Wednesday, October 27, 2010

O’Neill’s Symbolism

Conscious Use of Symbolism
An important aspect of O’Neill’s technique is his conscious and studied use of symbolism. This does not imply that the audience is aware of this technique in an unpleasant manner. It is done with care and designed to extend the scope and meaning of the play beyond the limited boundary of straightforward realism. It is apparent in the early plays through his use of setting that will suggest the theme. In Beyond the Horizon he alternates the scenes––one inside and one outside scene for each act-by this device suggesting the conflict between the fixed prison and the yearning for freedom. Bearing directly on this point is his own comment on the critics:

                They have all accused me of bungling through ignorance–whereas, if I had wanted to, I could have laid the whole play in the farm interior, and made it tight as a drum a la Pinero. Then, too, I should imagine the symbolism I intended to convey by the alternating scenes would be apparent even from a glance at the programme.
Liberating Symbolism of Setting
This use of a symbolic setting gives him greater flexibility and increases the imaginative quality of his drama. It is a method that has been characteristic of O’Neill from the very beginning of his work. In the early one-act plays Fog is a typical example. The use of the fog as symbolic of a state of mind is rather trite, but serves to indicate that impatient and passionate quality of O’Neill’s imagination which has made it possible for him to push his play out beyond the limitation of the boards on which it is acted. It has thus been possible for him to liberate the drama from the narrow limitations of a temporary stage tradition and give to his plays almost as much freedom and scope as was practiced by Shakespeare. This technique which is so easily acceptable to the audience and has grown familiar with his development, is a tribute to his inventive genius and his skill, for unlike Shakespeare, who could hang up a sign and call the scene a battlefield or the Forest of Arden, O’Neill must satisfy the audience by a suggestion of reality in combination with his symbolism.
Thematic Exploitation of Nature
This he does by using certain aspects of nature as a theme in such a play as Anna Christie where “dat ole davil, sea” in combination, at times, with the fog tends a symbolic meaning to the play. Another example is All God’s Chillun Got Wings. Here he definitely violates strict realism in order to give immediate symbolic meaning to his play. When the curtains part the scene revealed is of three narrow streets that converge, suggesting the struggle of race conflicts that were centred in this little corner of the world. This idea is intensified by the grouping of the actors. “In the street leading left, the faces are all white ; in the street leading right, all black.” Next it becomes apparent that the conflict is to be limited and involves the conflict of the sexes : “On the sidewalk are eight children, four boys and four girls. Two of each sex are white, two black.” By thus formalizing his set and the position of the characters, he has told the audience the theme of his story before a word is spoken. He has also generalized the particular, giving scope and significance to his drama beyond that which attaches to the individuals directly involved in the play. The movement of the people, the different quality of the laughter, and the spectacle as a whole with its attendant pantomime, typical of his method referred to above, all contribute to the meaning and the understanding of the play.
Pure Symbolism
The first act of Marco Millions is pure symbolism. In the
prologue three great religions are represented, each being an
outward symbol without inward meaning, except as a justification
for such prejudices as serve the practical ends of each who professes
it. This is further emphasized by the procession of the dead Queen.
For the moment she represents power and the others end their
conflict by becoming slaves in her train––the train of a dead Queen.
The six scenes of the first act symbolize the progress of Marco Polo
from the West to the East, from the world of limited, practical values
to the world of eternal values, from the world of naive faith in
human values to the world of skeptical philosophy and relative
standards. But it marks also another progress which could not be
accomplished except by the use of symbolism. As Marco goes to
the East he grows up to the West. Thus there is reverse action
which gives this particular act a charming complexity, and makes it
an interesting study in the conflicting ideals of East and West, of
youthful dreams and mature realities. It is further complicated by
theme, for as Marco goes to the East to meet the great Kaan he loses gradually, under the careful tutelage of his father and his uncle, the conception of life which would make him understand the meaning of life as reflected in the philosophy of Kublai. By means of a series of symbolic scenes Marco makes the transition from a sweet and earnest youth, proud of his dreams and his hopes, and genuine in his faith, to a shrewd businessman, whose values are profits, and whose ideals are mercenary. He forgets his youthful love, and by this is symbolized the loss of all, that was pure and genuine in his philosophy. The locket bearing his sweetheart’s picture is stained by a prostitute’s kiss, and his poem, written to his sweetheart, is ground in the dust by a prostitute’s heel, but not until he has denied its authorship, which is a denial
of his former ideals. He ends by being a boaster, a braggart, a man who sees clearly the mote in his neighbour’s eye. He has become brave and self-confident, and he has lost the power to sympathize with others ; he has lost the power to be generous ; he has lost the power to love ; he has become a blind automaton whose life is condemned to the vicious slavery of not even knowing that he doesn’t know. This complex situation is made clear, and gives dramatic emphasis, by means of symbolism, a symbolism that develops keen and penetrating satire on Western ideals with special reference to the United States in the gambling twenties.
Function and Uses of Symbolism
This use of symbolism has lent a poetic quality to O’Neill’s prose ; it has universalized his theme ; and it has added an emotional quality to his realism. This method has made it possible for him at any moment in his writing to depart from the orderly, logical language of prose into the psychological sequence of imaginative language. He has been able to remain true to the realism of his characters, and at the same time suggests those strange warnings, intuitions, fantastic ideas that play on the periphery of consciousness, or lie buried in the subconscious, but, at times assert themselves with painful vividness. Examples of this may be found in every play. Old Cabot in Desire Under the Elms mixed a hard cruel sense of reality with an almost superstitious feeling for atmosphere. It seems perfectly natural to hear him say .: “It’s cold in this house. It’s oneasy......They’s thin’s pokin’ about in the dark––in the corners.” And later he comes back to the same idea : “Even the music can’t drive it out––somethin’. Ye kin feel it droppin’ off the elums, climbin’ up the roof, sneakin’ down the chimney, pokin’ in the comers ! They’s no peace in houses, they’s no rest livin’ with folks. Somethin’s always livin’ with ye.”
Mystical Quality
In this particular case there is added to the symbolism a quality that is almost mystical. This speech is a soliloquy and seems to be an echo to the action that is going on in the upstairs rooms of the house, where Eben and Abbie are meeting over the cradle of the baby that the old man believes is his own. Further discussion of this mystical use of coincidence need not be gone into. At this place is emphasized only the use of symbolism to intensify and give scope to the theme. As O’Neill grew and developed as a dramatist he followed, faithfully his original technique. His plays grew in scope and theme and with this ; growth his symbolism grew more complicated. The changes that came with maturity were changes in degree not in kind.
Imaginative Use of Symbolism
The rich experimental nature of O’Neill’s work, which has given new life and fresh Impetus to an American drama that was hopelessly enthralled by a fixed tradition, may be traced, in its major part, to his bold and imaginative use of symbolism. His first great success was The Emperor Jones, and it was his use of symbolism in setting, in action, and in plot construction that stirred his audience to wonder and admiration. O’Neill had realized that modern drama need not necessarily be bound by the realistic set. Like the Elizabethans he rose above the limitation of his stage. He made his stage a servant to his art, refusing to accept the limitation imposed by tradition.
Symbolism of Masks
In The Great God Brown O’Neill’s symbolism took the form of masks, a technique that was pushed to its utmost limits in Lazarus Laughed. In this play the masks are made to bear a heavy load, for each individual mask or represents both age and quality. Seven periods of life ate characterized by the masks and each of these periods is represented by seven different masks of general types of character as follows : “The Simple, Ignorant ; the Happy, Eager ; the Self-Tortured, Introspective ; the Proud, Self-Reliant; the Servile, Hypocritical the Revengeful, Cruel ; the Sorrowful, Resigned.” Not only does this symbolism became complex in itself, but as the play develops it is apparent that the combination of these various types and others that follow creates intricate group symbols that offer an interpretation of life-forces at war in the history of the entire Western culture. The play becomes a symbolic interpretation of life in words, in action, in pictorial effect and in pantomime. This marks the extreme of O’Neill’s symbolism, and perhaps it indicates the use of symbols beyond their effectiveness for drama. If the audience is to be considered, it seems clear that some explanation beyond that of the play itself would be necessary.
Psychological Symbolism
For O’Neill this experiment stay have been imperative to his own development. It taught him the value of the mask as well as its limitation. It should be remembered, however; that time and familiarity may still make Lazarus Laughed a successful stage play. For the author it was a step in the direction of a new type of symbolism––that of the aside in Strange Interlude. In this play it is again the author’s attempt to push back the boundaries of the stage world that gives rise to this type of symbolism. The audience is tacitly required to forget that thoughts are not spoken aloud in the presence of others, in order that it may enter more fully into the psychological analysis of the characters on the stage. His technique thus becomes a means by which he reveals the strange conflict between what man is in reality and what he is in relation to the social pattern of his life.
Symbolic Interpretation of Human Struggle
Following Strange Interlude came Dynamo. Again he used the ‘aside’ technique to give a symbolic interpretation of man’s age-long struggle to find a meaning to life–– a meaning to the meaningless. His own account of what he meant the play to be is evidence to the point of symbolism. He wrote of Dynamo that the play is a “Symbolical and, factual biography of what is happening in a large section of the American (and not only American) soul right now. It is really the first play of a trilogy that will dig at the roots of the sickness of to-day as I feel it––the death of an 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, and to comfort its fears of death with.” His use of “symbolical and factual” indicates the combination that fits every play. Always there is this symbolism and always the symbolism is used to universalize the theme, to make it important for the race––even mankind––as well as specifically pointed for the characters in the action of the play. This may be subtly and almost abstractly represented, as by Dion’s mask, or crudely and too obviously done in the case of the money thrown into the sea in The Rope.
Value of Symbols
It is the symbol that matters in an O’Neill play, because he has something more to say than can be said in plain unshaded words. Directly following the passage quoted above are these words:
                It seems to me that anyone trying to do big work nowadays must have this big subject behind all the little subjects of his plays or novels, or he is simply scribbling around on the surface of things and has no more real status than a parlour entertainer.
The “big subject” of man’s relation to the apparently meaningless world that modern science has revealed has always been O’Neill’s problem.
The Unreal Reality
It must not be inferred from this discussion of O’Neill’s use of symbolism that he deprecates the drama which aims at and achieves success in straight realism. He lays down no inflexible dogma, but for himself he needs the wider field and the deeper, often dimly felt meanings that some form of symbolism will give. This is but further evidence of what the drama as an art form means to O’Neill. The drama to him is a powerful medium through which the dark surging of man’s inner life sheds for a moment its unreal mask. His plays reveal the unreal reality, the concealed truth ; they give form and substance to the dream they lend to that airy nothing which is in reality everything, a local habitation and a name.

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