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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. XII, No. 1
Spring, 1988



The materials out of which O'Neill constructed All God's Chillun Got Wings are psychologically deep and culturally diverse. As Michael Manheim, among others, has observed: "various scenes and situations in the play grow out of O'Neill's haunting past" (32). Bearing the names of O'Neill's mother and father, Jim (Harris) and Ella (Downey) mimetically reenact the psychological conflicts--the fears, self-delusions, and guilt--found in the O'Neill household. Parallels between All God's Chillun and Long Day's Journey, identified by the Gelbs (534-35) and others, further attest to the shadows of O'Neill's family hanging over the earlier play. In addition to psychic autobiography, O'Neill utilized sources on African primitivism and masks (e.g., Macgowan and Rosse) that he had employed in The Emperor Jones. He also went deeply into the "world of expressionism" for the "stylization" (Tiusanen 174) that is one of All God's Chillun's most memorable characteristics. And a number of critics have pointed out comparisons between Strindberg's marriage plays and All God's Chillun.

Yet another possible influence on O'Neill, not advanced before for All God's Chillun, comes from Shakespeare. In other O'Neill plays Shakespeare's influence has been convincingly argued. Frenz and Mueller have identified "fundamental parallels" (85) between Mourning Becomes Electra and Hamlet; Roy argued that "Desire Under the Elms is nearly as close to King Lear in patterning, characterization and mode as it is to its Greek models" (6); and Berlin has shown that "the entire play Hamlet seems to have exerted considerable pressure on O'Neill's creative imagination when he was writing his last two plays, Long Day's Journey Into Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten" (312). Although there are ghosts aplenty in Hamlet. and All God's Chillun, it is not parallels with this Shakespearean tragedy but rather with Macbeth that surface in O'Neill's play. In fact, what Berlin has claimed for Hamlet's influence on O'Neill's two late works might arguably be proposed for Macbeth's impact on his 1923 play.

The two plays have much in common in theme and structure. Both Macbeth and All God's Chillun offer acute psychological histories (Nethercot calls All God's Chillun "O'Neill's most exhaustive study of insanity" (265]) of a husband and wife caught in the web of ambition and guilt, struggling to exist amid hate and love, yet drifting tragically into chaotic isolation. Beyond doubt, All God's Chillun is "a tragedy of alienation" (Carpenter 100), a phrase that aptly describes Macbeth. Admiring its artistic construction, Edmund Wilson described O'Neill's play in terms that could apply equally well to Macbeth, when he said that All God's Chillun offers "two characters equally strong, in collision with one another, instead of one central character who contends with himself"--two characters who "are likely at any moment, by taking the power and awfulness of naked natural forces, to establish a violent contact between themselves and us" (qtd. in Cargill 466). The Macbeths--like the Harrises--tragically confront "naked natural forces" that engulf them. In refuting the charge that All God's Chillun was narrowly about race relations. O'Neill himself maintained that "It is primarily a study of the two principal characters, and their tragic struggle for happiness. To deduce any general application from 'God's Chillun' except in a deep, spiritual sense, is to read a meaning into my play which is not there" (qtd. in Frenz, Eugene O'Neill. 42-43).

Parallels between Macbeth and All God's Chillun help to convey the "deep, spiritual sense" that O'Neill sought. Through possible echoes of one of Shakespeare's most profound tragedies, O'Neill deepened the tragic shame and loss in All God's Chillun. In both plays, couples strive for happiness. Macbeth and his wife believe that his possessing the kingship of Scotland will win them "honor, love, obedience, troops of friends" (5.3.25--Signet edition). Jim believes that by passing the bar examination he can offer Ella all that she needs to love him and to live happily. But both couples recoil from the dream turned nightmare as it pulls them apart with catastrophic results--failed ambition and self-destroying love. Both Lady Macbeth and Ella experience the guilt that leads to madness, become victims of a sickness of mind and soul impervious to mortal medicine, and inflict the torments of sleeplessness on their spouses. Yet Macbeth and Jim, concerned about wives who have fallen prey to conscience, still strive to salvage the reality from which each wife is estranged by maddening guilt. In both plays, the couples' struggles--psychic, moral, even sociopolitical--are presented against a supernatural backdrop where a nemesis looms ominously large. In Macbeth the witches lurk in the shadows of heath and mind, tempting and mocking; in All God's Chillun the Congolese mask projects an eerie power that no mortal can reduce or explain away.

In word and deed Ella's madness resembles Lady Macbeth's. In her famous mad scene (5.1), Lady Macbeth is observed in "slumb'ry agitation" (12) to "rise from her bed, [and] throw her nightgown upon her" (5). Like others with "infected minds," she discloses a "great perturbation" in her nature. Thoughts of past crimes fester within her mind and soul; "Pluck from memory a rooted sorrow," Macbeth orders the doctor attending his wife. A victim of her own bloody deeds, Lady Macbeth is forced to relive in her waking nightmare the treacheries responsible for her madness. Earlier, she demanded a murderous weapon ("Infirm of purpose,/ Give me the daggers" 2.2.52-53): now she is haunted by the consequences of taking up the evil weapon. Walking in her sleep, she did "unlock her closet, take forth paper, fold it, write upon't, read it, afterwards seal it, and again return to bed" (5.1.6-8), actions recalling her epistolary incitement to Macbeth to murder Duncan. Lady Macbeth sees--and fears--blood everywhere ("Out, damned spot"; "who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him"). No amount of hand rubbing will remove the stigma of her crime ("will these hands ne'er be clean?"). Blood will have blood.

Like Lady Macbeth, Ella reaps the whirlwind of her guilt. She enters her mad scene in a "red dressing gown" (69). Her "crime" (marrying a black man) is rooted deep in her memory, too. As Hattie tells her brother Jim, Ella's hate (the sign of her troubles) is "deep down in her or it wouldn't come out" (67). Like Lady Macbeth, Ella lives in a nightmare world where dreams haunt and guilt consumes her. In one of her lucid moments, she tells Jim, "I have such terrible dreams" (70), and on stage he sees that "crisis in her mind" (64). As Lady Macbeth once did, Ella--in her nightmare--wields a deadly weapon. She carries a "carving-knife in her hand" (72) and later hides it behind her back (74). Ironically, this symbol of domesticity becomes a weapon for the destruction of a family. Just as Lady Macbeth tried in sleep to undo the cause of her sorrow, Ella plots in "her sleep" to rid herself of that which she regards as a threat to happiness and freedom (Jim's success in the white world)--"When you were away taking the examinations and I was alone with the nurse, I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep but I was praying with all my might: 0 God, don't let Jim pass" (77).

Where Lady Macbeth saw gory red, Ella sees--and strikes out against--hateful black, the color she associates with her undoing. "Today she raved on about "Black! Black!' and cried because she said her skin was turning black--that you had poisoned her--" (66-67), reports Hattie to Jim. A little later, Hattie tells him that Ella can be heard "cursing you because she can never have a child because it'll be born black----!" (68). The ultimate curse, reflecting Ella's fear of negritude, comes when she shouts "You dirty nigger" (71) at her confused husband. And--remarkably like Lady Macbeth, too--Ella is terrified that she will never be free from the stain of the color of her bondage: "Black! Black! Black as dirt! You've poisoned me! I can't wash myself clean!" (74).

In both All God's Chillun and Macbeth mad wives are attended by doctors and nurses who witness their patients' psychic agony but are powerless to cure it. Outside the immediate tragic sphere of such suffering, these ministering individuals help to arouse pity and fear for their patients by describing the manifestations of their illnesses. Again, it is conceivable that O'Neill may have grafted elements from the wrenching mad scene from Macbeth onto his tragedy of Ella and Jim. As the Scottish doctor clinically records the effects of Lady Macbeth's tortured conscience, he advises the Gentlewoman attending her to "Remove all means of annoyance from her" and to "Still keep eyes upon her" (5.1.79-80). Recognizing that Lady Macbeth has "known what she should not," the doctor accurately concludes that "Unnatural deeds/ Do breed unnatural troubles" (5.1.74-75), though he is, of course, unaware of all the horrors assailing his patient's soul. "More needs she the divine than the physician" is his wise prognosis. He admits that there is no mortal cure for her--"This disease is beyond my practice" (61). When confronted by Macbeth, the doctor informs him that his patient is "Not so sick/ As she is troubled with thick-coming fancies/ That keep her from rest" (5.3.37-39). When Macbeth demands an "antidote" to "cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff" (5.3.43-44), the doctor reiterates the powerlessness of his medicine to cure a guilt-ravaged soul and replies: "Therein must the patient minister to himself." Angry at mortal medicine, Macbeth retorts: "Throw physic to the dog" (47).

Corresponding to the Scottish doctor and the Gentlewoman in All God's Chillun is Ella's doctor and Hattie, Jim's sister who "has played] nurse to Ella" (67). As the Scottish doctor had informed Macbeth, Ella's doctor tells Jim that his wife "must have rest, he says, her mind needs rest--[Bitterly.] But he can't tell me any prescription for that rest--leastways not any that'd work" (63). This doctor's medicine, too, is helpless against the guilt assaulting Ella's mind. Like the Gentlewoman who has watched Lady Macbeth, Hattie has kept a wary eye on Ella because in her "violent mania" (65) she could harm herself and eventually threaten Jim's sanity. Hattie advises her brother to "leave" Ella or to "send her away to some nice sanitarium" (66), neither course being acceptable to Jim. Like Macbeth he wants to believe that there is a cure ("some sweet oblivious antidote") to give him hope. Cheering himself up, he tells Hattie that the doctor said "that it'd be a long time before she got back her normal strength. Well, I suppose that's got to be expected" (65). Hattie punctures Jim's hope, though, by saying the doctor "didn't mean convalescing." For a fleeting moment, Jim thinks medicine might still help--"I'm going to get other doctors in to see Ella--specialists" (65-66). But then, like Macbeth ("throw physic to the dogs"), Jim attacks the doctor whose impotent medicine he cannot accept: "This one's a damn fool." (66). For Jim the doctor's prognosis--incurable disease; inevitable separation--is unbearable.

The ways in which the two wives behave toward their husbands also suggest marked similarities between Macbeth and All God's Chillun. Both Lady Macbeth and Ella conspire against their husbands by thrusting them into the throes of a deadly ambition. Lady Macbeth knows her husband possesses the honorable ambition of military valor, but she must turn such ambition into something evil: "Thou wouldst be great,/ Art not without ambition, but without/ The illness should attend it" (1.5.18-19). When her husband wavers in that corrupt course, she asks: "Was the hope drunk/ Wherein you dressed yourself?" and asks if he can live "a coward in thine own esteem" (1.7.43). After he does the deed, she boasts that "My hands are of your color, but I shame/ To wear a heart so white" (2.2.63-64). Infected by his wife's counsel, the ambitious Macbeth kills Duncan and then realizes that "treason has done his worst" (3.2.24). Ella, too, is accused by Hattie of instilling health-threatening ambition (to be white) into her husband. With "rebellious bitterness," Hattie asks Jim: "Is that the ambition she's given you? Oh, you soft, weak-minded fool, you traitor to your race" (68). Just as Macbeth's ambition made him a traitor to Duncan to whom he was "kinsman" and "subject" (1.7.13), Jim's ambition (resulting from wanting to please his white wife) convicts him of racial treason and leads to his own downfall.

The consequences of such ambition are enormous for both husbands. Their bedmates have plunged them into a fear and trembling near death. When Macbeth tells his wife that "we will proceed no further in this business" (1.7.31), she retaliates with the leading question of the play: "Art thous afeard/ To be the same in thine own act and valor/ As thou art in desire?" (1.4.39-41). Accepting her challenge, Macbeth soon faces the terror of his decision. Before the killing, he sees "a dagger of the mind, a false creation,/ Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain" (2.1.38-40). Afterwards, he asks: "How is't with me, when every noise appalls me?" (2.2.57). In her schizophrenic raving, Ella afrights Jim with a real "dagger" (the carving-knife) because he has refused to put her away. O'Neill's stage direction supplies the blueprint for Jim's fear: "Her eyes fasten on Jim with a murderous mania. She creeps up behind him. Suddenly he senses something and turns. As he sees her he gives a cry, jumping up and catching her wrist. She stands fixed, her eyes growing bewildered and frightened" (69). Jim is both the victim and object of Ella's love. Later, after she has stabbed the mask, she trembles: "It's all right, Jim! It's dead. The devil's dead. See! It couldn't live--unless you passed. If you'd passed it would have lived in you. Then I'd have had to kill you, Jim, don't you see--or it would have killed me. But now I've killed it. So you needn't be afraid any more, Jim" (76).

Perhaps one of the most intriguing links between Macbeth and All God's Chillun is the fact that both Lady Macbeth and Ella plot against their husbands' sleep, the symbol of psychic health and peace. Acting upon his wife's exhortation to kill the king, Macbeth bloodies himself and hears a voice indicting him: "Still it cried, 'Sleep no more!' to all the house;/ 'Glamis hath murdered sleep, and therefore Cawdor/ Shall sleep no more. Macbeth shall sleep no more'" (2.2.39-41). Later Lady Macbeth ironically warns her husband--"You lack the season of all natures, sleep" (3.4.142)--when it was she who prompted him to murder Duncan and, with the king, Macbeth's own sleep. Similarly, in All God's Chillun, Ella in her madness destroys Jim's sleep (peace of mind). Worried about his wife, Jim says: "I've got to sit down, Honey. I haven't had much chance for sleep in so long." And she replies: "I know, Jim. That was my fault. I wouldn't let you sleep. I couldn't let you. I kept thinking if he sleeps good then he'll be sure to study good and then he'll pass--and the devil'll win" (76). And she adds: "That was why I carried that knife around--(she frowns--puzzled)--one reason--to keep you from studying and sleeping by scaring you" (77). Ella is O'Neill's Lady Macbeth as she aggressively deprives her husband of the sleep that rewards a calm conscience.

A final parallel between Macbeth and All God's Chillun involves the supernatural presence that broods over both plays symbolizing the tragic operation of fate. In Macbeth the witches and in All God's Chillun the mask preside over--and hence contribute to--the crazy, nightmare world where reason is lost and the self is equivocated away. O'Neill seems to invest in the mask the same ambiguity of good and evil that Shakespeare built into the witches. It had a "grotesque face ... but beautifully done," and at the same time it "was conceived in a true religious spirit," yet "It dominates by a diabolical quality..." (47). Susan Tuck insightfully observes that the "primitive ebony Congo mask assumes the dimensions of an actual character" (204). This mask-character plays a major role in the allegory of evil that All God's Chillun shares with Macbeth.

In keeping with their mysterious powers, witches and mask are unnatural looking. First seeing the witches, Banquo exclaims that they "look not like inhabitants of the earth" (1.3.41) and wonders whether, after hearing them speak, he and Macbeth "have eaten on the insane root that takes reason prisoner" (84). Later, a querulous Macbeth calls them "black and midnight hags" (4.1.48) who present a "horrible sight" (122). In numerous productions, their shrill laughter evokes the witches' infernal origins. With such laughter and grotesque grins they summon Banquo's apparition to discredit Macbeth's chances of fathering kings. "Banquo smiles upon me and points at them for his," observes Macbeth (123-24). A similarly frightening experience greets Ella on first seeing the mask in the Harris apartment and helps to precipitate her own insanity. Giving a "stifled scream" (57), Ella remarks, "It looks ugly to me and stupid--like a kid's game--making faces" (57). Ironically, the games she associates with the mask will be no less terrifying to her psyche and soul than the maddening apparitions that the witches present in their fretful game with Macbeth. When Jim offers to remove the mask, Ella confidently orders: "No, I want it here where I can give it the laugh" (58), as if, like Macbeth, she could traffic with the very agents involved in her own downfall. Ella the mocker, though, becomes the mocked, for in the height of madness she begins to resemble the mask itself: "A startling transformation comes over her face. It grows mean, vindictive, full of jealous hatred. She cannot contain herself but breaks out harshly with a cruel venomous grin" (70-71). Ella becomes Jim's curse as well as her own, as Macbeth becomes Scotland's.

Unquestionably, the witches and the mask symbolize the fear that engulfs Macbeth and Ella and, with her, Jim. With their "strange intelligence" (1.3.76), the witches encourage and deceive Macbeth at the same time, embodying the equivocating evil he wants to avoid. In seeking the witches out for further prophecies (4.1), Macbeth believes he can come to terms with them, interpret their riddling words rationally, and thus capture the happiness he desperately needs. Yet any assurance of happiness resulting from such a diabolic encounter eludes him and works against him. Similarly, the mask for Ella--like the witches for Macbeth--seemingly promises happiness but really bodes evil. Ironically enough, the mask is a wedding present from Hattie, one of O'Neill's most powerful champions of a black ethos. As Hattie informs her white sister-in-law, the mask Is used "In religious ceremonies by my people in Africa" (57). But tragically it is a sign of the black world Ella is trying to escape but to which she is claustrophobically bound, quite literally according to O'Neill's stage directions (62, 72). Ella associates the mask with what she most dreads--Jim's passing the bar (74); and on another, related level, the mask stands for "Jim's 'inner reality'--his sense of failure, his blackness" (Gillett 115). As Ella irrationally reasons, the mask is a devil she must confront and destroy, and so "She grabs the mask and plunges the knife through it" (75). Her situation in relationship to the powers of evil is similar to Macbeth's. She believes that her (temporary) conquest over the mask will give her relief and happiness, but it only plunges her and Jim further into isolation and pain. In All God's Chillun, as in Macbeth, no character can negotiate with or attempt to control the darker forces of fate which hold the upper hand.
Although some may conclude that All God's Chillun "fails to achieve tragic stature" (Carpenter 101), there is no doubt that O'Neill sought to convey a "deep, spiritual sense" through the physical pain and spiritual suffering of his protagonists, the Negro Jim and his white wife Ella. I believe O'Neill sought to enlarge and exalt their suffering by comparing it with the pain and guilt found in Macbeth, certain incidents from which seem to be echoed in All God's Chillun. But perhaps the most revealing words about O'Neill's relationship to Shakespeare as far as All God's Chillun is concerned come from T. S. Eliot, who approvingly wrote that O'Neill was "more successful than the author of Othello, in implying something more universal than the problem of race--in implying, in fact, the universal problem of differences which create a mixture of admiration, love, and contempt, with the consequent tension" (qtd. in Cargill 169).

--Philip C. Kolin


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Cargill, Oscar, N. Bryllion Fagin, and William J. Fisher, eds. O'Neill and His Plays: Four Decades of Criticism. New York: New York U P, 1961.

Carpenter, Frederic I. Eugene O'Neill. Rev. ed. New York: Twayne, 1979.

Frenz, Horst. Eugene O'Neill. New York: Ungar, 1971.

Frenz, Horst and Martin Mueller. "More Shakespeare and Less Aeschylus in Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra." American Literature 38 (1966), 85-100.

Gelb, Arthur and Barbara. O'Neill. New York: Harper and Row, 1962.

Gillett, Peter J. "O'Neill and the Racial Myths." Twentieth Century Literature 18 (1972), 111-20.

Manheim, Michael. Eugene O'Neill's New Language of Kinship. Syracuse: Syracuse U P, 1982.

Nethercot, Arthur H. "Madness in the Plays of Eugene O'Neill." Modern Drama 18 (1975), 259-79.

O'Neill, Eugene. All God's Chillun Got Wings; Welded. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1924.

Roy, Emil. "O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms and Shakespeare's King Lear." Die Neueren Sprachen 65 (1966), 1-6.

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