The Personal Equation is a work of rich complexity compared to Now I Ask You, although the latter is in a conventional sense a better made play than its predecessor and has a certain interest in that, along with The Movie Man, it is the only surviving comedy from O’Neill’s early years. It opens with a prologue that offers a startling coup de théâtre. A young girl is alone in a darkened room. In the hallway offstage, a man and woman call to her and leave the house. She takes out a revolver and presses it against her body. As the curtain descends sufficiently to obscure the stage, a shot rings out. The action that follows is antecedent to the prologue:
Lucy Ashleigh is engaged to Tom Drayton, a “clean, wholesome young American.” Unfortunately, Lucy is foolishly given to pursuit of the latest intellectual fads. In the present instance, following Nietzsche, whom she has read avidly, she believes that marriage is slavery and that free love offers the only possibility of a right relationship between a man and a woman. Tom, who has been warned by Lucy’s mother to pretend to take Lucy seriously, accepts Lucy’s suggestion that they bypass the wedding ceremony. Lucy’s bourgeois origins, however, make her mistrustful of unlicensed sex, and she decides to marry Tom, provided he will sign certain articles of agreement, such as “For sociological reasons I shall have no children,” or “I may have lovers without causing jealousy or in any way breaking our compact.” (I,27)
Three months later, when Lucy and Tom are married, they are visited by Leonora Barnes, a “synchromist” painter,* and Gabriel Adams, a poet. Whereas in the first act, Lucy dressed herself and behaved as if she were the excessively melancholy heroine of a Russian novel and quoted Strindberg to the effect that the “daughter of Indra discovered the truth. Life is horrible, is it not? (I,17) in the second she is playing Candida—in her relations with Gabriel—and Hedda Gabler—in her relations with Tom. She admits to a fascination for “General Gabler’s pistols” and longs for someone to come with vine leaves in his hair. That person, for her, is Gabriel, a spoiled, conceited, pompous sponger, apparently living in sin with Leonora in a Greenwich Village studio, but in fact married to her.
“Can’t you read the secret in my heart? Don’t you hear the song my soul has been singing ever since I first looked into your eyes?” (II,18) Inevitably Tom interrupts the love scene, quarrels with Lucy, but then, guided by Mrs. Ashleigh, pretends to develop an affair with Leonora, who has been attracted to Tom because he is like Nietzsche’s “Big Blonde Beast.”
By the third act,
Lucy has become bored with Gabriel and unhappy about Tom’s betrayal
of her. As Tom and Leonora leave for the theatre, she takes out the
pistol as if to shoot herself. Again the curtain drops as at the end
of the prologue and the shot is heard. When the curtain rises again,
Lucy is lying on the floor. The cast quickly assembles, discovers that
Lucy is not injured and that the pistol was not loaded. The shot, it
is quickly explained, was really a tire blowing out. The chauffeur,
who within the space of perhaps ninety
seconds has set a pit-stop record brings the repaired tire into the
living room so that O’Neill can have his curtain line:
If it be asked why Lucy should be humored, rather than spanked, O’Neill’s answer is ready to hand. As Mrs. Ashleigh explains matters to Tom, the “young, wild spirit of youth . . . tramples rudely on the grave-mound of the Past to see more clearly to the future dream.” She admits that in most the spirit fails as they grow older, but in some “it becomes tempered to a fine, sane, progressive ideal which is of infinite help to the race. I think Lucy will develop into one of those rare ones.” (I,13)**
Leaving Harvard did not clear the Baker virus from his system. A scenario of 1917 called The Reckoning shows him once again attempting to write a play in the manner of “The 47 Workshop.” The script was to consider the rise of a young ruffian to an important Senatorial position. The hero has made a girl pregnant, and in a quarrel with her stepfather, fells him with a hammer. His sweetheart causes him to believe he has murdered the older man, arranges his escape and then forces him to marry her. His guilt causes him to reform his way of life and his exemplary conduct ultimately leads him to Congress. At the play’s end, as the Senator prepares to make a decisive speech urging the entry of the United States into the War, his son discovers the truth. A long reconciliation scene follows, bringing a promise of happiness all around. In the general development of its rags-to-Congress narrative, the story is reminiscent of two works by O’Neill’s most successful predecessor in Baker’s classes. Edward Sheldon’s The High Road details a girl’s climb from a low position to one of extraordinary prominence in political circles, and his The Nigger presents a politician faced with a sudden, personal dilemma that threatens to interfere with his career on the eve of an important political occasion. In the scenario, however, O’Neill revealed nothing of major moral or social concern. It promised nothing, and the play was, wisely, left unwritten.***
* Baker, in discussing techniques of characterization suggested that “lifelikeness” of a character must be achieved by supplying detailed bits of activity illustrating his characteristics. Leonora, at her entrance into Mrs. Ashleigh’s elegant drawing room, rolls her own cigarette, smokes it in an ivory holder and illustratively crushes out the stub on the carpet.
** Agnes O’Neill took up Now I Ask You after O’Neill had laid it aside. The play was copyrighted in 1917, but in 1920 and 1921, two letters from Agnes O’Neill to her husband indicate that she is working on the script. The first, an undated letter Written probably in 1920, during the time that Beyond the Horizon was in rehearsal, promises Eugene that he will like the last act. The second, written January 10, 1921, states that she has welcomed his suggestion that she get to work on the script as a “great stimulus.” The correspondence is in the Harvard University Library.
*** Agnes O’Neill developed the play and in 1924 copyrighted it as “The Guilty One” under the pen-name Eleanor Rand. Optioned by William A. Brady, it was never produced.
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