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A Wife for a Life was O’Neill’s only contribution to the star-turns of his father’s theatre. Made perhaps as an almost involuntary gesture, O’Neill copyrighted it, tried unsuccessfully to market it, and then forgot it. More potentially significant enterprises were in view.

O’Neill had returned from the vaudeville tour with his father to New London, Connecticut, in May, 1912, and had begun work as a reporter and columnist for the New London Telegraph. He supplemented his journalistic efforts by writing poetry imitative of much of his current reading: Wilde, Edward Fitzgerald, Kipling, Robert W. Service and Masefield. Behind him lay a life of incredible hardship and depravity of spirit. Early that year, he had attempted suicide. He was twenty-four; he had a two-year-old son he had never seen, and in October, he was to divorce the boy’s mother. On December 24, he entered the sanatorium.

To him, 1912 was a crucial year. Until the end of his life, he worked to understand what lay behind him at that juncture. Yet in the beginning, the impulse which was to dominate his creative life appeared to be without psychological complexity. The writing in the columns of the Telegraph had set desire in motion; his reading in the sanatorium gave it shape; and when he returned to his home in May, 1913, he began to write in earnest. He turned out a few “photo-plays” for the infant film industry,4 but in the main, he worked steadily at his own last on a variety of one-act and two full-length plays.* He wrote without real discrimination or control, struggling to learn the disciplines of his craft. In January, 1914, he approached Clayton Hamilton to ask him how a one-act play should be written. Hamilton replied that he should not worry about the craft of playmaking but should write about his life at sea.

“This has been done in the novel,” Hamilton said. “It has been done in the short-story; it has not been done in the drama. Keep your eye on life—on life as you have seen it; and to hell with the rest.“5

The advice, in fact, was not very helpful. For a young writer, the gulf between art and life is wide, and O’Neill, although he may have tried to follow Hamilton’s advice, kept his eye much more firmly on the example of other writers than on the realities of his experience. Like other tyros, he was seeking masters in the hope of achieving mastery, and the plays of 1913-14, even Bound East for Cardiff, are heavily indebted to others.

At this stage, no one writer served him as a favorite model. Rather, he tried on a variety of styles, changing his mentor even within the confines of a single play. The influence of Ibsen and Shaw are clear in Servitude, and there is a Shavian element in Fog. Strindberg comes to the fore in Bread and Butter, and then is apparently dropped as a guide. There are traces of Hauptmann in The Web. In other one-act plays, he appears to have been guided by 0. Henry and Maupassant and by the novels of Jack London and Joseph Conrad. The result is hodgepodge. With the exception of Bound East for Cardiff, no one of the plays of the period is worth consideration in its own right. Most of them were unproduced. Bound East for Cardiff, of course, entered the world’s repertory as part of the S.S. Glencairn cycle. Thirst received a single production by the Provincetown Players in Massachusetts during the summer of 1916, and Fog was staged by the Provincetown in New York in January, 1917. Neither has been revived in a recorded production, and there is not reason to quarrel with this neglect.

Inevitably, of course, despite their imitation and amateur excess, the plays reveal marks of later power. Yet what is interesting lies less in their spasmodic merits than in the pattern that can be traced through the group as a whole. Building on the technical elements suggested by A Wife for a Life, the plays, despite their variety of subject matter, form a unified group whose design sets forth the initial terms of the playwright’s artistry and thought. They range in subject from scenes of well-bred suburban life to studies of prostitutes and pimps. They consider marital difficulties, questions of free love, the poverty of sailors, the need for artistic freedom, the insensitivity of commercial America, the problems of college students. In technique they range from semi-abstract, quasi-allegorical fables, through glossy domestic triangles, to squalid realistic studies of lower-class and slum life. Their narratives are sometimes intricate and in the worst sense “clever,” and at other times they approximate a simple, plotless revelation that is a form of stage poetry. Their social awareness spreads from strenuous anti-capitalistic diatribe to an affection for the idle rich that characterizes the most slickly commercial Broadway fare. In genre and tone, they reach from outrageous melodrama and near tragedy to something like Shavian comedy. Yet, for all their diversity, when viewed as a group, they reveal a unity of effort and consistency of direction. Together, they converge on the significant initial definition of O’Neill’s characteristic style achieved in Bound East for Cardiff. With this play he strikes once, firmly, in the center of his target. That it should have been written amidst so many errors of taste and judgment suggests that as he worked the goal was becoming clearer, and the dramatist’s disciplines were being learned. Yet of this play, once it is viewed in the context of his other efforts, there is more to say than that O’Neill “kept his eye on life” and wrote of what he knew.

The first impression made by the 1913-14 plays is that they are a brace of brief melodramas. Setting Bound East for Cardiff apart from discussion for the moment, the others move inevitably toward a climax in mayhem. Fog provides a lifeboat and an ocean liner endangered by an iceberg; in each of the others, the climactic activity is graced by the spectacle of a character wandering around with a weapon in hand. Thirst offers a knife; in the others a revolver is drawn and the consequences are usually mortal. Murder occurs in The Web, Recklessness and Thirst, where it is coupled with death from exposure and an accidental tumble into shark-infested waters. In Warnings, Recklessness, Abortion and Bread and Butter the climax brings suicide. Only in Servitude is the gun unfired, the conclusion less than fatal.

Taken singly, each play approaches the limits of youthful self-indulgence. Yet, considered together, the plays reveal a kind of power arising in part from such steady, dominating violence. By its continual presence, as it arises from a wide variety of circumstances, the violence manages to convey that there is operative in the lives of all the characters something like a power of fate, leading them to the explosions with which their mortal existence ends. To suggest, at this stage in his development, that O’Neill was attempting to dramatize a view of the world and that the violence thus had philosophical implications is to lend too much dignity to the fact. Yet, Servitude aside, each attempts to create a tragedy out of what O’Neill came to call “ironic fate.”

By “ironic fate,” O’Neill meant that the lives of the characters are controlled, in despite of their wills, by a power of destiny that is inexorable, malevolent insofar as it can be said to have purpose, but in essence meaningless. In his early conception, man’s fate is ironic in direct proportion to its incomprehensibility. Although men seek happiness and try to alter the miserable condition of their lives, their struggles only weave the strands of their webs more tightly about them. Will, therefore, leads to a kind of suicide, and hope is self-delusion. Such shallow and unformed pessimism does not approximate a world view, for O’Neill has neither philosophy nor theology to support his intuitions. In consequence, at the beginning, there is nothing to lend explanation to the destruction. There are only victims in a spiderless web.

To call such melodramatic destiny “fate” is to do little but to excuse youthful dramatic excess and the circumstantial trickery of the narratives. This granted, however, there remains something impressive in the way each of the characters is crushed by his environment. In spite of the nonsense of the individual stories, a pattern emerges dimly that was at least the beginning of a philosophical position. Man is caught by something—a force of an as yet unidentifiable nature whose power is absolute. O’Neill does not thus early claim that men belong to the force, or even that its power of dealing death is somehow to be associated with its power to give life. Yet these assertions will come, and from such perception, O’Neill will make his start toward tragedy.

His attempt to discover a world view in irony born of melodrama points toward a second characteristic of the group of plays. These efforts are not only without a clear philosophical conception, but they are often anti-intellectual. Fog and Servitude take the most explicit intellectual positions, yet neither is especially impressive for the quality of its thought. Fog strings together socialistic clichés borrowed perhaps from Shaw, while Servitude seeks to argue against the favorite heroine of Shaw and Ibsen, the so-called “New Woman.” In neither play does O’Neill display a vestige of the power of the European playwrights to argue and attack. Despite his superficial indebtedness to them, he does not follow them as a propagandist for a new society. His social awareness was to develop slowly and was never to become a major focus of his statement. As in A Wife for a Life, he moved away from a broad social view, preferring to present an action that was essentially private.

Private emotion forms the basis of such positive elements as the plays offer. In none of them except Servitude does O’Neill permit his characters genuine hope. Man does not have the possibility of circumventing the fatal control. Yet once or twice, the characters are given insight into one another and are permitted to find in the resultant communion a momentary release from their problems. Full insight, such as comes to great tragic heroes, is impossible for these small creatures. They see no more of themselves or their circumstances than mortals ordinarily do. In trouble, men find one another more readily than they find God, and it is so here. The discovery of another human being who can serve as priest and friend is the nearest approach to an idea of good that O’Neill could at first achieve. It is not much—an accidental, impotent, transitory thing, that in the end remains as it began, a purely personal recoil from pain. Yet it is the only positive note discoverable in the plays.

Failing to discover ultimate patterns of meaning, the characters are left alone with their destinies. They are soiled and silent, unable to do more than face what must come. Never fully heroic, often acting on hysterical impulse, the lonely ones turn toward death as the only exit. To some of them death is a cessation of pain; to others, dying is a way of warding off life; to yet a third group, death is a way of expiation, a way of facing the dead. Needless to say, in the first plays, neither the positive personal communion nor the negative descent into death is evolved completely as drama or concept. Taken alone, each is a paltry thing. Yet a partial pattern of meaning evolves from the melodrama and from it greater plays are to be shaped. To mention Titus Andronicus is to suggest that such a course of development is not without precedent.

* The chronology of the composition of the early plays by Egil Tornqvist in A Drama of Souls (Uppsala, Sweden, 1968) places the composition of A Wife for a Life at the sanatorium in the spring of 1913. That fall, O’Neill wrote The Web, Thirst, Recklessness and Warnings. In the winter of 1914, he Wrote Fog, and in the spring, Bread and Butter, Bound East for Cardiff, Abortion and The Movie Man. Servitude followed in the summer. (Cf. A Drama of Souls, 258.) Thirst, Fog, Warnings, The Web and Recklessness were collected in a volume entitled Thirst and Other One Act Plays, privately printed in 1914.


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