This dissertation has articulated a contemporary approach to selected works of Eugene O'Neill based on the Nietzschean idea of perspectivism as described in Thus Spake Zarathustra. While previous examinations of O'Neill's work have been limited to modernist approaches depicting the search for an absolute system of universal order, this study has focused on perspectivism which emphasizes the development of personal spiritual autonomy as the panacea for spiritual nihilism. Such an approach introduces a postmodern attitude as a major theme in these plays.
This shift in focus from a modernist to a postmodernist philosophical framework has been justified by documenting the influence of Thus Spake Zarathustra on both O'Neill's work and on the work of postmodern thinkers. In the case of O'Neill, the influence of Zarathustra in critical studies has been acknowledged but never fully explored. Instead scholars traditionally used Zarathustra to philosophically link O'Neill and Nietzsche while using Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy to analyze O'Neill's plays. Such an approach has been appropriate in the past because Zarathustra itself has remained until recently Nietzsche's most obscure philosophical work. However, recent analyses of Thus Spake Zarathustra have established the importance of Nietzsche's popular work to contemporary philosophy and, in turn, have formed the basis of this study.
The modernist approach to O'Neill emphasizes oppositional aspects of O'Neill's work. As such, in the past O'Neill's plays have been analyzed in terms of their critique of the metaphysical or material status quo. A great deal has been written of O'Neill's critique of Christianity, of Western materialism, and of American society, for example. However, the creation of new values lies outside the modernist metaphysical frame of reference and thus the postmodern metaphysical system suggested by O'Neill's plays has been obscured by the limits of the modernist critical approach.
Postmodern philosophers such as Jacques Derrida and Jean François Lyotard and Nietzsche scholars such as Laurence Lampert and Kathleen Marie Higgins have culled from the pages of Thus Spake Zarathustra a metaphysic through which Nietzsche reevaluates all of Western philosophy. This metaphysic uses modernist opposition as a point of departure and questions the very basic assumption on which Western civilization is founded: an organized Universe which gives meaning to human existence and establishes a natural code of ethics. Nietzsche then proposes a hypothetical metaphysic which provides meaning for the individual while preserving ethical autonomy by suggesting the theory of eternal recurrence as a method to overcome nihilism. Nietzsche's metaphysic encourages the individual to renounce absolutist belief systems and provide one's own metaphysical meaning based on one's own experience.
When applied to O'Neill's work, Nietzschean perspectivism provides a metaphysical foundation which clarifies the dramatic action by suggesting dramatic philosophical movement based on a spiritual hierarchy which Nietzsche called "The Three Metamorphoses." By identifying O'Neill's characters with the appropriate spiritual level, the philosophical movement of the play can be identified.
The character of Juan Ponce de Leon in The Fountain moved through all three levels of Nietzsche's spiritual hierarchy. As a young soldier, Juan identified himself through his nationalistic beliefs and his desire to conquer the world for Spain. His attitude can be associated with the camel spirit because it minimizes the importance of the present moment and defers meaning to the future.
In his later years, Juan questions the goals of his youth and enters the second spiritual stage, that of the lion. Juan enters a period of nihilism in which he believes his life has been wasted. When confronted with the daughter of his former lover, Juan reorients his absolutist thinking by convincing himself that had he chosen love instead of glory he could have found spiritual meaning. Juan attempts to recapture his youth by finding the legendary Fountain of Youth. His action suggests the searching nature of the lion spirit. When he is mortally wounded, Juan has a vision which reveals to him that meaning can only be found in the present moment. This revelation elevates Juan to the highest spiritual level, that of the child. At this spiritual level, Juan no longer fears the obscurity of death because he has fully experienced the final days of his life in the present. Viewing The Fountain in terms of Juan's spiritual growth provides the play with a continuity of dramatic action which is absent from traditional modernist approaches.
Marco Millions explicates Nietzschean perspectivism in a very different manner than The Fountain. The play personifies the three spiritual levels in three different characters. By placing these characters side by side, O'Neill invites a comparison of the attitudes of each spiritual metamorphosis.
In the early scenes of this play, O'Neill depicts the formation of Marco's absolutist beliefs which are defined by Christianity and materialism. When confronted with the beauty and mysticism of the East and with the love of the Princess Kukachin, Marco remains virtually unchanged and ignorant of the opportunities for growth which present themselves. Marco's inflexibility provides him with success and happiness within the narrow scope of his limited world view. Yet when seen in the context of the vast opportunities presented to him, Marco's life is shallow. Like the camel, Marco can only serve his absolutist godheads.
Kukachin represents the lion spirit. She finds meaning in life solely in terms of her love for Marco. When she discovers the emptiness of Marco's soul, she enters a state of nihilism and dies. Kukachin's condition reflects the lion spirit because she constructed a value system based on her belief in Marco's soul and her dedication to this false ideal. When she discovers that this system is false, her life ceases to have any meaning for her. Rather than search for meaning within herself, Kukachin loses all faith. Her spiritual death manifests itself in material death and she is forever cursed by her identification with her constructed godhead.
Kublai Kahn represents the third and highest spiritual level, that of the child. Kublai is a seeker of wisdom who experiences each moment of his life and learns from his experiences. Unlike Marco, Kublai constantly grows in wisdom and in understanding of the world around him. Unlike Kukachin, Kublai embraces the tragedies and disappointments in life with the knowledge that these too are to be fully experienced. Kublai's attitude forces him to face life as it is and so he fully experiences the joy and the pain which is existence. For Kublai, life is a struggle which is lived in the present moment rather than lived in anticipation of some future condition. Through Kublai's final speeches, O'Neill clearly establishes that Kublai's acceptance of all of life in the present is preferable to the narrow-mindedness of Marco or Kukachin.
Both The Fountain and Marco Millions explore the nature of Nietzsche's three metamorphoses in their entirety. Days Without End focuses on the nature of the modernist approach to life and John Loving's eventual conquest over nihilism and discovery of perspectivism. By splitting the leading character into two personas, O'Neill dramatizes the dilemma of the lion spirit who searches for meaning on the one hand yet denies all meaning on the other. John Loving's search for meaning is foiled by his inability to free himself from his absolutism and the moral guilt associated with this metaphysic. His inability to discover a satisfactory metaphysical system of belief gives birth to his nihilistic self, Loving.
Loving represents nihilism in its strongest incarnation. His metaphysical attitude defines death as a similar metaphysical condition to life without life's meaningless struggle. While John attempts to find meaning in a perfect love with Elsa, Loving denies this possibility and strives to disrupt both the relationship and John's well-being by having an affair with Elsa's best friend. Loving successfully demonstrates that the moral demands of marriage are a fallacy in John's metaphysic.
The final act of Days Without End depicts John at a point of metaphysical crisis. In the church of his youth, John is confronted with two alternatives: to return to the camel-like acceptance of Catholicism or to give over to Loving's nihilism and kill himself. The resulting struggle offers a third possibility, however. In a moment of self-empowerment, John discovers the strength within himself to take responsibility for his own actions, to create his own morality, and to expunge his own guilt through a perspectivist metaphysic. O'Neill suggests through John Loving's conquest of his nihilistic self that a perspectivist metaphysic is an obtainable and sustainable metaphysical condition.
The presence of perspectivism in O'Neill's work suggests that O'Neill's philosophical framework moves beyond the scope of a traditional modernist approach. This study demonstrates that the very concepts on which postmodernity is based are also present in at least three of O'Neill's plays. Such inquiry suggests several avenues of application.
The postmodern attitude through which these plays have been interpreted provides the opportunity for a very different approach to production than do traditional modernist interpretations. In the past, productions of these plays have been thematically and stylistically limited by the narrow interpretation of modernist approach. The nature of modernism defines O'Neill's characters in terms of their relation to the status quo defining them as symbols of an oppositional stance. By viewing these plays in terms of the philosophical development, theatre artists are free to broaden their interpretation.
In terms of character development, a philosophical approach provides the actor with greater opportunity to explore the complex value systems which lead each character toward the establishment of its metaphysical identity. By developing the character's basic metaphysical objectives, the actor can define the character's super-objective clearly and motivate the character's actions in terms of movement toward self-identification. In this manner, each character is developed more fully as an individual using philosophical development as a through line for the dramatic action. Stylistically, a philosophical approach to character development frees the actor from the limitations of psychological realism associated with traditional approaches to O'Neill and allows the actor to interpret the character in the broader scope of its philosophical interests.
By approaching the play in terms of philosophical concerns, the director is also freed from the constraints of modernist interpretations which narrow interpretive choices. An approach which emphasizes metaphysical meaning allows directors creative license to develop productions which move beyond a realistic approach and to reconfigure the plays in terms of broader philosophical concerns. Such an approach shifts the thematic emphasis of the plays from stereotypical themes providing the director an opportunity to explore thematically and stylistically a variety of themes suggested by this larger philosophical context and to express these themes in terms of metaphysical development while still maintaining a cohesive dramatic structure. Because the postmodern attitude reflected in this approach is one which is also significant to contemporary sensibilities, a perspectivist production concept will provide contemporary theatre artists a means through which to more closely identify with the characters and the dramatic action.
In short, this dissertation offers a framework for the reevaluation of O'Neill's work within a contemporary context. This reevaluation occurs within the context of O'Neill's own philosophic thought as developed through Thus Spake Zarathustra yet expands the scope of these plays to reflect broader themes and more contemporary concerns than previous interpretations. This framework provides theatre artists a manner in which O'Neill's work can be interpreted for contemporary production.
This examination suggests at least two avenues for further study. Much more scholarly work is called for to explore the breadth of the O'Neill canon in terms of Nietzschean perspectivism. Such examinations of all of O'Neill's plays would further explicate O'Neill's understanding of Thus Spake Zarathustra and its postmodern philosophy. Such studies should identify the presence of a perspectivist metaphysic in plays by O'Neill and analyze the nature of this perspectivism.
A second avenue of exploration suggested by this study would consider perspectivism within a total production concept which is then actualized on the stage. O'Neill wrote for the theatre and his language incorporated all aspects of theatrical production. Until O'Neill's perspectivism is explored within the context of a total theatrical experience much valuable information will necessarily be missed. Such a production would consider visual and aural elements within the overall production concept and use these elements to communicate O'Neill's perspectivism.It is the intent of this study to suggest a contemporary approach to interpreting O'Neill's plays. It is the hope of this author that such an approach to O'Neill's plays will encourage further exploration of his work through theatrical production. Moreover, it is hoped that a contemporary approach to this work will demonstrate the continuing value of O'Neill's art as a reflection of life.
© Copyright 1999-2010 eOneill.com