Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“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...
(The entire section is 747 words.)
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Prologue and Act One
The play opens on the night of the high school commencement dance. Billy Brown stands on the pier with his parents, who decide that Billy will go to college to study architecture and that he will eventually become a partner in his father’s firm. Soon after the Browns leave, the Anthonys approach the pier. Dion walks behind them ‘‘as if he were a stranger.’’ Eugene O’Neill
Mr. and Mrs. Anthony argue about sending Dion to college. His father says he doesn’t believe in it, declaring, ‘‘let him slave like I had to! . . . College’ll only make him a bigger fool than he is already.’’ However, when Mrs. Anthony tells him that Billy will be going to college to become an architect and afterward will work in the contracting firm he and Mr. Brown jointly own, Dion’s father changes his mind, insisting that Dion will go to college and become a better architect or he will turn his son ‘‘out in the gutter without a penny.’’
Later, Margaret and Billy come out on the pier. Margaret takes off her mask, which is an accurate replica of her own face, and declares her love for Dion as Billy declares his own feelings for her. After she ignores his pronouncements, Billy feels despondent but wishes her happiness and insists that he will always be her best friend. The focus then shifts to Dion, standing alone. He takes off his mask, revealing ‘‘his real face . . . shrinking, shy and...
(The entire section is 1098 words.)