Between Men: Gay Sensibility and
As the topic of this session concerns biography and Eugene O’Neill, I will begin with an anecdote related by Louis Sheaffer in Eugene O’Neill: Son and Artist. Sheaffer reports what the playwright’s third wife, Carlotta Monterey, referred to as a “homosexual incident” 1 during their residence in Boston, 1948-1951; Carlotta returned home unexpectedly and discovered O’Neill in bed with “an old acquaintance” who was male. 2 Biographers have commented that Carlotta would, on occasion, embroider the facts of her life with O’Neill, so there is a possibility that she was exaggerating, yet Sheaffer does not challenge or refute the incident. If the story is accurate, it is unlikely that O’Neill would have engaged in such activity for the first time at age 60.
One who approaches O’Neill’s work with no knowledge of his life may be struck by the realization that the traditional masculine American hero has little place in his work. Instead, central to most of his plays is a sensitive man with “a touch of the poet” who fits infrequently into his surroundings. An open-minded and sympathetic reader might notice the defensive postures assumed by O’Neill’s protagonists and wonder if he weren’t sometimes writing thinly-veiled homosexual characters. I offer as a hypothesis that one way of examining O’Neill’s plays is through this gay sensibility.
The term is borrowed from the academic field of gay studies – “gay” being a synonym for “homosexual.” Gay sensibility quite simply means that a text supports a gay-friendly interpretation. That O’Neill may himself have flirted with homosexuality merely serves as a point of departure. The real evidence of this sensibility can be found in his plays, primarily through the characterization of his protagonists and by the relationships developed between men.
The typical O’Neill hero is a “strangely softened” portrait of the playwright himself, 3 usually lean, wiry, dark. Though there are exceptions, an O’Neill hero tends to be emotional, intense, not physically strong or athletic. He either shuns women or idealizes them beyond possibility, generally opting for male companionship or solitude instead. An O’Neill hero is the opposite of the aggressively robust, all-American male of popular fiction, to the point of being almost feminine, not only in physical traits but in his goals and the choices he makes. 4 In short, one could say that the common O’Neill hero embodies a common homosexual stereotype.
O’Neill’s strong ambivalence about women – one might almost say misogyny – suggests his female characters are frequently unsympathetic, often causing the disillusionment, downfall, or even death of the men who tangle with them. Conversely, there is common ground between men, from the easy camaraderie of the S.S. Glencairn sailors to the almost-exclusively male club of Harry Hope’s saloon in The Iceman Cometh – evidence that supports a gay-friendly interpretation of many of O’Neill’s plays.
To test the hypothesis, consider The Great God Brown, completed in 1925. The play remained a favorite of O’Neill’s for the rest of his life 5 – significantly, it is the story of a man who does not “‘belong.’” 6 The play circumscribes a curiously possessive friendship and rivalry between two architects, Dion Anthony and William Brown. It is one of O’Neill’s most fascinating and infuriating plays, in no small part because he incorporates masks for the central characters.
In his “Memoranda on Masks” (1932-33), O’Neill wrote that masks were the modern dramatist’s best solution to “express those profound hidden conflicts of the mind which the probings of psychology continue to disclose to us.” 7 Masks permit the expression of “psychological insight,” since human beings wear masks to hide secrets or truths about themselves; “unmasking” allows such truths to be revealed to the audience, O’Neill wrote. 8
Much is hidden under the masks in The Great God Brown. The O’Neill prototype is the “lean and wiry” 9 Dion Anthony, a man at war with himself, a predicament that will resonate for a gay man. Dion’s dual sacred-and-profane nature is indicated by his name, derived from Dionysus and St. Anthony. Dion’s “cynicism, fatigue and despair ... and his debauchery” are other qualities shared by O’Neill, according to Travis Bogard.10 Dion possesses an artistic temperament; he can paint, sing, dance, and write poetry – though, unlike O’Neill, he squanders his talents.
Dion’s artistic bent is foreign to his father, a building contractor rather than an architect. Alienated by his son and mystified by his behavior, Dion’s father assumes an attitude common to any parent regarding a misfit child: denial. “Who is he?” Mr. Anthony says accusingly to Dion’s mother. “You bore him!” 11 The prologue reveals Dion’s alienation from his parents; he mocks them with exaggerated deference and cynicism.
When the young and innocent Margaret offers herself to Dion, he debates the possibility of accepting marriage, children, a career – the common lot of the “straight” man. Yet he tells Margaret that he has never understood love. It is “a shameless ragged ghost of a word” and nothing more, he says. 12 He confesses that he would like to love Margaret as she loves him but he’s uncertain he can.
When Dion drops his mask, looking for acceptance of his true self, Margaret recoils. She is too conventional to recognize anything outside the norm. In assuming a role forced on him by society, Dion recognizes what he must do: “Learn to pretend!” he says. “Learn to lie!” 13 Behind the mask, he settles for a compromise, offering Margaret love “[b]y proxy” 14 instead. Dion’s predicament will resonate for the homosexual man who chooses, out of fear or necessity, to live behind the facade of heterosexuality. Margaret recognizes that Dion is “sad and shy,” 15 but she accepts these traits at face value, unwilling or unable to attach deeper significance to them. Years after their marriage, Dion remains a mystery to her. Perhaps he is “strange and aloof and alone” 16 from the strain of trying to be someone he is not.
Dion engages in several defense mechanisms that will resonate for a gay audience. For example, Dion seeks solace in alcohol, characterizing himself with bitterness as “only honest when he isn’t sober.” 17 Margaret tells Dion that the town gossips are beginning to whisper stories about his behavior. The potential harm in such loose talk will not escape the notice of a closeted homosexual man.
Dion’s celibate friendship with the prostitute Cybel is another example. Cybel has no patience for masks; she orders Dion to “[s]top hiding” when in her company. 18 Many homosexual men have found refuge in the friendship of sympathetic heterosexual women, and Cybel, true to her motherly characterization, is generous and understanding. “It takes all kinds of love to make a world,” she tells Dion, and she accepts him without judgment. 19
Masked, the characters “do not address each other at all ... rather, they refer to each other” (Tornqvist 199) in the third person. 20 For example, instead of asking his wife if she loves him, Dion says, “Can Margaret still love Dion Anthony?” 21 This tactic also reinforces the distance between the mask and the real self.
According to O’Neill’s stage directions, Dion’s mask grows more menacing as the play progresses, though his own real countenance grows more “spiritual, [and] more saint-like.” 22 Eventually, the mask takes on a life of its own, and the real man underneath is rendered excess baggage. The primary catalyst in this transformation is the title figure, William Brown, friends with Dion since boyhood. Billy is less colorful than Dion but inextricably tied to him, though their relationship has been strained by Billy’s competitiveness. Cybel characterizes them as “brothers ... somehow,” for the bond between them, 23 but there is more than brotherhood under the surface. Billy is greatly enamored and jealously possessive of the more talented Dion.
Having no literal mask in the first half of the play, Billy – a bachelor (a status he shares with most gay men) – hides behind excuses. He maintains that he never married because his best friend Dion won the woman they both loved, and Billy’s work keeps him too busy for romance. He professes devotion to Margaret perhaps only because she loves Dion. When Cybel confronts Billy about his supposed love for Margaret, he is in fact “scandalized” by the notion that he could entertain genuine romantic feelings toward her. 24 Even Billy’s relationship with Cybel is non-sexual. He keeps her in luxury in exchange for her promise not to be involved sexually with Dion. Yet Billy’s unrequited love for Dion is unquestionable; Dion, in fact, suggests that Billy will ultimately be “consumed” by this love. 25
When Dion realizes he is about to die, he apologizes to Margaret for his “sins” and his “sickness” and bids her good-bye and leaves their home, opting instead to “pay . . . a farewell call” on Billy. 26 Their confrontation provides the most revealing scene in the play. There is something in Billy that Dion characterizes as a “germ which wriggles like a question mark in his blood;” Dion chastises Billy for his unadventurous life, for choosing not to join the “procession.” 27 Dion might very well be scolding Billy for never having “come out,” in the homosexual sense – that is, living openly as a gay man, though Dion himself may be guilty of the same sin.
To Billy’s displeasure, Dion calls him a “freak.” 28 “Why has no woman ever loved him?” Dion muses. 29 When Billy protests that he has always loved Margaret, Dion sneers, “That is merely the appearance, not the truth! Brown loves me!” 30 Dion realizes that, “When I die, [Billy Brown] goes to hell,” 31 and Dion ensures as much with his desperate last will and testament: “I leave Dion Anthony to William Brown – for him to love and obey – for him to become me –,” Dion says. 32 Does his act indicate his contempt for Billy, or is Dion giving the man who loves him the thing he desires most – full possession of the beloved? At Dion’s death, Billy chooses to put on his friend’s mask, thus sealing their intertwined fates.
In the last half of the play, Billy comes to terms with the tragedy of living a double life taken to extremes. Ultimately, Dion Anthony is accused of murdering Billy Brown, and Billy – wearing the mask of Dion – is shot to death by the police as the murderer. Cybel, who attends his death, recognizes him as “Dion Brown,” the two men as one. “I am his murderer and his murdered,” Billy says, 33 and the lovers (for what else can they be?) die together.
For all its curious masochistic turns, the friendship of Billy and Dion is of particular interest to this discussion because their relationship cannot be examined without considering its homosexual implications. As Thierry Dubost indicates, “that which separates them -- their complementary nature ... prevents them from detaching themselves completely one from the other.” 34 They are like any couple in love; in their celibate triangle relationship with Cybel, “latent homosexuality . . . seems to be undeniable,” DuBost says. 35 Billy seems to be less troubled or perhaps in deeper denial of repressed homosexuality than Dion is, but both men want to put aside their masks, literal or figurative, and be honest with one another.
O’Neill’s complex network of symbolism incorporates the pagan and the Christian, Dionysius and St. Anthony, the god Pan and the devil Mephistopheles. 36 O’Neill did not trouble himself with the fact that his “unsophisticated” audience might be mystified by such literary allusions; “interested people... won’t bother too much over every shade of meaning” in the play; “[t]hey needn’t understand with their minds, they can just watch and feel,” he wrote. 37
A gay audience will watch and feel and strongly identify with Billy and Dion’s struggle to define their relationship (or love, if you will) in a heterosexist world. A gay audience will also identify with the use of masks, which allow the wearer to hide behind some fiction (such as heterosexuality), presenting a more acceptable public façade. Dion “has had to play a part his whole life, and could only reveal to society what it wanted to see, in order to have a place within it,” Dubost says. 38 When Dion drops his mask for Margaret, for whom he truly cares, he learns that she fears his real self. She denies Dion that acceptance.
The whole process of “coming out” for a homosexual man means dropping the mask of heterosexuality and hoping for acceptance by others. Early in the play, Dion deliberately misunderstands Margaret when she tries to talk with him about his childish behavior. “We communicate in code,” Dion says. 39 This observation in particular offers some insight into the often-shadowy world of gay subculture, with communication tied to code and innuendo.
The Great God Brown is a rich source of gay subtext, direct and indirect. “Man is born broken,” Dion says at one point, cynically but passionately. “He lives by mending.” 40 A homosexual man beaten down by accusations that he is perverted, sick, sinful, or otherwise “bent” may derive some comfort from these words and find in Dion a kindred spirit, a man brave enough to “look into his own dark,” as Cybel characterizes him. 41 It is a marvelous detail that Billy Brown and Dion Anthony are architects, a line of artistic expression utterly dependent on carefully crafted exteriors.
* * *
In this paper, I have concentrated on one play and two main points to support my hypothesis of a gay sensibility in O’Neill’s work. The first point concerns the characterization of his heroes, which (generally speaking) conform to a common – though not necessarily inaccurate – stereotype of the homosexual man. The second point concerns the relationships between men, which are frequently ideal or idealized, reflecting a deep closeness. The dynamics of the relationship between Dion and Billy central to The Great God Brown suggest methods of survival that are familiar to gay men accustomed to living in a heterosexist society: speaking in code, wearing masks, hiding behind respectability, cynicism.
Is The Great God Brown a gay play? What about other O’Neill plays that present idealized relationships between men – Bound East for Cardiff, for example, or Hughie, or The Iceman Cometh? What about Strange Interlude, which includes a gay character central to its plot? Can these be examined as gay plays also? As Gregory Woods indicates in his History of Gay Literature, if the text of the play supports a gay-friendly reading, then the work can, in fact, be considered a gay play. 42 Concerning the practice of finding a homosexual subtext in what is usually considered “heterosexual” literature, Woods writes, “It is not tact one needs as a gay reader, but a strategic lack of tact – a willingness to lay oneself open to accusations of ‘reading things into places where they do not belong.” 43
I believe that certain aspects of O’Neill’s own life justify the merit of such a reading of The Great God Brown and other plays. O’Neill himself certainly did not identify himself as gay or bisexual, though there are some provocative clues to be mined from the existing biography. Perhaps the safest comment to make is that O’Neill was a hungry and thirsty man who ruled nothing out in his exploration of the world. Examining his plays through the filter of gay sensibility merely provides another avenue of approach to the endlessly fascinating work of Eugene O’Neill.
1 Louis Sheaffer. O’Neill: Son and Artist. New York: Paragon, 1973: 617.
3 Travis Bogard. Contour in Time. Revised ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1988: 439.
4 Judith Barlow. “No He-Men Need Apply: A Look at O’Neill’s Heroes.” Eugene O’Neill Review, Vol. 19, Spring/Fall 1995: 116-117.
5 Doris Alexander. Eugene O’Neill’s Creative Struggle: The Decisive Decade, 1924-1933. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1992: 79.
6 Sheaffer, 579.
7 Eugene O’Neill. “Memoranda on Masks.” The Unknown O’Neill: Unpublished or Unfamiliar Writings of Eugene O’Neill. Ed. Travis Bogard. New Haven: Yale UP,1988: 406.
9 Eugene O’Neill. The Great God Brown. Complete Plays, Vol 2, 1920-1931. Ed. Travis Bogard. New York: Library of America, 1984: 475.
10 Bogard, 271n.
11 O’Neill, Brown, 477.
12 Ibid., 481.
13 Ibid., 482.
14 Ibid., 483.
15 Ibid., 478.
16 Ibid., 520.
17 Ibid., 487.
18 Ibid., 498.
20 Emil Tornqvist. A Drama of Souls: Studies in O’Neill’s Supernatural Technique. New London: Yale UP, 1969: 199.
21 O’Neill, Brown, 504.
22 Ibid., 503.
23 Ibid., 500.
24 Ibid., 501.
25 Ibid., 508.
26 Ibid., 504.
27 Ibid., 508.
29 Ibid., 509.
30 Ibid., 510.
31 Ibid., 507.
32 Ibid., 510.
33 Ibid., 530.
34 Ibid., Thierry Dubost. Struggle, Defeat or Rebirth: Eugene O’Neill’s Vision of Humanity. Jefferson: McFarland, 1997:108.
35 Ibid., 108-109.
36 Eugene O’Neill. Eugene O'Neill at Work: Unpublished Work Diaries. Ed. Virginia Floyd. New York: Ungar, 1991: 45. See also Barrett Clark. Eugene O’Neill: The Man and His Plays. Revised ed. New York: Dover, 1947: 104.
37 Clark, 106.
38 Dubost, 117.
39 O’Neill, Brown, 485.
40 Ibid., 528.
41 Ibid., 498.
42 Gregory Woods. A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition. New Haven: Yale UP, 1998: 9.
43 Ibid., 15.
Alexander, Doris. Eugene O’Neill’s Creative Struggle: The Decisive Decade, 1924-1933. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1992.
Barlow, Judith. “No He-Men Need Apply: A Look at O’Neill’s Heroes.” Eugene O’Neill Review, Vol. 19 #1-2, Spring/Fall 1995, 111-121.
Bogard, Travis. Contour in Time. Revised ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.
Clark, Barrett H. Eugene O’Neill: The Man and His Plays. Revised ed. New York: Dover, 1947.
Dubost, Thierry. Struggle, Defeat or Rebirth: Eugene O’Neill’s Vision of Humanity. Jefferson: McFarland, 1997.
O’Neill, Eugene. Eugene O'Neill at Work: Unpublished Work Diaries. Ed. Virginia Floyd. New York: Ungar, 1991.
——. Great God Brown, The. Complete Plays, Vol 2, 1920-1931. Ed. Travis Bogard. New York: Library of America, 1984. 469-535.
——. “Memoranda on Masks.” The Unknown O’Neill: Unpublished or Unfamiliar Writings of Eugene O’Neill. Ed. Travis Bogard. New Haven: Yale UP,1988. 406-411.
Sheaffer, Louis. O’Neill: Son and Artist. New York: Paragon, 1973.
Tornqvist, Emil. A Drama of Souls: Studies in O’Neill’s Supernatural Technique. New London: Yale UP, 1969.
Woods, Gregory. A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition. New Haven: Yale UP, 1998.
[This is the complete text as
presented by the author during the Eugene O’Neill
session of the Modern Language Association Convention,
New Orleans, December 2001.]
I found Sater's "Gay Sensibility and
The Great God Brown" surprising, persuasive and
challenging. It gives us a new way to think about a most
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