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Doing O'Neill
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In an essay on Long Day's Journey Into Night, Stephen Bloom raises some interesting speculations for any actor considering the role of Jamie Tyrone ("Empty Bottles, Empty Dreams." 155-177). He suggests that Jamie's drunkenness on his entrance in Act IV be played as an "act," as unauthentic, that Jamie should be seem a man who is "desperately attempting to conceal his despondency and sustain his performance, but he ultimately cannot endure"(173). Such a suggestion does not offer a player insuperable difficulties, but on the contrary, an interesting tension to the character, more subtle than an mere comic "drunk-act."

Such an element is not novel but typical of characterizations in an O'Neill play. O'Neill repeatedly has his characters insist the characters are monitoring their own performance as if they were players, with anxious concern for any sign of falsity in it. They often detect such falsity, and say so. When O'Neill does not have the characters themselves call attention to the falsity, he puts others else on stage to supply the comment.

O'Neill characters are often "divided," but such a judgment is true of those in almost any play. One could argue that Quirt in What Price Glory? is divided between his lust for Charmaine and his sense of camaraderie with the other Marines. Of course, such a division is, by comparison with those in O'Neill's characters, rather shallow. Still, characters in plays by Sidney Howard, George Kelly, Philip Barry, Elmer Rice, or Clifford Odets can all be analyzed for two or more contrary internal drives pulling them against themselves. Thus merely pointing out such a division in O'Neill's characters is not much help in distinguishing his technique of characterization from that of other writers.

In some O'Neill criticism, the task has been seen as identifying character "types" who appear in many of his plays, such as the "sensitive poet," embodied in Eben in Desire Under the Elms or in Edmund in Long Day's Journey into Night. Or the heartless paternal figure as Cabot in Desire Under the Elms or Con Melody in A Touch of the Poet. Or the insensitive clod, like Marco in Marco Millions, who may desire to be an artist but cannot, like Evans in Strange Interlude or the Brown/Anthony complex in Great God Brown.

Michael Manheim proposes a pattern in his Eugene O'Neill's New Language of Kinship which links every major character in O'Neill's play with one of four archetypal personalities which he identifies with the four principal characters of Long Day's Journey Into Night. This kind of analysis, however useful, seems a rather literary judgment. The present task is to stay with more theatrically technical ones.

Characterization in plays that held the stage during O'Neill's youth was more often a matter of costume than anything else. I do not exaggerate to say that many viewers of the early cinema depended on stereotypes earlier established for them in stage plays when they expected the black hat to be worn by the villain, the white one by the hero, the girl with the bow in her hair to be the ingenue. Both media cast by type. A villain needs black hair and a thin mustache, the hero a big chin, chest and biceps, the ingenue, big eyes and a "cute" walk. The theatre of course was not silent. The cinema picked up the vocal stereotypes as soon as it could: the villain an abrasive voice, the hero a deep one, and the ingenue had to be able to make her lines understood even while squeaking away in her highest soprano register. Altos, at first, were vamps.

O'Neill displays a technique in characterization in his first plays that is a step beyond that, but sometimes only one step. Characterization in the one-act sea plays is largely a matter of stage-dialect. Jean Chothia's Forging a Language shows how close to stage convention these dialects were in O'Neill's plays. Few of the players in "Moon of the Caribees" receive much more to go on from O'Neill in creating their roles beyond a dialect and a physical description. The rest of the interior life of the character O'Neill leaves to the player to imagine--or not. The play requires very little subtlety of them.

Some roles do offer more. Cocky is a liar. The other characters treat him with contempt. And he is capable of murder. He knifes Paddy. The way others relate to Cocky, and the way he relates to them, offer additional coloration to a character that otherwise depends entirely on his small size and his Bow-bells accent.

The display of this web of mutual relationships is a basic element of all characterization in all plays everywhere, and varies in complexity during O'Neill's career from the simple few strokes that distinguish Cocky from the rest of the cast to the elaborate layers of love, contempt, trust and suspicion between Jamie Tyrone and other characters in the two late plays in which the character appears.

A bolder, and much simpler method of characterization which O'Neill used, indeed overused, throughout his career, is simply to have the character provide an autobiographical description. Smitty in the "Moon of the Caribees" offers an analysis of himself couched in a rather hammy and Byronic mode. Of course, it is not simply addressed to the theatrical audience. He offers it to another character on stage, Donk, and the reactions O'Neill provides for Donk, among them the comments about Donk's own experience, lead the players in both parts to develop Smitty as a young man over-dramatizing his own psychic pain. This pattern is further emphasized by a contrast with Cocky's attempts to tell his own life story. O'Neill has Cocky's tales of what happened in New Guinea shouted down by the rest of the crew. But O’Neill gives Smitty a moment of relative isolation in which to talk about himself, with only Donk to provide the element of skepticism. 

For some years after, characters in O'Neill's plays are presented as telling the truth about themselves, as they supposedly see it. O'Neill sets the scene to give the players every encouragement to treat the autobiographical statements, not as cynical devices to trick some other character, but as "sincere."

Brutus Jones not only brags about himself but concedes that Smithers may be right about his past. Yank too brags, but in a style of speech contrived to absolve him of any suggestion of covert motive or duplicity. Cabot has a speech alone to Abbie in which he tries to pour out the essence of his beliefs. Abbie and Eben are given speeches to each other in an ambience which obviates any temptation for the audience to doubt their sincerity. Mannon, Christine, Orin, and Lavinia too, all are given autobiographical speeches.

In the later plays, however, O'Neill undercuts any player's confidence about the sincerity of such speeches. How much is a player in The Iceman Cometh to suppose that the character she or he plays "really believes" those tales they tell? The question is at the root of the issue that Hickey brings to them. To what extent should the player of Con Melody act as if the character believed in his own aristocratic claims? Or disbelieved them? Should the player of Sara let the audience think she is really in love with Simon? Or that she has just the plans of which Con accuses her, those of a scheming, greedy, peasant slut? Or both? Or neither? Or something in between? Where in between? These are not baroque speculations. Any players "doing" A Touch of the Poet have to commit themselves to one among such choices.

All characterization in any play, then, is partly the result of the way members of an audience note and judge mutual reactions among characters. Even autobiographical statements by characters depend upon the way these statements are received, explicitly or implicitly, by the other characters in the play. These mutual interactions confirm or modify the judgments in the characters' self-descriptions.

Donk in "Moon of the Caribees" treats Smitty's speech as a performance. Simeon and Peter react to Eben as if they thought Eben's speech were a performance, contradicting the over import of his speech to say that Eben is just like their father. Richard Miller's father in Ah, Wilderness! also treats his son's explanations of himself as if they were performances. Everyone in The Iceman Cometh treats everyone else as if their stories were mere self-justifying fictions. O'Neill spreads out behind Con Melody's posturing a spectrum of differentiated responses to him, from Sara's overt contempt, to Deborah's tempered disgust, Creegan's testimonies of past glory, all the way to Nora's uncritical support. Sara's explanations of how much she is in love are almost all addressed to her mother. The supportive lines that O'Neill provides for Nora encourages an audience to label Sara's commitment to Simon as sincere, in spite of any other evidence to the contrary in the script.

An audience is encouraged to note these mutual relationships by a host of devices, from the most obvious to the cunning and subtle. Among the obvious ones is blocking. It is not necessary here to run through the whole of the O'Neill canon to demonstrate this kind of characterization. A glance at the blocking of characters in "Moon of the Caribees" will suffice. There are comparatively few clear requirements for blocking of individual characters in this play, but the among few that exist are several that make Smitty relate to the rest of the cast as "among them but not of them," to quote one of Con Melody's favorite authors.

O'Neill has Smitty sit on a different and higher part of the deck, has him stay on that higher level when other characters leave it, has him go below when others stay above, come up on deck when the others go below. At one moment O'Neill gives him a line and then directs that the rest of the cast interrupt their action to turn and stare at him.

Similar devices for isolating some characters in order to maintain a focus of audience attention are easy to spot through all the rest of O'Neill's plays. None of these devices, of course, are unique to O'Neill. They are the part of every playwright's arsenal.

O'Neill's handling of these techniques are distinguished from the work of other writers by his own apparent problems with sincerity. Most other playwrights are content to put forward a character with an autobiographical statement and leave it at that, as ostensibly true, or as a plainly cynical attempt to manipulate other characters. O'Neill has his characters make such autobiographical statements, just as every other playwright. He almost never has characters use such speeches as mere devices to move other characters’ judgements. But he often has characters worry that their statements might be so taken. And often the reactions he provides from other characters suggest that O'Neill worried about it too. And took steps to anticipate such judgments in an audience.

The character, Donk, has almost no function in "Moon of the Caribees" except as a sounding board for Smitty. O'Neill directs him to assume a relaxed posture and smoke a pipe, patterns that puts a psychic distance greater than the physical one between his attitudes and those of Smitty. Donk's reaction to Smitty's lines suggest that Donk thinks that Smitty's suffering is as much performance as fact. O'Neill puts the actors in a position here to focus on the question of Smitty's persuasive abilities--and not on O'Neill's. One cannot know, of course, how consciously O'Neill played this defensive game, but it is not a surprise to find a young writer doing it.

Simeon and Peter relate to Eben's autobiographical protestations in Desire Under the Elms in roughly the same way as Donk's to Smitty's. Although he was a much more polished writer by that time, O'Neill apparently still worried about the audience's judgment, not of Eben's sincerity, but of the writer's ability.

After Eben is through insisting that he is connected only to his Maw and not to old Cabot at all, Simeon and Peter agree with each other that Eben is very much like Cabot. Thus the audience can now look to see which judgment is the more accurate, and is directed away from deciding anything about O'Neill's powers of judgment.

Cabot's long autobiographical statement in the bedroom is arranged to be spoken to another character who is hardly listening. Cabot concludes with disgust that Abbie had not understood one word. The audience can see that the manipulative power of the speech had failed. And so they are liberated from the necessity of judging its power at all. And O'Neill is freed from their judgment.

Characters in O'Neill's plays share O'Neill's problem. Only subliminally at first, and more and more overtly in the later plays, they doubt their own sincerity. Jamie in the last scenes of Long Day's Journey Into Night or Mary in the long scene with Cathleen and then alone in Act III are roles that provide players with the task of speaking lines which are simultaneously "sincere" and disbelieved by the very characters who speak them. So stated it sounds difficult if not impossible.

But O'Neill offers both actors all the tools they need in the pattern of reactions from other characters to channel the judgment of the audience toward the questions O'Neill wants taken up--and perhaps away from those he fears, such as judgments of his own abilities as a writer. In addition, he sometimes gives characters lines which put them in the position of listeners to their own lines. Mary's lines alone on stage in Act III are an especially overt example. She calls herself a lying a dope-fiend that the Virgin could never believe. Such moments and such characters very often correct themselves, contradict themselves, in very much the same way characters commonly correct other characters. Such is the topic of the next essay.


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