The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The curtain rises on “a corner in lower Manhattan,” where three streets meet. The street to the left is all white, that to the right is all black. In the spring evening, four white and four black children play marbles; among the children are Ella Downey, Shorty, and Mickey, all white, along with Jim Harris and Joe, who are black. As the sun sets, the children realize that they must go home, but Jim and Ella linger. When the others tease them, Jim chases them away. Alone, Jim tells Ella that he has been drinking chalk and water to make himself white, while Ella wishes she were black. Despite their racial difference, they agree that he will be her fellow, she his girl. As the scene ends, she throws a kiss to him.

Nine years pass before the next scene. The childish taunting has turned darker, the racial distinctions more pronounced. The setting is the same, but on this spring night, Jim and Ella are being graduated from high school. Their other friends will not be joining them; Mickey has become a prizefighter, while Shorty and Joe have begun a life of crime. All three resent Jim’s attempt to educate himself. Ella, too, no longer cares for him and spurns his offer of help whenever she needs a friend. His attempt to persuade Mickey to leave Ella alone also fails; only the appearance of the police saves Jim from a beating. Although Jim has been looking forward to graduation, he is devastated by Ella’s treatment, and the curtain falls as he sits immobilized, unable to move on to the high school.

Five years later, Ella and Jim meet again at the same place. Mickey has seduced and abandoned her, and her child by him has died. Shorty offers to add her to his stable of prostitutes, but she refuses. Instead, she accepts Jim’s marriage proposal. In the fourth and final scene of the first act, the wedding occurs despite the obvious hostility of both black and white...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

In All God’s Chillun Got Wings, music plays an important part. At the beginning of each of the first three scenes, O’Neill uses a pair of songs to contrast the black world with the white. Thus, as the play opens, the chorus of “Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage” comes from the white street, while from the black side one hears “I Guess I’ll Have to Telegraph My Baby.” The livelier rhythm of the latter reflects the life-loving spirit that O’Neill ascribes to African Americans, who participate unrestrainedly in nature, whereas the whites are inhibited.

Songs, together with other sounds, also help date events for the audience. “I Guess I’ll Have to Telegraph My Baby” dates from 1898. The next scene, supposed to occur nine years later, ends with the tune of “Bonbon Buddy,” composed in 1907, and the pair of songs that opens the third scene, “When I Lost You” and “Waitin’ for the Robert E. Lee,” first performed in 1912, confirms that five more years have passed. To reinforce this sense of time’s passing, O’Neill indicates how street sounds change. At first, one hears the steam engines of the trains and the hoofbeats of horses. By the second scene, the noises have become “rhythmically mechanical” because electricity has been introduced.

Sounds not only date the action and highlight racial differences but also reveal the deepening gloom of the play. The first two scenes begin with laughter and sprightly singing. By the third scene, the laughter has gone; the music “wails” and turns “maudlin.” The song from the white street,...

(The entire section is 656 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Bogard, Travis. Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O’Neill. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Engel, Edwin A. The Haunted Heroes of Eugene O’Neill. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1953.

Gelb, Arthur, and Barbara Gelb. O’Neill: Life with Monte Cristo. Vol. 1. New York: Applause, 2000.

Hinden, Michael. “The Transitional Nature of All God’s Chillun Got Wings.” Eugene O’Neill Newsletter 4 (1980): 3-5.

Houchin, John H., ed. The Critical Response to Eugene O’Neill. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993.

Ranald, Margaret Loftus. The Eugene O’Neill Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984.

Robinson, James A. “Christianity and All God’s Chillun Got Wings.” Eugene O’Neill Newsletter 2 (May, 1978): 1-3.

Tiusanen, Timo. O’Neill’s Scenic Images. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968.

Waith, Eugene M. “Eugene O’Neill: An Exercise in Unmasking.” Educational Theatre Journal 13 (October, 1961).