The Great God Brown

by Eugene O’Neill

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 402

Dion Anthony

Dion Anthony, a talented but failed artist and architect. Dion’s dilemma is that of the creative and sensitive artist in the crass, materialistic world. In his youth, he starts on the course of ruination through drink and gambling. His dissipation is reflected in the mask this character sometimes carries and sometimes wears throughout this expressionistic play. In the opening scene, his mask shows the defiance and rebelliousness of a “sensual young Pan” and hides the more spiritual, poetic qualities of Dion’s face. Seven years later, his mask has hardened into an image of a bitter, mocking Mephistopheles, and his face has become more aged and strained but also more ascetic. At this point, Dion’s wife, Margaret, obtains a position for Dion as an architect with Billy Brown, a childhood friend. Although Dion produces successful designs, his disgust over selling out to materialism, to the Great God Brown, helps to complete the ravages on his face and mask. He dies seven years later, his face that of a martyr but his mask completely diabolic in its picture of cruelty and evil.

William A. (Billy) Brown

William A. (Billy) Brown, a successful architect, a good-looking, well-dressed, prosperous businessman. He has always loved Margaret and employs Dion at her request. Brown, however, takes credit for Dion’s ingenuity and designs, a betrayal that contributes to Dion’s decline. Dion dies in Brown’s home, and when Margaret arrives, Brown conceals the body and garbs himself in Dion’s clothes and mask. For the next three months, he deceives both Margaret and office draftsmen by wearing his own Billy Brown mask of the smiling, successful executive at work and by wearing Dion’s mask at the Anthony home. His own face, however, now shows the strain of living with the demon in Dion’s mask, and he comes to realize that he has failed in stealing the mask to acquire the creative spirit of Dion.

Margaret Anthony

Margaret Anthony, Dion’s wife. Young and pretty when she marries, she grows increasingly worried over Dion’s dissipation. At home, she reveals her face to her husband, but when she goes to Billy’s office to ask him to hire Dion, she covers her anxiety with the mask of her character: that of the innocent, hopeful matron. Margaret is thereby able to pretend that things are better at home than they really are.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1899

Dion Anthony O’Neill introduces his protagonist, Dion Anthony, as ‘‘lean and wiry, without repose, continually in restless nervous movement.’’ When he first appears at the dock, Dion’s face is masked. The mask is a ‘‘fixed forcing of his own face—dark, spiritual, poetic, passionately supersensitive, helplessly unprotected in its childlike, religious faith in life—into the expression of a mocking, reckless, defiant, gaily scoffing and sensual young Pan.’’ The audience discovers later that Dion began wearing the mask after his friend Billy Brown betrayed him. He explains that from that moment he became ‘‘silent for life and designed a mask of the Bad Boy Pan in which to live and rebel against that other boy’s God and protect myself from His cruelty.’’ Throughout the play his insecurities tear at him and cause him to hide behind a mask of cruel indifference. At one point he asks himself a series of questions that reveal his anguish:

Why am I afraid to dance, I who love music and rhythm and grace and song and laughter? Why am I afraid to live, I who love life and the beauty of flesh and the living colors of earth and sky and sea? Why am...

(This entire section contains 1899 words.)

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I afraid of love, I who love love? Why must I pretend to scorn in order to pity? Why must I hide myself in self-contempt in order to understand? Why must I be so ashamed of my strength, so proud of my weakness? Why must I live in a cage like a criminal, defying and hating, I who love peace and friendship. Why was I born without a skin, oh God, that I must wear armor in order to touch or to be touched.

Several times he tries to remove the mask and reveal his true self to Margaret, but she is unable to gaze at his acute vulnerability. As a result of his artistic failings and Margaret’s inability to accept the reality of his suffering, he tries to harden himself against life.

Throughout the play, Dion fights a battle between his sensitive nature and his growing cynicism about life. He often prays to God for salvation but is not able to find it. At one point when he reads from the Bible, ‘‘Come unto me all ye who are heavy laden and I will give you rest,’’ he cries out, ‘‘I will come—but where are you, Savior?’’ He feels forsaken by all, including God. He explains, ‘‘I got paint on my paws in an endeavor to see God. But that Ancient Humorist had given me weak eyes, so now I’ll have to foreswear my quest for Him and go in for the Omnipresent Successful Serious One, the Great God Mr. Brown, instead.’’ His cynicism and bitterness often emerge in his dealings with Billy whom he blames in part for his suffering. Ultimately though, his kind, sensitive nature allows him to forgive Billy and ask, ‘‘God forgive me the evil I’ve done him.’’ When he tells Cybel that he lacks strength to endure his suffering on his own, she insists, ‘‘you’re not weak. You were born with ghosts in your eyes and you were brave enough to go looking into your own dark—and you got afraid.’’ After alcoholism ravages his body, he dies like a ‘‘Christian martyr,’’ asking Billy to take over his role as husband and father.

Margaret Anthony When the play opens, Margaret, almost seventeen, is a ‘‘pretty and vivacious, blonde, with big romantic eyes, her figure lithe and strong, her facial expression intelligent but youthfully dreamy.’’ Like Dion, Margaret also wears a mask, but hers is ‘‘an exact almost transparent reproduction of her own features.’’ The mask gives her ‘‘the abstract quality of a Girl instead of the individual, Margaret.’’ She loves Dion deeply but is not strong enough to look beneath his mask and face his vulnerabilities. She regards Dion as a ‘‘crazy child’’ and attempts to mother him. When she insists that he has the talent to be a great painter, Dion says of her, ‘‘her blindness surpasseth all understanding—or is it pity?’’ After enduring Dion’s failures and his inattention to her and their three sons, Margaret’s mask and face change. Her mask becomes ‘‘the brave face she puts on before the world to hide her suffering and disillusionment.’’ When Dion dies, Margaret swears her love for him will be eternal.

Mr. Anthony Mr. Anthony is a ‘‘tall lean man of fifty-five or sixty with a grim, defensive face, obstinate to the point of stupid weakness.’’ Dion admits that he and his father were ‘‘aliens’’ to each other. Dion’s estrangement from his father becomes apparent at the beginning of the play when he walks alone behind his parents ‘‘as if he were a stranger.’’ His father’s critical nature and lack of support for his son surface when he initially rejects his wife’s pleas to send Dion to college. Mr. Anthony insists, ‘‘let him slave like I had to. . . . College’ll only make him a bigger fool than he is already.’’ However, after Mrs. Anthony reveals Billy Brown’s plans for college and his future in the company owned jointly by the Anthonys and the Browns, Mr. Anthony’s ambition causes him to change his mind. He now declares that Dion will go to college and become a better architect than Billy, or, he warns him, ‘‘I’ll turn you out in the gutter without a penny.’’

Mrs. Anthony Mrs. Anthony is a ‘‘thin frail faded woman, her manner perpetually nervous and distraught, but with a sweet and gentle face that had once been beautiful.’’ Dion’s supportive mother continually tries to build up his confidence in his artistic talent. During the opening conversation among the family on the pier, she proudly tells Dion, ‘‘you’ve always painted pictures so well.’’ Yet, she shows weakness in not defending her son more forcefully against his father’s verbal abuse. Dion alludes to both her pride and her weakness when, after his father insists that he will go to college, he declares, ‘‘I thank Mr. Anthony for this splendid opportunity to create myself in my mother’s image, so she may feel her life comfortably concluded.’’ Dion describes his mother as ‘‘a sweet, strange girl, with affectionate, bewildered eyes as if God had locked her in a dark closet without any explanation.’’ Her death becomes almost unbearable for Dion since, he admits, ‘‘her hands alone had caressed without clawing.’’

Billy Brown See William Brown

Mr. Brown Readers only get a glimpse of Billy’s parents at the beginning of the play. Billy’s father ‘‘is fifty or more, the type of bustling, genial, successful provincial business man, stout and hearty in his evening dress.’’ He owns an architect firm with Dion’s father. His wife’s lack of respect for his business angers him. He has set goals for his son that he expects him to follow without question.

Mrs. Brown Billy’s mother appears as ‘‘a dumpy woman of forty-five, overdressed in black lace and spangles.’’ Her insistence on addressing her son only in the third person reveals her lack of maternal instincts. When she is discussing Billy’s future with his father, Billy stands ‘‘like a prisoner at the bar, facing the judge.’’ Her words reveal her ‘‘yearning for the realization of a dream.’’ She announces her determination that Billy will go to college and study for a profession, and then she gains agreement from her husband. Her primary concern appears to be her social status. She has been disappointed in her role in life and so pins her hopes to move up in society on her son. When Billy joins the firm as an architect, the company and the family will gain higher status in the community.

William Brown When readers are first introduced to Billy Brown, he is a handsome, tall, and athletic boy of nearly eighteen. He is blond and blue-eyed, ‘‘with a likeable smile and a frank good-humored face, its expression already indicating a disciplined restraint. His manner has the easy self-assurance of a normal intelligence.’’ Throughout the play, he harbors an intense love for Margaret that she returns only when he ‘‘becomes’’ Dion by putting on his mask. After he takes over his father’s business and expands it through his talent as an architect, he grows ‘‘into a fine-looking, well-dressed, capable, college-bred American business man, boyish still and with the same engaging personality.’’ Billy’s unrequited love for Margaret and his jealousy over Dion’s artistic talents, however, become the impetus for his moral collapse. His betrayal of Dion when the two were boys is one of the primary causes of Dion’s vulnerability and thus his subsequent failures. After Billy talks Dion into working with him, Billy takes credit for his friend’s creativity. He also tries to weaken him in an effort to win Margaret’s love. Knowing that Cybel offers Dion much needed comfort, Billy tries to persuade her to stop her contact with him. He also offers the alcoholic Dion drinks. Toward the end of the play, Dion tells Billy that he is ‘‘unloved by life . . . a successful freak, the result of some snide neutralizing of life forces—a spineless cactus.’’ When Billy insists that he is satisfied with his life, Dion contradicts him, arguing that Billy has ‘‘piled on layers of protective fat, but . . . he feels at his heart the gnawing of a doubt!’’

After he assumes Dion’s identity, Billy is forced to face his own shortcomings. His own ‘‘suffering face’’ has become ‘‘ravaged and haggard . . . tortured and distorted by the demon of Dion’s mask.’’ He admits, ‘‘you’re dead, William Brown, dead beyond hope of resurrection. It’s the Dion you buried in your garden who killed you, not you him.’’ Later when Margaret tells him as Dion that Billy confessed his love for her, Billy laments, ‘‘Poor Billy, Poor Billy the Goat. I’ll kill him for you. . . . I’ll murder this God-damned disgusting Great God Brown who stands like a fatted calf in the way of our health and wealth and happiness.’’ When Margaret becomes apprehensive about his response, he tells her not to worry since ‘‘Mr. Brown is now safely in hell. Forget him.’’ Eventually Billy turns, like Dion had, to God for comfort and salvation. He asks, ‘‘Why must the demons in me pander to cheapness— then punish me with self-loathing and lifehatred. Why am I not strong enough to perish—or blind enough to be content. Give me the strength to destroy [the mask]—and myself—and him—and I will believe in thee.’’ At one point he loses faith, claiming, ‘‘God has become disgusted and moved away to some far ecstatic star where life is a dancing flame!’’ Yet, as he is dying, he appears to find peace when he tells Cybel that he hears God speak to him.

Cybel Cybel is a ‘‘strong, calm, sensual blonde girl of twenty or so, fresh and healthy.’’ She brings Dion into her home after he passes out on her steps. Although she wears the mask of a prostitute, beneath it she is ‘‘like an unmoved idol of Mother Earth’’ who offers maternal comfort for Dion and Billy. When she and Billy are together, they are each able to take off their masks.




Critical Essays