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My notion of vital contradictions in the central characters of early modern drama derives from two connected sources. The first is the idea of character complexity, the term complexity often associated with the characters in great literature as opposed to literature that is intended purely to entertain. The term complexity is usually associated with great tragedy, and great tragedy with the great writers of ancient Greece and of the Renaissance. The characters are what we remember best from Greek and Renaissance tragedy. They are characters who have had great impact on readers and audiences but resist easy definition: Sophocles’s Oedipus and Antigone, all of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, several residents of Dante’s inferno, Milton’s Satan, and Goethe’s Faust. To these might be added such post-Renaissance figures as Dickens’s Sidney Carton, George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke, Stendhal’s Eugene Sorel, Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov and the Karamazov brothers, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and Faulkner’s Quentin Compson. And great comedy fits into this context when one considers Jonson’s Volpone, Moliere’s Alceste, Fielding’s Tom Jones, and Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett. The temptation to be definitive about any of these figures can be offset by the rec-ognition of qualities that fight the definitive statement. Oedipus’s determination is contradicted by his stubbornness, Antigone’s courage by her obsessiveness, Lear’s strength by his petulance, Volpone’s imagination by his rapacity, Raskolnikov’s compassion by his violence. We do not think of any of these figures as inconsistent but as made larger as artistic creations by the contradictions that are essential to their natures.

The second source of my notion of vital contradictions in early modern drama derives from the reaction in late nineteenth century Europe and America against melodrama, the popular literature of the nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. Melodramatic techniques cover a multitude of factors in drama (and I am now limiting myself to the drama, though much that I say obviously applies to all kinds of narrative literature). Those factors range from plot, to language, to setting and atmosphere, to moral purposes. Character, though not unimportant, is less important in melodrama than are these other factors. The main characters in melodrama are typically the protagonist, the embodiment of good, and the antagonist, the embodiment of evil. Normally, good triumphs, though there is one kind of melodrama, R.B. Heilman’s “drama of disaster,” in which evil triumphs.(1) The main interests in melodrama have always been, what is going to happen, and what moral instruction should I get from this? Suspense and clear moral choices are always central. And these are often accompanied by the lurid, often for its own sake. The central figures in melodrama tend to be formulaic. Villains may “reform,” fallen women may be “saved,” wayward husbands and wives may become faithful spouses; but these normally play-concluding changes in motives and behavior tend to be simplistic.

The four playwrights I shall be dealing with, in their determination to be probing dramatists like their classical ancestors, all attempted to transcend melodrama, even though two of them, Ibsen and O’Neill, used it extensively. Ibsen tried to write non-melodramatic plays early in his career but came increasingly to employ melodramatic techniques because he thought their popularity would attract audiences to his plays and thereby allow him, in the name of a new realism, to more broadly convey his larger vision.
(2) And O’Neill, willy-nilly much influenced by the melodramatic American theatre of his father, included much melodrama in the plots, language, and characterizations of his earlier drama, but, as I and others have attempted to show, ultimately reached beyond melodrama.(3) As for Strindberg, while melodrama plays some part in his naturalistic plays, it is of minimal importance. And Chekhov all but abandoned melodrama in his close examination of character.(4) All four attempted to de-emphasize melodrama’s intricate plots, simplistic characterizations, and, except where it served other purposes, overblown language. And if there is a moral to be drawn from any of their plays, at least the ones I look at, it is not an obvious one.

What they turned to, with varying degrees of success, was an emphasis on character comparable to that in the great drama of the past. Rather than emphasizing plot and intrigue, they emphasized the contradictory ways in which their people think and behave, particularly in stressful situations. Their major characters are often inconsistent because that is the way people are. And rather than taking away from these figures, these inconsistencies add to their convincing qualities. One might say these playwrights reinvent the human.(5) Three of these playwrights wrote before the influence of Freudian depth psychology on literature, but all of them had an instinctive sense of the multiplicity of often contradictory motives that affect human behavior. And they had a sense that such multiplicity of contradictory motives strengthened their characters as dramatic figures and deepened the plays in which the characters appear.

     I have labeled with the phrase vital contradictions those contradictions in their natures that essentially identify most of the major figures in the plays I shall look at, and some of the minor figures. Such contradictions are vivid and pronounced, while the figures we encounter is fully wrought, whole, and singular. Such contradictions render the characters convincing while enigmatic, recognizable while indefinable. These characters do not all become Lears (though a couple come close), but their contradictions help them to stand out, especially when the character in question is, or becomes, aware of them. Their contradictions are vital in contributing to the importance of these characters within their individual plays, and vital in contributing to the impact these characters have on us as readers and audiences.

To amplify what I have said, let me quickly consider several of these playwrights’ better-known figures that I will not later deal with in detail. Ibsen’s Dr. Stockmann (An Enemy of the People) becomes more human in being both a relentless pursuer of justice and at the same time obsessively self-centered; Strindberg’s Captain Adolph (The Father) by being both a highly rational figure and at the same time a crazed misogynist; and O’Neill’s Con Melody (A Touch of the Poet) by being both a genuine aristocrat and at the same time a shanty-Irish brawler. The at the same time is important. It is not always easy to assess which side of the contradiction is at work at a particular moment. But in all these figures, an “inner strength” (Kurt Eisen’s phrase(6)) is revealed by the contradictions that are always at work between powerful, contradictory forces within them. It is the strength implied by Strindberg’s Daughter of Indra in A Dream Play when she says of individual human beings that a “conflict of opposites generates power, as fire and water generates steam.”

Obviously, I cannot deal with all the significant playwrights and plays of early modern drama whose characters reveal vital contradictions.(7) My selection is based on my impression of a power in the playwrights and plays I have chosen that is largely divorced from what these plays “are saying.” Ibsen still strikes many as primarily associated with social protest, Strindberg with the force of the occult in human experience, Chekhov with the changes his society is going through, and O’Neill with fashionable theories of his time.(8) While I do not wish to negate the importance of these factors, I do find these playwrights strongly linked, not by their views on socio-political topics close to their hearts, but by their common perception that vital human beings are most forcefully identified by their contradictions. And the plays I have chosen strike me as ones that most clearly reveal that link.

I begin, with Ibsen, with an unlikely play, but one that is central to my outlook: Peer Gynt. I say unlikely because 1) it is for Ibsen a relatively early effort and, despite its popularity, undeniably long and disjointed; and 2) it is a folk play, not realist drama, as are all but one of the other plays I look at. But if ever there were a central figure who is full of vital contradictions, it is Peer. I continue with The Wild Duck, where I focus on not only on the vital contradictions of Hjalmar Ekdahl, but also on the inner contradictions of the play’s intellectual combatants Gregers Werle and Dr. Relling, contradictions that contribute to their being so fierce in their attitudes. And I look at Hedda Gabler, that portrait of a woman inhabited by the most vital of inner contradictions of any almost any woman character in literature.

I begin my discussion of Strindberg with a brief look at The Father, before discussing Miss Julie, in which I consider the ways in which each of the lovers’ vital contradictions affect their relationship. Then I move to Easter, in which vital contradictions within the central character Elis are seen to parallel contradictory symbols of despair and hope associated with Lent and Easter; and the Expressionist A Dream Play, in which contradictions within the figures of the Officer, the Lawyer, and the Poet exemplify oppositions within the human spirit which the Daughter says generate human power. I also look at the inner contradictions the Daughter herself must experience when she assumes her human role as Agnes, the Lawyer’s wife.

With Chekhov, I begin with Ivanov, the vital contradictions within whose central figure point the way directly, as I see it, to Chekhov’s subsequent, better-known plays and characters. I then discuss in succession The Sea Gull, Uncle Vanya, and The Three Sisters, looking in varying degrees of detail at all those plays’ major characters, and some minor ones (if one can say there are minor figures in Chekhov), and conclude with The Cherry Orchard, where I concentrate on just four figures. In this section I focus, as I do in discussing Miss Julie, on how vital contradictions within the characters affect their relationships with one another. The Chekhov section is the longest in the book because his characters are the wealthiest in vital contradictions. 

By O’Neill’s own proclamation, Ibsen and Strindberg were his artistic progenitors, and if he discounted Chekhov in the 1920s,(9) I wonder if he would still have discounted him if he had been asked about Chekhov in the late 1930s. It is difficult to imagine the creator of Jamie Tyrone failing to appreciate the creator of the doctor in The Three Sisters. After a look at More Stately Mansions, I focus on the vital contradictions inherent in almost all the characters in The Iceman Cometh, with particular emphasis on Hickey and Larry Slade, before dealing with Long Day’s Journey into Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten, expanding upon and modifying my earlier published discussions of those plays(10) and adding a brief consideration of the one-act Hughie. I see the creation of vital contradictions within his characters as the salient aspect of O’Neill’s late plays, and I focus most on Jamie (later Jim) Tyrone as the figure whose vital contradictions are the deepest and whose ultimate awareness of those contradictions make him into a genuinely tragic figure.

While melodrama as pure entertainment persists (and always will), and there has been a very self-conscious revival of melodrama in recent years in musicals like Sweeney Todd and Les Misérables, vital contradictions in their central figures are what most serious dramatists aim for. Witness the work of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Edward Albee; and more recent playwrights like Tom Stoppard, David Hare, David Mamet, Sam Shepard and Terence McNally. There is also an increasing number of revivals of plays by the dramatists I deal with.(11) And there has been an increase on screen in the number of plays by these dramatists, along with often popularized versions of the plays of Shakespeare, their chief ancestor. Melodramatic tricks are still employed, as they were by Ibsen to make his serious drama more engaging to popular audiences. This is especially true, for example, of the recent Martin McDonagh two-act The Beauty Queen of Leenane, in which emphasis on vital contradictions within the characters in the first act is displaced by an old-fashioned melodrama of blood and horror in the second (seriously marring the play, in my opinion). Theatre, like the other arts, seems to have a propensity to run away from the human just as it reaches the point of more deeply probing it. But serious theatre today is primarily still in the tradition of the best of the early modern dramatists, and my purpose is to probe that tradition from the perspective on dramatic characterization I bring to some of their major plays.

(1)     See Tragedy and Melodrama: Versions of Experience (Seattle: U of Washington P, 1968), especially 32–73. I take my lead in this study from Heilman’s sense of the inner “dividedness” of the central figures of tragedy as opposed to the absence of inner dividedness that characterizes the central figures in melodrama. That Heilman’s view of melodrama in this regard has been extensively and variously revised in recent theatre criticism does not displace the truth and clarity of his distinction. For a few of such revisions, see the essays in Melodrama, edited by James Redmond (Cambridge UP, 1992), especially those by William R. Morse (17–30) and William Sharp (269–280). See also Thomas Postlewait, “From Melodrama to Realism: The Suspect History of American Drama,” in Melodrama: The Cultural Emergence of a Genre, edited by Michael Hays and Anastasia Nikopoulou (NY: St. Martin’s Press, l996) 39–60.

(2)     See the chapter on Ibsen in Robert Brustein’s The Theatre of Revolt (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1964) 35–83. That larger vision for Brustein is shaped by the constant reversals in Ibsen’s positions: “For Ibsen … the ultimate Truth lies only in the perpetual conflict of truths. …” (48)

(3)     See Jean Chothia’s Forging a Language and my own Eugene O’Neill’s New Language of Kinship (Syracuse UP, 1982). In this context, see also Kurt Eisen’s The Inner Strength of Opposites: O’Neill’s Novelistic Drama and the Melodramatic Imagination (Athens: U Georgia P, 1994). Eisen takes his lead from Peter Brooks’s The Melodramatic Imagination (New Haven: Yale UP, 1976). For the most recent discussion of the “dividedness” of O’Neill’s later characters, see Zander Brietzke’s The Aesthetics of Failure: Dynamic Structure in the Plays of Eugene O’Neill (Jefferson, N.C: McFarland, 2001) 164–196.

(4)     Harvey Pitcher, in his excellent study The Chekhov Play (NY: Harper and Row, 1973), demonstrates how that playwright abandoned a moral outlook, one in which there are heroes and villains, in favor of one which explores the emotional complexities of his characters.

(5)     Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (NY: Riverhead Books, 1998) is an attempt to re-humanize Shakespeare in an era in which there has been a discrediting of human values as the basis for the study of literature. While I disagree with many of Bloom’s interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays, I admire what he has tried to do and to some degree emulate him in my approach to modern drama.

(6)     See Eisen reference in Note 3.

(7)     My selection of playwrights and plays grows out of the historical parameters and prospective length of the study. In addition, my four playwrights—unlike, say, the more cerebral Bernard Shaw—emphasize character as the outgrowth of a multitude of instinctive and psychological forces that cannot ever be fully understood.

(8)     With regard to O’Neill in this context, see Joel Pfister’s Staging Depth: Eugene O’Neill and the Politics of Psychological Discourse (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1995).

(9)     O’Neill denigrated Chekhov in 1924 when in an interview he called the Russian dramatist a writer of “perfect plotless plays.” See Oscar Cargill et al., eds., O’Neill and His Plays (NYU Press, 1961) 111.

(10)    “The Transcendence of Melodrama in Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” in Perspectives on O’Neill: New Essays, edited by S. Bagchee (Victoria, B.C., 1988) 33–42; “The Transcendence of Melodrama in A Touch of the Poet and A Moon for the Misbegotten, “ in Critical Approaches to O’Neill, edited by J.H. Stroupe (NY: AMS Press, 1988) 147–157; and “The Transcendence of Melodrama in The Iceman Cometh,” in Critical Essays on Eugene O’Neill, edited by James Martine (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1984) 145–158.

(11)    Revivals of The Wild Duck and Hedda Gabler have in recent years burgeoned in London and New York, as have revivals of all Chekhov’s “big four” and of Strindberg’s Miss Julie. O’Neill’s late plays are, of course, constantly being professionally revived—-most recently and successfully The Iceman Cometh (with Kevin Spacey in London and New York), A Moon for the Misbegotten (with Gabriel Byrne in New York), and Long Day’s Journey into Night (with Jessica Lange in London). In addition are the many revivals of these plays by academic and regional theatres.

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