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Afterword: The Play as Symphony

In an anecdote that has gained a classic status among O'Neill stories, Lawrence Langner tells how he counted the number of times a certain point was repeated in The Iceman Cometh. He told O'Neill that the total was eighteen times. "Gene looked at me, Langner wrote, "and replied in a particularly quiet voice, 'I intended it to be repeated eighteen times.'"(1)

From one point of view—that most often taken by reviewers and commuters—the remark can be seen as the egotistical refusal of a self-indulgent author to make cuts that would bring his work within the normal two-and-a-half-hours' compass of the modern stage. From another, however, O'Neill's refusal may present a different appearance. Suppose someone had said to Richard Wagner, "Richard, that Rhine theme has been repeated eighteen times!" No doubt Wagner's reply would have been the same as O'Neill's, although perhaps it would not have been made in a particularly quiet voice.

Of course no one, not even Charles Gounod, would have made such a remark to Wagner, although Wagner's more massive works, lasting five to five and a half hours, substantially outrun O'Neill's. In opera, complaints about length are many, but cuts are few, even by managers eager to get the curtain down by midnight when stagehands go on overtime. The musical integrity of the work is not to be called into question.

That O'Neill knew what was necessary and that his works have a theatrical integrity comparable to any musical work is perhaps too often overlooked. Indeed, what he several times appeared to be seeking was a play that was like music in its structure and effect. To achieve this end, he brought to bear the full resources of a stage which he at times conceived of as his orchestra. In August 1931, he made notes for a play in musical form:

A play form—return of my old idea of using structure of symphony or sonata—justification my unconscious use of musical structure in nearly all of my plays—impulsion and chief interest always an attempt to do what music does (to express an essentially poetic viewpoint of life) using rhythm of recurrent themes—is my, at times, blunderingly vague groping and missing caused by just the very fact that my use of musical structure is unconscious and ignorant of its own laws?—feeling of great need now for fixed severe clearly apprehended form within which to create, now that I have finished breaking all the realistic rules for modern drama—my adoption of archaic modes from Greek, Elizabethan—(or ultra-modern Expressionistic or Strindbergian modes)—not the answer because superficial does not strike at main deep-rooted impulse of creative ego toward self-expression in musical structure rhythm—when I attain clear knowledge and consciousness of such a structure as skeleton for all work will not my plays have real bone to them as well as flesh—up to now is not chief fault in plays that they lack bone in comparison to their super-abundant flesh and meat—that their rickety bones are too frequently braced by splints carpentered in the dramatic technique surgery? (Study authoritative books on structure of symphony, sonata, etc. and let's see!) A play in which main character definitely represents a theme....(2)

O'Neill, as Virginia Floyd points out in Eugene O'Neill at Work, returned to the idea of a symphonic play several times, twice in 1931, shortly after he had completed Mourning Becomes Electra and again in February 1940, after he had completed The Iceman Cometh and had begun work on Long Day's Journey into Night and Hughie. In his Work Diary for February 1940, he noted the possibility of having the playwright as the conductor and a chorus as the orchestra. While he did not go so far as to plan a work based slavishly on musical form, he was right in claiming that the impulse underlay many of his early works. At the end of his career it appears to have informed the essentially lyric mode of the Tao House plays. Indeed, The Iceman Cometh may be viewed as the symphonic play he had in mind, with Hickey as the conductor and the burns as the orchestra, and the action moving from harmony to atonality back to harmony at the end.

Such a plan is too formulaic to serve as other than a metaphor for so complex a play. Yet, like all of the Tao House plays, The Iceman Cometh is less dependent in its structure on narrative than it is on an intricate interweaving of themes, each motif differently orchestrated but focused on a central melodic configuration in the ensemble of the dreamers' reiterations, which is balanced by the contrapuntal assertions of the trio of betrayers, Larry, Don Parritt, and Hickey. Hickey's great monologue is interrupted at key points by Parritt's echoing of the same theme of the betrayal of a woman, the two narratives forming a duet of guilt and loss. The self-deceiving dream of each of the burns is circular, repeated continually as O'Neill develops the theme of the "hopeless hope." The constant recapitulation has a similarity to musical motifs, and the final choric explosion when the dreamers commence to dream again is a remarkably expressive, specifically musical achievement. No doubt the thematic repetition could be counted and graphed, but, pace Langner, there is little point in so doing. The experience of this play or of Long Day's Journey into Night, A Moon for the Misbegotten, or Hughie, or of what is in some ways the most remarkable of the late plays, More Stately Mansions, all point to the same skill at developing a drama by the reiteration of themes in the manner of a musical composer to produce a complex, innovative, and rewarding dramatic structure.

In considering that musical form might serve as a structural base for drama, O'Neill was perhaps thinking of the ways in which music moves audiences emotionally. To reach his audiences fully, to compel them not only to listen but to participate actively in what was created on the stage, was always a part of his intention. "How much can an audience bear?" was a question he continually asked, and he devised many schemes to force audience members to commit themselves and to surrender their passive spectatorship. The drums in The Emperor Jones and the unremitting monologue of Before Breakfast were two early examples of this attempt. Colleen Dewhurst once said that O'Neill must be acted at "the eye of the hurricane." If O'Neill is to have his way, the audience must occupy that same dangerous position.

The length of O'Neill's plays has stylistic value and is part of O'Neill's aesthetic. On far too many nights in the modern theatre, spectators enter, say "How do you do" to the characters as they are introduced, watch them do whatever they are programmed to do, and get out in time to catch the train to the suburbs, often without any clear sense of why they left home.

By comparison, The Iceman Cometh works on an audience in subtle and unexpected ways. As an example, what transpires in the play's opening two scenes is remarkably effective in transforming audience members to active participants. The scene between Larry Slade and Rocky, the bartender, is direct exposition to introduce the dreamers. It is followed by the encounter between Larry and Don Parritt, setting the background of their lives and preparing the way for Hickey's entrance. The two scenes are quiet and dark, running for perhaps thirty minutes(3) until the sleepers wake at Willy Oban's song. Its mood is meditative, its tempo is slow, it resists cutting—the information it offers is important—and it provides in Larry's commentary important philosophical footings for what is to come. Yet its somber length does something else, not so utilitarian nor so simply described.

Audience members coming to the play have fought their way through traffic and the hasty festivities of pretheatre dinner. They have crowded into the lobby, probably earlier than is their custom because of the play's length. Arriving at the last minute, they have pushed through the regimenting process of ticket-chopping to their proper stations in rank and file order, and the play has begun. But then—silence, darkness, a long stretch of time with no theatrical excitements: a group of men in restless sleep, two men talking, and nothing more. For the length of the two scenes, the audience sits in a period of pause, waiting as the characters wait and being given an opportunity to adjust from the turbulence of theatregoing and the business of their lives outside the auditorium to the saloon and the dreamlike, sleep-filled world in which the play takes place. The audience is forced to enter the Bottom-of-the-Sea Rathskeller by undergoing a period of mass decompression. In some way, not readily to be analyzed, they are placed in a position where the absence of action becomes a reality, where they can begin to feel as the sleepers feel, and where the coming of Hickey is a "Coming," an occasion for festive rejoicing.

The function and effect of these scenes can be likened to that of a great overture. Yet, remembering his desire to express "an essentially poetic view of life" by using musical form, it is perhaps better to call O'Neill's work "lyric" than "musical," even though the term "lyric" may appear at formal odds with "dramatic." Almost from the outset of his career, as O'Neill structured his drama, he adapted the lyric mode for use in the theatre and formed a special, theatrical rhetoric that defined his style.

A lyric, to treat the matter simply, is a poem to be sung, whose subject is more often than not some personal, inner emotion which by the writing of the poem is given communicable form. It is not primarily dramatic, but rather meditative, emerging in what might be called small soliloquies or monologues, handsomely expressed. O'Neill is not often praised for his language alone.(4) His ear for the rhythms and vocabulary of human speech at many periods and in many dialects was keen, but in his middle years he sometimes forgot that poetry in the theatre is more than verbal and turned the sound of men and women talking into an intensified chant, as in the concluding lines of Days without End: "Love lives forever! Death is dead! ...Life laughs with God's love again! Life laughs with love! " It is language that is more inflated than heightened, offering little more than alliteration to sustain it. Alliteration, however, does not by itself make for exaltation.

When he let it alone, his language was always adequate and sometimes superbly appropriate to the situation with which he was concerned. His curtain lines are unforgettable: "Don't cry, the damned don't cry," or "We were so happy for a time," or "It's a jim-dandy farm, no denyin'. Wished I owned it!" Many of his titles have passed into common parlance and are used in a variety of ways that have no connection with him or his plays.(5)

In the action, the words ring and are remembered. He is quotable. Much of the phrasing found in Long Day's Journey into Night—Mary Tyrone's words about the past, for example—has become memorable in the proven way of great dramatic speech. Language that whips and scorns and loves; meditative words; words that in their own way find an appropriate music—O'Neill's poetry on the page is sometimes hidden, but in the theatre, it is there.(6)

Lyricism works hand-in-glove with a poet's autobiographical impulses. Indeed, a great lyric may be viewed as a form of autobiography, an intimate personal confession. Thus, a lyric can be looked on as a way of singing at least part of one's life story and O'Neill's characters, like the playwright, respond to that impulse.

Throughout O'Neill's plays, characters speak autobiographical lyric passages in long confessional monologues, out of emotional necessity searching for the truth that lies at the center of their humanity. General Mannon's words to his wife when he returns from the war, Ephraim Cabot's account of his westering venture spoken to an unheeding Abby in Desire Under the Elms, the juxtaposed monologues of father and son in act 4 of Long Day's Journey into Night, Hickey's long confession in The Iceman Cometh, Caesar's monologue in Lazarus Laughed, all of Hughie, much of The Emperor Jones and The Hairy Ape—the list is long and these passages constitute some of the great moments in twentieth-century theatre. The asides in Strange Interlude partake of the introspective quality of a lyric, and in More Stately Mansions, monologues that are in part thought-asides and part understood to be spoken aloud dominate the action. The monologues stand out from the text of the plays as arias in opera—providing moments for special lyric expression. To speak alone and at length in a compulsive outpouring of what normally lies hidden within—sometimes as a confession, sometimes a meditation, and sometimes in an eruption of contempt and hatred—is the hallmark of the language of O'Neill's mature plays. Monologue is the native language of the O'Neill people.(7)

In thinking about the development of musical forms for theatrical purposes, O'Neill commented on the way in which music makes use of a "rhythm of recurrent themes," and a rhythm based on repetition not only of themes forms the basis of much of the lyric quality of his writing.

Repeated words, such as the muttered "Ayeh" in Desire Under the Elms are intended to characterize both an individual's way of speaking, and that of a family and a community as well. In addition, however, it has a musical effect, a sound that an audience hears at first but, as the play progresses, accepts without special notice as part of the whole, much as the characters themselves use the word without giving it precise meaning. The word becomes a part of the reality of the action, but at the same time it becomes subliminally choric, part of the play's tonality. The word "diff'rent" that sounds throughout Diff'rent is thematic, through repetition driving home meanings that are both idealistic and ironic, as O'Neill traces the decline of his heroine whose demand to be "diff'rent" ruins the life of her lover as well as herself. Again the repetition of the word passes beyond the conscious awareness of an audience, creating understanding through a sentient response that does not need expository explanation.

Coupled with these ways of developing his characters and themes is O'Neill's constant use of quotations that speak with some eloquence of the past life of his characters. Sometimes the quotations offer direct characterization, as the excerpts from Lamentations and Jeremiah characterize old Abraham Bentley in The Rope. At other times, they do more, providing a thematic context for the action, as do the references to the Sermon on the Mount in The Great God Brown. In Long Day's Journey into Night the quotations are appropriate to the action and to the characters, but they also suggest a family linkage and give the sense that Tyrone and his sons have come from somewhere—have a past which has made them what they are. They help O'Neill realize one of his major thematic points, that "we are what the past has made us."

In other plays, the lyric reiteration is achieved by the repetition of subverbal sounds. The chant in The Moon of the Caribbees and the foghorn in Long Day's Journey into Night are two examples. The chant should never stop, never vary; the foghorn, however soft, should be clearly heard on a scheduled timing. It is, or it should be, a sound of menace that the people locked in the room cannot escape. Nor should the audience. Productions of the tragedy are often too kind to the customers, and minimize the psychological force that the constant audible reminder of night and fog may have.

Of importance, too, are O'Neill's experiments with silence. One of his most disliked plays, Welded, is a tiresome marital drama if it is acted at what might be thought to be the normal tempo for a stage piece. Yet this is a play in which cues should not be "picked up." Repeated throughout is the stage direction "a pause." If the pauses are faithfully observed, and if the actors use them as a moment in which to evoke silently their subtexts, even exaggerating the duration of the silence, the play takes on a far from ordinary quality. Speech becomes subservient to what is unexpressed, to strong inner actions of desire and hatred. The silence must be made to matter so that voices force their way through it like a swimmer from the depths of the sea.

Similarly, the pattern of light and dark is crucial to O'Neill's theatrical presentation. A typical scene is that in the last act of Long Day's Journey into Night when, as the fog comes in and night descends, the lights are reduced gradually to a small circle over the central table. The spotlighted table forms an arena of confrontation where, in the end, father and son find one another through the interchange of their memories. Light is compressed, tightened down, so as to intensify the climactic moments of the action by isolating the men in symbolic darkness.

In the context of these practices, O'Neill's use of song can be seen as an important component of the lyric element of his drama. Like the quotations, the sounds, the silence, and the reiterated phrases, the music finds its source and justification in its relation to the drama's lyrical center, and from this center the songs spin off to form part of what O'Neill recognized as the play's musical structure.

O'Neill spoke always of being "touched" with poetry as if being a poet were a slight madness, rather than a normal condition of being. Mad or sane, the reaching out toward what O'Neill called his "essentially poetic viewpoint of life" is close to the heart of his greatness. It may well lie at the heart of all great drama. In theatre, however, it is important to hold in mind that "poetic" means more than words on a page. The blank verse of Shakespearian drama, Shaw's shining rhetoric, are miracles of their kind. In the theatre, however, they count for both more and less than they do when the texts are read: less, in that they pass in a blur, cannot be savored or analyzed, and demand an immediate and often unthinking response; more, in that they combine with the action as the play moves in real space and real time to create something larger than narrative and more intense than language alone. As the text leaves the page, a great play gains a poetic dimension that is purely of the theatre.

O'Neill's theatre differed from those of his forerunners in its central aesthetic purposes. Emerging from the doldrums of nineteenth-century theatrical practices, it was dedicated to asserting that theatre was an art, and that it offered the possibility of combining the arts in important ways as yet untried. In a manner that was unnecessary for Shakespeare or Shaw, O'Neill's theatre demanded the full use of the stage, experiment with new techniques, new forms, seemingly modern points of view. For a time at the outset of his career, O'Neill proved a leader in such devisings, as he said "breaking all the realistic rules" of theatre and adapting "archaic" modes to modern purposes. That he succeeded was because he was able to create a theatrical rhetoric using not only his strong words but his imaginative theatre craftsmanship to provide the resonance for which, in earlier writers, words were sufficient.

However different his means, O'Neill, like Shaw and Shakespeare, was a true poet of the theatre. The songs, like the sound effects, the quotations, the silences, the chiaroscuro help to create the same reverberation as do the words of Shaw and Shakespeare—the extra dimension that produces the poetry of theatre and of which language in the last analysis is only a part. O'Neill, like his great forerunners, must be listened to as if what he has written were a kind of music, or, less metaphorically, as a special theatrical language wherein song plays a vital part.

(1) Lawrence Langner, The Magic Curtain (London: George G. Harrup Co., Ltd., 1952), p. 405.

(2) Quoted in Virginia Floyd, Eugene O'Neill at Work (New York: Frederick Unger Publishing Co., 1981), pp. 228-29. Other playwrights have followed O'Neill in experimenting with plays having a musical structure. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams builds his play around the repetition of themes with notable effect as in the corones para los muertos section. An earlier experiment with the use of musical form in dramatic guise is John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men which can be analyzed in terms of sonata form, with the two main themes, the theme of loneliness and the theme of the dream of a home, set out simply in the opening, developed through the main body of the action with each character expressing the thematic material in what may be called different instrumental developments, and coming at the play's end to a clean and simple restatement of the themes, ending with George's shot that kills Lennie.

(3) This is José Quintero's estimate of the running time in the 1987 production.

(4) O'Neill is repeatedly damned for his prose by critics who ignore the fact that he is writing drama. In his autobiography, Marcel Pagnol states truly that "the language of the stage cannot be a model of literary style, for it is not the language of the writer, but of a stage character" (My Father's Glory and My Mother's Castle (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1986), p. 9). The most detailed analysis of O'Neill's dramatic language is by Jean Chothia, Forging a Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

(5) Particular favorites are the word "cometh," the titles "Ah, Wilderness!" and "Long Day's Journey." See as a particularly offensive example, Bernie Heller, Long Day's Journey into Lust (New York: Cameo Communications, Inc., 1979).

(6) I have heard an actress read Mary Tyrone's last line, "We were so happy for a time" as "We were so happy for a while." The difference in wording was instructive.

(7) In considering the relation of the lyric quality of the monologue to dramatic action, it is well to remember Arthur Miller's comment on the use of monologue by O'Neill and certain of his successors: "'The time was far, far off when a character could be permitted to sit in one place indulging in pages of monologue while surrounding actors stood absolutely still and mute awaiting the end of his aria. (When O'Neill so indulged his storytelling never stopped, and if it did he failed.)" (Arthur Miller, Timebends (New York: Grove Press, 1987), p. 244).


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