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Doing O'Neill
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A review for the Washington Post (January 16, 2000) by Wendy Smith of Stephen Black’s book, Eugene O’Neill, Beyond Mourning and Tragedy, is presented on an O’Neill website ( Early in her review, she comments, “who needs it?” It is a cruel remark, but one that could be asked of any critical work, including this one. And in succeeding paragraphs she is quick to take it back. But the question is still there, and one can’t escape the feeling that it’s worth asking.

I know who needs the book I offer here: critics who are not writing anything about drama that might be useful to students of drama at the beginning level, nor to players and directors who come to criticism for help.

Much twentieth-century analysis of plays loses itself, for me, in speculation about the playwright’s psychology and philosophy, as if these were the only routes to an understanding of plays. I have to concede here, that what follows pays minimal attention to the psychology of Eugene O’Neill, to his philosophy, indeed to his biography. Black’s professional field is psychology. That he uses O’Neill as a stalking-horse to demonstrate an application of the theories of Erich Fromm seems a legitimate undertaking. But this practice lets criticism skip over the analysis of the opportunities and obstacles that are part of a play's medium.

Plays with some reputation or history, “fame,” are more often read in the study than performed in a theatre. They are "done" in university and high school classes by students and teachers as part of an assignment. Thus students in classes in say, American literature, will speak of Eugene's Long Day's Journey Into Night as a kind of "story," as if it differed from other stories only in the peculiarity of its page layout.

Players and directors in theatres read plays as an essential first step in mounting the play on a stage, but with a difference. They look for those very opportunities and obstacles. Both of these last are subsumed in the players' acknowledgment that the "play" is the one that an audience sees on the stage. The script is, for the players, analogous to a sketchily written form of a musical composition, one for which different players will produce different tones or tempos from the same piece.

Those who have won roles in an O'Neill play and are about to embark on the dark seas of rehearsal see before them a play which may be done this way or that, but for which they seek the best way to "do" it for the audience they are liable to face. In their preliminary studies, they engage in a kind of mental acting on stages in the mind's eye, not as an effete and "artsy" form of self-indulgence, but as an intelligent, indeed, a necessary preparation. This kind of reading is useful not only for theatre people but for students of any drama in class-room settings. To anyone in either group seeking help to understand the plays of Eugene O’Neill, I would hesitate to recommend such works as Black’s book.

Eugene O'Neill was one of the few playwrights of his time to take his own work as seriously as we do. Plays like Long Day's Journey Into Night or "Hughie" show that he was right to do so. And so, then, are we. Certain problems with past critical comment on drama in general, and on O'Neill in particular, demonstrate that some writers on drama do not agree. Back in 1968 in his The Theory of Comedy, Elder Olsen overtly sneered at those who wanted to insist that a play be studied "as a play." One can track, in very different critical styles, a similar attitude, specifically in O'Neill studies, to work both earlier than Olsen's and to some much later.

Lionel Trilling is sometimes cited for an essay in 1936 in which he proclaimed O'Neill a "genius." Less often cited are his comments introductory to the 1937 edition of Three Plays by O'Neill that Random House put out on the occasion of O'Neill's Nobel Prize. Of one of the plays in that volume, Anna Christie, Trilling asserts that it "is symbolic of the darkness of man's ultimate fate" (xiv). And any fair-minded critic will admit that the play could be so symbolic. But no fair-minded critic will admit that it "is" symbolic in that way. The issue is not a complex one--as if the definition of the word, "symbolize," were at stake--but a simple one. Whatever the play symbolizes on a given evening depends on a given performance by particular actors, in front of people in an auditorium who have the absolute power to decide whatever the play does or does not symbolize. Symbols in any play are not necessary, only available.

Trilling tells us in the same essay that one interpretation of the "The Hairy Ape" is not available. He writes that the play "is not--as people were once inclined to think because of its stokehole and I.W.W.--a play about the proletariat" (xii). Trilling gives no further reason for his judgment that "people" were wrong about this play. He simply asserts the proposition. The evidence of my experience tells me that Trilling is wrong about "people." Not all productions of "The Hairy Ape" make it a play about the proletariat, but many do. Such an interpretation is available.

Of Emperor Jones, Trilling insists that one interpretation of the title role is not available. He comments that "the 'emperor,' Brutus Jones, does not typify the Negro. He typifies all men with their raw ignorance and hysterical fear under the layers of intellect" (xi). Maybe Brutus Jones doesn't "typify the Negro;" but then, maybe he does. Maybe he seems a pitiable worm, maybe a raging beast. It is necessary to Trilling's argument that Brutus Jones be a character who "typifies" something other than a stage black. But the proof lies not in Trilling's power to assert, no matter how confidently he does so. He asserts that which, as a critic, is his duty to demonstrate, a species of circular reasoning, begging the question. He does so because his phrasing takes him on a short-cut from the script to the audience without conceding the necessary mediation of a stage production and those awkward obstacles to certainty, the players.

The audience experiences the play through the players. The players may find Trilling's version of Brutus Jones spot on; or they may not. They may find it inconvenient, or even irrelevant. The players evoke Brutus Jones on a stage of a particular size, particular sight-lines, with a particular budget for costumes, sets, and lighting, in front of an audience with tastes that the players know something about, in an era with particular events trumpeted in the press, all of which will influence the qualities that the players want Brutus Jones to display.

In turn, none of these limitations completely shapes the way people in an audience might "read" what they see on the stage. Each person brings to the auditorium his or her own history, and may find meanings in the play at variance with those of others seated nearby. None of these interpretations is "wrong;" the production of the text makes them all available. For anyone to complain of their variety is like a fisherman complaining that the fish are always so wet, or a painter that the paints are so messy. A welter of differing "readings" in the auditorium is the very medium in which dramatic art exists.

Langston Hughes in his autobiography, Big Sea, describes an instructive and apposite episode. He recalls a production of Emperor Jones

at the old Lincoln Theater on 135th Street, a theater that had, for all its noble name, been devoted largely to ribald, but highly entertaining, vaudeville... The audience didn't know what to make of Emperor Jones on a stage where "Shake That Thing" was formerly the rage. And when the Emperor started running naked through the forest, hearing Little Frightened Fears, naturally they howled with laughter.

"Them ain't no ghosts, fool!" the spectators cried from the orchestra. "Why don't you come on out o' that jungle--back to Harlem where you belong?"(258)

The actor in the title role tried to lecture the audience on manners in a theatre. People in the audience apparently did not see any dignity in the play, but probably did see the way it patronized them. Trilling in 1937 tried by the force of mere assertion to rescue the play from that blemish. But assertion will not do it.

I wish I were merely reciting the obvious here. Alas, I am not. To achieve the illusion of certainty, not only Trilling, but a train of critics following his example have too often skipped the messy part and put themselves, like Trilling, in the position of asserting the very points they set out to prove. Trilling wrote as if he could command such estimates because he did not think--about production, about players, about the fact that he was discussing a play. He seemed to ignore all that.

The type of criticism that seemed most prominent in recent years. however, calling itself formalist or post-structuralist or deconstruction, has had its roots in the analysis of fiction. Some of this work may in fact have some use in the analysis of drama. Other methods may not; for instance, "reader-response" criticism, seems peculiarly mal apropos to drama. For drama, one may posit no readers at all, or one may posit an even greater number than reader-response critics do, readers in the flesh of the director, the players, the audience, in addition to the manifold layers of "virtual readers" for each these and the suppositions of each about the reading habits of the others.

A small book by Kier Elam, The Semiotics of the Drama (Methuen, 1980), attempts with some success the daunting task of bringing to a reader a summary of that kind of research from the "Prague School" of the late 'thirties, about the time that Trilling was writing his introduction for the O'Neill volume, to Elam’s publication date.

Elam is condemned by his task to give some work more space than it deserves, and to confine his reference to some of the best work to parenthetical comments or annotations in his excellent bibliography. His references to "intertextuality," one of the buzz-words of this recent criticism, are always brief but always piquant. Elam repeatedly reflects a nervousness about dealing with the "text" of a play at all, as some of the research he reports seems to assume that the play's only "real" text is the very performance of it. Elam goes on to remind us that even if this insistence on the primacy of performance is accepted, the "text" for it still exists, and must, too, be considered. Elam cites one of his Italian confreres, Paolo Gulli Pugliatti(I segni latenti: Scrittura come virtualita in King Lear, D'Anna, 1976), to the effect that the written text depends on the possibility of performance as much as the performance depends on the written text.  Thus playwrights inevitably anticipate the obligations, opportunities, and obstacles imposed by performance as they write (209). Anyone used to reading recent criticism of fiction will realize how this last observation on drama, rather than simplifying anything, only teases out the end of one thread from a knot of Gordian complexity.

Admittedly, this kind of criticism is fun for some, but many, who appeal to criticism for help in dealing with the works ostensibly analyzed, find the requirements, for their patience, among other virtues, too intense. A case in point is Critical Approaches to O'Neill edited by John H. Stroupe, who collects twelve essays in honor of O'Neill's centennial, about half of which still treat scripts as if no actor ever presented them. One, by Joseph J. Moleski, tosses off a parenthetical comment that takes studies of technique as "summarizing the whole of a tradition that reduces art to the status of a mere supplement to physis"(37). He italicizes supplement evidently in order to have it be taken as the French for a payment added to the price for a ticket, say, for a seat on train or in a theatre; and physis is Greek for "nature."

Sometimes studies of technique are indeed studies of a merely decorative addition to Nature. But techniques exist. Some acknowledgment of their traditions, and the departures from them, are not irrelevant to the study of art, but basic preliminaries to such study. For an example of the consequences of treating "techniques" as mere side issues, constant readers are referred to Moleski's essays in Critical Approaches to O'Neill to make their own judgments.

The following essays attempt to satisfy a need for an approach to plays in general and O'Neill's work in particular in terms of stage technique. Specialists in theatre will find these observations in some places to seem like preaching to the converted. But specialists in other fields of literature, some of whom are now faced with the necessity of teaching O'Neill as a part of American literature, have not found them so obvious, indeed, have written as if utterly innocent of some of the basic conditions under which and for which plays are written. However, it is of no use to theorize about how theatrical criticism "should" be written. The better plan instead is simply to "do" it.

What follows is quite modest. No study of plot, theme, or character, except parenthetically, will emerge. No esoteric levels of refined taste are required to use the methods exemplified. Hard work alone can duplicate them. The essays concentrate on matters that call attention to the freedoms and limitations of all plays, O'Neill's among them.

In addition to O'Neill's plays I have found it instructive at several points to compare his technique with that commended by others of his time, by precept--as in George Pierce Baker's evident rendering of the sort of things he said in class, in his Dramatic Technique--or by example--as in the work other playwrights of the 'twenties, when most of the first ideas for all his subsequent plays were committed to his notebooks.

Rather than glancing at thirty or so plays by some twenty other writers, I have tried, for the convenience of readers who may not be at home with this part of American literature, to confine my comparisons to a small group of scripts. As it happens, a paperback edition of Famous Plays of the 1920's, edited by O'Neill's old associate, Kenneth Macgowan, while not perfect, prints four, that, with a little crushing, I have been able to use here.

These essays make no attempt to dress themselves in the standard costumes and make-up of "scholarly work." The diction is as unpretentious as I can make it. Allusions to other scholarly work has been kept to a minimum. None of the essays explicates a particular play; all of them range across O'Neill's canon. The topics are not complex or difficult, nor do they offer any refined judgments. On the contrary, they seek to state the most basic and obvious points possible, usually ones peculiar to drama. The essays do now and then point out how some techniques seem peculiar to O'Neill, such as certain qualities of O'Neill's dialogue; his management of stage movement, of entrances, exits, and scene-endings; and, to begin with, his sets.


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