ENDURING O’NEILL: THE EARLY
The Preview Issue of The Eugene O’Neill Newsletter published four discussions of “Which Plays Will Survive,” which had been presented at the O’Neill seminar at the Modern Language Association Convention a year before. Most of these were by younger scholars who had little good to say about the early plays--those written before 1935. Now Frederick Wilkins has offered me the opportunity to make rebuttal. For I believe that many of these early plays will survive--indeed many have already been revived many times--and that some will continue to rank very high.
Scholars sometimes forget that a generation gap exists in literature as in life. The judgments of one generation are often reversed by the next. When American Literature was first taught sixty years ago, Longfellow and Whittier were major figures, Emily Dickinson was a minor poet and Melville was briefly mentioned. Yet every generation continues to judge the past in the conviction that its judgments will be final. Now, none of O’Neill’s early plays makes even the next-to-top rating in John Raleigh’s six categories of excellence, while Virginia Floyd judges that, “with the exception of Desire Under the Elms, they can be classified as mediocre, indifferent, and really awful.” --Well, I disagree.
About 1930 Mr. Leon Mirlas directed a production of The Great God Brown in Buenos Aires. Recently he wrote an introduction to the Spanish translation of my Twayne book on O’Neill (Buenos Aires, 1972). But he took a strenuous exception to my judgment that Long Day’s Journey was O’Neill’s most perfect play. Not so, he objected, Desire Under the Elms remained the best. And I suspect that many voices out of the past, if they could still be heard, would echo his protest. In moods of nostalgia I would agree--the very perfection of Long Day’s Journey, which in part derives from the author’s disinvolvement from his material, sometimes creates a feeling of coldness. Some of the early plays had more of the throbbing pulse of life in them.
Take my own experience with Desire. When I first saw the play I identified strongly with young Eben Cabot, and hated his stubborn, selfish father with a purple passion. (Incidentally, young Perry Miller acted as one of the chorus of townspeople in the first New York production.) Later after rereading the play, and especially after studying Emerson, I realized that Ephraim Cabot was also an embodiment of “The New England Mind” in action--a farmer in the company of Emerson’s “Bulkeley, Hunt, Willard, Hosmer, Merriam, Flint.” Now I believe that Ephraim Cabot is the most interesting and the most powerful character created by O’Neill--infinitely more interesting, of course, than the moon-calf Eben, more real than any of his contemporaries, and finally a kind of incarnation of the old Puritan God.
Negatively, I find Doris Falk’s charge that Desire suffers from the bar-sinister of melodramatic ancestry beside the point. Melodrama is the raw material of myth, (and also of opera), and some of O’Neill’s best plays achieve greatness by means of what Mary Mccarthy (in criticizing A Moon for the Misbegotten) calls their “mythic powers.” When O’Neill attempted to create pure myth, as in The Fountain, he failed; when he sought consciously to adapt ancient myth, as in Mourning Becomes Electra, he seems contrived; but when he allowed the actual materials of his Irish and New England origins to create their own myths, he sometimes achieved greatness.
One difficulty which tradition-minded critics, such as Eric Bentley and Doris Falk, find in O’Neill stems, I think, from a dislike, and perhaps fear, Of the irrational and the unconventional. When O’Neill transmutes melodrama into myth, they imagine a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. If they had been writing in 1605, they might have labeled Hamlet a melodramatic ghost story. I do not mean to compare Desire with Hamlet, but the creative process by which melodrama may be transmuted into tragic myth is the same in each.
Or take a less successful play of the early period, Strange Interlude. From the beginning, Interlude has labored under the obvious faults of extreme length, dubious psychology, and Freudian jargon--faults which time has only emphasized. Moreover, it too derived from a contemporary melodrama, which later resulted in an abortive lawsuit charging plagiarism. But in 1929 it overcame these faults to achieve an incredible success in the theatre. And this success, I believe, also derived from its transmutation of melodrama into myth. Nina’s invocation of “God the Mother,” and the utterly unrealistic scene in which she addresses, in turn, “my three men,” appeals to an imagination beyond reason. To speak autobiographically, that scene moved me more profoundly than any other which I have witnessed in a lifetime of theatre-going. And so, beyond reason, I believe that Strange Interlude also will survive.
To go back to the beginning, in 1923 and 1924 when O’Neill’s early plays were achieving prominence I was writing drama reviews for the Harvard Crimson. I do not remember reviewing any of O’Neill’s plays, but I do remember seeing them, and I particularly remember my absorption in a performance of Beyond the Horizon. But most significant was my feeling of identification with the audience as we emerged, from the theatre after that performance, walking in a kind of trance, and wondering how anything like this could ever have happened in America. It was an almost religious experience of being born again--a renaissance of the theatre in the new world.
It may be a waste of time to construct a hierarchy of O’Neill’s plays, because different plays will survive for different reasons. By the formal standards of traditional criticism, Desire may rank with Long Day’s Journey, and certainly with A Moon for the Misbegotten. Emperor Jones remains perfect in its own way, as Hughie is today. Ah, Wilderness and Anna Christie survive on their own terms. But the final greatness of O’Neill’s plays lies, I think, in their dramatization of the irrational elements of human nature--a dramatization successfully realized (but not successfully formalized) in Strange Interlude, and achieving final, formal perfection in The Iceman Cometh.
--Frederic I. Carpenter Walnut Creek, California
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