The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The prologue to The Great God Brown takes place outside a high school during the annual commencement dance. Billy Brown’s father, partner in a construction firm with Dion Anthony’s father, anticipates that Billy will study architecture in college. Dion, wearing the mask of a reckless, sensual young man, is secretly extremely sensitive and anxious to create a self of his own unlike that of his stolid father. Margaret, adored by Billy, rejects him and is attracted instead to Dion’s mask; when Dion takes it off, however, hoping to be loved for his essential self, she is confused and frightened. He replaces his mask, acknowledging that he needs her to be his “skin” even if she will never really know him.

Seven years later, in act 1, Dion and Margaret are married and have three nondescript sons. The Pan mask has become Mephistophelian and Dion’s real face more ascetic. Because he has exhausted his father’s inheritance, he allows Margaret to arrange with his rival Billy, now head of his own dead father’s firm, to hire him as a draftsman. Billy’s architectural designs are conventional and unimaginative. Envious of Dion’s talent as well as of his marriage to Margaret, Billy hires him. Dion can reveal his spirituality and sadness only to Cybel, nominally a young prostitute but symbolically an earth-mother figure. When Billy finds Dion at Cybel’s, Dion must put on his public mask again. Frustrated in his attempts to use art to see God, Dion resigns himself to serving the Great God Mr. Brown instead.

In act 2, seven years later, Brown, whose envy has made him a regular patron of Cybel, is puzzled by her summing up her preference for Dion by saying simply, “He’s alive!” However, she suspects that she will never see Dion again, so close is he to collapse. Dion tries once more to show his real face to Margaret and is rejected as before. He goes to Billy, whom he accuses of having stolen his “creative life,”...

(The entire section is 799 words.)

Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Partly because scenes in The Great God Brown alternate so rapidly, returning to the same few places—office, home, Cybel’s apartment—in a rhythm indicative of Dion and Billy’s living harassed double lives, Eugene O’Neill’s directions call for quick-change backdrops, rather than fixed or revolving scenery. The relative insignificance of place in the play also permits him to focus audience attention on the interior lives of his characters. To provide them with an experience of the sometimes dazzling complexities within each seemingly singular self, he developed the use of masks far beyond any earlier dependence on them. Not only Dion and Billy but also Margaret and even Cybel have masks, although in the case of the women the masks are simpler, less changeable. O’Neill was familiar with the use of masks among the ancient Greeks, but his purpose was not theirs. The Greeks were concerned with practical visibility in an amphitheater and with implied universality, when they put outsize masks on their performers. O’Neill’s interest, by contrast, lay in dramatizing mass anonymity in The Hairy Ape (pr., pb. 1922) and conflicting layers of the inner man in The Great God Brown, far beyond the triangle of ego-id-superego already introduced into psychological studies by Sigmund Freud.

O’Neill was determined to invent whole new ways of deepening theatrical commonplaces. His awareness of the actor as sacrificing personal identity to the role that he or she plays reinforced O’Neill’s vision of inner-outer divisions in people in general. Similarly, dependence of the acting troupe on cosmetics as a form of conventional mask, to help establish this alternative identity, became an opportunity for O’Neill, in effect, to place masks beneath removable masks. The makeup used to delineate the progressive spiritual conflicts inside Dion and Billy differs from the external masks largely through the flexibility given to that makeup by facial expression. Never before and never again did O’Neill deploy dramatic masks so elaborately. Their use demanded much skillful handling on the part of the actor, since awkwardness would have brought laughter from an audience. Equally, they demanded a willingness on the part of audiences to submit to such unconventional devices in the name of greater intimacy and understanding of the characters.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

The Emergence of the American Theatre
At the end of the nineteenth century, a group of playwrights, which included...

(The entire section is 474 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Combining Realism and Expressionism
O’Neill combines elements of realism—a style that makes things look like they...

(The entire section is 671 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1926: Joseph Stalin becomes dictator of the Soviet Union. His reign of terror will last for twenty-seven years.


(The entire section is 127 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Research Freud’s theories on the subconscious, especially his definition of the ego, the id, and the super ego and apply them to the...

(The entire section is 106 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

In the philosophic essay The Birth of Tragedy (1872) Friedrich Nietzsche outlines his...

(The entire section is 143 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Allen, Kelcey, ‘‘Great God Brown by O’Neill Unique,’’ in Women’s Wear Daily, January 25,...

(The entire section is 337 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Carpenter, Frederick I. “The Great God Brown.” In Eugene O’Neill. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1979.

Engel, Edwin A. “Saint and Satan.” In The Haunted Heroes of Eugene O’Neill. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1953.

Estrin, Mark W., ed. Conversations with Eugene O’Neill. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1990.

Falk, Doris V. Eugene O’Neill and the Tragic Tension: An Interpretative Study of the Plays. 2d ed. New York: Gordian Press, 1982.

Floyd, Virginia. “The Great God Brown.” In The Plays of Eugene O’Neill: A New Assessment. New York: F. Ungar, 1985.

Frenz, Horst. “Desire, Masks, and ’Beautiful Philosophy.’” In Eugene O’Neill. Translated by Helen Sebba. New York: F. Ungar, 1971.

Houchin, John. The Critical Response to Eugene O’Neill. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993.

O’Neill, Eugene. “Memoranda on Masks.” In O’Neill and His Plays: Four Decades of Criticism, edited by Oscar Cargill et al. New York: New York University Press, 1961.