Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1515
In the closing pages of Thomas Mann’s novel, Death in Venice, Aschenbach, the main character, condemns the role of the artist and the artistic impulse: ‘‘the training of the public and of youth through art is a precarious undertaking which should be forbidden. For how, indeed, could he be a fit instructor who is born with a natural leaning towards the precipice?’’ In The Great God Brown, O’Neill offers a more sympathetic view of his main character than does Mann, but he communicates a similar portrait of the artist ‘‘leaning towards the precipice.’’ Dion Anthony, in fact, falls into this void of despair and self-destruction, his supersensitive artistic soul unable to cope with the hostile world he inhabits. The psychological theory O’Neill tests in The Great God Brown (as did Mann in his novel) is based on Friedrich Nietzsche’s paradigm of the two opposing ‘‘gods’’ in human nature: the Apollonian and the Dionysian. O’Neill illustrates these forces in the play through the characterizations of Dion Anthony and Billy Brown. Each character expresses only one impulse. Billy represents the controlled voice of reason through much of the play, while Dion expresses the emotionality and creativity of the artist. Each man is ultimately Playbill cover from a 1959 production of O’Neill’s The Great God Brown. destroyed by his inability to develop and embrace the opposing impulse and thus strike a harmonious internal balance.
According to Nietzsche, an ideal state can be achieved by a balancing of these two conflicting impulses—the Dionysian irrational, creative, primal being controlled by Apollonian order, reason, and repose. However, O’Neill suggests that the two main characters in The Great God Brown have been unable to develop this duality in their natures and, as a result, are unable to fulfill their dreams. George H. Jensen, in his article on O’Neill for the Dictionary of Literary Biography explains, ‘‘Surrounded by disappointment, O’Neill acquired what might be termed a ‘tragic sense of life’ that people are doomed to suffer intensely, mocked by dreams they cannot attain.’’ O’Neill transferred this tragic sense to the characters in his plays.
Dion Anthony’s extreme sensitivity and inability to find a reasoned order for his life prevent him from coping with the failure of his dream to become a successful artist. Since he was a child, Dion, whose name echoes Dionysus—the Greek god of vegetation and wine—has tried to focus his artistic talents but has been continually thwarted by others’ lack of consideration for his needs as well as his own fragile sensibilities. The first obstacle Dion faced occurred when he was four. He explains that Billy:
sneaked up behind when I was drawing a picture in the sand he couldn’t draw and hit me on the head with a stick and kicked out my picture and laughed when I cried. It wasn’t what he’d done that made me cry, but him. I had loved and trusted him and suddenly the good God was disproved in his person and the evil and injustice of Man was born. Everyone called me crybaby, so I 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.’’
Dion wears a cynical, ironic mask throughout most of the play in an effort to shield himself from the harsh realities of his life. Jenson argues that in the play ‘‘The mask is a defense, a pose, a lie that a character presents to the world to protect the vulnerable self beneath it. Only rarely can a character feel secure enough to unmask and reveal his true self. The mask, O’Neill felt, was an unfortunate necessity. It protects the self, but maintaining a mask (the strain of living a lie) dissipates, haunts, and isolates the self.’’ In his book on O’Neill’s plays, Travis Bogard notes the irony in the author’s use of masks in The Great God Brown, as they ‘‘reveal the human individuality as directly and profoundly as possible. The mask being removed from Dion Anthony, what the spectator is supposed to see and what O’Neill astonishingly set himself to characterize is the human soul itself.’’ Yet Dion’s soul is too fragile, even as he hides behind his mask.
When the play opens, the audience gains a glimpse of Dion’s vulnerable nature and his efforts to shield that nature. He appears on the stage walking separately from his parents, ‘‘as if he were a stranger.’’ O’Neill illuminates the probable cause of this tension when the audience hears his father verbally abuse him. In this scene, Dion also reveals his insecurity about his artistic abilities coupled with a capacity for hope. When his mother insists that he has ‘‘always painted pictures so well,’’ he counters with, ‘‘Why must she lie? Is it my fault? She knows I only try to paint. But I will some day.’’ Dion expresses his sensitive artistic soul in a private moment that night. When he takes off his mask, he reveals ‘‘his real face . . . shrinking, shy and gentle, full of a deep sadness.’’ He questions his need to withdraw from his world, asking: 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 I afraid of love. Who loves love. . . . 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.’’
When he challenges Margaret to accept his true self without its armor, she does not recognize him and glares at him contemptuously when he tells her he loves her. Even after the two marry, Margaret refuses to peer beneath his mask, unable to face his intense vulnerability.
After failing to gain artistic success in Europe, Dion cannot find a reasonable order or purpose for his existence and, as a result, drowns himself in alcohol. Recognizing his failures as a husband and a father, Dion considers himself to be ‘‘sniveling, cringing, [and] life-denying.’’ Finally, under Margaret’s prompting, he attempts to gain success as an architect. While working with Billy in their fathers’ firm, Dion releases his artistic energies and gives life to Billy’s designs. However, when Billy takes all the credit for the work and Dion feels he has sold out to the god of materialism, Dion falls into the void of despair.
Billy also is unable to temper the dominant impulse of his nature. When the play opens, his parents reveal their plans for his future, which include him eventually becoming a partner in his father’s firm. While he agrees with his parents, he appears in their presence ‘‘like a prisoner at the bar, facing the judge.’’ Yet, his expression already indicates ‘‘a disciplined restraint.’’ Billy adopts his parents’ vision of the American dream and becomes a successful architect, evolving into ‘‘a fine-looking, well-dressed, capable, college-bred American business man.’’
Billy, however, is not content with his life. Bogard notes that ‘‘Brown cannot create, for creation depends on vision, and Brown moves in the dark.’’ He has been unable to develop a creative sensibility, which causes him to envy that quality in Dion. Bogard comments, ‘‘What [Billy] cannot possess, he destroys, as in childhood he destroyed Dion’s sand castle, and as he finally destroys himself.’’ Billy’s unrequited love for Margaret and his jealousy over Dion’s artistic talents become the impetus for his moral collapse. After Dion begins working in the firm, Billy takes credit for his friend’s creativity. Then, when Dion dies, Billy tries to assume his identity in an effort to win Margaret’s love and to develop a creative energy in his work. Yet trying to adopt Dion’s persona only forces Billy to recognize his own shortcomings. A ‘‘ravaged and haggard’’ Billy calls out to God at the end of the play, asking ‘‘Why must the demons in me pander to cheapness-then punish me with self-loathing and life-hatred. Why am I not strong enough to perish-or blind enough to be content.’’
Jensen echoes reviewers’ mixed assessment of The Great God Brown when he praises O’Neill’s innovations in the play but ultimately considers it to be a ‘‘failed experiment.’’ Yet, most critics applaud the play’s psychological intensity. O’Neill’s poetic presentation of Nietzsche’s theory of the Apollonian and the Dionysian impulses and the consequences of a lack of balance between those impulses illuminates the complex inner workings of the human psyche.
Source: Wendy Perkins, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001..
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1658
In The Great God Brown, O’Neill sees man as a prisoner in his body. His only escape is in an inner direction toward the roots of God he holds in himself. In all the world, there is no human being he can comprehend or whose comprehension enables him to unmask himself, and thus be freed of loneliness. . . .
In The Great God Brown, however, such a union is seen to be impossible, and man is condemned to the cell of self until his death.
To the outer, hostile world, he must turn a face that will not startle by revealing the terrifying agony within him. It must be an expressionless face, bland and unchanging except as it is inevitably eroded by the ravages of his hidden struggle. Wearing the mask is not a matter of choice. Like the Mask Maker in Marceau’s great pantomime, man is trapped in the mask, by circumstances, by his own fear and inhibitions, by his need to find some communion with the world beyond his cell. Edmond Dantes telegraphed by tapping on the rocks of his prison wall. In a prison that is not physical, the mask is man’s only means of communication, its mouth the only means of crying across the void that separates him from all other human beings. Only by his mask may he be known. . . .
In The Great God Brown, however, the mask is used to attain precisely the opposite value, to reveal the human individuality as directly and profoundly as possible. The mask being removed from Dion Anthony, what the spectator is supposed to see and what O’Neill astonishingly set himself to characterize is the human soul itself. This use of the mask is O’Neill’s innovation, one which, as he suggested, follows necessarily from the development of psychological theories in the twentieth century, but one which was not characteristic of the theatre of his time.
The consequences of experimentation in this direction were severe. The problem was not in the theatrically fascinating use of masks, but in the development of a language that could accompany such a direct look into the soul. What O’Neill means by a ‘‘drama of souls’’ is really not communicable directly by any verbal device. The ‘‘soul’’ is subverbal, and the great dramatist can do little else than to suggest it by the referential qualities of his poetry. Nietzsche’s claim that the mask is a way of expressing the inexpressible essence of nature sheds significant light on O’Neill’s use, where, once the mask is removed, the essence itself must be projected. O’Neill’s mistrust of the superficial and misleading ‘‘surface symbolism’’ of realism is a sign that he wishes now to present directly on his stage without symbolism the naked essence of being. In The Great God Brown there are no important symbols, if a symbol is to be taken as a referential device for the expression of an inexpressible truth. Instead, the drama of souls is enacted before its audience as if it were a realistic drama, an impossible state of affairs since once the inexpressible is expressed, it is without meaning.
The Great God Brown, despite its devices, is tied to the realistic theatre. It moves in space and time in a coherent and essentially realistic way, and its setting is sociological, rather than psychological, a space, complete with doors, windows, telephones and all the other accoutrements of daily living. O’Neill, indeed, reveals at several points a certain strain in handling his characters in the realistic context of the play. For instance, in III, i, Margaret must be brought to Brown’s office for the crucial scene, in which Brown, unmasked, declares his love for her. As she enters the office, however, O’Neill is forced to have her develop a reason for her presence, a necessity only to a totally realistic drama: ‘‘I forgot to tell him something important this morning and our phone’s out of order.’’ A similar problem develops in IV, i, when Brown switches frantically between his own mask and that of Dion’s, which he has usurped. Brown, as Brown, rushes from the room and returns wearing Dion’s mask, but there has been no time for a costume change for the actor. As a realist, O’Neill worries about the matter and has Margaret note the fact that Brown and the supposed Dion are dressed alike: ‘‘Why, Dion, that isn’t your suit. It’s just like . . .’’ Evidently, if its concern for the color of Brown’s pants is an indication, The Great God Brown is something less than a ‘‘drama of souls.’’ There is here a reminiscence of the quick change of disguise and the dashing in and out of doors of a bedroom farce or of such melodramas as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. At best the play is a realistic, somewhat overwrought narrative complete with a police chase. Whatever they were intended to do, the masks play a not completely fulfilled part.
In his early play, Bread and Butter, O’Neill had treated the same subject matter, indeed had there written what might well be considered a first draft of The Great God Brown. The 1914 version considered the fate of the artist in a small Connecticut town. Its hero, John Brown, is a thinly disguised self-portrait, and the play’s narrative is a conventional piece of autobiographical speculation that extrapolated certain domestic possibilities lying before the young O’Neill into a condemnation of marriage and of American philistinism that combined the most obvious aspects of Strindberg and Sinclair Lewis.
In The Great God Brown, O’Neill altered the story of Bread and Butter—it is no longer so directly autobiographical—but he kept most of its essentials. The play’s statement is only superficially enlarged by the addition of the masks or of the Nietzschean material. In the earlier work, the hero’s confidant was his teacher, the painter Eugene Grammont, a wise and sympathetic counselor. The role is retained in The Great God Brown but given to the prostitute Cybel, who makes explicit the sensitive hero’s desire to reach the creative core of nature itself—a point implied in the early work by Brown’s painting, particularly a seascape and a landscape, the sole vestiges of his artist’s life that he retains in his marital bondage. The Faustian implications of Bread and Butter, suggested in the hero’s willingness to sell his artistic soul for the sake of a woman, are developed more fully in the religious implications of Dion Anthony’s name—a combination of Dionysus and St. Anthony—and in the name of Margaret, by which O’Neill wished to recall the Marguerite of Faust. The parallels with Faust are augmented by the gradual transformation of the Pan mask of Dion into the mocking face of Mephistopheles, at the same time as his true face becomes more saint-like and ascetic.
The most important change in the later play was O’Neill’s development of the character of the materialist, William Brown. In his earlier treatment of such figures, in Andrew Mayo or the cartooned Marco Polo, O’Neill had seen him chiefly as what might be called an ‘‘anti-poet,’’ the adversary of the sensitive self-portraits. Now, O’Neill developed fully what the figure of Marco Polo had partly suggested to him: the anguish of the uncreative man, the despair of the man who cannot dream. As its title suggests, The Great God Brown holds the materialist up to crucial inspection and shows that like the poet, he has a capacity to suffer. Suffering comes to him, when, with the death of Dion, he moves into the play’s focal position, attempting to live his life in Dion’s mask. As O’Neill explained this turn in his drama:
Brown has always envied the creative life force in Dion—what he himself lacks. When he steals Dion’s mask of Mephistopheles he thinks he is gaining the power to live creatively, while in reality he is only stealing that creative power made self-destructive by complete frustration. This devil of mocking doubt makes short work of him. It enters him, rending him apart, torturing and transfiguring him until he is even forced to wear a mask of his Success, William A. Brown, before the world, as well as Dion’s mask toward wife and children. Thus Billy Brown becomes not himself to anyone. And thus he partakes of Dion’s anguish—more poignantly, for Dion has the Mother, Cybele—and in the end out of this anguish his soul is born, a tortured Christian soul such as the dying Dion’s, begging for belief, and at the last finding it on the lips of Cybel.
The explanation both of Dion and of Brown leaves something to be desired. O’Neill described Brown as ‘‘the visionless demi-god of our new materialistic myth—a Success—building his life of exterior things, inwardly empty and resourceless, an uncreative creature of superficial preordained social grooves, a by-product forced aside into slack waters by the deep main current of life-desire.’’ In conceiving of Brown as a ‘‘by-product’’ of the ‘‘lifedesire,’’ O’Neill has somewhat altered his view of the materialist. Both Andrew Mayo and John Brown became what they were because they denied their rightful heritage. Billy Brown, however, is created without a soul, and there is no explanation for this deformity. In truth, it appears, that O’Neill began by using Brown as a typical opposition for Dion, feeling no need to explain an epitome. Only when he began to concentrate on Brown as his protagonist in the latter half of the play did he ask the important questions about him, and then he did not always find the essential answers.
Source: Travis Bogard, ‘‘The Great God Brown,’’ in Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O’Neill, Oxford University Press, 1972, pp. 264–73.
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1180
The Great God Brown (written 1925, produced 1926) is O’Neil’s first play of the late twenties, and the last play to be produced by the triumvirate of Kenneth Macgowan, Robert Edmond Jones, and O’Neill, thereby ending their five-year association. The play mystified its audience because of O’Neill’s complex use of masks, but managed to please many reviewers, even those who found the play puzzling, and ran for 283 performances. Because the audiences and reviewers did not understand the play, O’Neill presented many comments on the play’s meaning, explaining what he intended to accomplish. The gap between his intentions and the play’s accomplishment is very wide indeed, and the reasons for this gap are not difficult to discern.
O’Neill’s use of the mask, the play’s most important dramatic device, became a kind of ‘cause’ for O’Neill, who was very much influenced by the book of his fellow producer, Macgowan’s Masks and Demons, which emphasized the importance of masks for theatre as well as religion. O’Neill believed that masks ‘can express those profound hidden conflicts of the mind which the probings of psychology continue to disclose to us.’ They allow for ‘a new kind of drama.’ For O’Neill the new psychology was essentially ‘a study in masks, an exercise in unmasking.’ Not satisfied, it seems, with ‘a realistically disguised surface symbolism’—that is, the kind of symbolism he himself used in his realistic plays—O’Neill wished to present more directly ‘a drama of souls.’ In The Great God Brown he literally offers ‘an exercise in unmasking,’ whereas in the realistic and expressionistic plays that preceded it, the ‘unmasking’ was more subtle, more indirect. The device of masks in The Great God Brown too explicitly bares the human soul on stage, trying in vain, as Travis Bogard suggests, to express the inexpressible. Admittedly the conflicts within the human soul or psyche have been directly dramatized in morality plays of the past, but those anonymous dramatists of the Middle Ages never attempted to present believable human characters at the same time that they presented the psychomachia. O’Neill’s intention, as he explained to a bewildered public in a newspaper article, was to present ‘recognizable human beings’ within the larger context of conflict ‘in the soul of Man,’ but this was misunderstood by audiences who paid more attention to the scheme and the large context than to the ‘human beings.’
In The Great God Brown O’Neill confronts Mystery head-on, but he does so with the aid of ‘expressionistic’ masks (which objectively present inner reality) on a realistic stage; the result is confusion. The play provokes a multitude of questions, but not the questions produced by rich ambiguity; rather, the questions arising from genuine puzzlement. What exactly are we to think of Dion Anthony? A ‘recognizable human being’ or the allegorical representation of Dionysus and St. Anthony? Both? When William Brown, now wearing Dion’s mask, is killed at the end of the play, is it a double death, or is it the death of one ‘Man,’ to use Cybel’s word, the two sides of whom are Dion Anthony and William Brown? Or should we recognize three sides to Man because Dion Anthony himself has two sides, Dionysus and St Anthony? Does the equation work in both allegorical and human terms? And how does the composite of Woman—Margaret and Cybel—fit into the pattern? And is William Brown the empty materialist O’Neill intends him to be? Doesn’t he seem more ‘alive’ than Dion, who is praised for being alive? Are we meant to take Brown as a satirical portrait of American business? Does the allegory, therefore, have a social as well as a philosophical dimension?
All along, of course, even if we concede that the allegory works and that these questions, and many more, can be answered with some assurance, the audience is engaged in a cerebral exercise, trying to fit together pieces of a puzzle while witnessing the ‘living drama’ of ‘recognizable human beings.’ O’Neill’s literal exercise in unmasking produces much thought, but little emotion. We pay attention to the ‘philosophy’ but we do not respond emotionally to the people. We receive Nietzschean messages and we know something profound and big, even mystical, is being confronted, but we have no deep interest in the bearers of those messages. We see the mask, but it covers no recognizable face, it responds to no beating heart. The mask points to the ‘vision’ of a serious, sincere dramatist who seems more interested in his thesis, in his ideas on Life and God, than in the characters who present the ideas. In short, The Great God Brown is an artistic failure because ‘the drama of souls’ is essentially undramatic.
O’Neill was especially fond of The Great God Brown. ‘Of all the plays I have written, I like The Great God Brown best. I love that play.’ He wrote to Macgowan that the play was ‘grand stuff, much deeper and poetical in a way than anything I’ve done before.’ His enthusiasm undoubtedly reflects his belief that The Great God Brown, by means of masks, successfully placed Mystery within the reach of the stage. His autobiographical closeness to the play may also explain his fondness for it. The qualities he gave to the poet-artist Dion Anthony were his own—alone, sensitive, unable to reveal his true ‘self’ to the world, ever aware of the masks people wear to protect themselves from others and from themselves, always in need of a Mother (what both Cybel and Margaret represent), ‘born with ghosts in your eyes,’ as Cybel tells Dion. Another reason for his enthusiasm is that he uses his favorite source, Nietzsche, more directly in The Great God Brown than in any of his other plays, with the possible exception of Lazarus Laughed. Nietzsche hovers over the play not only in the Dionysian aspects of Dion Anthony’s character, but also in the doctrine offered by Cybel near the play’s end— ‘Always spring comes again bearing life! Always again! Always, always forever again!—Spring again!—life again! summer and fall and death and peace again! . . . but always, always, love and conception and birth and pain again—spring bearing the intolerable chalice of life again! . . . bearing the glorious, blazing crown of life again!’—and in O’Neill’s general preoccupation with mystery. O’Neill considered Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy the ‘most stimulating book on drama ever written.’ His use of quotations from that book in the playbill of The Great God Brown testifies to its importance, and probably helps to explain O’Neill’s stated confidence in the play’s depth. But neither O’Neill’s enthusiasm for the play nor his explanations of the meanings he intended can erase the judgement that The Great God Brown is a bold but bewildering experiment which does not work, what the reviewer of Billboard called ‘glorious confusion.’
Source: Normand Berlin ‘‘The Late Twenties,’’ in Eugene O’Neill, Grove Press, 1964, pp. 85–89.
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1363
The Great God Brown magnified this American dualism of the materialistic and the romantic to universal proportions. William A. Brown—like his contemporary American, George F. Babbitt—became the ‘‘god’’ of our materialism. But in rejecting this false American ‘‘god,’’ O’Neill’s hero again rejected American democracy: Dion turned away from ‘‘the rabble’’ because ‘‘he hated to share with them fountain, flame and fruit.’’ That is, his romantic idealism became wholly negative. Like other Americans, he even began to worship the devil because God would not grant him his absolute ideal: ‘‘When Pan was forbidden the light and warmth of the sun he grew sensitive and self-conscious and proud and revengeful—and became Prince of Darkness.’’ And so Dion the romantic dreamer turned against the American world in which he lived. . . .
After completing Desire Under the Elms, O’Neill worked simultaneously on two plays; but he completed The Great God Brown before Marco Millions, and the play was both published and produced first. Both plays carried forward his attack on the materialism of modern society. Brown (as O’Neill specifically explained) ‘‘is the visionless demi-god of our new materialistic myth—a Success—building his life on exterior things, inwardly empty. . . .’’ Marco Millions would translate this ‘‘new materialistic myth’’ to the ancient Orient. But ‘‘Billy Brown’’ was one hundred percent American.
The Great God Brown is one of the most interesting but also one of the most confusing of O’Neill’s plays. It contains some of his most challenging dramatic ideas and some of his most original characters. Moreover, it achieved success at the time of production, and it was both praised and reproduced throughout the civilized world. It marks a milestone in O’Neill’s career, and it also prepared the way for his later triumphs. But it remains a strangely artificial play. Mixing dramatic experimentation with self-conscious poetry, genuine insight with bookish theory, this play attempted everything, but achieved final success with nothing. At the time it seemed greater than Desire Under the Elms, but now its fireworks seem contrived.
The element of artificiality in The Great God Brown is illustrated by the simple summary of its plot. The first two acts describe the tragedy of Dion Anthony—the sensitive artist who finds himself in conflict with a materialistic society. He has married, and the need of supporting a wife and three sons has forced him to give up his painting and he takes to drink. His wife gets him a job as a draftsman in the architectural office of his old classmate, William A. Brown. But he feels humiliated, and seeks solace and understanding in the arms of Cybel, the eternal prostitute. Lacking the true love of his wife and the true appreciation of his old friend and employer, he finally drinks himself to death.
The second two acts then describe the second tragedy—that of William A. Brown. After Dion’s death, Brown assumes the ‘‘mask’’ of his former friend and employee, Dion Anthony. And with this mask he inherits Dion’s ability to create, so that his architectural designs win him even greater success than before. With the mask he also wins the love of Dion’s wife, who identifies him with her husband. But with the mask he tragically inherits Dion’s bitter honesty and insight into the truth. And this honesty compels him to denounce the artistic falsity of his own architectural designs and to recognize the inner duplicity of his own divided personality. Finally, abandoning the ‘‘mask’’ of the insensitive William A. Brown, he also flees to the arms of Cybel, where the police find only the ‘‘mask’’ of Dion Anthony, whom they now accuse of ‘‘murdering’’ Billy Brown. The eternal artist and the eternal materialist have destroyed each other. At the end the police captain asks: ‘‘Well, what’s his name?’’ And Cybel, the Earth Mother, replies: ‘‘Man!’’
Taken together, Dion Anthony and Billy Brown represent the divided personality of modern man. They are, in one sense, two separate and opposing characters; in another, they are the conflicting aspects of the single character, ‘‘Man.’’ Both the complexity and the confusion of the play lie in its uncertainty concerning these two alternatives. Dion Anthony and Billy Brown are brothers under the skin. But do they have two skins, or one? Are they really two people, or are they the conflicting halves of one person? And does The Great God Brown really consist of two plays, of two acts each? Or is it one play of four acts?
The Great God Brown became famous for its daring use of masks to suggest the conflicting personalities of each of its characters. Earlier The Hairy Ape had painted on masks to emphasize the artificial ‘‘faces’’ of people in ‘‘Society.’’ And later Lazarus Laughed used formal masks to define type characters. But in The Great God Brown all the characters used masks to dramatize the contrast between their external, or public selves, and their inner, or private selves. And this new use of masks suggested psychological complexities beyond the scope of the old, realistic drama.
But the trouble with The Great God Brown lies in the confusing ambiguity of its use of masks. At the beginning Dion’s ‘‘mask is a fixed forcing of his own face.’’ But as his tragedy develops, this mask becomes (first) the mask of ‘‘Pan,’’ and (finally) the mask of ‘‘Mephistopheles.’’ And after his death, Brown is able to assume at will Dion’s ‘‘mask’’ (which one?). Meanwhile Brown wears no mask at first, but (at the end of the second act) he assumes Dion’s; and (at the end of the fourth act) he discards his own ‘‘mask of William Brown,’’ and permanently assumes Dion’s. Thereupon his associates proclaim that ‘‘Mr. Brown is dead!’’ And they ‘‘return, carrying the mask of William Brown, two on each side, as if they were carrying a body by line legs and shoulders.’’ If this seems brilliantly imaginative, it is also dramatically confusing. The manipulation of a variety of masks tends to become mere hocus-pocus.
The Great God Brown succeeded on the stage in spite of its strange plot, and it continues to fascinate the reader despite its confusing use of masks. Its occasional excellence derives partly from its author’s autobiographical insight, reflected in the action, and partly from his creative use of his wide reading. Dion’s tragedy is clearly an allegory of O’Neill’s own. Cybel tells him: ‘‘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 at the other extreme, this ‘‘Dion Anthony’’ is clearly a mixture of Nietzsche’s Dionysus and of Saint Anthony; ‘‘Cybel’’ is a mixture of the goddess Cybele, the earth mother, and the eternal prostitute; and Dion’s wife Margaret is a modern embodiment of Faust’s Margaret. At its best, the play partly realizes a modern myth; at its worst, it becomes a self-conscious allegory.
But if The Great God Brown suffers from artificiality of plot, from confusing use of masks, and from self-consciousness of allegory, it manages finally to make a virtue of these very faults. In the last analysis, the play achieves its moments of tragic greatness by means of its very incongruities and confusions. Cybel, for instance, ‘‘chews gum like a sacred cow forgetting time with an eternal end.’’ And this grotesque mixture of incongruous metaphors suggests the confusion of the modern world— which, of course, the title of the play also suggests. Finally, a speech by Billy Brown, after he has ‘‘murdered’’ his former self, also suggests the final insight of the play into the confusion of the modern world: ‘‘Sssh! This is Daddy’s bedtime secret for today: Man is born broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue.’’ The final ‘‘grace’’ of The Great God Brown, perhaps, lies in its symbolic joining of dissociated fragments of experience by the glue of the creative imagination.
Source: Frederic I. Carpenter, ‘‘The Pattern of O’Neill’s Tragedies,’’ and ‘‘From The Ape to Marco: Reaction,’’ in Eugene O’Neill, Twayne Publishers, 1964, pp. 70–71, 109–12.