O’Neill’s Anti Romanticism
S. K. Winter says; “Critical thought in the modern world has. been a relentless-enemy of the romantic’ ideal, and no. modern writer has attacked it more consistently or more bitterly than Eugene O’Neill.” The exaggerated romanticism which enveloped the American theatre nurtured the mind of O’Neill’s youth and provoked the rebellion of his maturity. Against that tradition his plays are a direct challenge. He hates the false dreams and false ideals and false endings that have dominated the American stage and are still the, inspiration of the movies.
Romantic Ideals as Disease
To O’Neill these ideals are not harmless entertainment, but s virulent disease that has eaten into the core of life, rotting and destroying the only hope for salvation that is possible for man. O’Neill believes that man’s hope lies in his being willing to face lifer as it is, accepting its limitations and, on the foundations of these very shortcomings, erecting a new world free from the tyranny of romantic dogmatism.
Criticism Versus Seduction
The creative imagination will not always obey the logic of cold reason, and nothing is more characteristic of O’Neill than the conflict between his criticism of the romantic ideal and the manner in which he succumbs, at times to its seductive appeal. I doubt if there is a character in the whole range of his work who could be described as truly realistic in the sense that Bazarov, Pelle, or Sister Car might be called realists. Perhaps the greatness of O’Neill’s characters lies in this very fact : that they are too complex, too involved with the cross current of life to be purely one thing or the other. Their conflicts give them a quality “which’’ inspires confidence in their humanity and enlists the, reader’s sympathy and understanding in a’ way that more consistent and unified personalities never could.
The Dreamy Eyes
A study of the men and women that move through the world of O’Neill’s dramas reveals some noteworthy characteristics that many of them have in common. One is ‘impressed by the courage and fortitude with which they face the unfavourable circumstances of the world in which they live. They are determined to give life meaning and, value in defiance of a world that is impersonal and unconcerned about the ambitions of, human beings. It is not this characteristic that I wish to emphasize at this point but something that is purely physical and, at the same time, suggests a hidden romantic passion in the nature of O’Neill. Buried deep in his inner being is a love for some quality that the materialistic interpretation of life does not seem to bring out in its proper perspective. In order to discover just what this is, it will be necessary too note, in some detail, his descriptions of the Reading characters in many different plays to observe what physical characteristics they have in common. In the pursuit of this study a curious fact comes to light. No matter who the character may be or what his occupation or position in the social order is the favourite character of an O’Neill play has dreamy eyes. His characters live in two worlds : one the outward world of physical reality, the, other, a world of unfulfilled and passionate desire. This latter world is one which the dreamer wishes for with all the pent-up powers of his being. To this world he will sacrifice all that life has given him, for there is nothing in life that for a moment is comparable to the genuine reality of his dream. Captain Bartlett commits murder because his longed for dream of pirate treasure seems to, have come true, and in another play, another sea captain sacrifices the sanity of his wife in order that his desire for a full load of whale oil may become a reality.
Tragedy of Romantic ideal
The incest theme began in Dynamo, and in a sense wrecked the play, only to find its proper expression in the story of General Mannon’s family. The tragedy that ends with Lavinia’s resolve to “Live alone with the dead, and keep their secrets” began in the home of her grandfather long before she was born. Ezra Mannon as a child had been in love with Marie Brantome, but it was his uncle, David, who was the successful lover. So deep was Abe, Mannon’s against his brother who had stolen the affection of the Young woman that he himself had loved––loved in the thwarted Mannon sense of love, which dares not face the truth––that he drove him and his sweetheart from his home, and eventually destroyed the house in order that all members of the cursed experience might be obliterated forever from his life.
False Romantic Ideal
In that episode begins the false romantic ideal which finds its, culmination years later in the grandson as accomplice in the murder of his uncle and the long series of crimes that follow. From the beginning the misfortunes of the Mannons grow out of an inability to face, the reality of life. They live by false Puritan standards of behaviour. They did not know and could not learn that man as a psychological phenomenon is doomed to disaster if compelled to five within the confines of a limited creed. One by one “Death” came tacitly and took them from the sunlight of a world they had never seen except through the coloured glass of the “Meeting House” windows. They didn’t know what it was all about until too late to learn a new way of life.
Romantic Ambiguity of the
The world tour of Orin and Lavinia is one of the great tragic conceptions of O’Neill, for these two children are doubly doomed because they do not know that their tragedy Ties within, and that were they able to flee from the plane itself they would still bear it with them. As they travel they make one faint gesture in the direction of freedom, but the scars on the past had left a tissue which inhibited forever a turn into a new world. I refer to the
Islands of the South Seas that had been so dear to the memory of Captain Brant, and dear also to the imagination of O’Neill as they were to Melville, one of the very few authors that are mentioned by name in O’Neill plays. No single passage in the play touches the heart more than Orin’S sad speech in which he tells of these Islands with a bitterness born of his disillusionment. For, as he says “They turned ,out to be Vinnie’s Islands, not mine. They only made me sick ––and the naked women disgusted me. I’ guess I’m too much of a Mansion, after all, to turn into a pagan.’ To Lavinia they were real, they were an escape, so she thought, from all that had cursed her family for generations. They were to her all that her young lover had promised her, but she could not accept that which she wanted. The cruel hand of tradition led her back to her doom, where she told Peter the story of the Islands in these words : “I loved those” Islands. They finished setting me free. There was something there mysterious and beautiful––a goad spirit––of love––coming out of the land and sea. It made me forget death. There was no hereafter. There was only this world-the warm earth in the moonlight––the trade wind in the coco palms––the surf on the reef––the fires at night and the drum throbbing in my heart––the natives dancing naked and innocent––without knowledge of sin.
Realization Comes Too Late
It is a characteristic of the Mannons that they knew or realized in a dim sort of way what was wrong with them, but always the realization came too late to set straight their crooked path of life. General Mannon discovered a new philosophy on the night that he was murdered, a discovery that, made twenty years earlier, would have saved him and his family. And what may he said of him in this respect may be said of many of O’Neill’s characters with reference to the romantic ideal. An uncritical analysis might lead a reader to believe that O’Neill had stacked the fates against them. The opposite is really true, for it is typical of the romantic dreamer that he does not, nor can he comprehend the falsity of his position until it is put to the crucial test, and them it is too late to turn back. It is O’Neill’s clear development of this point that gives tragic reality to his work, and it is the failure to grasp this truth which has led many people to condemn him. But he is too much of an artist not to realize truly a fact of life that is the very essence of his own nature. He is the romantic dreamer who knows the deadly power of the dream’s appeal. In his life, as in his work, he has striven against it, and out of the struggle he has created the hitter tragic’ beauty of his art. He never forgets that life will exact a double, toll from those who believe that dreaming of what life ought to be will make it other than it is.