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An autobiographer is an over-reacher. Much as wind and water leave traces of their passage on the surface of the land, an autobiographer seeks to shape a contour in time. He denies that his is like the lives of most men—a random sequence, jumbling instinctual action and chance into a drift of days. Disregarding the self-cancelling interplay of mastery and infirmity, he asserts that the course of his life is rational, and that, like the action of a drama, it moves toward a fulfillment in the complete understanding of its author-subject.

Eugene O’Neill’s work as a playwright was such an effort at self-understanding. In the thirty years of his creative life, he completed drafts of sixty-two plays. Eleven were destroyed, and of those remaining, over half contain discernible autobiographical elements. No play written by O’Neill after 1922, except for his fugitive adaptation of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, was free of them. The extent, variety and quality of the work signals a rare creative energy, but the energy’s source lay in his need to find a pattern of explanation by which his life could be understood.

His was, in part, a quest for identity. Louis Sheaffer in his biography, O’Neill, Son and Playwright, records a conversation between O’Neill and his friend, George Cram Cook, who once remarked on O’Neill’s habit of continually looking at himself in mirrors:
“You’re the most conceited man I’ve ever known, you’re always looking at yourself.”
O’Neill replied, “No, I just want to be sure I’m here.”1

The mocking half-truth reveals a deeper substance: O’Neill used the stage as his mirror, and the sum of his work comprises an autobiography. In many of his plays, with a bold directness of approach, he drew a figure whose face resembled his own, and whose exterior life barely concealed a passionate, questing inner existence. Around this figure, he grouped other characters who served as thin masks for members of his close family and for his friends and significant acquaintances. On the stage, their grouping forms a structure of relationships through which O’Neill moved to discover what in his life gave him identity.

As elements of works of art, the characters live for the most part independent of their creator; they stand in the round at an appropriate aesthetic distance. Yet the shape of the drama is formed by private matters. O’Neill’s experiments with masks, asides, soliloquies and long monologues evolve from his necessity to make his personal quest a theatrical reality. The intense subjectivity of the plays, conflicting at times with the need theatre has for relatively objective delineations, accounts in part for the lyricism that emerges unexpectedly in many of his earlier works and toward the end of his life comes to dominate his stage. In such late plays as Hughie, Long Day’s Journey into Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten, the dialogue repeatedly assumes a lyric, rather than a dramatic mode; narrative is suspended, and voices borne out of silence and darkness speak a threnody of pain and loss. The lyricism is a token of the fact that no other dramatist in the world’s history, not even excepting Strindberg with whom O’Neill felt particularly allied, continually turned the theatre to such personal purposes.

The result forms a partial paradox. Using the stage with such intimate intention, O’Neill yet managed to produce the greatest plays of American dramatic literature, and, in the world theatre of the first half of the twentieth century, can be compared only to Chekhov, Shaw, Pirandello, and Brecht, all of whom wrote with more intricacy, wit and style than O’Neill, but never with more deep-rooted involvement.

O’Neill shaped the course of American drama in its most significant developmental period, from 1915 to about 1930. His theatrical innovations were admired, but their initial enthusiastic reception proved in time detrimental to his reputation. No dramatist has followed him directly in his use of such startling devices as the masks in The Great God Brown or the drums in The Emperor Jones. In other ways, however, he has been followed. For example, his innovative use of an exterior-interior setting for Desire Under the Elms, a scheme for achieving an uninterrupted flow of action, is now routinely called for by playwrights. A similar claim can be made for his pioneering use of sound and light as integral parts of his plays. Yet, to return to such devices as the drums or to similar massive assaults on an audience’s sensibilities as the choral ensemble of Lazarus Laughed or the humming of the electrical plant in Dynamo or the foghorn in Long Day’s Journey into Night: these theatrical effects were devised to shake his audiences from the spectator’s habitual, lethargic “suspended disbelief” and to cause them to believe, to involve themselves directly, fully, committedly with the action, just as today the practitioners of “The Living Theatre” or “The Theatre of Ceremony” call on their audiences to become more participants than spectators. The direction signaled by O’Neill’s theatre aesthetic in this regard has been taken by others.

O’Neill’s influence as a man of the theatre can best be measured in general, rather than in specific terms. As he began to write, the theatre was dominated by a superficial realism which barely concealed a tawdry artifice. In 1918, efforts to move the American theatre toward the province of art were spasmodic attempts, lacking as visible proof plays that would attest to the truth of theory. In cooperation, first, with the Provincetown Players, then with an experimental theatre in association with Kenneth Macgowan and Robert Edmond Jones and finally with the Theatre Guild, O’Neill demonstrated decisively that drama could be an art. In very literal terms, his work between 1920 and 1928 proved the theories of “Theatre Art” to be valid. Admittedly, he was not alone in this. As the decade passed, serious theatre-goers in the United States increasingly were able to see important demonstrations of the new theatre aesthetics from sources both European and American. Among innovative dramatists in this country, however, O’Neill was clearly the leader, insisting in both his successes and his failures that his work be considered as an art.

In small ways and in large he pushed at the practical and theoretical limitations of the American stage, and, in doing so, he taught others to do the same. Lazarus Laughed is subtitled “A Play for an Imaginative Theatre.” O’Neill, struggling to find someone capable of producing the play, said sourly that by the phrase he did not mean an “Imaginary Theatre.” A theatre to produce not only that play but all of his works had to be forced into being. By his imagination and boldness and by his uncompromising sense of the value of his writing, he played a major role in bringing that theatre into existence. Much of what he did is now contemporary routine; many of the new theories he championed have become commonplace in the course of time. By the same token, the wheel, once it was invented, became obvious.

O’Neill worked alone. Then, as now, the theatrical world carrouselled around the serious playwright. The critical arbiters of his first mature works were pranksters, men and women who pretended that to take oneself seriously was to commit a grievous faux pas. Speaking of the self-styled “Algonquin Wits,” one commentator has written, “The comic interpretation whether invoking simple laughter, pathos, or moral disapproval, seemed always to stand as their final statement on whatever issue stirred their fancy.”2 Judged by the standards of many of his contemporaries, O’Neill lacked “wit” and was deaf to the niceties of literary style. Yet he did not lack humor, and his style, developed entirely for the stage, could be measured only in the theatre—a fact that did not prevent several of his published plays from becoming best sellers. Nevertheless, he studiously avoided any form of communal living with the easy writers and critics of his time. With a few exceptions—chiefly that of George Jean Nathan—he relied on nobody’s evaluation of his work, any more than he relied on star actors to sell his dramas to the public. Such established stars as Alice Brady, Alla Nazimova and George M. Cohan, when they appeared in his plays, found their “star quality” obscured by O’Neill’s own presence. He needed such actors no more than he relied on critical acclaim. His was a solitary, dedicated, even obsessive life in art.

Setting aside all theatrical considerations, the content of his plays would still have marked him as a leader. During the 1920’s, his experiments with contemporary psychological theory proved challenging to his audiences, although in more sophisticated retrospect, they seem obvious and oversimplified. Yet his studies of the Negro American remain vital, and stand as archetypes for playwrights seeking to develop a “black drama.” He became one of the best historical dramatists since Shakespeare. His outspoken studies of women’s sexual drives, his use of myth as a basis for drama, his domestication of Strindberg’s expressionistic manner and statement have caused many of his plays to retain their power. As an artist, he was always a political non-partisan, and except for his Negro plays, he wrote without real political awareness. Yet, to quote Kenneth Tynan, reviewing The Iceman Cometh, “O’Neill is one of the few writers who can enter, without condescension or contempt, the world of those whom the world has neglected.”3 In 1934, as the American left-wing developed a theatre of its own, O’Neill entered into a retreat from which he was not to emerge until 1946. So far as one could then see, he had turned his back on the great period of social change that the Depression and the beginning of the Second World War occasioned. Yet in that solitary period, he began to shape the long cycle of plays on American historical subjects, attempting to discover in his own way, and without commitment to any special political cause, wherein the United States had faltered. The cycle, unproduced and largely destroyed, set no precedent, yet the directly autobiographical plays written at the end of his life reflect similar issues and have emerged as precursors of the American existential drama, remaining, perhaps, the only substantial American dramatic achievement with existential themes.

When The Iceman Cometh was originally produced in 1946, it was little understood, despite its succès d’estime. Its revival in the spring of 1956, when its run overlapped that of the first professional New York production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, was a triumph and started an O’Neill renaissance. In the decade between the two productions, the philosophical shape of mid-century intellectual life in the United States had taken form, and in the perspective of what American theatre-goers had learned of Sartre, Camus, and Genet, among others, The Iceman Cometh, which O’Neill had written in 1939, made complete philosophic sense, as did Hughie and Long Day’s Journey into Night when those plays were finally seen. Alone, and well ahead of the American pack, O’Neill had come to a vision compatible with the philosophy that was to govern a large part of the thought and action of this present world. He had only to wait for his audiences to catch up with him.

The dramaturgy of many of his plays embraces a realism that is at present somewhat out of fashion. Yet the theme and structure of Hughie, The Iceman Cometh, Long Day’s Journey into Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten remain astonishingly contemporary. To read works by Arthur Kopit, Sam Shepherd or other followers of Edward Albee—to read Albee himself—is to enter where O’Neill walked nearly three decades ago. How many plays today are laid in an isolated, bizarre wasteland in which a few characters wander, lost and desolate, seeking someone to whom they can tell a story of a crime they have committed, and in making such confession find purgation? How many of these plays, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Tiger, can match the last four plays of O’Neill, each based on the telling of a confessional tale in a wasteland? Even the nature of the confession, so often a crime involving murder and centering on Oedipal incest, is anticipated in A Moon for the Misbegotten. Notably, too in A Touch of the Poet, More Stately Mansions and Hughie, O’Neill does more than hint at the contemporary predilection for dramas in which role playing or “games” are central elements.

In his isolation from the theatre and the world of affairs, O’Neill remained prophetically contemporary. By way of corollary, it should be said that in revival, O’Neill’s plays sometimes seem to their audiences melodramatic and a little old-fashioned. There is reason for this. O’Neill began writing at the end of a period when a flamboyant, semi-presentational style of acting, one which placed a heavy emphasis on rhetoric and the stances of formal delivery, had held the stage for nearly a century. His father, James O’Neill, was almost the last of a long line of actors of romantic drama. Of necessity, O’Neill’s heritage bound him to that theatre and its playing style. Late in his life, discussing the casting of a proposed production of A Touch of the Poet, O’Neill said,

What  (the role of Cornelius Melody) needs is an actor like Maurice Barrymore or my old man.... One of those big-chested, chiseled-mug, romantic old boys who could walk onto a stage with all the aplomb and regal splendor with which they walked into the old Hoffmann House bar, drunk or sober. Most actors in these times lack an air. If a playwright doesn’t work up entrances fifteen minutes long for them and have all the other characters describe them in advance as something pretty elegant, noble, chivalrous and handsome, the audiences won’t be able to accept them for much more than third assistant barkeeps, if that.4

O’Neill’s own dramaturgy did much to end the demand for such actors, but it did little to aid the development which took its place. With the advent of the Depression, a new style of acting, relying heavily on adaptations of the teaching of Stanislavsky, emerged from such producing organizations as the Group Theatre, and became normative for American actors. In this period O’Neill did not work in the theatre. His active days of theatrical practice fell between the death of the old and the discovery of the new, and at a time when American acting was moving in transition between the two. During the 1930’s, the style was characterized by a little of both the old and new manner, more representational and subtle than the old, but still involving some of the presentational aspects derived from the nineteenth century. The Lunts, John Barrymore, Judith Anderson, to name a few among many, developed the “transitional style” which, while it created a convincing illusion of human beings in action, at the same time made histrionic “points,” not fearing to play to an audience’s appreciation of an actor’s virtuosity as an actor, knowing that a demonstration of a purely theatrical presence was a valid part of certain dramatic experiences.

From his first attempt as a playwright with a vaudeville sketch entitled A Wife for a Life, O’Neill always wrote for this kind of actor. That the last plays do not appear to be written in this vein is something of an illusion. In fact, O’Neill has incorporated into his cast characters who are concerned with role playing and who thus present themselves as actors. A large part of the characterization of both Cornelius Melody and James Tyrone rests in their being actors performing in the old, romantic tradition of O’Neill’s father’s theatre. Thus “performance” becomes in the late plays an element of characterization and theme, totally incorporated into the context of the play, and contemporary actors can play the role. Yet where this has not been done, as in Mourning Becomes Electra, the newer style of acting will not entirely suffice. The latter play, if it is not to seem an overwritten melodrama, must be approached in what has become essentially a period style.

Such a matter marks the inevitable inroads of time on the work of a major dramatist. They are the small erosions of the contour he left behind him. The study that follows attempts to trace the contour from its origin to its end, by discussing each of his works in the approximate chronological order of composition. The book is thus a form of biography, although it pays no heed to those events of O’Neill’s life that did not have direct bearing on his professional career.

By virtue of O’Neill’s central position in the drama of the modern world, this study also has become, within the limits its subject sets for it, a form of theatrical history. An appendix contains a complete factual record of important productions of O’Neill’s plays.

The skein of indebtedness that binds my book is not easily unraveled. Initial research was made possible by a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship and was carried on for the most part in the theatre collections of the libraries of Harvard University, Princeton University, The University of California at Berkeley, Stanford University, the New York Public Library, the Museum of the City of New York, and Yale University. I have relied heavily on the assistance of the librarians and their staffs. I feel a particular debt of gratitude to Dr. Donald Gallup, formerly Curator of the American Literature Collection in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. To help me, Dr. Gallup has repeatedly gone far beyond the routines of his normal duties—even so far as to read a portion of my draft manuscript to aid its accuracy. For his invaluable counsel, I have no adequate thanks. Dr. Gallup’s successor, Dr. David Schoonover, has answered my many requests and inquiries with courteous promptness and has laid open the riches of the O’Neill collection to my research.

O’Neill’s biographers have provided much of the basic information on which this work is framed. My reliance on the work of Arthur and Barbara Gelb is detailed in the footnotes, but such notes do not satisfactorily acknowledge the over-view of O’Neill’s life that their important biographical study, O’Neill, initially provided for me. To Louis Sheaffer, upon whose O’Neill, Son and Playwright and O’Neill, Son and Artist I have drawn extensively for crucial information about O’Neill’s career, I feel a major obligation. Mr. Sheaffer has allowed me access to his files of information, provided me with his copies of O’Neill’s correspondence, given me photographs, answered my questions, and shared with me his own enthusiasm for our common subject. I count his friendship among the most valuable consequences of this book.

No one writing on O’Neill and his plays can do so in a state of original innocence. I have preferred in preparing the initial drafts of this work to restrict my research to the plays and primary source materials, since what I was seeking to detail in the first instance was a form of biography—the course of his life in art. Only secondarily has my purpose been to write a work of criticism. I am aware, however, that what I have set down in both general and specific ways is indebted to or overlaps books of criticism about O’Neill. Specific indebtedness is acknowledged in the notes, but more generally, I must acknowledge my obligation to Edwin Engel’s The Haunted Heroes of Eugene O’Neill (Cambridge, Mass., 1953), in particular for the perceptions concerning O’Neill’s reliance on the theories of Kenneth Macgowan. I have found the studies of Doris Falk and Doris Alexander helpful in many areas, and have profited by the perceptions of my colleagues, John Henry Raleigh in his study, The Plays of Eugene O’Neill (Carbondale, Illinois, 1965), and Frederic Ives Carpenter in Eugene O’Neill (New York, 1964). I have also been aided in revisions of the completed manuscript from recent studies by Egil Tornqvist, A Drama of Souls (Uppsala, 1968), and Timo Tiusanen, O’Neill’s Scenic Images (Princeton, N.J., 1968).

At various stages in my work, my colleagues at the University of California and my friends in Berkeley have given me helpful information and criticism. In particular, emeritus professors Benjamin H. Lehman and Fred Orin Harris, and the late Mr. Everett Glass have shared their personal recollections of productions of O’Neill’s plays. Dr. Pat M. Ryan and Miss Inez Ghirardelli have been friendly and solicitous informants. To Professors Charles Lyons, Henry May and Mark Schorer, I feel a particular and personal debt for their aid and encouragement and for their faith in this book.

Mr. Sheldon Meyer, my editor at Oxford University Press, has demonstrated supernal patience in waiting out the long preparation of this study. Mr. Sheldon Cheney, pioneer of the Art Theatre Movement in America, has generously helped me in all ways I asked. Information about Swedish productions of O’Neill’s dramas was supplied to me by Dr. Karl Ragnar Gierow, then director of the Swedish Theatre Royal; by Dr. Gustav Hilleström, and by Mr. Bengt Eklund, who created the role of “Erie” Smith in the Stockholm premiere of Hughie. Miss Jessie L. Rowley, librarian of the Atlantic City Free Library, and Mr. Ronald Scofield, assistant editor of the Santa Barbara News-Press have answered queries fully. Mr. Paine Knickerbocker of the San Francisco Chronicle and Mr. Stanley Eichelbaum of the San Francisco Examiner have opened their files to help my research.

Who or what more? This book was really written with my students in English and Dramatic Art in classroom sessions in the University of California at Berkeley. Together we shared the results of our research and tried to evaluate the work and to understand its author. They are my collaborators. In this time, when naïve political voices cry that teaching and research are somehow antithetical, I can only offer this book and this acknowledgement as minor evidence to the contrary.

University of California, Berkeley          tb
June 1972, June 1986

 

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