“I love that play,” O’Neill declared of The Great God Brown, which remained one of his favorites. Perhaps his fondness derived from the subjective, autobiographical nature of Dion Anthony, one of the characters, who expresses O’Neill’s search for spiritual certainty, as well as his physical qualities and his bitterness. Perhaps O’Neill’s liking sprang from the expressionistic device of the masks, which makes the play one of his strangest and most experimental. Although the critics did not share O’Neill’s feeling, the public was fascinated by the play, which ran for more than 280 performances.
The plot, which is somewhat obscure, involves two young men, friendly rivals from childhood, Dion Anthony and Billy Brown. Dion, an artist, should become a painter, but his father refuses to send him to college. Billy, the stereotypical ideal American boy, goes to college, becomes an architect, and joins his father’s firm. It is Dion who wins the girl, Margaret, despite Billy’s love for her.
Seven years pass. The marriage of Dion and Margaret is unsuccessful: “We communicate in code—when neither has the other’s key!” says Dion, drinking and gambling his inheritance away. Billy, now successful, employs Dion at Margaret’s request, and uses Dion’s creativity to enhance his own designs. Their career rivalry extends to Dion’s friend, the prostitute Cybel, whom Billy keeps as a mistress. The play’s events are understandable, almost banal, until the end of act 2, when Dion suddenly accuses Billy of being unable to love and trying to steal Margaret and Cybel out of envy. Billy admits his love for Margaret; Dion replies, “with a terrible composure”: “No! . . . [Billy] loves me! He loves me because I have always possessed the power he needed for love, because I am love!”...
(The entire section is 747 words.)