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Editor: Harley Hammerman
St. Louis, Missouri

Volume 0


O'Neill's Fear and Pity:  the Dionysian Living Death

Daniel Larner
Fairhaven College, Western Washington University

Eugene O'Neill's interest in the classical drama is legion, as is his determination to provide us with a drama which tries to find the modern equivalents to the Greeks sense of fate, the connection between humanity and the divine.

According to Egil Törnqvist, O'Neill's work reflects his effort to convey the presence of the supernatural in contemporary human life.  He uses, says Törnqvist, a "super-naturalistic" technique to convey to his audience forces running beneath the surface of the characters.  His work also reveals a "preference for parallelisms and significant recurrences"--of lines, scenes, costumes, characters, settings, properties, and lighting and sound effects.  Recurring in new contexts, they suggest, beneath the change in appearance, the eternally unchanging patterns of a universe governed beyond our comprehension.  In mankind, too, there is a "basic sameness" which O'Neill constantly strives to reveal (Törnqvist, 254)

Törnqvist observes that O'Neill comes to see life as a test--to make the stupidity and cruelty of our experience meaningful--which we must pass to be worthy of what comes after death (Törnqvist, 18).  In play after play, O'Neill paints the circumstances of life as frustrating, if not futile and brutally destructive.  Therefore his perception of the "sameness" that underlies life had to be something which could result in this brutal, disappointing, corrosive surface.  In fact, Törnqvist argues, Mary Tyrone's words, "The past is present, isn't it?  It's the future, too" are "at the bottom of all plays." (254).  Törnqvist points to O'Neill's use of circular structures in his late plays, and asserts that these structures are designed (a) to show that no one can live entirely without illusion, (b) to suggest the inevitability of fate, and (c) to demonstrate that characters can return in their own footsteps, shedding their guilt and experiencing a sense of belonging. 

This last expresses some optimism.  But that is vitiated by O'Neill's sense of what it is possible to "belong" to.  In The Great God Brown  Dion Anthony cannot shed his mask and be recognized.  Billy cannot bear, in his turn, to be without what conceals him from the objects of his success.  In Strange Interlude  Nina is content to live out her life with peace, without real passion or excitement, never sure whether everything which sapped the energy of her life was illusory.  Did she continue to love Gordon in order to love nothing?  Was it only a kind of deadly peace she sought all along?  Only in the life of another--in the real accomplishment of his assistant, Preston (Nina's lover), does Ned Darrell find some sense of purpose, his own life a landscape of compulsion and wasted dreams.

In The Iceman Cometh  Hickey comes from a life of compulsive dissipation and self-despised immorality to the discovery that he can change others, bring them to the peace that descends when pipe dreams are acknowledged and given up.  However, the peace is not one of fulfillment, but of decathexis--"You just won't give a damn," Hickey declares.  This sort of living is a kind of death, and Larry Slade understands it that way, seeing himself in the end as Hickey's only true convert, having found yet another way to be trapped in his old habit of seeing both sides of everything, unable to commit himself, unable to live.  Earlier in the play, Larry quotes Heinrich Heine's lines:  "To sleep is good; better is death; in sooth,/The best of all were never to be born."  This echoes the battered ending of Oedipus Rex,  and evokes a world in which death is the culmination of a slow, inevitable dying that takes up all of life.  We will not find in O'Neill the shock that ends several of Euripides's great plays (The Bacchae, Alcestis, Medea ), in which the chorus declares that the gods have brought the unexpected.  The implication is we should be wary, because the gods can find many ways to smash us.  In O'Neill, there is little suspense, little haunting fear of the unknown.  We slide into a death which, at most, is simply a continuation of the oblivion that overtakes us in life.  In Strange Interlude  Sam's mother speaks of an insane aunt who "hasn't a care in the world," but when she was "alright," she was "always unhappy."

Such a bleak and hopeless view of life persists in O'Neill's work alongside the playwright's effort to express the value of that life, to find what is eternal and beautiful even in the last ditch of Harry's flea-bag hotel.  S.K.Winther believes that O'Neill is talking of himself through the mouth of the character Loving in Days Without End.  Loving condemns the search for Truth, the determined belief in one philosophical "ism" after another:  "He was never courageous enough to face what he really knew was true, that there is no truth for men, that human life is unimportant and meaningless.  No.  He was always grasping at some absurd new faith to find an excuse for going on!" (Winther, 284).

I do not propose to search for O'Neill's motive in carrying on what he saw as a useless search, or even to ask what might have fuelled his continuing quest for the divine connection in contemporary drama.  But we can see that his fundamental convictions about the contradictory and frustrating nature of life come straight out of the ancient world.  The analogies and allusions in O'Neill's plays to Dionysus, the god of wine and theatre, are plentiful and vivid.  In The Great God Brown  Dion Anthony and Billy Brown are two faces of the god-of-many-names, with Dion's name making the intended incarnation plain as the proverbial nose.  One can see resemblances to the divine patterns of the seasonal worship of Dionysus in the cycles of sacrifice in Strange Interlude;  and the analogy between drunken oblivion and transformation of identity in The Iceman Cometh. is redolent of the ritual orgy of destruction in The Bacchae.  

And there are deeper analogies.  The psychoanalyst Helene Deutsch speaks of Dionysus as the god who always had to prove his divinity (Deutsch, 27).  Indeed, we see in Euripides' The Bacchae , in the opening speech, Dionysus' assertion that he has come to Thebes to refute the slander that his mother, Semele, a mortal, did not sleep with Zeus.  O'Neill himself, constantly trying to find the connection of human life to the eternal through the theatre, constantly asserting that connection in the face of the illusion of life (as he saw it), resembles Dionysus on his eternal mission to assert and defend his own divinity.

While this argument is only by analogy, it helps us understand the contradiction between O'Neill's persistence and pessimism:  they are necessary to each other.  Without the pessimism there would be no need for the persistence. 

To make stronger use of the analogy, it is important to take a closer look at the complex character of Dionysus.  Walter F. Otto speaks of Dionysus as "the god of the most blessed ecstasy and the most enraptured love.  But he was also the persecuted god, the suffering and dying god, and all whom he loved, all who attended him, had to share his tragic fate" (Otto, 49).  As Dionysus was torn apart by the Titans, so his Maenads tear apart everything they catch in their ecstatic orgies, and themselves are sometimes their own victims.  Dionysus undergoes this same fate again and again, dying in agony and being reborn in ecstasy every year.  Otto also speaks of Dionysus, the foreigner (52) who came to Greek soil from Asia minor, as "The God who Comes."  He actually appears, in body, as he does in The Bacchae , and disappears again.  When he does come, his appearance is always urgent and compelling.  His followers, in ecstasy, testify to his nearness by his possession of them (79-85). 

Dionysus is many-formed, a god of many names, and a seat of ambiguity.  He is masculine and feminine.  As Deutsch points out, he was mothered by Zeus who rescued him as an embryo from the dying Semele.  His father is his mother, while his father's wife, Hera, is a constant, jealous bane to him.  The ambiguity of his birth is reflected in his hermaphroditism.  Dionysus appears everywhere in ambiguous sexual form (Deutsch, 19).  In The Bacchae  he is a pretty blonde boy.  His rites are celebrated solely by women, avatars of the possessed Semele, burned, consumed, by the passion of Zeus.  Dionysus' pretty face stands in startling contradiction to the enormity of his power.  To affirm his divinity, Deutsch argues, he destroys his mother's past mortality by destroying the domestic world that once enslaved her (Deutsch, 27).  Marcel Detienne argues that Dionysus turns into wild animals only those who resist him, throwing them into more direct contact with the superhuman (Detienne, 62-3).  Like Pentheus in The Bacchae , if they are caught by Maenads (themselves wild animals), they will be torn limb from limb.

We should also remember that Dionysus is the god of comedy as well as tragedy.  The faces he reveals as the comic god are as relevant to O'Neill's work as the tragic masks.  It is in Aristophanes' The Frogs  that we get the closest look at the comic dimensions of the god.  Lois Spatz points out that in this play Dionysus is also Iachus, god of mysteries.  "It is he who leads the sacred procession from Athens to Demeter's shrine at Eleusis."  The combination of the two gods offered to everyone, including women and slaves, "the opportunity to become initiates into a cult which promised a blessed afterlife" (Spatz, 120).  Demeter, whose sylvan glades promised the peace of exhaustion after the hunt, whose own masculine femininity also sought to put to rest, somehow, the tension of sexual identity, is present in Nina, the hunter-priestess in Strange Interlude , finding the final peace of the forest in the ancient clearing which is her father's old study, the place where the play begins.  And Iachus is present in Hickey in The Iceman Cometh  as he leads the procession out of the bar into the redeeming forest of the city, in which pipe dreams will be shed, guilt will drop away, and peace will descend.

Spatz also points out that in The Frogs  the choice Dionysus must make  between playwrights, between Aeschylus and Euripides, is a choice between the past and the present (129).  Dionysus, like O'Neill, chooses the past.  The values of Athens, in deep trouble in its corruption and its imminent defeat by Sparta, may not be worth saving.  However, The Frogs  remains comic in spirit, and the city itself is seen as immortal, finding finally a "triumph over death itself."  This, says Spatz, is the "ultimate wish fulfillment for city and individual alike" (130).  Again the analogy to Hickey's quest is irresistible.  He has chosen to confirm the values of the past in finding rest in the present.  Evelyn's virtue and her illusions about Hickey are preserved, as is Hickey's sense that he had some power to preserve them.  And the rotting pipe dreams, eating away at each of the denisons of Harry's bar, are seen as obstacles to peace.  They are "those dammed tomorrow dreams which keep you from making peace with yourself" (The Iceman Cometh, 189).  The return is to yesterday.  And the city, as Hickey would walk out into it, "tomorrow dreams" shed forever, becomes the eternal sylvan glade, the haven of peace.

The tragic face of Hickey's "line of salvation" (147) is that it seeks peace in the present by killing the past.  Hickey complains, late in the play:

Can't you see there is no tomorrow now?  You're rid of it forever!  You've killed it!  You don't have to care a damn about anything any more!  You've finally got the game of life licked.  Don't you see that?  Then why the hell don't you get pie-eyed and celebrate?  Why don't you laugh and sing "Sweet Adeline"? (225)

Hickey's converts, his maenads, are reluctant.  The whiskey does not seem to work.  No one can get drunk, reach ecstasy.  Hickey reveals, almost accidentally, the he has murdered Evelyn to preserve her illusions, and to rid her of the pipe dream that he could change and be faithful to her.  The contradiction is too much for his co-celebrants, who have enough of their sodden minds left to discern that Hickey's sense of charity in preserving Evelyn's dreams for her is horrifying.  The irony of Hickey's act of murder resembles the irony of Pentheus' rational attempt to save the city of Thebes by abolishing the sacred orgy.  Hickey's Dionysian power to bring oblivious joy to Harry and his friends is transmuted into deadly, Penthusian illusion.  We see that Hickey hates Evelyn for loving him, for believing in him, for believing in faith and loyalty, and has covered his murder of her with his conviction that he has saved her from illusions and pipe dreams.  Hickey is suddenly a false god, just another nasty drunk.  Pentheus hates Dionysus for inspiring the love of the maenads, and hates the maenads for obeying Dionysus rather than him.  He rejects them and their orgy as dangers to the city.   Pentheus is ironically swallowed by the violence he rejects, which otherwise would have passed harmlessly away.  Hickey is swallowed by the irony of his own illusions, rejected by those he led, thrown back on his own isolation and self-hatred, condemned to live without peace.

As Dionysus. the stranger god from Asia, romped into the Peloponese, he brought with him the concreteness and objective potency of nature that was, according to some, the great power of classical Greek religion.  Curtis Bennett, a "process" theologian, has extolled what he calls, in explicit agreement with Nietzsche, a natural philosophy.  No god is responsible for our existence.  God is not removed from humanity, or from nature, but in it.  The Greeks managed to "disclose man's own place in nature, the nature of his relation to the recurrent given elements in himself, or his relations to the forces or circumstances outside himself..." (Bennett, 21)  This sounds a lot like the destination of serious drama, and the coincidence should not surprise us.  (It was, after all, the rites of Dionysus which became the models for all the drama of the last two millennia.)  Bennett notes how in Pindar's works humanity and the gods are created together.  We see ourselves as a phenomenon of the same nature in which the gods dwell.  Thus "man" has a "dramatic grasp of himself as occurrence, and occurrence as form."  The gods also possess self-expressive power, vastly superior to humanity's and impinging upon it.  But the human apprehension of this divine expressive power is drastically limited.  Our awareness of this ironic position in natural process, says Bennett, is for Pindar "his simultaneous expression of the potency for form in his own right and his spectacular helplessness within the process of his own enactment" (22-4).

Hickey's failure in Harry's bar is thus more than a failure of salesmanship.  It is a failure of vision and a failure of form.  Hickey sought the straight way to salvation.  Face your pipe dreams, play them out so you can expose them for what they are and drop them.  Then you won't be hung up in tomorrow, you won't give a damn any more, and you can rest in peace.  But this, as Larry points out, is the peace of death, not of life (The Iceman Cometh,  203).  It is the wrong form.  Hickey brought the peace of death to Evelyn and confused that with the peace of life which Evelyn herself sought in her pipe dream.  If for Hickey that was "the only possible way" (203), it was because Hickey had to convince himself, after the fact of his murder of Evelyn, that he had acted out of love rather than hate.  When his confession slips out that he cursed Evelyn after killing her, he tries to get the boys in the bar to believe that he must have been insane when he uttered the curse.  This would excuse him because it would not be his fault. It would be like the god's insanity, the fatal cover-up, like the feminine costume Dionysus puts on Pentheus.  This is the failure of vision, the failure to understand that the gods, through shrouded in the irony of their mystery, are part of the same nature that we are.  Hickey's cravenness cannot be their "fault."

It is the ugly, tortured young man, Parritt, who makes it most clear to everyone what it is that Hickey has really said about himself.  Parritt is preoccupied with himself.  But his occasional outbursts to Larry gradually reveal that he has managed to listen carefully enough to Hickey's sermons to learning something from them.  Just before Hickey blurts out his own curse, Parritt is talking about his anarchist mother and his own betrayal of her by turning her into the police.  Expressing what O'Neill calls "exhausted relief," he confesses, "There's no use lying any more.  You know, anyway.  I didn't give a damn about the money.  It was because I hated her."  Then comes Hickey's recital of his curse (as O'Neill says in the stage direction, "as if he couldn't believe he heard what he had just said"):  "Well, you know what you can do with your pipe dream now, you damned bitch!"  In the next line Parritt disclaims his own confession, excusing his action by parroting Hickey's own disclaimer:  "Yes, that's it!  Her and the damned old Movement pipe dream!  Eh, Larry?" (242). 

Parritt's desperate plea for justification makes the falsehood of Hickey's pleading overwhelmingly obvious.  Like Pentheus, a self-willed savior, Hickey convinces himself he must destroy to save.  He does so, and is himself, echoing the annual agony of the god, destroyed.

As Hickey is carried away by the police, the liquor magically recovers its power to produce intoxication, and the peace of pipe dreams once again settles on the old hotel.  The god is gone.  The human Hickey has met his limits.  His hubris is unmasked and the limits of his mere humanity, against the enormity of the gods, are revealed. 

The structure of O'Neill's play reinforces this view from the beginning.  Hickey is at first the object of expectation.  When is he going to come?  He will bring the blessed relief ("The connection," as Jack Gelber was later to frame it) of an alcoholic celebration.  The orgy, like all orgies, will be self-limiting, but, like all genuine rites, gratifying and fulfilling.  While Hickey's own identity is transformed by the denisons of the bar, transmuted into the saving god bringing the ecstasy of his periodic worship, he also transforms others.  He begins the process by transmuting each of the regulars into peaceful beings.  He also transforms himself, selling himself to us as the god incarnate, peace achieved and life mastered, even  including the final and most impressive of divine qualities--indifference:  he won't "give a damn" again.  In the meantime, his human qualities are emphasized.  He keeps trying to ingratiate himself with his old friends as he pushes them to annihilate their pipe dreams.  Like him, they could have "a ton of guilt lifted off" their minds (241).  He is both the leader of the ritual and bringer of comfort.  Every six months he descends on Harry's place bringing the joy of celebration, the bliss of inebriation, and the blessing of good fellowship with repeated ritual storytelling.  He leads the ceremony, a succinctly Dionysian rite, going from joy to intoxication to exhaustion to oblivion.

There are more resemblances between Hickey's death rite and Pentheus' entrapment in the orgy of the Theban women.  Pentheus also has his identity transformed by the hubris of power.  In thinking himself strong and pure, he not only passes himself off as a woman (the effeminacy and dishonesty of the disguise being a disgrace), but also becomes a spy.  Hickey passes himself off as a friend and fellow traveler who will purge Harry's patrons of their guilt, lighten their load, and bring them the Truth, the peace of indifference.  Pentheus seeks to restore the Truth of the gods, to return his city to the sensible, peaceful worship of the Olympians.  In neither case is the conversion welcomed.  And in both cases the conversions are deceptions.  In the case of Pentheus, the deception appears at first to be the god's.  Dionysus, disguised in the likeness of a swish young boy, convinces Pentheus it would be a good idea to disguise himself as a woman and spy on the Maenads.  Pentheus agrees.  Ironically, Pentheus in disguise, with his wig of blonde curls, looks a lot like Dionysus (The Bacchae , 233).  Then Dionysus tells us that Pentheus would never do this if he were sane (l. 850 ff.), just as Hickey would have us believe about himself.  Could it be that O'Neill, unlike the regulars at Harry's, really believes Hickey?  If so, is the insanity the agency of a god?  If not, what is the life that brought Hickey to this pass?  Is it only meaningless and sad beyond words, or is it the substance of tragedy, the seat of those choices that bring us most pain, that destroy our lives.

Near the end of The Bacchae , after he has declared that "Justly--too, too justly, has lord Bromius, this god of our own blood, destroyed us all, every one" (l. 1250), Cadmus is able to see only the bleakest of futures, hemmed in by Dionysus' own prophesy of what fate has decreed will happen:  "Never shall my sufferings end; not even over Acheron shall I have peace" (l. 1360-1).  It is Cadmus, looking absurd in fawn-skin and thrysus, the very man who tried in vain to show his son Pentheus that Dionysus was the way, whose task it now is to bring Pentheus' mother Agave around to sanity, and show her the horrible thing she has done in tearing to bits her own son.  One senses in the never-to-be-seen Evelyn the ghost of Agave, under permanent illusion of the virtue of her own behavior.  The change O'Neill seems to have wrought from ancient times to now is the absence of the horrible revelation, that Cadmus and Agave were granted.  The "god of our own blood" is now simply our own blood.  Illusion, for O'Neill, is now not only permanent but necessary.  If the god is gone, the best we can do is pathetically invent him.  The greatness of the horrible fate which the Greeks could mourn is mourned in O'Neill for its absence.  An embittered life is condemned to continue the unspeakably endless search for value in the wasteland, a kind of hell on earth.

In The Bacchae , Dionysus causes an earthquake to warn Pentheus, and even escapes from it through disappearance, as if by magic, to show Pentheus that he just might not be an ordinary person.  But Pentheus will not see the nose before his face and is destroyed.  In O'Neill's world, the earthquake, like Nina's passion for Gordon, like Hickey's murder of Evelyn, is in the past.  We live now not with the love but only with the condemnation of the god, to be compelled to find tragedy where there is only pathos.  Perhaps O'Neill took as his largest subject the death of the possibility of tragedy that others, like George Steiner, were later to document.  If, on the other hand, this is largely an elaboration of O'Neill's personality turned out onto the stage, that need not be seen as an excuse or an explanation for his dramaturgy, but perhaps a way to sympathize with it and savor the richness of his compulsively fruitless search for significance. 

Works Cited

Bennett, Curits.  God as Form.  Albany, State University of New York Press, 1976.

Detienne, Marcel.  Dionysus Slain, tr. Mireille Muellner and Leonard Muellner.  Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.

Deutsch, Helene.  A Psychoanalytic Study of the Myth of Dionysus and Apollo.  New York, International Universities Press, 1969.

Euripides.  The Bacchae, tr. William Arrowsmith.  Chicago, University of Chicago Press (Phoenix Books), 1970 (first published 1959).

Otto, Walter F.  Dionysus:  Myth and Cult (tr. Robert B. Palmer).  Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1965 (originally published in 1934).

O'Neill, Eugene.  The Iceman Cometh.   New York, Random House (Vintage Books), 1962 (copyright by Eugene O'Neill, 1946).

Spatz, Lois.  Aristophanes.   Boston, Twayne Publications, 1978.

Steiner, George.  The Death of Tragedy.  London, Faber and Faber, 1961.

Törnqvist, Egil.  A Drama of Souls.  New Haven, Yale University Press, 1969.

Winther, Sophus Keith.  O'Neill, A Critical Study.  New York, Random House, 1934.



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