Eugene O'Neill

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All God's Chillun Got Wings
Provincetown Playhouse, May 15, 1924

 

The Nation, June 4, 1924

All God's Chillun

By LUDWIG LEWISOHN

Mr. Eugene O’Neill has at last hit upon tragedy.  He has the theme, the intensity, the terror and exaltation.  All this will be missed by those who see the play through a curtain of words.  Such words as miscegenation, for instance.  It will be missed by those who indulge in sociological reflections, Mr. O’Neill has fortunately gone much deeper.

He starts with a fact, a credible fact.  There is the city slum; there is Jim Harris; there is Ella Downey.  It is easy to object:  Why mate a first-rate Negro with a third-rate white woman?  Because these are the facts.  They are credible; they are inevitable.  Only this woman would have married a Negro in America today.  Only this Negro, on the other hand, would have had both the mentality and the devotion.  The woman has been flung aside by a scoundrel of her own race.  Jim lover her and wants to save her.  In her stark loneliness and misery she accepts.  An educated woman would never have found herself in quite that position; an en educated woman, even if it were conceivable for her to risk the consequences of this step, would never have revealed in sanity or madness what needed to be revealed, what is beyond all else the tragic theme – the immemorial, ineradicable character of race prejudice.

It is revealing this dark and secret thing that Mr. O’Neill reaches a height hitherto inaccessible to him.  It is profoundly impressive and true that Ella was not happy in France since she took her soul and its memories and instincts with her; it is a master-stroke that she does not want Jim to pass his bar examination, since that would destroy the ultimate feeling of superiority to which she clings and which, she thinks, sustains her.

The case of Negro and White is a terrible case, an excessive one, a case surrounded with myth, fear, terror.  But it does not stand alone.  All deep divisions or supposedly deep divisions have a like effect.  A Gentile wife at some moment of crisis muttering the word Jew under her breath, a French wife, in 1915, the word Hun – these are other symbols out of which comparable tragedies could have been build.  And as Mr. O’Neill’s tragedy points to these others, so would those others have pointed to his.  I do not mean that he has not very honestly and concretely dealt with his Negro man and his white woman.  But the problem he has selected cleaves so near the bone of human life itself that it possesses a transcendent symbolic character.  There are not many such themes in the world; this is one of them. 

It is amusing to contemplate the state of mind of the people who were determined to be shocked by this play, of the critics who excused themselves for trying to view it objectively, of the Gerry Society which, at least for the opening night, refused to issue the permit that would have made possible the performance of the prologue by white and colored children.  It is amusing since all these things serve but to emphasize the truth of Mr. O’Neill’s delineation of Ella Downey’s soul.  He created Ella Downey and at once found the world full of Ella Downeys.

The production of the Provincetown Players is notably fine, Mr. Paul Robeson is a superb actor, extraordinarily sincere and eloquent.  Mr. Mary Blair was a little halting in the earlier scenes; later she rose to the occasion and was literally thrilling at moments.  I must not omit the mention excellent work by Frank Wilson and Dora Cole, nor the slum scene by Mr. Throckmorton, nor the directing of Mr. James Light.  I have seen far more beauty and intelligence and mobility than there are in this production and this play.  I have seen nothing that so deeply gave me an emotion comparable to what the Greeks must have felt at the dark and dreadful actions set forth by the older Attic dramatists.  And these actions, too, had their origin in inexpugnable myth and ancient terror.

 

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