Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 665

When The Great God Brown premiered on January 23, 1926, at the Greenwich Village Theatre in New York, the opening night reviews were mixed. Many critics praised O’Neill’s daring experimentalism and psychological themes in the play. Others, though, found fault with those same qualities. Public response was strong enough to run the play for 283 performances. Since then, assessments of the play have remained mixed.

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On opening night, E. W. Osborn in his review for New York World praised the play’s bold innovations, commenting that ‘‘the unexpected is again introduced and spells wonderful.’’ In his New York Times opening night review, Brooks Atkinson ignores claims that the play was at times confusing but applauds O’Neill’s experimentalism. A few years after the play debuted, Barrett H. Clark in Drama argues that The Great God Brown is the ‘‘highest development of O’Neill’s genius we have seen. Like all poets, he writes ahead of us.’’ Clark thought that the play should be awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Focusing on O’Neill’s technique, Rose Bogdanoff writes in Drama, ‘‘O’Neill’s use of the mask is the finest in modern theatre, as much a part of the play as the lines themselves.’’

Other reviewers, however, find fault with O’Neill’s technique in the play. In her opening night review for Women’s Wear Daily, Kelcey Allen writes, ‘‘The transfer of personality is unacceptable, and far-fetched Expressionism and symbolism must have some relationship to the sphere of logic; there is mask switching to the point of strangulation. A laboratory experiment not good for the theatre.’’ J. S. Metcalfe in the Wall Street Journal adds another criticism of the play’s technique, commenting, ‘‘the masks hinder instead of help, making some speeches seem laughable.’’ Thus, Metcalfe concludes, ‘‘O’Neill is no longer the great dramatist of realism and low-life characters.’’ Robert Coleman faulted the play’s presentation of themes, insisting that it is an ‘‘ineffective and tedious psychological study,’’ and the ‘‘despairing dirge of a puzzled pessimist.’’

Most critics praised O’Neill’s attempts at experimentation but argued that the play achieved only a partial success. David Carb in Vogue writes that the play is a ‘‘subtly conceived symbolic tragedy, finely imagined, written with glowing loveliness. It fails to succeed only because of a physical device.’’ A reviewer in New York Graphic finds a ‘‘strength and beauty of lines,’’ but warns theatergoers that they will ‘‘go home mystified and bored.’’ Frank Vreeland in New York Telegram writes that the play reveals ‘‘O’Neill at both his best and his worst.’’ John Anderson echoes this assessment in his review for the New York Post, commenting, ‘‘O’Neill has ventured everything and achieved a superb failure. . . . The play eventually drowns magnificently in the seething theories of the writer.’’ Don Carle Gillette, who writes about the play for Billboard, notes that O’Neill is an acquired taste for audiences and calls the play a ‘‘glorious confusion.’’ John Mason Brown in Theatre Arts agrees with this assessment but insists that the first two acts are successful, and that ‘‘in an otherwise dull season, this comes as an utterly different experiment.’’ In his review for the New York Sun, Gabriel Gilbert admits to being ‘‘hot but troubled’’ for O’Neill’s ‘‘most poetic and penetrating play,’’ and insists that the author ‘‘does not write for popularity but for posterity. One will remember the play whatever he thinks of it.’’

Some scholars discuss the play in comparisons of O’Neill’s work with that of other dramatists. Brooks Atkinson, in his article on Ibsen and O’Neill for the New York Times, finds similarities in the two writers’ plays, especially in their ‘‘emotional sensitiveness and philosophy,’’ but ultimately concludes that The Great God Brown is almost ‘‘unintelligible.’’ In her article, ‘‘Masks, Their Use by Pirandello and O’Neill,’’ Grace Anschutz compares the style of the two writers and determines that Pirandello’s use of masks is more successful than O’Neill’s.

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Essays and Criticism