Like William Shakespeare, O’Neill was a man of the theater: He was born into it, grew up in it, worked in it, and wrote for it. He knew his craft, and he hated the artificiality and pretense of the commercial theater. He said, “The theatre to me is life—the substance and interpretation of life. . . . [And] life is struggle, often, if not usually, unsuccessful struggle.” O’Neill was an artist of integrity and courage; he was constantly exploring, expanding, experimenting. He tended toward realism in his work, rejecting material that could not be verified by the senses.
At times, however, he played with nonrealistic, expressionistic devices, externalizing the interior state of a character with sound or light or language: the throbbing tom-toms in The Emperor Jones (1920), to signify Jones’s increasing hysteria; the masks in The Great God Brown (1926), to portray the multifaceted nature of the characters; the foghorn in Long Day’s Journey into Night, to parallel Mary’s increasing confusion. At other times, his characters seem to have sprung from a Darwinian naturalism, helpless in the grip of forces beyond their control.
O’Neill also experimented with content and structure. When Eugene, Jr., became a classical scholar, the playwright sought to share these interests and grew fascinated by the powerful material of Greek tragedy: incest, infanticide, matricide, and the accompanying burden of guilt and atonement. He shared the Greeks’ view of the individual in conflict with the universe and with whatever God or gods inhabit it, and he was further concerned with the dearth of tragedy in the modern theater. Desire Under the Elms (1924), which includes infanticide, and Mourning Becomes Electra, which derives from Aeschylus’s Oresteia (fifth century b.c.e.), were efforts to create modern tragedies exploring the agonies suffered by those who behave against law and conscience.
The structure varies from play to play. O’Neill could use a traditional brief one-act structure, as in the early sea plays, but both The Hairy Ape (1922) and The Emperor Jones are long one-acts with a number of scenes. Desire Under the Elms is a traditional-length three-act play, but Strange Interlude is a very long play in two parts with fourteen scenes and a break for dinner. Mourning Becomes Electra is perhaps the longest, essentially consisting of three full-length plays, with a total of thirteen acts. The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey into Night, with four acts each, run between four and five hours in the theater. At times both audiences and critics complained, but O’Neill insisted that the length was appropriate and necessary for his ideas.
Even at his most experimental, there is an unerring psychological validity to his characters. The ideas of Freudian psychoanalysis were contemporary throughout O’Neill’s career, and the power of the unconscious suited his characters well. They may openly express a longing for the sea or for a farm or for a place in the universe, but the conflict with the father or the longing for love from the mother rages not far below the surface. Working from his own unconscious, O’Neill created plays that were disguised attempts to work through his personal conflicts with his mother, father, and brother, and with his own quest for identity. Travis Bogard claims that “the sum of his work comprises an autobiography.”
Although O’Neill’s view of humanity was despairing and nearly tragic, there are no moral messages in his plays. He does not preach or promote causes. There are few villains in his works; instead there are characters of enormous energy, driven by huge passions—lust, greed, ambition, and love. A major thematic concern with O’Neill is obsessive love, love that drives a person without reason and beyond conscience, love that does not heal but smothers and destroys. Although Christine...
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