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Days Without End


Days Without End has been called one of the most "intensely autobiographical" plays O'Neill ever wrote as well as one of the worst (Loftus Ranald 162, Gelb 762).  The play was conceived in 1927 and written in the years 1931 through 1933.  It underwent no less than eight drafts in which O'Neill considered many radically different approaches and conclusions to the material.  While generally condemned by critics, the final version was, in the words of O'Neill, "nothing if not controversial" (Letters 419).  Many saw Days Without End as an indication of O'Neill's own return to Catholicism, a return which was never realized.

As originally conceived by O'Neill, Days Without End was to be the second play in a trilogy called Myth Plays for the God Forsaken.[1]  The first of the trilogy, Dynamo was produced by The Theatre Guild in 1929 with disappointing results.  According to O'Neill, the trilogy would

dig at the roots of the sickness of today as I feel it--the death of the old God and the failure of Science and Materialism to give any satisfying new One for the surviving primitive religious instinct to find meaning for life in, and to comfort its fears of death with. (Letters 311)

Days Without End proved to be, however, one of the most difficult plays for O'Neill to complete (Letters 384).  Throughout the writing process O'Neill changed his mind about the play's form, its characters and its conclusion. 

Louis Sheaffer attributed the plot of Days Without End to O'Neill's own feelings of guilt in 1927 following "his brief romantic entanglement with Carlotta" (402).  While the play might have been conceived as a literary admission of guilt to his second wife, Agnes, the actual drafts were written in the early years of O'Neill's third and final marriage to Carlotta with whom he eloped in 1928.  According to the Gelbs, "Days Without End was very much Carlotta's play" (765).  Thus, Days Without End was informed by contemporaneous, contrary events in the playwright's life.  These contrary antecedents no doubt contributed to the playwright's indecision.

In addition, the philosophical struggle into which the main character, John Loving, has been thrust has been seen as a reflection of O'Neill's own lifelong struggle to discover a satisfying metaphysical faith in which to believe.  Like Loving, O'Neill lost his faith in Catholicism at an early age "when he saw his mother using morphine" (Gelb 72).  It is little wonder that Days Without End underwent such drastic changes during the course of its creation as many of its sources emanated from the very heart of O'Neill's most private personal demons.

O'Neill's work diaries indicate that O'Neill set his manuscript aside no less than four times in 1932.  In March of 1932 and again in July he reported that he was "stuck" (122, 134).  In September, he put aside his work on Days Without End to work on Ah, Wilderness!.  In December, O'Neill wrote in his diary, "disgusted--feel something fundamentally wrong with it as whole in spite of fine parts but can't get hold of right way to solve" (149).  On 6 February 1933 O'Neill wrote to George Jean Nathan, "My long battle with Without End of Days has left me fed up with myself as dramatist and washed up of creative energy" (As Ever Gene 146).  Finally later that month, O'Neill conceived of splitting his leading character into two roles and using a mask to reflect the two aspects of one personality (154).[2]  This form seemed to infuse O'Neill with renewed vigor.  But finding the proper form in which to present Days Without End was only one of the problems with which O'Neill struggled in the course of completing this play.

Another major area in which O'Neill seemed entirely uncertain was the fate of his hero.  O'Neill's uncertainty as to the final conclusion of the play is mirrored in John's struggle with Loving over the fate of his novel's leading character.  Doris Falk reported that O'Neill originally conceived of his hero committing suicide (150).  In the next draft (O'Neill's fourth) the hero's wife dies and the hero is left cursing God (151).  In the following version John recognizes that his own hatred of God has revealed his subconscious belief in the deity, which in turn integrates his two battling personas (152).  Finally in his last pre-production version, O'Neill acknowledged John's "belief in Christ as God" (152).  Thus, O'Neill's creative process brought his hero from death to redemption.

Another aspect of the play with which O'Neill struggled was the nature of John Loving's religious foundation.  This foundation was represented by the character of Father Baird in the final draft.  Louis Sheaffer reported:

From its inception he had fought against making it a Catholic play.  In his initial draft the hero's uncle was a kindly, old-fashioned country doctor; in another early version, a Protestant minister of unspecified denomination.  Even after O'Neill capitulated, in the fifth draft, and drawn him as a Catholic priest, he again changed his mind and had the uncle revert to being a country doctor, but 'with a deep religiousness added.'" 423-24

O'Neill's indecision concerning this character and the nature of John Loving's religious foundation can be seen as both an attempt by O'Neill to step back from the obviously autobiographical elements in the play and as an attempt to make the nature of Loving's rejected faith more general.  In the end, O'Neill elected to write from the religious viewpoint which he knew best, Catholicism.

The problems O'Neill encountered throughout the creation of Days Without End has not been lost on his biographers and critics.  Norman Berlin wrote, "The eight drafts that O'Neill took to write the play indicate his struggle with the material, which mirrors his struggle with himself" (122).  For O'Neill, Days Without End marked the beginning of his attempt to find "a real, true Yea," an affirmation of the meaning of his life (Letters 400).

Days Without End opened in Boston in December of 1933 and in New York in January of 1934 (Loftus Ranald 164).  The New York run lasted only fifty seven performances.  Critics generally lambasted the play with the exception of Catholic reviewers such as Gerard Donnelly and Richard Dana Skinner who endorsed Days Without End, seeing it in terms of O'Neill's subtitle "a modern morality play."

Produced by The Theatre Guild, Days Without End was the fifth and final O'Neill play to be directed by Philip Moeller.  Wainscott reported that despite the critical response, "its (the play's) low, sleek, modern designs, controlled movement and stage composition, engaged the audience regardless of the rejection of the play's ideas (276).  Lee Simonson's settings "were designed to allow and encourage the characters to keep their distance from one another (282).  Such design and direction emphasized the expressionistic aspects of the play and the isolation of the characters.

O'Neill's own response to this production, despite its failure in New York, was optimistic. He wrote, "If ever there was an art for art's sake labor, it was mine in Days Without End! And for me it was a success" (Gelb 784).  To the cast of the New York production he cabled, "This is a play that we can carry over the critic's heads" (Gelb 783).  In the end, however, the critics prevailed and the play closed.

Despite its failure in New York, Days Without End was successfully performed in Europe (Contour 329).  The Gelbs reported an extremely successful Irish production by the William Butler Yeats' Abbey Theatre as well as successful runs in Holland and Sweden (784).  These successful productions have done little to redeem the play's value in the eyes of critics or producers.

Days Without End marked the end of O'Neill's experimental writing.  Following its production, O'Neill withdrew from the public eye.  Many believed that O'Neill's creative days were at an end.  Between 1934 and 1946, no new O'Neill plays were produced.  O'Neill's greatest works were yet to be written.  But the masterpieces of O'Neill's final years never demonstrated the playwright's concern with theatrical form which marked his work from the early 1920s to Days Without End.

Story Summary

Days Without End is the story of John Loving's search for meaning in life.  Loving is split into two roles on stage: John, the seeker of truth and of a faith in which he can believe, and his alter ego Loving, a masked character who controverts John's quest, insisting that "there is nothing--nothing to hope for, nothing to fear--neither gods nor devils--nothing at all" (495).  The words of both characters appear to the other characters to be those of John.  Through this device O'Neill explicates the self-destructiveness of the individual by making John Loving simultaneously protagonist and antagonist.

Because of the play's late point of attack, much of the early dialogue is exposition.  John's lifelong search for truth began when both his parents died.  He lost his belief in the Catholic God and began to look elsewhere for a foundation for his beliefs.  His search included atheism, socialism, anarchism, Nietzschean philosophy, communism, Eastern philosophy, numerology and evolutionary science.  At the opening of the play, John believes that meaning in his life comes from the perfect love he shares with his wife Elsa.

In Act I John and Loving discuss the thinly veiled autobiographical novel that John is writing.  They argue about possible endings for the story.  John wishes the story to end with the wife forgiving her husband for a terrible sin.  Loving insists that the end should include the death of the wife and the suicide of the hero.

They are interrupted by a visit from John's uncle and former guardian, the priest Father Baird.  Baird reveals that he has come following a vision in which he saw John in a terrible spiritual crisis.  John tells Baird about his book and invites him to dinner.  The act ends with a telephone call from a friend named Lucy, who tells John that Elsa wants to see her.  John appears fearful as Loving comments, "Your terrible sin begins to close in on you," leaving John angry (513).

Act II is set in the Loving house where Elsa, still sick from the flu, greets her friend Lucy.  As they talk, Lucy reveals that after years of suffering through the sexual affairs of her husband she has had an affair herself.  Elsa comforts her by telling her that in her first marriage she went through a similar crisis but was saved by "the faith I had that somewhere the man was waiting whom I could really love" (521).  Lucy tells Elsa how she seduced a man who was at first reluctant.  She continues:

Suddenly, I don't know how to explain it...but it was as if he were no long there.  It was another man, a stranger whose eyes were hateful and frightening....I seemed for a moment to be watching some hidden place in his mind where there was something as evil and revengeful as I was. 522

To comfort her friend, Elsa describes how John has redeemed her own faith in love and marriage.  She tells Lucy that her faith in John is total and that she would kill herself if he were unfaithful.

John comes home early to make sure that Lucy has not revealed their affair to Elsa.  When Lucy leaves, Loving reminds John that he must tell Elsa the truth before she hears it from a third party.  He also reminds John that death would be the best end for his novel and that death washes away all sins.

Act III scene one opens that evening in the Loving house following a dinner with Baird.  John has promised to reveal the rest of his novel.  John reminds Elsa and Baird that, with the exception of the end, the story is taken from the life of a man John once knew.

With many cynical interjections from Loving, John tells his story.  Central to the story is the main character's "horror of death" and "dread of life" (535).  The character finally finds happiness in love, but has an affair because he is afraid of his own happiness.  When Elsa questions such behavior, John blames the affair of the character on "a hidden spirit of evil" (538).  When John asks Elsa if the character's wife would have been able to forgive him, Elsa replies that such an act could never be forgiven.

Loving finally reveals that the wife in the story dies.  Elsa, who has been sick, cannot listen to the rest of the story and asks the men to go to another room so she can rest.  When the men leave, Elsa walks out into the rain as if in a trance, while Loving watches her go.

Act III scene two takes place a moment later in John's study.  John rambles on about individual freedom and the power to create one's own future.  Baird listens and gently steers John back to the conclusion of his novel.  John tells of his character's anguish following the death of his wife.  Father Baird is hopeful as the character returns to the church of his youth, but at this moment Loving takes over the narrative and insults Baird and all religious faith.

Elsa soon returns soaked and tells John that she is aware that his novel is a thinly disguised autobiography.  She recalls the death of the wife in Jack's story and compares it to her present condition, then goes to her room.  Involuntarily, Jack begins to pray.  Loving ridicules him and John closes the act telling himself that "there's nothing to fear" (552).

Act IV scene one occurs a week later.  Elsa is deathly ill.  John, Loving, Baird, Dr. Stillwell and a nurse are all in her room.  John is in anguish, pleading with Elsa to forgive him, but Loving continually finishes his sentences.  The doctor has John forcibly removed to the study and forbids him to return to Elsa's room.  Finally, the exhausted John falls to an uneasy sleep.

The doctor tells Baird that Elsa would survive if she could only find the will to live.  Left alone with John, Baird prays for the strength to bring John back to God.  Loving responds to this by admitting that he wants Elsa to die and that he rejects the existence of God.  Baird reminds John of the man in his story who returns to the church of his youth and finds faith.

John returns to Elsa's room trying to understand Baird's advice.  Loving taunts him with images of life without Elsa in an attempt to force John to kill himself.  As John considers, Elsa cries in her sleep, "No, John--no!--please, John!" (562).  John decides to visit the church of his youth in an attempt to rediscover his lost faith.  Loving desperately tries to stop him, but John pushes past him.  Elsa awakens and calls for John, forgiving him.

Act IV scene two takes place in a church.  John enters with Loving "retreating backward before John whom he desperately, but always without touching him, endeavors to keep from entering the church" (564).  John ignores Loving and kneels before the alter.  He identifies himself with the crucifix saying, "I am Thou and Thou art I" (565).  He offers his forgiveness and asks for forgiveness in return.  Loving slumps to the floor and John rises "and stands with arms stretched up and a cross" (566).  Father Baird enters with news of Elsa's recovery as John cries out, "Life laughs with love!" (567).

Literary and Performance Criticism

The vast majority of critics have viewed Days Without End biographically.  Seen in this light, the play is often construed as an attempt by O'Neill to get back to his own Catholic roots and to find the faith in God which he lost as a child.  Falk wrote, "In Days Without End acceptance of formal Christianity is the only redemption" (149).  Berlin postulated, "O'Neill seems to be returning to the Catholicism of his childhood, moving toward Jesus and away from Nietzsche" (123).  Cargill reported that "(Days Without End) set off speculation, hosannas, and imprecations" that O'Neill was returning to the church (10).  This critical approach succeeded in focusing attention on the play's particular philosophical approach, Catholicism, and its relationship to the playwright rather than the broader implications suggested by the play's form and content. 

The few critics who embraced Days Without End did so on the basis of the perception that the play was an endorsement for Catholic doctrine.  Reverend Gerard B. Donnelly wrote, Days Without End is a "magnificently Catholic play, a play Catholic in its characters, its story and its moral" (Gelb 780).  Richard Dana Skinner attributed the failure of the play to the lack of religious understanding of most critics.  He wrote, "The inherent dramatic values in Days Without End are lost to those who either have no faith or who have never experienced it" (Gelb 782).  This approach, like that of the play's detractors, attempts to view the play in terms of Catholic thought rather than in terms of the human need for faith and the consequences of rejecting one's traditional metaphysic without finding a suitable replacement.

On the other hand, O'Neill seems to have conceived Days Without End as a parable in which Catholicism was a symbol for all faith.  He wrote to Bennett Cerf in 1933

it is a psychological study whose psychological truth would be the same, essentially, if a Buddhist or a Greek Orthodox hero were involved...this play, if pro-Catholic, is only incidentally so.  It means much more than that meaning to me.  Letters 426.

To Leon Mirlas he wrote that Days Without End was about "truth for his (John Loving's) particular ego--not The Truth, for I have no The Truth to offer" (Letters 442).  To Kenneth MacGowan he complained, "No one saw its larger aspect as a play a drama of spiritual faith and love in general" (The Theatre We Worked 208).  The failure to recognize Catholicism as a symbol for universal faith can be attributed to O'Neill's well known antipathy for the religion of his childhood and to the overwhelming Catholic symbolism in the play which O'Neill intended as a product of the play's expressionism, but which can also be interpreted as realistic to anyone even remotely familiar with Catholic practice.

Of the major O'Neill critics, only Travis Bogard considers the question of universality in Days Without End.  Avoiding the question of O'Neill's intent while writing the God plays, Bogard concluded, "the specifically religious themes come only as his theatrical style moves toward expressionism.  For O'Neill, once he had gone 'behind life,' it was essential to find the life source" (Contour 324).  Pointing to the irony between O'Neill's struggle with creating Days Without End and the similar struggle of John Loving, Bogard wrote, "the real drama was O'Neill's attempt to write the play, a problem he transferred without much change or objectification to his hero" (328).  This question only becomes pertinent after Bogard establishes O'Neill's failure to "find the life source" or to produce a play in which the expressionistic form is effective or even recognized.

The Catholic imagery in Days Without End led to comparisons between the play and other particularly Catholic literature, most notably the Faust myth.  Doris Falk remarked, "Days Without End is O'Neill's version of the Faust legend" (147).  Sheaffer also referred to Faust in order to structure the play's meaning.  He wrote, "O'Neill split [John Loving] in two, literally, as a Faust [John] and a Mephistopheles [Loving].  Loving, the voice of his enmity to life and God" (87).  Such comparison further limits meaning in Days Without End by regarding the play in terms of literature in which Catholic doctrine is an assumed truth.  Falk's comparison between the play and the Faust legend seems to have led her to the assumption that for O'Neill Catholicism was the only redemption.  Falk seems to suggest here that O'Neill was proselytizing for a church whose doctrine he had spent his career lambasting. 

A few critics saw the final moment of Days Without End as symbolic of faith in general rather than as an absolutist statement for Catholicism.  Carpenter wrote:

For practical purposes, of course, this plot required that the author choose one ending to the exclusion of all other possible ones.  Ideally, however, the "life-giving formula" toward which O'Neill was groping would not require the final choice of one "faith," or ending, to the exclusion of others.  It would accept uncertainty, or multiplicity of choice, as the essence of its drama; and it would not weight the scales in favor of any one character or faith. 142

Engle saw O'Neill's ending as materialistically removed from Catholicism as well as symbolically.  He wrote:

There is no suggestion of the vast hierarchy of the Church, of its austerity, dignity, authority.  Nor is there any evidence that John is likely to affirm the Catholic notion that the individual is less important than the society. 265

While these critics hold the minority view, such criticism suggests the possibility of separating meaning in Days Without End from an endorsement of absolutist Catholic faith.

In her Nietzschean approach to Days Without End however, Esther Olsen seemed to see the play in similar absolutist terms.  She asserted that "O'Neill pits Loving against Father Baird in the struggle for the soul of John" (499).  This approach does little to separate the play from the Catholic vision of God versus Satan which also harkens back to the Faust legend.  Olsen defines Loving through an attitude of "ironic skepticism which is similar to that of Nietzsche's Zarathustra" (501-2).  By assigning Loving a Zarathustran role, Olsen supports the notion that O'Neill was distancing himself from Nietzschean philosophy since Loving's values are eventually denounced by the play and shown to be essentially nihilistic.  Such an approach supports those critics who assumed that O'Neill was advocating Catholicism as absolute truth. 

Like the literary critics, the theatrical reviewers of Days Without End based their writing on the assumption that O'Neill's former antipathy for the Catholic Church was at an end.  Stark Young in The New Republic wrote, "It [Days Without End] indicates a change in his [O'Neill's] whole attitude, then it may be remembered as announcing a series of definitely and perhaps more satisfactory Christian plays" (111).  Fred Eastman, writing for The Christian Century declared, "Only a man who had, in his own insight, penetrated to the heart of the Christian religion could have wrought it [the play]" (191).  Francis Fergusson summed up the attitude of the press when he wrote for The American Review, "The play appears to be meant as a notice that Mr. O'Neill has turned or is turning Catholic.  The newspaper reviewers took it that way, and wore their best condescending elder-brother smiles for the occasion" (492).  Statements such as these contributed to focusing attention on speculation concerning O'Neill's own religious beliefs and on arguing the merits of Catholic dogma rather than the merits of the play.

Such critical discourse led to the assumption that the major conflict within the play was between Father Baird, as a symbol of Catholic traditional thought, and Loving, as a symbol of anti-religious Nietzschean thought (Olsen 499).  Seen in this manner, the play can only be regarded as a theological debate in which religion conquers atheism.  This approach weakens the play as a work of theatre by ignoring the dramatic action and minimizing the effect of John Loving's climactic revelation.

A Contemporary Approach to Days Without End

The major problem faced when attempting to formulate a contemporary approach to Days Without End is to discover a through line of thought and action which moves the play forward.  Traditional assumptions concerning the play based on biographical speculation of O'Neill's own religious quest have led interpreters to assume that the final moments of the play represent a return to a traditional faith.  This approach denies any forward dramatic movement as it returns John Loving to his previous state of faith, a state which he has disavowed throughout the play.  This circular movement suggests that John Loving's lifelong quest has been futile.  The inference of this reading is that Loving would have been better served to have never begun his quest for the meaning of life because his own Catholic traditions contain that meaning.  Moreover, this structure returns Loving to a philosophical state which is never represented on the stage but is only discussed in the text of the play.  Thus, John's alleged return to faith provides no real sense of closure as his previous faith is far removed from dramatic actualization. 

This study will suggest that the final moments of the play represent a new level of understanding for John Loving, an understanding which is not buried in past beliefs nor based solely on the denial of these beliefs.  Such an approach provides the play with forward dramatic movement and provides a climax to John Loving's metaphysical crisis which could not have been realized had he never questioned his faith.

A model for Loving's metaphysical journey can be found in the parable of "The Three Metamorphoses" in Thus Spake Zarathustra.  In chapter two Nietzsche's three metamorphoses were discussed in terms of perspectivism.  In these terms, the camel is a representation of followers of an absolutist doctrine in which the individual's place within the universe is secured by a pre-existing philosophical structure.  The camel spirit surrenders philosophical independence to an absolute godhead in exchange for metaphysical meaning and the security such meaning provides.  The lion is a representation of the individual who denies the truth of any philosophical claim to absolute truth.  The lion takes an oppositional modernist position by constantly searching for metaphysical truth while simultaneously denying the truth of all absolutist systems.  Because the lion is unable to create new values to replace the old, he is in a constant state of metaphysical insecurity which results in a denial of all metaphysical meaning.  Such a state places the lion spirit at risk of returning to the camel spirit or succumbing to the condition of nihilism.  The child represents the individual who is able to create a value system without regard to existing structures, a value system which is based on the individual's conditions and which is fluid.  This individual has the ability to create metaphysical meaning and values without resorting to universalization.

John Loving's three states of spirituality can each be represented by Nietzsche's camel, lion and child.  Such an approach can be used to give Days Without End forward dramatic movement and provide the key to understanding the philosophical movement in the play.


The Camel

The young John Loving who is described by O'Neill through John's account of the hero in his novel can be seen as representing Nietzsche's first spiritual level: the camel.   John Loving's youth is described in Act One as idyllic.  He is an only child whose father is "a fine man" and whose mother is "a perfect type of our old beautiful ideal of wife and mother" (509).  Both of Loving's parents were devout Catholics as was their child and "life was love for him then" (510).  Such metaphysical security leads to complacency as one must protect one's happiness by refusing to question the nature of life and by relinquishing one's self-determination to an all powerful being.  The metaphysical fallacy here is that young Loving sees his happiness as a direct result of his faith and of the faith of his parents.     

Since his contentment was perceived as a gift from God for his devotion, the death of his father which disrupts his happiness is also seen as an act of God for some unknown sin.  Rather than question his belief system, young John places his own fate in the hands of his God and becomes even more devout.  When his mother also becomes ill, "he also imagined her sickness was a terrible warning to him, a punishment for the doubt inspired in him by his father's death" (511).  In a camel-like manner, the young Loving bears the burden of his faith by relating all that occurs in his life to his faith in God and blaming his own lack of faith as the only possible cause of death of his parents.  Thus in order to maintain the myth upon which his security rests, the camel-like John Loving must also take responsibility for events over which he has no control.

Even after John rejects the Church, his camel-like qualities continue.  John takes responsibility for Elsa's illness, blaming it on his own infidelity.  The guilt which drives John to the Church of his youth in the final scene of the play can be seen as similar to the guilt which drove him from the Church in the first place.  Since John lacks the power to change the history of his sin, he seeks forgiveness from a supernatural being which he endows with the power to forgive what he cannot change.

The camel-like qualities suggested by the description of John Loving's youth are also represented by the priest Matthew Baird.  Through physical resemblance between Baird and John, O'Neill suggests that Baird is the type of man John might have become had his faith never been shaken.  "There is a clear resemblance to John and Loving in the general cast of his (Baird's) features and the color of his eyes" (500).  Unlike John, Baird possesses "an unshakable inner calm and certainty, the peace of one whose goal in life is fixed by an end beyond life" (500).  Such serenity might have been John's had he never questioned the existence of God and followed his dream as a youth and become a priest (510).    

Yet Father Baird's metaphysical serenity has been achieved at the cost of his personal involvement with the immediacy of life, as demonstrated in Act One when Baird and John's business partner discuss the Great Depression.  Baird sees the Depression as an act of God which has little to do with his own life except to prove the power of God.  He says to Loving's business partner:

who can blame you for whining when your omnipotent Golden Calf explodes into sawdust before your adoring eyes at the height of his deification?  It's tragic, no other word--unless the word be comic.  (501)

For Baird, the Depression is an indication that his own faith is correct and those who strive for worldly possessions are suffering at he hands of God.  Like young John, Baird believes that the individual's condition is a reflection of his faith.  By inference then, all who suffer deserve their fate.  By blindly adhering to the morals of his own faith without question, Father Baird has escaped material suffering and is able to look with amusement at the suffering of others.  In this manner, Baird exemplifies the spiritual level of the camel.

John's camel-like qualities are clearly described and demonstrated in the play.  Yet John's outlook on life differs from his uncle due to John's rejection of his childhood faith.  John's rejection of such absolutism is symbolized by his alter ego, Loving.  Loving represents that part of John which has achieved another level of spirituality, a level which Nietzsche described as "the loneliest wilderness," the spirit of the lion (Zarathustra 24).

The Lion

The spirit of the lion is characterized by the struggle between the individual and the absolute god which rules the camel.  The lion creates for itself a freedom from the god figure by refusing the values of that god.  The purpose of this spiritual level is "to create itself freedom, and give a holy Nay even unto duty" (24).  John possesses the spirit of the lion as he has rejected his duty to his faith and instead has searched for new values which might give his life meaning.

The lion cannot create new values, however (24).  Its sole role is to reject the old values which creates the possibility of moving to a higher spiritual level.  Thus, John Loving has spent his life publicly rejecting the traditional values of Catholicism and embracing a series of value systems all of which offer differing versions of absolute truth.  However, none of these value systems can long withstand the questioning nature of Loving's lion spirit.

In Days Without End Loving can be seen as the pure lion spirit, the nay-sayer, the nihilist.  While John functions as a searcher, the part of the personality which continues to seek "Truth."  While John looks for metaphysical meaning, Loving rejects all possibility of absolute order within the universe.  Thus, John and Loving are fully integrated and each fulfills a function within John Loving's philosophical search for truth.

The specific nature of the struggle between the lion and the searcher portrayed in Days Without End involves John's belief that metaphysical truth might be found in his perfect love with Elsa.  Because of this love, John has curtailed his search for truth.  In the opening scene, Loving attempts to disrupt John's sense of well being.  Loving fulfills his role as spiritual lion by denying love as an absolute force in which the individual can find eternal comfort.  By evoking images of Elsa's death, Loving attempts to demonstrate the fallacy of John's faith in love.

Thus, it is the function of Loving as lion to prevent John from any sort of self-deception which would allow him to cease his quest for truth and settle for a camel-like state, blindly accepting a set of values which might pass as "Truth."  Loving is a denier of all absolute values, as when he tells John in Act I, "You poor, damned superstitious fool!  I tell you again what I have always told you: There is nothing--nothing to hope for, nothing to fear--neither devils nor gods--nothing at all!" (495).  Yet John rejects Loving's claim that life has no meaning and gropes to find "Truth" which can fill the void left by his rejection of the religion of his youth.

The play reveals that "perfect love" is not the end of John's quest despite its potentially redeeming aspects.  In Days Without End, Loving is able to demonstrate to John that his love for Elsa is just as constricting as any other absolutist moral system.  John's sin of having sex with Lucy causes the same kind of guilt in John as did his rejection of the Catholic God of his youth.  The failure of love to provide John with absolute meaning demonstrates that meaning cannot be found outside of one's self.  In order to secure the happiness through love which John craves, he must first find fulfillment and meaning within himself.

The possibility is also clearly present that John will accept Loving's philosophy and allow himself to descend into a state of pure nihilism.  By splitting the character into two bodies, O'Neill suggests that John is in the midst of a monumental struggle between accepting the security of absolute belief and rejecting all values because no one value system is satisfactory.  John's poetic strength can be seen in his continuing search for spiritual truth when confronted with the spiritual certainty of Catholic absolutism represented by Father Baird on the one hand, and the seemingly logical alternative of nihilism represented by Loving on the other.  With no other apparent alternative available, John enters the church of his youth in the final scene of the play where the final battle for John Loving's soul occurs.

The Child

While there is no apparent alternative for John between absolutism and complete nihilism as he enters the church, the final moments of the play suggest that John does not return to the religion of his youth nor does he embrace nihilism.  The last scene of the play, through its language and use of visual imagery, suggests that John reaches a third level of spirituality, the child-spirit.

Loving enters first trying to stop John from approaching the crucifix.  "Loving is forced back until the back of his head is against the foot of the Cross" (564).  John is therefore presented with two contrary icons before which he kneels, the cross and Loving.  John's pleas to the symbol of his Catholic youth go unheard initially as he asks for pity.  Loving appears to have won as he exclaims, "There is no pity!  There is only scorn" (565).  John stops pleading, pausing for a moment.

John's next speech infers a significant deviation from his previous pleading and from traditional Catholic prayer. He says:

O Son of Man, I am Thou and Thou art I!  Why hast Thou forsaken me?  O Brother Who lived and loved and suffered and died with us, Who knoweth the tortured hearts of men, canst Thou not forgive--now--when I surrender all to Thee--when I have forgiven Thee--the love that Thou once took from me! 565

By referring to the godhead as Son of Man, O'Neill severs Jesus from his supernatural status and places him in the realm of mortals.  "I am Thou and Thou art I" suggests that John himself is now the godhead to which he is praying.  John reprimands the godhead for its lack of forgiveness and  demonstrates his own capacity for forgiveness, a "Christian" act which exceeds that of the Christian icon.  In this moment of forgiveness, John demonstrates that he has risen above both the camel and lion spirits to an independent spirituality in which he is both god and supplicant.  It is also at this moment that John experiences a perspectivist revelation as "his eyes fixed on the face of the Crucified suddenly light[ing] up as if he now saw there the answer to his prayer" (565). Now willing to take responsibility for his own spiritual being, John becomes his own savior.

John's next line concludes, "I can forgive myself-through Thee! I can believe!" (565).  John has found faith through his own capacity to overcome the guilt of his past sins.  At this point of affirmation, Loving the Nay-sayer weakens and cries out his only possible response to John's new found faith, "I deny!  I defy Thee!  Thou canst not conquer me!  I hate Thee!  I curse Thee!" (565).  Loving falls, crushed under the weight of John's new found faith.  He falls with his arms outstretched "so that his body forms another cross" (566).  This visual image likens Loving, now dead, to the other symbol of belief, the crucifix with its representation of the dead Christ. 

John rises and he too takes the position of Christ on the cross.  This moment indicates that each of the figures on stage represent a god.  Christ as the God of the camel-spirit, Loving the god of the lion-spirit and John as the god of the child-spirit.  Of the three, only John is a living being now fully independent from the others.

In this moment of personal power, John is informed by Father Baird that Elsa will live, a fact already known by the audience.  John responds, "I know! Love lives forever!  Death is dead!" (567).  In this moment, John reveals that his fear of Elsa's death and his own guilt inspiring responsibility for her life are past.  In taking responsibility for his own life, John gives to his love Elsa responsibility for her own life.  The inference here is that by accepting responsibility for one's own morality and no one else's, the true love which John hoped for with Elsa is now possible.

Thus, O'Neill reveals in these final moments of the play the human potential for happiness which can only be achieved by reaching a state of personal independence.  By reaching this state, John affirms a Nietzschean joy within life which can only be achieved through personal struggle and can only be maintained by ridding one's self of the responsibility for actions and beliefs of others and, in so doing, releasing one's self from the guilt associated with such external responsibilities.


In Days Without End, John Loving's character is clearly delineated between John as the seeker of "Truth" and Loving as the nihilist or denier of "Truth."  Within a traditional modernist approach, these characters are seen as oppositional.  Such an approach infers a moral imperative which characterizes John as virtuous and Loving as evil.  Virginia Floyd describes the relationship between the two facets of John Loving's character as "the good-evil conflict" (407).  Bogard refers to the Loving character as "the doppelgänger," which infers evil (326).  By creating this kind of dichotomy, modernists overlook the positive aspects of Loving's nihilism and its function with regard to John's final spiritual revelation.

From a Nietzschean standpoint, nihilism is a necessary condition which serves to drive the lion spirit toward a metaphysical framework which will provide meaning.  By insisting that life has no meaning, Loving prohibits John from finding security or peace in any absolutist metaphysical framework.  Loving achieves his purpose by probing the inconsistencies of the unprovable assumptions on which John bases his faith.  In the first scene, Loving refers to the hero of John's novel when he queries, "if his wife died...imagine what he would do with his life then" (495).  Such a consideration is impossible for John as he has constructed a metaphysic based on his love for Elsa.  To admit his life could continue following her death devalues the significance of his construct.  By undercutting John's sense of metaphysical security, Loving drives John toward the discovery of a perspectivist metaphysic by acting as his will to truth. 

Such an approach considers the dualism of John Loving as a symbiotic relationship rather than one which is oppositional.  John assumes the possibility of metaphysical security and attempts to discover such a system; Loving assumes the meaninglessness of life and ruthlessly probes each system for inconsistancy.  Together these personas represent the total lion spirit and its will to truth.  By viewing Loving's nihilism in Nietzschean terms, the climax of the play becomes fully integrated with the action that proceeds it by locating it within John Loving's spiritual development.

Eternal Recurrence

While Days Without End does not directly confront the concept of eternal recurrence, it does explicate the need for eternal recurrence within a perspectivist metaphysic by exploring the concept of death within a nihilistic metaphysical framework.  John describes a modernist philosophical dilemma in the context of his novel, "Even at the height of his rationalism, he never could explain away a horror of death" (535).  The horror of death to which John refers is the fear that "life is unimportant and meaningless," that "all it means is to go on like an animal in dumb obedience to the law of the blind stupidity of life that it must live at all cost" (535, 561).  This insipid fear robs life of all pleasure by constantly focusing the modernist's outlook on death as "the dark womb of Nothingness" (562).  If life is meaningless and death is nothingness then only consciousness separates the two conditions. 

In Days Without End, Loving attempts to convince John that, because life has no meaning, death is a condition which should be welcomed.  "Surely you cannot be afraid of death...[it is] the Dream in which you and Elsa may sleep as one forever" (562).  Facing the possible death of his wife, John is no longer able to find any metaphysical meaning through which he can find the will to live.  In this state, John still strives to find meaning by returning to the church which had previously provided him comfort.  As John becomes spiritually independent, his focus on death shifts to a focus on life.  "Death is dead!  Life laughs with love" (567).  John Loving suggests Nietzschean eternal recurrence by adopting an attitude in which he places metaphysical meaning in the present moment and finding joy in his own existence.

Love and Marriage

The power of love is a theme which runs throughout Days Without End.  O'Neill's wife, Carlotta Monterey wrote:

It has nothing to do with Christianity or prayer that brings Elsa back--it is her great & all consuming love for her husband!  Thro' her love she senses that her husband is in danger & that love gives her the strength to come back & live for him.  (Commins 158)

Yet, the love which brings Elsa back from near death is not the same love which drove her to run out the door after discovering her husband's infidelity.  The relationship between Elsa and John undergoes a significant change during the play which explicates Nietzsche's ideal of love.

In her first scene, Elsa explains to Lucy why John is not capable of having an extramarital affair.  "He knows what that would do to me.  It would kill forever all my faith in life--all truth, all beauty, all love!  I wouldn't want to live" (523).  Clearly, Elsa and John have built a relationship based on total dedication to one another.  Within this relationship each has discovered purpose: to live for the other.  On the surface, such a relationship is "a real ideal marriage" (523).

However, such a relationship can be compared to an absolute metaphysic.  It demands each individual to place absolute faith in the other.  It asks that each individual place the well-being of the other above one's own welfare.  And it fosters guilt requiring the individual to live up to the ideal standards of another.  In order to live up to Elsa's ideal, John must conceal the part of him which doubts that this relationship brings meaning to his life.  Thus, John's relationship with Elsa is built on a lie.  Loving exploits this lie by seducing Lucy in order to demonstrate the emptiness of John's faith in love.  Even after his affair, John attempts to maintain the illusion that he and Elsa share an ideal love.

In Nietzschean terms, such illusions concerning love and relationship are harmful due to the self-deception necessary to maintain them.  In order to be truly selfless, one must admit that one's own welfare is of primary concern and agree to end any relationship if it ceases to maintain its positive influence. 

In the final act of Days Without End, John runs from Elsa's room to seek the god of his childhood.  As he leaves, Elsa rejects her absolutist definition of love and forgives John for his transgression.  Her forgiveness can be seen as an act of love, but it is also an act of self-preservation for it is only through her forgiveness that Elsa might recover from her illness.  In the following scene, John releases himself from his bond of love which has caused him so much guilt.  By admitting that his love for Elsa "lives forever" regardless of the condition of the relationship, he frees himself from his guilt.

It is in this final moment when both John and Elsa realize that their true feelings cannot be fettered with arbitrary rules and restrictions that they achieve, in Nietzschean terms, an ideal marriage.  Only after they each free themselves from the obligation of their marriage is there hope that their love might truly be eternal.


This Nietzschean approach to Days Without End provides a context through which a definite line of action within the play is revealed.  It also clearly focuses the main conflict of the play on the struggle between Loving's nihilism and John's desire to affirm a meaningful existence without isolating himself from life through the blind acceptance of an absolute metaphysic. 

Most importantly, this reading articulates the life affirming aspects of O'Neill's metaphysic.  Of all the characters in O'Neill's works to this point only John Loving reaches the end of his quest for metaphysical truth and personal salvation with the ability to integrate his new faith into life.  Through Days Without End, O'Neill demonstrated that his philosophical approach to existence is far from nihilistic.  Rather, O'Neill like Nietzsche's Zarathustra demonstrated that one can free oneself both from a life of blindly accepting absolutism and from blindly denying the same and accept the insecurity and immense satisfaction of independence through the painful process of learning to live.

[1] Days Without End underwent several title changes during its creation.  Starting with On to Hercules, O'Neill changed the title to Without Endings of Days in November 1931, then changed it to Endings of Days the following year and finally, Days Without End in May of 1933 (Work Diaries 113, 141, 161).  This study will refer to the play throughout by its final production title.

[2]O'Neill's decision to use masks in Days Without End came soon after writing an article for The American Spectator in which he advocated the use of masks in modern drama ("Memoranda on Masks," reprinted in Cargill, 116).


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