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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. II, No. 3
January, 1979


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"CRITICAL AND THEORETICAL APPROACHES TO O'NEILL'S LATER PLAYS": A Report on An O'Neill Special Session at MLA, Chicago, Dec. 27, 1977.

A group of over fifty O'Neillians gathered in the Palmer House on December 27th for discussions of papers by Prof. Thomas F. Van Laan (Rutgers University) and Professor Dan Isaac (SUNY-Purchase). Prof. Letitia Dace (John Jay C.-CUNY) and Prof. Frank Cunningham (University of South Dakota) chaired the proceedings, indicating at the outset that their purpose in selecting the papers had been to emphasize less frequently considered modes of approach to O'Neill than the biographical and religious themes that had dominated discussion in Special Sessions conducted by Prof. Cunningham in recent years at MLA.

To that end, Prof. Van Laan led off with a reading of his well-written essay, "Singing in the Wilderness: The Dark Vision of O Neill's Only Comedy," which considered previously unstressed images of depression and regret in the Millers' emotional landscape. Van Laan asserted that O'Neill chose to satirize his characters' unconscious misperception of the nature of their reality, and that the play "emphasizes three familiar American clichés...the Norman Rockwell-like gallery of sentimental stereotypes, the Fourth-of-July myth of independence and equality, and the notion of family life as the ideal form of existence." Van Laan suggested that the major characters are like "key sentimental stereotypes readily found in the wish-fulfillment fantasies of the middle class," and that Richard Miller's posing resembles that of Con Melody in A Touch of the Poet. He concluded by explaining O'Neill's affirmative ending as a result of the dramatist's failure in detaching himself from the values the Millers attempt to believe in. "The light­heartedness, sunniness, and sense of self-satisfaction emphasized by the commentators in the play are for the most part merely examples of singing in the wilderness--which is a rough equivalent to whistling past a cemetery--by characters who are no more able to face the desolate reality confronting them than are the denizens of Harry Hope's saloon or the four haunted Tyrones."

After a discussion of Van Laan's controversial reading of Wilderness that, in the main, centered on O'Neill's expressed statements of his motives in writing the play, Prof. Isaac offered his paper, a psychoanalytic approach to "Matricide and the Late Plays of O'Neill." Countering the majority view that would serve to explain the final three great plays as Oedipally or religiously inspired, Isaac asserted that O'Neill's achievement in the final plays was in large measure a result of his having successfully dealt with his previously subconscious wishes to commit matricide. Working from Freud's Totem and Taboo and the analytic work of Leon I. Jacobs, Isaac contended that the primal crime in O'Neill's scheme is not the murder of the father, but the murder and devouring of the mother, and exemplified his thesis with the examples of Hickey's killing of Evelyn--a mother figure rather than a sexual partner--Parritt's confession of his "matriarchal crime" to Slade, the three men's feelings of hostility as well as protectiveness toward Mary Tyrone in Long Day's Journey, and Jamie's actions on his mother's funeral train in Moon for the Misbegotten. Isaac concluded by typifying O'Neill's male figures in these plays as, in the main, existing in a state of regression, of confused and angry infancy.

Isaac's paper stimulated a discussion that extended thirty minutes past the closing time for the Session, as participants advanced theories of male characters' suppression of mature sexuality in favor of submission to dominant women characters; parallels in O'Neill's own life to such themes; and the influence of Adlerian psychology--especially feelings of inferiority on the part of certain male characters--on these psychological concerns in the plays. Professors Vera Jiji (Brooklyn C.-CUNY) and Timo Tiusanen (Univ. of Helsinki) spoke with particular eloquence on the need to consider themes of love generally in O'Neill's work, and Profs. Cunningham and Jiji planned to hold a Special Session in New York in 1978 devoted to psychological perspectives in O'Neill, particularly themes of sexuality and the various meanings of "love" in O'Neill's canon. (Unfortunately that session was cancelled, but the subject remains a vital one and may find a place in the 1979 MLA Convention program. --Ed.)

--Frank R. Cunningham

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