In 1922, Eugene O’Neill wrote in his journal: “Play of Johnny T.—Negro who married a white woman—base play on his experience as I have seen it intimately—but no reproduction, see it only as man’s” (O’Neill at Work 53). Critics have often suggested that O’Neill did indeed base his play-in-progress upon his intimate experience with Joe Smith, a gambler friend from his days in Greenwich Village who was married to a white woman. But since the play ultimately became recognized as an early attempt by O’Neill to portray the effects of racism on stage, it is important to recognize that experiences other than O’Neill’s friendship with Smith contributed to the play’s evolution. In fact, study of the play indicates that the playwright was less concerned with investigating racism in the play than he was about interpersonal and marital relations. According to Ronald Wainscott in his discussion of notable stage productions of O’Neill’s plays, although All God’s Chillun Got Wings was harshly received by some critics at the time of the play’s premiere in May, 1924, those critics subsequently claimed that even had the production itself been effective, “the play no longer spoke to the social problems it was intended to address” (104).
Such a statement begs the question, of course: “What problems was it intended to address?” From the comments made by critics at the time of its premiere, the play’s assumed thematic focus was considered to be racism. However, O’Neill’s own comments indicate otherwise: “The real tragedy…is that the woman could not see their ‘togetherness’—the Oneness of Mankind….But the Negro question, which, it must be remembered is not an issue in the play, isn’t the only one which can arouse prejudice” (Gelbs 535). O’Neill seemed to be referring to prejudice that develops for any reason, prejudice that in varied forms rumbles beneath the dramatic action of his canon. In fact, O’Neill claimed that Jim Harris, the black protagonist of the play, could just as well have been a Japanese man in San Francisco, a Jew, or some other ethnic type. The Gelbs even suggest that O’Neill stopped short of including “shanty Irish actor” in his list of which ethnic types the play could portray, a clear reference to O’Neill’s father, James, in his list of Jim Harris’ ethnically defined alternatives (535).
So why does critical focus on the play’s issues of ethnicity overwhelm what O’Neill clearly indicated were more universal concerns? According to the playwright, “The play itself, as anyone who has read it with intelligence knows, is never a ‘race problem’ play. Its intention is confined to portraying the special lives of individual human beings” (Gelbs 550). Even apart from its portrayal of a man and woman ensnared by their shared love and despair, the play’s focus on the marriage between a black man and a white woman was remarkably risky for its time. However easy it may be to understand how the volatile, threatening nature of a contemporaneous race issue like miscegenation could supplant the play’s intended focus on individual lives, at a time
when the KKK was at its most active and Jim Crow laws flourished in the South—and slightly more covertly in the rest of the country—the fact remains that O’Neill’s rhetoric of ethnicity in the play masks its more central issues. True, matters of ethnicity and intercultural marriage continue to affect critical and audience response to the play, but perhaps a discussion of O’Neill’s intent will help to clarify the playwright’s concerns at the time. The narrative of miscegenation concealed O’Neill’s greater dramatic intentions: to portray the necessity of understanding the “Oneness of Mankind.” As he had done in earlier plays with ethnic protagonists, O’Neill set about to include ethnically marginalized characters within the grand scheme of the American nightmare. And as he did in the majority of his plays, he illustrated in All God’s Chillun how personal success in the form of interpersonal relationships can only exist in pipe dreams.
The scandal surrounding the premier production of the play was intense and probably figured significantly in critics’ initial focus on the play’s ethnic component. It opened at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village in mid-May, 1924, amidst much furor because of its portrayal of a marriage between a black man and white woman. Along with threatening letters from private citizens and the KKK, a mayoral interdict heightened tensions over the play’s content. Prior to the play’s opening, the New York City mayor’s office refused to grant a permit, required in the employment of child actors, for children to play the opening scene, in which the protagonists are children before the roles are assumed by adults for the characters’ later lives. While the permit was generally intended to protect children from being overworked, in this case, it was enforced to appease the racists. On opening night, the director read the children’s lines. O’Neill even referred to the mayor as “chief botherer” (Bogard and Bryer 187). Jimmy Light, a friend of the playwright, once recalled how O’Neill wrote, “Go fuck yourself” on the bottom of a threat to kill him and his family, then sent it back to the sender (Black 301). According to Kenneth Macgowan, O’Neill’s longtime colleague, “It is no risk at all to say that All God’s Chillun Got Wings received more publicity before production than any play in the history of the theatre, possibly of the world” (Gelbs 551).
For O’Neill, the play was even misunderstood after its opening, and by minds perhaps more qualified than the mayor’s to evaluate its narrative elements. For example, Heywood Hale Broun, writing in The New York World, called it “tiresome,” describing how it “gives to a first rate Negro a third rate white woman” (Manheim 64), a response O’Neill may have been considering when writing to a friend in the Provincetown Players ten years later, recollecting the experience of All God’s Chillun and its reception: “all the pseudo-liberal moderns” gave “their narrow guts away in a gush of hysterical, bigoted bilge, thinly concealed as objective criticism” (Bogard and Bryer 429).
For O’Neill, the public’s view of the play as a study of black-white relations was narrow-minded and misinformed, for the playwright was interested in social and cultural forces as they functioned within the characters, as outer manifestations of inner psychological drives. Indeed, there is a battle of black and white in the play, as evidenced by the expressionistic set that illustrated the divergence of two urban thoroughfares, one populated by black and one by white, as well as the contrasting music emanating from the homes on each street. The expressionistic nature of the set itself indicates the inner conditions that O’Neill was trying to present, psychic drives that expressionism as an artistic or dramatic technique typically represents. It is no wonder that O’Neill criticized the critics who could not even understand the clear signals sent by the expressionistic design in the opening and subsequent scenes. For the battle of black and white is not merely between the ethnic identities of the characters, but within their psyches as well. True, the lethal forces of racism have victimized both Jim and Ella. But as the characters themselves subsume their natures to the institutionalized racism that labels white as good and black as bad, so does their victimization at its hands illustrate the psychological dysfunction that underscores so many of O’Neill’s plays: the inability of the characters to grasp the nature of their tragic flaws, their failure to recognize what O’Neill termed the “Oneness,” the common bond that ties humanity together in its common doom. Critic Clifford Leech is aware of what O’Neill was striving to dramatize:
O’Neill, of course, understood that “reciprocal destruction” from personal experience. Astonishingly, it was almost forty years after the initial production of the play before critics alluded to that personal connection, that experience he knew “intimately.” In their work on O’Neill, the Gelbs pointed out that the husband and wife in All God’s Chillun bore the same first names as O’Neill’s parents, Jim and Ella. The scandal over the play’s ethnic issues and origins had obscured the play’s more personal origins in O’Neill’s own family. Without awareness of the play’s sources, the criticism naturally centered on black-white relations rather than on its wellspring of psychological underpinnings from the playwright’s personal history.
According to the Gelbs, O’Neill did not bother to disguise the names of his parents for several reasons. First, they were recently deceased. Second, O’Neill’s willingness to confront openly his familial demons was still more than a decade in the future, and his focus on miscegenation would keep his critics and audiences from peering too clearly into his own psychological recesses (10). The fact that Jim is black and Ella is white then appears to be a centrally symbolic rhetorical strategy to symbolize the incompatability between the O’Neills, one in which Jim is the ethnic other and Ella the white “standard.” Such a realization ties the play even more closely to arguably the greatest of O’Neill’s works, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, where the line between biography and dramatic fiction blurs even more.
In All God’s Chillun and Long Day’s Journey, the tortured female lead is a prisoner in a marriage that had initially seemed a salvation. Both Ella Downey and Mary Tyrone are uncomfortable around their husband’s acquaintances and feel a disconnectin from their own families and friends. Similarly, Ella often speaks a kind of childish prattle, recreating her happier childhood (and childlike) conversations with Jim, while Mary longs for her protected youth and frequently speaks as if lost in her own innocent past. Even more significant than the similar manners of speech is the predicament they share that drives each to her own form of irrationality. For both alternate between a desperate devotion to and an equally strained disgust for their husbands. Caught between these polar responses (among other attendant forces and events), the two regress, pulling their despairing spouses with them toward the abyss of complete dysfunction.
The similarities between the two characters extend to the husbands as well, for as Jim sacrifices his profound desire to become a lawyer to satisfy his wife’s needs, so does James sacrifice his own dream of artistic success to support the material needs of his wife and family. The question remains: if the dramatic action in All God’s Chillun is so clearly a reflection of the events and ideas in Long Day’s Journey and O’Neill’s own life, how can charges of racism in the former be understood except as unintentional remnants of a cultural bias so prevalent at the time? The dramatic action is uncannily similar, yet the former is criticized as being about black-white relations while the latter is not. Further, do such remnants supersede O’Neill’s accomplishment in creating black characters who were not stereotypes but rather human beings, and in doing so, including them, via narrative and rhetorical strategy, among the characters who also try and must fail to achieve their dreams?
The answer may begin with an appreciation of whereAll God’s Chillun Got Wings fits into O’Neill’s larger body of work, the inclusive nature of the title itself being indicative of the “Oneness” of mankind that O’Neill fervently created and recreated throughout his career.
A search for unity informs the body of his work and echoes from play to play. According to Thierry Dubost, the protagonist’s quest in an O’Neill play is generally an effort at forming a whole within oneself or with another character in order to achieve harmony, characterized as an impression of oneness (216). The problem, Dubost claims, is that the quest for unity is hopeless within the confines of a modernist universe in which the characters recognize their ineradicable isolation from other characters. This distancing causes moral suffering that the characters try to remedy at any cost in their search for supreme harmony (229). Whether the character is Yank in The Hairy Ape, Lavinia in Mourning Becomes Electra, Robert Mayo in Beyond the Horizon, or even the title character in Hughie, that search is the same as the search by Jim Harris (and Ella
Downey) in All God’s Chillun Got Wings. These characters and the real people whose lives they dramatize are ensnared by their cosmic isolation and thus ultimately represent not any ethnic or even class consciousness but rather a split between individual human beings. “The racial factor is incidental,” says O’Neill. “The play is a character study of two human beings” (Son and Artist 135). It is this exploration of the universality of human experience that allows the play and its black protagonist to escape from charges of pejoratively ethnic delineation. We know the dialect, the stereotypes of black and white characters, and the expressionistically simplistic black-white dichotomy may have created, in our time, a sense of datedness in the play, but if we understand how the dialect is applied with equal skill (or lack of) to characters on both sides of the color line, if the Irish pugilist Mickey is no less a collection of cultural stereotypes than the Mammy-like Mrs. Harris, it should be clear that the play must exist on some other level. Stereotyping is not reserved for one particular cultural group, but is subject to appropriation by all. For O’Neill, that level is the personal and psychological.
This level is the same platform upon which his other plays operate, and in being so, reaffirms the play and its characters as full participants in O’Neill’s dark universe. Jim is not a slave to white society any more than he is a slave to society in general. Rather, he is in thrall to his own psychology, as are so many other O’Neill protagonists who are not so easily defined by their ethnicity but are equally driven by their need for an illusory mask. The conflict in All God’s Chillun Got Wings is that of O’Neill’s work in general: the conflict between self-induced, ego-driven illusion and the recognition that a surrender of that illusion will lead to defeat. According to Arthur Hobson Quinn in “Eugene O’Neill,” the playwright is not concerned about whether a play’s ending is happy or sad, at least in the usual sense: “he is determined, however, that it be logical” (5). For O’Neill, that logic rested in the characters’ psyches, ethnicity notwithstanding. As Lavinia says in Mourning Becomes Electra, “There’s no one left to punish me. I’ve got to punish myself” (1053). In this sense, Jim Harris is in no way psychologically different from Lavinia, or Brutus Jones, or Hickey, or O’Neill himself in the tortured writing of his heavily autobiographical Long Day’s Journey Into Night. John Nickel writes of The Hairy Ape that the play’s message remains clear: “all human beings, regardless of race, can be made by society to believe and act as if they are less than human” (37). Jim’s acquiescence to societal beliefs is simply “logical” for a man of his time—or ours.
Exploring the Play
O’Neill’s plays of the early 1920s reveal the playwright’s awareness that the problems of alienation and isolation were universal, no less for blacks as victims than whites as victimizers. “Spiritually speaking, there is no superiority between races,” O’Neill once said. “We’re just a little ahead mentally as a race, though not as individuals” (Gelbs 552). Such a statement may confirm charges of O’Neill’s racism, though it is an incomplete idea, for he goes on to say, “To me every human being is a special case, with his or her own special set of values” (553). Thus it must be left up to his plays to reveal the truth or illusion of his claim that the essential human dilemma exists irrespective of ethnicity. His dramatic action seems to paint a more consistent picture of his intent than his problematic statements, which are often contradictory.
The opening image of the play is of great significance visually and aurally, for it is within this initial exposure that O’Neill’s theme is quickly and forcefully expressed:
In this expressionistically contrasting set, an important clue to O’Neill’s vision presents itself: equality. The set is divided in half, the characters are equally divided in number and ethnicity, and the children are engaged in a common game of marbles. Beyond this physical delineation of some type of cosmic equilibrium, there is the sound of laughter from each street. On the black side, the people are “frankly participants in the spirit of Spring,” while on the opposite side, the whites are “laughing constrainedly, awkward in natural expression” (85). If there is any social categorization in effect here, then O’Neill’s relaxed, natural African American bystanders appear to have gotten the greater share of admiration. If, as O’Neill’s stage directions detail, the laughter “expresses the difference in race” (85), the presence of mutual laughter also demonstrates the common bond shared by the two groups: both laugh. Thus, there exist both similarity and difference in this opening scene.
Singing from each street further reinforces the initial sense of similarity and difference. From the whites’ street comes a “high-pitched nasal tenor” singing “Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage,” while the black population sings a chorus of “I Guess I’ll Have to Telegraph my Baby” (85). Again, both populations are singing, but the whites’ choice of song and its implications of entrapment, together with the pejoratively described singer, indicate a more negative portrayal, or at least an early indication of impending tensions that the white population seems to be more affected by. The groups are different, but in spite of their surface appearance or sound, they are still engaged in common activities. While O’Neill may occasionally have used language unfavorably discriminating between ethnic groups, the description and action introducing his play belies any sense of favoritism to the white. And although the two populations retain their behavioral differences, they remain, in their common actions, similarly engaged in laughter, song and child’s play.
Further, both groups display behaviors that will eventually torment both Jim and Ella as adults. In the first scene, one of the black boys refers to Jim as “Jim Crow,” and shortly thereafter, the white girls refer to Ella as “Painty Face.” Obviously, O’Neill is aware of and portraying the dangers of bigoted behavior even within one’s own ethnic group—with neither side being absolved of guilt in. Much has been made of Jim’s ethnic self-hatred, but these early indications of ethnic self-stereotyping suggest that the white characters are equally troubled by the lingering effects of inherited American racism.
Furthermore, while Jim denies his ethnic heritage, Ella’s own ethnic self-hatred is often overlooked. One of Ella’s earliest lines demonstrates O’Neill’s balancing act inAll God’s Children Got Wings. When Jim “protectingly” tries to comfort her and subsequently calls her “Painty Face,” she pleads with him to stop calling her by that name. In response to Jim’s apparent appreciation of her “red ‘n’ white” face, she cries, “I hate it!” (87). When Jim immediately protests, calling her color “purty,” she replies, “I hate it. I wish I was black like you” (87). Ella’s stated ethnic self-loathing foreshadows Jim’s later, parallel experience.
Scene Two takes place nine years later, the night of Jim’s high school graduation, which Jim confesses is his “second try. I didn’t pass last year” (91). The words, while few, are significant, for it is the first indication that even without Ella’s eventual psychologically motivated efforts to impede his success in law school, Jim is susceptible to his own psychological stumbling blocks. If Ella’s efforts at tearing down Jim are tortuously realized later in the play, here Jim’s own self-imposed limits are at least as significant in his eventual capitulation to his wife. Significantly, there is no indication whatsoever that Jim has failed because he has subsumed his own needs to those of white people. Indeed, there may be a lingering sense of self-doubt here, but where Jim will be condemned by critics for failing at the hands of his white wife and her attacks on his competence, here we see that even without Ella’s efforts he is subject to failure. He is a slave to white transgression, but he is equally in thrall to his own demons.
Joe, a neighborhood tough from the black side of the block, shares Jim’s self-loathing but is vociferous in its expression, unlike Jim, who at least tries to suppress it. Out of jealousy for Jim’s educational success, Joe brags to his white friend Shorty, “I gits dat Jim alone, you wait!” (92). When he does corner Jim, he threatens him with violence: “Tell me befo’ I wrecks yo’ face in! Is you a nigger or isn’t you?…Is you a nigger, Nigger? Nigger, is you a nigger?” Though Jim has avoided giving in to Joe’s namecalling, even calling him “friend” in the face of threats, Jim finally concedes. “We’re both niggers,” he says, at which point the hand-organ man begins to play “Bon-Bon Buddie the Chocolate Drop,” suggesting Jim’s acquiescence to racist thought, despite his earlier defiance. It is the acceptance of the hated epithet, rather than the utterance of the epithet itself, that leads to Jim’s eventual doom. His admission that the word describes him is what marks the beginning of his descent, ironically on the night of his greatest success to date. However, it is important to see behind the mask of language. Whereas Ella, shortly before Jim’s admission to Joe, stumbles through a painfully inadequate denial of her own racism that simultaneously indicates its falsity—hers is a patently transparent denial—Jim too hides behind the mask of language in order to protect himself from threats like Joe’s. Again, the black and white characters rely on the same strategy to overcome their immediate difficulties, just as they do in so many of O’Neill’s other plays.
Another similarity between Jim and other O’Neill characters is his materialistic drive, which spells doom no less for him than for victims in other plays. In Scene Two, Joe accosts Jim, accusing him of “tryin’ to buy yerself white” (93) because Jim’s father had found financial success in owning his own business. In response to Joe’s challenge, Jim can only retort, “Some day—I’ll show you—” (93), the halting speech a clear indication that Jim has great difficulty in denying Joe’s claim that through financial gain, Jim wishes to establish himself in wealthy white society. Jim’s desires demonstrate he has capitulated to the capitalistic American dream of a kind of personal salvation through material success. In his pervasive rhetorical attack on the power and dangers of capitalist acquisitiveness, O’Neill often conflates his characters’ desire for personal accomplishment with their wish for financial success. For Jim, being a lawyer is never even suggested as a route to ensure social justice for his people. This reinforces the suggestion that Jim is indeed trying to “buy white,” a claim that he cannot deny. Thus, his materialistic drive dominates his psychological need for security, stability, and respect, leading in part to his defeat.
Travis Bogard confirms such an idea in his discussion of the African mask that overshadows the dramatic action after Jim and Ella’s return from Europe. He says, “In contrast to the cheap, gaudy furnishing of the room, the mask by virtue of its workmanship and its religious spirit achieves a power that is revengeful, even diabolical. The diabolism arises, however, from Jim’s attempt to ‘buy white’” (197). Jim’s conflict with the play’s main symbol of ethnic power illustrates the psychological conflict between the aggressive American materialism that led to and furthered the growth of racism in this country and the still potent though increasingly vestigial old gods for whom no replacement satisfactory to O’Neill had yet emerged.
When Worlds Collide
An examination of the conflict between new and old gods supports the notion that All God’s Chillun Got Wings is not so much about black-white relations or miscegenation per se as it is an extension of O’Neill’s aesthetic wherein Jim Harris is subject to the same forces as his white counterparts and is therefore an equal participant in O’Neill’s universe. Jim, like so many others, expresses the playwright’s sympathy for the oppressed individual caught between forces that threaten to destroy him. And even if, according to Arthur Hobson Quinn, the character’s struggle ends in failure (as it must), “that effort has been worth while, and the hero or heroine secures our sympathy” (7).
Since early in O’Neill’s career, the social organism—the locals inMourning Becomes Electra, the stokers in the Glencairn plays, the natives in The Emperor Jones—has functioned centrally in his plays. As The Hairy Ape clearly shows, O’Neill’s main focus was on the individual and his or her relationship, individual or collective, to the universe. If racism is but an outgrowth of the social and cultural organism—societal response to perceived biological or cultural difference—then in plays such as The Hairy Ape, O’Neill illustrates the effects of society on characters such as Yank by having a white man become, in essence, “black”—in the white majority’s biological view of “race”—in the face of cultural exclusion. The playwright seems to indicate that degeneration is not biological as much as it is cultural, and as seen in All God’s Chillun, the idea manifests itself in Jim’s acquiescence to Joe’s categorization of him as a “nigger.” While Joe sees biological distinction in Jim’s “race,” Jim must actually perform, according to some cultural understanding, what blackness “is.”
Furthermore, much like Yank in The Hairy Ape, Jim becomes aware of his difference and is subsequently intimidated by the judgmental white gaze. “I swear I know more’n any member of my class,” Jim claims, though he may not be aware of the double meaning inherent in that last word. At the end of the play, married to a domineering white woman in an attempt to move beyond that “class,” his effort at entering that society is disastrous because that culture is as oppressive to him, though in a different way, as the one from which he had tried to escape. Like Yank, like Dreamy and like Brutus Jones, Jim Harris tries to become what he never can become: “the whitest of the white” (118). Jim’s being black is not a problem for O’Neill. But Jim’s rejecting his black heritage is a problem. Much like Brutus Jones' ultimate repudiation of his own ethnic history—and not the pejorative white perception of that history—Jim’s early willingess to accept his status as “nigger,” with all its negative connotations, is clearly indicative of his eventual failure. According to Richard Dana Skinner, there are few scenes in all of O’Neill’s writing as profoundly evocative as the one in which Jim calls himself “nigger,” reflecting as it does one of the writer’s major issues: “the difficulty of facing the reality of one’s own soul and accepting it” (134). What Jim has accepted, and why it is so affecting, is a “reality” that itself is a mask: that black people are “niggers,” existing only in some negative cultural relation to white people.
All God’s Chillun Got Wings also thematically mirrors the earlier Welded and serves further to link Jim’s conflict to that of many of O’Neill’s protagonists. As Travis Bogard explains, the opening image in Act III of Welded was “germinal” to the concept that the playwright would explore in his next play, All God’s Chillun Got Wings (191). In describing the crux of the relationship between the mismatched central couple in Welded, O’Neill writes, “They act for the moment like two persons of different races, deeply in love, but separated by a barrier of language” (268). Along with this challenge, one that both Ella and Jim face, is the notion that the husband and wife in Welded are victims of a mutual alienation, that they are somehow inherently separated. At the same time, the central couple in Welded is cut off from the outside world, much as Jim and Ella are being boxed in by the “shrinking” walls of their apartment, and Eleanor is a woman who undermines her husband’s ambitions. Michael accepts his fate, as Jim must do in order to survive, calling love “the insult we swallow as the price of life” (265).
A further example joining All God’s Chillun Got Wings to other O’Neill plays not dealing with black-white relations occurs in The Great God Brown, in which Margaret refuses (or is unable) to acknowledge her husband’s true identity, a conflict that results in his destruction, much as Ella’s desire for Jim to be “Painty Face” leads to his. Similarly, Con Melody, in A Touch of the Poet, works fervently to hide his shanty origins and to portray himself as a gentleman. Much like Jim Harris, Melody eventually assumes the role he has been trying to avoid all along: he acts as an Irish peasant, just as Jim plays the subservient “Jim Crow” to Ella’s white matron.
Still another idea that All God’s Chillun shares with much of O’Neill’s body of work is the destruction of a potentially good man by a wife who does not accept his potential. In The Iceman Cometh, Hickey is driven to murdering his wife because he is unable to resolve the conflict between the physical and the psychological, her need for support against his desire to understand humanity’s need to embrace a pipe dream or meet utter destruction. Ezra Mannon is similarly destroyed by his wife inMourning Becomes Electra, and Ruth’s effort to possess and change her own husband dooms Robert in Beyond the Horizon. In “Diff’rent,” Emma cannot accept Caleb as he is, requiring from him something different or nothing at all. Other examples of destructive wives weave their way throughout O’Neill’s plays: Mrs. Keeney in “Ile,” Nina Leeds in Strange Interlude, Abbie in Desire Under the Elms, Mrs. Rowland in “Before Breakfast,” and Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, among others. Thus, O’Neill infuses Jim and Ella with his familiar narrative logic of personal psychology in which they are unable to overcome their awareness of their cosmic alienation, their aloneness. Indeed, as the playwright once remarked in regard to All God’s Chillun, “The racial factor is incidental…. The play is a character study of two human beings” (Son and Artist 135), two people facing conflicts within their own egos.
Scene Three in All God’s Chillun takes place five years after the events of Scene Two. Jim and Ella are now adults. The Expressionistically divided set remains, however. An arc-lamp illuminates both black and white faces with a “favorless cruelty” (96), and the drunken, nasal tenor from the whites’ street is countered with a “maudlin” voice from the blacks’. The opposing forces remain simultaneously the same and different. We learn that Ella has been victimized by Shorty and Mickey, two white characters, while Jim has tried and failed to pass his exam. Ella tells Jim “indifferently” that she is now free from her oppressive relationship with the abusive Mickey. Jim “wearily” responds, “We’re never free—except to do what we have to do” (99). With these words, Jim seems to become the amanuensis for O’Neill, voicing a philosophy that is eerily reminiscent of the playwright’s own view of humanity’s role in the universe.
Ella, who resents Jim, testifies to his worthiness: “You’ve been the only one in the world who’s stood by me—the only understanding person—and all after the rotten way I used to treat you” (100). Although clearly Jim is intended to be seen as a good man, unfortunately his self-understanding is also self-defeating. “All love is white,” he tells Ella; “I’ve always loved you” (101). While such a statement may provide fodder for critics who see O’Neill as favoring, consciously or otherwise, white standards, it must be remembered that O’Neill’s ethnic portrayals can be understood in terms of his experience as he has seen it “intimately.” It would be improbable to assume that O’Neill seriously intended Jim to defer to a privileged caste. Rather, it seems more likely that Jim’s comment reflects a personal, more so than cultural, psychology: Ella is white. Jim loves Ella. Therefore, love itself is white. Such a syllogism need not suggest any objective superiority inherent in whiteness. Just as Jim tries to, in a sense, “buy” himself white, he does so because whiteness is, to him, the mark of success, not necessarily the mark of superiority. This is why he tries to become white: with Ella on his side, he is convinced of his increased social standing and subsequent success in law school. Ironically and tellingly, he overlooks his own father's success, but such is his hamartia that he accepts the culturally imposed definition of success rather than his personal experience of it. Jim is not blind, only blinded.
Shortly after, he promises to take Ella away, to find somewhere free of racism, presaging Lavinia Mannon’s own desire to escape to some island where she could be free of the psychological forces that have trapped her within the family curse. But even as he hopes for the best and pledges his devotion, pledging to be Ella’s “black slave” and to adore her as “sacred,” Jim immediately falls to his knees “in a frenzy of self-abnegation” (101) that indicates how aware Jim is of his own falsehood in elevating Ella. Jim has recognized his own life-lie, and it is the lie of a quantitative ethnic superiority. He has attempted to breach the walls of white society in vain, finally realizing that to do so was to acknowledge the acculturated belief in the superiority of one cultural group. Unfortunately for Jim—as for Hickey, Parritt, Eben Cabot, Lavinia Mannon, Nina Leeds, Con Melody, Robert Mayo, and so many others—the perception of the life-lie as baseless leads him to his own destruction. If the life-lie supports characters in their individual pursuits, an awareness of its falsity undermines their efforts and predicates failure, as happens with Jim. In this narrative strategy, too, Jim clearly reflects O’Neill’s vision and is thus a full participant in the human condition.
It is important to remember also that Jim Harris is the first of O’Neill’s black characters not to employ stereotypical black dialect. Harris and his sister Hattie are portrayed as intelligent, educated, committed people and are certainly presented with greater authorial sympathy than the white characters in the play. Mickey is abusive, both physically and mentally, and Ella is constraining and paranoid. Jim and Hattie, however, evince a more elevated social and cultural understanding. If Mrs. Harris, their mother, carries shades of O’Neill’s earlier “Mammy Saunders” in her dialect (plausible, since she is not educated to the degree her children are), Hattie foreshadows such later feisty, proactive and ethnically aware dramatic characters such as Beneatha in Hansberry’sA Raisin in the Sun. Here again, O’Neill is granting at least equal intellectual status to his ethnic characters.
The Harris women make their first appearance at the beginning of Act Two. In the Harris’ flat, which is “of the better sort” (105), there is more expressionistic contrast, with old and new objects clashing “queerly.” There are two telling objects on the walls. The first is a portrait of an elderly black man described as having “an able, shrewd face” but wearing “outlandish lodge regalia, a get-up adorned with medals, sashes, a cocked hat with frills—the whole effect…absurd…” (105). The immediate connections to Brutus Jones and Marcus Garvey are apparent and telling. Again, O’Neill underscores the exaggeration in the costume to exploit its masking function, though costuming itself is not inherently “absurd.”
However, O’Neill seems to be suggesting not that black people in costumes, even grandly ornate ones, make for absurdity. Rather, the portrait works in contrast to another obvious item on the set. In a corner is a mask from the Congo, “a grotesque face, inspiring obscure, dim connotations in one’s mind, but beautifully done, conceived in a true religious spirit.” O’Neill’s appreciation for the mask is obvious, as is his focus on the “true” spirituality associated with it. Unlike the false Christianity created and embraced by Brutus Jones, the Congo mask represents the spirituality of those who are part of that culture. While O’Neill goes on to say that it “dominates by a diabolical quality,” he specifies that the diabolism is perhaps a result of the contrast imposed upon it within the mundane surroundings. In this brief opening description, O’Neill indicates his respect for the Harris’ cultural heritage. Not only has he suggested that the false mask of the military regalia is “absurd,” but he has also ironically labeled the Congo mask as representative of “true” spirit. He has used the masking device to call attention to the paradox of masking, that it can either distort or reveal. Masking oneself to be something other than oneself is absurd; accepting one’s own heritage is worthy of respect.
We learn shortly thereafter that the mask was presented to Jim and Ella as a wedding gift by Hattie, described as having “a high-strung, defiant face—an intelligent head showing both power and courage. She is dressed severely, mannishly” (105). Clearly, Hattie is not the kowtowing or fallen “negress” that populated the popular stage at the time. Not only does she seem to flout assigned ethnic roles but also gender roles, and she is not the sexually charged mulatto of so much white American fiction and drama—the kind of figure that frightened the Dancer in “Thirst.” Mrs. Harris, on the other hand, is very sketchily presented, “a mild-looking, gray haired Negress of sixty-five, dressed in an old-fashioned Sunday-best dress” (105). If she is a throwback to Mammy Saunders and her ilk, O’Neill underplays the similarity by minimizing subjectivity in her description. However, as the Congo mask dominates the room, Hattie dominates her mother, contrasting her to women who represent, as her mother does, earlier times. O’Neill seems to be suggesting that the future does not belong to those time-faded relics but to the new, the defiant. The mask may not be new, but the pride with which it is displayed may signify a new respect for a cultural heritage heretofore largely suppressed, at least within view of the white society of the time.
O’Neill also suggests the positive future for black people in Hattie’s charge to Mrs. Harris as they wait for Jim and Ella to return from Europe: “We don’t deserve happiness till we’ve fought the fight of our race and won it!” (107) Not only is the playwright forcefully making a case for self-empowerment among groups who traditionally have been oppressed, but he is, consciously or otherwise, echoing one of the recurrent characteristics of American slave narratives and folk tales: the necessity to actively secure freedom for and by people who have unjustly been denied access to it by a powerful majority.
When Jim enters, he recounts the story of how, despite his own happiness abroad, Ella became progressively troubled. “I was happy then—and I really guess she was happy, too—in a way—for a while” (108), he says. This echoing of Mary Tyrone’s reflection on her own carefree youth further connects the characters to O’Neill’s intimate family experience, linking together black and white characters who suffer through the same emotional vicissitudes. Shortly thereafter, in recounting the decision to return to the United States, Jim has “talked himself now into a state of happy confidence” (109), recounting the need “to be really free inside and able then to go anywhere and live in peace and equality without any guilty uncomfortable feeling coming up to rile us” (109). He again looks to the past, one that we now know is tinged with his misperception, for there was no such freedom to be found there before he left. He remains bound by illusion. However, in this speech, Jim reflects Hattie’s defiant nature and suggests his own confidence. If she can succeed at post-graduate study as she explains to Ella who looks at her with “queer defiance” (110), then she suggests to Jim that he can also. Hattie’s forward-thinking attitude further underscores Jim’s entrapment in the past.
From the couple’s return until the end of the play, Ella is portrayed and described in even less positive terms than she was before marriage to Jim. If she smiles at Jim, she smiles “a tolerant, superior smile,” and when she sees the Congo mask, she gives a choked scream and looks at it “with disgust” (111). At one point, she even sneers at the portrait of the outrageously costumed Mr. Harris, calling him “ a circus horse” and claiming in her fear, “It’s in the blood, I suppose. They’re ignorant, that’s all there is to it” (113). Since O’Neill has been careful to portray Ella as victimized by her own racism, her comments should be understood by the audience to be the ravings of her own ignorance. On the other hand, O’Neill ensured early in the play that Jim’s problem is not his ignorance or its resultant fear, but his willingness to accept the rhetorical labels that serve to perpetuate that ignorance. When he refers to himself as “Nigger,” he understands the social imperative that requires him to do so. It is his life-lie and his failure.
However, he proceeds to succumb to the needs of his life-lie as the action develops. While the Congo mask is made, through expressionistic stage devices, to appear physically larger and thus more dominant from scene to scene (much like the encroaching forest in The Emperor Jones), Jim appears to shrink from reality and into his life-lie as his wife grows increasingly disturbed. As Hattie tells him, “…you’re liable to break down too, if you don’t take care of yourself” (116). Here, O’Neill is foreshadowing the ending of the play, wherein both Jim and Ella will descend into illusory worlds they have accepted to sustain their respective life-lies: Ella’s insistence on
inverting their ethnic identities, and Jim’s need for denial in the face of his wife’s insanity. When Hattie tells Jim that Ella called her a “dirty nigger,” Jim replies, “No! She never said that ever! She never would!” (117) While the nature of their illusions may result from different needs—Ella’s cultural need to enforce her sense of superiority of white over black and Jim’s psychological need to acquiesce to her desires—the end is the same: they are both victims of illusions resulting from the rhetorical mask of racist psychology. “I’ve got to prove that I’m the whitest of the white,” Jim exclaims (118); that is, he must prove that his love (which he equates with whiteness because Ella is white, as discussed previously) is the purest, but to do so means to submerge his intellect and build up his life-lie. In this case, the “reality of one’s own soul” is, for Jim, the reality that he has internalized, consciously or otherwise, a sense of white superiority.
However, before he succumbs to Ella’s ranting, he again sounds off with a rhetoric of ethnicity that reflects O’Neill’s. “You with your fool talk of the black race and the white race!” he tells Hattie. “Where does the human race get a chance to come in?” (118) After ironically suggesting that the concept of the shared human race should be locked up, he takes his own suggestion in his need to support his life-lie: “I’m going to lock the door and it’s going to stay locked, you hear?” (119) He has made his decision to succumb to social forces that dictate and maintain white supremacy, and therefore he must pay the price. In doing so, he again ensures his full participation in O’Neill’s dramas of doomed humanity.
Going Behind the Masks
Whether their doom is pre-ordained or not, for the first time O’Neill’s black characters in All God’s Chillun Got Wings are not described with stereotyped negative features that seem at a casual glance to contradict his own progressive views in earlier plays. There are neither eyes popping nor any other remnants of minstrelsy. In fact, the only grotesque descriptions in the play (the Congo mask notwithstanding) concern Ella. At the beginning of Scene Three in Act Two, Ella “is painfully thin, her face is wasted, but her eyes glow with a mad energy, her movements are abrupt and springlike” (120). In her efforts to attack the Congo mask because she feels it represents the power to take Jim away from her, she mingles “crazy mockery, fear, and bravado” (121). In this, at least, she is right: it is a mask that has caused her problems, but not an African mask. Rather, it is the mask, or life-lie, of her ethnic superiority that has driven her to the edge of madness. In a society dictating that white people are somehow more worthy of privilege, she cannot cope with a situation in which black people are happier, more successful and more empowered than white people. For O’Neill, it is a personal connection between his own experience and his artistic aims: first, because Ella functions extra-textually as a biographical recreation of his own mother; and second, because racist philosophy in its emphasis on division is anathema to his personal view of humanity’s “Oneness.” It is no wonder, then, that the insidious power of this divisive force is exposed and held accountable for its effects on these characters’ lives. Like Ella, he blames the mask, or life-lie, for the problems it has caused.
Despite his devotion to Ella, even in her insanity, Jim still seems to recognize his choice between reality and illusion. Admitting Ella’s racism would force him to confront the falseness of his life-long attraction to her, but continuing to shield himself from it will empower the life-lie that will lead him to darker corners yet. Near the end of the play, he mockingly taunts God: “Good Lord, child, how come you can ever imagine such a crazy idea? Pass? Me? Jim Crow Harris? Nigger Jim Harris—become a full-fledged Member of the Bar! Why the mere notion of it is enough to kill you with laughing! It’d be against all natural laws, all human right and justice!” (122) Here, O’Neill relies on the loaded nature of “passing,” signifying not only Jim’s success on the exam but also his acceptance into white society. Jim’s sarcasm sharpens the social commentary. Jim knows that there is no natural law that prevents him from succeeding. Rather, it is his acquiescence to a man-made entity—racism— that has prevented his advancement. For a brief moment, it appears that Jim will seize the opportunity to disrupt the illusion, to break through the mask to reality.
When Ella plunges a knife into the Congo mask, he calls her “You devil! You white devil woman!” (123), for he sees her attacking the symbol of his heritage, a connecting link to his culture. Ranald describes Ella’s attempt to kill Jim and her stabbing of the Congo mask as efforts to assert her white superiority, in addition to signifying her insanity (64). O’Neill seems to connect notions of racism with insanity, at least in this instance.
However, as Ella suddenly regresses, her face “regaining an expression that is happy, childlike and pretty” (123), Jim slumps resignedly, knowing that his fate is sealed Ella has stabbed the Congo mask, wounding him irreparably as he understands what Ella can not: that she has led him to the destruction of his natural being. When Ella asks him if God will forgive her, Jim replies, “Maybe He can forgive what you’ve done to me; and maybe He can forgive what I’ve done to you; but I don’t see how He’s going to forgive—Himself” (123). Jim is asserting that God has allowed mankind’s destructive nature to run rampant, to allow to flourish humanity’s divisions spawned by ignorance and fear rather than what O’Neill felt was the true state of humanity: an equality guaranteed by everyone’s eventual doom.
Acceding to Ella’s wishes, Jim finally succumbs, throwing himself to his knees. He “raises his shining eyes” to expose his “transfigured” face. “Forgive me, God—and make me worthy! Now I see Your Light again! Now I hear Your Voice!” Jim cries; “Let This fire of burning suffering purify me of selfishness and make me worthy of the child You send me for the woman You take away!” (124) Ironically, he is undone in his attempts to “pass,” in both senses of the term, by his ability to experience the most basic of human emotions: love. This emotional capacity is a powerful characteristic of humanity, so O’Neill is granting Jim the most profound of honors. Jim succumbs not because of his wife’s hysterics; rather, he does so because he is hopelessly in love, and therefore hopelessly human and therefore subject to the same life-lies that lead to destruction for all of O’Neill’s tragic figures. Jim has finally turned away from the philosophy that once guided him, an awareness of humanity’s shared lot of doom that echoes closely that of O’Neill. However, unlike Jim, the playwright would believe that God, or fate, is not so closely involved in human events in such a naturalistic universe. Jim has turned to Ella’s God, the same Christian God to whom Brutus Jones ultimately sacrifices himself. Like Jones, Jim’s sacrifice is in vain, for he is simultaneously succumbing to a life-lie of ethnic division. Jones’ failure was in turning to an alien God, rather than that of his ethnic heritage, in trying to deal with his own cultural demons. Jim’s failure is similar, though his awareness of his traitorous actions is what finally drives him to the brink. In denying his heritage, in embracing the life-lie that he conceived of in “buying” white or marrying up, Jim Harris procures his own doom as the curtain falls.
Harris—as with Jones, Dreamy, and O’Neill’s other black protagonists—finally is victimized not by a primitivistic or atavistic “black psychology” but by social forces that affect all of his characters, in or out of the specific contexts of the plays. According to Travis Bogard, Ella’s stabbing of the mask is a form of symbolic genocide and her descent into madness symbolizes white prejudice that requires black people to play the role of Jim Crow (197). O’Neill is able not only to see the unfairness inherent in the social forces that lead to the demise of the central couple in the play, but also the nature of the problem itself. He tries to strip away the mask to reveal an insidious American injustice, painfully challenging his audiences to accept the reality, not hide behind the illusion of racial superiority.
As Doris Falk notes in her discussion of O’Neill’s later plays, the poet’s struggle is the same as it had always been in all his work, including All God’s Chillun Got Wings: “the conscious intellect at war with the unconscious drives, the laceration of love and hate in every close human relationship, and the desperate search for self among the masks” (157). Indeed, this search draws the characters, in this play and others, into a web of desire over which they relinquish control and leads ultimately to insanity or death. It doesn’t matter if the character is Jim Harris or Jamie Tyrone, Dion Anthony or Orin Mannon, Brutus Jones or Con Melody. They all prescribe their own defeat through their attempts to avoid what should not be avoided: the truth within their souls. In doing so, they are emblematic of so many in O’Neill’s canon who, regardless of ethnicity, try to escape destiny by hiding in the shadows of their life-lies.
In All God’s Chillun Got Wings, Jim Harris and Ella Downey exemplify this basic truth of O’Neill’s. In The Iceman Cometh, the shadow of illusion falls not on a central couple, but every denizen of Harry Hope’s bar, thus expanding the scope of Jim and Ella’s predicament to utter inclusiveness. That Joe Mott, O’Neill’s next and last significant black character, is one of those illusion-shadowed inhabitants is a climactic indicator of O’Neill’s ethnically inclusive rhetoric of doom.
© Copyright 1999-2008 eOneill.com