REVIEWS AND ABSTRACTS
6. Gordon Bordewyk and Michael McGowan, "Another Source of Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones," Notes on Modern American Literature (Autumn, 1982), item 10 of Vol. VI.
The authors summarize the play's early stage history, mention previously suggested sources for it in O'Neill's experience and reading, and note that its creation was part of a burst of activity closely following James O'Neill, Sr.'s death on August 10, 1920--ten years after the playwright's return from Central America. But they speculate that "something besides his father's death occurred during the late summer of 1920 which prompted him to synthesize his ideas." That "something," they suggest, was the first national convention of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, held that August, which featured a "massive procession" through the streets of Harlem and an opening meeting in Madison Square Garden at which the Association's founder and leader, Marcus Garvey (the "Black Moses"), received a five minute ovation from the crowd of 20,000 to 25,000 delegates and spectators. The authors note numerous parallels—of appearance, career and program—between Garvey and Brutus Jones, including each's adoption of "the titles and trappings of royalty." (Particularly telling is the quoted criticism of Garvey by W.E.B. DuBois, who wrote that "he pompously seized the pose.... He did not quite dare call himself King Marcus I, but he sunned himself awhile in the address of 'your Majesty.") O'Neill could not have foreseen that Garvey's career would end in financial corruption, disgrace and deportation, but "the fate he assigns to Jones suggests that he had reservations and suspicions about Garvey and his black nationalist campaign." —FCW
7. EUGENE O'NEILL AT WORK MEETS THE CRITICS. Several critical responses to Eugene O'Neill at Work: Newly Released Ideas for Plays, ed. Virginia Floyd (New York: Ungar, 1981) have appeared since the initial review by Winifred Frazer in the Winter 1981 issue of the Newsletter (pp. 16-18). Dana Sue McDermott praised the volume as "a major addition to the current body of O'Neill scholarship" and "a unique source of information and inspiration" (Theatre Journal, December 1982, pp. 557-558); and John Henry Raleigh termed it "a very valuable addition to the O'Neill canon" (Modern Drama, December 1982, pp. 581-583). Each had some reservations—McDermott's concerning the faintness of the illustrations and the fact that "the source Work Diary, or 'W.D.' as it appears in the text, is difficult to trace"; and Raleigh's concerning the introduction, which is "full and clear" but "could have been more coherently organized"—but in both cases praise far outbalanced displeasure.
While Raleigh noted that a scholar should "consult the MSS. themselves," he called the book "a very useful overview and introduction to the considerable corpus of unpublished O'Neilliana," which reveals "how eternally dissatisfied, wayward, wide-ranging, restless, insatiable was O'Neill's creative daimon, ever on the prowl, so to speak, looking for new subjects and new dramatic ways in which to express them—that is, before he settled into the autobiographical subject, the Aristotelian form and the purely naturalistic mode of the last masterpieces."
It was precisely the "autobiographical subject," as traced by Floyd, that aroused the only critical nay, by Royston Coppenger ("The Incomplete Plays of Eugene O'Neill," Theatre Magazine, Summer/Fall 1982, pp. 65-69). Coppenger felt that the over-emphasis on parallels between O'Neill's life and his plays (a result, he says, of "facile psychologizing" that reduces O'Neill's career "to little more than a Freudian tic") is a disservice both to the plays (since it "can cause neglect of other aspects of the author's work") and to the man: "it is not crediting him with an undue amount of cleverness to suppose that his creative imagination was some-times capable of generating plots and characters." Surely the work of Sheaffer, the Gelbs, Bogard and, most recently, Manheim has made O'Neill's ubiquitous autobiographicality "abundantly clear"—and Coppenger, grinding his axe with abandon, offers nothing by way of refutation. While he agrees with Raleigh that it would be best to read the notebooks themselves, even he admits that the Floyd edition provides "a portrait of O'Neill as an artist of great energy and imagination."—FCW
8. Michael Hinden, "When Playwrights Talk to God: Peter Shaffer and the Legacy of Eugene O'Neill," Comparative Drama, 16 (Spring 1982), 49-63.
Much of Professor Hinden's essay was delivered at a 1981 MLA special session on O'Neill, and has already been summarized in the Newsletter (Spring 1982, p. 36). The full essay makes even more clear that Shaffer "traces his lineage directly to O'Neill" (p. 50): both playwrights deal with the same themes, both utilize the same techniques, and both are "obsessed with man's longing for divinity"—a divinity that is disturbingly silent. In comparing two pairs of plays-- Equus and The Great God Brown, and Amadeus and The Iceman Cometh— he finds Shaffer's the more successful of the first pair and O'Neill's the better of the second.* Whether or not one agrees with his verdicts (I found his arguments thoroughly persuasive), the parallels he draws are irrefutable. And whether O'Neill was a direct influence on Shaffer or the cause was the shared influence of Nietzsche, the similarities between Equus and Brown are startling:
Alan Strang is compared to Dion Anthony, Martin Dysart to Billy Brown, and we are shown how "the apostle of Normalcy in each play ends by becoming the ritual substitute for the tortured god-seeker" (p. 55).
"It is time," Professor Hinden says in his introduction, "for critics to assess (O'Neill's] impact on more recent dramatists" (p. 49). His essay, which defies a pithy précis, is a major contribution to that assessment. —FCW
9. Michiko Kakutani, "Hospital Remembers Rebirth of O'Neill," New York Times (Oct. 18, 1982), p. C14.
Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford, CT, which celebrated its 80th anniversary last October, was known as the Gaylord Farm Sanitarium when O'Neill was admitted for a five-month stay in 1912. (His impressions were later recorded in The Straw.) The October celebration featured a reading of O'Neill's letters to the hospital—which he called "the place I was reborn in"—and his experience was offered as an inspiration for other patients, since, as Gaylord vice president Howard J. Crockett noted, O'Neill is "a fantastic example of someone who came here on his hands and knees, and left with a new sense of who he was." Gaylord's contribution to O'Neill's development, in ways other than merely medical, was the chance it offered the tubercular twenty-four-year-old, after six years of hard living and near-dying, for introspection and contemplation. This he later acknowledged:
The result was his decision to become a playwright, and a regimen of preparatory reading Ibsen, Strindberg, Synge, Yeats, Lady Gregory, et al. This "second birth" was particularly important because it was, said O'Neill, "the only one which had my full approval." —FCW
10. Michael Manheim, "O'Neill's Transcendence of Melodrama in A Touch of the Poet and A Moon for the Misbegotten," Comparative Drama, 16 (Fall 1982), 238-250.
Given the theatre of his father, especially The Count of Monte Cristo, and the intrigues, evasions and deceptions that filled his home life, it is undeniable that "Eugene O'Neill grew up on a diet of melodrama" (p. 239). And through a major portion of his career, try as he might to overcome it, melodrama was dominant in the plays he wrote:
But by the late 1930's, after he had come to terms with the memories of his family, melodrama, while it remained a staple in his dramaturgy, lost its dominating hold on it. "As O'Neill began to put his family in perspective, he was becoming more able to put his own melodramatic excesses in perspective" (p. 243).
Professor Manheim surveys a number of the early plays, showing their melodramatic emphases, and follows this with a closer study of the two plays mentioned in his title, both of which "begin with formulaic melodramatic intrigues which are spoofed or actually displaced as the plays develop" (p. 238).
A Touch of the Poet, for instance, begins as sheer melodrama--Con's foray against the uppity Harford, and Sara's plot to trop Simon into marriage—but it rejects the stock formulas when Con's action "approaches farce" ("Con sees his melodrama in serious terms while we take it in comic terms"—p. 242) and when Sara's uncertainty about her motivation, and her growing concern for her father, make her seem, by play's end, "about to become a genuinely tragic figure" (p. 243). Manheim agrees with John Henry Raleigh that the play parodies The Count of Monte Cristo, but he adds that the characterization of Con "is a loving satire of James O'Neill, Sr., and his famous role" (p. 242, italics added). So the transcendence is double—both generic and familial.
In Moon, O'Neill went a step further. While he began again with plot materials—the interrelated schemes of Hogan and his daughter--that were melodramatic in origin and intent, this play "goes beyond the gentle mocking of melodrama in A Touch of the Poet to an actual displacement of it as the play's basis of construction" (p. 244). After an hour and a half of "good, old-fashioned" comic intrigue, when we see beneath the surfaces of Jim and Josie and witness their long, moon-drenched duologue, Moon "becomes quite unexpectedly a play about confession, forgiveness, and freely given love," and the interest "moves from that associated with melodramatic intrigue to that associated with the total release of pent-up feeling—to a catharsis not unlike that associated with classical tragedy" (p. 246). Indeed, it is Manheim's contention that, because O'Neill "came to control his art as he came to understand himself" (p. 248), he was more successful in recreating "the essential effect of classical tragedy" in Moon than he had been, ten years earlier, in Mourning Becomes Electra. —FCW
11. James P. Pettegrove, "'Snuff'd out by an Article': Anna Christie in Berlin," Maske und Kothurn, 27 (1981), 335-345.
The "article" referred to in the quotation from Lord Byron is "Eugene O'Neill in Europe" by Rudolf Kommer (New York Times, Sunday, November 9, 1924). In it, Kommer wrote scathingly about Anna Christie ("Anna Christie's vivacious past is the central theme.... Alas! virginity, lost or otherwise, has no longer any interest for the European playgoer...."); he scoffed at its translation into German by Hungarian dramatist Melchior Lengyel ("his qualifications as literary go-between were limited to a Berlitz acquaintance with English and German"); he labeled the choice of so "inferior" a play as the first O'Neill production in Germany (on October 9, 1923, at the Max Reinhardt-owned Deutsches Theater in Berlin) "one of those astounding errors of judgment not infrequently perpetrated by theatrical managers"; and he claimed that both the production and the translation were failures.
What was "snuff'd out," according to Mr. Pettegrove, was the truth, as critic after critic (Horst Frenz, Oscar Cargill, the Gelbs and Louis Sheaffer are cited) quoted Kommer and accepted his views as sound, which they weren't. He traces the career of Kommer, showing that he "had only a Berlitz acquaintance with drama and the theater"; defends Lengyel both as playwright ("without doubt a leading dramatist of the first half of this century") and as adapter, improving on O'Neill's melodrama by obeying "the logic of naturalistic tragedy" that O'Neill had flouted, and providing, in Anna's suicide, a "plausible denouement."
After lengthy research and correspondence with Mrs. Lengyel, Pettegrove provides many revelations, several of which refute the standard, Kommer-inspired opinions of O'Neill's critics. First of all, neither the Berlin nor the Vienna production of Lengyel's translation was unsuccessful, as Kommer claimed. Secondly, the translation was far from a dud, remaining as it did "the official version from 1923 to 1965." In addition, the translation was actually the work of Mrs. Lengyel, under her husband's supervision, after he had worked out his excisions and revisions. And the text that Lengyel had received from O'Neill in New York was not the Anna Christie published in July, 1922, but an earlier version, The Ole Davil, which O'Neill himself was still tinkering with at the time. The essay makes one eager to do what Pettegrove says one should do: engage in a "careful reading of Melchior Lengyel's version of Anna Christie" before passing judgment on it. —FCW
* In Equus, Shaffer outdoes O'Neill "in providing a concrete psychological dimension to an abstract metaphysical theme"; whereas in Iceman "O'Neill creates a personal dimension for Hickey that somehow seems lacking in Salieri" (p. 61).
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