Menu Bar

 

Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. VI, No. 1
Spring, 1982


(IN THIS ISSUE)

O'NEILL AND FRANK WEDEKIND, PART ONE*

[The Newsletter's second use of serialization is particularly appropriate, as the second half of Ms. Tuck's study of the relationship between O'Neill and Wedekind, which compares two major female characters--O'Neill's Nina Leeds (in Strange Interlude) and Wedekind's Lulu (in Erdgeist)--will be a part of the special Summer-Fall issue on "O'Neill's Women." --Ed.]

Iconoclasts of the stage, Frank Wedekind and Eugene O'Neill frequently shocked audiences in their choice and treatment of unorthodox subject matter. A statement by the American dramatist defines the German playwright's artistic aim as well: "I intend to use whatever I can make my own, to write about anything under the sun in any manner that fits or can be invented to fit the subject. And I shall never be influenced by any consideration but one: Is it the truth as I know it--or, better still, feel it? If so, shoot, and let the splinters fly wherever they may."1 Little research has been done concerning O'Neill's debt to Wedekind, although several critics have discussed the American playwright's affinities to German Expressionism in general.2 Even though separated by time and country, there are nonetheless intriguing resemblances in Wedekind's and O'Neill's lives, personalities, and--most importantly--artistic concerns. Furthermore, the influence of Frhlings Erwachen (1891) on Ah, Wilderness! (1933) and of Erdgeist (1895) on Strange Interlude (1928) indicates that Wedekind was an important ancestor for O'Neill. In this essay an attempt will be made to compare those plays, to ascertain O'Neill's familiarity with Wedekind's work, and to suggest some similarities between the two writers.

Both men were painfully sensitive, introspective, and withdrawn; each had unsatisfactory relationships with women and highly unstable family circumstances.3 Simply to escape parental confines and demands, Wedekind and O'Neill sought their freedom in the unfettered bohemian life of the demi-monde. The American playwright spent many of his young adult years in the alcoholic depths of New York City, while Wedekind lived among lower-class, under-privileged drifters who were not encumbered by bourgeois morality. Wedekind's political poetry and his contributions to the satirical magazine Simplizissimus helped to foster his reputation as a freethinker. O'Neill absorbed radical philosophies from Benjamin Tucker and Terry Carlin4 and, like Wedekind, read Nietzsche constantly and avidly. For a time, in fact, O'Neill carried a copy of Also sprach Zarathustra with him wherever he went, and once said that it influenced him more than any other book he had read.5 Similarly, both writers thought of themselves as loyal disciples of Strindberg.

Like O'Neill, Wedekind had little interest in formal education, but followed his father's wishes and began to study law, only to abandon it for literature, art, and the theatre. In the late 1880s, Wedekind worked in advertising and undertook various journalistic assignments, just as O'Neill for a time made his living as a reporter. When his father died, Wedekind received a sizable inheritance, and, in the summer of 1889, settled in Munich amidst actors, music-hall entertainers, and circus people. His fascination with the circus and the cabaret finds a counterpart in O'Neill's intimate acquaintance with vaudeville, for James O'Neill was famous for his endlessly-repeated role as the Count of Monte Cristo. O'Neill recognized the influence of his father's life as a well-known vaudevillian and once remarked, "I had known the theatre pretty intimately, because of my father's connection with it. But, with me, to know it had not been to love it! I had always been repelled by its artificiality, its slavish clinging to old traditions. Yet, when I began to write, it was for the theatre. And my knowledge of it helped me, because I knew what I wanted to avoid doing."6

O'Neill's search for new dramatic forms and innovative material parallels Wedekind's very similar quest. Dissatisfied with much of the prevailing theatrical fare in their homelands, the playwrights ignored--at times deliberately defied--their audiences; approval was never a primary concern. As a result, both struggled with censorship in their relentless attempt to show life unadorned by the panacea of illusion.

However, while personal resemblances are worth noting, my primary concern is to show that O'Neill had access to Wedekind's work. Frhlings Erwachen was available in an English translation in 1909, Erdgeist in 19147 . According to Doris Alexander, the fledgling playwright began to read the German dramatist's works in the spring of 1913 and especially admired the way in which sex was used as a force able to destroy individuals. As a result of his reading, O'Neill became dissatisfied with his own writing and remarked that he could no longer think highly of his recently completed A Wife for a Life, which was "aimed deliberately at a vaudeville audience."8 Alexander also quotes Corwin Willson, one of O'Neill's classmates at Harvard during the school year of 1914-15, who maintained that O'Neill "wanted to learn German ... so that he could read more Wedekind."9 A few years later, Pierre Loving recounted that in his discussions with O'Neill, the dramatist showed a keen interest in and familiarity with Continental drama. Loving does not specify the nationalities of the writers they discussed, but notes that O'Neill "launched into a brilliant analysis" of them and insisted "he had just read the newer men in their original tongue. "10 It is also of interest that, in 1924, O'Neill's wife published an article in which she noted that the great experimentalists in the theatre were Strindberg, Ibsen, Kaiser, and Wedekind.11 Clearly, Wedekind was no stranger to O'Neill.

What impressions of Wedekind would O'Neill have received if, in addition to reading his plays, he had consulted contemporary drama books? In The Theatre of Today, Hiram Kelly Moderwell remarked upon the "mordant brilliancy" of Wedekind's dialogue and felt he was "so strange, so perverse, so anarchic, and withal so talented and so courageous" that it was impossible to classify him. Moderwell placed Wedekind "at the head of the German dramatists of today."12 Archibald Henderson noted, in The Changing Drama, that Wedekind's "characters speak out in the presence of others with such revolutionary frankness, such fathomless navet, that the harboring of secret thoughts seems almost to have disappeared...."13 In Aspects of Modern Drama, Frank Chandler commented upon Wedekind's "bestial world" and "fleshly eroticism." He went on to complain that for the German playwright "existence...is brutal and bad, and that which affords joy inflicts pain in larger measure. Men and women are pitiful creatures, the slaves of instinct, and the business of art is to show them convulsed by desire and battling one another."14 This was precisely the sort of dramatist who would appeal to O'Neill.

Could O'Neill have seen performances of Wedekind's plays? Evidence indicates that he could. According to Peter Bauland, the first of the German dramatist's plays to be presented in English in New York City was The Tenor (Der Kammersnger) on January 10, 1916, by the Washington Square Players.15 Not only was O'Neill in New York City at the time, but the date coincides with his first, feverish interest in the Players. Moreover, the subject matter of Wedekind's play--a philistine masquerading as an artist--would no doubt have appealed to O'Neill; he would treat the same theme a decade later in The Great God Brown (1926).

Shortly after The Tenor, the Irving Place Theatre produced Erdgeist in German. The critic for The New Republic (April 22, 1916) wrote that the play "strains our stunted receptivity to the breaking point" and is "utterly disregardful of our judgment of what a woman ought to be." In his analysis of Lulu, the reviewer would certainly have caught O'Neill's attention, for the description exactly fits O'Neill's yet-to-be-born Nina Leeds, the controversial femme fatale of Strange Interlude. "Lulu is sex attraction personified," the critic observed. "Everybody falls in love with her, everybody at some time or other has wanted to marry her.... She is destructive because she always finds out the inner instability of men towards the sex impulses. Ultimately the play is a dramatization of something in man for which the woman is only the external embodiment." The reviewer concluded, "Lulu is all things to all men, but she is also something very definite to every man she meets." The multi-faceted Nina and her constellation of men come instantly to mind.

Frhlings Erwachen was produced in March, 1917, when once again O'Neill was in New York City. Very popular when Max Reinhardt produced it in Berlin, the drama was scheduled to be presented to a selected audience under the auspices of a medical journal in support of the teaching of sex education in the schools. Nevertheless, the New York production was forbidden by the City Commissioner of Licenses, who declared the play unfit to be shown in public. An injunction was obtained by the State Supreme Court for one matinee, but no additional performances took place. Most New York drama critics condemned Frhlings Erwachen as prurient, disgusting, and offensive, and objected to its "gross realism" and the discussion of "adolescent sexual perversions."16 Only one reviewer expressed regret that this "powerful, masterly play" was not appreciated: "No other work in literature so sympathetically interprets the storm and stress of youth at the age when it is torn between its desires and the dread of the unknown17 Because this performance was limited to one engagement and was presented to such a small audience; it is doubtful that O'Neill could have attended. There is, however, a good chance that he heard about the controversy over the "sex drama."

The most likely occasion for O'Neill to have familiarized himself with Wedekind on the stage was offered in may of 1925 when Samuel Eliot, Jr.'s translation of Erdgeist, known as The Loves of Lulu, was produced in New York City. Starring the well-known actress Margot Kelly, the ill-fated production was reviewed extensively, prominently, and ruthlessly by the newspaper critics; it would have been nearly impossible for O'Neill to be unaware of the production. In the New York World (May 12, 1925), Alexander Woollcott reported, "The play and its performance was received with various manifestations of dull wonder, acute embarrassment, and unmannerly hilarity, scene after scene of hot, panting passion played to an accompaniment of titters." Stark Young (New York Times, May 12, 1925) concurred: "Between the actors and the audience the event was almost howlingly disastrous." Not interested, however, in beating an unmistakably dead horse, Young went on to point out Wedekind's "powerful and energizing gift, a view of life that is passionate, uncivilized and vehement, and shot through with strange and unforgettable surprises in subtlety and almost diabolical insight into the darker and more terrible obsessions of our natures." Young was alone in his attempt to salvage some meaning from the wreckage. Influential Burns Mantle, in an article entitled "The Loves of Lulu is Fervid and Ugly" (Daily News, May 13, 1925), confided to readers that the play "is nothing for us to work up a great resentment over. It is palpably done to attract the feverish continentals and their native imitators hereabouts. It is an ugly story of ugly people, with a nasty suggestiveness common to one type of German drama, and will neither appeal to nor harm a single soul worth worrying about."

O'Neill was an obvious exception to Mantle's assertion. During 1924, O'Neill shared the directorship of the Provincetown Playhouse with Robert Edmond Jones and Kenneth Macgowan. On the occasion of the production of Strindberg's The Spook Sonata (January 3, 1924), the young playwright wrote a brief essay for The Provincetown Playbill in which he acknowledged the important role Wedekind played in the development of modern drama: "All that is enduring in what we loosely call 'Expressionism'--all that is artistically valid and sound theatre--can be clearly traced back through Wedekind to Strindberg's The Dream Play, There are Crimes and Crimes, The Spook Sonata, etc."18 In August of the same year, O'Neill complained to Macgowan that nothing by Wedekind had been produced by the Provincetown Playhouse. He singled out for special consideration Lulu--the combination made by Wedekind himself of Erdgeist and Die Bchse der Pandora--and remarked, "It's the best thing of its kind ever written."19 In view of such comments, it is no surprise that Wedekind's influence can be discerned in O'Neill's own work.

II

In his "Proem for Prudes" which prefaces the 1909 English translation of Frhlings Erwachen, Francis J. Ziegler observes, "That it is a fatal error to bring up children, either boys or girls, in ignorance of their sexual nature is the thesis of Frank Wedekind's drama ...."20 The premise of Ah, Wilderness! is identical. Indeed, O'Neill's play may be perceived as an "answer" to the problems posed in the kindertragdie. The struggle to grow up is their common theme, although the playwrights approach the subject matter quite differently. Neither dramatist had a happy childhood, and in both plays it is tempting to identify autobiographical elements. Wedekind, whose tone is sharp and vision is black, confronts his past with bitterness, while O'Neill masks the truth of his own adolescent years. The American playwright referred to Ah, Wilderness! as "A Comedy of Recollection," but there is little recollection in it. The drama is a picture of the childhood that O'Neill would like to have had, not the one he actually experienced.21

Frhlings Erwachen and Ah, Wilderness! portray the suffering adolescent in the adult world. While O'Neill concentrates on one character, seventeen-year-old Richard Miller, Wedekind introduces three young people, Moritz Steifel, Wendla Bergmann, and Melchior Gabor. The first, hounded by extreme parental and academic pressures--which are exacerbated by sexual confusion and fear--commits suicide; the second, naive, trusting, and untutored in the ways of the world, dies as the result of an abortion. These two characters provide the background for Melchior, upon whom Wedekind focuses.

Melchior and Richard are quite similar. Both are intelligent, moody, poetic; they read "radical" literature, have "progressive" notions, and are curious about sex. In his mother's opinion, Richard tastes forbidden fruit when he devours Swinburne, Ibsen, and Omar Khayam. Richard's father, though, is tolerant and displays the same fair-minded attitude that Melchior's mother exhibits when she learns that her son is reading Faust: "I should have waited for one or two years ... [but] you are old enough, Melchior, to be able to know what is good and what is bad for you. Do what you think best for yourself. I should be the first to acknowledge your right in this respect, because you have never given me a reason to have to deny you anything. I only want to warn you that even the best can do harm when one isn't ripe enough in years to receive it properly." Mrs. Gabor concludes with words which O'Neill would have heartily endorsed: "I would rather put my trust in you than in conventional educational methods" (pp. 72-73). Both dramatists create an ideal parent who is open-minded, especially about literature. For Wedekind and O'Neill, the young adult's ability to choose what he reads is an all-important freedom.

We find other similarities between Richard's father and Melchior's mother. Both react in the same manner when their sons are caught writing letters about sex. Richard copies from Swinburne in his correspondence with Muriel ("That I could drink thy veins as wine, and eat/Thy breasts like honey, that from face to feet/Thy body were abolished and consumed,/And in my flesh thy very flesh entombed!"),22 and Moritz outlines the intricacies of the sexual act (twenty pages "On Coition"). Nat Miller confronts his son with the poetry, points out that it is "hardly fit reading for a young girl" (p. 207), but realizes that the sex is in the verse rather than in Richard's actions. Similarly, in her defense of Melchior, Mrs. Gabor asks her husband, "What did he write, then, after all! Isn't it the most striking proof of his harmlessness, of his stupidity, of his childish obscurity, that he can write so!" (p. 126). Melchior's mother is the only adult in Wedekind's play who empathizes with children and treats them as individuals who merit respect. She is alone in a drama in which parents bring "children into the world that they may be able to say to them: 'How happy you are to have such parents!'--and see the children go and do likewise" (p. 151).

This is not, however, to suggest that the Millers are infallible. Throughout, a very closed-minded Essie Miller comments on the unsuitability of the writings of that awful Oscar Wilde, that lascivious Swinburne, hedonistic Omar Khayam, revolutionary Carlyle, immoral Ibsen. But O'Neill never lets us forget that she is basically a good mother, and her comments provide much of the warm humor of the play. There is indeed genuine comedy in Ah, Wilderness!: Sid's tipsy escapades at the dinner table, the continuing saga of Nat's reaction to bluefish, Richard's histrionic declamations from his readings, Essie's bewilderment over a "Hedda" in her son's life. Yet these are the sort of antics found in Father Knows Best or Ozzie and Harriet. At no time does O'Neill let us forget that these are good parents with good children who are able to communicate in a way that Wedekind's characters never can. At the conclusion of Ah, Wilderness!, when Miller tells his son how beautiful the night is and how he used to court his wife, Richard responds: "Yes, I'll bet those must have been wonderful nights, too. You sort of forget the moon was the same way back then--and everything" (p. 297). The play is a wish-fulfillment with a fairy-tale conclusion; "they lived happily ever after" resounds as the curtain falls.

Nothing of the sort can be found in Frhlings Erwachen. Wedekind shows how adult refusal to answer honestly questions posed by children results only in more deception and eventual tragedy. The farcical actions of the schoolteachers during the trial and their lack of concern for either Moritz's death or Melchior's fate arouse no laughter. The tone throughout remains bitterly and bitingly serious.

[Concluded in the next issue.]

--Susan Tuck

* I am grateful to Horst Frenz for suggesting this topic. We intended to write the article jointly, but his illness has made that impossible. Nevertheless, my debt to him remains.

1 Barrett H. Clark, Eugene O'Neill (New York: McBride, 1927), p. 99.

2 For example, Clara Blackburn, "Continental Influences on Eugene O'Neill's Expressionistic Drama," American Literature, 13 (May 1941), 109-133; Ann Gertrude Coleman , "Expressionism--40 Years Later," CEA Critic, 27 (Feb. 1965), 1, 7-8; Otto Koischwitz, O'Neill (Berlin: Junker und Dunnhaupt Verlag, 1938), pp. 136-145; and two publications by Mardi Valgemae: Accelerated Grimace: Expressionism in American Drama of the 1920s (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1972), and "Expressionism in the American Theatre," in Expressionism as an International Literary Phenomenon, ed. Ulrich Weisstein (Paris and Budapest: Didier; Akademiai Kaido, 1973), pp. 193-203.

3 Compare, for example, the autobiographical Long Day's Journey Into Night with Gerhart Hauptmann's Das Friedensfest, which is based on Wedekind's family. See Frederick Heuser, "Gerhart Hauptmann and Frank Wedekind," German Review, 20 (Feb. 1945), 54-68.

4 For a discussion of Tucker and Carlin, respectively, see Louis Sheaffer, O'Neill: Son and Playwright (Boston: Little, Brown, 1968), pp. 102-106 and 335-338.

5 Sheaffer, p. 123.

6 Mary Mullett, "The Extraordinary Story of Eugene O'Neill," American Magazine, 94 (Nov. 1922), 116.

7 Frhlings Erwachen was translated by Francis Ziegler (Philadelphia: Brown Brothers, 1909.) Erdgeist was translated by Samuel A. Eliot, Jr. (New York: A. & C. Boni, 1914).

8 Doris Alexander, The Tempering of Eugene O'Neill (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962), p. 184.

9 Alexander, p. 195.

10 Pierre Loving, "Eugene O'Neill," Bookman, 53 (Aug. 1921), 512.

11 Agnes Boulton, "An Experimental Theatre: The Provincetown Playhouse," Theatre Arts, 8 (March 1924), 185.

12 Hiram Kelly Moderwell, The Theatre of Today (New York: John Lane, 1914), p. 237.

13 Archibald Henderson, The Changing Drama (New York: H. Holt, 1914), p. 210. O'Neill's device of the "spoken thought"--which was to find its most pronounced expression in Strange Interlude--comes immediately to mind.

14 Frank Chandler, Aspects of Modern Drama (New York: Macmillan, 1914), p. 293.

15 Peter Bauland, The Hooded Eagle: Modern German Drama on the New York Stage (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1968), p. 32. I am indebted to Mr. Bauland for subsequent dates of performances of Wedekind's plays in New York City.

16 New York Times, April 1, 1917.

17 New York Globe, April 3, 1917.

18 Eugene O'Neill, "Strindberg and Our Theatre," in The Provincetown: A Story of the Theatre, Helen Deutsch and Stella Hanau (New York: Farr & Rinehart, 1931), p. 192.

19 Louis Sheaffer, O'Neill: Son and Artist (Boston: Little, Brown, 1973), p. 148.

20 Francis J. Ziegler, tr., The Awakening of Spring (Philadelphia: Brown Brothers, 1909), p. v. Subsequent quotations will be given parenthetically within the text. Ziegler's translation, which went through six editions between 1909 and 1920, was the first English version of Wedekind's play and the one which O'Neill would probably have used had he needed a translation. O'Neill would have found the introductory comments quite informative: Ziegler praises Wedekind as "the forerunner of the new drama" whose "language (is) almost bacchic" (p. ix). The translator thought Wedekind a welcome relief from the standard "lyric lemonade" found on the stage and urged American readers to appreciate its forceful realism, even though he conceded that the drama "may not be pleasant reading exactly."

21 Arthur and Barbara Gelb, O'Neill (1962; rpt. New York: Harper & Row, 1973), p. 762.

22 Eugene O'Neill, Ah, Wilderness! in The Plays of Eugene O'Neill (New York: Random House, 1955), p. 205. Subsequent quotations will be given parenthetically within the text.

(IN THIS ISSUE)

 

Copyright 1999-2007 eOneill.com