In Bread and Butter OíNeill takes a very different view of marriage. Modeled after Strindbergís denunciation of the marital state, the play expands its focus to include a depressing picture of its heroís attempts to live a creative life in a middle-class American society.
John Brown is the youngest of three sons of a Connecticut hardware merchant. At thirty, the oldest brother, Edward, is a conventional adherent to the ways of the townís best people. He is an alderman, on his way to becoming mayor, and has hopes of holding yet higher office. The second son, Harry, is a rounder who frequents taverns and brothels, living a life of good-humored dissipation. There are two sisters, Mary at twenty-eight already confirmed as an old maid, and Bessie, a vivacious youngster, a year older than John.
John has been destined by his father to study law, but he rebels at entering college. He wishes above all things to paint. His fiancťe, Maud Steele, persuades Brownís family that he should be permitted to follow his own bent, but it is soon apparent that her sympathy for his artistic leanings rests in the hope that John will become a successful commercial artist.
In Greenwich Village, John, living with three other painters, comes into inevitable conflict with both his family and the Steeles, who wish him to return to Connecticut, marry and settle down. The conflict is defined by his teacher, Eugene Grammont:
one of Johnís roommates apostrophizes:
The worshipers of the golden calf go strenuously to work. They brush aside his protests that children are not the possessions of their parents and return him to his home and to Maudís arms and a job in her fatherís store.
The fourth act describes the results of his weakness. John makes the rounds with Harry, and Maud takes consolation in the company of Edward, who has loved her over the years. Unable to stand Johnís moral decline, she nags him incessantly. In reply, he tells her that they are ďtwo corpses chained togetherĒ and begs for a divorce. She refuses and continues to berate him until in a frenzy he leaps at her and begins to strangle her. Stopping just short of murder, he rushes upstairs and puts a bullet through his head. At curtain, Maud runs screaming into the street.
In several ways, Bread and Butter is the most uncharacteristic play of the group. There are resemblances, of course, to the other works: the emphasis on the need for individual freedom to pursue a creative life recalls certain of the early arguments in Servitude, and the animosity displayed toward the materialists has a parallel in the view taken of the husband in Recklessness and the Business Man in Fog. The play, however, contains none of the concept of ironic fate, nor the sense that a blind spirit controls the affairs of men. There is no expression of the Dionysian immersion of the will,* and, for once, OíNeill does not permit the social context of the play to give way to private exploration.
Nevertheless, the play holds in it much that formed OíNeillís sense of himself. John Brown is OíNeillís second attempt at self-portraiture. His face corresponds in most details to the face of the Poet in Fog and to OíNeillís own appearance. Johnís association with his brother Harry parallels Eugeneís own relationship with his easy-living brother, Jamie, and the initials of one of his loves, Maibelle Scott, are perpetuated in the name of his heroine. Accounts of that early romance suggest that OíNeill, as a young, ďartistic,Ē non-conformist, frequently stepped on the toes of proper New London society in his pursuit of the girl.10 The specific biographical reflections are less of concern, however, than are the qualities with which OíNeill invested his theatrical alter ego.
However mawkishly, John Brown anticipates the later heroes who waste away in spirit because they cannot obtain adequate nourishment for their desires in their world. Robert Mayo of Beyond the Horizon and Dion Anthony of The Great God Brown are cut to the same pattern as John Brown. Although the later conflicts are more complex, the similarity among the characters is strong. Each of the three is married to a woman who has a little beauty but who is incapable of understanding her husbandís deepest need. Ruth Mayo and Margaret Anthony both fail the test of sensitivity to which their husbands bring them, as Maud fails John.
Thus isolated at home, the heroes of the later plays when they move in the world are brought into conflict with another man who epitomizes social values hostile to the protagonist. As a foil to John stands his brother Edward, complacent, self-centered, destructive. In similar relationship to the later heroes stand Andrew Mayo, Robertís brother, and William Brown, Dionís partner. In Bread and Butter, the heroís opponent is scarcely a serious antagonist. His function is generally to define at close range the world to which John Brown has committed himself and in which he must move as an alien. By the light of this figure, the consequences of Johnís choice are fully revealed. He stands condemned as a man who has failed to follow his destined course and who thus has deserted his sole good. In such action, delineated sketchily here in the antagonism between the sensitive and insensitive denizens of a commonplace world, OíNeill was later to find the central tragic pattern of his early successes.
* The only hint of any of these concepts passes without comment in the fourth act. On the walls of his home, John has hung two of his canvases, ďin the Impressionist style, a landscape and a seascape.Ē The paintings are emblems of what John has lost, Samsonís locks hung as trophies in the Philistine tents. They represent the dream unfulfilled, a power unused, an ungratifiable longing, but their subject has a potential significance beyond the frame of the play. Shortly, in Beyond the Horizon, OíNeill will find the sea and the land to be the poles of manís being, epitomizing the forces to which he belongs. The beginning of this concept is here mutely set forth in the images that dominate the room where John is destroyed.
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