gives the audience a chance to get up and stretch and use the restroom and so forth.

The first play that O’Neill had performed by this group of actors was called Bound East for Cardiff, and it was a play about sailors. The play was a success, and the actors and O’Neill took the play to a famous theater in New York City called the Playwright’s Theater. After that, the Providence Town Players performed many of O’Neill’s one-act plays, especially during this period of his early playwriting career up until about 1920.

The audiences, the people who went to see O’Neill’s plays, and the critics both thought that O’Neill was a very talented playwright. A “critic” (critic) is a person whose job it is to review and comment on a play, or a book, or a movie, or any other kind of artistic performance or work. By the time his first full-length play was performed on Broadway in New York City, many people already knew of O’Neill’s work. Broadway is a street in New York City where many of the largest and most important theaters are.

I mention the term “full-length play” – that would be a play of usually three or more acts, not just the shorter one-act plays that O’Neill began his playwriting career with. The first of O’Neill’s plays to be performed on Broadway, in the larger theaters in New York City, was called Beyond the Horizon. It was a play about two brothers, both of whom loved the same woman.

Both critics and audiences loved the play, and in fact O’Neill won one of the most important prizes for playwriting, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, in 1920. The Pulitzer Prize is given to some of the best plays and some of the best books and articles in newspapers and magazines each year. O’Neill continued writing and publishing plays. His next successful play was called Anna Christie. In 1922, he won a Pulitzer Prize for that play as well.

A few years later, in 1928, he wrote yet another Pulitzer Prize–winning play, called Strange Interlude. But it wasn’t until the early 1930s that O’Neill wrote the plays that he is now famous for. I should mention that most of O’Neill’s plays were “tragedies.” A “tragedy” (tragedy) in real life is a horrible thing that happens, a terrible event. In theater, tragedy has been a very common way, or common form, I guess we could say, of writing plays.

We have tragic plays beginning at the very start of playwriting, in the Western tradition, with the Greeks who wrote tragedies. Some of the great Greek playwrights – such as Aeschylus and Sophocles, Euripides – wrote tragedies. In English drama, of course, Shakespeare was famous for his tragedies such as Macbeth and King Lear. A “tragedy” is when something of course very bad, something terrible, happens in the play.

O’Neill loved writing tragedies. In fact, one of his most famous plays was retelling the story of a famous Greek tragedy from Aeschylus’ Oresteia plays. This was the play Mourning Becomes Electra. “Mourning” (mourning) means grieving or feeling sad after someone has died. O’Neill’s play Mourning Becomes Electra retold the story that Aeschylus told in his plays, but made them take place in the United States, not in ancient Greece.

It was precisely because O’Neill was such a good playwright in writing tragedies that a few years later, in 1937, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature – one of the most famous international prizes for literature, among other things. During the early 1940s, O’Neill wrote a couple of other plays, one of which was performed in 1946, called The Iceman Cometh. The word “cometh” (cometh) is just an old-fashioned way of saying “comes.”

He also wrote another play called Long Day’s Journey into Night. He wrote it in the 1940s, but it wasn’t actually published until 1956, after O’Neill had died. Part of the reason he didn’t want to publish it during his lifetime was because it was based on his own life experiences, especially as a child who grew up with a difficult father and a mother who was a drug addict.

O’Neill’s personal life was not a happy one, not just in his childhood. He married three times and divorced twice. He had three children, one of whom committed suicide at the age of 40, another of whom became addicted to drugs, and a third who married a much older man when she was only 18 years old. Who did his 18-year-old daughter marry? It was the famous comedic actor from the 1920s and 30s, Charlie Chaplin. Like a lot of great artists, O’Neill did not have a happy life and wasn’t a particularly good parent.

Sadly, he developed a disease in the 1940s called Parkinson’s disease that made it impossible for him to write with his hands. He was unable to hold a pen. He lived the last years of his life alone in a hotel room in Boston and only allowed his doctor and his third wife to visit him. He died in 1956 due to pneumonia, a disease of the lungs. Three years after his death, Long Day’s Journey into Night was published, and it won a Pulitzer Prize. Of course, O’Neill was not there to accept it.

O’Neill wrote more than 50 plays during his lifetime and was one of the most popular and respected playwrights of the mid-twentieth century. In fact, his plays were translated into many other languages, almost as much as Shakespeare and the famous British playwright George Bernard Shaw. Even today, his plays continue to be read and performed, not just in the United States but all over the world.

We turn now to our second topic, the passenger pigeon. A “passenger” (passenger) is a person who travels in a car, bus, train, or airplane but who is not driving – or in the case of an airplane, flying – the vehicle. A “passenger pigeon” (pigeon) is a type of bird that was very popular in North America until the early part of the twentieth century. Why is it no longer popular? Well that’s the story I want to tell you today.

The early French settlers – the people who came here from France to North America during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – found this bird, this pigeon, that they called a “passenger pigeon.” Of course, they didn’t call it a passenger pigeon. They used the French words, which I’m not able to pronounce. The important thing, however, is that this was a bird that, like many birds, “migrated.”

“To migrate” (migrate) means to move from one area to another on some sort of regular schedule. At least, that’s how we use the verb when we’re talking about birds. In North America, for example, birds often migrate to the southern part of the U.S., or the North American continent, during the wintertime when it’s cold and migrate back to the north when it is warmer in the summertime.

When the French were in North America during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there were hundreds of millions of passenger pigeons all around them. When the birds migrated, they did so in very large groups, sometimes groups of 100,000 or more. If you go back and read descriptions of the passenger pigeon migration, you will see that some people said that when the passenger pigeons flew overhead, the sky became dark because there were so many of these birds up in the air.

The passenger pigeon was not very big. It was about 32 centimeters long and had a very long, pointed tail. It looked very much like another bird that still exists today called the “mourning dove.” Unfortunately for the passenger pigeon, people liked eating them, and so they would kill the birds for food, but they would also kill the birds because passenger pigeons liked to eat the crops that were being grown to feed the people of that era, that period. “Crops” (crops) refers to plants that are grown for food.

As the population of the United States and Canada began to expand westward from the east coast to the west coast, people began to hunt these passenger pigeons for food. They were, at the time, “plentiful,” meaning there were many of them that you could find and kill. However, so many of the passenger pigeons were killed that by the late nineteenth century – that is, the late 1800s – there were very few passenger pigeons left in North America. In fact, some say there were less than a hundred.

Imagine – once there were millions of passenger pigeons, but because of the hunting of these pigeons, by the early twentieth century there were only a small number of them. In 1914 the last known passenger pigeon died. The bird, in case you care, was given the name “Martha” and was living in a zoo, a special place where animals are kept, in Cincinnati, Ohio. In fact, the date of the last passenger pigeon to die in North America was September first, 1914.

The passenger pigeon, then, is now what we would describe as “extinct” (extinct). When an animal becomes extinct, it no longer exists on planet Earth. There are no more passenger pigeons left in North America, even though there were hundreds of millions of them during the time between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries. There are other birds and animals that become extinct, of course. You can think perhaps of the dodo bird, which became extinct in the eighteenth century, and even today there are animals that are becoming extinct.

There are, of course, people who try to prevent the extinction of animals, who try to preserve the areas where these animals live so that they won’t die. These people sometimes use the example of the passenger pigeon as what can happen when we don’t understand the effect that a large amount of hunting can do on certain animal populations.

Now let’s answer some of the questions you have sent to us.

Our first question comes from Shadi (Shadi) in Israel. The question has to do with two words, “spare” and “slender.”

“Spare” (spare) can have a couple of different meanings. As an adjective, it usually means something additional that you don’t really need or require but might be useful in the future. For example, in your car you often have an extra wheel, which we would call a “spare tire” or simply, as a noun, a “spare.” You might have a “spare room” in your house – a room that you don’t use, such as a bedroom, that someone could stay in when they are visiting you.

“Spare” as an adjective can also mean “meager” (meager). Well, what does “meager” mean? It means inadequate or not very much. You might walk into a room and say that it’s very spare if there isn’t a lot of furniture there – if there aren’t any chairs or tables or other things you might expect in a room.

As a verb, “to spare” means not to harm or punish someone that you might otherwise harm or punish. “To spare someone’s life” means that you don’t kill someone whom you might otherwise have killed. “The king spared the life of the criminal.” The king was going to kill the criminal (or more likely have the criminal killed by someone who works for him) but instead he decides to spare his life – not to kill the person.

“To spare” can also mean to not do something or undergo something. Someone might say to you, “Spare me the details.” That person means don’t give me all of the details; I don’t need to hear all of those things. Or someone might say, “Spare me your tears,” meaning I don’t want to see your tears. I don’t need to see those. I don’t need to experience that. Often, we say “spare me” when you don’t want to experience something or you think the other person perhaps is doing something unnecessary to make you feel bad or to change your opinion about something.

As a verb, “spare” can also mean to give something to someone who needs it, perhaps something extra that you don’t need. Here it’s related to the adjective meaning of “spare” that I mentioned earlier, about having something extra. You may say to someone, “Can you spare me a pen?” meaning do you have an extra pen, a pen that you are not using right now, that you could let me use or that you could give to me.

There’s an old song called “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” A “dime” is ten cents. “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” Remember that? Me neither, really. But it was a popular song back during the Great Depression in the United States, when there were a lot people who didn’t have jobs and didn’t have money. That still happens today, of course.

The next word is “slender” (slender). “Slender” is an adjective that refers to someone’s body, or a part of someone’s body, that is thin. If you say, “She’s a slender girl,” you mean she’s thin. She’s not overweight. In fact, she’s a little skinny, perhaps. “Slender,” however, is usually considered a very complimentary thing to say about, say, a woman. It’s, at least in the United States, considered a good thing.

“Slender” can also mean just barely enough. We might talk about a vote in, say, the U.S. Senate, where there are 100 senators, and the vote is 51 to 49. Well, there is a majority of senators who voted for something – the 51 senators – but it’s a slender majority. It’s just barely enough to be a majority.

William (William) in Brazil wants to know the meaning of an expression he read, “Was I wrong! “Was I wrong,” usually followed by an exclamation point, means I was very wrong. I was definitely wrong, without a doubt. This, you will notice, is an expression that puts the verb first, but it’s not a question. You’re not asking someone, “Was I wrong?” You’re making an emphatic statement. You are saying something with emphasis. It’s a somewhat unusual grammatical construction to do this, but you will hear it in other places in English.

For example, you may say, “Can that woman sing! You mean that woman can really sing. But as a way of emphasizing it, you switch around the subject and the verb – or in this case, the helping verb “can.” Or you might say to someone, “Have we got a surprise for you!” You’re not asking them. You are saying we have a surprise for you. But as a way of emphasizing it, we switch the verb around and put it at the front of the sentence.

If your boyfriend says he’s going to cook you dinner, you might go over to his house or apartment and go into the kitchen and say, “Does that pizza smell good!” You’re not asking. You’re telling your boyfriend that the pizza smells good, and then your boyfriend tells you that he actually bought it at the store and just put it in the oven. Well, for me that’s cooking – buying food and putting in the oven and taking it out and eating it. Maybe that’s just American cooking. I don’t know.

Our final question comes from Yousef (Yousef) in Iran. The question has to do with the pronunciation of the word spelled (our). Sometimes when we speak slowly or carefully in English, this word is pronounced “our” – “I’m going to our house.” Or if I’m trying to emphasize that word – say you may be confused whether I’m going to your house or our house – I may say, “No, I’m going to our house” – not your house.

However, the same word when pronounced more quickly or less carefully can sound different. I could also say, “I’m going to our house.” “I’m going to our house” – it sounds more like the verb spelled (are). It’s the same word. It’s pronounced in different ways depending on how carefully or how slowly I pronounce the word, or someone pronounces the word.

It may also change slightly in pronunciation, depending on whether we are using emphasis to distinguish this word from another word. That’s true with some other words in English as well. It’s one of the confusing things about English that makes it so fun to learn. Don’t you think?

If you have a question or comment you can email us. Our email address is eslpod@eslpod.com. From Los Angeles California, I’m Jeff McQuillan. Thank you for listening. Come back and listen to us again right here on the English Café.

ESL Podcast’s English Café is written and produced by Dr. Jeff McQuillan and
Dr. Lucy Tse. This podcast is copyright 2015 by the Center for Educational

boarding school – a school where children remain to live and study and return home for school breaks and holidays

* James quickly made close friends at his boarding school and did not feel homesick for his parents after the first few weeks.

to be reborn – to experience a complete change in one’s way of living; to be brought back to life

* After sleeping for 14 hours, Genevieve felt reborn and ready to take on any challenge.

to feature – to have as an important element or part of something

* The menu that evening featured roasted chicken and a salad of fresh greens.

sailor – a person who works aboard a commercial (business-related) or military boat or ship

* The sailors were happy to return to land after being at sea for over nine months.

intermission – a period of 10 or 15 minutes in the middle of a play or performance to give the performers and audience members a break

* During the intermission, the audience members went to the bar to get a drink and talk about their opinions of the show so far.

critic – a person whose job it is to give his or her opinion, commenting on a book, show, recording, or performance

* The critic’s review was published in the newspaper the following morning and all of the actors and actresses waited anxiously to read his comments.

to translate – to take a piece of writing and convert it to another language

* Martin Luther was the first person to translate the Bible from Hebrew and Ancient Greek to German.passenger – a person who travels in a car, bus, train, or airplane but is not the driver

* As the passenger in the car, it was Yuko’s responsibility to read the map and change the music on the long road trip.

to migrate – for animals to move from one area to another and back on a regular schedule, usually in different seasons

* Many birds migrate south for the winter to find warmer weather and more food.

crop – a plant grown for food

* The farmer’s largest crop was corn, which he harvested in the fall and then shipped to other regions of the country.

to hunt – to kill a wild animal for food or for sport

* Enrique enjoyed hunting and would often go into the woods on the weekend with friends to hunt deer.

to be extinct – to have no living members of a specific type of animal

* Dinosaurs became extinct millions of years ago, though scientists are not certain why they all died.

spare – with no excess fat; very thin; meager; just barely adequate for one’s needs

* Jim’s spare body could only survive a few days without food.

slender – having a thin body or body part; attractively thin; with a limited or inadequate amount; meager; not very much or great

* Beauty contest contestants are usually slender and tall.

Was I wrong! – I was very much wrong; I was definitely wrong

* I thought Maria would win the race, but was I wrong! She came in last place!

What Insiders Know
The Monte Cristo Cottage

The Monte Cristo Cottage was the “boyhood” (related to one’s years as a boy) summer home of Eugene O’Neill. It was named after his father, actor James O’Neill, who played the “lead” (main; most important) role in the play The Count of Monte Cristo, based on a “novel” (book-length story) by the French author Alexander Dumas.

The cottage is located in New London, Connecticut. The cottage became the “setting” (the place or type of surroundings where something is positioned or where an event takes place) for two of O’Neill’s most “notable” (worthy of attention or notice; remarkable) plays, Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Ah! Wilderness! It was “registered as” (officially given the status of) a National Historic “Landmark” (building or structure having historic importance) in 1971.

The Monte Cristo Cottage was built around 1840. The O’Neill family spent every summer at the house for 30 years until James, Eugene O’Neill’s father, died in 1920. Before he died, James was afraid of not leaving enough money for his wife and children to live on. For this reason, he sold the Cottage and all of the land he had bought around it over the years to “raise” (collect) money.

The Monte Cristo Cottage is currently owned and operated by the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. It features a “permanent” (always there; not temporary) “exhibition” (display for others to see, usually the showing of art or historically-important items) on the life and works of Eugene O’Neill. It is “open to the public” (available for people to see and visit it) during the summer months and occasionally during other times of the year as well, “by appointment” (if special arrangements are made in advance).