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O’Neill’s first work for the stage was a piece for the theatre of his father. A Wife for a Life was written in 1913 and is not so much a play as a sketch designed to exhibit the virtuosity of a star actor, when, “at liberty,” he took to the vaudeville stage on a personal appearance tour.* James O’Neill could readily have played the central role of the “Older Man,” who believing that his wife had been unfaithful, has searched the world over to find and murder her suspected lover, John Sloan. When his life has been saved by young Jack Sloan, he has not understood that his benefactor is the man he has sought. The two have become partners in a prospecting expedition and, at the edge of the Arizona desert, have uncovered a rich gold mine. At this juncture, word comes to Sloan that his beloved’s husband has been declared legally dead and that she is therefore free to marry him. The Older Man then realizes Sloan’s identity, but he understands as well that his wife has turned to Sloan because of his own drunkenness and brutality, and that the two have been innocent of adultery. A moment of tension as the Older Man reaches for his gun gives way to a burst of sentimental nobility. He continues to hide his identity, and Jack is sped East to his slightly bigamous marriage, leaving his friend to a soliloquy:

Oh what a fool I have been. She was true to me in spite of what I was. God bless him for telling me so. God grant that they may both be happy—the only two beings I ever loved. And I—must keep wandering on. I cannot be the ghost at their feast Greater love hath no man than this that he giveth his wife for his friend.” (222)

O’Neill’s debut is turn-of-the-century theatre at its worst, its punch line salvaged, one suspects, from a witticism uttered during a backstage gossip session.** Yet the sketch contains many of the elements which O’Neill was later to infuse with theatrical power. It is, in fact, so characteristic of his practice that it can be used as an introduction to his dramaturgy. In so trivial a work, there yet emerges a pattern of interrelated theatrical techniques that marks the beginnings of a style.

O’Neill conceived the play in 1912 when he accompanied his father on a vaudeville tour which followed the Orpheum Circuit as far west as Utah.3 He was at pains to set his impressions of the desert on the stage:

The edge of the Arizona desert; a plain dotted in the foreground with clumps of sagebrush. On the horizon a lonely butte is outlined, black and sinister against the lighter darkness of a sky with stars. (211)

Complete with campfire and lone prospector, it is the customary stage setting for a desert scene, but O’Neill was alive to its quality as well as its appearance. Its mood caught his attention, and he attempted to relate it to the central action, giving it a more than decorative effect. The elementary symbolism of the black and sinister butte against the starry sky is obvious. It was an easy setting for the display of romanticized passion, not unlike the decor of most nineteenth-century melodrama, the Château d’If, for example. Yet there is a closer relation between the Older Man and his arid world than between Edmund Dantes and his stormy rock. The Older Man is intended to be a wandering ghost in a desert of spent passion. The wasted world is all he can inherit, and the setting reflects the substance of his grief as it suggests the course of his destiny. The imagery is obvious; today it is within the range of any amateur. Yet even such minor sensitivity to place was not axiomatic in the English-speaking drama of 1913. Ibsen and Chekhov had made notable use of setting to reveal inner substance of character, but in England, the most profound use of stage setting was primarily sociological, rather than psychological. In America, the realism of Belasco and his imitators, when it went beyond providing a merely decorative spectacle, again tended toward the creation of a world in which the social and economic circumstances would be sufficiently clear to explain aspects of the characters’ behavior and to set certain problems for them to overcome. In producing Edward Sheldon’s Salvation Nell, for instance, Mrs. Fiske had purchased a bar from a Bowery saloon in order to lend authenticity to the first act setting. Such realism provided environmental information, but did not reveal as O’Neill’s settings at their best were to do the inner nature of the characters. In the English language at that time, only the productions of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin used setting for more than occasional psychological revelation. Ordinarily the stage provided no more than a world across which the action could convincingly move.

In A Wife for a Life evidently there is no need for the creation of an elaborate sociological background. The anecdote requires nothing. His own experience as a gold miner in Honduras, together with his western trip, enabled him to call for appropriate properties to detail the occupation of his characters and to define the economic and social framework of their world. It is a superficial inspection,
but, generally speaking, O’Neill was never deeply interested in such background, preferring instead to concentrate on the life created by his characters in their private rooms, sketching only lightly the shape of the world outside.

To increase the concentration on the private worlds of his character, as the play progresses O’Neill cuts away even so much of this public scene as he has detailed in his initial description. At the play’s end, the stage is reduced to an area illuminated by the campfire, and the Older Man is isolated in a dimly lighted micro-world wherein he enacts his passion. In Long Day’s Journey into Night, where O’Neill takes pains to realize the sociological milieu of the Tyrone family, the same progression is made. At the end, the entire world of the play is reduced to a small circle of light in the fogbound house. In that circle, at last, father and son come to understanding, as if only in extraordinary isolation could one human spirit find its way to communion with another. Just so, however imperfectly, A Wife for a Life suggests a resolution of a relationship based on both love and hate when darkness comes and when the men are alone in the desert night. Throughout his career, O’Neill repeated the same effect, narrowing the focus in order to increase the intensity of revelation of his characters’ inner existence. To discover it at the outset of his career is to mark it as an innate habit of his theatrical style.

Intimately connected with his use of place in a special and characteristic manner is his use of the soliloquy and aside. Again, the common practice of the theatre of his father caused him to adopt these conventions of dialogue without thinking, but the characters in A Wife for a Life live in a strange psychological isolation from one another. Communication between the two friends on ordinary matters is largely irrelevant, and frank speaking of their thoughts is made difficult by the circumstances of the plot, if nothing else. Of course, O’Neill had the problem of cramming enormous amounts of purely narrative exposition into a short scene. In a short story or novel, the careers of the two men could easily have been displayed at length. O’Neill, forced to compress his anecdote to a ten minutes’ compass, causes the two to exchange copious amounts of gratuitous information, thinly disguised as fond reminiscence, for the audience’s sake. There are, in addition, several moments when Jack expresses manly views about the desert, their luck, and the pure nature of women—opinions with which the Older Man briefly agrees or disagrees. These moments aside, the characters cannot really be said to speak to one another. Sloan, lost in ecstatic contemplation of his beloved, pays little attention to his friend, while the Older Man displays his emotion in a series of grimaces, ultimately explained in the final soliloquy. Although the Older Man reacts to the news that is told him, he rarely replies directly to what Jack says. There is no substantial interaction of character. Each man plays in isolation, and expresses his news and his emotions in semi-soliloquy.

In part, such practice stems from O’Neill’s use of a setting for psychological purposes. In a setting whose chief service is to establish a sociological world, all characters may be said to face the details of place on an identical plane. Drinks are passed, doors are opened and closed, couches are used to bring characters into intimate dialogue. Details of such a setting are, really, a means of communication, an unspoken form of dialogue, used as all men may use the furniture of their world, to relate to one another. In a play whose setting is designed to permit direct symbolic revelation of psychological truth the contrary is true. All characters will not approach it equally. The setting has importance only for the central figure whose consciousness its symbols reveal, and who plays deeply into it. In an expressionistic play, at times, minor characters may appear to be little else than extensions of the setting, serving to sharpen the focus on the inner character of the protagonist. Psychological setting, in other words, controls point of view toward the one character it is designed to reveal. He alone has the rights of that world, and he may well appear to be alone in it, playing his action in isolation and expressing his deepest emotions directly to the audience, rather than revealing implicitly what he is through action and response to the world and other characters. So it was that, as O’Neill developed the crude psychology of the Older Man, the character became isolated by the very manner of his portrayal. Sloan is a foil to him, and moves outside the center of emotion that is the play’s substance. At the most, he is a supporting actor, in vaudeville terms, a “feeder,” almost a part of the setting rather than a character. The Older Man plays alone.

To list the plays of O’Neill in which the same effect is more skillfully achieved would be to list virtually the entire canon. The Emperor Jones and The Hairy Ape are, for entire scenes, monologues. Strange Interlude and Hughie are sophisticated extrapolations of the tendency revealed in his first work. It was a habit O’Neill never lost.

In the sketch, O’Neill was of course unconscious of his later purposes. The use of soliloquy and aside can be attributed more to inept imitation of nineteenth-century theatrical styles, to the needs of the vaudeville stage, and to difficulties with his narrative than it can to any embryonic expressionistic tendencies. Yet in his handling of other conventions he reached a little beyond the theatre of his father. He avoided, for example, a stereotyped confrontation scene between the two men. Sloan never learns the identity of his partner, and the revelation of the true state of affairs between them bears no resemblance whatever to the revelation of the identity of Edmund Dantes in the last act of Monte Cristo. Despite its patent absurdity, the star’s role is underwritten, as O’Neill veers away from the full flood tide of passion that could so easily have swept over the stage. O’Neill in the beginning looked for tragedy in understatement rather than in heroic rant, in silent irony rather than in blustering confrontation.

O’Neill’s leaning toward ironic rather than heroic tragedy can perhaps be taken as a sign of his modernity. What was offered as tragedy toward the beginning of the twentieth century throughout Europe centered more often in ironic defeat than in heroic achievement. Usually defeat was brought about by social circumstances, more than by character, thus enabling the dramatist to indict society at the same time as he raised pity for his hapless hero. In his narrative, O’Neill was evidently taken with ironies of circumstance, chance meetings, fortuitous discoveries and all the trappings of adventure stories. By no stretch of meaning can what happens be called tragic. Inherently improbable, the anecdote has the same sort of intricate weaving of accident that passed for irony in the stories of 0. Henry and Guy de Maupassant. O’Neill’s story falls far short of either. He has neither the adroit control of event nor the tendency to allegory of 0. Henry, and he is unable to suggest any of the cynical quality of Maupassant’s world view. The spectacle of men caught in a web of ironic circumstance becomes tragic only when it is viewed from a philosophical position enabling a writer to suggest that such events are caused by forces working in the world to determine the destinies of men. In the novels of Thomas Hardy, in Maupassant, in the naturalistic novels and dramas of Germany and France, such perspective gave substance to the ironic crushing of mortal endeavor. Lacking even the perspective that his devotion to the novels of Jack London might have given him, O’Neill fell back on a far-too-involved narrative of incredible circumstances and on such superficial ironies as his curtain line summarizes.

It is a conspicuous lack. Without a world view whose origin is a philosophical, social or theological position, such drama as O’Neill seemed to be reaching toward would remain trivial and melodramatic. Yet, as if he instinctively knew that such a view was essential as a means of attaining a significant drama, he began immediately to move toward such a position, and emerged, once he had achieved it, as a writer ready to take his place on the public stage.

A Wife for a Life is trivial. It can be maintained that the effects and characteristics here noted are merely the results of ineptitude; that without taste or knowledge, O’Neill in imitation of his father’s theatre, wrote a commercial work whose narrative could not be adequately set forth within the play’s compass; that because of this he was forced to fall back on the soliloquy and aside; that therefore something of the characters’ inner quality was forced to the surface; that, when it was, the setting inevitably appeared to have some symbolic value, but no more so than if it had been a barroom, an office, a public street. Whether the results be attributed thus to ineptitude or to the first gropings toward a new kind of theatre is perhaps not of real importance. Yet it is curious that these elements remain as essentials of his style. What is most important about them is that they are centrally connected with one another, and in the pattern of related phenomena, something of the nature of the man as an artist is to be seen from the outset. These are habits of his mind; from this way of devising, all else must develop.

* In a letter to Mark Van Doren, dated May is, 1944, now in the Princeton University Library, O’Neill claimed The Web as his first play. He acknowledges the existence of the earlier sketch, saying, “To be scrupulously exact, for the record, ‘The Web’ is not the first thing I wrote for the stage. I had some time before dashed off in one night a ten minute vaudeville skit, afterwards destroyed. But this was not a play. In fact, my friends in vaudeville crudely insisted it was not a vaudeville skit, either! It was nothing. And ‘The Web’ is the first play I ever wrote.” O’Neill’s distinction between a skit and a play is not one that can be followed out in close critical detail. The difference seems to lie in the concentration of the skit on the role for the star and in the purely anecdotal nature of the story.  

**  O’Neill played again with the verse (John, XV: 13) at the end of his life in Long Day’s Journey into Night in Jamie’s line “Greater love hath no man than this, that he saveth his brother from himself.” O’Neill played again with the verse (John, XV: 13) at the end of his life in Long Day’s Journey into Night in Jamie’s line “Greater love hath no man than this, that he saveth his brother from himself.”


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