Eugene O'Neill

Menu Bar



The New Republic, November 15, 1922

Eugene O'Neill


Mr. Eugene O'Neill has had a great deal of foolish praise. But one of the outstanding signs of his work is that he is the kind of man who will always outgrow his friend and who can survive praise that would ruin most artists. About him adjectives and lying anecdotes fill the air, and the word great has been scattered about like stage money. But the most significant thing that can be said about Mr. O'Neill's plays at this stage of the game is that his qualities are fundamental theatre. He is like a sculptor who, good or bad, is a sculptor in that he models a form solidly; it is at least sculpture as far as it goes. The blackest artistic fault in the average painting is that it might have been said in sculpture, the average music in poetry, the average drama in fiction. The primary and the rarest thing in any art is to attain to an expression that is in terms of the fundamentals of that art and that could be said in no other.

In The Emperor Jones and The Hairy Ape the pattern is a theatre pattern: their outline belongs to the stage. In the Hairy Ape Mr. O'Neill has done what happens only once in a dramatic generation and almost never then, he has invented a fable. He has created a story that begins and moves and ends in a line so right, so just, so simple and inevitable that it might easily be taken for granted by the imagination of American theatre. The dialogue that Mr. O'Neill writes is in terms of his art; in his best scenes it has what you see only in one out of thousands of plays, a quality that might make it almost impossible as literature but yet moving and right as theatre. He has a current of thought and feeling that is essentially theatrical, taken off the stage it might often seem exaggerated, out of taste or monotonous. At his best he is in control of a flow of compelling emotion and a strange quivering intensity that is not equaled in recent English drama.

But in the very excellence of The Hairy Ape there is something implied that makes it necessary that Mr. O'Neill go on. The case of his dialogue parallels exactly the case of the plays in the large. The best examples of dialogue in his plays, like that in the first act of Diff'rent, or the first act of Anna Christie or The Hairy Ape, are absolutely right so far as they go. The speeches carry us with them; they establish a stream of glowing and poignant and magnetic feeling. They bite; they have at times the precision and the thrill of poetry. But if you hear them often you begin to notice that they depend a good deal on single-track streams of emotion in the characters; they get results sometimes by repeating words over and over, sometimes merely by violent damns and oaths and unexpected frankness. You find them moving still but less engaging; you give to them more feeling than attention. These traits of dialogue need not be faults in themselves. Yet the content of the dialogue would be deepened and widened if this secure and direct feeling were kept but at the same time there were more shadings in the words themselves and more inclusion through these words of the whole content of the dramatic moment. Without lessening its strength or its force the dramatic texture of this dialogue might sometimes be enriched.

What holds for the dialogue fits the plays of Mr. O'Neill's future; they will bear enriching. In the greatest drama there is a distribution of elements. However sweeping the emotion may be, the tragic beauty and the flight of the human spirit portrayed, there is in the whole sum of the work a balancing of things with a more complete view of the world and all that is in it. The Hairy Ape had only one thread. It was operatic, lyrical, in its interpretation of life. To think of it as a problem is absurd. It is what the author meant it to be, a powerful and picturesque statement of a thing that was insoluble. It was not even realism, but a sort of brutalism used lyrically. It was not revolutionary except in so far as it was a moving response to a certain human condition. The Hairy Ape was complete; what made it complete was not its comment on its material but its unity of emotion. In its high levels The Hairy Ape was perfect in its kind. But life nevertheless is more complex than all that. It was on the side of this larger complexity and grasp that Diff'rent went to pieces at the end and Anna Christie failed, in so far as it did fail, to reach a bang-up and right conclusion. There are more and more elements to be considered as one's art develops. He intellectual weight and measure is one of the parts of us that drama involves as well as the more poignantly felt circumstance.

That this progression toward a wider complexity is dangerous, so sensitive a mind as that behind these plays knows, none better. One may be able to do a more or less single-minded thing well enough, but fail in others. A man like Mr. O'Neill may stumble and despair long before he finds--if he ever does--the same mastery in this more complex venture that he has achieved in his earlier work. Hs friends will protest, they will beg him to stick to his very own art. But fortunately a man like Mr. O'Neill has more brains than many of his admirers. He will know that such venture and progression is only the danger that follows vitality, the perpetual risk in all growth. He will know that an artist must go on or fail--and even fail if it must be--since there is never any going back.

I am not saying that Mr. O'Neill ought to do this, that or the other; such critical exhortation is a stupid intrusion--I am saying that from his best work I think he will. In The Hairy Ape he got himself through; he found a complete outlet for what he was in relation to the theme he chose. And yet it remained temperamental, seen with an original and strong intelligence but moody. That need not be a defect, but it can be a limitation. Mr. O'Neill will be finding more and more in his plays a wider outlet for his relation to a wider world of life. His poetry will be freer; it will rest easier in mere beauty itself; it will have more admission and understanding of pure beauty, romance, delight and even ecstasy. His realism will be less than formerly the use of the actual to support a glowing and passionate mood. It will be more the patient and inexhaustible study of reality in order to find the one essential line that conveys the truth of it. Mr. O'Neill has his own kind of construction already learned. With the structure well contrived he will be able to take the opportunity of putting in as much choiceness as he likes. He can give to work that is strongly built an actual and inescapable selection from reality. He can give it a further distinction, the echo of his most delicate world. He can haunt the shadings of the play, haunt the mere words with his own hidden life until they are closer to him, as the dream of the play is already close. From his best scenes now I keep an impression like that I keep of music long after I have heard it. The experience remains curiously uninteresting and vague and at the same time beautiful and vivid. But if things go right with him Mr. O'Neill will not stay where he is. In the art toward which the author of Anna Christie is moving, the poignancy of music and the nature and comment of the world of life will balance and measure and justify each other.

This does not in the least mean that Mr. O'Neill will have to go into conclusions, preaching, argument, problematic themes. It means only that he will find what will be his own truth as he goes on, and that it will grow with his growth. This truth will be what he thinks is the sum, the account, of all the elements involved in his material. As in The Hairy Ape already, in a more formal line, this truth will be his escape to which he wins his way. It will be the avenue of his liberation from his matter; the only thing that can make him free of the burden of that world he creates and judges.

Return to "The Hairy Ape, Anna Christie, The First Man"


Copyright 1999-2007