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The Rope, The Dreamy Kid

That O’Neill, who the year before had written so fine a play as The Moon of the Caribbees, would produce two efforts so lacking in creative force, so imaginatively shallow, is shocking. That he felt some despair at the emptiness of his work is perhaps betokened by the fact that he destroyed four of the eight one-act plays written in these two years.* To be sure, those that he saved and published were not without consequences. Where the Cross Is Made was shortly to be revised as the full-length Gold; The Rope anticipates some of the elements of Desire Under the Elms; and The Dreamy Kid, O’Neill’s first black drama, opened the way to The Emperor Jones and All God’s Chillun Got Wings. In these and in the longer plays, O’Neill underwent some limited development, but nothing that he did in these two years after Beyond the Horizon was of first importance, nor can the time be understood as a period of growth. The years 1918-19 are nearly empty, significant only by their contrast with the two years that followed.

By 1921, O’Neill had achieved a solid national reputation and was on the way to international fame. By that time, six of his full­length plays had received professional productions. Three had failed,** but two were Pulitzer prizewinners, and one, The Emperor Jones, had made theatrical history. Release from the doldrums, when it came, was complete.

Agnes Boulton’s narrative stops in the fall of 1919, with the birth of their son, Shane. The time was a little short of the moment of change. O’Neill’s listlessness gave way to the new creativity early in 1920, when Beyond the Horizon was at last readied for its Broadway opening. Upon its completion in April, 1918, O’Neill had sent the script to the producer, John D. Williams, who accepted it, but then did nothing with it. More than anything else, O’Neill needed that production. The small successes, the critical favor that the Provincetown productions offered him were insufficiently gratifying to offset the aura of amateurism that hung about them. To be the fair-haired boy of a village coterie was not enough, nor was it sufficient to see a work half-realized by middling actors in impoverished productions. A future that meant writing one-act plays to satisfy the limited needs of a small playhouse repertory was tantamount to slavery. The production of Beyond the Horizon in a large theatre and with a cast of actors who could realize his vision of his script meant a way forward. Yet for two years production did not come. During the period of waiting, O’Neill wrote without real incentive or energy in that condition he called “hopeless hope.” Even the Provincetown’s production of The Moon of the Caribbees in 1918 was of small interest to him as he literally waited for the postman to bring him word from Williams.2

He had every reason to live in expectation. The most optimistic theatrical rumor fed his hopes. Williams assured him that production waited only until both John and Lionel Barrymore could free themselves of other commitments so that they might play Robert and Andrew Mayo.3 It was a fair promise, but when John Barrymore signed for Arthur Hopkins’s production of Tolstoy’s Redemption, its fulfillment was impossible. Williams suggested waiting until that production had failed, as it surely would. O’Neill grimly wished it the worst luck, but against all likelihood, Barrymore made the work a hit. Williams fell silent about O’Neill’s future. Other major plays, The Straw and Chris Christopherson, were drafted and then set aside, because as he told Agnes, “I don’t want to start on Chris or The Straw and then have to leave it for rehearsals. . . .“4 At the Provincetown’s request he wrote The Dreamy Kid for their new season, and then when that was found unsuitable, he worked up the last act of his scenario for Gold under the title Where the Cross is Made. Little by little, however, the energies that had carried him steadily through 1917 and the writing of Beyond the Horizon in 1918 flagged. The banked fire threatened to die.

The diffidence bred by waiting is revealed in the generally slipshod writing in the surviving one-act plays. Technically they are uninteresting. O’Neill did little with his characteristic patterns of light and sound, except once, in Where the Cross Is Made, where he called for an effect that is elaborately grotesque. Previously, his settings had both interest and truth. Now both were lacking. The setting of The Rope is perhaps mute testimony of an almost complete failure of imagination. It is a barn on a farm near the New England seacoast. Double doors open at the back and give a view of the sea, and the sound of the waves is heard throughout the action. In fact, the stage plan duplicates the stage of the wharf shed theatre the Provincetown Players used on the Cape, which also had large double doors at the back opening to the sea. O’Neill turned it to a barn by
adding a hayloft, and then to a grotesque by adding a noose hanging from the hayloft.

In The Road to the Temple, Susan Glaspell describes a time when she was under pressure for a play but had no conception of a subject. She went into the wharf shed and sat for the morning before the empty stage, summoning inspiration. Gradually, as she stared at it, the stage took on the contours of a kitchen, became peopled with characters and, once the process was ended, she had in hand one of her most successful one-act plays, Trifles.5

One suspects that the story was repeated in Provincetown circles, perhaps by Cook, voracious to find plays, with the suggestion that this was a short step toward successful playwriting. Whether or not O’Neill in fact entered the theatre and followed Miss Glaspell’s procedure in order to get an idea for a play is immaterial. He wrote The Rope in Provincetown, and it clearly has something of the forced plotting—plotting that is essentially arranged to explain the noose in the setting—that such a procedure might bring to pass.***

In technical execution, the plays are deeply flawed. All of them have clumsy exposition. When she was producing The Rope at the Provincetown, Nina Moise complained of the amount of narrative with which the play opens. O’Neill replied loftily in words that smacked of Baker’s precepts, “It’s dramatic exposition if I ever wrote any, and characterized, I flatter myself. . . . If the thing is acted naturally all the exposition will come right out of the characters themselves.”6 He would presumably have made the same defense of a number of curiously motivated exits and entrances, as for example his arrangement of the stage for a duo scene in The Rope by writing for the unwanted third character the following exit line: “I’ll step outside a second and give you two a chance to git all the dirty things you’re thinkin’ about me off your chest.” (589) Any defense would have been specious, for technically the play is inexpert and its companion pieces little better.

None of the short plays is invested with the high degree of imaginative visualization that characterized the Glencairn cycle. O’Neill at times appears to have seen his characters only dimly. For example, Luke, the son in The Rope, is described upon his return home as being twenty-five, but he has left home at sixteen and has been gone for five years. In the original acting script of Where the Cross Is Made, a stage direction called for a one-armed man to place both elbows on the table, “in a gesture of despair.”7

Such trivial errors are only a token of the slackness that manifests itself in all these works. They are all conventional pieces, incapable of mustering enough energy for experiment and rarely passing beyond the melodramatic.

The only genuine experiment was ludicrous in execution, if not intent. In Where the Cross Is Made, he tried as he had in Before Breakfast to apply a more than normal pressure on the spectators’ sensibilities so as to discover how much an audience could bear. At the climax of the play, the ghosts of three sailors enter, bearing a treasure chest. As they appear, all sound stops and the light turns green, flooding the room in “rhythmic waves”:

Water drips from their soaked and rotten clothes. Their hair is matted, intertwined with slimy strands of seaweed. Their eyes, as they glide silently into the room, stare frightfully wide at nothing. Their flesh in the green light has the suggestion of decomposition. Their bodies sway limply, nervelessly, rhythmically as if to the pulse of long swells of the deep sea. (571)

O’Neill, in creating such a Guignol effect, was attempting to suggest the reality of an illusion that had come to a mad sea captain and his son, but his insistence on using “live” ghosts caused an uproar at the Playhouse. To everyone but O’Neill, it was clear that the ghosts could not “glide silently” on the creaking boards of the Provincetown stage. O’Neill was asked to make the ghosts imaginary. He refused, saying: “No . . . they’re rotten, but they won’t be so bad tomorrow night, beyond the first twenty rows anyway. This play presumes that everybody is mad but the girl. . . . I want to see whether it’s possible to make an audience go mad too. Perhaps the first rows will snicker—perhaps they won’t. We’ll see.”8 The results of the experiment were clear. In Gold, the full-length version of the play, the ghosts remain in the imagination.

The experiment is of interest chiefly because it suggests that O’Neill, however idly, was turning toward expressionism. In fact, of course, the intent of the scene is quite the opposite of expressionism. O’Neill’s desire was to achieve a super-realism with all barriers to full commitment on the part of the audience broken down. They were to believe in the total reality of the ghosts. Yet his means to this end was to cause the audience to accept a point of view other than that which would be normal. The action is to be filtered through the consciousness of one of the characters, a technique which is essential to expressionism as O’Neill knew it in Strindberg’s practice, where audiences are forced to assume the presence of an overriding consciousness, a Dreamer or a Wanderer, through whose mind the action is to be viewed not as a “real” experience, having precise loci in time and space, but as incoherent, fragmented experiences arranged in non-logical concatenations.

The experiment had consequences both positive and negative. As a move toward a heightened realism, it led him directly toward the visions and the drumbeats of The Emperor Jones, but it also suggested a danger that was to emerge ultimately as a genuine stylistic crisis. The matter had first come into doubt when Cook and Zorach argued over the production style for Thirst as to whether O’Neill was a realist or something more. The presence of an experiment that moves in two possible directions, toward realism and expressionism marks a stylistic danger to come.

Although the three one-acts are very different in setting and in tone, their central narratives are remarkably similar. Each centers on an aged, dying parent-figure and a child who is worthless. A homecoming is the central event in each of the plays, and upon that event, the older protagonist has developed a fixation that amounts to madness.

Thus, in The Dreamy Kid, the dying Negro grandmother waits desperately for her grandson, a gangster wanted by the police, to come to her. In The Rope, old Abraham, a New England farmer, waits for his son whom he has driven away with harsh treatment, to return to the farm and collect his inheritance, a rope with which to hang himself. In Where the Cross Is Made, Isaiah waits for his ship, the Mary Alien, to return with a treasure he and his crew had discovered and buried years before when they were cast away on a South Pacific island. Nightly, he stalks a poop deck built on the roof of his house, watching for the ship’s riding lights. The play makes clear that the treasure is worthless and that the ship has been wrecked. Yet his obsessed conviction that it will return is so great that it infects his son Nat with unwilling belief. Both father and son are caught by meaningless hope that drives both mad.

Perhaps reflecting O’Neill’s own frustrations in the matter of Beyond the Horizon, each of the three plays centers on defeated hope. In The Dreamy Kid, the gangster must come to his grandmother to avoid a curse that will fall on him if he does not see her before she dies. Yet his expectation of luck fails, and at the play’s end, he is about to be gunned down by the police.

In The Rope, when his son, Luke, returns to Abraham, he proves to be a worthless, loud-mouthed braggart. Abraham receives him with joy, but is so overcome with emotion that he loses the power of rational speech. He can only indicate that he wants the boy to hang himself in the noose. The boy turns violently on his father and plots with his brother-in-law to torture the old man in order to force him to reveal the whereabouts of a thousand dollars in gold. They leave the barn, and as the play ends, Mary, Abraham’s feeble-minded granddaughter, swings on the noose. It pulls away from the beam, and the bag of money falls to the floor. The child takes the coins and, playing “Skip-Rock” with the gold, throws them into the sea.

In Isaiah’s case, mad hope spreads like an infection. The old man has mortgaged his home to outfit the treasure ship. To save what is left of his inheritance, his son plans to commit his father to an asylum. An early scene between Nat and his sister reveals the extent to which Nat has been consumed by his father’s madness. He shows the girl the treasure map with the traditional cross indicating where the chest has been buried, and, although he admits that it is worthless, he tells her that the map has dominated his life:

It’s stood between me and life—driving me mad! He taught me to wait and hope with him—wait and hope—day after day. He made me doubt my brain and give the lie to my eyes—when hope was dead—when I knew it was all a dream—I couldn’t kill it! . . . God forgive me, I still believe! And that’s mad—mad, do you hear? (566)

Nat, aware of the danger of being possessed by dreams, burns the map, but his rebellion against the dream’s power is useless. At the climax, the ghosts of the drowned sailors enter the room, and both father and son are convinced that the Mary Allen has come home. Isaiah dies of a heart attack, and Nat takes his place on the captain’s walk, watching the sea.

The plays, despite their lurid narratives and their melodramatic maniacs, have at least this small importance: they are early developments of a theme that will lead O’Neill to the creation of some of his finest theatre, for each contains the germinal idea of the hope that holds men to life, of the lie of the pipe dream that, however, meaningless, nurtures the dispossessed. The matter is made most explicit in Where the Cross Is Made, when Nat, hung between “facts” and dreams, between sanity and madness, acknowledges that his father knows the truth as he does himself. But he adds:

Oh he knows right enough. . . . He knows, Doctor, he knows—but he won’t believe. He can’t—and keep living.    (588)****

The Rope and Where the Cross Is Made can claim attention for two further developments: the use of myth and legend to broaden the base of the narrative and the emergence of autobiographical strands in the narrative action.

The title, Where the Cross Is Made, perhaps implies that the cross marking the location of the treasure is intended as a Christian symbol and that Isaiah bears in his prophetic hope a resemblance to the Biblical prophet.***** Yet the Robert Louis Stevenson tale of treasure, together with the macabre conclusion, makes such a parallel at best connotative and, in the theatre, without dramatic substance.

The Rope, on the other hand, is consciously built on the parable of the prodigal son in Luke XV, a portion of which is quoted during the action.****** Part of the play’s force, together with some of its pathos, is generated in the scene in which Abraham asks Luke to hang himself. As he speechlessly tries to indicate his joy at his son’s return by pointing to the rope which hides the inheritance, he seems to be asking that the boy, like the Biblical prodigal, acknowledge his guilt and seek forgiveness that he may be received again into his father’s house. In the last analysis, O’Neill does not substantially illuminate either the play or the parable by duplicating the action in this way. At best, he achieves an ironic reversal of the parable’s recognition scene, but no more. Yet it is at least a start toward the extensive parallelism that widens the scope of such plays as Desire Under the Elms, Mourning Becomes Electra and The Iceman Cometh. Unexpectedly, too, it appears to have led O’Neill close to direct autobiography.

What is most interesting in the one-act plays is the emergence of autobiography in the midst of the mélange of realism, melodrama and romance. In earlier works, some autobiographical elements had been evident. The clearest examples, however, were confined to a relatively static self-portrait and, except tentatively in Bread and Butter, O’Neill did not develop the character in narrative patterns that reflected the significant relationships of his own life. Now, the situation begins to change.

Several biographers have suggested that the relationship between Abraham and Luke resembles that between O’Neill and his father.9 As he pictured his father in Long Day’s Journey into Night, O’Neill stressed the man’s miserliness and depicted the complex intermingling of love and hate he felt for his younger son, who, like Luke, was a returned sailor. Luke’s face corresponds to the physical type of the Poet in Fog and of John Brown, having dark hair, large brown eyes and a weak mouth. In action, however, he shows none of the sensitivity of the earlier self-portraits. There, he is depicted as a swaggering ne’er-do-well, a man “wised up” in the ways of the world. In this respect, he is not unlike some details of the portrait O’Neill was ultimately to draw of his brother Jamie in the Tyrone plays and Hughie. It is as if, in creating Luke, O’Neill had subconsciously compressed the figures of both himself and his brother into a single “prodigal,” asking for but not finding a reconciliation with the father.*******

The possibility that these suggestions are of some substance is affirmed by Louis Sheaffer’s suggestion that one of the determining influences on the play was David Belasco’s lavish production in 1917 of The Wanderer, based on the prodigal son parable, in which James O’Neill starred as the father.10 It is not difficult to imagine that to Eugene and Jamie, the spectacle of James enacting the lavishly forgiving father occasioned extensive cynical commentary. That some of that attitude was released in the ironic turns on the Biblical account contained in The Rope seems probable. By no stretch can the play be called directly autobiographical, yet it is a step toward a fuller account of important personal relationships than the earlier self-portraits had permitted. Surprisingly, if wise­cracks about “Old Gaspard, the miser” playing the prodigal father came easily to James O’Neill’s sons, the father in the play is treated with sympathy, while the son remains a callow, unaffecting villain. O’Neill possibly saw more than he at first expected to see.

Autobiography in Where the Cross Is Made is less clear. The fact that the old man is to be sent to a hospital by his son conceivably reverses the situation O’Neill faced when his father sent him to the sanatorium. Louis Sheaffer has suggested that the Mary Allan, the lost ship Isaiah has named after his dead wife, is a reference to the mother O’Neill felt he had lost. O’Neill’s mother’s full name was Mary Ellen Quinlan.11 The points are small ones, yet it appears that in writing the two plays, O’Neill moved closer to significant self-depiction than he had done before.

* Titles of the destroyed works are Till We Meet, The Trumpet, Exorcism and Honor Among the Bradleys. Exorcism was produced by the Provincetown Players in March, 1920. Honor Among the Bradleys may be the play referred to by Agnes Boulton (254) that O’Neill wrote after meeting a family of squatters. The family consisted of father and mother and seven blonde, beautiful, unmarried and pregnant daughters. Of the other plays, nothing is known.

** The three failures The Straw, Gold and Chris Christopherson were all drafted in the years 1918-19, although Gold did not go beyond scenario form in those years.

*** The plan of the wharf shed is used again in the second act of Gold whose scenario was written at about the same time.

**** The view that hope, however futile, can keep a man alive was one that O’Neill had explored a year earlier in his short story, Tomorrow. The Rope, like the short story, borrows from Conrad’s tale, Tomorrow. Both the play and Conrad’s narrative are based on the parable of the prodigal son, and each centers on an obsessed, nearly insane father who longs for his son to return from the sea so that he may receive his inheritance. In both, father and son are finally estranged, and both endings stress the tricks that hope can generate in the mind. Interestingly, all three of O’Neill’s plays convey something of Conrad’s image of a prodigal ironically disinherited.

***** An undated clipping in the Provincetown Players’ scrapbook notes that “Muriel Hope will read The Sign of the Cross by Eugene O’Neill with plays by Lady Gregory and Strindberg.” Whether O’Neill once considered using the title of the Biblical epic for his play or whether it is Miss Hope’s error, the alternate title is suggestive. The scrapbooks are in the Theatre Collection of the New York Public Library.

****** In addition there is perhaps reference to the story of Abraham and Isaac in the episode where O’Neill’s Abraham brings his son to the point of a sacrifice that would, if it had been executed, have turned to a scene of forgiveness and reunion.

******* See further below, Chapter X. The play also lays stress on a mother who has deserted her family and whose absence has contributed to the crisis between father and son. Jamie was in Provincetown with his brother during the time of the play’s composition.


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