Menu Bar


Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. I, No. 2
September, 1977


CRITICAL AND THEORETICAL APPROACHES TO O’NEILL’S PLAYS. Summary of papers presented at a special session on the above subject at the December, 1976 MLA Convention in New York City.

Before an audience of approximately forty persons, the O’Neill Seminar devoted to the topic, “Critical and Theoretical Approaches to the Plays” concentrated upon psychological, philosophical, and genre approaches to three of O’Neill’s works: More Stately Mansions, Marco Millions, and Desire Under the Elms. Joseph Petite, of Kansas State University, presented a cogently argued paper entitled “The Paradox of Power in More Stately Mansions" in which he departed from the religious thrust of much O’Neill criticism toward a humanistically oriented, Adlerian approach to themes of possessiveness and security in the canon. Admitting some formal inadequacies in the structure of More Stately Mansions, Mr. Petite contended that “though the play is generally regarded as a criticism of an acquisitive society, no one has noticed that O’Neill was interested in more than mere covetousness. He was using the desire to possess as a symptom of a deeper psychological problem--the obsessive need for security. In More Stately Mansions possession, whether sexual or financial, is a way of establishing control over others before being controlled by them, and the purpose of this control is to ameliorate feelings of powerlessness and insecurity. But the paradox of power is that the more one dominates, the less he is secure.”

Frank R. Cunningham’s paper, “Continuities of Romantic Myth in Marco Millions,” examined the central Romantic myths used by O’Neill in the major early plays: dynamic organicism, compensation, the cyclical nature of existence, the creative imagination as the basic process of Romantic affirmation, and man’s quest from a static mechanism to recognition of the existence of an organic universe. Adapted from his book-in-progress, Eugene O’Neill and the Romantic Tradition, Mr. Cunningham’s paper attempted to combine a sociological study of O’Neill’s satiric use of the character of Marco as an indictment of an excessively acquisitive American society of the 1920’s, with a philosophically-based approach examining O’Neill’s celebration of Kaan as Marco’s Romantic opposite, a man who can affirm a universe that he perceives as potentially purposive and responsive to man’s needs. Mr. Cunningham contended that “like Coleridge’s Mariner, Kublai has discovered that there is a meaning in life’s sombre mysteries in the dynamic organicism implicit in the mystery.... Scorning what O’Neill himself termed the “death-in-life” that so much of humanity settles for, Kublai strives toward self-realization, toward some tentative communion between ego and the larger world of nature.”

Mara Lemanis’s paper, “Desire Under the Elms and Tragic Form: A Study of Misalliance,” employed the genre approach in taking issue with the near-unanimous critical acceptance of Desire as a major play in O’Neill’s canon. Ms. Lemanis, a free-lance writer and editor who lives in San Francisco, carefully distinguished between true tragedy and the melodramatic “disaster drama,” claiming that Desire did not deserve its position in the former camp. Ms. Lemanis contended that readers should focus upon the dialogue and actions surrounding Abbie’s murder of her child, “since this is the pivotal act identifying her supposed tragic impetus, and leading to the resolution by which Abbie’s and Eben’s transfiguration occurs.” Finding Abbie’s actions having “no room for anguish or struggle over choice,” she concluded that Abbie’s “‘tragic recognition’ consists merely of expressing remorse for the act after its execution, and acquiescing to the justice of punishment, but we are presented with an awareness so confined in its conception of the dignity and value of life, that it easily falls within the range of a mechanism or reflex posited in her conscience from outside.” It was Ms. Lemanis’s view that Abbie acts “out of expediency, not necessity,” and that “security-seeking is a very human predicament evoking pathos, but it is far from the maturity of a stout crisis worthy of tragic delineation.” Nor did Ms. Lemanis find existential dignity within the actions of Eben and Abbie: “Their defiance never shapes and forces their being into that greater existential quotient which comes from plumbing the division between the assertive self and the indifferent universe with an act that challenges one’s fate and societal and universal laws in such a way that one’s own life becomes . . . resonant with a profounder sense of the power of its being.” She concluded that Abbie and Eben’s love is not challenge enough for their fate: “their love closes them in upon their own small world; it does not extend them outward in confrontation with a larger universe.”

Seminar coordinator Charles R. Lyons, of Stanford University, then delivered an ample summation of the major arguments presented in the participants’ papers, and he and his fellow coordinator Mr. Cunningham then responded to such points of discussion as theatrical and visual approaches toward presentation on the stage of the key theoretical/literary points raised by the papers; the aesthetic worth of Marco Millions and More Stately Mansions as measured against O’Neill's total artistic output; and a final brief presentation, by Professor Esther Jackson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, of a “Proposal for an O’Neill Theatre and Institute.” (Professor Jackson invites responses, ideas, and initiatives concerning this proposal.)

--Frank R. Cunningham



© Copyright 1999-2007