Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Social Criticism in O’Neill’s Play

Failure of the American Dream
“I’m going on the theory that the United States, instead of being the most successful country in the world, is the greatest failure”, said O’Neill in 1946. In a friendly conversation with Croswell Bowen, he told him : “This American Dream stuff gives me pain. Telling the world about our American Dream ! I don’t know what they mean. If it exists, as we tell the whole world, why don’t we make it work in one small hamlet in the United States ?...If it’s the constitution that they mean, ugh, then it’s a’ lot of words. If we taught history and told the truth, we’d teach school children that the United States has followed the same greedy rut as every other country. We would tell who’s guilty.
The list of the guilty ones responsible would include some of our great national heroes. Their portraits should be taken out and burned.” Clearly O’Neill is a critic of American society and society as a whole. Now it maybe argued that a play which resolves itself into an argument against capitalism or against anything else loses its value as art even though sympathy for the author’s point of view may be quite universal. But the opposite is also true. A work of art which is divorced from man’s struggle with an unfriendly and an unmoral universe and with a perverted and corrupt social order loses the most abiding appeal that art can have for man. O’Neill’s tremendous success as a dramatist depends to a great extent upon the fact that he has had something to say about the modern social order that has been worth saying. His technique and his form have been admirable vehicles for an interpretation of the conflict which arises out of the circumstances of the world in which we live.
Social Injustice
In Fog, an early one-act play, O’Neill’s point of view is clearly stated. It is more of an argument than a play, but for the purpose of understanding O’Neill’s social philosophy it has real value. Fog is symbolic of the state of mind of the businessman who is adrift in a boat with a poet, a woman and a dead child. When the businessman expresses concern over the child’s death, the poet replies by giving a lecture on social injustice which surrounds the lives of the poor. He says :
What chance had that poor child ? Naturally sickly and weak from underfeeding, transplanted to the stinking. room of a tenement or the filthy hovel of a mining village, what glowing opportunities did life hold out that death should not be regarded as a blessing for him ? I mean if he possessed the ordinary amount of ability and intelligence–considering him as the average child of ignorant Polish immigrants. Surely his prospects of ever becoming anything but a beast of burden were not bright, were they ?
Doubtful Negative
The businessman answers with a doubtful negative, which implies that he thinks there should be some way out. He expresses the usual vague hope of those who find, it hard to face reality. The poet then pushes the problem- still further by asking an embarrassing question : “If you could bring him back to life, would you do so ? Could you conscientiously drag him away from that fine sleep of his to face what he would have to face ? Leaving the joy you would give his mother out of the question, would you do it for him individually ?”
The Victims of Industrial System
The implications of these questions are very general. They apply not only to the dead child in the boat, but to millions of unfortunate victims of our industrial system. It is as though O’Neill had said : “If you were God, would you not prevent this monstrous abortion called the living poor ?” What right have we to permit life to be born that exists only for slavery or worse than slavery––a life of neglect and suffering to end in a charity bread line, and a pauper’s grave ? The poet is explicit, and defines his terms : “I mean poverty––the most deadly and prevalent of all diseases.” The businessman is irritated by such a statement and tries to escape by asserting that he is “not responsible for the way the world is run”. And the poet replies: “But you are responsible”, continuing : “I m n supposing we––the self-satisfied, successful members of society––are responsible for the injustice visited upon the heads of our less, fortunate ‘brothers-in-Christ’ because of our shameful indifference to it. We see misery all around us and we do not care. We do nothing to prevent it. Are we not then, in part at least, responsible for it ? Have you ever thought of that ?”
Man in Social Order
O’Neill has thought a great deal about that and has given his answer in many different plays. It is because be has thought of man in relation to his social system that his plays have become something more than a moment’s entertainment. It is not man, as an individual alone that concerns O’Neill :’it is man in a social order, tortured, starved, disillusioned, thwarted and driven to, disaster by the forces of a system which cares nothing for the general welfare of society. Man moves across the stage of an O’Neill play not as a free and detached individual, not merely as an individual in relation to a few characters who are associated with him in the immediate drama which makes the play, but he treats man against a rich background of social forces. Beyond the backdrop, before the beginning of the play, and beyond the ending lies a definite social system that is as important to an appreciation of the play as is the action which takes place on the stage in the presence of the audience. It is the skill with which the dramatist has made his audience aware of this larger significance of his theme that lends to O’Neill’s drama its rich, sympathetic tone. It is the social implication that makes his play have a life in the mind of the audience after it has left the theatre and scattered to the quiet of individual thought.
The Social Implications
That O’Neill is concerned with the problem of man in relation to the present social order is apparent in all of his plays. Even those that use an historical background come under this classification. The social implication of the greed for empire is boldly set forth in The Fountain and the direct criticism of modem business ideals is the whole theme of Marco Millions. In such a purely fantastic drama as The Emperor Jones, O’Neill does not permit us to forget the social implication. When Brutes Jones lost his nerve in the forest, the grim shadows of his past came to haunt him. And what were they? Slavery, crime, penitentiaries, the whole vicious, illogical structure of our modem industrial world, which goad the poverty-stricken day and night to commit crime, and then when it is committed, punishes the criminal it has helped, to make––­punishes without reference to the causes that inspired the crime. Jones escaped the direct punishment, but he could not escape the deep scars left by a vicious system. In the pantomime of the prison scene and at the auction mart our social order as well as the character of Jones is clearly revealed.
Social Criticism in The Hairy Ape
The Hairy Ape is among the more significant plays of social criticism. It presents a negative view of the state, of mechanized America, where the worker best adjusted to the system is a ‘hairy ape’, and where the “Capitalist class” is even more terribly dehumanized, for it has lost all connection with life, is simply ‘a procession of gaudy marionettes’. According to this play, both government and religion are devices for maintaining the status quo. The church substitutes political conservatism for Christianity, substitutes bazaars, methods of making money, for a concern with the meaning of life and death. Government is equally at the service of the marionettes. On the legislative side, it is exemplified by the windy oratory of Senator Queen, glorifying the status quo and denouncing with ignorant terror any threat to it like the I.W.W. On the enforcement side, it is exemplified by police who function to keep the workers from disturbing the wealthy. On the whole, the state, as pictured in The Hairy Ape is a device for dehumanizing its citizens, and for preventing change.
Condemnation of Machine Civilization
The play is not a protest against low wages and unemployment as is the case in the traditional social drama, Hauptmann’s The Weavers, for example, but it is a condemnation of the whole structure of machine civilization, a civilization which succeeds only when it destroys the psychological well-being of those who make it possible. It is this which gives the play universality and enlists the sympathy and understanding of the audience. It is a play which might be called, by any of the many titles of books that describe the disintegration of modern civilization ; it is a part of the Decline of the West. Because of its deep psychological and philosophical implication The Hairy Ape cannot be classed with a type of social drama which solves a problem and points a way out. The sickness of the machine age is not wholly a problem of relating production and consumption. It goes much deeper than that. The whole concept of life, of man’s relation to the world, of his place in it is involved. Yank was not concerned about distribution––vitally important as that is––he wanted to be a creative part of the social structure, and no man working in the stoke-hole of a liner or making the two hundred and fifty-sixth part of a shoe in regulation eight-hour shifts can ever ‘belong’ in the, same sense that man belonged as a creative worker in the eighteenth century. Yank is a protest against the mordant success of the machine age.
The Diseases of Acquisitive Society
The importance of O’Neill as a social critic lies in the fact that he emphasizes the psychological aspect of the modern social order. “He points out the disease of America’s acquisitive society. He does not merely stress the fact that workers are exploited to create wealth fort the few, but shows how in our modern machine-made world they are deprived of the sense of harmony and mental well-being that comes from doing something that seems important and necessary. Man’s work is a necessary part of his personality ; it is an extension of his ego ; it makes him feel that he is a necessary part of the life of the world in which he lives. Modern industry tends to destroy this psychological counterpart of work, and in so far as it does, it leaves the worker a nervous, irritable and dissatisfied misfit. Yank was such a worker, and at the same time, conscious of the thing he had lost. He didn’t want a job simply because it would be a means to earning a living ; he wanted a job in which he could live.
Social Inequalities
In All God’s Chillun Got Wings this problem is carried out still further and applied to one of the great problems of social inequality in modern America. The American Negro is technically free, but psychologically he is still in bondage. The social pressure of a society that cannot overcome its race prejudice makes Jim a failure and drives Ella to insanity. It may well be argued that the Negro needs economic security, but beyond that, then what ? Jim tried it and failed. He failed because the social system denied him something that he wanted more than wages and votes, it denied him the right to belong. Here O’Neill has selected the material out of which the modern Negro’s tragedy is perpetuated beyond the termination of his physical slavery. He has arraigned the deep and powerful prejudices of American civilization before the bar of true justice.
The Tyranny of Quantity
Marco Millions is an excellent study in the social concept of the Western business ideal. Marco serves as a symbol for big business. Although the play deals with Marco Polo and Kublai Kaan, one has no difficulty in recognizing him as a good American business man whose ideal of life is to buy cheap and sell dear. O’Neill has given to this play a touch of light satire which makes his criticism of modern society all the more penetrating. O’Neill seems to hold that the profit motive is at the root of the evil in Western civilization. The profit motive destroys that which is best and noblest in man, making him into a beast who is capable of no great passions and no real love of the beautiful and the good. Under the deadly influence of this practical ideal, he becomes an excellent judge of quantity, and believes that quantity is synonymous with quality.
Emptiness of Money-Seekers
O’Neill has stressed in his plays the personal weakness of those who strive for wealth. Billy Brown is helpless without the creative strength of Dion Anthony. Marco Polo becomes despondent when lack of external activity forces him to think. Sam Evans, the successful businessman of Strange Interlude, is totally without inner resources. “How weak he is!” his wife thinks early in the play. When he gains power, it is purely external : “What a fount of meaningless energy he’s tapped !...always on the go ..., typical, terrible child of the age.” In an earlier play Lazarus Laughed, O’Neill showed that the craving for political power is also a compensation for inward weakness, emptiness. The depraved, power-mad Caligula is above all, weak, frightened, spiritually dead. After murdering Tiberius, he cries savagely to the empty amphitheatre: “Kneel down ! Abase yourselves ! I am your Ceasar and your God !” But, a moment later, he becomes aware of his loneliness, and ends by “grovelling in a paroxysm of terror”.
Condemnation of the Status Quo
All those who seek wealth, power over others, in the plays of Eugene O’Neill, do so out of personal weakness. When they do gain power, wealth, they are ‘poorer thereby’. This interpretation of financial, worldly success, was behind O’Neill’s declaration that the United States is “the greatest failure”. As he explained : “We are the greatest example of ‘For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?’ “O’Neill’s most bitter condemnation of the status quo is thus based on his Nietzschean philosophy. Both O’Neill and Nietzsche believe that the state produces soulless conformity, that those who seek worldly power and money, do so out of inner weakness and sterility. O’Neill, like Nietzsche, looked for his answer in the individual soul of man. Like Nietzsche he believed that salvation is a “question for the single one”.
Search For Better Men
O’Neill believed that individuals must gain the “courage to possess their own souls” before man can begin to think of establishing a just society. As Larry Slade of The Iceman Cometh puts it: “The material the ideal free society must be constructed from is men themselves and you can’t build a marble temple out of a mixture of mud and manure. When man’s soul isn’t a sow’s ear, it will be time enough to dream of silk purses.” For O’Neill, then, it is not a better state that makes better men, but better men who make a better state.
Evils of Social Dis-Organization
The world revealed by Eugene O’Neill is tragic because it is, without intelligent social organization. Ignorance, brutality, selfishness, greed and hatred are the dominant forces in this world of O’Neill. The multitude of men and women who pass by in the imagination as one tries to envision the sum total of life that O’Neill has presented in his plays is a sorry lot. Here by the roadside lies a young man coughing his lungs out as he cries for the beauty which lies beyond the horizon ; here is a girl tortured into committing a murder ; another passes with a fixed look of dry-eyed sorrow that, is just breaking into insanity over her lover killed in war ; a handsome Negro passes with the sorrow of hopeless despair furrowing every line of his face ; in a narrow room another breaks under the strain, of life as his fevered imagination turns gilded trinkets into gold ; in, the cold seas of the north a woman goes mad from loneliness ; in a beautiful New England home starved and misguided love brings endless tragedy ; and so one could go on with the enumeration.
What’s Wrong and Where
And what has turned potential happiness for these human beings into sure and grim tragedy ? Is it that there is something in nature that makes these hard hearts ? Is it that man is doomed by his humanity to make every third thought his grave ? No doubt that is partially the truth, or at least the only truth that we have tried and practised. But O’Neill also emphasizes the fact of a social system which is destructive in itself, which thwarts every effort to achieve happiness, which puts a value on misery and pain as a good in itself, and worst of all encourages and rewards everything that is predatory and destructive, condemning beauty, well-being and happiness as a sin.

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Jamiul Hassnat said...

What a nice post.

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Webstar said...

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