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Editor: Harley Hammerman
St. Louis, Missouri

Volume 6


Experiencing the Community:
Eugene O'Neill's Ambivalent
Response to Bohemian Utopia

Gwenola Le Bastard
University of Rennes, France

I. Context: Experiencing the Bohemian Community


O'Neill's early plays bear witness to the very specific cultural, social, artistic, but also communal context in which they were born. More than any other period in his career, the teens reflect the possibility for O'Neill to find a community with which he could share ideals and thoughts regarding the future of American theater. I would like to focus on the teens in particular for they seem to best emphasize the plays which were written in the amateur and utopian spirit of the Provincetown Players. The teens also correspond to the so called little renaissance, also referred to as the « joyous season » which took place from about 1910 to 1919. O'Neill's early plays were then the product of this careless and enthusiastic period during which he absorbed the bohemian principles of the Provincetown Players. I intend to emphasize two major aspects: the social context of Greenwich Village, a true Mecca for Village bohemians, and deriving from bohemia, the notion of community, which points to a unique literary and social context in the scope of O'Neill's career.


Most bohemian artists and intellectuals in Greenwich Village originally came from the middle class and sought in the Village a community in which they could escape the norms and rigidity of the bourgeois model, and where they could be the true heirs of a new order. To the restrictions and inhibitions of the social background with which they found themselves in conflict, they could oppose the Village, synonym of freedom of thought and behavior. In this respect, Joseph Freeman accounts for the boundless promises offered by the Village:

From these fantastic rebellions and sentimental utopias, you turned to Greenwich Village. In the Village, they said, things were different. For years we had heard of that happy island of “free unions” – where true feeling was unhampered by convention, greed, fear, hypocrisy, career, marriage, money or sense of guilt. (…) These people, self-exiled to the fringe of society, had a utopian colony which mirrored the future life of men and women, equal in every respect, free to express their highest aspirations.[1]

Accordingly, the Provincetown Players which constituted, after Jig Cook's formula « a beloved community of life givers », embraced the communal ideal conceived in the Village bohemia. Designated as rebels, Village bohemians expressed their taste for the revolution, be it formal, aesthetic or social and political. Art and social revolt then became inextricably linked and village artists turned to revolutionary forms, forms of dissent both aesthetic and political. In this perspective Daniel Aaron in Writers on the Left illustrates the way art and politics were intimately connected and provides an insightful analogy. Relating the enthusiasm in 1913 for both the New York Armory Show and the strike of the textile workers in Paterson, he says that: “Each in its way signified revolutionary protest and combined politics and art.”[2]


As for the Provincetown Players, one can establish a link between the attraction for political and social revolutions epitomized for instance by John Reed and Louise Bryant who witnessed the Bolshevik revolution, and the revolution in forms which appeared for example in the characteristic one-act form emblematic of the Provincetown Players' aesthetics.


Inheritors of Emerson and Whitman, and following Whitman's declaration in Democratic Vistas, that art should be eligible to the masses, they intended to negate the commercial values of the Broadway system. In keeping with the bohemian communal ideal, the Provincetown plays thus mirrored themes and subjects dear to the bohemian villagers such as free love vs marriage, birth control, feminism, or radical issues and class struggle.


The purpose of this paper is to show how the plays written by O'Neill in the teens reflect this communal ideal and to what extent they contradict it. To do so, I will refer to three early plays Bread and Butter (1914), Now I Ask You (1917) and The personal Equation (1915). I would like to argue that each play follows the same pattern, as they all seem to first integrate bohemian principles (the artist's life in bohemia, free union and radical lectures, or revolutionary struggle), to finally invalidate them. I will explore these three plays while dealing with three main themes: the artist in bohemia, free love as opposed to marriage, and the phenomenon of down classing.


II. Bohemia, Bread and Butter (1914)


Bread and Butter, with its undertones recalling La Bohème by Henri Murger, exemplifies how the bohemian milieu participated in the creation of a social background for the play. With the rare exceptions of Now I Ask You or Before Breakfast, no other plays in the early period strictly used bohemia as setting and subject matter. Here O'Neill portrays the bohemian artist in Greenwich Village and incorporates the idiosyncrasies of the bohemian lifestyle, such as the neglected appearance, loose morals and alcohol, women and freedom from conventions. The strict, self-disciplined bourgeois model thus serves to antagonize the decadent archetype. Antagonism between bourgeois and bohemian paradigms is phrased by Northrop Frye in The Modern Century.

The artist explores forbidden or disapproved modes of life in both imagination and experience. The square, the man who lives by the social contract, takes the public appearance of society to be, for him, its reality. Hence his obsessive tendency to appear in public clean, clothed, sober and accompanied by his wife. The artist may symbolize a more intensely imaginative community through dirt or slovenliness, lousifying himself as much as possible, as Rimbaud remarked, or through more openly acknowledged forms of sexual relationship outside marriage.[3]

At the beginning of the play, bohemia is presented as the only way for John to cultivate his art and grow artistically mature. However far from providing a fertile environment, bohemia soon consumes the artist’s resources. In fact, without his father’s financial support, John finally exhausts his own inspiration and drains his potential altogether. Here the promises of the Village are counterbalanced by materialistic considerations. John's determination is soon played out and this is to be observed through the evolution from act 1, when John declares “I wish to become an artist” – which  incidentally echoes the author himself who wrote in a letter to Beatrice Ashe in 1914, “I will be an artist or nothing”[4] – to act 3 when John admits that ,

“something is like a dead weight inside me – no more imagination, no more joy in creating,  – only a great sickness and lassitude of soul, a desire to drink, to do anything to get out of myself and forget”.

My intent is to argue that this progression could be read as a significant passage from rebellion and utopia to a significant form of dystopia, which is also manifest in the two other plays.


In this perspective, O’Neill’s depiction of Bohemia where the penniless artist finds himself estranged from his initial desire to devote his life to art, constitutes a reverse image of the declaration of independence expressed by John Reed in The Day in Bohemia or Life Among the Artists.:

Yet we are free who live in Washington Square,
We dare to think as Uptown wouldn't dare,
Blazing our nights with arguments uproarious;
What care we for a dull old world censorious
When each is sure he'll fashion something glorious?

While Reed formulates a eulogy of freedom in bohemia, O’Neill’s play focuses on the tension between the original community (the middle-class) and the new, adoptive community (the marginal community of artists). O’Neill dramatizes an impossible compromise involving ideals that the protagonist can neither fully embrace nor entirely renounce. Therefore contrary to other Provincetowners such as Reed, O’Neill’s affirmation of bohemia’s principles is toned down by a less enthusiastic and fervent discourse, which seems to reflect his own dilemma: the tension between two communities, and the conflict between utopian community and mainstream order.


III. Marriage vs Free Union Now I ask you (1917)


In Now I Ask You, O’Neill addresses a subject very much at the core of Villagers’ preoccupations, which is the question of marriage and free union. The discourse of the female protagonist, who advocates free union and firmly rejects marriage, echoes for instance Max Eastman’s view on marriage in Enjoyment of Living:

Marriage had always seemed utterly unromantic to me, and “husband” and “wife” among the most distasteful words in the language.[6]

O’Neill’s play on the other hand, could well be inspired by the love triangle between John Reed, Louise Bryant and O’Neill himself, which illustrates the way the Provincetown Players’ private lives somehow contributed to shape their own plays.


O’Neill’s message in Now I Ask You is perhaps more ambiguous than this comedy seems to deliver at first glance. In fact behind the unequivocal satire of both true bohemians such as Leonora and Gabriel who hypocritically conceal the social contract that unites them to one another for fear of being regarded as too provincial, and of would-be-bohemians such as Lucy who pompously rejects everything that is labeled bourgeois, making herself more of a bourgeois than a villager, O’Neill seems to dramatize his own contradictions, that is his own participation in the bohemian community, which is counterbalanced by a critical, or skeptical position towards Bohemia’s prescriptions. By staging bohemian or would-be-bohemian characters, who hide behind fake identities, fake civil status or who brandish empty ideologies, O’Neill somehow restores to favor the bourgeois model incarnated by Mrs Ashleigh, a model which combines structural and institutional framework and tolerant views.


However the ideological gap between O’Neill and the bohemian community appears more vividly if contrasted with other Provincetown productions. For instance, instead of emphasizing free unions as O’Neill does in Now I Ask You, Floyd Dell in Sweet and Twenty approaches the topic through the prism of marriage. In this perspective, Dell’s play appears as the reverse image of Now I Ask You. In fact, while Lucy advocates free union and comradeship in the first act, declaring: “Let us go forth into the world together, not shackled for better or for worse, but as free spirits, comrades who have no other claims upon each other than what our own hearts dictate”, she eventually realizes towards the end of the play, that she despises the model that she has been following. Hence her mother’s remark in act 3: “Remember the contract you drew up yourself – equal liberty of action. You’ve no reason to complain, my dear. It serves you right.”


On the contrary, Dell’s Sweet and Twenty takes the opposite direction. Dell’s protagonists are two complete strangers who fall in love with each other and instantly fantasize a common future involving matrimony. However, they soon realize, with the help of a lunatic, who pretends to be an estate agent, that they have different ideals. The very last lines of the play illustrate this realization:

HELEN: Well – are we going to get married or not? We’ve got to decide that before we face my uncle and your aunt.

GEORGE: Of course we’ll get married. You have your work and I mine, and –

HELEN: Well, if we do, then you can’t have that sunny south room for a study. I want it for the nursery.

GEORGE: The nursery!

HELEN: Yes; babies, you know!

GEORGE: Good heavens!

It is thus particularly striking that in Dell’s play, marriage which was presented as an attractive option in the beginning, is finally discarded or criticized, and the last lines of the play in particular epitomize the burden of conventions. O’Neill on the other hand, rejects marriage at first, yet he finally demonstrates that if not ideal, it can be regarded as the most valid choice. While dealing with a similar topic – marriage – Eugene O’Neill and Floyd Dell take two different trajectories, which, I believe, can be read as evidence of O’Neill’s critical distance towards the bohemian social and ideological prescriptions.


IV. Downclassing The Personal Equation (1915)


The third theme that I would like to explore regards the question of class struggle and revolution in O’Neill’s The Personal Equation. Here O’Neill dramatizes the tragic destiny of Tom, son of the 2nd Engineer of the S.S. San Francisco, who espouses the radical cause and fights side by side with the members of the Workers Union and the Stokers of the SS San Francisco. As in Now I Ask You, O’Neill integrates the notions of equality between the sexes and comradeship, but potentially mirroring the actions of villagers such as John Reed, Louise Bryant, Emma Goldman or Mabel Dodge, he more specifically lingers on what Patrick Chura refers to as “downclassing”. The phenomenon designates the fact that members of the upper and middle classes choose to descend the class ranks to experience, according to Chura’s terms “vital contact”[7], in which they can find the exotism of the poor. Following the American literary tradition of the left, O’Neill explores, on the fictional mode, this vital contact. Through Tom, who could be perceived as his own counterpart, O’Neill stages the trespassing of social classes. Expecting that his deed will start out a worldwide strike of the workers, John accepts to be in charge of dynamiting the engines of his father’s ship. However this social struggle eventually opposes father and son, and the father, willing to protect the engines, accidentally shoots his own son. Tom is only injured, but his permanent mental regression thus enhances his fatal embrace with the revolution. Again, O’Neill depicts a conflict between father and son, and the tension between old order and new one. Reproducing a pattern analogous to the two other plays, O’Neill presents, in a first stage, the possibilities and the attractiveness of the new model, of new ideals, and in a later stage he negates these possibilities, somehow pointing to a preferable return to the old order. In the play, the ideology, thus expressed by Enwright, a member of the workers union: “Then we can start life anew with a new generation, a new art, a new ideal”, is torn to pieces by capitalist order. In fact, the stokers accept money by the Companies, and ironically enough, this is the conservative and middle-class home provided by Tom’s father that will house Tom, Olga and their baby, not to mention the very last words of the play “Long live the Revolution”, uttered by Tom, as a mere parroting of Olga’s words, sounds now devoid of significance. In the end, not only does O’Neill make his initial proposal null and void, but he also subverts and exhausts the meaning of the ideology.


Evidently enough, each of the three plays aforementioned, involving the themes of art and life in Bohemia, marriage and class struggle, offer a final resolution which either leads to a form of dystopia or to an inevitable compromise, which may somehow foreshadow future compromises in the 1920s as O’Neill becomes a professional playwright, produced by the Broadway industry. If these early plays emphasize a recurring pattern of integration/disintegration, they also account for O’Neill’s ambiguous relationship to the community. The plays bear witness to the bohemian experience, yet they accordingly mirror O’Neill’s difficulty to belong to this ideal community and to capture the surrounding communal spirit. O’Neill experienced the bohemian community, not from a communal and utopian point of view, but rather from an individualistic and sometimes skeptical stance.


To make this point more explicit, I would like to briefly oppose O’Neill’s treatment of communal and social ideals in these three plays, to Susan Glaspell’s play entitled The People (1917). In The People, Glaspell offers a reflection on the running of a magazine entitled the People, that is a communal and radically inspired organization very much comparable to little theatres such as the Provincetown Players or little magazines such as The Masses. Interestingly enough, while O’Neill dramatizes the failure of the group, of collective actions, always focusing on one individual situation, or to paraphrase O’Neill, on a “personal equation”, Glaspell on the contrary insists on the group, the community, hence the following line by Edward Willis, the editor of “The People,” “Nobody caring enough about the thing as a whole.


Instead of finding in the bohemian community the adequate framework to stage and express, as others did, social claims or to glorify the bohemian life style, O’Neill paradoxically used this communal context to give vent to his own reservations regarding the surrounding ideals in Bohemia. O’Neill’s counter vision arises in a recurring pattern epitomizing the movement from bohemian utopia to an inescapable form of dystopia. Yet counter discourse and satire were not absent from village productions, and Floyd Dell in his autobiography declares that self-derision was commonly used and accepted. He says:

in public, I made fun of the anti-suffragists … the Village quite understood this attitude; it wanted its most serious beliefs mocked at; it enjoyed laughing at its own convictions.[8]

However, one is forced to admit that O’Neill’s own satire differs from the self-mocking productions that typified Village Bohemia, for the plays were either self-censored by their author or rejected by the community. In fact, two of these three plays (namely Now I Ask You and Bread and Butter) were part of the lost plays that O’Neill destroyed and disavowed and although O’Neill submitted The Personal Equation to the Provinetown Players, the play was never produced. If O’Neill expressed a countervision and voiced a counterdiscourse contradicting or subverting the ideal commonly advocated by villagers and Provincetowners alike, it is significant that this dissident voice remained silent, that this countervision remained unexposed. It seems therefore that O’Neill reaches a higher level in terms of self-derision, for beyond the obvious deconstruction of the utopian model that launched his career and ultimately made him a renown playwright integrated in the Broadway commercial system, these neglected and fairly unknown plays also attest O’Neill’s failure to embody and embrace, but also to face and confront the community.




[1]  Joseph Freeman, An American Testament. A Narrative of Rebels and Romantics, Victor Gollancz LTD, 1938, p.229.


[2] Daniel Aaron, Writers on the Left: Episodes in American Literary Communism, Columbia University Press: 1992.


[3]  Northrop Frye, The Modern Century, Oxford University Press, 1967, p.78.


[4] Selected Letters of Eugene O’Neill, Yale University Press: 1988.


[5] John Reed, The Day in Bohemia or Life Among the Artists, Hillacre Bookhouse: 1913.


[6] Max Eastman, Enjoyment of Living, Harper and Brothers: 1948.


[7] Patrick Chura, Vital Contact: Downclassing Journeys in American Literature from Herman Melville to Richard Wright, Routledge: 2006.


[8] Floyd Dell, Homecoming, An Autobiography, Farrar & Rinehart, New York, 1933, p.261-62, in Brenda Murphy,  The Provincetown Players and the Culture of Modernity, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005, p.8.



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