Menu Bar


Editor: Harley Hammerman
St. Louis, Missouri

Volume 0


Eugene O’Neill’s Poetics of Dionysus
through his Presentation of
Xenoi, Metoikoi and Barbaroi

Yoko Onizuka Chase
Osaka Kun-ei Women's Junior College


O'Neill's creative energy gave vent to the Dionysiac theater that Nietzsche expounds, and his consistent concern seems to be  the alienated dancing spirit  who still evokes the unconscious language of zoë and who,  like the Furies, haunts  American families, splits their personalities and socially conservative psyche of bios creating hell-hound fugitives till their own destruction.(1)  The alien voice pursues after  ordinary “good” citizens who try to protect their masked bios and survive.  To study the persistent consciousness of the Dionysiac voices presented in his works, I borrow the three terms for outsiders used by the Greeks; xenoi, metoikoi, and  barbaroi, and appropriate them to our modern circumstances, referring to spiritually alienated citizens, resident aliens and so called “barbarians” respectively.(2)   By categorizing modern alienation thus, I would like to illuminate the true nature and characteristics of the “aesthetic comfort” O’Neill found  in writing about the estranged, absolutely free spirit of Dionysus.  His attempt  to reverse the value systems, an ancient Stoic attempt what Gilbert Murray calls in his analysis of Euripidean tragedies, “paracharaxis  tragica (127), after all seems to have unveiled the essential “meaning-free-ness” (not meaninglessness) of our existence.  This recognition of zoë, or “life without attributes”, as it is unconditioned by human  definitions, creates the transcendental laughter of Lazarus.  We may be dismayed by its enigma, but it is the language of ultimate freedom which O’Neill perceives.  This verbalization of  human feeling outside grammar and organization may be only called poetics of barbaroi  for it transcends borders of ethnic and cultural codes and communicates in spite of its barbaric reverberation.  It should not despair us with a feeling of futility, but should be able to reconcile all differences with the joyful  liberation from human logoi.   This laughter of Lazarus is similar to Zen laughter, which is possible only when we step out of our egocentric perception of ourselves.  That’s why Lazarus could laugh only after he died once.  When we observe ourselves from outside our minds and become existential outsiders only, we can truly see Life and its beautiful emptiness, unpolluted by human signifies.  O’Neill’s characters struggle toward this joyful purification.

Most all of his main characters are xenoi, those who are socially and spiritually alienated from their country’s ethos and feel psychologically dismembered; ormetoikoi, resident aliens,  people who are superficially accepted by the society but feel rather like foreigners without their human rights fully granted; or barbaroi,  so-called barbarians.   They strive to achieve what they believe to be their true identities and some wear masks to perform different personas attempting to gain mastery over others or themselves.   Their human relationships are often controlled by their creative urge, which, in the process of zoë’s  parousia  or self-presentation, inevitably turns to  destructive, often insane impulses tearing their  integrity of bios.   Madness of bios and ecstasy of zoë, however, are two of major aspects of the Dionysiac myth and O’Neill presents his audiences opportunities to experience verisimilitude of such double  feelings through characterization, use of masks, asides, sound effects, lighting and other stage techniques.  The tragic resolution in the end, in  most of them, is the triumph of the indestructible, feminine force of life, zoë.    The power of his plays seems to spring mainly from the intensity of characterization and their “poeticized” colloquialism, which may be called barbarostomia, a Greek word for barbaric ways of speaking. 

O’Neill’s Poetics of  Xenoi 

As Dionysus shows in Euripides’ Bacchae  its audiences the hidden human desires underneath the moralistic facade of the young Theban prince, Pentheus, O’Neill dramatizes the socially repressed aspects of human nature and psychology.  As Dionysus is addressed as a xenos, even in Thebes, his homeland,(3) the repressed aspects of human nature, especially the feminine and the procreative aspects,  are alienated or  kept segregated from the visible everyday lives of  good middle-class American citizens. O’Neill shows how their blindness or self-deceit imposed by the social systems of marriage, schooling, laws,  moral codes and success paradigm,  creates the ideas of the other, evil side of a self to be conquered.  Thus men feel compeled to wear masks to sustain their bios’s  integrity.  What Zeitlin elucidates in her discussion of the Greek theater in Playing the Other, holds true in O’Neill’s theater of xenoi; “the self that is really at stake is to be identified with the male, while the woman is assigned the role of the radical other” (346).  Some women  under such social tyranny turn into resurrected Furies, who avenge with cruel revelations of  their true, impregnable selves to the men as if  frenzied maenads. Others  escape into their own shelters of fantasies to have  some control over their own lives at least in their imagination. In both cases, madness is their weapon and shelter to counter against the androcentric world.

Women who have stronger grip of themselves  must be liberated women from the socially forced ideas of good, evil, and legitimacy.  O’Neill thereby finds them often in idealized prostitutes.  Such “Gorgonization” of women, however, reveals the male rational they invented to ennoble themselves by the dichotomous paradigm for the sake of their heroism .(4)

In The Great God Brown, O’Neill splits the abstract Man and Woman into several characters conflicting between human nature and civilization.  In the last scene, the identity of the male character is reduced from Dion Brown to Billy, and finally to Man.  The reduction process  reveals O’Neill’s intention to  represent a universal man’s struggle to transcend their bios and burst forth into the flaming desire of zoë  to present itself.  They seek for their   true, undivided identity while establishing social identities through their  spiritual journey from boyhood, growth, maturity and to death.  Man as a socially defined being has to learn through schooling, and religious and legal structures, to wear masks, to show tentative identities, and to play roles.  The masks, meanwhile, can control the man’s inner being in turn.  The mutually affecting inner and outer selve’s development cannot escape from the constant psychological dynamics of splitting, destroying, recreating and reunifying processes of the inner dimensions.  The power struggles between the sensitive, universal spirit of zoë and the egotistical will of bios  for survival are represented by the conflict between  Dion Anthony and Billy Brown.  The two are from the beginning mutually affecting relative parts of one human soul,  like steam and snow, of the same substance and of only temporally different configurations depending on the conditional existential factors.  Therefore, we should see Dion and Billy as two representative appearances of Man lacerated by social definitions.  O’Neill splits him  into the artistic being and the social being, doubly splitting the artist into  the Dionysiac self-affirmer and the Christian self-negator.  The artist’s visions are directed toward timeless truth (zoë) while the social being’s focal interests are directed toward  time-bound identities (bios).  Moreover, they are not in harmony  but in a constant contest of power, mutually alienating the other.  The Dionysiac creative life tends to be regarded as immoral or evil, and the Christian spirit of self-negation tends to be taken as weakness by the socially oriented people.  Hence the parents or school teachers begin to teach children to feel ashamed or guilty, to be afraid  to  express and to repress the innate creative urge within each individual.  The Prologue of The Great God Brown thus reveals the inner torment of a young artistic man experiencing love and inhibition at the same time just on the night of the Commencement dance.   Dion’s speeches can be categorized into two opposite types, one spoken without a mask and the other with a mask on.   Let us see, first, his speech after he takes off his mask,  revealing his real face in the bright moonlight.

Dion -- ...  Why am I afraid to dance, I who love  music and rhythm and grace and song and laughter?  Why am I afraid to live,  I who love life and the beauty of flesh and the living colors of earth and sky and sea?  Why am I afraid of love, I who love love?  ...Why was I born without a skin, O God, that I must wear armor in order to touch or to be touched?  (480)

When he has a mask on, his language abruptly changes into cynical and diabolical tone,  “Or rather, Old Greybeard, why the devil was I ever born at all?” (480).  After his first kiss which he dares with his mask on, when the moonlight fades and comes back again from behind clouds, he shouts:

Wake up!  Time to learn!  Time to get up!  Time to exist!  Time for school!  Time to learn!  Learn to pretend!  Cover your nakedness!  Learn to lie!  Learn to keep step!  Join the procession!  Great Pan is dead!  Be ashamed!  (482)

The same kind of inner laceration between natural desire and social inhibition occurs to Margaret, too, and she feels ashamed but she finds relief and satisfaction when Dion promises her to marry her some day.  Thus their love seems to find itself protected securely by the social institution of marriage but O’Neill reveals how their relationship deteriorates.

Act One dramatizes a married life sustained barely by the couple’s “domestic diplomacy” for they “communicate in code -- when neither has the other’s key!” (485)  Dion is a frustrated artist and Margaret is a victimized housewife and mother.  In order to save the marriage from the practical disaster, Margaret suggests her disintegrating husband to go and ask help to Billy Brown, now a successful businessman.  For an aspiring artist, Dion, it means degradation or even selling his soul.  He only consents after praying in the deepest humility of a Christian martyr.  However, he needs to escape from the sense of his injured pride, goes drinking and is picked up by Cybel, a prostitute he identifies as the eternal Earth Mother.  He finds the maternal care, sympathy and solace at her parlor and they swear, without masks, friendship.  O'Neill finds such infinitely sweet, selfless understanding given to Man only outside socially legitimized relationships.  In other words, the social logos that defines men also alienates them from their natural holistic being, and creates xenoi, or outsiders within a community of one linguistic structure, as Dionysus was addressed as one such when he returns to his native country.  As Dionysus brought his followers from foreign language speaking communities called barbaroi, O’Neill’s Dion finds existential comfort only in the socially outcast woman, the lowest of the low, marginalized class.  This  philosophical idealization and defense of  prostitution is not totally acceptable, however, as a healthy perception of truth, because prostitution has nothing to do with freedom.  It only means a business for survival and is often a forced situation by the selfish androcentered system to praise feminine virtue of self sacrifice, though the women are condemned once they fall in the trap.  Men who cannot find solace in  women other than prostitutes must be in their dire, pitiful need to have to buy comfort.  However, as long as  women in the civilized societies cannot be liberal enough to understand Dionysiac spirituality and become maenads, the weak men seem to need  an illusion of their being able to buy their right to possess their Eternal Mother.  O’Neill’s point, however, is the paradigmatic one searching for a new goddess of a new logos system.  Only outcasts, xenoi in a metaphorical sense seem to hold the potential key to open a new paradise and in Act Two, even the successful man, Brown, Dion’s double, tries to steal Cybel from Dion.  The contest of power between Brown and Dion is a paradigmatic struggle within a man.  The bios of the economically successful  Brown  wins  the love of the earthly woman, Margaret, and destroys the pure spirit of zoë in Dion. In the following two scenes, however, we find the spirit of zoë  starts taking control over Brown.  He begins wearing Dion’s mask and Margaret can love Brown only with the mask.  In Act Three Brown is almost destroyed by his innate Dion creativity and pure love.  Only he does not feel he is unified but, instead, feels tortured by the sense of splitting identity.  His old paradigm of bios makes him feel guilty for the other, hitherto alienated self, zoë, the true self that awakened in himself.  He has to keep putting on and off his Dion mask and his disgust toward his old, materialistic self is about ready to annihilate the Billy Brown.  Act Four finds Brown laughing a transcendental laughter like Lazarus after recognizing the emptiness of the civilized society operated on its acquisition logos.  He tears the architectural plan for the capitol building, an act of self-emancipation.  The liberated man “is imposing a terrible discipline on himself to avoid dancing and laughing” and declares “Mr. Brown is dead” (528).  Cybel then visits him and identifies him as “Dion Brown” finally, but strangely O’Neill does not let the man survive.  His life as a bios in the particular form lived in Dion sometimes and in Billy other times is over.  However, zoë, the eternally indestructible Life goes on, through Margaret and her Dion/Brown’s sons.  The Epilogue is the explanation of Nietzschean idea of eternal recurrence of life and Margaret is revealed as the Life that holds her lover, husband and sons eternally in her gentle bosom. (The same Eternal Woman’s theme is elaborated in Strange Interlude.)  Thus individual lives are presented as torn pieces from The Eternal Mother in need to be held or “glued”  together.  Thus all living men are xenoi , alienated beings by civilization, performing some kind of illusionary rites in O’Neill’s dramatization.  Only death unifies all men equally in the sea of timeless zoë.  When the iceman comes like a stage magician and freezes the vaporous illusions arising from the sea, they cannot bear their bios.

O’Neill’s Poetics of  Metoikoi 

In Eumenides, the last of Aeschylus’ Oresteian trilogy, we find the archetypal dramatization  of metoikoi.  Aeschylus turns the Erinyes, the  goddesses of justice in the indigenous, matrilineal mythical world, into resident aliens through Athena’s subtle persuasion with the patriarchal power of the Athenian polis  in the background.  He uses  Athena, a goddess sprung from Zeus’ head, an  expression of the “uterus envy” of the ancient Greek men (Keuls, 41) as a wise conciliator between two paradigms of the ancient matriarchal and the newly establishing patriarchal structures.(5)  Instead of the barbaric blood for blood vengeance/justice, Aeschylus persuades through the guardian deity of Athens, they should establish laws and democratic procedure to judge crimes.  A new civilizing  process of social structurization based on laws legitimized by voting, thus was beginning to show its establishment.  At the same time, the brave new world of new civilization was envisaging the “superior,” andocratic myth of  “progress” of humanity.  Therefore, the trilogy presented for their panathenian festival, celebrates the resolution of the long-held animosity among the members of the Atreus family with the torchlight procession in the end.  The old goddesses of the chthonian, matrilineal myth were honored with the new name, Eumenides, the benevolent guardians of Athenian prosperity.  However, they were (dis)placed in the margin of history forever as “metoikois,” resident aliens.(6)  And just as their alien  residents, Athenian women were excluded from the mainstream decision making process of the polis .  They did not have a voting right.(7)

Taking the prototype, Oresteian  trilogy, O’Neill  explores the problems of the two, antagonistic mythical paradigms  in his Mourning Becomes Electra. He represents  the established  order as the patriarchy of the Mannons, the powerful family of successful business men and  military officers.  The success, however, did not create loving fathers.  They succeeded very detached, mask-like expressions and Ezra, the present  patriarch and the Agamemnon figure, a one-time mayor, an austere judge, and military general, is incapable of expressing his emotions.  Such an unmilitalistic attitude was considered not heroic, noble or manly, hence, was defined as an inferior feminine trait, of course.  The austerity, however, is ridiculed as “stiff like a stick-in-the-mud” by his son, Orin.  It reflects O’Neill’s desire to present the society’s masculine idealism as a cause of tragedy.  Ezra is a victim of the patriarchal paradigm because his inhibiting  attitude alienates his wife despite the love he  cherishes.   Especially after witnessing many men’s futile deaths during the Civil War, Ezra recognizes the significance of love of life on the earth here and now, but only belatedly.  He had damaged his matrimonial  relationship irrecoverably.  Women capable of love and courage try to follow their bliss.  However, their natural flow of love only gets condemned or responded with stony silence.  Thus the alienated maternal order is represented by  two “metoikoi”:  Marie Bantome and Christine Mannon.  Marie was a French Canuck woman who loved Ezra’s elder brother, David, but was forced to leave the house by the then patriarch, Abe, for her low social status and being an alien, died in poverty after David died of alcoholism.  Christine, Ezra’s wife, is a “French and Dutch descended, foreign looking, queer” woman (895).  By fate, just as in the Aeschylian original, Christine, the Chritaemnestra figure, falls in love with Adam, the son of David and Marie, the Aegestus figure, and murders her husband.  Adam is cast outside of the patriarchy, hence he belongs to the maternal lineage characterized by its love of life on this earth in itself  but with little respect for law or “civilization.”   Because the patriarchy is oppressive, the matrilineal side tries to solve problems outside the legal system (the illicit love affair,  their murder of the husband/judge without getting caught).  However, the matristic paradigm has its own justice system irrespective of civil and criminal laws.  The children,  Lavinia and Orin, as did Electra and Orestes, avenge their father’s death by murdering the murderer, and driving the “hunted” mother to suicide.  Moreover, Orin’s unfulfilled Oedipal love for his mother, coupled with his guilt for driving his mother to suicide, takes possession of his spirit.  His incestuous desire for his sister, a sign of the endogamic, Neolithic matrilineal social order, becomes as irrepressible as his guilt.  Tormented by the inner laceration by the desire and guilt, he starts speaking as if standing for the patriarchal view of civilization, “studying the law of crime and punishment” (1027).   He feels he is compelled to respond to the legal system of his “father, the Judge” and longs to “wash the guilt of our mother’s blood from our souls!” (1028).  He identifies himself “as the last male Mannon” patriarchy and starts writing “a true history of all the family crimes, beginning with Grandfather Abe’s” (1029).  He, thus, on one hand, seems to be rationally seeking justice and atonement.  However, on the other hand, his act of writing has a deeper, twisted psychological motivation.  He reveals his psychological confusion risen from his taking the patriarchal side.  He declares to Lavinia, “Can’t you see I’m now in Father’s place, and you’re  Mother? ...  I’m the Mannon you’re chained to!” (1032)  The rational is dichotomous and it is applied to what drives his action now, to the desire for acquisition and manipulation, not his honest sense of justice really.   He wants to possess and control Lavinia’s love but finds it unattainable, for she is his sister and she loves the free man, “Adam,” just as his mother did.  Therefore, his jealousy and the resentment torment him with his vengeful desire to destroy Lavinia.  Thus his incestuous desire springs, we find, not from love but from his possessiveness and evil, conquest instinct.  Such is the last of the patriarchy.

Lavinia, meanwhile has come to express her full femininity like her mother and longs to start a healthy free life.  Finding it impossible with the completely deteriorating Orin trying to destroy her, she manages to drive Orin to suicide.  She attempts to dissociate her future from the past with a hope for a new wholesome life with Peter, only to find it futile.  Peter is another man of the patriarchal society which will not accept zoë’s self revelation.  She finally cuts off all associations with the outside world and becomes like a priestess  who renounces all her attachment to her love of the earthly life and lives in atonement and mourning for the rest of her life. Thus all the murderings and suicides do not result in any  legal judgement (at the judges’ house!) but take the natural course of the destruction of the offenders of sacred Life. 

The dramatization of such conflicts between the different paradigms of human law and divine justice ends without giving any positive resolution.  It only suggests the end of the patriarchal family and a paradise is found outside the “civilized” Western logos, a remote  island in the Pacific.  O’Neill thus casts doubt over the enlightenment, effectiveness and justice of the “legalized” society for their ideal of human progress.  This critical position of O’Neill is consistent with his other works.  O’Neill dramatized genuine humanity of many social outsiders, xenoi, of various types contrasting with the mechanized people of the established classes, who are often lawyers or faithful abiders of law.  His concern is directed toward the fundamental question of the concept of civilization and its value systems. 

The Fountain is a divine comedy of a Dionysiac cross-cultural barrier spirit from the viewpoint of the protagonist, Don Juan of the Spanish Empire.  He sees “Beatriz” rise from the fountain of eternal youth and dance in ecstasy before he dies.  Moreover, four of the world’s major religion’s symbolic figures take each other’s hands and complete a circle while Beatriz sings.  The modern Virgil is found in the image of the Moorish poet who first sings the song of the fountain.  His song remains Juan’s spiritual guide and in this journey through Inferno and Purgatory, from the wealth-driven West to the slave-driven East,  Juan learns value systems are destructive illusions that hunt human beings while they think they are hunting for gold.  Only the eternally circulating fountain of Life, zoë, purifies all illusions. O’Neill’s intention to celebrate plural religious systems equally for the sake of the sacred Earth  with narrow-minded audiences and enlighten them is obvious.  Exotic and enchanting music, the very courteous and civil Moorish captain in the beginning, contrasted with the crudity of the Spanish nobles, also, reverse average  Westerners’ common sense.  Don Juan, a superman figure, attempts to establish an enlightened government in the brave new world without oppressing native people.  However, he is tragically destined to realize that such an illusion only creates a Mephistphelian evil for he cannot help “conquering” and “subjugating” the natives by the power of military aggression under the  “holiness” of their logos.  Such government  cultivates subjugated obedience certainly, but also hatred and distrust.  Hence it is tragic for both, the conqueror and the conquered.

Without question, it is a stark nightmare for the natives who were forced to become “metoikoi” in their own native land.  Nano, the “Indian” chief, not only loses the land, family and community members but also their traditional value system based on ethics.  Honor and trust becomes irrelevant and deception becomes their only means for survival.  Thus O’Neill shows judicial rights  gained by military aggression  does not create a just society .

As the matriarchal paradigm was honored but became “metoikh”and excluded from democracy, without a voting right in ancient Athens, American women were not citizens in the true sense until they won their voting right finally in 1920.  They were legally protected to dwell in the U.S.A. but in a broader sense like metoikoi  who were honored with the rights to reside, work and pay their taxes, but not with the voting right.  The tragedies of female metoikoi  abound in O’Neill’s works.   For example, Deborah in More Stately Mansions, is haunted by her desire to exercise her intellectual and emotional power to control a King in the eighteenth century France as a mistress in her imagination though in reality she knows she is “a poor widow who has no vote” (345, II. i).  Mary Cavan Tyrone of Long Day’s Journey into Night  retreats into the romantic memory of her youth as a gifted girl after years’ of her married life struggling against the feeling of displacement.  She ends up being called “a dope fiend” for tormenting her husband and sons with the cruel performances of her unfulfilled dreams of her youth in the drugged state.  These are Furies avenging for their destroyed potential by driving themselves into insanity in the beautiful figures of honorable, legitimate wives and mothers.  The only weapon they can find seems to be insanity, the most terrible assault on reason and logos. 

All God’s Children Got Wings, reveal how African Americans were honored superficially as citizens (not slaves) but were yet profoundly displaced in the margin of the society.  They had a long way to go in the 1920s when O’Neill wrote the play until they won their proper civil rights legally recognized in 1960s.  Paul Robeson who played the leading role of Jim Harris in All God’s Chillun in the first production in 1924, was “a graduate of Rutgers and Columbia Law School.”  However, “Not eager to struggle as a black in the world of law, he opted for a professional career in acting and singing” (Wainscott, 154).  Being a black and lawyer, in 1920s seems like a Herculean task.  Jim Harris of the drama, ironically, wishes to become a lawyer.  The reason is not to struggle for the civil rights of minority people, or people of metoikoi  status.  He longs to become “white,” a successful man according to their “success” paradigm, and  to belong to the white illusion of the proud patriarch in the civilized society.  O’Neill combines the feminine “metoikoi” problem with the racial discrimination.  Ella is a victim of the patriarchal society which condemns women with  independent minds, jobs and lives.  She is treated like a waste in the “civilized” society as a result  of her unfortunate infatuation with a gangster.   She longs for  true love but  learns Jim’s love is for her “whiteness” and not color-free. As long as Jim is alienated from his true self  longing to become a “white” lawyer, there can be no possible consummation of love.  Hence she asks, “After all, what’s being a lawyer?”  She even knows the laws made and protected by the white male “lawyers” represent the “white” patriarchal civilization and its logos.  Her desire to help Jim is genuine and she loathes the idea of his becoming a lawyer.  However, Jim is obsessed by his white illusion and  is blind to the absolute value of himself as a man as well as to his African mythical paradigm.  He knows subconsciously  the falsity of his longing,  hence is incapable of passing the exams or loving his white wife as a man.  His psychological castration is a revelation of how profoundly the blacks were alienated from the “civil” society whose judicature had not met human justice.  However, his incapacity to love his wife as a woman drives her to insanity, misdirects her love to hatred and she finally destroys the African mask, to destroy the racial and cultural barrier.  Her fury comes from a chthonian realm beneath all the man-made logic that creates “advanced” and “primitive” peoples.  She marries a black man violating both the white and black social codes, crossing the barrier, and becomes an ultimate metoikh .  When the black man does not recognize her “black” courage, she can only destroy its symbol even sacrificing her sanity.  The tragedy is a tragedy of metoikoi, honored but segregated “guests” in a hosting country, particularly, genuine women who follow the principles of the Earth Mother, love and veneration of all forms of life.

Eugene O’Neill’s Poetics of Barbaroi

One of the greatest shifts in values in our modern stage is the dethronement of language as the representative agent of truth and the promotion of the body and three dimensional physical reality as the doors to the reality of human consciousness.  Behind this phenomenal change has been the modern world of wars, refugees and migratory souls in which ethnic and national boundaries meet and dissolve in everyday reality.  Thus cultural and value systems no longer settle permanently but appear ephemeral as a bios, and the distinction between “barbarians” and civilized people also sounds hypothetical.  We all become, in fact, foreigners at the moment we encounter other foreigners and the world no longer offers even a day without showing some kind of alien otherness in the transient maps of the twentieth century.  The perception of the mutually alien relationships mirrors all peoples equally as barbaroi, which  inevitably cancels out cultural hierarchies and  levels all in affiliation with a universal sense of homelessness.  The barrier of languages and systems of logos might dissolve in the common perception of one’s own language as a barbarostomia.(8)   We, therefore, seek desperately for other modes of communication clinging to the old human faith in mutual understandability.  In theater, therefore, languages or characters’ speeches come to be presented rather as obstacles or traps that dissemble true states of being, for the language one is born into deceives human minds with its structured and legitimized  logos mechanism and the powerful authority it assumes.  Hence our newly opened eyes cast their gaze toward the physical world of prototypical universality as would have those of a primordial human being .  The Nietzschean  exploration of Dionysiac spontaneity that O’Neill consciously pursued  hence leads us to a new linguistic road map without boundaries but with “barbarized” signs for us to decipher.

O’Neill was among the first modern playwrights who consciously investigated the authenticity of  the maps of  civilizations created by their illusions of logos and experimented with theatrical presentations of languages as factors of three dimensional physical reality.  As C.W.E. Bigsly points out in his Modern American Drama, O’Neill consciously “made inarticulateness an aesthetic instrument of some subtlety” (149).  He explores barbarostomia in  his experimental plays making the characters’ desperate spirit attempt to transcend the illusions of logos and regain unity with zoë, the eternal Life.  The barbarostomia they speak, therefore, expresses the loss of logos and  home, but as in the case with Lazarus’ laughter, it can mean a loss of a bios and oneness with zoë.  The intensity of the pain of loss expressed in the vernacular speeches, especially those of the Swedish, African and Irish Americans, almost substitutes for music unifying the truth of their profound sense of dislocation with the polyphonic rhythms of everyday realities.

Among many such  plays in which O’Neill explores disintegrating languages, The Emperor Jones  is distinct and powerful  because it is one of the first major American dramas with a powerful black protagonist who speaks a realistic and at the same time poetic African-American English, a kind of barbarized English.  The actor, Charles Gilpin, was a real African American, as we all know, not a painted black man that had appeared as in the white Americans’ black minstrel shows earlier.  Hence we can observe here the new wave of the artistic movement that explores the heroic man seen through the “barbarized’” author’s point of view . I will attempt to analyze such a new movement and see what the poetics of “barbaroi” reveals to us. 

Brutus Jones, a self-assumed emperor, is an African brought to a different civilization with an alien religion and language.  He is a “barbaros,” with cunning intelligence and extraordinary power of will which enable him to conquer his adversaries, enemies and  hostile codes of values.  He is almost  a Nietzschean superman, but fails to overcome himself totally.  His superstitious belief in the magical power of silver bullets, a symbol of the European logos mechanism, entraps his psyche and, like a tragic, fatal flaw, brings about his fall.  Thus he becomes a sacrificial victim like Pentheus after being entrapped by  Dionysiac illusions.  Jones’ mind regresses into his racial memory stripping his individual identity layer by layer and he faces, despite his prayer to the Christian  God, the terrible, vengeful Congo witch-doctor.  The powerful effect of the ritual atmosphere created by the drum beat and the expressionistic stage setting involves the audience emotionally realizing the total living theatre.  As Fleckenstein explicates in her dissertation, Eugene O’Neill’s Theatre of Dionysus: The Nietzschean Influence upon Selected Plays, O’Neill successfully  represented Nietzsche’s “Dionysian power beyond man’s apparent reality” and “a Nietzschean lesson of the difficulty of complete self-overcoming.” (90)

The Dionysiac theatre in the United States thus opened with the powerful barbaros image and the culturally diversified, realistic English languages of the characters created a totally new poetic resonance.  For example, the “de-structured” slave language of Brutus Jones disintegrates his identity as an Emperor and as an authentic African.  He is neither a member of the  Euro-centered civilized world nor the traditional African civilization.  O’Neill presents us with a character who is cut off, “dis-membered” and “barbarized” in the modern world.  In spite of the mighty airs he assumes, he knows the position he has attained in two years is a mere passing phase, an illusion.  He keeps his money in a foreign bank in case he has to flee from the natives he contemptuously calls “low-flung, bush niggers” (1035).  The civilization of the white men he hates placed him in a jail “for de little stealing” while “for de big stealin,” the native blacks made him Emperor (1035).  This fact of life, the one thing he learned “in ten years on the Pullman ca’s listening to de white quality talk” (1035), doubly alienates him from his true self which subconsciously fears the consequence of his sin.   Thus the world of civilization represented by “the civilized men’s languages”  or by the silver bullet does not make good sense.  It is the strange world of the evil logic that reminds us of the statement made by Charlie Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux, “One murder makes a villain... millions a hero.”  Jones is  a victim of such  logic of civilization  no matter how he claims to be “emperor.”  Moreover, he is also dissociated from the other, non-logos-oriented civilization.  He is hated by the natives and leads them to plot his murder by the Dionysiac magic rite, their systematic drum beat.  Like Pentheus under the spell of Dionysus, Jones is controlled by the illusion which is provoked through the drum beat and is executed by the natives’ bullets, his own illusion of the Westerner’s logos.  The “parousia” or “presenting itself” of true human nature repressed and concealed in  everyday reality is presented on the stage thus in the shape of a Jungean racial memory.  The “pre-lingual” consciousness appears as the shapeless “fear” for Jones who discredited the ancient culture and alienated himself from  his native tradition.  The shapeless chaos, the undefinable cosmic force, gradually takes the monstrous form  of the crocodile and devours Jone’s existential consciousness.  Thus Jones, a psychologically dismembered victim of both the African and the European civilization, is reunified with the primal  life force in the end and returns to the infinite cosmic cycle.  Jones’ death from his own illusions is O’Neill’s warning  of an exploitative European civilization and reveals modern men’s longing  for the earth-bound values of the pre-civilized,  barbarians’ values which can be traced in the images of  primitive rituals.  The drum beat hunts not only Jones, the evil dictator and victim of  civilization, but also the audiences who are the members of the  “civilized” white man’s world.  They are pursued by a Dionysiac fury before they are conscious of it, in the theatrical ritual  of exorcism.  In the final scene, they see the clear superiority of Lem’s intelligence, the barbaros’ wisdom, over Smither’s ignorance which represents the white man’s world.  Lem’s language is “broken English,” but reveals his “primordial” knowledge of the human psyche.  Like Dionysus, he can trap the enemy with his own psychological weakness, which is, in this case, Jone’s fear and superstition, and destroy him.  The throbbing drum beat and Lem’s repetition, “we cotch him” enables even the audiences to feel the fear and tension of the victim of the chase and the magical power of the hunting god.  Such “possession” can rarely occur in modern, logos-centered drama.  Only the use of language that expresses primal knowledge and its creative, eruptive tension can materialize the theatrical power to hypnotize the whole audience.   O’Neill certainly knew how to manipulate language and consequently, his noble, barbarian characters speak erratic and “barbarous” English.  Through African-American English or Irish brogue his stage illusions present true creative power to communicate what O’Neill feels deeply. 

O’Neill continued his attempt at the Dionysiac theater of barbarostomia.  In The Hairy Ape he creates an image of a Neanderthal Man, thus tracing human roots to the origin beyond all borders of cultural definitions and codes.  The drama of European white “barbarians”  begins with a hairy beast-like men’s drinking party - a Dionysiac image.  To show that the human world at its nadir, represented here in the bowels of a ship, is universal without much cultural differentiation, O’Neill opens the play with the  barbarous shouts in  several  European languages, “‘Ave a wet!  Salute!  Gesundheit!  Skoal!” (122)  Thus the modern seamen’s world is multi-lingual.  The first scene, according to Quinne, “crashed upon the auditor without apology.  It was a carnival of force, expressed in terms of human beings, at first indistinguishable units in a chorus of international profanity” (qtd. in Wainscott,114).(9)  With this kind of powerful, yet poetic assault on our proper middle-class consciousness, like the Dionysiac dance brought from a barbarian land, the international chorus was delivered, according to Atkinson, “like chants from an ominous underworld” (qtd. in Wainscott, 114).(10)  Moreover, O’Neill’s experiment with language extended “his rough jargon and profanity well beyond the slang and oaths which peppered Anna Christie,” though,  according to Wainscott, “the profanity was only an approximation of sailors’ lingo and much milder than genuine verbiage of the stokehold” (111).   The barbaric polyglot shouts seem especially effective in the scene where the artificial Mildred dressed all in white descends into the inferno-like red hot furnace room.  With “the horrible noises of screws and boilers and engines mingling with the shoveling of coal and the raucous voices of the men, the scene launched a brief visual, aural, and emotional attack on its usually spirited audiences...  Most dynamic ... was the confrontation of sweaty, filthy, cursing Yank with spotless Mildred...  Quinn called it ‘the unforgettable stage picture of our time’ ” (116).  However,  the audiences, mostly mono-lingual, proper middle-class American English speaking people, listening to the incomprehensible cacophony of languages, must have felt “barbarized”, as had occurred to the Biblical  peoples at the Tower of Babel.  As a result, “some critical objections were raised calling for circumspect editing, and the New York police made a serious though unsuccessful attempt to close the play for ‘obscene, indecent and impure’ language” (111).  Yet, the realistic but “barbaric” and alien language is an organic and effective part of this expressionistic play. 

And we have before us Yank, the “more truculent” than the rest but  “their most highly developed individual” trying to become a higher kind of being by “thinking.”  The other, bestial  men laugh at such an attitude shouting in chorus, “Drink, don’t think!” (124).  They are alienated from the civilized world of logos represented here as “them lazy, bloated swine what travels first cabin...  the damned Capitalist class” (125).   And the workers, the segregated men under the cabin as if imprisoned in a cage, feel they make the ship go and truly “belong” to the primal force to “move” the universe.  However, the feeling of “belonging” is dying with the “development” of science and technology.  Paddy, an old, wizened Irishman, speaks of the old days when “a ship was part of the sea, and a man was part of a ship, and the sea joined all together and made it one” (127).  Such an image of the original, undivided oneness of the entire world of Mother Nature and human longing to return to it, have been expressed since the days of the myth of Dionysus. However, the whole of nature is going through its stages of severed states of illness.  As Paddy says, “black smoke from the funnels smudging the sea, smudging the decks - the bloody engines pounding and throbbing shaking - wid divil a sight of sun or a breath of clean air - choking our lungs wid coal dust - breaking our backs and hearts in the hell of the stokehole - feeding the bloody furnace - feeding our lives along wid the coal, I’m thinking - caged in by steel from a sight of the sky, like bloody apes in the Zoo!” (127).   Hence the women in the drama are far from being maenadec. 

Mildred Douglas, the daughter of the president of a steel mill and a sea line owner, laments: “I’m a waste product in the Bessemer process- like the millions... I inherit the acquired trait of the by-product, wealth, but none of the energy, none of the strength of the steel that made it” (132).  She, however, wears “a self-conscious expression of disdainful superiority and is bored by her own anemia” (130).  Her aunt is like “a gray lump of dough” touched up with rouge and these two incongruous but artificial figures sit in deck chairs inertly and disharmoniously.  These are the by-products of civilization but the anemic Mildred, dressed all in white, has a destructive power to drive Yank, the barbarous man, to insane self-destruction.  One sight of Mildred, the image of the white illusion or the maya of civilization, captivates Yank’s simple heart with a love-hate fascination because of her calling him “the filthy beast.”  Despite Paddy’s warning to Yank that he means nothing but “a hairy ape escaped from the Zoo” to Mildred, Yank decides to look for her and  “fix her” to reassure his identity. 

Yank lands in New York and walks along Fifth Avenue with Long who interprets the world for him in terms of  his communist ideology and  world view.  Long  points out that Mildred is a   “representative of ’er class” and it’s her class against which Yank has to fight.  They observe the wealthy “bleedin’ parasites” coming out of a Sunday church service. O’Neill presents the mob of “gaudy marionettes, yet with something of the relentless horror of Frankensteins in their detached, mechanical unawareness” (147).  They completely ignore Yank and Long as if they were invisible and non-existent.  Women rush to the “monkey fur” displayed in one of the shop windows, but don’t  even  notice the fury of the invisible working class, “de hoistin’ engine dat makes it go up” (148).  Thus the barbarian of the sea realizes his language does not communicate anything on the land either.  His anger at failing to assert his identity as a man erupts in violence and he is placed  “to think” in a prison cell as though being caged in a zoo.  Taking the posture of  Rodin’s famous sculpture, The Thinker, Yank ponders and realizes that the steel to which he had thought he “belonged” only created “cages, cells, locks, bolts, bars... holdin’ me down” with the capitalists like Mildred’s father at the top (154).  His frustration from the alienation only deepens when he visits the local  I. W. W. Office.  He has to “tink” of his identity when the secretary there asks his name.  “I been just Yank for so long - Bob, dat’s it - Bob Smith,” he thus recollects.  Hence  “Robert Smith” is resurrected in the civilized world but has no place to which he can belong.  The secretary finds him “a brainless ape” and throws him out.  Yank answers the policeman outside, “I was born, see?  Sure, that’s de charge...  I was born, get me!” (160).  The last resort Yank finds is “the Zoo” where he seems to be able to communicate and identify himself with the gorilla in a cage. “Youse can sit and dope dream in de past, green woods, de jungle and the rest of it.  Den yuh belong,” Yank talks to the Hairy Ape and O’Neill has it respond by using emotional gestures.  The gorilla, a barbarous creature of only emotional intelligence can’t think and “can’t talk neider”  but that’s where O’Neill wants to present his poetics of barbarostomia.  Yank, the representative of the alienated modern man, can think and talk but cannot communicate with his fellow men.  Language has lost its relevance to the meaning of existence.  It has become “blah blah,” or “the sound of fury” and Man represented by Yank, the barbaros, is still trying to “separate the earth and the heaven standing in the middle”.  The intellectual, analytical process of separation of identities and differentiation of significance has only just begun and the question is still being asked, “where do I fit in?”   This shows O’Neill’s poetics of barbarostomia which presents modern men in the  “deferred” position of ambiguity in the yet “barbaric” state of linguistic cognition between the earth and the sky, the chthonic and the Olympian mythical paradigms.  O’Neill seems to find the connection or the transcendence of the division in the mythical laughter of Lazarus.  

Lazarus Laughed  shows O’Neill’s great ambition to present a modern Dionysiac theatre.  In his 1926 notes he states: “There are plenty of Christian myths.  There is no reason why we shouldn’t use them -- interpret them -- a la Greeks --thus reverse true spirit of religion was the theatre--” (O’Neill at Work, 111).   O’Neill perceived the Greeks had “faith in their own lives as symbols of life” (111).  Thus  their individual struggles for nobility were significant as the struggles of humanity itself.  Such universalization of individual lives, if attempted in modern terms, must transcend barriers of physical differences, languages, cultures and religious paradigms.  Thus his dramatization of “modern religious idealism” is “Christian in origin, Nietzschean in tragic conception, Oriental in mythology,” and in “the spirit of American Transcendentalism” (Carpenter, 117).  Then what about the language?  To present a play that would unify all these  would require an ultimate human language.  O’Neill finds the answer in “laughter” which will even conquer what humans, universally, fear most, i.e., death.  O’Neill  had to create a  language which could convey the absolute affirmation of life and which was universal.  The language must transcend human languages that seem to communicate truth but instead, often distort it.  Thus Lazarus laughs.  Laughter is the ultimate “barbarostomia”, an “inarticulate” universal language that can connect all “barbaroi” beyond language barriers in affirmation of the indestructible life, zoë. 

In his letter  dated December 1926, O’Neill suggests to Macgowan, “Why not have the part of Laz translated into fine Russian - by Bulgakov, say-- and let Chaliapin do it in his own tongue, rest of cast in English?  It would be a wonderful strange effect.  And as far as most of an average audience understanding what Lazarus means, why it would probably be a lot clearer to them in Russian!”  O’Neill was not abandoning his hope for finding a right actor for the demigod role.  He implores, “Again I implore, give the Chaliapin thing a chance without taking for granted agents tales about him...  I’d rather have him do the part in Russian a hundred fold than anyone else in English” (Letters, 141).  Today bilingual or multi-lingual plays are no longer “strange.”  Actors from diverse nations now speak their respective native languages in plays before audiences with  limited linguistic knowledge.  The audiences experience the ambiguity and yet realize beyond the ambiguity lie the common human struggles of common human souls.  Logos is not  the absolute means  of accepting others.  What audiences understand through “the intelligence of the heart” has been assessed in such theatre of barbaroi.  O’Neill seemed to have had this vision toward a theatre of the poetics of barbarostomia., already, in the years between two “world wars.”     

In The Iceman Cometh, O’Neill directs the last scene of  Hope’s birthday celebration in plural systems.  After affirming each individual’s illusion, “all burst into song.  But not the same song.  Each starts the chorus of his or her choice.  And the “weird cacophony results from this mixture and they stop singing to roar with laughter” (711).  This is Lazarus’ laughter in common men’s tragedy.  Logos thus has been abdicating its throne gradually while recognizing the others’ modes of expressions however nonsensical. 


As Lada states, “... at the core of the Dionysiac psychology lies the experience of ‘becoming other’, the vicarious bridging of the gap between oneself and a variety of different personae” (402).   O’Neill’s xenoi  present us with images of bios trying to overcome the barriers surrounding their finite existences and open doors of possibility to reconcile with  zoë.  The zoë  within their bios screams for recognition, like a demon, protesting its (dis)placement in a Pandora’s Box.  O’Neill is the priest of Dionysus who opens the box and liberates zoë  to perform its tragic rites to give human beings hope.

Through the presentation of metoikoi, O’Neill poses questions about the basis of the androcratic civilization which had constructed the militant, patriotic, hence, mutually contesting human communities legitimizing their exploitation of the other.   The “Gorgonized” women characters guide us to the origin of their alienation revealing, at the same time, O’Neill’s longing to see a resurrected, healthy Earth Mother.  The male psychological desire to be reunified with the long-alienated feminine spirituality prevails  modern theatre .  Nietzsche was the prophet  who evoked Dionysus, the androgynous god, in the modern consciousness;  O’Neill, one of his leading male exponents. 

The poetics of barbaroi is a powerful theatrical attempt to reverse the power structure of such “self-lacerating” civilizations with the weapons of barbarostomia and laughter.  Although O’Neill, as a tragedian, defeats the barbarians in various tragic modes having them destroyed by their own illusions, their deaths on the stage do not suggest the end of their presence.  They present themselves repeatedly with the spirit of Dionysus forcing the audience to leap over the boundaries they have constructed to protect their finite bios.  We, the audience, may become   participants “in a performance whose archetypal symbolic action is to ‘step out of himself’ and to relinquish temporarily the safe contours of social identity” or extend ourselves “sympathetically towards new frames of existence, to appropriate rather than to shun the emotional experience of the ‘other’” (Lada, 402).     

O’Neill presents us with a theater of zoë in which zoë’s parousia can be felt beyond and despite the self-destruction of some “characterized” forms of bios.  Kerényi states that “zoë  ... does not admit of the experience of its own destruction: it is experienced without end, as infinite life” (xxxv-xxxvi).  In the theater of zoë, “Elements that in everyday speech, related to everyday events and needs, stand side by side and are often intermingled are transposed  into a pure time -festive time- and a pure place: the scene of events that are enacted not in the dimensions of space, but in a dimension of their own, an amplification of man, in which divine epiphanies are expected and striven for” (xxxvii). 

Works Cited

Aeschylus.  Eumenides.  Aeschylus.  2nd Vol.  Trans. Herbert Weir Smyth.  Ed.  Hugh Lloyd-Jones. 1926. London: William Heinemann; Cambridge, Mass.:  Harvard UP, 1971.

“Barbarostomia”  Greek-English Lexicon.  2nd ed. Comp. Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott. Rev. Sir Henry Stuart Jones. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1968.

Bigsly, C.W.E. Modern American Drama: 1945-1990. Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 1992.

Carpenter, Frederick I.  Eugene O’Neill.  Boston: Twayne, 1979.

Chaplin, Charles.  dir.  Monsieur Verdoux.  Perf. Chaplin and Martha Raye.  United Artists, 1947.

Detienne, Marcel.  Dionysos at Large.  Trans. Arthur Goldhammer.  Cambridge, Mass.:  Harvard UP, 1989.

Euripides.  The Bacchanals.  Euripides.  Vol. 3.  Trans. Arthur S. Way.  1912.  Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP;  London: William Heinemann, 1979.

Fleckenstein, Joan.   “Eugene O’Neill’s Theatre of Dionysus: The Nietzschean Influence upon Selected Plays.”  Diss.  U of Wisconsin, 1973.

Gimbutas, Marija.  The Civilization of the Goddess.  San Francisco: Harper, 1991. 

Hall, Edith.  Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-Definition through Tragedy.  Oxford:  Oxford UP, 1989.

Kerényi, Carl.  Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life.  Trans.  Ralph Manheim.  Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1976.

Keuls, Eva C.  The Reign of the Phallus: Sexual Politics in Ancient Athens.  Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: U of California P, 1985.

Kristeva, Julia.  Strangers to Ourselves.  Trans. Leon S. Roudiez.  New York:  Columbia UP, 1991.

Lada, Ismene.  “Emotion and Meaning in Tragic Performance.”  Tragedy and the Tragic: Greek Theatre and Beyond.  Ed. M. S. Silk.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996.

Murray, Gilbert.  Greek Studies.  Oxford: Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1946.

O’Neill, Eugene.  Complete Plays . Ed. Travis Bogard.  3 vols.  New York: The Library of America, 1988.   

---. “Ideas: 1921-1931 Notebook.”  Eugene O’Neill at Work: Newly Released Ideas for Plays.  Ed. Virginia Floyd.  New York: Frederick Ungar, 1981.

---. “To Macgowan from O’Neill.”  December 1926.  Letter 67 of The Theatre We Worked For: The Letters of Eugene O’Neill to Kenneth Macgowan.  Ed. Jackson R. Bryer.  New Haven and Lodon: Yale UP.  

Wainscott, Ronald H.  Staging O’Neill: The Experimental Years, 1920-1934.  New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1988

Zeitlin, Froma I.  Playing the Other: Gender and Society in Classical Greek Literature.  Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1996.

(1)     Bios refers to “a characterized life” of an individual while zoë is “life without attributes,” the eternally indestructible chain of bios.    For detail,   see Kerényi,  xxxi-xxxvii.

(2)     The three modern Greek words are plural forms of xenoV, metoikoV, and barbaroV,  all referring to aliens but with different implications.  Xenos” in the classical Greek, according  to Marcel Detienne, refers to the citizen of a neighboring Hellenic community.  For detail, see Detienne,  9.

   Metoikos” refers to resident aliens, or metics.   For detail, see Kristeva, 41-63.

   Barbaros” was originally  used simply as “an adjective representing the sound of incomprehensible speech.” However, “the fifth century Athenians  invented the notion of the barbarian.  For detail, see Kristeva, 51-52, and Hall.

(3)     See Euripides, The Bacchanals, 441, 453, 800, 1047,1059,1068, 1077.

(4)     Hall discusses the barbarization of “femaleness” in  Greek tragedy.  For detail, see 201-210.

(5)     The matriarchy may have been merely mythical, according to what Zeitlin states,  but the Oresteia clearly shows the Greek men’s gynephobia and how the Athenian male citizens “had to” establish a patriarchal “democracy logos” to subjugate  a powerful, structured feminine paradigm represented by the terrible Erinyes.  Also, Marija Gimbutas’ Civilization of the Goddess confirms the existence of the peaceful gynocentric civilization in Neolithic Europe before it was  intruded and forced to change by the “patriarchal and belligerent” Indo-European androcratic civilization.  See her “Preface.”

(6)     After Athena successfully persuades the Erinyes to  submit to the new mythological system and to be honored as guardians of Athenian prosperity, she refers to them as “metoikois.” See Aeschylus, 1010-1011.

(7)     Julia Kristeva  explores the alienation of women in Greek myth.  See Kristeva,  56-66.

(8)     A Greek term for a “barbarous way of speaking” or “speaking bad Greek.”  See “Barbarostomia,” Greek-English Lexicon.   In this paper, it refers to improper ways of speaking American English.

(9)     Arthur Hobson Quinn, A History of the American Drama from the Civil War to the Present Day, vol. 2 (New York: Harper, 1927)183, qtd. in Wainscott, 114.

(10)   Brooks Atkinson and Albert Hirschfeld, The Lively Years: 1920-1973 (New York: Association, 1973) 14, qtd. in Wainscott, 114.



© Copyright 1999-2008