OPEN LETTER TO JOHN HENRY RALEIGH
I’m writing in
public, as it were, to ask you some public questions. First about
your review of my book, Ritual and Pathos--the Theater of
O’Neill, and then, further along the same path, about the
nature of O’Neill criticism generally.
About your review
in American Literature (March 1977, p. 132), how could a man
of your fine understanding--it grieves me to ask this--have
understood me so crudely? Was it a case of careless reading
or, as I suspect, an inner resistance to what I was saying?
You see, you
failed to get what I was saying straight. In fact, you failed to get
my main point at all, which is perhaps why you casually disparaged
the book as “traversing some familiar territory,” as being
another of those “studies of influences,” even though from an
angle of its own.
My main point, or
thesis if you like, is not that the “ritual elements in
O’Neill were what constituted his power.” That’s only part of
my thesis, and to make it out to be the whole thing is to make the
whole thing seem of little consequence. After all, even if ritual
elements were the source of O’Neill’s power--or “much of
O’Neill’s power,” as you rather grudgingly admit--so what?
Power of what kind, toward what end? Unless that larger concern is
dealt with, the point about ritual is of limited value and easily
dismissed as “trying to explain too much with too little.”
But the book does
deal with that larger concern. My thesis goes beyond ritual, and
also beyond pathos, to the religious experience O’Neill meant his
plays to give audiences in the theater. His power, especially when
he was complete master of it, was the power to evoke religious
emotions. And ritual was the chief technical means of his mastery. I
said it clearly and often enough. How could you fail to take it in?
If you had taken it in, you would also have taken in my point about The Iceman being a reworking of Lazarus. You would have seen that I did come to terms with the fundamental disparity between the two plays. Precisely because Lazarus was “a failure of dialogue,” as you put it, O’Neill cast the same materials in a more contemporary idiom. The Iceman was to be sure a triumph of dialogue, but by the same token it was a triumph of the ritual elements that, however unwieldy in Lazarus, were necessary for providing a celebratory experience in the theater. And Nietzsche did have something to do with that, though Buddha didn’t. I never said or implied that Buddha did.
Further, if you had taken in my main point, you would probably have understood better what I meant by tragic pathos. I defined it more than once as a feeling of suffering on the part of the audience, not mere pity for suffering. And I described the tragic effect more than once as a communal release of that feeling, i.e., as a religious sharing of suffering that was also an overcoming. Long Day’s Journey, depending on the production, evokes such a feeling of suffering, and it does this despite its comic moments. Or it does this partly by way of its comic moments, which help set up the tragic effect.
Other aspects of your review call for rebuttal, but let me just ask you again--how could you understand me so crudely? Strange to say, I don’t think the answer lies with you alone. I think it lies with O’Neill scholars, with American drama and literature scholars all over the place, and with the nature of O’Neill criticism generally. I think it lies with the literary prejudices that have been dominant in the country since the thirties, if not before--prejudices that confine O’Neill’s achievement to the bounds of realism with its social emphasis.
How else explain that Ritual and Pathos, certainly a provocative book, took twelve years to get published? How else explain such a wide resistance to the evidence that O’Neill pursued a religious aesthetic? How else explain such a stubborn refusal to accept an emphasis on the dynamics of his plays in the theater? How else explain such a deep distrust of the “European and Oriental thinkers and avatars,” as you derogatorily call them, the metaphysical or at least cultural philosophers and the religious figures who so clearly helped shape, directly and indirectly, O’Neill’s vision and purpose?
But must we really
stick to American traditions as the only ones suitable for us, to
social realities as the only realities? Must we really be so
provincial and so earthbound?
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