Menu Bar


Editor: Harley Hammerman
St. Louis, Missouri

Volume 1


O’Neill’s American Precursors

Rupendra Guha Majumdar
Ramjas College, Delhi University

The literary precursor of a canonical writer is like a pioneer at the frontier of an emerging civilization. The former’s path is often fraught with unforeseen hazards and the indifference of an environment that considers him as anything but special. He upholds with daring independent objectives on his own terms. Thereby, he is prepared to face both the risks and the joys of exploring a territory that subsequent and more competent claimants would better nurture in the future.

The Latin word “precurro” refers to the person who has ventured before others, a forerunner who, perhaps, embodies the paradox of being a trendsetter without ceremony. In Aristotelian parlance the precursor would represent a protagonist who has only initiated the ‘beginning’ of a plot, and not attended to the ‘middle’ or the ‘end’ as well, as the primary hero is expected to. It is in this light I wish to consider the significance of William Vaughn Moody (1869-1910) and George Pierce Baker (1865-1935), as "precursors" of Eugene O'Neill at the dawn of modern American Drama.

In being what Moody and Baker were in their academic, intellectual and social roles, they gave the shape, albeit tentatively, to a discourse and a context of values of an evolving American drama that O’Neill, among others, was to invest with a mature and universal spirit. Moody and Baker both began their careers at Harvard as graduate editors of The Harvard Monthly and went on to hold professorships at the universities of Harvard or Yale or Chicago. The discourse and context that they helped to shape were supplemented rather than overwhelmed by a host of foreign influences that bordered on the anxieties of European, African and Oriental paradigms.

We need to qualify, thereby, Harold Bloom's contention that the emergence of Eugene O'Neill as an original playwright on the American stage was based mainly, if not entirely, on European influences:

It is an inevitable oddity that the principal American dramatist to date should have no American precursors.  Eugene O'Neill's art as a playwright owes most to Strindberg, and something crucial, though rather less, to Ibsen.  O'Neill's ancestry also has little to do with American tradition, with Emerson or William James or any other of our cultural speculators.

(Bloom, Introd., O’Neill’s  Long Day’s Journey, 3).

Bloom points to O'Neill's mentors, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud. And "even where American literary tradition was strongest, the novel and poetry", he says, O'Neill's models were Zola and Conrad, his poets were Rossetti and Swinburne.

Bloom’s observation about O’Neill’s absent precursor (the ‘praecurro manqué) in the American tradition, is obviously based on the popular viewpoint of considering canonical, rather than marginal, sources of influence.  Bloom's acknowledgement, in the same critical breath, that O'Neill also happens to be "the most American of our handful of playwrights who matter most" (Bloom, 3), does not resolve the apparent anomaly in any pragmatic way.  What does he mean by vindicating O'Neill's  ‘native’ identity in his works in a kind of abstract ("national") dimension, while attributing the achievement of his drama to a non-American tradition ("since there was no vital American drama before O'Neill")? What Bloom considers to be merely O’Neill’s “ambiguous relation to our literary past”, may perhaps be re-interpreted as a dynamic and pluralistic relation to that past. Keeping Bloom's rather equivocal observation regarding O’Neill’s emergence in mind, scrutiny is called for with respect to contemporary American, non-canonical resources.  Moody and Baker, are two such resources who embody, albeit modestly, the purpose, vitality and vision of modern drama with a new seriousness on the American stage during the first quarter of the twentieth century.


Searching instinctively for an archetypal precursor of O'Neill, while teaching Desire Under the Elms to graduate students over many years, I was discontented by the apparent stalwarts of the late nineteenth century American stage that I had come across. The list included James A. Herne, William Gillette, Clyde Fitch; the brood of talented actor-managers like Steele Mackaye, David Belasco, Henry Miller and even the redoubtable James O'Neill who exercised a strong dual influence on his son, comprising both love and alienation. But they seemed to belong to another, almost impalpable era of stagecraft.  I then came across the, truncated life and career of William Vaughn Moody, poet, academician, literary historian, traveler and playwright. In him I found someone who seemed worthy enough to be considered a serious experimenter of dramatic and poetic forms and one who could be said to anticipate O’Neill at the dawn of the twentieth century.

Deeply influenced by the Aeschylian classical canon, Moody like his successor O'Neill, moved in an arc toward a modern, ‘super-naturalistic’, indigenous theatre, through the mottled avenues of late nineteenth century French melodrama.  The seriousness of treatment of human relationships in Moody’s The Great Divide (1906), often considered "the first modern American drama" (Richard Moody, 727), marks simultaneously the last stage of that very dispensable, melodramatic tradition which O'Neill himself inherited to an extant while trenchantly disowning it. The play also registers the dawn of the traumatic, psychological drama that would inevitably find a voice in O'Neill, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Albee, Mamet and Shepard.  The new discourse is evident in Moody's progress from The Fire Bringer (1904) to The Great Divide.  From the exclusive, titanic figure of Prometheus, Moody shifts his attention to protagonists closer to homeStephen Ghent and his companion in expiation, Ruth Jordanwho emerge heroically from the Puritan darkness of their souls.  For O'Neill, a glimpse of such a transition can be seen between Lazarus Laughed (1927) and The Iceman Cometh (1939)—with the Dionysian patriarch Lazarus inversely incarnated as the Hickey the Iceman.  More than a decade before O'Neill, Moody sets the precedent in drama—as James Fenimore Cooper had executed in the novel—of a commitment to literary, historical and spiritual values on the American stage on American terms.

O'Neill always stressed the optimism implicit in the Greek vision of tragedy.  Therefore, it is not inappropriate to align him with Moody whom Frederick Conner views as the last important figure in American poetry to appear as "a bona fide cosmic optimist" in the Emersonian tradition. Yet that very streak of transcendental optimism undergoes a degree of qualification in Moody’s final plays and poems. He re-defines, like O’Neill after him, the individual’s equation with his god through the medium of an imminent moral struggle. We discover relative qualifications of Emersonian optimism in Melville on the one side of the American quest for salvation, and in Eugene O'Neill on the other: Ahab's tragic solipsism on the one side and James and Edmund Tyrone's confessional reckoning with life on the other.

Sculley Bradley sees Moody's plays as promising forerunners to the "modern symbolic drama of spiritual struggle in which romantic and realistic tendencies are blended" (Bradley, 1948).  To O'Neill, Strindberg's plays no doubt provided the tone for such dark encounters in a dance of death[1]; but, in these matters Moody too sets a precedent of sorts on home ground, treating the subjects of both human and metaphysical misalliances. The traumatic battle of the sexes often feature in O’Neill’s plays in modern and mythic terms. His depiction of the circumstances of desertion, forced marriage, incest, miscegenation, prostitution and adultery—conclude with complex and serious resolutions that may, perhaps, be traced to the stormy relationship of Ruth and Ghent in The Great Divide. The play portrays an unholy, frontier marriage of Heaven and Hell[2] that shocked the American public in 1906. O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms would do the same in 1924. Moody’s plot, based on a true story that was narrated to his wife Harriet by a friend, is an unconventional one. A young, ebullient woman, Ruth Jordan, rapt in the transcendent ideal of the Western frontier, is ironically compelled, for the sake of her survival, to identify with the violator of that ideal through the volitional act of consenting to her own abduction by the man who ‘saves’ her at a price. It is only after many trials that she, along with her partner in sin, can hope to return to a status of dignity as man and wife. The Puritan implications of a fateful, conscious, sinful living and necessary expiation that Hawthorne dealt with in The Scarlet Letter, finds a frontier footing in The Great Divide.

Moody often upheld the pragmatic transcendentalism of William James as a standard of rejuvenation in his own life.  Writing to Harriet about his play of spiritual struggle The Faith Healer, Moody writes: "I am re-reading Wm. James's wonderful book The Varieties of Religious Experience with a view to better understand my man Schlatka". He feels "already (a) sounder grip on (his) theme for studying them" (Letters To Harriet, 318).  Moody stresses on the Jamesian aspect of the autobiographical mode that sets the trend in relation to the search of a buried Christian God[3].  O'Neill was to execute that search over the course of his entire canon: from Bound East for Cardiff to A Moon for the Misbegotten in his rendering of the impulse of modern drama.  Moody talks about James's documents being "chiefly autobiographical", and which are spread out as he proceeds till "the mind gradually loses its resistance and is overwhelmed and confounded by the heaped up evidence"(318). We are reminded of Strindberg’s heaping up of evidence in Miss Julie (“this multiplicity of motives”; her fate being “the result of many circumstances”; Preface, 397) and of similar instances in O'Neill as well. 

Moody is able to perceive the dramatic process of self-discovery in the philosophy of Pragmatism advocated by James.  "In a nutshell", he writes Harriet in another letter, "there is no such thing as absolute truth, but that truth depends entirely upon the actual working values, or `fruits of life', of any given proposition"(323). Moody recalls the familiar Strindbergian metaphor of an explosion that triggered by the act of self-questioning reveals the truth. "It looks to me,” writes Moody, “like a very high explosive capable in the right hands of clearing away pretty much all the century old lumbar by which our lives are encumbered" (Letters To Harriet, 323).

Critical and explosive moments of being and becoming serve to exorciseas in O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Nightthe trapped, guilty soul crying out for succor.  Though Strindberg charted a trail in this regard, the American context too reveals pioneering encounters of dread in the works of William James and Moody, and earlier on, in that of Melville, Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe. It goes without saying that O'Neill was a product of that literary tradition, as well as of the European one he invoked so often.  Perhaps, O'Neill did that to reckon himself as an inalienable part of a global literary and theatre movement that replenished his being without subverting his individual prowess.


The validity of Moody and Baker as precursors of O'Neill in his immediate pastthe three constitute a triangle of sortsrests in their embodying an appropriate theatre context in American terms for the latter.  It would necessarily be a context that would anticipate the canon of O'Neill in a modern light, measuring the evolution of a tradition that is gradually realized in the struggles and affirmations of the champions of the genre.

Interestingly enough, a number of theatre and literary personalities, in brief but memorable ways, connect the lives of Moody and O'Neill across several decades. Their names may be worth recollecting. The actor-manager Henry Miller first played the role of Stephen Ghent to Margaret Anglin's Ruth Jordan. Their appeal made The Great Divide a box-office hit in 1906.  The Hapgood brothers, Hutchins and Norman were "great friends of William James" and of Moody.  Nazimova, the immigrant Russian actress who was initially promoted by Henry Miller and Margaret Anglin, set Broadway ablaze.  Hart Crane was a young protégé of Harriet Moody who brought him in touch with an international literary circle of writers like W.B. Yeats and Rabindranath Tagore.  Kenneth Macgowan was a student of George P. Baker at Harvard; and in a contemporary review of Moody's The Faith Healer in 1909, the former considered the protagonist, Ulrich Michaelis, to be "a character of great enough spiritual strength to utter the most poetical of language".  Above all, there was Baker himself who had estimated Moody above all the talented “Harvard” playwrights writing in the first decade of the century.

All of these people from Moody's world came into contact with O'Neill in significant ways.  While living in Bermuda, O’Neill corresponded with Henry Miller[4] in 1926 regarding the production of Marco Millions at Yale. Nazimova, as Christine Mannon in O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra, gave "a performance of haunting beauty" (Brooks Atkinson) in 1931. The Hapgoods, including Hutchins's wife, Neith Boyce (author of the play, Constancy) were to be actively involved with the inception in Cape Cod of the Provincetown Players, which formally launched O'Neill's career in 1915. Hart Crane became a close friend of Eugene and his wife Agnes Boulton in 1923,as a long correspondence between them reveals. O’Neill [5] played a major role in persuading Liveright to publish Crane’s first book of poems, White Buildings in 1926, but finally declined writing a Foreword to the volume as proposed by the publisher. Kenneth Macgowan, O'Neill and Robert Edmond Jones constituted the "triumvirate" of the Provincetown Players. And lastly, Professor George Pierce Baker, O'Neill's teacher who, through lectures (Sorbonne, 1907; Chicago, 1933) and published articles in the journals of Harvard (1909) and Yale (1926), upheld both Moody and O’Neill as the pillars of modern American drama. It would take another article to delineate the significance of the above encounters spread over a decade, with the two playwrights belonging to two separate generations. I mention them in passing to indicate their location in a certain phase of the American tradition that witnessed the passion of both Moody's and O'Neill's drama.

Like O’Neill, Moody was initially taken up by the “high” drama of classical Greece, especially the plays of Aeschylus. But again, like O’Neill, Moody was later to abandon the emulation of false gods, in preference to subjects and measures closer home.  Starting on the footsteps of earlier emulators of the Greek heroic paradigm, like Milton (Paradise Lost) and Shelley (Prometheus Unbound), Moody approaches the naturalistic theatre through the portals of nineteenth century melodrama.  Similarly, O'Neill follows the lead of Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy in the wake of Aeschylus and Euripides, before he can exorcise the ghosts of Monte Cristo.  Thus Moody, like his more effective and formidable successor O'Neill, is considered "a symbolical transition figure" (Lewisohn, 302) who bridges nineteenth century melodrama and the fledgling American stage with an unprecedented seriousness in the delineation of the New Man and the New Woman in tandem in American society.  For both Moody and O'Neill, the insensitive outcome of capitalistic enterprise is one of the main hurdles in the heroic quest of self-reliance.

Moody's works stand as "a classic example of this transition period" (Van Wyck Brooks, New England, Indian Summer, 1865-1915, p.510). He is justly regarded as "the symbolical transition figure between the polite age and the modern period in American culture" He was a mirror in which the youth of his day could provisionally view "the shape of the future" (Lewishohn, Expression in America, p.306). Despite the absence of a living theatre to inspire or to guide the emerging playwright, Moody was "the first American to attempt the serious prose play" (Lewisohn).  O'Neill would soon follow suit with Beyond the Horizon in 1920, often self-conscious, however, about the pitch and timbre of his prose, but making his point nonetheless through his earnest rhetoric of confession and compassion.

Critics have referred to those attributes of Moody, which seem to have a bearing on the traits of O'Neill. Robert Morss Lovett dwells upon Moody's "impulse to realism and the tendency to extend realism into symbolism"; Douglas Bush discusses Moody's "genuine vein of religious mysticism and a consciousness of his warfare between flesh and spirit"; F. O. Matthiessen discovers the ancient-mariner like quality of Moody's drama, which gradually draws the reader into its center[6].  The American and European precedents served by Moody and Strindberg respectively complement the maturation of the pattern of O'Neill's own theatre of spiritual and existential struggle.

Moody began his literary career on the stage expounding epic themes with religious bearings in a robust vein, endorsing the Greek, Hebraic and Christian contexts of belief.  He left at his death his poetic trilogy (The Fire Bringer, The Masque of Judgment, and The Death of Eve) in a state of incompleteness that parallels O'Neill's predicament regarding his own cycle of plays, By Way of Obit, with Hughie the lone survivor.  The Miltonic figure of Uriel who appears in Moody's poetic drama, The Masque of Judgmentand in the poetry of Emerson and Percy Mackaye[7]qualifies the radical purpose of justifying the ways of man to God.  This recalls not only Shelley's Prometheus, but also looks forward to O'Neill's traumatized heroes who represent his philosophy of exploring the "big subject behind all the little subjects". 

O'Neill discovers such a "big subject " with Aeschylian and modern myths interwoven in his imagination in the American Civil War in Mourning Becomes Electra; and also in the subject of the sea as a character in his early one-act plays  like Children of the Sea, later titled Bound East For Cardiff.  Moody too deals with the Civil War in his “Ode in the Time of Hesitation,” an elegiac poem about the heroic death of Colonel Robert Shaw[8] of the 54th Negro Regiment, a figure often eulogized in American poetry and art.  However, Moody's penchant for the "big subject" is fulfilled in his subscribing to the most American of themesthe western frontier. His treatment of the frontier metaphor in The Great Divide possesses a mythic quality reminiscent of the conflicting, though regenerative, bearings of the Greek figure of Dionysus who would ritualistically die to be reborn again and again. Such a treatment, symbolizing East-West cultural tensions within America at the turn of the century, also served as a context for both literal and metaphorical renderings of the subject of the frontier in drama in O’Neill’s plays—as in Beyond the Horizon. The writings of de Tocqueville, Emerson, Thoreau and Frederick Jackson Turner had invested the progress of the frontier with a quality that possessed the "solemnity of a providential event" (Ernest Marchand, “Emerson and the Frontier,”152) in a teleology of democracy. Symbolically, the “frontier” image was synonymous with the “horizon” in the sense that it paradoxically suggested both an end and a beginning. The "horizon" syndrome was a prevalent one in contemporary drama, as in Edward Sheldon's The High Road (1912).  The source of the plot of Beyond the Horizon is said to be an Irish play, Birthright by T. C. Murray, which O'Neill saw when it toured with the visiting Irish Abbey Theatre in 1911.  However, O'Neill's (American) modernity and conception of "frontier" heroism acquire an authentic identity and form when we place him in the tradition of The Great Divide of Moody whose works, along with those of Hauptmann, Clyde Fitch and Wedekind, we are informed by Louis Sheaffer, O'Neill "devoured"(259).

In his early Glencairn plays, the sea serves as the great frontier that is at times accosted by the protagonist at a severe costas in the instance of Captain Keeney (Ile) or Robert Mayo (Beyond the Horizon).  And if O’Neill’s delineation of the sea was influenced by his reading of Conrad and Melville (whom Bloom does not seem to refer to in this regard), then his conception of the western frontier and the conflicts it engenders in the terms of drama, may be attributed to his consciousness of American plays like The Great Divide which opened on Broadway in 1906 and ran in New York for two years.  O'Neill was then an undergraduate at Princeton.  It would be surprising if he missed seeing so controversial a play in his immediate intellectual vicinity. Indeed, Doris Alexander, cites O'Neill's response to the contemporary production: "The Great Divide is a fine play for two acts and then it falls to pieces because it has to end happily" (Alexander, 185).  With his critical viewpoint, O'Neill was no doubt placing Divide in the line of the nineteenth century tradition of James O'Neill's Monte Cristo[9], which, had both alienated and influenced him since childhood.

Similarly, O'Neill's criticism of Moody does not deter him from incorporatingunconsciously or otherwisewhat appears to be a number of the latter's stage `properties': images, words, names, perceptions.  We see, for instance, in Divide, Ruth Jordan romanticizing the notion of the Wild West ("a sublime abstractionof the glorious unfulfilledof the Westthe Desert") before being subjected to its dark influence in the shape of the three drunken tramps. Among them is Ghent, who "like some old Viking" carries her off into the wilderness.  Captain Keeney's wife Annie in O'Neill's one-act play “Ile”  (1916) similarly begins by romanticizing the frontier of the North Sea ("I used to dream of sailing on the great, wide, glorious ocean") as well as her megalomaniac, Ahab-like husband ("I was dreaming of the old Vikings of the story books and I thought you were one of them"; 546).  Nevertheless, unlike Ruth, Annie does not possess the depth of character to counter and assimilate the darker, disintegrating forces of the frontier.  The inevitable consequence of that failure is the latter's madnessheard through the crashing notes of the pianoas Keeney resolves to plunge further ahead to hunt whales for their oil, rather than turning back his ship as she had wanted.  Thus, O'Neill moves away from the kind of happy ending that he had censured in Moody's play, choosing rather to locate himself somewhere between melodrama and tragedy.

The title[10] of O'Neill's first full-length play, Beyond the Horizon echoes conceptually that of Moody's The Great Divide. It signifies a metaphorical impasse or extremity (the Great Divide), which serves as the occasion, the context for transcendence. The respective heroines share the same nameRuth.  The correspondence of the titles of these two plays become evident indirectly through the title of O'Neill's poem "Beyond The Great Divide" (1915) in which the word "Beyond" has been prefixed to the Moody title; and later on that same title is replaced by "the Horizon". O’Neill’s poem embodies the tension of frontier optimism in relation to a repressive, Puritan, New England heritage.

Warm lips against which mine have kissed and sighed
Grey, gold-flecked eyes which fear to see the goal,
Cold pulse?  I hear the breathing of your soul.
A passionate sob of heart unsatisfied.
Awake, O sleeping Princess!  Side by side
Onward with me to win the highest dream!
On where the watch fires of the Future gleam
Where life is real
beyond The Great Divide!

(Eugene O’Neill, “Beyond the Great Divide”, 77)

The mood in the poem is quite reminiscent of the last scene of mutual self-discovery achieved by Ruth and Ghent in The Great Divide.

O'Neill's first vaudeville skit A Wife for a Life (1913) also reveals remarkable parallels with Divide in terms of setting, circumstances, argument, imagery, character types, psychological anxieties of the characters, the idea of a moral triumph overcoming despair.  Both plays are set in the great Arizona desert with their male heroes owning gold mines (called “Verde” and “Yevette” respectively) which emblematically counterpoint the deeper, buried meanings in life that they are trying to fathom. In both plays a forced unnatural ‘marriage’/union in the initial stages, results in alienation followed by expiation and transcendence. Even if all these are sheer coincidenceswhich I somehow doubt—they indicate the correspondence of an established dramatic tradition.

The Great Divide can be said to anticipate in a serious light the traumatic, triangular relationships of several of O’Neill’s plays—the idea of two men involved with the life of one woman, as in Beyond the Horizon and Desire Under the Elms. In Divide, the notion of “two” men acquires a symbolic polarity of meaning that can gain significance in the terms of subsequent developments of modern American drama, as in Expressionism. On the one hand there is the dramatic conflict of the pale East (Winthrop) and the explosive West (Ghent), as the title suggests. On the other, hand we witness the two manifestations of Ghent himself—the savage in the beginning, and later, sharing a mutual emancipation and love with a new kind of woman in the context of orthodox tenets which are also exorcised. Such a splitting and re-aligning of characters through a dynamic antinomy of values and perceptions, suggests a precedent for O’Neill’s treatment of masks in plays like The Great God Brown and All God’s Chillun Got Wings.

O'Neill shares Moody's skepticism regarding American materialism, his feelings toward the subject often being expressed in his interviews and in plays like Marco Millions, The Hairy Ape and The Iceman Cometh. O’Neill’s attempt in Dynamo to view the daemon of Electricity through the image of an impersonal icon, the dynamo, and his lament at “the death of the old God and the failure of science and materialism to give any satisfying new one for the surviving primitive instinct to find a meaning of life in”, recalls Moody’s point of view. The latter’s poem, ”The Brute”, which portrays the machine as a monster: “Quietude and loveliness/ Holy sights that heal and bless/They are scattered and abolished where his iron hoof is set”. Nevertheless, Moody with his measured optimism envisions a metamorphosis of “the Brute” into a benefactor of mankind, reminiscent of the metamorphosis of the vengeful Furies into the benevolent Eumenides at the end of Aeschylus’s The Eumenides.  It is a prospect of compassion that O'Neill deeply endorsed in his quest to " dig at the roots of the sickness of today".

Both Moody and O’Neill qualify the issue of anti-materialism in a number of related themes through the use of metaphor and dramatic idiom: saintliness or a counterpoint of the lapses of the temporal world; a phobia of persecution by an evangelical order—the Hound of Heaven; a resultant confessional mode of self-analysis employed by both playwrights regarding their protagonists. It is perhaps not surprising to discover that both of them were involved with both Coleridge's "The Ancient Mariner" and Francis Thompson's "The Hound of Heaven."  The former poem was edited by Moody for the Lake English Classic series in 1897, and adapted by O'Neill for the Provincetown Players in 1924.  Regarding "The Hound", we know how much O'Neill loved to recite it in his forays to the Hell Hole.  And Moody, years earlier, embodied the spirit of the poem to such an extent in his own works that Francis Thompson, Moody’s contemporary, once described the Chicago poet as, "the man in America who writes like me"[11].

Thematically, both the poems dwell upon the dark accountability of the soul.  We observe the embodiment of such anxieties in the purgatorial lives of Ruth and Ghent in The Great Divide, in those of Edmund and James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Hickey in The Iceman Cometh, and Josie Hogan in A Moon for the Misbegotten.  The acute, confessional narrative on the modern American stage progresses through the plays of Moody and O'Neill towards a cathartic moment of compassion and calm after all passions are spent.

In The Faith Healer Moody entered the (William) Jamesian discourse of the values of saintliness and the “Sick Soul”, that he had discovered in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902).  The play dramatizes the ritualistic rejuvenation of faith; and at one point, deals with the raising from the dead, a boy called Lazarus in an American setting.  O'Neill on another plane follows the path of Nietzsche in treating a similar theme in Lazarus Laughed.  In Long Day’s Journey, Mary recalls her crucial talk with Sister Elizabeth, “a saint on earth”, whose vocation as a nun she would have followed had she not fallen in love with James Tyrone at that critical juncture in her life. The related themes of sickness, both physical and spiritual, and nature's potential in healing through the will to believe, find an empirical grounding in the lives and works of both the playwrights.

We come to realize that the soul, like the body (including the ‘body’ of society), seeks compensation when it is most afflicted with sickness and the “disease” that William James attributes to universal evil. His advocacy of a pluralistic philosophy in Varieties directs the “rational being” to “settle his scores with the more evil aspects of the universe” by systematically declining “to lay them to heart”, by “ignoring them in his relative calculations or even, on occasion, by denying outright that they exist” (“The Sick Soul,”112). The tension which emerges through the two antagonistic dimensionsthe “disease” of evil in the universe, and the human will to counter it in an “act for righteousness”—is manifested in the drama of both Moody and O’Neill. The stoical, self-conscious or guilty response to disease, and the consequences thereof, preoccupy the energies of their theatre. Moody’s short life, in its last stages, revolved around the irreparable ailments of his wife Harriet and of himself, till he finally succumbed to a brain tumor at the age of forty one. O’Neill’s condition swung from tuberculosis at twenty five to Parkinson’s at sixty, while he witnessed the drug addiction of his mother Ella (caused, ostensibly, by his own difficult birth), the alcoholism of Jamie and the psychic despair of both his sons, Shane and Eugene, Jr.

In the final throes of his soul's sickness, James Tyrone reveals his self to his younger son Edmund in Long Day's Journey. "I have never admitted this to anyone before, lad,” he confesses;  “but tonight I'm so heartsick I feel at the end of everything, and what is the use of fake pride and pretence...That God-damned play I bought for a song and made such a great success ina money successit ruined me with its promise of an easy fortune.  I didn't want to do anything else, and by the time I woke up to the fact I'd become a slave to the damned thing"(149).  And like Willy Loman on his last day of life in Death of A Salesman, troubled about all the “seeds” that he had not planted in his back yard, James Tyrone tries to guiltily fathom the worth of the "money success" for which he had sacrificed his true artistic self. "No, I don't know what the hell it was I wanted to buy" (151), he mutters to himself, a hero dispossessed of his myriad treasures. 

It was that same talented and forceful actor in real life that Moody had praised in a letter to Harriet: "I have promised to Percy to go with him tonight to see the husky old romantic actor, James O'Neill do the husky old play Virginius, resurrected from the ashes wherein our fathers saw it entombed" (Letters to Harriet, 339).  Such a conceptual, Lazarus-like raising from the dead by James O'Neill of an American stage tradition needing succor, symbolically represented the ritual of renewal that both Moody and O'Neill, in their own ways, endeavored to realize in actual terms.


William Vaughn Moody's innovative, though brief, career on the American stage in the first decade of the new century is complimented by the meditative, visionary qualities of Professor George Pierce Baker.  The latter was responsible, in a very fundamental way, in nurturing both a critical, as well as, an artistic context for the vindication of an independent, native theatre milieu and a modern discourse of drama.  Significantly, he has been sometimes viewed as "the father of American playwrights" (Sheaffer, O’Neill: Son And Playwright, 294).

Senior to Moody (class of '93) by six years as a Harvard alumnus and a member of the English faculty for thirty-six years, Baker (class of '87) migrated, in 1925 under duress to Yale where he founded the Yale School of Drama with the help of the million-dollar endowment of Edward Harkness.  Baker fulfilled the role of a pioneering spokesman and legislator of the American drama, academically as well as in the ubiquitous terms of the stage itself, through the various manifestations of successful playwrights, stage technicians, actors and actresses whom he had groomed in his lifetime.  His influence, recalls his student Louise W. Bray passed "like a kind of Olympic torch from person to person and from place to place across the country for more than half a century" (Radcliffe Quarterly, 11). The scenario is evident in the two "Baker Maps" issued by Theatre Arts magazine in 1925 marking the vast geographical reach of his influence on the American theatre landscape. The list is a long and impressive one: Edward Sheldon, Sidney Howard, Eugene O'Neill, Theresa Helburn, Frederick H. Koch, John Mason Brown, Kenneth Macgowanto name a few. However, the significance of Baker was not merely that of an isolated figure of influence. Because in many ways he took the trouble of building a school of drama criticism which would objectively endorse the original talents of new playwrights like Moody on the one hand and O’Neill on the other.

It is significant that when O'Neill consciously decided to enter a career of drama in 1914, he wrote to Prof. Baker for a formal initiation into the field beyond the ambiguous domain of his own actor-father and even that of the contemporary European stage. Thereafter, O'Neill found a place in Baker's popular playwriting course, Workshop 47, at Harvard.  In his letter, dated July 14, O'Neill declared: "Although I have read all the modern plays I could lay my hands on, and many books on the subject of Drama, I realize how inadequate such a haphazard, undirected mode of study must necessarily be. With my present training I might hope to become a mediocre, journey-man (sic) playwright. It is just because I want to be an artist or nothing that I am writing to you" (Selected Letters, 26). Almost four decades later in Long Days Journey Into Night, O’Neill dramatizes the converse, tragic aspect of his youthful commitment to the artistic Muse through the character of James Tyrone, biographically his stage-father: "I'd be willing to have no home but the poorhouse in my old age if I could look back now on having been the fine artist I might have been" (151).

The ‘Workshop 47’, implemented in 1912, was the progeny of Baker’s earlier playwriting course, English 47, which he had introduced into the Harvard English curriculum in 1906, the year Moody’s The Great Divide premiered on Broadway. Moody had started gaining prominence as a lyrical poet during his Harvard years from 1889 to 1895. In the month of October 1900 he, as his class poet, read out his Anniversary Ode (published in The Harvard Monthly) on the 125th anniversary of George Washington taking command of the American Army. Years later, for the 200th anniversary of Washington’s birth in 1932 Baker, as an acknowledged expert on pageants, was called upon by the United States Commission for the celebration, headed by President Coolidge himself, to perform on a much larger scale. Washington, a major cultural icon in the liberal and republican traditions of the country, thus engages the poetic imagination of both Moody and Baker (and other well-known writers like Percy Mackaye and W.E.B. Dubois) within the process of a developing American mythology. (William Blake had buoyantly endorsed that mythology in his poem, “America: A Prophesy” in 1793). It is the late 18th century, the parturient era of Washington’s Presidency and a new-found freedom from the British yoke which serves as the ironic setting for the beginning of O’Neill’s most ambitious, though unfinished, eleven-play cycle, “A Tale of Possessors Self- Dispossessed”, a story of decadence and the Harford family. Moody's contributions to the stage, along with those of his colleagues, Percy Mackaye, Edward Sheldon and Allan Davis, drew the interest of Baker who was attempting to establish, in his own way, a critical discourse of the modern American theatre. Referring to these writers, Baker published his article, "A Group of Harvard Dramatists" in the Harvard Graduate Magazine in June 1909. Two years earlier he had delivered a lecture on  "The American Theatre Poets"Moody, Mackaye and Josephine P. Peabody of Radcliffeat the University of Sorbonne in Paris.  In tune with Baker's assessment of these moderns, especially of Moody, Yale University formally acknowledged Moody's contributions to the stage by conferring an honorary D. Litt. Degree on him in 1908,anticipating a similar honor to O'Neill eighteen years later.

In his 1909 article, Baker depicts the circumstances of "the gradual growth of a truer idea of what the drama is" in the national context in which the public evinced a unique response to "an offering of plays on American life by American writers" (599). Baker cites the innovative, "literary" viewpoint of Percy Mackaye who had sought a new poetic drama that could give scope for "a fresh imagining and an original utterance of modern motives which are as yet unimagined and unexpressed" (602).  That Baker himself formed the inspiration for such a pristine yet real utterance for his students, becomes evident in Mackaye's poem addressed to him in 1909, in which the depleted hope for the contemporary theatre is "restored/By our own Baker".           

Baker writes about the serious, alarming qualities of Moody's The Great Divide and The Faith Healer. Both plays embody a drama that is "simulative of thought about certain phases of American life and which reveal situations" from which "our stage even a decade ago would have shrunk in timid trembling" (“Harvard Dramatists,” 603)[12]. Noting that Moody has "the courage of his convictions", Baker makes the prediction regarding the future potential of the American playwright that Eugene O'Neill, rather than the former, was to fulfill a decade later: "Already, Mr. Moody is the foremost of our dramatists. If he at all fulfils his promise, he will be one of those who will vindicate the right of our nascent drama to be placed side by side with the continental so far as thoughtful yet dramatic consideration of subtle problems of modern life is concerned" (603).

Moody's premature death on 17 October 1910, forestalled that dream, with only four and a half plays and a large collection of lyrical poems to his credit .It was Percy Mackaye who a day after the former's death, wrote to Prof. Baker with the proposal for a Memorial Theatre at Cambridge, Massachusetts, to be known as “The Harvard Theatre” in Moody's memory. The plan was "to make perennial the inspiration of his significant work and life by correlating it permanently with the forces of dramatic renascence in our country today and tomorrow" (Annals of An Era, 146).  Mackaye's dream of an endowed theatre at Harvard in the memory of Moody came to naught.  However, the dream was partially resurrected—that is, without Moody's name attached to it—in the creation of the Yale School of Drama through Baker’s vision and spirit. Mackaye paid his tribute to the memory of Moody in his stirring elegy "Uriel".  Baker, years later, in a less impassioned vein, paid his compliments in his commissioned lecture, "A Retrospect of The Theatre", for the William Vaughn Moody Foundation at Chicago University in May 1933[13].

Shortly after he began his duties as Director of the Drama School at Yale, Baker was invited by Wilbur Cross, the editor of The Yale Review (which had carried an article on Moody by Charlton M. Lewis in July, 1913) to state his critical opinion regarding the value of O'Neill's works "and the direction in which it (was) moving" (November 13, 1925).  The article was published in July 1926.  Later on, O’Neill’s publisher, Horace Liveright, informed Baker that he was sending a copy of the Review containing the latter's essay to O'Neill, and thanked him for creating the appropriate critical atmosphere for "helping to weave the aura of sensitive appreciation about an artist's work that is at once his sincerest appreciation and his greatest stimulus" (June 14,1926). In 1909 Baker had expressed his hopes that Moody would bear the weight of the international credibility of American drama on his shoulders.  Yet, such hopes would only be realized in the ongoing evolution of O’Neill as a dramatist in the Twenties and the Thirties.

In his assessment of O'Neill's works in The Yale Review, Baker observes: "Eugene O'Neill today is the best known in other countries of all our dramatists. Vienna, Prague, Dresden, Berlin, Paris, London, Romeall the capitals of Europe have seen his finest plays" (“O’Neill’s First Decade,”792). Corresponding to that universal recognition of O'Neill as a playwright envisioned by Baker, Yale University conferred its prestigious D. Litt. Degree[14] on O’Neill in 1926 as Moody had been honored in 1908. Yale seemed to manifest, Baker felt in his letter to O'Neill on the eve of the ceremony, the new liberal tradition in the art of writing that O'Neill had apparently embodied: "Nothing could be more clearly proof of the new Yale that has been developing here in the last dozen years than the recognition of your work" (May 5,1926).

O’Neill did not hesitate to acknowledge Baker's influence on his own work: "I felt that, although Yale may have had the matter under consideration before you came there, still it should now, in all justice, be part of their intent to honor you through one of your students" (May 21, 1926). The full-length play that O'Neill had written for Baker's course titled, The Personal Equation, had revealed clear autobiographical elements of a son's fantasies regarding the talented father who would fail to achieve the eminence that he deserved; and regarding the mother whom he inevitably sought in all the women he wished to marry. Both these drives would achieve a mature dramatic form much later in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. To a viable extent, Baker fulfills the image and redeeming role of the father figure, the giver of hope, which James O’Neill could not achieve in Eugene’s eyes.

More than just the direct theoretical influence of Baker on O'Neill, we observe the former's influence on the establishment of a contemporary critical approach to his works, an approach that would help implement an atmosphere conducive to the appreciation of a vital modern theatre. O'Neill deeply appreciated this imaginative mediation by Baker, as he had done to others like Barrett Clark[15], also a close friend and confidante.  Clark’s book Eugene O’Neill: The Man And His Plays (1929) was, perhaps, the first, full-length, American study on the playwright in relation to both national and international theatre scenarios between the two World Wars. Baker's endeavors to establish such a context of perception had begun, not with the advent of O'Neill in the Twenties, but tentatively with that of William Vaughn Moody and his contemporaries at Harvard and Radcliffe a decade earlier. Baker qualified his quest for a homegrown, but modern, master builder on the American stage by consistently upholding O’Neill and his plays as a standard of excellence worthy of national and international acclaim. Baker could estimate, even before O’Neill received the Nobel Prize in 1935 that the latter’s reputation and maturity as a playwright corresponded with the coming of age of American drama.

After Baker's death in 1935, O'Neill wrote about the "dark age" of American stage history, when the theatre was for playwrights "still the closed shop, star-system, amusement racket" and when the few people who had had the "privilege" to be closely associated with Baker could realize the "profound influence" that he "asserted toward the encouragement and birth of modern drama" (New York Times, 1). Though O'Neill does not specify the actual embodiments of Baker's influence in his own work, he does refer to its presence in more ideal terms. In a letter to the recently widowed Mrs. Baker, O'Neill expresses his gratitude to his erstwhile teacher, and speaks about "the greatest gift one human being can give anotherthe courage to believe in his work and go ona gift which Mr. Baker gave to me, as he did to many others" (Jan. 20, 1935).

The playwright as faith healer in the modern American jungle of skyscrapers and screeching sirens—this is the role and the objective that Moody, Baker and O’Neill attempt to vindicate. Whether Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Strindberg, et al of the European connection feature predominantly in O’Neill’s quest without any involvement from the likes of "Emerson, William James or any other of our (American) cultural speculators"[16], is a question which I would wish to submit to Professor Harold Bloom for a renewed appraisal of the nature and extent of O’Neill’s inheritance in modern times.


[1]  Moody himself learnt a lot from the Swedish playwright. In a letter to Harriet in 1906 he writes about his recommendation of the reading of Strindberg to Josephine Peabody.

[2]  Ref. William Chislett, Jr. “William Vaughn Moody and William Blake, The Dial, Vol. LIX, December 1915: “Moody’s satire and passion correspond to Blake’s war on historical Christianity, and his exaltation of Imagination…He wished good and evil to contend with one another that good might be exercised, and triumph” (p.142).

[3]  Moody to Harriet: “Not that James has a thesis to prove. He merely investigates and compares; but the conviction which emerges, that there is a living divine spirit at work in the world by evading which we are lessened and by receiving increased, seem at least inescapable” (Letters to Harriet, 319).

[4]  Miller died suddenly on 9th April 1926, a fact that O’Neill, then living in Bermuda, was not aware of up to September, and was looking forward to meeting him regarding the production of Marco Millions, as his correspondence with George Baker (11th September, 1926) mysteriously indicates.

[5]  Writing to Crane, O’Neill explains: “I’ve never felt I was the right one to do that introduction.” (Belgrade Lakes/Maine, August 21, 1926)

[6]  O. P. Matthiessen, in “William Vaughn Moody: The Responsibilities of the Critic”(1952), remarks: The deeper one penetrates into Moody’s work, the more one becomes interested in his ideas.”

[7]  Mackaye identifies Moody with the Miltonic icon in his elegy Uriel, composed immediately after the latter’s death at Colorado Springs in April 1910. Emerson too had composed a poem on Uriel, underscoring his own anxieties with the Miltonic idiom that bordered on the tragic:” A sad self-knowledge, withering, fell/ On the beauty of Uriel.” In George F. Whicher, ed. Poetry of the New England Renaissance, 60. Ref. George F. Sensabaugh’s Milton in Early America (New York: Gordon Press, 1979); and Kevin Von Anglen’s, “Emerson, Milton and the Fall of Uriel”, ESQ, 30 (1984).

[8]  Col. Robert Gould Shaw, following his death during the storming of Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863 at the head of his Negro regiment, took on the mantle of an ‘archetypal’ hero (like Uriel) in a modern, literary setting, inspiring poetical tributes from a host of American poets like Emerson, James Russell Lowell, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Percy Mackaye, Robert Lowell, Berryman, and of course, Moody. At the installation in Boston Commons in 1897 of the bronze monument to Shaw, sculpted by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, William James delivered the formal speech; and later on he wrote his brother Henry James about “poor little Robert Shaw erected into a great symbol of deeper things than he ever realized himself.” (June 5, 1897).

[9] James had bought from John Stetson the rights to the Dumas dramatization which was based on the stage-play by Charles Fechter, subsequently referred to as “James O’Neill’s Version of Monte Cristo”.

[10]  The title of O’Neill’s one-act, vaudeville skit, A Wife for a Life (1913), also literally echoes the trying circumstances of Ruth and Ghent in Moody’s The Great Divide (1906). Faced with the prospect of certain rape by three wild men, Ruth barters for her life/dignity with one of them, Gent, with the promise of becoming his “wife” if he saves her. The deal is clinched. In O’Neill’s skit, the Old Man, given up for dead by his long separated wife, realizes that the Younger Man, the present contender for her love, is also the same person who had saved his life from drowning many years ago. Following an initial bout of jealousy, he decides to tacitly relinquish his own claim to the woman so that the young couple may be happily married. Thus the Younger Man gets a wife for a life he had salvaged once upon a time.

[11]  Thompson made the inquiry to Professor Sophie C. Hart of Wellesley College. Quoted in Lovett’s Introduction to William Vaughn Moody’s Selected Poems (1931), p. lxix.

[12]  Baker’s comment echoes Moody’s own assessment, expressed in a letter to Harriet, regarding   the controversial critical responses to the first production of The Great Divide: “The meat we are trying to get them to taste is too strong for them” (Sept. 26,1906). 

[13]  The Moody Lecture featured as the annual event of the William Vaughn Moody Foundation at Chicago University in the 1930s. Baker, then the Director of the Drama Dept. at Yale, was designated as the honored speaker for the occasion in 1933. In his correspondence with James M. Stifler of the Foundation, Baker explained that his choice of the subject would give him the chance “to say something of the theatre conditions” which he had “watched changing during the last forty-five years”(23rd February, 1933; ‘George Pierce Baker Collection’, Yale University Library).

[14]  The D. Litt. Citation honored O’Neill as a “creative contributor of new and moving forms to one of the oldest of the arts, as the first American playwright to receive both wide and serious recognition upon the stage of Europe.” Quoted in Barrett H. Clark, Eugene O’Neill: The Man And His Plays (1929), p.55. In his correspondence with Clark (May 29,1929), O’Neill discusses the productions of his plays across Europe, in Russia and even in Japan; and refers to the critical assessments of “prominent literary men of different countries”, like “ Molnar, Lenormand, Thomas Mann,” regarding his plays (‘Barrett H.  Clark Collection’, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University).

[15]  In a letter to Clark (November 15,1932), O’Neill writes: “I got to considering how much you had done for the American playwright—myself among others…Certainly we all, who are worth our salt, owe you a tremendous debt of gratitude for your unselfish help and encouragement of your fine devotion to the ideals of a self-respecting and respected American drama.”(‘Barrett H. Clark Collection’, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University).

[16]  Harold Bloom, Introduction to Long Day’s Journey Into Night, p.3


Aeschylus. The Eumenides. In The Orestes Plays of Aeschylus. Tr. Paul Roche. New York: Mentor, 1963.

Alexander, Doris. The Tempering of Eugene O'Neill. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962.

Baker, George Pierce. "A Group of Harvard Dramatists", Harvard Graduates’ Magazine, Vol.17, June 1909.

——.  "William Vaughn Moody", Harvard Graduates’ Monthly, Dec. 1910."   

——.  "O'Neill's First Decade", The Yale Review, Vol. 15, No. 4 (July 1926), 789-792.

Bloom, Harold. “Introduction” to Eugene O'Neill's Long Days Journey Into Night.  New Haven: Chelsea House, 1987, 3-7.

Bogard, Travis and Jackson Bryer. Ed.  Selected Letters of Eugene O'Neill. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.

Bradley, Sculley.  "The Emergence of Modern Drama" in Literary History of the United States, Ed. Robert Spiller. Macmillan, 1948, 1013-1015.

Bray, Louis W. "A Long Look Backward" Radcliffe Quarterly, February 1961, 11.

Brooks, Van Wyck. New England: Indian Summer, 1865-1915, New York: E. P. Dutton, 1940, p.510.

Bush, Douglas. Mythology and the Romantic Tradition in English Literature. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1937, 493-497.

Conner, Frederick. Cosmic Optimism. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1949. 314-331.

James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Modern Library, 1939.

Krutch, Joseph Wood. The American Drama Since 1918. New York: Random House, 1939.

Lewis, Charlton M. "William Vaughn Moody". The Yale Review. Vol. 2, July 1913. 688-703.

Lewisohn, Ludwig.  Expression in America. New York: Harper, 1932.  302-309.

Lovett , Robert Morss. Ed. with Introduction. The Selected Poems of William Vaughn  Moody.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1931.

Mackaye, Percy. The Sistine Eve, Poems. New York: Macmillan, 1909; 1915.

——.  “Annals of an Era: Percy Mackaye and the Mackaye Family: 1826-1932”, ed., Edwin Osgood Grover.  Sterling Library Archives, Yale University.

Marchand, Ernest. “Emerson and the Frontier.” American Literature, Vol. 3, 1931, 149-174.

Matthiessen , F. O., "William Vaughn Moody" in The Responsibility of the Critic. Oxford University Press, 1952, 93-97.

Moody, William Vaughn. Letters to Harriet. Ed. Percy Mackaye. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1935.

——. Ed. Samuel T. Coleridge’s, “The Ancient Mariner,” Chicago: Lake English Classics, 1897.

O'Neill, Eugene. Stage Adaptation of Coleridge’s “The Ancient Mariner” in Travis Bogard, ed. The Unknown O'Neill. Yale University Press, 1988.

 ——. Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Yale University Press, 1956.

 ——. "George Pierce Baker". New York Times, 13 January 1935, section 9, p.1.

 ——. Poems: 1912-1942. Ed. Donald C. Gallup. New Haven: Yale University Library, 1979.

 ——. “A Wife for a Life”. In Ten Lost Plays by Eugene O’Neill. New York: Random House, 1964.

Sheaffer, Louis. O'Neill: Son and Playwright. London: J. M. Dent, 1968.



© Copyright 1999-2011