The Great God Brown and Nietzsche
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...
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