The Play (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
The prologue to The Great God Brown takes place outside a high school during the annual commencement dance. Billy Brown’s father, partner in a construction firm with Dion Anthony’s father, anticipates that Billy will study architecture in college. Dion, wearing the mask of a reckless, sensual young man, is secretly extremely sensitive and anxious to create a self of his own unlike that of his stolid father. Margaret, adored by Billy, rejects him and is attracted instead to Dion’s mask; when Dion takes it off, however, hoping to be loved for his essential self, she is confused and frightened. He replaces his mask, acknowledging that he needs her to be his “skin” even if she will never really know him.
Seven years later, in act 1, Dion and Margaret are married and have three nondescript sons. The Pan mask has become Mephistophelian and Dion’s real face more ascetic. Because he has exhausted his father’s inheritance, he allows Margaret to arrange with his rival Billy, now head of his own dead father’s firm, to hire him as a draftsman. Billy’s architectural designs are conventional and unimaginative. Envious of Dion’s talent as well as of his marriage to Margaret, Billy hires him. Dion can reveal his spirituality and sadness only to Cybel, nominally a young prostitute but symbolically an earth-mother figure. When Billy finds Dion at Cybel’s, Dion must put on his public mask again. Frustrated in his attempts to use art to see...
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Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
Partly because scenes in The Great God Brown alternate so rapidly, returning to the same few places—office, home, Cybel’s apartment—in a rhythm indicative of Dion and Billy’s living harassed double lives, Eugene O’Neill’s directions call for quick-change backdrops, rather than fixed or revolving scenery. The relative insignificance of place in the play also permits him to focus audience attention on the interior lives of his characters. To provide them with an experience of the sometimes dazzling complexities within each seemingly singular self, he developed the use of masks far beyond any earlier dependence on them. Not only Dion and Billy but also Margaret and even Cybel have masks, although in the case of the women the masks are simpler, less changeable. O’Neill was familiar with the use of masks among the ancient Greeks, but his purpose was not theirs. The Greeks were concerned with practical visibility in an amphitheater and with implied universality, when they put outsize masks on their performers. O’Neill’s interest, by contrast, lay in dramatizing mass anonymity in The Hairy Ape (pr., pb. 1922) and conflicting layers of the inner man in The Great God Brown, far beyond the triangle of ego-id-superego already introduced into psychological studies by Sigmund Freud.
O’Neill was determined to invent whole new ways of deepening theatrical commonplaces. His awareness of the actor as sacrificing personal...
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The Emergence of the American Theatre
At the end of the nineteenth century, a group of playwrights, which included James A. Herne, Bronson Howard, David Belasco, Augustus Thomas, Clyde Fitch, and William Vaughn Moody, started breaking away from traditional melodramatic forms and themes. Consequently, American theatre began to establish its own identity. These and other playwrights in the early part of the twentieth century were inspired by the dramatic innovations of Henrik Ibsen August Strindberg, and George Bernard Shaw. During this period, experimental theatre groups made up of dramatists and actors encouraged new innovative American playwrights. In 1914, Lawrence Langner, Helen Westley, Philip Moeller, and Edward Goodman created the Washington Square Players in New York, and playwright Susan Glaspell in 1915, helped start the Provincetown Players in Massachusetts. The most important member of this latter group was Eugene O’Neill, who wrote plays with a uniquely American voice. George H. Jensen, in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, notes that ‘‘before O’Neill began to write, most American plays were poor imitations or outright thefts of European works.’’ Jensen insists that O’Neill became the ‘‘catalyst and symbol . . . of the establishment of American drama.’’
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Combining Realism and Expressionism
O’Neill combines elements of realism—a style that makes things look like they would in real life— and expressionism—a style that distorts things to look like they might come from the point of view of the characters—in The Great God Brown. Expressionistic plays often employ masks to either hide the characters’ inner emotions or reflect them. The masks used by the main characters in the play objectify the public images they want to portray and at the same time hide their inner psychological and emotional turmoil. The masks also work effectively to isolate the characters from each another. George H. Jensen, in his article on O’Neill for Dictionary of Literary Biography, writes, ‘‘The mask is a defense, a pose, a lie that a character presents to the world to protect the vulnerable self beneath it. Only rarely can a character feel secure enough to unmask and reveal his true self. The mask, O’Neill felt, was an unfortunate necessity. It protects the self, but maintaining a mask (the strain of living a lie) dissipates, haunts, and isolates the self.’’ Dion and Billy are ultimately destroyed by wearing masks.
O’Neill employs these nonrealistic devices in a realistic setting. For example, when Billy assumes Dion’s identity, he not only starts wearing his mask, he also dresses in his friend’s clothes. Billy’s wearing of Dion’s clothes helps him fool people...
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Compare and Contrast
1926: Joseph Stalin becomes dictator of the Soviet Union. His reign of terror will last for twenty-seven years.
1991: On December 17, President Mikhail Gorbachev orders the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and a new Commonwealth of Independent States is formed by the countries that formerly made up the Soviet Union.
1926: The Theory of the Gene by Columbia University zoologist Thomas Hunt Morgan lays the groundwork for future genetic research.
1984: Veterinarian Steven Willadsen divides sheep embryos and, as a result, clones a sheep.
1926: Don Juan, starring John Barrymore becomes the first film to be accompanied by electrically recorded sound. This process, called Vitaphone, is created by Western Electric.
1980: Videocassettes recorders are a hot item for American consumers. As a result, the rental and sale of videocassettes generate a profitable industry.
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Topics for Further Study
Research Freud’s theories on the subconscious, especially his definition of the ego, the id, and the super ego and apply them to the characters and their use of masks in The Great God Brown.
Investigate the history of the use of masks in the theater. Explain whether O’Neill’s use of masks in the play is traditional or innovative.
Read O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night and compare its themes to those in The Great God Brown.
Explore biographical details about O’Neill, especially those that concern his relationship with his family. What autobiographical elements can you find in the play?
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What Do I Read Next?
In the philosophic essay The Birth of Tragedy (1872) Friedrich Nietzsche outlines his vision of the tensions between the Apollonian and Dionysian impulses and discusses the uses of masks in Greek tragedy (paperback editions from Dover and Oxford University Press).
August Strindberg’s surrealistic A Dream Play, which opened in 1902, became the forerunner of modern expressionism and influenced a new generation of dramatists, including Eugene O’Neill (widely available).
A collection of Sigmund Freud’s work can be found in The Ego and the Id (The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud). This volume presents Freud’s theories of the subconscious (in paperback from W. W. Norton, 1990).
Long Day’s Journey into Night, first performed in 1956, is O’Neill’s finest study of domestic interaction and offers insight into O’Neill’s own tragic relationship with his family (widely available).
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Allen, Kelcey, ‘‘Great God Brown by O’Neill Unique,’’ in Women’s Wear Daily, January 25, 1926.
Anderson, John, ‘‘Another O’Neill Play Comes to Town,’’ in New York Post, January 25, 1926.
Anschutz, Grace, ‘‘Masks, Their Use by Pirandello and O’Neill,’’ in Drama, Vol. 17, April, 1927, p. 201.
Atkinson, Brooks, ‘‘Ibsen and O’Neill,’’ in New York Times, January 31, 1926, p.1.
Atkinson, Brooks, ‘‘Symbolism in an O’Neill Tragedy,’’ in New York Times, January 25, 1926, p.26.
Bogard, Travis, Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O’Neill, Oxford University Press, 1972.
Bogdanoff, Rose, ‘‘Masks, Their Uses Past and Present,’’ in Drama, Vol. 21, May, 1931, p. 21.
Brown, John Mason, ‘‘Doldrums of Midwinter,’’ in Theatre Arts, Vol. 10, March 1926, pp. 145–46.
Carb, David, ‘‘The Great God Brown,’’ in Vogue, Vol. 67, March 15, 1926, p. 106
Clark, Barrett H., ‘‘Fin de Saison on Broadway,’’ in Drama, Vol. 16, May, 1926, pp. 289–90.
Coleman, Robert, ‘‘God Brown Tedious,’’ in New York Mirror, January 25, 1926.
Gilbert, Gabriel, ‘‘All God’s Chillun Got Masks,’’ in New York...
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Sources for Further Study
Carpenter, Frederick I. “The Great God Brown.” In Eugene O’Neill. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1979.
Engel, Edwin A. “Saint and Satan.” In The Haunted Heroes of Eugene O’Neill. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1953.
Estrin, Mark W., ed. Conversations with Eugene O’Neill. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1990.
Falk, Doris V. Eugene O’Neill and the Tragic Tension: An Interpretative Study of the Plays. 2d ed. New York: Gordian Press, 1982.
Floyd, Virginia. “The Great God Brown.” In The Plays of Eugene O’Neill: A New Assessment. New York: F. Ungar, 1985.
Frenz, Horst. “Desire, Masks, and ’Beautiful Philosophy.’” In Eugene O’Neill. Translated by Helen Sebba. New York: F. Ungar, 1971.
Houchin, John. The Critical Response to Eugene O’Neill. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993.
O’Neill, Eugene. “Memoranda on Masks.” In O’Neill and His Plays: Four Decades of Criticism, edited by Oscar Cargill et al. New York: New York University Press, 1961.
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