Menu Bar

Masks in the Dramaturgy of Yeats and O'Neill


BY Edward L. Shaughnessy
FROM Irish University Review, University College, Dublin, 1984

Inveterate procrastinator, first of the hollow men, the poet sighs: "There will be time . . . /To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet." And in his weary utterance is announced the moral self-effacement of our age. Verbally inventive but spiritually exhausted, he is forced to project a counterfeit, a persona. Having surrendered the authority of his vision, Prufrock suffers the modern soul's paralysis: an inability to activate thought, a failure to transform suggestion into realization. He wears a mask neither comic nor tragic.

The mask, of course, has often been associated with an idea of power. Primitive peoples sought through it to expel evil spirits. Greek genius exploited it to evoke universal types. Even modern psychological theories of the defense mechanism indicate that men remain fascinated with mask symbolism. We should hardly be surprised, then, if certain dramatists of our own time have shown a renewed interest in this ancient prop as a device to illuminate the human condition. Symbolist or naturalist, the playwright has once again found ways to stylize his characters' features. He knows that the mask can suggest liberation; but he knows as well that, worn too long, it can erase a character's sense of self. Thus a befuddled Willy Loman, uncertain of his identity, may be forced to confess, "I still feel—kind of temporary about myself."

William Butler Yeats and Eugene O'Neill made perhaps the most serious recent attempts to rediscover the possibilities of the mask. Although for different reasons and in profoundly different ways, each sought to dramatize through it what he felt could not be expressed without it. Yeats's purpose was the more recondite, his attitude uncompromisingly elitist:

While writing these plays, intended for some fifty people in a drawingroom or a studio, I have so rejoiced in my freedom from the stupidity of an ordinary audience that I have filled The Only Jealousy of Emer with those little known convictions about the nature and history of a woman's beauty, which Robartes found in the Speculum of Gyraldus and in Arabia Deserta among the Judwalis.1

O'Neill, on the other hand, sought to discover the meaning of the collective experience. While his most ambitious mask play, The Great God Brown, makes its own difficult demands, he trusted his ability to communicate in the broad sense:

. . . I somehow feel there's enough in it to get over to unsophisticated audiences. In one sense Brown is a mystery play, only instead of dealing with crooks and police it's about the mystery of personality and life. I shouldn't be surprised if it interested people who won't bother too much over every shade of meaning, but follow it as they follow any story. They needn't understand with their minds, they can just watch and feel.2

O'Neill's play shows that the mask, accepted by others as one's real self, will almost inevitably muffle or mangle whatever expression one wishes to project. Paradoxically, the poses we assume and which cause us to be misunderstood may be represented in the drama by masks—an illustration of the very impotence of our deliberate or unconscious concealments as well as of our genuine efforts to communicate. That is, seeing ourselves masked may be our opportunity to see ourselves, symbolically, as we really are. If these effects are social and therapeutic, they are nonetheless effects in no way alien to the aspirations of the theatre.


Yeats's personal history must be brought to bear on any worthy study of his mask plays—a task, let it be observed, already performed expertly by Richard Ellmann in Yeats: The Man and the Masks (1948) and The Identity of Yeats (1954). Yet a brief review of this background seems to be required if we are to appreciate his mask philosophy as we look in sections II and III at The Only Jealousy of Emer and The Player Queen. In 1917, reflecting on earlier thoughts about the relation of art to life, Yeats continued to forge an idea that emerges ultimately as an extensive theory:

I was always thinking of the element of imitation in style and in life, and of the life beyond heroic imitation. I find in an old diary: "I think all happiness depends on the energy to assume the mask of some other life, on a re-birth as something not one's self, something created in a moment and perpetually renewed; in playing a game like that of a child where one loses the infinite pain of self-realization, in a grotesque or solemn painted face put on that one may hide from the terror of judgment.... Perhaps all the sins and energies of the world are but the world's flight from an infinite blinding beam"; and again at an earlier date; "If we cannot imagine ourselves as different from what we are, and try to assume that second self, we cannot impose a discipline upon ourselves though we may accept one from others. Active virtue, as distinguished from the passive acceptance of a code, is therefore theatrical, consciously dramatic, the wearing of a mask.3

"That second self." For many years Yeats had experienced deep conflicts of personality and had sought to manage the warring poles of his nature. Suffering such division finally convinced him, however, of the essentially dual character of personality: bifurcation could actually constitute a value.

His poem "Ego Dominus Tuus" (1915) offers a useful insight into this phenomenon, for its dialectical form is itself suggestive of Yeats's understanding of personality. The personae, called Hic and Ille, represent on the one hand the conventional self of flesh, blood and bone (the Anti-self or Anti-thetical Self, he would call it); on the other, the mystical self, the portion of artist-creator or the super-self. Hic thrives on the commonplace and predictable quality of diurnal 'reality. Such a spirit tends to be suspicious, if not actively contemptuous, of the free life of the imagination, for the creative impulse is disruptive of Hic's desire for comfortable sameness. Hic prefers the profane sanctuary of homeostasis. Ille seeks an ultra-reality manifested in the form of dreams. Nourished by fancy and imagination, Ille turns away from the coarseness of daily existence. Of course, the problem of a divided nature was hardly new to aesthetics, but Yeats's treatment had a characteristic freshness. Still, the very idea of opposites signals tension. Are we not faced here with the ancient question of dualism?

There was something Platonic in Yeats's ambivalence toward primary reality. Although he loathed the spirit of scientific rationalism which threatens the dream world, he nevertheless sought to place his identity upon the affairs of men. And, while he often mocked the anaemic soul of the anti-self, he was constrained to participate in its life at the expense of the life of the poet. The mockery could not be too long sustained since, by the very nature of opposites defined in his doctrine, the anti-self could not be fled for long. Without it there could be no full realization of the personality. And art, which (no matter how esoteric) is some type of attempt to communicate, constitutes the artist's method of completing himself.

Of course, he generalized the idea; it applied to all men. As the self seeks to participate in the world that co-exists with it, it dons a mask. If he were not to be defenceless, one would have to play the role of the hero and his mask would have to be appropriately fashioned. Caution, though: one who plays this role long enough may become what he seems. Ellmann refers to an unpublished manuscript of The Player Queen:

Only the most delicate mind can discover the truth, and that mind is always hesitating. . . .we are only confident about the ideas of others. But there must be people like me to take up your thoughts, to believe in them because they are not our own, to put them on our faces like a mask. . . .4

Yeats's theory of masks, recondite and idiosyncratic, could appeal only to the very unsophisticated minority. The earlier popular success of Cathleen ni Houlihan caused him to question its integrity. As John Rees Moore points out, "It met all his specifications for theater, yet it lacked true poetic distinction. Its very popularity was gratifying but suspicious."5 No doubt his preferences grew out of his devotion to the Japanese Noh form:

"Accomplishment" the word Noh means, and it is their accomplishment and that of a few cultivated people who understand the literary and mythological allusions and the ancient lyrics quoted in speech or chorus, their discipline, a part of their breeding.6

O'Neill had read enough psychoanalytic literature to be impressed by Carl Jung. His sophistication in this area is evident as early as 1920. Most readers will agree, for example, that a rudimentary understanding of Jung's psychological archetype called the Collective Unconscious can illuminate the theme of The Emperor Jones. But it was the idea of the persona that O'Neill seemed to find most useful in The Great God Brown (1926), examined in section IV. Suffice it for the moment to observe that Jung's term is the same as the Latin for the mask worn by actors in ancient Greek and Roman drama.

But O'Neill, who employed the mask in four major plays in the 1920s, was a playwright, not a psychologist. An artist of immense integrity, he never permitted his plays to become trendy advertisements for intellectual theories at the moment in vogue (Marxist, Freudian, whatever). Nor would he ever have considered submitting his drafts to psychiatrists for theoretical verification as William Inge is said to have done with Come Back, Little Sheba.7 If Yeats had set out to appeal to the play-going cognoscenti, O'Neill attempted to light up the meaning of the collective experiences of his time. And, while he was a writer jealous of his insights, he was perfectly willing to acknowledge that other frontiersmen could achieve similar ends by using other methods:

. . . I hold more and more surely to the conviction that the use of masks will be discovered eventually to be the freest solution of the modern dramatist's problem as to how—with the greatest possible dramatic clarity and economy of means—he can express those profound hidden conflicts of the mind which the probings of psychology continue to disclose to us.8


The Only Jealousy of Emer (1919) offers a powerful illustration of Yeats's theory of opposites. The stage directions indicate that all characters are to be masked "or their faces made up to resemble masks."

The action picks up where the story line of On Baile's Strand (1903) leaves off. Cuchulain, subdued by the waves in his battle with Conchubar, is found attired in grave clothes. His wife Emer knows, however, that "Cuchulain is not dead" but has been placed under a magic spell which prevents his noticing her or any other presence in her world. A "Ghost of Cuchulain," with a suggestion that a mist hides him from Emer, crouches near the front stage, his attire and mask identical to those of the "Figure of Cuchulain." This figure, the flesh and blood of the paralyzed warrior, has been possessed by Bricriu of the Sidhe, "maker of discord among gods and men."

Cuchulain wears a heroic mask, for in his history of deeds he had given himself over almost entirely to his antithetical self. This immersion into the world of primary reality ("objectivity," Reg Skene calls it) has greatly weakened his mystical self. That is, his more sensitive and poetical nature has been effectively silenced and grown unfamiliar to him.

Unless we briefly review the plot, little can be made of Yeats's dramaturgy. Emer wishes to call Cuchulain back to her world. She knows that he has had many mistresses, most recently the beautiful and sensuous Eithne Inguba. At the suggestion of Emer this lovely girl kisses the unconscious form to break the spell by her raw sexual power. But she is repelled by "some evil thing that dried my heart/When my lips touched it." This presence is Bricriu who seeks to defeat Fand, the Woman of the Sihde, Yeats's symbol of disembodied ethereal beauty. She "promises the oblivion of human memory, a release from the pain of feeling."9

The struggle for the soul of Cuchulain, then, is waged among four: Emer, who would return him to his memory of hearth and fidelity, their bond; Eithne Inguba, who would offer sensual gratification but limited idealised passion; Fand, aesthetic perfection at the cost of the hero's human identity; and Bricriu, who would return the hero to life but at the cost of Emer's surrendering his love forever. It is important to note that Cuchulain's fate is not in his own hands.

Here begins the crucial meaning of Yeats's mask psychology. When Bricriu, speaking through Cuchulain's mask, allows Emer to see her husband in the reality of his dream (being wooed by the dream-goddess Fand), she sees him in the heroic mask. That is, she sees the ghost figure in costume exactly like that of the dormant figure. If he is seduced by Fand, he will die to the world. Fand represents a cool and other-worldly beauty: ". . . she seems more an idol than a human being." The agent of discord urges Emer to renounce her hope for reunion with Cuchulain: "Cry out that you renounce his love; make/haste/And cry that you renounce his love for ever."10 Only that act of selflessness can call him back to the objective world: "Renounce him, and her power is at an end" (561).

Why in his dream does he wear the heroic mask? We can understand this only to the extent that we see this vision through Emer's eyes. Even though Cuchulain's reality at the moment exists more in the dimension of the self, and although Emer is aware that his form floats before her, she has not lost hold of the reality from which she is viewing, the reality of the primary world to which she wishes desperately to restore him. She sees him as she wishes him to be. Indeed, Emer cannot regard him in any other way since one is blind to the self of others unless he be a dream creature himself, like Fand. Bricriu, speaking through Cuchulain and revealing to Emer the ghost figure, explains to her that the warrior is held in a dimension beyond her power to reach:

Figure of Cuchulain. He cannot hear-being shut off, a phantom

That can neither touch, nor hear, nor see;

He heard no sound, heard no articulate sound;
They could but banish rest, and make him dream,
And in that dream, as do all dreaming shades
Before they are accustomed to their freedom,
He has taken his familiar form; and yet
He crouches there not knowing where he is
Or at whose side he is crouched.     (547, 549)

Emer cannot believe in the reality of Fand. Cuchulain's wife sees the goddess but thinks herself bewitched by Bricriu. The anti-self of Emer, obdurate as the souls in primary reality tend to become, thinks she beholds a dream and no more, a lie. Bricriu, serving his own ends but speaking truthfully, instructs her on the nature of dreams and the deeper realities:

A dream is body;
The dead move ever towards a dreamless youth
And when they dream no more return no more.
And those more holy shades that never lived
But visit you in dreams.     (549)

This seems to say that images are not only a form of reality but in fact constitute the more enduring reality of the imaginative self. Yeats himself confirmed this idea some years later in his essay on "Discoveries": "It is not possible to separate an emotion or a spiritual state from the image that calls it up and gives it expression."11

Emer may be made up to look as if she wears a mask. Perhaps this is the playwright's way of saying that her mask represents permanence of personality. An inhabitant of the world of threshold and hearth, Emer cannot fathom the possibilities of one's assuming different masks, different identities, even in the instance of her own husband whom she feels she knows so well. True, Cuchulain had long ago given himself over to his antithetical self. But this does not mean that he lost his capacity to know reality in other and subtler forms. In his swoon, his potential for dream-reality is liberated. Bricriu can claim his form to make discord—that is, to keep Cuchulain from Fand by convincing Emer to call the hero back. Fand can claim his imaginative allegiance to an extent that he becomes wholly forgetful of his human loves. As Reg Skene puts it: "The Ghost of Cuchulain, experiencing in his meeting with Fand a love almost devoid of desire, approaches a' state of pure subjectivity. . . ."12

Emer, by a heroic effort suggesting deep ironies about the love relationship, has gained a hollow victory. In returning Cuchulain to primary reality (and to the arms of Eithne Inguba), she has had to give up hope. Further, he has the potential to be lost again to the Emers and Eithne Ingubas who will not or cannot fathom a reality beyond their own experience. Cuchulain, inured to the heroic mask, no longer gives himself over to his mystical self. He can, however, be taken over when that power within him is rekindled by a force outside him.


Every student of Yeats's drama owes a debt to the late Curtis Bradford in his monumental work, W.B. Yeats: The Writing of The Player Queen (1977). Professor Bradford's organization of the thirty-odd manuscripts of the play established the dramatist's agonized attempt to write first a tragedy and then various drafts of comedy or farce. The final version is a farce, but the mask symbolism remains serious. Charles Berryman holds that Yeats' mask strategy has relevance in two ways: "The Mask as a psychological concept in Yeats' system describes a division of personality, and the Mask as a dramatic term refers to a deliberate form of role-playing."13

The characters in The Player Queen prepare to give a play-within-a-play (never performed), "The Tragical History of Noah's Deluge." Septimus, the chief poet and image-maker, assigns roles to the other characters: to his wife, Decima, the role of Noah's wife; to his mistress, Nona, that of Noah's sister; to himself, the part of Noah. The suggestion is thereby established at once that the poet knows best that images constitute a state more real than reality.

A free-wheeling and wholly uninhibited type who makes his first appearance drunk, Septimus complains of having a bad wife. Decima spits fire because Septimus has been rather too generous in his attentions to Nona. Commissioned by the real Queen and the Prime Minister to put on the play, they quickly fall to bickering. Decima will not accept her part; she refused to wear the mask of Noah's wife. Amid the bumbling of the Prime Minister, who fears the mob if the play is not performed, and the confusion of the distracted Queen (comically suffering a sort of puritan self-loathing), Nona declares that she will play the part of Noah's wife. Ultimately, the player queen Decima contrives to marry the Prime Minister and to banish Septimus and his troop of actors. Thus Decima accepts a regal role, but near the end of the play she also picks up the mask of Noah's sister (discarded by Septimus) and, in putting it on, increases the complexity of her condition. It is time to look to Yeats for help:

I began in, I think, 1907, a verse tragedy, but at that time the thought I have set forth in Per Amica Silentia Lunae was coming into my head, and I found examples of it everywhere. I wasted the best working months of several years in an attempt to write a poetical play where every character became an example of the finding or not finding of what I have called the Antithetical Self. . . .14

Tragedy or farce, the characters' seeking their Antithetical Selves is the heart of the matter. Therefore, the significance of the masking action depends on the roles characters accept and reject and what the poet would have them take. "Gather about me," says Septimus, "for I announce the end of the/Christian Era, the coming of a New Dispensation,/that of the New Adam, that of the Unicorn; but/alas, he is chaste, he hesitates, he hesitates" (745). The play, from an image-maker's point of view, is Yeats's recognition of a new order of reality, a "New Dispensation." To enter it one will have to accept the role assigned him; he will have to accept the role of the Anti-self (not unattractive but taken at the expense of the Self). To accept, indeed, makes it possible to give substance to one's personality: without the complementing Antithetical Self, one is not entire:

Septimus.  Man is nothing till he is united to an image. Now the Unicorn is both an image and beast; that is why he alone can be the new Adam. (749)

In Scene I Septimus five times calls the world "unchristian." Near the close of the play he declares that "the Christian era has come to an end" and that the players are attacked because they serve the Unicorn, the symbol of the imagination. The poet sees that, the old era passing, the Unicorn, "the new Adam," is "both an image and beast." The man of the new era will be able to realize the potentialities of his Self and his Antithetical Self; he will be able to integrate his mystical and corporal duality. But people in the main hate the freedom promised by imaginative flight, preferring to settle for the social roles they know.

By taking the role of Noah's wife, Nona accepts the transcendent reality perceived by the poet. In rejecting the same role, the player queen refuses the temptation and attraction of her opposite. (Yeats' logic is brilliant: Decima's motivation springs naturally out of the dynamics of the play since she feels a genuine antipathy for Septimus, the image-maker.) She finds her Anti-self in the role of the Queen. Nevertheless, Decima is probably the play's most complex character. In becoming the Queen she has become her Anti-self, it is true; but she picks up the mask of Noah's sister and speaks through it to the players at the end, thus uniting herself to them in the New Era. What this means, apparently, is that the personality vacillates and that it is possible to flash between states. It is as if one could exist simultaneously as the Self and the Antithetical Self.

Soon, no doubt, the player queen must drop one role or the other. Yeats' system seems to provide no way to sustain this kind of realized bifurcation in the present order. Although such deft balancing may be a happily sought consummation, the New Era has been born only in the poet's mind: the play-within-the-play never comes off. As Septimus says to the Stage Manager, the Unicorn's "unborn children are but images; we merely play with images."


Eugene O'Neill possessed in great measure that faculty Jacques Maritain called creative intuition. Thus, while he was obviously sophisticated about theories of depth psychology, he became understandably piqued when critics charged that he relied heavily on psychoanalytic theory in his work:

. . . I am no deep student of psychoanalysis. As far as I can remember, of all the books written by Freud, Jung, etc., I have read only four, and Jung is the only one of the lot who interests me. Some of his suggestions I find extraordinarily illuminating in the light of my own experiences with hidden human motives.15

He would not have denied that a knowledge of Jung's psychological archetype makes possible a more intelligent reading of The Great God Brown. The persona provides the individual with both a defence structure and an accommodation to the world's demands. That defence protects his inner, vulnerable self (animus/anima) as he is forced to conform outwardly to the values and norms of his society. To the extent that knowledge of these dynamics was becoming commonplace, O'Neill felt that audiences would welcome his experiments:

. . . what, at bottom, is the new psychological insight into human cause and effect but a study in masks, an exercise in unmasking? Whether we think the attempted unmasking has been successful, or has only created for itself new masks, is of no importance here. What is valid, what is unquestionable, is that this insight has uncovered the mask, has impressed the idea of mask as symbol of inner reality upon all intelligent people of today; and I know they would welcome the use of masks in the theatre as a necessary, dramatically revealing new convention, and not regard them as any "stunty" resurrection of archaic props.16

He asked for intelligence but O'Neill, unlike Yeats, did not write just for the "few cultivated people who understand literary and mythological allusions." This does not mean, of course, that he condescended to his audience. Few playwrights have asked for greater concentration than O'Neill does in The Great God Brown.

The play's protagonist, Dion Anthony, discovers early that the philistine world hates the truly creative spirit. Therefore, his ascetic nature is forced underground and, like Thomas Wolfe's Eugene Gant, he learns "to project mechanically, before the world, an acceptable counterfeit of himself which would protect him from intrusion." The Billy Browns, respectable but dead of spirit, assign him a role in the nation of business and polite barbarism. Brown, whose name is legion, will paralyse the soul of the artist just as he has anaesthetized his own. Even as a boy of seventeen, Dion faces not so much a problem of knowing his true identity as of establishing that identity:

Why am I afraid to live, I who love life and the beauty of flesh and the living colors of earth and sky and sea? Why am I afraid of love, I who love love? Why am I afraid, I who am not afraid? Why must I pretend to scorn in order to pity? Why must I hide myself in self-contempt in order to understand? Why must I be so ashamed of strength, so proud of my weakness? . . . Why was I born without a skin, O God, that I must wear armor in order to touch or to be touched.17

Like the other major characters, Dion is equipped with a mask, his counterfeit. His greatest need is that Margaret will accept him for what he loves in himself. But she cannot love Dion's strength: "I love you with all my soul! Love me! Why can't you love me, Margaret?" She wishes instead to be his mother: "my little boy—my baby." When he unmasks, exposing his vulnerable self to her, Dion discovers that she does not know him. To win her acceptance, then, he puts on the mask once more. This action foreshadows the endless masking and unmasking and symbolic role-changing that so wearies the soul and effects a devastating spiritual attrition. Because he loves her, he accepts her terms. Ironically, however, in accepting this unnatural relationship, Dion takes a first step that will lead him away from her.

When he needs a mother (to reinforce his knowledge of his beginnings, to confirm his identity, to renew his capacity to love), he goes not to Margaret but to Cybel, the prostitute. Her hard mask disguises her true self: she is "an incarnation of Cybele, the Earth Mother doomed to segregation as a pariah in a world of unnatural laws."18 When they are together and unmasked, a more natural order of things is established. She then reveals a maternal compassion for all men who hate each other and hate themselves for what they have become: Cybel knows that her power is the secret and knows too that it will be rejected:

. . . I'd like to run out naked into the street and love the whole mob to death like I was bringing you all a new brand of dope that'd make you forget everything that ever was for good! (Then, with a twisted smile) But they wouldn't see me, any more than they see each other. And they keep right on moving along and dying without my help anyway. (337)

Men do not want Cybel for what she is. Perhaps because love is cheap, she is assigned the role of the harlot.

What of Margaret? O'Neill shows that she, who would cast Dion in the role of an emotionally dependent boy, must stifle in herself the power to grow. After years of forcing him to wear the mask she accepts (after years of tension whose source she cannot understand), Margaret sees Dion desperately rip away his mask. His face is then revealed full of "great pure love for her and a great sympathy and tenderness" (343). Holding up her mask to ward off his intense devotion, she faints. The unmasked husband kisses both her mask and her face: "And now I am permitted to understand and love you, too" (344). Her mask has blunted her own capacity to love and to accept love. Such a relationship as they have must therefore become a mockery, for neither partner is permitted to be himself.

If he could have been himself with Margaret, Dion Anthony might have accommodated to the world of William Brown. O'Neill made explicit what he wished to suggest:

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.19

As for William A. Brown, he has actually become his persona. Even as a boy (his "expression already indicating a disciplined restraint"), he is tracked for worldly success. "Brown is the visionless demi-god of our new materialistic myth," said O'Neill, ". . . building his life of exterior things, inwardly empty and resourceless, an uncreative creature of superficial preordained social grooves. . . ."20

Since boyhood, Brown has secretly hated Dion, whose creative nature he can not fathom. Such hatred, of course, often derives from envy and the anger the world vents on its saints. Smug and pompous, believing only in his "materialistic myth," Brown has become the god of all he surveys. Well, almost. He also loves Margaret and covets Cybel.

Always a daring innovator, here O'Neill makes an astonishing demand on his audience. When Dion dies of exhaustion at Brown's home, the philistine takes up the mask. He assumes Dion's persona! Why? As the dying Anthony says, Billy Brown covets his soul: "Brown loves me! He loves me because I have always possessed the power he needed for love, because I am love!" (349) Brown hides the body and sets out to "become" his stricken opposite. If the logic of this psychological phenomenon can be said to hold up on some intellectual grounds, the action is dramatically confusing. To ask the audience, without a case book in hand, to follow the meaning of all the masking and unmasking is to ask too much. Nevertheless, O'Neill's boldness and originality are fairly stunning and nearly carry the day.

For a time Brown deceives Margaret, who has always been more interested in the pose than in the person and who is virtually without knowledge of her husband's true self. But Brown's strategy cannot succeed in the end. Because he has not the same psychic energy as that possessed by the man who fashioned the persona, the pose defeats him. The masquerade exhausts him. It is an irony that life has finally come to him but that the shell of his soul has been conditioned by death: the vital activity is too powerful for the pitiable ark that bears it.

In a bizarre denouement Brown is identified and chased by the police as Dion, who is thought to have murdered Brown. And it is true that he has succumbed under the sheer pressure of trying to live another man's life. His persona is pronounced dead by his peers.

In a sense, therefore, William Brown has been both destroyed and redeemed by Dion Anthony. His impurities burned away, Brown becomes a child again. So he returns to Mother Earth to die, casts off the semblance of Dion, and is fit to die a man who has never lived like a man.

CYBEL—(soothingly, looking before her like an idol) Ssshh! Go to sleep, Billy.
BROWN—Yes, Mother. (Then explainingly) It was dark and I couldn't see where I was going and they all picked on me.
CYBEL—I know. You're tired.
BROWN—And when I wake up . . . ?
CYBEL—The sun will be rising again.
BROWN—To judge the living and the dead! (Frightenedly) I don't want justice. I want love.
CYBEL—There is only love.
BROWN—Thank you, Mother.  (374)

When the police captain seeks from Cybel the name of the corpse fallen at her feet, she replies in a monosyllabic understatement of the play's theme: "Man!"

"How d'yuh spell it?" the officer asks.

The Great God Brown is the story of modern man—posing, accepting counterfeit representations of himself, and finally confused by what he is. O'Neill felt that people could "just watch and feel" it. Could they? His friend Barrett Clark, who thought that the play might run for "about two weeks," recalled this incident after it had run nearly a year:

I don't know whether O'Neill has heard the story about the two shop-girls who went to see it when it moved uptown. It shows the attitude of most of the audiences who continued to patronize it during its long run. After the third act, one of them turned to the other. "Gee, it's awful artistic, ain't it?" she said. "Yes," was the answer, "but it's good all the same."21


The mask, a device as old as the drama itself, was put to startlingly modern service by Yeats and O'Neill. While each used it to reveal tensions between the inner and outer selves, their dramaturgical intentions differed radically. For Yeats, only a kind of disembodied voice is required behind the mask since it is an image assigned to men by the poet: "No `naturalistic' effect is sought. The players wear masks and found their movement upon those of the puppet . . . a part of the stylizing."22 For O'Neill, the personality of the actor is needed to give plausibility to the dramatization:

. . . I anticipate the actors' objection to masks: that they would extinguish their personalities and deprive them of their greatest asset in conveying emotion by facial expression. I claim, however, that masks would give them the opportunity for a totally new kind of acting, that they would learn many undeveloped possibilities of their art if they appeared, even if only for a season or two, in masked roles. After all, masks did not extinguish the Greek actor, nor have they kept the acting of the East from being an art.23


1. The Variorum Edition of the Plays of W.B. Yeats, ed. Russell k. Alspach (New York: Macmillan and Co., 1966), p. 566.

2. Barrett H. Clark, Eugene O 'Neill: The Man and His Plays (New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1967), p. 106.

3. W.B. Yeats, Essays (New York: Macmillan and Co., 1924), pp. 496-97.

4. Quoted by Richard Ellmann in Yeats: The Man and the Masks (New York: Macmillan and Dutton, 1948), p. 173.

5. John Rees Moore, Masks of Love and Death: Yeats as Dramatist (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1971), p. 14.

6. Yeats, Essays, p. 283 (italics mine).

7. W. David Sievers, Freud on Broadway: A History of Psychoanalysis and the American Drama (New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1970), p. 352.

8. Eugene O'Neill, "Memoranda on Masks" in Playwrights on Playwriting: The Meaning and Making of Modern Drama from Ibsen to Ionesco, ed. Toby Cole (New York: Hill and Wang, 1961), p. 65.

9.  Moore, p. 210.

10. Yeats, The Variorum Plays, p. 557. (Further passages from plays in this edition
will be followed in the text by page numbers in parentheses.)

11. Yeats, Essays, p. 354.

12. Reg Skene, The Cuchulain Plays of W.B. Yeats: A Study (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974), p. 204.

13. Charles Berryman, W.B. Yeats: Design of Opposites (New York: Exposition Press, 1967), p. 89.

14. The Variorum Plays, p. 761.

15. Clark, p. 136.

16. Eugene O'Neill, "Memoranda on Masks," pp. 65-66.

17. Nine Plays by Eugene O'Neill, introd. Joseph Wood Krutch (New York: The Modern Library, 1941), p. 315. (Further passages will be followed in the text by page numbers in parentheses.)

18. Eugene O'Neill, quoted by Clark, p. 104.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid., p. 105.

21. Ibid., p. 106.

22. Yeats, Essays, p. 284.

23. Eugene O'Neill, "A Dramatist's Notebook" in Playwrights on Playwriting, p. 71.


© Copyright 1999-2007