– Sukla Basu (Sen)
This paper wishes to examine O’Neill’s Euro-Americanism on a number of levels, defining therefore the continental baggages O’Neill has to carry as an artist, who is intent on giving American drama in the second decade of the twentieth century its much needed shot in the arm of the cultural phenomenon of modernism that is compounded of many simples – pre-modern British and Scandinavian stage-productions, German philosophical thought, Austrian psycho-analysis as also pre-Christian theory and praxis of tragedy on and off the stage. O’Neill’s plays encapsulate European stage craft, yet address an audience receptive to contemporary methods of acting which are ageing quickly and thus making way for innovation and experimentation with dramatic form, structure and exegesis. O’Neill’s own genetic foundations – his Irish-Americanism is also responsible for the way he constructs – that is to say – perceives and execute ethnic/racial profiling, in many of his plays, ethnicity providing a clue for his dilemmas, unravelling and resolutions to plot patterns. What I have called transformation in the title thus engages issues of debt, inheritance and establishment of canons in the genre of modernist American and world drama.
In 1912-13, while still a tuberculosis patient in the Gaylord Sanitarium O’Neill, deciding to become a dramatist, made profitable use of his three month stay by reading philosophy, drama, and absorbing the influence of new theatrical movements in Ireland, France, Sweden and Germany, led by J. M. Synge, Eugene Brieux, August Strindberg and Gerhart Hauptmann. He seemed to view the theatre as an enlightening, quasi-religious experience, a space where serious matters could be dramatised, and expected an empathetic audience.
Although in 1902 O’Neill had given up Catholicism, the works most valued seem confessional. The acquaintance with the Catholic confessional retained its presence even in plays which are Nietzschean in thought and expression. Nietzsche’s philosophy perhaps became a meaningful substitute for his shattered faith. Thus Spake Zarathustra remained a life-long influence. His copious excerpts, now in the Yale Library, made from the book, bear evidence to his leaning on Nietzsche for the creation of the moral texture of his major plays. In the playbill of The Great God Brown produced in 1926, there are two considerable quotations from Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music. In this play, Cybel, the prostitute and Earth Mother, has a player-piano on which she bangs out “Mother Mammy tunes.” Her music is Dionysian in Nietzsche’s sense who claims that tragedy is essentially the “manifestation and illustration of Dionysian states, as the visible symbolisation of music, as the dream-world of Dionysian ecstasy” (73). As Dion, in the play puts it: “Every song is a hymn. They keep trying to find the word in the beginning.” In the operatic play, Lazarus Laughed, the Dionysian spirit of music is brought out not only in the dance music played by Lazarus’ followers but also in the pervasive laughter, which O’Neill seems to have borrowed straight from Zarathustra.
O’ Neill seemingly accepted Nietzsche’s postulate that since God is dead the task of the philosopher/artist was to fill the terrifying void that had arisen by providing modern man with a faith in which he could believe. In an oft-quoted statement, O’Neill declared to George Jean Nathan, “The playwright today must dig at the roots of the sickness of today as he feels it …to find a meaning for life in, and to comfort its fears of death with” (Letter to George 119). He had already declared some ten years earlier that the cure lay in “an excellent acceptance of life” (Gelb 120).
For Nietzsche, the tragic spirit equalled a religious faith. He called for a revival of the tragic hero not only in tragedy but also in life. Out of the need to justify existence is born the concept of the superman, the man who welcomes pain as a necessity for inner growth and who, like the protagonists in Greek tragedy, achieves spiritual attainment through suffering.
Like Nietzsche, O’Neill considered Greek tragedy the unsurpassed example of art and religion. It was this spirit which O’Neill wished to regenerate in his theatre. He hoped to impart to a modern audience the mystical, Dionysian experience of being part of the Life Force that Nietzsche had found communicated in the plays of the great Greek playwrights. He stated in 1929, “What has influenced my plays the most in my knowledge of the drama of all time – particularly Greek tragedy.” “Tragedy”, he declared, “is the meaning of life and the hope” and “A man wills his own defeat when he pursues the unattainable. But his struggle is his success” (Mullett 23). The struggle of Nietzsche’s ideal man to turn himself into, Ubermensch is the struggle of the O’Neill protagonist too. Martha Jayson in The First man is such a Nietzschean creation who voices the superman’s willingness not only to endure the inevitable but to love it, his amor fati. O’Neill shared the rapturous, mystical feeling of the philosopher of being, not an individual but part of the Life Force. “I’m always, always trying to interpret Life in terms of lives, never just lives in terms of character. I’m always actually conscious of the Force behind” (Quinn 199).
Copious though O’Neill’s acknowledgements to Nietzsche are, probably due to a striking affinity that existed between the two thinkers, the playwright always protested against the frequently heard claims that his plays were too evidently patterned on the findings of psychoanalysis. “There is no conscious use of psychoanalytical material in any of my plays… I have only read two books of Freud’s, Totem and Taboo and Beyond the Pleasure Principle…If I have been influenced unconsciously it must have been by this book [Jung’s Psychology of the Unconscious] more than any other psychological work” (qtd. in Nethercot 37)
Yet, we learn from scholars that O’Neill had personal contacts with at least three psychoanalysts. The “Working Notes” for Mourning Becomes Electra indicate definite familiarity with psychoanalysis. Christines’s hatred for her husband is said to be determined by “sexual frustration by his puritan sense of guilt turning love to lust” (Frenz 5) and the characters’ desire to leave for the South Sea Island is said to express a yearning for “pre-natal non-competitive freedom from fear.”
In the notes to Days Without End he refers to “mother worship, repressed and turned morbid”, changing into “Death-love and longing”. The wife of the protagonist he calls a “mother substitute” (Falk 120).
Yet, his experiments with psychoanalysis are perhaps not important as exegesis of theory per se, but a desperate effort at achieving modernity on the American stage. His first working note for Mourning reads, “Is it possible to get modern psychological approximation of Greek sense of fate…which an intelligent audience of today, possessed of no belief in gods or supernatural retribution, could accept and be moved by?” (Frenz 3) He had anticipated an answer to his own question a year before (1925) when in the posthumously published Author’s foreword to The Great God Brown he says, “if we have no gods, or heroes to portray we have the subconscious, the mother of all gods and heroes” (Floyd 52).
Again, we could see in his appropriation of Jung’s concept of persona, O’Neill believed the mask to be the most satisfying solution for the “new form of drama projected from a fresh insight into the inner forces motivating the actions and the reactions of men and women… For what, at bottom, is the new psychological insight into human cause and effect but a study in masks, an exercise in unmasking?” (qtd. in Cargill 116)
O’Neill’s reasonings bring to mind Jung’s observations on the collective consciousness. Our emotions, he once declared, “are a better guide than our thoughts. Our emotions are instinctive. They are the result not only of our individual experiences but of the experiences of the whole human race, back through all ages” (Mullett 22).
However, of the dramatists who were profound psychologists before the advent of psycho-analysis, the Scandinavian duo, Ibsen and Strindberg hold a special place of eminence in the canon of O’Neill’s thoughts and activities as a playwright.
It was Shaw’s The Quintessence of Ibsenism that first sensitised O’Neill to Ibsen. In 1906-07, Broadway paid homage to the recently dead playwright by staging A Doll’s House Hedda Gabler and The Master Builder. “That experience [of seeing Hedda Gabler] discovered an entire new world of drama for me. It gave me my first conception of a modern theatre where truth might live” (qtd. in Halfmann 135). Much later, he would recognise his own indebtedness to this play while writing Ah, Wilderness. The play’s protagonist Richard Miller can be called O’Neill’s alter ego, who keeps quoting from Hedda Gabler and likes to think of himself as another Eilert Lovborg. At Harvard, too, one of his classmates would further incite his passion by reading Brand and Peer Gynt as Nietzschean characters.
O’Neill’s love for Ibsen was to undergo a slump in the twenties because the Ibsen formula was not working for either Europe or America. O’Neill had linked him, via Shaw, with the modern realistic European drama. He now considered Strindberg to be a more profound playwright than Ibsen, whom he now deemed as being conventional and idealistic.
Yet, during the World War II years, he was to change his opinion again. His last plays, The Iceman Cometh, Hughie, Long Day’s Journey Into Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten testify to his return to an Ibsenite world-view and modernistic theatre.
In Nordisk Tidende he states, “Not long ago I read all of Ibsen’s plays again. The same living truth is there” (qtd. in Halfmann 277). A Doll’s House has left very obvious traces in the early plays as Recklessness, Fog and Servitude. The impact of Peer Gynt can be felt later. Ibsen’s roaming self-made man, who, incarnating the biblical archetype of he who loses his soul while gaining the world, finds his counterpart in the title figures of The Emperor Jones and Morco Millions. Peer turns into a prosperous man of business in America, highly respectable and ready for any profitable speculation, “slave trade, Bible trade, whisky trade, missionary trade, anything!” (Shaw 135) just as he believes that he is in the special protection of God, Jones, “The American ‘success story’ in black face”(Engel 49) believes that only a silver bullet can kill him. Marco grows, like Peer, from youthful innocence to an ever-increasing materialism and loss of self/soul.
We can trace a host of resemblances in several other plays. O’Neill’s Anna Christie resembles The Lady from the Sea both in the affinity between protagonists and in plot construction. Ironically, O’Neill was hailed in Europe for this play as a sign that America was at last living up to its New World reputation in the field of drama. Ibsen’s The Master Builder and O’Neill’s The Great God Brown both employ house-building as a symbolic occupation. Solness’ tower and Dion’s cathedral design may be construed as Nietzschean mock-churches. For both men it is to be their last construction. The Iceman Cometh was perceived by American critics to be similar to Gorki’s Lower Depths, especially with regard to environment and the protagonist-cum-saviour, and seen as being thematically linked to The Wild Duck. Long Day’s Journey into Night and its transparently autobiographical nature disguises its relationship to a play like Ghosts. Both plays are retrospective in nature, “gradually revealing past guilt which has resulted in present misery in what appears to be a fated chain of events”(Tornqvist 18-32). The intimate mother-son relationship, consumption of alcohol and morphine, secret shameful illness, syphilis in Ghosts, morphine addiction in Journey revealed late in the plays, revelation followed by insanity on the part of the victims, are a reminder of how O’Neill is assimilating European stagecraft into a reading of American stage-history and family ties enriched by personal trauma, grief, anxiety and moral confusion. That O’Neill uses Ibsen to tell his own story is proof enough of the transformation of the European legacy that O’Neill inherits.
For Realism in the theatre, the Naturalistic technique O’Neill reached out to Strindberg whom he converts into his Nobel acceptance speech with his devotion to the theatre-ideology of the Swedish playwright: “It was reading his plays when I first started to write back in the winter of 1913-14, that, above all else, first gave me a vision of what modern drama could be… For me, he remains, as Nietzsche remains in his sphere, the Master, still to this day more modern than any of us, still our leader”(qtd. in Frenz 41-2).
O’Neill had already lauded Strindberg in a programme note for the Province Town Player’s production of the Spook Sonata:
“Strindberg still remains among the most modern of moderns, the greatest interpreter in the theatre of the characteristic spiritual conflicts which constitute the drama – the blood – of our lives today. He carried Naturalism to a logical attainment of such poignant intensity that if the work of any other playwright is to be called ‘naturalism’ we must classify a play like The Dance of Death as “super naturalism” and place it in a class by itself… All that is enduring in what we loosely call “Expressionism” – all that is artistically valid and sound theatre – can be clearly traced back through Wede kind to Strindberg’s The Dream Play, There are Crimes and Crimes, The Spook Sonata etc. (qtd in Cargill 108-9).
What O’Neill does in Emperor Jones is close to what Strindberg writes in the famous preface to Miss Julie, describing his characters as “conglomerates, made up of past and present stages of civilisation”. O’Neill lets Jones experience past stages of civilisation, both those that belong to his own past and those that belong to the past of his race.”
There are indeed striking resemblances between Julie, Hedda Gabler and O’Neill’s Lavinia. In his “Working Notes” for the trilogy O’Neill declares his extent of endowing his Electra/ Lavinia with a tragic end worthy of her character. In this O’Neill looked away from the Attic tragedians and seemingly found inspiration in Hedda and Julie. With the latter’s suicide it is not only an individual who dies, it is a whole social class and the values that go with it that are extinguished. It is the same with Lavinia.
Long Day’s Journey into Night incorporates the symbol of lighting up and extinguishing bulbs from Strindberg’s The Pelican. Thus stage techniques too reflect the way European stage-craft is accommodated and reinvented by O’Neill in his search for American theatre. George Nathan puts it pertinently when he says that the Strindbergian method is “the intensification of the dramatic action, of which O’Neill was so fond. If he stems from anyone, he stems from Strindberg” (Gelbs 731).
O’Neill came early to realise the hollowness and fakery of the commercial theatre. After all, it was on this platform that his father won celebrity and fortune. Although for him the cardboard form of melodrama was “hateful” and he was intensely critical of Belasco, the producer-illusionist, who specialised in ‘snap-shot’ realism, he himself innovated throughout his life using any device he thought might advance dramatic intention.
On the level of surface realism O’Neill probably traded in stereo-types. There can be a debate on this but in his African-American and Irish-American characters he is definitely remoulding types whose “terrifying psycho-spiritual-sociological histories become forever fixed in our memories”(Shaughnessy 149). A particularly virulent form of stereotype was exploited by the American press in the nineteenth century: the racial and political cartoon. Thomas Nast was best known for his portraits of simian Paddies and idiot sambos. He found all that he hated in the Irish Catholic democrat whom he mocked continually as the “hooligan”. What I wish to say here is that O’Neill as an Irish-American himself, suffering for the accident of birth (although he rids himself of Catholicism) knew that Irish-Americans were hated and alienated and the very sympathy for his own ‘race’ taught him to distinguish and decry ‘racism’ as practised in his country, exposing and representing the fate of African Americans in plays that are seemingly unforgettable.
Although the immigrant Irish did not enjoy much freedom and long lived in a kind of servitude, they were more privileged than their Black Brothers in the struggle for American assimilation. In the United States the most obvious advantage was the protection rendered by colour of skin. Fluency in English too placed them socio-culturally over African Americans and with effort they could overcome the brogue. James O’Neill became an acclaimed Shakespearean actor.
O’Neill presents two sorts of Irish-Americans. Those who accept the logic of the American Dream could be easily lampooned and stereo-typed. Like other nineteenth century immigrants the Irish wished for success as defined in a brave new world. “But O’Neill saw clearly that this surrender to mammon was certain to produce a sense of self-loathing”(Shaughnessy 155). The self-doubting, faltering character is the second sort, who overreaches his type and breaks out of the mould.
It was he, rather than Arthur Miller who first saw and engaged the virus of self defeat in efforts to sell oneself which might be termed ‘the national sickness’. Hoping to acquire fortune and high visibility the Irish admired people who succeeded: Marco “Millions” Polo, William A. Brown, architect to the Philistines or the patrician Harfords who live in stately mansions. In A Touch of the Poet, the Irish-American Cornelius and Sara Melody seek to gain social rank and wealth among well established New Englanders. In the career of his father, mirrored in James Tyrone of Long Days Journey O’Neill represented the malady of most Irish Americans, their susceptibility to the spiritually enfeebling American virus of self-aggrandisement.
The second and smaller group of Irish-Americans are O’Neill’s “fog People”, existential misfits who can never belong. Critics like Shaughnessy say that they may be thought of as “black Irish” or mystics, those who crave a zone of peace “beyond the horizon”. They are aware of a past, real or imagined, that cannot be recovered. In espousing an ideal of social and material justice, they realise that their dreams are little more than supportive illusions which only delay the gaping void which overcomes but fails to fill it with a meaningful existence. In these Irish characters “O’Neill was reminded of what he had experienced himself: a conflict between faith and doubt; the idea of woman as both virgin and whore; the yearning for the Celtic Tir na n’Og (the land of eternal youth)” (Shaughnessy 155). Such people are programmed to see life itself as tragic, O’Neill’s early creations of the Irish American types are all sailors, speaking with a pronounced brogue, heavy drinkers with little regard for prudence. Driscoll in O’Neill’s one act sea plays, the ancient Paddy in The Hairy Ape who is an Irish dreamer and Mat Burke in Anna Christie who give critics food for thought as to how O’Neill is using his own experience to create a variation of the stage Irishman. Mat brags and boozes; is a pugilist and virgin-idolator; like Driscoll powerful and proud. Yet he rationalises deviously to justify his own loutish behaviour; has a maudlin loyalty to the faith and to his mother’s memory and there is also a rascally irresponsibility of the typical sailor in him. When the flinty Swedish Anna delivers an early O’Neillian statement on fate when he goes on an epic binge on learning of her prostitute past. “We’re all poor nuts, and things happen, and we just get mixed in wrong, that’s all” (I, 1015). From his father and from experience, O’Neill learnt that the greatest sin for the Irish was betrayal, specially self-betrayal. In the story of James Tyrone we are reminded of the parable of the servant who buried his talent and thereby suffered its loss. At twenty he learns that he is brilliantly gifted but the memory of his poverty makes him a spiritual pauper. His wife Mary in marriage to the matinee idol, loses her life’s trajectory. By the time he comes to write the play O’Neill had mastered the dynamics of character: motivation, reflex and inner consistency. He had perhaps come to see the Irish (and all human beings) as driven by powers both within and outside themselves. To use Edmund Tyrone’s words (and Edmund represents Eugene) these later portraits are painted in the style of “faithful realism”. O’Neill refused to sentimentalise Irish America.
Of his African American plays The Emperor Jones would probably be disqualified today as “politically incorrect”. But where has Brutus Jones learned the Darwinian ethic of conquest and gained the skill to deceive natives? “In truth, he had found his models among the successful white salesmen who expound the American business ethic in the smoking cars of Pullman”(Shaughnessy 151) where Brutus had been porter. When Jones says, “If dey’s one thing I learn in ten years on de Pullman ca’s listening to de white quality talk, its the same fact” which is “For de big stealing dey makes you Emperor and puts you in de Hall of fame when you croaks”. Yet by the end of the play Jones’ blackness becomes strangely irrelevant. Questions of racial superiority have been made to seem superfluous.
In the play that the two racial stereo-types confront each other is based on O’Neill’s acute observation of the psycho-social complexities that are embedded in the idea and practice of miscegenation – All God’s Chillun Got Wings. Jim Harris, “a studious looking Negro with an intelligent yet queerly baffled face” (II, 292) wishes to become worthy of his idealised love Ella Downey, who is Irish American. Ella comes to feel a profound ambivalence for Jim who treats her “white” but whom she has been conditioned to look down upon. “Because they breathe and in a culture of sickness,” (Shaughnessy 153) racism is a deterministic factor.Their pathology is therefore a kind of synecdoche for the illness that degrades the social organism. However, O’Neill is more concerned with “fate” than with determinism, and his major black plays finally deal with more fundamental question of what it means to be human.
O’Neill’s performing of modernism depended on two major factors – the production of his plays and the combination of two characteristic strategies of American modernism, mythicising and historicising, to endow contemporary human experience with transcendent meaning. One of the most sensational, both in disturbing subject-matter and ongoing popular successes has been Desire under the Elms which premiered in 1924 with Experimental theatre. Directed as well as designed by Robert Edmond Jones, this, experiment in space and mood called for simultaneous interior/ exterior locations within a unit set which utilised movable walls so that the exterior of the New England farmhouse could dominate the stage when interiors were not necessary. The advantage of having removable walls allowed the mysterious, ghostly parlour to remain hidden until it was needed for the seduction of Eben by Abbie. The cabot house was placed as close to the audience as the proscenium would allow. Some complained that the action was uncomfortably close which was probably the point. Tall elm trees stood as sentinels beside the house, which in its ordinariness created a counterpoint for the volatile sexual repression, sexual outbursts, greed and excruciating suffering performed effectively by the actors. In 1926, the opening of The Great God Brown at Experimental Theatre and again directed and designed by Jones, used masks. Although the audience was often confused by the dramatist’s inconsistent, even contradictory uses of masks, they remained fascinated with the artist’s most challenging act of theatricality. In 1928 O’Neill moved to the Theatre Guild which opened with a marvellous display of sweeping staging and beautiful designs to present Marco Millions. The play resonated ironically in an obviously commercial production of anti-commercial themes. Brightly coloured Asian costumes decorated a series of international locations with an evocation of Asian sounds, music chant, rhythmic movement and spectacular processions. In 1928, O’Neill’s largest cast play, Lazarus Laughed opened in an amateur professional production at the Pasadonia Playhouse. The vast dithyrambic production of masks and resurrection directed by Gelmor Brown received considerable national accolades.
It is a mark of O’Neill’s Americanism that in his last decade of play writing he was at work on a most ambitious treatment of American history, his projected play cycle about the cultural history of the United States from 1775-1932. The Cycle’s overall title A tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed indicate the dramatist’s point of view which is essentially an indictment of America’s greed and materialism and its failure to value spirituality and beauty. A year before Miller’s seminal treatment of the American success myth in Death of a Salesman, O’Neill explains his motive. “We talk about the American Dream, and want to tell the world about the American Dream, but what is that dream, in most cases, but the dream of material things. I sometimes think that the United States, for this reason, is the greatest failure the world has ever been. We’ve been able to get a very good price for our souls in this country – the greatest price perhaps that has ever been paid” (qtd. in Basso 230).
The history of the Harford and Melody families embodies a fundamental struggle the O’Neill saw at the heart of American culture – the struggle between pragmatic, materialistic greed, essentialized in the success myth, and the search for spiritual transcendence. While these oppositions are refracted in various ways in the plays written during the twenties and thirties, there is a sense of endlessly seeking a higher ground of human experience.
Mourning Becomes Electra is O’Neill’s most effective treatment of history combining successfully historicising and mythicising. For this O’Neill employs the Electra story just as in Desire he had exploited both the Phaedra and Oedipus myhs to re-endow American experience with the universality of the classics. Electra embodies a struggle between the New England Puritan heritage of the Mannon family and the influence of the “foreigners” who have mixed with them, people who have the capacity to free America from its self-imposed oppression by the Mannon’s life-denying Puritan ideology. Most acts in the trilogy take place, as in Greek tragedy, before the exterior of a great building, the ante-bellum Mannon family mansion, “a white Grecian temple””. The house is weighed down with significance. Looming over the action of the play, the house is a constant reminder of the failure of the Mannons, and of the United States, to overcome the failure of its native form of Puritanism, “which as a typical American and a life-denying repression of emotion, sexuality and aesthetic response to beauty” (Murphy 136).
Doris Alexander notes that Electra places O’Neill “in direct rivalry” with the ancient Greek playwrights. He actually stole the plot from Euripides, Sophocles and especially the Orestia of Aeschylus, but the title indicates O’Neill’s interest in the daughter, Lavinia who, having done with mother, mother’s lover and brother Orin, driven half-insane by guilt and incestuous desire, drives him on to suicide and entombs herself within the Greek mansion.
O’Neill’s accommodation of European cultural insights, his assimilation of Asian sensibility and reaching out to European thinkers and dramatists show case an American artist who is able to, with varying success, transform un-American, pre-American cultural material to construct and critique his own vision of America which is pro-aesthetic, anti-materialistic and heroic in its social or political tragedies.
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