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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. VIII, No. 2
Summer-Fall 1984



...out of this abyss of despair hope may arise, and ... this critical position may be the well-spring of human, profoundly human action and effort, and of solidarity, and even of progress.
--Miguel de Unamuno, The Tragic Sense of Life

It is clear that Eugene O'Neill was not a writer who offered a study or reflection of the political and social history about him; he was a man tortured by his own life's history. The religious upbringing, the bitterness toward the father, and the great love for the mother conditioned his personality and motivated his desires and goals. The troubled mind, the neurotic insecurity, the antithetical toughness and tenderness, the drunkenness, the miserable early marriages, and the almost medieval fear of death--all of these affected his work. But it was, as Normand Berlin has stated, "his desire to relieve his personal guilt for having left the Catholic faith" that launched O'Neill into an attempt to complete a trilogy of Catholic plays in which Man would reaffirm his belief in God's salvation.1

Though O'Neill mentions Dynamo and Days Without End as the actual beginning of his projected trilogy, it is with The Great God Brown that his thoughts turn to the salvation of Man. Brown is an outgrowth of O'Neill's need to perfect his soul through religious faith in a manner similar to the German Expressionist dramas of the early twentieth century. The theme of the play concerns "the passage of man and his soul through various changes resembling ... in its formal aspect the religious drama of the middle ages."2 However, the morality theme, juxtaposed to the play's psychological character delineations of the post-Freud period, the incongruity of symbols, the cleavage of story line, the inconsistency of the poetic element in the dialogue--all being submerged into an expressionistic theatrical style--caused much confusion to those viewers and critics who witnessed the original production. So much so that O'Neill felt compelled to print an explanation of the play in the New York Evening Post on February 13, 1926. In his attempt at clarification, O'Neill wrote:

Dion Anthony--Dionysus and St. Anthony--the creative pagan acceptance of life, fighting eternal war with the masochistic, life-denying spirit of Christianity as represented by St. Anthony--the whole struggle resulting in this modern day in mutual exhaustion--creative joy in life for life's sake frustrated, rendered abortive, distorted by morality from Pan into Satan, into a Mephistopheles mocking himself in order to feel alive; Christianity, once heroic in martyrs for its intense faith now pleading weakly for intense belief in anything, even Godhead itself.

O'Neill went on to show that Margaret was a direct descendant of the Marguerite of Faust, "the eternal girl-woman ... properly oblivious to everything but the means to her end of maintaining the race." Cybel, he called "an incarnation of Cybele, the Earth Mother"; and Brown, "the visionless demi-god of our new materialistic myth--a Success--building his life of exterior things, inwardly empty...." O'Neill ends his authorial explanation by saying, of Dion Anthony, that it is as "Mephistopheles he falls stricken at Brown's feet after having condemned Brown
to destruction by willing him his mask, but ... it is the Saint who kisses Brown's feet in abject contrition...."

Unfortunately, O'Neill's "explanation" only added to the confusion as to exactly what The Great God Brown was supposed to be about. And critics are still debating whether O'Neill has written a Nietzschean play of eternal recurrence, a psychological examination of the corrupting influence of wealth and success, or a study of the struggle between the gratification of the senses and the denial of sensual pleasure. John Gassner expressed the problem succinctly when he wrote:

Unfortunately ... O'Neill simultaneously schematized his characters so grossly and endowed them with such complexity that the play is neither a clear character sketch nor a rounded portrait of real people. Juggling masks in a furor of melodramatic complications when Brown assumes Dion's personality, O'Neill also failed to develop a coherent story. He paid the penalty for trying to make a play perform the dual functions of an expressionistic drama and a Dostoyevsky novel.3

Not all who saw the play in 1926 neatly placed it on the shelf of mediocrity. Barrett Clark's perceptive though intuitive appreciation of the play's greatness is finely stated in the following appraisal:

O'Neill's latest produced play, The Great God Brown, is at present written beyond us. If he can be legitimately criticized it must be on the grounds of having given the theatre more than it is capable of showing.4

But what all the critics seemed to miss, and what O'Neill was somehow unable to explain, is that the play is a lesson in the Catholic religious sense. It is allegorical, in that it uses characters to represent abstract or spiritual meanings. Its subject matter is God, Christ and the subsequent evolution of man's Catholic religiosity.

Two sentences by Gordon W. Allport are relevant in this context:

A man's religion is the audacious bid he makes to bind himself to creation and to the Creator. It is his ultimate attempt to enlarge and to complete his own personality by finding the supreme context in which he rightly belongs.5

The "context in which he rightly belongs" is, in the Catholic sense, the union with God. It is this concept that has governed all Catholic thought since the iniquitous fall of Adam, l'homme premier. Hence, Christianity is based on the idea that Christ's mission, his entire life, his suffering and his death occurred so that man, once having been permitted an immortal, God-like existence in Eden, may once again attain this oneness with God by re-experiencing vicariously the sufferings of Christ and confessing his mortal sins to his savior. "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all iniquity."6

Man, however, at various stages in his life has ignored his chance for the Holy gates in the quest for more immediate, tangible rewards. The distance to salvation seems too great, and man must continually be reminded that "Sin is with us, if we deny that, we are cheating ourselves,"7 and that "He that hideth his sins shall not prosper; but he that shall confess and forsake them, shall obtain mercy."8

It is this Catholic reaffirmation of man's sins, his periodic suffering, his struggle to obtain God, his confession and his ultimate purification, that structures the allegorical plot of The Great God Brown.

O'Neill, in his now famous letter to the Post, called Billy Brown, the "protagonist" of his play, "a visionless ... success ... building his life of exterior things, inwardly empty and resourceless, an uncreative creature of superficial preordained social grooves...." This was his protagonist--his symbol of man.

CAPTAIN. Well, what's his name?

Brown is an insensitive, unquestioning, soulless shadow, void of any dignity or nobility--in Dion Anthony's own words, "Merely a successful freak, the result of some snide neutralizing of life's forces." To O'Neill, Brown represented the present state of man's existence--the contemporary commercial businessman, filling himself with money rather than a soul--a theatrical equivalent of Jay Gatsby, whose story occupied Fitzgerald in the same year.

But unlike Fitzgerald, who saw the accumulation of wealth only as corruptive, O'Neill saw it as sin. Consequently, Man (Billy Brown) had sinned, and Christ (Dion Anthony) would suffer for it, redeeming man once again. Dion is the Christ figure in O'Neill's retelling of the Biblical story. It is no coincidence that Dion, in Act II, Scene II, is found monastically immersed in Thomas Kempis' Imitation of Christ. Dion was, in effect, imitating Christ by "taking up his own cross."

In Act II, Scene III, Dion mentions Billy Brown's original sin--committed when he had hit the four-year-old Dion on the head and destroyed the sand picture, thereby giving birth to the "evil and injustice of man." Billy must atone for that moment as well as for his life-long attempt to become what O'Neill called the "demi-god of our new materialistic [age]." He has committed sin and must suffer until cleansed. And it is the Christ figure, Dion Anthony, who will be his model as Christ was to all mankind.

Dion helps Billy by willing him his mask, which has been the symbol of torture and anguish (and not a devil-mask, as stated by the author), but which at the same time has the power to lift man from a state of sin to a state of grace. Brown dons the mask in his need to be like Dion, and his atonement begins, so that by the end of the play we see him stripped of all his worldly possessions, corporeally disheveled, pathetic in his anguish, buried symbolically in the arms of Cybel (Mother Earth), praying to be taken out of his pit of earthly hell. Finally, in his dying breath, he is mercifully allowed the glory and exaltation of facing his Maker, and the climax of the play is reached:

(Suddenly--with ecstasy.) I know! I have found Him! I hear Him speak! "Blessed are they that weep, for they shall laugh!" Only he that has wept can laugh! The laughter of Heaven sows earth with a rain of tears, and out of Earth's transfigured birth-pain the laughter of Man returns to bless and play again in innumerable dancing gales of flame upon the knees of God! (He dies.)

Consequently, the basic criticism of O'Neill's plot--that is, the killing off of the play's seeming protagonist at the end of Act II, and the cleavage of the script into two stories, causing incoherence--is shown to be invalid. The play has all the while been about man (Billy Brown). The story is clearly only concerned with the salvation of man. It is Billy's play from beginning to end--the story of the reformation of a sinner, his epiphany, and his subsequent transfiguration.

Billy dies in the arms of Cybel; and though O'Neill saw her as the personification of the Nietzschean philosophy of "eternal recurrence," she is also his unconscious affirmation (as Mother Earth) of the Biblical command, "for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return" (Genesis 3:19-20). It is at this point that the play should end, despite Horst Frenz's belief that the "play concludes with the suggestion of the 'eternal return,' when the epilogue, presenting Margaret and her three sons four years later, takes place, like the prologue, at a dance on the pier of the casino."9 I call attention to Joseph Gantman's unpublished Master's thesis in which he states, reflecting on his production of Brown at Yale in 1953, that "the epilogue is a dangling anticlimactic appendage.... I should have taken the bold step of cutting [it]."10

The grandeur of the theme of The Great God Brown has caused many critics to comment derogatorily about its language. John Gassner and Stark Young, who attended the original production, were among the first. Gassner felt that the language was not noble, brilliant or imaginative enough for the play's noble theme;11 and Young called the writing "unequal, sometimes beautiful ... sometimes flat."12 Louis Sheaffer, assessing the play later, expresses a similar reservation:

The Great God Brown is mystical, poetic, at times profound and beautifully written, other times hopelessly pretentious, and eventually so tortuous in its course and so difficult to follow that it becomes exasperating.13

All three have criticized the language because of its seeming inconsistency and periodic mediocrity. However, this vacillation between prosaic lines and brilliant, soaring lyricism reflects exactly the slow transformation of an empty man to a spiritually enriched and God-like being now ready to be accepted back into the House of God.

The dialogue at the opening of the play illustrates perfectly the mundaneness of middle class speech and the absence of spiritual elevation.

MOTHER. ...Why doesn't Billy sing?
BILLY. ...Mine is a regular fog horn!

Such lines obviously would not satisfy the more astute reader or theatergoer, but they do exemplify the distance Man must go before his spiritual metamorphosis is complete. These are average people speaking ordinary colloquialisms. But when Dion Anthony speaks, the words are no longer of the same order, for Dion is not an ordinary man. He is the saint--the Christian martyr. He speaks poetically: "I'd like to sit where he spun what I have spend." And finally, there is the exalted classical speech of Billy Brown's last words, in Act IV, Scene II, quoted earlier: language that is unquestionably "mystical, poetic, ... profound and beautifully written."

And so, we have many levels of writing in one play. But how better for the dialogue to manifest a modern morality theme than by reflecting the play's--and its protagonist's--developing spirituality? The language in The Great God Brown is less inconsistent, as critics have claimed, than it is purposefully and meaningfully changing.

Still another device too cavalierly treated by critics of the play is O'Neill's innovative use of masks--the first such use for the delineation of character on the American stage, as Kenneth Macgowan mentioned in a program note for the 1926 Provincetown Playhouse production:

So far as I know, O'Neill's play is the first in which masks have been used to dramatize changes and conflicts in character and also as a ... means of dramatizing a transfer of personality from one man to another.

And the use of masks has more than psychological value: it also reinforces the religious basis of the play, since the mask has had an integral part in religious rituals throughout the history of the world.

If the religious ecstasy of the Greek Dionysian festivals and the spiritual fulfillment of the Christian mass can be captured in a production of The Great God Brown, the play will achieve what O'Neill intended in writing it. Surely a worthy attempt, and a noble intention, since, as Samuel Selden has noted,

The best of theatre is still a kind of religious exercise. It leads to ecstasy. The playwright and the actor are ... leaders in the struggle from "sin," the sense of inadequacy, to "virtue," a feeling of potency, of protoplasmic fulfillment.14

In his early Catholic plays, O'Neill thought that the means for transcending his private agonies could be found in religious faith. He became obsessed with one major theme: Man's Relation to God. And so, his heroes became "large personalities to the extent of their desire and their courage to assume a relationship with God and of their unceasing endeavor to perfect it."15

Only The Great God Brown has emerged from O'Neill's Catholic cycle to become a work of distinction in this critic's judgment. Nevertheless, O'Neill never became discouraged by his "religious flops." He continued his search to find an answer to life and, I believe, even in the most desolate moments to come, never forgot the little verse he wrote in 1912:

When Truth and Love and God are dead It is time, full time, to die!16

--Michael E. Rutenberg

1 Normand Berlin, Eugene O'Neill (New York: Grove Press, 1982), p. 123.

2 Edwin A. Engel, The Haunted Heroes of Eugene O'Neill (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U. Press, 1953), p. 263.

3 John Gassner, Masters of the Drama (New York: Random House, 1954), p. 654.

4 Barrett H. Clark, Eugene O'Neill (New York: Robert M. McBride & Co., 1926), p. 98.

5 Gordon W. Allport, The Individual and His Religion (New York: Macmillan, 1952), p. 142.

6 I John 1:9.

7 I John 1:8.

8 Proverbs 28:13.

9 Horst Frenz, Eugene O'Neill (New York: Ungar, 1971), p. 51.

10 Joseph Gantman, "The Great God Brown Production Book," unpublished M.A. thesis, Yale University School of Drama, 1955.

11 John Gassner, The Theatre in Our Times (New York: Crown, 1955), p. 23.

12 Stark Young, "The Great God Brown," The New Republic, 49 (Feb. 10, 1926), p. 329.

13 Louis Sheaffer, O'Neill: Son and Artist (Boston: Little, Brown, 1973), p. 167.

14 Samuel Selden, Man in His Theatre (Chapel Hill: U. of North Carolina Press, 1957), p. 29.

15 Selden, p. 93. 16 Engel, p. 299.

16 Engel, p. 299.



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