O'NEILL'S USE OF LANGUAGE IN WHERE THE CROSS IS MADE
Where the Cross Is Made is an early attempt by Eugene O'Neill to trace "the collapse of poorly tempered minds under heavy pressure into madness."1 In this one-act play, we see Nat, a young man of about thirty, deteriorate from a reasonably normal character to a man consumed by passion for treasure. O'Neill's means to dramatize Nat's deterioration are typically dramatic: Nat's dialogue increasingly centers on the hidden treasure, and his actions become more uncontrolled as the play progresses. O'Neill even includes a highly contrived stage effect, "a dense green glow [which] floods slowly in rhythmic waves like a liquid into the room," to objectify Nat's madness.2
Although these means are effective, I would like to suggest that O'Neill's control of Nat's language patterns further emphasizes the character change. In fact, by studying the syntax of Nat's speeches, we can see that his mental collapse is paralleled by the deterioration of his language.
To analyze Nat's speeches I used Kellogg W. Hunt's Grammatical Structures Written at Three Grade Levels3 and considered the number of words per T-Unit (sentences which are grammatically complete when terminated by a period), the number of words per clause, the number of clauses per T-unit, and the number of words per sentence. However, I added one more category for my study--fragments—feeling that, in dramatic dialogue, as an imitation of conversation, fragments were intentional and must be noted.
Because the entire play was manageable, I counted individual words in each sentence of Nat's ninety-five speech groups (series of sentences bound together as an individual speech). Within these groups I accepted answers to questions as complete T-units. In this way, some fragments were classified as complete thoughts, although they were noted only by their spoken words. For instance, "Never in the past three years," which implies that "He has never come down from his room in the past three years," was considered as a complete T-unit, but the word count was six.
To clarify the changes in Nat's language, I divided his dialogue into
five parts, each corresponding to a major sequence in the play. The
opening dialogue (Part I) is a conversation between Nat and Doctor
Higgins, who encourages Nat to commit his father, Captain Bartlett, to
an asylum. During this conversation, Nat relates his father's history
(Part II). After the doctor leaves, Nat and his sister Sue discuss
their father's condition (Part III). When Captain Bartlett enters,
Nat's deterioration begins (Part IV). And his gradual lapse into
insanity is culminated by his maniacally logical concern for finding
the Captain's treasure (Part V). This step-by-step shift in
conversation does, in terms of syntactic structure, reflect Nat's
disintegration in thought and language. And although the sequence is
compacted because of the restrictions of the one-act play, it is
Embedded in this conversation between Nat and Doctor Higgins is the narrative of Captain Bartlett's past. In relating this far-removed history, Nat assumes a more mature style. The number of words per T-unit increases to 8.66 (an increase of 2.55 words over his earlier pattern), and the number of clauses increases slightly to .92. The number of words per clause also increases—to 5.27—but the most obvious change is in the number of words per sentence, an increase to 13.41.
In his conversation with Sue, Nat resumes a language patter similar to that used with Doctor Higgins. Nat answers fewer questions and makes more direct statements, so the number of words per T-unit increases marginally to 6.20. The number of clauses is .79 with 4.40 words per clause. With the average number of words per sentence being 9.37, this sequence closely parallels that in Part I.
When Captain Bartlett enters, and his son becomes obviously upset, we see Nat's syntax drop to its lowest level. There are 4.50 words per T-unit, .08 clauses per T-unit with 5.00 words each. Each sentence contains 4.96 words. This change in syntax closely corresponds to and implies Nat's mental breakdown. At this point in the play, Nat's language becomes fragmentary. These fragments do not answer questions, but instead represent nonsensical, incomplete word groups. Nine fragments are mixed with twenty-four complete T-units, making over one-quarter of Nat's dialogue syntactically incomplete.
After Captain Bartlett's death, when Nat becomes the sole pursuer of the treasure (Part V), his syntax becomes more standard--his madness having become more methodical. He does not re-assume his normal pattern, but instead uses T-units of 5.07 words, with .23 clauses with 3.33 words. His sentences contain 5.84 words.
In viewing Nat's language, I have reached several conclusions. When he is speaking to characters whom he does not fear (Doctor Higgins and Sue), his syntax is normal. When he is presenting a removed narrative--seen from a distant perspective—his syntax is sophisticated, almost prose-like. When he feels threatened by his father and begins to lose his control, his syntax becomes not only less mature, but also less consistent.
Much has been made of O'Neill's use of plot, setting, and character description to suggest his characters' mental conditions. Although I do not question the effectiveness of such dramatic devices to create character, it is important to note that O'Neill's use of syntax parallels these other means of development. He created language suited to his major character in Where the Cross Is Made, and through a systematic analysis of that language we see a technical skill which is perhaps less evident but still present in O'Neill's art.
[Professor Perrin's tables, containing the data used for his study of Nat's language patterns in Where the Cross Is Made, have not been included. They are, however, available to anyone requesting them of the editor. —Ed.]
1 Thomas H. Dickinson, Playwrights of the New American Theater (New York: Macmillan, 1925), p. 66.
2 Eugene O'Neill, Seven Plays of the Sea (1919; rpt. New York: Vintage Books, 1972), p. 158.
3 Kellogg W. Hunt, Grammatical Structures Written at Three Grade Levels (Champaign, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English, 1965), p. 21.
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