EUGENE O'NEILL, DRAMATIC INNOVATOR
[One of the services that the Newsletter can and should provide is to make available to its readers essays of interest that may have escaped their notice because of their date or the limited distribution of their original publications. Such a publication was Chrysalis, "the pocket revue of the arts," edited in Boston by Lily and Baird Hastings from 1948 to 1959 and perhaps beyond that date. Studies of O'Neill were frequently included in the pages of Chrysalis; among them, with no authors listed, "Eugene O'Neill: A New Phase" (Volume IX, Numbers 5-6, 1956) and "Ideas of Good and Evil in Plays of Eugene O'Neill" (Volume XII, Numbers 5-6, 1959). The following essay, published in Chrysalis in 1952 (Volume V, Numbers 7-8), is perhaps the most interesting of the three, partly because of Professor Packard's intimate familiarity with his subject: he acted in and was assistant stage manager of the original production of The Great God Brown. If readers express an interest in more, I will reprint other Chrysalis articles in future issues. Incorporated into the text that follows are asides and expansions by the author, who notes, "Since this is 'as of 1952,' readers are invited to project their appreciation of O'Neill's 'Great Innovator' aspect through the remainder of his works." --Ed.]
From the earliest character-dialogues of his Provincetown Theatre days as an unknown to The Iceman Cometh, Eugene O'Neill was forever striving to expand dramatic expression. Our greatest playwright has profoundly influenced theatre throughout the world. His plays are perhaps more widely performed (and admired) abroad than in the United States. While the present essay cannot pretend to be definitive, it will show the major outline of O'Neill's significant contributions and their meaning today.
I see O'Neill's influence strongest in the innovations he employed to achieve freedom of expression for the theatre. He emancipated theatre writing from many of the strictures of form and technique inherited from the past, but he was no bull-in-the-china-shop iconoclast. However just his early critics may have been in dubbing his plays somber and violent--"the gloomy Gene, crass purveyor of morbid realism"--he knew his theatre, and he knew what he was doing. As a youngster touring the west in his famous father's version of "Monte Cristo," he recognized that our inherited theatre conventions were a cold menace to that swift and burning communication that keeps theatre alive.
While he had to apply strict disciplines in order to cram his dramatic urge into conventional straight-jackets to win a fair hearing (Beyond the Horizon, which came in 1919 and was O'Neill's first full-length success, was surely a "straight" play), our dramatist never relaxed his hungry search for means of reaching beyond the expected. By this constant striving he gave to theatre writing a daring and a flexibility that has blue-printed whole new dimensions for drama in the future.
Immediately following the series of plays which culminated with Beyond the Horizon, O'Neill launched his highly original Emperor Jones, a play in one act (nine scenes, all differently located), and down went the old rules of dramatic technique one after another. "Keep unity of time and space." -- "Don't bring your chief character on stage too early." -- "Use no long speeches" (the play is practically a monologue) -- "Avoid monotony" (the drums of the savages are incessant, beating a terrorizing crescendo that envelops the action) -- "Don't combine fantasy and realism" (Jones' psychological retrogression to raw primitive emotions, the central story-line of the play, is cast in a progressive phantasmagoria ranging from stark realism to pure dream).
Each of the plays that followed in O'Neill's rapid rise to fame staked out its own claim to originality and effectiveness, and each successive play was dubbed his "best":
Any analysis of O'Neill's innovations and how they contributed to the increasing effectiveness and depth of the successive plays is fraught with the promise of fascinating and rich rewards. Here let us consider three outstanding examples: the symbolic use of masks in The Great God Brown, the "asides" in Strange Interlude, and the near epic scope of Mourning Becomes Electra.3
O'Neill's problem in The Great God Brown was to present an abstract theme in a mystical pattern manifesting itself as an overtone dimly behind and beyond the words and actions of the characters--and to do this in a way which would communicate the hidden theme with just the right balance between the "inwardness" and the "outwardness" of his characters so that his dramatic intents would be grasped by an audience. To do this he leaned heavily on Symbolism combined with a modernized use of the ancient device of facial masks. Commenting on its novel ideas and conventions, John Mason Brown felt that The Great God Brown was "a discounting of outward realism, and by the use of masks, a daring attempt to reveal the conflicts within character."
The basic idea in this play is that the world drives men to assume characters which are not their own, and they wear masks to hide their true selves--false faces moulded in the likeness of the persons they have become--other selves which the world knows and accepts, while the real persons are shyly, deliberately or unconsciously hidden back of the masks. In the Prologue, for example, the sweet and ingenuous Margaret discards her mask of circumspect formality when she is wooed by her truly loved Dion. Dion, on the other hand, is deeply hurt to find that Margaret really loves his masked personality (the mocking Pan appearance which is this supersensitive painter-poet's defense against the world) and he sardonically claps on his mask when Margaret, frightened by the stranger underneath, begins to hide behind hers. So it is with all the characters: those whose inner selves never differ from what the world takes them to be never wear masks. These are largely the unimaginative, simple and changeless characters; the draughtsmen in Brown's office, the police, Dion's irate father, Margaret (while happily married and supposing that her home is normal and contented)--even Brown, the straightforward go-getter, before he steals Dion's personality. But whenever, however subtly, a character undergoes an inner change which the world does not recognize as that person, he then goes masked--although he still whips it off if what he happens to say represents his true rather than his social thought.
This "shorthand" method of swiftly alternating subjective and objective facets of character adds a startling thrust to the matching of the auditor's thought with that of the playwright!4 The use of the masks to indicate the shells into which the characters are driven is particularly well drawn in the case of the men--showing the antagonism of the Dionysian and practical temperaments.
Try to imagine the presentation in stage terms of this extraordinarily complicated dramatic sequence: a man self-destroyed by inner conflict dies in the presence of his envious adversary, and in so doing condemns the adversary to the same self-destruction by willing him his personality. The device of the masks tells the story with sure impact. Dion says, "I will myself to you"; and as he dies the mask falls off; Brown steals it, saying to the mask, "It was this I feared, not you--not you!" and surreptitiously he puts on the mask as Margaret appears. She, seeing only her Dion (the mask), assumes his "illness" is past, and Brown goes home with her, accepted as Dion.
O'Neill hoped that his Symbolism would clarify the Mystery--for it is a mystery in a very real sense--but a month after it opened we find him "explaining" his drama in the New York Sun. [Professor Packard here quotes O'Neill's lengthy analysis of his characters, which I shall delete since it is now readily available elsewhere; in Barrett H. Clark's Eugene O'Neill: The Man and His Plays (rev. ed., 1939, pp. 159-162), for instance, and in the Gelbs' biography, pp. 580-581. It should be read in connection with this essay since, in Professor Packard's words, "it makes clearly apparent the inspired suitability of the mask device." --Ed.]
The great innovation in Strange Interlude is more widely known: the courageous adoption, as a serious dramatic technique, of the old stage device of the "aside," that shabby convention of the burlesque and vaudeville stage, where a character left the "play," "sachayed" to the footlights and hissed a revealing quip or comment to the audience from behind his hand. This lowly device (which effectively annihilated any vestige of stage illusion!) O'Neill transformed into the central medium of expression for a profound and dazzlingly brilliant psychological drama which kept audiences enthralled for four and a half hours. Here no masks were needed, nor could they be used, for the alternation between words of the characters' inner thoughts and those intended for the other characters to hear is nearly continuous throughout the play. At no point are we left in the least doubt as to what is going on in every character's mind; each mind is audible--just as if it were our own. The cumulative effect of this inner-thought communication is tremendous: every soul on the stage lies naked and bare. Yet because of the skill of presentation there is no embarrassment, although the burden of the actor is increased immeasurably. A wise director of Strange Interlude will rise to the challenge of blending realistic techniques with a stylized acting similar to the presentational mode of the Greeks. He will be careful to keep his whole group "alive"--that is, in overt or very subtle motion during all speeches between actors or intended for them--and equally careful that all other characters "freeze" (become quite motionless) while one character is voicing his or her inner thoughts. It is fascinating to see how quickly audiences totally unaccustomed to such a convention "take it in stride," and are entranced by its exciting overtones of dramatic thrust. No greater tribute could be paid to O'Neill's perception and daring. He needed new tools, so he created them--or in this case refurbished an outmoded one and adapted it to his purposes.
The innovations of Mourning Becomes Electra need only be mentioned to be appreciated. They are those of scope and range. For a vast trilogy of epic proportions, its thirteen scenes requiring six hours to perform even after it was cut, O'Neill truly required a "ten-league canvas and brushes of comet's hair." Could only the Greeks endure complete dramas? Is the "two-hour traffic" of the stage a pattern with any sense? Time length and classic unities were nonexistent for O'Neill unless they served his long-range purposes. This Yankee Electra, his largest play, may also prove to be his masterpiece, for it hews ways for truth such as the usual drama can scarcely imply. As Brooks Atkinson said in the New York Times of November 1, 1931, it "brings the cold splendors of Greek tragedy off the sky-blue limbo of Olympus down to the gusty forum of contemporary life.... It rises out of our moribund drama like a lily from the black slime of the swamp."
Today the greatness of Eugene O'Neill's dramas is clearly recognized, and the importance of his innovations is being felt throughout contemporary theatre. Indeed, O'Neill's work is today exerting a powerful and positive influence on all walks of life throughout the world.
--Frederick C. Packard, Jr.
1 Those closest to the premiere (cast and company) rightly predicted a short run, dubbing it "The Sleeping Beauty," for all its loveliness and poetic flavor.
2 Two matinee shop-girls after Act One: "Real artistic, ain't it?" "Yeah, but it's good!" (They had attended expecting a musical comedy starring Paul Robeson.)
3 Robert Benchley began his New Yorker review of the last with: "O'Neill Becomes Intolerable"!
4 O'Neill showed a special personal interest in this play--it was the first of his works of which he voluntarily attended all rehearsals, making such changes as were needed. Concerning The Great God Brown, the author received the following from Eugene O'Neill from Paris ca. 1945:
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