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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. VII, No. 2
Summer-Fall 1983



As we approach the thirtieth anniversary of Eugene O'Neill's death on November 27, 1953, it might be of at least historical interest to exhume and review one of the first major public responses to that event—"The Tragedy of Eugene O'Neill," an article by playwright John Howard Lawson that appeared in the March 1954 edition of Masses and Mainstream (pp. 7-18)—and a response to the article by film writer and playwright Lester Cole that appeared three issues later (June 1954), coupled with a reply by Lawson under the collective title "Two Views on O'Neill" (pp. 56-63).1 The triptych does not provide a complete assessment of the O'Neill legacy—none could as early as 1954—nor do its authors, given their political stance, offer unbiased judgments. (Myron Matlaw, in his Modern World Drama: An Encyclopedia [New York: E. P. Dutton, 1972, p. 452], describes Lawson as "intransigent in his Marxist commitment.") But the Lawson article, and the exchange which arose from it, do give us a representative view of the mixed feelings toward O'Neill of the "progressive" segment of the American artistic community at the time of his death.

I. "The Tragedy of Eugene O'Neill."

Lawson's opening paragraphs, which explain his title and clarify his point of view, deserve quoting in full, since it is on their foundation that his subsequent survey of the then-known works of O'Neill is based.

When Eugene O'Neill died last December [sic], the time of his greatest fame and influence was so long past that it was half-forgotten. There were respectful obituary notices. The newspapers gloated over the broken remnants of his personal life—the suicide of his eldest son, his rift with his daughter Oona on account of her marriage to Charles Chaplin, his quarrels with his third wife, his painful illness. There was journalistic speculation concerning the state of his finances.

These ghoulish comments express the attitude of our society to a richly endowed and sensitive artist. The society which had hailed O'Neill as a monumental genius was wholly insensitive to the real tragedy of his career. The truth is that when O'Neill the man died, O'Neill the artist had been dead for twenty years. The more profound truth is that the responsibility for the tragedy lies with the society which damaged his art and paralyzed his creative will.

O'Neill was destroyed because his passionate quest for creative values could not be satisfied within the limits of the dominant culture. Yet he could not go beyond these limits because he was bound by the viewpoint of the class that destroyed him. The very intensity of his artistic feeling betrayed him into regarding art as a thing-in-itself and the artist as a lonely pilgrim seeking truth and beauty outside the "vulgarities" of contemporary life.

O'Neill aspired to creative freedom. Yet his deepest difficulty lay in his inability to think independently. His ideas tended increasingly to conform to current fashions in bourgeois philosophy. At the same time he retained his creative zeal, his desire for artistic fulfillment.

When the contradiction between his sterile mode of thought and his passion for creative life became intolerable, he lost the power to communicate with people. After 1934 he wrote nothing that was published or produced on Broadway except the prolix allegory of despair The Iceman Cometh. Yet throughout these years he worked feverishly, writing much that he destroyed, making large plans that were never realized. In spite of a muscular disorder that made it impossible for him to write, he continued work almost to the day of his death. He left at least three plays in manuscript.

In the 1920's, O'Neill won three Pulitzer prizes, and he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936. But the great lesson of his life and art lies in his failure. For almost two decades, in one of the most portentous periods of history, he was wholly isolated. No one can measure the pain of his loneliness or the bitterness of his unceasing struggle to create.

Whether or not O'Neill's plays will be treasured by posterity, his tragedy deserves to be remembered as a symbol of the fate of the artist who loses contact with the living forces of his time. The roots of his failure may be traced in the whole course of his work. (pp. 7-8)

Given the unavailability in 1954 of Long Day's Journey, of Moon for the Misbegotten, and of the two plays of the uncompleted cycle that were later published and produced; and given the comparative obscurity of the playwright at the time of his passing, it is not surprising that a critic, at least a Marxist critic, would see O'Neill as the protagonist of his own greatest tragedy. (Nor would a knowledge of those works necessarily have affected Lawson's attitude, since they too "conform ... to bourgeois philosophy.") Had they been available, however, a less "intransigent" reader might have seen them as a vindication of O'Neill's creative path—as evidence that "isolation" was the source, not of his tragedy, but of his triumph, since two of them deal pointedly with the socio-economic facts of American life past and present, and the other two wrestle relentlessly with his "family ghosts" and far transcend any one family or any one ideology. But it is best, herein, to relinquish later-won knowledge and note that Lawson at least treats O'Neill sympathetically and sees him more as victim than as villain. (In Cole's hands, the emphasis will be reversed.)

Lawson divides the then-known O'Neill oeuvre into four periods—

1915-1919: dramatic apprenticeship; the short plays of the sea;

1920-1924: experimentation with social themes;

1925-1928: metaphysical speculation; and

1929-1934: religious mysticism

and then discusses at length a number of the major plays from each period, blending positive and negative attitudes, but largely tracing what his introduction calls "the roots of [O'Neill's] failure" (p. 8).

The one-act sea plays of the first period are praised for their introduction of new subject matter to American drama and of a realism "that exerted a strong influence ... especially on the working-class plays of the thirties" (p. 8). Of the two he mentions specifically, Lawson prefers The Long Voyage Home to the "chaotic ribaldry" of The Moon of the Caribbees, since the later play "achieves the proportions of tragedy because it has social meaning" and in it "O'Neill reflected the feeling of anger and betrayal, the increasing social consciousness, the search for new values that stirred American intellectuals in the time of the Versailles conference and the Palmer raids" (p. 8). The quotation evidences one of the greatest values of Lawson's essay, his relation of plays to major events that occurred at the time of their creation. However, since it is hard to find all that Lawson does in the text of The Long Voyage Home, one wonders how much rereading preceded his assessment. Today, surely, Moon is far more highly valued than Voyage.

Of the plays of the second period, an era marked by "intense productivity, a bewildering diversity of styles and themes" (p. 8), and "prodigious energy" (p. 9), Lawson's approbation is increasingly qualified. Beyond the Horizon is praiseworthy for its adherence to "naturalistic method" and its "avoidance of theatrical contrivance" (p. 10), but it is also "a sort of confession, a troubled statement of the author's artistic dilemma" (p. 9), since Robert Mayo, "intellectual and dreamer" and the O'Neill in the play, "is incapable of solving the social situation in which he finds himself" (p. 9). Given the determinism inherent in Marxist belief, such a criticism of Robert's powerlessness is initially surprising—but not for long: Robert's "defeat is subjective and psychological" (p. 9, italics added), two words clearly anathema to "progressive" minds, which resist and decry "Freudian emphasis" (which, says Lawson, reveals O'Neill's desire "to escape from the class struggle") and resent the suggestion that "the intellectual is an ineffectual dreamer, while brutality and greed achieve practical results" (p. 10). (Again, one searches the script for corroboration. Certainly both Mayo brothers are "brutalized" by having made choices incompatible with their temperaments. But "practical results"? Where, in Beyond the Horizon, are they?)

Desiring "to avoid the fate that befell Robert Mayo," O'Neill turned directly to the "compelling social questions of the time" (p. 10) in his two expressionist works, The Emperor Jones and The Hairy Ape. Lawson approves of his wish "to find reality, to 'see the world'" (p. 10), but he is disturbed by the results. He relates the first play to the "reactionary drive that swept the United States in 1919 and 1920" (p. 10), and concludes that its "chauvinistic nonsense is based on theories that are still the stock-in-trade of apologists for imperialism" (p. 11); and he draws a parallel between Yank's search for belonging in the second play and Jones's flight through the jungle in the first:

The worker and the Negro are both "primitives." They turn away from the reality of class struggle to a half-animal acceptance of their own "inferiority." The Hairy Ape reveals a conflict in the author's mind which is far more dramatic than anything in his play—the struggle between a passionate love of humanity and an arid doctrine that regards the human personality as sex-ridden, retrogressive, incapable of rational action. (p. 12)

Three other plays from the second period are treated: Anna Christie, which, despite its "superficial realism," "fails to rise above the level of melodrama because it fails to explore the social forces underlying the action" (p. 12); All God's Chillun Got Wings, which, despite its superiority to Jones and Ape because it eschews the "exotic setting" of the former and the "abstract symbolism" of the latter, is undermined by its "dependence on a meretricious 'psychological' approach" (that word again! p. 12); and Desire Under the Elms, which begins promisingly with "emphasis on economic factors," "the pressures of an acquisitive society," but fails once that emphasis is "dissolved in the fury of a woman's 'acquisitive' love, which can find 'fulfillment' only in the murder of her child" (p. 13). Lawson deplores the "direction of O'Neill's dramatic thought" that the last play reveals: its "emphasis chiefly on passion and violence, as the only means by which the human personality can escape from the drabness of repressed and barren lives" (p. 13). This, plus the "influence of psychoanalysis" (p. 13) and a "contempt for women" (p. 11) that he finds emerging as early as Beyond the Horizon, tends to stifle any praise Lawson may have for the productive, thirteen-play second period. Actually, Elms doesn't fit the period as Lawson labels it, since it is his claim that Chillun constituted O'Neill's "last attempt to deal with a social theme" (p. 13).

The third period, comprising "a new quest, not for social reality, but for metaphysical certitude, for some sort of lyric affirmation of life" (pp. 13-14), is heralded by "two historical fantasies," The Fountain and Marco Millions, whose "complacent lyricism ... and ... dependence on lavish scenery seem to reflect the temporary 'stability' of the Coolidge period," a stability that O'Neill shared, having "won wealth and fame" (p. 14). (The tacit condemnation there—the inference, far stronger in Cole, that affirmation equals complacent complicity—is disquieting, as is the omission of any reference to the obvious social satire in the latter play.) The Great God Brown (1926) earns greater approval despite its "confused plot and pretentious use of masks," and Lawson perceptively delineates its parallels, as "autobiographical allegory," with Beyond the Horizon, Robert and Andrew Mayo reappearing, respectively, as Dion Anthony, the artist and intellectual, and William Brown, "the representative of the bourgeoisie" (p. 14). The play's prime merit, for Lawson, is its revelation "that O'Neill was still engaged in an agonized artistic struggle" (p. 14). While Anthony and Brown, as the "juggling of masks" suggests, are now, unlike the Mayos, "two aspects of the same personality" (a mirror, Lawson infers, of O'Neill's own inner state by 1925), Brown "is guilty because he is the representative of a society which kills the creative spirit," whereas Anthony, despite defeat, "is stronger even in his death than the complacent business man" (p. 14). And so the play, with its assertion of O'Neill's "faith in the creative personality" and its concluding "affirmation of the glory of life" (p. 14), "testifies to the urgency of O'Neill's search for affirmation, for faith in life and man" (p. 15).

"Faith," Lawson says, "can be achieved in two ways—through confidence in man's ability to shape his own destiny, or through reliance on supernatural power. O'Neill was approaching a decision between these two courses" (p. 15). And the "abstract quality" and the "lack of human warmth and concrete drama" in his next play, Lazarus Laughed, "make it evident that O'Neill was not able to envision man's hope in terms of contemporary social understanding" (p. 15). Having so chosen, O'Neill cannot retain the respect of his "progressive" assessor, and the remaining plays, until Iceman, are accorded disdainful brevity. Nina Leeds, the "symbol of the life-spirit" in Strange Interlude, "is an unreal and passive figure. She is totally lacking in intellectual stature. Her secret thoughts are as dull as her drawing room conversation" (p. 15). The "startling change" from that play's "mood of resignation" to the "hysterical religiosity" and "evangelical fervor" of Dynamo is noted but not explained, though Lawson attributes O'Neill's subsequent "return to Freudian pessimism in Mourning Becomes Electra" to "the impact of the great depression and world crisis" after the stock market crash in the fall of 1929 (pp. 15-16). "In accepting the cult of violence," says Lawson (in reference to the "abnormal passions and wanton murders" in the trilogy), "O'Neill acknowledges his defeat as an artist." And it is but a small step from the "sterile emotionalism" of Mourning Becomes Electra to the "sterile placidity" of Ah, Wilderness!, in which "O'Neill seems to make his peace with the bourgeoisie" (p. 16). But Days Without End, where he "turned again to the consolations of religion," showed that, although "O'Neill's art was dying," "his troubled spirit could not rest" (p. 16).

"Then came the long years of isolation. O'Neill was silent during almost two decades" (p. 16). But silence, Lawson implies, was preferable to the activities of several of O'Neill's contemporaries:

He could not become a facile political propagandist like T. S. Eliot, or a commercial hack like John Steinbeck, or an open advocate of reaction like John Dos Passos. (p. 16)

Throughout his analyses, Lawson weaves a course among three entities—the man, the artist, and the work—and the distinctions are nowhere clearer than in his lengthy treatment (pp. 16-18) of the only post-1930's play produced during the author's lifetime, The Iceman Cometh. As a "confession torn from the author's soul" (p. 16), it reveals that O'Neill "the artist remains incorruptible" because he "continues to grapple with real problems of life" (p. 17, italics added). But as a work it is "an incredibly bad play" because O'Neill the man "has lost all real contact with life" (p. 17)--specifically with proletarian life, despite his setting the play in the 1912 period, during which "he himself felt the stirrings of working class protest" that had been "the source of his early strength as a writer" (p. 18). As a negative act, an exposé of "bourgeois decadence," it succeeds, Hickey being "obviously the descendant of 'the Great God' William A. Brown, the representative of the bourgeoisie whose 'way of life' leads to murder" (p. 17). But it lacks any counterpoise of affirmation because the play's "radicals" are "fantastically unreal":

these neurotic, hysterical "anarcho-syndicalists" bear no relationship to the historical development of working class activity in the year in which Debs received almost a million votes for President of the United States. (p. 17)

And so Lawson, who respects the artist, and pities the man, but deplores the work because it endorses "the sterile ideology of the bourgeoisie," offers the "tragedy" of O'Neill as "a lesson and a warning to the artist, and especially to the young artist beginning work under the increasing pressure for conformity and formalism" (p. 18).

II. "Two Views on O'Neill."

Lawson's essay suggests that there is some accuracy in David Daiches' claim that "Marxist criticism has been on the whole ... content either to explain literature in terms of its social origins, or to account for a writer's attitude in terms of his position in the class structure, or to pass judgment on a given work or writer in accordance with the tendency it or he displays to favor the political and economic cause favored by the critic."2 Still, he must be admired for sparing the playwright from the brush with which he tars his plays—for acknowledging that O'Neill had been, and had remained, "a richly endowed and sensitive artist" (p. 7). The same can not be said of Lester Cole, who came, three issues later, like Antony after Brutus (but with less devious intent than his Shakespearean counterpart), to bury O'Neill, not to praise him. Cole admires the "penetrating analysis" of O'Neill's plays that Lawson's "critical scalpel" had produced (p. 56), but he takes sharp exception to Lawson's distinction between artifact and artist, scorns his failure to be as "objective" about the latter as he is about the former, and challenges his contention that O'Neill's fate can be called tragic. Unfortunately, Cole has no critical scalpel of his own: nowhere in his 4½-page response does he refer to a single play, except in a snide aside about whether "Mourning ... becomes Masses and Mainstream" (p. 60)! In its place he draws repeatedly from a quiver of barbed rhetorical questions that provide more bile than illumination as he attempts to refute Lawson's "sympathetic" treatment of O'Neill as man and artist. Take, for instance, his response to Lawson's assertion that O'Neill "remained incorruptible and therefore [continued] to grapple with the real problems of life": "is it possible that an artist can remain 'incorruptible' when all of his work is steeped in ideological corruption?" (p. 57) Then he tackles Lawson's praise of O'Neill's enduring sincerity: "who has not heard 'sincerity' claimed for the author of that once widely-read autobiography, Mein Kampf?" (p. 59) His basic disagreement, of course, is with Lawson's aforementioned distinction between man, artist and work: "can one separate the influence of his literary work from the man himself--much less from the artist in him?" (p. 58) And so he cannot, considering the man's financial success and the artist's literary prizes, share Lawson's sympathy for the pains that O'Neill suffered in his later years:

Why sing sad songs for him who, surrounded by his trophies and rich rewards, suffered "spiritual" discomfort while continuing, actively or passively, to defend the status quo, explaining little else than its inevitability in images of God, Freud and "dat ole davil sea"? (p. 60)

Not only did O'Neill defend the status quo, says Cole; "he gave the American people not one hero with whom they can identify, not one character in whom they can find the representation of the best of themselves, in whom they can find the inspiration to achieve that which will make them happier, stronger, more purposeful" (p. 60). How fortunate for America that Cole's views sound so quaintly dated; and how fortunate for its drama that O'Neill did not subscribe to his detractor's socialist-realist criteria for artistic merit!

Cole's only really plausible or rational challenge is to Lawson's charge that O'Neill "lost the power to communicate" because his "passion for creative life" over-ruled his tendency "to conform to current fashions in bourgeois philosophy." On the contrary, says Cole, O'Neill never changed, never rejected "the weight-removing embrace of the Church and that latter day Saint of the Libido, S. Freud" (p. 58). It was bourgeois thought that changed, and it was O'Neill's "failure to continue the tendency to conform which did him in."

With the depression of 1932 ... the problem of man's relationship to man came to the fore with a vengeance. There was lessening interest in man's relation-ship to God among cut-rate theatre ticket buyers, who were seeking answers to the deep contradictions in their lives, who wanted solutions to crucial problems not of their id, but of the way out of social crisis. O'Neill, steeping himself ever deeper in mysticism ... moved farther and farther away from the "current bourgeois fashions" to be replaced by the Sidney Howards, the Maxwell Andersons, the Steinbecks and those who became aware of the existence of the working class in the scheme of things. (p. 59)

The tragedy of Eugene O'Neill? No, says Cole. Zola, Gorky, Ibsen, Shaw, O'Casey, Twain: the deaths of such artists were felt by people as tragedy "because the art of those men was indivisible from their life," and because each "identifies himself either by his actions or through his characters with the hopes and aspirations, the joys and agonies which are both his and theirs" (p. 60). But O'Neill, both divided within him-self and alienated from the working class whose cause his earliest works had espoused, is not in their company. (Of course this is hardly a refutation of Lawson, who was referring to the tragedy of O'Neill's career, not of his death!)

Ironically, so vicious is Cole's blind and unsupported attack that Lawson, in responding to it, is forced to become even more O'Neill's apologist than he had been three months earlier! He is not too "intransigent" to disagree with Cole's gleeful expectation that O'Neill would soon become a mere "footnote in the history of America's dramatic literature" (p. 56). On the contrary, says Lawson, his "theatrical inventiveness" and "craftsmanship" deserve the attention and study of "progressive writers" (p. 63), and the body of his work has a complexity of tensions that it is the duty of criticism to clarify and not (like Cole) deny or overlook:

When we examine O'Neill's career in terms of class pressures and the shifting balance of class forces, we cannot regard him simply as a "defender of the status quo," nor can we ignore the contradictions and conflicts which are so subtly and richly expressed in his plays. (p. 62)

Given the venom in Cole's tirade, one must admire the grace and restraint of Lawson's reply. He simply says that Cole has "raised fundamental questions of theory and method in Marxist criticism" (p. 60) and that "there are grave weaknesses in the field of Marxist criticism in the United States" (p. 62). The two he mentions are "over-simplification" and a "doctrinaire or one-sided approach." Since he had already noted how Cole "over-simplified the system of ideas in O'Neill's works" and treated "one-sidedly" the concepts of "Mysticism, Freudianism, Godism" (Cole's phrase) in the plays (pp. 61 and 62, italics added), he makes tacitly clear what a splendid demonstration of both weaknesses Cole had himself provided! Cole's contribution to the debate is an embarrassment, but the initial Lawson essay, despite its inevitable incompleteness, deserves more attention than it has heretofore received.

—Frederick C. Wilkins

1 Masses and Mainstream, a combination of two earlier periodicals, New Masses and Mainstream, appeared monthly from March 1948 to August 1956, from offices at 832 Broadway. Marxist in emphasis, it provided a forum for the work and views of "progressive" writers, scholars and critics, and Lawson (along with W. E. B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson) was on its board of twenty-eight Contributing Editors. Readers wisely choosing to consult the complete works here summarized will find the Lawson essay in Vol. 7, No. 3, and the Cole-Lawson exchange in Vol. 7, No. 6.

2 Critical Approaches to Literature (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1956), p. 374.



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