The Great God Brown

by Eugene O’Neill

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Themes and Meanings

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The Great God Brown proceeds from the premise that selfhood is never singular but that, at the least, everyone has a public image as well as a private persona. Normally these, either by nature or by training, are compatible. A conflict can arise, however, when the extremely sensitive spirit of the inner person (an artist, for example) is very different from the ordinary people who surround him or her. If the person’s responses are not allowed expression, then that inner self will feel isolated or even held in contempt, and an identity crisis can result. The person of integrity and independence has not only the normal problem of coping with changes that occur as one matures or as life’s circumstances alter but also the problem of being understood in spite of the person’s complexity and loved despite his or her differences.

In Eugene O’Neill’s play, the struggle for self-determination and the right to fulfill one’s dreams is most evident at first in the polarization of talented Dion Anthony and mediocre Billy Brown. A more subtle struggle takes place, however, between the dual natures of Dion Anthony himself: the sensual, ecstatic artist (Dion) and the ascetic, saintly mystic (Anthony). That particular division makes him ambivalent in his relationship with Margaret, who is both attracted to his life affirmation and puritanically repelled by its extremes. Sexual desire exists in her but is restrained. The role she prefers for herself is that of motherhood, not of passionate lover. Dion yearns to have his dual inner dimensions recognized, even as he suffers from their occasional friction within himself; he seeks Margaret’s ordinariness to comfort and heal him, just as the nervous system needs the protective covering of skin. Dion seems to have nothing in common with the rigidity of his father, though he remembers his mother with some tenderness. Neither, however, is close enough to him to appreciate his need to grow into the fullness of his talent and to be encouraged to that end. Of all the characters in the play, only Cybel is the ideal mother who gives him unconditional birth.

O’Neill, in The Great God Brown, acknowledges a generational gap, a gender gap, a gap between the artist soul and the materialist body, a gap between seeming and being—all of which make confident self-identity excruciatingly difficult. Dion feels the urge and need to create; his creativity will define him and presumably mark his share in divinity. However, within his troubled psyche from time to time he questions whether divinity itself exists, or cares for him, or is willing to share the power of creation with him. The gap between God and humankind is the greatest distance of all, since its mystery is beyond measure. Cybel, the only truly compassionate character, tries to comfort both Dion and Billy in their dying by affirming the existence of a loving God, so that the suffering of these two men will not have been wasted. This is the ultimate dream, that of religious faith in the face of terrible doubt.


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In O’Neill’s masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey into Night, Mary Tyrone insists, ‘‘None of us can help the things life has done to us. They’re done before you realize it, and . . . they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you’d like to be, and you’ve lost your true self forever.’’ Like Long Day’s Journey into Night, The Great God Brown focuses on the search for identity and the devastating consequences for those who are...

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unable to discover a true sense of self.

Dion loses his sense of self at a young age when his best friend, Billy Brown, betrays him. He explains that when he was four, Billy ‘‘sneaked up behind when I was drawing a picture in the sand he couldn’t draw and hit me . . . and laughed when I cried.’’ Consequently, his trust in his friend and humanity was shaken and, as he notes, ‘‘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.’’ Ironically though, the mask further isolates Dion and prevents him from allowing others to gain a glimpse of his inner self. The act of betrayal turns an ashamed Billy into ‘‘the good boy, the good friend, the good man.’’ The two also commit acts of betrayal against themselves. When they wear masks that project false, public personalities, they essentially betray their true natures.

Success and Failure
While Dion and Billy experience public success, they both suffer with inner failures, which eventually destroy them. Dion’s dream is to gain divine inspiration and to become a successful artist. Yet, he considers himself a failure as he notes to his mother when she tells him ‘‘you’ve always painted pictures so well.’’ He responds, ‘‘why must she lie? Is it my fault? She knows I only try to paint.’’ At that point, he has some confidence in his future as an artist, admitting that ‘‘some day’’ he will be able to produce works of art. He returns from Europe, however, despondent over his lack of success and drowns his sorrow in alcohol.

American Dream
Billy’s vision of success is tied up in the American Dream. He achieves his goal of being a successful architect and grows into ‘‘a fine-looking, welldressed, capable, college-bred American business man.’’ However, his unrequited love for Margaret has prevented him from establishing a lasting relationship. He also has become soulless as noted by Dion who tells him he is ‘‘unloved by life . . . merely a successful freak, the result of some snide neutralizing of life forces—a spineless cactus.’’ When Billy insists that he is satisfied with his life, Dion points out that ‘‘he’s piled on layers of protective fat, but . . . he feels at his heart the gnawing of a doubt.’’

Billy convinces Dion to join his firm and gain his own piece of the American Dream to provide a better life for Margaret and his sons. Ironically, Dion’s artistic talent causes him to be a successful architect, but joining ‘‘The Great God Brown’’ in his materialistic quest leaves him with a sense that he has sold out, which ultimately destroys him.

Change and Transformation
All the main characters, and often their masks, go through transformations during the course of the play. Dion’s despondency over his artistic failures and his subsequent withdrawal from her and their family has transformed Margaret from ‘‘a pretty and vivacious’’ young girl to a world-weary woman with ‘‘an uncomprehending hurt in her eyes.’’ Consequently, her mask has also changed to a ‘‘brave face she puts on before the world to hide her suffering and disillusionment.’’ Dion’s inability to gain divine inspiration in his art changes him outwardly into a satanic figure filled with a ‘‘cruelly malignant, mocking irony.’’ Yet beneath the mask, he becomes ‘‘gentler, more spiritual, more saintlike and ascetic.’’ Unfortunately, Margaret is unable to face the vulnerability of his true self, which contributes to his eventual destruction. Billy tries to take on the most radical change when he impersonates Dion. After he puts on Dion’s mask, his own face becomes ‘‘ravaged and haggard’’ as he faces his own shortcomings. Adopting Dion’s identity forces Billy to look into his own soul, and, as a result, he becomes filled with ‘‘self-loathing and life-hatred,’’ which ultimately becomes unbearable for him.