Menu Bar

Chapter 12
Mimetic and Traumatic Doubling in O’Neill


This chapter brings together dissociationist accounts of the double as the product (or shorthand for the product) of multiple personality and the ideas of mimetic desire and rivalry in the work of René Girard and his colleagues. The psychology developed by Girard, Jean-Michel Oughourlian and Guy Lefort in Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World (1987), “interdividual psychology”, as they call it, makes a maximal stress on imitation in the construction of what could no longer be called the self. In this account what is unconscious is the fact that the self is an imitation of a model who at any moment may tip over into the hated, because originary, rival (as in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan hates God for creating him). The rivalry repeatedly brings society to a crisis to which the typical solution is the selection of a scapegoat. As the society joins together in this collective violence rivalry and mimesis are temporarily solved out, as it were, in the likeness of goal. This process is what Girard calls “doubling”: “Mimetism is indeed the contagion which spreads throughout human relationships, and in principle it spares no one….  In the last analysis there is nothing that can be said of any one partner that must not be said of all partners without exception. There is no longer any way of differentiating the partners from one another. This is what I call a relationship of doubles.” Ultimately, in Girard’s view, the only effective alternative to the endless repetition of this violence is a revival of the Imitato Christi including the transcendent model of willing scapegoat. “With him [Jesus] we run no risk of getting caught up in the evil opposition between doubles.”

Rivalry in Freud, of course, focuses in the Oedipus and the myth of the primal pack. Interestingly, it is a more general theme in the work of dissociationists. Both James, in his uneasy chapter of the Principles of Psychology on the instincts (Chapter 24), and his Harvard colleague Josiah Royce emphasize rivalry in the formation of the self and culture. James stresses on the nastier of our “instincts”—from pugnacity to acquisitive-ness—is presented within the framework of imitation, or mimesis. From infancy on, James argues, “man is essentially the imitative animal. His whole educability and in fact the whole history of civilization depend on this trait, which his strong tendency to rivalry, jealousy and acquisitiveness reinforce. Human nihil a me alienum puto is the motto of the individual of the species.” Imitation founds civilization, but, as with Girard and Oughourlian, “Imitation shades into/ Emulation and Rivalry, a very intense instinct.” But are we talking now of instincts? James thinks so, or, at least, he grants the supposed power of the instinctual to the negative aspects of the imitation/ rivalry dyad: “Jealousy,” he remarks in a single-sentence paragraph, “is unquestionably instinctive," where “instinctive” seems to be an expression of distaste.

Royce, however, makes a stable system out of the tension between emulation and what he calls “docility” (or admiration of the model). Royce’s first important psychological contribution was his awareness of the role of social consciousness in the formation of the self. In an 1895 address, “Self Consciousness, Social Consciousness and Nature,” he argued that

As a fact, a man becomes self-conscious only in the most intimate connection with the growth of his social consciousness. These two forms of consciousness are not separable and opposed regions of a man’s life; they are thoroughly interdependent…. Take away the Alter from consciousness, and the conscious Ego, so far as in this world we know it, languishes, and languishing dies…. I am not first self-conscious, and then secondarily conscious of my fellow. On the contrary, I am conscious of myself, on the whole, as in relation to some real or ideal fellow.

(Whereas it is clear that Royce uses the term “Alter” in a different sense than its contemporary usage in dissociative studies, it is also clear that his usage could be taken to mean the “broad cultural object”, and, in adverse circumstances become the source of trauma. In Du Bois, for instance, whites are such an Alter to black Americans.) Royce subsequently developed his ideas in his Outlines of Psychology of 1914 in which he argues that the most important specifically human instinct is “IMITATION” but that this is balanced within us by the impulse to “SOCIAL OPPOSITION and of the love for contrasting one’s fellows in behavior, in opinion or in power.” But Royce, writing before the War, does not see the violence in the rivalry he calls “social opposition,” concluding instead that “the entire process of conscious education involves the deliberate appeal to the docility of these two types of social instincts. For whatever else we teach a social being we teach him to imitate. And whatever use we teach him to make of his social imitations in his relations with other men we are obliged at the same time to teach him to assert himself.”

In his often disparaged comedy, The Great God Brown (1926), O’Neill satirizes what might be called, after Girard, mimetic bourgeois man—as  Elmer Rice had done in The Adding Machine—but also satirizes the mimetic bohemian. The play is like a work of Ibsen done with expressionist intensity and in Commedia dell’Arte style, masked (or partly masked) mocking, ironic, ecstatic, confessional, filled with pain, and yet never escaping parody. Kreymborg’s influence is evident in the child-like quality of the speaking style of the characters. The irony of imitation plays throughout the text as do the ironies of Nietzschean resentiment. Rivals in life and love, the materially successful Brown and the artistic Dion pursue what neither ever arrives at. We seem, repeatedly, in The Great God Brown, to indeed be among those whom Oughourlian calls “puppets of desire”. 

The Great God Brown begins at high-school graduation, with silly proud parents, competitions for first prizes, young love and young rivalries: the facile “moments” of adolescence. Brown, unmasked and complacent and compliant in his parents’ satisfactions, tries to declare his love to Margaret. Love here is youthful, silly, clearly as much mimetic as instinctual: “he understands what I’m really like inside—and—I’d love to run my fingers through his hair—and I love him!” Unfortunately Margaret is thinking of Dion. Rejected, but trying to be the good fellow (and thus already resentful), Brown tells Dion that Margaret is waiting for him. Dion’s anxious flippancy is revealing: “I love, thou lovest, he loves, she loves! She loves, she loves—what!” “Now I am born—I—the I!—one and indivisible—I who love Margaret!” (Prologue, 2.480-1). James had characterized love as “blind, automatic, and untaught”—he may, again, have been thinking of Schopenhauer’s Will—O’Neill presents it as imitation.

O’Neill wrote a group of short essays on mask in the early thirties. What is most clear is that the mask is for him psychological. Masks “can express those profound hidden conflicts of the mind which the probings of psychology continue to disclose to us”.  He adds the question “For what, at bottom, is the new psychological insight into human cause and effect, but a study of masks, an exercise in unmasking?” Other thoughts occur to him: The use of masks creates “a drama of souls, and the adventures of ‘Free wills,’ with the masks that govern them and constitute their fates.” Again, masks are related to self-division and shame: “One’s outer life passes in a solitude haunted by the masks of others; one’s inner life passes in a solitude hounded by the masks of oneself.” O’Neill’s comments are more than a superficial comment on social conformity. Nor do they succumb to the Freudian notion of repressed libido. In Oughourlian’s terms, The Great God Brown might be seen as an elegant play on the hysteria consequent on rivalry with its unconscious resentment of imitation. O’Neill includes like insights, but his comments on masking suggest more emphasis on the traumatics of division, internalization, and the unrecognizing gaze.

Certainly imitation and rivalry drive most of the action. But Billy Brown and Dion in their doubling nevertheless throughout represent parts of a psychological “whole”. As O’Neill noted, “They have always been exact antithesis. They needed, completed each other while at the same time subtly hated each other for the need.” Girard and Oughourlian might respond that this complementary quality is a consequence of their rivalry: neither can be what the other is. But this is not quite how O’Neill tells it. As well, to further the complications, both Dion and Brown are themselves split characters—thus doubles—though apparently for quite different reasons.

Dion’s family is shame-based:

Dion: (with intense bitterness) Hide! Be ashamed! (They both start and stare at him.)

Father: (with bitter hopelessness -- to his wife -- indicating their son) Who is he? You bore him! (Prologue, 477)

Earlier Dion has announced, with the same, strange, alter-like abruptness, “This Mr. Anthony is my father, but he only imagines he is God the Father.” (Prologue, 476). Divided over their rebellious son, his parents are clearly motivated to make him special by their resentment of their success of the Browns. Later Dion says of his father that after “the second of my conception,” he and his father “grew hostile with concealed shame” (Act 1, Scene 3, 496). Still later, we discover a further trauma: at the Oedipal age of four, he was kicked on the beach by a bigger boy-- Billy Brown (Act 2, Scene 3). As well, when Dion (and one thinks of Freud’s life) agrees to his parents’ plan at graduation, he makes it clear that he understands the agreement to be that he live “in my mother’s image, so she may feel her life comfortably concluded” (Prologue, 476).  Later he says of his mother, “I was the sole doll our ogre….allowed her” and “I felt like a forsaken toy.” At her death-bed, he “knew my sobs were ugly and meaningless to her virginity”. (Act 1, Scene 3, 496) This means, of course, that his birth was an offense. Dion’s mask is characterized as “a fixed forcing of his own face—dark, spiritual, poetic, passionately supersensitive, helplessly unprotected in its childlike, religious faith in life—into the expression of a mocking, reckless, defiant, gaily scoffing and sensual young Pan.” (Prologue, 475) Dionysus is a mask. When Dion reveals his unmasked self to Margaret, “shrinking, shy and gentle, full of sadness,” she responds with a “frightened shriek” and then “coldly and angrily” (Prologue, 479, 481).What offends is not sex but vulnerability. Why? Because vulnerability challenges the scheme of mimetic rivalry! By the scene’s end both young men have indeed graduated, though Brown, not having a hidden self, like one of James’s once-born in the Varieties, maintains illusions of which, ironically, the preferred, but twice-unborn, and therefore masked, Dion is disabused.

Brown succeeds and Dion gets the girl. But the girl does not see him and he takes refuge in dissipation. Only Cybele, a maternal prostitute and nature Goddess, knows, in her remotely empathic way, who he is. When Dion departs from her for the last time, her voice is “like a mother talking to her little son” (Act 2, Scene 1, 500). But Dion is divided between his assumed sensuality (Dionysus) and his spiritual self. Unmasked, “His face is that of an ascetic, a martyr, furrowed by pain and self-torture” (Act 2, Scene 1, 497). Meanwhile his Dionysian mask has become “Ravaged…diabolical,” like the portrait in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). Later he is shown “Reading aloud from the ‘Imitation of Christ’ by Thomas a Kempis to his mask…. His own face is…more spiritual, more saintlike and ascetic than ever before.” (Act 2, Scene 2, 503) He is after all Dion Anthony, his last name that of the desert saint.

Again Dion unmasks to Margaret, again she denies him. His subsequent death journey goes by way of Brown’s. By the time he arrives at Brown’s home, “his masked face has a terrible death like intensity, its mocking irony become…so cruelly malignant as to give him the appearance of a real demon, tortured into torturing others.” (Act 2, Scene 3, 506) He denounces Brown, who, in his increasing rivalry, has bought Cybele’s services. He then declares that Brown does not love even Margaret.  Rather, “Brown loves me!” In what could be a striking moment on the stage, O’Neill approaches Eve K. Sedgwick’s adaptation of Girard’s analysis of mimesis to the distortion of homosexual relation in what she calls “homosocial” rivalry. As Dion adds, “He loves me because I have always possessed the power he needed for love, because I am love!” (Act 2, Scene 3, 510)

Dion brings Brown to the point of confession that rivalry (and, with it, success, etc.) conceals the inability and desire to love. Then in a mesmeric scene, in which Brown becomes Dion’s appointed Svengali, the weakening Dion, “his mask falling off, his Christian martyr’s face at the point of death”, asks for forgiveness (“weakly and childishly”), prays to “Our Father who art in Heaven” (the moment recalls the conclusion of The Verge) and dies. (510) Brown has stood in for the Father. In the parody of religion, Dion has enacted a kind of collapse before the persecuting object. Brown has been chosen because he doubled the father’s rejection.

As well, it quickly emerges that Brown too has an alter, one gladdened by his rival’s death, who at once conceives the idea of donning Dion’s mask.   But  this act  of  imitation is also one of  fatal splitting. Dion’s apparently Christian death—as one might suspect from a dramatist influenced by Nietzsche -- conceals the continuing operation of his Dionysian trickster-daemon double. Leaving Brown his mask is a means to ensure that ensure Margaret will love him and that Brown will never be loved for himself.

Doubles: O’Neill, The Great God Brown. Courtesy Yale Collection of American Literature,
Beinecke Rare Book Room and Manuscript Library.

Appropriately, the rivalry between Dion and Brown in the world of business has been played out over the construction of a cathedral for which Brown provides only the basics; Dion adds the flourishing detail, a sardonic and daemonic, though cheap, comment on the worldliness of its future users. The cathedral is the work of philistine mimesis or dependent daemonic parody but not the house of the spirit it is meant to be. This model cathedral becomes the concluding set in Days Without End. On the road to the Temple of Dionysus, to adapt the title of Susan Glaspell’s life of George Cook, O’Neill, in his self-division, was repeatedly distracted by the Church.

The design for the cathedral, the now-masked Brown bitterly declares, would “do just as well for a Home of Criminal Imbeciles.” (Act 4, Scene 1, 524) Now the theme of doubling becomes akin to that of Poe and of Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde. Brown, having no external rival, discovers “a demon within me” he cannot escape: “We’re getting to be like twins.”  (Recall Girard: “There is no longer any way of differentiating the partners from one another. This is what I call a relationship of doubles.”) “Ssssh!,” Brown says to his children, “This is daddy’s bed time secret for today: man is born broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue!” (Act 4, Scene 1, 528) But at once he falls back into cynicism: “Bah! I am sorry little children, but your kingdom is empty” (Act 4, Scene 2, 530). Going to Cybele, he learns to recite the prayer’s opening words “Our Father Who Art!”(532) but cannot complete the sentence before he dies. He has been Dion’s double to the end.

In Dion’s case, O’Neill has taken us back to a childhood scenario in which both parental objects have proven to be obstacles to Dion’s development. He has also shown that an apparently polarized alter structure—Dionysus and Jesus—is both a rivalry and a concealed co-operation. Dion has had it both ways, though also neither way. The underlying goals of this structure are both suicide and revenge, even murder. Concealed within the suicide, as with Glaspell’s heroines, is the fantasy of being loved at last.  But what is Brown’s trauma, the source of his envy?  Only that he has been the model son (and citizen), his only act of what Royce calls “initiative” --his declaration to Margaret--at once followed by model self-sacrifice. At his death, a police officer comes in: “Well, what’s his name?”

Cybele: Man!

Captain:…. How d’yuh spell it? (Act 4, Scene 2, 533).

Perhaps the answer should be: “D-o-u-b-l-e”? O’Neill’s point is that what both Billy and Dion have missed is the experience of autonomous manhood.

Few modernist plays so well employ Kreymborg’s technique of making adults child-like as The Great God Brown. Throughout, beginning with Billy’s parents, but emanating subsequently from Margaret, the dialogue establishes a bright belittling mode of address to the two protagonists into which the most agonized “self”-declarations are woven: “my Dion--my own Dion--my little boy”; “Dion certainly draws well, Billy Brown was saying”; “No! Brown isn’t satisfied”. There is a suggestion of the way children are trivialized and shamed. Margaret is the unseeing belittler. For what is most conventional about the two rivals is their object choice. Margaret “herself” prefers Dion because she thinks he is unusual, which would make her unusual (and therefore give her status in her own game of rivalry). But she is not unusual at all, as her generalized mask shows. James—in the tradition—called love “blind”, but in The Great God Brown it is not instinctual but blindly mimetic.

Cybele can remove her whore’s painted mask and at least stand face to unmasked face, though in doing so revealing only the calmly distant aspect of “an unmoved idol of Mother Earth” (Act 2, Scene 1, 497). Margaret’s face, too, constantly demonstrates an increasing pain and maturing of emotion straining through the mask: a nice effect. But for the Epilogue, which brings us back to the play’s opening, Margaret is anonymous self again (though perhaps Cybele too). Her children surrounding her, and apparently timeless, she thinks of Dion: “My lover! My husband! My boy!” (Epilogue, 2.535) Irony abounds. He has still, never been seen. Nor has Brown.

It is apparent that The Great God Brown is about shame. It is interesting that, though Darwin discussed shame, it seems that only since the work of Helen Merrill Lynd (1958) has shame become psychologically visible. Now it attracts some of the best, and most culturally aware, of psychological writers. Among such writers is Leon Wurmser, who in The Mask of Shame (1981) notes that the derivation of the word can be traced back to the Indo-European term for “to cover, to veil, to hide”. Shaming and masking are thus intimately related. Though shame has its positive role, traumatic shame, as Wurmser points out is rooted in “the intensity of the underlying conflict, the conflict of power through perception and expression versus rejection—rejection implicit or explicit.”

The Great God Brown invokes familial, sexual and social shaming. In one of his chapter’s entitled “Unlovability and the Magic Eye”, Wurmser writes of a client “His own magic eye was needed to find the lost face of his mother and to undo, once and for all, by magic, the wound of basic unlovability." Dion is invisible to his parents and unwelcome to the eyes of his wife, whose scream recalls that of Mildred in The Hairy Ape. Strikingly when-- under the moonlight, the beautiful moonlight-- Dion first unmasks to Margaret, following her reaction, the moon disappears behind a cloud: “There is a moment of intense blackness and silence.” “Great Pan is dead!” (Prologue, 482) Thus O’Neill evokes the power of the mother’s blindness to obliterate the sense of life: trauma.

Wurmser, nevertheless, notes that shame, however unpleasant, is also “the guardian of inner reality”, citing Hegel’s definition of shame as “this anger of love about individuality”. Shame, he points out, guards “the autonomy of the primary processes, the most intimate life we all have.” Thus shame, whilst it plays into the realms of modeling and rivalry, yet also testifies to something that cannot be reduced to such terms. Further, shame, unbearable though it seems, and clear evidence of inner division as it is, is also the evidence that trauma does not—cannot—in fact, murder the “soul." Neither Dion nor Brown can accept their shame because they remain dependent on the shaming object. It seems that this, as much as anything else, underlies their rivalry. The dark moment of the Prologue—the moment of terror—should also conclude the play. 

With O’Neill’s much less satisfactory play of doubling, Days Without End (1934), the entrée for the Freudian model of doubling (repression/libido) appears again but again fails to prove more than a remote and diffused part of the case. John’s taunting, sneering, double (invisible to the other characters) has successfully suggested that he commit adultery, and now, through the medium of discussing the possible conclusion of the novel John is writing, also suggests driving his wife to her death. The double is called Loving, which is not merely an irony. When John is visited by his uncle, a Catholic priest, intent on converting him out of his “floating” agnosticism, Loving—an alter who can command speech—tells him, again through the medium of the hypothetical novel, of his loss of belief (but it is not quite that, it is hatred of God) consequent on the death of his parents when he was fifteen.  Also, at moments of doublespeak that anticipate Long Day’s Journey into Night, he tells him of his murderous desire:

Loving: Do you think I haven’t imagined her death many times?

John: The dread of it has haunted me ever since we were married.  (Act 1, 3. 127)

O’Neill readers will recall the two bookcases in the opening directions for Long Day’s Journey into Night, one devoted to the classics, the other to works of anarchism and modernist revolt. As Egil Tornqvist points out, the occasion of O’Neill’s sudden switch from boyhood Catholicism to rebellious agnosticism was his mother’s attempted suicide and the consequent revelation of her drug usage.  In Tornqvist’s view O’Neill sought to re-assemble himself through his ambitions to a religious drama. We shall see that this misses the center of O’Neill’s work.

Meanwhile, at his home, John’s wife Ella must listen to a friend confess she has had an affair. Resentful over her husband’s infidelities, the friend has lured a man into a bedroom at a party. Then:

I don’t know how to explain it, you’ll think I am crazy, or being funny, but was as if he were no longer there. It was another man, a stranger whose eyes were hateful and frightening… there was something evil and revengeful as I was. It frightened and fascinated me—and called to me too; that’s the hell of it! (Act 2, 3.140)

The man, of course, is John. The woman’s “friend”, herself as alter, has called forth John’s alter. The pattern in both John’s case and hers is hurt, resentment, splitting (not behaving like oneself), imitation and rivalry directed toward the hurtful object (God, the husband) with the lust growing out of that rivalry confirmed by its doubling in another. The term instinct seems far from adequate.

When John—and Loving—return with the uncle-priest, once again through describing the plot of the novel, the doubled hero tells the same story as Ella’s friend, so that Ella, her face “frozen into a mask” (Act 3, Scene 1, 3.154) cannot fail to recognize that John has committed adultery. John tries to describe the demon that possesses him. He does not say that the demon did it, but that he cannot bear the “fear of the lie hiding behind the mask of the truth”, a nicely complicated phrase. He feels the dread both of his inner mocker, and the fear that his wife might die and repeat his earlier abandonment. He feels that “love put him at the mercy of life” and that thence arises the murderous attitude to his wife. In this respect Loving is rightly named. Nevertheless Loving, as he contributes to the story, twists it towards exerting an evil, Svengalian will, over Ella (“her eyes full of strange, horrified   fascination”, Act 3, Scene 2, 3.156) and  through  the  power of suggestion induces in her an illness that would bring about her death. “Loving”, therefore, does not have a simple character (such as an instinct).

As the cast gather round her sick bed, the question is whether Ella is willing her death under Loving’s murderous will or whether her forgiveness can defeat this subjection to the bad object that has produced in her an angry, unforgiving will: in other words, she is (unconsciously) considering suicide-murder (that is by killing herself, to “kill” John). The attendant doctor calls it all “psychic nonsense”. As the mental struggle intensifies, Loving now reveals his other purpose: to bring John (and therefore himself) to suicide. But John, with the priest praying away, still seeking for loving, suddenly recognizes the fear in Loving: a fear of God. Freed, he runs to “an old church”, where, at the foot of the Cross, in a simplified version of Dion’s declaration, he cries out in ecstasy: “At last I see! I have always loved!” (Act 4, Scene 2, 3.179) At this Loving, his arms stretched out in cruciform shape, dies. Ella can now forgive.

This is psychologically subtler than its melodramatic means, but something is wrong. Shame has been escaped. “Life laughs with Love” (3.180), the apparently united John Loving declares at the play’s end, in the style of those exhausting O’Neill life-comedies like Lazarus Laughed. (1928) that O’Neill favored at this stage of his career. The paradox of the death of Loving at the moment of loving seems to escape O’Neill. The play is only apparently inclusive. In fact, it is throughout too didactic, forced. Despite the assertion of unity, because of its insistent simplicity, we are aware that, in this religious context, this is a play not of psychotherapeutics (inclusion) but exorcism: the old primitive division. Loving is never understood, let alone loved. In The Great God Brown, Dion combined the demon and the Christ as he sought the murder-suicide of martyrdom. O’Neill allows us to see through the sad trick. Days Without End ends with a murder-suicide sanctified at the altar of the scapegoat.

Doubles: the conclusion of Day’s Without End. Courtesy Yale Collection of American Literature,
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

“In the world of doubles, with its deep-rooted rivalries, there can be no neutral relationships,’ Girard declares.17 His brilliant work raises the question as to whether we should see the obvious double of modern literature as an unsophisticated version of more complex inward antagonisms (or multiple alters) or as some kind of final term in cultural disorder and in ego-organization in cases of suicide. Typically in literary treatments of the double there is an appearance of differences but a fundamental co-operation and likeness. Further, the appearance of the double is the sign of the subject’s death. In Violence and the Sacred, Girard writes of “the monstrous Double" Is not the sinister intimacy of this monster towards its subject indeed the revelation of the system’s coming together as the scapegoating other?

Girard’s solution to his dark vision lies in his claim that it is impossible to apply the structure of imitation/ rivalry to Jesus. Yet O’Neill’s plays, and so much other literary and clinical evidence speaks to the contrary: distorted versions of Jesus appear repeatedly in culture as they do in systems of multiple personality as they do in schizophrenia and other delusional systems: in fact, one might almost say, they are characteristic of western culture. To that great literary critic and cultural theorist (who remains too dependent on Frazer’s primitivist anthropology) one might say what he himself says of Greek tragedy: the imitation of scapegoating should be just that—in the remembering of therapy and the recollection and reenactment of (the) play.

Return to "The Theater of Trauma"


© Copyright 1999-2008