Lazarus Laughed is based on the biblical story of Jesus raising a man from the dead. Instead of concentrating on the figure of Jesus, however, Eugene O’Neill makes the story of Lazarus central to the play. In fact, Jesus serves merely as the instrument for awaking Lazarus. The drama begins with a huge crowd of people discussing, in great anticipation, the appearance of the resurrected man. He has not been merely revived, for he is in every sense of the word a new man, affirming the wonder of existence and exulting in the laughter that leads him to express repeatedly his “Yes!” to life itself.
Lazarus’s home in Bethany has become known as the House of Laughter, the place to which his followers flock to hear his messages of acceptance, all-embracing love, and the denial of death. In his past life, Lazarus confesses, he considered himself a failure. He did not distinguish himself; he was not a success in business and he did not make his mark. His death and resurrection have caused him to abandon his feelings of self-defeat and to realize that his well-being resides in his union with others, in the part everyone plays in the unity of existence.
What Lazarus counsels is a rejection of the individual ego in favor of absorption in the very processes of existence. Human beings must learn to live as the products and extensions of nature, not as the outgrowths of their individual egos. It is not human psychology or history that governs life but rather the eternal cycles of death and rebirth. Death, he argues, is a release and a fulfillment, and in that sense there is no death, no final end to things. Human beings return to the elements from which they came, understanding that out of the elements they will return to life again. Great crowds are deeply moved by Lazarus’s rhapsodic pantheism, by the laughter that somehow disperses their...
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