His major creative effort during the time he was directly associated with Macgowan and Jones was in the style of expressionism as it was generally understood in that period. Macgowan had called expressionism “anti-realistic” in its refusal merely to imitate the surfaces of experience, and he had noted that it used the free techniques of romanticism to penetrate toward psychological and spiritual truths. He had held also that in developing plays in this mode, the collaboration of playwright, designer and director was necessary since the playwright has to depend on color and form and a more presentational acting style than was customary.
O’Neill’s first effort to write in the expressionistic mode was The Emperor Jones. Its success undoubtedly confirmed his belief that this was a direction an important modern playwright should take. In the year following, he wrote two new works in the style, The Fountain and The Hairy Ape. The latter was discussed in embryo with Macgowan, and as he began writing The Fountain, the possibility of a collaboration with Macgowan and Jones was clearly in his mind. On March 18, 1921, he wrote to Macgowan, “I have asked Bobby Jones also to suggest reading for me. I am hoping that he will be able to come up here either before or after his trip abroad. By that time my idea of the whole play ought to have more form and substance—and he could tell me just how the thing appeared to him from his angle—and we might combine. It would be an intensely interesting experiment, I believe, to work this thing out in harmony from our respective lines in the theatre—one not done before, as far as I know. For my part, a clearer understanding of what he is striving for would be of inestimable value. . . . Perhaps you could fix it so that you folks and Bobby could make it at the same time. That would be fine if you could. I want all your suggestions on this The Fountain opus that you can give, you know.”
In two superficial ways, The Fountain fell into the expressionist camp. First, it was a romantic costume play. Macgowan in The Theatre of Tomorrow had listed the number of plays in America in recent seasons which had turned away from the slavish imitation of the present to move back in time. He felt that such a turn toward the exotic was indication of a desire to increase the imaginative range of the theatre in contemporary life. Romanticism was, in its way, “anti-realistic,” and as a style resembled expressionism.7 Second, in its structure, it moved away from the formulas that had chained the theatre to trivial realism. Macgowan inveighed against the “constructed” play, the three-act formula which imitators of Ibsen in his realistic period had made the norm of a theatre-goer’s experience. He called for a much freer sense of form, one that would avoid artificial compression and illogical happenings so that a forced continuity in time could be maintained. An increase in the number of scenes seemed to him an inevitable consequence as the plays achieve a significant inner form. A technique comparable to that of the film might be envisioned, he felt, that would permit the play to move freely with the mind of the audience.8 The Fountain, responsive to such doctrine, is not divided into acts but into “Parts” and contains, in all, eleven scenes. O’Neill’s understanding of its shape is detailed in a letter he wrote on April 8, 1921, to Macgowan: “As for act or scene divisions, I have no rule either one way or the other. I always let the subject matter mould itself into its own particular form and I find it does this without my ever wasting thought upon it. I start out with the idea that there are no rules or precedent in the game except what the play chooses to make for itself—but not forgetting that it is to be played in a theatre—(’theatre’ meaning my notion of what a modern theatre should be capable of instead of merely what it is). I usually feel instinctively a sort of rhythm of acts or scenes and obey it hit or miss.”
program note for the play’s production stresses the romanticism
inherent in the story:
Not only in its
romantic re-telling of history and in its fluidity of form but also in
its language, the play attempted to ally itself with the new
theatrical movement. Both Magowan and Cheney had asked for a poetic
drama. Macgowan, more specifically, had expressed his dislike of
Shakespearean imitations in dead iambic pentameter, and he had felt it
sufficient if a dramatist were to achieve the rhythmic prose of Synge
or of O’Neill in The Emperor
Jones.11 Nevertheless, O’Neill in the early drafts of
The Fountain framed the
dialogue in language close to blank verse, a loosely cadenced iambic
measure, which he later restructured as prose. His aim, as he stated
it to George Jean Nathan, was “to gain a naturalistic effect of the
quality of the people and speech of those times . . . with little care
for original poetic beauty save in the few instances where that is
called for.”12 The comment is a little defensive, for
many viewers took the play sharply to task for its language.13 O’Neill’s
statement that he was creating a “naturalistic” language,
realistically appropriate to his historical figures is, in the face of
his evident striving for poetic effect, unconvincing. Rather, it
appears that he sought through the verse to move “behind life,”
releasing in the play the power of poetry to present inner reality by
imagery and rhythm. To a limited extent, the original verse patterns
can be reapproximated from the prose text.
haunt such speeches as Maria’s:
Without reliable evidence as to the extent of O’Neill’s revisions of the verse when he printed it as prose, the fact is clear that had he left the dialogue in verse form, what he would have written would have been only a somewhat heightened poetic prose, similar to that of Lazarus Laughed which could serve him as the idiom of his questing central character.
The potential gain of such an idiom was the opportunity to speak of God and of man’s quest for God directly in a way his realistic plays had not permitted. In The Fountain, O’Neill writes for the first time of the Catholic faith from which he had turned in early manhood. Yet it is probably not true to say as the Gelbs do that here “O’Neill tried, for the first time on a large scale, to dramatize his private and never-ending struggle with his Catholic conscience.”14 Catholic faith is treated in this play as a part of the historical background. Luis’s final statement that the dead hero “lives in God” is appropriate to Luis’s character, not to any generally held Catholic position. Juan’s sense as he dies is that he will be “resolved into the thousand moods of beauty that make up happiness.” In dying he has re-entered the Fountain of Eternity, which is the Fountain of eternal youth. God in this play is a force of eternal nature, not the Catholic deity. Together with the image of man as a seeker who desires to be possessed by the eternal life forces that move around and through him, this view of God has characterized all of O’Neill’s religious thinking from his first plays forward. The importance of The Fountain and its poetry is that O’Neill can now deal explicitly with the thought that had been implicit in so many of his dramas up to 1921.
In his research for
the play, among the books Macgowan had provided for him, he read
Frazer’s The Golden Bough. The
anthropological concerns which had marked many of his earlier works,
including The Emperor Jones and
the recently completed The
First Man,and which were to reappear in The Hairy Ape written later in the same year, were perhaps confirmed and strengthened by Frazer’s work, for Juan Ponce de Leon follows the route taken by many of O’Neill’s earlier heroes, back to his origins in a natural, life-giving source.
In the beginning, however, Juan is not the questing poet. He bears a strong resemblance to Andrew Mayo, whose journey to foreign lands is characterized by a materialistic desire for possession, but who remains blind to the mystery of the exotic worlds about him. He is introduced as a man of war, speaking war-mongering slogans, and, bent on an expedition of plunder with Columbus, he lives with “disciplined ability and confident self-mastery.” Only when his love for Beatriz leads him to seek the source of life in the eternal spring does he change. Then, predictably, he becomes O’Neill’s poetic hero, questing God. The change has been slightly anticipated by a stage direction when Juan is introduced in the first scene. O’Neill calls him “a romantic dreamer governed by the ambitious thinker in him.” O’Neill has combined in Juan the opposites that he first set forth as Robert and Andrew Mayo.
The story of The Fountain is characteristic. The hero, capable of sensitive and idealistic vision, is transformed by his materialism into an enfeebled monster, moving soullessly through a corrupt society, far from his natural world. In The Fountain, however, following his “romantic and religious” inclinations, O’Neill reverses the usual course of his narrative—which would normally end with the hero’s destruction—and causes the dreamer to emerge from the man of iron, and, in death, to triumph. It is an important change, and it comes about because through the demands of the expressionist theatre he is empowered, if not forced, to be explicit about the nature of the God with which he had earlier dealt only by implication. Now, with the symbol of God on the stage in the vision of the Fountain of Youth, O’Neill must show God not as implacable, revengeful or, for that matter, even aware of man. God is, as Nature is, and man need only recognize his presence to be caught up in the force of life at its most profound. Once the force is known, once the vision is made real, man is in harmony with his world.
The harmony is expressed in the play at the outset by Don Luis’s translation of a Moorish song:
The image of the old harmony, born of sacred, primordial peace is a vision of Eden, of Paradise, even, in the context of this play, of America. Juan at the outset rejects the vision, crying “There is no profit in staking life for dreams”; yet out of his despair in failing to gain riches in the New World, there is born in him a dream of something other than golden cities, and he comes at last to a quest for the essence of the vision of the song.
As Juan moves into
the forests to seek the fountain, O’Neill returns to the technical
scenic devices of The Emperor
Jones. The walls of the forest are close in around the spring, and
Juan, wounded and alone, speaks as Brutus Jones had done, in
soliloquy, calling for a vision of “what I am that I should have
lived and died!” The vision comes, a masked figure of a woman who is
Death, followed by a second vision of his beloved, Beatriz, who is
“the personified spirit of the fountain” and who sings its song:
Other visions come: a Chinese poet and the Moorish minstrel who sang the tale of the sacred grove. Juan curses them because he feels they have damned him. Yet, as the phantoms disappear, he calls out to them, “Have you no vision for the graspers of the earth?” The vision he is granted is one of all the faiths of the earth passing into the fountain. Beatriz reappears, this time masked as an aged crone. He realizes that age and youth are the same “rhythm of eternal life,” and that death is nothing. The figure of Death unmasks, and becomes Beatriz, soaring upward in the heart of the fountain which he now senses is “That from which all life springs and to which it must return—God! Are all dreams of you but one dream?” (441)
The final scene of the play, in which Juan discovers himself reborn in his nephew who loves the young Beatriz, daughter of Juan’s former mistress, is a somewhat too literal proof of the capacity of life to renew itself, but it is enough to confirm the truth of his vision to Juan. He dies crying, “One must accept, absorb, give back, become oneself a symbol.” As he dies, his reincarnated self sings the song of the fountain.
The ecstatic rush of feeling at the end of the play was unquestionably the kind of outpouring that those who wrote of the need for spirituality in the theatre cherished. Yet, although O’Neill was excited as he wrote, neither he nor his critics liked it much when it appeared on the stage** O’Neill classed The Fountain with Gold and The First Man as “too painfully bungled in their present form to be worth producing at all.”15
Notably in each of
the “bungled” plays, production was long deferred, and O’Neill
was forced to accept compromises in casting and staging. While
waiting, he wrote other plays that were more immediately important to
him. In September, 1925, more than four years after he had written The
Fountain, and after it had made the rounds of several producers,
including Arthur Hopkins and the Theatre Guild, he complained to
Macgowan that the work which the Experimental Theatre was putting in
on the production of The
Fountain was interfering with the production of The
Great God Brown. “Brown,” he wrote, “needs much more careful
casting, more time, and more careful preparation than ‘The
Fountain.’ To me it is worth a dozen Fountains.”
Clearly, by the time The
Fountain appeared on stage, O’Neill had no further interest in
it. The style was forced, the romantic theatricality of little
interest, and the play’s reliance on elaborate stage devices and
expensive production created a mechanical core to the fervor that
falsifies the lyric impulse. Moreover, the relatively explicit
analysis of the nature of God may have seemed in the retrospect of
four years less effective than the treatment of the theology of the
“graspers of the earth” in
He may also have felt that in giving his tragic fable a new, positive ending, he had lost the essential drama of suffering that had marked such early successes as Beyond the Horizon, The Emperor Jones and certain of the Glencairn plays. Juan’s story, so long as he persists in an essentially false pursuit for materialistic gain, is not dramatic. In the first scenes of the play, he is capricious, mercurial, antagonistic to most of his fellows, but all conflict in which he is involved is based on superficies of character, especially his “Spanish” hot-headedness. Although he occupies the center of attention, he does nothing.*** All occasions when he seems to act, as in the scenes displaying his hostility to Columbus and, later, to the nobility and the natives of the New World, are contrived. This is not to say that there are not scenes of interest****; nevertheless, they do not dramatize Juan as a religious quester. Commenting on the failure of the play, O’Neill said that he thought the critics were right in saying that it had no action.10 The judgment, at least of the first eight scenes of the play, is valid. Juan’s true action begins only when the dreamer in him overthrows the “ambitious thinker,” when, two-thirds through the play, Juan “stakes his life for a dream” and follows what has before seemed to him only a cursed life-lie. Then, the dream of golden cities becomes a vision of God, and, significantly, at this point, the lyric qualities of the dialogue begin to justify their presence and become more like poetry and less an awkward attempt to recreate the “naturalistic speech” of the people of times past.
* Perhaps an impulse that led to the writing of The Fountain came from a play by George Cram Cook entitled The Spring. It was produced by the Provincetown Players in January, 1921, the same season as The Emperor Jones, shortly before O’Neill began to write The Fountain. Cook’s play was one in which he took pride, and its failure in the aftermath of the success of The Emperor Jones led him to leave his theatre in bitterness. The Spring is a story of modern and primitive times, dealing with an Indian legend of reincarnation and of a magical spring in which a vision of the unity of all souls, all nature can be seen. The vision leads its holder toward new horizons: “Do you know what this means? It means that you and I, before we die, may turn the thought of the world as sharply as Darwin did—but inward. This is a voyage greater than that of Columbus!—for what we seek is—the unknown hemisphere of the soul—You and I are going to set sail into ourselves; for there, in the ocean of the unconscious, is the shore of our new world.”10 The resemblance between O’Neill’s and Cook’s themes is marked and the use of American Indian subject matter suggests that O’Neill may have been led to the story of Ponce de Leon by Cook’s work. In detail, however, there is little resemblance.
** The similarity between the expression of religious ecstasy at the end of The Fountain to passages at the end of Welded and All God’s Chillun Got Wings is not coincidental. Each represents an attempt by O’Neill to shape the dramatic action so that it ends on a moment of significant religious experience.
*** At one point, Juan is so slightly involved that O’Neill writes a desperate stage direction: “Juan paces back and forth, humming to himself,” (378) apparently on the theory that the character has to look busy even if he is not.**** Scene ii on Columbus’s flagship is the first indication of O’Neill’s power as a historical dramatist. He has re-created the moodiness and the tensions of the voyage with sensitivity, and has caught in his sketch of Columbus something of the almost messianic quality of the man.
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