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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. II, No. 1
May, 1978



There is no dearth of analyses of Eugene O’Neill’s early and late periods of critical and theatrical success. Few explanations have been given, however, for the so-called “great O’Neill silence” from 1934 to 1956, when the playwright and his work were almost entirely rejected and neglected in this country. Americans will patronize a Resurrection, shun a Gethsemane. Those sensitive to the needs of the creative artist may commiserate with O’Neill for the dark days of those last two decades. How difficult and discouraging they must have been for him, living as he was in theatrical limbo. How monumental was his courage to continue writing for some more appreciative American posterity. The question that should be raised here is: did he indeed have this intention?

O’Neill never essayed the role of American crowd-pleaser. If his final bequest of the last great plays to the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm is any indication of his reaction to prevailing attitudes in this country, he had probably given up any hope for change here. The reports reaching him from time to time of successful European productions provided some encouragement. Obviously, he must have pondered his situation: vine leaves abroad, thorns at home. Some knowledgeable American scholars have given this paradox the serious thought it deserves for what it tells us about ourselves as a people. But a much larger group are not aware of how well O’Neill plays in Europe and has played there consistently from the early 1920’s to the present, even during the twenty-two-year period when Americans were ignoring him.

In the past, American O’Neill scholars have had few, if any, opportunities to exchange ideas with their European counterparts. O’Neill specialists on both sides of the Atlantic have had to work, so to speak, in a vacuum, often unaware of scholarly efforts of those outside their national sphere. In an attempt to rectify this situation and promote direct dialogue on an international level, I organized a session, “A European Perspective of Eugene O’Neill,” for the 1977 MLA Convention.

A grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities made it possible to bring three distinguished European O’Neill scholars to this country to participate in this session: Tom Olsson, author of the recently published O’Neill and the Royal Dramatic and curator of the library at the Royal Dramatic; Timo Tiusanen, author of O’Neill’s Scenic Images and Professor of Theatre Research at the University of Helsinki; and Peter Egri, Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Budapest, author of The History of the European Drama at the Turn of the Century and a study-in-progress of the extraordinary outburst of dramatic creativity in the United States during and since World War I, with O’Neill as its central focus.

Harold Cannon, Director of the Division of Research Grants at NEH, states that these papers are eligible to be published as they are the products of a previous grant. Through the kind efforts and support of Dr. Donald Gallup, curator of the O’Neill Collection at Yale, I have begun negotiations with Mr. Edward Tripp, Executive Editor at Yale University Press, to publish a volume of essays, Eugene O’Neill: European and American Perspectives. This book will contain the papers summarized here and those presented by American scholars at the 1976 session: John Henry Raleigh, Esther M. Jackson, Frederick Wilkins, and Albert Bermel.

What I shall do here is offer some of the “highlights” of the papers presented by the three Europeans, hopefully whetting appetites for the complete versions. There was to have been a fourth participant, Clifford Leech, the eminent English Renaissance drama scholar but author also of the critical study, Eugene O’Neill . Unfortunately, Professor Leech died last July. Those of us who knew and respected him so highly mourn him. Permission to publish his paper has been given by the executor of his estate. In what he terms a “reminiscent talk,” Professor Leech relates his own personal experiences in directing and seeing some of the first London productions of O’Neill’s plays in the 1920’s and 1930’s. His paper, “O’Neill in England from Anna Christie to Long Day’s Journey into Night--1923-l958,” is typical of Professor Leech: scholarly, humorous, spirited. As perhaps his last critical commentary, and certainly the final coda to his work on the playwright, it deserves a permanent place in O’Neill scholarship.

1. Tom Olsson: “O’Neill and the Royal Dramatic”

In his paper, as in his book, Dr. Olsson provides an in-depth analysis of O’Neill productions in Sweden from the 1920’s to the present and explains the reasons why the dramatist has been received so well and produced so often there. In discussing the period that has come to be known as “the great O’Neill silence,” Dr. Olsson points out that “in Sweden that silence was not total.” Ah, Wi1derness! opened in the autumn of 1934 and “was on the repertoire until the Spring of 1937--much dependent on O’Neill’s Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936.” The Great God Brown was staged at the Vasa Theatre in Stockholm in 1936, and a year later “Gothenburg’s Municipal Theatre’s Studio stage had been opened with well-received performances of The Emperor Jones and Ile.” When the Royal Dramatic opened its second stage in 1945, All God’s Chillun Got Wings was chosen for the opening program and “O’Neill sent a telegram with his good wishes for this premiere.” In 1947 The Iceman Cometh had its European premiere at the Royal Dramatic. “The critics were profusely enthusiastic about the playwright, the director, and cast.” The European premiere of A Moon for the Misbegotten at Malmo’s Municipal Theatre in March 1953 was followed a month later by an even more successful production at the Royal Dramatic. O’Neill could not have failed to contrast the ill-fated, aborted American version of 1947 and the Swedish production. Dr. Olsson says: “According to Carlotta O’Neill, her husband had heard of the reviews before he died in the autumn of the same year. Apparently he then requested her to see that the rest of his dramatic production which had never been staged was bequeathed to the Royal Dramatic, in gratitude for what that theatre had done for his drama during a period of thirty years.... Between the years 1956 and 1962 no less than four world premieres of O’Neill’s plays took place at the Royal Dramatic”--Long Day’s Journey, A Touch of the Poet, Hughie, and More Stately Mansions.

One of the most significant contributions Dr. Olsson makes to O’Neill scholarship is the insight he gives into the relationship established between Carlotta O’Neill and Karl Ragnar Gierow. In a letter to Mr. Gierow dated August 19, 1955, she discussed Long Day’s Journey and states her husband’s request: “Under no circumstances was it to be produced in the theatre in this country. He said he would like the Royal Theatre, Stockholm, to do it--sans royalties--as a gesture from him in gratitude for the excellent performances they have given his plays over the years. The Scandinavian Peninsula is dear to me as it was to him. They kept us going in 1953 when this country wasn’t interested in O’Neill.” In his conclusion, Dr. Olsson compares O’Neill to Strindberg, who was rejected and then finally acclaimed in Sweden, and asks: “Will young actors and producers open up new roads into the work of O’Neill, perhaps the most noteworthy playwright of our time? That has been the case with Strindberg. Perhaps it will be with O’Neill too.”

2. Timo Tiusanen: “O’Neill’s Significance: A Scandinavian and European View”

Professor Tiusanen provides an outsider’s view of how O’Neill is perceived and evaluated in America today. He is dismayed that the dramatist is not adequately appreciated and produced in this country and asks: “Is there still a Puritan prejudice alive in America against the theatre--and another against O’Neill as an analyst of ‘low’ characters?” He notes that the United States is a “country without a dramaturgic tradition.” One remedy that he offers is to “classicize” O’Neill. “He is worth it. Yet a word of warning is needed: ‘Classicizing’ a playwright does not mean mummifying him. It means a sound middle road between negligence and glorification; it means keeping him alive, not through the artificial respiration of reverential revival but by paying him respect in the only way acceptable to O’Neill’s ghost: that is, by finding ever new relevance for his plays. For him, life meant writing; for his plays, meaningful production is essential for life. O’Neill’s significance is based on two magnificent truths. He created his own personal theatre language, and he conveyed significant statements about the condition of modern man by means of that language. The Scandinavian countries and Germany have done what can be reasonably expected to keep a crucial body of modern classics of world drama alive; Sweden has done even more. It is up to you, my dear American friends, to decide whether you want to listen to that language, now and in the days to come.”

3. Peter Egri: “An East-European View of O’Neill:
The Uses of the Short Story in O’Neill’s and Chekhov’s Plays”

If American scholars have had little contact with their western European counterparts, they are even more removed from the mainstream of eastern European scholarship. There is no reason for this to continue, for eastern European scholars, particularly in Hungary, are making overtures to establish new international bonds. (An International Seminar of English and American Studies will be held at Kossuth University in Debrecen, Hungary, from September 8 to 11, 1978. At the Seminar’s O’Neill session, Professor Maria Korenyeva of the Moscow Gorky Institute will present a paper on the early plays; Professor Egri and I will discuss the late plays. Dr. István Pálffy, head of the English Department, wishes to extend an invitation to American scholars to attend this session via the Newsletter. The papers will be published in Hungarian Studies in English and will give Americans a totally new, objective perspective on .their native literature.)

Professor Egri’s paper presents a comprehensive analysis of the use of the short story in O’Neill’s plays. In comparing the relationship between the two genres in O’Neill’s work to a similar integration in Chekhov’s, he demonstrates “the organic manner in which the American dramatist was able to become part of a movement in world literature.... O’Neill’ s shorter dramas tend to approach the genre of the short story, and his longer plays verge on novels, without ceasing to be excellent dramas. This, too, is an important international link.... His performance of synthesizing the epic and the dramatic seems to be the formal (generic) equivalent of his successful fight for human integrity under rather difficult circumstances.... The more we can see O’Neill as part of an international dramatic movement, the more we are able to understand his international, indeed, universal appeal--and also his American quality.”

One would have to read Professor Egri’s essay in its entirety to appreciate the tremendous contribution it makes to O’Neill scholarship. He discusses the generic proximity of the short story and the one-act play in Warnings and other O’Neill plays--both those that are demonstrably related to short stories and those that are not. One question is obviously raised: are the features typical of the short story that are incorporated in O’Neill’s early plays manifested in his later work? Professor Egri finds the integration of the generic features of the short story and the short play, coupled with a Chekhovian atmosphere, in O’Neill’s late masterpiece, Hughie. He provides a superb analysis of this play and in his conclusion comes full circle, summarizing the similarities between Chekhov and O’Neill: their attempt to synthesize “the lyric and the epic into the dramatic, to integrate the short story and the short play into a revealing and moving dramatic unity.”

It would be impossible to speculate on the full impact that exposure to the ideas of these Europeans can have on American scholars, professional theatre people, American theatre audiences, and international O’Neill scholarship. The failure of Americans to appreciate their cultural legacy and to nourish their national and personal wellspring is a dangerous signpost on the road leading to a morally bankrupt wasteland. As O’Neill demonstrates so often in his plays, Americans are totally caught up in material pursuits and find it difficult to resolve the conflict between materialism and idealism, to pursue a truly enriched life based on humanistic values. While the papers presented by the Europeans provide valuable information about O’Neill productions abroad, they also raise some disturbing questions about the attitudes of Americans to their greatest dramatist, to theatre, and, by implication, to the quality of life itself.

In 1976 America celebrated its bicentennial. This is a relatively young country, and our negative national attitude to our greatest native dramatist may merely be the result of cultural “growing pains.” Coming to terms with O’Neill and paying him the homage he deserves would signal our mature entry into the international theatrical mainstream. Two hundred years ago we declared our independence from Europe. The papers presented by the three Europeans may convince us that it would serve us well as a people to establish new bonds with the old world. As a nation of immigrants, our roots are there. It may be that O’Neill, the son of an immigrant, who depicted so well our endless attempt to belong, will help us establish new international cultural ties and gain world theatrical maturity. And then perhaps at last he will “belong.”

--Virginia Floyd



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