The Two Poles of Action
Illusion and reality are the two poles between which the action of most of the plays of O’Neill moves. “The lie of a pipe dream is what gives life to the whole misbegotten mad lot of us, drunk or sober”, says Larry Slade in The Iceman Cometh, voicing thereby a basic tension in a majority of O’Neill’s plays, from Bound East to Cardiff onward.
Strange Interlude and Mourning Becomes Electra provide us clear elaboration of what illusion and reality can mean. Illusion is ever a reaching towards Yeats’
, a world of changeless and enduring forms. It may lie in Professor Leeds library, where “a fugitive from reality can view the present safely from a distance” ; or in the church where Marsden plans to marry Nina, “a gray ivied chapel, full of restful shadow, symbolical of the peace we have found.” Or––and this is its noblest articulation––in the Garden of Eden, the Blessed Isles where one can forget “all men’s dirty dreams of greed and power !” Conversely, so long as men dwell in the real world they strive and suffer, love and hate, are born and die. Seen as an attempt to conquer time, illusion is anchored in the past or the future, reality in the present. For O’Neill the meaning of life derives in large part from the oscillations which this spatial-temporal polarity sets in motion. Byzantium
Myth of the Garden
Let us consider the story of Nina Leeds. On the point of withdrawing from her long war with life and returning to the ancestral home, she thinks, “the only living life is in the past and future….the present is an interlude……strange interlude in which we call on past and future to bear witness we are living !” ; for her reality is a time of pain which will pass. It is in the myth of the Garden, however, that the spatial and temporal qualities of illusion ultimately concentre. Before the Fall death and passion were not ; natural man has long aspired to such an ideal, if illusory, state. When he acts on this aspiration, which is rarely, the consequence is tragedy. While most men come in time to recognize the tension between their real and their ideal self, only he is tragic who attempts to bridge the distance between. Tragic action, in other words, is motivated by what Arthur Miller has described as man’s “inherent unwillingness to remain passive in the face of hat he conceives to be a challenge to his dignity, his image of his rightful status. Only the passive, only those who accept their lot without active retaliation, are ‘flawless’. Most of us are in that category.”
Towards understanding how illusion and reality function in O’Neill’s plays, it is necessary to define his world-view. In 1925 he wrote : “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 in its expression.” In only three plays––The Fountain, Lazarus Laughed, and Days Without End––is God, the Hebraic-Christian God, clearly the Force behind. In all the others O’Neill shows himself to be a naturalist, though occasionally he makes the Force mythic (thus, the Earth-Mother in The Great God Brown and A Moon for the Misbegotten). Fate he conceives of as a natural process : it may be physical as in Dynamo, psychological as in Mourning Becomes Electra and The Iceman Cometh, biological as in Welded and Desire Under the Elms, commercial as in Marco Millions. In this last play, for instance, Kublai Kaan thinks : “My hideous suspicion is that God is only an infinite, insane energy which creates and destroys without other purpose than to pass eternity in avoiding thought. Then the stupid man becomes the Perfect Incarnation of Omnipotence and the Polos are the true children of God !” O’Neill’s misbegotten men and women, then, inhabit a world superintended by natural forces, not divine. Listen to his women early and late : before her reconciliation with Matt Burke, Anna Christie tells her father, “We’re all poor nuts, and things happen, and we just get mixed in wrong, that’s all” ; and Mary Tyrone, off in a dope dream, says “None of us can help the things life has done to us. They’re done before you realise it, and once they’re done they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you’d like to be, and you’ve lost your true self forever.” Their cries are born of confusion, frustration, and despair and are echoed in most of the other plays.
The Moral Struggle
Even though O’Neill says in effect shat modern man lives in a world that is without theistic purpose, this world view has a positive side. A century ago the theory of natural selection threatened the concept of a universe whose design was supernaturally sanctioned. In a daring move American pragmatism, accepting this theory as valid, set out so solve she dilemma : how in a world which no longer possesses theistic purpose, human purpose can be said to exist. It was eventually John Dewey who, extending natural selection so cover mensal activity as well as physical, reasoned that “evolutionary method applied so a moral fact ...reveals to us a single continuing. process in which both animal instinct and she sense of duty have their place……she process and she forces bound up, wish the cosmic have come so consciousness in man. That which was instinct in she animal is conscious impulse in man ...I question whether the spiritual life does not get its surest and moss ample guarantees when it is learned that she laws and conditions of righteousness, are implicated in the working processes of the universe ; when it is found that man in his conscious struggles, in his doubts, temptations, and defeats, in his aspirations and successes ; is moved’ on and buoyed up by the forces which have developed nature ; and that in this moral struggle he acts not as a mere individual but as an organ in maintaining and carrying forward the universal process.”
Sense of Order
Implicit in Dewey’s argument was she conviction that the, human whose operations are naturalistically grounded, imposes up n world such order as is possesses and that therefore this sense of order is necessarily moral. In she pragmatic dialectic, then, human intelligence may be said so have supplanted divine. Human nature being moral, ethically meaningful behaviour is stilt possible. But few live thus, struggling so make “she Force behind” express them ; the mass of men give up the moral struggle, trusting shat illusion will bring order out of she chaos of their present.
Genesis of Chaos
This chaos, which results when the counterpoise between head and hears is disturbed, began when man left she cave and journeyed towards his present state of civilization. Literally and allegorically The Hairy Ape describes how such divorce comes about. So long as she animalistic Yank is free so dream of making “iron into steel”, he scoffs at the illusions of Long and Paddy and knows a measure of peace; but when Mildred Douglas intrudes on , his domain, he is cut adrift from his primordial moorings. Lost between she Neanderthal world of the stokehole a and shat of man thinking, now belonging in neither, he cries out? “I ain’t on oith and I ain’t in heaven, get me ? I’m in de middle tryin’ to separate ‘em, takin’ all de woist punches from bot’ of ‘em.” Such fragmentation of personality and the search for integration are a constant in the plays. In Beyond the Horizon, for example, Andrew Mayo, having spent eight years running away from himself, gambling with the very thing he once loved to create, finally determines to do penance, so that he may win back the “harmonious partnership” with life he had once known.
Way to Integration
There was a time when formal religion provided a way to integration. In The Fountain, for example, Juan Ponce de Leon, his life ebbing away at a Dominican monastery, surrenders his dream of physical youth (symbolized finally by his love for Beatriz) and at the point of death discovers spiritual calm. Today, however, religion seldom holds out such a hope. Perhaps it does in Welded, wherein
, possessing “the forehead of a thinker, the eyes of a dreamer, the nose and mouth of a sensualist”, is in harmony with himself at the moment that his overwhelming love for Eleanor and hers for him is sanctified. Certainly it does not in Great God Brown, for here the mask man holds upto the world is seen to be at war with the face he shows himself. To Margaret and the world at large Dion Anthony presents himself masked as “a mocking, reckless, defiant, gayly scoffing and sensual young Pan”, all the while knowing his own face to be “dark, spiritual; poetic, passionately supersensitive, helplessly unprotected in its childlike, religious faith in life.” When the world, as O’Neill explained, “condemns the Pan-mask it sees,……Dion’s inner self retrogresses along the line of Christian resignation until it partakes of the nature of the Saint while at the same time the outer Pan is slowly transformed by his struggle with reality into Mephistopheles.” Nor is the struggle less intense for Brown when he, assumes the dead Dion’s mask. Both Dion and Brown labour for title under illusion that Margaret can satisfy their needs and presents for each of them a harmonious partnership with life and death she does not fancy and is in fact incapable of playing any role. They turn to Cybel, the Earth Mother, who affords refugees in their pain of living and, when death is at hand, offers final understanding and consolation. Michael Cape
The Rich Ambiguities
Let us now examine more closely the tension between illusion and reality present in Strange Interlude, Mourning Becomes Electra, and The Iceman Cometh. All three plays are rich in ambiguities, which accounts in part for their greatness. Nina Leeds haunted by the ghost of her dead lover Gordon Shaw, confuses “the real and the unreal”, “as always in all minds” ; thinks’ of Marsden cynically, “or how could men live ?” From O’Neill’s initial description it is apparent that her nature is divided against itself : “a fine athletic girl of the swimmer, tennis player, golfer type”, her whole manner “is strained, nerve-racked, hectic, a terrible tension of will alone maintaining self-possession.” Her strange interlude is one long frantic pursuit of happiness. In young motherhood she seems on the point of finding it. For, one grotesque, precarious moment, when she feels the desires of husband, lover, father, and son converge in her, she stands hysterically triumphant. But the, moment passes and she succumbs once more to her neurosis. All her desperate recipes for happiness failing––“praying to the modern science God”, marriage to Sam Evans, conceiving a, normal child by Ned Darrell and the “interludes of passion” which accompany this adultery–Nina finally rids herself of her ghost lover by letting her son go. Huddling against Marsden, she declares in words which bracket the long years of her interlude : “Gordon is dead, father. I’ve just had a cable. What I mean is, he flew away to another life––my son, Gordon, Charlie. So we’re alone again––just as we used to be.” Now she can relive “that period of happy security, of health and peace of mind before ever she met Gordon Shaw.
Retreat Into Illusion
With the laying of the ghost the father image re-emerges in her life. “I’ll go and live in Father’s old home”, she muses at the end : “Charlie will come in every day and visit.” This readmission of father into her life marks a retreat into illusion, for the surrogate Marsden “isn’t built to face reality Her long struggle to make “the Force behind” express her is a near-heroic attempt to make God a Mother, but in surrendering to it she becomes “an infinitesimal incident in its expression”. She gains stability but only at terrible ,g e of obliterating what remains in her of pass ate womanhood. Her final attitude is fin de siecle, one in which shy, like Ernest Dowson, might well declare: “I was desolate and sick of an old passion.”
The Blessed Isles
The Blessed Isles, experienced vicariously and later actually, embody Lavinia Mannon’s illusion. Initially––and in her mind this association is never broken––she identifies them with Adam Brant, who had been shipwrecked there. “I remember”, she tells him, “your admiration for the naked native women. You said they had found the street of, happiness because they had never heard that love can be a sin.” Whereas the Isles represent for Christine simply a romantic happiness that Era’s love-making had destroyed and for Orin a Typee––like “way to peace” and Mother, Lavinia’s illusion is far nobler––the longing to return to that ideal state before the Fall. It is not simply or primarily Adam the man whom she loves, but the freedom which the world he has glimpsed open sup for her. Eventually she too travels to the
South Seas and witnesses this world for herself. Back home, she describes the experience to Peter Niles, whom she now hopes to marry : “I loved those islands. They finished setting me free. There was something there mysterious any beautiful––a good spirit––of love–– coming out of the land and sea. It made me forget death. There was no hereafter. There was only this world––the warm earth in the moonlight––the trade wind in the coco palms––the surf on the reef––the fires at night any the drum throbbing in my heart –the natives dancing naked any innocent––without knowledge of sin !” But then, like Arthur Dimmesdale to whom Hester’s suggestion that they flee Boston opened up the prospect of moral anarchy, Lavinia checks herself abruptly and frightenedly, sobered by the realization that such illusory freedom runs counter to her nature any heritage. Desperately she will cling to the illusion s while longer, so desperately in fact that Orin cannot get through to her any take himself out of life. Hazel, here functioning symbolically, pleads with her : “Look into your heart any ask your conscience before God if you ought to marry Peter !... I know in your heart you can’t be dead to all honour any justice–– you, a Mannon !”
Confrontation With Reality
When “at the topmost pitch of desperate, frantic abandonment” Lavinia calls Peter “Adam”, she is brought face to face with reality. “Always the dead between I” she mutters hopelessly. “It’s no good trying any more I” At this moment she stops playing the coward any acknowledges what she has known always : the fact that her finite nature makes unattainable for her, as it must for every man, the
Adams illusion. Although her curtain speech carries suggestions of masochism (which actually serve to render her more human), these are unmistakably the words of s courageous woman who, seeing through her illusion, assumes responsibility for the guilt of family any race.
Tenors of the Real Present
Larry Slay, the fine central intelligence of The Iceman Cometh, is also s tragic’ hero. Rosa Psrritt nearly shattered his faith in mankind by playing him false ; but even though he left the Movement at that time, he loves her still any through such love keeps his holy on the magnetic chain of humanity against the day when someone may call for help. When her indecisive son comes to him as the one person in the world he can turn to, Larry holds out s helping hand and reasserts thereby his long-lost faith. Only by recognizing how the lives of Hickey, Parritt, and Slade interact can we properly gauge what makes this action tragic. All three men see clearly, as Harry Hope any his roomers never can, the lie of the pipe dream. Hickey any Parritt felt compelled to destroy the dreams which Evelyn and Rosa tried to impose on them but quail now under the terrors of the real present and seek death as the only possible way to peace. Sensing that their lives run on parallel tracks, they make common cause to show Larry up to himself and force him to assume responsibility for the first time since he left the Movement. He alone of the three possesses sufficient strength of character to act in a responsible fashion and does so act when he tells Parritt “Go ! Get the hell out of life ... Go, for the love of Christ, you mad tortured bastard, for your own sake I” Profoundly grateful for this needed reassurance, Parritt leaves quietly to take the leap from the fire escape. When the thud sounds outside the window, Larry, a “long-forgotten faith” returning to him, mumbles: “God rest his soul in peace.”
Giving Parritt the signal to commit suicide is Larry’s meaningful action, nor is it negated by the mood of self-derision which follows. At this moment he becomes the “useful member” of society he had long refused to be. Never again will he help others sustain their pipe dreams in order to find peace of mind for himself. Having finally accepted the responsibility life demanded of him, he leaves the grandstand forever and accepts the pain and exaltation of living in the present. Here then, O’Neill would have us believe, is the dilemma confronting modern man illusion brings order out of the chaos of the present but incapacitates him for meaningful action, and yet without illusion life is intolerable for all but the sturdy few like Lavinia Mannon and Larry Slade. Meaningful action is possible only when man strips off his illusions and, fronting the terrors of the here and now, acts in obedience to a secret impulse of his character.