Eugene O’Neill: Earthbound Aspiration
Eugene O’Neill died twenty years ago, on November 27, 1953. In his sixty-five years of life he produced a body of drama so intense and various that he holds virtually without contest the title “greatest American dramatist.”
O’Neill was born in New York, the son of an Irish-Catholic actor. The sixty-odd plays he wrote in his increasingly minute hand earned him a universal audience, four Pulitzer Prizes, and the Nobel Prize (1936). But O’Neill was a difficult, reclusive man, a playwright who disliked theaters, who wrote his plays as personal testaments. His mode was tragedy, his themes struggle, disappointment, and death. His heroes may lie down in exhaustion or defeat, but they seldom simply rest; they may exult, but they do not chuckle or grin.
O’Neill was an unabashedly American playwright. His scripts bristle with native accents: Swedish-American in Anna Christie (1921), urban-working-man and Fifth Avenue-sophisticate in The Hairy Ape (1922), New England-rural in Desire Under the Elms (1924), the rich patois of an Irish-Negro ghetto in All God’s Chillun Got Wings (1924). He may have been the first eminent dramatist to put serious racial themes on stage. Although Stepin Fetchit was still the typical dramatic stereotype of the black in the thirties and forties, O’Neill had already made a black the hero—not just the protagonist—of The Emperor Jones in 1920. Four years later, All God’s Chillun Got Wings confronted audiences with a picture of racism and miscegenation scathing in its honesty and sensitivity.
Nevertheless, like others of his artistic generation who fled to Europe for refuge, O’Neill found little in American art and life that seized his attention. Obsession (both commercial and domestic) with success, status, and the mindless middle-way had made American society seem busy but trivial, precise but silly. And the American theater, carefully husbanding its resources and talent for vaudeville, musicals, or drawing-room farce, had nothing to offer O’Neill’s bohemian vitality but a discouraging example. From this drama and the taste it represented, O’Neill turned away in search of something older, more universal, more complex and profound, more mythical. He became a playwright of human depths—of experience for which terms like “spiritual” and “religious” become necessary because they are the only words adequately serious.
O’Neill’s drama is thus “religious,” but it is not sectarian. Though raised a Roman Catholic and confirmed at age twelve, he left the church almost immediately, driven away from orthodoxy by discoveries about his family that made their religious pretensions meaningless. Forty years later, O’Neill was still groping for a way of handling these adolescent discoveries when he began to write Long Day’s Journey Into Night, his transparently autobiographical exploration of an Irish-Catholic family.
Apart from this, O’Neill’s attitude toward Christianity was sardonically anthropological. In Marco Millions (1927), the young Marco Polo, sent to the east as the pope’s ambassador to Kublai Kaan, succeeds only in convincing the Kaan that God is “an infinite, insane energy which creates and destroys without other purpose than to pass eternity in avoiding thought.” Marco himself is a thoroughly Americanized monster of platitudinous banality and commercial cunning. But even his “faith” is puzzled by a pattern recurring in every country he visits—the inept congress of political power and religious formula, the same immorality and suffering, the same philosophical skepticism rising above it all. The Kaan, at first an amiable if predictable stoic, feels dismay, pain, and finally utter disillusionment at Marco’s perverse innocense, his incapacity to understand the least human aspiration or gentleness. The pope’s missionary of the “immortal soul” has no soul.
If, as a recent critic has put it, O’Neill’s theater was “super-naturalistic,” the characteristic rises not out of this cold laughter at institutional religion but out of other, less ecclesiastical sources. O’Neill was an heir and student of the Freudian revolution, the clinical reduction of the supernatural to the abnormal. Freud gave O’Neill an instrument for probing the complexity of human motivation. He accounted for the ingredients of Western tragedy—the drives toward madness and death, incest and suicide. Specifically ethical themes also figured in Freud’s hypotheses: for example, the traditional tragic debate between will and destiny, necessity and moral compulsion, which Freud internalized as part of the constant warfare in the human consciousness.
O’Neill knew and valued Freud’s work. But as an artist he resented the simplifications of human experience invited by Freud’s rational categories. He protested hotly when he thought critics were reading Freud into his plays too easily, or when they gave Freud credit for insights that O’Neill saw as the ancient birthright of the artist. O’Neill was not out for clinical explanation, but for the agonized “blood-jet” that makes tragedy. To this end Freud’s work was more a revelation than a resolution of human stress and pain. And in trying to make tragic experience live in contemporary American settings, O’Neill turned to myth, in particular to the Greek myths first shaped by Homeric poets.
This transition from psychoanalysis to myth is easily explainable in terms of O’Neill’s preoccupations with the sources of religion, and his disenchantment with modern life. He wrote in 1925, in an unpublished foreword to The Great God Brown: “If we have no gods, or heroes to portray we have the subconscious[,] the mother of all Gods and heroes.” The artistic problem was how to make the currents of subconscious experience a theatrical subject. To answer his need, O’Neill chose techniques of ritual, fantasy, masks, and mythical plots, attempting to realize the depths of the personality and make them visible on stage.
The results came in such plays as The Great God Brown (1926), Lazarus Laughed (1927), and the famous trilogy Mourning Becomes Electra (1931). In Brown each main character carries a mask, some stereotypical but changing face he wears to express—often deceptively—his motives, his self. The characters develop by dialogue (usually masked) and soliloquy (usually unmasked). The masks twist, age, or grow more blandly typical, as do the faces beneath them; but they suggest at every turn the complexity of human character, the flux of choice, impulse, and reaction that surrounds every action.
The “great god” is merely Billy Brown, another all-American success story, a secret admirer Of Margaret, the wife of his friend Dion Anthony. Margaret is kind but uncomprehending, deeply in love with her husband’s mask, terrified of his face. Anthony is an artist and a failure, half Dionysius and voluptuary, half Antoninus and ascetic, the spiritual depth that neither Billy nor Margaret can reach. Only with Dion’s death, after which Billy Brown wins Margaret by wearing Dion’s mask, can Billy begin to confront the absurdity and frustration of a sensitive soul denied fulfillment or peace. Billy’s end is both ironic and noble:
“Blessed are they that weep, for they shall laugh!” Only he that has wept can laugh. The laughter of Heaven sows earth with a rain of tears, and out of Earth’s transfigured birth-pain the laughter of Man returns to bless and play again in innumerable dancing gales of flame upon the knees of God!
O’Neill’s rhetoric here is religious, but the idea it represents is broadly mythical. The play’s one constant is Cybel, a prostitute, a mother-figure who knows as if by instinct all that Dion and Billy learn, and who recognizes—and symbolizes—the natural rhythms against which humans are born, laugh, and die.
Spring again!—life again!—summer and fall and death and peace again!—… but always, always, love and conception and birth and pain again.…
O’Neill’s critics complained that the masks of The Great God Brown were too awkward a gimmick, too intrusive for theatrical success. But in Lazarus Laughed, O’Neill elaborated the device into a system of almost unmanageable complexity: forty-nine masks, each representing a time of life and type of personality, and all modifiable according to general racial characteristics (Hebrew, Roman, Greek).
The masks hang perpetually in the background of this mystical play, a skeptical context for its religious exaltation. We meet Lazarus on the day of his return from death, which he has found to be only a serene autumnal rest. Lazarus laughs because death, Satan’s handmaiden, the existentialist’s final absurdity, does not exist. There is only life, Lazarus tells the crowds who seek him out; therefore, man is inseparable from god, his actions inalienable from god’s intention, his only shame his own fearful betrayal of the life within him. The message is as subversive as all mysticism. It brings Lazarus into direct conflict with the Caesars, Tiberius and Caligula, whose authority depends on the fear of death. But it is Caesar who is doomed to frenzied self-contradiction—who would try to kill a man who has already died?—for even as Lazarus burns in the Coliseum, he laughs.
The play is an amazing, profound work. But with its choric dialogue, its intricate system of masking and ritual groupings, and its monumental, baffling hero, whose actor must project a constant stream of joyous laughter without letting it go cheap or hollow, it probably defies successful production. In Mourning Becomes Electra, O’Neill abandoned fantasy and his habitual rhetoric and turned instead to a specific, ancient story. He retold the Agamemnon-Orestes myth, the basis for Aeschylus’ Oresteia, in the setting of nineteenth-century New England. In Aeschylus, Agamemnon returns from the Trojan War only to be murdered by Clytemnestra, his wife. In O’Neill, the returning soldier is Ezra Mannon, the war the American Civil War; his wife Christine kills him, not with a cloak and sword, but with poison. “Electra” is Lavinia Mannon, the general’s daughter, a haunted, driven young woman who incites her brother Orin (Orestes) to murder, indirectly causes his suicide and Christine’s, and closes the trilogy by taking upon herself, as her identity and occupation, the guilt of the entire family.
Mourning is a far more complex work than Brown or Lazarus, though its basic techniques are simpler. The various selves that war within Lavinia—one impulsive and passionate like Christine, one hard and puritanical like Ezra—cannot be changed instantaneously with masks. Instead, Lavinia must grow into them and through them, justifying the development of her action by her assumption of different identities. She must become the myth; her face must change as the masks would change it. In her O’Neill tried to reconcile the elements of his “religious” vision—psychological, mythical, theatrical.
Again, of course, there were loud objections. The myth was too unbending, the characters too strident, the action improbable. Whether in response to his critics or in a simple change of direction, O’Neill veered away from explicit myth in his final autobiographical plays. But his interest in the religious potential of experience never slackened. In Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Edmund, O’Neill’s surrogate, tells his father of the experience that made him a poet:
Full moon in the Trades. The old hooker driving fourteen knots. I lay on the bowsprit, facing astern, with the water foaming into spume under me, the masts with every sail white in the moonlight, towering high above me. I became drunk with the beauty and singing rhythm of it, and for a moment I lost myself—actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the sea, became white sails and flying spray, became beauty and rhythm, became moonlight and the ship and the high dim-starred sky! I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of Man, to Life itself! To God, if you want to put it that way.
Edmund’s sense of the unity of cosmic life is mythical and mystical—religious in the most general sense. It provides a temporary answer to the bitterness of Dion Anthony, and the severest rebuke to the gross blindness of Marco Millions.
Whatever his personal success at reinvesting the theater with the energy of ancient myth, O’Neill set an undeniable stamp on modern drama. He dreamed of a theater whose intensity and detachment from the triviality of normal existence would make it a temple, a spiritual refuge. His fascination with the subconscious has its echoes in the work of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. And his dream of a “super-natural” theater has survived in today’s theatrical avant-garde. “Living theater” groups, political in their determination to alter or destroy social institutions, are also religious in their efforts to create a theater of extreme confrontation—an environment of the ultimate, where the audience is invited not to entertainment but to shock and purgation.
The comparison makes O’Neill’s techniques seem dated. His most successful plays stay relatively close to objective social and historical reality. They seek not to express religious truth directly but to uncover the sources of religious emotion within ordinary experience. In the process they veer self-consciously away from dogmatic religion. To O’Neill, creedal Christianity seemed inadequate to its own claims—only another spiritual effort of human imagination, one among many. To the orthodox Christian, correspondingly, O’Neill’s own religious statements will probably sound thin, unfocused, moving but deceptively insubstantial.
It would be wrong to drop O’Neill because his characters lack a creed. What they express, in moments of triumph as in hours of defeat, is all men’s aspiration to the knowledge of God. O’Neill was afraid his contemporaries were liable to forget this aspiration in their pursuit of things, and so miss the deepest urge of their humanity. But O’Neill’s “religion” remains earth-bound, expressing the need but not the supply, the aspiration but not the response; questions abound, but answers are only vague and temporary. Man reaches up; but God does not reach down. The result is tragedy, which shows us how high the human stuff may raise itself; its elements are effort, struggle, and the changelessness of the human condition. But O’Neill’s tragedy cannot encompass the presence of grace, the divine act beyond human effort that promises an eternal moment of peace.
Lionel Basney is associate professor of English, Houghton College, Houghton, New York.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more