O’Neill’s Poetics of Dionysus
Yoko Onizuka Chase
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.
O’Neill’s Poetics of Xenoi
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
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
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)
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
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.
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:
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.
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.
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
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
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
Eumenides, the last of
Aeschylus’ Oresteian trilogy, we find the archetypal dramatization
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,
(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)
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
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
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,
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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
aggression does not create a
just society .
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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)
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.
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.
continued his attempt at the Dionysiac theater
of barbarostomia. In The
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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”
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.
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
The Iceman Cometh, O’Neill
directs the last scene of Hope’s birthday celebration in plural systems.
After affirming each individual’s illusion, “all
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.
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
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.
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
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).
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).
2nd Vol. Trans. Herbert
Weir Smyth. Ed.
Hugh Lloyd-Jones. 1926. London: William Heinemann; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1971.
2nd ed. Comp. Henry George Liddell and
Robert Scott. Rev. Sir Henry Stuart
Jones. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1968.
C.W.E. Modern American Drama:
1945-1990. Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 1992.
Frederick I. Eugene
O’Neill. Boston: Twayne,
Perf. Chaplin and Martha Raye. United Artists, 1947.
at Large. Trans. Arthur
Mass.: Harvard UP, 1989.
Euripides. Vol. 3.
Trans. Arthur S. Way. 1912. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP; London: William Heinemann, 1979.
Joan. “Eugene O’Neill’s Theatre of Dionysus: The
Nietzschean Influence upon Selected
U of Wisconsin, 1973.
Civilization of the Goddess. San
Francisco: Harper, 1991.
Edith. Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-Definition through Tragedy.
Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989.
Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life.
Manheim. Princeton, New
Jersey: Princeton UP, 1976.
Eva C. The
Reign of the Phallus: Sexual Politics in Ancient Athens.
Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: U of California P, 1985.
to Ourselves. Trans. Leon
S. Roudiez. New York:
Columbia UP, 1991.
Ismene. “Emotion and Meaning
in Tragic Performance.” Tragedy and the
Tragic: Greek Theatre and Beyond.
Ed. M. S. Silk. Oxford:
Oxford UP, 1996.
Studies. Oxford: Oxford at
the Clarendon Press, 1946.
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.
Ronald H. Staging
O’Neill: The Experimental Years, 1920-1934. New Haven and London:
Yale UP, 1988
Froma I. Playing
the Other: Gender and Society in Classical Greek Literature. Chicago
and London: U of Chicago P, 1996.
Bios refers to “a characterized life” of an individual while zoë
is “life without attributes,” the eternally indestructible chain of
detail, see Kerényi,
The three modern Greek words are plural forms of
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.
See Euripides, The
Bacchanals, 441, 453, 800, 1047,1059,1068, 1077.
Hall discusses the barbarization of “femaleness” in
Greek tragedy. For
detail, see 201-210.
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.”
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.
Julia Kristeva explores
the alienation of women in Greek myth.
See Kristeva, 56-66.
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.
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.
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