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...

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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 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 Caligula, who writhes onstage, caught in the contradictions of a nature that would simultaneously embrace and repulse Lazarus.

Not understanding Lazarus and incapable of renouncing his desire for power, Caligula stabs Tiberius as the emperor is having Lazarus burned at the stake. The Romans think that Lazarus will finally succumb to a terror of death, yet precisely the opposite is true. The fire merely refines Lazarus’s message that his flesh is no more than an envelope of life whose elements will reemerge in another form. Lazarus tells the crowd from his pyre, “Fear not life! You die—but there is no death for Man!”

Dramatic Devices

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Eugene O’Neill’s dramatic devices are absolutely essential to a successful production of his play. Of paramount importance is his use of crowds. In order to mount a full-scale production of Lazarus Laughed, almost four hundred actors would have to be employed. With large crowds of Romans, of Lazarus’s followers, and of various religious factions, O’Neill tries to evoke a society in turmoil, tearing itself apart, mesmerized by Lazarus’s lyrical speeches yet afraid to relinquish individual concerns. The volume of sound produced by these crowds is used for a variety of effects: to suggest moments of unity when Lazarus’s message is actually embodied in the behavior of a society, to suggest the discord and clashing of egos he has been able to surmount, and to suggest the beauty—a kind of sealike calm—that pervades his chorus of followers. These followers engage in a churchlike call and response, a series of refrains that answer Lazarus’s arias of laughter and exhortation.

O’Neill directed that these masses of actors wear masks. In his stage directions, the playwright is quite explicit about what the masks represent:There are seven periods of life shown: Boyhood (or Girlhood), Youth, Young Manhood (or Womanhood), Manhood (or Womanhood), Middle Age, Maturity, and Old Age; and each of these periods is represented by seven different masks of general types of character as follows: The Simple, Ignorant; the Happy, Eager; the Self-Tortured, Introspective; the Proud, Self-Reliant; the Servile, Hypocritical; the Revengeful, Cruel; the Sorrowful, Resigned.

Thus, “forty-nine different combinations of period and type” with distinctive colors give the play a panoramic, pageantlike quality, as though O’Neill were encompassing the whole of civilization on a single stage. The masks are a brilliant device, allowing the playwright to achieve the unifying effects that a sea of individual faces could not accomplish. Lazarus has no mask, for he is the only truly free character in the play.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 186

Sources for Further Study

Bogard, Travis. Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O’Neill. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Cargill, Oscar, N. Bryllion Fagin, and William Fisher, eds. O’Neill and His Plays: Four Decades of Criticism. New York: New York University Press, 1961.

Estrin, Mark W., ed. Conversations with Eugene O’Neill. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1990.

Gelb, Arthur, and Barbara Gelb. O’Neill: Life with Monte Cristo. New York: Applause, 2000.

Houchin, John H., ed. The Critical Response to Eugene O’Neill. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993.

Manheim, Michael. Eugene O’Neill’s New Language of Kinship. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1982.

Martine, James J., ed. Critical Essays on Eugene O’Neill. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984.

Miller, Jordan Y., ed. Eugene O’Neill and the American Critic: A Bibliographical Checklist. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1973.

O’Neill, Eugene. Selected Letters of Eugene O’Neill. Edited by Travis Bogard and Jackson R. Bryer. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988.

Raleigh, John Henry. The Plays of Eugene O’Neill. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1965.

Ranald, Margaret Loftus. The Eugene O’Neill Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984.

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