AN AGENDA FOR O'NEILL STUDIES*
As my title may suggest, I would like to address the announced topic of this meeting at its most fundamental level (I quote from the original call for papers): "In what ways should new critical methodologies or new source materials set the agenda for O'Neill studies in the decade of the playwright's centenary?" Let me begin by saying that I believe it is most appropriate to seek answers to this question at this time, on the occasion of the Modern Language Association centennial convention here in New York City where, just five years ago this week, was held the founding meeting of the Eugene O'Neill Society.
Now, let me take you back further--30 years ago--to the time of Eugene O'Neill's death: when there was virtually no agenda for O'Neill studies. As Professor Wilkins has well reminded us, that situation has changed significantly for the better; but in 1953 O'Neill's reputation was equivocal at best. And if it had not been for the appearance of Long Day's Journey Into Night, first in Stockholm and later here in New York City, one wonders what we would be doing today instead of attending this meeting. It seems unlikely that we would be here. That we are is a testament to the genius of Eugene O'Neill.
But I do not wish to suggest that no one other than O'Neill himself has a part to play in setting the agenda for O'Neill studies. Surely, if Carlotta O'Neill had not insisted on releasing Journey, for which we all owe her memory deepest gratitude, and if José Quintero had not been born the genius he has proved to be at directing O'Neill, we would all still, very likely, be someplace else at this hour.
The foregoing suggests something very important about any agenda for O'Neill studies. It must not be an agenda for studies strictly in the literary or publication sense of the word. It must also be an agenda for O'Neill productions.
Let me next pursue the topic of the "new materials." O'Neill's Work Diary, his letters to Kenneth Macgowan, the scenario for "The Calms of Capricorn," the text of "Chris Christophersen," and numerous other items discussed in Virginia Floyd's Eugene O'Neill at Work, not to mention other yet-to-be-published materials, are not exactly new. These items have been in existence for some time and, in many cases, have been openly available to anyone who chose to examine them. I myself read the text of "Chris Christophersen" in the Rare Book Room of the Library of Congress during the summer of 1971. Likewise, the Yale materials have been known to anyone who visited New Haven and read the card catalog in the Beinecke Library. Those materials were, of course, harder to examine, thanks to the watchful eye of Dr. Donald Gallup; but even he, in the summer of 1971, could be influenced into permitting a lowly dissertator to read the transcripts of O'Neill's letters to Kenneth Macgowan. I had my say about those letters (and still other unpublished O'Neill letters at Cornell, Dartmouth, Princeton, and Harvard) in the March 1978 issue of Modern Drama, and I can honestly report that the earth did not shake when that issue appeared (though it has since led to interesting correspondence from both France and India); consequently, I suspect the earth will not soon vibrate significantly because the wealth of O'Neilliana at Yale and elsewhere is beginning to see the light of day. That material has been made previously available to such serious O'Neillians as Louis Sheaffer and Travis Bogard, who published their work prior to the publication of the materials themselves. Surely, then, the obvious impact of these items has already been felt, and all that seems to remain--barring the appearance of a critical genius, who will set her own agenda--is a scholarly mopping-up operation. And to that extent, the "new" materials have already done their agenda setting, which was to get themselves into print.
And, in the context of my earlier remarks about production as an agenda item, it seems clear that the cupboard is rather bare. Neither of the drafts from the Cycle which survived O'Neill's burning has set the critical world on fire; also, José Quintero has already directed More Stately Mansions and lightning did not strike again. So unless a completely unknown manuscript of a real Eugene O'Neill play appears, there will be no really new agenda--only modifications of the old one.
But what of the new critical methodologies? Keeping in mind that one of the last great theoretical waves from France to wash across the drama brought the imposition of the Three Unities, let us inquire as to the likelihood that the methods of the deconstructionists and structuralists will allow a new generation of critics to say something really important about O'Neill. While he is not universally acclaimed even today, even (sad to say) in his native land, he is also no minor poet of the second rank, no Anglican divine waiting for an eventual convert to create the vocabulary of proper appreciation. Nor is O'Neill an American Buchner, passed over by dramatic history.
As we are all aware, new schools of critical thought tend to arise either at the same time as, or shortly after, the work of the artists who need them. But the intricacies of the deconstructionists et al. seem to have little to do with the artistic assumptions of O'Neill's generation. Thus, while the new methodologies, when skillfully borrowed, may have some striking and significant insights to convey, they will probably not alter O'Neill's position in the pantheon (unless, of course, they succeed in destroying both literature and the pantheon). Barring that, O'Neill is already widely recognized as the most important dramatist the United States has produced, and his stature is rising. The Eric Bentley's of this world, happily, are fast disappearing from view. The only real question about O'Neill's reputation at this time, it seems to me, is whether or not he will enter the rarefied atmosphere of Sophocles and Shakespeare--personally, I think he will.
In defense of this forecast, which some may find extreme, let me offer in evidence the brilliant work of Jean Chothia in Forging a Language: A Study of the Plays of Eugene O'Neill. Her work is certainly to be prized for its last two chapters on Iceman and Journey, but I would call attention to its opening chapters on the nature of dramatic, especially realistic, dialogue. There, it seems to me, she has raised some of the most important, unanswered questions yet to be raised by anyone about the nature of dialogue.
Now what is important is that she has raised these questions, which themselves offer an agenda for dramatic theory generally, in the context of studying O'Neill's plays. Thus, O'Neill's work, perhaps for the first time, has been the inspiration for some pro-found critical questioning, and that suggests the prospect of O'Neill's work becoming the sort of inspiration for great critical thought that we automatically assume to be the function of literary classics.
It may be that the most important requirement for an artist to reach the heights of critical esteem is to be treated as though that is where s/he belonged. And here, I feel, I should mention one of the essays in Virginia Floyd's collection, Eugene O'Neill: A World View--"Platonic Love in O'Neill's Welded." In it Egil Törnqvist argues that Welded, with regard to influence on O'Neill, owes at least as much to Plato's Symposium as it does to Strindberg's Dance of Death. Now that, I think, does two important things. It clearly demonstrates that one of O'Neill's most maligned plays has heretofore unexamined elements of primary importance, and it proves that we have not yet finished the agenda for O'Neill studies which had been set by the old critical methodologies.
Support for Törnqvist's theory is provided by the presence of Plato's Symposium in that portion of O'Neill's personal library that is housed at the C. W. Post campus of Long Island University. Personally, I would not safely assume as Törnqvist does that O'Neill "was familiar with Plato"--this assumption I think is the weak link in his argument. Yet it is considerably strengthened by our knowledge of the book's presence in O'Neill's library. Of course, whether the pages have been cut is another question, one which remains to be answered by some enterprising O'Neillian.
What the foregoing suggests is that there are major tasks of traditional O'Neill scholarship yet to be performed. To illustrate further, how many are aware that O'Neill's first play, A Wife for a Life, has distinct parallels with one of the most popular frontier/western dramas of the late-nineteenth century American stage? And how many are aware that O'Neill's second play, The Web, almost surely has, for its major source, the most popular anti-prostitution novel of the pre-World War I era in America? Both of these questions are directly concerned with a major area of O'Neill studies which has not been broadly advanced since the last chapter of John Henry Raleigh's The Plays of Eugene O'Neill--O'Neill's relation to previous American literature and drama and to the main-stream of American culture. Quite simply, there is a major job of literary historical research to be done where O'Neill is concerned.
Thus, with regard to the "new" methodologies, what I am suggesting is that, since the old agenda for O'Neill studies is a long way from being accomplished, it is premature to offer the newer, more fashionable methodologies a major role. The ultimate status of these methodologies is perhaps more open to question than is O'Neill's reputation. In addition, those critical approaches have arisen and been popularized primarily in non-dramatic literary studies, so their true relation to the drama generally and to Eugene O'Neill in particular may not be established for some time--if, that is, the history of New Criticism and its relation to the drama of O'Neill is any guide.
To the extent that New Criticism is synonymous with the concept of "close reading," it must be admitted that such an approach to O'Neill did not have its full impact until the appearance of Timo Tiusanen's O'Neill's Scenic Images, Egil Törnqvist's A Drama of Souls, and the less well-known Unreal Realism by Ulrich Halfmann which, I believe, is still unavailable in English. All three of these works did something extremely valuable: they succeeded in calling attention to the importance of the material elements in the playwright's medium by subjecting O'Neill's stage directions to the same close reading previously given to his dialogue. But even these most recent applications of New Critical methodology, which are already fifteen years old, are incomplete. At least where individual O'Neill plays are concerned, the insights derived by the methods of Tiusanen and the others seem largely built on top of the standard literary interpretations of O'Neill's work; they did not break much new interpretive ground, though they did provide new grounds for aesthetic appreciation. Consequently, the genuine importance of their work has yet to be fully realized. Critics as respected as Ruby Cohn have continued to assume that O'Neill was primarily a writer--in the same way that many English professors still believe that Shakespeare was primarily a poet. But what Törnqvist and the others demonstrated once and for all is that O'Neill's medium is the mise en scčne, not the written word per se. Yet the vast majority of published O'Neill material since then, and still today, seems to be based on the assumption that the structure of an O'Neill play is somehow chiefly contained in the dialogue, to the exclusion of all of the many stage directions.
(In all fairness, it must be admitted that this is not exclusively the fault of O'Neillians. Part of the problem lies with the continued failure of the theorists of the theatre to create a poetics of performance. That is, perhaps, the most important agenda item for drama students everywhere.)
But in the meantime, while the theorists of theatre wrestle with their problems, what shall the rest of us do?
First of all, we must continue to publish O'Neilliana, not only the selected letters as Professors Bryer and Bogard are doing, but full collections of O'Neill's letters, those to George Jean Nathan and to George Tyler, and those to Agnes Boulton and to Beatrice Ashe. Further, we need to publish not only "Chris Christophersen" (as has been done), but also "The Personal Equation," which remains available only in the typescript at Harvard, as well as the variant texts of other previously published O'Neill plays, such as the original last scene of the first part of Marco Millions. Some of this material, of course, would best appear in a genuine, complete, thorough, scholarly edition of O'Neill's plays and in the sort of casebook Professor Wilkins envisions. Unbelievably, it is still impossible to buy a set of the complete plays of Eugene O'Neill, and such a set has never been available.
But if we were to attempt to make possible such a collection by the year 1988, the centennial of O'Neill's birth, we would have to recognize that that date is only five years off; and five years is not sufficient time to edit and publish the one critical tool that seems most needed--a full, scholarly, multi-volume edition of O'Neill's plays with complete textual apparatus and variant readings, an edition comparable to those either completed or on-going for the works of Hawthorne, Melville and Twain. I do not believe that the work of Eugene O'Neill deserves any less, nor that the work of our greatest dramatist should be ill served because the time of such funding seems to be past. May it not be that now is the time to seek the funds necessary? Now, when the most powerful men in the Congress and in the White House are Irish-Americans and one of them is named O'Neill?
But even the most optimistic among you will have observed that the same five years which separate us from the O'Neill centennial are not likely to be sufficient to create the funding necessary, to put it in place, and to produce a tangible result. And I agree with you. But let me suggest an alternative to the concept of the 1980's as the "decade of the playwright's centenary." Agreed, 1988 is a major anniversary, but so, too, is the year 2003, the fiftieth anniversary of the playwright's death. This timespan, 1988 to 2003, this fifteen-year period, has the potential to be an "O'Neill decade" indeed. A fifteen-year span which, if we begin today, will give us a full twenty years to push for the completion of the numerous O'Neill projects on everyone's agenda.
Since I have brought you this far, let me dream a little further. Previously I mentioned that my definition of "O'Neill studies" ought also to include productions of O'Neill's plays. But what sorts of productions? The answer is, all sorts of productions. Productions staged by graduate students, by high schools, by colleges, by dinner theatres, wherever a handful of performers can gather an audience. It is time that all of O'Neill be performed en masse. But from the standpoint of having a genuine effect on critical and public consciousness, it is obvious, as my own experience is a reminder, that a production which is not seen in a place like New York is not likely to be seen by anyone. Thus, if we wish to perform O'Neill in a way which will have impact, we must do it in a major metropolitan area, perhaps best here in New York City, and we must do it for more than the centenary year of 1988. Twelve months is insufficient to mount worthy productions of the entire O'Neill canon even if there were enough empty theatres in New York to accommodate them all. What we need is the theatre O'Neill dreamed of some sixty years ago in his letters to Kenneth Macgowan, an O'Neill repertory theatre, one devoted primarily, though not exclusively, to producing the O'Neill canon. We need an American O'Neill Festival, an ongoing production operation, preferably in the heart of New York's theatre district.
For such a goal, we may find we have allies in the theatre world. Joseph Papp has recently announced plans to establish a national theatre here, and Roger Stevens has announced a comparable plan for Washington, D.C. Likewise, when Ellen Burstyn, as President of Actors Equity, addressed the American Theatre Association convention in Minneapolis last summer, she came out squarely behind a national theatre concept, and was soundly applauded. Clearly, a national theatre in the United States must have a dedication to doing national plays, and O'Neillians everywhere should offer their full professional support to insure that the O'Neill canon is at the heart of any such enterprise. If we do so, then we will be able to say we have begun to make progress with the O'Neill agenda.
Finally, let me suggest one last modification of the word studies in the context of the Eugene O'Neill Society. It should include not only literary and publication activities, and production activities; it should also include the kinds of effort which have led to the restoration of the Monte Cristo cottage in New London and the planned restoration of Tao House in California. Activities of this nature must also be supported and continued. We must, for example, keep a watchful eye on Casa Genotta in Sea Island, Georgia, where Ah, Wilderness! was written. We should be in contact with its present private owners, making them aware of the historic nature of their home and insuring that, insofar as possible, its uniqueness remains undisturbed.
As I look around this room, I am reminded of a similar MLA occasion six years ago. Those of us who were present in the near-empty ballroom of Chicago's Palmer House in 1977, will, I suspect, never forget Timo Tiusanen's call to classicize O'Neill. That effort is now well under way, as the pages of Professor Wilkins' Newsletter amply demonstrate. But it is a slow process, with little direction. The Eugene O'Neill Society is in a position to offer the organizational coordination which is needed and to acknowledge successful achievements in the advancement of O'Neill studies, to encourage further such developments, and to set the agenda for O'Neill studies, both for the centenary decade, and for the remainder of the century. Let us not rest until we have made a significant commitment to setting that agenda, and to implementing it. Then we will truly, as Carlotta O'Neill might have put it, be about "the Master's" business.
--Paul D. Voelker
*Professor Voelker's essay was one of three papers delivered at the special session on Eugene O'Neill chaired by Michael Hinden at the 1983 Modern Language Association convention in New York City last December. Of the other two papers, Michael Manheim's ""Toward a Post-Structuralist Approach to O'Neill's Later Plays" will be published elsewhere (details in a future issue), and Frederick Wilkins' bibliography of O'Neill publications 1980-1983, the centerpiece of his "Current Trends in O'Neill Publication," will appear in the next issue of the Newsletter. --Ed.
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