Eugene O’Neill included within his vision of humanity a series of complex, emotionally and psychologically developed black characters. Despite critical controversy over his methods or effectiveness, from his eerily silent mulatto in “Thirst” through the grandiose incarnation of The Emperor Jones and the everyman of Joe Mott inThe Iceman Cometh, O’Neill created characters of African descent that thrilled and infuriated critics and audiences alike.
A closer exploration of the issues involved in his portrayal of ethnically identified characters seems necessary, an exploration that does not limit itself to an interrogation of ethnicity per se in O’Neill’s plays, but one that addresses the portrayal of black characters and whether O’Neill privileges one “race,” or socially and culturally identifiable population.
O’Neill’s infusion of “psychology” into his black characters may have delineated them as fate-driven primitives at the mercy of their atavistic histories, but he did the same with his Irish and other ethnic characters. In fact, many critics argue that his Irish characters are particularly subject to caricature, yet O’Neill is not generally understood to be anti-Irish. Are we then to understand O’Neill’s portrayal of ethnicity in the superstition and fear of The Dreamy Kid and Brutus Jones, or in the context of the playwright’s bold and dismissive retort to the Ku Klux Klan’s condemnation of interracial casting in All God’s Chillun Got Wings?
It would be a spurious examination that intentionally disregards perceived racist phenomena in O’Neill’s plays. However, his depiction of racialized behaviors (and his own possible racism) must be seen to function as an extra-discursive element that ultimately does not disrupt the development of a unified body of work. His major black characters, tragic or otherwise, are not limited by their deceptively stylized portrayals but rather reflect O’Neill’s quest to understand and examine the nature of a common human experience, a view that is ultimately consistent within the entirety of his canon.
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