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The Triumvirate (1):   Next

All God's Chillun Got Wings


At the beginning of Act III of Welded, describing an aspect of the relationship between Michael and Eleanor, O’Neill writes, “They act for the moment like two persons of different races, deeply in love, but separated by a barrier of language.” The image was germinal to the concept he evolved in his next play, completed in the fall of 1923 and entitled All God’s Chillun Got Wings.

A thematic sequel to Welded, the new play continued to study the problems of a marriage in which the husband and wife are deeply committed to one another and yet are divided by a profound sense of alienation which prevents their happiness. The question in Welded was explored in a context that was, effectively, placed out of time and out of society. Now, however, O’Neill recast the materials of the earlier play in a broader social context and focused on the marriage between a Negro and a white girl.

Inevitably, at its first performance in 1924, it produced an uproar of major proportion in New York City. The casting of Paul Robeson opposite a white actress, Mary Blair, drew forth poison pen letters, bomb threats and an unusual amount of villification in the press. One writer suggested that outraged morality would be assuaged if an octoroon actress were to replace Miss Blair as the heroine. In the end, the threat of violence died away, although the city’s mayor refused to grant work permits for the children in the first scene. On opening night, the director, James Light, read the scene aloud and the rest of the play was performed without incident. O’Neill, commenting on the furor, said enigmatically that “the suggestion that miscegenation would be treated in the theatre obscured the real intention of the play.”28

O’Neill’s comment could imply that miscegenation is not the central matter of the play, and that underlying the social problems of the narrative there is a more private theme. It is perhaps relevant that the play is arranged in two acts, the first ending with the marriage and with the departure of the couple to live in France, the second beginning with their return after a two-year residence abroad. O’Neill reduces the material that might have evolved as a full second act to a short narrative exposition. Yet to a play concentrating on the social problems of the marriage, the European experience is crucial, for it details how, despite their having found friends abroad and moved freely, they could by no means achieve peace of mind without having faced the issues their marriage created in their native land. By not dramatizing this material, O’Neill might be said to be veering away from the social considerations raised by his narrative to concentrate on other matters.

Similarly, his ending cuts the two off entirely from the outside world, catching them up in an ecstasy of personal communion not unlike that which resolves the problems of Michael and Eleanor Cape, but it is not a conclusion that resolves or even sums up the considerations of race that O’Neill had earlier introduced. Again, O’Neill’s suggestion that miscegenation is not the “real intention” must be considered.

That the story of miscegenation overlays a more personal theme is signaled, perhaps, by the names O’Neill gave his hero and heroine—the names of his own parents, Jim and Ella.29 As in Welded, an element of autobiography threads through the imagined story. Read in the perspective of Long Day’s Journey into Night, Ella’s insanity, which reduces her at the end of the play to the condition of a young and fragile girl, can be seen as reflecting the trance-like condition that dope induces in Mary Tyrone. Ella’s madness prevents Jim from fulfilling himself as a lawyer, and, in this, O’Neill possibly suggested that his mother’s continued dope-taking was a weapon she used to prevent his father’s fulfilling himself as an actor. Yet such possibilities are without real artistic consequence, for nothing in the drama casts significant light on O’Neill or his family. At best, O’Neill can be said to be using private knowledge to test the truth of the relationships among his characters. For once, the autobiographical impulse led outward.

Whatever O’Neill meant by the play’s “real intention,” what he has accomplished is, for 1924, a bold treatment of the social and personal problems that emerge from an interracial marriage. In its time it could be seriously compared only to Boucicault’s The Octoroon (1859) and Edward Sheldon’s The Nigger (1909), but neither older play explored its subject so directly nor so truthfully. For example, it is startling that the major voice of criticism of the marriage comes not from the whites but from the hero’s sister, Hattie. Her black militancy, truculent in its hatred both of the whites and of her brother’s Jim-Crowism, together with her sense of the beauty of her racial heritage, yet rings with immediacy a half-century after she was conceived.

O’Neill’s comment was directed at the vituperation the play’s advance publicity aroused which misleadingly suggested that he had written a sensational, realistic treatment of miscegenation. In his view, he had attempted to do more than this. Certainly he was alive to the social problems, but important to his scheme were the personal lives of his hero and heroine. He saw, rightly, that the social and personal problems were deeply interwoven, and that to project the complexity of his subject he needed more than reportage. He set himself to develop a story and characters that would be both real and more than real, in short, “supernatural.” In the end the play is not expressionistic, yet a number of technical devices are clearly introduced to permit a more-than-realistic perspective on his action.

For example, the first act is laid at the intersection of two streets, one occupied by whites, the other by blacks. The difference between the two races is at first projected by an elaborate sound pattern; choric laughter—constrained and without natural emotion from the white street—and natural and committed laughter from the black. Supplementing the laughter, music distinctive of white and black culture is sung antiphonally between the groups. The sound scheme dramatizes the fact that the races meet, converge, but do not really mingle. O’Neill creates a small point of irony out of the difference between the reaction of white and black to the sense of fertility in the spring.* Only the blacks can respond to the stirring in the earth. The whites are soulless, and the city has stunted the growth of all the children who play on these streets and become gangsters, pimps and whores when they grow up.

The devices aim at presenting essences rather more than literal truth, and they enable O’Neill to sketch the background of his history in a series of short vignettes that trace the growth of the friendship of Jim and Ella. As children, they are close, but then as racial awareness comes to them, their relationship becomes strained and though for a time they attempt desperately to save their friendship by switching racial identity, he by drinking chalk, she by blackening her face, in the end they separate. Jim incurs the hatred of the blacks because of his ambition and Ella becomes a whore. The act ends as they meet again and marry. When they do, the long sociological exposition is completed, and the play’s proper action—the private story—can begin.

In Act II, the technical innovations serve a fuller purpose than the devices which permitted O’Neill to encompass the childhood and adolescent lives of Jim and Ella in Act I. When they return from France to Jim’s mother’s apartment, the play turns to a private scene as the two work out the personal consequences of their marriage. Ella’s increasingly irrational behavior conflicts with Jim’s drive to study law and pass his bar examinations. The two are locked together in a Strindbergian marriage, destructive to both. To dramatize the trap closing, O’Neill required that the room in which they live should shrink as the action progresses, the ceiling lowering, the walls closing in so that all the objects in the room, and in particular a Congo mask which Hattie has given them as a wedding present, become larger, more dominant and threatening. The device is related to O’Neill’s reduction of the space of his action to a narrow focus of light, but the effect is different. In Long Day’s Journey into Night, a sense of release comes as the fog surrounds the house, cutting off the intrusions of the world. Peace comes to James Tyrone and Josie Hogan in A Moon for the Misbegotten when the moonlight softens and in part hides the ugly realities of the day. Here, however, there is no peace. The room is a cage, a cell to which the two are condemned.

Awareness of the trap comes gradually to Jim and Ella. At first she views her marriage as a personal redemption. In the world outside, she had fallen, but Jim has helped her to find spiritual health, and his protection has given her a sense of well-being. Their acceptance by the people of France has enabled them to live for two years in peace, yet they have each felt the peace to be illusory, based on an evasion both of the social and personal issue between them, much as their childish efforts to change their colors had failed to admit the reality of their circumstances. As their awareness of living in a false world grows, Ella begins to withdraw, isolating herself and Jim by a wall of fear bred of shame. Only when the withdrawal is complete, when no eye can look in upon them, does their marriage achieve sexual completion. During the first year of their marriage when they lived in an exterior world, they have lived “like friends—like a brother and sister,” (325) but in their isolation, they become “as close to each other as could be . . . all there was in the world to each other.” (326) Although Ella is satisfied to live so, to Jim such isolation becomes unbearable. He convinces Ella that they must “be really free inside and able then to go anywhere and live in peace and equality with ourselves and the world without any guilty, uncomfortable feeling coming up to rile us.” (326) Thus at Jim’s urging, they return to America, where Ella’s fear redoubles to the point where she becomes a madwoman. Only when she is isolated by madness from all external awareness can she love him or accept his tenderness. Jim, feeling that her suffering is born of her love for him, accepts his bondage to her and cherishes her in her madness.

Jim is a fated man. In Act I, Mickey, the white gangster, tells him to “stay where he belongs,” but the word “belongs” is used differently here than in other of O’Neill’s plays. It does not mean as with other of O’Neill’s protagonists that Jim belongs to some elemental force. Jim belongs to his people, and has the duty of working, as a lawyer, to ameliorate them. Although at one point he says gloomily, “We’re never free—except to do what we have to do,” he feels the necessity to help overcome the handicaps society has placed on him. Like his father, who had progressed from semi-slavery to a respectably prosperous condition, Jim too must rise. He cries to Ella that he needs to become a lawyer, “more than anyone ever needed anything. I need it to live.” (317)

Ella tells him that she wants him to be the best lawyer in the country, thereby showing the world that he is the “whitest of the white.” (329) In justifying his desire to Hattie, he echoes her phrase:

I can do anything for her! I’m all she’s got in the world! I’ve got to prove I can be all to her! I’ve got to prove worthy! I’ve got to prove that she can be proud of me! I’ve got to prove I’m the whitest of the white! (335)

Because of Ella’s fear, Jim’s motivation changes. Hattie rightly calls such an ambition traitorous to his race. Passing the bar examinations becomes for Jim a way of “passing” racially. The premise is as false as drinking chalk to change his color had been, and in the end neither Jim nor Ella can accept it. The goal is right, but the motivation is wrong and Jim fails. In school, despite his knowledge of the law, as he stands on the threshold of the white world, he becomes tongue-tied with fear bred of the tension that Ella’s shame and her madness have created in him.

The sense of shame of being black, shame born bitterly of his love for Ella, brings him into conflict with the play’s principle racial symbol, the Congo mask presented to them by Hattie who is the interpreter of its symbolism. Ella’s first sight of it causes her to recoil as she recognizes in it all the elements of blackness which have terrified her. Hattie forces it upon her as if it were a truth long hidden:

It’s a mask which used to be worn in religious ceremonies by my people in Africa. But, aside from that, it’s beautifully made, a work of Art by a real artist—as real in his way as your Michael Angelo. (Forces ELLA to take it) Here. Just notice the workmanship. (328)

Defiantly, Ella begins by mocking her fear of the mask, but it is clear from the first, that she recognizes in the mask the source of her shame—Jim’s black heritage. She replies to Hattie,

I’m not scared of it if you’re not. . . . Beautiful? Well, some people certainly have queer notions! It looks ugly to me and stupid—like a kid’s game—making faces. (She slaps it contemptuously) Pooh! You needn’t look hard at me. I’ll give you the laugh. (She goes to put it back on the stand. . . . Then turns suddenly on HATTIE with aggressive determination) Jim’s not going to take any more examinations! I won’t let him! (328)

Her attempt to deny the power of the mask by preventing Jim’s achievement of his ambitions turns the mask to a sinister force in their lives. Yet it is the symbol of a rich culture, rooted in religion and expressed in works of art. Hattie’s life is a demonstration of the value of the culture in defining racial goals. She has no need to “buy white”; her need is to be black with dignity. She is not content with her mother’s attempt to do her duty as God mapped it out along a road where black and white cannot mix. Prejudice must be conquered by strength, and she tries to imbue Jim with comparable power, hating Ella because she is white, but more because she has severed Jim from his heritage.

In contrast to the cheap, gaudy furnishings of the room, the mask by virtue of its workmanship and its religious spirit achieves a power that is revengeful, even diabolical. The diabolism arises, however, from Jim’s attempt to “buy white.” From its stand it urges Jim toward his goal, but at the same time, because Jim follows his goal with a sense of shame, it dooms him to fail, casts him out of his race. Jim, the mask insists, must succeed as a black, not as a white. To Ella, therefore, the mask is all she fears. It is the blackness in Jim to which she cannot belong and which has caused her shame. In a demented frenzy at the end of the play, she stabs it and cries “The devil’s dead. See! It couldn’t live—unless you passed. If you’d passed it would have lived in you.” (340) Thereafter, her triumphant escape into madness forces Jim to give up his goal and to live with her in the diminishing cell.

Ella’s murder of the mask is symbolic genocide, just as her insanity is symbolic of all white prejudice that demands of the Negro that he become Jim Crow. In her fear, her shamed sense of uncleanness, her paranoid hostility, she fully exemplifies the hatred of one race for another. When Hattie objects to Ella’s prejudice, Jim replies that the prejudice lies “Deep down in her people—not deep in her.” Hattie replies, “I can’t make such distinctions. The race in me, deep in me, can’t stand it.” (334) By such action and comment, O’Neill causes his audience to see in the symbolism of the story the wider ethnic concerns of the play. Ella’s madness can, indeed must, be taken as a symbolic condition, rather than merely as an interesting, somewhat clinical quirk of character. Her pathological problems are those of the entire white race, and the drama of miscegenation by means of the quasi-expressionist devices goes beyond the sensational subject matter and the somewhat superficial sociology of the first act to a significant, complex and despairful statement on important aspects of race relations.

Yet, O’Neill, with the “theology” of Welded in his mind, has an additional turn to make in the play’s action. Jim belongs to the race whose pride is imaged in the workmanship of the mask. Like Robert Mayo who left the sea for the sake of a girl, Jim Harris deserts his right goal for Ella. Yet Jim’s love of Ella is more passionate, more like worship than was Mayo’s for Ruth. It contains some of the force of Michael’s love for Eleanor. In Act I, scene iii, he kneels in the street before her and begs to be allowed to serve her:

—to lie at your feet like a dog that loves you—to kneel by your bed like a nurse that watches over you sleeping—to preserve and protect and shield you from evil and sorrow—to give my life blood and all the strength that’s in me to give you peace and joy—to become your slave!—yes, be your slave—your black slave that adores you as sacred! (318)

As he speaks the final words, he beats his head on the pavement in a “frenzy of self-abnegation.”

Jim’s need to serve Ella as someone sacred supplants his need to serve his race and his gods. In this, he is not unlike Michael Cape whose desire is to set aside all things that relate to his individual self in order to serve, through love, the divinity that resides in love. Ella is not asked, as Michael asks Eleanor, to make the same sacrifice of self, but as she withdraws into the privacy of madness where she lives only for Jim, she comes to a point that is almost the same as that to which Eleanor comes at the end of Welded.

In Act II, scene ii, Jim tells Hattie,

I have no own good. I only got a good together with her. I’m all she’s got in the world! Let her call me nigger! Let her call me the whitest of the white! I’m all she’s got in the world, ain’t I? She’s all I’ve got! You with your fool talk of the black race and the white race! Where does the human race get a chance to come in? (336)

The passage prefigures the play’s ending, when after crying that he does not understand how God can forgive Himself for what He has done to them, Jim willingly accepts his role as black slave, playing both the self-abnegating boy of the first act and the kind, protecting old “Uncle Jim” whose protection Ella in her madness implores. He prays fervently to be made capable of suffering:

Let this fire of burning suffering purify me of selfishness and make me worthy of the child You send me for the woman You take away. (342)

In the ethnic context of the play, Jim’s surrender spells a defeat for the blacks, yet the tone of the play’s conclusion is not one of defeat. Rather, Jim is transfigured, and he weeps “in an ecstasy of religious humility,” crying in his final words, “Honey, Honey, I’ll play right up to the gates of Heaven with you!” His exultation parallels that expressed at the ending of Welded: Our life is to bear together our burden which is our goal—on and up! Above the world, beyond its vision—our meaning!” (448) Jim’s vision, like Michael’s lies beyond the world and can be found only in the deep recesses of the personal relationship with Ella. There, beyond desire and struggle, transfigured with the simplicity of God’s children, perhaps, O’Neill suggests, they can beat fate and find God.

* All scenes except II, ii, are set in late spring.


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