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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. X, No. 1
Spring, 1986



In The Historical Novel George Lukács expresses his agreement with a statement in which Goethe points out the difference between epic and dramatic motivations for literary action:

Goethe ... analyses the different motifs governing action, finding some that are common to both epic and drama and others that form particular characteristics of either of the two genres. These motifs are, according to Goethe: "1. Progressive ones, which further the action; such are used primarily by drama. 2. Retrogressive ones, which distance the action from its goal; such are used almost exclusively by the epic poem" (Lukács I 145).

Lukács also shares Goethe's view that retrogressive motifs should be distinguished from retarding ones; rather than diverting the action from its goal, retarding factors "hold up the pace or increase the distance,; such are used by both kinds of literature to the greatest advantage" (Lukács I 145).

Thus retarding motifs can be both dramatic and epic. In the works of Ibsen, Hauptmann, Strindberg, Chekhov and O'Neill, however, their role is rather pronounced in making the drama episodic, and in not only holding back but also considerably broadening the progress of the action, whose stages are often meticulously portrayed. This brings a strong epic tendency with it.

For the operation of the retrogressive motif in novels, Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls provide clear examples. At the beginning of the former. set during World War I, Lieutenant Frederic Henry is a volunteer American ambulance corps officer serving in the Italian army. Even when he is seriously wounded and recovers from his injury, he is ready to make the greatest sacrifice he can, and bidding farewell to his love, Catherine Barkley, he returns to the front. However, a series of painful experiences--the military debacle at Caporetto in the autumn of 1917, and the chaotic disintegration and senseless disaster of the Caporetto stampede--make him change his mind. When he sees an old lieutenant-colonel walking in the rain with his hat off between two carabinieri of a firing squad, the painfully sharp image prefigures and indicates Henry's decision to conclude a separate peace and to bid farewell to arms.

Chapters IV and XVI-XVII of For Whom the Bell Tolls also provide a model example. The chief action of this Spanish Civil War novel moves towards its antifascist aim, the blowing up of a bridge in fascist hands. This aim is endangered by a growing tension between Robert Jordan, who wishes to carry out the action, and Pablo, the head of the Spanish partisan group, who opposes it. The opposition is so powerful that a separate, short story-like episode crystallizes around it, and Jordan is about to shoot Pablo. But finally the clash between Jordan and the group does not take place; Pablo's wife, Pilar, supports Jordan and so does the whole group. This means that we have a case of double diversion. The action of the short story-like episode can only progress by diverting the main action of the novel, which in turn can only advance by diverting the by-action of the episode. This latter diversion has a cathartic effect, indicating the formation of unity among the antifascist forces. At this point it should be noted that in the opinion of G. Lukács (Lukács II 802-835), catharsis characterizes not only tragedy or drama but all art as well. Tragedy does not create but only concentrates catharsis. Composing his novels in the pattern of opposition, contrast and conflict, Hemingway also injects a tense dramatic quality into his epic scenes.

The cathartic quality of epic retardation and diversion is also very apparent in Alan Sillitoe's long short story, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, where the protagonist, Smith, is on the verge of winning the race but in the last minute slows his pace and deliberately loses rather than win for them," i.e. for "the Establishment."

The crucial question for drama is this: what happens to dramatic dynamism when the retrogressive motif, narrative retardation and epic diversion attain significance in its action? The answer will vary from play to play, but there are fundamentally two polar possibilities.

One of them is the decreasing of aim-propelled dramatic dynamism. There are hints of such a development in naturalistic drama, which has the general tendency of elaborating dramatic scenes in epic detail (Hauptmann, The Rats).

Strindberg's The Dance of Death, in spite of its hysterical and monomaniacal drive, elaborates on the tendency by building up over and over again the impression of a fatal heart attack threatening the Captain, who, however, keeps surviving, only to be killed at the end of the second part of the huge play by a stroke. This results in a mechanical cyclic pattern and a grotesquely grim effect with an involuntary comic component that was only resolved in Durrenmatt's ingenious Play Strlndberg by making this component explicit.

The Dance of Death abounds in instances of diversion as well. In Act II, Scene 1 of Part One, the Captain returns from town with news specially prepared for his unloving and unloved wife, Alice. He has seen to it, he confides to her, that Allan, the son of her cousin and lover, Kurt, will be placed under his command on the island (the "Little Hell," as it is called by people who live there); and he also informs her of his decision to deposit at the courthouse a petition for divorce. Alice takes vengeance on her husband by informing the Ordnance Officer against him for embezzlement. Later on, however, the Captain himself admits he had told a lie: he went to town only to see his doctor. And his arrest, which Alice awaits first in hopeful expectation, then in fearful dread, does not take place (Act II, Scene 2).

At the end of Part Two the action again deviates, as it were, to counterbalance its deflection in Part One. If at the end of Part One Alice and Kurt seemed to have the upper hand over the Captain, now the Captain seems to be victorious: Kurt--in part due to the Captain's intrigue--has gone bankrupt; the Captain is going to give his daughter Judith in marriage not to Allan, her lover, but to a sixty-year-old Colonel, his own superior. The Captain hopes to score the greatest success of his life, but he meets with his final failure: Judith rejects the Colonel, the Captain has a fatal stroke, Alice spits in his face, hits him, pulls his beard, and wants to tear out his tongue. Strindberg's talent is able to refer the narrative diversion of the dramatic action to the conflict of love and hate, of gloating triumph and abject fall; however, he is only able to do so in an epically extended plot, whose dramatic turns are brought about by events which are prepared with scrupulous care, but fail to take place.

When retardation and diversion become overwhelming, dramatic dynamism disintegrates into dispersed and frustrated scenic gestures leaving behind a basically static and metaphysical milieu with keen dramatic tension (and a fascinating reference of the predicament of inaction to the need of action), but without dramatic development (as in Beckett's compelling vision of an absurd universe characterized by metaphysically grim and playfully grotesque buffoonery in Waiting for Godot).

There is, however, another possibility as well. The epic trend inherent in a great degree of retardation and diversion may also merge with dynamically dramatic endeavors. O'Neill took incipient, tentative and groping steps in this direction when he composed Strange Interlude, a play of novelistic dimensions, written with a great many epic repetitions, and finished in a somewhat conventional manner, but created with dramatic verve, social interest, psychological insight and human compassion.

Epic retardation of the dramatic action appears in a number of ways.

1. It takes a novelistically long time for Marsden, the novelist, to travel all the way from his early and latent yearning for Nina, the would-be heroine of his novel, to the last stage of his journey, where he can become her belated husband in a sexless marriage of autumnal twilight. It is, to say the least, a heavily retarded process. First Nina must enact her drama in O'Neill's play, must lose Gordon Shaw, Sam Evans and Ned Darrell. In this way, however, dramatic dynamism is also married to novelistic retardation.

2. The novelist's frequent appearances on the dramatist's stage often withhold even such advances towards the explosion of an open revelation as seem to be imminent in a situation. When, for instance, Marsden appears in Act Eight, he interrupts a developing love scene between Nina and Darrell, and forestalls Nina's almost successful attempt to rekindle Darrell's love. On the other hand, the obstruction of external action is the promotion of internal movement, of moral and psychological development. A veritable dramatic collision evolves between the novelist and the dramatist.

3. The characters' silent thoughts, reflections, emotions and interior reactions also tend to hold back the dynamism of the action. Philip Moeller, the play's first director, actually hit upon the idea, approved by O'Neill, of playing the interior monologue sections with physical action momentarily arrested and the actors frozen into the position and attitude of the moment (Gelb 648-649). At the same time, however, the passages also have the dramatic function of unmasking and contrasting appearance and reality, and have the dramatic role of showing, if slowing, the true motivation of the protagonists' actions. The epic and the dramatic are closely intertwined. The interior soliloquies--or, as Marsden calls them, the "mosquitoes of the soul" (O'Neill 52)---differ according to the person thinking; Sam's, for instance, are more confused than Darrell's (O'Neill 67-68, 77). The thought-asides can express the mental processes of a character both in a restless state of mind, when he is "thinking disjointedly" (O'Neill 124), and when he is "rallying himself" (O'Neill 30). The strategy of capturing the stream of consciousness uses the pattern of free association with a dramatic direction and contrasting concern, and thus it takes the form of a dramatic interior monologue. The contrastive character and dramatic aspect of the device was described by Kenneth Macgowan:

To the dramatic contrasts and conflicts of ordinary spoken dialogue O'Neill added the contrasts and conflicts of thought. There was the speech of Nina against the speech of Charlie, the thought of Nina against the speech of Nina, the thought of Nina against the thought of Charlie, and sometimes the speech of one against the thought of the other (Cargill 452).

The course of an intended action may be not only retarded but also modified and even completely changed. This can be observed in Strange Interlude to a considerable extent, bringing about an epic (indeed novelistic) diversion of the dramatic plot.

1. Nina wants to be Gordon Shaw's, feels compelled to give herself to crippled soldiers, marries Sam Evans, loves Dr. Darrell, and finally becomes the wife of Charles Marsden. Here, something quite unexpected takes place.

2. Sometimes, however, something expected, hinted at, and thoroughly prepared for does not take place. A characteristic example is the often attempted disclosure of the Evans family secret. The opposition between desire and morality as an external confrontation of interests (Nina and Sam, Darrell and Sam, etc.) and as an internal contradiction (within Nina and inside Darrell) can be brought to a breaking point, but no outward clash realized in action is possible. Both Nina and Darrell lack the necessary resoluteness or unscrupulousness for that. Such characters also determine the character of the conflict and the action. The moral uplift of the catharsis is derived from the fact that an action does not take place: Nina and Darrell do not tell Sam about the inherited insanity in his family, do not wreck his marriage, and do not unite in marriage. In Strindberg's The Dance of Death the non-arrival of a prepared event also represents a dramatic turning point crossbred with epic diversion, but it is usually not cathartic, or is so only momentarily. The tearing at one another of two equally deformed and possessed creatures in a Swedenborgian "Little Hell" may querulously question the raison d'ętre of the human condition, but it can hardly lead to a lasting dramatic catharsis. (The phenomenon can also be regarded as an absolute degree of retardation.)

Another case in point is the deliberate building up of the appearance of Sam's falling victim to a nervous breakdown and insanity. When he first appears in Act Two, O'Neill notes "a lack of self-confidence, a lost and strayed appealing air about him, yet with a hint of some unawakened obstinate force beneath his apparent weakness" (O'Neill 29). In Act Three, "Sam looks timorously happy, as if he could not quite believe in his good fortune and had constantly to reassure himself about it, yet he is riding the crest of the wave, he radiates love and devotion and boyish adoration" (O'Neill 53). After Mrs. Evans has broken the bitter news to Nina that she must not have a baby, Sam becomes pathologically unbalanced. Of course Sam knows nothing of Mrs. Evans' intimations; it is only by way of a novelistic indirection and mediation that the repercussions of the painful problem reach him. What he senses directly is Nina's estrangement from him, and this elicits his nervous condition. In Act Four his expression is "dispirited, his eyes shift about, his shoulders are collapsed submissively. He seems much thinner, his face drawn and sallow" (O'Neill 67). He is afraid he has become sterile, his boss has upbraided him, he cannot work efficiently, and he fears he will be fired. In Act Five, Sam's "eyes look pitiably harried, his manner has become a distressingly obvious attempt to cover up a chronic state of nervous panic and guilty conscience" (O'Neill 92). He has come to the point of telling Nina he is going to divorce her, because he has realized he cannot make her love him; she, in fact, started hating him, and he cannot even give her a child.

But the whole process of nervous deterioration stops and is reversed as soon as Dr. Darrell tells Sam that he is soon to become a father. In Act Six O'Neill's characterization indicates a decisive change in Sam:

There is a startling change in Evans. He is stouter, the haggard look of worry and self-conscious inferiority has gone from his face, it is full and healthy and satisfied. There is also, what is more remarkable, a decided look of solidity about him, of a determination moving towards ends it is confident it can achieve. He has matured, found his place in the world (O'Neill 111).

Nevertheless, this meticulously novelistic building up and relinquishing of a motive (reminiscent of, if not identical to, Strindberg's treatment of the Captain's heart condition in The Dance of Death) serve a dramatic end. They help us in understanding why Dr. Darrell undertook what he made himself believe was a purely scientific experiment, i.e. why he gave Nina a child; and how a man (Sam) was made happy at the cost of the happiness of others (Nina and Darrell).

The conspicuously heavy use of novelistic retardation and diversion in Strange Interlude is indicative of the crystallization of a formal pattern in drama. Its operation is related to the principles laid down in Hegel's philosophy of history. In his view, a historical tendency is the sum total of individual endeavors. Each individual pursues his own aims, and his personal aspirations are included in the final historical outcome. But history as the upshot of a multiplicity of individual efforts is also different from the personal and conflicting wishes of the individuals concerned. Hegel calls this phenomenon the trick of reason (cf. Lukács I 148).

This pattern of history came into full swing after the French Revolution of 1789. The period was the classical era of the novel, which incorporated the pattern in its basic structure. Thus the epic deviation of the protagonists' endeavors is a reflection of the social-historical deviation of individual aspirations. This explains why the penetration of the pattern into the build-up of drama inevitably brings an epic quality with it (Lukács I 124-125).

When, in the second half of the 19th century and in the 20th century, the relative independence of the social-historical tendency from personal contributions grew greater, the new phase of the alienation of life found its way into drama as well. The result was the strengthening of novelistic tendencies in dramatic form (Ibsen, Strindberg, Hauptmann, etc.). This can even be felt in the alienation effect of Brecht's non-Aristotelian theory and practice of epic drama.

In his youth O'Neill had ample opportunity to study and experience the way in which personal aspirations can be deflected from their wished-for course. As a disillusioned son, unhappy father and divorced husband, a heavy drinker and expelled student, an unsuccessful gold-prospector in Honduras, a seaman sailing to Buenos Aires, Africa and England, a frequenter of waterfront dives in New York and Argentina, a man attempting suicide and contracting tuberculosis, a reporter, poet and tyro playwright, the drinking companion of Greenwich Village criminals ("The Hudson Dusters") and the friend of radical intellectuals (John Reed, Louise Bryant and Terry Carlin), O'Neill had first-hand experience of the seamy side of life--even if some of those experiences, like the voyage to' Buenos Aires, also gave him intense excitement and pantheistic pleasure.

It was, however, the "shell shock" of World War I which focused his vision. He was not swept away or taken in by the wave of chauvinistic war propaganda. As early as May 1914, in the poem "Fratricide," he recognized that "The loud, exultant call to arms," the "patriotic blare of band," was really a summons to fratricide; that "The jingoes are the first to flee," because "The plutocrats who cause the woe/Are arrogant but cowardly." He saw clearly that there was no worthy cause in that war at all; the cause was, in fact, "asinine," and the loot was rapacious "robbery of a brother's whole/Store of a lifetime." The conclusion of the poem therefore is: "All workers on the earth/Are brothers and WE WILL NOT FIGHT!"

In accordance with this recognition, the artistic emphasis in O'Neill's works on the war is not on cause-conscious heroism. In the one-act Shell Shock, it takes Doctor Wayne a long time and considerable ingenuity to prove to Jack Arnold, Major of Infantry, that the immediate impulse which caused Jack to rescue his seriously wounded comrade was not irrepressible nicotine hunger but hearing the comrade scream. In S.O.S., a long short story elaborated from the earlier one-act play Warnings, John Lathrop, the meek and modest wireless operator of the steamship Rio Grande, goes deaf, causes the sinking of the ship by a German raider, is despised by his countrymen and humiliated by the Germans. When the gun of the raider is fired close to him, he regains his hearing, is frightened to death, becomes filled with mad anger and stabs the German radio operator. Sending out S.O.S. signals which an American cruiser receives, Lathrop rescues and pacifies his comrades, justifies himself, is executed by the Germans--and is made a national hero for the wrong reasons. His touched-up patriotic image in the newspapers pictures an exceptionally brave man who, out of shrewdness and patriotic feeling, pretended to be deaf and gave his life for the capturing of a dangerous German warship. O'Neill saw the real heroes and heroines in people who did not fight in the war, but fought against the war (e.g., Tom Perkins and Olga Tarnoff in The Personal Equation, even if at the end of the play Tom is also a victim).

On the other hand--apart from a few passages in Shell Shock--O'Neill was not much interested in presenting directly and in detail the physical atrocities of the war. His war pieces emphasized the way in which the war dehumanized, disturbed and destroyed lives and souls; he exposed the manner in which it fatefully derailed and diverted individuals from their human and humane courses ("Fratricide," The Sniper, The Personal Equation, In the Zone, Shell Shock, and S.O.S.).

Such an approach could inform a poem with indignation ("Fratricide"), could lend a natural turning point to a short story (S.O.S.), and could provide a short story-like peripeteia for one-act plays (The Sniper, In the Zone and Shell Shock). In a four-act play (The Personal Equation) it already resulted in some epic-episodic intrusions. When in Strange Interlude this approach was applied to a thoroughgoing examination of the moral and psychological consequences of the aftermath of the war in a nine-act play, the diversions inherent in the material and approach came to be series-connected. The epic and the dramatic became fused.

--Peter Egri


Cargill Cargill, Oscar, N. Bryllion Fagin, and William J. Fisher, eds. O'Neill and His Plays. New York: New York University Press, 1970.
Gelb Gelb, Arthur and Barbara. O'Neill. New York: Harper and Row, 1962.
Lukács I Lukács, Georg. The Historical Novel. Translated from the German by Hannah and Stanley Mitchell. London: Merlin Press, 1962.
Lukács II Lukács, Georg. Die Eigenart des Asthetischen. Neuwied am Rhein. Berlin-Spandau: Luchterhand. 1963.
O'Neill O'Neill, Eugene. Strange Interlude. In The Plays of Eugene O'Neill. New York: Random House, 1955, I, 1-200.



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