SEXUALITY AS DESTINY: THE SHADOW LIVES OF O'NEILL'S WOMEN*
Scholars and critics of O'Neill's plays have not failed to note how he stereotypes women. The All-Loving Mother and the Gold-Hearted Whore are favorites. I do not dispute the charge; far from it. My purpose in this paper is to identify and categorize certain female types that recur, predictably and relentlessly, in almost all of the plays.**
The prostitutes are so characterless they are hard to tell apart. Mostly, they are good women undone by circumstance; Rose of Web*** initiates the collection with her "What job c'n I git? that am I fit fur?" The Glencairn cycle is full of peripheral women who can only batten on the bestiality of men. Anna, the best of the group, shares with Cybel of Brown and Josie of Misbegotten a phoenix-like ability to renew their chastity through some ideal love. The ambiguity of Josie's past--is she a virgin or a whore or somehow magically both?--might reflect O'Neill's own inability to decide the sexual configuration of his ideal woman. The most materially successful prostitute is Sara of Mansions who day by day on the ornate couch of her husband's office earns--piece by piece--a vast financial empire.
O'Neill's notable inability to distinguish virgin from whore reflects the generally faulty sense of identity shared by most of his women. The result is not poetic mysticism but psychological myopia. In A Drama of Souls, Egil Törnqvist noted O'Neill's fondness for doubled or overlapping personalities, occurring far more commonly in women than in men. For example, Lavinia of Electra merges with Christine, and Deborah and Sara of Mansions exchange roles at will. In Dynamo the fusion becomes ludicrous as Mrs. Fife exchanges herself with the machine. Quite a number of women have no solid outlines at all: Beatriz of Fountain is, like her Dantean model, all symbol and no substance. In Marco there's little difference between the heroines: Donata waits and Kukachin withers, all for love of O'Neill's gabby Babbitt.
With few exceptions, the women in the plays don't have legitimate jobs. There are some incidental nurses in Straw, the odd stenographer here and there, the off-stage Anarchist of Iceman, and the actress of Welded. Shall we include the Dancer in that atrocious play Thirst? She dances not for art but for men, money, and power, and then will sell her body for a drink of water. Couldn't we have some women librarians, teachers, and secretaries even if it's too early for the physicians, managers, and artists? An O'Neill woman who is not supported by father or husband has two choices: to become a prostitute, or to slog away on the farms and in the bars of her male relatives. This is a situation untrue to O'Neill's times, when large numbers of women entered the working force, and it's even less true to his own life. O'Neill found friends, colleagues, lovers, and wives among some of the most vital, over-achieving and independent women of his time: Louise Bryant, Carlotta Monterey, Armina Marshall, Agnes Boulton, Ilka Chase, Lillian Gish, Susan Glaspell. Why did he never draw from life? Did he, like his acknowledged mentor Strindberg, feel uncomfortable with women who were not satisfied with prescribed and limited sexual roles? Louis Sheaffer suspects that O'Neill was neither sensitive to women nor particularly sensual, despite the exuberant romanticism of his letters and play inscriptions.
One might deduce from O'Neill's disdain for prostitutes that he placed a high value on virginity--until we note what happens to his virgins. Evidently a woman's rejection of sex repelled him as much as her indulgence in it. Emma of Diff'rent seems to want a sexless marriage, and she pays for this aberration by falling in love eventually with a young man to whom she was "almost a mother." (O'Neill had a career-long fascination with incest, but either fear of the censors or innate diffidence kept him from confronting the subject head-on.) Mildred of Ape is the archetype of neurotic sexual fastidiousness. If the fantastically complex problems of Nina in Interlude can be said to have a specific beginning, it was in her refusal to sleep with Gordon before he went off to be killed in the war. Deborah of Mansions loathes her dealings with the selfish, threatening opposite sex; she "uses love but loves only herself." Having failed to role-play the "slavish loving mother," she opts for alternative fulfillment in that perfectly sexless activity, grandmotherhood.
In the bodies of O'Neill women there resides a mystical ability to save or destroy men. Sara of Poet and Mansions, Ada of Dynamo, and Cybel of Brown come immediately to mind. (We must find room for Essie of Wilderness somewhere, and perhaps she belongs here. A Ladies-Home-Journal wife-and-mother can be savior of a sort.) Margaret of Brown has all the requisite feminine charms and domestic virtues, but she is unequal to either of the men who love her, and ultimately she fails them both. Certainly Dion is more than she can manage. Like Miriam of Lazarus and Mrs. Loving of Days, she finds it a distinct nuisance to be bonded to a saint.
A favorite theme of O'Neill, which he handled with great feeling, was the plight of a woman restless in unbreakable alliance with the wrong man. This character-type emerges first as some secondary figures in the early plays. Mrs. Knapp, the poverty-ridden wife in Warnings, wonders, "Why did I ever marry such a man?" Yvette, the off-stage heroine of Wife, is similarly beset but gets one of O'Neill's rare reprieves. Until Mrs. Frazer of Servitude was able to delude herself that slavery is freedom, she had found herself "being ground smaller day by day." For Elsa of Days, a marriage based on false assumptions "had become all beauty and truth to me"; when the illusion was lost, not enough personality remained to make a life. Mrs. Keeney of Ile had no choice but "waiting, watching, fearing," and soon enough she will accompany her deranged husband into madness.
Mary Tyrone is of course the epitome of the woman married to the wrong man, forced on a feminine course that is repugnant to her. Not coincidentally, her drug addiction began with the specifically feminine function of childbearing. By the time we meet Nora of Poet she is too tired to be of much interest, but we see her past burdened life through the clear eyes of daughter Sara. Even women we are expected to dislike, such as off-stage Evelyn in Iceman and the nasty Mrs. Rowland of Breakfast, made bad marriages before they had a real chance to find their better selves.
O'Neill once told his secretary that the role a woman should play is that of sacrifice to her man, and in several plays he indicates that this is the woman's choice that will bring happiness to both partners. Cape of Welded is honestly surprised that Eleanor feels the need "of what is outside"; why isn't he enough for her? Recklessness is a failed attempt to work with materials that Strindberg could use superbly, just as Servitude proposes a solution of which Strindberg would probably have approved. Mrs. Baldwin, the trapped woman of the former play, never learns the "joy" of marital bondage that Mrs. Roylston and Mrs. Frazer of the latter play are so happy to embrace. Ruth of Horizon has yoked herself on the farm to the wrong mate; when she gets a chance at the right one, it is no longer her decision to make.
With the exception of Mary Tyrone, O'Neill's most tragic women are those for whom sexual passion has become a disease from which no recovery is possible. Abbie of Desire is O'Neill's first attempt to deal full-scale with a figure of this type, and thereafter she abounds, to reach perfection in Nina and Lavinia. I would include Ella of Chillun in this group. First produced sixty years ago, the play depicts a white woman passionately in love with a black man. To the audiences of the time, Ella's choice would indeed have seemed pathological and her eventual madness the reasonable and predictable consequence of a choice as "sick" in its way as Lavinia's sex-tinged love for father and brother, and Nina's horrendous search for a father in the bodies of weak or stupid men.
This narrowly sexual view of the behavior and destiny of women is not characteristic of the men. They can fail or succeed in work as well as love, have ambitions and interests outside the bedroom, and dream in every sphere imaginable. But a woman's force, aspiration and achievement are focused on relations with a man or men. Martha of Man makes a valuable contribution to her husband's work--but it isn't her work or her choice. She longed until she died to get out of someone else's dream and into her own fulfillment; she got understandably tired of being "a slave to Curt's hobbies."
"Why have you never asserted yourself, claimed your right as an individual?" asks Mrs. Frazer of Mrs. Roylston in Servitude. It is a question one would like to ask nearly every woman in the plays of Eugene O'Neill.
* This paper is dedicated to Professor Dorothy B. Bland.
** For the present study I considered only the standard, readily-available O'Neill canon, excluding the unfinished work presented so temptingly by Virginia Floyd in Eugene O'Neill at Work (New York: Ungar, 1981) and plays that are accessible only in private or university collections.
*** I have used the abbreviated play titles initiated by Egil Törnqvist in A Drama of Souls (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969).
© Copyright 1999-2007 eOneill.com