Pessimism and Tragedy
IT IS a commonplace in O'Neill criticism to call him a pessimist, and by some strange process of reasoning to imply that pessimism is to be condemned in art as well as in life. The following statement from Carl Van Doren's American and British Literature Since 1890 is a restrained expression of a point of view that has been repeated almost endlessly:
O'Neill's view of life, it now seems clear, is of something which unaccountably frustrates the individual spirit. The fault may lie in life itself, or it may lie in the insufficiency of given individuals; O'Neill as a playwright does not decide which but proceeds to create dumb, tortured persons who come in the end to worse than naught. (p. 106 .)
While Mr. Van Doren is careful not to pass an ethical judgment, others have implied that since O'Neill is a pessimist, he is therefore false to the truth of life.
Before his position as a pessimist is analyzed, it may be well to distinguish between two types of pessimism that have flourished in the literature of the last half century. The one type sees the universe as fundamentally unfavorable to man, and at times even ruled by a conscious power bent on evil. This type of pessimism stems from Schopenhauer, Von Hartmann and the early nineteenth-century pessimists. In so far as the followers of this school, such as Andreyev and Hardy, actually imply a conscious force of evil, they are still children of the anthropomorphic world against which they so passionately rebelled. They came to look upon the old faiths as false dreams, false beliefs to be abandoned by intelligent men, but in their art they still were unable to view man in the light of an animal in a world of physical forces, but they must continue to treat him against the background of a purposeful universe. Theirs is a queer combination of medieval and modern. In the Life of Man Andreyev is concerned with man and eternity, writing:
Coming from the night he will return to the night. Bereft of thought, bereft of feeling, unknown to all, he will perish utterly, vanishing without trace into infinity.
This may be true, but from a realistic point of view, all that can be said is, "What of it?" As Matthew Arnold put it,
Long fed on boundless
hopes, O race of man,
And angrily does Andreyev spurn the simpler fare. The whole of his position as a pessimist may be summarized in the following quotation from the Life of Man.
Look and listen, ye who have come hither for mirth and laughter. Lo, there will pass before you all the life of Man, with its dark beginning and its dark end. Hitherto non-existent, mysteriously hidden in infinite time, without thought or feeling, utterly unknown, he will mysteriously break through the barriers of nonexistence and with a cry will announce the beginning of his brief life. In the night of nonexistence will blaze up a candle, lighted by an unseen hand. This is the life of Man. Behold its flame. It is the life of Man.
Irresistibly dragged on by time, he will tread inevitably all the steps of human life, upward to its climax and downward to its end. Limited in vision, he will not see the step to which his unsure foot is already raising him. Limited in knowledge, he will never know what the coming day or hour or moment is bringing to him. And in his blind ignorance, worn by apprehension, harassed by hopes and fears, he will complete submissively the iron round of destiny.
The pessimism of Andreyev is typical of modern literature, but not of O'Neill. O'Neill is not concerned about man's ultimate destiny, he is not disturbed by the fact that man and all his works may some day drift into the darkness of space a frozen and unseen monument to the vagaries of the creative process. His pessimism is of man in this world in which he must live and justify himself if life is to have a meaning. His pessimism is born of man, not of God or the universe. It is a pessimism that has in it some gleam of hope, for it holds that man's greatest tragedies are of his own making, and thus it is a fair presumption to hope that man may unmake them. Not that O'Neill says that he will do so; he may recognize the persistence of man's hopeless hope, but even granting all that, there is still a vast difference between the position of O'Neill and that of Schopenhauer.
In discussing this phase of O'Neill's pessimism there is a remark from Galsworthy on the subject that may help to make the definition of pessimism as it applies to the subject more clear and understandable. Galsworthy writes:
As a man lives and thinks, so will he write. But it is certain, that to the making of good drama, as to the practice of every other art, there must be brought an almost passionate love of discipline, a white-heat of selfrespect, a desire to make the truest, fairest, best thing in one's power; and that to these must be added an eye that does not flinch. Such qualities alone will bring to a drama the selfless character which soaks it with inevitability.
The word 'pessimist' is frequently applied to the few dramatists who have been content to work in this way. It has been applied, among others, to Euripides, to Shakespeare, to Ibsen; it will be applied to many in the future. Nothing, however, is more dubious than the way in which these two words 'pessimist' and 'optimist' are used, for the optimist appears to be he who cannot bear the world as it is, and is forced by his nature to picture it as it ought to be, and the pessimist one who cannot only bear the world as it is, but loves it well enough to draw it faithfully. The true lover of the human race is surely he who can put up with it in all its forms, in vice as well as in virtue, in defeat no less than in victory; the true seer he who sees not only joy but sorrow, the true painter of human life one who blinks nothing. It may be that he is also, incidentally, its true benefactor. (L. Lewisohn , A Modern Book of Criticism, Mod. Lib., p. 114.)
This type of pessimism is freed from the tyranny of
absolute laws and may lead man to understand that if he is to be
happy in this life, he must reconcile himself to its inevitable
limitations. He must realize that it is his show. He is director and
actor, and if the performance is rotten he can't blame God or any
other power outside himself. Nor can he be so irrational as to ask
for better materials than life itself has offered him. And this I
take to be a measure of O'Neill's pessimism. He does not hold that
because we have lost our medieval conception of an anthropomorphic
God with a Hell beneath us and a Heaven above that life is therefore
and forever a hopeless tragedy. The deep and all-obliterating gloom
that characterizes such a poet as James Thomson has no parallel in
O'Neill. When Thomson discovered that he had been tricked into a
false faith in the days of his youth, he assumed that nothing but
despair could follow. The same is true of Hardy's reaction, when he
discovered that "What is good for God's gardener is not good for
God's birds." This fact made him sure that "Happiness is but an
occasional episode in a general drama of pain." And so it was with
most of the modern realists. They escaped from one doom only to make
themselves another even more terrible than its predecessor. To
O'Neill belongs the credit of seeing life more clearly and firmly
than did many of those who were his spiritual forefathers. He deals
with man's life here and now. Within the limits of this world he
finds his justification for life.
But as he looks about him in the world and finds that man has striven artfully and savagely to deprive himself of such transitory happiness as is actually possible to life, surely he can not be held responsible for that, and, on the basis of his interpretation of this truth, be condemned as a pessimist who has no hope for man. His critics are continually asking him to write comedy or to be something that he is not. Why not ask Leonardo da Vinci to paint like Holbein. It would be just as reasonable. Once in answer to the question would he ever write about happiness, he answered:
Sure I'll write about happiness if I can happen to meet up with that luxury, and find it sufficiently dramatic and in harmony with any deep rhythm in life. But happiness is a word. What does it mean? Exaltation, an intensified feeling of the significant worth of man's being and becoming? Well, if it means that—and not a mere smirking contentment with one's lot—I know there is more of it in one real tragedy than in all the happy-ending plays ever written. It's mere present-day judgment to think of tragedy as unhappy! The Greeks and the Elizabethans knew better. They felt the tremendous lift to it. It roused them spiritually to a deeper understanding of life. Through it they found release from the petty considerations of everyday existence. They saw their lives ennobled by it. A work of art is always happy; all else is unhappy. . . . I don't love life because it's pretty. Prettiness is only clothes-deep. I am a truer lover than that. I love it naked. There is beauty to me even in its ugliness. (Clark. op. cit. p. 146.)
And if more than this were needed, Barrett H. Clark's own statement which follows the quotation adds the needed touch. He writes:
I called O'Neill an optimist before I had read these words, and by that I meant that he was a militant apostle of Life with a capital L. He dares look upon it without passing judgment; he lays it bare to the best of his ability as an artist and poet. (Ibid. p. 146 .)
Man's "being and becoming" is the essence of O'Neill's pessimism, and this is a theme that from one point of view may be called a kind of optimism. I do not wish to confuse the issue or to make the meaning of the two words in question any more shadowy or meaningless than they already are. It serves the understanding of O'Neill better to call him a pessimist, but with a difference. He is a pessimist who loves life; one whose love goes so deep that he cannot remain supine and unmoved by its present failure blocking its potential happiness. He loves life well enough to condemn those who shun it in fear and trembling, and to urge those who can face its reality to make the most of it.
The characters of his plays bear out this interpretation of his philosophy of life. Whatever else may be said of them, they do not cringe. They are above all else courageous and defiant. It is this quality in them which gives exhilaration to the grimmest tragedy of O'Neill. They may and they do go down to defeat and death, but they never ask to be forgiven. They are game to the end. Sometimes they realize the reason for their failure, as did Ponce de Leon, but they always accept it bravely. If O'Neill has given us a true picture of the world of man, then in spite of all its disaster it is still a good world in which to live, for it is peopled with men and women in whom the undying fire of rebellion is a living flame, and as long as that is true there is still hope that something may yet happen to solve the riddle of man's inherent tragedy before the final sunset and the eternal darkness settle over the world.
It is not strange that a dramatist in America who holds an affirmative view of life as strong as this should be often misunderstood and severely criticized by those who due to their inability to cope with reality must forever live in the vague shadowy hope of some "faroff divine event" which will be given freely in answer to a pious wish. To such people O'Neill is and always will be anathema. They could not understand him if they would. He stands for a life that they are afraid to see. They can accept the same thing in the Greeks or in Shakespeare, because to them tradition is a god that sanctifies all things. But when a modern poet expresses in the terms of modern life the same grim truth that the ancients perceived, the soft ones are shocked and horrified. The extent to which they go is well illustrated by an article by H. K. Kemelman in the Bookman for September 1932. This article goes so far as to hold that O'Neill has done nothing for the modern drama except that which is bad. Style, technique, characters, dramatic interest, plot structure, and philosophy of life are all cheap, tawdry and utterly disgusting. This essay is so unbalanced that to all those who are interested in the modern drama of America it must forever remain as an example of how amusing tradition and humanism are when they are combined in an attempt at literary criticism.
The point of view of Mr. Kemelman could scarcely have any effect upon O'Neill, nor upon those who know what he has done to give a new lease of life to the modern drama in America. But there have been times when he has been sorely tried by unfair and narrow criticism of his work. So much so that once when provoked to reply to such criticism, he wrote a letter in defense of his work, or rather in explanation of what the drama meant to him. In this letter quoted by Quinn (History of the American Drama from the Civil War to the Present Day, Vol. II. p. 199) O'Neill gives an exact statement of his theory of tragedy and of what he has done to change the Greek theory to make it fit the modern world in which we live. Thus he writes:
It's not in me to pose much as a "misunderstood one," but it does seem discouragingly (that is, if one lacked a sense of ironic humor!) evident to me that most of my critics don't want to see what I'm trying to do or how I'm trying to do it, although I flatter myself that end and means are characteristic, individual and positive enough not to be mistaken for anyone's else, or for those of any "modern" or "pre-modern" school. To be called a "sordid realist" one day, a "grim pessimistic naturalist" the next, a "lying Moral Romanticist" the next, etc. is quite perplexing—not to add the Times editorial that settled Desire once and for all by calling it a "Neo-Primitive," a Matisse of the drama, as it were! So I'm really longing to explain and try and convince some sympathetic ear that I've tried to make myself a melting pot for all these methods, seeing some virtues for my ends in each of them, and thereby, if there is enough real fire in me, boil down to my own technique. But where I feel myself most neglected is just where I set most store by myself—as a bit of a poet, who has labored with the spoken word to evolve original rhythms of beauty where beauty apparently isn't—Jones, Ape, God's Chillun, Desire, etc.—and to see the transfiguring nobility of tragedy, in as near the Greek sense as one can grasp it, in seemingly the 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 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. And my profound conviction is that this is the only subject worth writing about and that it is possible—or can be—to develop a tragic expression in terms of transfigured modern values and symbols in the theatre which may to some degree bring home to members of a modern audience their ennobling identity with the tragic figures on the stage. Of course, this is very much of a dream, but where the theatre is concerned, one must have a dream and the Greek dream in tragedy is the noblest ever!
In this direct revelation of his conception of tragedy and his statement of what he has tried to do, O'Neill has given his readers an opportunity to understand his purpose, and if they desire it to test his intentions in relation to his practice. In the first place it must be conceded that if O'Neill spoke his true meaning, and there is not the slightest reason to suspect that he did not, then his intentions in modern drama are of the very highest and most noble that any artist could aspire to achieve. He has often given ample evidence that he does not cater to popularity. On this point he expressed himself in a letter to the Times in which he said against the charge that he had tacked a happy ending to Anna Christie:
Lastly, to those who think I deliberately distorted my last act because a "happy ending" would be calculated to make the play more of a popular success I have only this to say: the sad truth is that you have precedents enough and to spare in the history of our drama for such a suspicion. But, on the other hand, you have every reason not to believe it of me. (Quinn. II. p. 177ff.)
On this point he has never failed to put popular esteem lower than the ideals of his art. On the second point, that of his attempt to combine all the techniques that are peculiarly modern and make himself a "melting pot for all these methods," he must again be praised for his effort, even if he has not wholly succeeded. At least it may be quite truly said that in The Great God Brown he has gone further in this direction and with greater success than any other living dramatist.
On the next point even the "humanists" would be compelled to praise his purpose, for he claims that tragedy in the Greek sense is his idea of what tragedy should be. With one exception, and this is important to all careful students of O'Neill, and if properly put might be admitted even by the humanists. Read again the passage on "Force, Fate, God, and our biological past." And also the line, "to make Force express him instead of being, as an animal is, an infinitesimal incident in its expression." This is the point at which he departs from the Greek conception, but at the same time remains in harmony with the Greek in spirit. Fate or God was the force that determined destiny in the Greek drama, but in the modern world those terms have lost their meaning except in a very theoretical sense, and in their place has come the modern biological and psychological interpretation of man's behavior.
The real beauty in an O'Neill tragedy demands that the spectator forget the "trailing clouds of glory" that were his primitive psychological heritage, and look at life as a thing good in itself—good in that it has within itself the potentialities of happiness. Thus on this issue as so many others that grow out of the study of O'Neill it is necessary to keep in mind that O'Neill has as marked a philosophical heritage as k is to remember that he has a heritage from the stage. O'Neill's tragedies are related to the philosophy of Nietzsche in this one respect that they are an affirmation of life; they deal with life for the sake of living and not for the sake of eternity. His tragedies are based on the assumption, warranted by modern science, that the forces of nature can be "employed in the service of the higher egoism," this from Nietzsche. O'Neill follows Nietzsche's idea of the theoretical man. This is an idea which embodies the belief that "It can correct the world by knowledge, guide life by science, and actually confine the individual within a limited sphere of solvable problems, from which he can cheerfully say to life: 'I desire thee: it is worth while to know thee'." (The Birth of Tragedy. p. 287.)
The tragedy of Robert in Beyond the Horizon is that he lived for the "beyond," based all of his actions on that concept and lost the real life which he might have lived here. His pitiful belief that "Only through contact with suffering, Andy, will you awaken" is the tragedy that could have been avoided had he faced the reality of the life about him and said yea to it with the gusto of one who believed that it was good in itself. Instead he accepts his defeat and clings to a shadowy hope that "Only through sacrifice—the secret Beyond there—" will set the crooked straight. Robert's answer to life is similar to that of Miss Gilpin's to Murray in The Straw.
MURRAY. Oh, why did you give me a hopeless hope?
MISS GILPIN. Isn't all life just that—when you think of it ?
There is the fire of an indomitable will to life in the world of O'Neill. To grasp its full significance one must be ready to look upon life as an adventure in a grim world, or the result will be failure to comprehend his meaning. The person whose scope of criticism is limited by his ability to add up the number of times O'Neill writes "damn," or the number of murders committed in the sum total of his works, or the number of neurotic characters he introduces, may arrive at certain facts interesting in themselves, but surely a trifle strange as a measure of the artist's worth. Arithmetic must forever remain a distant cousin of the true critic.
T. K. Whipple gives us a fine account of the com+00AD plexity of O'Neill's world, but in overlooking the essence of O'Neill's philosophical relation to Nietzsche, he sees this world of O'Neill's creation as "thoroughly hostile to human life." I quote the passage in full since it represents a point of view just the opposite of what to me seems the truth.
To read O'Neill, then, or to witness his plays is to live temporarily in an intense but a simplified and impoverished world, a world narrow in range and meager in substance. Scanty to begin with, this world has been further stripped and denuded by its creator's preoccupation with primal forces only. And not only is it so to speak an emaciated skeleton world, but also one which by subordinating man and making him the helpless victim of larger forces, and by depicting him as always undergoing a spiritual defeat, is thoroughly hostile to human life. In fact, in spite of the violent forms in which life manifests itself, the ruling principle of his world is death, not life. It crushes and kills.
Existence is a process of dehumanization. To read O'Neill may be a salutary and bracing experience, for he is a corrective, a bitter herb, a perpetual northeast wind, and he brings us squarely face to face with one aspect of life which, though we may think it partial, we recognize as true; but we soon begin to long for a more nourishing imaginative diet—we cannot live long at a time in a world so fatal to life as his. Such are the qualities of the experience he offers us, of the world he has imagined. (T. K. Whipple The Spokesman p. 240.)
If one neglects the real spirit of O'Neill's tragedies then this judgment of his world might be true, but O'Neill has a great deal more to say than T. K. Whipple has been able to concede. This may be clear when one realizes that Whipple does not understand O'Neill as a thinker at all. He says,
I hesitate to call O'Neill a thinker, for in his plays there is little sign of logical processes; but by means of intuition guided by his feeling he has arrived at understanding. If he has reasoned little about life, he has contemplated it long and hard. (Ibid. p. 242 .)
This seems to me unfair and not adequate as an indication of what O'Neill has tried to do. The statement of his theory of tragedy is evidence that he knew where he was going and what he wanted to do, and the influence of Nietzsche points in the direction of a definite philosophical system the logic of which may be as tenuous as that of Nietzsche, but none the less exacting.
In order to understand and appreciate the life force of O'Neill's world it must be remembered that he does not think that death means the negation of living, or that the fear of death should destroy the value of life. He says yea to death with the same enthusiasm that he greets life. He does not bow before any aspect of life in humility, for life to him is its own reason for being, and not the servant of supernatural forces.
The men and women that move in the world of O'Neill are boldly defiant. They realize defeat, but scorn it—even cursing it. This world of O'Neill is a world of bitter struggle and tragic lives, but to those who accept its reality it is a world rich in experience, adventure and daring, where men and women demand that life give them some positive value. In spite of destruction which stalks on every highway in the world of O'Neill, as it does also in the world of the Greek tragedy, it is still a good world to live in, because it is a world where brave, charming, complex and interesting men and women are present at every turn. They are in a sense sick, that is, they are not fat, happy, contented and resigned to a gospel of prosperity and good business opportunities. By being sick I mean that they are civilized. They have awakened to the realization of what it means to be human. They are aware that to be human means to desire from life more than food, clothing and shelter. They yearn for happiness as the ultimate good, and when their struggle nears the end they are more defiant than submissive. Living in the world of O'Neill is not an easy task, but it is interesting. It is a world that demands courage, that is intense with experience, and that above all is not supine. It is a world in which we are not allowed to "delude ourselves with some tawdry substitute." To O'Neill "Life doesn't end. One experience is but the birth of another."
Think over the heroes of his plays from the one-acts to the very latest, and defiant courage is the keynote of them all. Yank was game to the end and even when death was upon him he faced it with the knowledge that "I know whatever it is that comes after it can't be no worser'n this." And Smitty's "damned from here to eternity," reflects a spirit that is good to live with. The same may be said of most of them, as it might be said of all those who are "damned from here to eternity." They may not be comfortable, but they are something that is better; they are interesting. There is a dynamic creative force that gives depth to the world of O'Neill. No pale meaningless shadows in this world of his. If it is at all permissible to compare O'Neill to Shakespeare it is on this ground that he comes nearer to him than on any other. The splendid, grim and at times terrible defiance of the whole structure of the world which is a part of the great characters of Shakespeare is also a part of the characters of O'Neill's plays. Old Captain Bartlett sacrifices everything in order to maintain that wild, unbelievable dream of his. It leads to disaster; but what of that? The spirit of his defiance makes him mean something, just as Lear's idiotic rejection of Cordelia gives meaning and depth to his life. Far be it from me to say that King Lear is not more complex than Captain Bartlett, but those who are so timid and fearful and shudder at the insanity, murder and horror in O'Neill's plays are also the ones who accept the same unbalanced life in Shakespeare and the Greeks. They never turn a hair at the multiplicity of murders in Macbeth. They even bow to the eye-gouging in Lear, but they shudder at the more plausible crimes in the works of O'Neill.
Art is an affirmation of the greatness of the human spirit, its courage, its defiance, its rebellion against the reality of its unfulfilled desire. That is the essence of Milton's Satan, and in so far as O'Neill is an artist in the conception of plot and the creation of character the same spirit is in him. The Emperor Jones is just such a character. He is pursued by the most harassing experiences that man is capable of meeting in this world, and while he is not without fear of the ghastly shadows that pursue him, always when they have pushed him far enough he defies them, and in that defiance lies his greatness and also his meaning for the audience.
The same is true of Yank—(The Hairy Ape). Every device of modern torture is used against him, and always he defies the forces that would crush him. His final end is no exception, for although he is killed, he never asked forgiveness from life. He was a crude, ignorant searcher for some meaning to the social structure, a meaning which he did not find, but to his glory it must be said that although he failed in the search, he did not fail as a searcher. Something of the glory of Ponce de Leon is shown in the spirit of this "Hairy Ape."
Old Ephraim Cabot is another of that strange nobility which lives in the world of O'Neill. Although beaten and thwarted at every turn, still he did not give up. His spirit is well expressed when he says to Abbie: "Ye'd ought t' loved me. I'm a man. If ye'd loved me, I'd never told no Sheriff on ye no matter what ye did, if they was t' brile me alive!"Ephraim Cabot is over seventy-five years old, but you know that he means what he says. There is real spirit here. It is the spirit of the lawless, the boldly defiant, and it doesn't fit the obedient ones who are the "good" citizens, but in the world of art there is not much to be said for the petty laws that must forever govern those who have not the strength to live alone.
Nina in Strange Interlude battles with the adversities of circumstance to a victory that only heroic courage and great fortitude could achieve. She seeks a higher justice than that of the law, and in spite of failures by the way her courage gives her a reality that is artistically victorious. To those who would like life to be comfortable and above all things nice and sweet, Nina must seem a strange and even dangerous woman, but to those who look upon life as an adventure in which only those who have the courage to give it meaning are the heroes, Nina may be safely admired. The motives which actuate her are as convincing as those that actuated Hamlet's mother.
When the tragic issue confronted Anna, she did not whimper. She made both her father and Mat accept her as she was. With all of her sad past before us she is still a creation of beauty, because she is willing to fight on in spite of obstacles that would have daunted a less courageous soul.
From these characters to Lavinia is an easy transition, for they are all of one family in that they are all rebels against the world in which they live. They are all nervous, high-strung, impetuous, and they are also determined that life shall give them more than it is willing to give. In this sense they are idealists, for they are not reconciled to the inevitable limitations of their world. In the end they discover their limitations, and accept their doom, but not quietly or without protest. Like Lavinia they may retire behind the closed doors and barred windows, but they will not do it humbly. They protest even after they have realized the futility of the struggle. This may or may not be the way of wisdom, and surely it is not the way of peace and resignation. There is no promise of a sunrise after the shadows and storms of night have passed in the world of O'Neill. He does not open a haven to the weary and heavyladen, but for those to whom there is charm and beauty in the turbulence of life itself, this world of O'Neill is interesting and is intense. There is in it the Nietzschean will to power—the glorification of life.
This emphasis upon the heroic will to live, which is so apparent in O'Neill must not be emphasized to the exclusion of that genuine bitterness and heartrending despair which is the essence of all tragedy. It is in O'Neill at every turn. Nothing is more typical of this aspect of his tragedy than the manner in which the audience is led to believe in a "hopeless hope." Jayson in The First Man has at last achieved the success and recognition which he desired for himself, but most of all for his wife, when he discovers that his wife is pregnant and all of his plans are lost. The audience is led to hope for a solution, which, if they were cool and rational, they would know to be impossible. The truth is revealed to Jayson, and his life is ruined, a ruin that is heightened effectively, if not convincingly, by the accidental death of his wife.
In Desire Under the Elms young Cabot is almost on the verge of settling the tangled web of love and passion, but even as he approaches the way out, the tragedy falls swift and sharp, and all is lost.
The most striking example of this aspect of the O'Neill tragedy is that of General Mannon's return from war. It is about nine o'clock in the evening. "The light of a half moon falls on the house, giving it an unreal, detached, eerie quality." The past of the war, and the more horrible past of his unsuccessful life with Christine passes in review before the General's eyes. He has finally admitted to himself the mockery of his suppressions, evasions and puritanical illusions, and a new fire of joy and hope has sprung into being. He has arrived at the point where life for its own sake has achieved a meaning. All this he pours out to Christine in the impulsive joy and hope that has come with the slaying of the ghosts of his past. In his new philosophy there is a greater courage than was ever needed for the battlefields of war.
As all this passes before the spectator, his heart is wrung with pity and terror, for he knows that on this very night Christine is planning to murder him. It will not be amiss at this point to quote part of the General's speech:
I came home to surrender to you—what's inside me, I love you. I loved you then, and all the years between, and I love you now. . . . I want that said! Maybe you have forgotten it. I wouldn't blame you. I guess I haven't said it or showed it much—ever. Something queer in me keeps me mum about the things I'd like most to say-keeps me hiding the things I'd like to show. Something keeps me sitting numb in my own heart—like a statue of a dead man in a town square. (Suddenly he reaches over and takes her hand.) I want to find what that wall is marriage put between us! You've got to help me smash it down! We have twenty good years still before us! I've been thinking of what we could do to get back to each other. I've a notion if we'd leave the children and go off on a voyage together—to the other side of the world-find some island where we could be alone a while. You'll find I have changed, Christine. I'm sick of death! I want life! Maybe you could love me now! I've got to make you love me!
Here is the cup of bitterness filled to the brim! Not only for the General but also for Christine. He talks of a new life, of his need for her help, of his hatred of death, and with every beat of the heart the shadow of his doom grows darker and heavier. There is a rapid shift of scene to his bedroom, and death comes to meet him as he stretches out his arms to embrace a new life. The General's end is not unlike that of Yank in The Hairy Ape. They both find that they belong only in death.
Of The Hairy Ape, O'Neill has written the following, which bears directly on the point under consideration:
Yank can't go forward, and so he tries to go back. This is what his shaking hands with the gorilla meant. But he can't go back to "belonging" either. The gorilla kills him. The subject here is the same ancient one that always was and always will be the one subject for drama, and that is man and his struggle with his own fate. The struggle used to be with the gods, but is now with himself, his own past, his attempt "to belong." (Clark p. 127.)
While this was said of The Hairy Ape it might just as truly have been said of Mourning Becomes Electra, or of any O'Neill tragedy, for that matter. Fate as a power in the life of man is now ancient history; in its place stand the forces of man's "own past," or heredity and environment. It is these forces that O'Neill uses, and there is no reason why they may not be just as real to the imagination of the modern man as were the Fates to the imagination of the Greeks.
And this harmonizes with Clark's statement concerning The Great God Brown that "it is a dramatic paean to man's struggle to identify himself with nature."
In this struggle which partakes of eternal qualities, it is not strange that O'Neill should see bitterness and irony as important factors. They give color and aesthetic satisfaction to the spectacle that he presents. Brown in Dion's mask summarizes for himself and his audience the ironic meaning of life:
Life is imperfect, Brothers! Men have their faults, Sister! But with a few drops of glue much may be done! A little dab of pasty resignation here and there—and even broken hearts may be repaired to do yeoman service! . . . Man is born broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue!
Heroes on their way to dusty death is the ironic touch that O'Neill gives to his characters. This is no soft-hearted tragedy which ends by advising us that all is for the best. It has something of the satirical strength of Voltaire. It combines the futility of life with its paradox, that there is meaning from moment to moment and that we should get the best of experience since we are doomed to that by being here. But in the end Dion had it right. When speaking of the cathedral he designed for Brown he uttered these words:
This cathedral is my masterpiece! . . . It's one vivid blasphemy
from sidewalk to the tips of its spires!—but so concealed that the
fools will never know. They'll kneel and worship the ironic Silenus
who tells them the best good is never to be born.
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