Drama and the Dramatist:
Serious dramatists during the last hundred years have been acutely conscious of their task as working playwrights. In their notebooks and their letters as well as in the plays they have written and the plays they have abandoned, they have inquired into how the peculiarly dramatic elements of their art could enable them to explore and recreate their experience.They have recognized, as literary dramatists had failed to do in the previous hundred years and more, that drama, being a performing art, has a density that is different from that of the purely literary arts and that the words of the play, uttered by actors on a stage, exist in a context of gesture and movement, of decor, costume, lighting and non-verbal sound. They have recognized, too, that words spoken by a human voice and heard, not by an individual but by an audience, have a sensory immediacy that is different from that of words read on a page in private. They have, therefore, experimented with dramatic language and form in order to discover how to use to the full the particular force which derives from the staging and the sensory immediacy and to discover hew to make the non-verbal elements an organic part of the play, implicit in the text to be interpreted by director and actors, not improvised arbitrarily by them.
The recognition that drama can be both literary and theatrical has meant that serious writers have again written for the living theatre and that, from Ibsen onwards, the European drama, although very different from the Elizabethan and Jacobean, has possessed a comparable vitality and urgency. This being the case, it is extraordinary that academic critics, with a few impressive exceptions,’ have shown little interest in the shape and the language of contemporary drama. In the great surge of interest in style and linguistic structure which there has been in the last twenty years, for example, there has been almost no discussion of dramatic language. If critical inquiry is impelled, as I believe it is, by our need to find ways of thinking and talking about experiences that are meaningful to us as individuals and as members of human society then, given the liveliness of the theatre, this absence of thought and talk is strange. Indeed, the language of prose drama of the past has been almost as neglected as that of the drama of our own century. There is good reason to share Pierre Larthomas’s indignation when he writes:
Il existe des centaines, sinon des milliers d’ouvrages sur la vie de Moliere, sur ses idées religieuses, sur la psychologie de ses personages, etc. En revanche, le nombre de livres, et même d’articles, consacrés a son style, est extraordinairement faible; rien, ou presque rien, sur les qualités de son dialogue et les problèmes stylistiques qu’il pose. Fait scandaleux, si l’on veut bien admettre que seule, en definitive, l’oeuvre compte, et son efficacité, au sens noble du terme.
(Le Langage dramatique (Paris, 1972), p. 7)
There exist some hundreds, if not thousands, of works on the life of Moliere, on his religious ideas, on the psychology of his characters, and so forth. On the other hand, the number of books, or even of articles, devoted to his style is extraordinarily small. Nothing, or virtually nothing, exists on the achievements of his dialogue, and the stylistic problems posed by it. A scandalous state of affairs, if one is willing to accept that only the work itself and its effectiveness, in the better sense of the term, finally counts. (My translation)
The Theory of Realism
It has, I think, something to do with the institutionalization of literature, which is one of the hazards of academic criticism. We create our categories and our definitions, our means and our ends, and we can easily come to feel comfortable with them, reluctant to depart from them. The theory of realism as spelled out in the nineteenth century can seem limiting, as can some of the writing deriving from it. But, all too readily, when we encounter a play in which the situation, characters and language have something in common with those of everyday life, we pin on the ‘realism’ label and with it whatever value judgements the term holds for us. Most of the great drama of the past was written in verse and, because of this, we have certain expectations about dramatic language. But since Ibsen decided, quite knowingly, in the 1870s to devote himself not to verse but ‘exclusively to the very much more difficult art of writing straightforward, plain language spoken in real life’, dramatists, with few exceptions, have chosen to write in prose and critics, rather than investigate why this should be so and whether prose can be dramatically effective, have lamented the choice. Even so discriminating a critic as T. S. Eliot allowed himself to blur the distinctions between the neutral term ‘verse’ and the value-laden one ‘poetic’, between the neutral ‘prose’ and the value-laden ‘prosaic’, in what, unfortunately, became an influential statement about prose drama. ‘It seems to me’, he said in his Spencer Memorial Lecture in 1950:
that beyond the nameable, classifiable emotions and motives of our conscious life when directed towards action— the part of life which prose drama is wholly adequate to express — there is a fringe of indefinite extent, of feeling which we can only detect, so to speak, out of the corner of the eye and can never completely focus; of feeling of which we are only aware in a kind of temporary detachment from action. There are great prose dramatists — such as Ibsen and Chekhov — who have at times done things of which I would not otherwise have supposed prose to be capable, but who seem to me, in spite of their success, to have been hampered in expression by writing in prose.
(Included in Selected Prose, p. 80)
The Choice of Prose in Drama
The choice of prose as the medium has been a deliberate one. Has it been miscalculated? Has it hampered the achievement or has it been a necessary part of it? If things have been done in prose of which we ‘would not otherwise have supposed prose to be capable’, are we not obliged to question our own assumptions about prose? Certainly, there has been verse drama written in the past century and some of it might with justice be called ‘poetic’ drama, but this is true of only a very few verse plays and even they are hedged about with rather special conditions. Yeats’s finest plays are chamber plays, small-scale and unashamedly deriving their framework from the Japanese Noh play; Hugo von Hofmannsthal is known now chiefly as the librettist of ‘Strauss’s’ Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos, and Eliot’s own confidence as a dramatist faltered when he tried to move away from the framework of church liturgy and religious festival, which had enabled him to write Murder in the Cathedral. Both Synge and Claudel, although commonly described as ‘poetic dramatists’, wrote in prose, the latter sometimes using verse chants, and even Lorca, outstanding amongst all the dramatists who have used verse in this century, wrote mainly in prose, intertwining verse in choral or frankly symbolic sequences. The other verse dramatists, although repeatedly hailed as offering new hope for the theatre, failed to fulfil their promise.
The pressing question to which Eliot’s statement about prose drama gives rise is whether drama couched in prose dialogue, whose figures are dressed in the costume of our own day and whose action is set in rooms similar to those in which we live, can move its audience very deeply, can stir unaccustomed or barely articulated thought, can lead its audience to apprehend areas of experience which otherwise defy definition. The question is pressing because, since virtually all of the drama of the past hundred years has had this in common, it amounts to a question of whether or not the drama in our time has ceased to be a deeply serious art form.
Two Kinds of Assumption
Two kinds of assumption, I think, have inhibited commentary on the language of prose drama, even when experience in the theatre has made it apparent that the drama is, indeed, still one of the lively arts. On the one hand, it is felt that since the dialogue of much prose drama seeks to represent everyday speech then the dramatist’s task is to make it as transparent as possible so that nothing shall interfere with our impression that we are viewing a fragment of the real world. Apart from consideration of how well the dramatist achieves verisimilitude, therefore, our concern cannot be with the style of saying since this must be inconspicuous – styleless – but with the effect of what is said, as though form and content were not as inseparably intertwined in prose writing as they are in verse. On the other hand, dramatic language is sometimes felt, by the fact of performance, to involve too many artifices and devices of an external kind to allow any commentary on the text to have much authority. For not only do decor, lighting and gesture help to create the scenic image, but the word itself is open to interpretation by the voice of the actor – its timbre, inflection, capacity to emphasize or throw away – and is susceptible, too, to the excising pen of the director. The word is not fixed in drama as it is in the purely literary arts. The second problem is, of course, equally present in any discussion of verse drama but, here, the long-standing habit of regarding verse drama as something to be read has allowed commentators to divorce the play as text from the play as performance.’ It is, I think, necessary to consider these two problematic areas rather more fully.
Drama and Performance
The shifting nature of the dramatic event is clearly a problem in dramatic criticism but, although it should certainly make us wary of what we say about a text, it need not silence us altogether. We must be clear that we are not aiming at theatrical criticism – the description of an individual production of a play – but at dramatic criticism – the description of words written to be spoken in an implicit context of action on a stage. A new production of a play offers new insights and interpretations, but the dramatist’s text remains the imaginative core of each realization in the theatre: it is the common factor in each production. In giving the play visual and aural form the director, designer and actor can be more or less true to the ‘spirit of the text’. Quite what this is in any particular case is as elusive in the drama as it is in the novel or poem, for there can be no one definitive reading of any complex work of art, but perhaps it could be characterized as the recognition we have of the organizing consciousness of the dramatist as it exists in the words he has written, both in dialogue and in implicit or explicit stage directions. My own experience is that, after seeing a new play of any significance, I am impelled to seek verification of the production in the text. The individual production seems complete in itself and yet, however overwhelming the experience in the theatre, something remains unresolved until I can compare it with the script. This may be a penalty of living in a society in which the printed word is of such importance or it may be because we can expect to see more than one production of any significant play and, inevitably, we find changes from one to the next and want to discover what was intended. Probably not during a production of a play with which we are familiar, but certainly in retrospect, we qualify the production in the light of our own imaginary production and simultaneously extend our own interpretation in the light of the production we have just seen. We will be more or less articulate about this process, depending on our own private experience but it is just such verification which is taking place in familiar comments like: ‘That Juliet was wrong for the part’; ‘It was exciting but it wasn’t The Cherry Orchard’; ‘I wonder why he emphasized Hedda’s pregnancy and changed Ibsen’s set so drastically?’; ‘I’d never imagined A Midsummer Night’s Dream in that way – but it worked’.
It is necessary to adapt and extend our critical language, which has been developed, after all, largely in relation to the lyric poem, so that we can take account of the implications about the drama in performance that are present in the text. It is the dramatist who establishes the sequence of events; the presence or absence of the characters on the stage at any given moment of the action, and their closeness to or distance from the central action; the mounting towards climax and descent into anticlimax; the acceleration or slowing of tempo and, more often than we might immediately realize, gesture, stance, quality of voice and even lighting and costume. Similarly, we must be alert to ways in which words which in reading may seem neutral can flash into life in performance. A word or phrase can take on significance if it is repeated in changed circumstances, having previously been used at a vital moment in the action. Our ear will catch the echo and the sensory response will create resonance which in reading might have been missed. In commenting on a play we must be alert to the ways in which visual and verbal echo, superimposition and ironic contrast create meaning within the continuing time and space of the action. The member of an audience, unlike the reader, must experience the play in its entirety, at a sitting. He cannot vary the pace, call for a replay or pause to think. If his attention wanders, some of the action will have passed irrevocably. The onus of compelling attention is on the dramatist who must, therefore, create an action which is sufficiently varied to allow his audience to rest actively by being at times less fully or differently engaged with the action. He must encourage and stimulate concentration by rewarding some expectations and introducing surprises which baffle others. As commentators, we must be conscious of whether and how the dramatist is taking account of the concentration limits of his audience and of the way the response to one scene is affected by those preceding and succeeding.
Verisimilitude and dramatic artifice
In the wake of the Brechtian attack on the traditional theatre, it is sometimes claimed that the audience can become so absorbed in the action on the stage or can come to identify so closely with one of the characters that they take what is happening to be real and wholly set aside their private capacities to judge, consider, associate.
How valid is this as the description of the response of members of the audience in a theatre? I think we are more complicated beings than such an account allows. Given that the dramatist has been sufficiently skilful in peopling his stage world with figures that draw our interest or concern, then the action, too, will be sufficiently complex for the audience at any given moment to be faced with mysteries or to be able to make connections that do not face and cannot be made by any character on the stage. We may engage with the emotion Hamlet or Oedipus is represented as experiencing but, at the same time, we retain the capacity to perceive things about Ophelia or Tiresias which the created character cannot. The very construction of the play pre-vents total identification. At the outset, most characters are assumed to have some experience or information which is gradually revealed to the audience. As the play proceeds, the characters’ responses are relevant only to that part of the action in which they are directly involved. The member of the audience, on the other hand, is ignorant at the outset of the play but, by the end, will have an experience composed of everything that has happened on the stage and it is out of this that his response must be ordered.
When we watch a play, by our very act of entering a place set aside for such an activity and by our observation of the appropriate decorum — keeping still, listening, not interrupting the action — we announce that we are prepared to accept the conventions of the stage. Whilst recognizing that we are observers of a fictional action, we allow that action to assume imaginative reality providing it does not infringe what we feel to be the limits of the convention. Our awareness of the form and the artifice becomes sharper at the very moment when these limits are overstepped. The performance is as likely to be disrupted if the action becomes too life-like as it is if it becomes too self-consciously rhetorical. Although we have repeatedly adjusted our expectations to allow of previously unacceptable language or kinds of action, the audience is still all too easily distracted from the stage action to the dramatic form in which it is couched by, for example, the frisson attaching to the use of certain words. A familiar example of this is the way in which the use of the word ‘bloody’, in the first production of Shaw’s Pygmalion, was sufficient to break the dramatic illusion. Whilst watching Ghosts, we might marvel at the ‘realism’ of the flickering shadows and quicken with Mrs Alving’s emotion on seeing the fire but if for a moment we suspected that she was looking out on to a real fire, we would react quite differently. Similarly, however life-like the details, we recognize with part of our minds that any stage death is enacted, even at the very moment of the enactment. Indeed, in a recent London production of Lady Julie, the audience’s attention was distracted from the stage action to the activities of the actor in the sequence in which Jean kills Julie’s bird, since the actor’s sleight of hand in substituting a stuffed bird for the evidently live creature that had been on stage until that moment, had been too adroit. The dramatic conventions of our own period may well be different in some ways from those of the past, but they nevertheless exist and we accept them as easily as audiences have ever done.
When we turn our attention to stage dialogue we find that it, too, has its conventions, whether we choose to label it ‘realistic’ or not. Inquiry into the language of prose drama necessitates some consideration of that largely unexplored area of linguistic activity, actual speech — what a linguist would describe as ‘performance’ as opposed to ‘competence’.
Stage dialogue is different from real speech. It operates by duplicity: it is not spontaneous but must appear to be so. It is permanent but must appear to be as ephemeral as the speech it imitates. The actor must seem to speak what in reality he recites. In sharing the convention, the audience in the theatre has a share in the duplicity. We simultaneously accept the illusion of spontaneity and know that it is a pretence. We can see how true this is in the light of our consciousness of threats to the illusion, such as when an actor’s delivery betrays that his part is learned by rote (an experience which is turned to comic use in the Pyramus and Thisbe episode of A Midsummer Night’s Dream), or when, knowing a text, we recognize that an actor is departing from it and improvising words of his own, or when a pause is miscalculated and we experience embarrassment with the thought that the actor may have forgotten his words.
Whereas everyday speech is a spontaneous exchange between speaker and interlocutor, in dramatic dialogue, whether cast into poetry, into a representation of middle class, or into low-colloquial dialect, words are invented by the dramatist to be spoken by invented characters, created for and existing within a brief and invented action. For it is not the hearing of the words by the interlocutor that completes the exchange, as it is in everyday speech, but the witnessing and interpreting of both the utterance and the response by the audience. Much of the particular effect of drama derives from the gap between two ways of hearing, that of the interlocutor on stage and that of the audience, and from the audience’s consciousness of the gap. The audience sets each utterance beside each previous utterance made within the limited time span of the play and, in doing so, catches implications beyond those immediately relevant to speaker and interlocutor: it responds, in Stanislayskian language, to the subtextual as well as to the surface meaning – to the ‘web of innumerable, varied inner patterns inside the play’. If the dramatist is to create an action of significance in the brief three or four hours of performance time his dialogue, however natural it may appear, must be most unnaturally resonant with meaning and implication.
Accurate reproduction of everyday speech is scarcely possible in the theatre, even were it attempted. Even at the most obvious level of the mechanics of the language, the gap between the most natural sounding dialogue and real speech is vast. So little recording and description of speech has been undertaken by linguists that we are largely ignorant of how we do speak. Information so far published by the Survey of English Usage at present in progress at University College in London, has demonstrated how prolix and, by written standards, how incomplete and non-grammatical most educated speech is, how much information has to be supplied by the context and by the shared experience and assumptions of the speakers.’ It has shown, too, that ‘within any given stretch of conversation very little occurs’. The dramatist must compress, must make much more happen, verbally, than would happen in a comparable stretch of real speech.
And yet, dramatic dialogue does have some direct association with everyday speech. If the dramatist’s task is not to reproduce speech, it is to make us believe that what we hear is a natural utterance between the characters on the stage. We do find some dialogue ‘life-like’ and some stilted, or not lively, even though the forms of dialogue to which we respond in this way may be very different from each other. When we find that the dialogue of Hamlet, of Strindberg’s The Father, or of Pinter’s The Birthday Party, sounds natural, what we are in fact responding to in each very different case are echoes of the living language caught by the writer and arranged, patterned, elaborated into the ordered utterance of that particular play. Indeed, it is frequently those elements which we would regard as substandard in writing which draw and hold our attention when they occur in speech. Hesitation, pause, repetition, unfinished sentences, a sudden change of direction, a lively confusion of metaphors, the rushing of one thought in upon another, the cutting in of one speaker on another’s words, as well as certain shared or fashionable idioms, certain idiosyncracies of construction: these are vital, if shifting, elements in the grammar of the language as it is actually spoken. The writer ‘with an ear’ is one who is consistently able to incorporate appropriate elements of the living language – ‘speech markers’, we might call them – which enable the actors to utter the dialogue easily and the audience to listen intently to it.
In whatever form it might be cast, then, dramatic dialogue does not reproduce: it represents speech. It is an artificial construct created by the dramatist with more or less skill so that, within the given convention, it sounds natural when spoken whilst incorporating into itself a patterned subtext of such density that a complex action can take place within the fixed performance time. The questions, therefore, that we ask about the language of the drama of the past hundred years are essentially those that we ask about the poetic language of Elizabethan drama: what devices and markers are used to create the effect of the living language? How dense is the language? How much meaning is incorporated in it? How fully does it bind its audience: what degree e alert activity does it demand from them?
Part of our inheritance from nineteenth-century realistic theory is, as I have suggested, the attitude which I would call the ‘realistic fallacy’: that dramatic dialogue should and could be transparent, and that such transparency would be achieved if the dramatist wrote his dialogue as it came to mind without concern for or, even, with deliberate avoidance of, order and patterning. The fallacy here is that such dialogue would carry conviction as a representation of living speech. It is, in fact, unlikely to do so, as scores of nineteenth-century ‘realistic’ plays bear witness, because, since the dialogue is composed in writing and not orally, the dramatist will tend to use the habitual grammar and cliche of his written rather than of his spoken form of the language. Such dialogue, therefore, forfeits not only density, operating, as it does, too much at the surface, but also liveliness. Similar assumptions about the relationship between the casual and the realistic by commentators on the drama have meant that, where there has not been an immediately apparent rhetoric in contemporary prose dialogue, as there is in Synge’s poetic prose or in the linguistic parody and role-playing of Beckett and of Pinter, we have failed to differentiate between major writers and journeymen playwrights; between the realistic convention and the realistic fallacy. The drama-tic language of Chekhov and Ibsen can do extraordinary things because neither dramatist has succumbed to the realistic fallacy but both dramatists have struggled to make their dialogue expressive at the subtextual as well as at the textual level so that their audiences are compelled to be active not passive listeners.
The discussion of dramatic language in general terms can only take us so far before there is a pressing need for examples and exegesis. One might proceed by comparing the language of a number of dramatists working in the same period or one might proceed historically and, taking certain dramatic devices, explore their role at different times to ‘ discover what modifications they have undergone and what seem to be common elements of all dramatic language. My own method is to explore the language of a single dramatist at different periods of his creative activity. This is to lose something in breadth but is perhaps to gain in thoroughness and, indeed, in the case of Eugene O’Neill, because of the unusually prolonged period of experimentation in the struggle to find an expressive language and because of the remarkably erratic nature of his achievement, there is much for comparison and contrast within the work of the individual writer, so that we are constantly led back to the general questions about the nature of dramatic language.
In the exploration of O’Neill’s dramatic language which follows, I have been conscious of the linguists’ stricture that:
few books written by literary critics which purport to discuss an author’s language have achieved anything like the degree of precision required to make their observations meaningful to the linguist — or to anyone who concedes the importance of objective, verifiable descriptive information as a critical tool.
(Crystal and Davy, Investigating English Style, p. 81)
But I have also been aware that to make an exhaustive record of the linguistic features of the dialogue would not in itself be very helpful to my purposes. In exploring how the organization of the words of the text has contributed to the meaning and unity of the play under discussion, I have had to be selective in what I discuss and which linguistic features I record. The basis of my selection here has been my own intuitive judgement of which elements seemed significant. This, of course, as in all liberal criticism, is an area of risk but the intuitive judgements of traditional discursive criticism have been underpinned as fully as space and the sharpness of the argument allowed, by systematic linguistic analysis, although often there has been room for only one or two examples where a dozen could have been given. I have attempted to make my choice of scenes and examples reflect the variety of language within the plays. Besides those more obvious areas of syntax, diction and expressive imagery, I have looked at the different kinds of language which compose the dialogue, the most obvious of these being dialect, idiolect and speech register, and the quotation from and echoing of other writers. I have considered what the structural use and emotive effect of these might be. I hope that in developing this rather open method I have conveyed an impression of the intricacy of the language without forfeiting that sense which we have in performance of the coherence and dramatic tension of the plays under discussion.
Dramatic criticism and the paradox of Eugene O’Neill
The posthumous production, in 1956, of Long Day’s Journey Into Night was followed by a resurgence of interest in O’Neill’s drama, which had ebbed since the mid-1930s, and has resulted in four or five major studies of the plays. But, despite this critical activity, there remains a paradox in O’Neill criticism that is closely related to the questions which I have already raised.
Commentators repeatedly testify to the ‘power’ and ‘force’ of O’Neill’s drama but the consensus, nevertheless, is that the language in which the plays are cast is inadequate. The testimony as to dramatic power is of the strongest. T. S . Eliot, placing O’Neill’s worke ‘very high indeed’, described Long Day’s Journey Into Night as ‘one of the most moving plays’ he had ever seen, whilst Allardyce Nicoll in his influential World Drama wrote:
Eugene O’Neill is not only a symbol of the dramatic movement that flourished so rapidly and with such resultant fruitfulness during the century’s third and fourth decades; he also stands, a powerful and vibrant figure, over all his playwriting colleagues throughout the world.
But O’Neill has also been called ‘a tone deaf musician’, a ‘giant in chains’, who ‘lacked that basic gift of a major playwright – the ability to write dialogue that was both functional and distinctive’, whose style is ‘not only strained and turgid, but awkward, inarticulate, banal’. Although the two kinds of assertion, about forcefulness and incompetence, would seem to be mutually exclusive, they are often found together. Nicoll, for example, continues:
With the deepest regret we must confess that O’Neill is not a finished literary artist. No words of rich import and beauty wing themselves from his pages; we remember his scenes but not the language in which they are couched.
Francis Fergusson describes certain scenes as being ‘deeply convincing’ despite ‘inadequate language’; Ronald Peacock groups, O’Neill with Shakespeare, Racine, Ibsen for ‘sheer genius for drama’, but adds the qualification, ‘however prosaic his work’, and Lionel Trilling, placing O’Neill in comparably high company, has written:
We do not read Sophocles or Aeschylus for the right answer; we read them for the force with which they represent life and attack its moral complexity. In O’Neill, despite the many failures of his art and thought, this force is inescapable.
It is tempting to follow some commentators and explain the paradox by pointing to O’Neill’s achievement in creating a ‘language of theatre’. Such commentary has been valuable in demonstrating how capable a theatre craftsman O’Neill was but it fails to explain how the audience can bear to listen to so many words, if they really are inert. It fails, too, to explain why certain theatrically complex and spectacular pieces, such as The Fountain or Lazarus Laughed, do not hold their own in the theatre. Do we, then, simply accept the paradox and continue to worry at the writing of a Fry or a Maxwell Anderson in the hope that their verse will suddenly become fully dramatic? Or do we attempt to develop our critical language until it can cope with stage works, whose style may not accord with our preconceived criteria, but in which, in reading or performance, we have felt the presence of a creative imagination, shaping and controlling the elements of the play in such a way that we have been stirred uncommonly?
It will already be apparent that my central concern in this study is to demonstrate that the language of prose drama can be flexible and complex, can contain a finely patterned organic imagery that might justly be called ‘poetic’. I hope, too, to reverse the frequently stated idea that O’Neill is a great dramatist malheureusement, whose inadequate language leads to embarrassing incongruities in the work. I hope, at the very least, that my account will lead readers to see and hear that O’Neill’s dramatic language is an essential element in the plays: that it is much more varied and dramatically forceful than is commonly acknowledged.
Principles of organization
The sheer amount of O’Neill’s writing is, in part, responsible for the critical confusion, as is also the fact that O’Neill is a near contemporary.
O’Neill’s reputation was made by his experimental rather than his mature works. The plays which are now acknowledged to be his most important came to public notice only in the mid-1950s, after the publication of certain influential books about the modern Western theatre, and after many eminent critics had passed final judgement on his drama. The result has been that, in many cases, the earlier assessment has been transferred to the later plays. There is a problem when criticizing any contemporary writer, of maintaining openness to work-in-progress. There has not been time for a consensus to have developed which will point us to the most accessible part of the writing first. Indeed, the most rewarding work may be yet to be written when we sample, and judge, and pass on. O’Neill would seem to have reached that point in time when he can re-emerge to startle his old audiences and to draw the interest of those to whom he is little more than a name, with the emotional power of his writing and the unexpected contemporaneity of the matter of his plays.
But we are not dealing with a simple case of critical misjudgement, for O’Neill’s writing was remarkably erratic. When we consider the whole of his work we must ask how one dramatist could have written a play as bad as, say, Dynamo and one as good as The Iceman Cometh. If a new play by O’Neill invariably aroused more interest than one by a contemporary, it was also, frequently, more disappointing. O’Neill was an experimental dramatist but the experimentation itself raises questions. Why was the period of experiment so protracted? Why did he find his own form only, as I shall suggest, at the end of his career? And what did the long period of experimentation contribute to the final form?
Clearly it is important that we find some way of gaining an overview of O’Neill’s whole career, and yet the large number of plays involved make this very difficult unless we can group them so that one or two can represent several. If we concentrate on the mature plays, we leave out of account the work which was the American drama for many audiences for two formative decades; which has influenced the subsequent development of the American drama, and which provides an essential background against which to view the method of the mature work. If, on the other hand, we attempt to discuss the whole oeuvre we are left with little space to investigate the mature work.
A solution to this problem of grouping is offered when we recognize that different kinds of language are used by O’Neill. The table on p. xii shows that O’Neill’s plays were written in one of three different linguistic modes and that the three modes were grouped roughly chronologically. I shall suggest in my discussion that they also represent three different kinds of dramatic achievement. The plays written before 1925, which I shall call the ‘early’ plays, are predominantly cast into one of the forms of American low-colloquial. These, I shall suggest, are the work of a promising dramatist, struggling with his form, developing what amounted to an idiosyncratic poetic diction and, occasionally, achieving dazzling results. The linguistic medium of the ‘middle’ plays, written between 1924 and 1934, the period in which O’Neill was established as the Great American Dramatist, is Standard American English. The change of mode is accompanied by a sharp break in O’Neill’s practice: whereas, in the early plays, the language usage had tended to be over-schematic, it is now loose and unorganized. In the ‘late’ plays, those written between 1939 and 1943, a strategic use of Irish dialect or Broadway slang is intermingled with the idiomatic mode of Standard American. I shall demonstrate by detailed discussion that the’ language of these plays is finely achieved.
Not only does it seem essential to be aware of O’Neill’s whole oeuvre, but recognition of the nature of the context in which O’Neill worked seems to me to be a necessary basis for an understanding of the various experiments with dramatic form and language that absorbed him during his slow development to his mature style.
It has been suggested in several recent studies that, in an open, mobile and technically advanced society such as ours, newly efficient transport and communications and the invention of machinery to record and reproduce, make accessible the potentially enriching images and forms of the art and ritual of past and present cultures: enriching but also, possibly, confusing.” One ‘unavoidable consequence’, according to Daniel Boorstin, of the gathering of arts and crafts into museums has been that ‘all these things were being removed from their context. In a sense, therefore, they were all being misrepresented’ (The Image, p. 101). At the same time, the new eclecticism means that local traditions lose something of their power and the artist in search of a personally expressive mode may find himself isolated, a prey to panic and confusion, without a firm framework within which to operate, or against which to rebel, whilst the audience, no longer certain how to evaluate the good, reserve their praise for the new and the ingenious. All of which raises fundamental problems of self-knowledge, as Lionel Trilling suggests when he says:
The individual who lives in this new circumstance is subject to the constant influence, the literal inflowing, of the mental processes of others, which, in the degree that they stimulate and enlarge his consciousness, make it less his own. He finds it ever more difficult to know what his own self is and what being true to it consists in.
(Sincerity and Authenticity, p. 61)
For various reasons, deriving from the condition of the American theatre at the beginning of this century, O’Neill faced in a peculiarly acute form the stimulating and confusing effects of the openness of contemporary culture, the breakdown of the authority of tradition and the availability of alternative modes that increasingly face the artist in Western society.
No commentator on O’Neill, indeed, has been as aware as he was himself of the tension between the stimulating and confusing elements in his cultural experience and none has written as sharply about his language as he has himself. His letters and notes show him to have been a self-conscious writer and reinforce the impression we get from a sensitive reading of the plays that O’Neill was a writer who struggled throughout his career to forge a fully achieved language. He was also, and this, too, identifies him as peculiarly of this century, a writer concerned with articulacy: doubt about the reliability of words, and the gap between what is known, or experienced, or hesitatingly apprehended and what can be expressed, were a necessary part of his subject matter. How to give expression to such subject matter without becoming inarticulate himself was one of his central problems.
For these reasons, it has seemed necessary to give an account of O’Neill’s literary and theatrical context and to investigate such of his ideas about theatre as have come to light in his non-dramatic writing. This will provide a platform of information for my subsequent discussion of O’Neill’s experimentation with realistic and anti-realistic modes, and with his attempts to make his dialogue expressive whether through effects of sound, set and choreography or through the ordering and patterning of the dialogue.
In the first part of the book, then, I set O’Neill’s search for form and his twenty years of experimentation, within the context of the American theatre in which he worked, and within the more private context of his literary interests. Then, after an examination of the more specifically linguistic contexts of contemporary interest in the American vernacular, and of the function of the vernacular in the nineteenth-century drama, I enter on the real critical discourse with an examination of the language of selected plays from the early and middle years. I deliberately select Mourning Becomes Electra when discussing the language of the middle years, with the hope of making good an imbalance that has arisen in O’Neill criticism. Electra and Strange Interlude both received popular and critical acclaim when first produced, and they have frequently been studied in isolation from the rest of O’Neill’s work. The transferral of stream-of-consciousness technique from the novel to the drama in the one play has meant that it has proved a useful example in general discussions about genre, whilst the modern interpretation of the story of the Oresteia, in the other play, has made it an obvious example to use in comparisons of Modern and Greek Tragedy. The result has been that these plays have been taken as satisfactorily representing O’Neill’s oeuvre, and not, as I would prefer to see them, as representing a stage in his search for an integrated form. This examination serves as a prelude to the chapter-length studies of The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s journey Into Night which make up the substance of the second part of the book.
O’Neill and the American theatre
O’Neill: A Brief Survey
In the fifteen months after O’Neill began to write plays, he wrote eleven one-act and two full-length pieces. His eagerness to experiment was already apparent. Servitude is a Shavian discussion play, whose plot offers an epilogue to Ibsen’s The Doll’s House; Before Breakfast is a monologue in imitation of Strindberg’s The Stronger, and The Web is a piece of Zolaesque realism, complete with a squalid murder, a starving child and the ceaseless coughing of a consumptive heroine, and a background whose every detail reveals poverty and oppression. In Thirst, O’Neill uses scenic expressionism, presenting a desolate sea, ‘the red eye of the sun’, and the menace of continually circling sharks as a context within which to figure human madness whilst in Fog he introduces a tentative mysticism with an image of a ship’s. black hulk, which looms out of a fog-bound sea, summoned by e cries of a dead child.
As early as 1918, O’Neill was greeted as
’s ‘first really important dramatist’, by the critic George Jean Nathan.’ He was feted by the press after the success, in 1920, of Beyond the Horizon which marked him, as the New York Times’ critic, Alexander Woolcott, wrote, as, ‘one of the most spacious men to be both gifted and tempted to write for the theatre in America’. Thomas Wolfe called him ‘the beaconlight in our own drama today’, and even the doubters acknowledged that his work showed a promise quite different from that of his contemporaries. Robert Benchley, for example, in a largely negative review of Dynamo, said, ‘If he isn’t [ America ’s greatest dramatist] the question arises, “Who is, then?” and we scurry right back to Mr. O’Neill, with apologies.’ America
O’Neill’s letters reveal that he himself was conscious both of his pre-eminence and of the pioneering role which this gave him. In 1926, he said of the theatre he wanted to create, ‘It seems to me most emphatically, a case of shooting at a star or being a dud ... I want to howl: Imagination, Beauty and Daring – or bust! ‘ And it was the conviction that he must do his part to establish the high seriousness of European theatre in
that impelled him to enter briefly into theatre management. His letters to his co-director, Kenneth Macgowan, continually stress the importance of breaking new ground and avoiding compromise with the commercial theatre. In one of the fiercest, he writes: America
Your manifesto is too meekly explicit, the plays you list, too much what might be found in the repertoire of a dramatic club. I think you ought to inject a lot of the Kammerny spirit into your statement with the emphasis on imaginative new interpretations, experimentation in production. That’s what the theatre ought to mean in
today, Kenneth! That’s what New York lacks right now. That’s the gap we ought to fill ... I’m raving because this isn’t developing as you, Bobby and I dream – as Bel Geddes and others dream– and unless it’s going to be that dream, or at least approximate to it in spirit, then what’s the use? . . . If it’s going to be anything of anything that is or has been in New York , again, what’s the use? New York
But O’Neill’s very success and aspiration seem to have been a source of internal conflict. A note of dissatisfaction with his achievement and his working method recurs in his letters. After the success of Beyond the Horizon, he had written to Nathan acknowledging that his work was ‘mere groping’, depreciating his past work with the apology, ‘it takes time to get over the itch to put everything on paper regardless’, and committing himself to ‘a struggle ... long enough and hard enough’ to enable him to express his ‘real significant bit of truth’.
Three years later, he suggested to Macgowan that his role in the newly founded Experimental Theatre should be to provide ideas which others could develop into full productions, since:
All these ideas of mine are being incorporated into my own plays bit by bit as they fit in but I can’t write plays fast enough to fit in with the production-imagination section of my ‘bean’. It would be suicidal to attempt it ... If I wish my work to grow steadily more comprehensive and deeper in quality, I’ve got to give it more and more of my possible sum total.
In 1926, he reiterated Ms concern for depth, saying ‘The point is, my stuff is much deeper and more complicated now and I’m not so easily satisfied as I was’ (to Macgowan, 7 August 1926). But always the depth, the ‘real significant bit of truth’, seem to have eluded him so that we repeatedly find him promising himself that, at last, the necessary thoroughness is within his grasp. In 1929, he wrote to the stage manager at the
Forty is the right age to learn! And I think my new work is going to show more poise, more patience with itself to reach at perfection, more critical analysis of itself and more contemplation, more time given it for gestation and genuine birth, more pains. I’ve gone off half-cocked too many times, driven on to drive myself to write at any cost to the writing, then to finish and be done with it and start something new. It’s time I achieved a more mature outlook as an artist – and now I know I have. Perhaps a complete upheaval, a total revaluing of all my own values was necessary to gain that attitude. Well I’ve certainly been through that! Devil a doubt!
(To Eleanor Fitzgerald, 13 May 1929)
And, to another friend, he wrote, ‘What I need now is work – damn hard work! at my job of writing plays without giving a thought about production’ (to Robert Sisk, 21 August 1929). Even whilst the multiplicity of his ideas and his excitement in his own capacities spurred him on to write, he was haunted by the suspicion that, in his eagerness to explore, he was neglecting perfection, failing to pursue any one dramatic method single-mindedly, and so forgoing real artistic achievement. So many different ways of presenting experience through drama offered themselves to him, each drawing an imaginative response, that he seems to have been obliged to write his way through all of them before finding his appropriate form.
I shall suggest, in this chapter, that O’Neill’s need to experiment is one of the major reasons why his career developed in the way it did and why he produced fully articulate drama only at the end of his writing life. The origins of this need are to be found, in part, in the literary and theatrical environment in which he worked. They are to be found, too, in his private life, but O’Neill’s psychology has aroused a great deal of speculation, and it seems worthwhile to change the emphasis here. Commentators have too often discussed O’Neill’s drama as though it existed in a vacuum, as if the term, ‘first American dramatist’, so frequently, and not unjustly, applied to O’Neill were literally true. This has blunted recognition of the nature of his contribution to American drama and of the particular kind of artistic isolation he did experience.
The nineteenth-century American theatre
O’Neill’s theatrical inheritance and the story of his early days in the theatre is familiar: he was born the son of a matinee idol, James O’Neill, who in 1888 was playing the role of Edmond Dantes in the Fechter version of The Count of Monte Cristo, for the fourteen‑hundredth time. Revivals continued until 1913. Finding it increasingly hard to succeed in other roles, growing increasingly embittered, James complained that the commercial theatre and the demands of its conservative audience had ossified his talents: enviously, he praised tragedy as the highest form of dramatic art.’ O’Neill was stage manager with his father’s company in 1910, during a run of the melodrama The White Sister, and a supporting actor in The Count of Monte Cristo the following year.’ In a tribute paid to George Pierce Baker in 1935, he expressed his bitterness towards the conventions of the old theatre. Looking back two decades to the ‘dark age when the American theatre was still, for playwrights, the closed shop, star system, amusement racket’, he commented:
It is difficult in these days, when the native playwright can function in comparative freedom, to realise that in that benighted period a play of any imagination, originality or integrity by an American was almost automatically barred from a hearing in our theatre. To write plays of life as one saw and felt’ it, instead of concocting the conventional theatre drivel of the time, seemed utterly hopeless... the most vital thing for us as possible future artists and creators, to learn at that time ... was to believe in our work and keep on believing..
Nor did O’Neill overstate his case. In Democratic Vistas, in 1871, Walt Whitman had expressed his scorn at least as ferociously:
Of what is called the drama or dramatic presentation in the United States, as now put forth in the theatres, I should say it deserves to be treated with the same gravity, and on a par with the questions of ornamental confectionary at public dinners, or the arrangement of curtains and hangings in a ballroom – nor more, nor less.
It was a theatre of vaudeville, farce and romantic–historical melodrama; of vehicles for star actors and for mechanical ingenuity in set and costume. The dialogue complemented the plot in its unlikeliness, as this extract from the play O’Neill’s father’s company presented for more than twenty years makes evident:
fernand. Answer me a hundred times more, that I may at last believe it. Tell me that you scorn my love – that my life, my death, are nothing to you – that you reject my hand, my heart! Ah, Mercedes, what have I done that you should kill me thus?
mercedes. Blame me not, Fernand, blame yourself. From the very first I told you, ‘Fernand, I love you as a brother, but ask not, hope not, more, for my heart is given to another.’ – Did I say so, Fernand?
fernand. Yes, oh, yes. But, you know, Mercedes, it is a sacred law among us Catalans to intermarry.
mercedes. Not a law, merely a custom, Fernand, that is all. Fernand, I will never be yours because I love another, and I am his!
(The Count of Monte Cristo, act I: James O’Neill’s acting version, p. 5)
The villain and the heroine use an identical rhetoric, which does little to convey the essence of the characters. The use of archaisms and convoluted syntax demand a posturing, exclamatory style from the actors, which is emphasized in the rhythm created by repetition and elegant variation: ‘my life, my death . . . my hand, my heart!’; ‘Blame me not ... blame yourself ... ask not, hope not’.
The cynicism underlying much of the writing is expressed in a shameless description of his method by Owen Davies, who had abandoned verse drama for commercial melodrama:
One of the first tricks I learned was that my plays must be written for an audience who, owing to the huge, uncarpeted, noisy theatre, couldn’t always hear the words, and who, a large proportion of them, having only recently landed in
, couldn’t have understood them in any case. I therefore wrote for the eye rather than the ear and played out each emotion in action, depending on my dialogue only for the robust sentiments so dear to audiences of that class. America
(I’d Like To Do It Again, p. 37)
In 1896, with the foundation of the Theatrical Syndicate, the domination of the theatre by such plays became even more secure. For the next sixteen years,- the Syndicate held a virtual monopoly of the theatres in
and several other major cities, and resisted all outside influences which might mar the saleability of their product. Frank Rahill has suggested that it was largely because of the power of the Syndicate that melodrama flourished in New York America for twenty years after the decline in Europe.” Certainly, the revolutionary events in European drama and stagecraft in the late nineteenth century were not allowed to impinge seriously on the contemporary American theatre.
Articles sympathetic to Ibsen’s drama by Archer and Gosse had been reprinted in America as early as 1889, and Scandinavian-language readers must have been aware of the stir Ibsen’s work was causing in Europe, but there were few translations available in America, no Zola to welcome them, no Antoine to promote them and no amateur companies seeking plays with which to found a new theatre. The influential critic, William Winter, attacked Ibsen’s work angrily as offensive to public morality. A few productions were staged, but with a drastically cut text, and usually as single matinees before an invited audience. In his chronicle of his visit to
1889, Knut Hamsun gives an outraged description of just such a production: America
Now and again our newspapers report that on one date Ibsen’s Ghosts was produced in
, and that on another Sardou was performed in one of the Western cities. These are half truths. I speak from personal experience, somewhat from inside knowledge. Ghosts has never been staged in New York City and Sardou has never been performed in a single American city. With Ghosts, only those scenes which caused no objections were performed in New York City ; all the ‘ghosts’ were sifted out of the drama, and it was staged in a form that was totally unrecognizable. To show how brutally the play was distorted from an artistic standpoint, I need only mention that some lines of verse were appended to the final scene, which had already been mutilated – lines with which Mrs. Alving was then supposed to entertain the audience until the curtain fell. New York
(The Cultural Life of Modern America, p. 96)
One of the attractions of the mid-nineteenth-century American stage had been its complicated and ingenious stage effects. Now, the ideas of Antoine and later of Stanislayski were seized upon and adjusted comfortably to the current practice in
. Hamsun describes having seen live animals on stage and even, once, a steam train. The sets, he added, were mentioned in bold type on the playbill and called ‘realistic scenery’ (p. 93). The doyen of American scenic realism was David Belasco who, stage manager of the Lyceum in 1884 and of his own Belasco theatre after 1902, displayed remarkable virtuosity in combining the accurate detail of European fourth wall realism with the technical showmanship of the American stage. The exact replica he built on stage of a Child’s restaurant, his dismantling and re-erecting of an actual bedroom from a sleazy boarding house, his blizzard in Tiger Rose, whose machinery employed thirty-two artisans, were nine days’ wonders, and he himself described spending 5,000 dollars to reproduce a sunset and devoting days to the problem of creating on stage ‘the ashen hues of death’. But, as Mordecai Gorelik has pointed out: America
Belasco used an idiom newer than that of his Romantic predecessors. The acting was believable in comparison with nature; the settings were infinitely more lifelike than in the past. But underneath both, the Romantic stereotype was there for any alert observer to see.
The pattern Belasco established survives today, even more spectacularly mechanized, in filmed versions of stage musicals.
But Belasco was a self-admitted showman. More striking than the distortion of European experiments in stage management was the unwitting distortion of the idea of the play itself by dramatists whose intentions were sincere enough. For
did have its ‘Ibsen Movement’, but it was a sadly emasculated affair. In an article entitled ‘Art for Truth’s Sake’ published in 1897, James Herne, presenting his manifesto, showed clearly enough where the emphasis was to be put: America
I stand for art for truth’s sake. It perpetuates the everyday life of its time, because it develops the latent beauty of the so-called commonplaces of life, because it dignifies labour and reveals the dignity of the common man.
Beg pardon, sir, but Moles has been and told me what you was going to do for him, sir. Would you be considering it a great impertinence if I asked you to take six hundred dollars what I’ve saved, sir, and do things with it?
The New Yorkers of Langdon Mitchell’s The
Idea (1906) and the Southerners of Bronson Howard’s Shenandoah (1888) or William Gillette’s civil war play Secret Service (1896) use a vocabulary, rhythm and style of speech indistinguishable from any character of Henry Arthur Jones. New York
Intimations of change
The commercial theatre continued in its moribund state well after the turn of the century, but the efforts of a few outsiders began to make European drama more accessible to Americans. The Russian émigré actress, Alla Nazimova, gave a season of Ibsen’s plays in 1907. In 1938, O’Neill recalled:
the impact upon me when I saw an Ibsen play for the first time, a production of Hedda Gabler at the Bijou theatre in New York — and then went again and again for ten successive nights. That experience discovered an entire new world of drama for me. It gave me my first conception of a modern theatre where truth might live.
Nazimova’s success encouraged other Broadway managers to over-come their fear of Ibsen, whose name in the next five years became familiar on Broadway. If it was the personal enterprise of a foreign actress which broke the blockade on Ibsen, it was a foreign company which first showed
the possibility of an alternative theatre in English. In 1911, the Irish Players visited America with their repertory of plays by Synge, Yeats, Lady Gregory and T. C. Murray. O’Neill is reported as having seen ‘everything they did’ and having been particularly impressed by Synge’s Riders to the Sea (Alexander, Tempering of Eugene O’Neill, p. 154). The next year, Reinhardt’s production of his wordless play, Sumurun, was presented in New York New York, revealing new possibilities in stage design and direction, and the Manchester Repertory Company, a model of organization for small independent theatres, toured . America
Events in publishing were equally exciting. Between 1906 and 1912 many of the major texts of the European theatrical revolution were made available. Archer’s eleven-volume revised edition of the collected works of Ibsen was published in London between 1906 and 1908 and a rival version translated by Farquharson Sharp was brought out by Everyman; then, in New York in 1912, came Scribners’ cheap popular edition of Ibsen; their selection of Strindberg’s plays, which included The Father, Lady Julie, A Dream Play and The Dance of Death, and J. D. Luce’s selection, which included Pariah, Comrades, and Easter. Strindberg’s autobiographical novels were published in 1913. Previous to this, there had been, since ago, occasional single translations of Ibsen into English but the first Strindberg had come only in 1906, when three one-act plays were published in the magazine, Poet Lore. Within a period of five years all Strindberg’s major writing, previously unknown in
, became available. Synge’s plays were published in four volumes in 1912. America
O’Neill’s new community
The revelation in
of the richness of European drama stirred the interest of many Americans besides O’Neill. Within a very few years of the publication of the major texts and the visits of European companies which I have described, an independent theatre movement, reminiscent of that in Paris in the 1880s and the 1890s which gave a stage first to the naturalist and then to the symbolist drama, was flourishing in America. America
In 1910, in Chicago, the city that would later see the founding of Poetry Magazine (1912) and The Little Review (1914), Maurice Brown founded the Chicago Little Theatre with the intention of producing European plays ignored by the commercial managers. In 1912, the Boston Toy Theatre was founded, bringing similar activity to the East Coast, and soon afterwards, the interest spread to New York with the founding of The Washington Square Players (1915), later to become the Theatre Guild, producer of all O’Neill’s plays from the late 1920s onwards, The Neighbourhood Playhouse (1915) and then, the following year, The Provincetown Players. By 1924, a multitude of non-commercial theatres was playing to a regular audience of half a million.
The Theatre Arts Magazine, founded in 1916 by Sheldon Cheney, in response to the activity of the little theatre companies, is a vital document, not only because in it we can chart O’Neill’s rise to prominence amongst the avant-garde before he was known to the general public, but because it gives an insight into the aspects of drama that were of particular interest to the ‘new generation of artist-workers — playwrights, actors, directors’, in what the first editorial self-consciously labelled the ‘formative period’ of American drama (vol. I, p.I).
In the first volume, Cheney lamented that in the five years since the first little theatres were founded no ‘great creative figure’, no ‘artist of world measure — No American Shaw or Barker or Yeats’ had appeared (p. 48). The second number welcomed the Provincetown Players, despite the primitiveness of their stage because of their policy of producing original plays (p. 91) and, in subsequent issues, O’Neill’s name occurred with increasing frequency until, in October 1920, there was a detailed discussion of his work by Walter Pritchard Eaton, who called him ‘a rare artist’ (vol. IV, p. 289). The magazine published several of O’Neill’s plays, including the full text of The Emperor Jones (volume v). His wife, Agnes Boulton (volume viii), and several of his closest associates contributed to it. It carried articles by artists who had made their mark on the European stage: Claude! (volume I), Isadora Duncan (volume H), Gordon Craig (volume III), Yeats (volume viii). D. H. Lawrence contributed an article on ‘The Hopi Snake Dance’ (volume VIII). Jacques Copeau’s arrival in
was welcomed as ‘a sign of the times – both dramatically and politically – the best sign we know’. (volume I, p. 134). Over half the magazine’s space was devoted to discussion of the new stagecraft. Appia’s ideas, particularly his use of light and of steps with which to create flow and rhythm, were highly regarded (volumes vii and VIII); Reinhardt’s productions were followed eagerly, with sketches and photographs as illustration (full study in volume VII), and the workers in the little theatres also became familiar with the work and projected stage sets of native designers, Robert Edmond Jones, Norman Bel Geddes, SumHume, Herman Rosse and Lee Simonson. New York
An astomshingly large number of the men working in the independent theatre wrote books about their experience and these give an impression of the milieu as nothing else can, communicating their authors’ consciousness that they were making history and revealing their mental fervour, their practical energy. George Cram Cook, the founder of the Provincetown Players, is a striking example of such men. Himself a playwright, he sought to recreate the spirit of the Greek theatre in
. His literary ability was limited (see p. 97 below) but he seems to have carried conviction when he spoke. In her biography of Cook, his wife, Susan Glaspell, quotes extracts from his notebooks, amongst them a response to Nietzsche’s discussion of the Italian Renaissance: America
An American Renaissance of the Twentieth Century is not the task of ninety million people, but of one hundred. Does not that stir the blood of those who know they may be of that hundred? Does it not make them feel like reaching out to find each other — for strengthening of heart, for the generation of inter-communicating power, the kindling of communal, intellectual passion?...I call upon the vital writers of America to attain to a finer culture, to develop in themselves and in each other more depth and fire — truth felt more blazingly; to be finer souls and finer voices, to make themselves strong as caryatides, prepared to bear together each the hundredth part of our Renaissance.
(The Road to the Temple, pp. 172—3)
O’Neill later described Cook, in words equally applicable to himself, as representing the ‘spirit of revolt against the old worn-out traditions, the commercial theatre, the tawdry artificialities of the stage’ (Alexander, Tempering of Eugene O’Neill, p. 224).
Cook’s idea that, ‘There ought to be one theatre for American writers to play with– one where, if the spirit move them, they can give plays which are not likely to be produced elsewhere’ (Glaspell, Road to the Temple, p. 202), distinguished the Provincetown Players from other independent companies and made their alliance with O’Neill particularly fortunate for both. When Cook closed the theatre in 1921, because the Players were losing their amateur spirit and their best writer was looking increasingly to professional productions of his plays, ninety-three plays by forty-seven American playwrights had been produced, although Cook was the first to admit that most of these had been mediocre. Susan Glaspell lets us glimpse the kind of freedom and encouragement her husband’s theatre must have given O’Neill:
The people who had seen the plays and the people who gave them, were adventurers together. The spectators were part of the Players, for how could it have been done without the feeling that it came from them, without the sense of them there, waiting, ready to share, giving — finding the deep level where audience and writer and player are one.
James Herne, by contrast, had had to wait four years to find a manager willing to risk a full production of his modest play, Shore Acres.
The importance of such freedom to O’Neill cannot be stressed too much. Because of the new environment his plays found an audience, whilst his meeting with others who respected his work and shared his rejection of the commercial theatre, encouraged him to assume a public role as a missionary dramatist. The effect of suddenly finding himself part of a community was personally and artistically invigorating. His enthusiasm often bubbles up in his letters: he expresses his gratitude to Nathan and Mencken for having given him ‘many a boost in spirit’ (to Clark, 30 April 1919), thanks Macgowan for understanding his work, saying ‘you cannot know how much it means to me’ (9 August 1921), and tells Clark how eager he is that the critic should read his latest play (8 June 1919). In 1940, he recalled that his own company, The Provincetown Players, had had ‘true integrity and courage and high purpose and enthusiasm’ and so had been able to give him ‘a theatre in which I knew I belonged, one of guts and idealism’ (to Macgowan, 29 November 1940). The first two decades of O’Neill’s writing life were a period of astonishing fertility in American letters generally, and the independent theatre movement made it possible for changes to take place in the public and collaborative art of theatre as well as in the more private literary forms of poetry and the novel.
But, whilst it might look as though O’Neill’s relationship with the Provincetown Players was comparable with that of Chekhov with the Moscow Art Theatre, Strindberg with the Intimate Theatre or Yeats with the Abbey Players, the difference in place and time, in fact, led to somewhat different problems. Because the independent theatres in
America grew in response to a wide range of events and ideas from Europe, O’Neill’s colleagues — directors, designers, audiences — approached the drama with their own preconceptions of what was needed.
O’Neill’s idea of theatre
O’Neill’s own reading and early theatre experience led him to certain masters: first Shaw and then Zola, Ibsen and Strindberg. No coherent theory of drama is developed in O’Neill’s non-dramatic writing, but reference to his letters and notes does show us the tendency of his thought and indicates that there is an underlying direction in his seemingly erratic experiments. The ideas and practice of these nineteenth-century writers, which suggested the possibility of a quite different kind of drama from that with which O’Neill was so familiar seem to have been absorbed by him and to have given shape to his amorphous feelings of discontent and aspiration.
Shaw’s Quintessence of Ibsenism, one of the first books O’Neill bought, is singled out for praise by the hero of Ah, Wilderness! and, although O’Neill rarely marked his books, passages of his copy of Shaw’s essay are heavily underlined. Although O’Neill’s response to Shaw’s ideas was subsequently modified and elaborated by his encounter with Ibsen’s work and, later, Zola’s and Strindberg’s, we often catch direct echoes of Shaw when O’Neill formulates his idea of drama. In 1924, for example, O’Neill talked about the capacity of truthfully depicted life to stir unusual depths of human compassion in the audience:
I do not write with a premeditated purpose. I write of life as I see it ... As it exists for many of us. If people leave the theatre after one of my plays with a feeling of compassion for those less fortunate than they I am satisfied . There are those who have not been touched by misery. They may well suffer by proxy for a few hours in the theatre. It will do them good. It will have a humanising effect.
The idea recurs in Shaw’s Prefaces. It is stated life this in The Quintessence:
changes in technique follow inevitably from changes in the subject matter of the play. When a dramatic poet can give you hope and visions, such old maxims as that stagecraft is the art of preparation become boyish, and may be left to those unfortunate playwrights who, being unable to make anything interesting happen on the stage, have to acquire the art of continually persuading the audience that it is going to happen presently. When he can stab people to the heart by showing them the meanness and cruelty of something they did yesterday and intend to do tomorrow, all the old tricks to catch and hold their attention become the silliest superfluities ... The writer who practises the art of Ibsen, therefore, discards all the old tricks of preparation, catastrophe, dénouement and so forth, without thinking about it ... indeed, he does not know the use of them.
(The Major Critical Essays, p. 145)
The notion of stylistic purity expressed here by Shaw is reiterated by O’Neill, the notion that if the subject matter is sufficiently pressing and deeply felt by the writer, then, the words will flow into their own form:
What I seek everywhere in life is drama. It’s what I instinctively seek — human beings in conflict with other human beings, with themselves, with fate ... I just set down what I feel in terms of life and let the facts speak whatever language they may to my audience.
(To Malcolm Mollan, 3 December 1921)
That Shaw’s separation of dramatic poets from ‘unfortunate playwrights’ dependent on ‘old tricks’ registered particularly deeply, is apparent in O’Neill’s letter of application for Professor Baker’s ‘Drama 47’ Playwriting course at Harvard, in which he wrote:
Although I have read all the modern plays I could lay my hands on and many books on the subject of drama, I realise how inadequate such a haphazard, undirected mode of study must necessarily be. With my present training I might hope to become a mediocre journeyman playwright. It is just because I want to be an artist or nothing that I am writing to you.
(Kinne, George Pierce Baker and the American Theatre, p. 193)
Baker’s book, Dramatic Technique (1919), essentially a collection of his lectures for the Harvard course, offers a clue to why after his initial enthusiasm O’Neill did not complete the course. Baker’s watchword is ‘plot’; his method, the imitative exercise, and, final sign that the book is aimed at journeymen, he draws his examples indiscriminately from Pinero and Shakespeare, Dumas fils and Ibsen.
O’Neill by-passed the awkward scientific naturalism in Zola’s Le Roman Experimental, and responded instead to his passionate rejection of current stage practices; his emphasis on the joy of artistic creation; his rejection of formulaic plays, which make of drama ‘une spéculation intellectuelle, un art d’équilibre et de symétrie, réglé d’après un certain code’ (p. 155) [an intellectual game, an art of balancing and symmetry, governed by a particular code], and his claim that the use of a priori structures prevents the dramatist from opening his mind to new and unexpected images. Zola writes:
Je n’ai pas de gout pour l’horlogerie, et j’en ai beaucoup pour la vérité. Oui, en effet, cela est d’un joli mécanisme. Mais je voudrais que cela fut d’une vie superbe, je voudrais la vie, avec son frisson, avec sa largeur, avec sa puissance; je voudrais toute la vie.
[I have no taste for clockwork, and I do have a great liking for the truth. That machinery is pretty enough, certainly. But what I would like is that it should partake of the magnificence of life itself, life with its quivering excitement, its breadth, its power: I would like it to have the completeness of life.]
The word ‘truth’ reverberates through O’Neill’s commentary as do ‘vrai’ and ‘la vérité through Zola’s. O’Neill admired Gorki’s Night’s Lodging because ‘it simply shows humanity as it is – truth in terms of human life’; he said that he had sought in Ah, Wilderness! ‘an exact evocation of the mood of the dead past’ (my italics); of Diff’rent he wrote, ‘whatever its faults may be [it] has the virtue of sincerity. It is the truth, the inevitable truth of the lives of the people in it as I see and know them’, and he described having rejected a tragic ending to Anna Christie in favour of a wry, anti-heroic one because, having ‘looked deep into the hearts’ of his characters, he had concluded that it ‘would not have been true, they were not that kind’.
When O’Neill uses the word ‘truth’ he seems to mean that general statements about human life can only be made convincingly when they are not made at all but are implicit in the actions of individuals portrayed with as little artifice as possible. ‘Life’ must be experienced ‘in terms of lives’. But lives penetrated, not merely reflected through a detailing of surfaces.
The aim of realism, in so far as it was a movement with identifiable aims in the nineteenth century, was to give an objective representation of real life, through the recording of everyday details. In part, and even by Zola, the term has been used interchangeably with ‘naturalism’ but it would seem useful to retain that term for the body of ideas, stemming from Zola’s newspaper articles but most accessible in his ‘Naturalisme au Théâtre’, which claimed that literary works, besides being set in our own time and place with characters speaking a dialogue identifiable with our own speech, should have a philosophical basis in Darwinism and demonstrate the evolutionary laws in action: the strong subduing the weak, inherited characteristics showing themselves, genetics dominating the life process. Naturalism was a theory and, as such, was never wholly embodied in any vital work of art, although it underlay a host of minor works played at Antoine’s Théâtre Libre in
Paris, in the late 1880s, and at the Freie Buhne in , and it was clearly in Strindberg’s mind when he wrote Lady Julie. ‘Realism’ is a more chameleon term. Germany
Immediately we must ask what ‘real life’ is, what ‘reality’, what the ‘telling detail’. Even where the writer eschews overt symbols, mythical figures, otherworldly scenes and happenings, the elements of the visible world must still be selected and the audience will always be aware that an organizing consciousness has put the piece together. Arno Holz’ Die Familie Selicke, for example, is often taken as a prime piece of objectively observed reality, and yet, even Holz interprets and shapes his material; the extreme sordidness of the setting is deliberately selected by him, and the plot is consciously developed to present man as the toy of circumstance. Even when the subjectivity of any piece of writing is admitted, other questions remain about what the real is. Is it the physical, observable world, or is that appearance which merely masks reality? Or does artistic realism rather lie in recognition of the devices and artifices of the medium itself? Which is the more realistic, Courbet, Manet, or Gauguin? Is the ordered development of the action in the Rougon-Macquart novels of Zola more lifelike than the unsequential happenings in a novel by Robbe-Griliet?
O’Neill derived one of his guiding principles from Strindberg. This is the idea that, at certain moments, we experience ourselves and others more sharply and that the dramatist who wants to penetrate human existence should seek out such moments and portray them on the stage. Strindberg wrote in 1889:
In the new naturalistic drama a striving for the significant motif was felt at once. Therefore, the action was usually centred around life’s two poles, life and death, the act of birth and the act of death, the fight for the spouse, for the means of subsistence, for honour, all these struggles — with their battlefields, cries of woe, wounded and dead — during which one heard the new philosophy of life conceived as a struggle, blow its fertile winds from the south.
In all O’Neill’s discussion of Strindberg’s drama, he searches for words to express his sense of its being at once realistic and capable of going more deeply than other contemporary work into the meaning and mystery of life. They were ‘behind life’ plays, in which Strindberg ‘intensified the method of his time’, interpreting in dramatic terms the ‘characteristic conflicts which constitute the drama – the blood – of our lives today’. If other plays are ‘naturalistic’, then a play of such ‘poignant intensity’ as The Dance of Death must be classified as ‘super- naturalism’. Of his own play, Welded, O’Neill said:
I want to write a play that is truly realistic. That term is used loosely on the stage, where most of the so-called realistic plays deal only with the appearance of things, while a truly realistic play deals with what might be called the soul of the character. It deals with a thing which makes the character that person and no other. Strindberg’s Dance of Death is an example of that real realism.
The term ‘supernaturalism’, or, more usefully, ‘real realism’ is one to hold on to in thinking about O’Neill’s own method. It proclaims both his dissatisfaction with the mere presentation of the everyday incident – ‘naive realism’, perhaps? – and his clear need to root his plays in a recognizable time and place and to create identifiably human characters. It makes a necessary distinction between the plays of the great nineteenth-century dramatists and those of their imitators. The adjectives – ‘super’; ‘real’ – suggest extraordinary intensity: looking at a man’s face but seeing his psychological or metaphysical being; hearing his seemingly casual words and understanding their implications for himself and his relationships with his interlocutor.
When we investigate O’Neill’s experimentation with a succession of anti-realistic devices, then, we need to recognize that, in part, the experimentation arises from the dramatist’s search for ways of creating ‘real realism’ on the stage. Although, we must recognize, too, that it also arises from O’Neill’s sheer excitement about the new theatrical methods, which gave life to the whole independent theatre movement. O’Neill was a questing artist and he was an artist of his time.
The separation of form and content
In a letter which has frequently been quoted as indicating his sureness of purpose, O’Neill wrote:
To be called a ‘sordid realist’ one day, a ‘grim pessimistic Naturalist’ the next, a ‘lying Moral Romanticist’ the next, is quite perplexing ... so I’m longing to complain and try to convince some sympathetic ear that I’ve tried to make myself a melting pot for all these methods seeing some virtues for my ends in each type of them, and, thereby, if there is any real fire in me, boil down to my own technique.
(To Quinn, published Quinn, History of American Drama, p. 199)
The words might equally be taken as an indication of the isolation and rootlessness in face of the rich range of possibilities offered by the European drama, of a writer in that time and place, anxious to find his own voice. This is even more apparent in a comment O’Neill made about The Hairy Ape:
I don’t think the play as a whole can be fitted into any of the current ‘isms’. It seems to run the whole gamut from extreme naturalism to extreme expressionism with more of the latter than the former. I have tried to dig deep in it, to probe in the shadows of the soul of man bewildered by the disharmony of his primitive pride and individualism at war with the mechanistic development of society ... Suffice it to add, the treatment of all the sets should be expressionistic, I think.
(To Macgowan, 24 December 1921)
Seeking for ways of intensifying the effect of his meaning, of creating a ‘real realism’ of his own, O’Neill looks to the most recent European drama as to a treasure house from which to draw suggestive devices. Each mode, forged by other writers as the only and inevitable means of probing and presenting experience, becomes an ‘ism’ for O’Neill. But at this stage he rarely manages to fuse the diverse elements of his play into a dramatic unity and often his enthusiasm for a particular device means that his use of it distorts rather than supports his meaning.
An example is O’Neill’s use of masks. Symbolic significance accrues to a mask which hangs on the wall in All God’s Chillun Got Wings and the phantasmagoric with doctor of The Emperor Jones is masked, but O’Neill’s real interested in masks comes with the middle plays. There are masked characters in Lazarus Laughed, The Great God Brown and Days Without End and O’Neill chose to discuss masks in the three articles he wrote for The American Spectator, of which he was briefly co-editor. Attention had been drawn to the typifying and ritualistic functions of masks in other cultures by the newly fashion-able study of anthropology. Masks of the oriental theatre and possible European variations were discussed and illustrated in Craig’s publication. The Mask, to which O’Neill occasionally subscribed, and in The Theatre Arts Magazine William Zorach, the Provincetown’s designer, had ‘a rate book ... which contained photographs of African woodcarvings and masks’ (Gelbs, p. 439), and Kenneth Macgowan, O’Neill’s friend, had collaborated with Herman Rosse on the book Masks and Demons. In The Theatre of Tomorrow, his first book, Macgowan had written that masks:
involve a certain strange and enthralling sense of the mystic quality of the theatre, of art commanding life and of life springing from art. They take a more natural place in these theatres, where realistic illusion is of necessity banned. One can conceive of a drama of group beings in which great individuals, around whom these groups coalesce, could be fitly presented only under the impersonal and eternal aspect of the mask.
O’Neill’s articles begin conventionally enough, with a discussion of the masks of the Japanese Noh, the Chinese theatre and African primitive ritual. After describing Robert Edmond Jones’ masks for Stravinski’s Oedipus, O’Neill suggests a masked Hamlet, saying that this would reduce the individuality of the central character and make of him ‘a symbolic projection of a fate that is in each of us’. But as soon as he discusses his own use of masks, the emphasis changes. He says: ‘One’s outer life passes in a solitude haunted by the masks of others; one’s inner life passes in a solitude hounded by the masks of oneself’, and asks, ‘What, at bottom, is the new psychological insight into human cause and effect but a study in masks, an exercise in unmasking?’ The masks his characters wear represent the generalization by which other people recognize and misunderstand them, and attention is focused on what lies behind the mask. Their removal signifies the penetration by the audience to a deeper level of reality. The face shows the hidden and often confused self. But, in the plays, this psychological function of masks is overlaid by one which approximates more closely to the traditional one.
In Lazarus Laughed, the central figures wear half masks which permit mask and face and the conflict between them to be shown simultaneously, thus avoiding the awkward donning and doffing which had been both irritating and confusing in The Great God Brown. But the chorus wear full masks, and speak as Roman Soldiers or Old Men, Bereaved Women or joyful Followers of Dionysus. There are no individuals amongst them. Rather, that they might symbolize all mankind, O’Neill plans that each mask should combine one of seven racial types with one of the seven ages of man and one of seven character types. The table reproduced in illustration I, in which O’Neill plotted the distribution, shows how complicated his scheme was, and how confusing it would have been for an audience who, without benefit of O’Neill’s tables and stage directions, would have been faced with a huge assortment of masks which fulfilled two quite distinct functions. Equally confusing is the method of The Great God Brown, where masked characters occasionally become type figures – Dion speaks as The Artist, Cybel as The Prophetess, as their very names imply – and the unmasked face is momentarily less personal than the masked.
The experiment with masks shows how influential the theory of the new stagecraft was on O’Neill but, more importantly, it demonstrates his own underlying, dogged independence. It is the language and the enthusiasm of the new stagecraft and not its theoretical substance which O’Neill takes here. In adopting the accoutrements but not the fundamental ideas of the anti-realistic theatre, O’Neill created problems of coherence for his own plays, even whilst acting as a source of new vigour and openness in American drama, and being himself responsible for the spread of avant-garde ideas beyond
Greenwich Village. For the devices and experiments with form were what drew excited attention to each new O’Neill play. Looking back to the period, Lionel Trilling has recalled that:
To the audience of the Twenties, however, it was O’Neill’s style rather than the content of his plays that was of first importance. Style, indeed, was sufficient content: the language of Anna Christie, the crude colour, the drum-beats and the phantasmagoria of The Emperor Jones, the engine rhythms, the masks, the ballet movements of The Hairy Ape, all constituted a denial of the neat proprieties, all spoke of a life more colourful and terrible than the American theatre had ever thought of representing. It was at first the mere technical inventiveness of Eugene O’Neill, his daring subjects and language which caught the public imagination.
Kenneth Macgowan, in his book Continental Stagecraft (1922), welcomed The Hairy Ape as a ‘star-like gleam’ in which O’Neill said ‘Nay to realism’ (pp. 37-8), even though O’Neill himself always stressed that, in this play, he had sought to probe the human condition through the exploration of an individual soul.
Several commentators have attributed O’Neill’s anti-realism in the 1920s to the influence on him of Kenneth Macgowan, but we have seen enough of the milieu to realise that O’Neill’s situation was much more complicated than this. Indeed, it seems from Macgowan’s early reviews for The Globe that he became conscious of new ideas in drama, largely as a result of seeing O’Neill’s experimental plays, and throughout their association, it was O’Neill who recommended new plays to Macgowan and insisted on the importance of experiment in their own productions.’ Certainly, both Macgowan and Robert Edmond Jones, the third co-director of The Experimental Theatre (1923-7), were advocates of the new stagecraft. Jones had created the first expressionist set in America for his production of He Who Married A Dull Wife in 1915 and had travelled to Europe to study the experimental theatres there, after which he collaborated with Macgowan on the locally influential book, Continental Stagecraft (1922), in which the effects to be achieved by screens, symbolist settings, imaginative lighting and different kinds of stage, were illustrated and discussed. O’Neill wrote to Macgowan of his plans for The Fountain:
I have asked Bobby Jones to suggest reading to me ... He could tell me just how the thing appeared to him from his angle — and we might combine. It would be an intensely interesting experiment, I believe, to work this thing out in harmony from our respective lines in the theatre — one not done before, as far as I know. For my part a clearer understanding of what he is striving for would be of inestimable value.
(18 March 1921)
Macgowan, in his first book, The Theatre of Tomorrow (1921), had attacked realism violently, even to the length of praising the historico-costume romances current in the commercial theatre. Ignoring the long record of such works in the American theatre, he greeted them histrionically saying, ‘the sun of realism sinks’ (p. 235). For most of the discussion he concerns himself with the writing of Fitch, Herne and the like, and gives scant attention to Ibsen, Strindberg or Chekhov. He does nod to ‘realism of the higher type’ to be found in ‘Ibsen at his best ... or our own O’Neill in portions of Beyond the Horizon’, but adds ‘we are rushing off to other lands’ in exploration of ‘the ultimate spiritual values’, forswearing the material and dramaturgy of realism (p. 224). Even realism of ‘the higher type’ is regarded as less spiritually valid than drama in which the figures are conventionalized and the dramatist thinks ‘more in terms of colour, design, movement, music than he does now, and less in words alone’ (p. 249). And yet, in O’Neill’s own theoretical writing, we find that, while he adopts Macgowan’s language, his ‘anti-realism’ is remark-ably close to that ‘higher type of realism’ Macgowan hoped to see transcended. So, a manuscript note amongst his papers for The Great God Brown, which begins:
Life in terms of life cannot reveal more to us than our own bewilderment. Life in terms of the theatre, as an art separate from the simulora of what we term reality may find expression in the great forces of which that reality is but a doughy symbol.... The theatre should be a refuge from the facts of life which we all feel, if we do not think, has nothing to do with the truth,
ends with an assertion of the importance of characterization:
The theatre should reveal to us what we are ... And if we have no Gods or heroes to portray we have the subconscious, the mother of all gods and heroes.
There is a striking example of the conflict within O’Neill in Desire Under the Elms. O’Neill’s sketches for the set are reproduced in illustration 2a beside a sketch by Yegoroff (illustration 2b) for a
production of Maeterlinck’s The Blue Bird. Consciously or unconsciously, O’Neill must have derived his plan from the sketch which was printed in both The Theatre Arts Magazine (volume 1) and The Theatre of Tomorrow, where Macgowan had noted that, ‘In Yegoroff’s land of memory ... the overhanging trees above the little cottage [stand] in silhouette like the calmly sorrowing figures of past generations.’” O’Neill replaces Yegoroff’s abstract, shadowy shapes with realistic images of trees but in his foreword insists on the anthropomorphic character of the elms: Moscow Art Theatre
Two enormous elms are on each side of the house ... there is a sinister maternity in their aspect, a crushing, jealous absorption. When the wind does not keep them astir, they develop from their intimate contact with the life of man in the house an appalling humaneness. They brood oppressively over the house, they are like exhausted women resting their sagging breasts and hands and hair on its roof, and when it rains their tears trickle down monotonously and rot on the shingles.
Certain choices must be made by the writer: is the object intended to be taken as it is represented or is it to be taken to represent something else, to be interpreted symbolically? The stage direction here suggests that O’Neill does intend his elms to have symbolic suggestiveness, but he clings to realistic representation, he deliberately removes the overtly symbolic qualities of Yegoroff’s design. The stage direction has frequently been quoted as evidence of O’Neill’s capacity to write good prose, but its success is entirely literary, not dramatic. As Ruby Cohn has pointed out, there is, for example, no rain in the play, so that what happens to the elms in rain can hardly be part of the audience’s imaginative response to the stage picture. O’Neill himself subsequently complained, ‘Has it ever been produced as I wrote it? Never! .. There have never been the elm trees of my play, characters almost’ (to Macgowan, August 1926), attributing to a failure of the mise en scene what was really his own failure to incorporate his idea of the symbolic significance of the elms into the structure of the play. He wants the audience to penetrate the realistic surface and respond to symbolic values but, at this stage in his writing, he gives no help in the dialogue or in the interaction between dialogue and set. The set, therefore, remains inert.
Never wholly at ease with anti-realistic means, O’Neill seems to have been most effective, in the early years, when he did retain the realistic surface, as in the set for Desire Under the Elms, but then improvised upon that basis with linguistic and scenic developments to create the necessary extra significance. Having set All God’s Chillun Got Wings in a realistic room, to give one simple scenic example, he created an impression of emotional claustrophobia by moving in the walls from scene to scene, so reducing the acting space on the stage. In The Emperor Jones, similarly, there is a credible reason for the offstage drumbeat, but its insistence and its quickening pace also have a structural significance in creating the emotional tension of the play.
O’Neill seems to have been impelled to try all forms from romance (The Fountain), to satire (Marco Millions), to the philosophical marionette play (Lazarus Laughed), and to attempt all kinds of dialogue from prose poetry to idiomatic speech, from patterned, choric chant to monologue, through which the stream of consciousness of individual characters might be presented. But if he seems sometimes to over-reach himself, sometimes to be confused in idea or method, those letters which I quoted at the beginning of this chapter (pp. 18-19) are a reminder that his ambition to encompass everything was frequently accompanied by scepticism about his achievement, his confusion, by wry self-recognition.
Towards the end of the 1920s, the strain of O’Neill’s pioneering role becomes apparent in his letters. He wrote to Robert Sisk about production plans for Mourning Becomes Electra:
As for bringing my next play in quietly, you might as well give up that dream. It can’t be done. I’ve had too much notoriety for too many years and Interlude topped all that and put me on a par with Peggy Hopkins! If I stopped producing for a number of years that would do it of course, but it’s hardly worth that abstinence ... But let’s hope they will discover another ‘best American dramatist’ this season! That would help in more ways than one. I have been setting the pace for the pack for ten years now – artistically speaking – and it’s gotten damn wearisome always breaking the wind. But such again is our dear Motherland. She will insist on ‘best’ this and ‘best’ thats.
(28 August 1930)
and in reply to praise from Dudley Nichols, he wrote:
one gets weary and bewildered among the broken rhythms of this time. One misses one’s beat and line of continuity, one gets the feeling of talking through a disconnected ‘phone, foolishly to oneself ... it’s the dream that I may sometime say what must be said as it must be said that keeps me going.
(29 May 1932)
Only four years after the letter to Sisk, O’Neill seems to have decided that his work was ‘worth that abstinence’. In 1933, after experiencing great difficulties with the writing of Days Without End, he wrote in the notebook in which he recorded his yearly work, as though aware that he had reached some kind of turning point: ‘Grand total 29 long plays, 24 one acters.’ The entry for the following year reads, ‘Near Breakdown from overwork ... six months compulsory rest.’ Although he continued to work after the production of Days Without End, he withdrew from participation in the theatre and no new play was offered for production until 1946, when his health had broken and his writing life had ended.
Until 1924, O’Neill may be characterized as a promising dramatist. The plays contain conflicting elements but, as I shall show in chapter 3, under the imaginative impulse of the discovery and investigation of new methods, O’Neill sometimes fuses form and meaning in exciting ways. After 1924, the effects of his public role are increasingly apparent. As the plays become more ambitious, the internal conflict can no longer be contained within an ingenious structure and an earnest intention, and the work begins to break up. The uncertainty of the art becomes apparent: the conception seems grandiose whilst the language becomes looser and less controlled. What is astonishing is that O’Neill is able to retrench, to struggle with his work in self-imposed silence, until he reaches the point where he is fully in control of the formal elements and has at the same time sifted his subject matter until his meanings are clear and compelling. We can trace many of the devices and themes of the earlier work in the late plays, but find that they are now used with subtlety and are integrated into the play. In performance, the audience, scarcely aware of the many elements composing the play, is gratified by the fullness and complexity of the action.