Perhaps the most
significant comment of the many O’Neill made about Dynamo
was in a letter to Carlotta Monterey O’Neill, dated December 4,
1929,4 in which he expresses concern that the play does not
live up to the qualities he has found in his new marriage and so does
not justify him in his wife’s eyes. He describes the play as a
backward step, and regrets the play is not truly a product of their
marriage. In an unpublished letter to Joseph Wood Krutch, dated July
27, 1929, he again referred to the play as marking “a standing
still, if not a backward move.” He wrote that, having revised the
work extensively for publication, he liked it better, but had decided
that it should never have been written:
It wasn’t worth my writing and so it never called forth my best. But a good lesson for me. Henceforth unless I’ve got a theme that demands I step a rung higher to do it, I’m going to mark time and play the country gent until such a theme comes. It wasn’t that I didn’t have such themes when I wrote “D” but “D” was more developed in my mind as a play and seemed an easy choice.
O’Neill correctly attributed much of the play’s failure to the marital troubles which beset him during the time of its writing, and to his being unable to be in New York City during the rehearsal period. The play was completed in 1928 in France, where he and Carlotta Monterey had gone to wait out O’Neill’s divorce from Agnes Boulton O’Neill. He did not return to the United States until 1931, when the Guild produced Mourning Becomes Electra. Dynamo, thus, is the only play O’Neill did not see through to production. Its significant failure is ample testimony to the importance of his presence in the theatre during pre-production periods.
In truth, however, Dynamo was an old idea by the time he wrote it, and it suffered something of the fate of The First Man, Welded and The Fountain, in each of which he had lost interest by the time of production. The play was conceived in 1924 while he was working on Marco Millions and The Great God Brown. He mentions it by title in a letter to Macgowan on August 19, 1924, and there calls the idea “queer and intriguing.” It was intended for production by the Triumvirate, for on March 14, 1925, he wrote to Macgowan that the play should be produced in the Greenwich Village Theatre, not the Provincetown Playhouse where the ventilation was bad. “Imagine writing of the cosmic tides of Being when you’re thinking of how nobody in the audience will be able to draw their own breath after Scene One!”
Work on Dynamo was stalled during 1926-27 while he wrote Strange Interlude and Lazarus Laughed. Not until August, 1927, did he have what he felt to be a completed scenario.5 More delay followed, and he left for France after Strange Interlude opened with his notes for Dynamo in his pocket. The play was half-finished by April, 1928, and by September, shortly before he embarked on a world cruise, he sent Langner a script and elaborate production instructions concerning the sound effects and their meaning. He also announced that it was to form the first play of a trilogy on contemporary religious problems. Later he was to regret this announcement, of which the Guild and the newspapers made much. He wrote to Krutch, in a long postmortem, that the published text would throw light on his intention “which was psychological primarily in spite of the published quotes from my letters on the trilogy (I meant the word trilogy in the very loosest sense, three plays, entirely independent of each other but all written around the general spiritual futility of the substitute-God search) these quotes putting all the emphasis on the abstract scheme for the trilogy at the expense of the human drama in the foreground of our play, Dynamo. My fault again, I ought to know by this time that my letters are usually plays without any exposition and mislead or puzzle accordingly.”6
The Guild accepted the play in October and produced it on February 11, 1929. It played for fifty performances, sufficient to satisfy the Guild’s subscription audience and then closed. O’Neill continued to tinker, and, finally, rewrote it virtually in its entirety. The published script represents a radical reordering of scenes, the elimination of one character who appeared in the original production and much pruning and reshaping of the dialogue. None of these changes were tried out in the theatre, and it is therefore important to recognize that Dynamo, unlike any of O’Neill’s other plays produced in his lifetime, is an unfinished work, one which never had its important final shaping for the theatrical machine.*
Furthermore, kept alive over a five-year period, Dynamo had evidently been blown by the changing winds of O’Neill’s other plays, by shifts in his perspective and maturing attitudes. O’Neill was correct in saying that the play is a step backward, for the play belongs far more to the period of The Hairy Ape and The Emperor Jones than to the work of which he proved capable after Strange Interlude. As he wrote Dynamo, he was sketching the long autobiographical play to be called Sea-Mother’s Son, and the first conception of Mourning Becomes Electra had already fired his imagination. Dynamo was written because it was there and could represent him in the theatre while the more massive works germinated.
Although the final portrait is blurred, Reuben, whose name in the early scenarios was Benjamin,** is O’Neill’s typical dreamer as the play begins. He has the sensitive face, and the weak mouth that characterizes the portraits of Robert Mayo and other quasi-autobiographical heroes. He is also developed in terms of his quest for a belief that will enable him to belong to an elemental life force, and, like many of the earlier heroes, he feels a special responsivity to the sea. In early scenarios for the play, O’Neill seems to have conceived of his destiny as similar to that of John Brown in Bread and Butter. The Reverend Light, considering his son’s future, wants him to go to divinity school, but his wife wants the boy to have business training so that he may attain material success comparable to that of her daughters who have married successful business men. Although the daughters and sons-in-law were quickly eliminated, the image of the sensitive son torn between God and Mammon never disappeared entirely from the script.
From the incomplete first scenario, it is possible to see the outlines of the original conception of the play, the hero’s turn from uncongenial materialistic success and from the life-denying Calvinist God of his father toward a substitute faith in the idea of electricity, which in the figure of the dynamo seemed a mysterious, feminine source of life. Although in the final version, O’Neill retained something of the mother’s desire that Reuben should go into business and “marry a nice girl with money,” the mother’s materialism is not the cause of her betrayal of Reuben. Rather, it is caused by her jealousy of her son’s love for the neighbor girl, Ada. As O’Neill phrased the issue in an analysis to Benjamin de Casseres, “the boy’s psychological struggle . . . begins when he is betrayed by his mother and casts her off along with his father’s God: . . . he finally has to sacrifice the girl his mother hated to a maternal deity whom he loves sexually.”7 He noted that this story was three-fourths of the play and that it was a “human relationship” which counted.
Taken at this level,
the play, although it is not to be entirely condoned, can at least be
understood as the attempt of Reuben to recover his lost mother by
immolating himself on the dynamo. In killing himself and Ada, he has
gone through a ritual of self-purification, destroying the sources of
his guilt and the vestiges of the Father God in himself so that he may
be worthy of God the Mother. It is an ending not dissimilar to that
renunciation and purification which marks Jim Harris’s surrender of
himself at the ending of All
God’s Chillun Got Wings.
Reuben’s worship of the dynamo evolves from the conception that seems to have been the germ of the play, the essay by Henry Adams on “The Dynamo and the Virgin,” that forms Chapter XXV of The Education of Henry Adams. There, Adams speaks of the dynamo as a moral force comparable to that which early Christians saw in the Cross. He writes of its humming as a warning to men to have respect for its power, and he adds, “One began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force.”8 The dynamo’s force, as Adams interpreted it, was a particularly American manifestation of the life force, seen in earlier times in Europe as the worship of Venus and the Virgin. “The Woman,” he wrote, “had once been supreme,” but in America, she had been covered with fig leaves by Puritans who knew that “sex was sin.” Nevertheless, Adams noted, the Puritans knew that The Woman, in whatever representation she was made manifest, was not worshiped for her beauty: “She was goddess because of her force; she was the animated dynamo; she was reproduction—the greatest and most mysterious of all energies; all she needed was to be fecund.”9 The dynamo was, in short, an icon of God the Mother of whom O’Neill had written obliquely in Desire Under the Elms shortly before he began work on Dynamo, and who appeared in other forms in The Great God Brown and Strange Interlude, finished while Dynamo was still being written. In fact, the dynamo is the first, rather than the last, direct representation of the Mother God in O’Neill’s theatre. That it proved somewhat obvious and clumsy for the Guild’s audiences in 1929 is a token, perhaps, of how rapidly O’Neill’s audiences were led toward sophistication, but taken in the period of its inception, it is no more clumsy or obvious than the crocodile god or the great ape in the zoo. Had the play in shortened form been produced in 1924 or 1925, it might well have succeeded as an exciting experiment.
In the interim between its conception and birth, O’Neill, reaching toward depth and complexity, hung more on the play than it could bear, and, as he acknowledged, he lost the essential psychological story.*** He also, and without hope of restoration, destroyed his conception, derived from Henry Adams, of the dynamo as a real symbol of God. It is difficult to conceive of an interpretation that Reuben’s death, arms spread as if crucified on the dynamo, is anything other than a triumphant return to the source of life. As he kills himself he cries “I don’t want to know the truth! I only want you to hide me, Mother! Never let me go from you again! Please, Mother!” His is a plunge toward identity with the God-force. The sacrifice made, perhaps he belongs.
Unfortunately, the possibility of accepting the ending as it appears to have been intended is vitiated by the context in which Reuben moves—between the puritanical Calvinism of his father and the cracker-barrel atheism of Ada’s father, Ramsay Fife. This conflict is a tedious one between, on the one side, Light’s fundamentalist God whose vengeance is in the lightning, and whose exaction of the wages of sin is implacable and, on the other, Fife’s belief that since the universe is Godless, the power of electricity is the sole source of life. It is a power which he jokingly equates with that of Lucifer. Fife and Light provide the intellectual polarities of the play, and, when he leaves his father, Reuben, by choosing the dynamo, chooses the atheism of Fife as his most profound religious perception. Since his final action reflects Fife’s belief in electricity, Fife’s atheism cuts across the meaning of the play’s last moments. The question is unanswered as to whether Reuben has committed an act of religious devotion or whether, out of madness and despair, he has followed Fife’s atheistical teachings to their warped end. The situation is complicated by the presence in the person of Mrs. Fife of a Cybel-like goddess who dreams moonily throughout the play and whose feeling for the dynamo is like Reuben’s. “I could sit forever and listen to them sing ... they’re always singing about everything in the world,” she says, and hums to herself as the dynamo hums. Mrs. Fife sees the dynamo as essentially creative and intelligible while her husband denies it the power of a God except in jest. Thus with such conflicting opinions expressed as to the nature of the God which surround Reuben’s story, his final act is unclear. No view, Reuben’s or that of any other character, has supremacy at the play’s end. The confusion was fatal and the play ends in an unresolved suspension: does Reuben find God? or does his death demonstrate “the general spiritual futility of the substitute-God search”?
The search for a
substitute God was apparently to be the theme of the other parts of
the trilogy whose titles were Without Endings of Days and It
Cannot Be Mad. The third play was never written, and it is
doubtful from O’Neill’s description of the content of the trilogy
whether the second play, which finally emerged as Days
Without End, can be considered as thematically related to Dynamo. O’Neill wrote to de Casseres, “A general idea-title for
the trilogy might be God Is Dead! Long Live—What? with science
supplying an answer which to religion-starved primitive instinct is
like feeding a. puppy biscuit to a lion. Or something like that.”10
He discussed the matter more fully in letters to Langner and
Nathan, to whom he wrote that Dynamo
O’Neill’s letter was published in the American Mercury, in January, 1929, and part of it was reprinted in the Guild’s program for Dynamo. The credo, together with his instructions to Langner may well have guided critical and popular interpretations of the play, as he felt. Whatever the reason, Dynamo appeared to most to be concerned with the death of God, rather than with a man’s attempt to find God the Mother in the dynamo’s energy. The announced theme of the trilogy in effect canceled out the theme of the narrative, and the effect was—and to an extent still is—confusion confounded.
Dynamo, as its shape became more definite in O’Neill’s mind, unquestionably had an effect on both Strange Interlude and Lazarus Laughed. The concept of electrical energy as being somehow equivalent to God is a recurrent image in both works, and Nina’s presence as an incarnation of the Mother God in certain of the acts of Strange Interlude perhaps originated in the ideas behind Dynamo. By the same token, however, Dynamo was changed from its first conception by the two companion works. Clearly, the use of asides and soliloquies in Dynamo—O’Neill called them “Interludisms”—were not a property of the original design. It may well be that his partial failure to create in Nina a clear symbol of God the Mother caused him to try again and take up the Dynamo script in 1928 after it had lain fallow for several years. Certainly, Dynamo enabled him to explore the idea more concretely, more symbolically than he had been able to do with the psychological realism of Strange Interlude. In the final analysis, Dynamo is made up of sweepings from the O’Neill workshop, containing surprisingly flaccid writing, and an irrevocably ambiguous theme. He knew it. He stated flatly that “‘Dynamo’ doesn’t count,” and swore that he had learned a lesson:
Forty is the right age to learn! And I think my new work is going to show more poise, more patience with itself to reach at perfection, more critical analysis of itself and contemplation, more time given it for gestation and genuine birth, more pains. I’ve gone off half-cocked too many times, driven on to drive myself to write at any cost to the writing, then to finish and be done with it and start something new. It’s time I achieved a more mature outlook as an artist—and now I know I have. Perhaps a complete upheaval, a total revaluing of all my old values was necessary to gain that attitude. Well, I’ve certainly been through that! Devil a doubt!11
* For example, the scene shift between Act II, scenes ii and iii, requires that the yard with its two practical houses be struck and replaced by the full powerhouse set. It is difficult to conceive how this could be accomplished in most theatres without an intermission. But an intermission clearly must follow scene iii, not ii.
** The use of the names of the sons of Jacob has no clear meaning in the script. Reuben, as the first-born child of the loveless marriage between Jacob and Leah, was perhaps preferred to the name of Rachel’s second son as being more appropriate to the domestic situation in the household of the Reverend Light. That Reuben slept with Jacob’s concubine, Bilah, may have reflected in O’Neill’s mind an appropriate parallel to Reuben Light’s attempt to find mother substitutes in Ada Fife and her mother. On the other hand it may be simply that O’Neill’s ear was more attracted to the trochee ending in “en” as it often was: Eben, Orin, Simon.
*** The chief aim of his
revisions after the New York production was to reassert the
psychological story, particularly the identity of Reuben’s dead mother
with the “Dynamo-Mother God.” Evidently, in the production script,
the conception was far from explicit. The matter is discussed in a
letter to Krutch dated June 11, 1929.
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