The new maturity
was, in fact, at hand, but one more debt remained to be paid to the
theory and practice of the Art Theatre. Not that Days
Without End was written with Macgowan’s principles in mind. By
1933, when he sent the script to Langner, he had already turned toward
other subjects and was writing in a substantially different style,
which, although it continued bold and direct, rooted out any obvious
experimentation. Nevertheless, Days
Without End is something of a throwback to the earlier
experimental manner, and like the others, uses expressionistic
techniques to explore the nature of man’s quest for God. Although
the question is important, it is impossible to determine whether
O’Neill wrote his series of theological dramas because of some inner
quest of his own, or whether he was led to these themes because the
departure from realism showed him that they were there to be explored.
Certainly all of his biographers make much of his being a renegade
Catholic, and there can be little doubt that the Hound of Heaven
pursued him at many times during his life. From the beginning, in his
writing, there is revealed a sense of what George Herbert in The
Collar termed “repining restlessness,” in O’Neill’s
attempt to find for his heroes a point of faith in which they may
rest. The faith rarely has significant ethical necessities. It is
bred, rather, of the weariness of which Herbert spoke—the fatigue
men feel far from their source, as they seek to return to what has
created them. O’Neill’s departure from the Catholic faith caused
some of his personal restlessness, but he had left the Church early,
as a boy, and thereafter, found in the sea something of the qualities
he recognized as God. In Dynamo,
Reuben speaks of the life in the sea, as he leans wearily against
Mrs. Fife’s shoulder:
The sea was no surrogate faith, and while he wrote of it, O’Neill’s plays were simple and direct and lyric. With the new style, the presentation is no longer of men guarded in spite of themselves by the Sea-Mother. The techniques of expressionism demanded fuller awareness from his heroes; the plays of the experimental period show men roused to a greater consciousness of loss. The quest motif enters and with it emerges the agony of the search, the despair and the queer, torturous naming of a variety of manifestations of divinity to which the questers might belong. But the specifically religious themes come only as his theatrical style moves toward expressionism. For O’Neill, once he had gone “behind life,” it was essential to find the life source.
Inevitably, the Catholic faith which he had known as a boy was one to be explored, but it is important to remember that shortly before he began serious work on Days Without End, he was sketching the autobiographical Sea-Mother’s Son. Both the sea and Catholicism were, at the end of the 1920’s, possible points of return. Both plays were filled with directly autobiographical material, and mark the first steps beyond the quasi-narcissism of the self-portraits toward direct autobiography. What perhaps conditioned his completion of Days Without End rather than Sea-Mother’s Son was, first, that he had written Dynamo, to which Days Without End was an intended sequel, and second, that he had found Carlotta Monterey.
O’Neill’s third marriage was for him a haven, embodying much of the relationship he had hoped for and tried to describe in so early a work as Servitude and more fully in Welded. The inscriptions of his plays, together with the letters to his wife that have been published in the volume Inscriptions, set forth this idealism fully. There, it is clear, that O’Neill tried many times to fulfill her request to write a poem. His inevitable theme was the perfection of their love and his own sense of fulfillment in it. Serena Royle, who played Elsa in the Guild production of Days Without End, felt that the play was O’Neill’s poem to Carlotta.12 Philip Moeller noted that both husband and wife acknowledged the play to be more hers than his, and that Carlotta hoped that someday O’Neill would return to the Catholic faith.13 At the same time, however, as O’Neill’s relationship with Carlotta deepened, he found it increasingly necessary to turn away from the world, toward himself and her for any real emotional and spiritual sustenance. The divorce from Agnes O’Neill was not a simple process, and O’Neill had become news. He fled with Carlotta and hid from the world until they could be married. He received his mail through intermediaries and refused to return to the United States. They set out on a world tour, which ended in a debacle in Shanghai when the press tracked him down and reported wild stories of his death. Not until July, 1929, when he finally was free to marry Carlotta, could he come safely from hiding, and even in the years thereafter he proved increasingly reclusive. At this stage in his life, as he moved into his forties, the tendency to introspection which he had always displayed dominated his behavior. All he now needed as a human being was his own life, peculiarly enclosed within the protective walls of his third marriage. He was not, at this juncture, far from autobiography. Days Without End takes an important autobiographical step at the same time as it attempts to hymn the marriage in which he found peace.*
Just as Reuben Light was alienated from his mother and sought in Ada and in Mrs. Fife substitutes which finally came to fulfillment in his self-sacrifice to the dynamo, so the hero of the sequel was to follow a similar course to his death, sacrificing himself to the Virgin in whom Mother and Wife become divinity. Henry Adams had taken the dynamo as a modern symbol paralleling the symbol of the Virgin in medieval life. Operating within the frame of reference that Adams provided, but shaping his action so that the new play’s meaning would be closely related to that of Dynamo, it is probable that the hero’s sacrifice would have provided a testimony similar to that provided by Reuben’s death: to the death of God in modern society, but also more positively to the hero’s reunion with God the Mother embodied in the statue of the Virgin. Probably, as was the case with Dynamo, Days Without End would have confounded itself between negative and positive implications.
The external forces operating on O’Neill’s creation of the play perhaps made such an artificial, somewhat sterile conclusion impossible. The way to end the work remained a problem to the last. Through eight draft versions, the work was altered and no satisfactory conclusion reached. The heroine, Elsa, lived and died as did the hero, John Loving, who in the fifth draft of the play was split into two characters, John and his demonic alter ego, Loving. No other play O’Neill wrote proceeded with such uncertainty or remained in the final version so much a matter of trial and error. Even the title changed wildly from moment to moment, shifting from Without Endings of Days to Without Ending of Days, Endings of Days, Ending of Days and On to Hercules before O’Neill settled on Days Without End, calling to mind the phrase “World without End” from the Book of Common Prayer. The final title maintains an ambiguity in the pun: “Without End” means without ultimate spiritual goal, “endless” and “eternal.” The alternative title, On to Hercules, was intended to suggest man as an eternal and heroic quester for a goal that was not to be found. “Days Without End” implies that a goal may exist, but the point is not made with conviction in the title nor in the play. Although O’Neill finally saves both John and Elsa and their marriage, and exorcises the doppelganger, Loving, thus restoring John to his lost faith, the conclusion is without the force of truth.
That the ending remained unsatisfactory is perhaps because O’Neill did not function as a dramatist at all in the scenes leading to that point. The problem of how to end the play, of finding what meaning he really meant, obscured the fact that the ending arises from nothing and is not the climax of any significant development of character or narrative. Based on what precedes it, any conclusion would inevitably have been fully as arbitrary.
In developing the play, O’Neill transferred to his hero much of the artistic as well as the spiritual indecision which he felt at the time of its writing. No play of O’Neill’s is so lacking in action, so wasteful in construction, so filled with needless changes of scene and undeveloped and uninteresting characters. The first act in John Loving’s office and the second in his apartment do nothing but present straight exposition. The dialogue among John and Loving and the supernumerary partner, Eliot, and finally Father Baird is entirely devoted to what John has been in the past. The second act repeats the process for John’s wife, Elsa, and her friend Lucy who has been John’s mistress. The expository progression is carried on into the first scene of the third act, up to the point where Elsa belatedly realizes from John’s description of the novel he is writing that the book is her husband’s thinly disguised autobiography and that he has been unfaithful to her. When she walks from the house, the first—almost the play’s only—significant action is taken. By Act III, scene ii, however, John is again discussing his spiritual struggle in the guise of telling the plot for his novel. In short, very nearly three-quarters of the play is consumed with a discussion of the spiritual condition of the hero and none of it is dramatized until John, in remorse that he has been the cause of his wife’s crucial illness, turns to the Church and leaps toward faith. That it is not much of a leap is to be explained by the lack of life in the springboard.
John Mason Brown in reviewing the play in production noted that all the characters except John are “feeders,” brought on stage to provide an opportunity15 for some ‘dialogue to occur, but having no dramatic function. Certainly the charge is just, as it relates to Eliot, the partner, Stillwell, the doctor, the maid, the nurse and John’s inamorata, Lucy. Father Baird, John’s uncle, has somewhat more to do as John’s early Catholic mentor, but he plays no finally significant part in John’s decision. The play’s only action, setting aside a brief encounter between John and Elsa—who thereafter is hors de combat in a condition of delirium—comes at the end of Act III. In essence, the play is a four-act monologue by a man at a crisis of religious doubt. To make it possible for the theatre, O’Neill employs two tricks—splitting his character into a Jekyll and Hyde duality so that Faustian John and Mephistophelian Loving can debate the spiritual issue; and by having John write the autobiographical novel whose plot he narrates endlessly. If the contents of the novel sound a little like O’Neill’s own rough notes for his plays, the point may be made that this is what they essentially are—character and situations for a play unwritten. O’Neill, dropping back to older theatrical times when the acts of plays were given titles, calls Acts I to III “Plot for a Novel,” remembering perhaps the novelistic ambitions of Strange Interlude. Yet it seems clear that the real drama was O’Neill’s attempt to write the play, a problem he transferred without much change or objectification to his hero.
The vapid dramaturgy
is testimony that the play was written without real inspiration, and
the details bear this out. The script is a compendium of ideas which
derive from earlier plays. The questing hero, once again, is a
modified self-portrait. The crude exposition
of John’s career (520)
recalls a similar scene at the opening of The
(554) Elsa in words clearly derived
from Nina Leeds, describes John as
her child, father, husband and lover, (518) and Nina is again recalled
by Lucy’s description of the overly deliberate way she seduced John
which has some of the clinical tone of Nina’s proposition to
Darrell: “And I picked out this man—yes, deliberately! It was all
deliberate and crazy! And I had to do all the seducing. . . .“ (521)
Elsa, although she has been married before, demands perfection of her
marriage and particularly requires that her husband be faithful to her
in words that recall Emma Crosby in Diff’rent:
“I know he never had a single affair in his life before he met
me. . . . I wouldn’t have believed it of another man in the world,
but with John I felt it was absolutely true to what I knew he was like
inside him . . . It was what made me love him, more than anything
else—the feeling that he would be mine, only mine, that I wouldn’t
have to share him even with the past.” (522) Her ideal of marriage
is virtually identical with that set forth in Welded:
Elsa’s miraculous resurrection from the brink of death weakly echoes the return of Miriam from the grave in Lazarus Laughed, just as the duality of John and Loving brings to mind the opposition between Dion and Brown and the poet and nay-sayer who have occupied many of O’Neill’s stages. Toward the end of the play, the concept of a controlling fate, reminiscent of the fate of the Mannons in Mourning Becomes Electra emerges, (560) and the laughter of Lazarus is dragged in in such language as “Life laughs with God’s love again! Life laughs with love!” (567)—words that provide O’Neill with a sufficient rhetorical thrust for his curtain line.
Without End, written without
real craftsmanship or imagination, thematically arbitrary, if not
confused, rephrasing old concepts and forcing them into the Catholic
mold is the end of a line. It is true that a sort of life moves
occasionally in the play and, when it does, the germ of new works can,
in retrospect, be perceived. For example, at one point, John describes
a moment of conflict in his novel in these words:
It is a long journey from this to Hickey’s monologue in The Iceman Cometh and to the portrait of Con Melody in A Touch of the Poet, but the idea is there, and it is new to O’Neill. Similarly, at the beginning of Act III, scene ii, as John talks about the Depression period in America, he does so in words that anticipate the central theme of the historical cycle, whose shape is even then coming to mind: “(Americans) explain away their spiritual cowardice by whining that the time for individualism is past, when it is their courage to possess their own souls which is dead—and stinking!” (542) But such moments are few and the play remains without life. It was, perhaps, O’Neill’s most deserved failure,** and although it raised critical controversy especially as to O’Neill’s apparent embracement of Catholicism, the commentary amounted finally to little. It was not so much a question of spiritual salvation that mattered. The most profound question the play raises is one of the salvation of O’Neill’s artistry which with this work seemed deeply in trouble.
recessive quality of the play and the marriage is suggested by
O’Neill’s use of a poem by
Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, “A une enfant taciturne,” which he copied
as part of the dedication to
Carlotta of the published copy of Days
Without End. The poem reads,
The reference to the loss of the deep sea’s sadness perhaps had for O’Neill a special relevance.
** It should
be noted that the play has been successfully performed in Europe,
particularly in Ireland, where Yeats brought it to the Abbey Theatre.
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