In many ways, Lazarus Laughed is the culmination of Eugene O’Neill’s early life and work. As a young man, he had attempted suicide, considering himself a failure. He was arrogant, aloof, and doubtful about his life’s work. However, in the very act of trying to take his life he seemed reborn and went on to create great plays and to work with tireless energy, becoming one of the titans of modern drama.
In The Emperor Jones (pr. 1920, pb. 1921), The Hairy Ape (pr., pb. 1922), All God’s Chillun Got Wings (pr., pb. 1924), Desire Under the Elms (pr. 1924, pb. 1925) and The Great God Brown (pr., pb. 1926), the major plays that preceded Lazarus Laughed, characters feel a rootlessness and displacement that is reminiscent of O’Neill’s own disaffected travels and sense of homelessness. His characters are alien selves looking for some way to merge with life, to feel fulfilled and acknowledged.
Lazarus Laughed has received only one full-scale production, in Pasadena, California. Critics have not been kind to the play; they have faulted it for verbosity and monotony and asserted that O’Neill’s dramaturgy lacks development. However, the play has scenes of undeniable power and impressiveness, and O’Neill himself continued to think of innovative ways of staging it, including the use of film as a backdrop for some of the crowd scenes. He also recognized that only an actor of enormous power and resilience could render Lazarus’s long speeches and prolonged laughter.
In Lazarus Laughed, the playwright made explicit his ambition to create a theater in which his audience would be moved by feelings akin to what might be experienced in a mystical or religious mode. The play’s incantatory style, with its choruses composed of human types chanting a verse pared down to a few frequently repeated words, often reads poorly but might be exceptionally effective on a stage where the sound overlaps, so that the words could be appreciated as much for their sound and resonance as for their meaning.
O’Neill never attempted another play like Lazarus Laughed, sensing perhaps that it had a unique place not only in his repertoire but also in the history of modern drama.