Wednesday, October 27, 2010

O’Neill’s Quest for Meaning

His Ideas
There is little in O’Neill criticism to indicate that we have yet recognized the ideas behind O’Neill’s plays––the ideas that today make him a living force in drama. We have concentrated too much on the sense of doom and futility, that pervades O’Neill’s works.
Undeniably this negative aspect is there. The man who was always ‘a little in love with death’ was assuredly not an optimist when he dead with life. Yet a reading of O’Neill’s plays indicates that he is not basically a deterministic writer but rather that he has been attempting to find a philosophy that would reconcile a rationalistic view of the universe with man’s need for something beyond rationalism––for a sense of the infinite beyond the finite.
Sickness of Today
Early in his career, O’Neill recognized this basic necessity, when be wrote in an essay that “the playwright today must dig at the roots of the sickness of today as he feels it ––the death of the old God and the failure of science and materialism to give any satisfying new one for the surviving primitive religious instinct to find a meaning for life in.” In the attempt to find that meaning and to state it in dramatic terms, O’Neill has temporarily embraced and then discarded many modern substitutes for religion in the terms of modem psychology. Essentially he has been a mystic who used the trappings of realism, but a mystic uneasily aware that with the advent of scientific determinism came the need for a new symbolism.
Scientific Literary Convention
For a new day in man’s thought, a new and fresh power was needed. An instinctive, convinced belief in, mythological gods and heroes was past ; even the moral order o longer carried a vital power. Instead, that power was to be found in the scientific laws which were the true, if inanimate, rulers of the universe. Writers could no longer accept the myths of yesterday, as Herman Melville earlier had recognized when he wrote that “great geniuses are a part of their times ; they themselves are the times and possess a corresponding colouring.” So for Moby Dick Melville used a scientific and natural symbolism ; he took for a springboard into his exploration of the unknowable soul not an outworn, mythology but the sea and a man’s search for an actual and a symbolic white whale. Nature became the tragic force, and Moby Dick the ‘deus ex mechina’. O’Neill’s great master, Henrik Ibsen, made heredity a tragic force in Ghosts ; however, unjust it might be, it led as surely to irrevocable doom as ever the moral order had. These and many other writers created powerful literary convention out of the scientific thought of the time.
Struggle With Fate
O’Neill also has followed these modern conventions. In his first important play, The Moon of the Caribbees, he set man against nature, with the spirit of the sea intended to be the hero, and the man Smitty reduced to silhouetted gestures of self pity. Smitty’s sentimental posings, set against the revealing moods of the sea’s eternal truth, reveal that he is out of harmony with nature and therefore no longer attuned to beauty. Only the noble savage, or in our time the natural man, can attain this harmony. O’Neill stated this theme explicitly when he tried to explain the meaning of a difficult and to many people a confusing play : the protagonist of The Hairy Ape is a “symbol of man, who has lost his old harmony with nature, the, harmony which he used to have as an animal and has not acquired in a spiritual way.... The public saw just the stoker, not the symbol, and the symbol makes the play either important or just’’ another play.... The subject here is the same ancient one that always was and always will be the one subject for drama, and that is man and his struggle for his own fate. The struggle used to be with the gods, but is now with himself, his own past, his attempt ‘to belong’.”
Quest For Peace
O’Neill temporarily abandoned this immediate symbol, but throughout the plays the ultimate longing and the ultimate symbol remain the same : man’s desire to find a satisfactory spiritual peace, a place “to belong” not only in this world but in relations to the universe. The quest was in part at least a personal one. Much later he was to write of himself that “I will always be a stranger who never feels at home ... who can never belong.”
Man Against Nature
For dramatic purposes, however, he turned back to the theme of man’s struggle against nature ; out of it, in fact, he wrote one of his greatest plays Ile. Here a tight, just, hard-fisted New England sea captain who failed for the first time to secure his quota of whale oil is faced with mutiny, and with the prospect of a wife slowly going insane from loneliness and fear ; but when the ice breaks and the whales spout, the captain turns inevitably to the chase. The background is deliberately meagre. All the overtones, the true background, are in the struggle shadowed forth rather than expressed between man and his ancient enemy, nature. As in all great plays there are two conflicts : the internal’ struggle in Captain Keeney between pride and compassion ; the external struggle between a captain and his crew, a husband and his wife, a man and the universe. Because he is above all else the primitive man, the proud hunter, Captain Keeney makes his decision; and relentlessly, with nature as inexorable as ever were the Greek Gods, tragedy results.
Search For Immortality
The play was satisfying, but to O’Neill the philosophy behind it was not. Man’s spirit had to be reckoned with, as well as man’s mind. Always the spirit seeks an assurance of immortality. If a rationalistic and mechanistic philosophy denies and to the rational mind proves that it cannot be found through religion, that the assurance can no longer be achieved through faith, then it must be sought elsewhere. In his own search, O’Neill felt temporarily under the sway of the idea that a man attains immortality through his descendants. This is the underlying motif of The Fountain. In a programme note, O’Neill told the audience that “the idea of writing The Fountain came on finally from my interest in the recurrence in folklore of the beautiful legend of a healing spring of eternal youth.” So Ponce de Leon searches fruitlessly for this spring which will wash away the years and give him an earthly immortality; at last, when he has given up hope, he finds a vicarious immortality in the youth of his nephew: “One must accept, absorb, give back, become oneself a symbol.”
Symbol of Life
This is the clearest affirmation that O’Neill’s philosophy at that time could admit. The fountain was a symbol of life, tossing its little drops, its human beings, high in the air. They had myriad shapes and colours : some were caught in the light, others dropped dully back, and a few burst into an incandescent miniature rainbow. It did not greatly matter: more drops must be propagated that more drops may be tossed into the air, and absorbed back again into the whole.
Creation and Continuance
Yet there is something more. According to this belief, the creative power, the strongest power in nature, would perform the age-long functions of mythic religion. For the man this concept was not finally satisfying ; for the dramatist it proved exceedingly fruitful. It is out of this theme of creation and continuance that he wrote two of his famous plays, The Great God Brown and Mourning Becomes Electra. Even when he parallels, and deliberately suggests cross-comparis on with the ancient Greek legend of Electra, O’Neill endows his characters with psychological complications that we recognize by such modern terms as repressions, frustrations and fixations. But men and women today, like those in ancient Greece, cannot resist forces stronger than themselves : the terms have changed, but the tragedy remains the same. In this play with its American setting and modem time of action, O’Neill is attempting to rephase the motivations of classical tragedy so as to relate them to our own doubts, fears, and desires, but in t lie process to give us, also, faith in the creative life force.
Religion of Art
In The Great God Brown, this is combined with the more dominant motif of the religion of art. O’Neill defines his purpose in this play as showing “the mystery any one man or woman can feel but not understand as the meaning of any event––or accident––in any life on earth.” To give added depth, richness, and suggestiveness he deliberately mixed what we think of as folklore and as revealed religion: Dion Anthony is in part Dionysius, and in part St. Anthony, and he returns for strength to Cybele, the pagan Earth Mother. But this mystical element serves to accentuate the importance of the individual, even as the use of masks to indicate an actor’s public or private character emphasizes an individual’s complexity. But one person is influenced and changed by others even as he acts upon them, as we grope in the world’s half-light for a fuller illumination. Here the reader can identify himself with the characters, can fully comprehend the nature and intensity of their desires, whether or not he accepts the underlying philosophy.
Dubious Philosophies
This is not possible, with all his plays, at least for most of us. O’Neill has embraced even more dubious philosophies. In Dynamo he envisioned a man who saw a new god in the whirling wheels of. machinery and the weird power of electricity, but this study of a fantastic modernly-grounded religious mania was neither dramatically nor philosophically convincing. O’Neill also flirted briefly and tentatively with Marxism in Marco Millions, but it was at best a half-hearted flirtation since he was, soon afterwards, describing communism as “the most grotesque god that ever came out of Asia”. Sociological nostrums, especially the theory that man will quickly improve if only his environment be changed for the better, won his half-hearted allegiance in such plays as All God’s Chillun Got Wings, and Desire Under the Elms.
Quest For Meaning
Whether his philosophical ideas had proved satisfying or not, he had consistently attempted to get beyond the literal and factual reality. Both the man and the dramatist seem ever in quest of a valid, tenable explanation of the meaning of life. In that quest he came to Christian Catholicism, and out of it he wrote the moving, but only partially successful Days Without End. In this play meaning inheres not in the fountain or the, dynamo or the sexual delta, but in the crucifix. He has not abandoned modem terms for modern psychology, and he continues to be concerned with man’s essential dualism to such an extent that the two parts of the main character are played by two different actors. Somehow, too, there is little difference, in the terms of his Christian characters and those of his earlier non-Christian ones : John Loving believes with the rationalistic part of his mind that “we are all the slaves of meaningless chance”, but with the idealistic part that “a new Saviour must be born who will reveal to us how we can be saved from ourselves.”
Infinite Behind the Finite
If the play has too much of dramatic and philosophical debate in it to be quite successful as drama, it is the clearest statement we have of O’Neill’s constant striving to find a satisfactory philosophy of life. It gives in epitome his own spiritual evolution : he is seeking the infinite behind the finite, searching for something that will add to the dignity of man. Whatever the ; terms employed, however, unsatisfactory the explanations, O’Neill holds in this play that man’s spirit is greater and ultimately mote important than man’s body. If at tines be seem only to have a faith that man must have a faith, he bas made an honest and. unrelenting for valid And tenable bases for a faith that will not deny scientific truths but will affirm despair, moue positive tars spiritual truth.
Web of Circumstances
“Man is involved in a web of circumstance, a web that is not his own weaving.” O’Neill had begun as a playwright with his, deterministic philosophy of life and the universe; rather disconcertingly, he has partially reverted to it in his later plays. The disturbed and the disturbing state of the world shook his highly rooted faith; even more directly, a serious’ personal illness in 1934 temporarily ended his dramatic activity ; it developed into, or was later diagnosed as, incurable, slowly ravaging, Parkinson’s Disease.
Call of the Past
It may be too early to evaluate the work of O’Neill’s darker years, but certain unmistakable trends seem dominant. He had turned back into his own past for dramatic material ; increasingly he pinned his faith on human love and warmth to give meaning to life and he presented man lacking the will to act as being spiritually dead, however alive physically he might be. There is a Cathartic quality in these plays, but the purging clearly was intended more for the author than for the audience ; O’Neill was attempting to objectify by writing out of himself certain obsessive memories that had .haunted him for long. This is made manifest in the brief, moving Foreword to Long Day’s Journey Into Night, cast in the form of a letter to his wife Carlotta :
Dearest ! I give you the original script of this play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood. A sadly inappropriate gift, it would seem, for a day celebrating happiness. But you will understand. I mean it as a tribute to your love and tenderness which gave me the faith in love that enabled me to face my dead at last and write this play––write it with deep pity and understanding and forgivness for all the four haunted Tyrones.
Facing the Ghosts
Eugene includes himself among the haunted and he makes no attempt except for changing names to disguise the autobiographical nature of the play. James Tyrone is an immensely popular actor, embittered because he has sacrificed the chance of greatness for immediate popularity, and seeking wealth through ill-timed real state speculations ; Mary Tyrone is a drug addict at the younger son’s birth, as the doctor gave her morphine to quiet her pains ; James Tyrone Jr., is a dipsomaniac, a wastrel, and a jealous-hearted failure. The slightly-built action takes place on the day when Edmund (O’Neill himself) is admitted to have tuberculosis, and is to be sent to a sanatorium.
Pipe Dreams
Of these four, only Edmund has a chance to achieve salvation of any kind in this world. His sickness is physical ; his moral nature, although warped, is fundamentally sound. But the sickness in father, mother, and brother is essentially a moral sickness: in seeking to escape from the world they have grown egocentric, cold ; their flashes of warmth are sporadic and to a degree irrational ; they have lost the capacity to love and the will to act. Man seeks for security and order, for a sense of belonging, in a mysteriously alien universe. Mary fancies she might have found it if she had become a nun ; James, if he had not prostituted his acting ability ; James Jr., if he had achieved something–he is not sure quite what. These hopeless escapist fancies lead them inevitably into the past, away from the present ; and ahead of them is only the darkly symbolic night.
Illusion and Reality
It is a powerfully written, integrated tragedy, but the motivating force behind each of these tragic figures derives not from the nobility or even ignoble ambition but from insufficiency. In earlier, more objective plays, O’Neill used many devices to point up the contrast between illusion and reality ; he levied upon psychology to present an awareness of the difference between conscious and sub-conscious realities. Here the devices are relatively straight­forward, but the psychological twistings and turnings are exceedingly complex as the characters attempt to conceal their real thoughts and motivations not only from each other but from themselves, until driven by some compulsive inner force to confess the sub-conscious reality.
Action Conceals Character
There is something of the detective story technique in thus using action to conceal rather than to reveal character. This similarity of method appears even more clearly in A Moon for the Misbegotten, where a virgin deliberately masquerades as a loose woman; and her warm hearted old Irish father hides a basic goodness under apparent meanness and gruffness. This too is an intensely personal work, and, the protagonist is James Tyrone, Jr., and incidents briefly described in Long Day’s Journey Into Night are in this play developed and made a necessary part of the dramatic action. It is set later in time. Mrs. Tyrone had died in California ; on the train bringing her body east, her son seeks forgetfulness and peace in an alcoholic orgy with a prostitute. This should not be read as strictly biographical. O’Neill needed one specific dramatic incident to focus and pin-point James remorse at having betrayed himself as well as his mother, but this is only the ultimate betrayal. The young man who could not enjoy horse racing because of impatience to get back to his hotel room and his solitary drinking had already succumbed ; the incident is needed dramatically to underline and make concrete his loss of values, but it only emphasizes the sub-conscious reality by making apparent the conscious reality.
Theme of Death
O’Neill’s theme of death reappears, even more explicitly. Phil and Josie Hogan are alive because they have warmth and the ability to love; James is empty, and Josie cradling the man who has fallen a sleep in her arms perceptively remarks : “God forgive me, it is a fine end to all my scheming, to sit here with the dead hugged to my breast, and the silly mug of the moon grinning down, enjoying the joke.” As human beings Josie and her father have many defects, but they have also a quality of aliveness that James has killed in himself, so that Josie tenderly and pityingly can wish only for the man she loves : “May you have your wish and die in your sleep soon, Jim, darling. May you rest forever in forgiveness and peace.”
Personal Values
The title “A Moon for the Misbegotten” implies that James had never at any time had any real chance to be different, to control his own destiny. He was misbegotten truly, whereas Josie is so only because she has freely given her love to an emotionally dead man, incapable of returning that love. Is this a sibling’s pity for an older brother, or an attitude towards life ? The intensely personal nature of the play, the felt need of Catharsis for the author, makes interpretation doubly difficult. Yet clearly O’Neill believes that it is not enough to be loved ; one must be capable of giving out as well as of taking in if one is to be saved, in this world or the next. In these two plays there is no hint that salvation may be won by a faith or a philosophy, for all the values are personal ones. The person rather than the idea, O’Neill seems to be saying, gives a meaning to life.
Hopeless Waiting
Since it is less subjective, The Iceman Cometh should provide a better test as to meaning than the autobiographical works. Unfortunately the tone is that of the dream-phantasia, and expressionistic distortion has been carried so far that the philosophical line of thought has been obscured. From the heavily ironic title, with the iceman or death substituted for the life giving bridegroom, to the commentary that these are men “scared of life, but even more scared of dying”, the tone and the action emphasize this note of hopeless waiting.
Freedom-Giving Action
The group of men in Harry Hope’s saloon, back in 1912, have diverse backgrounds but all have two items in common : each has in his part a cankerous secret that has so corrupted him that he has lost the will to act and the power to make decisions ; each has taken refuge in a deadening alcoholic daze (only Hemingway’s literary characters equal O’Neill’s as two handed drinkers, but even Hemingway does not make drinking the avenue to mental escape that O’Neill does). As the play opens, they are waiting for a hardware salesman. Hickey, who in the past has without really disturbing them managed to give a transitory joyousness, an illusion of aliveness. This time when Hickey appears he introduces a disturbingly new note, for he has acquired the will to act, and he has acted. He is an irritating stimulus, goading each man to act, goading each man compulsively to reveal the secret that haunts him. Each makes an abortive effort to face reality. When Hickey’s freedom-giving action is revealed as the murder of the wife whom he has subconsciously hated for her goodness, the, men passively subside into their accustomed and, reasonably painless alcoholic waiting.
Negative Affirmation
This is curious reversal of the other two plays. Here it is the person who deprives life of its meaning, as though O’Neill were presenting’ the other side of the same coin. In Long Day’s Journey Into Night Edmund at least has warmth and potentialities ; in A Moon for the Misbegotten Josie and Phil Hogan have warmth and an inner if well concealed integrity. The denials and negations are set against affirmations. In The Icemen Cometh there is at best only a negative affirmation : that these men are essentially dead because in their egocentricity they have lost the qualities that give a meaning to life. They are no longer capable of human love or even the will to act. Each one reveals the conscious act and the subconscious reasons behind the act that have deprived him of the power to make and carry out a decision. In so far as each was responsible for his own actions, the play is not deterministic. But O’Neill never really indicates how much choice a man bad, or how far he was simply a puppet in the web of circumstances––and of circumstances not of his own making.
The Dream Motif
A Touch of the Poet is related to these highly personal dramas only in that O’Neill continues to use the dream-motif as a means of denying or evading the too harsh realities of life. The time is 1828; the setting a village tavern near Boston. Cornelius Melody, ex-Major, ex-gentleman, and presently tavern-keeper, lives in his memories of earlier gallantry in love and war; as his realistic daughter ironically remarks : “God help you, it must be a wonderful thing to live in a fairy tale where only dreams are real to you.” When the dream is shattered, when Melody is inexorably forced to admit to himself his actual situation, the man dies even while he continues to live. His wife recognizes this all too clearly when she tells her daughter “Look at the dead face on him, Sara. He is like a corpse.”
Quest For Faith
Even in this non-autobiographical play O’Neill’s quest for a valid faith has shifted from the philosophical to the personal. The wife and daughter are vital because they have the human warmth to give themselves completely to love. In the autobiographical plays this contrast between emotional life and emotional death is made even more explicit. In one sense, O’Neill as dramatist had changed radically. He was less interested in digging at the roots of the world’s sickness than in delving directly into his own mental and spiritual past. That the values he expressed dramatically are also values that had personal meaning is partially borne out by the concluding paragraph to his wife in Long Day’s Journey Into Night “These twelve years, Beloved One, have been a journey into Light into Love.”
Human Love
With human love there is light. Implicit in these plays, also, are overtones suggesting that human love is in itself divine, that as long as man retains inside himself warmth and feeling his plight is known to an understanding and forgiving God. Especially near the end of Long Day’s Journey Into Night are these transcendental overtones heard, in Eugene’s, handling of the bating, tragic inter­relationships in his own family. In this respect he seems nearer to a Catholic fatalism than to scientific determinism. He has described (through Edmund) in his own life occasional mystical experiences when “the moment of ecstatic freedom came; The peace, the end of the quest, the last harbour, the joy of belonging to a fulfilment beyond men’s lousy, pitiful, greedy fears and hopes and dreams……Like a saint’s vision of the beatitude. Like the evil of things as they seem drawn back by an unseen hand. For a second you see––and seeing the secret, are the secret. For a second there is meaning ! Then the hand lets the veil fall and you are­ alone, lost in the fog again and you stumble on towards nowhere, for no good reason!”
The Grim Dichotomy
This is the dilemma, the grim dichotomy that O’Neill has. struggled with and never quite mastered With his rational mind he has seen men struggling on towards nowhere, but he has seen also (possibly not with his eyes) that they both see the secret and are the secret. In rationalistic determinism nothing is hidden, eventually, to the finite mind, for the reason that there’ is nothing unseen. If O’Neill’s visions were momentary, sporadic, and unconnected, he felt nevertheless that these visions were real––as actual as, say, the eating of bread or drinking of wine. As his faith in the abstract idea or the philosophic or theological doctrine warned, he substituted for it the warmth of human love. However, unorthodox an approach to divinity this may be, it gives a mellow underlying richness to the otherwise dark autobiographical plays.

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