O’Neil’s Development As A Playwright
Early Work: Realism and Tragic Circumstance
O’Neill’s first publications, which appeared in 1914, was a volume of apprentice work. It contained five one-act plays headed by Thirst. Two further short pieces were included in the series known as Provincetown Plays (1916). Then came his first significant collection called The Moon of the Caribbees (1919), which contained seven one-act plays, all except two of them dealing with sailor life. These plays gave an effective expression to O’Neill’s sense of tragic circumstances. The situations here are simple : a sailor watches a ship-mate dying and tries to cheer his last moments by pathetic imaginings of the life they had planned to lead together on shore: the dour captain of a whaling vessel persists in his search for “file” though the horror of cold and loneliness is driving his wife insane ; a decent lad, revolted by the brutishness of sailors in port, drinks to forget his memories of better days. Even more than the uncompromising realism of dialogue and setting, the poetic grasp of inexorable human dilemmas signalized the arrival of a new major dramatist.
No Traditional Palliatives of the Human Lot
O’Neill was to write many plays of greater complexity, but none more purely tragic than some of these brief glimpses of life stripped to its bare essentials. Typical of the group as a whole is The Long Voyage Home, wherein the sea, which will not allow the sailor to return to the farm he longs for, symbolizes the crushing force of a universe indifferent to human hopes . Nothing relieves the stark and bitter unfolding of the catastrophe. Here, as later, O’Neill has steadily rejected any reliance on traditional palliatives of the human lot. Man’s defeat is utter, whether he is snuffed out by blind chance or whether his own inordinate striving to realize his desires brings about his undoing. There are few instances of external conflict in O’Neill’s plays. The material of his art is generally found in man’s struggle with the shadowy, indefinable and inevitable forces of life. Often the unsuspected antagonist lurks in man’s inmost being; “we are betrayed by what is false within.”
A Tragic Story of Two Brothers
O’Neill’s first full-length play, Beyond the Horizon (1902) pictures with gripping power the disastrous consequences when two young men are assigned destinies for which they are totally unsuited. Robert, the born dreamer and romantic, is about to satisfy his longing for travel, when he is trapped by the passion of his brother’s fiancée ; and Andy, the home-loving farmer, takes his place as a traveler. Neither brother is happy in the life that has fallen to his lot and Robert in particular fails miserably both as a farmer and as a husband. Yet with his confident insistence on the supreme importance of illusions, O’Neill allows Robert to die happy, since the possession of the dream has I a sense converted it into a reality. The play is further humanized by the unshaken affection of the two brothers and by the unavailing indignation of their father who tries desperatedly to prevent them from making their tragic mistakes.
Plays of Two Kinds
After Beyond the Horizon, which won its author the first of three Pulitzer Prizes, O’Neill experimented with plays mainly of two kinds. Chris Christopherson (1920), later rewritten and produced as Anna Christie, was the first of a series of naturalistic tragedies of frustration. Others in this series were Different (1920), Gold (1921), The straw (1921), The first Man (1922), and Welded (1924), To this group may also be added the more complex and powerful play called All God’s chillum Got Wings (1924), and Desire Under the Elms(1925). During the same years O’Neill wrote his brilliantly original dramas of symbolic expressionism-The Emperor Jones (1920), The Hairy Ape (1922), and The Great God Brown (1926). Somewhat apart from either of these two groups was The Fountain (1925) based on the story of Juan Ponce de Leon, which showed the poetic strain in O’Neill, affirming “the Eternal Becoming which is Beauty”.
A Penetrating Study of Character
Out of an unsuccessful play about a Swedish sailor who believes that his misfortunes are due to “that old devil, the sea”, O’Neill created one of his most penetrating studies of character by shifting the centre of interest from Chris to Chris’s daughter Anna. The opening act, set in the water-front saloon of Johnny-the-Priest, where old Chris is nervously expecting a reunion with Anna who, as a little girl, had been sent to an inland farm to protect her from the sordid influence of sea-ports, is one of the most authentic in American drama. When Anna enters, and everyone except her father sees at a glance that she is an experienced prostitute, the playwright effects a breath-taking but perfectly natural reversal of expectations. The remainder of the play involving the not quite credible regeneration of Anna and her love for the gigantic Irish stoker Matt Burke fails to sustain the marvelous actuality of the opening, and its trailing off to an ambiguous conclusion, which O’Neill described as “tragically humorous”, leaves the audience perplexed by a conflict of emotions. Here for once O’Neill’s sense of character triumphed over his instinct for dramatic values-to the damage of a fine play.
A Tragedy of Miscegenation
All God’s Chillun Got Wings shows better than anything else O’Neill’s quality by the manner in which he has handled the tragedy of miscegenation. Here O’Neill simply ignores the obvious opportunities to write propaganda. He subordinates, as far as possible, the unavoidable struggle between the negro and social prejudice to other considerations. The tragedy of Jim Harris is the tragedy of a human being (a negro) who is intellectually and spiritually superior to the cheap and imperceptive creature he marries. (she happens to be white and hence racially above him). Out of the wreck of his ambitions, Jim’s character rises in touching loyalty to his wife, whose mind gives way under the strain of her position and who now fancies that she is a child again. Jim’s prayer that God will “let this fire of burning suffering make me worthy of the child you send me for the woman you take away,” brings the play to a close o the level of high poetic beauty.
Fatal Webs of Circumstance
Just as Jim Harris is only incidentally a negro, so Desire Under the Elms is only accidentally a play of New England, though O’Neill has taken full advantage of the hardness of the Puritan in his masterly portrayal of old Ephraim Cabot. The tangled plot of the play pre-supposes certain contradictions of character, as that Abbie, the greedy and sensual young widow who marries Ephraim merely to get his money and who seduces his son Eben in order that she may have a child to inherit the property, is capable of falling genuinely and passionately in love with the father of her child. O’Neill seems to have intended to evoke a poetic compassion for the muddled futilities of human striving and the inexorable involvement of men and women in fatal webs of circumstance.
The Psychological Disintegrations of a Man
Symbolic expressionism proved on the whole a better vehicle for O’Neill’s purposes than naturalistic drama. The Emperor Jones, a landmark in theatrical history, departs entirely from the conventional and by brilliantly unorthodox devices presents the psychological disintegration of the main character under the pressure of nameless fears mounting to blind terror. Brutus Jones, a negro convict, has taken refuge on a west Indian island, where he has made himself the gaudy dictator of the simple natives. When his subjects finally rebel against him, he has only to follow a trail through the jungle to the other side of the island to the security of a French gun-boat. But on the way he soon becomes confused and panic-stricken, circles back to his starting-point, and in this way meets his death. The body of the play shows in successive scenes the visualization of individual guilt and racial dread as Jones sinks from a braggart emperor to the lowest level of abject terror. Except for the expository scenes at the beginning and the end, the drama is presented through monologue and pantomime. Never before had the conflict in a man’s innermost being been so starkly displayed.
A Tragedy of Disillusionment
The Hairy Ape has often been interpreted as a play of social significance. But there is another way of looking at it. Essentially the tragedy of Yank, the stoker who defiantly rejects the humanity of the past and allies himself to the mechanical forces which rule the present world, is a tragedy of disillusionment. The hairy ape what he admires, and his disaster lies in the discovery of the utter indifference of blind force to the men who serve it.
The Most Expressionistic of His Plays
The Great God Brow is one of the most significant documents for the study of the author’s mind. It is the most expressionistic of O’Neill’s symbolic plays. It relies upon such subtle indications of shifts of personality that it cannot be followed by an ordinary audience. The conflict which O’Neill presents here is basic to much of his thinking. Of the four characters in the play, William Brown personifies “the visionless Demi-God of our new materialistic myth,” a successful business executive without interior resources. His friend Dion Anthony (compounded of Dionysus and St.Anthony) represents “the creative pagan acceptance of life, fighting eternal war with the masochistic, life-denying spirit of Christianity,” and is successively artist, mocker and saint, the changes being indicated by the masks he assumes. Dion’s wife Margaret, later the wife of Brown, is the embodiment of simple femininity oblivious of everything but her urge to continue the race. Cybel, a prostitute, stands for the wise Earth-Mother who understands the deeper currents of life. Through these half-symbolic figures O’Neill attempts to dramatize a parable rebuking the materialism of our time and affirming the mystery that lies at the heart of things. The ideas somewhat vaguely projected in this play found more adequate expression in other work of the same period in O’Neill’s career.
An Affirmation of the Life-Force
Lazarus Laughed (192’) makes almost insuperable demands on the actor who plays the title role. But it is a splendid poetic affirmation of the life-force. Lazarus, who has been raised from mortal fears he cannot be dominated by Caligula, who rules by exploiting the terror of his subjects. In thus transmuting determinism into a magnificent affirmation of life O’Neil has answered once for all the critics who can see in him only a pessimistic view of man’s lot, and here if anywhere he has justified his claim to be considered “a bit of a poet”.
The Commercialism of the West
The complementary question of the quality of life is the subject of Marco Millions (1927). The Venetian traveler Marco Polo for purposes of the west as it impinles upon the ancient wisdom of the east, personified in the Kaan Kublai in his counselor Chu-Yin, and in his grand-child the Princess Kukachin. As a philosophical experiment the wise Orientals give young Marco a free hand to see if any trace of soul has survived the blight of his upbringing, and the demonstration that he is completely indifferent to spiritual considerations and incapable even of human intimacies brings the play to an ironic close.
Another Dramatization of Spiritual Opposites
A third dramatization of spiritual opposites in Dynamo (1928) fails to come to life in convincing terms. The conflict here is between old-time religious beliefs and a vaguely conceived worship of electricity as a divine force. However, the play provided evidence of O’Neill’s courage in attempting a subject which included his capacity to grasp.
The Revival of the Soliloquy
Meanwhile O’Neill had won a splendid success with a bold innovation in technique. This innovation was the revival of the soliloquy to make possible on the stage the presentation of “stream of consciousness” passages like those currently found in advanced fiction. This device lent itself readily to the dramatization of Freudian concepts, a fact of which O’Neill took full advantage in Strange Interlude (1928). This play succeeds by interweaving and contrasting the outer and inner lives of several characters in sustaining a high level of dramatic tension for in a number of acts, in the course of which it minutely explores a woman’s desperate efforts to “compensate” psychologically for the loss of the man to whom she had given her love. Nina Leeds herself comes to feel that she has been a plaything of inscrutable forces; that , as she puts it, “our lives are but strange dark interludes in the electrical display of God the Father.” The novel power of the play lies in its dramatic conception of a woman’s instinct for fulfillment as a force which will not be denied. Behind the human characters we feel that the actual protagonist is the Freudian Id.*
Psychological Consequences of Guilt
In his next play O’Neill proceeded to impart a new life to the tragic motifs of the myth pertaining to the house of Atreus, Mourning Becomes Electra (193), a trilogy like its classical prototype, brings General mannon home from the Civil War as once Agamemnon returned from Troy, to be murdered by his unfaithful wife. Their daughter, Lavinia, making a confederate of her brother, effects the death of her mother’s lover and drives her distracted mother to suicide. The brother and sister then find themselves entangled in a web of guilt which they cannot break through and, after the brother has shot himself in despair, Lavinia alone remains, in the intense isolation of her brooding devotion to the dead. In O’Neill’s treatment the psychological consequences of guilt are more strongly emphasized than its broadly ethical significance. The modern mind is more readily led to wonder at the abnormal than to cherish the normal. Hence in the modern trilogy horror is offset only by the stoical fortitude of Lavinia, and the cumulative power of the plays is lessened by the inability of the audience to establish fellow-feeling with characters so largely composed of neuropathic symptoms.
Two Different Plays
As if he himself found some need of relief, O’Neill turned to reminiscent comedy in Ah, Wilderness (93) and to meditations on the craving for religious guidance in Days Without End (1934), Neither of these pieces lies in the central stream of his development. They were succeeded by a log interval of silence.
A Fusion of Several Elements
In 1946 O’Neill returned to the theatre with The Iceman Cometh a strange fusion of realistic, psychological, and mystical elements. The scene is the bar of a decayed New York hotel owned by a senile ex-politician who permits the place to be over-run by a swarm of human nondescripts, * derelicts, ** and crackpots. All of them, proprietor and guests cherish muddled illusions of some day redeeming themselves but not until they have had one more go at the bottle. These comfortable boozers are startled by the arrival of a travelling salesman whom they have previously welcomed as a lavish entertainer and as the life of the party. He now comes as an evangelist with a new message: they are to face facts to see themselves as they really are. Under the compulsion of his eloquence they are driven to admit their degradation with utterly disastrous consequences, but when it appears that the man who has shattered their illusions has insanely killed his wife, they repudiate his teachings and happily relapse into alcoholic self-deception. Although abnormally long, The Iceman Cometh left many of its audience with a sense of incompleteness as though a situation had been given a run-around and dropped about where it started. It may be that O’Neill’s inability to clothe his plays in poetic language lets them give an impression of bareness. In a larger sense it is clear that his intentions are poetic since, with all his modernness, he has avoided the temptation to base his plays on resolvable social problems and has steadily fixed his attention on the old dilemmas of human destiny.