The chart of O’Neill’s growth as a dramatic artist can be drawn in an ascending curve. During his dramatic career, extending; from his early one-act plays to his late masterpieces, he experimented with a variety of dramatic forms and modes. There is hardly any dramatic form or device which he did not assay in his attempts to shadow forth the sickness of modern man in his plays. The wide variety of techniques employed by O’Neill reflects the playwright’s deep-seated spiritual restlessness. As John Gassner says :
In all his major work O’Neill traced the course of a modem dramatist in search, of an aesthetic and spiritual centre. It is not certain tat he found it often, if ever, but the labour involved in the effort was usually impressive and sometimes notably rewarding. His plays embodied the ideas and conflicts of the first half of the twentieth century, assimilated its advances in dramatic art and theatrical technique, and expressed its uneasy aspirations towards tragic insights and dramatic vision. His impressiveness as a dramatist is ultimately, in fact; the result of his determined, effort to trace a thread of meaning in the universe virtually emptied of meaning by a century of scientific and sociological thought. He did not, it is true, find any comforting assurances in the, world, but he hid the integrity to acknowledge his failure and the persistence to dramatize it with much penetration into human nature. O’Neill’s experiments were not undertaken to suit the whims of a Volatile trifler calculations of a theatrical opportunist bent on following the latest fashion ; they manifest, rather, a unity of high, purpose rarely exhibited by modern playwrights.
The Styles of Theatre
In O’Neill’s work there is a veritable summa of the modern heater’s aspirations and achievements as well as its more or less inevitable limitations and failures. O’Neill attracted attention with two styles of theatre rather than one, being equally adept in the style of realism and expressionism, and with two radically disproportionate types of drama, since he was equally effective in one-act plays and in cyclopean dramas twice the normal length of modern plays. His search for, expressive form in his case a combination of private compulsions about life and dramatic art, led him to undertake, numerous experiments with symbolic figures, masks, interior monologues, split; personalities, choruses, scenic effects, rhythms, and schematizations. It is largely this multifarious engagement with the possibilities of dramatic art, combined with an endeavour to apply them to significant as well as very personally felt subject matter, ;that made O’Neill a playwright of international importance.
There is a section of O’Neill critics, however, that thinks that O’Neil’s rambling experiments reflect his inadequacy and deficiency s a dramatic artist. Jordan Y. Miller is one of such critics. He writes :
Consistency in style was never a part of O’Neill’s strength. Critics were always seeking the proper niche for his permanent mounting, but they were continually unable to find it. With the early sea plays, including Anna Christie and Beyond the Horizon, they fashioned for him a pedestal of ‘stark realism’ that soon melted in the steaming jungle of The Emperor Jones and the stock-hole of The Hairy Ape ; it was replaced by expressionism, in turn moulded into naturalism, and subsequently nicked and scarred with romantic and classical symbolism, all hastily patched from time to time with mysticism. Masks, half-houses, thirteen acts, and spoken thoughts brought playgoers and critics through a labyrinth of stage effects. None of these, in writing or production, ever solidified or developed into a specific ‘O’Neill style’. Nevertheless, this very unpredictability in itself became a style, forcing critic and audience to play a continual game of guessing what he would employ next.
Search for the Right Medium
A group of other critics saw O’Neill’s more extreme experiments in dramatic technique as unfortunate aberrations, ; and viewed with pity the prospect of a man who could write such powerful ‘theatre’ as Anna Christie and Desire Under the Elms, dissipating his energies pursuing some illusory Theatre of Tomorrow in The Fountain and Lazarus Laughed. And when, in the last plays, he apparently returned to the essentially realistic form of his early; work, it was looked on by many as a return to sanity. But O’Neill was never one to go backwards and the fact that many of his experimental plays failed to win the critical acceptance of the earlier, more conventional, works, would never in itself have led him to revert to a form he felt he had outgrown. As Robert F. Whitman puts it:
He was always exploring, always hoping, to find a medium of communication that would satisfy his needs both as a dramatist and as a man. The search led him into strange, ways, and down dead ends; but the diversity and violence of both his techniques and his subject matter tend tom hide some of the unifying threads which bind together all his work.
O’Neill’s plays are, indeed, a continuous record of his spiritual quest. Each play is a new attempt to come to grips with the same old problem, to “dig at the roots of the sickness of today as feel it ––the death of the old God and failure of science and materialism’s to give any satisfactory new one for the surviving primitive religious instinct to find a meaning for life in, and to comfort its fears of death with.” The search led him into many and varied manners of speech: realism, expressionism, naturalism, symbolism, fantasy, poetry, alone and in various combinations, as well as experiments with devices from older dramatic traditions. But behind the apparent, diversity was a single impulse: to find an idiom in which to express the human tragedy. And whatever other characteristics O’Neill, may have possessed, or lacked, he had a firm grasp of one essential element of tragedy––the eternal conflict between Man’s aspirations and some intransigent, ineluctable quality in life which circumscribes and limits him, and frustrates -the realization of those dreams which seem to make life worth living.
Early Poetic Realism
O’Neill’s early plays reveal a natural synthesis of both the naturalistic and the poetic strivings of the modern theatre. He combined realism of characterization with a sensitive regard for the romantic longings of characters a naturalist’s concern for environmental detail with a metaphysical flight from the particular to the general, and plodding realistic prose with a poetic flair for imagery, atmosphere, and scenic imagination, it could be said of him that he was one of the most poetic of modern dramatists. In these early plays the conflict between human aspirations, whether “immortal longings” or romantic self-delusion, and the forces which prevent their realization is suggested as much by the setting as by the action itself. In Bound East for Cardiff it is in the fog which surrounds the dying Yank, in Moon of the Caribbees in the distance between Smitty and surroundings in Beyond the Horizon it is symbolized by the dark ring of hills which hems in the world of the farm, and the petty demands and frustrations that sap the life of Robert Mayo, and shut out the beauty and wonder of the sunset and the sea and freedom which lie beyond.
O’Neill’s one-act plays are short ‘slice-of-life’ dramas dealing with the miseries, delusions, and obsessions of men adrift in the world. In Bound East for
Yank is lost, and he knows it, but there is some thing more than pathos in the way he looks back over an aimless life, trying to find some kind of sense to it. Yank not exceptionally brave or humble or frightened––he is a little of all three, a ‘little’ man, broken by life and cast aside, without vowing where he is or why. But at the end of the play, when the fog clears, there is also the suggestion that with death came an answer which gave meaning to existence. But a quite different note caught in the voice of Smitty, in Moon of the Caribbees. Baffled cough he may have been, Yank did not complain; but throughout is speeches of Smitty there is a whine of self-pity that stands in sharp contrast to the ‘impelling’, eternal forces shadowed forth in the peace of the sea, the moon, and the mournful, primitive chant of the natives. The only actions in which he engages are negative, in rejecting the advances of a native girl, or in drowning his memories in alcohol, the most degrading and self-defeating gesture of romantic weltschmerz. Smitty is in a fog of the own making. The beauty and sadness and power of life are there, if he could see and respond. But it is too late, in his frustration by life he has been blinded, rued in upon himself, cut off from what is vital and real. He is especially representative of his early naturalistic––symbolic style with its mordant treatment of a Cardiff New England sea captain’s obsessive pride in his ability to hunt whales for their “ile” (that is, oil) which drives his lonely wife mad. This little play exemplified O’Neill’s taste for tragic irony, his characteristic concern with destructive obsessiveness that resembles the hubris of classical tragedy, and his fascination with the sea as a mystery and a seduction, and as a symbol of the malignity of fate.
The Power of Realism
Finding the one-act form no more suitable to his purposes, O’Neill turned his attention to longer plays. In an interview published in the New York Herald Tribune (March 16, 1924), he said :
I am no longer interested in the one-act play. It is an unsatisfactory form––cannot go far enough. The one-act play, however, is a fine vehicle for something poetical; for something spiritual in feeling that cannot be carried through a long play.
He made his first significant attempt in the creation of full-length drama in Beyond the Horizon, a saturnine drama of fate and frustration. In this piece of grim realism, O’Neill provided symbolic setting. Commenting on the deliberate structural design of the play, O’Neill said in a magazine interview:
In Beyond the Horizon there are three acts of two seens each. One scene is out of doors, showing the horizon suggesting the man’s desire and dream. The other indoors, the horizon, gone, suggesting what has come between him and his dream. In that way I tried to going rhythm, the alternation of longing and of loss.
The Straw is in the same realistic tradition as Beyond the Horizon its symbols, if they deserve the name, are much less overt. The sanatorium, in which, most of the action takes place, with its suggestions of hopelessness and decay, is analogous to the world enclosed by the hills. In Anna Christie, the sea, with the sinister shroud of fog in which it hides its malignant purposes, suggests all the awful and mysterious forces of nature which thwart man and his hopes. Throughout the play Chris Christopherson, Anna’s father blames the sea for all that has gone wrong in his life, and at the climax of the action when his failure as a father has becomes painfully evident, he knows where the fault lies: “It’s dat old devil sea, do this to me ! It’s her dirty tricks!” The play, end on much the same note; with Chris muttering: “Fog, fog, fog, all bloody time. You can’t see vhere you vas going, no. Only dat ole davil, sea––she knows!” Other plays of this early realist: period include Diff’rent, Gold, and The First
The Magic of Expressionism
O’Neill switched over to expressionism with his powerful play, The Emperor Jones. This is a frankly experimental play, and while O’Neill’s exploration of expressionistic technique can probably be attributed to several factors, one of the most important is certainly that it permitted him to explore inner conflicts with greater flexibility and clarity. The essential realism of the earlier plays allowed for the use of symbolism; but, such ‘inanimate actors’ as the sea and the fog, or visual symbols in the setting, such as the dark ring of hills, too much throw the emphasis on a struggle between the individual and some element in life outside himself. The ‘visions’ in, The Emperor Jones, which are neither hallucinations nor projections of Jones’s thoughts, reveal the inner springs of his nature as they come in conflict with his assumed, outward character. There are in the play several dramatic devices, almost inanimate actors, which are external to Jones and which do not pertain directly to his nature. But the pulsating, rhythm of the native drums, which dominates the action rapidly becomes a tangible projection of Jones’s rising panic––a fact that has led some commentators to, see the play simply as a study in the effect of fear on a half-civilized Negro. There is the brooding, mysterious
in which Jones loses himself––to find himself. It is not just a place where something happens to Jones; it is part of what happens to him, a primeval, elemental force, which literally and figuratively strips him of the superfices of civilization. This is not a play about fear; panic is simply the “acid test” which reduces Jones to his essential nature as Great Forest Nor is Jones’s race important; it is simply that, in the Negro; man’s journey from savagery to ‘civilization’ has been tremendously foreshortened. The play is, in essence, the story of “the failure of science and materialism”––the values implicit in ‘de white quality’s” society––“to give any satisfactory new God for the surviving primitive religious instinct to find a meaning for life in, and to comfort its fears of death with.” Man.
The Hairy Ape
The Hairy Ape came as a direct descendant of The Emperor Jones. O’Neill said about this play:
The bell rings for stokers to go on duty ... they all stand up, come to attention, then go out in a lockstep file ...it is only symbolic of the regimentation of men who are the slaves of machinery. In a larger sense, it applies to all of us, because we are all more or less slaves of convention, or of discipline, or of a rigid formula of some sort. The whole play is expressionistic. The coal shoveling, for instance. Stokers do not really shovel coal that way. But it is done…to contribute to the rhythm––a powerful factor inn making anything expressive.
Among other expressionistic devices employed by the playwright in The Hairy Ape are––the scene on Fifth Avenue when Yank, the hairy ape, comes face to face with a little, parade of wooden-faced church-goers who walk like automata and prattle of giving a “Hundred Percent American Bazaar” as a contribution to the solution of discontent among the lower classes; and the scene on Blackball’s Island with the endless rows of calls and the_ argot of the prisoners floating out of the darkness. O’Neill continued his expressionistic method in All God’s Chillun Got Wings.
Mysticism became O’Neill’s next target in his dramatic experimentation. In The Fountain, there is an element of fantasy, in: the visions of the fountain, and that symbol lies at the heart of the play. Ponce de Leon wanders in a futile world where wealth and military reputation and power become tawdry and empty, but where the absence of other values leaves him cynical and disillusioned. A desperate hope that love will give life meaning sends him off looking for the Fountain of Youth. Lying half-dead at the edge of a small pool in Florida, he ‘finds’ it in a vision, and in the song of the fountain lies the essence of his ‘discovery’. In this vision of life and death, growth and decay, aspiration and failure as integral parts of the eternal cycles of nature, where all things must pass away to give place to and nourish the new,
de Ponce finds his “belonging”. Much the same point, could be made about Lazarus Laughed, another play which asserts the ultimate unity of man with nature and the triumph of life over death “Believe in the healthy god called Man in you !...What if you are a man and men. are despicable? Men are also unimportant ! Men pass! Like rain into the seal The sea remains l Man remains ! Man slowly arises from the past of the race of men that was his tomb of deaths ! For Man death is not ! Man ... is !” Leon
After this, O’Neill reverted to his favourite style of writing––that of tragic realism––in Desire Under the Elms, though this time flavoured with Freudianism. Desire Under the Elms, is essentially a realistic, play employing incidental symbols. There are, for instance, the two elms brooding over the house like Nemesis. It seems apparent that these are intended to suggest the spirit of Eben’s mother, once filled with a love of life and beauty, but which had been beaten down and destroyed by Ephraim’s materialistic possessiveness, and which only finds fulfilment with the consummation of her son’s love for Abbie. But the, inner conflicts of the characters are not represented by any special devices. They are, rather, implicit in the duality of each character’s attitudes towards the others. This duality is resolved, at tragic cost, in the case of Eben and Abbie; for Ephraim, it never is.
Symbolism of Masks
The masks of The Great God Brown represent a much more drastic experimental device for suggesting a similar internal conflict, although in this case it is not a question of one impulse triumphing over others, but of two antithetical impulses distorting and perverting each other, and destroying the individual in the process. O’Neill himself threw light on the forces which constitute the play’s central tension : “Dion Anthony ––Dionysus and St. Anthony––the creative pagan acceptance of life, fighting eternal war with the masochistic, life-denying spirit of Christianity as represented by St. Anthony––the whole struggle resulting in this modern day in mutual exhaustion––creative joy in life for life’s sake frustrated, rendered abortive, distorted by morality from Pan into Satan, into a Mephistopheles mocking himself in order to feel alive; Christianity, once heroic in martyrs for its intense faith now pleading weakly for intense belief in any thing, even Godhead itself.” O’Neill saw in mask intense dramatic possibilities. Regarding the value and use off masks he wrote : “I hold more and more surely to the conviction that the use of masks will be discovered eventually to be the freest solution of the modern ‘dramatist’s problem as to how––with the greatest possible dramatic clarity and economy of mean––he can express those profound hidden conflicts of the mind which the probings of psychology continue to disclose to us.” On another occasion, he gave the following dogma for the new masked drama:
One’s outer life passes,, in a solitude haunted by the masks of others one’s inner life passes in a solitude haunted by the masks of oneself:
The Dramatic Value of Masks
O’Neill thought that the use of masks could add a now dimension to his plays. So he wrote:
In through Emperor Jones, all the figures in Jones’ flight through the forest should be masked. Masks would dramatically stress their phantasmal quality, as contrasted with the unmasked Jones, intensify the supernatural menace of the tom tom, give the play a more complete and vivid expression.
In The Hairy Ape a much more extensive use of masks would be of the greatest value in emphasizing the theme of the play. From the opening of the fourth scene; where Yank begins to think, he enters into a masked world, even the familiar faces of his mates in the forecastle have become strange and alien. They should be masked, and the faces of everyone he encounters thereafter, including the symbolic gorilla’s.
In All God’s Chillun Got Wings, all save the seven leading characters should be masked ; for all the secondary figures are part and parcel of the Expressionistic background of the play, a world at first indifferent, then cruelly hostile, against which the tragedy of Jim Harris is outlined.
In The Great God Brown I would now make masks symbolize more definitely the abstract theme of the play instead of, as in the old production, stressing the more superficial meaning that people wear masks before other people and are mistaken by them for their masks.
In Marco Millions all the people of the East should be masked––Kublai, the Princess Kukachin, all of them ! For anyone who has been in the East, or who has read Festers philosophy, the reason for this is obvious. It is an exact dramatic expression of West confronted by East. Moreover, it is the only possible way to project this contrast truthfully in the theatre, for Western actors cannot convey the Eastern character realistically, and their only chance to suggest it convincingly is with the help of masks.
O’Neill attacked the problem of how to present the inner pct dramatically from another direction in Strange Interlude. The drama of the Elizabethans, with its asides and soliloquies, had a tremendous advantage over the modern realistic tradition when it comes to representing the “inner” thoughts and conflicts of characters. O’Neill, dedicated to exploring any possible “language” which would permit him to speak through the theatre, felt he could adopt these devices to his own uses and the modern idiom. While Strange interlude is in other respects a conventional realistic play, the free use of asides gives the dramatist a flexibility largely lacking in drama tied to externals. By this device O’Neill can show the ‘inner’ response of a character to a speech or situation immediately and” directly. Nor, as in the case of the masks, is the difference between the private and the public speech the distinction between a character’s “real” thoughts and some front he puts up to the world. Sometimes, as was true of the masks, the distance between the overt speech and the aside suggests the tensions and conflicts working in the individual. Dynamo was another play in which O’Neill used the technique of ‘interior monologue’.
The general framework of the Oresteia, with its brooding atmosphere of self-destruction, represents the most important experimental device used by O’Neill in Mourning Becomes Electra. But while he used none of the more obvious devices such as masks or soliloquies, he characterized the play as “unreal realism”. This quality is given the play by the fact that, while he does not use masks, he suggests them. The Mannon homestead is described as having a “mask-like” quality, and each of the characters that has some under its influence is described in the stage directions as having a “life-like” mask. The malevolent spell of the Mannons drives all vitality and “reality” inwards upon itself, leaving only the appearance of life––until the inner demand; break through the shell with all the violence of long repression. O’Neill himself said that “this mask concept is a dramatic arresting visual symbol of the separateness, the fated isolation of this family.”
The central contrivance of Days Without End is the introduction of the two conflicting impulses of a single individual in the form of two separate characters, the man and a visible “alter-ego”––man’s split personality made flesh. John, the hero of the play, is by nature sensitive, loving, artistic, and possesses a faith in life and in God. Disillusioned in both by .the death of his mother––as so often in. O’Neill, a symbol of ‘oneness’ with life’s eternal forces ––he gradually builds up a defence against life in the form of an ‘alter-ego’. Ironically named ‘Loving’ (John’s last name), this ‘other self’ is callous, cynical, convinced that love is merely lust, that there is ‘nothing’ beyond life, and that death is the only reasonable escape from it.
In technique, O’Neill’s final masterpieces, The Iceman Cometh, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, A Touch of the Poet and A Moon for the Misbegotten, represent a return to the relatively pure realism of his earliest plays wedded to an organic symbolism. One of the most striking qualities possessed by all of these plays is the really impressive quantity of alcohol consumed in each of them. It actually represents the technique which serves the same dramatic function as the more mechanical devices served in the earlier plays. Liquor in, these plays serves a double function : it permits the dramatist to show the contrast between a man sober, with his defenses up, and drunk, when his subconscious drives become overt, and allows the rapid juxtaposition of contradictory moods and impulses once a person is drunk. It is a device which O’Neill uses for much the same purposes as the more radical innovations, to reveal the conflicts which tear his characters apart and frustrate their potentialities as complete human beings, without appearing arbitrary try or mechanical. These last plays mark O’Neill’s final achievement as a dramatic artist of great power and beauty.