O’Neill completed three plays and collaborated on a fourth. Of
these, The Sniper, in one
act, and The Personal Equation, in
four, survive. The others were The
Dear Doctor, a one-act comedy based on a short story O’Neill
later discovered to have been pirated from a vaudeville sketch, and Balshazzar, a Biblical drama in six scenes which he wrote with a
fellow student named Colin Ford. Immediately after leaving Harvard,
and still under Baker’s influence, he wrote a pantomime, Atrocity, and two one-act comedies, The G.A.M., whose subject was the I.W.W., A Knock at the Door, and the sole surviving work from this period, a
four-act satire, Now I Ask You. Also
showing signs of Baker’s teaching is a scenario probably completed
in the spring of 1917, entitled The
Each of the extant
plays has a strong narrative line, is scrupulously plotted,
establishes strong “situations,” based on sudden disclosures,
theatrical confrontations and surprising turns of plot. The dialogue
is developed with care and with some attention to its “beauty.”
O’Neill has been at pains to provide each work with exciting
“curtains,” and has striven toward situational ironies that,
however, lie at a far remove from the ironic world view he had tried
to formulate in The Web.
The Sniper is perhaps closest to his beginning work. It tells of a Belgian peasant, Rougon, whose family has been killed by invading German armies. In sorrow and rage he becomes a sniper, but is caught and executed. The story of the small man struggling in a web of circumstance is reminiscent of that of The Web, but the play rides heavily on its combination of gunfire and lamentation and seeks to develop a strong coup de théâtre from Rougon’s discovery that his wife and his son’s fiancée, whom he had thought safe, have been caught in a German cross fire. The work is little more than an anecdote, illustrative of the atrocity of war, intended to appeal to an audience’s horror at the Prussian “rape” of Belgium. The Provincetown Players produced The Sniper once, in February, 1917; thereafter, like O’Neill’s other “war” plays, The Movie Man and ShellShock, it was advisedly forgotten.
The Personal Equation, although more elaborate, is at heart no better. It tells the story of Perkins, a mild-mannered second engineer on a trans-Atlantic liner, his son, Tom, and Tom’s mistress, Olga Tarnoff, a beautiful anarchist. In order to strike the spark that will set off a worldwide strike of the workers, Tom agrees to dynamite the engines of his father’s ship when it docks at Liverpool. The explosion will be the signal for the “International Workers of the Earth” to seize power from the labor unions and lead the world from slavery. Tom in disguise ships on the voyage, but as the liner docks, war breaks out in Europe. The working men refuse to back the I.W.E., but Tom agrees, with the help of his more radical shipmates, to wreck the engines. Olga, disguised as a man, arrives on the ship, and it is revealed to the audience that she is to bear Tom’s child. The play’s climactic “situation” is the confrontation of Tom and his father in the engine room when Perkins is forced to shoot his son to save the engines. The last act presents Tom, reduced to idiocy by the bullet, in a hospital bed across which Olga and Perkins effect a reconciliation, agreeing to devote their lives to caring for the invalid:
A final scene attempts to cap this moment of hope and heartbreak with a passionate anti-war speech from Olga that ends with her crying “Long live the Revolution.” Tom hears her words and mimics them with a “low, chuckling laugh.” His vacant eyes turn from side to side and “a stupid smile plays about his loose lips. . . . Olga stares at the figure in the bed with fascinated horror—then covers her face with her hands as the curtain falls.” (IV, 20)
attempt to duplicate the ending of Ghosts
leaves everything to be desired, yet the drawn-out reconciliation
scene is precisely the sort of “situation” Baker advocated.
Attempts are made to follow such pieces of Baker’s advice as to work
in exposition naturally, e.g., “Tell me about (your father) I’m
interested. We’ve been together for nearly half a year now and you
hardly ever mentioned him except to say he was second-engineer on the
San Francisco.” (I,10) O’Neill has tried to make his dialogue
clear, in character and beautiful:
That O’Neill was
not always able to sustain such a level of eloquence is suggested by
Dialect was another of Baker’s ways of beautifying dialogue. Aside from several forms of American English, O’Neill writes for people speaking in dialects reflecting their backgrounds in Germany, Scotland, Ireland, Holland and Great Britain, including Cockney. Although he handles the talk of the crew with a sense of authority, the effect is not always felicitous, as in this speech of an I.W.E. chief:
So far as the rules permitted, O’Neill tossed into the play much that appears to have been of momentary concern to him, but very little that was to become of serious interest.* The ideas of Shaw and Nietzsche, together with a wide variety of hazily understood anarchist pronouncements, can be traced in the pages. For example, at one moment, Olga relies on Thus Spake Zarathustra to express her hope for her child: “I’ll bring up our child with a soul freed from all adorations of Gods and governments if I have to live alone on a mountain top to do it.” (III,8) Or again, a version of Shaw is put into an anarchist’s mouth: “At the end of my supposititious war of manly extermination there will be ten or twenty womanly women for every unmanly man who has refused to die on the field of honor. Yet breeding must go on. The women, above all, will demand it. The new race must be created to enjoy the new freedom.” (I,18) Such talk vies with melodrama to capture the audience’s interest.
In retrospect, it is possible to see that some elements of the play— involuntary gestures, really—will prove serviceable when couched in sharply different forms. The line “The soul of man is an uninhabited house…” (I,13) foreshadows faintly the Mannon mansion in Mourning Becomes Electra, just as Tom’s comment about “the contrast between us grimy stokers and the first class cabin people lolling in their deck-chairs” (I,20) anticipates The Hairy Ape. In a comedy scene between Perkins and his housekeeper, there is a suggestion of the relationship between Chris and Marty Owen in “Anna Christie,” and Perkins’s love for his engines hints at Reuben Light’s love of the dynamo: “I was lonely—after (my wife) died. That’s why I came to love the engines so.” (II,13) His seeking out the engines as a love object may even suggest in the dimmest outline Ephraim Cabot’s groping movement toward the barn in Desire Under the Elms after he tells his wife of his loneliness.
The most important thematic anticipation is the conception of the “hopeless hope,” which O’Neill was to develop three years after writing The Personal Equation in The Straw. At the end of the play, the Doctor has told Olga and Perkins that there can be no hope for Tom to regain his sanity, but he admits that in cases of the sort no sure prediction can be made. Thus, although he refuses to give them hope he does not finally deny the possibility of Tom’s recovery. After their reconciliation, Olga tells Perkins, “We’ll take good care of him together, you and I, and we’ll fight for that one hope the doctor held out. Who knows? It may be a real hope, after all.” (IV,16) The concept embodies the seed of not only The Straw but such later works as Hughie and The Iceman Cometh, but its first appearance is only a mitigating moment of optimism in O’Neill’s dubious tableau.**
* At one point, a Nihilist speaks of the possibility of creating “a new art, a new ideal—perhaps even a new theatre.” (I,18) The last five words are deleted in the typescript, presumably as out of character.
** Louis Sheaffer indicates possible autobiographical elements in the relation between Tom and his father. Sheaffer points out that Tom’s contempt for his father’s thirty-year servitude as second engineer parallels O’Neill’s contempt for his father who had appeared as the Count of Monte Cristo for the same period. As Sheaffer sees it, the relationship in the play reflects O’Neill’s opinion that his father should have been a first-rate, rather than second-rate actor. (Cf. Sheaffer, 307)
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