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The Amateur: Before Breakfast   Next

In Greenwich Village after O’Neill had left Harvard, his greatest necessity was to unlearn the lessons Baker had taught him. He was far from his mark, the simplicity and directness of Bound East for Cardiff forgotten. At first, he worked diligently, writing on the average seven hours a day, but nothing came of it beyond slick trash. Gradually, as his work came to a standstill, his energies flagged, and he fell from his disciplined life into debauchery. He saw much of his brother, Jamie, and found a kind of comfort in the limbo of life that such saloons as The Hell Hole offered him. There, his friends were rough men, truck drivers, gangsters, and down-and-outs who asked nothing of him and in whose company he could neglect his flagging literary career without apology. Elsewhere in the Village, he met Maxwell Bodenheim, Mary Heaton Vorse and the loquacious anarchist, Terry Carlin, whom he later portrayed as Larry Slade in The Iceman Cometh. Such intellectual pretentions as he voiced were in behalf of anarchist causes, but the mask of anarchy fit him poorly, and he soon laid it aside. His association with Carlin, however, brought him to Provincetown, and through Carlin he was put in touch with the Players.

In the summer of 1915, the group that became the Provincetown Players had begun to experiment with the drama. On the Cape, at first at the home of one of their members, later in the shed on Mary Heaton Vorse’s wharf, they had produced four one-act plays, Constancy by Neith Boyce Hapgood, Suppressed Desires by Cook and Glaspell, Change Your Style by Cook and Contemporaries by Wilbur Daniel Steele. They had also in a manifesto written by Cook and Hapgood defined their Dionysian concept of drama.

In 1916 the heat of the New York summer became increasingly oppressive, and O’Neill and Carlin came to Provincetown. Returning to the sea shook O’Neill from the creative doldrums into which he had drifted. He began to write more purposively and perhaps purgatively in an effort to rid himself of the Baker virus. The play on which he worked was Before Breakfast, a short monodrama, closely imitative of Strindberg’s The Stronger. It is the first play in two years in which something of O’Neill’s authentic voice can be heard. No other, among the plays of this period, so clearly anticipates the next major phase of his career.

O’Neill, before he met Baker, had read and admired Strindberg’s work. Years later, in a letter accepting the Nobel Prize, O’Neill mentioned that in 1913 it was his reading of the Swedish dramatist that “first gave me the vision of what modern drama could be, and first inspired me with the urge to write for the theatre myself.”10 In the Harvard year, the inspiration was not strongly felt; Strindberg was not a favorite of Baker. Thus, in returning to an original impulse, and following the pattern of Strindbergian drama so closely, O’Neill appears to have been retracing his steps in search of inspiration he had lost.

What Strindberg’s dramas would have meant to a young American writer in the early years of this century is not difficult to imagine. In the naturalistic plays, the extraordinary sharpness of focus, the strength of the major lines of action, the shocking sexuality and the psychological force of the characterization would have cornbined to make the work of every other contemporary dramatist pallid by comparison. To one like O’Neill, whose taste was for a subject matter much stronger than the routines of sin and redemption that had passed for an image of life in much American theatre, Strindberg must have seemed like Truth’s original. In the hidden life of O’Neill’s own family, the complex interpenetration of love and hatred, similar to that which he found in The Father or The Dance of Death, may have lent verification to the Swedish dramatist’s view of life. Something of that view he had earlier tried to make his own in the final scene between John Brown and his wife in Bread and Butter. That he felt an instinctive, personal sympathy for what he found in Strindberg’s work is suggested by the fact that he there portrayed himself as a character caught in a Strindbergian pattern. In Before Breakfast, he drew even closer to his model, and again around a self-portrait wrote a deliberate imitation of The Stronger.

Compared to its original, Before Breakfast is a paltry affair. Like The Stronger it is a monologue spoken to a silent listener by a woman who seeks to triumph in a sexual battle. Mrs. Rowland is a slatternly, shrewish alcoholic, whose long uninterrupted tirade inveighs against her husband for his attempts to write, his drinking and his failure to get a job and provide something better for her than the squalid coldwater flat in which they live. She opens his mail and discovers that he loves another woman, maligns her character and continues at length about her unwillingness to give him a divorce. Her husband, Alfred, mute and unseen except for the moment that his hand—”a sensitive hand with slender fingers” (629)—reaches tremblingly on stage from the bathroom for some hot water with which to shave, crumbles under the pressure of her words and cuts his throat. The play’s ending is identical with that of Bread and Butter. When Mrs. Rowland discovers her husband’s body, she runs screaming from the room.

O’Neill was far from his model. In effect, he aped the technical manner and the superficies of Strindberg’s subject matter but caught none of its sophistication. He missed entirely the essence of Strindberg’s dramaturgy—the sharply focused conflict. In this short work, there is no contest. Mrs. Rowland’s monologue is only expository, lifeless and static, and, while it manages to depict something of her character, it involves her in no significant action. Such action, such conflict as the play has is left offstage in the bathroom, where Alfred must make the choice between life and despairing death.

Alfred, the poet, is O’Neill’s most typical protagonist, and, in miniature, is a self-portrait placed as was John Brown in a chamber of pseudo-Strindbergian horrors. He was well educated at Harvard, but now he passes his days loafing around barrooms, wasting time “with that good-for-nothing lot of artists from the Square” (627) or mooning around “writing silly poetry and stories that no one will buy.” (628) His life as it is sketched is close, if not identical, to that which O’Neill lived in the Village, and, in the Provincetown production, the sensitive hand was played by O’Neill in his last performance on the stage.

No doubt at first O’Neill felt that he had caught something of Strindberg’s power, and, moreover, that he had stated a truth of his own experience. Yet the neurasthenic self-portrait romanticizes the play, turning it into a routine picture of the artist and the philistine, in a manner totally foreign to Strindberg’s unsentimental attitude toward his characters. To a degree, the situation was to continue throughout O’Neill’s career. He remained a devotee and champion of Strindberg, and in several plays sought to imitate his subject matter and style. Invariably in these plays he introduced a portrait of himself, as if by placing himself in such a context he could explain something of his own realities. The juxtaposition, however, produces no clarity. The plays move in their emotional content and the general tenor of their sympathies far from their original. For all his admiration, he could not respond to Strindberg with such instinctive understanding as he responded to Conrad. The difference is perhaps that Conrad’s work related to a less complex, freer, more exterior phase of his life. Strindberg led him into an area of his personality which until the end of his life he did not understand.

Certainly, by the time of its production O’Neill had lost interest in Before Breakfast except as a technical experiment with monologue. In the last analysis, the monologue is an accompaniment to Alfred’s unseen crisis. Its weight, rather than its words, drives him to suicide. The weight was what mattered. Edna Kenton quotes O’Neill as wondering “how long an audience will stand for a monologue. . . . How much are they going to stand before they begin to break?” In her words, “He didn’t care about the success of the play—he cared only about the reaction of the audience to monologue, trick shocks, trick relief. It was a deliberate experiment for a definite result—the endurance of the audience.”11 Before Breakfast is thus the first of O’Neill’s experimental plays, his first gesture toward the growing cult of the Art Theatre. Following it were other experiments with monologue in The Emperor Jones, The Hairy Ape, Strange Interlude and, at the end, Hughie and the final scene of The Iceman Cometh. By reason of its technical experimentation alone, it must be considered as of more importance than its content justifies.

Whether O’Neill knew it or not, the experiment with monologue was not totally conceived in imitation of Strindberg. In many of his earliest plays, he had used monologues to depict his characters in the isolation of their own feeling. In Before Breakfast, oriented around Strindberg, and carried to extreme, the monologue was redefined, and it was sufficient to give him at least the glimmering of direction. Whether the step he took was a wise one may be debated, but for better or worse it was decisive. In the rush of plays that followed in 1917, other preoccupations concerned him, but by 1920, it was clear that he had chosen to move in the direction of theatrical experiment and the Art Theatre, a course he did not finally desert until 1933, when he completed Days Without End.

Before Breakfast was not finished when Carlin met the Cooks by accident in a Provincetown street. The Players had reassembled and made plans to continue. Cook was searching everywhere for plays for his group. Carlin had nothing, but he mentioned O’Neill. The encounter of O’Neill and the group has been movingly recorded by Susan Glaspell. The shy, tough, silent young man, reputed to have a “trunkful” of plays, was asked to bring one of his works and read it to a group assembled at Cook’s home that evening. In something like agony, O’Neill waited in the dining room while the play was read aloud. When the reading was finished, the Players had gained a new purpose and direction. “Then,” Miss Glaspell wrote, “we knew what we were for.”12 The purpose was to prove not quite what they thought at the time. O’Neill’s rise to fame was in a different rhythm from the Dionysian dance improvised the summer before, and in committing themselves to him, the Players profaned the heart of their mystery. For the moment, however, they had found a point of assembly.

The play O’Neill brought them was Bound East for Cardiff. It was a sensitive choice. With the sea as an integral element in the lives of the summer people, with the diminutive, sea-surrounded stage at their disposal, no better play could have been found. It was ready-made for the talents and facilities of the amateur actors. Most importantly, however, in offering it for production, O’Neill was tacitly asserting his own truth. Reaching back beyond the academic efforts of his student days, he selected the one play that was really characteristic of his genius, just as he had pulled back from the discontent of the winter and returned to the sea and to himself. In a small way, life in Provincetown that summer must have seemed like a resurrection. Swimming far out from the land, tanning himself on the silent dunes, he came again into his right element and to his own métier.

When the summer was over, the Players enthusiastically departed for New York to set up their theatre. O’Neill did not join them. He stayed in Provincetown to write until October, when he went to New York for rehearsals of Bound East for Cardiff in which he was to play the Second Mate as he had in the Wharf Theatre production. He remained in New York until February, while the Players produced the finally completed Before Breakfast. Then he returned to Provincetown, where by April he had completed Ile and the other Glencairn plays.


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