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It seems only fair to start this study acknowledging a general debt to the scholars who devoted much of their time to the transcription and the publication of O’Neill’s lost or unfinished plays as well as his correspondence and diaries. When one reads a page of his manuscripts, one understands how difficult it must have been. I wish, therefore, to express my gratitude to the people who completed such a heavy task since these books proved a great help when I was working on my subject.

Forty-nine plays will be analyzed at different stages of this book. I decided not to include The Calms of Capricorn, because the author himself did not finish it. On the other hand, in spite of its being only a “final draft,” since O’Neill would probably have cut many lines, I thought that More Stately Mansions had to be included in the corpus. Despite its clumsiness, this work deserves to be studied; it was to have been part of a vast cycle, A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed, which, unfortunately, could not be completed.

Everybody agrees that the plays he wrote were of uneven value, so it might be tempting not to refer, for instance, to the book entitled Ten Lost Plays by Eugene O’Neill. I would probably hold that view if I were a stage director, but in the circumstances, my task was of a different nature. I had no intention of making a hit parade; all the author’s works which could be performed on a stage were taken into account. Of course, I realize that some fields are left unexplored. Still I do not regret having retained all his dramatic writings, despite the difficulty it involved, in order to be able to apply my hypotheses to the entire O’Neill canon.

Playing an important part in my choice was the fact that one constantly meets with recurrent themes or actions, which are sometimes viewed in a different light but which in the end make it possible to see links between what at first seemed to belong to completely different worlds. I am well aware that Desire Under the Elms and The Web, for instance, cannot be treated on equal terms. Still, I hope that this study will show that the decision I made in the beginning was the right one, since I feel that continuity prevails over differences, and this could only be proven by taking all of the works into consideration. One could object and retort that even if links can be found among the forty-nine plays, it would be wrong to state that comedies and tragedies are made of the same stuff. I would agree with such a remark, and I am conscious of the heterogeneity of the corpus. Trying to give a comprehensive interpretation of the canon, I attempted to see how various examples fitted, in their own way, into a more general design.

As for the subject itself, which might be stated as humanity confronted with the world in the theatre of Eugene O’Neill, there is no doubt that the existing links between human beings and the world mattered a great deal to the dramatist, since he kept staging people who were confronted with existential problems. In his theatre, he tried to show the inner truth of characters, and the question of their relationship to the world is one of the most important issues raised in his plays. Men’s and women’s involvement in their environment varies and gender is no trivial matter in their lives; but what interested me most were human beings who live in a community or more generally, on earth.

In the subject as stated above, world is in the singular: I suppose that an explanation is necessary. I feel that, potentially, there is a kind of ideal world which is seen as a whole, even if, in general, fragmentation prevails. It does not mean that it is unique; on the contrary, the whole is not one single reality, but is made of many parts, which intervene at specific levels in the lives of the protagonists. Because of the complexity of the subject and the variety of ways in which it is dealt with, I divided my study into three parts, corresponding to three aspects of the relationship between humanity and the world. Part I deals with the family and the situation of the individual in a family structure. Part II is about the links binding people to others and to society in general. Part III is devoted to the analysis of the inner world of the characters and to their connection with the natural world.

I shall relate this attempt at interpretation of the works of O’Neill to contemporary criticism in the last part of this introduction, but since I mentioned family structure, I feel I have to say a word now about biography. Two excellent biographies, one written by Arthur and Barbara Gelb, and another in two volumes by Louis Sheaffer, have become general references in the world of O’Neill studies. Reading them is very rewarding, and the connections made between the life of the author and his plays is most interesting. Many other critics allude to O’Neill’s life in ways that enable their readers to understand passages that otherwise might have remained obscure. I do not object to biography, and I have the greatest respect for the aforementioned authors. I, however, intend to examine O’Neill’s theatre from a different angle, without referring to his life.

The first panel of the triptych depicts the relations that exist among the members of the families represented on the stage. I studied the parts given to the protagonists, analyzing how the universe of the family influences the behavior of people and focusing my attention on their responses to the forces acting upon them. Is family structure a help or a hindrance to the fulfillment of the individual? Even at that early stage of my research, I met with a question central to the two other parts, namely, that of individual freedom, an echo of which is to be found in the conflict between the fight or flight impulse.

I then focused my attention on couples, and more generally on characters who were not considered members of a family. The task consisted of analyzing the impact of the social body on the individual, before studying the way he tries to become a member of the community. Some succeed while others fail in their attempt at joining a group, so I examined the behavior of individuals faced with the beliefs and moral values representative of the society they live in. The rites of passage which decide whether they belong to a community had to be taken into account as well. Indeed a sense of belonging becomes the goal in their pursuit of happiness, but this implies that people will only be fulfilled if they can give an appropriate answer to a challenge. A flght is always looming in the background—while some try to escape, others seek renewal in another way which might lead to happiness.

In the third panel of the triptych, one meets again with the tension between a need to find oneself and a wish to escape. Individual freedom is central in this battle, and investigations of it result in a new reading of the plays, knowing that this last part of the study brings the subjects discussed in the first two parts to a logical conclusion. Every character has a specific approach to life—many aspects and influences are explored, from Buddhism to Catholicism, not forgetting, of course, the Nietzschean view of the world. In the end, all these elements lead to a coherent vision of people’s relationships with themselves and the natural world in the plays of Eugene O’Neill. What I tried to show was that the vital concept which, in my opinion, gives a cohesion to the whole canon was that of rebirth.

I feel I have to give an overall view of what I intended to demonstrate, even if this introduction will give the reader only a general idea of what is at stake. This personal vision of the plays calls into question a number of ideas about O’Neill’s theatre which need to be stated.

I agree that there are some postmodern aspects in some plays, but the lack of true limit between illusion and reality does not mean that the characters are caught in a huge trap that is the world, which is devoid of meaning. My study tries to illustrate, on the contrary, that classifying O’Neill’s plays as absurd drama is irrelevant.

Another point I should like to raise, but with less vehemence, is that of the classification of the plays. I can understand critics referring to them as “the late plays” or “the early plays” so as to explain briefly which works they have in mind. Still, I cannot agree with the idea of periods, and changes which would have taken place in the author’s vision of the world. I am aware that this point of view is unorthodox, but in spite of all the admiration I have for the works of Travis Bogard, I am afraid I have to disagree with him on that point.

According to Professor Bogard,

In his early conception, man’s fate is ironic in direct proportion to its incomprehensibility. Although men seek happiness and try to alter the miserable condition of their lives, their struggles only weave the strands of their webs more tightly about them. Will, therefore, leads to a kind of suicide, and hope is self-delusion. Such shallow and unformed pessimism does not approximate a world view, for O’Neill has neither philosophy nor theology to support his intuitions. In consequence, at the beginning there is nothing to lend explanation to the destruction. There are only victims in a spiderless web.

My hypothesis consists in showing that, contrary to what Travis Bogard says, there are things which “lend explanation to the destruction.” Perhaps I should add that, for me, there is a direct continuity between Abortion and The Iceman Cometh. I am well aware that from a literary point of view, there is a considerable difference between them, but I think that both plays can be understood if one reads them with the idea of rebirth in mind, as I shall try to show in the course of my study. This is but one example, but even apparently antagonistic visions, like Buddhism and Catholicism, will have common points with a pantheistic vision which is central in O’Neill’s view. Fate does play an important part in the lives of some characters, so does guilt, or the death wish, but it seems to me that a new reading of the plays can be made in the light of the concept which I used. Fortunately, there were crossroads, and even though I sometimes stepped on a few leaves which had not yet been trodden black, I was pleased to share the point of view of critics who sometimes came to similar conclusions, having taken another road.

From what I have said, I suppose it has become obvious that I am a member of the community of critics who find that O’Neill should not be seen as a pessimistic author, because I feel that even tragedy enables him to give a fresh breath to life. To conclude this introductory chapter, I should like to quote another great dramatist, Wole Soyinka, or rather one of his characters, who expresses what I hope to demonstrate in the following pages devoted to the theatre of Eugene O’Neill.

Olunde. I don’t find it morbid at all. I find it rather inspiring. It is an affirmative commentary on life.

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