Menu Bar


Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. XII, No. 1
Spring, 1988



The plays written by Eugene O'Neill in the early 1920's are more closely connected than anyone has recognized; in fact, they comprise a series on an epic theme that has occupied American writers since the nineteenth century: the myth of America as a new Eden, its discovery and its loss. Like Hawthorne and Melville before him, and like his contemporary, William Faulkner, O'Neill is most interested in exploring the promise of the New World and in documenting America's "unfortunate fall." Indeed, his attraction to myth, together with his penchant for abstract exploration of historical themes, his yearning to do "big work" and yet achieve a level of popular success, connect O'Neill most centrally to his forerunners in the American grain.1 It is well known that Alexis de Tocqueville predicted early in the nineteenth century that in America the arts would veer toward symbolic, allegorical and mythic forms and that man himself, "standing in the presence of Nature and of God, with his passions, his doubts, his rare prosperities and inconceivable wretchedness--[would] become the chief if not the sole theme of poetry."2 Almost immediately, Tocqueville's prediction was borne out by the American novel with its taste for allegorical romance. Yet it was not until the 1920s, with the arrival of Eugene O'Neill, that American drama was able to take its place beside prose fiction as an art form capable of engendering myth and providing a searching analysis of the national character.

Exactly what O'Neill thought of the national character was stated concisely in an interview given toward the end of his career, in 1946:

I'm going on the theory that the United States, instead of being the most successful country in the world, is the greatest failure.... Its main idea is that everlasting game of trying to possess your own soul by the possession of something outside of it, too. America is the prime example of this because it happened so quickly and with such immense resources. This was really said in the Bible much better. We are the greatest example of "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" We had so much and could have gone either way....3

At his death, O'Neill left unfinished a cycle of eleven plays about American history, the title of which, "A Tale of Possessors, Self-Dispossessed" indicates the idea that most preoccupied him. Unfortunately, out of this ambitious project only two plays have survived intact. A Touch of the Poet and More Stately Mansions. Recently, O'Neill's scenario for a third, The Calms of Capricorn, has come to light, but as far as can be ascertained, the other manuscripts were destroyed. Nonetheless, it is possible to trace O'Neill's conception by returning to the vision of his youth. Although it is unlikely that O'Neill planned the connections between his early plays as deliberately as he prepared the schema for his unrealized cycle, his work of the twenties does suggest a coherent vision of American history as an expulsion from the Garden and a fall from spiritual grace.

The outline of this historical epic is discernible in the sequence of plays beginning with Beyond the Horizon (1920), with its searching romanticism, and extending through the somber pessimism of Mourning Becomes Electra (1936). The central argument of O'Neill's work during this period is forthright and insistent, yet no less powerful for its directness. According to O'Neill, the flight of European settlers to America signaled Western culture's yearning to begin anew, to connect with nature and undo the stratifications of social class that had tainted Europe; and yet, through material acquisitiveness or Puritan rigidity, that chance was lost. This theme appears--indeed, is paramount--in such notable work as The Fountain, The Emperor Jones, The First Man, The Hairy Ape, Diff'rent, All God's Chillun Got Wings, Desire Under the Elms, Marco Millions, and The Great God Brown. Obviously, in the space available, it will be impossible to discuss any of these plays in detail. I do, however, want to suggest the scope of O'Neill's framework by commenting briefly on three of the most significant: The Emperor Jones (1920), Desire Under the Elms (1924), and The Great God Brown (1925).

The Emperor Jones has long been regarded as a probing of the "racial unconscious," a study of atavism or a documentary of black psychology--perceptions that I believe mistakenly imply an overriding racial theme. As I have argued elsewhere, the play may be read al O'Neill's first attempt to deal conceptually with American experience as a whole.4 To be sure, its hero is an American Black, yet Brutus Jones has acquired the external trappings of the white society that corrupted him, particularly a passion for the dollar. As he says, "De long green, dat's me every time!"5 The flight of Brutus Jones into the forest can therefore be said to symbolize American culture momentarily stripped of its possessions and forced to confront again the forest primeval that continues to haunt its dreams. It is significant that his journey on stage is one into history as well as into the unconscious, a flight backwards in time toward the uncovering of that original sin which, in O'Neill's view, marred the Edenic harmony of the New World. That sin was slavery, the worst manifestation of the profit motive and of the instinct to possess. In this respect, then, O'Neill is not exploring in The Emperor Jones "the collective unconscious of the American Negro" so much as he is exploring the collective conscience of Americans. Shortly before his death, Jones is transformed into a figure of great pathos. Stripped to a breechcloth, he mingles with a chorus of slaves chanting in the hold of a ghostly slave ship, divorced from time, and drifting forever toward a New World yet untainted, an image of paradise before the Fall.

To what extent did O'Neill cling to the romantic view propounded by Rousseau that man by nature was fundamentally good and that civilization had corrupted him? Years later, when he was working on the cycle, O'Neill put the following speech into the mouth of Simon Harford, the young protagonist of More Stately Mansions: "I still believe with Rousseau, as firmly as ever, that at the bottom human nature is good and unselfish. It is what we are pleased to call civilization that has corrupted it. We must return to Nature...."6 However, by the end of More Stately Mansions, when Simon is older and more cynical, he denigrates his youthful vision as an idealistic fallacy: "What is evil is the stupid theory that man is naturally what we call virtuous and good--instead of being what he is, hog.... In a nutshell, all one needs to remember is that good is evil, and evil, good."7 Which voice most resembles O'Neill's personal belief? Or does Simon's transformation parallel a change in O'Neill's view from the early to the later plays? In fact, in the context of More Stately Mansions, both speeches are intemperate and unqualified. One purpose of O'Neill's cycle was to reconcile these polarities through dialectics. But to construct an answer, we need not go beyond the plays at hand. Perhaps The Emperor Jones suggests a simplistic view of American history, but O'Neill's attitude toward nature and toward human nature is developed significantly in Desire Under the Elms.

Here every character is driven by a desire to possess the farm, which itself connotes the challenge and promise of the American landscape. Abbie wants the land for its security, Eben wants it for revenge, Ephraim wants it as a field for his own godlike creativity. All need to possess it, so they think, in order to be free. Yet each, in the end, is overcome by a primordial passion that possesses him: a force partly destructive, partly redemptive, that moves through all the characters, transforming them from its manipulators into its subjects.

The presence of this force is intimated by the enormous elms that brood over the house, fusing earth and sky principles so as to lend a mythic perspective to the stage. As symbols, they permit us to distinguish O'Neill's perception of the natural order from that of his nineteenth-century compatriots. Hawthorne, for example, employs a similar symbol in The House of Seven Gables--the Pyncheon Elm--which serves as a contrast between natural and human history, an image of organic continuity set against human dislocations of the moral order. I mention the comparison only to suggest that Hawthorne's vision is more beneficent than O'Neill's. In Hawthorne's romance, Clifford and Hepzibah, after their family curse is lifted, pass "from beneath the wide shelter of the Pyncheon Elm" on a pilgrimage toward life's renewal, childhood joy; and Phoebe and Holgrave seem to regain paradise in the affirmation of their love. Hawthorne tells us: "They transfigured the earth, and made it Eden again, and themselves the first two dwellers in it."8 In O'Neill's tragedy, Abbie and Eben similarly pass from under the shadow of the elms, and they, too, affirm their love; however, they do not regain the Garden, but are cast out from it. And Ephraim, comparing himself to the God of old, is thrown back upon an awful solitude.

Nature, particularly in the final chapters of The House of the Seven Gables, appears primarily in the guise of innocence and therefore is justly associated with the recovery of a golden age. Only loss of innocence, the awareness of sin, separates man from the Edenic state. By contrast, O'Neill's vision is more complex. In his plays nature seems endlessly stirring, a pulsing cycle of creation and destruction, a force governing desire and shaping our most profound decisions. Pagan will and Puritan conscience, nature and experience, scene and thought, are fused.

For O'Neill, then, Eden does not recall a state of pristine innocence before the Fall as in the Christian perception of the term; rather, it suggests a union with cyclical nature in its condition of mutability. In this sense for O'Neill the elms suggest a kind of pagan vitality incarnate in the New World; "Nature," in Abbie's words, "makin' thin's grow--bigger 'n' bigger--burning' inside ye--makin' ye want t' grow--into somethin' else--till ye're jined with it--an' it's your'n but it owns ye too' an' makes ye grow bigger--like a tree--like them elums" (II, i. p. 164). A passage in D. H. Lawrence's essay "Pan in America" is worth mentioning in this connection. Its description is remarkably consonant with O'Neill's image of the elms (although O'Neill could not have been familiar with it). It is in America, Lawrence writes, that "the oldest of all, Old Pan is still alive.... As a tree still is. A strong-willed, powerful thing-in-itself, reaching up and reaching down.... It is a great tree, under which the house is built. And the tree is still within the allness of Pan." Each of O'Neill's characters seeks to regain a connection with "the allness of Pan,"9 and it is the possibility of such union that constitutes for him the recovery of the Edenic state.

But by the middle of the decade, O'Neill had come to recognize that in the modern age it would be impossible for Americans to return to a state of primordial harmony. By now the Great God Pan was dead or else irrelevant, repressed by Puritanism and ignored by industrial capitalism. That much Yank had discovered in The Hairy Ape. Having arrived at this conviction, O'Neill determined to crown his achievements of the twenties with a theatrical monument, a symbolic epic of ancient gods and modern Americans entitled, appropriately, The Great God Brown. His chief purpose in writing the play, O'Neill said later. "was to foreshadow the mystical patterns created by the duality of human character and the search for what lies hidden and beyond the words and actions of men and women."10 He had been moving toward a major effort of this nature from the beginning. Indeed, the mythic frame of The Great God Brown includes a revelation of the cause of evil in the world, explains the fall of man from paradisal unity, and even points the way toward his redemption and liberation through suffering and love.

If in The Emperor Jones O'Neill identifies America's original sin as the introduction of slavery to the wilderness of Pan, he suggests in The Great God Brown that every generation repeats the sin anew through its worship of material possessions and its blindness to the creative spirit. Structured along the pattern of ancient seasonal rituals, the play is a veritable ballet of masks symbolizing the ebb and flow of man's disunified psyche in the modern world. The necessity of masking represents at the very outset a violation of the spirit. Whenever O'Neill's characters unmask during the play, their genuine personalities are exposed: yet to survive at all they must torture their features into masks of social acceptability enforced upon them by a corrupt community. In the cosmology of The Great God Brown, the origin of all suffering--the need for masking--lies in the fact that the natural self and the social self have become irreparably severed.

However, O'Neill here adds a new dimension to the myth. The self has been disunited from within by the instinct to possess; but it has also been assaulted from without by the teachings of a repressive theology. Dion Anthony is the central representative of this conflict of divided souls. His name, according to O'Neill's account (in a rare public explanation of his work) derives from "Dionysus and St. Anthony--the creative pagan acceptance if life, fighting eternal war with the masochistic, life-denying spirit of Christianity."11 Even at the commencement of the play, Dion's quest for unity is thwarted by his sense of guilt, which increases his awareness of disharmony and separation.

Midway through the play this prototype of the failed American artist drinks himself to death--and so Brown takes up his mask. Symbolically, Brown ought to be the natural complement to Dion's incomplete persona: psychically, they are dual aspects of one personality. However, neither can perceive his image in the other's mask. The significance of this development is once again best explained in O'Neill's words: "'Brown' is the visionless demi-god of our new materialistic myth--a Success--building his life of exterior things, inwardly empty and resourceless, an uncreative creature of superficial preordained social grooves a by-product forced aside into slack waters by the deep main current of life-desire."12 After stealing Dion's mask, Brown's course is death and eventually spiritual rebirth. Like Brutus in The Emperor Jones, like Jim Harris in All God's Chillun Got Wings, like Yank in The Hairy Ape, and like Abbie, Eben, and Ephraim in Desire Under the Elms, he has a destiny to fulfill as the agent of ritual purgation. At the end of the second cycle of the play, Brown becomes the vehicle of an apotheosis. Discarding his double life, he accepts Dion's mask as permanent and then is sacrificed in Dion's name for the supposed murder of Billy Brown. Comforted at the close by Cybel, the great Earth Mother, he meets death looking out over the garden in which Dion lies buried, proclaiming his transfiguration as "The Great God Brown." True, it is the garden of a rejected deity; but for once in his theatre, an O'Neill protagonist has a glimpse of paradise regained.

Against this background we can better understand why in the twenties O'Neill was always talking of getting back as far as it was possible in modern times to the roots of ancient theatre in ritual and myth. He summarized his aim in this passage from "A Dramatist's Notebook," originally published in the January 1933 issue of The American Spectator:

What do I mean by an "imaginative" theater') I mean a theater.... returned to its highest and sole significant function as a Temple where the religion of a poetical interpretation ... of life is communicated to human beings, starved in spirit by their soul-stifling daily struggle to exist as masks among the masks of the living.13

Indeed, O'Neill believed fervently that the theatre held the power to regenerate communal myth and in doing so to reclaim the promise of American history. This vision sustained him at least until the late thirties and the onset of the Second World War, when that faith, too, was shaken.

More recently, in part because of the acclaim bestowed upon O'Neill's later work, it has become fashionable to denigrate these early plays. Critics, looking ahead to such masterpieces as The Iceman Cometh, Long Day's Journey Into Night, A Touch of the Poet and A Moon for the Misbegotten, dismiss the earlier work as programmatic, overly symbolic, and lacking in sophisticated dialogue. Robert Brustein, whose views have been influential, writes with disparagement that "O'Neill's early drama tends to be Expressionist in its symbolic structure and Messianic in its artistic stance."14 Well, that is true; and yet, these early plays derive their power--and some of them truly are powerful--precisely from the playwright's "messianic" stance. Furthermore, they hold our interest not through gimmickry but through their carefully controlled symbolic forms. Of course, we ought not to overvalue literature simply because we admire its ambition. Nevertheless, I want to conclude by registering my enthusiasm for the work that O'Neill completed in the twenties. Despite individual flaws, these plays, when viewed collectively, constitute a prophetic vision without parallel on the modern stage.

--Michael Hinden


1For an extensive discussion of O'Neill's relation to earlier American writers, see John Henry Raleigh, The Plays of Eugene O'Neill (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1965), Chapter 5 ("O'Neill as an American Writer").

2Democracy in America, ed. Richard D. Heffner (New York: Mentor, 1956), II, I, p. 183.

3Quoted in Barrett Clark, Eugene O'Neill: The Man and His Plays, rev. ed. (New York: Dover Publications, 1947), pp. 152-153.

4"The Emperor Jones: O'Neill, Nietzche, and the American Past," The Eugene O'Neill Newsletter, III, No. 3 (January, 1980), 2-4.

5Eugene O'Neill, Nine Plays (New York: Modern Library, 1954), p. 7. Unless otherwise noted, all references to O'Neill's plays are cited from this edition. Subsequent references appear in the body of the text.

6Eugene O'Neill, More Stately Mansions, shortened from the author's partly revised script by Karl Ragnar Gierow and edited by Donald Gallup (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964), I, I, p. 9.

7Ibid., III, II, p. 172.

8The House of the Seven Gables, The Novels and Tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne (New York: The Modern Library, 1937), Chapter XX, p. 428.

9"Pan in America," Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D. H. Lawrence, ed. Edward D. McDonald (London: 1961), pp. 22-31, p. 22. The essay was written in 1924, the same year in which O'Neill wrote Desire Under the Elms, but it remained unpublished until 1936.

10Quoted in Arthur and Barbara Gelb. O'Neill (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), p. 581.

11Ibid., p. 580.


13Quoted in O'Neill and His Plays, ed. Oscar Cargill, N. Bryllion Fagin, and William Fisher (New York University Press, 1962), pp. 121-122.

14The Theatre of Revolt (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1962), p. 324.



Copyright 1999-2011