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To O’Neill, who had so long lived outside the frame of any establishment, entering a directed course of study undoubtedly seemed a more decisive commitment than it in fact proved to be. With the sponsorship of Clayton Hamilton and financed, however grudgingly, by his father, O’Neill enrolled in George Pierce Baker’s class in playwriting in the fall of 1914. By attending Harvard, he was in effect asking again what he had earlier asked of Hamilton: “How do you write a play?” His work in Baker’s classes showed him that he already knew, or was close to knowing, the only answer he could accept to that question.

He reacted to the Harvard atmosphere by playing the heller from New London, Connecticut, rubbing against the grain of the school’s respectability. His comment on the work of a fellow student, “Cut it to twenty minutes, give it a couple of tunes and it’s sure-fire burly­cue,”1 suggests a tendency on his part to dazzle the dutiful. Yet in his own way, in class, he too was dutiful. His letter of application for admission is a model of grammatical respectability (“My father is James O’Neill, the actor, of whom you may perhaps have heard . . .“), and it displays a fearful sincerity (“With my present training I might hope to become a mediocre journey-man playwright. It is just because I do not wish to be one, because I want to be an artist or nothing, that I am writing you.”2 Once admitted, he followed Baker’s teaching scrupulously with one clear result: Whatever talent he had shown was all but wiped out as he worked to achieve what Baker called “dramatic technique.”

In his maturity, O’Neill was never very specific about his reaction to Baker’s work. Writing a memorial statement at the time of Baker’s death, he spoke gracefully of the teacher’s sympathetic response to his students, but his words do not suggest any deep-seated obligation:

It is difficult in these days, when the native playwright can function in comparative freedom, to realize that in that benighted period a play of any imagination, originality or integrity by an American was almost automatically barred from a hearing in our theatre. . . .

In the face of this blank wall, the biggest need of the young playwright was for intelligent encouragement, to be helped to believe in the dawn of a new era in our theatre where he would have a chance, at least, to be heard. And of the rare few who had the unselfish faith and vision and love of the theatre to devote their life to this encouragement, Professor Baker’s work stands preeminent. . .

Not that the technical points, the analysis of the practice of play-making taught in his class, were not of inestimable value to us in learning our trade. But the most vital thing for us, as possible future artists and creators, to learn at that time (Good God! For anyone to learn anywhere at any time!) was to believe in our work and to keep on believing. And to hope. He helped us to hope— and for that we owe him all the finest we have in memory of gratitude and friendship.3

Around Baker’s name there clings an aura of academic martyrdom. His struggle with the Harvard authorities to persuade them to accept a course in playwriting as valuable to the disciplines of a university led him finally to leave his position and to go to Yale University, where he became instrumental in founding the Yale School of Drama. He was a man who believed in what he did, fought for it and communicated a belief in its worth to his students. No doubt a sense of rebellious purpose burned in them all, and from that fire came the hope of which O’Neill spoke.

In Baker’s classes, therefore, O’Neill was no heller. He was attentive, cooperative—a dark, aloof, silent, absorbed listener. He participated fully, and he conscientiously attempted to put into practice Baker’s recommendations. They were, after all, supposed to turn him into an artist of the theatre, as Baker’s star pupil, Edward Sheldon, author of Salvation Nell and other successes, had been metamorphosed from student to professional a few years earlier. So he followed the rules and wrote, and what has survived is dreadful— without question the worst writing he ever did. Its interest, even in the light of plays to come, is negligible. All that can be seen in the
scripts is the struggle of a not apparently talented man, possessed of a shockingly immature view of human nature, to fabricate a narrative that might operate on the stage. Ironically, for the only time in his life, O’Neill became what he went to Harvard to avoid becoming, “a mediocre, journey-man playwright.”

Baker’s theories of playwrighting are contained in his book Dramatic Technique, published in 1919. The book is a reworking of class notes and lecture material delivered in 1913. In his introduction, Baker acknowledges that his book is more apparently dogmatic than his classes were in practice. He notes that the principles he annunciates must be adapted to individual needs, and that it is not intended “to replace wise classroom instruction.”4 His sense of academic cause is expressed at the outset, as he notes that the dramatist, who is popularly held to be born, not made, is denied “the instruction in art granted the architect, the painter, the sculptor, and the musician.” In the same paragraph, in a phrase presumably designed to impress his academic colleagues, he speaks of “the science of drama-making.”5 What follows, with extensive illustrations of good and bad procedure, is a detailed discussion of the problems of writing a realistic play in the manner of Arthur Wing Pinero. To a student who felt that Pinero had achieved the summit of dramatic art, the book was undoubtedly useful, even liberal, for Baker is at pains to point out that after a dramatist is experienced in the practices he describes, he may break from them, “at times,” to achieve his ends.

To Baker, the drama is an impersonal art and should be entirely self-contained, without novelistic intrusions by the author. The essential purpose is “to create an emotional response in the audience,” and dramatic action, which he calls “illustrative action,” must be devised so as to convey emotion accurately.6 To develop these concepts, he sets forth what appear to him to be examples of good and bad dramatic practice. Characterization must be created from convincing motivation and adequately developed transitions, and “A play which aims to be real in depicting life must illustrate character by characterization which is in character.”7 Narrative arrangement must be interesting and clear. Dialogue, whose three essentials are “clearness, helping the onward movement of the story, and doing all this in character,” should possess “charm, grace, wit, irony or beauty of its own.”8 A dramatic narrative involves the development of confrontations or discoveries—which Baker calls “situations”—and he illustrates the process in a long analysis of the nineteen “situations” in the second act of Pinero’s The Magistrate, concluding that “Certainly Sir Arthur knows how to ‘hold a situation.’ “9 He advocates a method for preparing a script that O’Neill followed all his life, suggesting a draft of a scenario for “clearness,” and to ascertain that the play has “good construction and correct emphasis.” The scenario is followed by a series of drafts which in each revision improve characterization and make dialogue attractive, and with which the dramatist “shapes his material more and more in relation to the public he wishes to address.”10 At the stage door, Baker abandons his pupils. What goes on thereafter is not to his interest, nor, perhaps, within the range of his knowledge.

To be fair to Baker, it must be remembered that his chief interest was in the efforts of his students in the classroom. His flattering attention allowed even the dilettantes among them to be taken seriously. However, except for mechanical suggestions, it is not clear that he led them to any vision. His book is limited to a laborer’s craftsmanship and is notable for being entirely uncritical, entirely unaware of the major currents that moved both in the world at large and on the turn-of-the-century stages. By 1919, any man alert to the theatre who was not bound by the heaviest commercial fetters should have been aware of the turn the American theatre was taking toward the provinces of art. More importantly, a man assuming Baker’s responsibilities should have seen the forces defined in the theatres of Europe since before the beginning of the century. There were numbers of texts to evoke awareness. Sheldon Cheney’s The New Movement in Theatre had been published in 1914, and was followed, three years later by his The Art Theatre. In 1913, Huntly Carter’s The New Spirit in Drama and Art offered a detailed and copiously illustrated analysis of European stagecraft. In 1914, Hiram Moderwell’s The Theatre of Today discussed at length the artistic and intellectual roots of the contemporary drama, not only with reference to theatrical and scenic innovations, with which the other writers had been largely concerned, but also to such playwrights as Tolstoy; Chekhov, Gorky, Strindberg, Bjørnson, Molnar, Wedekind and many lesser writers. All of these men are unmentioned by Baker, who with a kind of lazy eclecticism, illustrates his principles of technique with examples drawn from Pinero, Edward Knobloch, Bulwer-Lytton, Shakespeare and Tennyson’s Becket. Shaw and Ibsen are perfunctorily treated, but Baker shows no awareness of their difference even as craftsmen from the other dramatists he mentions. Whether the art of the drama—as opposed to a mechanically perfect script—was discussed in the classroom cannot be ascertained; the presumption is that it was not. The point at this remove is unimportant, except that one of his students found no light while he sat in Baker’s classroom. O’Neill, before he came to Baker, had read Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Strindberg, and, with a generous assist from Conrad, had written a play whose essential nature Baker was not equipped to understand. Within a decade he was to write dramas that would demonstrate decisively the jejune nature of Baker’s idea of technique. Yet for a semester, O’Neill obediently followed Baker’s precepts.


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