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The Triumvirate (2): Lazarus Laughed   Next

The aesthetics and the technical means of the Art Theatre, proved in practice by his five-year association with Macgowan and Jones, together with the freedom to experiment which that alliance permitted him, gave O’Neill a sense of mastery of the theatre not unlike a poet’s security with words. Reticent about his ability with language, he was nothing but confident of his ability to make the stage work. The Great God Brown still generates an energy that in the theatre reduces its pretensions and its confusions to unimportance. Almost alone among major dramatists in this country, O’Neill had the courage of the visionary in his concept of what the theatre could become. He saw—or thought he saw—the way to realize the dreams of the Cheneys and the Macgowans and hundreds of other prophets of new glory for the theatre. Rightly, he saw that nothing would emerge without themes worthy of the enterprise. In their quest, he wrote to Nathan a credo, wherein he stated that to do big work, a playwright must have a big theme—specifically, he must take as his subject man’s search for God.44 Big work meant religious themes and plays for a big theatre. In this spirit, he turned to his most ambitious enterprise, a play which undertook to set forth in strong, positive terms what Marco Millions and The Great God Brown had touched only by ironic negatives. Lazarus Laughed. “A Play for an, Imaginative Theatre,” is, in a sense, Dion Anthony’s play, for it attempts to see God, to personate him ritualistically on the stage. Dion’s attempt failed and so did O’Neill’s, but O’Neill’s failure, unlike Dion’s, is not a failure of nerve, and, lacking the clear evidence which a major production of the work would provide, it is possible that the script may be less the author’s failure than that of his theatrical associates and his audiences.

Lazarus Laughed is a work easily mocked. Its Biblical subject matter and its enormous masses of people cause the comparison with a Cecil B. de Mille film to rise easily to the lips. The scale of the work is vast, and there is ample space on its surface for critics to carve memorable initials. One of the first of these was George Jean Nathan, who felt the play had few virtues, and whose comments led to a quarrel unusual between the two. The play had been written rapidly. The scenario was finished in September, 1925, and the play itself written between February and May, 1926, although O’Neill continued to revise the work through 1927. Something of his sense of creative excitement can be gained from a letter he wrote to Macgowan on May 14, 1926.

“Lazarus Laughed” was finished—first draft—the 11th, but there will be lots to do on it once Budgie gets it all typed. In the meantime, I am going to get started on the lady play “Strange Interlude,” if I can—and my creative urge is all for going on.

As for “Lazarus” what shall I say? It is so near to me yet that I feel as if it were pressed against my eyes and I couldn’t see it. I wish you were around to “take a look” before I go over it. Certainly it contains the highest writing I have done. Certainly it composes in the theatre more than anything else I have done, even “Marco” (to the poetical parts of which it is akin although entirely different). Certainly it is more Elizabethan than anything before & yet entirely non-E. Certainly it uses masks as they have never been used before and with an intensely dramatic meaning that really should establish them as a sound and true medium in the modern theatre. Certainly, I know of no play like “Lazarus” at all, and I know of no one who can play “Lazarus” at all—the lead, I mean. Who can we get to laugh as one would laugh who had completely lost, even from the depths of the unconscious, all traces of the Fear of Death? But never mind. I felt that about “Brown.” In short, “Lazarus” is damned far from any category. It has no plot of any sort as one knows plot. And you had better read it and I had better stop getting more involved in explaining what I can’t, for the present, explain to myself.*

O’Neill’s response to his plays as he wrote them was always one of excitement. With Lazarus Laughed, however, there was something more. The repeated “certainly” in his letter to Macgowan protests too much and suggests that he had moved into a territory where he was anything but certain. In fact, he had outrun the possibilities of his theatre, and, with the history of the production difficulties of The Fountain and the as yet unproduced Marco Millions as warning, he must have known that Lazarus Laughed lay beyond the technical means of any theatre in the world. There were possible producers and possible actors. Reinhardt, who had achieved stunning effects with the mob scenes in Rolland’s Danton and, in The Miracle, with religious pageant drama, was the name most often mentioned. As Lazarus, the famous opera basso, Boris Chaliapin, who perhaps could play the role in Russian, against the English of the rest of the cast, was suggested. Yet the project did not come close to realization, except in the designs by Norman Bel Geddes, who envisioned a stage that could accommodate all O’Neill had asked for.

What O’Neill requires is far less “fanciful” than what he had demanded in Marco Millions. The grand scale of Lazarus Laughed develops as a reality one of the principles of the Art Theatre aesthetics: it is a drama in which the crowd is a point of major focus. In Continental Stagecraft, Macgowan devotes a chapter to a Berlin production of Toller’s Masse-Mensch and follows it with a detailed account of Reinhardt’s pre-1914 productions in the Theatre of the Five Thousand. Essentially, this was a circus theatre, and writing of its technical demands, Macgowan emphasizes that “Only the
biggest and severest forms could be used. . . . The player had to develop a simple and tremendous power. He had to dominate by intensity and by dignity, by the vital and the great. There had to be music in him, as there had to be music in the action itself.”45 He continues to discuss the way in which the spectators are involved in the action, becoming not peep-hole viewers, but participants, part of the crowd which is in its collective entity a major part of the work. As Macgowan set the idea forth in The Theatre of Tomorrow,

One can conceive of a drama of group-beings in which great individuals, around whom these groups coalesce, could be fitly presented only under the impersonal and eternal aspect of the mask. (275)

Lazarus Laughed is evidently constructed to these requirements, and for the enlarged theatre which could accommodate the results.**

O’Neill was well aware of the first criterion for the success of such a play: simplicity. He understood that Macgowan’s demand for power, intensity and dignity could be achieved only by broad and essentially simple strokes. None of the romantic elaborations of The Fountain or Marco Millions are present in Lazarus Laughed. Scenically, it is an easy play, requiring terraces, steps and a few set pieces, arches, columns and the like. What appears elaborate are the masks. Lazarus and the rest of the principal actors present no problem. Lazarus is unmasked, because, having overcome his fear of death, he is a whole person, with no need to hide. The supporting actors wear half-masks, in part because they must speak lines of some complexity and their lips must be free, their voices unmuffled, and in part because O’Neill wishes to suggest a difference between the persona which the mask represents, often grotesque or terrifying, and the simplicity of being, revealed in the mouth and lips. Thus Pompeia

wears a half-mask on the upper part of her face, olive-colored with the red of blood smoldering through, with great, dark, cruel eyes—a dissipated mask of intense evil beauty, of lust and perverted passion. Beneath the mask, her own complexion is pale, her gentle, girlish mouth is set in an expression of agonized self-loathing and weariness of spirit. (336)

The masks for the small chorus are oversize masks covering their full face. They were intended to contain megaphones. These and those of the crowd present substantial difficulties, but the plan, while elaborate, is not complex: O’Neill requires masks representing seven personality types, following a simplified Jungian scheme, for each of the traditional seven ages of man. He duplicates the scheme for women. Thus in the first scene, ninety-eight crowd masks, plus seven chorus masks are required. All of them are pronouncedly Semitic in character, and, as the play progresses from the Middle East through Greece to Rome, new masks are required, adhering to the same general scheme, but changing the racial characteristic of the face. It is a staggering technical requirement, not only in the building of the masks, but in the provision of the bodies to wear them. At the end of the second scene, for example, O’Neill calls for three crowds of forty-nine persons each, a chorus of seven, eight Roman soldiers, a Centurion, Lazarus, Miriam and a messenger—a total of 166 actors!***

The plan is elaborate and probably in any theatre impractical. Yet underlying the apparent complexity a simple and logical scheme is at work. That an audience might not follow the extrapolations of the plan is a little beside the point. Anyone familiar with the run-of-the-mill grand opera chorus will understand the importance and value of the masks. What the audience will not see is a tawdry group of badly made-up, middle-aged non-actors, bunched in the corners of the set, waving scarfs or fronds, each one trying with marked lack of success to develop some expression on his face appropriate to the death of Aida or the nuptials of the Princess Turandot. Grandiose though the scheme may be, O’Neill’s masks are aimed at providing a true choric unity and at heightening the character of the “group-being.” Commenting on the masks he had designed for the production of The Ancient Mariner, James Light said,

We are using masks in The Ancient Mariner for this reason: that we wish to project certain dramatic motifs through that spiritual atmosphere which the mask peculiarly gives. We do not use the mask to imitate life, but to intensify the quality of the theme. The mask cannot represent life. . . . But it can be used, as we are trying to use it, to show the eyes of tragedy and the face of exaltation.46

It is too easy to dismiss the chorus of Lazarus Laughed as an elaborate bore. To achieve the effect he wanted, which was far more than an imitation of life, O’Neill was forced to mask the chorus. A collection of individuals would not give him what he sought, a choric drama of celebration, extraordinary in its dimension, compelling in its intensity.

The importance of the choruses and the crowds lie less in the words they chant than in the sound pattern they create. Their power is aural. They are like the drums and the grating clattering sounds of Yank’s boiler room. They seek to convince, not through logic or poetic beauty, but through massed power. They provide a vast orchestration for the action, to which the text is only a libretto. On the page, the chorus lines appear to follow sequentially, cue-to-cue. In the theatre, however, they overlap the speeches of the protagonists, their sound and their words echoing what is said, elaborating, emphasizing and augmenting the dialogue. For example in Act II, scene i, at the moment when Caligula finally faces Lazarus and realizes his power, Lazarus mocks him gently, and begins to laugh. His laughter is echoed by the crowd and by Caligula himself. The crowd’s laughter continues and grows as Caligula asks why he loves to kill. Lazarus’s answer rides on the tide of choric laughter:

Are you a speck of dust danced in the wind? Then laugh, dancing! Laugh yes to your insignificance! Thereby will be born your new greatness! . . . (A)s dust, you are eternal change and everlasting growth, and a high note of laughter soaring through chaos from the deep heart of God! . . .

The laughter continues under the dialogue for perhaps ninety seconds until Lazarus quiets it with a gesture. It is silent for three lines, and then as Lazarus laughs again, the choric orchestration softly enhances his description of what death was like:

He thought: “Men call this death”—for he had been dead only a little while and he still remembered. Then, of a sudden, a strange gay laughter trembled from his heart as though his life, so long repressed in him by fear, had found at last his voice and a song for singing. “Men call this death,” it sang. “Men call life death and fear it. They hide from it in horror. Their lives are spent in hiding. Their fear becomes their living. They worship life as death!”

As he speaks, the choric laughter blends into words, interspersed with his phrases, and echoing and overlapping them:

Men call life death and fear it.
They hide from it in horror.
Their lives are spent in hiding.
Their fear becomes their living.
They worship life as death!

Lazarus’s next words are a direct address to the crowd, which presumably will be heard in silence, but immediately following the short exhortation, the chorus of his followers and the chorus of Greeks burst forth joyfully, again in lines which sound contrapuntally, finally coming together in a full chorus:

Laugh! Laugh!
Fear is no more!
Death is dead!

Lazarus changes the direction, topping the chorus:

Out with you! Out into the woods! Upon the hills!

initiating a speech that concludes:

I am laughter, which is Life, which is the Child of God!

The words are picked up by the two choruses and the crowd, music is added, and Lazarus is drawn from the place in his chariot. (308-311) The choral sound is at its height.

The effect cannot be described, although a reading of the play with ears open may suggest something of its power.**** Such a reading will also suggest two other matters of importance. The first is that O’Neill has continually played the choral climaxes against scenes of relative solitude and quiet, thus setting a rhythm of high and low, loud and soft, exultant and introspective, the most notable of the latter scenes being the long passage at the beginning of Act IV when the chorus is absent during the interview between Lazarus and Caligula, Tiberius and Pompeia. A sense of isolation surrounds the scene that has in it something of the reality of the fear of death. In part this is created by the silence, the absence of the chorus.

The second matter is that in writing the words for the chorus, O’Neill has been fully aware that he cannot write sentences of any complexity whatsoever. The choric lines are short—two to six words—relying on repetition and simple phrasing for their effect. Anything more, considering that they are most often spoken by a minimum group of forty-nine persons whose masks would have impeded articulation, would have reduced the words to the merest blur. Unison would have been impossible; syntactical complexity would have spelt ruin. The words are not the music, only the means to the music, and are, therefore, deliberately simplified.

In extending the choric element of the play to such unusual lengths, O’Neill was working characteristically toward enveloping and overpowering his audience. The ghosts in Where the Cross Is Made, which were staged live so the dramatist could discover how much an audience could bear, the empathetic call of the drums, and similar experiments devoted toward involving the audience in the psychological realities of the plays are the predecessors of the choruses of Lazarus Laughed. The most revealing comment O’Neill made about the work is recorded in a conversation with Paul Green.47 Green stated that O’Neill spoke to him of his hopes for the new American theatre, “a theatre of the imagination unbounded and one in which the audience especially might participate more vitally and fully. . . . He hoped someday to write plays in which the audience could share as a congregation shares in the music and ritual of a church service.” In terms reminiscent of Macgowan’s analysis of Reinhardt’s Theatre of the Five Thousand, he objected to the sharp division of most theatres between actors and audience, stage and auditorium, and hoped that the entire theatre can be unified and charged with emotion.

“ ‘This can only happen,’ ” Green quoted O’Neill’s saying, “‘when the audience actively participates in what is being said, seen and done. . . .‘ Then he told about his recent efforts somewhat in that direction, the play Lazarus Laughed. . . . ‘What I would like to see in the production of Lazarus,’ he said, ‘is for the audience to be caught up enough to join in the responses—the laughter and chorus statements even, much as Negroes do in one of their revival meetings.’ “

Such an expectation is shocking in its audacity, but it is the true end of the choral scheme of the play. The choruses are to break over the audience as a wave of sound, causing them to rise to Lazarus’s state of exultation, causing them, in short, to believe.

What they are to believe is not complex. The seeds of the play are to be found in The Great God Brown. Brown’s face, at one point, is compared to the portrait of a Roman emperor, and, ironically commenting on his own metamorphosis as Dion, Brown says, “It’s an age of miracles. The streets are full of Lazaruses.” (315) The message that Lazarus preaches is simplified Nietzschean doctrine of the Ring of Being and the everlasting flow of life.

O Zarathustra . . . to those who think like us, things all dance themselves: they come and hold out the hand and laugh and flee— and return. Everything goeth, everything returneth; eternally rolleth the wheel of existence. Everything dieth, everything blossometh forth again; eternally runneth on the year of existence.48

The concepts with which O’Neill had demonstrated his familiarity in The Fountain and The Great God Brown are here focused in the preachment of a Zarathustra-like messiah. Lazarus, however, is stripped of Zarathustra’s scornful laughter, and the play does not contain the darkly pessimistic core around which Nietzsche’s apocalyptic work is formed. Again, O’Neill has reduced the complexity, in favor of a simple, fully positive expression of faith. The death of God, because He has pitied men, is no part of Lazarus’s doctrine. Jesus wept and Lazarus laughed for the same reason: that God is life, a force both psychic and physical. Death is dissolution into life and God, the end of an interlude. Men, ruled inevitably by the force of life, have no reason to fear a return to their elemental essence. O’Neill simplifies the Christian theology as much as he simplifies Nietzsche. To Lazarus, all faiths come to the same thing, a view O’Neill had offered earlier in The Fountain and in Marco Millions. In reality, what Lazarus preaches is what O’Neill sought and what he hoped his audience would be sufficiently roused to accept: a faith for twentieth-century America, which because it lacks a formal theology men might accept.

Some of it is showmanship, Reinhardtian kitsch in the Jones­Macgowan manner. The essence of it, however, comes from the heart of belief. Macgowan had urged that America’s theatre should seek in its own terms something of the exaltation of the ceremonial Greek theatre, and had called for theatre artists who had the vision that had sometime come to artists in other fields. In the theatre, such a visionary could speak not only to the perceptive and the educated as other artists did, but “to the uneducated and the dull, as well as to the receptive.” The theatre, he said, is the art “nearest to life; its material is almost life itself. This physical identity which it has with our very existence is the thing that can enable the artist to visualize with amazing intensity a religious spirit of which he has sensed only the faintest indications in life. He can create a world which shines with exaltation and which seems—as it indeed is—a world of reality. He can give the spirit a pervading presence in the theater which it once had in the life of the Greeks and of the people of the Middle Ages. And when men and women see eternal spirit in such a form, who can say that they will not take it to them?”49

Lazarus Laughed is a play which answers in all particulars to this faith. It attempts to visualize with intensity a religious spirit that O’Neill had perceived dimly all his life. Lazarus, characterized early in the play as a man who in life was nothing but a bungling farmer, is reminiscent of Robert Mayo, but now transformed and exalted by his journey beyond the farthest horizon. Caligula, deformed, ape-like in his antics, is a distillation of other spiritually deformed characters with whom O’Neill has been concerned—the Hairy Ape, Marco, with his spiritual hump, the capering Billy Brown. Tiberius Caesar, Pompeia and Miriam also bring into sharp focus in a specifically religious context human characteristics in which, earlier, O’Neill has sensed a “faint indication” of spirit. For example, the closeness of Lazarus and Miriam to the earth, together with Miriam’s strong maternal quality are reminiscent of the religious motifs in Desire Under the Elms. The list of parallels might be increased, but the point, essentially, is that O’Neill is here attempting to clarify his “doctrine,” to translate experience by the alchemy of a strong, simple, positive assertion into faith, to give his truth “a pervading presence in the theater”—to turn theatre, in effect, into a church.

Annoyed by the positive assertion the play makes, some have said that O’Neill here demonstrates conclusively that he is not a “thinker.” Yet one wonders. Sophocles’ praise of man for his ability to till the fields in the parabasis of Antigone is startling and moving in its simplicity, but viewed as “thought” it is neither complex nor revealing. Hamlet’s somewhat murky self-recriminations pass for thought, but there are not many who know what the soliloquy “To be or not to be . . .“ is about, and certainly to the world­at-large the bromides of Polonius remain the major “thoughts” in the play. Shaw, perhaps the most intellectual of playwrights, was from the beginning almost universally damned for his thinking. In Brecht, a “Playwright as Thinker,” the agit-prop drama comes into the realm of art, but again, although Brecht’s thought is of the essence, it is not the thought that makes the best of Brecht great drama. The most recent movement in theatre, in America at least, has tended to veer away from the drama whose basis is intellect, from “alienation” effects, from forcing the spectator to be an analyst. It has moved instead, through games and improvisation and by such technical means as thrust stages and unconventional theatrical space in which, as Macgowan urged, the spectator and actors are one, toward a theatre of what has been called “Celebration”—a theatrical event, a happening, in which spectators are participants in the full sense. Lazarus Laughed, a play written by a man of the 1920’s for the materialistic culture which sprang up in his society during the interregnum between two great wars, is a play of this modern kind. It does not achieve its end in the same way as the modern theatre seeks that end, but the ends are not very different. Nor, for that matter, are the themes which in the plays of the late 1960’s and 1970’s celebrate the essential simplicity of man, his closeness to the elements, his hatred of materialistic establishments, his need for a pervading sense of life.

Whatever judgment is finally made of Lazarus Laughed, that judgment must be based on an awareness of the theatrical conditions for which it was written. It is not in any true sense a Greek tragedy, although parallels may be drawn; nor is it, O’Neill to the contrary, “Elizabethan.” O’Neill is more correct in claiming it as a unique work for the theatre, one which because of its demands will never receive a fully realized performance.*****

The unique theatrical quality has perhaps obscured one aspect of the work which is also without parallel in O’Neill’s writing, one indeed which may lie at the center of the extravagant development of this third “Wander Play.” In his plays up to 1925, O’Neill had taken as his most characteristic protagonist a man with a touch of the poet who was doomed to frustration in attempting to recapture a remembered vision. Lazarus, however, has more than memory. He is not “touched” with poetry; he, in O’Neill’s meaning of the word, is the poet, and has achieved the promise of his vision. For him no veil exists between life on earth and the secret at the heart of all life. In the presence of such a Poet-messiah, even the most inexorably visionless of creatures, the monstrous, the deformed, the pathological tyrants become touched with poetry. This is the dramatic relationship which gives power to the scenes in the Roman court and creates such strong acting roles for Tiberius, Miriam and especially Caligula. Unexpectedly for them, Lazarus draws back the veil and makes them see, draws them forth from their isolation in what Lazarus calls “a solitary cell whose walls are mirrors” (309) and causes them to yearn toward an ultimate unity with all life. Lazarus gone, the cell becomes again a reality, the mirrors which had been windows become clouded with fog and reflect only the ugliness of self. Lazarus and Caligula both know that “men forget” the power and truth of such vision. But they do not forget that it is there. He whom Lazarus leaves becomes touched with poetry.

Lazarus Laughed, whose time scheme, somewhat divorced from real geographical distance, runs from late twilight in the first scene until dawn in the last, is in essence a long journey through night.****** In less impressive contexts, O’Neill has said that materialism will crush the soul of those touched with poetry. Now, scaling the action a notch higher, O’Neill says what may indeed be a truth: that men faced with a vision will crucify their messiahs, rather than accept their vision. Nevertheless, they cannot eradicate the memory of vision, nor the pain the memory causes.

* In the paragraph following O’Neill continues to describe another play he has in mind, comparable to The Emperor Jones about the lynching of a white man: one which will focus on a masked mob transformed by lust and fear into brutes. Evidently, his experiment with the masked chorus in Lazarus Laughed was intended to be developed further.

** At one time, O’Neill contemplated a production of the play in which only the actor playing Lazarus would appear live. The rest of the play, including the crowds would be on film. (Cf. Gelb, 720) A variation of the project, anticipatory of present-day multi-media devices, might well prove possible.

*** See Appendix II. The Pasadena Playhouse production doubled 159 actors in 420 roles. Backstage in the small theatre, the crowd scenes must have been unique in theatrical history.

**** The one really difficult technical problem is the training of the chorus to speak in tempo and with the proper modulations of volume.

***** Nevertheless, it has proved capable on the stage. The reception of its only professional production by the Pasadena Community Playhouse in 1928 was favorable. More interesting, perhaps, and more revealing of the strength of the play, was a production by students at the University of California at Berkeley in 1950. The Berkeley production was staged in a large, open-air, Greco-Roman theatre. As O’Neill had stipulated in granting permission for the play’s performance, the dialogue was not cut. However, the director, Fred Orin Harris, threw out all of O’Neill’s choric scheme, and reduced the number to a chorus of no more than twenty men and women. No attempt was made to realize the massive choric punch of the script, and, interestingly, the only laughter that was heard in the production was the mocking laughter of the unbelievers, Lazarus’s laughter was projected as a strong “action” of exultant joy in eloquent silence which fell gradually over the chorus. In the hush thus created, music was used to support and further project the sense of Lazarus’s ecstasy. The effect, surprisingly, worked well, and although it fell far short of O’Neill’s sense of what the chorus and the laughter could accomplish, the production was valid.

Framed by this simplicity there emerged a drama of genuine interest. Lazarus’s story proved absorbing, and in performance, Pompeia, Caligula and notably Tiberius and Miriam emerged as some of the best character studies O’Neill has created. Miriam’s continual silent presence by Lazarus’s side proved to be exceptionally vital and, by her light, Lazarus’s humanity became a reality. Tiberius’s monologue in Act IV, scene i, which in this production occupied fifteen to twenty minutes’ playing time, had a greatness of line, an elemental strength that ranked it close to Ephraim’s monologue in Desire Under the Elms.

****** John Henry Raleigh compares the relationships in IV, i, with those of the Tyrone family in Act IV of Long Day’s Journey into Night. Cf. Raleigh, The Plays of Eugene O’Neill (Carbondale, Ill., 1965), 47.


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