In the two longer plays of the period, Servitude and Bread and Butter, O’Neill makes more ambitious efforts at argument, but he does not materially advance the bill of particulars already set forth. Of the two, Servitude is the more sustained intellectual effort. It is strongly influenced by Ibsen and Shaw and represents work in a genre that O’Neill did not frequently elect: the domestic drama.
is what Shaw would have called a “disquisitory” drama debating
the role of women in marriage. David Roylston, a playwright, has written
eloquently of the need for women to assert their individuality so that
they may become something more than married chattel. Strongly influenced
by Roylston’s Ibsenesque morality, Ethel Frazer has left her husband
and sought the playwright, asking for further guidance. She tells him,
Nora, slamming the door on Torvald Helmer, has run straight to Ibsen, who, as Servitude has it, is no more emancipated than Pastor Manders. To teach him to have the courage of his morality, Mrs. Frazer tries to make him see that his own wife has been forced to serve him as a kind of bondswoman. Mrs. Roylston, Patience’s monument, will have none of such teaching. She is content to sit in her husband’s shadow, type his plays, and lend substance to his mask. What began as an account of the “New Woman” of Ibsen and Shaw is, by the final curtain, converted to a sentimental version of Candida, arguing that marital happiness lies in the placid acceptance of bondage.
is brought to see his indebtedness to his wife:
“Happiness,” Mrs. Frazer tells him, “is servitude.”
The insight is very nearly unavailing, since Mrs. Frazer’s husband arrives with gun in hand, prepared to kill Roylston, his wife’s suspected lover. Quickly won over to the prevailing acceptance of things as they are, he and his wife go happily off, leaving the Roylstons united anew in firm understanding.
“Don’t you know it was your duty to claim your right as an individual,” David asks her, “to shake off the shackles my insufferable egotism had forced upon you? Don’t you understand that you have stifled your own longings, given up your own happiness that I might feel self-satisfied?”
Mrs. Roylston is given the curtain line: “That was my happiness,” she says primly.
O’Neill’s view of marriage as happy bondage anticipates the matrimonial concepts set forth in The First Man, Welded and Strange Interlude. In none of the later plays, however, is he so satisfied with the idea of Pan in wedlock’s Logos as he here appears to be. In the next five or six years, Strindberg, whose influence in 1914 is with one exception lightly felt, would take firm hold of him and cause him to assert emphatically that marriage is made in hell. At this stage in his career, however, he is ready to see marriage not as a web, but as a relationship that promises an all-embracing good.
The condition of being described as “Pan in Logos” means, presumably, that within the frame of marriage men and women can learn to achieve a Dionysian ecstasy. The phrase comes from the second part of Ibsen’s Emperor and Galilean, at the end of Act III where it refers to the relationships between the Dionysian commitments of Emperor Julian and the Christian view of life.* O’Neill’s use of the phrase has little bearing on Ibsen’s meaning. His understanding of Pan comes perhaps as much from Nietzsche as from Ibsen or Shaw, for in his domestication of the concept, he appears to mean that in marriage, the Roylstons must submerge their individualities by an ultimate act of will which is in itself a denial of will. Happiness is to be found in an unthinking acceptance of one another that destroys all separateness and leads to a “Dionysian” ecstasy of belonging.
The concept is tentative and interesting less for what it initially is than for what it rejects of Ibsen and of Nietzsche. Shaw found in Nietzsche a vocabulary and to a degree a philosophical position to aid him in his quest for ways to remedy society’s problems. The controlled, conscious, self-liberated “New Woman” that Shaw devised, following Ibsen, became Doña Ana searching for the father for the Superman. The power of mind to seize and guide the power of unconscious life caused Shaw to develop aspects of the Apollonian mode of being as set forth by Nietzsche. Yet O’Neill, rejecting Shaw and Ibsen, also rejected the Apollonian aspects of Nietzsche, finding greater good in the subjugation of consciousness, in forgetting, in participating in the Dionysian rhapsody he felt might be discovered in suburban marriages. Pan, not Apollo, in Logos is what O’Neill seeks in this cursory anticipation of later full-scale treatments of the unknowable life force.
O’Neill’s choice contains the elements of a paradox. For a young radical to reject the positive social recommendations of Ibsen and Shaw in the interest of justifying on philosophical grounds the routine of nineteenth-century marriage has two possible explanations. The first is that such a justification was a staple commodity of turn-of-the-century theatre in England and America. Yet the play has a more ambitious intellectual argument than most pretending to debate the subject, and the conservatism of O’Neill’s solution has perhaps a more significant explanation than that of theatrical tradition.
In the majority of the plays already examined, O’Neill has set forth certain social evils as an integral part of his theme, yet he has concluded his examination by turning away from attempted solutions, leaving his characters immersed in themselves, heedless of the world about them. The plays have a contracting action, moving from a reasonably wide perspective on the affairs of men to a private world where a final, individual action must be played out, often without an antagonist. At the end of each play, the sense is conveyed that the central character is gripped by a force whose presence he dimly feels and to which he belongs. Except for the Poet in Fog, the characters do not seek to identify themselves with the force or to immerse themselves completely in it. Yet its power underlies their action, as his primitive bestial impulses drove Jack Townsend to sin. Its presence puzzles the will and serves to vitiate any social protest the plays might have made. Will, however, is antithetical to happiness. The only value in will is to cause a man to subject himself to the power that owns him, as the Roylstons appear to do at the end of Servitude. As yet, the idea is incompletely seen, unlocated and for the most part unnamed—although O’Neill’s use of Dionysian vocabulary suggests that a name is not far to seek. The tracings are prophetic of the themes of O’Neill’s first mature dramas.
* In an article entitled “Ibsen and O’Neill, a Study in Influence” (Scandinavian Studies, August, 1965, Vol. 37, No. 3) Egil Tornqvist argues what is probable that O’Neill took the phrase from Ibsen via Shaw’s Quintessence of Ibsenism. Shaw quotes the passage and explicates its meaning at length.
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