Lacking significant complexity in design and leading to no important insights into man’s nature, The Web has at least the virtue of containing the elements with which O’Neill will work to create his tragic patterns. However crudely, the design is shaped. In the other minor works of 1914, the pattern is sketched less completely.
Recklessness and Abortion, both set on a higher social level than The Web, are in all ways less effective. Recklessness, together with The Web, was sent to the producer Holbrook Blinn, who at the Princess Theatre in New York was offering bills of one-act plays, including some Grand-Guignol, to what he hoped would be an elite audience. The sophisticates failed to support the venture and it disappeared before O’Neill’s efforts could be considered for production.6 Recklessness, however, brought a minor dividend later in O’Neill’s career. The script was sold to Hollywood where in 1933 it served as the basis for a film entitled The Constant Woman with Leila Hyams and Conrad Nagle.*
Viewed without reference to O’Neill’s other work, Recklessness is an outrageous marital melodrama in which a sneering husband, having discovered that his wife loves his chauffeur, first arranges that the chauffeur shall be killed in an automobile accident, and then comfortably accepts as inevitable the suicide of his wife. In the context of the companion works, O’Neill can be seen to be weaving another web of ironic fate in which circumstances defeat the thrust for happiness. It was not worth the effort. In spite of a suggestion that the wife and chauffeur are trying to find greater freedom and dignity through love, the mechanics of the plot defeat them without providing them love with a vestige of significance.
Abortion is more ambitious. O’Neill worked over the theme in several versions,7 and created a play worthy at least of rudimentary concern. The scene is an unnamed eastern university, resembling Princeton which O’Neill had briefly attended in 1906, and the play possibly reflects some of his concern over the pregnancy of Kathleen Jenkins, whom he had married in 1909. It is not, however, an autobiographical play. Jack Townsend, the star baseball player, has seduced a poor girl from the “wrong” side of town. Her pregnancy has necessitated an abortion, and she has died following the operation. This news is conveyed to Jack on the evening of his greatest triumph on the baseball field. Faced by the tubercular brother of the dead girl, Jack admits his guilt. While the undergraduates chant his praises beneath his dormitory window, he expiates his guilt by suicide.
explanation of his role as seducer is rudimentary, yet with it,
O’Neill appears to attribute the operation of fate to something more
than such social circumstances as crushed Tim and Rose. Drawing a
distinction between his love for his fiancée and for the dead girl,
Jack’s primitive chromosomes have left him powerless to guide his destiny, much as the diseased condition of society in The Web leads to Rose’s downfall. Jack’s fate, however, is determined in his blood, in the primitive inheritance that has soiled his essentially noble nature.
The conception of male beasts on the Princeton campus, having no foundation in visible reality, is probably to be attributed to the reverence for the primitive that O’Neill had found in Jack London’s writings on the atavistic nature of men and dogs in such novels as The Call of the Wild and Before Adam. Yet London’s Buck heeded the call of the wild for more convincing reasons than did Jack Townsend, and, as if he were bolstering a not very convincing ethnological thesis, O’Neill attempts to view his action in a frame of social reference similar to that which he could have found in Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. O’Neill, however, is unable to approximate Dreiser’s massive analysis of social problems and their effect on his characters’ conduct and fate. His effort is confined to a contrast between Jack and the dead girl’s brother, Joe Murray, who comes menacingly from the slums to confront Jack with his guilt. The brother is whining and weak; that he has tuberculosis indicates that he is doomed. His contrast with the golden boy is sharp, but O’Neill intended to show that both are bound for the same depressing destiny. The comparison made, however, O’Neill drops it. He does not approach social protest, nor does he suggest any remedy for the inequities of class. In the end, withdrawing from any large view of the social opposition he has sketched, O’Neill makes Jack’s suicide a matter of merely private expiation.
The inward turn of the final moments is reminiscent of The Web. Jack’s death, like Rose’s blind silence, is an acquiescence to fate. It differs only in that it is not preceded by the confessional moment of understanding. Lacking a partner to serve as priest, Jack’s confession becomes a mere acknowledgement of wrongdoing, and his pain, such as it is, is unalleviated by understanding. With a certain courage that lifts the play slightly from the merely pathetic, Jack goes alone to his death. Much later, Lavinia in Mourning Becomes Electra will move into the Mannon house to face her dead. Jack takes the first tentative step in that lonely direction.
According to the New York Times, February
12, 1933, Recklessness was the
basis of a film first titled Auction
in Souls. In a letter to Robert Sisk, dated July 4, 1932, O’Neill
reported that he received $5000 for the rights to the play. To Sisk in
March, 1933, he refers to The
Constant Woman, noting that this title is not so senseless as the other.
The film was produced by World Wide and released in May, 1933.
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