JOHN HOWARD LAWSON ON EUGENE O'NEILL
[Readers will recall that the last issue featured, on page 15, an abstract of LeRoy Robinson's article summarizing John Howard Lawson's unpublished Nirvana, a play that bears a striking similarity to O'Neill's Dynamo. A discovery of Mr. Robinson's that postdated his article provides the "scoop" of the current issue--previously unpublished comments by Lawson on O'Neill as man and playwright. The comments are introduced by Mr. Robinson, who is the author of the bracketed words at beginning, middle and end. --Ed ]
[When I wrote the summary of Nirvana, I did not know that John Howard Lawson had begun an autobiography, "A Calendar of Commitment," which he did not finish but which his daughter Susan Amanda Lawson is editing for possible publication. Miss Lawson has permitted me to read parts of this autobiography, one piece of which should be of interest to you and other O'Neill scholars. In a chapter called "Landscape," Lawson writes (pp. 457-459) of what he was thinking in June 1930 on a train from Los Angeles to New York.]
I thought of O'Neill's last two plays, Strange Interlude and Dynamo. Strange Interlude was the beginning of his association with the Theatre Guild: in spite of its length and asides, it is the author's first acceptance of the bourgeois situation. It has a nineteenth century plot--the woman who has a child by a man who is not her husband--and it ends with Nina murmuring, "I'm so contentedly weary with life!" It is all mysteriously ordained. "Our lives are merely strange dark interludes in the electrical display of God the Father!"
But there was no contentment in O'Neill. His conformity had to lead to an outburst of violence. Dynamo, produced by the Guild in February, 1929, followed the theme of my Nirvana so closely that the resemblance was noted by several critics. Gabriel spoke of my viewpoint as being almost "a counterpart of O'Neill's credo in Dynamo,"* Krutch observed that "no one else in America (with the possible exception of John Howard Lawson) has ever written plays which are so frankly the expression of an individual quest for the meaning of existence."** According to Richard Watts, Jr., "The most direct and recent predecessor of Dynamo was the work of John Howard Lawson ... the author of an unjustly ignored and absurdly unappreciated play called Nirvana, which makes him at least the John the Baptist of the new dispensation."***
When I read the published play, I found it unbelievably close to Nirvana, in details of characterization and lines of dialogue. But what struck me most forcibly was the total difference in our handling of an identical theme. In Nirvana, Bill Weed talks of an "Electromagnetic Christ," and O'Neill's Reuben Light asserts that "There is no God but electricity."
But I dreamed of a mystic reconciliation of science and religion, a cosmic victory for the human spirit. O'Neill saw no hope of reconciliation and no hope for Man: he went back to the old idea of an absolute enmity between religion and science: without God, we were doomed and science is the agent of our destruction.
Dynamo celebrates the collapse of reason. The words make sense, but frenzy dissolves the psyche. There is the Freudian passion between son and mother, but the monstrous dynamo takes the place of the human mother and commands senseless violence. Nirvana ends with a rocket in space; Dynamo ends with murder and suicide. The murder in O'Neill's play is the sacrifice of a young girl which is in many of my plays, including Nirvana, but O'Neill has stripped it of its ritual significance: it is the irredeemable blood guilt of fallen man, who disintegrates as he falls. Reuben Light is as much a broken puppet as Humpty Dumpty.
The dry desert wind whipped dust around the train. I could see the fallacies in O'Neill's work. But I had no answers to the questions that burned in my mind. I wanted to create living people. I wanted to be a living person, and I knew there was a great power of life in me.
[Lawson was very bad on dates, but on pages 302 and 303 of a chapter entitled "Through the Calendar," he refers to an incident in June 1926.]
I drove to Ridgefield, Connecticut, with a group of friends, to see O'Neill. We were not welcomed with enthusiasm. We brought a quantity of bootleg gin with us. Gene was on the wagon, and Agnes looked upon us as troublesome intruders.
I wanted to talk to O'Neill, about Nirvana and about the theatre. He had read Nirvana before he left New York for Bermuda early in the year. Macgowan had told me that he admired the play, and was in part responsible for its replacing The Great God Brown at the Greenwich Village Theatre. I considered The Great God Brown was O'Neill's most important play since the early dramas of the sea. The conflict between the business man and the artist and the interchange of their masks was a painful confession, not unlike the confession I had made in Nirvana.
Obviously, I could not blurt out what was in my mind--that O'Neill and I were moving in similar directions and faced similar problems. But I found him so withdrawn that there was no communication at all. He was about to go to Yale to receive an honorary degree. I thought this was comical, but there was no doubt of the seriousness with which O'Neill viewed it.
I was hurt. Our visit was short, and we hurried back to the city. O'Neill was at a turning point in his life, and he was suffering. I discovered later that Nirvana meant more to him than I realized, for its influence is manifest in Dynamo.
O'Neill turned to metaphysics at the moment when I turned my back on it. I did not know what lay ahead of me, and my work made little progress. Sometimes, in my writing, I felt I was floating above the earth, above the shadowy continent, looking for a place to land.
[Lawson's papers--100 boxes full--are at Morris Library, SIU at Carbondale; and I feel sure that among them there are probably essays on O'Neill--unpublished ones, that is, besides the ones JHL published. There may even be correspondence. --L.R.]
* New York
American, February 12, 1929.
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