The Play

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 763

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.

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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 feelings of alienation and isolation. In the very unity of their response to Lazarus, these crowds prove his point: Humankind is one and indivisible.

Lazarus holds such sway over people that he is perceived as a threat to both the religiously orthodox and the Roman authorities. His parents and sisters are murdered in fanatical religious conflict, and Lazarus is taken prisoner by the Romans. Lazarus has only a momentary sadness for these deaths—which to him are only a phase in the cycle of eternal recurrence—and this peace of mind and exultation are the envy of the Romans, who cannot believe that he has truly transcended the selfishness of the human ego and the craving for self-preservation.

Pompeia, Tiberius’s mistress, is attracted to Lazarus’s dynamism and wishes to have him for herself. When he gently rejects her advances, she reacts angrily and has his wife, Miriam, put to death, thinking that in this terrible act she will make him react as merely a man, suffering the agony and the fear of death. Instead, he only feels compassion for Pompeia’s tortured selfhood. Miriam, who has herself expressed a sad perplexity that is evocative of Lazarus’s life before his rebirth, briefly comes back to life in the moment of her dying to affirm her husband’s contention that, in truth, “there is only life.”

Tiberius Caesar and Caligula, each of whom wishes to rule the world, are torn between their love and their loathing for Lazarus, who will not bow before their earthly power or acknowledge the worth of their ambitions. Tiberius thinks that Lazarus may be a magician who has used some kind of potion to bring himself back to life. Perhaps Lazarus knows the means by which Tiberius can prolong his own existence. However, Tiberius fails to intimidate Lazarus or to understand the spiritual power of his renewal. In the face of Tiberius’s threats and imprecations, Lazarus laughs. His immunity to Roman terror is unnerving, particularly to...

(The entire section contains 1272 words.)

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