ON THE SHELF: NEW BOOKS BY AND ABOUT O'NEILL, (PART ONE)
In what would have been his 94th year, Eugene O'Neill has been the author and subject of an unprecedented number of publications, bringing him to well over a "five-foot shelf" in any substantial collection, suggesting that the centennial wheels are beginning to turn, and--above all--adding immeasurably to our appreciation and understanding of the man, his times, and his oeuvre. Three book-length studies; all of the extant letters to his most important theatrical colleague; a delineation of his place in the still-flowing mainstream of American transcendentalism; an analytical history of the Provincetown Players, in whose life (and death) the dramatist played so major a role; and a "development" into play form of the scenario for an unfinished "cycle" play--not to mention the reissue, in paperback, of his finest one-act, and a novel in which he and his family make cameo appearances! A reader of and about O'Neill is faced, this year, with an embarrassment of riches to which no necessarily brief review-article can do justice, even when divided into two parts, in this issue and the next. What follows, therefore, is more an announcement that an assessment: a prolegomenon to the fuller and deeper studies of individual works that will doubtless follow in future issues, as readers and subscribers make their own responses to the books hastily introduced now and in the winter issue. My comments are more personal than critical--what struck me most at first and second "read"--and the order of presentation is in no way intended as an order of ascending or descending merit. Though I have tried to be candid in my observations, I prefer to leave the winnowing process to other hands--and to posterity!
I. "The Theatre We Worked For": The Letters of Eugene O'Neill to Kenneth Macgowan, ed. Jackson Bryer, with introductory essays by Travis Bogard. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982. xiii+274 pp., $25.00. ISBN: 0-300-02583-1.
No O'Neill collection should be without this long-awaited and splendidly produced book. (So much for my pre-announced fence-sitting objectivity!) While most of the letters' revelatory "nuggets" have already been quoted abundantly elsewhere, to have them in their original settings, and in the chronological context provided by the 43 pages of Professor Bogard's four graceful and comprehensive interstices, is a joy. Of the 164 letters and telegrams that are included, 106 are by O'Neill--the 104 of them addressed to Macgowan comprising all that remains of the playwright's correspondence with his longest, most loyal and closest professional mentor and friend. (If only the O'Neills had been as careful in saving letters as the Macgowans were, many of the questions to which O'Neill's side of the correspondence gives rise would have been answered! But Bogard's introduction, Bryer's abundant, detailed and helpful footnotes, and additional letters--by the second and third Mmes. O'Neill and others--fill in as many gaps as is possible, especially in the final years, when Carlotta did the corresponding that illness prevented O'Neill from doing himself. No, this will do. Only the most well-heeled pedant would yearn for a book twice as long--and doubtless twice as expensive!)
Few of the letters are gems of epistolary art, but that is all to the good. What one wants, and gets, is not public pronouncement but unvarnished, unmasked, private utterance; and as a result the collection brings us closer to the man himself than any book except the major biographies (Sheaffer's and the Gelbs'), Bogard's own study, Contour in Time, and the book by Michael Manheim that is reviewed later in this article. And even they are sometimes superseded when the playwright speaks for himself.
Eileen Sondak, reviewing the collection in the San Diego Union (March 21, 1982, p. 2), noted that the letters "can be savored for many reasons." True. One reason, as in many such collections, is the illicit pleasure of peeping at material not intended for any but the original recipient's eye--as when we "overhear" O'Neill repeatedly arranging for Macgowan to provide flowers for Carlotta before the two escaped to Europe; or when we eavesdrop on his acerbic wit in rejecting Macgowan's suggestion of Provincetown veteran Margot Kelly for a replacement role as Ella in All God's Chillun:
Of course the eavesdropper's pleasure is muted when the subject turns to O'Neill's penury, a frequent problem both during and after the time that his parents' estate was tied up in probate (pp. 58, 105, 155, etc.), to overcome which he had repeatedly to beg for advances and overdue royalties. And there's no denying that the troubled reflections of the '30's and '40's are more harrowing than titillating.
A far more important reason for savoring the letters is the behind-the-scenes picture they provide of the development of both men, and each's beneficial influence on the other. As Professor Bogard says (and his introductions are especially helpful in filling in the backgrounds of both men), "Working in association toward a common goal [the Experimental Theatre and the ideal that motivated it] helped them both to achieve clearer self-definition, and mutual interests made each more certain of the direction he would take along the bewildering paths of the young century" (p. 3).
One learns, firsthand, a great deal about the demise of the Provincetown Players--a victim, it seems here (p. 38), of galloping democracy--and even more about the rise and fall of their successor, the Experimental Theatre (1923-26), led by the triumvirate of O'Neill, Macgowan and Robert Edmond Jones (who remains a shadowy and curiously elusive figure in most of the correspondence). It's all here, from the start (September, 1923), when O'Neill advised Macgowan on how to announce the new venture to the public,
through the dissatisfaction he felt (by August, 1926) when the ET seemed less a "progress toward the sort of theatre we want" than a "reversion to show-shop Type" (p. 121), as (in Bogard's words, p. 74) "the necessities of commerce increasingly dictated the policies of art":
to later, nostalgic flickerings (in November, 1936) of the fire that
had ignited the trio at the start: if only they could "get together
again, and start again in New York on
The letters contain so much that no summary can do them justice. Revealing, for instance, are O'Neill's rejection of well-made formulae for play construction,
his rejection of all requests for comments, reviews or essays, whether political or literary:
and his ultimate return (announced in 1929, when Dynamo was nearing completion), after much theatrical experimentation, to the realistic drama founded firmly on script--essentially a playwright's theatre--for which he was best fitted:
One does wish that he'd had more to say about his plays, that his "religion" might have permitted him to let up a little on the "dense silence" in that area at least. All too often they are offered, or commented on, very briefly: The Hairy Ape's defiance of "any of the current 'isms"' (p. 31); the gentle intent of the satire in Marco Millions ("I actually grow to love my American pillars of society, Polo Brothers & Son," [p. 51]); and the periodic enthusiasm about the latest work, such as The Great God Brown (p. 91), which he considers "grand stuff, much deeper and more poetical in a way than anything I've done before," and Lazarus Laughed (p. 112), which he thinks "certainly ... contains the highest writing I have done." Between the depths and heights, all is "dense silence," except for some valuable pages about The Iceman Cometh, "one of the best things I've ever done, I think" (p. 255), whose length and repetitiveness he defends against Macgowan's recommendation of a "drastic condensation of the first part" (p. 256):
Surely any successful production vindicates his intuitions.
One of the values of the book is its positive portrait of Carlotta--whom O'Neill eulogizes, in various epistles, as mother, wife, mistress, friend, collaborator, pal, and brick--and whom Macgowan praises for her dedicated efforts "to straighten out [O'Neill's] personal and domestic life and make it beautiful and creative" (p. 226). Surely Professor Bogard is correct that the couple's letters to Macgowan from Europe before and during the divorce proceedings with Agnes Boulton--alternating between idyllic celebrations of their love ("We belong to each other! We fulfill each other!" [p. 171]) and violent denunciations of "the fair Aggie" ("It is funny how soon an aching heart turns into a greedy gut!" [p. 176])--reveal them "at their worst" (p. 165). But we want the portrait warts and all, and that, except for a few delicate deletions, is precisely what we get.
O'Neill noted his feeling, as early as March 18, 1921 (in the
collection's second letter), that Macgowan and he must have been
"fated for a real friendship" (p. 20), which it obviously was,
considering its survival through geographical and eventually
professional distance, not to mention the barbed wire that Carlotta
erected between her husband and most of his erstwhile cronies
and pals. "I don't think of you as a critic," O'Neill wrote on March
29 of the same year, "but as a fellow-worker for the best that we can
fight for in the theatre in all directions. Both members of that same
club, that's what I mean" (p. 21). That the fight was not wholly
victorious is obvious in the show-shops that abound today while
idealistic fringe groups falter and fall on all sides. (We must
fight too.) But the battle was an important one, and O'Neill's
letters to Macgowan record it vividly. The book ends with a sad
farewell--Macgowan to O'Neill-
II. Robert K. Sarlós, Jig Cook and the Provincetown Players: Theatre in Ferment. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1982. 265 pp., $25.00. ISBN: 0-87023-349-1.
For the second time in as many issues, the University of Massachusetts
A part of the then-burgeoning art theatre movement that questioned the "premises upon which American show business rested" (p. 1), especially its "rampant commercialism," which dedicated radicals like Cook countered with calls for intimacy, economy, imaginativeness and an alliance of artists and audience, the Provincetowners had as their special goal and distinction the production of American plays on American subjects (97 plays by 47 American writers in their eight seasons), which made theirs "the most daring, and the most characteristically American undertaking in United States theatrical history" (p. 56). A highlight of the book is Professor Sarlos' meticulously documented season-by-season chronicle of the group's activities, anxieties, and especially the plays they produced, each of which is succinctly described in terms of content, style, casting, set and direction. There is no fuller record of the Players' achievement, and it seems unlikely that the questions the author admits he has not answered will ever be answered.
Of course the Provincetown Players' story is one of defeat as well as achievement, and the book provides an engrossing narrative of the slow erosion of Cook's initial ideal--his "dedication to spontaneous group creativity" (p. 6)--as individualism overcame collectivism, product overshadowed process, and professionalism (along with the desire for public approbation) swallowed up the anarchic amateurism, the "inspired and innocent spontaneity" (p. 75), of Cook's Platonic dream.
O'Neill's role in the Players' history is unquestionably paradoxical. The man who put them on the map--with the success of his first production, Bound East for Cardiff (1916)--was ultimately the man who wiped them off the map, since it was through the success, and subsequent move uptown, of The Emperor Jones (1920-21) that the group "ceased to be a collective"; and it was his decision, in 1922, to put The Hairy Ape into more professional hands that motivated the Provincetown's final dissolution and Cook's one-way trip to Greece. Accordingly, a historian might limn O'Neill as the villain of the piece; but Professor Sarlós is wise and fair enough to eschew melodrama. O'Neill's 1922 decision, he concludes, while it was "ruthless" and a grave "emotional wound" to Cook, was nevertheless, "for purposes of the playwright's genius, fully justifiable" (p. 141).
The portrait of Cook himself is a thorough and ultimately a sad one. A devotee of Dionysian ecstasy who was always a better guru than administrator, and who periodically subverted his own collectivist philosophy, he resisted to the last the forces that increasingly undermined his ideals. (The section on the battle between collectivism and individualism in art and society [pp. 37-44] is brilliant.) But, though defeated in the end, he is shown to have spearheaded a company that turned American drama from a craft into an art, pioneered the use of contemporary and controversial subject matter, encouraged eclecticism, and--not least important--emphasized the "joy" of the theatrical endeavor. And, from a broader perspective, he was not defeated since his role as "spiritual begetter of modern theatre collectives" (p. 59) bore later fruit in the Group Theatre, the Federal Theatre Project, the Living Theatre, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and Joseph Chaikin's Open Theatre.
The book includes three valuable appendices: a chronology of all of the Players' productions; an "annotated who was who," providing biographical sketches of the "personalities who participated in the history of the Provincetown Players"--108 of them, literally from A (Berenice Abbott) to Z (William Zorach); and a study of four "physical structures"--the Wharf in Provincetown, the two Macdougal Street playhouses in New York City, and Cook's "dome," the controversial structure designed to achieve his vision of a "theatre of pure space." (As he weaves through masses of contradictory evidence about such matters as stage sizes, Professor Sarlós offers an example of scholarly sleuthery at its exciting best.) Concluding with an exhaustive bibliography, and glancing frequently at theatrical and philosophical issues that extend well beyond the specific subject, this is without doubt the best book ever on the dramatic group that provided a start, not only for our greatest playwright, but for the finest in American theatre.
III. Michael Manheim, Eugene O'Neill's New Language of Kinship. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1982. xii+240 pp. $22.00 cloth (ISBN: 0-8156-2262-7), $12.95 paper (ISBN: 0-8156-2277-5).
In both his life and his work, Eugene O'Neill was above all a man with a past. The main influences on his thought and art were not the theories of Nietzsche, Freud & Co., whose various views he embraced if and when they jibed with, assuaged or abetted his emotional set of the moment; nor were they the dramatic methods and subjects of his favorite dramatists, Ibsen and Strindberg; nor those of their opposite, the melodramatic theatre milieu of his father. The main influences on his work were the events of his life, particularly his younger life (to 1923), and more specifically the members of his family--father, mother, elder brother and self--both as we know them in the autobiographical masterwork, Long Day's Journey Into Night, and later, when the deaths of the other three (especially mother and brother in 1922 and 1923 respectively), and his reactions thereto, wrought a near-suicidal, guilt-edged despair that turned him, in the middle period of his career, from a hopeful young playwright with thinly-veiled personal experience to record (as in the S. S. Glencairn one-acts and Anna Christie) to the deeply troubled author of the increasingly hopeless and tortured plays of his middle period, especially from The Great God Brown to Mourning Becomes Electra.
The tremendous extent to which all this was so, and the causes and results of his incremental liberation, not from despair about the human condition, but from the subterfuge, camouflage, and alternating poles of nihilism and escapism of the middle-period plays: these constitute one of the two subjects stunningly covered in Professor Manheim's marvelous book, which is--let me say it right away--a must for any serious student of Eugene O'Neill.
Responding to Travis Bogard's contention, in Contour in Time, that Long Day's Journey was the play [O'Neill] had been trying to write from the outset of his career,"1 Manheim demonstrates that "O'Neill had been writing versions of Long Day's Journey through-out his entire career" (p. 4, emphasis added), and that the plays arousing the greatest fascination in readers and playgoers are those in which he "deals with the motifs associated with his parental home" (pp. 6-7)--a "plethora of autobiographical motifs ... which grow out of the memories which haunted O'Neill throughout his adult life ... memories of his mother, of course, focusing first on her addiction and second on her death; but no less memories of his father, his brother, and his pre-adolescent and adolescent self" (p. 4). Professor Manheim first delineates these motifs in Long Day's Journey (pp. 5-6, and later helpfully listed in an appendix on pp. 211-216), and then traces them throughout the entire canon, showing the many characters who reflect one or another of the four family members, in one or another of their characteristic stances, proving that Bogard's claim, that "over half" of O'Neill's extant plays "contain discernible autobiographical elements" (Bogard, p. xii), is, while correct, something of an understatement. The autobiographical elements are ubiquitous and are here treated with a thoroughness of detail that defies summarization. Particularly brilliant is the demonstration that, "increasingly in his drama, O'Neill's thoughts and feelings about his past flow from character to character" (p. 77), and that a character's sex does not limit his or her relation to one or more of the O'Neills (p. 78). Nina Leeds, for instance, during her nine-acts in Strange Interlude, is at times suggestive of Mary Tyrone (i.e., of O'Neill's mother) and at other times of Carlotta Monterey, while she simultaneously "represents O'Neill himself in the overall design of the play as a life story" (p. 67), a representation that she briefly shares both with Ned Darrell and with Charlie Marsden (p. 64)! Scott's lines about the "tangled web" that deceivers weave seem particularly apt in relation to O'Neill's middle period--his (to quote Father Baird's description of John Loving's novel in Days Without End) "middle hide-and-go-seek period"!
While Professor Manheim rightly notes that periodic reference to the O'Neill biography is "inevitable," he is generally true to his stated purpose--"to write a study of O'Neill's plays and not his life" (p. 42)--though he consistently shows the mutual illuminativeness of both. My only reservation (a miniscule one), aside from some uncertainty about the accuracy of a few interpretive puns (e.g., could O'Neill have had the French word for mother in mind when he chose a mare for Con Melody to shoot?),2 concerns the possible confusion between autobiographical candor and dramatic success. Someone who prefers the plays to the life might question the author's implicit contention that Days Without End is superior to Ah, Wilderness! because the latter, "distinctly a yielding to illusion," "keeps falling back into its never-never land atmosphere" and is devoid of "true human beings" (pp. 101, 105, 104); whereas the former, despite its escapist ending, confronts more directly "O'Neill's vortex of despairing emotion since his mother's death" (p. 96). I've never seen Days performed, and so my assumption of its theatrical inferiority may be faulty. And I can't deny that Richard Miller's roadhouse escapade is "a trivializing of O'Neill's late adolescent adventures" (p. 104, emphasis added). But it isn't trivial to Richard Miller--to whom, by the way, "adolescent sentimentality" is quite appropriate. One play, I believe, is not necessarily better than another because it is closer to the "truth" of its author's life. But I totally agree with Professor Manheim that the last plays, in which autobiographical candor is aligned with theatrical brilliance, are, if not O'Neill's best, at least his best since 1924. And the long, winding road to those plays, the road that "begins in greatly disguised autobiography and ends in high tragedy" (p. 11), has seldom been as effectively traced--and in terms of autobiographical revelation, has never been as detailedly traced--as it is here especially in relation to O'Neill's "murderous resentment" at the alienation caused by his mother's addiction and his suicidal guilt feelings at his own lack of feeling at the time of her and his brother's deaths.
Professor Manheim's second subject, intimately related to the first, is the "language of kinship" of the book's title--a phrase O'Neill used in 1924 to describe the arrestingly acerbic dialogue in Strindberg's Dance of Death (pp. vii, 8, 209)--the "rhythm of alternating hostility and affection, both sincere and both temporary" (p. 8) that is so true of human relations, so evident in the Glencairn one-acts and Anna Christie, so absent from the plays of early 1920's and after, when characters, reflecting the playwright's own inner despair, reject and withdraw from kinship, from "the extreme counter-forces rhythmically varying with one another in close human relationships" (p. 23)--
and so brilliantly re-emergent in the late plays (from Iceman on), when O'Neill was able, by solving his own inner dilemmas, to achieve artistic detachment, triumph over and transcend his past, and become once again "an affirming playwright" (p. 128), whose message, early and late, is this:
And because the transition from pessimism to affirmation is closely related to O'Neill's own inner development both as artist and as man, (e.g., p. 57), the book's two subjects are shown to be essentially one.
Here is another work too rich and detailed to be captured in a few paragraphs. Not only are fresh insights offered on every play, but all previous O'Neill scholarship is assessed and assimilated--frequently in the endnotes, which the reader should consult regularly. Professor Manheim's is scholarship of the highest order, and his book deserves the same praise he offers those of one of his predecessors (p. 2). Like Louis Sheaffer's two-volume biography, this is "a work of deep human understanding."
IV. Roger Asselineau, The Transcendentalist Constant in American Literature. New York: New York University Press (Gotham Library), 1981. xii+189 pp. $18.50 cloth (ISBN: 0-8147-0572-3), $9.50 paper (ISBN: 0-8147-0573-1). Distributed by Columbia University Press.
Professor Asselineau's recent book is not a new creation but a gathering up of twelve essays written independently "over a number of years" (the number being at least eighteen, as the seven previously published in periodicals and books span the years 1961-1978), and I'm afraid that my initial hope was not realized. While every essay is insightful and thought-provoking, the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. First of all, a less than three-page preface can't hold together six chapters on aspects of Walt Whitman and one each on six of his "spiritual heirs"--Dreiser, O'Neill, Sherwood Anderson, Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, and Walter Lowenfels (1897-1976), this century's "most neglected American poet" and "closest approximation to Walt Whitman" (p. 163). And besides, in order to prove that transcendentalism, "far from being a dead and irrelevant philosophy confined to the first half of the nineteenth century, is a fertilizing under-current, a constant in American literature from Emerson down to our own time (p. 5), Asselineau must so water down his implicit definition of transcendentalism, which he admits he has "reduced to its lowest common denominator" (p. v), that the result is no definition at all. What he reveals is what was already known: that there is a strand of "ingrained idealism" and "fundamental romanticism" in American literature, past and present (p. v). And students of Whitman will find little in the six chapters on the poet to equal the author's masterful two-volume study, The Evolution of Walt Whitman (Harvard University Press, 1961 and 1962).
These reservations aside, it is useful to be reminded that American literary naturalism was never as rigorous as its European models; and that our writers, whatever each's ism, tend (a) to treat beauty as, "not plastic beauty, but the mysterious presence behind appearances of something wonderful which escapes [the] senses" (p. 104), and (b) to concentrate on love as "less the satisfaction of a physical need than the fulfilment of a mysterious spiritual hunger" (p. 128). Of Dreiser, for instance, we are told, "His books are not mere naturalistic studies of social conditions; we are never allowed to forget the presence of an infinite and mysterious universe in the background" (p. 111). And of Hemingway, "Love is an oasis in his heroes' lives, where they can rest and forget the nada which surrounds them by transcending the limitations of time and escaping into eternity, for lust is on the level of the body, but love belongs to the realm of the spirit" (p. 149). Such passages, recalling sections in the earlier essays on Whitman, do hold the chapters together in at least a tenuous unity.
Readers interested only in O'Neill need not buy the book since the essay on him, "Eugene O'Neill's Transcendental Phase" (pp. 115-123), is available in the volume where it originally appeared--Festschrift Rudolf Stamm, ed. Eduard Kolb and Jörg Hasler (Bern: Francke Verlag, 1969), pp. 277-283--and it has since been anthologized in other collections of essays. (Its former title: "Desire Under the Elms: A Phase of E. O'Neill's Philosophy.") In it, Asselineau describes O'Neill as a "passionate pilgrim in quest of a shrine in which to worship" (p. 116) who used the drama as a "passionate answer" to a "number of problems which obsessed him" (p. 115) and expressed in Desire Under the Elms "his poignant nostalgia for a joy of life [in Abbie and Eben at play's end] he was unable to experience" (p. 122). He shows how the main characters prove superior to lesser animals, and escape the grips of hereditary and environmental determinism, only by means of their "embryonic sense of beauty" (p. 117; the repeated "purty" is indicative of that quality) and their capacity for experiencing "the purity and transfiguring power of love"--the "Desire" of the title--"an irresistible life-force" which "flows through the elms and drips from them and pervades everything under them" (p. 120). And that life-force, though decidedly non-Christian, is God--"a dynamic, impersonal, pantheistic, or panpsychistic deity present in all things, whether animate or inanimate, breaking down barriers between individuals ... and making them feel one" (p. 120)--a "Dionysian deity," the exact opposite of the hard, stony god of Old Cabot's Puritanism.
One play, plus smaller references to The Web, Lazarus Laughed and The Great God Brown, is rather little as evidence of a transcendental tendency. I had hoped, while reading the fine chapter on Whitman's pervasive oceanic imagery and the metaphysical and maternal associations it regularly drew from the poet ("The Quiddity and Liquidity of Leaves of Grass," pp. 31-49), that parallels in O'Neill would later be cited, such as (to name the most obvious) Paddy's idyllic reverie in The Hairy Ape, and especially Edmund's "transcendental" recollections, in Long Days Journey, of an evening on the bowsprit:
Surely, if there is a supreme moment evidencing O'Neill's kinship with Emerson's "transparent eyeball," Whitman's "Kosmos," and America's "transcendentalist constant this is it. But such connections remain undrawn, leaving O'Neill's part in the volume less than it could have been.
But it is a critical no-no to scorn a book for being itself, rather than what the critic may have hoped for, and the present volume has much to recommend it, though more for generalists in American studies than for students of any individual writer. And if even the former are troubled by the vagueness in the discussions of "mystery," "cosmic context," etc., they may find abundant aid in the book that will open the second half of this review-article--James A. Robinson's Eugene O'Neill and Oriental Thought (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982)--where the content of Eastern religions, and their contributions to O'Neill's philosophy and art, are exhaustively studied, and whose description of O'Neill's "divided vision" can stand as a paradigm for the vision of all of America's literary heirs of Emerson.4
1 Travis Bogard, Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O'Neill (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), p. 422.
2 Actually, the assumption is persuasively defended on p. 107.
3 Eugene O'Neill, Long Day's Journey Into Night (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956), p. 153.
4 Among the other books included in the next issue's segment are Eugene O'Neill's Tragic Vision by C. P. Sinha (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1981), and The Calms of Capricorn, "Developed from O'Neill's Scenario by Donald Gallup, With a Transcription of the Scenario" (New Haven: Ticknor & Fields, 1982).
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