The Play

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 772

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.

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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 people. To escape this racism, the newlyweds leave for France.

Another two years pass. Although the French do not discriminate against them, Jim and Ella are not happy. When he left the United States, Jim gave up his chance of becoming a lawyer, a dream to which he clings even though he has never been a good student. Ella cannot shed her ambivalence toward Jim; she admires his kindness and ambition, but she hates his blackness. Embarrassed to be married to a black man, she has imprisoned herself within their French country house until she has become ill, both mentally and physically. They therefore decide to return to New York to confront their fears. As Jim says, “By being brave we’d free ourselves, and gain confidence, and be really free inside and able then to go anywhere and live in peace and equality with ourselves and the world without any uncomfortable feeling coming up to rile us.”

The conditional “we’d” indicates that Jim is not certain that life will improve, and his fears are quickly justified in the first scene of the second act, when Ella encounters Hattie, Jim’s sister. Proud of her heritage, Hattie resents Ella’s condescension toward her. Their confrontation bursts into a furious verbal exchange when Ella says that she will not allow Jim to take the bar examination. Siding with his wife, Jim threatens to leave. Instead, Hattie and her mother go, giving the house to Jim and Ella.

Despite their return to the United States, Ella becomes increasingly sick. Hattie has tried to nurse her, but Ella’s hateful outbursts have driven her away. Ella cannot bear having another white person in the house, and since she hates African Americans, Jim remains the only one to care for her. Hattie warns him that he cannot attend to both his wife and his legal studies, but he rejects the warning.

As the play’s final scene reveals, Hattie was right. Jim returns from the post office with a letter announcing that he has again failed to pass the examination. Ella rejoices; she had planned to kill Jim if he had succeeded. She tells Jim that she has feigned madness and kept him awake at night tending to her to prevent his concentrating on his work. His love for her is so strong that he forgives her, and when she asks him to pretend that they are children and play with her, he replies in the last speech of the work, “Honey, Honey, I’ll play right up to the gates of Heaven with you!”

Dramatic Devices

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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, “When I Lost You,” adds to the melancholy mood: It is Irving Berlin’s lament for his first wife, who died of typhoid fever shortly after they were married. Only one song introduces the last scene of the first act, and it concludes “with a brooding, earthbound sorrow,” to be followed by the harsh clang of the church bell, more fitting for a funeral than for the marriage that has just occurred.

Even these sounds are absent from the second act, which uses setting to establish mood. In moving from the outside world of the first act to the confined apartment of the second, O’Neill shows that Jim and Ella are trapped. In each of the last three scenes, the space becomes more restricted, so that by the end of the play “the ceiling . . . barely clears the people’s heads” and the walls are pressing in on the characters.

Two objects play a particularly significant role in this room: a Congo mask that Hattie gave to Jim for a wedding present and the picture of Jim’s father. The latter depicts an elderly man who is “dressed in outlandish lodge regalia . . . with medals, sashes, a cocked hat with frills. . . .” Like Jim, the older Harris has adopted the stereotype whites seek to impose on him, covering his natural shrewdness in demeaning attire. The mask, on the other hand, expresses black pride. Even though Ella calls it “ugly . . . and stupid,” her very reaction reveals her recognition of its power. It embodies the essence of blackness that she hates, so she responds to it as she responds to Jim. At the end of the play she stabs the mask; she would have stabbed Jim had he passed his examination, because as much as part of her wants Jim to succeed, she finally cannot accept his equality with her. If he were to prove himself as smart as whites, she would have to kill him. The mask, a proud assertion of Jim’s African heritage, must be destroyed.

Like its donor, Hattie, the mask offers Jim an alternative to his father’s, and his own, acceptance of white values. He could recognize his own worth and not feel compelled to prove himself. Instead, he abandons the mask when he goes to France, for, as he tells Joe, he sees himself as “a nigger.”

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 140

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).

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