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The Fountain


O'Neill began work on The Fountain early in 1921.  The previous year had achieved two major theatrical successes with Beyond the Horizon, for which he received a Pulitzer Prize, and The Emperor Jones, which became an overnight sensation and "a run-away hit" (Contour 134).  Finding his career suddenly accelerating, O'Neill began writing The Fountain with fervor. 

At this time The Provincetown Players, who had presented all of O'Neill's plays to date, were in a state of change.  The success of The Emperor Jones caused dissension.  O'Neill was in contact with Kenneth Macgowan and Robert Edmund Jones with the intent of establishing a producing body for new and experimental productions.  Bogard reported that "as [O'Neill] began writing The Fountain, the possibility of a collaboration with Macgowan and Jones was clearly in his mind" (232).  O'Neill seemed to envision an eventual production of The Fountain as a blending of his own writing skills with Macgowan's dramatic theory and Jones' scenic design.  In a letter to Macgowan dated 18 March 1921 O'Neill wrote, "It would be an intensely interesting experiment, I believe, to work this thing out in harmony from our respective lines in the theatre" (Letters 150).  O'Neill consulted with both concerning his preliminary historical research for the project.

O'Neill reported that "he worked harder on it [The Fountain] than on any previous play" (Artist 53).  The Gelbs stated that "O'Neill had gone through Frazer's The Golden Bough and John Fiske's The Discovery of America" (469).   O'Neill inferred in a letter to Macgowan in April of 1921 that his research was much more extensive than this (Bryer 23).  Despite his research O'Neill was less interested in historical accuracy than "with the conception of what could have been the truth behind his 'life-sketch' if he had been the man it was romantically--and religiously--moving to me to believe he might have been" (qtd. in Gelb 469).

In a March letter to Macgowan O'Neill stressed the spiritual aspects of the play over the historical.  He wrote, "I'll have to combine and relate a lot of scattered facts and thus give history a slight rumpling up but it will be necessary to do that to bring out the full truth, the spirit of it" (21).  O'Neill's approach to the material was to create a fictional story based on scant historical fact.  In the same letter O'Neill wrote, "It's in a way lucky that so little real information has come down to us about Juan Ponce.  One can recreate him" (21).  Through the fictionalization of history O'Neill continued his experimentation with form as he had done with The Emperor Jones.

By the Summer of 1921 O'Neill was finishing his final draft of The Fountain.  During this time he optioned the play to Arthur Hopkins for production.  Throughout the previous year O'Neill's confidence in The Fountain was unflagging.  In a letter to Malcolm Mollan in December of 1921 O'Neill wrote, "Wait until you see The Fountain, a play quite unlike any I have written before" (Letters 160).

The Hopkins production was scheduled to open September 1922 with Lionel Barrymore in the lead role (Letters 171).  Since O'Neill's initial work on The Fountain, productions of Anna Christie and The Hairy Ape had increased his stature as a playwright.  Anna Christie was directed and produced by Hopkins and had led to O'Neill's second Pulitzer Prize.  It was rumored that Hopkins and Jones had also assisted in the direction and design of The Hairy Ape (Contour 486).  O'Neill wrote to his former playwriting professor George Pierce Baker, "[The Hairy Ape] is, with the possible exception of The Fountain, my best play" (Letters 166).  Thus, O'Neill approached the upcoming production of The Fountain with the highest of hopes.

Unfortunately the Hopkins production of The Fountain was not to be.  John Barrymore's participation fell through.  In September of 1922 O'Neill was uncertain of the future of his play (Bryer 34).  Early the following year Hopkins' attitude toward the project cooled substantially.  "Disappointed by Arthur Hopkins' less than avid espousal of The Fountain, O'Neill began searching, in 1923, for an instrument of production which he could control" (Gelb 524).  When Hopkins allowed his option to expire, O'Neill optioned the play to the Theatre Guild whose production also eventually fell through (Artist 160).  But this did not happen before O'Neill was once again disappointed by a planned production which failed to materialize, this time with Fritz Lieber in the leading role.

O'Neill's own optimism seems to have begun to wane as prospects for a production of The Fountain decreased.  When in 1925 The Fountain was still unproduced O'Neill wrote to Macgowan, "Maybe I'll decide to produce and publish it myself--in a good hot stove" (Bryer 93).  Eventually, in November of 1925, The Fountain was produced by Macgowan, O'Neill and Jones with Walter Houston playing Juan.  Gelb reported, "Getting The Fountain on, after three and a half years of waiting, was an anticlimax for O'Neill, and he was half-hearted about its production" (590).  The "great joy" with which O'Neill had set out to create this play was replaced by indifference (Bryer 27).  Bogard attributed much of O'Neill's ambivalence to "compromises in casting and staging" (Contour 238).  O'Neill had had several successful productions between the writing and eventual premiere of The Fountain, including Desire Under the Elms.  He wrote in July of 1925, "Have been doing a bit more work on The Fountain but can't seem to get interested in the old thing--probably because I'm really anxious to get going on something new and yet my conscience makes me go over this" (Bryer 94).  Bogard wrote:

In September, 1925, more than four years after he had written The Fountain, he complained to Macgowan that the work...on the production of The Fountain was interfering with the production of The Great God Brown.  'Brown,' he wrote, needs much more careful casting, more time, and more careful preparation than The Fountain.  To me it is worth a dozen Fountains.  Clearly, by the time The Fountain appeared on stage, O'Neill had no further interest in it.  (238)

The production closed after only 14 performances.

O'Neill blamed the casting for at least part of the failure of his production.  The Gelbs suggested that "he could not reconcile [the image of his father as Juan] with the reality of Huston's characterization" (590).  O'Neill said to Stark Young during an interview, "the actors in those [his father's] days would not have understood the play, but they could act it; now they understand it, but can't act it" (Gelb 590).  Doris Alexander pointed out that a possible cause for the failure of this production of The Fountain might be due to O'Neill's drinking problem.  She reported, "With the beginning of The Fountain rehearsals on November 23, he had another relapse and drank all through December" (239).  Considering the complicated integration of style and themes which are called for in The Fountain, an impaired O'Neill during the rehearsal process could almost guarantee a confusing and unfocussed production.  Regardless of the reason, O'Neill eventually came to believe that The Fountain was one of his worst plays.

In 1930 O'Neill remarked to Ward Morehouse, "If I could go back I'd destroy some of these plays, say, four of them--Gold, The First Man, The Fountain, and Welded" (qtd. in Estrin 105).  In 1932, The Fountain was by the request of O'Neill omitted from a list of play to be published by the Book of the Month Club (Cummins 122).  Considering O'Neill's initial support and excitement concerning The Fountain, the amount of work he spent writing and researching and his eventual negativity toward it, it is entirely possible that it was the difficulty of securing a production rather than the play itself which changed O'Neill's attitude.  Certainly the four years of struggle to mount a production contributed to the playwright's ambivalence and eventual dislike of both the production and the play. 

In 1941, O'Neill was approached by Richard Madden with an inquiry as to O'Neill's interest in writing a libretto for a musical version of The Fountain for Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson.  O'Neill refused, telling him, "Long ago I lost whatever interest I ever had in The Fountain" (qtd. Letters 520).  Two days later, however, O'Neill wrote to Theresa Helburn of the Theatre Guild informing her of this project presumably with the thought that she might have interest in writing the libretto.  He wrote:

The Fountain, with the right music and beautiful setting, done well, would be shrewd showmanship right now, I think (and I can be objective about it because I don't give a damn about The Fountain as a play).  521

This brief incident indicates that while O'Neill may not have had interest in pursuing any further connection with his play, he did believe that it had artistic merit.     O'Neill's own ambivalence toward the first production of The Fountain, his frustration over the years of expectation and disappointment while trying to mount such a production and the artistic compromises he eventually had to endure no doubt have contributed to the overall critical view that The Fountain is one of the worst plays that O'Neill ever wrote.

Story Summary

The Fountain is O'Neill's version of the story of Juan Ponce de Leon's search for the fountain of eternal youth.  The play is structured in one act with eleven scenes, making it essentially a full length play.  O'Neill breaks the play into three parts.  Part one consists of two scenes.  Part two consists of four scenes.  Part three consists of five scenes. 

Scene one takes place in Granada on "the night of the Moorish capitulation, 1492" (376).  The scene is the courtyard of a Moorish nobleman's palace.  Juan, "a tall, handsome Spanish noble...full of a romantic adventurousness and courage," arrives to take possession of the palace (377).  He is gracious to the defeated owner, informing him that guests will be arriving shortly to celebrate the end of the war.

Almost immediately Juan is visited by Maria de Cordova, "a striking-looking woman of thirty-eight or forty, but discontent and sorrow have marked her age clearly on her face" (379).  She declares her love for Juan.  Juan rejects love declaring, "Life is nobler than the weak lies of poets--or it's nothing" (379).  Instead, Juan intends to join Christopher Columbus and conquer new lands for Spain. 

Juan's friend Luis de Alvaredo arrives to celebrate the victory.  Seeing Maria leave, he warns Juan that her husband Vicente is just behind and may have also seen her.  A fight breaks out offstage.  Luis is afraid that Spanish soldiers are killing his friend, an Arab poet, whom he has rescued.  Luis brings the poet into the courtyard ahead of the other guests.  Diego Menendez, a monk, objects to the presence of an Arab.  He is accompanied by Vicente and other soldiers "knights of the true Cross, ignorant of and despising every first principle of real Christianity" (383). They drink and Luis sings them a song.  Juan teases Luis about the romantic nature of his lyrics.  Vicente indicates that he suspects Juan and his wife of adultery.  Luis persuades the Arab to sing a song about the East which he translates.  The song is about a fountain which grants those blessed by God with eternal youth.  Menendez takes offense to the song as blasphemy.  Juan ridicules the song.  Vicente challenges Juan to a duel.  As the men argue Menendez sneaks back to the Arab and kills him.  Luis begins to weep and the party breaks up with Juan and Vicente planning to duel in the morning. 

Scene two opens a year later at dawn on the flagship of Columbus' second voyage.  Luis, Oviedo, Castillo and Mendoza are gambling while Juan speaks with the pilot on the poop deck.  The gamblers speak of riches to be won in the East, Columbus's dislike for Juan and of Juan's disgrace following his duel with Vicente which Juan won.  They also speak of the rumor that Vicente and Maria are having a child.

Juan overhears the talk and is thankful for Maria's pregnancy.  He reveals that he dueled in order to strengthen her love for her husband.  He loans Luis gambling money teasing him about his romantic notions concerning the fountain of youth.

Columbus criticizes the Spanish soldiers for embarking on the journey for riches and country rather than to spread the word of God.  He speaks to the men calling their journey "the Last Crusade" (394).  Juan retorts that the crusades are dead and that the greatness of Spain must be first priority.  He chides all who sail for being "looters of the land, one and all!  There is not one who will see it as an end to build upon!" (395).  As Columbus responds, land is sighted.  Juan places his sword in the deck of the ship forming a cross to which the soldiers bow. 

Part two opens twenty years later.  Juan is the governor of Porto Rico (sic).  The scene is the courtyard of the Governor's palace. Juan is sitting on a bench looking old and weary as Luis, now a Dominican monk, enters.  Luis is described as having "achieved a calm, peaceful expression as if he were at last in harmony with himself" (397).  The two speak of conditions in the New World.

A soldier and Franciscan monk, Quesada, enter with a native prisoner, Nano.  The soldier wishes to enslave Nano and his village.  Juan refuses, dismissing the soldier.  Juan, still hoping to explore the East, asks Nano if he has heard of Cathay; as a joke on Luis he also asks about the Fountain of Youth.  Nano tells him of his place of birth, "a land that never ends," from which he was taken as a young boy (400).  He tells them that the fountain is a legend of his people.  Juan thinks it odd that Nano and the Arab tell virtually the same story.  He takes this to be evidence that Cathay and the fountain are near.  He has Nano placed in prison.  This meeting reminds Juan of his dreams of youth and leaves him yearning for the energy to rekindle his youthful furor.  

A boat arrives bringing Menendez, now a bishop hoping to usurp Juan's position as governor.  Beatriz de Cordova, Maria's daughter also arrives by the same boat.  She brings Juan the long awaited patent to find Cathay which will allow Juan to fulfill his lifelong dream.  She tells Juan that her mother has died and made Juan her ward charging her to "bring him tenderness" (405).  Juan asks that she bring back the past instead and welcomes her to Porto Rico. 

Scene four takes place four months later in Menendez' study.  Menendez and Quesada plan the final stages of a plot to usurp Juan's power by inciting the people with promises of great fortune if Juan exercises his patent and brings back the riches of the East.  Quesada reveals that he has also spread rumors that the Indian Nano has bewitched Juan and persuaded the people to kill him.  As they speak the people begin to burn nearby native villages. 

Juan confronts the monks having overheard their conversation.  He insists that he will leave but only after he has secured enough information from Nano.  After Juan leaves, Beatriz arrives and refuses to help Menendez convince Juan to leave.  Mendendez convinces her to help by showing her the burning settlement and assuring that unless Juan leaves many will die.

Scene five takes place in Nano's prison cell.  Nano is chained to the wall of his underground prison.  A torturer is warming irons in a fire.  Juan questions Nano in the hope of learning the location of the Fountain of Youth.  Nano answers that only the gods know its whereabouts.  Juan is in anguish because of his participation in Nano's torture but his obsession forces him to continue.  He threatens to kill Nano if he does not reveal the location of the fountain.  Nano asks, "What is death?" (415).  When Juan offers to take Nano home, Nano pretends to know the location of the fountain and agrees to guide Juan.

Scene six takes place in the courtyard immediately following.  Juan looks tired but feels the strength of his youth at the prospect of finding the fountain.  Beatriz convinces Juan to leave.  She tells Juan that his search for Cathay will make him young again.  Juan takes this as an omen that if he were young Beatriz would love him.  Juan asks Beatriz to speak to him of her secret dreams of love.  She tells him that her dream lover is a younger version of him.  He makes her promise not to marry until his return.

Luis warns Juan of the mob and castigates him for his lack of leadership.  He has seen through Juan's charade of finding Cathay and confronts him concerning the torture of Nano and his dream of the fountain.  Juan compares his faith in the fountain with Luis's in God.  Luis calls Juan a blasphemer.  Juan proclaim, "There is no God but Love--no heaven but youth!" (422).  Luis finally understands that Juan loves Beatriz.

As the mob tries to enter the courtyard, Beatriz, Luis and Menendez all try to convince Juan to stop the riot by allowing Nano to be executed.  Juan refuses and attacks the crowd alone.  He forces them back and promises to sail but refuses to give up his guide until after the voyage.

Part three opens four months later on the coast of Florida.  A native chief is looking out onto the ocean at a figure swimming to shore.  Nano enters from the ocean and is immediately surrounded by a crowd of natives.  He convinces the men that he was once of their tribe.  Nano warns them that the Europeans who will arrive shortly are evil and worship gold.  "They see only things, not the spirit behind things" (428).  He tells of the White man's god who came to Earth to teach people to seek the spirit behind things and how the god was killed for it.  Nano then reveals that he escaped by lying about the existence of a magical fountain.  He plots with his people to lead Juan to a spring where they will kill him. 

Scene eight takes place the following day at noon.  The natives have built an alter on the beach with a cross and gold nuggets on it to trick the White men.  Juan enters, "his eyes obsessed," with soldiers, monks, Luis and Nano(432).  Quesada sees the cross which the natives have inadvertently placed upside down.  He believes that they are devil worshipers and shoots the medicine man.  As Quesada pulls up the cross, the medicine man stabs him with a knife, killing him.  The Spaniards claim the land for Spain.  The men see the gold and believe they have found Cathay.  The scene ends as they pray.

Scene nine opens at midnight in the forest as Juan and Nano enter.  Natives are positioned in shadows around the sound of an underground spring.  Juan is skeptical that this is the correct spring as they have previously visited many fountains on islands as they traveled to Florida.  Nano assures him that it is.  Juan feels enchantment at the spring but also expresses feelings of uneasiness.

Juan attempts to pray but cannot decide to whom he should pray.  Finally he prays to Beatriz and drinks.  Juan begins to feel something.  Juan looks at his reflection in the water and is terrified by his unchanged face.  He leaps up to kill Nano and is shot by the natives.  Leaving him for dead, they exit to attack the other Spaniards.

Scene ten takes place at the spring a few hours later.  The forest is black.  Juan's voice comes from the darkness.  In desperation Juan prays to understand why he ever existed.  A strange light appears stage right.  A masked woman's figure emerges in the light "like a piece of ancient sculpture" (438).  Juan asks her who she is.  He hears Beatriz's voice singing the same song Luis sang in the first scene.  The spring becomes a huge fountain bathed in light in the middle of which the figure of Beatriz appears.  Juan calls to her but she does not respond.  Beatriz's figure is replaced by an old Chinese sage who is joined by the Arab from scene one on one side, by Nano on the other and finally by Luis as a young man.  Beatriz can again be heard singing a new song.

As the figures in the fountain disappear, Juan calls to the masked figure, "have you no vision for the graspers of the earth?" (441).  The four phantoms return each dressing in the trappings of a religion.  As they disappear the figure of an old Native American woman enters.  Juan invites her to sit with him.  She goes to him and removes her mask revealing Beatriz.  Juan realizes the meaning of these visions.  He cries, "All thing dissolve, flow on eternally...Thou art the All in One, the One in All--the Eternal Becoming which is Beauty" (442).  Juan faints.  Luis enters searching for Juan, sees him and carries him off.

The final scene takes place a few months later in a Dominican monastery in Cuba.  Juan is sleeping; Luis enters and wakes Juan to tell him that Beatriz has arrived to nurse him.  Juan tells him that he lives only to tell Beatriz of the truth he has learned and of his love for her.  Luis also tells Juan that his nephew has arrived from Spain.

Beatriz and Juan's nephew arrive obviously in love with each other.  In looks and demeanor young Juan is a double of his uncle.  He has come to the New World to "serve Spain" (446).  Seeing their love, Juan realizes that his love for Beatriz should not be revealed and holds his tongue "with joy" (447).  As Beatriz and young Juan exit, they sing Luis's song to each other.

Juan tells Luis that he has found eternal youth as a drop in the fountain of all existence.  As he dies, the rising voices of Beatriz and young Juan singing of love mix with the chanting of monks at Vespers.

Literary and Performance Criticism

Literary critics have overwhelmingly assumed at the outset of their analyses that The Fountain is a bad play, unworthy of production.  The Gelbs wrote, "[The Fountain] is one of O'Neill's artistic failures, but interesting because it illustrates his religious state of mind at the time he wrote it" (468).  One possible result of this assumption is that no literary or performance criticism has examined The Fountain in terms of a continuous dramatic action.  Instead critics have for the most part approached it in terms of reinforcing their own particular perspectives O'Neill's of O'Neill's body of work.  Virginia Floyd stated that, "The dramatist resorts in The Fountain to a lush romanticism" which allows her to explore Juan as "O'Neill's first major dual-natured hero in a full-length drama" (226).  James Robinson, in Eugene O'Neill and Oriental Thought focuses on the mystical aspects of the play claiming that Juan's search for China climaxes in "an Oriental serenity" which re-enforces his claim that Eastern philosophy strongly influenced the playwright.  This piecemeal critical approach has succeeded in establishing  The Fountain as a play unworthy of production.

O'Neill himself tied The Fountain to the theme of "belonging" in a 1923 letter to Michael Gold.  He wrote, "It is a play totally different from any of my others but the same Hairy-Ape, human quest of 'belonging' is the real subject of it" (Letters 177).  Yet this general theme can be seen in most of O'Neill's plays.[1] 

The quest for belonging and the manner in which one pursues this quest are for O'Neill the elements of religion.  Religious experience is a very important aspect of The Fountain in two different ways.  First, O'Neill intended The Fountain to be a religious experience for his audience.  The Gelbs cited O'Neill describing his purpose in writing The Fountain as "getting back, as far as it is possible in modern times to get back, to the religious in the theatre" (520).  Secondly, O'Neill seems to have been attempting to describe within the text itself the manner which he felt could best spiritually and religiously uplift humanity.  In his program notes to The Fountain's production O'Neill wrote:

The idea of writing The Fountain came originally from my interest in the recurrence in folk-lore of the beautiful legend of a healing spring of eternal youth...It has sought merely to express the urging spirit of the period without pretending to any too-educational accuracy... Contour 234.

Thus The Fountain can be seen as intended to provide a religious theatrical experience while at the same time informing audiences as to O'Neill's own beliefs concerning the nature of life.  The failure of the production as a whole seemed to preempt the desired religious theatrical effect on the audience.  O'Neill's philosophy as articulated by the play is a point of disagreement among critics as they   attempt to define O'Neill's metaphysics as a component of their own larger argument concerning O'Neill's body of work.  The result is a small body of criticism which varies widely in focus, but never looks at the play in terms of its basic theatrical viability.

The Gelbs put forth the theory that The Fountain's religious message was one of rejection of the Catholicism of his father.  "In the play O'Neill tried, for the first time on a large scale, to dramatize his private and never-ending struggle with his Catholic conscience" (468).  For the Gelbs The Fountain is a dramatization of O'Neill's father's "pursuit of glory and romance, and his final realization that it had been 'all froth' (468).  While this approach seems biographically interesting, it does little to shed light on the metaphysic represented by the play.  The Gelbs suggest that the plot should be seen as "a man who, in his youth, is blind to the beauty of love and deaf to the spiritual uplift of poetry...goes off on a frantic search for the fountain of youth, to resume his own youth and appeal to [Beatriz] as a lover" (469).  Such an interpretation does little to emphasize the mystical, religious, or metaphysical aspects of the play which are clearly integral and significant to the plot. 

Travis Bogard disagrees with the Gelb's interpretation.  He believes that they gives too much emphasis to O'Neill's anti-Catholic leanings  writing that the "Catholic faith is treated in this play as a part of the historical background" (235).  Bogard believes that rather than using his father's life as a model for The Fountain, it is more likely that O'Neill used an idea from his friend and colleague George Cram Cook, who wrote a similar play entitled The Spring.  Bogard cites similar themes and the use of Native American subject matter as similarities between the two plays.

Louis Sheaffer approached The Fountain as a critique of European treatment of Native Americans:

 "For all the talk about the fountain, O'Neill became less interested in the old legend than in the white man's harsh and greedy invasion of the New World as the origin of a dark strain in the American character" 53

This interpretation is used by Sheaffer to link the early work with O'Neill's later unfinished cycle of plays.[2]  While an important aspect of The Fountain, such an approach clearly ignores much of the philosophical intent of the play.

Bogard saw in the mystical final scenes of the play a depiction of God which is "not the Catholic deity" (235).  Rather, the god depicted is "a force of eternal nature" (235).  For Bogard the images of America can be seen as "the image of the old harmony, born of sacred, primordial peace in a vision of Eden, of paradise" (237).  Juan is "a seeker who desires to be possessed by the eternal life forces that move around and through him" (235).  Bogard portrays the movement of Juan's seeking as "characteristic" of O'Neill's other works (236).  In The Fountain, however, the character reverses the typical O'Neillean movement from poet to materialist to a disillusioned death.  Instead Juan moves from materialist to poet, thus discovering "the force of life at its most profound"(236).  This discovery leads to Juan's recognition of his own nephew as "his reincarnated self" which allows him to die with peace (238).  The final images which Juan sees emanating from the fountain represent for Bogard paths which Juan did not take.  Each phantom represents a religious viewpoint.  Juan asks for an image for "the graspers of the earth" and is granted the vision of all the religions passing into the fountain followed by Beatriz as an unmasked crone.  Juan realizes that he is  a part of the life force and is finally at peace.

Bogard's approach to The Fountain incorporates several typical approaches to this play.  The dualistic nature of Juan's character as he moves from materialist to poet can be seen as an Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy.  Such an approach was also used by Engle who wrote, "Juan Ponce de a man in whose bosom, alas, two souls dwell" (96).  Olson saw this dichotomy in strictly Nietzschean terms as a "process of synthesis" which culminates in Juan's enlightenment (139-40). 

While the duality of Juan's character is a presence in the play, it is difficult to concede his final enlightenment as a synthesis of his duality.  Neither of his personas, the materialistic soldier or the poet seem quite strong enough to provide dramatic tension.  Juan's materialism is tinged with romanticism as demonstrated by his goal of glory rather than wealth.  As a materialist Juan's ultimate personal goal is never explicated in the script.  None of his ambitions provide him with great wealth or power.  His goal is to build Spain's power through conquest and in the process become "important."  This ambiguity of goal leads most critics to assume Juan has failed as a materialist, yet at least one critic, Doris Falk, believed that "twenty years later...Juan has realized his ambitions" (81).  Such antithetical interpretations indicate that as a symbol of materialism the character of Juan fails.  It would be more accurate to say that Juan's quest for glory is a quest for immortality by making himself remembered after his own death.

Approaching The Fountain as an examination of the antithetical aspects of Juan's personality places the burden of meaning of the play on the clarity of the materialistic and poetic aspects of Juan's character.  Juan's romantic inclinations in the second half center on his love for Beatriz, but the manner in which he begins his search, torture of Nano, clearly contradicts the persona of a Romantic hero.  Juan's death is in no way heroic.  His goal, to marry Beatriz, is never realized.  In fact, this goal is eventually recognized by Juan himself as ridiculous.  Thus, neither of the opposing personas upon which traditional critical approaches are based are fully realized.

Finally, it is unclear in the writings of any of these critics exactly how Juan's vision of the fountain can be seen as a function of his duality.  Thus, while Juan's dual nature is a factor of his character it does not seem to be a factor which moves the plot from beginning to end.  Rather such an approach furthers the ambiguity of the play as a whole.

Bogard's view of the metaphysics of the play which sees God as a force of nature has also been taken up by other critics.  James Robinson described this metaphysics as "pantheistic" (104).  Robinson cited the image of representatives of each of the world's religious descending into the fountain as symbolic of the "truth" within all the world's religions (108).  Engle too saw "the faith which Juan's mystical experience reveals to him is that of a dynamic pantheism" (106). Egil Törnqvist described the metaphysic as "mystical pantheism" (Souls 232).  Like Bogard's natural force, the pantheistic nature of the world of The Fountain as seen by Engle, Robinson and Törnqvist seems to be directly related to the untamed, natural environment in which Juan's enlightenment occurs. 

While each of these metaphysical approaches to The Fountain suggest an alternative to the absolutist status quo, none of these approaches provide details concerning the specific nature of this alternative metaphysic.  Such generalization is the result of the modernist approach to O'Neill criticism which focuses on O'Neill's opposition to a Christian metaphysical philosophy rather than delineating the metaphysic suggested by O'Neill's work. 

In the above mentioned approaches to The Fountain, very little is mentioned concerning the secondary characters.  Critics seem to have seen the play entirely in terms of Juan's character.  Only Törnqvist is an exception to this approach.  Törnqvist almost totally ignores The Fountain in his A Drama of Souls focusing only on Luis as a parallel character to Juan.  For Törnqvist, Luis functions to "anticipate Juan's development throughout the play" (232). 

The only critic who has offered a significant Nietzschean approach to The Fountain is Esther Olson.  Olson wrote, "Forming the thematic spine of the play was the idea of eternal recurrence" (136).[3]  In addition Olson discussed several Nietzschean themes which she found pertinent.  Among these themes are: dualism, will to power, religious fanaticism and greed, self-overcoming, asceticism and the development of a model for a superman (134).  Olson's analysis is complete and detailed but suffers from the modernist inclination to create an absolute metaphysic.

Olson's absolutism is best seen in her contention that Juan becomes "at least an approximation of the superman" (156).  Such an assertion forced Olson to place Juan's development within an oppositional framework to the development of other characters.  Like Törnqvist, Olson sees the secondary characters as parallels to Juan's duality.  Thus Luis and Maria reflect Juan's poetic side.  Nano and the religion of the Native Americans "approximates Nietzsche's evaluation of 'the Greek's conception of gods' in whose 'reflections...the animal in man felt deified" (167-8).  But, concludes Olson, "only Juan's faith in The Fountain achieves the highest use of peaceful yet ecstatic knowledge of what all of these religions represent--eternal recurrence" (168).  Such value judgements place an inappropriate burden on the play by comparing Juan's ultimate enlightenment with that of Nano or Luis. 

Moreover, the oppositional nature of Olson's approach forces one to see the Juan of part two as more enlightened than the Juan of part one.  Yet in part two Juan tortures Nano, an act which can hardly be placed in a positive light.  In addition to this practical objection, Olson's superman model conflicts with contemporary approaches to Nietzsche which view the superman as a process rather than an obtainable goal.  Thus, much of Olson's approach to The Fountain must be viewed as limited, from a contemporary viewpoint, by its modernistic, oppositional assumptions.

While Olson's reading of The Fountain highlights aspects of Nietzschean philosophy within the play, it also creates the same kind of moral imperative which Nietzsche was critiquing.  By hierarchizing levels of enlightenment between characters and within one character at different times Olson has simply reformulated Christian absolutism to conform to her own interpretation of Nietzsche's philosophy.  Thus while intending to establish Nietzsche's influence on O'Neill, Olson's overall approach does the exact opposite.

Each of these critical approaches attempts to locate an absolutist perspective through its interpretation of the play.  Each attempts in general terms to describe a metaphysic which presumably O'Neill was attempting to put forth.  Yet each of these readings base their metaphysical approach on its opposition to the status quo.  The imagery of the last two scenes, as well as the arrival of young Juan, as conceived by these traditional approaches serves as a deus ex machina which has little to do with the play as a whole.  The very existence of so many possible differing metaphysical stances supported by the play denies the existence of one metaphysic.  The modernist, absolutist approach reinforces the comment of Virginia Floyd who wrote of The Fountain, "The canvas is too broad and overburdened with details to allow a single focus to emerge with clarity" (235).  It is this lack of focus which seemed to inspire the "lukewarm review" to which it opened (Gelb 591).  In order to see The Fountain as a viable theatrical work a completely new approach, one which provides unity of dramatic action and metaphysical stance, must be developed.

Production Criticism

The original production of The Fountain opened on 10 December 1925 at The Greenwich Village Theatre in New York.  It was directed and designed by Robert Edmund Jones (Contour 488).  Reviews of this production ranged from Benjamin de Casseres' description of "the exquisitely mournful beauty of The Fountain to Gilbert W. Gabriel's, "utter dyspepsia of mind and spirit is the least punishment inflicted by this trial by scenery" (12, 15).  Ronald Wainscott author of Staging O'Neill wrote that most of the critics reviewing the play placed the blame for its failure "at the feet of O'Neill" (179).

A common criticism of the production on the whole concerned the style of acting which conflicted with the style of production.  Barrett Clark wrote, "the play in production seemed rather dull...[which was] partly the fault of the actors, most of whom had not been trained for romantic acting" (100).  Stark Young specified Walter Huston's performance as particularly misplaced.  He wrote, "the part fitted obviously the obvious romantic actor, and, to tell the truth, its theatrical fortunes might have gained in other hands than Mr. Huston's" (174). 

The settings and direction by Jones received a mixture of attention.  Wainscott sums up the bulk of critical review when he stated that "The Fountain was found to be visually beautiful but too compromising in its ultimate style" (172).  Stark Young echoed this ambivalence toward the visual aspects of the production when he wrote:

The settings are always at least adequate.  The scene on Columbus' flagship is admirable.  The setting for the spring to which Ponce de Leon comes for the enchanted drink is an out-of-doors design that is most distinguished and splendid.  In color it is all black and somber green.  In form it is harsh and severe, clawing, hard edges, simple strict forms.  It is easily the pinnacle of the whole occasion...  (Cargill 174). 

Wainscott's description of the various settings revealed an overall vision of romantic splendor which was visually pleasing, but as previously noted conflicted with the acting style of the production.  Critics seem to have been pleased by the visual style but were confused by the obvious inconsistencies of the play as a whole.

Notably missing from production reviews as well as literary criticism is mention of the overt symbolic intent of the fountain for which the play is named.  Cursory attention was provided by Bogard who vaguely associated the fountain in scene nine and ten with natural forces.  Similarly, Olson associated the fountain with eternal recurrence.  The constant presence of the fountain throughout the play calls into question both Bogard's and Olson's basic assumptions inherent in their individual approaches to the play.  Bogard asserts that the fountain is representative of nature's force.  Yet the fountain is present in the civilized world as well as the natural world.  Olson does not even attempt to integrate the symbol of the fountain with the dramatic structure of the play as a whole.

Wainscott reported that in the early scenes the Jones production used the area surrounding the fountain as the central playing area.  The fountains "measured approximately eight to ten feet in diameter" (179).  In addition to this imposing symbol, Wainscott reported, "All eight settings...are unified by the repeated motif of a crucifix" (179).  This use of a Christian symbol seems to indicate that Jones, like the Gelbs, approached the metaphysical aspects of The Fountain in terms of its opposition to Christian metaphysics.

Like the literary approaches to this play, this production seemed to have suffered a lack of unity of style and clarity of focus.  Wainscott concluded that "Jones' chief failure with The Fountain appeared to be an inability to meet some of the demands of O'Neill's play--but no one seemed able to explicate what those needs were or how they might be met" (186). Providing metaphysical unity and focus will be the primary goal of this dissertation's contemporary approach to The Fountain.

A Contemporary Approach to The Fountain

A major problem with past examinations of The Fountain is the failure of critics and scholars to identify a suitable metaphysical framework through which to approach the play.  Such a framework must provide a context through which Juan's spiritual development throughout the play can be given continuity.  Modernist's interpretations of The Fountain are limited by the boundaries of the modernist metaphysic which is oppositional and attempts to discover a new absolute metaphysic to replace the old.[4]  By definition, the modernist approach to this play assumes a critique of the metaphysical status quo, in this case Christianity, and demands that the play suggest an absolute metaphysic which redefines philosophical "Truth."  As many critics have stated, The Fountain fails to meet either of these criteria and so has been seen by modernist interpreters as "a seriously flawed play" (Floyd 235).  My examination questions the appropriateness of a modernist approach to The Fountain and will suggest an alternative approach.

Traditional criticism of The Fountain views Juan's metaphysic in terms of its opposition to Catholicism.  However, such an approach fails to take into account all models of Catholicism which O'Neill presents in the play.  The characters of Mendoza and Quesada are clearly drawn as hypocritical, scheming and dogmatic foils to Juan's quest for belonging.  At the same time, the characters of Maria and Luis both reflect a gentler more humane kind of Christian who seem to have found purpose and meaning within the Christian metaphysical framework.  Moreover, Juan's torture and imprisonment of Nano clearly associates his behavior with that of Mendoza suggesting that Juan is as immoral as his antagonists.  These elements indicate that an oppositional approach is not entirely appropriate as it does not provide a strong motivation for Juan's spiritual movement away from the existing metaphysical framework.

Even more problematic is the modernist suggestion that Juan's vision reveals an alternative absolute metaphysic.  Such a metaphysic demands an outside agent which controls and organizes the Universe.  It suggests that Juan's vision is a revelation granted by this agent.  Therefore in a modernist approach, Juan's struggle for belonging in the body of the play is disassociated from his climactic metaphysical revelation.  Rather, it is an unseen deux ex machina who propels the story to its conclusion by revealing of universal harmony to Juan.  Thus, a modernist approach to The Fountain fails to maintain a continuity of action between the body of the play and its conclusion.

A contemporary Nietzschean reading of The Fountain provides the continuity which previous approaches have lacked.  Because Nietzschean perspectivism is not defined in terms of absolute truth, such an approach does not rely on its opposition to any other metaphysic.  Moreover, because perspectivism denies any universal controlling agent, Juan's enlightenment can be seen as the result of his own spiritual progression throughout the play.

Juan's spiritual progression can be seen in terms of the spiritual levels which Nietzsche described in "The Three Metamorphoses."[5]  As will be demonstrated, Juan begins the play as an absolutist.  In part two, Juan's world view shifts to that of a modernist.  Finally, Juan develops a perspectivist outlook symbolized by his vision at the fountain.  When analyzed in terms of Juan's spiritual movement, The Fountain emerges as a cohesive, meaningful piece of dramatic literature.


Juan as Absolutist

Scenes one and two which comprise the first part of The Fountain present Juan as an absolutist and compares Juan's particular metaphysical framework with several others.  In chapter two of this dissertation absolutism was defined as a metaphysic which subsumes the individual's ethical freewill by assuming the existence of universal good and evil.  Such a world view assumes a spiritual master who defines universal morality and rewards or punishes according to this ethical code.   Juan's absolute metaphysic is based on his faith that Spain will eventually rule the world.  He tells Luis, "I have Spain in my heart--and my ambition.  All else is weakness" (388).  Juan's fanatical dedication to his country is so powerful that it has replaced all other metaphysical goals and defines the meaning of his existence.  Twice in part one Juan evokes the name of Spain in a religious context.  In scene one, a Moor fatalistically proclaims the Moorish expulsion by Spain Allah's "divine will" (378).  To this Juan responds, "It is decreed by Spain if not by Allah" (378).  Juan responds similarly with reference to the Christian God.  At the close of scene two Columbus orders a cross to be raised and the men to kneel before it in thanksgiving.  Juan instead pierces the deck with his sword and cries, "This is a cross too, a soldier's cross--the cross of Spain!" (396).  These references suggest that, for Juan, Spain has become a deity and Spanish conquest of the world a metaphysical goal.

O'Neill also offers comparisons between Juan's absolute metaphysic and that of others, especially between Juan and Menendez, the Franciscan Monk.  Menendez represents fanatical Christianity (383).  Menendez' goal is to increase the power of the church and his own personal power.  His method of achieving this goal is the ruthless proselytization of all who espouse a different metaphysic.  Menendez believes in the philosophy of the inquisition that all who will not convert should die.  The major material difference between Juan and Menendez' metaphysics is that Juan's goal involves only physical conquest while Menendez attempts to conquer souls.  This difference is demonstrated in the first scene.  While Juan is humane and understanding to the conquered Moors, Menendez kills the poet whose belief system is different than his own.  Yet, both men go to war to further their particular metaphysical aim.  So, while differences are immediately apparent between their two metaphysics, there are also similarities in their methods.

Another kind of absolutism is represented by the other Spanish soldiers, who are "knights of the true Cross, ignorant of and despising every first principle of real Christianity" (383).  These men profess a believe in Christianity, but are really interested in material wealth.  In scene two, Juan castigates both the religious inquisitors and the materialists for the impurity of their respective goals:

Spain can become the mistress of the world, greater than ancient Rome, if she can find leaders who will weld conquest to her, who will dare to govern with tolerance.  Look at the men of this fleet...Adventurers lusting for loot to be had by a murder or two; nobles of Spain dreaming greedy visions of wealth to be theirs by birthright; monks itching for the rack to torture useful subjects of the Crown into slaves of the Church! 395

The speech demonstrates both Juan's vision of Spanish conquest and the absolutism inherent in his metaphysic.  Juan's metaphysic is a closed belief system which demands Juan reject all other definitions of "Truth" in favor of itself.  While Juan appears in these scenes to be more tolerant than those around him,  in actuality the goals he espouses demand subjugation of the entire world for the good of Spain.  Thus like the characters he opposes, Juan represents a closed absolutist metaphysic.

Juan's metaphysic also resembles Christianity in its temporal orientation.  Both these metaphysical approaches deny the value of existence in the present and defer meaning to the future.  Christianity holds that the meaning of existence must be deferred until after death when the individual will be rewarded for mortal suffering through ascension to heaven.  For Juan present meaning is deferred until a time when Spain has secured world domination. Because he focuses on the future, Juan rejects the opportunity for present happiness with Maria.  He denies the importance of all love as he bids farewell to Maria in scene one:

What you call loves--they were merely moods--dreams of a night or two--lustful adventures--gestures of vanity, perhaps--but I have never loved.  Spain is the mistress to whom I give my heart, Spain and my own ambitions, which are Spain's.  Now do you understand?

By denying the existence of love for himself in the present, Juan frees himself to look solely to the future as demanded by his metaphysic. 

     Thus, while Juan's metaphysic clearly differs from Christianity, in significant ways it is similar.  Both are closed metaphysical systems which claim to reveal the "true" nature of universal order.  Both defer meaning in the present to a future time when metaphysical goals are met.  By focusing on the similarities between the world views presented in the first two scenes of the play, Juan's spiritual growth from this state to the next spiritual level can be examined.

Juan as Modernist

The opening dialogue of part two suggests that Juan's absolutist goal of conquering the world for Spain has remained unchanged despite the fact that Juan has been waiting for twenty years for a patent granting him permission to continue his quest.  He tells Luis, "Would to God this fleet (from Spain) brought me the King's patent to discover new lands!  I would sail tomorrow for Cathay--or for the moon!" (401).  Yet later in the same scene Juan reveals that he has come to realize that his aim will never be achieved.  He confesses to Luis:

The patent will never come--and if it did, there is a flaw--It is too late.  Cathay is too far.  I am too weary.  I have fought small things so long that I am small.  My spirit has rusted in chains for twenty years.  Now it tends to accept them--to gain peace.  If I could only feel again my old fire, my energy of heart and mind!  If I could be once more the man who fought before Granada--!  But the fire smolders.  It merely warms my will to dream of the past.  It no longer catches flame in deeds.  I begin to dread--another failure.  402

This loss of belief in his absolute system resembles the general condition of the world at the opening of Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra which is described by Zarathustra's statement "God is dead"(6).  Because his belief system has been shattered Juan is left with two choices.  He can continue to hide behind his old, now empty beliefs "to gain peace" or he can search for a new metaphysic to replace the old and in so doing embrace what is in effect a modernist attitude.

Despite the fact that Juan's metaphysic no longer holds any philosophical meaning for him, Juan continues to live by his previous code of ethics.  Early in scene three Juan is confronted by the priest Quesada who demands that Juan punish Nano, a tribal chief.  Nano's crime is his refusal to pay tithes to the Church.  Juan tells Nano, "If it is proven you have encouraged rebellion against Spain, you will be hung.  Against any other charge I will try to save you" (401).  This passage demonstrates that Juan's morality continues to be defined by loyalty to Spain.  Thus, the opening of scene three finds Juan in a state of metaphysical nihilism.

The arrival of Beatriz, Maria's daughter, in the final moments of scene three, offers Juan the possibility of overcoming his nihilism.  Juan initially mistakes Beatriz for her mother.  The arrival of Beatriz as the incarnation of her mother recalls Maria's prediction that Juan's life could have had meaning "if [he] had had to fight for love as [he had] fought for glory!" (379).  This encounter awakens in Juan the desire to pursue a goal which will give his life meaning.  Juan articulates this desire to Beatriz, "Bring me the past...Give me back--the man your mother knew" (405).  Beatriz carries with her the long awaited patent that would allow Juan to continue the pursuit of his former goals.  Presented simultaneously with the patent, a symbol of his former metaphysical goal, and Beatriz, a symbol of his lost youth, the scene ends with Juan at a crossroads between maintaining his old metaphysic by pursuing his old goal or developing a new metaphysic which will bring new meaning to his life.

In chapter one, a modernist metaphysic was defined by two conditions: rebellion against an existing absolutist metaphysic and the search for a new absolutist metaphysic to replace the old.  The final moments of scene three leave Juan in just such a condition.  The next three scenes which O'Neill has grouped as part two of the play take place three months later and explicate the nature of his new metaphysic.

That new metaphysic develops over the three months which occur between scenes three and four.  Materially Juan's plans do not change.  He still plans to sail for Cathay.  Thus, O'Neill unravels the nature of Juan's new goals over the course of the next three scenes.  The basis for Juan's new metaphysic was suggested to him by Maria in scene one.  It is the fulfillment of Maria's wish that "God give you knowledge of the heart!" (379).  Using Beatriz as a surrogate for her mother, Juan now believes that metaphysical meaning can be found in true love.  Juan finally reveals this belief in scene six when he tells Luis, "There is no God but Love--no heaven but youth!" (422).  Thus, Juan's new metaphysical goal is to regain his youth through the discovery of the mythical fountain and to find meaning in a perfect love with Beatriz.

Juan can be associated with a modernist attitude by virtue of his rejection of his old absolutist metaphysic and his pursuit of a new one.  Juan's spirit of opposition to his old metaphysical beliefs can be examined through its temporal polarity to his new metaphysic.  As described in the previous section, Juan's desire to conquer the world was future oriented.  Juan's new metaphysic is rooted in his desire to recapture his past.

The manner in which Juan attempts to recapture his youth has two significant parallels to Higgins' description of Nietzsche's case against Christian morality.  The Christian doctrine of sin, according to Higgins, "is focused on past actions" (169).  Juan's "sin" is the rejection of Maria the night she came to him in Granada.  This is indicated in several ways within the text.  First, Juan mistakes Beatriz for Maria the first moment he sees her.  Next, when he realizes that he is mistaken he inadvertently repeats the words he first spoke to Maria that night before he recognized her behind her veil.  In both moments he says in a mocking tone, "Beautiful lady, you do me unmerited honor!" (379, 404).  Finally, he is brought back in his own mind to that night in Granada bitterly regretting his mistake of rejecting Maria.  "(...[H]e controls himself and adds with a melancholy bitterness) It was so long ago, Beatriz--that night in Granada--a dimly-remembered dream--" (405).  Thus, Juan's moment of introduction to Beatriz is tied to his moment of parting from her mother.  Throughout the rest of the play, Juan attempts to atone for his moment of "sin" by preparing to relive it with Beatriz following his transformation to youth and by this time choosing love.  Thus, the discovery of The Fountain of Youth can be seen as the hope for eternal absolution from sin.

A second parallel between Juan's actions and Higgins' discussion of Christian doctrine can be seen in Juan's behavioral changes as he prepares for his journey.  Higgins wrote:

Christian morality deflects the believer's sense of personal failure through its use of the concepts of guilt and sin.  The smugness, vindictiveness, and punitive spirit that these concepts encourage are among what Nietzsche sees as the pernicious consequences of the Christian moral worldview" (58-59).

Juan personifies this concept as he begins to adopt the behaviors of the Christians which he had previously abhorred.  Juan's behavioral change is best demonstrated in scene five in which he tortures Nano to force the Indian to confirm the existence of the fountain.   Previously torture is associated only with the clergy, first on the ship when Juan mentions "monks itching for the rack," and later when Luis complains that Menendez wishes to "introduce torture and slavery" to Porto Rico (395, 403).  Although he acknowledges his own shame at torturing Nano, Juan excuses his behavior by placing the blame for it on Nano himself.  He cries, "Juan Ponce de Leon--to torture a helpless captive!  Why did you bring me to such shame?  Why would you not answer my question?" (415).  For Juan the existence of the Fountain of Youth becomes an assumed and absolute truth similar to the existence of eternal salvation in Christianity.  Juan's quest for The Fountain of Youth is associated with fanatical behavior which is obviously negative and which Juan had previously rejected in its religious context.  In this way, Juan's focus on the past leads him to the same behavior which he previously condemned in his Christian counterparts.

Thus, Juan's spiritual growth cannot be measured in terms of opposition to Christianity or any other absolutist metaphysic.  Juan's spiritual growth can only be examined in terms of its movement away from his previous absolutist stance.  Faced with the emptiness of his own metaphysic, Juan chose to reject a philosophy which no longer held any meaning for him and to search for a new metaphysic despite the insecurity of such an action.  Juan's strength can be seen in terms of his will to truth and his willingness to search a metaphysical void in hope of finding spiritual meaning.

Juan as Perspectivist

O'Neill develops Juan's enlightenment in the final two scenes of the play while scenes seven, eight and nine develop the events which lead to Juan's eventual enlightenment.  Nano meets with his kinsmen, the ambush is set up, Juan and his party land and Nano leads him to the fountain.  Juan drinks from the fountain and is shot as scene nine closes.

Scene ten opens in the dark.  Juan is mortally wounded and prays to believe in Christianity in order to feel a sense of metaphysical belonging before he dies.  Instead of a sign of the Christian God, Juan sees the series of visions described in the summary of the play.  His visions lead him to an understanding of eternal recurrence by demonstrating the timelessness of each moment of life.  When this occurs, he experiences himself as part of eternity and unified with all things.

What is important to remember in this scene is that it is not the fountain which causes Juan's visions.  The spring is chosen at random by Nano on the advice of his kinsman.  Moreover, he has taken Juan to numerous springs on their journey, none of which inspired the knowledge of eternal recurrence.  Rather, it is Juan's condition and his desire to find comfort that causes his sudden insight into eternal recurrence and the Oneness of All Things.[6]  The scene is not unlike the story of the rope dancer in Zarathustra's Prologue.  Like Juan, the rope dancer is near death and seeks solace.  "Now he draggeth me to hell," the dancer says to Zarathustra, while Juan calls to heaven, "Let me be damned then" (14, 438).  Juan's visions are an expression of his own internal realization of the nature of existence rather than a material phenomenon caused by an outside agent. 

Juan takes this realization back with him to Cuba.  He hangs on to life with the intention of passing this secret to the woman he still loves and to tell her of his love for her.  Just before he is to tell her, he realizes that "if youth cannot, age must keep its secrets" and allows her to be ignorant of his love and his new found knowledge (447).  By not telling Beatriz, Juan reveals a significant difference between his perspectivist attitude and other attitudes represented in the play.  While absolutists and modernists believe in universal truth, the perspectivist searches for personal metaphysical truth.  Juan's final discovery is that the spiritual knowledge he has gained is knowledge which should not be passed on to Beatriz.  By not revealing his knowledge to her, Juan allows her the freedom to discover life's secrets in her own time and in her own way. 

Juan's final act is to bless the union between Beatriz and his nephew.  His final wish for them is to "Go where Beauty is!  Sing" (448).  This final wish reflects Juan's desire for Beatriz and young Juan to discover life and to live in the present moment, to appreciate life as a song by enjoying each moment as it occurs and to value the harmony of one's existence.  Juan's recognition and acceptance of Beatriz' love for another is an indication that Juan has achieved spiritual perspectivism by demonstrating his will to truth.  Through his perspectivism, Juan dies experiencing the world as it is and joyful for that experience.


The issue of nihilism in The Fountain has already been touched upon with reference to Juan's development of a modernist attitude.  The condition of nihilism occurs when the individual can no longer give credence to the final referent of a previously accepted absolute belief system.  When this faith fails, the individual is left with an ethical code which no longer maintains its claim to absolute truth.  The individual's sense of significance within a structured universe collapses and life appears to be devoid of meaning.  Not able to function in a meaningless world, the individual either re-establishes a connection with an absolute belief system or searches for spiritual belonging by trying to discover an alternative metaphysical system.  As discussed in the previous section, Juan's spiritual search for an alternative metaphysical system led to his discovery of perspectivism.

Providing a contrast to Juan's solution for nihilism are at least two other examples of spiritual nihilism during the course of the play.  While the play portrays the conditions of Maria and Luis as nihilistic, he fails to fully articulate the metaphysical resolution of their condition.  These omissions preclude analysis of Juan's solution for nihilism in opposition to the other characters as the ultimate condition of these characters is never explored.  Thus, the purpose of presenting alternative solutions to the condition of nihilism is not to create an oppositional comparison, but to demonstrate alternatives to the choice taken by the main character.

Maria's nihilism is the result of her unrequited love for Juan.  Her metaphysic is similar to Juan's in part two as it is based on her perception that love will give her life meaning.  Following his rejection, she tells Juan, "I understand...that love has passed for me--and I suffer in my loneliness.  Perhaps if God had granted me a child" (381).  For Maria meaning can only come through caring for someone else.

Despite the fact that according to Christian dogma Maria's love for Juan is a sin, Maria chooses to combat her feelings of nihilism by returning to the absolute Christian metaphysic of her youth and dedicating herself to God.  "I long for simple things!  I pray to become worthy again of that pure love of God I knew as a girl.  I must seek peace in Him!" (380).  Such action precludes her from further metaphysical development according to Nietzsche's hierarchy of spiritual levels.[7]  After leaving Juan, the presumption is that Maria will suffer through life in a state of nihilistic despair devoid of the love she craves.  However, Juan intervenes and wounds her husband in a duel enabling Maria to provide her life with meaning by giving her a focus for her nurturing instinct.  In scene two, Luis tells Mendoza, "I saw her [Maria] with Vicente.  You could not find a more married pair.  It was even rumored they were to have a child" (390).  It is presumed that Maria has found happiness and belonging through her love for Vicente and her child.  Yet her happiness was won at a spiritual cost.  Juan remarks, "Thus, all works out for the best in this fair world!  But--a rare thing dies--and I'm sad" (388).  While O'Neill does not specify what has died, the implication here indicates that Maria sacrificed her spiritual freedom to search for metaphysical truth in exchange for complacent happiness.  By ending her search, Maria has given up the hope of further spiritual development.

Luis like Maria appears to be on a spiritual quest.  Luis' quest is the quest of a poet.  It is Luis who poetically introduces the metaphor comparing life to a fountain.  Luis' philosophy is delineated by his statement to Juan, "You will not wake my dream that life is love!" (384).  For Luis metaphysical meaning is like a dream.  It is incomprehensible and must be felt rather than understood.  Luis' fondness of liquor is a material manifestation of his desire to see the world from a dreamlike state.  Luis' spiritual attitude is formless as he searches for a metaphysical system which might give him a sense of purpose.  As demonstrated in part two of the play, such an unstable metaphysical state is difficult to maintain.

In part two Luis has become a Dominican monk.  Through a belief in the Christian God, Luis appears to have finally found spiritual meaning.  However, Luis describes his conversion in terms of his desperation to find spiritual meaning rather than in terms of true belief.  He explains his conversion to Juan:

You have always had the dream of Cathay.  What had I?  What had I done with my life?--an aimless, posing rake, neither poet nor soldier, without place nor peace!  I had no meaning even to myself until God awakened me to His Holy Will.  Now I live in truth.  398

Luis' explanation reveals that his conversion was not a spiritual movement toward truth, but an escape from spiritual insecurity and nihilism.  For Luis, Christianity is a haven which gives him spiritual security and purpose.

Through his conversion Luis has "achieved a calm, peaceful expression as if he were at last in harmony with himself" (397).  Yet, Luis' conversion has also forced him to sacrifice his ability to explore the infinite spiritual possibilities.  His sense of peace has cost him his sense of wonder and his spiritual certainty has cost him his metaphysical fluidity. 

Both Maria and Luis initially demonstrated a modernist attitude.  Each in their own way attempted to find a metaphysical existence through which they could find a sense of belonging.  But when faced with the metaphysical insecurity of their search, each eventually retreated to a more secure metaphysical stance which gave them a sense of security and belonging. 

Both Maria and Luis appear to have found happiness due to their respective metaphysical choices.  This being the case, it might be surmised that O'Neill is suggesting that to embrace an absolute metaphysic is preferable to suffering the insecurity and nihilism caused by a modernist attitude.  Yet both Maria and Luis have paid for their happiness by selecting a metaphysic which they had previously rejected as false.  The price of their security is self-deception.  This kind of self-deception is the very form of nihilism which Nietzsche sought to expose and deny.

Seen in this light, O'Neill's presentation of the nihilistic condition is very similar to Nietzsche's.  Both indicate that the will to truth in a chaotic universe demands the individual to sacrifice security and even happiness in order to achieve spiritual growth.  As demonstrated by Juan, it is this growth which brings meaning to life and overcomes nihilism.

Eternal Recurrence

The Nietzschean idea of eternal recurrence is a major theme in The Fountain.  The visual image of a fountain which first occurs in scene one and recurs throughout the play is symbolic of the circular pattern of existence suggested by eternal recurrence.  The poem Luis recites in scene one explicates this symbolism.  "Life is a fountain/Forever leaping/Upward to catch the golden sunlight,/Striving to reach the azure heaven;/Falling, falling,/Ever returning/To kiss the earth that the flower may live" (384).  Through this poem and the visual imagery of the fountain, Juan's eventual insight into Nietzschean perspectivism is foreshadowed.

As Juan begins to understand and accept his new metaphysic, a part of the poem is again repeated this time suggesting a religious connotation.  "God is a fountain/Forever flowing" (442).  In this way, O'Neill connects both physical life and metaphysics with eternal recurrence as symbolized by the fountain. 

An important aspect of the fountain imagery is its consistency throughout the play.  Beginning with scene one, a fountain is visible in over half the scenes, suggesting that the perspectivist metaphysic symbolized by the fountain is universally available to those who seek its metaphysical message of eternal recurrence.  O'Neill clearly indicates that the fountain at which Juan experiences his revelation is no different than any of the others.  Juan says to Nano as they approach this fountain, "It looks a common spring like any other" (435).  Moreover, Juan's desire to believe in a magical fountain of youth is so great that he felt magical effects in other fountains to which Nano led him.  "I drank of every one (fountain).  I closed my eyes.  I felt the stirring of rebirth.  Fool!  Always the mirror in the spring showed me the same loathsome blighted faith" (436).  By his consistent use of fountain imagery, O'Neill indicates that Juan's final revelation is not due to the properties of the fountain, but is a result of his own spiritual development.

Juan's understanding of eternal recurrence develops throughout scene ten.  In the opening moments of the scene, Juan prays for the ability to find comfort in the Christian God.  Instead, he witnesses a series of visions that reveal to him a metaphysic which allows him to feel a sense of universal belonging.  He first sees one by one the Arab poet from scene one, Nano, Luis and a Chinese poet.  From these images, Juan can grasp no meaning.  Next, he sees the four figures together, each carrying a symbol of their metaphysical belief system.  He cries out, "All faiths--they vanish--are one and equal--within--" (441).  Still confused, Juan cries out to the fountain as if it were the source of his vision.  Juan makes his final connection when he sees the image of an old woman who reveals herself to be Beatriz.  "Beatriz!  Age--Youth--They are the same rhythm of eternal life!...Death is no more" (442).  Juan's understanding of eternal recurrence come to him in a flash of insight.  The immediate effect of Juan's revelation pulls him from the guilt of the past and hope for the future and focuses his attention on the present.  As the scene closes Juan looks at the beauty of the dawn as if he is seeing the world for the first time and he is at peace.

Juan's search for belonging ends in an understanding of Nietzschean eternal recurrence.  Through his understanding, Juan is able to accept his impending death and Beatriz' love for his nephew "with joy" (447).  Using a familiar Nietzschean metaphor, Juan identifies himself with Luis' song.  He dies "resolved into the thousand moods of beauty that make up happiness" (448).  Having learned to live in the present through the metaphysic of eternal recurrence, Juan is prepared to meet death satisfied and content.

Love and Marriage

As discussed in chapter two, Nietzsche viewed the ideal relationship between men and women as one in which the union of the two parties strengthened each of the individuals.  In such a relationship each party must maintain a metaphysical self-sufficiency in order to gain strength from the union rather than use the relationship to create metaphysical meaning.  In The Fountain O'Neill offers two examples of love which fail to meet these criteria and one which offers an example of Nietzsche's vision of love.

In scene one, Maria comes to Juan in order to declare her love for him.  Maria's love for Juan is not a love which is based on her own self-sufficiency.  Rather, Maria measures her sense of identity based on her love for Juan.  "I have loved you, Juan, for years.  But it was only in the last year when my heart, feeling youth die, grew desperate that I dared let you see" (381).  For Maria, the act of loving Juan masks her own fear of her mortality and, by her own admission, is a desperate love.

Maria's love for Juan has become the basis for her metaphysical self-identification usurping her absolute belief in God.  Discovering that Juan will never return her feelings, Maria decides to return to her religious roots saying, "I pray to become worthy again of that pure love of God I knew as a girl" (380).  Her feelings for Juan serve to foreshadow Juan's feelings for Beatriz in part two.

In part two, Juan's feelings of love for Beatriz fill the spiritual void left by his realization that his metaphysic beliefs were empty.  Beatriz represents to Juan a second chance, an opportunity to relive a life which he has come to realize was wasted.  It is with this goal in mind that Juan seeks the fountain of youth.

Both these examples of love fall short of the Nietzschean ideal because Maria and Juan each attempt to use their love to help define their own sense of self worth.  Moreover, in both of these cases the condition of being in love supersedes the emotional relationship between the two parties.  Both Maria and Juan in effect hide their fear of aging within the emotional state of being in love.  For each of them love brings youth and has little to do with their feelings for the objects of their love.

In the final scene, the play provides an example of a more nurturing kind of love.  Young Juan and Beatriz demonstrate an untainted Nietzschean love.  In scene six, Juan questions Beatriz concerning her desire for love.  Beatriz seems confused.  While admitting that she hopes to eventually discover a man who is like her mother's description of Juan, she gives no indication that she is actively seeking such a person.  For Beatriz love is an emotion which is not anticipated for the future, but develops in the present.  Therefore, love for her does not fulfill some extraneous need, but is the result of genuine feelings for another person.  Such an approach to love demands that one live in the present and react emotionally to one's present condition.

Young Juan's love for Beatriz demonstrates Nietzschean love in another way.  Like his uncle young Juan's most fervent goal is "to serve Spain" (446).  Yet unlike his uncle, young Juan does not see love as a deterrent to this goal.  While Juan rejected the possibility of love as an obstacle for his own personal objectives, young Juan demonstrates the ability to love another without setting aside his personal goals.  Thus, young Juan demonstrates a manner in which love can be achieved without making it the focus of one's life.

Through these examples of love in The Fountain, Nietzsche's view that love could act as a source of strength in one's life rather than as a metaphysical goal is demonstrated.  In the case of Beatriz and young Juan, O'Neill illustrates the power of love to enhance living if it is a love which develops in the present and does not take on the force of a metaphysical imperative.


As O'Neill wrote The Fountain, he anxiously anticipated its production.  Later, due to problems with production, problems in the playwright's personal life and interest in other projects during the play's initial production, his interest waned and its failure to achieve popular or critical success was a disappointment to the playwright.  O'Neill subsequently denounced the play as an artistic failure refusing to involve himself further with it.

Literary and production criticism of The Fountain was generally negative, but the play was considered important by some as indicative of O'Neill's general world view.  One of the most common criticisms of the play was that it lacked unity of action.

This chapter approached to The Fountain based on the Nietzschean concept of perspectivism by looking at the main character's changing metaphysical attitude throughout the play.  The first part of the play was examined as an example of an absolutist attitude.  The second part of the play was examined in terms of Juan's developing modernist attitude.  The final part of the play was examined in terms of Juan's eventual adoption of a perspectivist attitude, an attitude which finally brought him serenity in the last months of his life.   

Specific aspects of Nietzschean perspectivism as revealed in  Thus Spake Zarathustra were then examined.  Nihilism was explored as a condition of the modernist metaphysic which either encourages the individual to search for personal meaning or forces the individual to return to the security of an absolutist metaphysic.  Eternal recurrence was examined as a perspectivist framework which allows the individual to focus metaphysical meaning on the present.  Finally, the subject of love and marriage was examined in terms of relationships which allow the individual to grow spiritually in the present versus relationships which limit the individual's metaphysical possibilities.

The result of this examination of The Fountain reveals the play to be a parable which explores one man's search for meaning in life.  Throughout the play Juan believes his life has meaning, first by virtue of his desire to build for the future and later by his desire to atone for his sins.  Finally, he discovers that life reaches its greatest spiritual meaning when one appreciates the present moment and finds happiness in the here and now.  When seen in terms of ideas derived from Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra, the play contains a philosophical unity which has previously been overlooked.

[1] Travis Bogard attributes O'Neill's purpose for writing plays as "his need to find a pattern of explanation by which his life could be understood" (Contour xii).  O'Neill's feelings of displacement and his search for belonging universalized into drama describe the major theme of O'Neill's entire body of work.

[2] O'Neill's cycle A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed was destroyed before completion by O'Neill.  A Touch of the Poet and More Stately Mansions are the only two completed works of this cycle.  Donald Gallup has completed a script for a third of the intended nine plays based on O'Neill's scenario which survived.  It was published in 1981 under the title The Calms of Capricorn.

[3]For a definition and explanation of Eternal Recurrence see chapters one and two.

[4] See chapter one

[5]See chapter two

[6] Juan's sudden realization of Eternal Recurrence is not unlike Nietzsche's own which also took place in the woods by a body of water in Sils Marie in August of 1881 and which he describes as "Six thousand feet beyond man and time" (Ecco Homo 892).

[7]See chapter one


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