Eugene O’Neill, qtd. in Mullet (1922: 118, 120)
There are several reasons for the preeminence of Eugene O’Neill (1888–1953) as “the” twentieth-century American dramatist. His greatest works, Long Day’s Journey into Night and The Iceman Cometh (written between 1939 and 1941), continue to be performed to this day. During his lifetime he received three Pulitzer Prizes for Drama – Beyond the Horizon in 1920, Anna Christie in 1921, Strange Interlude in 1928 – and a fourth, Long Day’s Journey into Night, posthumously in 1956. In 1936 he became the only twentieth-century American dramatist awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was prominent during the 1920s and 1930s, writing nearly 50 plays. He examined the use of masks onstage, explored inner monologues, developed an American brand of expressionism, and firmly established American dramatic realism.
O’Neill brought to the stage a richness of detail and psychological depth rarely seen before in American drama. His dialogue was sensitive to regional and ethnic vernacular, and his three-dimensional characterizations have rarely been equaled. Few playwrights in American theatre have made use of their personal life – family, experiences, and inadequacies – with similar candor. O’Neill’s dramas explore his alcoholism, his life at sea, his father’s disappointments, his mother’s drug addiction, his brother’s suicide by alcohol, and his own shortcomings. His plays probe the American Dream, race relations, class conflicts, sexuality, human aspirations, disappointment, alienation, psychoanalysis, and the American family with a thoroughness and intensity at a level his contemporaries could barely contemplate. He wrote about the wealthy and the underclass with equal perception. His plays investigate modern relationships and the human frailties they conceal. During the late 1910s and early 1920s, his dramas anchored the repertory of the Provincetown Players, the theatre company led by George Cram “Jig” Cook and Susan Glaspell, which helped establish a place for American experimental dramas. During the 1920s and 1930s O’Neill wrote Broad-way melodramas that became the finest examples of American theatre of the period. His melodramas were atypical of the melodramas at the time, with their reliance on imminent catastrophe, vivid spectacle, graphic pyrotechnics, and a morally unambiguous landscape. Instead, his melodramas conveyed subtler intimacies, personal tragedies, and psychological complexities. Although his aims varied, O’Neill primarily sought to create a “modern American drama” that would, he hoped, rival the great works of European modernists such as Ibsen, Strindberg, and Shaw. The aim of this chapter is to examine selected O’Neill plays in light of their contribution to “modern American drama.”
By “modern American drama” I mean a period (ca. 1910 to 1945) during which American playwrights sought to overturn nineteenth-century formal constraints (sexual prudery and intolerance), Victorian melodramas (clichéd notions of morality and emphasis on suspense), and outdated styles of performance (vocal bombast and stage gimmickry). In place of the bland moral certainty that characterized the nineteenth-century drama, American dramatists of the modern era examined human (often sexual) relationships with ruthless candor, portraying moral ambivalence that challenged the status quo. Invigorated by August Strindberg’s theatre of psycho-logical nuance and dream-like symbolism, O’Neill, as well as other playwrights, forged a new kind of drama.
“American modernism” in general began at the turn of the century and rose to prominence during mid-century. It is defined by liberal values associated with free love, free speech, and, to a certain degree, political anarchy. In addition, there was a rejection of sentimentality that had been characteristic of American provincialism; advocacy of the suffragette movement and women’s rights; and commitment to uncovering the “truth” in the human condition. Modernism implied cosmopolitanism, reflecting an emergent urban life and its rising bohemianism (particularly
and its downtown artistic scene known as “ New York City Greenwich Village”). Modernism brought with it a sense of cultural leadership (the feeling that the participants were on the cutting edge of art and literature), and was marked by a determination to be politically and socially relevant to the working class. Along these lines, Christine Stansell, in her book American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century, writes:
In their determination to merge art and politics, the bohemians laid the groundwork for a liberal metropolitan elite committed as much to matters of cultural taste and innovation as to social reform. An attraction to modern, “revolutionary” and “political” art, jumbled together, would henceforth run through American culture, leading enlightened audiences and artists to advertise their solidarities with the “people” and see themselves, by virtue of the books they read, the art they admired, or the plays they attended, as subverting the status quo. (2000: 150)
What we encounter in O’Neill’s plays are a powerful psychological engagement, a focus on human relations, a commitment to deeply personal and emotional experiences, an expression of ideas, and an emphasis on authenticity over facade, which are the hallmarks of modernism. In his dramas, he says, audiences “listen to ideas absolutely opposed to their ordinary habits of thought – and applaud these ideas.” The appreciation of “ideas,” O’Neill adds, is due to the fact that audiences
have been appealed to through their emotions...and our emotions are a better guide than our thoughts. Our emotions are instinctive. They are the result not only of our individual experiences but of the experiences of the whole human race, back through all the ages. They are the deep undercurrent, whereas our thoughts are often only the small individual surface reactions. Truth usually goes deep. So it reaches you through your emotions. (Qtd. in Mullett 1922: 34)
There was no unifying feature one can identify in modern American drama; if anything might define it, it was experimentation. To be a modern American dramatist was to be an experimenter, often examining the features of theatricality, how they worked to convey emotion. O’Neill’s characters make use of masks (The Great God Brown, All God’s
Got Wings), talk directly to the audience and express their “true” feelings (Strange Interlude), explore class conflicts (The Hairy Ape), and address death, sexuality, guilt, and responsibility. Europeans – especially playwrights Ibsen and Strindberg, and Nietzsche’s philosophy – informed modern American dramatists. O’Neill, for instance, reported seeing Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler “ten successive nights” in his youth (Letters 1988b: 477) and made note of Strindberg and Nietzsche as having been influential (518). The Harlem Renaissance – the outpouring of African American literature, music, and drama during the 1920s (see chapter 7) – also influenced modern dramatists, prompting playwrights to write plays dealing with “Negro life”: O’Neill’s The Dreamy Kid in 1918 (produced in 1919), The Emperor Jones in 1920, and All God’s Chillun Got Wings in 1924, for example. In addition, the concept of “primitivism” took hold around the same time. Primitivism – a rejection of technology and a desire to return humanity to its raw, “natural” state – worked, in many ways, to oppose Harlem Renaissance artists seeking to negate any association between African Americans and “primitiveness.” Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis, as well as Nietzsche’s Dionysian philosophy of ritual and eternal recurrence, also played an important role in shaping O’Neill’s plays. O’Neill often became immersed in the modernist movements of his time and applied them to his dramas, thereby ensuringhis place as literary representative of modernism. Jordan Y. Miller and Winifred L. Frazer emphasize this point, noting that O’Neill’s “constant experimentation in form and style” during the period between the two World Wars “puzzled, delighted, and infuriated critics and public alike, prompting more than one bewildered reviewer, racing to as many as four O’Neill openings within a single season, to cry ‘Hold, enough!’ in an effort to persuade this overenthusiastic artist to slow down, to determine just who he was, and above all, to find some consistent pattern for his artistry” (1997: 47). Chillan
Before O’Neill, American drama was largely either a European derivative of treacle melodrama or a hodgepodge of vaudeville, minstrelsy, and musicals. Few American plays were exported elsewhere; for the most part there was scant interest in
’s sub-par dramas. In 1928, drama critic George Jean Nathan confirmed that “Until Eugene O’Neill appeared upon the scene, the American drama offered little for the mature European interest” (94) (few exceptions were Anna Cora Mowatt’s 1845 comedy Fashion: or, Life in America , and adaptations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, both enjoying success in New York ). O’Neill transformed American drama into an internationally respected art. To be sure, he borrowed from European ideas, especially classical Greek tragedy and the dramas of Ibsen and Strindberg, but his plays were fashioned into the substance of an American idiom. London
O’Neill’s youthful restlessness motivated him to abandon his father’s moribund theatre world and his mother’s rigid Catholicism. His father was the well-known matinee idol James O’Neill, who gained fame during the late nineteenth century portraying the leading role in the stage adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo. While his father’s success yielded him a small fortune, he felt trapped in his role for most of his career. Traveling with his father on tours, O’Neill learned the theatre from the ground up, but he rebelled against his father’s tradition of bombastic acting and conventionality. His mother, Ella, a devout Irish Catholic, fell victim to a doctor’s over-prescribing of morphine resulting in drug addiction. O’Neill’s older brother, James, Jr., bright and charismatic, squandered his life as a Broadway ne’er-do-well and alcoholic. The O’Neill brothers shared a love-hate relationship with their father as well as a passionate and guilt-laden love for their mother. O’Neill loved his brother, but eventually recoiled from him owing to his brother’s toxic jealousy and cynicism.
O’Neill dropped out of
Princeton and sailed to on a merchant ship in 1910; he also drifted from gold prospecting to sailing. In 1912 he entered a sanatorium with tuberculosis. During his hospitalization, he reached an epiphany and was, according to a biographer, “determined to become a dramatist” (Gelb and Gelb 1973: 195). He took part in George Pierce Baker’s playwriting class at Harvard in 1914. With the help of his father, he published his first collection of one-act plays in 1916. One of the most significant events in his life came when he joined the Provincetown Players, a group of radicals seeking to establish an alternative theatre to Broadway’s commercialism. From 1916 to 1920, O’Neill and Susan Glaspell became the Provincetown Players’ most successful playwrights. He wrote numerous one-act and full-length plays for them, many of which reflected his life at sea, his sexual relationships, his experience at the sanatorium (The Straw), and his flirtation with socialism (Thirst, Fog). Four in particular, written during this period – The Moon of the Caribbees, Bound East for Buenos Aires , The Long Voyage Home, and In the Zone – fall into the category of O’Neill’s sea plays (see chapter 5). Cardiff
O’Neill’s first Broadway success, Beyond the Horizon (1920), centers on the triangular relationship between two brothers, Robert and Andrew Mayo, and Ruth Atkins, a neighbor. At the beginning of this three-act play, Andrew (Andy) is in love with Ruth, while Robert confesses his desire for a world beyond the farm. Robert is bookish, frail, and poetic; Andy is sturdy and blunt. Andy is meant for the outdoor life, making him the logical heir to the family’s farm. In the opening scene, Robert confesses to Ruth his love for a world “beyond the horizon.” She is captivated by his eloquence and, while caught up in the moment, confesses her love of Robert. As a result, instead of Robert leaving the farm, Andy leaves, defeated and jealous. The rash decisions made by all three principals are catastrophic. Robert, in his ineptitude, tends the farm incompetently; Andy journeys to sea, but longs for Ruth and the farm; and Ruth grows cynical, realizing that it is Andy, not Robert, whom she truly loves. By the conclusion, Robert has fallen ill from overwork and melancholy, and Andy (having made a fortune in
South America) returns to visit his dying brother. While melodramatic, Beyond the Horizon investigates O’Neill’s fundamental themes: responsibility, guilt, redemption, impulsive desire, sibling rivalry, and the misplaced existential “dreamer.” Andy is a pragmatic yet cynical survivor. Robert is a dreamer in a world that has little use for poets.
In 1920, O’Neill also wrote The Emperor Jones. It was an overnight success at the Provincetown Players, premiering on November 1 (it later transferred uptown to Broadway). It introduced a major African American actor, Charles Gilpin, in the leading role of Brutus Jones (later to be replaced by Paul Robeson, who performed the role in
). Travis Bogard observes that the “technical excitement of the play, with its drums, its sustained monologue, its rapidly shifting settings framed into a single desperate action were almost blinding in their virtuosity and in their assurance of important theatrical things to come. Not only the literate American drama, but the American theatre came of age with this play” (1988: 134). The play is O’Neill’s first foray into expressionistic drama: divided into episodic scenes, it traces the mental deterioration of Brutus Jones. Jones is an African American con man who wrangles his way to rulership over “an island in the London West Indies as yet not self-determined by white marines.” Discovered to be a fraud, the people rise up and pursue him as a criminal. Jones eventually succumbs to madness and is killed.
The Hairy Ape (1922) is what O’Neill calls a “blend” of expressionism and naturalism (Letters 19886: 445). It portrays Yank, a coal stoker who labors on a steamship, yet yearns for life “above.” Yank is also a poet of sorts, expressing in rough language his physical prowess and lumpen-proletariat alienation. Because of his “ape-like” qualities, he is able to shovel coal at breakneck speed; because of Yank, the engines of the steamship (symbolizing modern machinery) possess an incessant rhythm. Yet he becomes lonely; spying women on the top deck, he seeks intimacy. Yank is intelligent but uneducated, a brute with a mind whose life in the bowels of a steamship is an allegorical hell. His language, a mixture of
Brooklyn dialect and working-class gusto, is filled with self-images of modern, industrial machismo. Yank’s existential question, “Where do I fit in?” (Letters 19886: 207), is a running motif for O’Neill’s characters. In the bowels of the ship, Yank is a necessity. But up top and among the bourgeoisie, he is a mere cog. Like Robert Mayo and Brutus Jones, he is destroyed by his inefficacy in a world that has no use for him. These characters are driven by what one O’Neill biographer calls the author’s own “questing spirit” as well as the feeling of “not ‘belonging’” (Sheaffer 1968: 481). Yank may be the force behind technology, but once his usefulness expires, he is just an “ape” (in fact, he dies in a cage alongside a primate). In the play modern technology is found wanting; it is the hand of progress, but crushes the humanity it is meant to serve.
Anna Christie (1922) returns to the themes of the sea O’Neill had explored in his early one-acts at
. The three principal characters, Chris Christopherson, a Swedish bargeman, his daughter, Anna Christie, and Mat Burke, a ship’s stoker, live along the wharf frequenting Johnny-the-Priest’s bar. Christopherson has abandoned his daughter for a life at sea; when she finds him, she hides her past life as a prostitute. During the play Mat appears, surviving a near-drowning accident thanks to the help of Anna and her father. Mat and Anna fall in love; Mat, however, is made aware of Anna’s past and is greatly disturbed. He must work through his traditional values in order to come to terms with their future. Anna Christie examines the conflicts of relationship that ensue, a theme O’Neill considers throughout his career. The play is significant for two other reasons: O’Neill refines his ongoing theme of the sea as a poetic metaphor, and, for the first time, he presents a strong female character. Anna is forceful, independent, and witty, able to hold her own in the rough-and-tumble world of prostitution and divvy bars. While the men in the play try to shelter her, she expresses her independence to both her father and her lover unabashedly: Provincetown
First thing is, I want to tell you two guys something. You was going on’s if one of you had got to own me. But nobody owns me, see? – ’cepting myself. I’ll do what I please and no man, I don’t give a hoot who he is, can tell me what to do! I ain’t asking either of you for a living. I can make it myself — one way or other. I’m my own boss. So put that in your pipe and smoke it! You and your orders! (Plays 1988a, vol. 1: 1007)
From the mid-to late 1920s to the early 1930s, O’Neill experimented with numerous dramatic ideas. He was concerned with relationships and the way character, or identity, formed. Influenced by August Strindberg’s The Father, Welded (1923) examines the intensified love between
, a writer, and Eleanor, an actress. Each is drawn to the other, yet their jealousies consume them. In their jealous rage they consider betrayal, only to find their desire for each other overwhelming. O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms (1924) also explores the extremity of passion, sin, and redemption. The triangular relationship in the play centers on Ephraim Cabot, his son Eben, and Abbie Putnam. Ephraim’s wife has died; he has taken in her place a young and robust woman, Abbie, as his new wife. Ephraim’s three sons, Eben as well as his two brothers Simeon and Peter, look upon the relationship with suspicion. However, Abbie and Eben fall in love and have a child. Guilt drives them both mad, with Abbie ultimately killing the child. Though he is innocent, Eben agrees to admit to the murder as well. His feelings of guilt motivate him to come to terms with his sins and betrayal of his father. Michael Cape
O’Neill continued to experiment throughout the 1920s, examining in particular the concept of masks. All God’s Chillun Got Wings (1924), The Great God Brown (1926), Marco Millions (1928), and Lazarus Laughed (1928; see chapter 13) make use of stage masks in varying ways. In his essay “Memoranda on Masks,” O’Neill refers to masks as the “freest solution of the modernist dramatist’s problem as to how – with the greatest possible dramatic clarity and economy of means – he can express those profound hidden conflicts of the mind which the probings of psychology continue to disclose to us” (19326: 65). Eugene M. Waith put it succinctly when he said that for O’Neill the “mask was a way of getting at the inner reality of character,” yielding the “concealment and discovery” that enhances dramatic possibilities (1964: 30). Not only does The Great God Brown explore masks, it also focuses on the cynicism resulting from materialism. The play examines the relationship between college roommates William Brown and Dion Anthony, the former a conservative businessman and the latter a talented but self-destructive architect. Both love Margaret, with Dion marrying her. During the play, Dion’s debauchery leads to his death. Brown assumes his identity by literally taking up his mask. In an essay titled “The Playwright Explains,” O’Neill describes the character of Brown as representing “the visionless demigod of our new materialistic myth – a Success – building his life of exterior things, inwardly empty and resourceless, an uncreative creature of superficial preordained social grooves, a by-product forced aside into the slack waters by the deep main current of life-desire” (1926: 1).
During the late 1920s, O’Neill turned his attention to an alternative “form” of masking. In Strange Interlude (1928), O’Neill’s purpose was “to dramatize inner language by means of novelistic thought-asides” (Eisen 1994: 106). Characters function on two levels: on the surface they speak to each other through dialogue; on a deeper level, they speak monologues to the audience that express their internal thoughts, thoughts kept hidden from the other characters, somewhat like filmic “voiceovers” (Murphy 1999: 297). O’Neill explored new ideas emerging from the current psychology, using the surface language to “mask” or disguise the inner language of motivation and sexual desires. In the play, three men love one woman, Nina Leeds. Charles Marsden, an introverted professor, loves her platonically; Edmund Darrell, a doctor, has a physical passion for her; while Sam Evans, a plain, straightforward man, ends up marrying her and becoming a successful businessman. The play takes place over a 20-year period and unfolds in nine acts.
In Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), O’Neill explores Greek tragedy, attempting to modernize it. The play is based on Aeschylus’s trilogy The Oresteia (though it is closer to Sophocles’s Electra than to Aeschylus’s plays). In a 1931 letter to drama critic Brooks Atkinson, O’Neill wrote, “Greek criticism is as remote from us as the art it criticizes. What we need is a definition of Modern and not Classical Tragedy by which to guide our judgments” (Letters 19886: 390). The play (a trilogy of three plays) examines a post-Civil War Northern family. In the first play, Brigadier General Ezra Mannon returns home only to be murdered by his wife, Christine, for his infidelity and her passion for another man. The remaining two plays concern the revenge of the daughter, Lavinia, and her brother, Orin. Revenge is the motivation, but guilt consumes the characters.
Following his attempt at comedy (Ah Wilderness! in 1933) and a play about Catholicism (Days Without End in 1934), from 1935 to 1939 O’Neill turned his attention to an 11-play cycle titled A Tale of Possessions Self-Possessed. Although never completed, the aim of the cycle was to portray two American families, “
” and “Melody,” depicting how they fall victim to corruption and greed (see Gallup 1998 and Bower 1992 for details). O’Neill called A Touch of the Poet “an Irish play,” although “located in Hartford New England in 1828.” It is, in his words, “the only one of the four cycle plays I had written which approached final form” (Letters 1988b: 546). However, only two plays have survived fully formed: A Touch of the Poet and More Stately Mansions.
From 1939 until the end of his writing career in 1943 (illness overcame him during the last decade of his life), O’Neill wrote four plays: The Iceman Cometh, Long Day’s Journey into Night, A Moon for the Misbegotten, and the one-act Hughie. In a 1941 letter to his son, O’Neill wrote that Long Day’s Journey into Night and The Iceman Cometh “will rank among the finest things I’ve ever done” (Letters 19886: 517). All four were produced after World War II (Long Day’s Journey into Night and Hughie posthumously), though none was enthusiastically received when it first appeared.
In The Iceman Cometh the large cast of characters presents a formidable challenge. But the details of each character and the complex relationships they create make this one of the most poignant plays in American drama. It takes place over 24 hours in Harry Hope’s bar for down-and-outers in 1912. Events revolve around Harry’s birthday; but the real excitement derives from the fact that every year, in honor of Hope’s celebration, Theodore Hickman (“Hickey”) arrives flush with cash and ready to “blow it” on the whores, losers, and drunkards who fill the bar (which is also a rooming house and an occasional whorehouse). Hickey’s periodic appearances provide the high point for the bar regulars, because he spends money, knows how to have a good time, and drinks himself into a stupor. But he differs from the “regulars” in that, unlike them, he maintains a bourgeois life on the outside, complete with wife Evelyn, a steady salesman job, and temperance while working. Only with his friends at Harry Hope’s bar does Hickey binge, eschewing his middle-class trappings and enjoying his bacchanal. However, something has changed.
Hickey arrives “on the wagon.” He comes not to raise hell, swap stories, cheat on his wife, and drink. Instead, he has an objective: to strip away the “pipe dreams” from the bar’s patrons. Hickey has “seen the light,” ridding himself of any false pretense. While he pays for the booze, food, and necessities for the party, he turns a bright light on their delusions. Hickey explains:
The only reason I’ve quit [drinking] is – Well, I had the guts to face myself and throw overboard the damned lying pipe dream that’d been making me miserable, and do what I had to do for the happiness of all concerned – and then all at once I found I was at peace with myself and I didn’t need booze anymore. That’s all there was to it. (Plays 1988a, vol. 3: 609)
Hickey wants to promote redemption. Throughout the play he dismantles the “pipe dream,” the false hope that someday these alcoholics might end their debauching and wend their way back to “respectability.” Hickey is well equipped for this task; he is a superb salesman, a maestro of hawking, a mountebank who lives by charm, wit, and guile. But he comes with a hidden agenda, one that is slowly revealed as the play unfolds.
The bar’s combustible chemistry of alcoholic losers and ill-assorted “pipe dreamers” oscillates between sentimental melancholy and volatility. The characters carry the illusion of someday resuming the careers they have squandered. From the beginning it is evident that the “pipe dream” is a boozy delusion; but O’Neill makes the point that these delusions are necessary “masks” worn by everyone, one way or another. The alcohol provides the defense needed to “hold the real at bay” (Bigsby 2000: 20), but the “pipe dream” provides the illusion that these characters have free will. The “pipe dream” mask, propped up by alcoholic brio, is worn to bolster self-confidence.
Hickey arrives and the first thing he does is chip away at their delusional masks. He is determined to make the bar patrons face the truth. Hickey, a drummer salesman, promises redemption – what he calls “peace” – if only they drop the “pipe dream.” Hickey, however, has his own demons: he murdered his wife. After each incident of infidelity and carousing, Hickey returned to his wife Evelyn begging forgiveness. She forgives every time. The cycle of sin and forgiveness drives him mad; he finally breaks the cycle by murdering her. He can no longer tolerate his guilt. Hickey, knowing he will be caught and tried for the murder of his wife, also wants to plead insanity, and is using his performance of “sobering up” the bar regulars to demonstrate, and make the case for, his madness.
Hickey’s performance, therefore, is both a deep investigation into the nature of guilt and irresponsibility driven to madness, and a “performance” of madness as well. Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, who feigns madness and is going mad simultaneously, Hickey moves from pretense to guilt and back to pretense. Like Hamlet, the ambiguity in Hickey’s performance creates twin levels of perception. One of the main distinguishing features of modernism in American drama has been the unresolved and polarized extremes of values between actors “performing” the theatrical pretense and actors portraying the realistic actuality of their character’s life. The combination of fakery and verismo, stylized theatrics (Hickey’s sales pitch to convince everyone of his insanity) and realism (Stanislayskian authenticity) creates a duality in Iceman. The play is paradigmatic of the modernist simultaneity of “theatre as pre-tense” and the portrayal of psychological actuality.
The concept of the “pipe dream” also infuses the idea of performing with additional conflict. The outward presentation of a false notion that one can overcome fate and transform oneself is an illusion that parallels theatrical illusion. O’Neill’s psychological biographer, Stephen A. Black, makes the point that the pipe dream in Iceman Cometh “is the development of the ego defenses that allows a person to live what is called ordinary life.” The ego, Black contends, “functions to let us distinguish what is as we say out there from what is in here,” thus confining the terrors of failure to our private world (1999: 428). But the defensiveness of the pipe dream is also an “act,” an outward “mask” shared with the world. O’Neill was keen on using the notion of defense mechanisms as masking theatrical devices. Denial is a “dramatic action” requiring gesture, voice, movement, and conviction, all requirements for performance. The characters in Hope’s bar are forced to confront their blustery denials; Hickey’s insistence that they drop the pretense and face their demons unequivocally places their denials (their masks) in conflict with the “truth” as Hickey sees it.
But the play is about more than Hickey’s guilt and desire for redemption, or realistic and non-realistic representation. Larry Slade, the philosopher drunk, and Don Parritt, the young radical who has betrayed the anarchist movement, are among the characters that, like Hickey and the rest, hide their deeper feelings. At the beginning of the play Parritt arrives seeking Larry (who he suspects is his father), in order to gain permission to commit suicide. As the play unfolds, we discover that Parritt turned in other radicals, including his own mother, to the police. He is now guilt-ridden. Parritt shares with Hickey a desire for peace. Parritt and Hickey experience parallel feelings shared by O’Neill and his older brother: Parritt and Hickey feel they have failed the women in their lives (Parritt his mother, Hickey his wife), while the O’Neill brothers shared mutual guilt over their own inadequacies toward their mother.
In Hughie, which takes place in a hotel lobby,
, the petty con artist, is “setting up” the night clerk for a scam in the same way that he “set up” the recently deceased Hughie (the prior night clerk). Using his wit, gift of gab, and salesmanship, Erie Erie resembles O’Neill’s older brother Jamie (as well as Hickey); has bravado, guile, charm, and little else. O’Neill was often impressed by those, like his brother, who “put on the act”: the blarney, the mountebank, the snake-oil salesman ready with a tall-tale and a glad hand. Within these characters are insecurity, fear of failure, and guilt. This dual characterization – charm on the outside, self-deprecation on the inside – epitomized many of O’Neill’s characters. Erie
A “play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood,” Long Day’s Journey into Night was offered to O’Neill’s publisher, Bennet Cerf at Random House, with the understanding it would not be published until “twenty-five years after my death” (Letters 1988b: 575, 589), the motive here being painful truths concerning O’Neill’s family (the play was produced in Stockholm in 1956, three years after O’Neill’s death, by permission of O’Neill’s wife and estate guardian, Carlotta). The play is set against a sunny morning (Act 1) and a hazy afternoon (Act 2); in Act 3 a thick fog descends, while in Act 4 nightfall encompasses the stage. By the end of the “long day’s journey into night,” the characters have been drinking and, in the case of their mother, doping heavily. The fog is symbolic, signifying the haze of inebriation, the spiritual descent into purgatory, and the aimless upheaval in the lives of the Tyrone family (a family mirroring O’Neill’s own). In a 1940 letter to George Jean Nathan, O’Neill wrote that Long Day’s Journey into Night is:
The story of one day, 8 A.M. to midnight, in the life of a family of four – father, mother, and two sons – back in 1912, – a day in which things occur which evoke the whole past of the family and reveal every aspect of its interrelationships. A deeply tragic play, but without any violent tragic action. At the final curtain, there they still are, trapped within each other by the past, each guilty and at the same time innocent, scorning, loving, pitying each other, understanding and yet not understanding at all, forgiving but still doomed never to be able to forger. (Letters 19886: 506–7)
This “confessional” play is O’Neill’s mourning and homage to his self-destructive family. The plot is simple: the four main characters discover that the youngest son has consumption and must be sent to a sanatorium, and the mother, Mary Tyrone, has returned to her drug addiction. Throughout the course of the play the four characters confront the conflicts between responsibility to family and hedonism. Guilt arises stemming from selfishness and irresponsibility. James, the father, a successful actor trapped in a role, parsimoniously holds the family fortune. He invests in reckless land schemes for his own amusement but fails to provide well for his wife. Their home in
is comfortable but modest. We discover that James’s penny-pinching caused him to hire a “quack” doctor for his pregnant wife. The “quack” over-prescribed morphine resulting in her addiction. Mary, caught up in her cycle of morphine, exits the stage frequently to shoot up in the attic (the others hear her nightly footsteps traipsing about in the attic, which has come to mean she is back on dope). Despite her efforts, she fails to conceal her condition. James, Jr., the older son and an alcoholic gadfly, frequents the company of Broadway show girls and whore-houses. His mother blames him for the death of their second (middle) child: Jamie, sick with a fever, was warned not to enter his younger brother’s bedroom. Ignoring the warnings, he enters the room and infects his brother. The second son dies, and Mary never lets Jamie forget it (this event, as well as most of the play, reflected events in O’Neill’s own life). By his mid-thirties, Jamie is racked with guilt and showing debilitation from debauchery. During Mary’s difficult third pregnancy (where she became ill and addicted), Edmund (surrogate for O’Neill himself) is born. At the opening of the play, Edmund has returned home from a brief career as merchant sailor and newspaper reporter (like O’Neill himself). The reason for his return is a nagging cough, which turns out to be tuberculosis. Connecticut
The play deals with dependency, separation anxiety (Edmund must go away to the sanatorium, and Mary drifts into her morphine-induced inebriation), guilt, and redemption. Characters hurl accusations at each other for their shortcomings and irresponsibility; yet they remain bound together. According to Joel Phister, Long Day’s Journey into Night epitomizes the “Irish tragic sense of determinism coupled with contemporary psychologists’ pronouncements about familial determinism that partly sparks O’Neill’s fascination with the ‘can’t help it’ psychological resignation of the confessional Tyrones” (1995: 30). Looked at another way, O’Neill wanted to convey determinism in a modern idiom (destiny) that coincides with that found in Greek tragedy; characters are swept up by a fate that derails their free will, while audiences observe how the characters attempt to reverse the inevitable. In the play, O’Neill asserts that free will and the capacity to triumph over adversity are – in light of lingering human bonds, memory, and intractable destiny – largely illusions. The play is a melodrama, but it is far removed from the typical melodramatic assurances that a broken world can be repaired, if not by personal initiative then by redemptive insights. O’Neill’s play, following the spirit of Nietzschean eternal recurrence, leaves us at the end where we began, in a tragic world that can be endured but never overcome.
Moon for the Misbegotten is O’Neill’s final play. In contrast to the characters in The Iceman Cometh and Long Days Journey into Night, “Josie and Tyrone are protected by no lasting illusions about themselves” (Falk 1982: 174). Josie, like Abbie in Desire Under the Elms, is a robust woman; but unlike Abbie, Josie is unable to find a mate. Her father hopes to capture their landlord, Jamie, for her. Jamie, like O’Neill’s own brother and using the same character name (Jamie Tyrone) in Long Day’s Journey into Night, is nearing the end of his self-destructive life. Jamie confesses to Josie that during his mother’s funeral he sought out the companionship of a prostitute (mirroring the actual events of O’Neill’s brother). This behavior, long with other feelings of self-deprecation, drives him to guilt-ridden suicide by alcohol. Jamie is motivated by what one critic calls the “compulsion to confess, to focus on haunting memories,” even as the characters, and O’Neill himself, are “ashamed to acknowledge them” (Manheim 1982: 4).
Tyrone: You can take the truth, Josie – from me. Because you and I belong to the same club. We can kid the world but we can’t fool ourselves, like most people, no matter what we do – nor escape ourselves no matter where we run away. Whether it’s the bottom of a bottle, or a
, we’d find our own ghosts there waiting to greet us. (Plays 1988a vol. 3: 923) South Sea Island
Ghosts haunt O’Neill’s characters. Yet his characters also seek “rebirth” and redemption, which yields “life its meaning” (Dubost 1997: 223). Emphasizing in his dramas, what Edward L. Shaughnessy calls his “Catholic sensibility” (2000: 79), O’Neill’s plays are said to be “laid in an isolated, bizarre wasteland in which a few characters wander, lost and desolate, seeing someone to whom they can tell a story of a crime they have committed, and in making such confession find purgation” (Bogard 1988: xvi). Jamie Tyrone in Moon for the Misbegotten is eventually forgiven by Josie; the play’s final lines demonstrate O’Neill’s emphasis on purgation and redemption:
Josie: (her face sad, tender and pitying – gently). May you have your wish and die in your sleep soon, Jim, darling. May you rest forever in forgiveness and peace. (She turns slowly and goes into the house). (Curtain) (Plays 1988a, vol. 3: 946)
In his final full-length dramas – Long Day’s Journey into Night, The Iceman Cometh, and A Moon for the Misbegotten – O’Neill exhibits a profound faith in language, in its ability to express, as well as mask, a character’s angst and contradictions. In his characters’ awkwardness, use of metaphor, and circumlocution, O’Neill deliberately attempts to portray the clumsy yet deeply felt desire for communication. Specifically, the glib veneer, as characterized by Hickey’s “hail-fellow-well-met” persona, masks his painful awareness of lifelong disappointments. Mary Tyrone’s denial of her drug addiction and her recriminating attacks on her family mask her painful disillusionment and cynicism. Jamie’s attack on his brother in the final act of Long Day’s Journey into Night is likewise revelatory of his noxious cynicism. By abusing his brother, Jamie drives him away in an effort to set him free. Attempting to “free” oneself of demons and inevitability is a recurring theme in O’Neill’s dramas; Hickey experiences it, as do the Tyrone family in Long Days Journey into Night and Jamie Tyrone in Moon for the Misbegotten. In his effort to “free” his brother, Jamie’s cruelty in Long Day’s Journey into Night is savage yet necessary, especially given Edmund’s tuberculosis. The dual levels of reality – surface and depth – mesh together in all their awkwardness and revelation, revealing the struggle between free will and fate. As one critic put it, O’Neill wrote plays aiming to “reveal man’s struggle – with its paradox of triumph in failure – against the mysterious force that shapes his existence and limits him” (Chabrowe 1976: xvi). Guilt and hope, crucifixion and resurrection, sin and redemption – the three sets of twin pillars that define Catholic ethos – are dialectically intertwined.
Denial is a major tactic of O’Neill’s characters. The denials and the realities they disguise embody a powerful dramatic conceit, creating an intensity of emotion and a forceful expression of dramatic conflict. Audiences empathize with the characters as they struggle to maintain dignity within their fragile worlds. Characters seek the support of others, only to find that the support they crave is barely capable of shoring up anyone. Characters resist self-pity even as they acknowledge the pathetic conditions of their lives. This dramatic force – denial as an action pitted against reality – is O’Neill’s realism at its most profound. Despite late twentieth-century criticisms of dramatic realism – that it somehow conceals contradictions, uncritically accepts determinates of history, and fixates on the middle class without acknowledging diversity — O’Neill’s dramas, especially his later works, ideally express realism’s enduring appeal. Besides O’Neill, few playwrights demonstrate such courage in the face of modern life’s tragic conditions. The pathos of his characters is unequivocal, yet almost joyously expressed; in Nietzschean fashion, his characters rather than avert their eyes look straight into the abyss. His works no doubt depict “a journey into the subconscious” (Innes 1999: 141), and dramatize the “hidden phenomena” that attempt “to transcend the limitations imposed upon drama by the naturalistic demands for verisimilitude of appearances” (Torngvist 1969: 254). Yet many of his plays engage in realism’s demand for verisimilitude; his finest realistic dramas are couched in fidelity to real-world experiences. His own life is, in fact, grist for his creative mill. O’Neill absorbs the modern, romantic notion of the artist as self-observer depicted in a realistic setting. Joel Phister makes this very point clear when he describes O’Neill as “attuned to the cultural role of the modern artist as one who publicly symbolizes a romantic-psychological ‘self’” (1995: 10). O’Neill’s characters, like O’Neill himself, are haunted by past sins, seek sexual and emotional satisfaction, grope for human connections, and torture themselves in their search for happiness and redemption.
During the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, O’Neill’s plays have enjoyed enormous success. Broadway revivals, such as Hughie with Al Pacino (1996); The Iceman Cometh with Kevin Spacey as Hickey (1999), also featuring Robert Sean Leonard as Parritt; Moon for the Misbegotten with Cherry Jones and Gabriel Byrne (2000); and Long Day’s Journey into Night with Vanessa Redgrave (Mary), Brian Dennehy (James), Philip Seymour Hoffman (James, Jr.), and Robert Sean Leonard (Edmund) (2002), attest to O’Neill’s enduring popularity. Not only have his exemplary realistic plays enjoyed success, his experimental plays, such as The Emperor Jones and The Hairy Ape, have also flourished in revivals by the avant-garde theatre company the Wooster Group during the mid-1990s. Revivals on Broadway, off. Broadway, regional theatres, and in translated performances around the world continue to attract audiences.
In 1925, O’Neill wrote a letter to theatre historian Arthur Hobson Quinn explaining his aims as a playwright:
I’m always acutely conscious of the Force behind – (Fate, God, our biological past creating our present, whatever one calls it – Mystery, certainly) – and of the one eternal tragedy of Man in his glorious, self-destructive struggle to make the Force express him instead of being, as an animal is, an infinitesimal incident of expression. And my profound conviction is that this is the only subject worth writing about and that it is possible – or can be! – to develop a tragic expression in terms of transfigured modern values and symbols in the theatre which may to some degree bring home to members of a modern audience their ennobling identity with the tragic figures on the stage. (Letters 19886: 195)
If one were to identify a flaw in O’Neill as a playwright, it would be his reliance on melodramatic excess. His plays are frequently overwrought. Yet he successfully transformed American melodrama from superficial conventions to moving examinations of human depth. Modernism requires “depth,” and O’Neill provides it, using melodramatic conventions but shifting their emphasis. Rather than exploiting the one-dimensionality found in most melodramas and the razzle-dazzle of its stage effects, O’Neill sought to complicate melodrama’s superficial morality, infusing it with contradictions, moral ambiguity, psychological depth, and human sorrow. According to Eric Bentley, if O’Neill “often failed to achieve tragedy, [he] succeeded as often in achieving melodrama” (1964: 214). Bentley adds elsewhere that O’Neill “undertook to free melodrama from what was cheap and tawdry and ineffective, and to write a melodrama that would be truly melodrama – a Monte Cristo raised to the nth power” (1987: 34). He was unrelentingly hard on his characters, but he was forgiving as well. His characters are caught in a conflict between Nietzschean live-for-the-moment and Catholicism’s emphasis on responsibility and altruism. Hedonism and commitment – selfishness and selflessness – struggle within virtually all of his characters. Like most modernists, he saw heroism in these struggles, culling out the character’s emotions and deepest fears. At his most successful, he was not merely one modern dramatist among many, but the predominant playwright of modern American drama.