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Chapter Two

“Bah! You are nervous. Anything is better than dead silence.”

                                              —Gentleman, “Thirst”

Once his plays began to be performed in 1916, Eugene O’Neill was one of the most active of American playwrights. He wrote approximately forty plays that eventually saw production, at least that many more that went unproduced, and he continued throughout his writing career to experiment with technique and form. Incorporating Expressionism, modernism, Greek masks, Elizabethan soliloquy, and realism (at various times and often in different combinations concurrently), drawing from influences as varied as Shakespeare and Strindberg, O’Neill is widely considered to have brought recognition and respect to an American theatre previously ignored outside the country. Eminent critic C.W.E. Bigsby states, “If any one writer can lay claim to having invented that [American] theatre it was” O’Neill (14). However, O’Neill’s lingering reliance on melodrama, an almost self-conscious introspection in his characters, and, more to my purposes, his apparent reluctance to edit more liberally in the face of his acknowledged difficulty in creating a suitable dramatic language, has also created a sense of discomfort in critics about his ultimate success as a significant American dramatist. Critics seem to know that O’Neill qualifies as one of the great American playwrights. Described by many, including John Gassner, as “America’s first dramatist of international standing” (“Nature” 166), O’Neill is also, according to Richard Moorton, a challenge to critics who must justify allegedly problematic dialects and attitudes in the works of a “world-class author” (xviii). Critics just don’t seem to know exactly how to measure—or recognize—O’Neill’s achievement.



O’Neill and the Rhetorical Challenge


One way to address O’Neill’s contributions to both American and world theatre is to examine the characters that populate his complex and vast universe, to investigate the languages that create the intricate psychologies that define them. Indeed, it is the language of the characters and of O’Neill himself that may indicate how successful the playwright was at creating a consistent universe in which all characters exist as cogs in the uncaring, mechanical vastness in which they all must eventually perish. In their efforts to somehow overcome the power of their respective life-lies, the characters rely heavily on a rhetoric that defines them as much as it conveys plot information to the audience. “How we poor monkeys hide from ourselves behind the sounds called words,” declares Nina Leeds in Strange Interlude, aware of her own downfall developing behind those very sounds (40). Throughout his canon, O’Neill critiques language itself, even as he relies on it to develop a sense of the difference between the intrinsic self and its expression (Bigsby 19). He indicates his own awareness of the ultimate inadequacy of language and its subsequent subversion of an objective truth.


Such a distrust of language can be seen throughout his body of work, populated as it is by a preponderance of schemers, liars, dreamers, hucksters and actors, men and women who use language not to define reality but in an attempt to simultaneously conceal and transcend it. They are indeed a theatrical lot. However, as his body of work indicates, O’Neill feels a sense of camaraderie with people in all walks and stations of life, for if there is a certainty unmasked behind the facade of language in O’Neill’s work, it is that we are all doomed. In fact, his affection for what he, in his post-post-Victorian terminology, might call the lower classes may illustrate how he found the experience of those on the lower rungs particularly suited to his attack on the certainty of language. After all, it is these bottom-dwellers, the hopeless visitors to Harry Hope’s saloon, the misbegotten refuse of modernity, who most obviously fail to make their way successfully into a society that esteems facility with language. Perhaps his fondness for this downtrodden group and their inability to use language to make their way fully into society may result from the rhetorical bravura of his father, James, whose reliance on the grandiloquent and patently false melodrama of The Count of Monte Cristo doomed a once-promising career. Thus, the trappings of theatre served to illuminate even as they masked the “sincerity of life” (Roberts 44).


What further seems consistent in O’Neill’s plays is the playwright’s awareness of the false rhetoric, of his characters expounding in a theatricalized language because, in one sense, they are all self-conscious and vulnerable, and they seek safety in role-playing that blunts the impact of their real dilemmas; that is, they use artificial language to create an artificial refuge. As exemplified by the hopeful yet hopeless inhabitants of Harry Hope’s bar, O’Neill’s characters consistently deny their rhetoric in their very actions, pointing up the innate falsity of their language. His sense of the contradictions inherent in language derives from his dark, modernist worldview that a coherent language was no longer possible in the “discordant, broken, faithless rhythm of our time” (Chothia 106). Language in itself becomes a life-lie, often hiding behind a figurative or even literal

mask. Critic Richard Moorton examines O’Neill’s achievement:

In an age when postmodern criticism’s audacious reduction of literature to nonsignifying texts with no relationship to reality is coming into question, the incessantly autobiographical O’Neill reminds us that there is indeed an “outside” of the text and that in his case the impact of that outside on the text is pervasive and profound. (xxi)

In his exploration of O’Neill’s African and Irish Americans, Edward L. Shaughnessy asks, “Did O’Neill trade in stereotypes?” (148) I suggest that by examining the language of the plays, and particularly the inherent and acknowledged rhetorical falsity of the language of the characters, we can move beyond a simple answer of yes or no, along with a misplaced emphasis on whether O’Neill must be classified as either great or “a perpetual embarrassment” because of his portrayal of ethnicity. I believe what matters more than whether or not O’Neill set out to marginalize or embrace his ethnic characters is whether or not they were granted the same privileges, hopes and disappointments as other characters populating his dramatic universe. Does O’Neill use ethnicity as a rhetorical mask, much as his characters use language to mask their own truths? Are they linked through O’Neill’s language to the greater population at large, or do O’Neill’s ostensible word choices leave people adrift, isolated, and unable to attain the common brotherhood O’Neill seems to use as a controlling function of thematic development in his plays?


A thorough understanding of the playwright’s rhetorical techniques and aims in creating his black characters should begin with the earliest of his plays to feature characters of African descent. Published in 1914 but not produced until 1916, the one act play “Thirst” provides a fascinating, if frustrating, introduction into O’Neill’s ethnic interpretations. “The Dreamy Kid,” first performed in 1919, builds upon the earlier one act play and foreshadows the grand incarnation of the soon-to-follow Brutus Jones. These two plays will allow us to examine O’Neill’s work in terms of his use of rhetorical masking and unmasking, for, O’Neill himself asks, “What, at bottom, is the new psychological insight into human cause and effects but a study in masks, an exercise in unmasking?” (“Memoranda” 166)



Beginnings: “Thirst”


“Thirst” was the second of O’Neill’s plays to be produced, preceded by “Bound East for Cardiff.” The play centers on the struggle of three shipwreck victims to survive on a small white raft adrift on a “glassy” sea. Descending into madness as a result of their thirst, they prey on each other until they sacrifice their humanity to the uncaring, black-stained sea. Despite their common predicament, the three are separated by social, as well as psychological, forces. The Gentleman and the Dancer represent the upper class white world, while the Sailor, a mulatto, represents the lower class, and obviously nonwhite, world. The Gentleman and the Dancer are materialistic, having been more concerned with saving their worldly goods—a wallet and a diamond necklace, respectively—than with their own survival, while the Sailor’s sole concern is saving his life. Yet it is not so much their differences that is startling in this opening tableau. Upon the white deck of the raft, all three are literally linked by “blackness.” The Sailor is defined by his skin color—in the original production, O’Neill himself played the character in blackface—and he wears a navy blue—almost black—outfit. While the sailor is alternately described as “Negro” and “mulatto,” it is clear that the black/white dichotomy is a functioning, almost expressionistic, element of the play’s theme. The term “mulatto,” indicating parentage of mixed “race,” is perhaps even more appropriate to O’Neill’s aim in that the mixed cultural background of the Sailor is yet one more means of establishing a common bond among the three lost souls.


The Gentleman wears a white shirt with black slacks, a black tie, has black hair, and perhaps in a most telling detail, is marked by a line of black moustache dye running down the side of his face. Providing an additional image of blackness, O’Neill also describes how the man “licks his swollen lips with his blackened tongue” (20).


The Dancer is also clad in black, her costume of velvet and spangles set off by her blonde hair. However, “continuous weeping has made a blurred smudge of her rouge and black eye makeup” (20), furthering O’Neill’s depiction of the false nature of color as a determinant of reality. As he will do with the riot of colors against the white walls in the opening scene of The Emperor Jones, the playwright uses color as an indicator of theme. In “Thirst,” O’Neill is clearly using color to show how closely the three are linked in their situation, in their humanity, and ultimately, in their fate. For example, each character is provided with a splash of red: the red of the lettering on the Sailor’s sweater, the Gentleman’s bald spot “burned crimson by the sun” (20), and the smeared rouge on the Dancer’s face. Before the characters even speak, they reveal their common humanity, their mutual bond of eventual doom marked by the colors they wear, with black predominant. In this case, black represents not stigma but inclusion. The Gentleman states as much early in the play, claiming the Sailor as a “companion in misfortune” and states how the three are “all in the same pitiful plight” (25). Clearly, the gentleman is acting as a mouthpiece for O’Neill’s own fatalistic views that people cling to life sustained only by a pipe dream that some sort of salvation is possible and that only a knowledge of a shared bond makes life bearable. Esther Jackson claims that O’Neill indeed was, throughout his life, engaged in just such a search for a way to verify the existence of a common, universal and eternal principle in human experience (252). O’Neill’s rejection of religion at the time of writing “Thirst” mirrored his anguish at his own inability to confirm or deny the existence of God. In “Thirst,” he found the “eternal principle” in the human bond symbolized by the characters’ shared predicament and the black makeup and splashes of red marking each character. The blackness then functions as a literal and figurative mask, initially indicating distinction among the three doomed souls but yet functioning ultimately as a common and unifying characteristic. It is a mask which must be seen for its own falsity, and it is seen clearly in relief against the background of the white raft that covered much of the stage of the tiny Wharf Theatre in the play’s first production.


The falsity is a startling realization that would later become embodied perhaps most memorably in Strange Interlude with Nina Leeds’ wail that life itself is a lie: “Say ‘lie,’” Nina commands another character. “L-i-i-e! Now say life. L-i-i-i-f-e! You see! Life is just a long drawn out lie with a sniffling sigh at the end” (40). In “Thirst,” the Dancer anticipates both Nina Leeds and the existential despair of Harry Hope’s universe: “My God, this is horrible to wait and wait for something that never comes” (26). But she cannot escape the curse that hovers over O’Neill’s imaginary world: suffering as a secular equivalent to the idea of Original Sin, the inevitable outcome of the human condition (Raleigh 236).


The inner strength of the Sailor is initially played out in his reticence and calm, “monotonous Negro song,” while the Gentleman and the Dancer torture each other with talk of heat and blood. The sailor continues his crooning and shark-watching, while the Dancer cries, “Oh, this silence! I cannot bear this silence. Talk to me about anything you please but, for God’s sake, talk to me! I must not think! I must not think!” (21-22). The Dancer’s shrieks are telling, for in them she is calling upon the power of language to block out the reality that is slowly driving her mad. In a sense, she demands a sort of rhetorical masking of her hopelessness, begging for a life-lie that exists only in the articulation of it.


Nor does the Gentleman stomach the silence. Early in the play, he “sulkily” claims, at the request of the Dancer to avoid discussing the blood-red color of the sea, “Very well. I will not speak.” But he is unable to keep his vow. Before either of the other characters has the opportunity to act, he cries, “God! God! How my eyes ache! How my throat burns!” (21). He is, of the three, the most garrulous and in fact serves to bind the three widely disparate characters together. He frequently intercedes on the Dancer’s behalf, acting as a sort of negotiator among them, at least until the Dancer ultimately succumbs to insanity and is finally able to address the Sailor without fear. The Gentleman is also the character who most frequently relies on the label that sets the Sailor off rhetorically from the others, referring to him as “a poor Negro sailor” (25), “this nigger” (32), “pig” (36), and finally, “the black dog” (41), the epithets growing more dehumanizing and desperate as the action progresses, in stark contrast to Brutus Jones’ rhetorical shift away from rhetorical negativity as his own tragedy deepens. Clearly, O’Neill’s use of the increasingly derogatory terms is a specific rhetorical choice, wedded to an awareness of how such language functions dramatically and culturally. In his stage directions, O’Neill initially refers to the Sailor as “West Indian mulatto” (19), though his subsequent references are “Negro.” Perhaps such a reliance on the latter is more indicative of O’Neill’s time than his intention, as “Negro” was the accepted term, in white and black cultures, for people of African descent in American society, until the shift to “colored” some decades later. More pointedly, the Dancer refers to the Sailor as a “black animal” and “dirty slave” after her feigned seduction fails (44). This final derogatory reference is perhaps the one that reduces the Sailor, at least in her eyes, to the lowest level of existence. Even a dog may be considered superior to some animals in her world, and she is futilely trying to stave off the realization that in death all humans are equal, a realization that O’Neill obviously and progressively embraces throughout his career. He uses the words with great awareness of how they serve to denigrate their intended receivers. The Sailor’s ritualistic chanting to the sharks serves the same purpose as the use of language does to the others. He uses his song as a brace against the very real presence of impending death, couching his understanding of the situation in a reliance on his own cultural and spiritual mythology. While the Gentleman and Dancer ramble, often insanely, the Sailor maintains his song and his poise. As a person whose life is closely connected to the primal power of the sea, he is used to its dangers and has accepted them as part of his life. It is likely that he sees his predicament as only one more burden, an occupational hazard. Though the Gentleman and Dancer may be considered both socially and culturally less primitive than the Sailor, his close ties to nature suggest that he, more than the other two, possesses the means to survive, at least in his present environment. In fact, the two white characters even wonder if the black character may possess an advanced skill at survival. When they are unsure, they turn to him for answers. “Maybe he can clear away our doubts,” the Gentleman hopes in response to the Dancer’s question regarding the events prior to the crash (33). Neither white character was apparently aware enough of the situation during the crisis. The Dancer cannot recall who rescued her, and in an ironic twist, the Gentleman tells how he grabbed a menu rather than the wallet he returned for before the sinking. Earlier, they turn to the Sailor to stand and survey the horizon. “You are stronger than we are and can see farther,” he says to the Sailor. “Stand up and tell me if there is any ship in sight” (26). Continuing the visual evocation of ties between and among characters, the sharks are also black, as the Gentleman observes: “Those pointed black things you see moving through the water are their fins” (23). Here is another obvious link among the three survivors delineated in black. Finally, the initial “black stain” that appears on the water after the Dancer’s death, the appearance of the Sailors’ “black head” after he is pulled overboard, and the subsequent widening of the stain once all three have fallen overboard indicate not separation, nor even a negative connotation. Rather, they link the three victims not only in a common doom, but more importantly in O’Neill’s universe, a common humanity.


These examples may support a claim made by Virginia Floyd in her assessment of O’Neill’s plays. She says that in “Thirst,” O’Neill first uses a strategy that he will use in later works: “ representatives of a particular ethnic group, usually a deprived, exploited social class, are superior, physically, morally, or both, to the possessors of wealth, position, and power” (34). Indeed, we see the Sailor possessing closer ties to nature and no desire for material goods, other than the life-giving water. Of the three survivors, he is the only one without a visible representation of material wealth. The Dancer has her necklace, and the Gentleman has his menu from the United States Club of Buenos Aires. Both characters seek and hold these fragments of their privileged societies despite their current and common predicament, though the Gentleman throws away his menu at the dancer’s request. She considers it a mockery of their misfortune, and it becomes a “black spot” on the water (29). The Sailor’s close connection to the natural world, rather than the acquisitive and materialistic civilization of his compatriots in misery, delineates him as more closely in tune with humanity’s basic existence. Such a conclusion also links O’Neill to American writers such as Emerson, Hawthorne, Whitman, and Twain. Their consistent criticism of the old world in favor of the new American world, the natural over the synthetic, depicts Americans as those who are less corrupted by societal and cultural strictures, those who are more in tune with a natural existence. Emerson’s nature, Hawthorne’s Pyncheons, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Twain’s Huck Finn all exemplify the same vein that O’Neill was mining in his efforts at creating a serious American theatre. A connection to nature is a common American literary index of viability, one with which O’Neill is familiar.


In their desperation, both the Gentleman and the Dancer cry out to a God who, if he exists, apparently has turned a deaf ear to their predicament, while the Sailor has found in his natural surroundings a source of strength and belonging denied him by his compatriots on the raft as he sings his charms to the sharks. In fact, the Dancer’s first words are “My God! My God! The silence is driving me mad!” (20). She continues to cry out and invoke her Christian God’s name throughout her ordeal, doing so six more times before insanity and dehydration claim her. The Gentleman is likewise connected to his deity, calling out God’s name twelve times while he deteriorates beneath what O’Neill calls in his opening and closing stage directions, “a great angry eye of God” (19, 48). Apparently, O’Neill’s God is not uninterested. It is the universe that is indifferent, while God remains a force that is very much alive, although apparently very displeased with his creation. For the Sailor, the sharks, representative of his own mythology, are ever-present and able to be appeased through his song: “It is a charm. I have been told it is very strong. If I sing long enough, they will not eat us” (23). His belief is not merely ignorant superstition, which would reflect a negative stereotype of African ethnicity. For the Sailor, the invocation is his equivalent to a Christian prayer or psalm—words intended to invoke protection and comfort—though both “charm” and Christian appeal would fail to provide salvation. The Gentleman retorts shortly thereafter, seeing the Dancer frightened by the Sailor’s words, “At least tell her the truth about the sharks. That is all a children’s tale about them eating people. . . . You know they never eat anyone” (24). Here, the Gentleman attempts, in the face of accepted knowledge, to “undo” the truth by lying about it, by disclaiming it, by disempowering it rhetorically. Later, when the situation becomes even more desperate and rhetoric is no longer enough to fend off impending disaster, the Gentleman himself recounts his own fear to the Dancer: “A woman near me with a life belt around her gave a cry of agony and disappeared—then I realized—sharks!” (30). His rhetorical failure to continue the lie indicates his inability to maintain the presence of mind needed to survive his plight, just as the Gentleman and Dancer fail to understand the nature of their relationship to the Sailor. Only the audience is privileged to see how the character of the black sailor is not defined so much by O’Neill’s stage directions or description as much as it is by the other characters’ reactions to him.


For example, their initial assumption is that he cannot speak English well, and they are puzzled as to why he has not spoken after they learn of his linguistic ability. He is an “animal” and a “dog” not because of his behavior, but because the other characters must resort to name-calling when their own efforts to survive fall short. It is not his failing, but rather theirs, which causes them to denigrate their mysterious companion. If the Sailor is suspect, O’Neill never spells out clearly whether he stole the only fresh water.


Ironically, all characters are locked within their “white prisons”: the white raft upon which they are trapped, the white majority that the Sailor must tolerate despite his greater ability to manage his predicament, and the self-centered perceptions of the white characters that blind them to the truth and their own weaknesses. Self, not skin color, is their own worst enemy, much as it is in “The Dreamy Kid.” Lack of perception dooms the travelers, for O’Neill’s message in this play is evident: when people turn on each other, thereby shattering the link that binds them into a common humanity, they hasten their own eventual destruction, inevitable though it may be.


Most of the play’s dialogue is uttered by the Gentleman and Dancer, and as the situation aboard the white raft grows more desperate, so does their speech become more theatrical, taking the form of alternating monologues as they recount the events that led up to and followed the disaster. However, the monologues and the white characters’ subsequent mad attempts to seize the non-existent flask of water from the Sailor function even more as theatrical language when we realize that the characters had already stated a clear understanding of their position, one in opposition to the desperate clinging to hope that they eventually embrace. “My God, this is horrible,” the Dancer despairs early in the play. “To wait and wait for something that never comes” (26). Foreshadowing the interminable waiting for such theatrical no-shows as Godot and Lefty (and O’Neill’s own “Iceman,” who, as personified by Hickey, arrives inevitably but late and then disappears, seemingly forever), the survivors are doomed to disappointment, and the Gentleman knows it as well: “The blind sky will not answer your appeals or mine” (34). If, according to the Gentleman, anything is better than dead silence, then surely their desperate rantings presage their coming deaths.


The spoken word is perhaps more significant in the reticent Sailor’s speech, for it signals the beginning of O’Neill’s transformative ability to give black characters a voice in his new American drama. As previously discussed, critics continue to debate whether those characters are fully or truly realized as embodying their ethnic heritage. At the time, O’Neill’s efforts won approval from such black voices as W.E.B. DuBois, who praised the play as a “splendid tragedy” (Locke 56), as did Langston Hughes and Alain Locke. Jessie Redmond Fauset praised O’Neill for enabling black actors to appear in other than blackface and minstrel shows, stating her hope that such characters as O’Neill’s would show the full range of humanity—“wells of feeling”— possessed by black people (“Gift” 167). As O’Neill’s Gentleman in “Thirst” points out, “anything is better than silence” (24), and it seems to hold true for a black population that was beginning to find a louder voice during the Harlem Renaissance that was gaining momentum even as O’Neill’s characters were being realized. Locke declared, “The day of ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’ and ‘mammies’ is equally gone” (5). While “Mammy Saunders” would find her way into O’Neill’s “The Dreamy Kid,” discussion of how she is distinct from the “mammy” caricature will follow later in this chapter. The important development is that a voice had been found for a population whose voice had been, except for a few notable exceptions, ignored.


In “Thirst,” we learn that the taciturn Sailor is able to speak English on a par with his fellow doomed passengers. When the Gentleman says, “Yet he speaks good English. It cannot be that he does not understand us,” the Dancer replies, “When he does speak, it is as if he had some impediment in his throat” (25). O’Neill does allude to the impediment earlier in his stage directions: “When [the Sailor] speaks, it is in drawling sing-song tones as if he were troubled by some strange impediment of speech” (19). O’Neill’s choice of words in this quotation suggests that the impediment is not really an impediment at all, with the “as if” casting doubt as to the cause of his difficulty. We must question how “sing-song” tones would constitute an impediment, since such tones would seem to indicate no inherently negative connotation. Rather, if we take O’Neill’s words to indicate mere difference we may find that it is the vocalization of language that acts as a barrier between the Sailor and his cohorts. Joel Pfister suggests that the “impediment” is imposed by the only people left with whom the Sailor may converse (259); that is, the impediment is nothing more than the Sailor speaking in his own cultural mode. Indeed, an examination of the Sailor’s words illustrates no forced dialect for which so many critics take O’Neill to task. Lorraine Hansberry says that these “translations ‘to the Negro’ have generally meant (aside from adding saxophones and red dresses) haphazardly assaulting the English language beyond recognition, as if the Negro people had not produced an idiom that has a real and specific character” (166). She says, however, “I believe that it is within the cultural descendants of Twain and Whitman and Melville and O’Neill to listen and absorb [appropriate language], along with the totality of the American landscape, and give back their findings….” (167), leading us to conclude that O’Neill’s failings—if they are failings—are failings of form, not of content. Unlike the heavy dialect of blacks and whites pervading “The Dreamy Kid,” “The Emperor Jones,” “Rope,” Desire Under the Elms or any of his later plays involving lower class or ethnic characters, “Thirst” does not resort to categorizing the Sailor through heavy dialect, or translating “to the Negro.” In fact, the lack of strong dialect seems further evidence of O’Neill’s effort at creating a picture of a common human community. In this play, there is no difference in dialect to delineate difference in class. The use of the voice itself serves to indicate the bond, even as it serves to provide empowerment to those silenced within a majority population.


Perhaps the ultimate evidence of that bond, as indicated by the common voice, is the death that all three share. If it is true, according to Long in The Hairy Ape, that “all men is born free and ekal” (39), then according to “Thirst,” they are also “ekal” in death, an idea that permeates O’Neill’s canon.



Bringing it Home: “The Dreamy Kid”


To move the discourse beyond labeling, to discover the extent to which O’Neill’s black characters either further or obscure his tragic vision of life in which there is no tomorrow: this is the task inherent in examining how O’Neill’s moral imagination does not seem to allow his protagonists to survive as mere victims, as well as how they participate actively in the evolution of their own fates, much as the Gentleman and Dancer choose to challenge the Sailor, which leads to their immediate, rather than eventual, doom. One such example can be found in “The Dreamy Kid” (1919), a one-act play that seems to exemplify Hansberry’s “to the Negro” dialect but actually uses that dialect with perhaps greater narrative significance than may appear at first glance.


Inspired by a tale told to O’Neill by his friend from the Hell Hole, Joe Smith (himself the inspiration for Joe Mott in The Iceman Cometh), “The Dreamy Kid” follows the destructive progression of Dreamy, a black gang leader who is being hunted down by the white police who trail him to the home of his dying grandmother, Mammy. According to Joel Pfister, the militancy that audiences in 1919 saw in Dreamy’s drive was the same that 1916 audiences saw in the Sailor in “Thirst”: a fear of the return of black soldiers from action in World War I (124). Apparently, not all members of the human community were going to be blended easily into the American “melting pot,” and O’Neill seemed aware that an understanding of the prejudice against the transplanted Irish—those who shared his own ethnic heritage—would illuminate his understanding of the prejudice against the black immigrants from the South who were migrating north to fill lower-class job openings.

O’Neill’s fight against such prejudice may have resulted from an awareness of similar cultural stereotypes shared by the Irish and black Americans: Nineteenth-century blackface minstrel shows often lampooned the Irish as shiftless, ignorant drinkers and featured actors in blackface dancing Irish jigs. The term “Irish nigger” originated in the antebellum South, where the Irish were employed as cheap, expendable laborers on jobs too dangerous to be undertaken by black “property.” (Pfister 123-24)

Though James Robinson affirmatively responds to the question of whether or not O’Neill traded in stereotypes in the case of “The Dreamy Kid,” he adds that the play also treats them “sympathetically as human beings, victims of society, with emotions and family ties” (61). More importantly, in “The Dreamy Kid,” black characters are raised to tragic (in O’Neill’s conception) levels, as O’Neill’s Tyrones and Melodys are, because of deterministic forces, subject to the same life-lies that give life to everyone else—at least, until the life-lie is exposed and doom follows. While some critics have lamented that naturalism precludes tragedy, middle-class tragedy, such as the type that emerged in Henrik Ibsen’s plays (one of O’Neill’s admitted literary influences) in the late nineteenth century, often depicted characters as victims of their society and environment. As in O’Neill’s other plays, the tragedy follows from what Travis Bogard calls “defeated hope” (105), with Dreamy choosing to sacrifice his freedom once he realizes that any hope for freedom is gone. In fact, Bogard also states in reference to O’Neill’s plays and Paul Green’s 1926 play, In Abraham’s Bosom, that they proved a black figure and an “ordinary American could. . . .rise to the height of a tragic figure” (134). According to Edward Shaughnessy, “If the characters bear little responsibility for the givens of their condition (fate), as partners in relationship they fulfill the other requirements of tragedy (complicity)….A burden of guilt is thereby incurred, the partial cost of sin” (Down the Nights 153). “The Dreamy Kid” and its characters are subject to the same forces as all other O’Neill’s characters; they are “ekal,” and the rhetorical methods evidenced in stage descriptions or “to the Negro” dialect must be subordinated to the final effect and action of the play as performed. While O’Neill may have been, as Deborah Wood Holton claims, “a victim of the narrow vision imposed by our society’s racism, sexism and segregation policies” (41), he took a step with “The Dreamy Kid” toward illuminating how such forces function in a universe that ultimately is shared by all in their eventual doom. We can see his accomplishment by studying the characters and language of the play in which nobility is masked only by dialect, though not by language.


It is important to remember that like the Sailor in “Thirst,” some of O’Neill’s early Irish characters—those who would eventually share many similar behaviors and situations with his black characters—were not recognizably Irish. Just as there is no Negro dialect in “Thirst,” there is no ostensible Irish brogue or stereotypical Irish characteristic affecting the dramatic action of “The Straw” or All God’s Chillun Got Wings. O’Neill thus seems to have begun his exploration of black characters by using the Sailor as a thematic device, rather than by trying to reinscribe the character’s culture with the author’s own understanding and interpretation of black people’s behavior and characteristics, particularly their language. The character’s ethnicity is not acted, but acted upon. In “The Dreamy Kid,” O’Neill apparently insisted upon some degree of verisimilitude that his dialect alone would be unable to convey, demanding that only black actors be hired to play the black characters, one of the first times that blacks had been cast in serious roles in the work of a major American dramatist and producing company.


In The Plays of Eugene O’Neill, Virginia Floyd claims that as a result of the playwright’s friendship with Joe Smith at the Hell Hole and other black friends from his days in Greenwich Village, O’Neill was aware of stereotypical black characteristics—appearance, dialect, etc.—as well as the real inner qualities and conflicts of black people (138). In fact, Smith, who married a white woman, appears to have been partly the model for Jim Harris in All God’s Chillun Got Wings, as well as for the title character in “Honest Honey Boy,” an unfinished play (Floyd xviii). Floyd also suggests that there are two primary forces at work on Dreamy: his heritage, symbolized by his grandmother who, true to an oral African American tradition, is the guardian of the culture and heritage; and his hostile environment, symbolized by the encroaching white police force which attempts to assault the very storehouse of the dying representative of the culture. Lying underneath a red and yellow quilt—perhaps a physical embodiment of the continuation of the culture, and interestingly pre-dating the visual and similarly significant orange quilt square in Toni Morrison’s Beloved—the dying Mammy fights a noble battle against the overwhelming force of death.


In his dramatic conflict, O’Neill appears to be very aware of DuBois’ concept of double-consciousness. In speaking of the black American man, DuBois states:

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. (16-17)

Dreamy seems to be the very embodiment of the idea. He has returned to the communal past represented by his grandmother and all that she represents culturally, literally looking over his shoulder to his personal and racial histories simultaneously. As he bears his “unreconciled strivings” to honor a past even while he tries to ensure a future for himself, Dreamy is caught between warring ideals represented by his conflicts with the white world (beyond the symbolically white curtains) and the needs of his own identity in the darkened room. “I won’t leave dis room, I swar ter you!” he tells Mammy (619). And while he is still cowed by Mammy’s curse, he continues to plan for a future beyond Mammy’s sickroom: “You run roun’ and tell de gang what’s up,” he tells Irene. “Maybe dey git me outa dis, you hear?” (621)


The play opens in Mammy Saunders’ bedroom in New York City, with “ragged white curtains” and pillows against which “her black face stands out in sharp contrast” (605), suggesting that they too may be white. O’Neill is giving us clues in his description of the setting as to the cultural and physical environment of the play, a tableau reflecting O’Neill’s understanding of “double-consciousness.” Like the setting in “Thirst,” the high contrast between light and dark, black and white, functions expressionistically, making the audience aware of the theatricality, rather than the reality, of both the artistic and aural language of the play to follow. While the stylistic falsity of the play may not completely succeed at disempowering the sense of stereotype that we see in Mammy, the characters of Ceely, Dreamy and Irene are portrayed sympathetically, as victims of circumstance and society, humanized by their sincere family ties and O’Neill’s recreation of their emotional depth.


The first character on stage is Mammy, calling weakly for her granddaughter, Ceely. Embedded in the heritage of slavery in the United States, the “mammy” stereotype masks the importance of the subject’s traditional role as nurturer and domestic (White 29). What may at first seem like cultural blindness on the part of O’Neill, whose access to the marginalized culture may not have provided him a full view of its more intricate workings, may thus be understood as an awareness of how such a stereotype may exist ironically. Mammy is an honored elder in the African and African American cultures, and she is a staple of the Plantation Tradition in literature1. Mammy Saunders was born in slavery, as we learn from the text, and her migration to the North symbolizes an attempt to achieve higher social status, her belief that the American Dream is within her grasp. Dreamy, whose real name is the symbolically ripe Abe, becomes Mammy’s means of achieving that dream, and despite his desperate circumstances, he sacrifices an opportunity for escape in order to honor his grandmother’s wishes.


However, the dream is not simply an ideal, but, according to Pfister, “an idol with feet of clay” (130) that must be guarded from potential attack. The conflict between Dreamy’s loyalty to the gang that hopes to protect him and his reverence for and desire to protect the dying culture-keeper serves as the psychological center of the play. However, as with O’Neill’s later creation Eben Cabot (among others), Dreamy gives up dreams of existence beyond his impoverished life and accedes to the swiftly encroaching fate that awaits him when the curtain falls.


We have already seen how O’Neill used superstition as similar in function to Christianity in “Thirst” and that superstition affects white characters in his canon as well as it does black ones, in such plays as “Rope,” “Where the Cross is Made,” and Desire Under the Elms. It is a device of inclusion, a sense of supernatural or metaphysical faith shared by blacks and whites, even if that faith or spirituality may differ vastly in nature. The fact remains that no matter the source or form of spirituality, both representative ethnic groups subscribe to it. Dreamy’s eventual accession to capture is no less affecting simply because he is black, just as Abbie Cabot’s infanticide is no less affecting because she is white. Their wishes to protect their loved ones lead both to their respective captures. Any claim that the portrayal of Dreamy is negative because he is black and a criminal is false, just as any such comment made of one of O’Neill’s murderous white characters would be dismissed as too simple—and inaccurate—a generalization. Would Abbie be accused of being a criminal because she is white? I suggest that part of the effectiveness of and shock resulting from Abbie’s infanticide derive from the fact that she is clearly not a representative of the “cult of true womanhood,” a cultural categorization developed in the nineteenth century (the period in which her actions take place) that served to privilege white women over black women.


However, it is a greater challenge to find the common bonds between O’Neill’s black and white characters when the black ones are masked by a pronounced dialect that seems to indicate their inferiority, since they do not employ standard white American English. In fact, critics’ assumptions of O’Neill’s patronizing attitudes may only mask the critics’ own inability to read reality into the language of the plays1. While the dialect may be heavy-handed and based in stereotype and minstrelsy, its use may reflect O’Neill’s self-acknowledged difficulty in developing an appropriate linguistic style throughout his career:

In fact, it sometimes seems as if there are two O’Neills: the literary O’Neill, a perpetual embarrassment to literary critics who must explain how such an allegedly clumsy wordsmith could nonetheless be a worldclass author; and the theatrical O’Neill, acclaimed by fellow professionals as the creator of the American theatre—a seminal influence on others and in his great plays a genius of the stage. (Moorton xviii)

Even a quick scan of O’Neill’s plays indicates that it is not only black characters who suffer from his lack of skill in developing a consistently believable dialectic language. Yank, the title character in The Hairy Ape, is often reduced to a sometimes painful linguistic caricature: “Wanter know what I t’ink? Yuh ain’t no good for no one. Yuh’re de bunk. Yuh aint’ got no noive, get me?” (41). In Desire Under the Elms, Abbie accosts Eben, saying, “If cussin’ me does ye good, cuss all ye’ve a mind t’. I’m all prepared t’ have ye agin me—at fust. I don’t blame ye nuther” (150). As Joe says in “The Long Voyage Home,” “Blimey if bizness ain’t ‘arf slow tonight. I donnow wot’s ‘appened” (493). Even the title of “Ile” refers not to an island, as may be suspected in the early sea play, but the pronunciation of “oil” by the Irish captain Keeney. The dialect—a standard device for heightening realism—serves as a linguistic mask, limiting itself to the indication of a character’s social and geographic origin, not some qualitative difference. Since drama exists ideally in its performance rather than its written text, it’s possible to qualify a response to the written words by claiming that the language is not as clumsy when spoken as it appears to be on the page. Similarly, if our study of the performative and theatrical sense of community in “Thirst” indicates that O’Neill’s written script is secondary to its existence in performance, then the initially negative reaction to the heavy dialect is offset by its performance. If we can agree that dialect issues pervades O’Neill’s portrayal of ethnic and class-bound characters, we can glean extra support for a theory of O’Neill’s rhetoric of inclusion, rather than subordination, for his black characters.


In “The Dreamy Kid,” we immediately see the kindness and the wisdom of Ceely and Mammy, even through the mask of their dialectic speech, with each trying to comfort the other throughout the illness and impending death of the latter. Ceely, described as “a stout woman of fifty or so with gray hair and a round, fat face” (606), seems to fit the traditional picture of a “mammy” or “Jemima,” yet she exists in the play as a transitional figure between the historically enslaved black woman and the modern woman who respects the past (as represented by Mammy and the traditional cultural values she represents). She comforts Mammy, claiming that the doctor has told her she’ll be “up and walkin’ agin fo’ de week’s out.” Mammy, fully acting the part of the wise cultural elder, responds, “Hit ain’t no use’n you tellin’ me nothin’ but de trufe” (606). In this brief exchange, we get a sense of O’Neill’s respect for these characters as they are realized performatively, rather than as described in stage direction or through dialect. Their actions speak more loudly than their uncomfortably stereotypical dialect. Soon thereafter, Mammy expresses her desire to see Dreamy before she dies, re-energizing her own pipe dream that Dreamy will forego his disastrous lifestyle and return to her as the embodiment of the American dream his name implies. Both characters are braced by the lies to which they cling, placing them squarely in the canon of pipe-dreamers that peopled O’Neill’s all-inclusive world.


Shortly thereafter, Irene, the prostitute with a heart of gold, enters, “a good-looking Negress, highly rouged and powdered, dressed in gaudy, cheap finery”(607). The largely derogatory description, despite the initial “good-looking,” may easily be attributed to Irene’s profession, rather than her ethnicity, just as the earlier description of Mammy’s face as “weazened” indicates her age and social status rather than her skin color. Here, O’Neill is using the same type of descriptions employed by such black authors as Langston Hughes and Claude McKay. As McKay writes in his 1928 novel, Home to Harlem, “She was brown, but she had tinted her leaf-like face to a ravishing chestnut” (11). Even the “but” seems to echo the rhetorical “yet” that, as we will see, causes such distress in O’Neill’s initial description of the title character in The Emperor Jones. In spite of the dialect and descriptions, which can be uncomfortable to the contemporary reader, O’Neill has shown in his first few pages how clearly these characters exist just as successfully—or unsuccessfully, in terms of their fates—in his universe beyond the “black” confines of this theatrically realized world, as his white characters. Even Deborah Wood Holton, who frequently takes O’Neill to task for some of his ethnic portrayals, asserts that Irene could be of any nationality—read as ethnicity—because O’Neill ascribes to her no distinguishing cultural characteristics except for the masking dialect (3). Irene is the outsider in this family and thus acts as connector to the outside world and possibly the only hope of Dreamy’s ultimate physical survival after his return. Her belief that Dreamy will follow her to safety is her pipe dream, her hope that his love for her is stronger than his affinity for the emblem of his cultural heritage.

However, Dreamy ultimately chooses connection to his past rather than safety in the white world.


In the play O’Neill relies on the use of the word “nigger” because he is aware of its rhetorical power1. In fact, only Ceely and Irene use the word, and they both use it similarly: to disempower the people they refer to in their name-calling, primarily each other. Irene uses it first, when Ceely approaches her threateningly to throw her out of the apartment. Its negative connotation, even at that time, was clearly understood by O’Neill. Even in his tirade against black actor Charles Gilpin (to be discussed in the following chapter), he avoided using the word in correspondence. However he allowed his characters to use it when they needed its ability to disempower their adversaries. “Stop dat talkin’ to me, nigger, or I’ll split yo’ fool head!” Irene cries, as Ceely approaches threateningly (607-08). After being rebuffed, she resorts to using it again, countering Ceely’s claims that Mammy’s prayers may have affected Dreamy’s safekeeping: “You hopes so, you fool nigger” (609). Ceely’s use of the word results from her “lamenting” of Dreamy’s situation and adherents: “I knowed with all his carryin’s-on wid dat passel er tough young niggers….” (609). By referring to them as “niggers,” she places herself in a socially and culturally superior position. In this sense, it is a term that designates a social, rather than an ethnic, population, as the ethnic reference is assumed rather than specified. Of course, there is no denying that the word would be used by whites to refer only to blacks at that time, but O’Neill clearly sees a function for the word and its use within that culture as connotatively powerful. In fact, it is his characters’ use of the word that renders it realistic, as reflected even in contemporary black American culture.


When Dreamy arrives, he is described as “a well-built, good-looking young Negro, light in color” (610). While Dreamy’s “light” color may be stretched to suggest that O’Neill may have designated only “whiter” black people as good-looking1—a cultural issue raised within Wallace Thurman’s satirical treatment of black-on-black color preference in The Blacker the Berry (1929)—it is also important to remember that with his lighter color, Dreamy functions more thematically as a connection between the Africanic origins of Mammy and the corrupting influence of white America. Written in 1919, the play and character can easily be seen as precursors to Native Son (1940) and its similarly entrapped Bigger Thomas, although Dreamy no longer has the ability to pass safely, if stealthily, through the outside urban jungle. Both Dreamy and Bigger are trapped by the outside white world, as represented in the white—and Irish—police of Dreamy’s New York, or the white snowscape of Bigger’s Chicago. The strong thematic material in Wright’s masterful novel is similar to powerful themes in O’Neill’s earlier, if lesser, work. Both protagonists flee for similar reasons: Bigger accidentally smothers the drunken Mary Dalton as a result of panic brought on by the threat of the white world.Dreamy also claims to have been responding to, rather than instigating, a dangerous situation with a white person. “Twarn’t my doin’ nohow,” he tells Ceely. “ He was de one lookin’ for trouble. I wasn’t seekin’ for no mess id him dat I could help. But he told folks he was gwine ter git me for a fac’, and dat fo’ced my hand. I had ter git him ter pertect my own life” (611). Interestingly, we can never be sure of just what happened between Dreamy and the white man. He may be more innocent or more guilty than he claims. However, his part in the crime is masked by his evasive language and incomplete story. Just as he returns home to protect Mammy (and what she represents thematically), he kills as a means of his own self-preservation. In fact, Dreamy (like Bigger) symbolizes the tragic waste of young black American urban men who live and die in a world where the values that Mammy represents no longer maintain the power they once had. The men suffer the indignities of a world in which financial gain supercedes morality. Such an overlay of thematic development strongly supports O’Neill’s significant success in representing DuBois’ double-consciousness. Dreamy is torn between duty to his past and efforts to survive in the present, exemplifying DuBois’ “two warring ideals in one dark body” even as he tries to reconcile both into a “better and truer self.”


Contrary to Peter J. Gillette’s claim that “The Dreamy Kid” contains “nothing about race and superstition” (117), I argue that O’Neill includes many references to both. His use of superstition is particularly interesting in this play, as it develops earlier ideas from “Thirst,” such as the link between the Sailor’s chants to the sharks and the white characters’ appeals to a Christian God. According to Virginia Floyd, “For O’Neill the quest for the meaning of life, of existence, proves to be religious in nature”(A New Assessment 6). Indeed, O’Neill himself has claimed, in oft-quoted words, “I am interested only in the relation between man and God” (Down the Nights 6). Therefore, it is necessary to see how faith informs “The Dreamy Kid” to see if it, too, functions as it does throughout O’Neill’s other plays.


Mammy’s Christian faith clearly remains strong throughout her decline and death. In the course of the twenty pages of the play, Mammy invokes, in some variation, the name of God or Jesus almost twenty times. Clearly, O’Neill’s rhetorical inclusion of God as an inherent part of Mammy’s life and desires is made very obvious, while a comparatively small number of references to God by Dreamy himself—only five, and mostly used as expletives rather than as requests for divine intervention—indicates the split between him and his grandmother. In fact, his perfunctory invocation of God is merely through cursing until he apparently loses all his reason. Only then does he call upon the Lord. However, the sincerity of his belief must be questioned, since O’Neill shows Dreamy using such invocations as mere expletive throughout most of the play. Christianity—at least Dreamy’s conception of it—is undermined by the ambivalence in his reliance upon it. “Dey don’t git de Dreamy! Not while he’s ‘live! Lawd Jesus, no suh!” he cries at the end, refusing to accept the impending reality of his certain capture. While his grandmother’s presence will remain with him through her infirmity, so will her embodiment of Christian faith. Accepting his reality would lead to a death sentence, of course, which is what the audience must assume inevitably occurs. He is living in fantasy, as all O’Neill’s pipe-dreamers must. In fact, he does not even believe Mammy’s claim that she is dying, ironically countering the very source of wisdom that he has come home to in order to find safety. While he rejects the faith that could provide him some comfort, he chooses instead to believe in the one that promises certain doom. “Yo don’ never git no bit er luck in dis worril ary agin, yo’ leaves her now. Der perlice gon’ kotch yo’ shua,” Ceely claims (612), and is immediately echoed by Dreamy’s own superstitious thoughts: “Dreamy, you gotter make good wid old Mammy no matter what come—or you don’ never git a bit of luck in yo’ life no mo” (613). With Ceely already established as a transitional figure between the past and present generations, Dreamy’s repetition of her thoughts links his belief system directly to hers, providing a sort of spiritual parity that functions as a life-lie to sustain them both. Later, when Mammy tells Dreamy, “If yo’ leave me now, yo’ ain’t gwine git no bit er luck s’long’s you’ lives, I tells yo’ dat!” (619), the family circle—or trinity—is complete. Christianity and superstition are inextricably linked in Mammy’s Christian faith, her reliance on superstition in cursing Dreamy, and Dreamy’s ambivalence in his own faith.


While some critics may denigrate the superstition that marks the lives of O’Neill’s black characters—Shaughnessy calls it “naïve superstition” (“Portraiture” 88)—it is clear that both Christianity and superstition are equally useless in fending off the eventual doom all people must suffer in O'Neill’s universe beneath “the angry eye of God.” In later research, Shaughnessy even seems to contradict his earlier claims that superstition is somehow inferior to traditional Judeo-Christian faith: “Perhaps O’Neill’s commitment to a particular theological explanation—Calvinist, Catholic, whatever—is not the point” (Down the Nights 91). Shaughnessy appears to be questioning how it was possible for the playwright to speak of sin and redemption after the explicit denial of his own faith (in The Iceman Cometh) (2). Esther Jackson claims that O’Neill was always engaged in an effort to verify the existence of an eternal principal in human experience, though the primary motive of his playwriting career may have been theological in nature (252-53). If God or gods will not intervene on humanity’s behalf, humanity will succumb. It is this sort of irreligiosity that allows O’Neill’s fate or “Force behind” to exist separately and objectively from humanity. This objectivity allows for the connection between Christianity and superstition, each equally non-functional. They are both objective realities and therefore “ekal.” In O’Neill’s own words:

And just here is where I am a most confirmed mystic, too, for I’m always, always trying to interpret Life in terms of lives, never just lives in terms of character. I’m always acutely conscious of the Force behind—(Fate, God, our biological past creating our present, whatever one calls it—Mystery, certainly)—and of the one eternal tragedy of Man in his glorious, self-destructive struggle to make the Force express him instead of being as an animal is, an infinitesimal incident in its expression. (Bogard and Bryer 195)

By placing superstition alongside Christianity as an equally legitimate basis for his characters’ worldviews, O’Neill succeeds in rhetorically linking the characters in “The Dreamy Kid” to such later—and white—incarnations as the Catholic Tyrones, the Calvinist Mannons and Cabots, and even the faithless denizens of Harry Hope’s.


However, O’Neill’s language of inclusion is not limited to religious references. Other uses of language link Mammy’s lost brood to O’Neill’s other lost souls. Ironically, it is a promise—the spoken word—that leads Dreamy to his own capture. When Mammy asks him to promise that he’ll stay by her side until she dies, he responds with the words that seal his fate: “ ‘Deed I will, Mammy, ‘deed I will” (614). That he speaks them “uneasily” indicates that Dreamy is aware of the damning power of the words themselves, while it is those words that bring comfort to his grandmother, who subsequently “closes her eyes with a sigh of relief—calmly,” whereupon she “settles herself comfortably in the bed as if preparing for sleep” (614).

The power of O’Neill’s oft-criticized use of language should not be underestimated, for we have seen how, for example, speaking itself provided comfort to the raft’s occupants in “Thirst.” In “The Dreamy Kid,” Mammy seems to echo the words of the two white survivors: “I gotter talk, chile….w’en I talks wid yo’ I ain’t skeered a bit” (615). It is the power of language itself that aids in her comfort. To Mammy, language is reassuring, but later, we again see the opposite side, as Dreamy chides her to “Stop dat racket….You bring all o’ dem down on my head” (619).



Language and the Life-Lie


In its ambivalent portrayal as both threatening and comforting, language is neither inherently good nor bad, O’Neill seems to be saying. While he had great difficulty in molding language into a satisfying dramatic tool throughout his life, it served as the basis of his existence and success as playwright. His portrayal of language as inherently ambivalent also may function as a caution to critics who chastise him for his failure to develop a believable language (at least early in his career): don’t pay attention to the words themselves, but pay attention to what they both mask and reveal. In “The Dreamy Kid” in particular, the Negro dialect may at first appear to signify a writer insensitive to the reality of the ethnic population whose lives he hoped to bring to the attention of a greater audience. But in going “behind language”—behind the signifiers to the signified—as Nina Leeds describes in Strange Interlude, O’Neill succeeds in creating some of the first sensitively realized black characters in American drama. As Abbie Cabot urges Eben to flee his fate as a result of her crime, Dreamy urges Irene to leave the apartment before she shares his fate. As Mary Tyrone wanders deliriously in her wedding gown, Mammy wanders dreamily in her past. Both cling to their life-lies, the reality of the respective pasts they have molded into the falseness of the present. If the characters in these and other plays bear little of the onus for succumbing to their fates, they all fail each other, as they must in a world in which everyone is eventually doomed, where, according to Horst Frenz, they attempt to break free of the past through an action in which love and death merge (48).


If the plays involving black characters (and for O’Neill, at least, black actors) have bred a variety of controversial, and even contradictory, claims about O’Neill’s success or failure in trying to overcome a subconscious, socialized or institutionalized racism, the dreams the characters vocalize constitute a saving grace, a means by which they may escape to find their proper place in the world they inhabit. They may be victimized by their dreams or life-lies, but it is important to remember the words of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that James Tyrone quotes in Long Day’s Journey Into Night: “The fault dear Brutus is not in our stars but in ourselves that we are underlings.” As we have seen in our examination of “Thirst” and “The Dreamy Kid,” O’Neill’s black characters are condemned to live out a prophecy of doom brought on by their own actions and a combination of forces that are, according to them, beyond their control. If we concede that determinism is a given in this universe, then O’Neill has succeeded in enhancing the image of his black characters by allowing them to experience the same doom at the hands of those deterministic forces as do his white characters. By peeling away the mask of language and seeing the dialect as indicator rather than determinant, we can see that his black characters must grapple less with matters of “race”—and in their own voices rather than in the voice of minstrelsy—than with the more pervasive O’Neillian question of how to survive. O’Neill recognized that there was a black voice that cried out to be heard, and that the voice was different only in its form, not in its content, from that of other victims in his dramatic universe. As we will see, The Emperor Jones, one of O’Neill’s most significant achievements, achieves its power not just as a result of his efforts to recreate a black dialect, but to delineate common human experience.




1 The Plantation Tradition was a sentimental treatment of Southern plantation life that exerted a pervasive influence on popular literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Some of the typical characteristics of literature in this tradition include: a setting in a large white Southern Mansion; the old planter, who is often also a colonel or general; the virginal daughter of the planter; the black butler, who serves as a link between house and quarters and is loyal to master; and the old mammy, who may also be the cook and who is warmer than the butler but also expressing a complete devotion to the well-being of the planter and his family. (Revell 32).


2 According to Henry Louis Gates, the dialect (or black vernacular) are “coded dictionaries of black tropes” (63) that demanded “realism” to refute the stereotyped black speech often created by white writers (176).


3 In Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, Randall Kennedy states that condemning white people who use “the N-word” without regard to context is simply to make a fetish of the word “nigger.” He adds that O’Neill and other white writers “have unveiled nigger-as-insult in order to dramatize and condemn racism’s baleful presence” (52).


4 While hardly monolithic, there is a continuing sense in many black communities that light-skinned black people have somehow “improved” their station. According to the writers of The Color Complex: The Politics of Skin Color Among African Americans, one hypothesis is that black people still perceive white people as superior and marry (and have children with) them “to elevate their own status or as proof of their success,” though another theory holds that “powerful people are simply attracted to each other and that high-profile Blacks have few opportunities to marry other high-status Blacks” (117).


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