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Editor: Harley Hammerman
St. Louis, Missouri

Volume 0


Dionysus in Diaspora:
O’Neill’s Tragedy of Muted Revelries

Daniel Larner
Fairhaven College
Western Washington University

The use of tragedy in O’Neill’s plays, most particularly in The Iceman Cometh, can be understood as a form of the Dionysian rite. As I have discussed elsewhere,1 the orgy of celebration of the god—the tragic immolation of self in the rite of the insecure god, who demands your identity to affirm his—is central to O’Neill’s tragic sensibility. This is what happens to Pentheus in Euripides’ Bacchae. He surrenders his kingship, his sovereignty, his masculinity, and finally his life, to spy on the sacred ritual and root out the god. Instead, it is he who is rooted out, and his parents, exemplars of the whole city, are left to comprehend and live with the horror. What happens to Nina in Strange Interlude and to Lavinia in Mourning Becomes Electra resembles the aftermath of this horror. These heroines take on the identity of the god by committing themselves like devotees to the constant living out of the loss which is reborn at each turn of the screw. They enact for the god the continual repetition of the sacrifice. It is the Dionysian Living Death. In The Iceman Cometh, Hickey assumes the identity of the God, the savior, only to be brought down, like Pentheus, by his own delusions. But unlike Pentheus, he is left alive to plead his case in futility. “An embittered life is condemned to continue the unspeakably endless search for value in the wasteland, a kind of hell on earth.... We live not with the love but only with the condemnation of the god, to be compelled to find tragedy where there is only pathos.”2

This analysis emerged from the close parallels between the action and sensibilities of Greek tragedies, especially The Bacchae, and O’Neill’s The Great God Brown, Mourning Becomes Electra, and The Iceman Cometh. Others have commented extensively on similar sensibilities arising from O’Neill’s reading of Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy.

In this essay I seek to reveal a counter-ritual in these same works, with the aid of Lazarus Laughed and Shakespeare’s King Lear. I argue that we can see the action of Iceman, along with that of The Great God Brown, Strange Interlude and Morning Becomes Electra, not only as a reduction of significance and an entrapment in prolonged, increasingly fruitless suffering, but also as a summoning of significance in the face of the abyss. This form of the action follows from another, much neglected aspect of the rites of Dionysus: the comic rite—the procession to the healing glades of Eleusis, the leading out from corruption to the sacred grove of purity, harmony, health and peace. The procession is led by the gods of divine violence and healing—Demeter and Dionysus. Hickey seeks to conduct such a leading out to health, from the bar into the metaphorical forest of the city, and instead is rejected. He is not the god, but a sham. His peace is a dirty lie. His self-deception turns the whiskey to water and the uplifting magic of his presence to a bane. Only after he leaves is the blessing of drunkenness possible again. The orgy resumes, the false god is gone, the true one has returned.

But this true one is only Dionysus in diaspora, a kind of diluted divinity, a mixed drink. To quote the previous essay again: 

The change O’Neill seems to have wrought from ancient times to now is the absence of the horrible revelation that Cadmus and Agave were granted. The “god of our own blood” is now simply our own blood.... If the god is gone, the best we can do is pathetically invent him. The greatness of the horrible fate which the Greeks could mourn is mourned in O’Neill for its absence.3 

Hickey, in this understanding, tries to reinvent himself as the god, and his delusion brings him down. But what are we left with? I want to explore, here, what this other side, this comic form of the Dionysian ritual, can teach us about the largest form of the play.

For Hickey, dealing with the dross in Harry’s bar, the bottom-hitters anaesthetizing what is left of pain and despair, the tragedy is in the past. The vision is in the past. It is Hickey’s genius to rekindle the sparks of the god; to descend on the bar every six months and stir the fire with storytelling and confession; to enact the ritual condemnation of the pipedream; to affirm the life of the flawed, the rent, the maimed, the embittered; to exalt them for a moment in the ecstasy of identity, of self-understanding, and then of drunkenness and oblivion. Before Hickey makes his fatal mistake he seems to have the maimed rite mastered. Then, when his hubris is revealed, when his claims are seen in an instant to be hypocritical and hollow—the god has become mere murderer— then even the possibility of tragedy has been drained away. He is just a despicable, pathetic, deluded man. As the police haul him away the denizens of the bar have nothing to mourn. They pity him, but turn naturally to the booze in front of them, which has reestablished its old potency. This is a maimed comic rite, with a ritual buffoon taking a fall. A diffused, de-fused Dionysus reanimates the alcohol and refuels the oblivion which is Harry’s bar. They will wait, as they have before, for the god to visit them again and stir them from their muted revelry.

In Lazarus Laughed, there is immense comic value built, but it is, ironically, beyond the human, the manifestation of the power of indifference. It is a transcendence, a transvaluation, but as such an ineffable (laughable?) loss. What is unleashed at the beginning of the play is Nietzsche’s inhuman laughter of the gods. But compared to Whitman’s yawp of life, there is something eviscerated about the life and love that Lazarus says he feels. It is more like Beckett’s divine athambia—it is inhuman because it is freed of goals, of the burden of the future, cut off from the roots of human experience. It is, as the play repeats endlessly, the laughter of “Man,” not of a man or men, of the gods, of the transcendent. There is no death only in the sense that, as we laugh at death, and at life, we can discover that we are part of the whole, immersed in the lap of God. In The Great God Brown, Billy thinks he has found “Our Father Who Art,” who blesses them that weep, for they shall laugh. “The laughter of Heaven sows earth with a rain of tears, and out of Earth’s transfigured birth­pain the laughter of Man returns to bless and play again in innumerable dancing gales of flame upon the knees of God.” With this, Billy dies. And it is Lazarus who we see immolated in those very flames, his soul set free, leaping up to his god, while a desperate Caligula grovels below, begging forgiveness for not having been able to remember that death is dead. As Nietzsche says, “Tragedy cries, ‘We believe that life is eternal!’”4

The death of death, therefore, is something only Lazarus experiences. His liberating laughter is a window to the careless play of the gods, to the eternal round of life in which men die but Man lives, and death is dead. But for everyone else it is just a glimpse, just a momentary banishment of the dull ache of survival, or the sharp pain of being alive. In Miriam’s life, neither of these applies. She experiences the shock and exhaustion of losing her husband, then seeing him resurrected, then the sheer fatigue of following and supporting this man whose mind is rooted beyond human care. Miriam is so old and tired that she is pleased to die. It is in Miriam that we see the earth-bound mirror of other men and women, for whom, as Lazarus says (4:1), “age and time are but timidities of thought.” But it is even worse for Tiberius and Caligula, trapped by their own terror. Lazarus, much earlier in the play (2:1) says, “Tragic is the plight of the tragedian whose only audience is himself! Life is for each man a solitary cell whose walls are mirrors.” Lazarus urges Caligula, who “hates men” because he is afraid they will kill him, to understand his insignificance, to laugh, to dance. “Laugh yes to your insignificance!” 

As dust you are eternal change, and everlasting growth, and a high note of laughter soaring through chaos from the deep heart of God. Be proud, O Dust! Then you may love the stars as equals! ... And then perhaps you may be brave enough to love even your fellow men without fear of their vengeance! 

For everyone in the play except the transported masses, including the Greeks who call Lazarus “Dionysus,” this is unbearable abstraction, insane removal, monomania. Lazarus is tested with death—both Miriam’s and his own—and he passes both tests: he does not waiver. The laughter re-emerges as clear and confident as before. And then, in the end, just as Miriam comes back briefly from the dead to urge him that “Yes! There is only life! Lazarus, be not lonely!”, Lazarus himself returns, for the second time, at the end of the play to remind Caligula that he should “Fear not ... There is no death!”

Who could abandon the world and follow this advice? Certainly not a terrified weakling with a lot to lose, like Caligula. But we are given a vision of the ecstatic road, the procession of Dionysus incarnate, moving through death to life and back again. It is a vision no one else in O’Neill’s work can begin to share. Certainly not Nina in Strange Interlude, a woman who leaps to love, then leaps back for safety; who engineers lies to protect that safety, then sits and watches while the flames of love die, but the pain of loss increases. She knows she’s been cruel to Ned Darrell, but all she can do is tell him she knows that. Nor Lavinia, trapped between her love, her sense of revenge and justice, and her congenital taste for self-punishment. She will not see the divine spark rise, but, more like Tiberius or Caligula, will live on with fearful and unrelenting necessity, “bound,” as she says, “to the Mannon dead,” living on unmarried, frustrated, miserable, living out the muted revelry.

In Shakespeare’s King Lear, the comic value is built in an unspeakably sad journey through the forest of madness and blindness. This journey charts the course of loyalty to family and to the king in Gloucester and Kent, and loyalty to a sense of justice in Lear himself. He loses it, then finds it again in his madness. This value is built in the face of destruction, a cruel destruction of the foolish which only The Bacchae can match. It is affirmed in Lear’s “far off” contortions of raging madness, and his deathbed vision of a wheel of fire.

The issue of madness is focused at the very center of the play, on the storming heath. Madness is also an issue raised by Hickey at the end of Iceman. Perhaps, he claims, it was insanity which led him desperately to curse his wife Evelyn after he had killed her. Does this resemble Dionysus maddening Pentheus? Is it like the daughters, exemplars of an indifferent universe, maddening Lear? The peace which Hickey claims to bring is the peace of indifference: “you won’t give a damn.” That is liberation? That is triumph? It is indeed a triumph, I want to argue, but in the context of what I want to call “the tragedy of muted revelries,” the tragedy that arises when the comic march takes us not to health but confusion, not to love but to hatred or jealousy or obsession. What results is the maiming of the rite, the wretched funeral of Ophelia that we can elevate only by melodramatic gestures and grand speeches. “It is I, Hamlet the Dane,” says the prince as he leaps into the grave, at last seeing himself for who he is, someone trapped in the net of death. But Hamlet’s death turns out to be grand not only because he has something to fight for— his new repose in himself and his new sense of justice—but because it is his vision which is at stake. In Lear the vision is all, and of something much more profoundly abysmal—an indifferent universe which shares nothing of human apperception and value, in which the “clearest gods” are only the purest inventions of the best, the most loving, enduring and persistent among us. It is Edgar who conjures for his blinded father the image of a cliff, a deadly height. The old man, fainting, thinks he is casting himself off the edge to end his pain and meet his death. And it is Edgar again, speaking in another voice, who compounds his therapeutic lie as he wakes his father up and persuades the old man that he is now at the bottom, looking up, and that his “life’s a miracle.” “Therefore, thou happy father,/ Think that the clearest gods, who make them honors/ Of men’s impossibilities, have preserved thee” (IV. vi. 1-79). But Gloucester must now endure the simultaneous joy and agony of meeting and recognizing Lear again, and of hearing the extreme pain of Lear’s madness. Finally (as we are told), Edgar reveals himself to his father, and the old man’s “flawed heart—/ alack too weak the conflict to support—/ ‘Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief,/ Burst smilingly.”5

It is left for Lear to rediscover, out of hellish pain, his angel of a daughter, only to spend his last drops of energy on trying to save her, to kill the fool that was hanging her, and to die sensing her death, her “no life.” The hugeness of his loss is the size of his courageous vision—his capacity to see human value built on a base of nothingness, of vacuity, of gods who are absent or indifferent or wantonly and capriciously cruel. The ending confirms this abysmal vision, first with Albany’s recollection that Edmund’s warrant is on the life of Cordelia and he has been standing there doing nothing about it: “Great thing of us forgot!” he exclaims. Forgot?? By such a good and noble man?? These are capricious, cruel gods indeed! And then there is Albany’s and Edgar’s re­establishment of the old order, first by calling for the challenge to Edmund, then by announcing their government to succeed the dead Lear. But this part of the coda to Lear is a maimed rite. The new sovereigns will, we are told, never know so much or live so long. We are exalted in the recognition of a vision we can not ourselves reach. As George Santayana reminds us, it is the essence of the tragic mask to “raise us to that height,” to confront death, to don “the escutcheon of human nature [the tragic mask], in which its experience is emblazoned.”6

Hickey makes value too, in his semi-annual returns to the bar, fueling the brief and feeble fires of self-respect and hope, salved again, confirmed, with a drunken ritual of oblivion that upholds all rights and claims. But this time, Hickey has changed the rite. He comes now with a call to abandon pipe dreams and join the procession to the sacred grove of indifference. Hickey’s new ritual, his value-making, is a mockery, however, because it builds value out of nothing to preserve the nothing, not the value. Then it turns out that Hickey is loyal to nothing—a self-deceiving liar, a pipedreamer. The ritual he has built dies, leaving only ashes. His ritual marchers return to their own rites of affirmation and celebration.

But the real Dionysus lives in the revenge he takes on his imitator. Hickey is revealed, not as Dionysus after all, but as Pentheus, this time doomed to care, to give a damn for the rest of his days. And Dionysus, in the final mockery, reappears in the maimed rite of the denizens of the bar, restoring the effect of the alcohol they drink. The ritual of muted revelry can continue.

Lear, by contrast, is bound upon his wheel of fire. He dies thinking he sees life in Cordelia yet, kicking against the pricks until the very end. He is most himself as father, as warrior, as king, in the noble affirmation of the life of justice. She should be alive. Younger eyes could see it. In the space between the “should” and the “is” is the abyss, the vision of the indifferent universe, an impenetrable darkness through which only Lear has had the strength to look. And he has survived. His heart is broken, his spirit is exhausted, but he has seen, and he has spoken. “Do you see this? Look on her! Look, her lips,/ Look there, look there”—and his light goes out. Is Lear’s search the mere illusion of a “foolish, fond old man,” or the final expression of a vision? It is, I think, the latter, because even in that extinction, the value which Lear struggled to see, to find, lives on, if only in the maimed rite of the survivors.

For Dionysus, the gap between darkness and light is the mystery of obedience in abandon. For the citizens of Thebes, for worshipers and skeptics alike, disaster waits. Salvation and destructionare mates, not opposites, alike involved in the round of capricious gods, of indifferent nature. Dionysus is the storm that sweeps over Thebes, flattening everything. The journey to the forest, the flute-led dance, is a journey to the mysteries, perhaps of healing, perhaps of destruction. Only the courageous, the Lears of this world, can pierce the obtuseness of such a devastating journey, cut off from human justice and understanding, with everything they value around them being destroyed.

Just such a flute-led dance is what we see in Lazarus Laughed. But as different as this dance is from the one in Iceman, the essence is clear. These are the rites of the comic procession, leading out not from corruption to health and peace, but from the trauma of death and loss, marching across the familiar landscape of devastation to the sacred place of resignation. In O’Neill’s plays, the aftermath is the essence, the maimed rite, the muted revelry, the echo of what might have been but never was, the holy vision rendered ashes in the mouth. This is assuaged only by the conviction that Lazarus proclaims, that indifference, Hickey’s ultimate high, is the closest we can come to fearlessness and deep joy.


1 Daniel Larner, “O’Neill’s Fear and Pity: The Dionysian Living Death,” The Eugene O’Neill Review, 23:1&2, 141-149.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 The Birth of Tragedy, in Robert W. Corrigan, Tragedy: Vision and Form, 446.

5 See Herbert Blau’s wonderfully illuminating essay called “The Clearest Gods”— the last chapter of his early book The Impossible Theatre (New York, 1964), especially pp. 289-291, about the cliff scene.

6 George Santayana, “The Tragic Mask,” in Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies.New York, 1922, 131-135.



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