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Doing O'Neill
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The study of any script, for the class room or for the stage, is aimed at the envisioning some kind of performance. While much may be said about a psychological study of the author or about a deconstruction of the text according to one set of criteria or another, most who study dramatic scripts have much more immediate and pragmatic needs.

Many instruments for critical analysis are developed in the study of poetry or narrative, and seem often mal apropos to drama, either requiring intense study of their application in other genres before they be put to use on drama, or betraying, as in the case of "reader-response" criticism, that they are by definition largely irrelevant to drama.

None of these instruments do any harm, of course, unless they serve as a substitute for other, more basic observations. Admittedly, these basic observations are fairly technical and largely unique to the study of scripts. That's the point.

The previous seven essays made no attempt to exhaust a topic. They are merely exemplary, showing ways that these basic, technical considerations can be taken up. Readers of play-criticism have a right to expect this kind of technical analysis as a first step before they face a criticís more subjective observations about, say, the effect of a scene.

All judgments about scripts are contingent. What one scholar finds quite obviously the effect of a scene, many players may find impossible to represent on a stage. The reverse is also true. Scenes that seem impossibly clumsy and awkward during a reading of the script may, when presented by the right players, take on life and power.

Scenes that to one generation seem quite funny to another may seen ferocious, cruel, or sad. O'Neill's plays offer some examples. "Emperor Jones" had become by the 'thirties a racist embarrassment, though O'Neill never seems to have caught on to that. Deadly serious lines in one age often becomes comic to a later one. Audiences for the 1985 production of Strange Interlude in New York surprised critics with their laughter.

Some scripts, however, resist the efforts of later ages with differing tastes to discard them. Such a script is the one for Long Day's Journey Into Night. That script alone justifies a study of the habits of its author in order to supply guidance on the problems and possibilities that it presents for anyone envisioning a production of it.

We may summarize some observations drawn from this overview of OíNeillís handling of technical elements. O'Neill's sets show contrary impulses toward the open and the closed. Movement in the stage directions leads to mutual avoidance by characters, and finally to mere stasis. Scenes and plays end in incomprehension in the early part of his career; later plays close with the characters knowing too much. O'Neill has characters during his plays tell stories as tactics to deflect the attacks of other characters.

O'Neill writes long speeches for his characters, many that seek to give us the emotion itself instead of any objective correlative for it. O'Neill himself seems conscious of this as a weakness in his writing, and often has characters overtly disbelieve their own authenticity in such speeches.

They disbelieve each other too, telling each other to stop talking, calling each other liars, and correcting or retracting their own statements, as either saying too much or too badly or too literally, a process that in later plays, notably in Long Day's Journey Into Night, leads finally to silence.

Such a grim philosophic conclusion hardly blocks analysis of the drama in his plays; indeed it leads to dramatic eloquence.

 

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