In the fall of 1920, at approximately the same time as The Emperor Jones was being readied for production, O’Neill wrote the second of the period’s domestic dramas, the two-act study of a repressed New England spinster, Diff’rent. The Provincetown Players produced it in December, 1920, on the bill that followed The Emperor Jones. The play, first called Thirty Years, but evolving its final title from the continual, almost choric repetition of the word “diff’rent” in the first act, is O’Neill’s first real venture into Freudian psychology. It is not entirely satisfactory. Emma Crosby’s insistence that her fiancé, Caleb, shall come to her marriage bed sexually “pure” is given no explanation in terms of her family or her circumstances. Neither is a clarifying psychological explanation provided for her unexpected switch in Act II, when, thirty years after sending her lover away, she suddenly throws herself at his twenty-three-year-old nephew. Equally mystifying is Caleb’s fidelity. His attempt to maintain his “purity” in defiance of all the laws of nature when a native girl slips into his bed, his suicide after thirty years of dog-like devotion to Emma, measured by any standard of reasonable human conduct are substantial improbabilities.
Yet the play, which had some small success, riding tandem with The Emperor Jones in its Broadway production, is not to be lightly dismissed. For one thing, there is an intensity about the writing, a quality not quite to be defined that keeps it from the ludicrous. For all the carefully prepared details of the historical New England scene, and the studied dialect, the play takes a sharp inner turn, and focuses as only a few of his earlier plays had on the emotional action of its central character. O’Neill was perhaps less interested in offering plausible psychological motivation for Emma’s destiny in the world than in projecting the intensity of her feeling. In truth, the play is betrayed by its narrative, for its concerns, at heart, seem to be something other than a study of repressed sexual instincts.
Emma’s desire is that her marriage with Caleb shall be a different kind of relationship from that which is usual. Caleb describes for her the romantic charm of the tropical islands where he lost his virginity. Although she refuses his explanation and rejects him as a suitor, it is not entirely clear that she opposes the sensuality of his description. In trying to describe herself as different from other girls, she says,
It can of course be taken that Emma here is
suggesting that sexual purity shall be maintained even in marriage.
Yet as O’Neill has presented her in the first act, Emma is a girl
of considerable charm, and aside from her fatal sense of difference,
not unattractive. Her face “gives an impression of prettiness, due to her large, soft blue eyes
which have an incongruous quality of absent-minded romantic dreaminess
about them.” (494)
Her romanticism is parallel to, not different from the image of the warm and romantic tropical islands Caleb describes. She is not cold, but her romantic dreaminess suggests that she wants from Caleb something more than sexual innocence. Her idealism demands from him a condition of perfection, a surrender to a goal romantically conceived but stubbornly sought, a dream that is essential to happiness. Caleb has sensed the difference of the islands, and responded to their strangeness. Emma’s dream of difference has something of the same quality, a search for something less mundane, true, more absorbing. O’Neill called the play “A tale of the eternal, romantic idealist who is in all of us—the eternally defeated one,” adding, perhaps in an attempt to universalize his heroine, “In our innermost hearts, we all wish ourselves and others to be ‘diff’rent.’ We are all more or less “Emmas’—the more or less depending on our talent for compromise. Either we try in desperation to clutch our dream at the last by deluding ourselves with some tawdry substitute; or, having waited the best part of our lives, we find the substitute that time mocks us with too shabby to accept. In either case we are tragic figures, and also fit subjects for the highest comedy, were one sufficiently detached to write it.”9 Emma’s dream of difference, in other words, must be viewed as similar to Robert Mayo’s dream of going beyond the horizon.
To define the dream of difference is not an entirely easy matter. Clearly, when Emma appears in the second act, her freshness withered, and her face covered with a mask-like make-up, she has become the tragicomic figure who has tried to find a shabby substitute for the dream’s reality. Her suicide is the despairing end to a life mocked by time. Yet this is the aftermath of the dream denied, and what the dream is remains obscured, hidden beneath the sexual allegory of the narrative.
Difference insofar as it can be understood within the play’s context appears to be the complete subjugation of two individuals in marriage in such a way that they will form a new entity, “a married couple—diff’rent from the rest.” Attempting to explain her rejection of him, Emma acknowledges that she is unconcerned about his small slip with the native girl. “What you done is just what any other man would have done—and being like them is exactly what’ll keep you from ever seeing my meaning.” (516) She continues to tell him of her belief that as they grew up together their relationship had a special quality, that it was, in some indefinable way, rare and uncommon. For Emma, at least, the relationship with Caleb was to be the dream to which she sought to surrender, the resting place that provided perfect fulfillment, where the drive to possess and the desire to be possessed were reduced to an essential condition of harmony. That Caleb cannot understand this is her reason for renouncing the dream, and the play in its final moments, as both Caleb and Emma commit suicide, becomes an early statement of what will be one of O’Neill’s major themes: the horror that comes to those who deny their dreams.
Diff’rent fails because it is unable clearly to define the nature of the dream, and because Emma’s tawdry substitute for the dream has pathos without real substance. Once she has been brought to her senses and has seen herself as a grotesque scarecrow, she takes the trappings of the house she has redecorated in order to entice the younger man—the new curtains, rugs, furniture—and piles them in the middle of the floor. It is a pathetic gesture, but insufficient to give her even such stature as O’Neill provided for Robert Mayo. The play, in part at least, refuses to develop its largest, quasiallegorical possibilities, but remains anchored in a domestic world, blurred as a result.
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