The play that most completely realizes the characteristics implicit in the group as a whole, and whose title may provide a metaphor for the central concept of each of the others, is the earliest, The Web. It is a naturalistic tragedy in the manner of Hauptmann. For such plays, the culminating emotions are pathos and horror generated from the shock of irony. O’Neill tries to serve a full measure of both in the story of the attempt of a hunted criminal to save a prostitute and her infant child from the villainy of her pimp. The course of action is predictable, as the revengeful pimp shoots the criminal, leaving the heroine to be arrested for his murder.* Misery is accumulated upon misery’s head. The pimp forces the girl, Rose, to walk the streets in the rain, demands that she get rid of the child whose hungry crying disturbs him, threatens her with imprisonment should she disobey him, and beats her pitilessly. To compound her difficulties, O’Neill provides her with a desperate case of tuberculosis for which she can get no aid. The play was originally entitled The Cough, and O’Neill intended that her disease should be taken as symbolic of all the social evil for which there is no possible cure.
As a protest against such evil, the play is probably no worse than many more pretentious imitations of German naturalism. Like many of them, it fails because it is incapable of seeing the harrowing circumstances as more than a means of eliciting pity. With some small skill, it apes a manner, but finds none of the political and social substance that alone will justify the pathos by offering an explanation for the causes of such misery.
explanation of Rose’s suffering is in effect no explanation at all,
since it occurs in a stage direction and is not pointed by action. In
the final moments of the play, O’Neill brings Rose to an awareness of
the fate that has controlled her life. She makes no protest against
it, but accepts what has come in silence:
Nothing more is said of fate or of an “ironic life force.” Rose is shortly led away to be charged with murder as a clumsy policeman tries to comfort her child. Whatever form the “personification” took, what understanding she achieved in this blind moment is unclarified. Circumstances have closed in, and “a trace of compassionate pity,” mixed with a sense of unjustified irony, is the extent of understanding.
The limited comprehension in the ending is partly the result of a self-imposed technical limitation. In this play, as in A Wife for a Life, the significant action lies less in external events than in the psyche of the central character. The soliloquy and aside in the earlier work served clumsily to present such an action. In The Web, however, O’Neill has accepted the completely realistic mode, and is barred from non-realistic devices. At this stage, he is not sufficiently accomplished to figure forth Rose’s insight, yet in the light of the technical experiments to come—each evolved to present in action the inner substance of his characters—the phrase that comes to him to describe Rose’s vision has significance. He thinks in terms of “personification,” of a visual symbol for the unseen forces controlling her. He can not yet break open the forms of reality and move, in a phrase he was later to coin, “behind life.” Yet the necessity of doing so is as clear as is his impulse toward the development of a symbolic technique. God is to be found in personification; The Web, for all its realism, hangs on the edge of expressionism.
The ending of the play is designed to shatter sensibilities. Yet it is not the play’s most effective moment. Rose’s silent acceptance of fate is in no way so telling as an earlier scene in which she and the gangster, Tim, united in loneliness, tell one another the stories of their lives. Their biographical accounts, intended to display the social evils that have warped their lives, are orthodox clichés of social protest. What is not trite is the communion established between them as they speak. They meet in haste, yet O’Neill allows their moment of contact to eddy out in time, so that, although they do not speak directly of their relationship, they talk with the intimacy of lovers. In defiance of probability, O’Neill manages to project a sense of their mutual understanding, evolving a relationship that is like love. The moment is more convincing than any other in the play.
Its small power arises from its evanescence. Theirs is the love of the misbegotten, and from it springs a semblance of hope. Tim gives Rose his money so that she with the child may escape from the crushing city environment. Inevitably, the money, when Tim has been killed, is taken as the motive for his murder and the proof of Rose’s guilt. Love and hope turn upon their begetters with force and thus lend some validity to the play’s irony. Yet the importance of these emotions lies less in their use in the plot than in their very presence in the play: something of value has been given birth, and the play is not merely negative. The confessional moment initiates a pattern that is later to achieve splendid effect in the last act of Long Day’s Journey into Night, where confession, born of suffering, leads ultimately to mutual sympathy and understanding, and, in its moments of most devastating candor, to a partial justification of human worth. In The Web the suggestion is a poor thing, lost in a weak dramatization of the operation of an “ironic life force.” Yet it is important that O’Neill, at the outset of his career, reached toward a pattern of action that, when fully developed, would assert itself as the major source of positive ethical value in his plays.
* The play is not stageworthy, hut it should he noted that the dialogue is phrased in slang nearly identical with that which O’Neill was later to write so effectively for Rocky, Margie and Pearl in The Iceman Cometh. So much of The Web at least would prove itself on a stage.
© Copyright 1999-2007 eOneill.com