Like William Shakespeare, O’Neill was a man of the theater: He was born into it, grew up in it, worked in it, and wrote for it. He knew his craft, and he hated the artificiality and pretense of the commercial theater. He said, “The theatre to me is life—the substance and interpretation of life. . . . [And] life is struggle, often, if not usually, unsuccessful struggle.” O’Neill was an artist of integrity and courage; he was constantly exploring, expanding, experimenting. He tended toward realism in his work, rejecting material that could not be verified by the senses.
At times, however, he played with nonrealistic, expressionistic devices, externalizing the interior state of a character with sound or light or language: the throbbing tom-toms in The Emperor Jones (1920), to signify Jones’s increasing hysteria; the masks in The Great God Brown (1926), to portray the multifaceted nature of the characters; the foghorn in Long Day’s Journey into Night, to parallel Mary’s increasing confusion. At other times, his characters seem to have sprung from a Darwinian naturalism, helpless in the grip of forces beyond their control.
O’Neill also experimented with content and structure. When Eugene, Jr., became a classical scholar, the playwright sought to share these interests and grew fascinated by the powerful material of Greek tragedy: incest, infanticide, matricide, and the accompanying burden of guilt and atonement. He shared the Greeks’ view of the individual in conflict with the universe and with whatever God or gods inhabit it, and he was further concerned with the dearth of tragedy in the modern theater. Desire Under the Elms (1924), which includes infanticide, and Mourning Becomes Electra, which derives from Aeschylus’s Oresteia (fifth century b.c.e.), were efforts to create modern tragedies exploring the agonies suffered by those who behave against law and conscience.
The structure varies from play to play. O’Neill could use a traditional brief one-act structure, as in the early sea plays, but both The Hairy Ape (1922) and The Emperor Jones are long one-acts with a number of scenes. Desire Under the Elms is a traditional-length three-act play, but Strange Interlude is a very long play in two parts with fourteen scenes and a break for dinner. Mourning Becomes Electra is perhaps the longest, essentially consisting of three full-length plays, with a total of thirteen acts. The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey into Night, with four acts each, run between four and five hours in the theater. At times both audiences and critics complained, but O’Neill insisted that the length was appropriate and necessary for his ideas.
Even at his most experimental, there is an unerring psychological validity to his characters. The ideas of Freudian psychoanalysis were contemporary throughout O’Neill’s career, and the power of the unconscious suited his characters well. They may openly express a longing for the sea or for a farm or for a place in the universe, but the conflict with the father or the longing for love from the mother rages not far below the surface. Working from his own unconscious, O’Neill created plays that were disguised attempts to work through his personal conflicts with his mother, father, and brother, and with his own quest for identity. Travis Bogard claims that “the sum of his work comprises an autobiography.”
Although O’Neill’s view of humanity was despairing and nearly tragic, there are no moral messages in his plays. He does not preach or promote causes. There are few villains in his works; instead there are characters of enormous energy, driven by huge passions—lust, greed, ambition, and love. A major thematic concern with O’Neill is obsessive love, love that drives a person without reason and beyond conscience, love that does not heal but smothers and destroys. Although Christine and Lavinia Mannon in Mourning Becomes Electra are prime examples of this obsession, characters in Beyond the Horizon, The Great God Brown, Desire Under the Elms, and Strange Interlude are also consumed by their passions.
O’Neill explored the notion that there are many facets of personality and that people rarely reveal themselves unmasked to others—or even to themselves. When they do, they discover that others are presenting only masks in return, a response that can be disappointing and even frightening. While Shakespeare could use asides and soliloquies, O’Neill sought other methods to reveal the psyche. In The Great God Brown, he uses actual masks, which actors don and remove; in Strange Interlude, he uses interior monologues. Somewhat controversial, these theatrical devices underscore the theme of the evasive nature of humanity.
A corollary theme concerns the need for illusion. O’Neill states that human beings often behave from a network of illusions that they have created about themselves and about others. In Anna Christie, Chris Christopherson believes that he hates “dat ole davil, sea”; his daughter Anna insists that all men are worthless. These illusions are shattered by events in the play and replaced by a better reality.
In The Iceman Cometh, written twenty years later, O’Neill draws characters surviving upon their “pipe dreams”: They believe that they will leave Harry Hope’s saloon in the near future and lead productive lives. When they are forced to face their illusions, they seek death.
As might be expected, O’Neill is not universally admired. His principal detractors find his style crude, his language clumsy, and his plays in need of editing. Concerning style, one must remember that O’Neill was blazing a path separate from the contrivances of the romantic “well-made play.” Aside from the early The Hairy Ape, there are few overheard or misinterpreted conversations and few traditional happy endings with all threads resolved. As for language, on the printed page the dialogue may look stilted and unbelievable, but in the mouths of talented stage professionals, it rings true. Finally, as with the works of Shakespeare, judicious editing may be desirable, but the powerful experience provided by the plays in performance is undeniable.
The Emperor Jones
First produced: 1920 (first published, 1921)
Type of work: Play
A greedy, materialistic ruler is stripped of his pretensions and pursued to his death.
The Emperor Jones, which ran for 204 performances at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village, represented the first major success by a black actor on the American stage; it also made O’Neill famous.
Almost medieval in structure, this long one-act play in eight scenes details the fall from power of a corrupt ruler, former Pullman porter Brutus Jones, who has made himself emperor of a West Indian island and greedily exploited the natives. As the play opens, the populace has revolted, and Jones realizes he must flee. In his egocentricity, he believes that the legend he has created—that he can be killed only with a silver bullet—will protect him and that his planned escape route through the forest will take him to a waiting ship and safety with the riches intact that he has extorted from the people.
As Jones travels through the forest, he is stripped physically, mentally, and emotionally of the trappings of civilization and forced back through his racial memory to a tribal past, where, naked and hysterical before the Crocodile God, he uses his silver bullet to reject the possessive god as the natives approach to kill him, ironically, with their own silver bullets. The play permits several levels of interpretation. Socially, a proud, greedy, corrupt ruler is deposed by the downtrodden people. Psychologically, a person regresses through individual memory to his racial unconscious. Philosophically, a human being fights the inevitable losing battle with the forces of the universe. Theologically, one denies a possessive god and is sacrificed to it.
Equally significant are the expressionistic devices that O’Neill has incorporated. In the middle of the first scene a tom-tom “exactly corresponding to normal pulse beat—72—to the minute—[begins] and continues at a gradually accelerating rate from this point uninterruptedly to the very end of the play.” Realistically, the drumbeats represent the natives communicating with one another as they pursue Jones. On the nonrealistic expressionistic level, they represent Jones’s heartbeats as his anxiety increases and he regresses to a tribal past. When the drums stop, the audience knows that Jones is dead.
Another device is the gradual stripping of clothes, which is both physical and psychological: Jones begins in his emperor’s robes and ends in a tattered loincloth, as he regresses from a civilized to a savage state. Finally, daylight contrasts with moonlight (a device O’Neill also uses in Long Day’s Journey into Night and The Iceman Cometh). Day represents harsh reality, where no illusions can survive; moonlight is illusion. The play begins at 3:30 in the afternoon, when the sun “still blazes yellowly.”
The scenes pass through nightfall into darkness, at nine, eleven, one, three, and five o’clock, ending at dawn, and they parallel Jones’s progress through the increasing darkness of his mind to his death in the bright light of day.
The play prefigures the basic theme of O’Neill’s last plays, which is that one cannot live without illusions. Jones believes that he has manipulated and outwitted the natives’ superstitions for his own ends. His great illusion is that he can deny his illusionary past, his humanity, and his need for a god force stronger than himself.
Desire Under the Elms
First produced: 1924 (first published, 1925)
Type of work: Play
The passionate desires of father, stepmother, and son result in a triangle of tragedy and retribution.
Banned in Boston and England, narrowly escaping a ban in New York, and its Los Angeles cast arrested for obscenity, Desire Under the Elms, with incest, adultery, and infanticide openly treated, brought O’Neill into conflict with various censors and brought much of the public to the box office. It ran for 208 performances on and off Broadway and may be the first important American tragedy.
The play demonstrates O’Neill’s exploration of Greek theater. It does not derive directly from any particular play, but its material echoes Hippolytus and Medea, which contain incest and infanticide. The inhibited, puritanical society of New England in 1850 seemed to O’Neill appropriate for the epic Greek quality he sought. A further debt to the Greeks occurs in the sense of an inevitable fate awaiting the participants, Ephraim Cabot, his son Eben, and Ephraim’s new wife, Abby Putnam.
The desire of Eben and Abby for each other is apparent from the moment she steps into the house, although it is masked by Eben’s antagonism and her caution. He is loyal to the memory of his dead mother, whom he feels was robbed of her land and worked to death by Ephraim. The farm is his, he believes, and Abby is an intruder, seeking to steal his inheritance. She, in turn, has learned to fight for what she wants, and now she seeks security and a place of her own.
If Eben were not there, quite likely Abby would have made a good wife for Ephraim as long as he lived; however, the mutual physical attraction of Abby and Eben cannot be resisted. In a powerful scene in which Abby lures Eben into the parlor and declares her love, promising that she will take the dead mother’s place, “with a horribly frank mixture of lust and mother love,” the adultery is consummated.
One psychoanalytic critic noted that the play seems to have been written by someone in “intense mourning for his mother” (O’Neill had lost both his mother and brother in the previous two years). Certainly the yearning for the nurturing, protective mother permeates the work, not only in Eben’s speeches about his love for his mother and in his incestuous love for the wife of his father, but also in Abby’s speeches about her willingness to substitute for the mother. Further, both Abby and Eben strongly desire the land, which belonged to the mother, and which represents the same nurturing, protective qualities. This motif is further emphasized in O’Neill’s specific directions for the visual effects of the setting, in which he calls for two elm trees on each side of the house with “a sinister maternity . . . like exhausted women resting their sagging breasts and hands and hair on its roof.”
The Oedipal conflict of father and son for superiority, through possession of the woman, underlies the action of the play. Ephraim’s superior maleness will be demonstrated unequivocally with the birth of a son by Abby. Eben’s secret knowledge that Abby’s son is his secures his male superiority as well as his claim to the farm. When Eben becomes jealous of Ephraim’s possessiveness of the baby, Abby, literally accepting his cry that he wishes the baby had never been born, murders the child to prove her love. She readily acknowledges her crime, Eben accepts his responsibility, and both resign themselves to punishment. Ephraim must remain on the farm. “God’s hard,” he says, believing that a force beyond himself has guided events.
The structure of the play is one of O’Neill’s tightest; its three acts are economical and swiftly moving. O’Neill’s innovative set design of the original production made use of a house exterior and interior: When a scene occurred in one room, the exterior wall could be removed, and scenes set in different rooms could be viewed simultaneously. This allowed for an easy flow from one scene to another. The lighting also contributed, providing a contrast between the brightly lit exterior and the dim, shadowy interior.
O’Neill’s use of language is masterful; the Yankee words and phrases such as “Ayeh,” “purty,” and “I love ye, Abby,” and the biblical passages recited by Ephraim, arise naturally but effectively from the characters. The character of Eben is the key to the essence of the play. Of a sensitive nature, like the author himself, the weak, questing son is a figure O’Neill used many times. Here his love of the land, his awareness of its beauty, and his need for love infuse the play with poetry and elevate it above the level of simple realism into poignant tragedy.
The Great God Brown
First produced: 1926 (first published, 1926)
Type of work: Play
The rivalry of the artist in...
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