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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. I, No. 2
September, 1977



It was the American philosopher William James who described religion as a “man’s total reaction upon life.” Such total reactions, he observed, differ from casual responses, for to get at them, “we must go behind the foreground of existence and reach down to the curious sense of the whole residual cosmos as an everlasting presence.” Thus, James wrote, religion is the completest of all answers to the question: “What is the character of this universe in which we dwell?

James’s definition is particularly useful in efforts to define the nature of the religious motive in the dramas of Eugene O’Neill. For O’Neill’s dramas, from early plays such as Thirst (1913-14) to late works such as The Iceman Cometh (1939) and A Long Day’s Journey into Night (1940-41), record stages in the evolution of the playwright’s vision of the theological universe in which modern man lives. (Dates given indicate approximate time of writing.)

O’Neill acknowledged this religious motive as the organizing theme of his work, observing that while other modern playwrights appeared to be absorbed in the relationship between man and man, he was interested only in the relationship between man and God. But if the primary motive of O’Neill’s career as a dramatist was indeed theological in nature, the playwright’s treatment of religious themes remained unorthodox. This unorthodoxy, which Professor Robert Brustein styles “revolt,” seems not so much to have signified O’Neill’s rejection of religion as it mirrored his anguish at his own inability to confirm or deny the existence of God.

Actually, it can be claimed that O’Neill was, throughout his life, engaged in a search for a way of verifying the existence of an eternal principle in human experience. His approach to the problem had significant correspondences to those of modern humanists, both religious and secular. Like the “New Humanists” of his time, the playwright saw the rise of faith in science as a challenge, not only to traditional systems of value, but to the very humanity of man.

Plays such as Strange Interlude treat what New Humanists such as Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More interpreted as the essential dilemma of modern man--a crisis of faith. Others of O’Neill’s dramas explore the range of New Humanist themes. The affirmation of man’s humanity as the primary motive in history is a theme in both The Fountain and Marco Millions. The Hairy Ape examines the role of nature in the determination of human identity; while Dynamo is concerned with the need to humanize science and technology. Ah, Wilderness! celebrates an enlightened rationalism as the primary instrument of decision in a humane society; while the “cycle plays” are concerned with the individual American’s responsibility to make ethical use of his political, social, and moral freedom.

At least two plays treat major variations in the attitudes of the New Humanists toward religion. Days Without End reflects a rather conventional view of salvation, while Lazarus Laughed translates what the New Humanists regarded as man’s constant yearning for the assurance of eternal life into a secular symbolism.

While there is, to my knowledge, no evidence that O’Neill was influenced directly by the writings of the New Humanists, it is clear that he shared many of their primary concerns. Moreover, he reflected, on occasion, differences of perspective within their circle. Thus, it is that Days Without End (1931-34) interprets a humanism which is Christian in tone. Its resolution conforms to the notion of “true humanism” espoused by Americans such as Paul Elmer More and Europeans such as Jacques Maritain. John-Loving finds his humanity in willing submission to God.

On other occasions, O’Neill’s perspective paralleled those of rationalistic humanists. Like Irving Babbitt, he attempted to translate essentially religious concepts into a secular language. If Mourning Becomes Electra uses Freudian language to symbolize the concept of transgression, Dynamo attempts to translate the notion of temptation into a technological symbolism; while the late work A Moon for the Misbegotten offers a secular variation on the theme of divine grace.

Like the New Humanists, O’Neill appears to have regarded American democracy as the expression of a new theological situation, one which requires not only a reconsideration of the nature of man’s responsibility for man but also a reappraisal of the role of God in human affairs. Perhaps the principal factor distinguishing the brand of humanism which emerged in his dramas from those varieties which had appeared in the works of European playwrights of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is the extent of the moral freedom he attributed to man. O’Neill conceived such freedom in terms which were virtually absolute. Moreover, he attributed this freedom to men and women of differing races, classes, ages, regions, and occupations.

But O’Neill was concerned with more than the mere fact of freedom. Like humanists such as Babbitt, he was to ask a second question: What is the nature of moral responsibility in a universe where man is indeed free? He appears to have begun by interpreting the problem in personal terms. Personal responsibility is a theme in the early play Thirst (1913-14), where a gentleman, a dancer, and a West Indian sailor contemplate the implications of moral freedom, as they drift on a raft surrounded by sharks. In the same way, his treatment of responsibility in others of his early plays, including Bound East for Cardiff (1914), The Hairy Ape (1917), and Beyond the Horizon (1917-18), seems personal in tone.

Gradually, the challenge of freedom in the universe of O’Neill’s description seems to have developed beyond the possibility of solution by means of personal morality. Rather, the playwright seems to have come to the conclusion that the appropriate exercise of moral freedom in a democratic society requires a pattern of shared belief.

In this search for a basis for a community of belief, O’Neill again reflected a major preoccupation of American humanists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Walt Whitman, recognizing the need for such a sense of community in a multicultural society, had in the nineteenth century called for the formulation of an ecumenical faith accessible, open, and usable by all members of the society. One way of interpreting O’Neill’s experimental works is as an attempt to follow Whitman’s mandate to let religion enter into a “new literature.” In plays such as Marco Millions (1923-25), All God’s Chillun Got Wings (1923), Strange Interlude (1926-27), and Dynamo (1928), he engaged upon the creation of a new iconography--a system of signs, images, and symbols expressive of the relationship between man and God in the New World.

These works are, however, more than linguistic in their interests. For in them O’Neill attempted both to reveal the theological challenge embodied in modern American life and to formulate a tentative mode of response. There emerges in plays such as Lazarus Laughed (1925-26) a secularized theology, which synthesizes perspectives drawn not only from Greek, Judaic, and Christian religions, but also from tenets of belief codified by the sciences and social sciences. Lazarus Laughed remains the most evident of his theatrical failures. Unfortunately, neither O’Neill’s skill as a writer nor his sophistication as a thinker was equal to the task of rendering his humanistic theology in dramatic form. However, his notion of an ecumenical faith, supportive of the ideals of democracy, was not to be lost in theatrical history. It was to re-emerge in both American theology and American drama in the fifties, sixties, and seventies.

If Ah, Wilderness! marks the high point of O’Neill’s optimism about the potential for the achievement of humanistic goals in modern American experience, The Iceman Cometh appears to represent the depth of his pessimism. This work, like Long Day’s Journey into Night, is an American interpretation of what critics such as Joseph Wood Krutch have described as a “tragic humanism.”

Although these late plays did succeed in revealing the contour of the universe in which modern man lives, they also exposed the failures of their protagonists to achieve humanistic goals. Through Hickey, Larry, and Parritt of The Iceman Cometh and the tragic Tyrones of A Long Day’s Journey into Night, O’Neill interpreted what he was finally to concede as humanism’s limitations as a religion. They do not, however, seem to indicate his total rejection of humanism as a social philosophy. Rather, these late plays suggest O’Neill’s final acceptance of a tragic view of experience.

O’Neill’s “tragic humanism” reaffirms the classical proposition that man’s condition precludes forever the full realization of his ideals. It is, however, the individual’s response to the tragic fact of his limitation that remains not only the measure of man’s nobility but also of his humanity.

--Esther M. Jackson



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