Upon completing Marco Millions in 1925, four important projects occupied O’Neill’s attention. One was Dynamo, for which he had made some preliminary notes in 1924. Work on this play, however, was not to be undertaken in earnest until 1928. A second was Lazarus Laughed, developed in scenario form in that year and completed in 1926. A third was his “woman play,” as he referred to Strange Interlude in its first inception.* Before any of these projects were brought to fruition, however, O’Neill conceived and wrote a second play about the man without a soul, treating him less ironically than he had in Marco Millions, bringing himself to a point of compassion for the damned which he had not revealed before.
Great God Brown was the last
play by O’Neill to be produced by the Triumvirate. Lazarus
Laughed, like Marco
Millions, was conceived for production by the group, but
O’Neill’s letters written at the time of the production of The
Great God Brown show clearly his growing disenchantment with the
circumstances which had promised so fair a few years earlier. From
March through May 1925, he wrote enthusiastic notes to Macgowan
regarding the casting of the play, suggesting among others Clare Eames
and John Barrymore. By September, he was quarrelsome:
Casting dilemmas arose. Eva LeGallienne and Florence Eldridge were considered for the women’s parts. Alfred Lunt might play both Dion and Brown “as planned for Barrymore,” and he suggested Lynn Fontanne as a possible Margaret.29 Discussion of the masks began, but by the end of September, the play was not cast and O’Neill, reflecting a disaffection similar to that of Robert Edmond Jones who was to leave the organization the following year, spoke bitterly of the course the Experimental Theatre had taken.
Great God Brown opened the
following January, but by June all three of the directors of the new
theatre had become fed up, and O’Neill had begun to look to the
Theatre Guild as potential producers of both Marco
Millions and Lazarus Laughed. After
a sharp exchange of letters, verging so heavily on recriminations that
each man took time to assure the other of his continuing friendship,
The pessimism was only to deepen as Macgowan’s attempts to find a co-producer for Lazarus Laughed met repeated failures. With the production of The Great God Brown, O’Neill was through with the Art Theatre as a “movement.”
Yet praise exceeded carping, and most recorded impressions stressed that O’Neill in this play penetrated more deeply into the sources of man’s thought (or, as Gilbert Gabriel put it in the New York Sun: “Back to the secret springs of psychoanalysis . . .“) than he had done before. O’Neill, in short, had produced a combination of what Cheney would have called a “psychologic” drama and a drama with a new, poetic form.
O’Neill had used masks in a number of his plays before The Great God Brown. Some of the apparitions in The Fountain, the mannequins the Hairy Ape meets on Fifth Avenue, a group of mourners for Kukachin, and the drowned sailors in The Ancient Mariner are masked, largely for decorative effect. Beyond these minor uses, only the symbolic mask in All God’s Chillun Got Wings stands as fully functional in the drama. From any of these first uses of masks, it is a far reach to that which O’Neill devised for the new play.
Masks were, of
course, a stock property of the Art Theatre aesthetics. Their
theatrical possibilities had already been extolled by Gordon Craig and
William Butler Yeats, when in 1923 Macgowan collaborated with the
designer Herman Rosse in the publication of a picture book with
lengthy captions entitled Masks
and Demons, showing many styles of masks. Charles Sheeler’s book
of African Negro sculpture, containing vivid photographs of African
masks, no doubt remained in O’Neill’s mind. Considering the
Nietzschean elements of the play’s theme, it is possible as well
that The Birth of Tragedy suggested
a further use for the masks than O’Neill had found before. Nietzsche
A little later, Nietzsche describes the Apollonian Consciousness as “a thin veil hiding the Dionysian realm from man” (33) and in discussing the Dionysian origins of tragic character, Nietzsche maintains that “Dionysus remains the sole dramatic protagonist and . . . all the famous characters of the Greek stage, Prometheus, Oedipus, etc., are only masks of that original hero. In fact all the celebrated figures of the Greek stage . . . are but masks for this original hero, Dionysus. (81)
Whatever the source, O’Neill, who began as early as Bound East for Cardiff with Yank’s vision of the pretty lady dressed in black to develop symbolic configurations for the forces which he sensed as man’s true divinities, now comes with the mask to a new perspective on human experience. The perspective is not complex, although the masks lead to a technical complexity. In fact, although they are theatrically exciting, the view of man’s condition which the masks permit is not essentially different from that which he had already taken of the repressed, passionate natures of the protagonists of his New England plays, such as Ile, Diff’rent and Desire Under the Elms. In The Great God Brown, O’Neill sees man as a prisoner in his body. His only escape is in an inner direction toward the roots of God he holds in himself. In all the world, there is no human being he can comprehend or whose comprehension enables him to unmask himself, and thus be freed of loneliness. In Welded, O’Neill had offered the possibility that a man and a woman in a special and profound marriage relationship might achieve an ecstatic communion in which both their isolated selves, in merging, would belong to a greater unity that was the same as the Nietzschean “Oneness” with all nature. Something of the same point was made in his depiction of the relation between Abbie and Eben in Desire Under the Elms. In The Great God Brown, however, such a union is seen to be impossible, and man is condemned to the cell of self until his death.
To the outer, hostile world, he must turn a face which will not startle by revealing the terrifying agony within him. It must be an expressionless face, bland and unchanging except as it is inevitably eroded by the ravages of his hidden struggle. Wearing the mask is not a matter of choice. Like the Mask Maker in Marceau’s great pantomime, man is trapped in the mask, by circumstances, by his own fear and inhibitions, by his need to find some communion with the world beyond his cell. Edmond Dantes telegraphed by tapping on the rocks of his prison wall. In a prison that is not physical, the mask is man’s only means of communication, its mouth the only means of crying across the void that separates him from all other human beings. Only by his mask may he be known.
“memoranda,” published in the American Spectator in 1932 and 1933, after he had in fact ceased his
experimentation with masks in his own drama, O’Neill wrote of his
belief in their utility in solving certain problems of modern
for the new masked drama” is that “One’s outer life passes
in a solitude haunted by the masks of others; one’s inner life
passes in a solitude hounded by the masks of oneself,” and in
his work, he suggests that The Hairy Ape, All God’s Chillun Got Wings, The Emperor Jones, Marco
It was not true. During the writing of Mourning Becomes Electra, he had tried masks and found them unnecessary, and in his work diary for that play he had cautioned himself not to use such devices only because they were theatrically effective: to do so was to be no more than a member of the Broadway Show Shop he despised. Ironically, as he wrote his Memoranda, he was in the process of giving over all such grotesque experimentation. Yet it was almost inevitable that he should have experimented with the mask. Masked faces had been suggested in many of his early plays—in Rose’s face at the end of The Web, expressionless and with eyes like those of a blind woman; in Emma’s heavily made up face in the second act of Diff’rent. The experiment of The Great God Brown, however, taxed his power to its limits and opened the door to a blind passageway from which he would escape only with difficulty. The problem lay in his use of the mask in a new way, to do something that the drama, perhaps, can never do directly: in his own words, to “express those profound conflicts of the mind,” and to write “a drama of souls,” tracing “the adventures of ‘Free Wills.’ “
The “normal” use of the theatrical mask—setting aside its value for disguise in comedy—is to conventionalize the human individuality, to idealize man or to typify him. O’Neill recognized this use in speaking of a new type of play in which a masked mob might be “King, Hero, Villain or Fool . . . the main character,”35 and he suggested that revivals of great plays might be played entirely in masks in order to prevent their becoming vehicles for star players. Then, he said, “We would even be able to hear the sublime poetry as the innate expression of the spirit of the drama itself, instead of listening to it as realistic recitation—or ranting—by familiar actors.”36 Such thoughts emerge from an ideal that may have come from O’Neill’s association with George Cram Cook, whom he echoed when he spoke of the use of masks as an essential for the “imaginative” theatre, “a theatre that could dare to boast—without committing a farcical sacrilege—that it is a legitimate descendant of the first theatre that sprang, by virtue of man’s imaginative interpretation of life, out of his worship of Dionysus. I mean a theatre returned to its highest and sole significant function as a Temple where the religion of a poetical interpretation and symbolical celebration of life is communicated to human beings, starved in spirit by their soul-stifling daily struggle to exist as masks among the masks of the living!”37
Lazarus Laughed, a play written for such an “Imaginative Theatre” as he describes, makes use of the masks in what may be called their normative theatrical way: to typify the members of the chorus, here grouped as the seven ages of man, from Boyhood to Old Age, into seven general character types: The Simple, Ignorant; the Happy, Eager; the Self-Tortured, Introspective; the Proud, Self-Reliant; the Servile, Hypocritical; the Revengeful, Cruel; and the Sorrowful, Resigned. Individuality is thus formalized and O’Neill’s “mob” fulfills its choric function in a way similar to that developed in Greek drama.
In The Great God Brown, however, the mask is used to attain precisely the opposite value, to reveal the human individuality as directly and profoundly as possible. The mask being removed from Dion Anthony, what the spectator is supposed to see and what O’Neill astonishingly set himself to characterize is the human soul itself. This use of the mask is O’Neill’s innovation, one which, as he suggested, follows necessarily from the development of psychological theories in the twentieth century, but one which was not characteristic of the theatre of his time.***
The consequences of
experimentation in this direction were severe. The problem was not
in the theatrically fascinating use of masks, but in the development
of a language which could accompany such a direct look into the
soul. What O’Neill means by a “drama of souls” is really not
communicable directly by any verbal device. The “soul” is
subverbal, and the great dramatist can do
little else than to
suggest it by the referential qualities of his poetry. Nietzsche’s
claim that the mask is a way of expressing the inexpressible essence
of nature sheds significant light on O’Neill’s use, where, once
the mask is removed, the essence itself must be projected.
O’Neill’s mistrust of the superficial and misleading “surface
symbolism” of realism is a sign that he wishes now to present
on his stage without symbolism the naked essence of being. In The
Great God Brown there are no important symbols, if a symbol is
to be taken as a referential device for the expression of an
inexpressible truth. Instead, the drama of souls is enacted before its
audience as if it were a realistic drama, an impossible state of
affairs since once the inexpressible is expressed, it is without
little else than to suggest it by the referential qualities of his poetry. Nietzsche’s claim that the mask is a way of expressing the inexpressible essence of nature sheds significant light on O’Neill’s use, where, once the mask is removed, the essence itself must be projected. O’Neill’s mistrust of the superficial and misleading “surface symbolism” of realism is a sign that he wishes now to present directly on his stage without symbolism the naked essence of being. In The Great God Brown there are no important symbols, if a symbol is to be taken as a referential device for the expression of an inexpressible truth. Instead, the drama of souls is enacted before its audience as if it were a realistic drama, an impossible state of affairs since once the inexpressible is expressed, it is without meaning.
The Great God Brown, despite its devices, is tied to the realistic theatre. It moves in space and time in a coherent and essentially realistic way, and its setting is sociological, rather than psychological, a space, complete with doors, windows, telephones and all the other accoutrements of daily living. O’Neill, indeed, reveals at several points a certain strain in handling his characters in the realistic context of the play. For instance, in III, i, Margaret must be brought to Brown’s office for the crucial scene, in which Brown, unmasked, declares his love for her. As she enters the office, however, O’Neill is forced to have her develop a reason for her presence, a necessity only to a totally realistic drama: “I forgot to tell him something important this morning and our phone’s out of order.” (303) A similar problem develops in IV, i, when Brown switches frantically between his own mask and that of Dion’s which he has usurped. Brown, as Brown, rushes from the room and returns wearing Dion’s mask, but there has been no time for a costume change for the actor. As a realist, O’Neill worries about the matter and has Margaret note the fact that Brown and the supposed Dion are dressed alike: “Why, Dion, that isn’t your suit. It’s just like . . .“ (316) Evidently, if its concern for the color of Brown’s pants is an indication, The Great God Brown is something less than a “drama of souls.” There is here a reminiscence of the quick change of disguise and the dashing in and out of doors of a bedroom farce or of such melodramas as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. At best the play is a realistic, somewhat overwrought narrative complete with a police chase. Whatever they were intended to do, the masks play a not completely fulfilled part.
In his early play, Bread and Butter, O’Neill had treated the same subject matter, indeed had there written what might well be considered a first draft of The Great God Brown. The 1914 version considered the fate of the artist in a small Connecticut town. Its hero, John Brown, is a thinly disguised self-portrait, and the play’s narrative is a conventional piece of autobiographical speculation that extrapolated certain domestic possibilities lying before the young O’Neill into a condemnation of marriage and of American philistinism that combined the most obvious aspects of Strindberg and Sinclair Lewis.
In The Great God Brown, O’Neill altered the story of Bread and Butter—it is no longer so directly autobiographical—but he kept most of its essentials. The play’s statement is only superficially enlarged by the addition of the masks or of the Nietzschean material. In the earlier work, the hero’s confidant was his teacher, the painter Eugene Grammont, a wise and sympathetic counselor. The role is retained in The Great God Brown but given to the prostitute Cybel, who makes explicit the sensitive hero’s desire to reach the creative core of nature itself—a point implied in the early work by Brown’s painting, particularly a seascape and a landscape, the sole vestiges of his artist’s life that he retains in his marital bondage. The Faustian implications of Bread and Butter, suggested in the hero’s willingness to sell his artistic soul for the sake of a woman, are developed more fully in the religious implications of Dion Anthony’s name—a combination of Dionysus and St. Anthony—and in the name of Margaret, by which O’Neill wished to recall the Marguerite of Faust. The parallels with Faust are augmented by the gradual transformation of the Pan mask of Dion into the mocking face of Mephistopheles, at the same time as his true face becomes more saint-like and ascetic.38
The most important
change in the later play was O’Neill’s development of the
character of the materialist, William Brown. In his earlier treatment
of such figures, in Andrew Mayo or the cartooned Marco Polo,
O’Neill had seen him chiefly as what might be called an
“anti-poet,” the adversary of the sensitive self-portraits. Now,
O’Neill developed fully what the figure of Marco Polo had partly suggested to
him: the anguish of the uncreative man, the despair of the man who
cannot dream. As its title suggests, The
Great God Brown holds the materialist up to crucial inspection and
shows that like the poet, he has a capacity to suffer. Suffering comes
to him, when, with the death of Dion, he moves into the play’s focal
position, attempting to live his life in Dion’s mask. As O’Neill
explained this turn in his drama:
The explanation both of Dion and of Brown leaves something to be desired. O’Neill described Brown as “the visionless demi-god of our new materialistic myth—a Success—building his life of exterior things, inwardly empty and resourceless, an uncreative creature of superficial preordained social grooves, a by-product forced aside into slack waters by the deep main current of life-desire.”40 In conceiving of Brown as a “by-product” of the “life-desire,” O’Neill has somewhat altered his view of the materialist. Both Andrew Mayo and John Brown became what they were because they denied their rightful heritage. Billy Brown, however, is created without a soul, and there is no explanation for this deformity. In truth, it appears, that O’Neill began by using Brown as a typical opposition for Dion, feeling no need to explain an epitome. Only when he began to concentrate on Brown as his protagonist in the latter half of the play did he ask the important questions about him, and then he did not always find the essential answers.
The Great God Brown begins and ends in a courtroom. In the prologue and epilogue set on a wharf, the benches form a rectangular space reminiscent of a court of law—an effect that is repeated by the arrangement of furniture in later scenes in the play.**** To this bar of judgment, two men are brought for trial. They are like brothers, close enough in age to be thought of as twins. Cybel first notes this, saying, “You’re brothers, I guess, somehow,” (287) and later Brown, in a desperate moment, cries “We’re getting to be like twins,” (316) referring partly to Dion’s suit that he is wearing, but with reference also to Dion’s life that he has stolen.
The brothers are cast in the mold of Robert and Andrew Mayo, of Eben and his brothers, of Eugene and Jamie O’Neill***** On the face of it, Dion is seeking after the source of life through the creation of works of art, while Brown, whose soul is dead, denies life, and even denies the necessity for the quest. In his explanation of the play, O’Neill stated that the frustration of the creative power made it a self-destructive force, a point he had already made in depicting the consumption of spirit in Robert Mayo. As the two men are brought to the bar, however, a somewhat different aspect of the dichotomy between poet and materialist is revealed, for it is Brown who most ardently seeks life, and it is Dion who, almost from the start, denies it.
Dion is first
presented as a Pan. His mask is described as that of a “mocking,
reckless, defiant, gayly scoffing and sensual Pan.” The mask,
however, is a “fixed forcing of his own face—dark, spiritual,
poetic, passionately supersensitive, helplessly unprotected in its
childlike, religious faith in life.” (260) Masked, he speaks with a
cynical, rebellious irony to his parents and to his friend. Alone and
unmasked, he reveals his weakness:
A lover of life Dion
may be, but he cannot commit himself fully to the worship of Pan. He
takes Margaret with language that suggests the Dionysian ecstasy:
It would seem to be
a moment when Dion accepts life fully, without hesitation or
restraint. O’Neill’s stage directions say otherwise, for the lines
are to be read “with ironic
mastery”—a phrase which voids commitment and turns Dion to a
mere seducer. The point is made clear a moment later. The moon passes
behind a cloud, and blackness and silence hides their love-making.
When the light returns, Dion’s irony becomes explicit as he cries,
On cue, Margaret cries, “Oh Dion, I am ashamed!” .
Dion, who calls himself life’s lover, ostensibly denies life because he understands that ecstatic communion cannot be sustained, and that man will be forced into his mask just as the Veil of Mâyâ must inevitably reshroud the dimly glimpsed truth. The world will frustrate ecstasy. Admitting that Margaret cannot face her lover without his mask on, it is still difficult to maintain that the world has at this moment so frustrated Dion that he denies life at the point of his orgasm. His cry “Great Pan is dead!” is almost one of revulsion at the sexual commitment itself, as if his rapturous penetration into life had somehow shamed him into ironic alienation from his desire.
Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy relates the anecdote from which O’Neill derived Dion’s cry, the story of the “Greek sailors in the time of Tiberius who once heard on a lonely island the cry ‘Great Pan is dead!’ “41 If O’Neill, who developed so much of the play from the writing of Nietzsche, had followed the Nietzchean scheme exactly, Dion would have appeared as a form of anti-Christ since, according to the philosopher, “Christianity was, essentially and thoroughly, the nausea and surfeit of Life for Life, which only disguised, concealed and decked itself out under the belief in ‘another’ or ‘better’ life. The hatred of the ‘world,’ the curse on the affections, the fear of beauty and sensuality, another world, invented for the purpose of slandering this world the more, at bottom a longing for Nothingness, for the end, for the rest, for the ‘Sabbath of Sabbaths.’ “42 Under such a scheme, Brown in turn would have absorbed some of Ephraim Cabot’s “Apollonianism.” As an architect, a builder of cathedrals, he might well have assumed the role of the god of “plastic powers” that Nietzsche saw in Apollo. It is Apollo who held out “the Gorgon’s head to . . . this grotesquely uncouth Dionysian”43 and subdued him and brought him to reconciliation, thus enabling Greek culture to move from ritual to art, as well as to change the ritual itself, from animalistic orgies to those celebrating “universal redemption” and “glorious transfiguration.”
O’Neill, however, does not follow Nietzsche. Instead, he sets in opposition within Dion, the Dionysiac anti-Christ and the Christian ascetic represented by the image of St. Anthony. It is really the emergence of the saint that causes Dion to deny life. His poetic supersensitivity, his “childlike, religious faith in life” is wrenched by an anti-Dionysian force to another direction. At the moment he first attempts to commit himself fully to life, he begins ironically to withdraw from it.
His withdrawal is marked by the changes in his mask and his face. The mask becomes increasingly Mephistophelian, Pan converted into Satan, and the face becomes “more selfless and ascetic, more fixed in its resolute withdrawal from life.” (269) By the second act, the face is that of a martyr, “furrowed by pain and self-torture, yet lighted from within by a spiritual calm and human kindliness,” (284) while the mask “has a terrible deathlike intensity, its mocking irony . . . so cruelly malignant as to give him the appearance of a real demon, tortured into torturing others.” (294) When he prays, Dion resembles “a Saint in the desert, exorcising a demon.” (273)
like that of John in the later Days
Without End, is the exorcism of the demoniac self, the subduing of
the Pan God by the ascetic
forces of Christianity. The laws of the materialistic establishment to
which one must awake from Dionysian rapture has little to do with the
evolution of the Christian saint Dion becomes. His action and its
opposition lie within him. Here of course, difficulty emerges, for
Dion refuses to admit that he is the source of his revulsion from
life. He has, he says, tried to find God through his painting: “I
got paint on my paws in an endeavor to see God!” (282) Failing in this, he
pretends to forswear his quest for God and ironically deifies
materialism, the enemy, in the person of the Great God Brown. But has
he in truth substituted Brown for Dionysus? He has failed as a
painter: he says “It wasn’t in me to be an artist—except in
living— and not even in that.” (271) More fully he boasts:
His claim, as it is phrased here shortly before his death, requires analysis. Both Cybel and Margaret represent an aspect of the life force. Cybel, as the personification of the earth goddess, is the force of nature itself. Dion calls her “Mother Earth,” and she is related to the image of seasonal change, particularly to spring and to autumn harvest. Dion loves her because she brings him a sense of quiet and calm that is almost prenatal. In Cybel’s room, he speaks of the sweetness and purity of his mother and of his father whom he felt he knew only at the moment of his conception. Cybel becomes a mother, to whom he can turn as a child. Yet, if Cybel is life, it is difficult to see that Dion has been “life’s lover.” His worship of her power is not that of a lover.
Margaret also stands in relation to Dion as a mother. He says of her, “In due course of nature another girl called me her boy in the moon and married me and became three mothers in one person.” (282) The three mothers, presumably, mean the reincarnation of his dead mother, the wife-mother of Dion’s sons, and insofar as Margaret recalls Faust’s Marguerite, the Virgin mother, to whom saints pray. Shortly before he dies, he turns on her with mockery, crying,
Again, however, the worship by the life-denying Christian ascetic of the Ewig Weibliche is not to be construed as justifying Dion’s claim to having “loved, lusted, won and lost.” Nor, it may be said without elaboration, has his debauchery nor his drunkenness.
The simple fact is that Dion has not loved life, but has steadily denied it. Far from being the play’s Dionysian, the anti-Christ, he is closer to its Christ, and his martyrdom is marked by appropriate quotation from Thomas a Kempis, the Sermon on the Mount and the Lord’s Prayer. When the action of exorcism is complete, Dion blesses the satanic mask, saying, “Peace, poor tortured one, brave pitiful pride of man, the hour of our deliverance comes. Tomorrow we maybe with Him in Paradise!” (291) Earlier, he has cried “Pride is dead! Blessed are the meek! Blessed are the poor in spirit!” (273) The lines suggest that it is the death of Pride, rather than the death of Pan, with which O’Neill in Dion is principally concerned.
Brown is Dion’s brother. The two are bound together by the same ties of alienation and commitment which mark the relationship between Andrew and Robert Mayo and which will be the distinctive bond between Edmund and Jamie Tyrone. For Brown, the relationship is bondage. He is condemned to follow Dion’s course, in a brutal parallel, suffering Dion’s agony and sharing none of Dion’s vision. Where Dion is Pan, Brown is a satyr; where Dion is Mephistopheles, Brown is Faust; and where Dion is a martyred Christ, Brown is a thief who must also be martyred.******
Brown is presented, through Dion’s commentary on him, as the secure God of a materialistic society, an assured possessor of all he surveys, “piled in layers of protective fat.” Cybel notes that he is “guilty,” but her charge does not form a specific indictment. Dion is more detailed: “Vaguely, deeply, he feels at his heart the gnawing of a doubt! And I’m interested in that germ which wriggles like a question mark of insecurity in his blood, because it’s part of the creative life Brown’s stolen from me!” (296) He cries “Brown loves me! He loves me because I have always possessed the power he needed for love, because I am love!” (298)
As he speaks, Dion
is at the point of death, and his words move Brown to a jealous
duplication of his martyrdom. When he assumes Dion’s mask, he claims
to be drinking Dion’s strength: “strength to love in this world
and die and sleep and become fertile earth, as you are becoming now in
my garden—your weakness the strength of my flowers, your failure as
an artist painting their petals with life!” It is a partial vision,
the half-successful attempt of the Dionysian reveler to personate
the god and thereby to assume his knowledge and his power. That it
is insufficient is clear. Brown cannot create, for creation depends on
vision, and Brown moves in the dark. What he cannot possess, he
destroys, as in childhood he destroyed Dion’s sand castle, and as
he finally destroys himself. At the last moment, O’Neill gives him
insight and allows him to speak in a burst of ecstasy, crying,
The lyric thrust of
his final words is perhaps less justifiable than the play’s curtain
line as the police captain confronts Cybel:
Unexpectedly at the end not Dion, but Brown, the play’s villain and villified victim, becomes an emblem of the human condition.
At crucial moments
in their lives, both Dion and Brown enact their passion in the
presence of Cybel, who directly and unambiguously represents that
life force central to the play’s meaning. O’Neill describes her as
resembling an “idol of Mother Earth,” and, in causing her to wear
the mask of a prostitute, suggests that most men who seek a Dionysian
forgetfulness find it in momentary sexual substitutes. Dion, however,
sees her as life itself. He calls her “Miss Earth,”
and his relationship with her is not sexual. With her he is a child.
Although Brown knows her only as the prostitute, at the end she
becomes his mother as well, comforting him as he dies, praying for him
and pronouncing his partial vision real:
doctrine of the Dionysian earth mother is not one which either of the
men can accept. Until he dies, Brown never sees her without her mask
or hears her message. Dion, tormented by his own ghosts, cannot follow
her teaching. Hers is a simple message. “Life’s all right,”
she tells Dion, “if you let it alone.” To Brown, with exasperated
pity, she cries, “Oh, why can’t you ever learn to leave yourselves
alone and leave me alone!” She means that men should find a way to
rid themselves of the desire to win, to possess and even to see God.
She says to Dion who complains that her luck at cards is better than
his, “It knows you still want to win—a little
bit—and it’s wise all I care about is playing.” Life is enough
in itself. It is eternal, prolific and unimportant:
Men on earth are better off if, like the majority of sailors on the Glencairn, they live in unthinking relationship with the rhythm of life, accepting without question its continuity and its benevolence. In the context of The Great God Brown, and in the conflict of the visionary and the possessor, men cannot accept life as children do. They must perform acts of will, attempt to shape life and destroy themselves in the attempt. O’Neill’s morality play, although its theological scheme cannot deny men salvation as they return to life in dying, damns them to suffering in their course on earth.
Significantly, neither Dion nor Brown finds any genuine human relationship to sustain him. Both men in the play love Margaret, but that love is little more than a subject for declamation. Margaret, consumed with her sons and her housework and her unperceiving love for her husband, is perhaps intended as an example of one who lets life alone. In the prologue and epilogue she is linked with the moon and the sea and tidal pull of birth, yet her position as Ewig Weibliche is not dramatized with force. With neither Dion nor Brown does she achieve a relationship comparable even to that established between Rose and Tim in The Web. With Cybel, Dion has a communion, but again it is not such a profound human relationship that it can redeem life’s pain.
The absence of genuine character relationships is the first sign of O’Neill’s departure from what had been an important consequence of his commitment to the realistic theatre. In depicting men and women he had known, in ransacking life as he had met it, he had been able to infuse most of his works with a sense of life that no one writing in the American theatre and few in Europe had been able to achieve. For all its appearance of expressionism, The Emperor Jones was rooted in a realistic conception of character, and even The Hairy Ape remained close to the kind of character depiction in the Glencairn plays. With The Great God Brown, however, O’Neill’s art turned decisively away from what it had been in the past, away from man, toward God and toward the statement of a fully formed theology.
* O’Neill to Macgowan, September 28, 1925. “Lazarus is elaborately scenarioed— wonderfully, I believe—also ditto my woman play, and I’m enormously excited over both—will be able to start right in on either or both as soon as I’m unpacked. . . .”
** O’Neill complained to Macgowan that the masks did not work. “They only get across personal resemblance of a blurry meaninglessness,” he wrote and objected that there should have been more time to study the theatrical problem and to light the masks properly. (O’Neill to Macgowan, August 23, 1926.)
*** In a program note for the “Greenwich Village Playbill,” Macgowan comments at some length on the atypical use of masks in The Great God Brown, saying that it is the first play in this century to use masks to any extent. “So far as I know, O’Neill’s play is the first in which masks have ever been used to dramatize changes and conflicts in character. . . . O'Neill uses the naked face and the masked face to picture the conflict between inner character and the distortions which outer life thrusts upon it. With this established, he goes on to use the mask as a means of dramatizing a transfer of personality from one man to another. . . . The most interesting of all ideas surrounding the use of the mask among primitive peoples is that of Possession. . . . The skull or the mask of a dead man grips his soul, and whoever puts it on must be ready to have the soul enter into his body. Great shamans, mighty medicine men are made by this process. They walk in demoniac power. And sometimes, if they do not know how and when to take off that mask, they die possessed and tortured.”
**** Cf. “BILLY stands
at the left corner, forward, his hand on the rail, like a prisoner at
the bar, facing the judge,” (258)
and the reference in a later scene to “the
same courtroom effect.”
***** Dion is not described as a physical type, other than as “lean and wiry,” but his character is entirely compatible with the earlier self-portraits. Moreover Dion’s cynicism, fatigue and despair, as well as his debauchery, are all qualities biographers have associated with O’Neill. Dion speaks of having got paint on his paws in an effort to see God. So in The Great God Brown, O’Neill was making every effort to define the nature of his religious vision.
****** Cf. 311 and 313, where Brown is compared to a goat; 294, where Dion explicitly plays the devil come to conclude a bargain; and 287 and 296, where Dion complains that Brown steals life from him.
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