REVIEWS AND ABSTRACTS
3. Sheng-chuan Lai, "Mysticism and Noh in O'Neill." [Abstract of a paper delivered at the American Theatre Association Convention in Dallas, Texas, August, 1981. The paper will be printed in full in a future issue of Theatre Journal. The editor is grateful to the author for providing this abstract. --Ed.]
Through a chronological study of O'Neill's works, an attempt is made to trace the development of his thought and style to the point where, in his final plays, he succeeded in achieving his self-stated artistic ambition: to portray, or at least to "faintly shadow," the "impelling, inscrutable forces behind life." Classifying this ambition as "mystical" under the definition that the mystical experience involves the apprehension of an ultimate nonsensuous unity in all things, entirely transcending sensory-intellectual consciousness, O'Neill's final product, after long years of experimentation, is a marriage of perception and form that bears striking resemblance to the structure and effects of many plays of the Japanese Noh repertoire.
Light On the Path is discussed, in connection with O'Neill's early development, largely for its negative influences on his thought and art. Light's lack of total mystic insight, disguised by poetic excess, is reflected directly in such works as The Fountain and Marco Millions. O'Neill's lavish experiments of the 20's, with their verbalization of mystic concepts, were doomed to fail as expressions of mystic experience because of the inherent nature of such experience: that it cannot be communicated verbally.
It was only after O'Neill turned away from the exotic, and from determined efforts at verbal and scenic depiction of mystic insight, back to realistic settings and into himself and people close to him for subject matter, that he succeeded in his goal.
His dramatic structure in the late plays is closely connected to that of the Ghost or Woman Noh play. Narrative, or progression of events, becomes secondary, a means to set the stage for the characters to reminisce on tragic events of the past. Narrative becomes suspended as time becomes suspended, and it is not what the characters do, but what they say about the past that is important. Tragedy is not enacted; it is recollected.
The Iceman Cometh, Long Day's Journey into Night, and A Moon for the Misbegotten are offered as illustrations of this structure. In these plays, major dramatic movement comes through the telling of stories that are in the deepest recesses of the characters' consciousnesses. The main figures are not unlike the haunted ghosts of the Noh, who are driven to explain poetically the reasons for their previous "deaths" and why they are haunted.
Past mystical experience lingers at the bottom of the thoughts of Hickey and the Tyrones; yet it is in Edmund Tyrone's denial of the possibility of conveying verbally his mystical experiences at sea that O'Neill opens up the possibility to manifest, through the plays, forces that run behind life. As in many Noh plays, the strangely beautiful mood evoked by these late works becomes more important than the events that occur, as movement becomes static and time suspended.
Jamie and Josie in Moon fit the Noh shite-waki relationship well--Jamie as tortured ghost, Josie as listening Priestess. Like Edmund Tyrone, and like the audiences of both the late O'Neill and the Noh, they are given a glimpse of "the veil as seen drawn by an unseen hand," a glimpse that they, or we, may never be able to grasp or regain completely. "The past is the present," as Mary Tyrone says, in the suspended moments in these plays, wherein O'Neill achieved a maturity in perception toward the mystic forces he had merely detected earlier in his career, coupled with a maturity in artistic form. (S.L.)
4. Shelly Regenbaum, "O'Neill and the Hebraic Theme of Sacrifice." [Abstract of a paper delivered at the American Theatre Association in Dallas, Texas, August, 1981. The editor is grateful to Professor Regenbaum for providing this summary of her presentation. --Ed.]
O'Neill is one of the prominent American playwrights who have been attracted to myth and religion as avenues of artistic expression. He turned, via Nietzsche, to Greek tragedy and ritual and the New Testament. He also exploited Old Testament archetypal events and characters, though his use of Old Testament stories has generally escaped the attention of the critics. The main reason for this oversight is rooted in the fact that the latter archetypes are never fully or openly dramatized in the plays. And yet Old Testament figures and concepts do exist in O'Neill's work, and they are used mainly to render conflicts in the family.
Tensions between fathers and sons were of special interest and urgency to O'Neill. His recurrent preoccupation with the father who threatens the life or spirit of his son brings the story of the sacrifice of Isaac to mind. The Old Testament concepts of family inheritance, blood-ties and birthright, which are exemplified in the story of Abraham, often shape O'Neill's generational conflicts. Like the archetypal patriarch, O'Neill's fathers are often authoritarian and obsessed with a grand dream and a sense of mission. The sons, like the Biblical heir, are often dependent on their fathers and crave to inherit their patrimony. In several plays, the conflict between father and son is associated with the father's inheritance and the son's status as the heir. The father deeply resents his son and struggles to deprive him of the legacy. The son, like the Biblical Isaac, feels a compulsion to follow his father's footsteps, for good or ill. In some of the plays this conflict ends in the destruction of the family. In others, however, father and son may reach a reconciliation. In the Biblical story of the sacrifice of Isaac (known as the Akedah), Isaac is spared. The story thus holds in precarious balance hatred and love, strife and reconciliation, between father and son. And it is precisely this two-fold vision--of harshness and mercy, of father and son as enemies and yet potential friends--that informs O'Neill's dramatization of fathers and sons.
Both Desire Under the Elms and Long Day's Journey into Night depict generational conflicts. In the earlier play, the harshness of the puritanical father prevails; while the later play ends with the feeling that the sacrifice may be averted and the son may live on to become a poet.
In the character of Ephraim Cabot, a fierce 19th century Puritan, O'Neill captures the distorted figure of the archetypal patriarch. Ephraim is associated with Abraham through his leadership, his pioneering vision of "the promised land," his passionate desire for an heir and his rejection of his son. Yet unlike Abraham, he never achieves reconciliation with his son and he also loses his heir. As Ephraim embodies only the harsh aspects in the figure of Abraham, his God is similarly a distorted Hebraic God, the desert God of vengeance who is incapable of forgiveness.
Although he is seventy-five, Ephraim behaves as if he is going to live forever. He wants it all: the farm, the woman, a defeated son and an imaginary heir. He wants to be both the father and the son and enjoy the benefits of being both the patriarch and the young, "sonless" father. When he marries the young Abbie and hopes that she will give him an heir, he attempts to erase the past and the existence of his legitimate sons.
Ephraim's arrogance is most succinctly expressed in his attitude toward his heirs. He is bitterly resentful of his sons' desire for the farm, although they are his lawful heirs. And yet he also adopts the Hebraic concept of genealogy according to which the father's spirit and possessions live on through the blood-heir. Survival in the Old Testament sense, namely through the son, is constantly on Ephraim's mind. He asks Abbie to pray for a son, as the Biblical Rachel had done; the true son who will inherit the farm. In spite of the fact that he craves for an heir with religious fervor, Ephraim hates his sons from his former wives, treats them harshly and disinherits them at will. Unlike Abraham, who finally curbs his patriarchal pride, Ephraim recognizes no laws. He feels that he can always elect a new heir and banish the others. The punishment which he receives corresponds directly to his hubris. He is cuckolded by his wife, who bears a son to Eben rather than to him; and he is left, at the end of the play, in full possession of the farm, but without wife, sons and future.
In Desire Under the Elms the Biblical story of the sacrifice is used to show the way in which a religious revenge code (imputed to Hebraism) leads to strife and deception, and divides the family against itself. It is only in Long Day's Journey into Night that O'Neill attempts to mould an actual reconciliation between father and son. The relations of the Tyrones, like those of the Cabots, are presented in the imaginative structure of the sacrifice. The father's miserliness and the way in which it threatens the life of his consumptive son, Edmund, becomes one of the major themes in the play, and the Akedah motif is thus introduced. And yet the wrath of the desert God, the God to whom Ephraim so often prays, has subsided.
In the fourth act of the play, the father gives up his paternal arrogance while the son overcomes his habitual passivity. The doctor's report of Edmund's consumption sends Mary to the oblivion of morphine and Jamie to the forgetfulness of alcohol. James and Edmund, in contrast, seem to be able to confront the problem together, with unexpected courage. Edmund, who usually hides behind self-pitying apathy, now challenges his father. Tyrone, no longer armed with denials and rationalizations, answers the challenge.
James's confession of his artistic failure is, perhaps, a harbinger of future friendship between father and son. He could have become a Shakespearean actor of reputation but, driven by the fear of the poorhouse, he sacrificed his artistic integrity for a flashy success at the box office. Edmund is the first to know about this bitter failure. Tyrone had never confessed his shame to anyone; but now, on this night, he shares it with his son. The confession is thus a singular act of moral courage--the father's courage of exposing his guilt and his limitations to his son and thus meeting him as an equal and risking being despised by him. Momentarily, Tyrone even alters his sanatorium verdict. The possibility certainly exists that James will once more harden his position, and that Edmund will relapse into suicidal gloom. And yet the other possibility, that the father's love for his son will overcome his impulse to betray him, has been clearly established.
In Desire Under the Elms the Biblical story of the Akedah articulates the ancient hatred between father and son. In Long Day's Journey into Night the archetypal story expresses the ancient longing for a reconciliation between the two. The Tyrones constantly betray each other; and yet they are also passionately devoted to each other. The father wants to destroy his son, and yet he also wants to save him. This swaying between hate and love truly captures the archetypal essence of the Akedah story. (S.R.)
5. Andrew B. Harris, Jr. "A Tangible Confrontation: Welded," Theatre News (Fall 1981), pp. 9-10. An Abstract.
Andrew Harris, producer of the Jose Quintero-directed production of Welded at Columbia University's Center for Theatre Studies last June (see Summer-Fall 1981 issue, pp. 15-21), provides enlightening background information about the project's aims and methods, hoping to "contribute to a more balanced appraisal" of the event than that provided by the critics, whose response was "hardly favorable" and "not one [of whom] was able to put the work of either O'Neill or Quintero into perspective."
Wanting to try one of the early plays, and finding that his first choice, The Hairy Ape, had been staged in New York by another Columbia directing teacher, George Ferencz, just five years before, Quintero chose Welded after Harris suggested that he read it. And the suggester infers the reasons for the director's immediate excitement:
Quintero's approach was to treat the text as unfinished--as the "script of a contemporary experimental playwright"--and to rehearse it "in a way that suggested that the playwright himself was watching [and] might appear from time to time and change lines or reorder the speeches." Such an approach offered more possibilities for creative invention than "the great masterpiece approach that stymies the imagination." And Quintero eschewed a realistic treatment, preferring "to go beyond the realm of realism to explore the psychic implications of what O'Neill meant by the idea of 'welded.' Specifically, was it possible for two highly individualistic souls to unite, not simply through sex, to form a single spirited being under the banner of art?"
Frequently, during the four weeks of rehearsal, as actors and director "thrashed and burrowed ... deeper and deeper to find the meaning of the skeletal script," the results were "pure gold," as in the "seminal" scene between Michael and the prostitute. At least as often, however, "the script escaped the actors, who couldn't find the internalization for all of O'Neill's quixotic changes of mood." But the excitement remained constant, and the quest was in itself "exciting and rewarding."
The report, which mentions the multiple activities that surrounded the project--the workshops (led by George Ferencz, and covering Dynamo, Gold, Great God Brown and Marco Millions as well as Welded), viewing sessions (videotapes of Iceman and Moon for the Misbegotten from the Museum of Broadcasting), and other ventures including lectures by Quintero on his other O'Neill productions and a trip to the Monte Cristo Cottage--makes valuable reading for anyone contemplating a comparable project. Mr. Harris offers a valuable complement to the nays of critics who evaluated the performance in terms of professionally packaged glitter--which was, he says, the wrong way to approach the performance. "Those who came with an open mind, ready to see an early work by America's greatest playwright, came away with a rare insight into the creative process. Those who came expecting to find Eldorado, left unenlightened and angry. ... On the whole, the O'Neill project was successful in meeting the aims of the Center"--especially the aim of "exposing the students to a tangible confrontation with the O'Neillean experience." (Ed.)
6. Linda Ben-Zvi, "Exiles, The Great God Brown, and the Specter of Nietzsche," Modern Drama, XXIV (September 1981), 251-269. An Abstract.
Ms. Ben-Zvi begins by citing the "striking similarities" between the lives of James Joyce and Eugene O'Neill, similarities "that can be attributed in part to their commonly shared Irish roots ... and in part to their shared desire to escape those roots and become self-begetting in their person and in their art." She then notes the long-acknowledged evidences of Joycean influence on O'Neill's work: stream of consciousness in Ulysses, which O'Neill read in 1922, begetting a comparable device in Strange Interlude; Portrait of the Artist inspiring a similar, and similarly personal, study of a young writer's emergence in The Straw; and Bread and Butter, O'Neill's first full-length play (1914), while not demonstrating direct influence, nevertheless resembling Joyce in its tone and its subject, "the artist's struggle."
But all of this is mere prologue to a splendidly detailed study of Joyce's play, Exiles, which O'Neill was instantly excited about when he first learned of it from Padraic Colum in the summer of 1924; and its parallels with, if not influences on, The Great God Brown, for which O'Neill wrote a detailed scenario that very summer. "[I]t is significant," she writes, "that, after ten years, O'Neill once more began a play whose roots were connected with material he had earlier associated [in Bread and Butter] with the writing of Joyce." In addition, "there is present throughout [Exiles] the clear impress of the philosopher whom O'Neill most admired: Friedrich Nietzsche." Nietzsche, she claims, "cast his shadow over both works."
The parallels that Ms. Ben-Zvi reveals between the two plays involve "personae, female figures, secondary male figures, plot, and resolution." She points out the strong resemblances between Richard Rowan and Dion Anthony--both "tormented souls" and "spiritual exiles"; both masked (Anthony literally; Rowan metaphorically); both seeking solace in "surrogate mothers" to make up for their "primal exile from the mother." She notes the correspondences between the pairs of women associated with the two protagonists: the wives, Bertha and Margaret; and the confidantes, Beatrice and Cybel. Both secondary male figures--Robert Hand and Billy Brown--"are childhood friends of the heroes, both look up to their more talented friends, both profess loyalty to them, and both desire and plot to take from them that which the heroes prize most--their women," doing the last largely as "a means of possessing those qualities which the protagonists have and the friends lack." The friends are, in addition to being "shadows [and "direct mirror opposites"] of their mentors," "successful purveyors of the values of the society they represent," mouthing its cliches and epitomizing its tawdry values in their "success."
Since both plays portray "the hero as mystic, the woman as earth mother, the friend as betrayer and as spokesman for society," parallelism is unquestionable. Add to all this the Nietzschean connection--specifically the influence of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, whose concepts of "overman" (Richard and Dion) and "last man" (Robert and Billy) Ms. Ben-Zvi clears of the barnacles of misinterpretation--and the case for Joycean influence is still stronger. She also relates the plays' protagonists to the three metamorphoses that comprise, in Zarathustra, the spiritual evolution of the overman--camel (self-exile), lion (aggressive self-assertion) and child (innocence, affirmation, and a new beginning)--noting that in both plays the third stage "is transferred from the struggling males ... to the women they love." Each playwright "presents a defeated hero, not able to move to the final stage of the 'overman.' And [each] also has his women [Bertha in Exiles; in Brown, Billy's mother, Dion's mother, Margaret, and especially Cybel, whose famous speech near the end ("Always spring comes again bearing life!...") "seems almost pure undigested Nietzsche") voice the call for hope and love, an ever constant memory of innocence that overshadows even the defeats of the present."
In short, despite autobiographical and stylistic differences, Exiles and The Great God Brown provide "one of the clearest examples in modern drama of two playwrights charting the same path for their personae to follow: the path toward self-fulfillment as artists." (Ed.)
7. David Phillips, "Eugene O'Neill's Fateful Maine Interlude," Down East (August 1981), pp. 84-87, 99-108. An Abstract.
The effusive subtitle--if two sentences in italics can be called a subtitle--is itself an abstract: "The summer of 1926 found America's greatest playwright vacationing with his family on the Belgrade Lakes. Hard at work on Strange Interlude, he sought diversion in a liaison that would mark a major turning point in his life." As Mr. Phillips describes it, in an article more anecdotal than insightful, O'Neill's summer at Loon Lodge (July 1 - October 10, 1926) reminds me of the three movements of a sonata--appassionata or other.
The first movement (Allegro vivace--through the end of July) is filled with optimistic bustle as O'Neill--having fled the alcoholic temptations of Provincetown, and surrounded by his second wife, Agnes, their two children, Shane and Oona, his son Eugene, Jr., and Agnes's daughter Barbara--managed, in a hastily constructed shack near the house, to work every day on his uncompleted draft of Strange Interlude, follow that with a vigorous mile-long swim, and rejoin the family at mid- or late-afternoon, "refreshed, relaxed, and ready to resume his role as pater familias." Aside from a severe chest cold shortly after their arrival, O'Neill was effervescent. And well he should have been: just awarded a Doctor of Literature degree from Yale ("Old Doc O'Neill," he called himself that summer), with two Pulitzer Prizes to his credit and five new plays produced on Broadway in the previous two seasons, and having established at last a warm relationship with Eugene, Jr., the son of his first marriage--even Eugene O'Neill couldn't resist at least temporary euphoria. Unfortunately it was only temporary.
The second movement (Molto agitato--through mid-August) provides ample contrast to the frolicsome first: "by the first week in August there were signs of a growing malaise." Progress on Strange Interlude was worse than slow (all he'd produced were "three unsatisfactory revisions of the second scene"); the omnipresent children had strained his patience to the breaking point (Eugene and Barbara "were sent packing several weeks earlier than planned"); and abstinence from alcohol had left what he called a "void" that rustication and claustrophobic domesticity could not fill. What could and did fill it was the diverting "liaison" mentioned in the second sentence of Mr. Phillips' subtitle--though to say that O'Neill sought it does not jibe with the story he tells.
The liaison, initiating the third movement (Poco a poco animando--mid-August through September), was with Carlotta Monterey, whom he had not seen since a chilly encounter in 1922, when she'd played in The Hairy Ape at the Plymouth Theatre. She too had come to Maine to reassemble her life--her third marriage had ended in divorce a few months before--and she was staying with a friend of the O'Neills, the formidable Elizabeth Marbury, at the latter's summer home two miles from Loon Lodge. Meeting O'Neill when he and Agnes dropped by for tea, and discovering that he was not the ungracious bear he'd seemed in New York four years before, Carlotta set her cap for him and began what Phillips describes as an aggressive campaign to capture him. ("The old forgotten-scarf trick was the most subtle stratagem [she] employed ... to get close to O'Neill.") She also set her bathing attire--appearing regularly at Loon Lodge "in a boyish, white, wool-knit swimsuit, daringly devoid of the then-common overskirt...." And the result was a revitalized O'Neill: "by early September [his] creative juices were flowing again," and even the continued failure to find a New York producer for Lazarus Laughed, that had aroused his fury earlier in the summer, now had a more positive effect: it inspired the dream, described in a letter to Kenneth Macgowan, of founding an "O'Neill repertory company." (A dream that many of us still share.) By sonata's end--on October 10, when the O'Neills left Maine forever and returned to New York City--Eugene either had, or soon would have, Carlotta's Manhattan address.
The rest, as they say, is history. In fact, almost all of the Phillips story had already been admirably chronicled by Louis Sheaffer (O'Neill, Son and Artist, pp. 211-230, to which pages Mr. Phillips owes a considerable and unacknowledged debt) and by the Gelbs (O'Neill, pp. 609-618). No one who has those books--as every authentic O'Neillian must--need seek out the article, though I should note that the six accom¬panying photographs (O'Neill rowing a canoe with Carlotta and Shane; Agnes, Shane and O'Neill in Bermuda a few months earlier; Loon Lodge today, etc.) are excellent, and none is among the three included in the Sheaffer volume. (Ed.)
8. Frank Rich, "A Short Day's Journey to Eugene O'Neill's Childhood Home," New York Times (August 6, 1981), p. C15. An Abstract.
In a report of his summer visit to the ghost-riddled Monte Cristo Cottage in New London and the vibrant, bustling Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Frank Rich describes these "neighboring Connecticut towns" as the "geographical point where the past and the future of the American theater intersect." The past is enshrined at Monte Cristo Cottage, where Mr. Rich felt the awe many of us have shared when entering the environs of two of O'Neill's most personal plays--both great, but each so tonally different from the other:
The "future" is of course the domain of the O'Neill Theater Center, "where our theater's fledgling O'Neills come to shape their plays away from the commercial hustle of New York." (Ed.)
© Copyright 1999-2007 eOneill.com