Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 473

Lazarus Laughed is a play about the modern curse of consciousness. Greatly influenced by Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche, Eugene O’Neill tries to combine their central concerns in this play. Freud’s emphasis on the individual, on the unconscious wishes and drives that can wreck civilization if they are not controlled...

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Lazarus Laughed is a play about the modern curse of consciousness. Greatly influenced by Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche, Eugene O’Neill tries to combine their central concerns in this play. Freud’s emphasis on the individual, on the unconscious wishes and drives that can wreck civilization if they are not controlled and repressed, is expressed in characters such as Caligula who verbalize the conflicts of the human psyche. Freud’s deterministic psychology, which suggests that human beings are in the grip of drives they have trouble mastering, is reflected in all the characters who have not reached Lazarus’s level of conscious acceptance. For Lazarus, however, death has put an end to self-absorption and worries over his own well-being.

Lazarus is, in other words, a Nietzschean man, one who has surmounted the question of individuality. Having returned from the dead, he knows that the entire world goes through the same cycle; that is, the world is constantly dying and being reborn, and human beings have their wonderful part to play in the drama of existence. Nietzsche attacked Christianity for its emphasis on the individual soul and personal salvation. Such a religion, he thought, made humans cringing, frightened beings who lacked the imagination to see their links with all life. Taking his inspiration from Nietzsche, O’Neill creates Lazarus as a spokesman for life as an eternal return, a series of rebirths rather than (as in Christianity) a single rebirth, a single salvation. In Lazarus Laughed, O’Neill rejects Christianity as a historical religion, as the story of a Redeemer who came once for all. Redemption, Lazarus argues, is occurring every moment of existence, as all things go through the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.

The Roman setting of the play is important in understanding its theme, for the Romans were a historical people who believed that they had a unique place in history. In the play, the Romans epitomize a people who consider themselves in charge of history and believe that they can control matters of life and death and the fate of peoples all over the world. They are also neurotic in that they refuse to confront the fact of their individual deaths or the inevitable extinction of their empire. They believe, rather, that they can dominate nature and set the very terms of existence. This certitude motivates Tiberius’s search for a secret potion to restore youth and also Caligula’s sadism: Each operates under the illusion that he can become a god and attain some sort of immortality. Lazarus has the demeanor of one who has found eternal life, but his insistence to Tiberius and Caligula that he is not unique—that they are not unique—defies their deep desire to dominate everything. They do not want to hear his injunctions to submit to the cycles of nature.

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Characters