Similar problems beset the third of the “domestic” tragedies of the years 1920-21. The First Man is an attempt to write a modern, sophisticated play that would yet incorporate some of the concepts that had emerged in the romantic studies of the sea. The manner is that of the realistic Strindberg, but the play also includes certain elements of social satire and appears to have an autobiographical basis. It opened at the Neighborhood Playhouse on March 4, 1922, with Augustin Duncan as Curtis Jayson. Reviews of the production and of the play ranged from the negative to the violently condemnatory. There was general agreement among the critics that the play was miscast, that Duncan was too old and that a vital idea had been lost in murky writing. It was noted, however (and the comments may well reflect concerns of the playwright), that O’Neill was essaying comedy scenes with some success and that he was now proving he could handle group scenes on his stage. The reviewers were evidently becoming aware of his habit of reducing his action to monologues.
First Man, O’Neill returns to the scene of Bread
and Butter—Bridgetown, Connecticut—and again vents his
hostility against the philistine middle class. As the reviewers of the
1922 production noted, the play divides itself into two major
themes, first, the personal story of the anthropological explorer
Curtis Jayson and his wife Martha and, second, the conflict between
Martha and Curt’s relatives. The latter theme is designed to
satirize the small-minded gossips who condemn Martha for her
friendship with Curt’s best friend, Edward Bigelow. These scenes, in
which a forthright woman defies the town’s scandalous gossip, are
well below the level, but reminiscent of Carol Kennicott’s defiance
of the denizens of Gopher Prairie. It should be noted that Main Street appeared in 1920, just before O’Neill wrote The
The uncharacteristic social satire set aside, the domestic story follows a pattern which, by this time, O’Neill has worked over in Ile, Gold and Diff’rent. In each, a somewhat fanatical central character sets his dream and consequently his will over the good of those immediately about him. As the labored exposition makes clear, Jayson is a romantic, a rough-and-tumble dreamer, who has essayed many occupations, guided by his quest for romantic adventure.
A try at mining engineering in Nevada has been followed by a time spent prospecting, but there, as Bigelow points out, Jayson found nothing but different varieties of pebbles:
In his hero’s career-sketch, with its variety of activities, its stress on wandering the earth, even in the prospecting detail, O’Neill is recalling some of the contours of his own life, but as his notes on the manuscript draft of the play suggest, he conceived of Curt as a “fanatic”10 and thus, presumably, as something other than a self-portrait. Curt is portrayed as a quester, seeking for what was popularly known in the 1920’s as “the Missing Link,” and hoping to find the secret of man’s origins. His search for the source ranks him with both Robert Mayo and Brutus Jones: with Robert because his idealistic drives were bred in part by dreams and hope, and with Jones because his action leads him backward toward a point of origin in the primitive past that in some measure explains his present.
As Caleb in Diff’rent was called upon to share Emma’s dream, Martha is forced to accept her husband’s hope as her own. She appears successful in subjugating herself to him, willing herself to accept his dream, but her acceptance is not complete. She describes a time in Tibet when, having tried to be all that he asked, she found herself tired with the venture and, out of harmony not only with her husband, but, unexpectedly, with the earth itself.
To save herself, it becomes clear to her that she must separate herself from her husband’s dream, to find the origins of life not in physical questing, but in bearing a child and thus, as she puts it, “completing” herself. To Jayson, her pregnancy is treachery, the destruction of his dream and the essential center of their marriage. The play attempts to motivate his violent antipathy toward having a child by positing that two children born early in their marriage had died, yet his opposition to Martha’s pregnancy clearly goes beyond rational explanation. O’Neill appears to see it in a Strindbergian light as the natural hostility of male and female principles. Martha implies this when she cries,
She implores him, as he has loved his dream, to love the “creator” in her. He cannot. O’Neill, faithful to his Strindberg, makes compromise in the war of men and women impossible. Only a momentary armistice can be found in passion, but as Jayson tells her that he loves her, he adds, “You are me and I am you.” His words cause Martha to draw away and to reply “Yes, you love me. But who am I? You don’t know.” On the note of estrangement, the scene ends, leaving Martha alienated and alone.
What she has rejected is a view of marriage that demands such complete mutual involvement of husband and wife that both lose their individuation in the formation of a new entity. What Emma thought of as marriage with a difference is somewhat clarified by Jayson’s petition to his wife. Shortly, in Welded, O’Neill will again try to spell out the concept which he first expressed hesitantly in Servitude as “Pan in Logos,” and which, if autobiographical accounts be true, he sought in his own marriages.
“You are me and I am you” is not, however, a concept that comes to be realized in The First Man. O’Neill’s conclusion to the story of the Jaysons is harrowing. Martha is in painful labor. She will die when the child is born, but in the interim, throughout the third act, her offstage screams form a painful punctuation to the action. The scene is one of extraordinary technical difficulty, and one which would need the maximum theatrical resourcefulness to bring off. It is a bold experiment, paralleling O’Neill’s impulse earlier displayed with ghosts and drums to make an audience bear as much direct assault as possible.
When Martha dies, Jayson comes near to madness. He refuses to see the child and prepares to depart for Tibet without acknowledging the child in any way.* There is even the threat that he may murder the child who has destroyed his marriage. In the end, however, a resolution is effected as the baby is left with an aged aunt who is relatively free of the corruption of his other relatives.
The First Man
remains an unsatisfactory, mis-stressed play, but one which in
O’Neill’s development was crucial. It announces unambiguously the
theme centering on the paradox of true marriage and human individuality
from which he will evolve several later studies, including Welded
and Strange Interlude.
* It should be mentioned that O’Neill’s first child was born in 1910, while O’Neill was gold prospecting in Honduras. He did not see him until 1921. Possibly, too, in Jayson’s resentment of the child, there is a reflection of O’Neill’s personal resentment at Agnes’s pregnancy in 1919.
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