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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. V, No. 3
Winter, 1981



Since its publication in 1964, More Stately Mansions has received little critical attention, and those who have discussed it have not given it high marks. Murry Hartman finds the play in its "totality a drama manqué," and says O'Neill "strains unsuccessfully to connect the Oedipal strife with the pitfalls of capitalism."1 Jere Real concurs with Robert Brustein's remark that the loss would be negligible if the play were destroyed. "The drama," says Real, "has glaring inadequacies, in characterization, dialogue, and motivation...."2 While I would agree that some ideas in the play are not satisfactorily resolved, I would argue that it is not as unfinished as has been claimed. Though the play is generally regarded as a criticism of an acquisitive society, no one has noticed that O'Neill was interested in more than mere covetousness. He was using the desire to possess as a symptom of a deeper psychological problem--the obsessive need for security. In More Stately Mansions, possession, whether sexual or financial, is a way of establishing control over others before being controlled by them, and the purpose of this control is to alleviate feelings of powerlessness and insecurity. But the paradox of power is that the more one dominates, the less he is secure.

Interpreted deductively as part of a historical cycle entitled "A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed," More Stately Mansions has been taken as the depiction of American greed leading to alienation from the land. However, if we work inductively from the text of the play itself, we find that a psychological interpretation is in order. The play is about people whose need for protection drives them to build walls around themselves. Yet the walls don't provide safety. In fact, they guarantee only destructive isolation. Constant defensiveness so alienates the individual that he reaches a point of despair where madness seems to offer tempting relief. The title of the play is ironic, for it refers, not to souls who attempt to widen their horizons, as is the case in Holmes's poem, "The Chambered Nautilus," but to characters who, engaging in one power play after another, create ever tighter defensive perimeters until they eventually retreat into themselves. The paradox of power is that the obsession with protection of the self leads not to security, but to loss of the self to constant and unbearable anxiety.

Though greed is rampant in the play, O'Neill makes it clear that money is not the real issue. Money is merely a means to an end. The goal is power, for power is control, of all that might pose a threat to the individual, namely, the world. To control others is to be free, or as Simon phrases it, "The possession of power is the only freedom...."3 Simon is not interested in wealth for its own sake. If he were, he would hoard what he has. Instead, he risks whatever he has, not to gain more money, but to gain more control of the market, to be more dominant. For Simon, empire building is a metaphor for a psychological necessity: control. And Simon's overwhelming desire to rule the economic scene is directly related to his feelings about his mother. It must be emphasized here that though the sexual aspect of the Oedipal situation appears in the play, O'Neill is interested in more than the obvious. Simon's desire for economic power is designed to compensate for feelings of helplessness caused by a mother who rejected him. Finding he had no secure home in the emotional world, he tried to find security by dominating the business world.

A character sketch of Simon's mother, Deborah, will easily explain his feeling of vulnerability. Deborah is afraid of life and tries to compensate by controlling the world around her. Simon tells us she was "always so independent of others" (p. 11). One way to keep the world in its place is to ignore it, and this she does by means of her aristocratic haughtiness. She rejects all that is common, and she considers most things around her common. Her favorite poem, and the favorite of the aspiring aristocrat, Con Melody, in A Touch of the Poet, is one by Byron, and the key line that Con loves to repeat is, "I stood/Among them, but not of them" (pp. 107-108). Rejecting the world isolates her from it and keeps her safe.

Deborah also escapes from the world through illusion, spending her time in a garden that is so tailored as to be unnatural. Her fantasy life in the garden is also symbolic of her need to control others. She dreams of herself as King Louis' royal mistress, "greedy for lust and power" (p. 3). After she uses the lust of her lovers as a means of satisfying her "ambition," they are "discarded" (p. 4). She characterizes herself in this role as a "greedy adventuress ... who uses love but who only loves herself." She intends to use the king's "passion" to make him "her slave." Though her "final goal" is "power," she is content "to be the secret power behind the Throne" (p. 13). Her interest in sex is obviously not based on pleasure. In fact, she sees men as a danger: "A woman," she says, "must become resigned to wait upon every man's pleasure, even her son's" (p. 3). In her fantasy, it is clear, she attempts to dominate those who she fears will dominate her. And she regards Simon as one potential danger.

Deborah's need for power alienated her from Simon when he was a child. Because she felt a "compulsion to love him after he was born," she saw him as a threat to her independence (p. 122). She resented sharing her "private" self with anyone, and tells him, "I could feel your grasping fingers groping toward every secret, private corner of my soul" (p. 184). She denied him her love, she says, "So that I might be free" (p. 99). To communicate this rejection she invented a fairy tale concerning a king who, because of the magic of an enchantress, had been banished from his kingdom, "to wander over the world, a homeless, unhappy outcast" (p. 110). Though Simon pleaded with his mother to revise the tale, to end it happily by letting the king reenter the door to his kingdom, Deborah refused to do so. Even at the beginning of the play we see that Deborah's attempts to protect herself have isolated her, have led her to the edge of madness, a line she finally crosses at the end of the play.

It's not hard to see why Simon would feel insecure. He knows that Deborah rejected her love for him, for he tells her she created the fairy tale "to make me realize you hated your love for me because it possessed you and you wanted to be free" (p. 183). His world then became one with no "security": "I have never forgotten the anguished sense of being suddenly betrayed ... and left alone in a life in which there was no security or faith or love ..." (p. 184). He feels that because she dispossessed him they have both been "condemned to an insatiable greed for substitutes" (p. 183). While he insists she forced him into the business world, it is there that he has tried to find security. Capitalism is his "substitute." His use of the key words "security" and "self-sufficiency," when he refers to feelings about his mother and his motives for expanding his business, shows that O'Neill is trying to link the Oedipal situation to Simon's capitalistic enterprises. Simon's goal in commerce has been "to make the Company entirely self-sufficient. It must attain the all-embracing security of complete self-possession--the might which is the sole right not to be a slave" (p. 101). He even wishes he could own his own "consumer slaves" who would be forced to buy his product (p. 158). Both Simon and Deborah use the word slave. It is clear that they want to make other slaves so that they themselves might not end up in that position.

As Simon's business becomes more successful, it becomes more predatory. When his brother Joel criticizes him for being ruthless, Simon rationalizes his needs into a philosophy of power which fits his personality as I have described it. "Your right has no power," he tells Joel. "So you have no right" (p. 70). Simon's insistence on having his company take over his father's is further proof that Simon's actions are a reaction to his mother. By controlling his father's company, he is, symbolically, in a position to dominate his mother. Again, I would stress that the issue here is emotional, not sexual.

But just as Deborah's grasp for power boomeranged, so does Simon's. Having conquered his rivals, he finds himself alone: "I concentrate all my mind and energy to get a thing done. ... And then suddenly one day it is accomplished--finished, dead!--and I become empty, but at the same time restless and aimless, as if I had lost my meaning to myself" (p. 72). The "complete independence and freedom within itself" that Simon desires so desperately for his company is an economic equivalent of his personality isolating itself from a dangerous world (p. 101). Yet this is the self feeding on itself, a kind of possession that will lead to alienation, a self-inflicted dispossession.

Another situation in the play where power is important is the battle of Male and Female, but O'Neill confused his presentation of this idea. Throughout the play he stresses two themes that get in the way of one another. On one hand, and I believe it was a mistake, he develops the battle between mother and daughter-in-law for control of Simon. On the other hand, he regularly indicates that the two women are also to be seen as Expressionistic representations of the two roles of Woman that attract Simon: mother and lover. Had O'Neill either eliminated or undercut the first idea, and stressed the attraction of both roles from Simon's point of view, the play would have been strengthened. That O'Neill intended the Expressionistic device is clear from Simon's reaction: at one point he says his wife and mother have merged to "become one woman." It is Woman whom he has grown to fear, feeling she is ready to dispossess him. He describes himself as a "domestic slave" who is only used for support: "I was never anything more than a necessary adjunct of a means to motherhood--a son in one case, a husband in the other--but now no longer needed ..." (p. 73). As it turns out, Simon's fears are justified. Deborah and Sara have joined forces, agreeing that though he needs them, they "don't have to need him" (p. 125).

Simon's response to this threat is to use sex as a weapon by treating it as lust. He will treat Woman as a whore, keeping her under control by making her earn her keep "piece by piece" (p. 90). He advises Joel not to marry, but to "keep a whore instead": "Keep your love a mistress with no right to ownership except what she earns day by day ..." (p. 72). He actually takes his wife as his mistress, and she buys the business by selling her body. But this plan backfires too. Speaking both of business and love, he explains how, paradoxically, power results in vulnerability and loneliness: "A fascinating game [business]--resembling love. ... A game of secret, cunning stratagems, in which only the fools who are fated to lose reveal their true aims or motives--even to themselves. You have to become a gambler whose face is a mask. But one grows lonely and haunted. One finally gets a sense of confusion in the meaning of the game, so that one's winnings have the semblance of losses" (pp. 91-92).

Sara is another who uses sex to achieve power. In A Touch of the Poet she seduced Simon in order to marry into a wealthy family. Now, though Simon is trying to escape the burdens of commerce and offers to let her buy his business from him with her sexual favors, she again believes she is capitalizing on his lust. Just as Deborah played the whore in her fantasies, so Sara, though she denies it, does the same thing. At one point she blurts out, "I am a wicked, lustful, wanton creature and making you a slave to my beauty" (p. 90). Again, the idea of having a slave. When Sara finally takes charge of a business transaction, she adopts Simon's philosophy of power, breaking Tenard, the banker, unmercifully. "I am good because I am strong," she tells him. "You are evil because you are weak" (p. 152). But her grasp for power is also self-destructive: "It's being here so long, with no life except his greed--He's made me think that life means selling your-self, and that love is lust--It's only lust he wants--and he's made me feel it's all I want ..." (p. 144). She blames Simon for their present business arrangement and what it has done to their love; yet she is responsible, for her greed and her lust for power have led her into this situation. Sara, like Deborah and Simon, has sought power to achieve security; and she too has discovered that domination results, not in control, but in isolation, in the possessor being self-dispossessed.

Until the end, the play is unified; it is about characters who act out their compulsions. But the final action, Sara's decision to renounce her ambitions and destroy the business out of love for Simon, seems out of place. I believe, however, that while it may not be justified, it can be explained. We can account for Sara's act if we see it in a pattern of details, all of which are carry-overs from the earlier play in the cycle, A Touch of the Poet: the Byron poem, Sara's peasant looks and aristocratic ambitions, and Deborah's haughtiness. Sara's sacrifice is a direct imitation of the sacrifice her mother had made in the earlier play, dedicating her life to Con Melody. Her mother made a great point of telling her of the duties love entails, and here Sara is being her mother's daughter. The problem is that O'Neill had altered Sara's character to be appropriate to the action of More Stately Mansions, a tale of possessors self-dispossessed, and at the end he has Sara revert to behavior suitable to A Touch of the Poet.

To conclude, I would say that while I have gone outside the play to account for the way it ends, the rest of the action is integrated. It is unnecessary to discuss the play piecemeal, the usual approach, as if it were an O'Neill miscellany, a grab bag filled with typical concerns--the Oedipus conflict, the themes of madness and illusion, the use of the door. This approach ignores the whole simply because the reader happens to recognize a few of the parts. The play also need not be discussed almost apologetically, need not be justified on the grounds that it was to be part of a cycle. Each of these approaches fails to consider the play on its own terms because it reminds the critic of something else. I believe it has been this habit of using the play to support other pre-conceived ideas which has led to the incomplete interpretations of More Stately Mansions.

--Joseph Petite

1 Murry Hartman, "The Skeleton in O'Neill's Mansions," Drama Survey, Winter 1966-67, p. 279.

2 Jere Real, "The Brothel in O'Neill's Mansions," Modern Drama, 12 (February 1970), p. 389.

3 Eugene O'Neill, More Stately Mansions, ed., Donald Gallup (New Haven, 1964), p. 74.



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