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The Director’s Perspective


“It is the task of the artist as explorer to look into the abyss and to prevent the facile acceptance of simplified visions.”

Gary Shapiro, “In the Shadows of Philosophy:
Nietzsche and the Question of Vision”

In praise of Eugene O’Neill’s Nobel Prize Award in 1936, critic Brooks Atkinson proclaimed him as “a tragic dramatist with a great knack for old-fashioned melodrama.” This evaluation hints at a productive way to analyze O’Neill’s drama by suggesting a mix of melodramatic and tragic elements within individual plays. Fluid classifications help to promote dynamic interpretations. The relationship between melodrama and tragedy, the struggle to transcend the former category and to achieve the latter, enacts a drama rife with tension. Throughout his career, O’Neill (1888–1953) tried to find techniques to rival melodramatic theatricality but also to reflect the complexity of life in tragic form. Thirty years of playwriting (1913–1943) produced staggering variations in length, form, genre, style, technical innovation and quality. Early one acts gave way to some of the longest plays in the American canon, and in the end, tragic dramas among the finest in any language or country. Imported European expressionism transformed into some of the most powerful realistic portrayals of American life. In travel romances, histories, a domestic comedy, and tragedies modeled upon Greek drama, subjects varied from figures at sea, about whom O’Neill wrote from personal experience, to historical figures such as Ponce de Leon, Marco Polo, and the Biblical Lazarus. While Strange Interlude (1927) projected into the future, his final plays explored events from the past. A planned but never completed cycle of eleven plays, stretching from prior to the birth of the nation to the time of composition in the 1930s, remains today his most ambitious historical project. O’Neill joked to The New York Times that after seeing this event, audiences would “never want to see another play.” Still, he wrote his two best plays, The Iceman Cometh (1940) and Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1941), during a respite from the unfinished cycle ordeal.

The multifaceted surfaces of his plays, in addition to their supposed depth of subject matter, reveal elements which provide both visual payoff and a framework for resonant emotional experience. To determine how the plays function, not what they mean, is the primary purpose of this study. In essence, then, I adopt the critical perspective of the stage director, who sees the play as a visible mechanism and stages the struggle of form to reveal itself. Erasing hierarchical notions of surface and depth in which the superficial layer masks hidden meaning exalts a primitive simplicity without sophistication, a formalism which heeds Nietzsche’s retrospective surmise of culture and civilization in The Gay Science: “Oh, those Greeks! They knew how to live. What is required for that is to stop courageously at the surface, the fold, the skin, to adore appearance, to believe in forms, tones, words, in the whole Olympus of appearance. Those Greeks were superficial—out of profundity” (Portable Nietzsche 683). My proposed readings of specific plays result from an engagement with their dramatic means of production. Analysis of dialogue, character, scene, action and genre reveals the drama in the act of creation. Texts stage a battle between novelistic innovations and dramatic compromises; between masks that both reveal and conceal character; between an oscillation of the seen and unseen on stage; between repetition of the past staged in the present; between tragic hopes and melodramatic realizations.

How to see clearly the struggle within the work requires a methodology that, first of all, advances structure over subject matter. O’Neill’s literary pruning colludes with autobiography to obscure full-scale view of his remarkable accomplishments. As his career grew in stature, O’Neill concerned himself much more with his reputation and legacy. He did not begin with such vigilance as a fledgling playwright. His start shows a cavalier attitude epitomized by his friend Terry Carlin’s legendary response to the query from the Provincetown Players: “Mr. O’Neill’s got a whole trunk full of plays” (Glaspell 195). O’Neill evidently later wanted to hide much in that trunk from the light of day. He destroyed many manuscripts of unfinished plays and tried to suppress publication of plays he didn’t like or didn’t feel represented his best work. Even “Anna Christie,1 his second Pulitzer Prize winner, became in his own mind a play he detested, and he later refused to publish it in an edition of his selected works. O’Neill published fewer and fewer plays as he matured, but he wrote longer and longer works and with greater discipline than in his early career. Preparing Strange Interlude in 1927, he confided to Kenneth Macgowan that his work had become much deeper and that he had to make sure that there was more in it than in earlier efforts (SL 209). During the thirties, O’Neill sheltered himself with his elaborate cycle plays on American history. That project ballooned from as few as three plays to as many as eleven, yet O’Neill completed only one, A Touch of the Poet (1939). More Stately Mansions, the following play in the cycle, survived in draft form only because O’Neill inadvertently placed it among his completed works instead of destroying it along with drafts of other unfinished works. The loss of these manuscripts fosters an illusion of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, his most autobiographical play, as the summation of his career. O’Neill did not intend for that play to be published until twenty-five years after his death and he stipulated that it should never be produced. When Carlotta Monterey, his literary executor and widow, violated this wish and allowed Yale University Press to publish the manuscript and the Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden to produce the play only three years after O’Neill’s death, the illusion transformed into a powerful myth and legend.

Similarly, a series of dramatic self-portraits throughout O’Neill’s works also leads inevitably to Long Day’s Journey Into Night and the autobiographical figure of Edmund Tyrone. Stage directions in early plays such as Bread and Butter (1914), Servitude (1914), Beyond the Horizon (1918), and The Straw (1919) physically describe male protagonists very much like the author. The description of novelist David Royleston in Servitude represents features found in all of O’Neill’s fictional artists: “a tall, slender, dark-haired man of thirty-five with large handsome features, a strong, ironical mouth half-hidden by a black mustache, and keenly-intelligent dark eyes” (CP1 237). Judging from photographs of O’Neill as a young man, he created these characters by looking at himself in a mirror. Obviously, Edmund Tyrone is Eugene O’Neill. When I teach O’Neill in class, I begin with Long Day’s Journey Into Night in order to impart expeditiously (and dramatically) important biographical information about the playwright. This entertaining and economical strategy sets up convenient readings, too, for all the preceding plays. All God’s Chillun Got Wings (1923), a play about a black man named Jim who marries a white woman named Ella, becomes a play about O’Neill’s parents’ (James and Ella) unfortunate marriage of opposite sensibilities. Desire Under the Elms (1924), a play which O’Neill said that he had dreamed one night, becomes a play mourning the recent death of his mother. Strange Interlude dramatizes the guilt surrounding O’Neill’s crumbling marriage and the slick motto “Be happy” provides license for O’Neill to abandon his second wife, Agnes Boulton, and their children and to escape to Europe with Carlotta Monterey. Ah, Wilderness! (1933) is a fantasy for the family the author wished that he had had, and Long Day’s Journey Into Night shows the authentic picture of family life. Quite simply, this practice blurs the distinction between life and  art. Seeing the plays through the author’s life blinds the critical eye to the technical merits of the writing and legitimates personal experience as artistic truth.

O’Neill, who did lead a fascinating life, emerges in his self-portraits as a tortured artist. His dedication of Long Day’s Journey Into Night to his third wife, Carlotta, offers evidence that this play finally expiated his demons: “Dearest: I give you the original script of this play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood. A sadly inappropriate gift, it would seem, for a day celebrating happiness (their 12th wedding anniversary). But you will understand. I mean it as a tribute to your love and tenderness which gave me the faith in love that enabled me to face my dead at last and write this play—write it with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness for all the four haunted Tyrones” (CP3 714). What further proof of this great play as emotional and artistic breakthrough could one desire beyond a statement from the author? The Gelb biography paints an incredibly romantic portrait of the suffering artist who finally frees himself by confronting his past: “He worked every morning, many afternoons, and sometimes evenings as well. Often he wept as he wrote. He slept badly, and occasionally in the night he rose from the converted Chinese opium couch that served as his bed to go to his wife’s room and talk of the play and of his anguish” (6). The effect of all this is to see O’Neill’s entire career leading naturally up to this particular effort. The inescapable conclusion, then, is to spin a rich narrative that culminates in the Great American Play.

More importantly, the focus upon the subject matter (autobiography) deflects attention away from the necessary artistic skill to write the play. Granted, O’Neill is an autobiographical writer, perhaps more than any other. But the force of seeing the plays through the prism of his life focuses interpretation in one direction at the expense of other possibilities. You can’t see the paint and the picture at the same time. O’Neill’s paint includes dramatic form, use of language, the creation of roles for actors, and manipulations of scenic space and time. Collectively, these elements make up the dramatic illusion. Studied independently, they highlight the distinguishing characteristics and artistic techniques of O’Neill’s dramaturgy. The portrait that emerges is of an accomplished playwright, who also happens to have been a compelling and complicated man.

Emphasis upon dramatic technique maintains a focus upon the surface of the text as opposed to the depth of the representation within the text. The struggle of characters within the plays reflects the analogous struggles of the writer to compose the drama. In Beyond the Horizon, for example, Robert Mayo longs to escape from his farm and to see what’s on the other side of the hills. That desire set against the stultifying atmosphere and frustration of daily toil creates tension in the play. Edmund Tyrone, in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, speaks of fleeting moments of seeing the meaning of life before an unseen hand drops a veil. While critics have identified transcendent desire in these characters and others, this same struggle is evident in the writing of the plays, too. At the outset of his playwriting career, immediately after the early success of Beyond the Horizon, which won him his first Pulitzer Prize at the age of 32, O’Neill wrote a letter to critic George Jean Nathan thanking him for his kind words of support. O’Neill explicitly refused to think of himself as more than a “beginner, with prospects.” He went on to elaborate his artistic credo: “And in this faith I live: That if I have the ‘guts’ to ignore the megaphone men and what goes with them, to follow the dream and live for that alone, then my real significant bit of truth, and the ability to express it, will be conquered in time—not tomorrow nor the next day nor any near, easily-attained period, but after the struggle has been long enough and hard enough to merit victory” (SL 130). The concept of struggle confirming human value, borrowed from Nietzsche, applies to O’Neill’s estimate of himself as playwright as well as to his characters. His unique tragic vision sees the two as one, as his own words make clear: “The only success is in failure. Any man who has a big enough dream must be a failure and must accept this as one of the conditions of being alive. If he ever thinks for a moment that he is a success, then he is finished” (Gelb 337).

Recognized as the only American playwright to win the Nobel, O’Neill persevered to write his best plays after receiving the award. How many writers produce their finest work at the very end of long careers? Which ones have written their best efforts after winning the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award? Still, Long Day’s Journey Into Night should not be interpreted as the grail at the end of years of struggle. O’Neill continued to write, continued to plan future dramas, long after this play. Virginia Floyd has discovered in O’Neill’s private notebooks that he had plans for much more work including The Last Conquest, Blind Alley Guy, The Visit of Malatesta, and a series of eight one-acts under the title, By Way of Obit.5 Based upon fragments of text, Floyd makes an extraordinary claim: “Long Day’s Journey Into Night has rightfully been hailed America’s finest tragedy; The Visit of Malatesta would have been its richest comedy—conceived as it was in the same last period of great creative maturity” (Eugene O’Neill at Work 301). While knowledge of plans and manuscripts of succeeding plays disrupts the notion of the autobiographical family plays as final statement, no evidence suggests that these plays would be superior to the earlier ones. It does imply, however, that O’Neill remained faithful to his dramatic quest throughout his career. Ultimately, failing health curtailed his career. He completed no plays during the last ten years of his life. A debilitating tremor prevented him from even holding a pencil and he was unable to write using any other means. Nevertheless, he aspired to continue. A typical literary curve of development, based upon a biological model, suggests a pattern of early promise, maturity, repetition and decline. Jaques puts it more bluntly in As You Like It:

And so from hour to hour, we ripe, and ripe,
And then from hour to hour, we rot, and rot,
And thereby hangs a tale (2.7.26–28).

The story of O’Neill describes a Faustian playwright whose boundless aspiration and tragic vision sustain a remarkable career in which poetic titles and sometimes prosaic contents clash to do that which cannot be done. The plays themselves offer the most compelling argument for a tragic theory of drama. On the one hand, titles evoke vivid imagery: Bound East for Cardiff, The Moon of the Caribbees, Beyond the Horizon, Desire Under the Elms, Strange Interlude, Mourning Becomes Electra, A Touch of the Poet, More Stately Mansions, The Iceman Cometh, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, A Moon for the Misbegotten. On the other hand, critics routinely carp on the failure of O’Neill’s language to rise to the dramatic occasion and resonate poetically. An aesthetics of failure emerges as the governing principle of struggle between visionary desire and artistic limitation. In the minds of many O’Neill’s greatness does not rest in his having achieved the goal of writing a great play, but in his aspirations to reach that goal. Jean Chothia observes: “It is the promise latent in the plays that is valued rather than the plays themselves, the aspiration and enterprise of the writer rather than the writings” (93). O’Neill longed to be a poet; he was not a good one. In Long Day’s Journey Into Night, after Edmund’s disclosure about the mystery of life, Tyrone tells him that he has the makings of a poet, to which his son responds: “The makings of a poet. No, I’m afraid I’m like the guy who is always panhandling for a smoke. He hasn’t even got the makings. He’s got only the habit. I couldn’t touch what I tried to tell you just now. I just stammered. That’s the best I’ll ever do. I mean, if I live. Well, it will be faithful realism, at least. Stammering is the native eloquence of us fog people” (CP3 812–813).

Harold Clurman concluded his review of the American premiere of Long Day’s Journey Into Night with this summation: “O’Neill’s work is more than realism. And if it is stammering—it is still the most eloquent and significant stammer of the American theatre. We have not yet developed a cultivated speech that is either superior to it or as good” (Cargill 216). The following pages attempt to show what “more than realism” means and what it looks like. A stammer captures the best image of O’Neill’s drama: a struggle to get the words out, constantly repeating itself, always striving for something more and settling for something less than desired.

The site of this struggle resides in the relationship between the literary act of writing the play and the theatrical spectacle of staging it for public performance. Tension exists between the act of writing/reading and the act of seeing/listening. That a drama is written to be performed speaks to its radical of presentation defined by Northrop Frye: “Words may be acted in front of a spectator; they may be spoken in front of a listener; they may be sung or chanted; or they may be written for a reader. … For all the loving care that is rightfully expended on the printed texts of Shakespeare’s plays, they are still radically acting scripts, and belong to the genre of drama” (247). A performance may take place in the theatre of the mind as well as on stage, but the reference is always to a theatrical space rather than the mundane world. O’Neill writes for a proscenium space with an acute awareness of all visual elements, including spatial relationships of the actors on stage. It is irrelevant to distinguish between an imaginary and a physical theatre; drama depends upon, in Timo Tiusanen’s words, the “presence of the idea of the stage” (4). In order to read a play, one must consider the fluid images of actors moving in time within a theatrical space. Theatrical demands to make elements of performance visually appealing diminish the sole authority of the playwright.

A director mediates the relationship between drama and theatre. The writer is to the play what the director is to the production, an “artist of occasions” to borrow vocabulary from Robert Edmond Jones, in the literal sense of the phrase. A director stages a material/visual event in space and time, a physical production which models literary interpretation. In terms of production choices, the director ponders historical and cultural forces at work during the time of composition and those which inform the represented period of the play, as well as the prevailing conditions of the day. This triadic matrix includes particular staging practices that forged the drama into being. At the same time, subsequent performances reveal different working conditions, values, staging conventions, and points of view. Shifting and changing values bring classical texts into and out of favorable performance conditions. Technological advances bring about new practices that shed new light and new possibilities for staging old plays. Computerized lighting systems and hydraulic turntables, to name only two obvious and omnipresent examples from the current professional theatre, provide efficient means to solve scenic problems. Production strategies mapped by directors impact meaning and interpretation and lead to, in the end, a version of the play. Different directors, different actors, different designers, produce different results. The relative permeability of the dramatic text to various interpretations determines viability in the theatre repertory. New interpretations keep old plays alive.

Son of one of the most famous actors of the nineteenth century, O’Neill rebelled against his father’s old-fashioned school of performance and exhibited a vehement prejudice against actors and the theatre throughout his life. He valued the published drama much more than live performance of his plays on Broadway. Ironically, theatrical production salvaged O’Neill’s sagging reputation. Posthumous productions of Long Day’s Journey Into Night in Sweden, New York and all over the world secured O’Neill’s international and domestic elite standing among dramatists. In the United States, the Off-Broadway revival of The Iceman Cometh in 1956 by the Circle in the Square Theatre, located only a couple of blocks from the old Provincetown Playhouse, flashed new light on O’Neill and established José Quintero as the foremost interpreter of O’Neill’s plays. Thereafter Quintero gained rights to Long Day’s Journey Into Night from Mrs. O’Neill and directed the American premiere of that play on Broadway. A Moon for the Misbegotten followed these successes and finally appeared on Broadway in May 1957. Harold Clurman directed A Touch of the Poet in October 1958. Several years after O’Neill’s death, three of his major plays ran simultaneously in New York and a fourth lagged not far behind. These last plays, along with Hughie and the lone comedy, Ah, Wilderness! form the core of the O’Neill repertory that sustains his legacy today.

While the ability of a play to hold multiple interpretations tests its enduring quality, the task of the director is simply to pursue one choice among many possibilities. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the director to understand and comprehend fully the ramifications of particular decisions. Directorial vision at its best, then, always partial and provisional, is analogous to Nietzsche’s perspectivism. In On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche warns fellow philosophers that there is no pure objectivity in which the viewer of a particular thing sees all sides of that object simultaneously. The will of the observer must recognize the challenge of limitations: “There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective ‘knowing’; and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our ‘concept’ of this thing, our ‘objectivity,’ be” (119). In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche addresses the first task for which educators are required. It is applicable to the challenge of the stage director as well: “Learning to see—accustoming the eye to calmness, to patience, to letting things come up to it; postponing judgment, learning to go around and grasp each individual case from all sides” (Portable Nietzsche 511). Is this not analogous to the director who, after imagining a production in the mind, opens the rehearsal period up to actors and designers who know the play far less well? The director allows the cast to learn the play during rehearsal, a process of starting, stopping, revising, and trying new things. It is not performance, but it represents a possibility out of which final production emerges. The director watches rehearsal in order to monitor the progress of a future event. During rehearsal the director moves around the hall in order to see rehearsal from every angle. Later, in the theatre, the director anticipates what the audience will see from particular vantage points, reconciling conflicts of perspective in order to build a complex yet coherent interpretation. In his article about Nietzsche and vision, Gary Shapiro writes: “It is the task of the artist as explorer to look into the abyss and to prevent the facile acceptance of simplified visions” (137). “Abyss,” a favorite Nietzschean word, signifies the inability to know all things. One cannot readily peek into the abyss and see the bottom. Perspectival seeing warns the viewer not to accept what is readily apprehensible. It encourages exploration and attempts to see as others see and to compare vision from different positions. It issues caution to go slow, to see from every angle, to mull over the significance of things.

Just as each member of the audience sees a different production, each production offers only a perspective of the drama. There is no such thing as a definitive production. Such a designation would forever end the need to produce a particular play again. Each moment in the dramatic text implies immanent structure which every production must build in material terms. The process of selection determines the originality and creativity of a particular production but it by no means exhausts the possibilities of a text. Material choices establish originality and individuate the production from the drama. The task of the director is not to be right, but to be interesting, to add to an understanding of the text. To stick with a visual analogy, the text is a three dimensional object around which the director must move in order to see it and appreciate it from as many sides as possible. It is not a matter of getting more out of the text, but seeing more of it.

Each of the following chapters examines visual conflict in O’Neill’s plays from a different formal perspective. Chapter 1, Writing a Novel Drama, traces the narrative impulse in the plays that results from O’Neill’s profound antitheatrical prejudice. O’Neill routinely disparaged the theatre as the Show Shop. It is distinctly odd that America’s greatest dramatist considered actual production of his plays as an inevitable disappointment. Actors rarely portrayed roles as he conceived them. It would be a mistake, however, to chalk his attitude up to either personal idiosyncrasy or to the tawdry theatrical practices of the day. I believe that the visual spectacle of the theatre threatened to usurp the writer’s pre-eminence, and stimulated him to find new means of dramatic expression to assert authorial control. O’Neill’s attempt to master the drama results in a number of innovative techniques which borrow from the novel form. A recent lampoon in The New Yorker, “Unspoken O’Neill,” highlights the author’s penchant for literary stage directions and descriptions at the expense of dialogue. An emphasis upon monologue further affords him the luxury of narrative speech. Ultimately, he extends the monologue to the inner monologue, or thought aside, in which characters speak their “inner” thoughts in addition and in conjunction with their “external” speech. Novelizing the drama, through copious stage directions, elaborate character descriptions, theatrical tricks such as the thought asides in Strange Interlude, and lengthy monologues, resists the theatre’s explicit visual imperative in favor of storytelling. O’Neill’s plays, then, stage a revolt against the very medium which conveys them.

The drama between showing and telling, dramatic and narrative, plays extremely well in Hughie (1942), a one-act comprised almost exclusively of monologues, spoken by gambler Erie Smith, or described in the silent monologues of the hotel night clerk. Dialogue, the main signifier of drama, is virtually absent. Instead, the two-bit hustler tells stories out of the past and describes the recently deceased Hughie. A novelistic urge to describe fully past events and relationships belies the emptiness of life on stage. Tension in this short play stems from the need to establish intimate contact by Smith and refusal to engage on the part of the hotel clerk. The action ends, however, with the two men sharing a conversation and mutually passing the remainder of the early morning hours in company, away from the silent terrors of the night outside or the loneliness of Room 492 upstairs. As Smith once did with Hughie, he again sees himself as he wants to be seen in the eyes of the new night clerk. The action details the restorative human powers of dialogue. Emphasis upon narrative in the play ultimately reveals the triumph and importance of theatre. O’Neill’s novelistic retreat from dialogue refreshes the drama.

Other than monologue, masks serve as a prominent device in O’Neill’s dramaturgy. Chapter 2, Masks and Mirrors, examines masks as means to reveal character and to probe the question of identity: loneliness and sensitivity; dividedness and multiplicity. O’Neill advocated their use in his only published contribution to dramatic theory, Memoranda on Masks (1932-1933). The Great God Brown (1925), in which characters wear masks, take them off, even trade them, serves as the apotheosis of mask technique. The barrier between the actor’s face and the viewer provides tension between revelation and concealment. The mask graphically solves the problem of how to present the struggle between the inside and the outside; it reveals the public face but hides the private one. Perceived difference between the two creates the illusion of character. While O’Neill employed masks for the last time in Days Without End (1933), metaphorical masks provide the essence of character in all of his works. The gradual stripping away of uniformed finery in The Emperor Jones (1920) corresponds to the unmasking of character. The same action recurs in the naturalistic A Touch of the Poet, in which Melody’s soiled and torn military uniform signifies that his aristocratic demeanor has also been removed. The presence of the mask demonstrates O’Neill’s prevalent theme of the need for illusion or the pipe dream. Major Melody constantly poses in front of the mirror in order to see if his mask is in place. Mirrors, sometimes nothing more than another character’s eyes, rebuke or sustain the illusions which make life bearable.

Energy devoted to creating a mask is means for protection, and the action of every play moves toward unmasking. What’s at stake, what lies underneath the mask, is human vulnerability. Although no masks are used literally, nowhere is the concept of the mask more apparent than in A Moon for the Misbegotten. The three principal characters are all actors whose individual masks peel away as the action unfolds to reveal a tender love story. Action builds toward revelation and concludes after the masks totally disappear and tension no longer exists between exterior presentation and interior identity. Exposed vulnerability reveals depth of character, depth of sorrow, joy, and human feeling. Love as sacrifice, verbalized in early plays, including the end of Beyond the Horizon, receives visual expression with the image of Josie Hogan holding Tyrone’s body through the moonlight until dawn. She expresses the magnitude of her sacrifice with a simple valuation of the gesture: “…because it costs so much” (CP3 927). Shedding her mask as a wanton woman and exposing herself as a virgin signals the end of the play. Tension between the two roles sustains the drama and leads to final revelation, after which nothing remains to see.

Chapter 3, Beyond the Proscenium, traces the oscillation between here and there, presence and absence, between inside the frame (proscenium) of representation and outside the frame. This movement creates compelling visual interest and alters the perception of O’Neill’s realism. That style becomes the context, or rather, the confinement, of the action against which the play rebels. The act of rebellion forces the drama to turn out beyond the proscenium and gives it visual stature that it would not otherwise possess. The opposition between land and sea, for example, continually finds the characters searching for what they do not have. If they are from the sea, they want to be on land. If on land, they long for the sea. The Blessed Isles, another Nietzschean phrase, return again and again as safe havens, escapes, places of freedom, far away from the confined land and morality of New England. Unseen characters, talked about but never directly represented, fill in the action of the plays at crucial moments. Doors separating one space from another, seen and unseen, govern action in which the outside poses a threat to the inside. At the same time, characters aspire to leave the environment which constrains them. Visual diffusion occurs in the drama in which what’s outside displaces what’s inside.

The realistic detail of Harry Hope’s saloon, a combination of three watering holes O’Neill frequented in New York, contrasts with the nebulous void of the Great City outside and creates tension in The Iceman Cometh. What begins in a kind of Plato’s Cave, according to John Henry Raleigh, transforms into the only reality available to the inhabitants of the saloon at the end (Plays 165–167). Larry Slade’s declaration voiced early in the play that the bums who live in the bar have no further to slide is a lie. The option to go outside represents an even more dangerous and degrading step for the men than remaining paralyzed at the table. By never going outside, characters indulge in pipe dreams that insist upon a glorious life “out there.” Hickey’s sermon of salvation turns the bums out of the bar to face their pipe dreams on the streets. Hickey’s truth eliminates the dualism between inside and outside. By opening the door and throwing down the gauntlet, Hickey makes the men face the emptiness of their lives in the terror of the streets. An outsider, Hickey, displaces the bums. But that action only enforces the fact that the outside world is “dead” to them. As they exit on parade and return soon thereafter it is clear that there is nothing outside for them. The world gets smaller as the play progresses. The large cast of this play is notable for the lack of female characters (none, other than the three tarts). Absent women, referred to but never seen, nonetheless play an extremely important role in the events. Male characters invent Evelyn Hickman, Bessie Hope, and Rosa Parritt, but invoking them calls attention to an absence which indicates the failure of intimate relationships. If Hughie is about the need for intimacy and engagement, The Iceman Cometh examines the cost of intimacy and flight from its demands. The iceman, death, finds a group of damaged men huddled around a bottle as if it were a campfire in the wilderness. The booze provides the only warmth against the blast of cold air coming from the frightening outside.

Chapter 4, Plays Without End, deals with repetition and the question of how plays end. Suicides, murders, incestuous desires and clandestine affairs that fuel early plays give way to tidy Aristotelian depictions of everyday life in the final ones. Epic adventures mutate into episodic representations. Yet, as less and less happens, tragic resonance increases, due in part to O’Neill’s masterful use of repetition. A famous anecdote survives about The Iceman Cometh, in which a phrase about pipe dreams is repeated 18 times. Lawrence Langner pointed this out to O’Neill, who responded by saying that he meant it to occur 18 times (Langner 405). Repeating a particular image magnifies it and also creates a pattern. Critics harp upon the excessive length of O’Neill’s plays and what they deem as needless repetition within them, but repetition is fundamental to the essential action in all of them. Tension always exists between the narrative drive of the plot to end in closure (e.g., suicide), and the competing desire for the play to repeat itself and form part of what O’Neill might call, with echoes of Nietzsche, the recurring life force. O’Neill’s plays can be seen as musical compositions in which developing themes recur and transmute over time. The effect of time upon character is the theme for a novel that O’Neill tried to explore in early experimental plays. He adopted a traditional form in his final plays but the action became entirely retrospective and time, in a novel way, became the definitive and tragic subject at last.

Backward movement to the past in the plays rubs against forward drive in the present. Mary Tyrone recognizes the equation between the two temporal modes when she says, “The past is the present. It’s the future, too” (CP3 765). Repetition is the force of the past claiming its victims in the present, victims who try in vain to break free. Action in Long Day’s Journey Into Night picks up at the precise moment in which the Tyrones have begun to hope again that Mary has licked her crippling drug habit. Subsequently, they learn that an old pattern has resumed and they anticipate the familiar ritual of addiction. The supposed happy ending of a much earlier play, “Anna Christie,” failed to balance momentary happiness in the present with future tragic necessity. Long Day’s Journey Into Night brilliantly reverses the temporal flow in a final image. No better curtain line exists than the quotidian brilliance of Mary’s final words: “I fell in love with James Tyrone and was so happy for a time” (CP3 828). The drunken Tyrone men, trying to forget what has happened to them, gaze upon Mary, whose pigtails recall lost adolescence. She carries her wedding dress but she speaks of the convent. Instead of projecting a future of uncertain happiness as in “Anna Christie,” the final image in Long Day’s Journey Into Night eulogizes the passing of time and the poignancy of regret despite the presence and persistence of love.

The final chapter, Tragic Vision, looks at the question of genre and the ongoing debate between melodrama and tragedy. Historically, critical opinion of O’Neill weighs on one side or the other and ranges from the artist as longwinded melodramatist to sublime tragedian. Although he received the Nobel Prize for “dramatic works of vital energy, sincerity, and intensity of feeling, stamped with an original conception of tragedy” (Hallström), Francis Fergusson, never an admirer of O’Neill, wrote unflatteringly of his plays in 1930: “I take it that the essence of melodrama is to accept emotions uncritically; which, in the writing amounts to assuming or suggesting emotions that are never realized either in language or action. Melodrama in this sense is a constant quality of Mr. O’Neill’s work” (Cargill 272–273). Eric Bentley, perhaps the most ardent O’Neill critic, allowed in The Life of the Drama that O’Neill succeeds with melodrama where he fails with tragedy (214). While Fergusson and Bentley invoke melodrama to cast aspersions upon O’Neill’s work, Robert Benchley compliments O’Neill for “thrilling the bejeezus” out of his audience in Mourning Becomes Electra. His review of that play in The New Yorker cites aspects of melodrama as a source of great appeal in O’Neill’s plays.

My interest does not lie in the search for adequate definitions of terms. O’Neill, of course, thought that he was writing tragedy which he regarded as ennobling. He particularly admired Greek tragedy and Mourning Becomes Electra attempted to scale tragic heights, in the vein of the Greeks, even to the point of borrowing their myths, but without resort to gods and with only a modern psychology of fate. Sticking to the concrete, I draw a visual analogy to the genres of tragedy and melodrama. Melodrama embodies visual clarity in terms of the size of gesture, clash of opposites, contrast of colors, and purity of values that are readily readable. To say that melodrama goes “over the top” is to appreciate the excessive theatricality that defines the genre and makes it enjoyable. If struggle is the operative word in O’Neill’s sense of the tragic, the visual aspect of the struggle is that characters cannot see where they are going and cannot foretell consequences of what they do. Fog is the principal motif in O’Neill which visually defines tragic experience. Characters cannot see, and the inability to see functions as the essence of O’Neill’s tragic vision. The desire to see and failure to do so creates a context for tragic events to occur. If melodrama represents a kind of wish-fulfillment in which everything is clear and visible, tragedy represents recognition that dreams don’t come true. Looking at genre in this way eliminates discussion of melodrama and tragedy as discrete categories. Tension between them, always present, sustains visual interest in the plays.

From the perspective of genre, O’Neill’s tragic vision derives from Nietzsche’s view of the world as unfathomable. In the Nietzschean landscape, the black abyss threatens to swallow human endeavor. Just as Socrates and intelligibility foil Nietzschean tragedy, melodrama, with its high contrast and visual clarity opposes O’Neill’s tragic fog of anxiety and ambiguity. In Mourning Becomes Electra, for example, O’Neill, himself, hoped that his audience would see past the surface melodrama to the real drama underneath (SL 379). The surface and depth paradigm asks that the diligent interpreter excavate the work in order to discover riches buried within the play. O’Neill places melodrama and tragedy in two separate places. My project aligns the terms and recognizes that these tendencies, while polar opposites, are not mutually exclusive in O’Neill’s dramatic universe. Examination of a grand play such as Mourning Becomes Electra reveals the codependent relationship of melodramatic and tragic elements. The plot, a thrilling melodrama of lust, revenge, murder and incestuous desire, provides an excuse for a spectacle of watching. Beginning with the entrance of the town chorus at the start of the play, the audience observes characters watching each other perform a melodrama. Only Lavinia refuses ultimately to play. She refuses to publish her brother’s lurid history of the Mannons, a generational melodrama. Her final act, self-entombment, pulls down the curtain on melodrama; opaqueness, inability to see, raises the possibility of tragedy.

My method appears to stack a series of binary oppositions against each other: narrative and dramatic; revelation and concealment; here and there; past and present; melodrama and tragedy. Indeed, these tensions sustain the drama, but I don’t suggest that there is an Hegelian synthesis to the dialectic that I’m putting forward as a basic structuring principle in O’Neill’s drama. I believe that the failure of the plays (that phrase again) to resolve these conflicts accounts for their enduring presentations. This claim may seem counter-intuitive given familiarity with O’Neill’s works. One of the habits that he adopted in Professor Baker’s English 47 playwriting class was the discipline of writing a detailed scenario of a play before he wrote it. It is impossible not to see the direction in which a particular O’Neill play travels. Even O’Neill’s better plays, such as A Touch of the Poet, The Iceman Cometh, and A Moon for the Misbegotten chug through their respective plots along a formulaic track. O’Neill railroads the illusion/reality theme (a classic Western literature theme and the subject of many undergraduate essays) to the extent that his meaning seems inescapable, if not depressing: humanity cannot bear to face the truth. The highly architected plays seem to lead to a definitive and inevitable conclusion, but I don’t think that they are as straightforward as they seem. The oppositions end in stalemates which don’t provide answers but ask questions of the audience who witnesses the event. My critical project drives a wedge in this site of failure to open up space for interpretation to fill.

Problems, not plays, provide the organizational structure for all the chapters. Focus upon pervasive tendencies that appear throughout the entire canon replaces any need to deal with the plays in chronological order. The range of examples is limited to O’Neill’s Complete Plays, edited by Travis Bogard, the three volume edition of 50 plays published by the Library  of America in 1988 to mark the centennial of O’Neill’s birth. Even among this group of plays, however, emphasis remains upon those plays which form part of an enduring repertory. Thus, Lazarus Laughed (1926), a play O’Neill always admired for containing some of his best writing (that’s what he thought), gets short shrift because it has never been produced professionally. Technical and artistic demands of that text make any future production highly problematic. The “lost” plays, early unproduced work, find little representation in these pages, nor does the very lengthy draft of More Stately Mansions (1939).12 The creative license that an unfinished manuscript offers to a production team often invites production, and successful stagings of this play credit the skillful editing and vision of a director. That said, there is no way to anticipate what changes O’Neill, himself, would have made to his manuscript, and thus, the text resists the kind of analysis that I’m employing in this study. In general, examples show preference to the late masterpieces. The reader will discover far more references to Long Day’s Journey Into Night than to, say, The First Man (1921). The former play is one of the greatest plays in all of modern drama and a play that the reader will likely have an opportunity to see, or has seen, at some point. The First Man, on the other hand, appeals only to the most earnest O’Neill scholar and enthusiast. The weaknesses of that play, however, and others such as Diff’rent (1920), Dynamo (1928), and Days Without End (1933) often address particular problems more effectively than the strengths of better plays and bear inclusion for that reason. O’Neill frequently integrates obvious techniques in inferior plays into more subtle representations in superior efforts. The first part of each chapter lays the groundwork for a particular theoretical claim and concludes with extended analysis of a single play or plays in order to ground the argument within a sustained context. While the problems remain discrete in each chapter, the force of my project implies interchangeable examples. I use A Moon for the Misbegotten, for instance, to talk at length about character and unmasking as a principal action. This is doubtless a convenient pairing, but if there is any profound truth to my overall approach, then another play, say, Hughie, must also fit within the schema that I develop. The tensions that I see within the plays regarding genre, dialogue, character, scene, and action operate on all of the plays all of the time.

By way of example, Bound East for Cardiff (1914) shows how perspectives outlined in each chapter combine to form a composite picture of the drama. This early play, the first of O’Neill’s to receive production, authentically represents all the later plays to come, according to Eugene M. Waith: “The movement of its action is the characteristic movement of an O’Neill play—a movement toward discovery or revelation or both—a kind of unmasking” (33). O’Neill recognized the importance of this play in a letter correcting dates for his plays in 1934 to Richard Dana Skinner, who was then writing a book on O’Neill’s drama: “In it can be seen—or felt—the germ of the spirit, life-attitude, etc. of all my significant future work—and it was written practically within my first half-year as a playwright, before I went to Baker, under whose influence the following year I did nothing 1/10 as original. Remember in these U. S. in 1914 Bound East for Cardiff was a daring innovation both in form & content” (SL 438).

Beginning with the title, the play evokes tragic aspirations, despite the low class characters represented in the action and the mundane events portrayed. The play takes place in the crewmen’s quarters of the S.S. Glencairn, a tramp steamer en route from New York to Cardiff. Action picks up in medias res, somewhere between the two ports on the Atlantic Ocean. Previous to the start, one seaman, Yank, fell from a ladder and mortally injured himself. The action of the play consists of his friend, Driscoll, comforting him during his dying moments. On a foggy night, fog remains as the dominant motif in the play (see Chapter 5). The titular word “bound” evokes a sense of fate in the play, a destination over which the sailors in the ship have no control. Days away from port, the ship strands them alone at sea, along with the fog, which prevents them from seeing.

At the outset of this short play, members of the crew, including a Swede and an Irishman, talk among themselves and smoke in the seamen’s forecastle. A Norwegian plays a battered accordion from the top deck. Talk of the rotten weather and foul working conditions halts at the sound of a groan from the rear bunk. Only then do they realize that Yank lies with them, badly injured and slowly dying. The crew respectfully muffles their speech and leaves to relieve the watch. One group goes out, another comes in. Only Driscoll remains to tend to Yank. In the second section, the captain and first mate enter to take stock of the situation. Social divisions between officers and sailors manifest themselves in uniforms, titles, and the fact that the officers “come down” to see about Yank. One of the sailors, Davis, describes the relationship between haves and have nots in this way: “Plenty o’ work and no food—and the owners ridin’ around in carriages!” (CP1 190). Significantly, owners are not present in the action. Ship’s officers, including the captain, function as their surrogates. Cocky, confident that the captain can do nothing for Yank, expresses the contempt of the working men for their superiors: “That silly ol’ josser! Wot the ’ell would ’e know abaht anythink?” (189). When the captain and mate do appear, expected antagonisms vanish in the humanity of the moment. The captain is genuinely interested in Yank’s health. He expresses true sorrow that he cannot help Yank, but instructs Driscoll to stay with him and not to let him move. He captures the futility and fateful moment of the play with his lament: “I can’t do anything else for him. It’s too serious for me. If this had only happened a week later we’d be in Cardiff in time to—” (194). Use of the subjunctive indicates a grammar of fate. There is no doctor and no facility to help Yank. There is no hope, even though all the men pretend and hope that he won’t die. The hopeless hope, or the need for illusion, surfaces in this play as a major theme.

Yank knows and feels that he’s going to die. Monologue supplants dialogue in the form of confessions of the dying man to his best friend in the final part of the play (see Chapter 1). The monologue fulfills a narrative function and supplies a history of the mens’ lives in terms of where they’ve been and what they want. Driscoll, the friend, becomes a silent auditor, whose bunkside presence gives Yank license to speak at length. Yank speaks of the repetition of life and tries to justify death as relief from it: “This sailor life ain’t much to cry about leavin’—just one ship after another, hard work, small pay, and bum grub; and when we git into port, just a drunk endin’ up in a fight, and all your money gone, and then ship away again. Never meetin’ no nice people; never gittin’ outa sailor town, hardly, in any port; travelin’ all over the world and never seein’ none of it; without no one to care whether you’re alive or dead. (with a bitter smile) There ain’t much in all that that’d make yuh sorry to lose it, Drisc” (195).

The reality of the sailor’s lot is juxtaposed by Yank’s dream of being buried on land and owning a farm. Driscoll joins in enthusiastically to say that he’s had the same dream and that they’ll live it together as soon as Yank gets better. Expression of the dream breathes life into the drama. The land/sea opposition transports the action of the play beyond the proscenium as the characters paint a picture of life away from the tiny quarters of the forecastle (see Chapter 3). Yank reveals his dream to Driscoll only when he knows that he’s going to die. He says that he was always afraid that his friend would laugh at him if he spoke of his heartfelt dreams. Only with death upon him, can he unburden himself. The dire situation, however, forces Driscoll to agree with Yank and drop his tough pose. The unmasking of the characters reaches poignancy in their last scene together (see Chapter 2). They describe a brutal world in which they have played a part. Yank gives voice to his fear that he will be damned because he once stabbed a man. Driscoll eases his conscience by absolving him of the crime by asserting that it was self-defense. At last, Yank, who has no relations, asks Driscoll to buy a box of candy for Fanny the barmaid, who once “tried to lend me half a crown” (198). The tenderness and intimacy of the two sailors, beneath hard and coarse exteriors, engenders an empathetic response.

The image of the dying sailor flirts with melodrama. Near the end, Yank sees fog within the cabin. It is the fog of death, “a pretty lady dressed in black” come to take Yank away (198). The atmosphere of the Glencairn undercuts Yank’s dying in the arms of his best friend. Repetition of the ship’s routine, the change in the watch, the sound of the ship’s bells, offsets the finality of death (see Chapter 4). While Yank lies dying, other sailors snore in their bunks, resting before their next watch. Snoring and sleeping effectively drain melodrama from the death scene. In fact, the routine of the ship heightens the impact of the dying sailor. According to Alan S. Downer, Yank’s “dying against a background of his quarreling, disinterested mates, is an image of the loneliness and frustration of man” (469). Ironically, a sailor returns to the cabin at play’s end to report that the fog has lifted. Clarity returns only after Yank has died. The drama expands from the cramped quarters of the seamen’s forecastle, the represented scene of the dying sailor, to show the ship as part of a much larger scene, one tiny ship floating on an immense ocean. The sea as fate, a wild and untamed presence which surrounds and dwarfs the represented scene, potentially diminishes the importance of human action. The relative insignificance of Yank’s death gives it dignity and tragic stature. Loss of his friend greatly impacts Driscoll. The fact that life goes on proffers a tough reminder of an undying reality.

The following chapters emphasize the technical means of expression in order to see the plays in a new way. Rather than exploring conflict between characters within the representation, this way of seeing explores tensions or conflict between the very elements that make up the drama. Foregrounding dramatic technique separates the representation from reality. By looking at O’Neill’s plays, not as reflections of personal experience, but as works of art, they begin to appear as strange and wondrous as opposed to old and familiar. It is indisputable that the late plays surpass all of O’Neill’s previous efforts. Abandoning classifications such as expressionistic and realistic, however, creates an opportunity to discover principles which bind all of O’Neill’s dramas together. This approach reverses the traditional order of how to view a play: seeing the picture first and then trying to explain how it got that way. I look at the techniques first, and build an interpretation on the basis of pervasive tendencies. This strategy tries to liberate O’Neill from the shackles of autobiography and highlight the extraordinary achievements of a remarkable American playwright.

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