REVIEWS, REPRINTS AND ABSTRACTS
[Authors whose studies of O'Neill are printed elsewhere are invited--nay, urged--to submit abstracts for this section of the Newsletter. While the editor will willingly try to capture the essence of an article in abbreviated form, he is aware that distortions are possible--not to mention grievous omissions--and would be happy if others would relieve his conscience of such sins. Of this month's abstracts (items 6-11), Professor Barlow's is the most reliable, as it is her own work. When an abstract is not followed by the initials of the author, readers are advised to check the original, whose location is always cited. --Ed.]
1. Frederic I. Carpenter, Eugene O'Neill, revised edition (Boston: Twayne Publishers, a division of G. K. Hall & Co., 1979). 192 pp. (A review by the editor.)
What a pleasure it is to have a fresh, updated edition of Carpenter's Eugene O'Neill, whose previous manifestation guided this reader's graduate study in the pre-Sheaffer-Gelb-Bogard-Raleigh days (as did the same author's Emerson Handbook), and which remains an essential part of any library or personal collection of O'Neilliana. Though, as the preface concedes, "the focus of attention on the larger biographical and thematic aspects of his plays has limited technical and stylistic criticism," the book contains a wealth of insights--"philosophical, psychological, dramatic, literary"--about a "monolithic," "protean" author who was "somehow greater than the sum of all his work," and who was "not only a man and a playwright--'O'Neill' was also a tragic attitude toward life." Since the book is too well-known to need lengthy description, the following outline offers only highlights--a few of the critic's personal favorites.
Chapter One, "O'Neill: Tragic Agonist," presents the essentials of the biography in a lively, readable form. (Scholars will want to consult Sheaffer and the Gelbs, but the basics are here.) It traces the "unseen forces of ... heredity and environment" that contributed to the lifelong feeling of "homelessness--both psychological and physical" which was a major part of the "tragedy of Eugene O'Neill." It makes detailed distinctions, in relating the life to the plays, between "dramatic fiction and biographical fact"; shows that perhaps the two greatest influences on O'Neill were Nietzsche (who "suggested the element of transcendence implicit in all tragedy") and Terry Carlin (who introduced him to "the wisdom of the East"); explains why the early autobiographical plays were unsuccessful; traces O'Neill's Twain-like ambivalence about material success; shows, with particularly fine detail about Tao House, how the series of homes from Peaked Hill to Marblehead Neck "symbolize the successive stages of his long journey"; and describes the three marriages as chronological complements to O'Neill's "three different selves": a youth (to 1916) that was "naturally violent, rebellious, and destructive"; a middle period (1916-1932) as "dedicated creative artist"; and a third period (1932-1945) when he "was the compassionate 'great spirit' who understood human tragedy because he himself had lived it."
Chapter Two, "The Pattern of O'Neill's Tragedies," shows how the plays "seem to describe the successive stages of a spiritual quest"--one that moved from the early plays, which combined a romantic dream of ideal beauty and perfection with a realization of the impossibility of its attainment; through a second, more realistic period, which focused on the "ugliness of reality" and rejected it because of "the remembrance of the romantic dream"; to the major period, in which he neither "described the ideal perfection" nor "denounced the material imperfection" but portrayed "the inner conflict of good and evil leading to the great renunciation"; and finally to the period of the great last plays, which "took off in a new direction" because, impelled by O'Neill's hard-won "disinvolvement" and "objectivity," they "transcended the romantic logic which had governed his earlier work." (These stitched snippets hardly do justice to Professor Carpenter's masterful, carefully-reasoned overview of O'Neill's spiritual career. This seminal chapter is the high point of the book.)
Chapters Three through Seven describe and criticize the twenty "best plays"--twenty-one, actually, since an essay on Hughie, which first appeared in the September 1978 Newsletter (pp. 1-3) has been added to the previous studies of S. S. Glencairn, Beyond the Horizon, The Emperor Jones (which draws interesting parallels between Jones and Hickey), Anna Christie (which emphasizes how much of Anna's nature "is derived from O'Neill's own psychological experience," and defends the play's ending: "It is not tragic, but it is true to life.... The play is not a tragedy, and should not be damned for its 'failure' as one"), The Fountain, The Hairy Ape, All God's Chillun, Desire Under the Elms (whose "true hero" is Ephraim, though its "final hero is the spirit of Nature"), The Great God Brown (which "attempted everything, but achieved final success with nothing"), Marco Millions (an unsuccessful blend of "realistic satire" and "romantic myth"), Lazarus Laughed ("the most ideal of all O'Neill's works" and "his finest drama of ideas"), Strange Interlude, Mourning Becomes Electra ("his most perfectly designed play"; "the very logical perfection of its artistic design may constitute its greatest fault"), Dynamo, Days Without End, Ah, Wilderness! ("the dark side of the picture" is emphasized, as it is in the Van Laan essay abstracted in this issue), A Touch of the Poet (whose "two separate plots," linked by "Sara, the determined realist," are delineated, and the second is shown to be superior to the first), The Iceman Cometh ("O'Neill's testament to humanity at its lowest," which combines the three levels of "concrete autobiography," "abstract allegory," and "modern myth"), Long Day's Journey (his "most perfect play"), and Moon for the Misbegotten (unique in its juxtaposition of "grotesque myth" [the Hogans] and "autobiographical actuality" [Jim/Jamie], and in its combination of "purposeful confusion" and "melodramatic exaggeration").
The individual analyses are brief, running from two to six pages. But they are concentrated pages; much less has been said at much greater length. Perhaps the best part of these central chapters is the treatment of Lazarus, Interlude and Electra as "a kind of trilogy"--one that reverses the pattern of Dante's Divine Comedy, since the first was an attempt "to create a Paradiso, an ideal image of man," the second is "a purgatory of human compromise," and the third "an inferno of human depravity."
The eighth chapter "discusses the chief criticisms of his work" and finds that he is praised and censured for the same elements--"passionateness" and "mysticism"--both of which are parts of "the essential O'Neill." It also explains O'Neill's theory and philosophy of tragedy, which had been described on page 77 as the "modern" one "which sees man's life as necessarily doomed to defeat, but also suggests that man's recognition of the necessity of defeat constitutes a kind of victory...."
"When all has been said," Professor Carpenter writes, "O'Neill remains an enigma." Perhaps; but his book helps one to penetrate that enigma, or it at least charts a revealing course around it. One may quibble with a point here or there. I tend, for instance, to rate Brown higher, and Lazarus lower, than the author does. But my overall view is consonant with one that O'Neill himself expressed about Professor Carpenter's 1945 essay, "The Romantic Tragedy of Eugene O'Neill":
2. The Long Voyage Home (Moon of the Caribbees, Bound East for Cardiff, In the Zone and The Long Voyage Home, played in that order), dir. Bill Bryden and presented by England's National Theatre at the Cottesloe Theatre, London, February 1979.
Simon Jones, reviewing the production in Plays and Players (May 1979, pp. 24, 29), praised the playwright ("the most remarkable writer of this century") and his early one-acts, despite the presence in them of such "youthful excesses" as "prolix descriptive characterization" and "a tendency toward sentimentalism and melodrama." Though he regretted the "ponderousness," the lack of "pace," that resulted from "fidelity to the original" (he advised the director either to use the blue pencil or to "scrape the barnacles off the backsides of his actors"!), he approved of the "dazzling (if slightly unadaptable) set designed by Hayden Griffin: a section of the ship's peeling hulk from bridge to forecastle," and of the acting of Dave King as Yank and Mark McManus as Olson. Jack Shepherd's Smitty he found more disappointing: "although Shepherd tries hard to convey the brooding sense of humiliation and loss that lie beneath the thin cadences of upper-class disaffection, he is not quite convincing: he seems not to have suffered enough." Jones's more general comments about plays and playwright deserve reprinting at greater length:
O'Neill's long-standing popularity in Hungary is further attested by a successful performance of A Touch of the Poet at Hungaria Kamaraszinhaz (Hungaria Chamber Theater) by the resident company of the Csokonai Szinhaz (Csokonai Theater) in Debrecen, Hungary, during the spring season of 1979.
After well-acclaimed productions at the Jozsef Attila Szinhaz, Budapest, in 1968 and at the Katona Jozsef Szinhaz, Kecskemet, in 1974, this is already the third chance Hungarian audiences have had to see A Touch of the Poet.
Directed by Antal Rencz, with Rezso Sarosdy as Cornelius Melody, Sari Titkos as Nora, Agnes Banfalvy as Sara, Magda Csaky as Deborah, and Arpad Koti as Jamie Cregan, the production evokes a special effect. In an imaginative experiment, the stage setting has been partly rearranged into a tripartite vertical structure. As a result, he action of the play takes place on three levels.
The bulk of the action unfolds on the main floor; this is where Cregan and Maloy meet, Sara and Nora have a conversation, Melody and Nora talk, and Melody refuses to take breakfast. Below this level is placed a subterranean layer: the bar from which Dan Roche, Paddy O'Dowd, and Patch Riley emerge, and to which Cornelius Melody, after his tragicomic transformation, descends. From the middle of the main floor a flight of stairs leads up to the third level of the action. This is where the mirror has been transferred before which Melody strikes his Byronic poses and is caught in the act by Sara, Deborah and Gadsby; and this is where the love scene between Sara and Simon takes place. It remains, of course, unseen, but we get a momentary glimpse of Sara rising gently from Simon's bed.
While one may wonder whether this explanatory revelation was necessary and how far O'Neill would have tolerated the restructuring of the stage which he described with such meticulous care, it cannot be denied that the division of the acting space into three physical levels throws into relief three layers and realms in the total meaning of the play, and even assumes a symbolic significance by separating the vulgar, the commonplace and the elevated. Con Melody's middle position between the illusion of his gentlemanly pretenses and the ultimate reality of his tragicomic existence and fall is thus also graphically defined in well-visualized scenic terms.
A special difficulty presents itself in the choice of the right tempo. This seems to be a perennial problem in mounting O'Neill's late plays. Inasmuch as they retain a measure of the outward plot of the traditional drama, they require a certain pace of presentation to keep the ball rolling. Since, however, they are also characterized by the gradual unfolding of an inner drama implying sensitive modifications of vulnerable states of mind, they also lay claim to a more restrained, subdued and lyrical acting style. It is not easy to find the proper balance between these two conflicting theatrical claims.
At the end of 1977 I had the good luck to see productions of Long Day's Journey into Night in both Budapest and Milwaukee within a fortnight. The performance in Budapest adopted a slow acting style, emphasized the psychological drama in the play, underlined its Chekhovian aspect, and was saturated with poetry; but it needed some of the vigour of the American production. The presentation in Milwaukee was much more dynamic and focused more attention on the outer plot; indeed, it seemed to adapt to Long Day's Journey part of the acting style of Ah, Wilderness! (The two plays were shown--by way of an interesting experiment--on two consecutive nights with a similar cast.) But while this style of acting coped with the comedy very effectively, it was, at least for me, too rapid to sound the psychological and lyrical depths of the tragedy. Mary Tyrone's frequent evasions ("I don't know what you're talking about") have two distinctly different meanings when they are preceded and followed by a pause and when they are not. With the pauses they express the idea, emotion and attitude "I refuse to discuss the matter." Without the pauses they simply mean "I am silly." A too rapid tempo involves the danger of changing the dramatic message of the line.
Occasionally a similar danger crops up in the last act of this latest Hungarian production of A Touch of the Poet. Before the ominous duel takes place and Melody kills his mare, it has its Quixotic drive, and, not unlike Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, it has a tragicomic plot leading to a dramatic culmination. However, after Melody becomes thoroughly disillusioned, fails to punish Harford (as Voynitsky fails to kill Serebryakov), backs out of suicide (as Voynitsky also allows Doctor Astrov to talk him out of suicide), and is content with murdering his mare, a symbol of the painfully tragicomic pretensions of the Major,--then his inner psychological drama comes to the limelight of interest, and the acting style requires a slower pace and a broken bar.
Apart from this, Mr. Sarosdy, a Merited Artist of the Hungarian People's Republic, provided a memorable interpretation of the role with talent, inspiration, insight and a touch of tragicomic poetry.
4. Francis X. Clines, "O'Neill's Words Echo and Play at Sea View Hospital," New York Times (June 12, 1979). [Mr. Clines' article, in the Times' "About New York" column, may offer little of scholarly import; but it is such a touching tribute to O'Neill's universality of appeal and to tireless O'Neill promoter Joe Gheraldi that it deserves the attention of everyone interested in the playwright. Thanks to Robert L. Tracy for bringing it to my notice. --Ed.]
"One old woman was antic and gray in her wheelchair, as if for her Eugene O'Neill's words were dancing separate little jigs: 'And baby's cries can't waken her in the baggage coach ahead.' But Nan Dunkley in her wheelchair and Nick Crisa in his wheel-chair were poised in open-faced attention across the hospital dining room, fully following O'Neill's words as they shot from the actors in great patterns of darkly shining woe. These people were getting a taste of a play, Moon for the Misbegotten, offered in dress rehearsal before an audience in the Sea View Hospital, the municipal nursing home on Staten Island.
"By now O'Neill's plays may be like the Catholic mass--echoing again a terrible agony to an audience ready at any hour somewhere on this earth. In the performance last Wednesday night at Sea View, O'Neill's words were out and about again, this time for a gathering that was considerably gnarled itself and ready for the sad tidings of human fallibility. O'Neill is 25 years dead, but here he was still before an audience, parading Hogan a reeling drunk, Josie freshly tragic, Jamie transfixed with a guilt and grief that still defies love.
"No one talked of these things with the coffee and cake afterward, when Hogan's back porch was turned upright and became a dining table again. But O'Neill had happened there, and the actors left exhausted, one of them rheumy-eyed, and the audience clearly felt special for this sad treat.
'Nan Dunkley says O'Neill surely beats bingo. Bingo is the big recreation at Sea View, and no harm in that. But last year Joe Gheraldi, who without doubt has to be the biggest O'Neill addict on Staten Island, showed up with designs for turning a lovely unused chapel across from Sea View's front door into a theater. That he succeeded ... is a tribute to some of the people in the hospital, like Nan and Nick, and to the continuing power of O'Neill over people's imaginations.
"For some years now, Joe Gheraldi has been all over Staten Island directing amateur productions of O'Neill, never doubting he can find an audience, confident the words can take hold in the simplest circumstances. His company even did The Iceman Cometh in a bar on Clove Road--a nice neighborhood joint--but had to quit in an art-and-life jumble, he recalls, when real drunks started invading the back-room production and mouthing off. Before the fiscal crisis cost him his teaching job at Staten Island Community College, Joe Gheraldi put on an O'Neill festival with stage productions and visiting experts. The loss of the job has not daunted him. He cannot help talking about O'Neill. Every subject seems to lead to it. The island takes on a complicated brooding tone as you drive around it with him. The watery narrows is O'Neill's inspiring ocean.
"'O'Neill tried again and again to leave his family and his past behind,' Joe says.... 'But they greeted him daily and nightly.... He was like Rembrandt, painting himself and his family.... Misbegotten is like Journey,' he says. 'It's written in tears and blood.' He stops talking to think about a question, why he's such an O'Neill junkie. He has a firm answer: 'It's because O'Neill learned not to sit in judgment of people.' ...
"Nick thinks the older residents are learning to restretch their attention spans because of the theater people. The other night most of two dozen grey heads jutting from the wheelchairs moved with the action of O'Neill's sad people. One tiny lady, her white hair a fuzzy halo, her sweater all bulky and pink, scowled disapprovingly at each tug Hogan took from his whisky bottle. Another complained out loud, cautioning the actors against their tragedy....
"Nan and Nick pay Joe a compliment that is remarkably similar to one Joe likes to quote from Kenneth Tynan on O'Neill--that he was able to enter without condescension a world of rejected people. This seems natural to Joe, who says O'Neill's people are the real world, the same as the people in the hospital."
5. Thomas Lask, "Publishing: Robards On the Touch of O'Neill," New York Times (June 1, 1979), p. C22:
"If Jason Robards, our most illustrious O'Neill actor, can ever put some free time together, he may well finish that autobiography he has promised Nan Talese and Simon and Schuster, of which she is a vice president. Autobiography may not be the precise word, however.
"When Mrs. Talese approached the actor about a year or so ago, he was then in O'Neill's A Touch of the Poet at the Helen Hayes Theater. Mr. Robards indicated he would be doing no narrow autobiography. Mrs. Talese told him, though, that that wasn't what she had in mind. What she was thinking of was a book about the influence and place of O'Neill in his life. That notion seemed to open the floodgates....
"She recalls Mr. Robards' account of how he became involved with the play that made his reputation, The Iceman Cometh. He was then doing a soap opera on radio and read in a newspaper that there were openings for the O'Neill play at the Circle in the Square, then downtown.
"'He had no strong feelings about O'Neill at the time,' Mrs. Talese said. 'But some sort of instinct guided him to it. He was married with children, but he spent his last penny rehearsing for the part.' The rest as they say in bad plays is history.
"There are intriguing parallels between the playwright and the actor. Both had fathers who were well-known actors. Each had a brother involved in strained family relations.
"After his talk with Mrs. Talese, the actor was so excited by the idea for the book that he was all for doing it instantly. Since then, he has been involved in a number of film and television projects.
"'It's now way in the future,' Mrs. Talese said, but with not even a suggestion of finality in her voice."
6. Thomas P. Adler, "Two Plays for Puritans," The Tennessee Williams Newsletter (Spring 1979), pp. 5-7.
Professor Adler cites "numerous correspondences in plot, stage setting, characters, language, imagery, use of Biblical allusions and the Oedipal motif, and even similar quasi-religious or philosophical attitudes" which suggest, quite persuasively, "that Tennessee Williams had Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms at least unconsciously in mind when he wrote Kingdom of Earth (The Seven Descents of Myrtle)." He also offers two major reasons to "explain how, with two such similar plays, one--Desire Under the Elms--succeeds, while the other--Kingdom of Earth--fails."
7. Judith E. Barlow, "Long Day's Journey into Night: From Early Notes to Finished Play," Modern Drama (March 1979), pp. 19-28.
In his dedication of Long Day's Journey into Night to his wife Carlotta, Eugene O'Neill states that he wrote the play "with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness for all the four haunted Tyrones." One of the most fascinating aspects of O'Neill's composition of Journey is that this pity, understanding and forgiveness are largely absent from his early notes and drafts. In early versions the Tyrones' anger and cruelty are so predominant that it is difficult for an audience to sympathize or empathize with the characters. Through revisions O'Neill modified his initially very harsh portrait of the haunted Tyrones.
Each character is the recipient of O'Neill's "gentling" revisions. Mary Tyrone, for example, is more bitter and cynical in early drafts than in the final play, and her actions are less clearly motivated. In O'Neill's working notes, Mary takes her first shot of drugs before the play opens; we do not see her battle against her craving and we do not fully understand--as we do in the published Journey--how the men's suspicions have helped precipitate this betrayal of herself and her family. Further, in draft versions of the last act, Mary is rational enough to recognize her husband and sons. O'Neill heightened Mary's obliviousness in the final scene, making her descent "into night" more tragic and Mary herself more poignant and appealing. She is less aware in the published play than in the drafts of the misery she is causing her family, less responsible for her unkind words and deeds.
Early drafts portray a depth of bitterness in the elder Tyrones' relationship that is absent from the completed Journey even in the moments of greatest hostility. In a long passage O'Neill deleted from the manuscript, Mary unleashes a passionate tirade against her husband in which she accuses Tyrone of wanting Edmund to be ill so he can send the boy away and of having been heartlessly unconcerned when their baby died. Moreover, in the manuscript and typescript Mary's antagonism to the theater is far stronger than in the published play. She claims "I've always hated the theater" (TS, III, p. 4) and suggests that her husband deliberately pushed Jamie into a disreputable vocation because Tyrone was "jealous" of the boy's excellent school record.
Jamie and Edmund are also harder on Tyrone in the early drafts. In the scenario, for example, Edmund claims that his father enjoys having Jamie around because he likes to be a "master with dependents on [his] charity," and in the manuscript he implies that Tyrone sought medical help for Mary only because he was "ashamed" when others noticed her condition. Tyrone remains, in the published Journey, an imperfect individual who is capable of harming himself and others through his cheapness and shortsightedness. However, he is a complex man who has suffered much and earned love as well as resentment from his family. The constant acrimonious condemnations of him in early versions of Journey are mitigated by O'Neill's revisions.
Even Jamie, perhaps the most maligned character in the play, becomes through O'Neill's rewriting an individual worthy of compassion. At the same time that O'Neill was foreclosing Jamie's future, erasing hints that Jamie might still have a productive future, he was also moderating attacks on the young man. For example, in lines deleted from the manuscript Jamie confirms his mother's hysterical accusation that he deliberately gave his baby brother measles and "was glad when he died" (IV, p. 25). In fact, in an early note Tyrone charges that Jamie would like to see his father and brother dead and is glad about his mother's readdiction because it makes her an easy mark for his sponging. Throughout the manuscript and typescript, O'Neill deleted numerous gratuitous attacks on Jamie. Through his revisions the depth of the other characters' bitterness toward Jamie is subtly muted, with the consequent implication that Jamie's actions have not all been reprehensible.
O'Neill took his revisions one step further. As he worked on Journey, he emphasized Edmund's role as peacemaker and heightened the young man's understanding of and compassion for his family's weaknesses. This knowledge tempered by pity may well be Edmund's best hope for escape from the futile world of his haunted kin.
There are several possible reasons why O'Neill treats his characters more gently in the published Journey than in early drafts. (A small part of the change is the result of O'Neill's elimination of repetition.) O'Neill was a seasoned dramatic writer when he created Journey, and he must have known that complex, sympathetic characters would engage his audience's interest more than one-dimensional villains would. It may well have been easier for him to create his characters boldly in black and white at an early stage and later paint in the nuances that are the material of tragedy rather than melodrama. Further, the act of composition apparently was, for O'Neill, a lesson in compassion. The early drafts seem written in anger, the later ones with growing perception and forgiveness.
It would be patently untrue, of course, to say that anger and resentment are not major components of the published play. The warp and woof of Journey are the inextricably woven threads of love and hatred in the family. But the fabric is more darkly colored in early drafts. The final Journey makes it clear that the Tyrones' bitterness grows out of the very bonds of need and love that hold the family together. (J. E. B.)
8. Winifred L. Frazer, "'Revolution' in The Iceman Cometh," Modern Drama (March 1979), pp. 1-8.
The importance of Hugo Kalmar's oft-repeated poetic quotation--"The days grow hot, 0 Babylon! 'Tis cool beneath thy willow trees!"--is explained in marvelous detail by Professor Frazer, who identifies it as the last line of a forty-line poem, "Revolution," by German Marxist poet Ferdinand Freiligrath (1810-1876), a work which "plays on the theme of Psalm 137" and which would have been known to Hippolyte Havel, O'Neill's model for Kalmar. (Havel helped Emma Goldman edit Mother Earth, in which the poem was printed in full in 1910.) Havel's frequent repetition of the line must have embedded it in O'Neill's memory, though when he came to write the play he had forgotten its source.
Professor Frazer, besides offering relevant facts from the lives of Freiligrath and Havel, shows how the line "is one key to the whole truth-illusion theme of the drama," how it "reinforces the connotation of the title, wherein the warm, loving bridegroom of the Bible is replaced by the cold, profane iceman of death," and how it "refers to both the love-hate and the anarchist-betrayal plots and illustrates in its variations O'Neill's disillusionment with both love and revolution." While an error in O'Neill's transcription--the original, Der Tag wird heiss, is correctly translated as "The day grows hot," as it is by Ernest Jones in An Anthology of Revolutionary Poetry, ed. Marcus Graham (New York, 1929)--turns a revolutionary line into a more romantic one, O'Neill retains the balance of the two elements "by naming [Kalmar] for Karl Marx and by working Marxian jargon into his mouthings of the poem." The retention of this romantic-revolutionary duality is important to the play because, as Professor Frazer explains, "except for the dream that love is life, [the] dream of a better world through revolution is the most discredited in Iceman."
9. Elinor Fuchs, "O'Neill's Poet: Touched by Ibsen," Educational Theatre Journal (December 1978), pp. 513-516.
Ms. Fuchs finds, in A Touch of the Poet (first draft, 1937), striking evidence that a "re-thinking [of Ibsen] may have played an important role" in the radical change in O'Neill's dramaturgy between Days Without End (1932-3), "the last gasp of O'Neill's 1920s expressionist experimentation," and The Iceman Cometh (first draft, 1939), "which is commonly thought to inaugurate his Aristotelian period." Not that an "Ibsen connection" was anything new: in a letter in this issue of the Newsletter, Jacob H. Adler cites comparable Ibsenite echoes in Strange Interlude (1928). But Ms. Fuchs' study of a connection that "runs from plot similarities to thematic parallels and to an apparent structural relationship between two Ibsen plays [Hedda Gabler and The Wild Duck] and A Touch of the Poet" challenges the traditional assumption "that the historical material of the play was ... O'Neill's primary interest."* On the contrary, "his chief interest continued to be psychological and metaphysical as it had been through-out the 1920s," but "he was discovering a more compressed dramaturgical language to express it"--a language made up of "Ibsenic compression, irony, and ideas of genre." Her persuasive conclusion is that A Touch of the Poet, which has been "oddly neglected," deserves reassessment "as a pivotal work, a kind of hinge in the O'Neill canon between old and new themes and dramatic methods."
[* O'Neill himself had written to Lawrence Langner in 1936, "I don't want anyone to get the idea that this Cycle is much concerned with what is usually understood by American history, for it isn't." (Quoted in the Gelb biography, p. 804.) --Ed.]
10. Michael Hinden, "Desire Under the Elms: O'Neill and the American Romance," Forum (University of Houston, April 1979), pp. 44-51.
Disagreeing with Robert Brustein's contention that O'Neill "sought not native but cosmopolitan influences," Professor Hinden illustrates the accuracy of John Henry Raleigh's assertion that the playwright's "deepest affinities are back in the first flowering of American literary culture, the so-called American renaissance." His study of Desire Under the Elms, "probably O'Neill's most significant work in relation to the American tradition," proves its candidacy as "one of the classics of American romance" (as that term is defined by Richard Chase), and points out how its resonance, power, scope, theme and tone are related to a number of O'Neill's American predecessors--Emerson ("Hamatreya"), Hawthorne (the Pyncheon elm in The House of the Seven Gables and Abbie's similarities to Hester Prynne), Melville (Ephraim's relatedness to Ahab), and Whitman (Democratic Vistas and section 32 of Song of Myself).
But Professor Hinden's essay does much more than parade literary analogues. Witness, for instance, this comment (p. 47) on the relation between theme, character motivation and structure:
Professor Hinden's essay has a richness that defies neat synopsis and leads the reader to agree that "Whitman ... would have recognized O'Neill as a kindred spirit and welcomed his appearance as the first American dramatist of grand design."
11. Thomas F. Van Laan, "Singing in the Wilderness: The Dark Vision of Eugene O'Neill's Only Mature Comedy," Modern Drama (March 1979), pp. 9-18.
Rejecting the sentimental view of Ah, Wilderness! as "nostalgic, light-hearted, sunny, wholly approving of the life and people it depicts," and also the more cynical view of it as a "falsification of experience"--despite O'Neill's own words about the play, which seem to concur with the former; and the revelations offered by Long Day's Journey, which might add credence to the latter--Professor Van Laan offers detailed evidence to support the position of those critics ("Sheaffer in part, Raleigh in part, Shawcross, and most notably Adler and Carpenter") who "attribute dark undertones to the play, including a genuine awareness of evil and a suggestion of spiritual despair." Noting that the interjection "ah" can express regret or contempt as well as delight, he concludes that while the play's characters may use it in the third sense (and those who do are "singing in the wilderness"), O'Neill himself is largely torn between the first and second, and that Ah, Wilderness!, "far from depicting a paradise, ... actually depicts a wilderness." To achieve this, O'Neill "emphasizes three familiar American clichés, compares them to the actuality they distort, and concludes that as truths they are sham but as sustaining pipe-dreams they are serviceable and necessary."
The first cliché, "the gallery of sentimental stereotypes in the mode of Norman Rockwell," should not blind us to the fact that O'Neill's characters are members of an "established," "oppressive" "network of roles" that they "have adopted or have had imposed on them." Van Laan finds a "ubiquitous discrepancy between pose and actuality," each character's surface being "a mask that cannot quite conceal the reality lurking beneath it.... They try to convince themselves that they are what they have to be in order to ward off the pain and anguish caused by their having to be exactly that."
As for the second cliché, "the Fourth-of-July myth of independence and equality," O'Neill exposes its falseness on both national and family levels. Neither Richard Miller's "excessive, adolescent rhetoric" nor the responsive "twinkle in the eye" of his father should blind us to the reality of "social injustice and human suffering" of which O'Neill expected his audience to share his awareness. And the Miller home, "a rigid hierarchy that relegates most of its members to outcast or second-class status" ("all children, all women, and all males who for some reason fall short") is itself "an oppressive social reality that diverges sharply from the independence and equality promised by the myth"--which in turn demolishes the third cliché embedded in the play: "the notion of family life as the ideal form of existence." In fact, according to the dinner scene in Act Two, "the function of the family is not to nurture and sustain but to curb and inhibit, and, alternatively, to provide captive victims for relieving one's hurt and frustration."
What, then, of the "emphatic notes of affirmation" in the play's closing moments? Professor Van Laan explains them as a bow to "commercial success," a "response to genre," a reflection of the "moonshine" in which the last scene is bathed, and an evidence of "genuine ambivalence" on O'Neill's part; and he urges us not to "emphasize these final notes at the expense of countless earlier notes insisting that, far from compensating for the wilderness of existence, family life in fact constitutes one of its most oppressive elements."
One may quibble with one or two of his conclusions, but Professor Van Laan certainly demonstrates that Ah, Wilderness! is indeed "a much richer and more interesting play than it is generally taken to be."
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