If playwright Eugene O'Neill had lived today, he might have been on TMZ as often as Charlie Sheen. O'Neill's relationship status on Facebook would have said "complicated." Married three times, the Nobel laureate struggled with addiction and other issues. He contracted syphilis from a prostitute as a teenager and often was overwhelmed by alcoholism.

What sets him apart in history is how he used his and his family's dysfunction as source material for a body of work that transformed a whole field.

"It is not excessive to write that O'Neill created serious American drama," Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner wrote in an essay. "His project [was] the creation of a national dramatic identity."

That project, which began with a drama course at Harvard in which his professor encouraged O'Neill to write about his life, reaches its poignant apotheosis in "Long Day's Journey Into Night." The four-act masterwork, which garnered O'Neill his fourth Pulitzer Prize, opens Friday at the Guthrie Theater, directed by Joe Dowling and starring Helen Carey and Peter Michael Goetz. Amazingly, the Guthrie, which has an image of O'Neill etched into its building's exterior, never has staged "Journey."

O'Neill wrote this autobiographical drama in 1941, but stipulated that it not be performed until 25 years after his death. He succumbed in 1953. His widow, Carlotta Monterey, gave permission, and "Long Day's Journey" premiered in 1956 in Sweden. It was staged the same year on Broadway, a production hailed by Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times as a work that "restores ... theater to [the realm of] art."

That estimation has not dimmed.

"It is, I think, America's greatest play," said former New York Times managing editor Arthur Gelb, who, with his wife, Barbara Gelb, wrote "O'Neill: Life with Monte Cristo," the authoritative biography of the dramatist. "The play tells you not only about O'Neill but about the philosophy he had that greed destroyed this country, that the hunger to possess everything too soon led us astray."

The Gelbs are finishing a new book, "By Women Possessed," to be published next year, that chronicles O'Neill's complex relationships with his mother, wives, longtime mistress, and his disowned daughter, Oona Chaplin, who, at 18, wed screen icon Charlie Chaplin, then 54.

To drama born?

O'Neill seemed destined for a life in the theater. He was born in 1888 in a hotel at 43rd Street and Broadway, the heart of New York's theater district. His father, James O'Neill, was an actor who eventually lucked into a hit show, "The Count of Monte Cristo," and performed it more than 5,000 times over many years. While the production fattened his bank account, it took a toll on his artistic soul, and on his deathbed, he expressed profound regret.

The playwright's mother, Ella Quinlan O'Neill, became a drug addict after her brilliant son was born. And the playwright bore two sons who committed suicide. Characters based on these four figures, renamed, are at the heart of "Long Day's Journey." The play takes place over 24 hours at the Tyrone family's summer home in New London, Conn. Patriarch James Tyrone was once a great Shakespearean actor who sold out to make money with "The Count of Monte Cristo." Matriarch Mary Tyrone is a falling-over morphine addict. Their two sons are Jamie, the alcoholic eldest child, and Edmund, the playwright's stand-in. Through four acts, the family descends into bitterness and recriminations: husband against wife, parent against parent, brother against brother.

"No one understands unhappy families better than O'Neill," said New York Times critic Margo Jefferson of the 2003 Broadway revival starring Vanessa Redgrave and Brian Dennehy. "He shows the endless replay of loss and grievance; the futile variations on the old themes."

O'Neill brought new thinking to those old themes in a way that was highly influential, said University of Minnesota English and film studies professor Paula Rabinowitz.

"His plays were generative," she said. "Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee -- you could draw a line from O'Neill straight through to them."

Add August Wilson to the list. O'Neill's innovations include an 11-play historic cycle that tracked an American family from colonial settlement in 1755 through the automobile age of the 20th century. The aborted cycle, "A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed," inspired Wilson, who wrote his own 10-play cycle about black life in the 20th century.

A touched poet

O'Neill might be considered the father of American theater: "The Iceman Cometh," which he wrote at the same time he scripted "Long Day's Journey," is generally considered his other masterwork. But there also is "A Moon For the Misbegotten," "Touch of the Poet" and "Desire Under the Elms."

But as forward-looking as O'Neill was, he also was a captive of his time. His ideas about gender and race were considered progressive at the time, but his usage of black dialect in "The Emperor Jones" and "All God's Chillun Got Wings" makes many wince today.

"I don't know anyone who talked in such strange dialect -- he must not have known any black people or known them well," said drama historian Glenda Gill, a retired professor of Michigan Technological University and an O'Neill aficionado. "He speaks to the human condition. James Earl Jones said to me that Eugene O'Neill writes for the common man, and so many of us have common-man roots."

"Long Day's Journey" is the most forceful and honest of his oeuvre.

"O'Neill stood out above his fellow playwrights who saw theater as highly stylized escapism," said William Davies King, a professor of theater at the University of California-Santa Barbara, who is editing a critical edition of "Long Day's Journey" for Yale University Press. "He insisted they should have magnitude, that they should be like symphonies of Beethoven. That they should ennoble the common man, even if that meant that he was in conflict with producers who wanted him to shorten his plays. That is partly what makes them resonate today. There's a lot of discontinuity in his heritage, and he showed that those struggles are universal."

Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390