Interpreting Life in Terms of Lives
O’Neill was essentially a realist, but almost all his plays are suffused with the radiant glow of mystic ,symbolism. When his critics started heaping upon him such diverse and conflicting labels as a “sordid Realist”, a “grim, primitive Naturalist”, a “lying Moral Romanticist”, and an “immoral violent Expressionist”, be had to come out with a clarification of his dramatic aims and practice.In a letter written to Arthur Hobson Quinn, he observed
But where I feel myself most neglected is just where I set most store by myself––as a bit of a poet who has laboured with the spoken word to evolve original rhythms of beauty where apparently isn’t––‘Jones’, ‘Ape’, ‘God’s Chillun’, ‘Desire’ etc. ––and to see the transfiguring nobility of tragedy in as near the Greek sense as one can grasp it, in seemingly the most ignoble, debased lives. And just here is where I am a most confirmed mystic, too, for I’m always trying to interpret Life in terms of lives, never just lives in terms of character. 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. 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 modem audience their ennobling identity with the tragic figures on the stage. Of course, this is very much of a dream, but where the theatre is concerned, one must have a dream, and the Greek dream in tragedy is the noblest ever !
Aspiring Towards the Light
If O’Neill is primarily a poet, he is a playwright, too, but he is a great dramatist because he is more than a dramatist. His own most distinct successes in the theatre, like “Anna Christie”, interest him least, and, while the theatre is in his blood, he will be finally estimated not by his stage devices, like the four-roomed cottage in “Desire Under the Elms”, but by his profound imaginative interpretation of aspiring humanity, struggling upward, even through sin and shame, towards the light.
The Dramatic Conflict
O’Neill’s art is progressive, within itself and as part of the dramatic history of
. Essentially, drama is a celebration of the individual in conflict with something ––Fate, circumstance, moral and social law–which hampers to crush him. In the early nineteenth century, the authors of “The Gladiator” or “Metamora” celebrated the hero who rebelled against political tyranny. In the latter part of the century the conflict became frequently economic, though American playwrights did not use this theme as often as their European rivals. With the twentieth century, political and economic rights having been secured, the dramatists, under the leadership of William Vaughan Moody, became concerned with the problem of the individual’s right to self-expression, and the sanctity of rebellion was taught, even, as in “The Masque of Judgment”, to the overthrow of God himself. Many significant plays, like “The Piper”, “Kindling”, “The Inheritors”, or “A Man’s World” are founded on a situation in which the hero or heroine is brought into conflict with the selfishness, the indifference, or the stratification of the life around him. America
The Creative Force Should Express Man
Eugene O’Neill certainly marks the next step forward. The individual no longer rebels against God or Fate for the right to express himself. He demands something more. The Creative Force, as part of its responsibility for the creation of the individual, must express him. O’Neill himself indicates the essential dignity of his art. Whatever his characters may attempt, success or failure means little, but the struggle was worthwhile. Misguided, blundering, The Hairy Ape was struggling for his place in creation, and the final words of the play, “The Hairy Ape perhaps at last belongs” are clear. Ephraim Cabot in “Desire” talks to God as a task-master in whose very “hardness” he rejoices. The New Englander of Cabot’s type gloried in an adversary worthy of his steel. But the representation of the Force of life is not always so concrete as in “Desire”. In “The Great God Brown”, it manifests itself in at least four of the main characters : Dion Anthony, the painter, who represents the creative spirit of art ; William Brown, the successful man of to-day ; Margaret, the normal woman : Cybel, the prostitute ––all representing the eternal creative instinct in different phases. The struggle here is expressed symbolically, and the interpretation of the varying changes of personality in the characters is, on the stage, made quicker of appeal through the use of masks. After all, the test of drama is the stage production, and that the audience receives a dramatic impression is apparent. For O’Neill with all his symbolism never fails to create live people, and probably three-fourths of the audience of “The Great God Brown” are held’ by the human struggle without seeing the symbolism at all. They see the tragedy in the dying words of Dion and of Brown, both begging for the belief which the paganism of one and the materialism of the other had crushed out of their lives. And this is really all O’Neill expects them to see. He is not proposing any solution of this eternal problem, as he proposed no solution in Anna Christie or The Hairy Ape. Back of the human lives he treats he sees a force so infinitely greater than any character that man cannot estimate it, but can only feel, dimly or ecstatically, the power he can but vaguely interpret. There it is––“the glory and the dream”.
Towards Spiritual Growth
O’Neill is not only a dramatic poet, but also a mystic. Generations of Celtic ancestry flower in him, just as generations of the Puritan mystic flowered in Hawthorne and Emerson. In him the Celtic nature, with its intimate relations with the past, catches a gleam now and then of the dim regions where God brought into being a nobler form of life than had before existed. Because of this clutch of the primitive which the Celt as the oldest of the Indo-European races has guarded as its birthright, O’Neill goes down into the depths of human life to study apparently degraded forms. His audiences gasp often, comprehend sometimes, but always apprehend at least that a soul is speaking to them who has something important to say. O’Neill’s Celtic ancestry, moreover, leads him to symbolism. The race, in its painting, its poetry, its religion, thinks in symbols, knowing that mysticism has to be tied down to reality by some concrete expression. The procession on
Fifth Avenue in The Hairy Ape bothered a great many. It appeared to them out of the picture of realistic life on which the rest of the plays seemed to be based. To O’Neill it was only an experiment, differing not in kind, but in degree, for the entire play was a symbolic picture of the struggle upward of physical strength towards a spiritual growth.
O’Neill declines to be limited in his theme or locality. His roots are in
, often in the America New England where he lived so long and which he understands so well, from its farms to its police courts, which as a reporter had to frequent. He can describe the decadent aristocracy of the small town in New England as in “The First Man” as realistically as Mary Wilkins Freeman or Alice Brown, but he is really not concerned with their limitations except as background. In “The Fountain” the elixir of eternal youth attracts him as a romantic theme just as it attracted in “Doctor Grimshawe’s Secret”. Hawthorne
The Water of Eternal Life
It is not only in his choice of-such a theme as the water of eternal life that he resembles
. In. that striking passage in Emerson’s Journals in which he describes Hawthorne ’s burial, the Hawthorne philosopher tells us : “Clarke in the church said that Concord had done more justice than any other to the shades of life, shown a sympathy with the crime in our nature and, like Jesus, was the friend of sinners.” Discussion raged at one time over the problem of the apparent contradiction between Hawthorne’s retired life at Salem, Lenox, or Concord and his deep knowledge of the effects of sin and even crime upon the consciences of his characters. No such problem occurs in the case of O’Neill His wanderings in search of adventure and his experience as a reporter have both brought him into contact with the seamy side of human nature. But the important point does not lie in a discussion of their material. The significant fact remains that twice during Hawthorne ’s literary history a poet used the medium of prose to reveal the beauty that lies in the human soul, even though it has gone through the crucible of temptation and sin, to fuse away the dross of life. To Hawthorne, Hester Prynne and Donatello were finer clay than if adultery and murder had not stained them, because through suffering they won a character not theirs before, Anna Christie, purified from her sordid past by the cleansing power of the “Old davil sea” ; Dion Anthony, hiding his longing to create under the mask of the sensualist, are expressions of the same sympathy with sinners. America
The Saving Grace
It is encouraging that when an, artist like O’Neill resolutely sets his face against the picturing of the merely little things of life he should have won the wide recognition he enjoys. He paints little souls and big souls, but he never consciously gives us the unimportant or the mean. We may not like all of his characters, we may even shudder at them, as we do at the Emperor Jones himself, but O’Neill found in that thief and murderer a spark that distinguished him from all the natives of that imaginary island. We agree with the epitaph of Smithers the half-caste–“ ‘E’s a better man than the lot o’ you put together.” O’Neill found that spark, of course, because he put it there. Even in the most degraded man, O’Neill recognizes the saving grace that comes from his divine origin.