Taken as a group, the Harvard plays are remarkable in two ways. The first is that they reveal the author’s continuing susceptibility to outside influence, both from other dramatists and from theorists of the theatre. O’Neill’s willingness to follow the lead of another had been anticipated by his imitations of Jack London and Conrad in his first works. Yet his surrender to Baker’s teaching to the point where it completely eradicated his own impulses was of another order of magnitude than his borrowing of congenial themes or story ideas. Nietzsche, Strindberg and Ibsen were already his intellectual mainstays. To treat them as materials for mockery, as he did in Now I Ask You, was in effect to make of them little more than George Cram Cook and Susan Glaspell made of Freud in their farce, Suppressed Desires. The act was a kind of self-betrayal which could have silenced him before he started. He was insecure—especially as he turned from his early picaresque career to a life of the mind. Yet to accept without qualifications not only the ideas of craftmanship but the literary and dramatic tastes that Baker offered was excessively naïve. He was not a child; he was twenty-eight years old, theoretically an experienced man. Yet he entered Harvard as if it were wonderland and did as he was told. Later he appears to have seen what had happened. Toward the end of 1916, he undertook to pay a somewhat slavish tribute to one of the gods who had suffered because of his iconoclasm. In imitation of Strindberg’s The Stronger, he set to work on Before Breakfast, a play that like Now I Ask You is concerned with Village Bohemian life, but one which is opposite to it in tone, emphasis and notably in technique. It was a deliberate form of atonement, an attempt to free himself of the effect of such counsels as Baker gave him, and it succeeded in redirecting his creative work toward less alien country. In the end, the flirtation with Baker did not matter. He threw the influence off easily, but his acceptance of Baker’s ideas and methods pointed to a danger. Later, the influence of Kenneth Macgowan was to have the same consequences of nearly ruining him as a playwright, for he accepted Macgowan as readily, as naïvely, as he accepted Baker.
To speak of warped intentions and diminished powers is to imply further that the Harvard plays form a negative example of the important fact suggested by the plays of the Thirst volume, that O’Neill’s style and statement are inextricably interwoven. Neither in essence nor in appearance do the Baker plays have any quality that can be called “O’Neillian.” Except when drawing the crew of the liner in The Personal Equation, O’Neill wrote as a stranger to himself. However imitative, his earliest works were clearly his own in manner and substance. Although they did not succeed, they sought to illuminate an inner world wherein, for O’Neill, drama lay. Perhaps the most readily apparent difference in the Harvard works is the way that O’Neill creates an external world for the action. In none of them is there a use of psychological space—that effect of a world contracting around the characters, of a world that has meaning only in relation to what they are. Instead, O’Neill painted a realistic canvas and set his characters in front of it, giving it a literal, temporal and sociological realism that has no hint of the lyric use of setting, ultimately to become one of his greatest attributes as a dramatist. Gone too are the patterns of sound and light that emerged poetically in Bound East for Cardiff, and the monologue, with which O’Neill was to achieve his most satisfactory moments in the theatre, is unused.
Under such pressures, his themes shifted. Instead of an exploration of man’s inner life, O’Neill attempted to write plays that contain a “political” message, notably in the tentative espousal of anarchist causes in The Personal Equation. Here, however, O’Neill revealed himself to be a muddled radical at best. Olga and Tom are shown in the beginning to be dyed in red wool, but as the play progresses, Olga’s militancy is softened by her love for Tom and by her pregnancy. She turns to a position which if it is not conservative, is at least much less radical than that which she had earlier held. Tom, she states, was lured into the movement by his love for her and was not really a radical at heart. Thus O’Neill might be said to have upheld the anti-radical nationalism reflected in old Perkins’s behavior. Yet, although Olga is “redeemed” in this view, she closes the play with a speech on the value of world revolution and the defeat of nationalism. Let them eat cake and have it, too: the play viewed in terms of its social doctrine makes no sense. It may therefore be questioned whether O’Neill was sure of his own social position, indeed, whether he was clear as to what the anarchist doctrine really involved, beyond what he had picked up in conversations with his friends. *
understanding and no firm convictions, O’Neill wrote of material far
from his centers of concern. Interestingly, none of the characters in
any of these plays reveals a sign of the need to belong to something
greater than the world in which he moves. In these plays, there beats
no pulse of the life force that has the power of a God; they are
spiritually, thematically lifeless. The readiest evidence is provided
by a comparison of Olga’s speech concerning bearing children** with
the words of the Poet in Fog on
the same subject. The Poet says,
Both speakers protest too much and make their points with excessive emphasis, yet Olga’s words are simply false rhetoric, while the words of the Poet, however mawkish, maintain some control and suggest a sincerity of feeling that renders them not quite empty.Setting aside, at Baker’s behest, the rudimentary techniques, characters and themes he had begun to explore, O’Neill wrote of nothing in an imitative style. Baker led him away from all that he believed and from all human necessities—self-exploration above all—that had caused him initially to write. Those with talent who followed Baker’s lead found a facile success with Broadway producers, but such a road could offer nothing to a discoverer like O’Neill. It was a thoroughly shopped street, offering no possibility of either poetic or psychological truth. It led away from the sea, as it led from the self, and O’Neill could not walk down it. At the end of the spring term in 1915, although he at first intended to return, O’Neill turned his back on Harvard and disappeared into the Greenwich Village scene, from whence, a year later, he went to Provincetown, Massachusetts, and from there set out on another road entirely.
* In Act I, p. 18, after a speech by one of the characters on the value of war as a purgative to old orders, Tom says “with a puzzled look”: “That’s rank Nihilism.” Then he adds uncertainly: “Isn’t it?” The lines were deleted in the manuscript, perhaps because the uncertainty was originally O’Neill’s.
** Quoted above p. 54.
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