The Great God Brown

by Eugene O’Neill

Start Free Trial

The Play

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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,” knowing that Billy alone “couldn’t design a cathedral without it looking like the First Supernatural Bank!” Dion dies, having willed his mask to Billy, who wears it in order to have Margaret; she thinks that he is Dion grown younger.

In act 3, Billy has to pretend to his workmen that he has fired Dion, yet he wears Dion’s mask when he is at home with Margaret. The terrible tension that results from this duplicity distorts his own inner face. The Dion part of his role makes him realize that he has only achieved “love by mistaken identity.” Feeling “pursued by God, and by myself,” he begins to talk to his mask as if Dion were still alive. He has made Margaret happy by giving her a rejuvenated Dion, but he himself can only suffer when she reminisces regarding her lifelong contempt for Billy Brown. Playing the role of Dion, he says cryptically to her, “Mr. Brown is now safely in hell.”

In act 4, Billy’s initial soliloquy reveals that he is nearing a breakdown. He has designed a state capitol that even he now recognizes “would do just as well for a Home for Criminal Imbeciles.” He wishes that he had the strength to destroy the design but struggles for an honest reconciliation of, or an end to, his divided self. As Brown, he assures Margaret that, far from working Dion to death, it is he himself “who is to die.” To a committee that has commissioned the capitol design, he admits that it is entirely Dion’s but an insult to everyone’s intelligence. He tears the plan into...

(This entire section contains 799 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

pieces; shortly thereafter, as Dion, he says that he will paste the parts together again: “Man is born broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue!” When he tells them that Brown is dead, however, they think he has murdered Billy. Solemnly they lay the mask of Brown on the sofa.

Cybel comes to Billy in his home, recognizing that he is now Dion Brown, soulful sufferer though also an alleged murderer who must flee for his life. As he tries to leave, he is shot. Cybel comforts him in his last moments, assuring him of eternal peace: “Our Father Who Art!” When the police ask her his name, she replies, “Man!” The captain, uncomprehending, asks, “How d’yuh spell it?”

In an epilogue, Margaret, who “knows her life-purpose well accomplished” but feels at the same time “a bit empty and comfortless,” releases her two grown sons to their own lives. They are about to become strangers to her. She kisses the mask of Dion whom she addresses as her lover, husband, and boy. She little realizes that she has never known the real Dion.

Dramatic Devices

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The Emergence of the American Theatre
At the end of the nineteenth century, a group of playwrights, which included James A. Herne, Bronson Howard, David Belasco, Augustus Thomas, Clyde Fitch, and William Vaughn Moody, started breaking away from traditional melodramatic forms and themes. Consequently, American theatre began to establish its own identity. These and other playwrights in the early part of the twentieth century were inspired by the dramatic innovations of Henrik Ibsen August Strindberg, and George Bernard Shaw. During this period, experimental theatre groups made up of dramatists and actors encouraged new innovative American playwrights. In 1914, Lawrence Langner, Helen Westley, Philip Moeller, and Edward Goodman created the Washington Square Players in New York, and playwright Susan Glaspell in 1915, helped start the Provincetown Players in Massachusetts. The most important member of this latter group was Eugene O’Neill, who wrote plays with a uniquely American voice. George H. Jensen, in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, notes that ‘‘before O’Neill began to write, most American plays were poor imitations or outright thefts of European works.’’ Jensen insists that O’Neill became the ‘‘catalyst and symbol . . . of the establishment of American drama.’’

In the late nineteenth century, playwrights turned away from what they considered the artificiality of melodrama to a focus on the commonplace in the context of everyday contemporary life. Their work, along with much of the experimental fiction written during that period, adopted the tenets of realism, a new literary movement that took a serious look at believable characters and their sometimes problematic interactions with society. In order to accomplish this goal, realistic drama focuses on the commonplace and eliminates the unlikely coincidences and excessive emotionalism of melodrama. Dramatists like Henrik Ibsen discarded traditional sentimental theatrical forms as they chronicled the strengths and weaknesses of ordinary people confronting difficult social problems, like the restrictive conventions suffered by nineteenth-century women. Dramatists who embraced realism used settings and props that reflected their characters’ daily lives and realistic dialogue that replicated natural speech patterns.

Dramatists during the early decades of the twentieth century also adopted the techniques of another new literary movement. Expressionism eschewed the realists’ attention to verisimilitude and instead employed experimental methods that tried to objectify the inner experiences of human beings. Influenced by the theories of Freud, playwrights like August Strindberg used nonrealistic devices that distorted and sometimes oversimplified human actions in order to explore the depths of the human mind. Eugene O’Neill’s long career reflected the shifting styles of the American theatre at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. His early plays were unsuccessful attempts at melodrama. He then turned to realistic depictions of men at sea and later of the interactions between family members. In the 1920s, he experimented with expressionism, most notably in Emperor Jones and The Great God Brown.

Literary Style

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Combining Realism and Expressionism
O’Neill combines elements of realism—a style that makes things look like they would in real life— and expressionism—a style that distorts things to look like they might come from the point of view of the characters—in The Great God Brown. Expressionistic plays often employ masks to either hide the characters’ inner emotions or reflect them. The masks used by the main characters in the play objectify the public images they want to portray and at the same time hide their inner psychological and emotional turmoil. The masks also work effectively to isolate the characters from each another. George H. Jensen, in his article on O’Neill for Dictionary of Literary Biography, writes, ‘‘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.’’ Dion and Billy are ultimately destroyed by wearing masks.

O’Neill employs these nonrealistic devices in a realistic setting. For example, when Billy assumes Dion’s identity, he not only starts wearing his mask, he also dresses in his friend’s clothes. Billy’s wearing of Dion’s clothes helps him fool people in the office. The nonrealistic device is set in a realistic setting where realistic events occur. O’Neill also forces Billy to frantically switch back and forth between his own identity and that of Dion’s. When Margaret appears at the office, she will not discover what has happened to her husband. It would be unrealistic if everyone in the office just accepted Billy as Dion when he wasn’t wearing Dion’s clothes.

O’Neill uses mythological symbolism in The Great God Brown to illustrate the psychology of his characters. Dion Anthony and William Brown represent two opposite figures in Greek mythology: Apollo and Dionysus. Apollo was the messenger of the gods and the presiding deity of music, medicine, and youth. Dionysus was the god of vegetation and wine. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, Nietzsche used the terms Apollonian and Dionysian to note the distinction between reason and culture (Apollonian), on the one hand, and instinct and primitiveness (Dionysian), on the other. Many authors in the twentieth century were influenced by Nietzsche’s discussion of these opposing forces. D. H. Lawrence for example, employed Apollonian/ Dionysian symbolism in his works to illustrate the theme of intellect versus instinct. O’Neill uses this tension of opposites in his representation of the relationship between Billy and Dion. Billy represents the controlled intellect that is incapable of experiencing any kind of creative inspiration. Dion, whose name echoes Dionysus, symbolizes instinct and the liberation of the senses in an effort to release divine creativity.

Another Greek god O’Neill symbolizes in his play is Pan, the pastoral god of fertility and mischief. In Greek mythology, he was depicted as a sometimes merry, sometimes ill-tempered jokester with the horns and the legs of a goat. Later, he became associated with Dionysus. Dion’s mask represents the figure of Pan, and when he and Billy wear it, they take on his personality. This Pan-like mask, however, takes on Mephistophelian characT teristics as Dion’s artistic ambitions are continually thwarted. When Billy takes the credit for Dion’s architectural creativity, his growing sense of betrayal prompts him to condemn his friend. Yet, as the mask increases its satanic distortion, Dion’s face becomes more spiritual. Here O’Neill begins to employ more Christian symbolism. Dion’s last name, Anthony, suggests Saint Anthony, who, according to tradition, resisted every temptation the devil could devise for him. By the end of the play, Dion becomes a martyred Saint Anthony, rejecting the temptations of alcohol and the urge to punish Billy for his betrayal of him.

Compare and Contrast

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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

1991: On December 17, President Mikhail Gorbachev orders the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and a new Commonwealth of Independent States is formed by the countries that formerly made up the Soviet Union.

1926:The Theory of the Gene by Columbia University zoologist Thomas Hunt Morgan lays the groundwork for future genetic research.

1984: Veterinarian Steven Willadsen divides sheep embryos and, as a result, clones a sheep.

1926: Don Juan, starring John Barrymore becomes the first film to be accompanied by electrically recorded sound. This process, called Vitaphone, is created by Western Electric.

1980: Videocassettes recorders are a hot item for American consumers. As a result, the rental and sale of videocassettes generate a profitable industry.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Allen, Kelcey, ‘‘Great God Brown by O’Neill Unique,’’ in Women’s Wear Daily, January 25, 1926.

Anderson, John, ‘‘Another O’Neill Play Comes to Town,’’ in New York Post, January 25, 1926.

Anschutz, Grace, ‘‘Masks, Their Use by Pirandello and O’Neill,’’ in Drama, Vol. 17, April, 1927, p. 201.

Atkinson, Brooks, ‘‘Ibsen and O’Neill,’’ in New York Times, January 31, 1926, p.1.

Atkinson, Brooks, ‘‘Symbolism in an O’Neill Tragedy,’’ in New York Times, January 25, 1926, p.26.

Bogard, Travis, Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O’Neill, Oxford University Press, 1972.

Bogdanoff, Rose, ‘‘Masks, Their Uses Past and Present,’’ in Drama, Vol. 21, May, 1931, p. 21.

Brown, John Mason, ‘‘Doldrums of Midwinter,’’ in Theatre Arts, Vol. 10, March 1926, pp. 145–46.

Carb, David, ‘‘The Great God Brown,’’ in Vogue, Vol. 67, March 15, 1926, p. 106

Clark, Barrett H., ‘‘Fin de Saison on Broadway,’’ in Drama, Vol. 16, May, 1926, pp. 289–90.

Coleman, Robert, ‘‘God Brown Tedious,’’ in New York Mirror, January 25, 1926.

Gilbert, Gabriel, ‘‘All God’s Chillun Got Masks,’’ in New York Sun, January 25, 1926.

Gillette, Don Carle, ‘‘The Great God Brown,’’ in Billboard, Vol. 38, February 6, 1926, p. 43.

Jensen, George H., ‘‘Eugene O’Neill,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 7: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, Gale, 1981. pp. 139–65.

Metcalfe, J. S., ‘‘A Plea in Defence,’’ in Wall Street Journal, January 25, 1926.

Osborn, E. W., ‘‘The Great God Brown,’’ in New York World, January 25, 1926.

Review in New York Graphic, January 25, 1926.

Vreeland, Frank, ‘‘The Masked Marvel,’’ in New York Telegram, January 25, 1926.

Further Reading
Anderson, John, Review in Literary Review of the New York Evening Post, April 10, 1926, p. 2. Anderson offers a mixed review of the play in his focus on O’Neill’s technique.

Cohn, Ruby, ‘‘Eugene O’Neill: Overview,’’ in Reference Guide to American Literature, 3rd ed., edited by Jim Kamp, St. James Press, 1994. Cohn examines the tragic nature of O’Neill’s plays.

Marsh, Leo, Review in New York Telegraph, January 25, 1926. Marsh examines the play’s ‘‘clinical experiment’’ in structure. Review in New Yorker, Vol. 1, February 6, 1926, p. 26. This reviewer criticizes O’Neill’s use of masks but praises the play’s presentation of a ‘‘nutritious fluid of a deeply digested idea.’’


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide