O'NEILL SESSION AT MLA '81
A special session on "O'Neill and His Theatrical Children: The Split Character and Extended Monologue in O'Neill and Others" was held on December 28, 1981 as part of the Modern Language Association convention in New York City. The session's director, Vera Jiji of Brooklyn College, explained in her introduction that the chosen subjects are important because O'Neill's pioneering innovations are not sufficiently appreciated and "there is still much to learn from the master." Because of her own mastery in gathering a group of exciting and insightful speakers, Professor Jiji provided us all with a chance to learn a great deal, only a small part of which can be captured in this cryptic summary.
Albert Wertheim of Indiana University spoke on "O'Neill's Days Without End and the Tradition of the Split Character." After tracing the fictional and dramatic tradition of presenting "an inner voice separate from the external self," he pointed out the effectiveness of O'Neill's double casting of John Loving, the central character in Days Without End (1934), as "John" and "Loving," two halves that suggest, in O'Neill's complex presentation, "the Apollonian and the Dionysiac, the Faustan and the Mephistophelian, the Christian and the Satanic, the ego and the alter ego, the outer self and the inner voice... John and Loving portray the eternal warfare between the creative and destructive impulses in man." He admitted that the "Doppelganger device is a gimmick"--an "often unrealistic psychomachia"--but noted its brilliance in providing "dialogue as well as dialectic" and in permitting O'Neill to reveal "the way in which John Loving, the integrated character, is nearly obliterated by the disjunction of his two selves."
He cited, as a possible source, Alice Gerstenberg's play, Overtones, which had been produced by the Washington Square Players in 1915 and therefore would probably have been known to O'Neill. But to Gerstenberg's simpler, solely psychological conflict (a "dialectic of ego and id," in which "two characters ... are portrayed by four actresses all on stage at the same time"), O'Neill added philosophical conflict as well.
Noting that "contemporary American drama must be continually in debt to O'Neill," Professor Wertheim cited Sam Shepard's directions to the actors in Angel City (about looking on their characters as "fractured [wholes] with bits and pieces of character flying off the central theme"), and described a number of recent uses of the device O'Neill had employed in 1934. Among them were Adrienne Kennedy's Funnyhouse of a Negro (1964), which records the "fragmentation of a black woman, Sarah, through the tragic dilemma of being black, intelligent and sensitive in white America," and in which Sarah's "selves" are portrayed by five actors, two male and three female; and Marsha Norman's Getting Out (1977), in which two actresses play Arlie and Arlene, the earlier and later selves of the central character, who has just been released from prison. Among British analogues that he discussed are Hugh Leonard's Da (1978), and two plays by Peter Nichols: Forget-me-not Lane (1971) and Passion Play, the latter being the closest of all to O'Neill's own drama.
Given the praise lavished on these more recent works, Professor Wertheim speculated that Days Without End might not have received the panning it did if it had been produced forty years later. "Looking at it anew in terms of its place in a continuum of drama from Gerstenberg's Overtones to Marsha Norman's Getting Out, one can see that it may merit more recognition and praise than it has received."
Michael Hinden, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, spoke on "Split Character and Extended Monologue in O'Neill and Peter Shaffer"--part of a longer paper, "When Playwrights Talk to God: Peter Shaffer and the Legacy of O'Neill," which has since been printed in the Spring 1982 issue of Comparative Drama and therefore needs less extended summary here. He compared O'Neill's Hickey, in The Iceman Cometh, with Shaffer's Antonio Salieri in Amadeus, and noted that Shaffer "expands upon O'Neill's perception [in Iceman] that man's disillusionment with God can poison the relation of the self to others." While he claimed no direct influence of O'Neill's play on Shaffer's, he noted remarkable similarities between the two protagonists, "the two great monologists of our theater." Both are murderers ("Hickey in fact, Salieri in spirit"); both are "uncompromising in their pessimism"; both are "plotters and manipulators" who peddle bum products (Hickey's salvation spiel and Salieri's music); both have "lost their trust in God, both suffer guilt, and both use the stage as a confessional"; but both, in their confessions, go unbelieved (Hickey by the roomers at Harry Hope's, and Salieri by history), and therefore neither "is permitted to atone, and in this sense the great monologues are failures." The similarities, in fact, extend beyond those already mentioned. Each has a rival (Evelyn and Mozart, respectively) for whom he feels a mixture of pity and contempt; each wants his rival to fail; and "both ... want to reach through their rivals to strike back at God."
Despite these many parallels, Professor Hinden considers Amadeus a lesser play, largely because Shaffer "seems to forget an important tenet of characterization that O'Neill incorporated most successfully in The Iceman Cometh." And that tenet seems to be a combination of character epiphany and authorial empathy. Hickey, at the end, "learns a terrible truth about himself," whereas Salieri, "a static character," remains "a disembodied eloquence floating on a cushion of wind." And the reason for this contrast, Professor Hinden suggests, may be O'Neill's "greater range ... and greater depth of feeling"--his "ability to live within his characters and to twist them inside-out on stage," whereas Shaffer "seems always to be holding back, transmuting passion into rhetoric and smoothing out some inner turmoil by a flow of words."
But Shaffer, Professor Hinden noted, is only in mid-career, and he has already shown himself to be "the playwright now writing in English who has benefited most from O'Neill's legacy." (In the other major portion of his Comparative Drama essay, the author compares Equus and The Great God Brown, which share the theme that "modern life destroys our capacity for unity with divinity.")
The other participants
spoke more briefly, but each made important points. Actor Nicholas
Kepros, who plays Emperor Joseph II in the Broadway production of
Amadeus, compared the "economy of means" in Shaffer's vocal
brilliance--"not a syllable extra, and the payoff lines are
beautifully hewn and crafted"--with the more "ponderous" dramaturgy of
O'Neill, which he came to appreciate fifteen years ago at a
performance of Strange Interlude. The first half of the play
seemed "so rudimentary, so obvious," and he cared little about the
characters or the situation; but by the second half they began to seem
like real people, and by the end "you really care." Like Monteverdi
operas, O'Neill's plays often begin ponderously, and "one expects no
Playwright Romulus Linney conceded that "O'Neill was very clumsy with language," but added that he "had a dramatist's heart and soul" and that, like all great playwrights, he "worked with flesh and blood, primarily, not with language." Besides, "eloquence and language can't do it all," and O'Neill used devices like the split character and the extended monologue as "ways of doing more than language alone can." But it is "cleaving to a basic passion," not a set of rigorous devices, that is the essence of playwriting and the nature of O'Neill's genius. (The split character device, he suggested, O'Neill probably learned from his morphine-addicted mother--"one thing one minute, another the next: there's an education in split character!"--before it was buttressed by his reading of Strindberg.) "What O'Neill was doing in writing his plays was keeping himself sane"--and alive. In the early sea plays, for instance, "the central character is a sexually blocked young man with tremendous problems" and a strong drive toward self-destruction. It was only when O'Neill "pierced into the inner circle of his own life" that he gained the eloquence so evident in his last three plays. Linney urged the audience to "read voraciously all of O'Neill's work" and to trace therein his "struggle to find the great emotional roots of his life."
The last speaker, before a lively discussion among panelists and audience, was Virginia Floyd of Bryant College, whose labor on Eugene O'Neill at Work provided her with many insights into O'Neill's dramatic methods and their causes. Between 1924 and 1943, she said, he wrote a series of plays on the "good-evil duality of man's psyche," an obsession that "flowed from the inner core of O'Neill's own experience," particularly his relations with his older brother, to which source she traces his persistent use of split and contrasting characters. And when he has a split pair achieve fusion, as he did at the end of all versions of Days Without End, he was creating, in drama, "a unity that he dreamed of for himself." "What O'Neill celebrates," she concluded, "is the mystery of man, his eternally contradictory nature."
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