Art and Vision Inseparable
O’Neill’s art of characterization is inseparable from his vision of life. And because he experimented with one dramatic form after another for projecting his view, his art of characterization varied in every stage of his development. He was disguised with those who tended to label him either as a naturalist or a pessimist or romanticist and wished sympathetic critics called him an experimenter with all the modes of apprehension. “To be called ‘a sordid realist’ one day, he said, ‘a grim pessimistic Naturalist’ the next, a ‘lying Moral Romanticist’ the next, etc. is quite perplexing... ...So I’m really longing to explain and try and 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 of them, and thereby, if there is enough real fire in me, boil down to my own technique.”
Different Periods of Characterization
However, for the sake of convenience we may study O’Neill’s art of characterization under different titles signifying the theme and technique of the plays he wrote in different periods. In his early plays one may detect his melodrama and hence his characters are realistic and melodramatic, particularly in The Straw, Anna Christie, Diff’rent and The First
In the next phase of his dramatic career O’Neill wrote symbolic plays in which, instead of resorting to depicting a crowd, he began to create representative individuals, concepts turned into characters. Characters, tragic protagonists especially, are symbols of dream and illusion, courage and fortitude, higher ideals, poetic sensibility, rebellion, struggle against an alien world. Man.
Being dissatisfied with the banality of surfaces of the realistic method of character portrayal, he experimented with expressionism. The Emperor Jones is his first expressionistic play which was followed by another play written in the same technique. Brutus Jones is O’Neill’s expressionistic hero. However, his expressionism is closer to Strindberg’s “psycho-expressionism” than to its German variant to be called “socio-expressionism”. The Emperor Jones, sometimes called “monodrama”, where the distinction is motivated by a character’s, state of mind and where that character is still a human being. The, Hairy Ape apparently developed in the direction of expresssionism, yet never reached full-fledged German style. Its position is somewhere between the : expressionism of The Emperor Jones and that of playwrights like Toiler or Kaiser; realistic and stylized elements are mixed, and there is still quite a lot of emphasis on characterization but also on social ingredients.
Psychoanalysis and O’Neill’s Characterization
Freudian psychoanalysis enriched O’Neill’s insight into the depth of human psyche and he created characters representing psychological complexes in plays such as The Strange interlude and Mourning Becomes Electra. In the last phase of his career, however, his art matured considerably and keeping in view the serious nature of the plays he wrote, he created three-dimensional characters.
A study of the men and women that move through the world of O’Neill’s dramas reveals some noteworthy characteristics that many of them have in common. One is impressed by the courage and fortitude with which they face the unfavourable circumstances of the world in which they live. They are determined to give life meaning and value in defiance of a world that is impersonal and unconcerned about the ambitions of human beings. The favourite character of an O’Neill play has dreamy eyes. His characters live in two worlds one the outward world of physical reality, the other, a world of unfulfilled and passionate desire. This latter world is the one which the dreamer wishes for with all the pent-up powers of his being. To this world he will sacrifice all that life has given him, for there is nothing in life that for a moment is comparable to the genuine reality of his dream. Captain Bartlett in Where the Cross is Made commits murder because his longed-for dream of pirate treasure seems to have come true, and in another play, another sea captain sacrifices the sanity of his wife in order that his desire for a full load of whale oil may become a reality.
The characteristic of the dreamy eyes appears consistently throughout the plays. In Lazarus Laughed, Miriam’s mask is described in these words : “The eyes of the mask are almost closed. Their gaze turns within, oblivious to the life outside, as they dream down on the child forever in memory at her breast.” And in The Great God Brown Margaret is described thus : “She is almost seventeen, pretty and vivacious, blonde, with big romantic eyes, her figure lithe and strong, her facial expression intelligent but youthfully dreamy, especially now in the moonlight.” While Dion’s face is not described by the word “dreamy”, a synonym serves to convey the same idea. “His face is masked. The mask is a fixed forcing of his own face––dark, spiritual, poetic, passionate) super-sensitive, helplessly unprotected in its childlike, religious faith in life.”
of Life Defiance
In Diff’rent, Emma Crosby appears as “a slender girl of twenty ...Her face, in spite of its plain features, gives an impression of prettiness, due to her large, blue eyes which have an incongruous quality of absent-minded romantic dreaminess about them !” And in Welded,
is likewise a member of the race of dreamers, tortured dreamers, for it is a part of the dreamer’s character that he lives in a world of conflict and divided ends. Michael Cape Cape is “tall and dark. His unusual face is harrowed battlefield of supersensitiveness, the features at war with one another––the forehead of a thinker, the eyes of a dreamer, the nose and mouth of a sensualist ... There is something tortured about him-a passionate tension, a self-protecting arrogant defiance of life and his own weakness, a deep need for love as a faith in which to relax.”
Robert, in Beyond the Horizon, “is a tall slender young man of twenty-three. There is a touch of the poet about him expressed in his high forehead and wide, dark eyes.” A more complex character, but no less of a thwarted romanticist than Robert, is Stephen Murray in The Straw. He is a “tall, slender, rather unusual-looking fellow with a pale face, sunken under high cheek bones, lined about the eyes and mouth, jaded and worn for one still so young. His intelligent, large hazel eyes have a tired, dispirited expression in repose, but can quicken instantly with a concealment mechanism of mocking, careless humour whenever his inner privacy is threatened ... He is staring into the fire, dreaming, an open book lying unheeded on the arm of his chair.” Juan Ponce de Leon, in The Fountain, is described in the following manner : “His countenance is haughty, full of a romantic adventurousness and courage ; yet he gives the impression of disciplined ability, of a confident self-mastery––a romantic dreamer governed by the ambitious thinker in him.” And twenty years later––“His hair and beard are gray. His expression and attitude are full of great weariness. His eyes stare straight before him blankly in a disillusioned dream.”
Dreams : Beautiful But Destructive
And so it is from beginning to end in this world of Eugene O’Neill. His chief characters are poetic dreamers, ill-fitted to cope with a world that is inimical to poetry. These men and women drift down the stream of life, fighting desperately to maintain their position and, in spite of the current, to reach the happy shore of their dreams. They present one of the strange anomalies of life, in that their dream embodies all that is beautiful and good, and just because of that they are destroyed. As is true of the great heroes of all tragedies, and especially Shakespeare’s, they are destroyed by their virtues. Marsden in Strange Interlude is another member of the hapless company of idealists who are incapable of accepting the reality of the world and are destroyed by their own dreams of beauty. He is described : “His face is too long for its width, his nose is high and narrow, his forehead broad, his mild blue eyes those of a dreamy self-analyst, his thin lips ironical and a bit sad,. There is an indefinable feminine quality about him, but it is nothing apparent in either appearance or act.” He is a man fascinated by his own idealism and at the same time conscious of the limitations of his ideal. Speaking of Nina he says :
But sometimes the scent of her hair and skin ... like a dreamy drug ... dreamy !...there’s the rub !...all dreams with me ! my sex life among the phantoms !
Even the unimaginative Mrs. Fife in Dynamo is not wholly of this world of reality, for beneath her calm exterior there lies the shadow of something unrealized. “Her eyes are round and dark blue. Their expression is blank and dreamy.” The great Marco who could see nothing in the eyes of the beautiful princess, though it was his duty to study them every day, was in his youth of a poetic nature. His father said of him : “But still heedless. A dreamer !” Even old Ephraim Cabot in Desire Under the Elms is described in these words “His eyes have taken on a strange, incongruous dreamy quality.”
Asking More From Life
Throughout the whole of O’Neill’s work, men and women characters are brought to a tragic end because they ask more from life than life can offer them. They are incapable of reconciling themselves to the limitations of the world in which they live. The narrow confines of their environment irk them, and they dream beyond the horizon into an imaginative world where all is beautiful and good. Living in this divided world, the one of reality, the other of imagination, they are continually tortured by the passionate longing of their dreams and the grim reality of their immediate surroundings.
The Lost Moderns
Besides being romantic dreamers, O’Neill’s characters are also lost modems. Their passion is not the passion of Christ. It is the passion of business, ownership and acquisitiveness. Something_ drives them on to seek freedom. But it is a freedom which disturbs, unsettles, demanding a restless pace. Where the Greek man might find release in aesthetic or ethical catharsis, and the medieval man might place it all in the lap of God, O’Neill’s skeptical and disillusioned moderns can find no such resting points. Their appeal is to science and to psychoanalysis. But the “Dynamo” does not answer, and analytic probings only render communication more confusing. ‘ When they try the way’ “downward” towards innocence, they discover that it is too late for that. They have been driven out from the naive plane, and know too much to be content with not knowing enough.
Sticking to Middle Position
The specific nature of O’Neill’s problem derives from his Concern with characters who stand in an unsteady midway position. In fear of losing their power, they are nervous, fretful, discontented. In Chekhov (where this group never played a leading role) they just talk about it apathetically. In Odets they react forcefully to the threat but are finally released after they have lost their illusions of Power. O’Neill’s people cling, to their positions tenaciously. Hence, where in Chekhov the characters develop passively, and in Odets they are transformed radically, in O’Neill their transformation is partial, jittery, and interrupted. Where it is thorough it remains barren because they lack the substitute norms which save the characters of Odets. The efforts of O’Neill’s people are concentrated on tiling to or holding on to their middle position. Brutus. Jones and Jim struggle against being driven back to their original colour lines. Yank accepts the embrace of death rather than sink back to his pit of not “belonging”. In Nina and Lavinia the will to power is to extreme and insistent as to reach near hysteria.
Brutus Jones, Yank, and Jim reach out from “below”, Nina and Lavinia from “above”, with Brown, Dion Anthony, and John Loving occupying an intermediate position on the intellectual-poetic level. But their rebellion, being incomplete or negative, proves in adequate to cope with their situation. The result is that these characters are invaded by doubts which split their personalities. It was O’Neill’s startling innovation to give theatrical form to the dissociated personality through the visions in The Emperor Jones, the masks in The Great God Brown, the “double talk” in Strange Interlude, the change of personality in Mourning Becomes Electra, and the Doppelganger motif in Days Without End. Brutus Jones repudiates and is repudiated by both blacks and whites. What is here projected through the twilight consciousness of one person is dramatized in the later plays, where O’Neill extends the technique of dissociation to the point where it becomes a naturalistic form. In The Great God Brown he would have us see the split in his characters by their use of masks ; in Strange Interlude he would have us hear the evidence of their duality, and in Dynamo and Days Without End we are both to hear and see the absolutes towards which O’Neill’s desperate people finally veer. In the one we hear and see the Dynamo refusing to give up its secret ; in the other we hear Loving’s prayer that he may find peace. And in the silent Christ statue we see the “granting” of the prayer.
Transvaluation of All Values
In O’Neill’s two major plays, Strange Interlude and Mourning Becomes Electra, the action pivots on a war scene which serves as the background for the inner wars of the characters. Nina rebels against her father’s intervention which kept her from consummating her love for Gordon ; Lavinia and Orin trespass all natural boundaries in defiance of their father’s strict morality. But their warlike challenge is wild, explosive and blind. Nina would transvaluate all values. Deprived of love, she rejects love itself, giving herself to men and marrying without love. Even her child is -conceived in loveless “scientific” planning. Having freed herself from all outer authority, Nina is trapped by the authority within herself. Her desire for possession ends in herself being possessed. Each new act only leaves her more a prey to guilty feelings. They are the Erinyes of middle-class conscience.
Death in Life
In Strange Interlude the characters still manage to live and talk themselves out. Nina enjoys afternoons with ‘her lover Darrell, bears a son and stays married to Sam Evans. In Mourning Becomes Electra, all expression is turned inward. Here, love is for oneself, sinful and guilty love of daughter for father, son for mother, brother for sister. It is the sunset stage of the “upper” development. (All the events in this play occur toward evening or at night.) “We’ve renounced the day, in which normal people live––or rather it has renounced us. Perpetual night-darkness or death in life––that’s the fitting habitat ‘for guilt!” The “rich exclusive Mannons” feel guilty in no longer being capable of productive love. They snatch at love stealthily from those below, from Marie Brantome, the nurse girl with the joy of life (reminiscent of
in Ibsen is Ghosts), and her son, Brant. Nina was still able to produce “in secret”. The Mannons cannot do even that. The war has maimed them, and after the public civil war is over they continue a private civil war within themselves. Even as they succeed in keeping the murders from becoming public, the acts carry on their secret “publicity” within the characters themselves. The result is the secular tragedy in which suffering constantly mounts without alleviation. Lavinia, the master will in all three murders, hopes, by her acts of “removal” to free herself for simple love. But what Lavinia cannot control is the effect of the action on herself. With each physical removal, she adds to her inner burden. The dead souls rule the living ones. She retains her wilfulness to the very end, refusing to atone, but the, confession and atonement take place nonetheless in the form of her self-rejection. “There’s no one left to punish me. I’m the last Mannon. I’ve got to punish myself.” With these words she enters her church of hell to practise love or hatred on herself. Regina
In Nina and Lavinia, O’Neill presents the ultimate in self and social alienation. Both are the masochistic products of modern rationalistic probing. Both attempt to wield and possess people’s lives, as if they were “god and had created them”. Nina renounces at the end. Lavinia remains defiant even in her acceptance of suffering. Her very, self-surrender and self: immolation have the character of challenge and insubordination. She remains in the grip of the Furies.
Search For Innocence
In the midst, of their sophisticated schemings, O’Neill’s characters yearn for the state in which there is no knowledge of sin, where man is not tormented by “dreams of greed and power”. But this return to innocence is thwarted, for it is inevitably invaded by the modern spirit of doubt. The conversion is rather the other way. “Have I done this to you already, Peter ?” Lavinia cries, as she notes that his eyes have taken on a suspicious look through contact with her.
The Business Characters
The business characters in O’Neill’s later plays, unlike Marco Polo of the earlier one, become problematical in that-they question their status. Brown. doubts that he is “the great God Brown” ; Sam Evans inherits Marco Polo’s innocent acquisitiveness, but his success is illusory and planned for him by, the sensitive and’ guilty characters, Nina and Darrell. He himself no longer enjoys the robust health of Marco, and while the insane streak in his family passes him by, he dies a sudden, “non-natural” death. What was an “instinct” of acquisitiveness with Marco’ Polo becomes neurosis with Nina and Lavinia. What was simple reasoning with him becomes tortured self-analysis. Marco Polo was intent on accumulating information and goods. The modem characters having gathered them, question their meaning, want to know what lies “behind” them.
Dynamo presents the inadequacy of the answer given by modern science and Protestantism. The Fife house of “science” and the Light house of Protestant religion are seen simultaneously with both their living-rooms and bedrooms exposed to the public. Theirs is an open world in which there are a few secrets. Reuben Light leaves his father’s home to discover the new God, electricity. But his “protesting” upbringing leads him to ask for its hidden formula. Yet although the new god ii the product of man’s reason and the nature of science is to give precise and complete answers, the dynamo remains incommunicable. Reuben’s demand for absolute knowledge is answered only by the unbroken continuity of the rhythm of the dynamo.
Living With Two Faces
But the state of living with two faces is painful. As Cybel tells Brown “You’ve got to go to sleep alone.” Most of O’Neill’s people at last confess that they are in need of grace, not “justice”. Brown died with Cybel’s prayer “Our Father, who art.” Reuben’s final cry is “I only want you to hide me, Mother. Nina tires of the attempt to enjoy father, lover, and husband all in one, is “contentedly weary with life”, as she delivers herself to the fatherly protection of “good old Charley”. Only Lavinia refuses to bow, remaining “woodenly erect” in her defiance. In the Greek drama the Erinyes are followed by the Eumenides which augur the beginning of a new age. But O’Neill doesn’t see the new order anywhere around. With few exceptions, the end of his characters is foreshadowed at the beginning. Locked up in their original sin they have recourse to original faith.