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Editor: Harley Hammerman
St. Louis, Missouri

Volume 1


Diff’rent: Variations on a Theme

William M. Peterson
Southampton College, Long Island University

The theme of Diff’rent is sexual abstinence.  Its effect is summarized trenchantly in a poem by William Blake:

Abstinence sows sand all over
The ruddy limbs and flaming hair;

O’Neill admired Blake, who was also a revolutionary and whose father came from Ireland.  He could have read him in the three volume edition edited by Ellis and Yeats in 1893 or in the one volume Yeats edition of 1905.  In 1927 his Christmas gift to Carlotta was The Writings of William Blake; the inscription, suggesting that O’Neill identified with Blake, refers to the tradition that Blake’s grandfather was an O’Neil.

The first of the Ellis and Yeats volumes contains extensive introductory material which presents ideas echoed in several O’Neill plays.  The extended discussion of the Symbolic System points out that to Blake “heat is masculine, cold feminine,” and that when the “cold resolves to live for itself…all is changed” (303).  Another passage refers to “those contraries which give life, such as male and female, active and passive,” and others which are “like yes and no, life and its negation” (315).   The chapter, “The Two Contraries of Humanity,” discusses “those typical contraries, the sexes,” as the model for the duality of “all divisions…before division itself passes away.” (320)  It asserts that “there is a Male and a Female Humanity,” and that the “Female or Maternal Humanity, being the lower or material, personally emotional, instinctive, and when moral, restrictive side, is always ready to become evil” (302).  A table of the “symbols habitually used by Blake,” lists Expansion, Forgiveness and Truth as male, and Restriction, Law and Delusion as female (303).

Blake believed that the “great evil” was the “separating of the masculine from the feminine, and both from man” (322).  The elaborate dichotomy proposed by Blake adumbrates several couples in later O’Neill plays; it is illustrated in Act I of Diff’rent by Emma Crosby’s adamant insistence on abstinence and Caleb Williams’ honesty in admitting his one sexual lapse.  Emma’s transformation from virgin in Act I to whore in Act II also exemplifies the pattern of contraries.

Such a theoretical system would have to be bodied forth to work on the stage, and O’Neill found explicit examples in his own life.  The Gelbs note that Diff’rent may have been suggested to O’Neill by the “character and personality” of the unmarried Lil Brennan, a relative of his mother who lived in New London (436).  Sheaffer quotes an O’Neill letter to his wife, Agnes, in the spring of 1920: “Fifene [Clark]… has handed me a lot of old village tales—one of which don’t forget to remind me to tell you.  It would make a bear of a story or short play” (38).

Shortly after it opened, O’Neill defended Diff’rent in an article in the New York Tribune; commenting that we are all more or less like Emma, he summarized her situation: “Either we try in desperation to clutch our dreams at the last by deluding ourselves with some tawdry substitute; or, having waited the best part of our lives, we find the substitute time mocks us with too shabby to accept” (13 Feb. 1921).  Sheaffer makes an almost inevitable point: Emma Crosby, like Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night and hence like Ella O’Neill, has a “romantic view of life.”  He quotes Mary Tyrone on her husband, whom she thought “different from all ordinary men,” (3, 778) and concludes that the “first-act portrait of Emma Crosby incorporates, in part, some of the playwright’s ideas about his mother as a young woman” (39).  Emma, however, is a much simpler character and has nothing of the doctrinaire religious background of Mary.

The analogy to the O’Neill family saga can be expanded: Caleb Williams, Emma’s fiancé, earns a good income as a whaling captain by long trips away from home which expose him to various temptations; James O’Neill supported his family by endless road tours with The Count of Monte Christo.  Nevertheless, Emma and Caleb are creatures of their own environment, integral and coherent only in Diff’rent.

O’Neill’s well-documented admiration of the plays of Ibsen and Strindberg has led to several analogies. Black comments, “Emma…resembles Hedda Gabler” (265), but the suicide of Emma at the end of Diff’rent may owe more to Julie’s suicide at the end of Strindberg’s Miss Julie.  Emma, like Julie, initiates the action when she attempts to impose on a man her own code of behavior.  In the second part of the play, each acknowledges her failure: Julie in surrendering to the sexual excitement and arousal of Midsummer Night and Emma, now fifty, in a desperate attempt to recover her lost youth through an unseemly affair with a young man.

Emma and Julie hold immoderate, unrealistic ideas about men and sexuality, although both are knowledgeable about animal and human life.  Julie is accustomed to training horses and dogs and attempts to train her fiancé in the same way. Outraged because her bitch, Diana, has “sneaked out with that pug at the lodge” (77), she seeks to terminate the pregnancy.  Emma also lives familiarly with animals; her people raise chickens and presumably cows in their barns, and her brother comes home with a “string of cod heads” (28).   A review of the first production of Diff’rent in Theatre Magazine for April, 1921 comments that Emma is a “girl whose people are rough, bluff, swearing, seafaring men” (261).  Emma is not a prude: she accepts the sexuality of her father, mother, and brother, as well as that of Caleb’s sister, Harriet, whose love for her philandering fiancé is frank and open.

Thirty years later in the second act, Harriet’s son, Benny, home from the war but reenlisted in the army, has been “callin’ on that Tilly Small,” the village prostitute.  Emma, motivated by jealousy more than moral disapproval, tells him, “I ain’t blamin’ you” (232), and offers to obtain some of  newly illegal liquor if that’s what Benny wants.  Emma abandons her insistence on male chastity.  She is more than willing to marry Benny, who has not only been visiting Tilly but also boasts unequivocally about the French women who have “got a way with ’em—lots of ways” (233) and will “do anything a guy’d ask ’em” (234). Emma asks Benny to tell her “all about” the “French girls” (234); talking about them obviously arouses her.

Miss Julie and Diff’rent are similarly constructed; each is in two parts, before and after.  While the gap in time in Strindberg is a short interval and that in Diff’rent is thirty years, during it the heroines undergo a revolution in their attitudes to male sexuality and in understanding of themselves; in consequence both choose to commit suicide in their barns.  Diff’rent has none of the distinctions of class, wealth and hereditary power than inform Miss Julie, but each play presents a woman who ultimately destroys herself because she is incapable of accommodating her own sexuality with that of a man, of female with male.  In its central theme, Diff’rent is an American version of Miss Julie.

The date of Act II is precisely thirty years after that of Act I.  In 1890, responding to her decision not to marry him, Caleb concludes: “I ain’t never goin’ to marry no woman but you, Emmer…I’ll wait for ye to change your mind…thirty years if it’s needful!” (226).  In 1920, when he returns to her parlor for the last time, full of hope, he soon realizes that his enduring love is unavailing: Emma has become a raddled parody of youth, an aging woman angling for sex with a callow young opportunist.  Another Blake poem describes a woman in Emma’s situation:

An old maid early e’er I knew
Ought but the love that on me grew,
And now I’m covered o’er and o’er
And wish that I had been a whore.

Perhaps because of its brevity and sharp focus, Diff’rent seems schematic and incomplete to some critics.  Scheaffer, for example, comments that the “breath of life is in Emma herself,” but that the “most interesting part of Diff’rent is the part that O’Neill never wrote: the transitional period in which Emma, reacting to the cold touch of passing time, takes the first giggling steps on a course that will change her into a grotesque flirt” (39).  But Act II makes it clear that this transitional period is both recent and brief, more a moment of decision than a process; Benny remarks, “you’ve had this old place fixed up swell since I was to home last,” and Emma responds that she had it done for him, “so’s you’d have a nice, up-to-date place to come to when you was on vacation from the horrid old army”(232).  When Caleb arrives, Emma’s decision to change her appearance, clothes and furniture takes him by surprise: “The garish strangeness of everything evidently repels and puzzles him” (241).  When Benny reveals his contempt for her, Emma, abruptly disillusioned like Miss Julie, destroys herself when she is forced to recognize that her life has become unsustainable.

O’Neill evidently recognized in April of 1920 that the story told him in Provincetown by Fifene Clark would make a good short play.  Upon completing The Emperor Jones in October 1920, he wrote Diff’rent in about two weeks; it was produced by the Provincetown Players in December.  So the play, in a sense, was news of the day.  The 1920 décor of Act II, the jazz record on the victrola and Emma’s dress are current, so the setting and action comment immediately upon the world of the audience; World War I is over, liquor has become illegal, hemlines have soared, and jazz is popular—everything is up-to-date.  The shock of immediacy (now no longer sustainable) was deliberately created.  Although the setting and the dialogue seemed realistic in 1920, they now seem generalized and ritualized.

The theme of Diff’rent, rigid sexual repression, is enhanced by contrast with its opposite. The second couplet of Blake’s brief poem contrasts abstinence with sexual gratification:

Abstinence sows sand all over
The ruddy limbs and flaming hair;
But desire gratified
Plants fruits of life and beauty there.  

Act I of Diff’rent presents a vivid contrast between Emma’s insistence on abstinence for herself and Caleb and Harriet Williams’ acceptance of Alfred Rogers, whom she plans to marry.  Harriet attempts to persuade Emma to overlook Caleb’s single lapse, which occurred in the south sea isles where O’Neill often located sensual fulfillment.  She says that she accepts Rogers as he is: “I’m going to marry him some day….But I know right well all the foolin’ he’s done—and still is doing, I expect” (218).  This contrast between Emma and Harriet expands O’Neill’s theme to include the second point of Blake’s poem.  Dramatically, the contrast seems to function as a “right way-wrong way” elucidation of the theme.

The relationship of Harriet with Alfred Rogers may be associated with a couplet from another short poem in Blake’s Notebook:

What is it women do in men require?
The lineaments of gratified desire.

But Diff’rent is not a straightforward, programmatic play.  In Act II Harriet has changed as remarkably as Emma; she is “thin…careworn, with a fretful irritated expression,” an embittered widow who denounces her worthless son as “low all through like your Pa was…you ain’t even ashamed of your dirtiness no more!”(236).  Her easy-going acceptance of almost casual sexuality has left her as frustrated as Emma.  After thirty years, neither abstinence nor gratified desire has succeeded in providing secure, lasting fulfillment.

While Emma is stubborn and self-willed, her “large, soft blue eyes…have an incongruous quality of absent-minded romantic dreaminess” (23).   She is not insisting on celibacy, only on abstinence before marriage.  The source of her idea is not specified, although from its first production the play was sometimes seen as a study of repressive puritanism.  Manheim discusses this theme, beginning with a review by Kenneth Macgowan in Vogue, March 1921, in which he described Diff’rent as a “vigorous and healthful attack upon the puritanism that eats away so much of the creative happiness of life.” Macgowan had, however, just summarized the play as “no more than a powerful document on the pathology of a woman in her forties,” and his comment on puritanism is appended.

Manheim proceeds by describing the setting as a “pictorial representation of small-town New England puritanism…joyless and life-denying, dominated by the religiosity of its patriarchal puritan past,” and he concludes that the “puritanism wins” in the first act (137).  That view of the play was expressed by several of the reviewers and still persists; in 2001 Eyre and Wright described it in Changing Stages as a “little-known study of Puritan conscience” (148).

The programs of Diff’rent inform the audience simply that the setting is the “Parlor of the Crosby home on a side street of a seaport village in New England.”  The text of Diff’rent offers no support for the view that the play is a study of repressive puritanism.  The Crosby household is not overtly religious; except to attend Emma’s planned wedding to Caleb, no one mentions going to church and Emma never uses religious doctrine to explain her insistence on being “diff’rent” in the matter of sex. Her parents never mention religious beliefs or scruples. Only the set, with its “enlarged photos of strained, stern-looking people in uncomfortable poses” and its Bible on a center table, suggests New England Puritanism (23).  But O’Neill may have been amused by the customary family portraits, and the centrally placed Bible has a “brass clasp,” which suggests that it is a closed book.

The Bible is accompanied by “several books that look suspiciously like cheap novels.”   In the first scene, Caleb warns Emma that she should not “want me to live up to one of them high-fangled heroes you been readin’ about in them books” (26).  Jack, Emma’s brother, laughs at her view of Caleb as “one o’ them goody-goody heroes out o’ them story books you’re always readin’” (29). Harriet pronounces: “Story book notions, that’s the trouble with you, Emmer” (219). The traditional restrictions of religion are much less likely the source of Emma’s mania than the ardors of popular fiction.  Audiences, reviewers and critics who perceive puritanism as a pervasive theme in the play are insisting on their own perceptions, perhaps thinking of other O’Neill plays and especially of Lavinia Manon in Mourning Becomes Electra.

As the subject of a play, puritanism was much less likely to sell tickets than sex.   Diff’rent was variously announced as a “Daring Study in Feminine Sex Psychology” (Times 28 Jan. 1921); “A Daring Study of a Woman” (Times 6 Feb. 1921), and “Daring Study of a Sex-Starved Woman” Times 10 Feb. 1921), so it is not surprising that the reviewers of the first production accepted it as a study in feminine psychology and described it succinctly:  “sex complex” (clipping);  “story of a ‘sex starved woman’” (Herald 30 Jan 1921); “largely pathological”  (Herald 1Feb.); “a psychological treatise” (World 1 Feb.1921); “a psychological study of inveterate spinsterhood,” (N.Y .American, 1 Feb 1921);  the “physical cravings that result from repressed and starved passion” (World 1 Feb.1921; and “intimately clinical” (Sun 2 Feb. 1921).

Heywood Broun’s review in the New York Tribune provoked a response from a reader, protesting Broun’s comment that O’Neill “seems ill informed of the more searching theories of sex psychology,” and asserting “scientific observation is in agreement with O’Neill” (1 Feb. 1921). In the New York American Alan Dale objected: “There is a time in the life of a woman…which scarcely calls for the light, or the footlight, of day or matinee” (1 Feb. 1921).  The review in the New York Herald complained: “To see dramatic use...made of the dangerous years of life is too clinical for artistic respect” (1 Feb. 1921).   The review in Theatre Magazine in April, 1921 begins by quoting the advertised subject, “daring study of feminine sex psychology,” and concludes, “there are some queer twists of psychology in it” (261).

Freudian psychology was providing post World War I society with a new and sensational typology.  In a review headed “Freudian Play at the Selwyn Theatre,” Diff’rent is described as a “study in repression such as Freud and his many disciples might rejoice over” (Evening Telegraph, 1 Feb. 1921).  In his article in the New York Tribune defending Diff’rent, O’Neill acknowledges this criticism of his play: “Whether it is psychoanalytically exact or not I will leave more dogmatic students of Freud and Jung than myself…to decide.”   He insists on Emma’s specificity: “She is a whaling captain’s daughter in a small New England seacoast town,” and describes her as “universal only in the sense that she reacts definitely to a definite sex-suppression, as every woman might.”  He dismisses critical “objections to the play as pathological” which put the “accent where none was intended, where only contributing circumstance was meant.”

O’Neill describes the play, in a passage that presages The Iceman Cometh, as a “tale of the eternal, romantic idealist who is in all of us—the eternally defeated one.”   He concludes, “we are tragic figures.”  Diff’rent was indeed taken seriously; one review called it a “tragedy…which flows logically and inevitably from psychological necessity” (clipping).  At the end of the play, having discovered the depravity of Benny’s self-interest, Emma tears down the new window curtains and the new pictures, piles them in the middle of the parlor and adds the new rugs and cushions; she sweeps everything off the table onto the debris and tells Benny that the “junk man’s coming for them in the morning” (253).  The picture of Emma amid the ruins of her life is a powerful one; her abstinence has indeed sowed “sand all over.”

The text of Diff’rent uses the title word so persistently that Emma’s expectation becomes a fixation, a monomania.  Aside from her reading, her fixation seems the result of youth and inexperience.  She has been engaged to Caleb since she was seventeen; they have been separated for two years while he captained a whaling ship; she seems mired in the vague uncertainties of youth, immature and uncertain about herself, arrested in adolescence—and therefore searching for absolutes.  Black comments that she refuses to marry Caleb “not because of moral rigidity per se but because her sense of her uniqueness has to be validated by a unique husband” (265).

The two act structure of Diff’rent is determined by its before and after treatment of its theme, which changes and expands in Act II when the avaricious Benny tells Emma that he’s “diff’rent from small-town boobs” and she responds “I’m diff’rent too.  You can stay with me—and let ’em gossip all they’ve a mind to” (2, 39). Her concept of difference has collapsed from serene restraint into desperate indulgence.  The form displeased the reviewer for the World, who complained that “O’Neill’s technical method continues to be willful and arbitrary” (11, 5).   Alexander Woollcott in the Times, writing one of the few notices of the opening on Macdougal Street, understood that the play was written for the “sake of this ironic and caustic contrast” (29 Dec. 1920).  O’Neill continually experimented with theatrical form and puzzled the reviewers. In 1920, he attained remarkable recognition with Beyond the Horizon in three acts and The Emperor Jones in one long act.  The two acts of Diff’rent resemble in form and brevity the chamber plays of Strindberg.  O’Neill next wrote The First Man in four acts, followed by The Hairy Ape, a long one-act play in eight scenes.

The stage history of Diff’rent begins on December 27, 1920 at the Provincetown Players, where What D’You Want, a farce by Lawrence Vail, was the curtain raiser.  It was moved uptown to the Selwyn on January 31 for matinees on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, and later transferred to the Princess, where The Emperor Jones was playing, for matinees on Monday and Thursday; by February 14, Tuesday matinees were added.  It was revived by the Provincetown Playhouse in February 1925, with Mary Blair again playing Emma.  The Herald Tribune called it a “specimen of O’Neill grimness” (11 Feb. 1925); The Times was equally emphatic about O’Neill’s writing: “Such points as he has to make—for the most part they are elaborations of varying conceptions of the idea of difference—he makes with a dramatic hammer” (11 Feb. 1925).  Writing in the Times on Sunday, March 1, Stark Young praised Mary Blair: “She takes the role of this girl who cannot love and will not marry the man who has proved not to be what she had thought him, and lifts it into a terrible isolation and crude, lonely power of spirit.  She deepens the play far beyond itself.”   In The Nation, Joseph Wood Krutch called the revival “brilliant,” confirming his earlier opinion that it is the “best American play to date” (4 March 1925).

Diff’rent was produced in 1925, 1940 and 1955 by The Hedgerow Theatre outside Philadelphia.  It was directed by Jasper Deeter, who had been a member of the Provincetown company and acted in the curtain raiser for the original production.  O’Neill “permitted him to present many of his early plays, royalty-free,” (Gelb 422).  It has also been acted in Boston and in London.

In late 1937 Diff’rent, directed by Charles Hopkins, was played for eight performances by the New York State Federal Theatre Project at the Theatre of the Four Seasons in Roslyn, New York.  In January, 1938, the company moved to the Maxine Elliott, where Diff’rent was given two performances.  One reviewer remarked, “It sounds as dated as Strindberg,” but concluded that the “audience….applauded…frequently during the action and long and vigorously at the last curtain” (clipping).  Another reviewer called it a “seaport melodrama of New England… certainly worthy of revival” (clipping).

A major revival was presented in 1961, when Paul Shyre was persuaded by Carlotta O’Neill to produce it instead of The Hairy Ape.  In July Diff’rent was given a try-out run at the Hyde Park, NY summer theater, and opened at the Mermaid on October 17. Shyre’s program note echoes earlier criticism: “I suppose you might call Diff’rent a play about Puritanism….The heroine …is a Puritan girl.”  Shyre had the unfortunate idea of suggesting that Benny is the “prototype of all the Tennessee Williams heroes, the young man in love with the older woman…O’Neill… anticipated the modern hero and heroine” (Herald Tribune, 10 Oct.).  Benny, of course, does not love Emma; he is briefly infatuated with her money.

The review in Theatre Arts calls Diff’rent a “mellerdrama,” and complains: “If O’Neill used the word ‘diff’rent’ once in this play, he used it fifty times.”  In Cue it is called a “study of New England Puritanism and the havoc it inflicts on two lovers” (Oct. 28).   Harold Clurman in The Nation writes that the play “exposes the unhappy consequences of romantic Puritanism, or the repression of sexual instincts through an etherealized idealism, or plain prissiness.”  Although he considers it a “rather crude play,” he concludes: “One is held because O’Neill’s feelings were rooted in his sense of the tragic which, though never intellectually mature, was powerfully personal” (Nov. 2, 460).  The New Yorker dismissed the play as a “godawful early melodrama” (Oct. 28).

Marion Seldes, who played Emma, remembers the production with pleasure; it is a “perfect little play… very insightful, perceptive.” Though she knew and admired much of O’Neill’s work, this play was unfamiliar so “it was like doing a new play” (phone interview 22 May 2005).

Now Diff’rent is decisively removed from its settings in 1890 and 1920; it is no longer news.  But abstinence continues to be in the news, sometimes even as political and religious policy, and studies of sexual aberration remain ever current.  The chasm between what we hope for ourselves and what we become shows no sign of closing.  Perhaps a revival of Diff’rent could present the play for what it is, not for what directors, reviewers, scholars and audiences think it should be.


Black, Stephen A., Eugene O’Neill: Beyond Mourning and Tragedy.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.

Diff’rent, Advertisements. Herald 30 Jan. 1921; Times 28 Jan. 1921, 6 Feb. 1921, 10 Feb. 1921.

Diff’rent, Programs, Provincetown Players, Dec. 1920; Princess Theatre, Feb. 1921; Theatre of the Four Seasons, Roslyn, New York, 1937; Maxine Elliott Theatre, Jan.1938; Hedgerow Theatre, Feb. 1940; New England Repertory Playhouse, no date; Mermaid Theatre, 1961.

Diff’rent, Reviews. Clippings in the Billy Rose Theatre Collection, New York Performing Arts Library.  Evening Telegraph 1 Feb. 1921; New York American 1 Feb. 1921; Herald 1 Feb. 1921; New York Tribune Feb. 1921; World 1 Feb. 1921; Theatre Magazine April, 1921: 261.

Ellis, Edwin John, and William Butler Yeats, eds. William Blake, Works. Vols. I-III. London: 1893.

Eyre, Richard, and Nicholas Wright, Changing Stages. New York: Alfred Knopf, 2001.

Gelb, Arthur and Barbara Gelb, O’Neill. New York: Harper and Row, 1962.

Macgowan, Kenneth, “Diff’rent” Vogue 57 (15 March 1921): 82.

Manheim, Michael, The Cambridge Companion to Eugene O’Neill.  Cambridge: University Press, 1998.

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

O’Neill, Eugene, “Eugene O’Neill’s Credo and His Reasons for His Faith.”  New York Tribune 13 Feb. 1921: 1, 6.

Sheaffer, Louis. O’Neill: Son and Artist.  Boston: Little, Brown, 1973.

Strindberg, August, Six Plays of August Strindberg. Trans. Elizabeth Sprigge.  New York: Doubleday, 1955.

Yeats, William Butler, ed. Poems by William Blake.  London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1905.

[This paper was originally presented at the Sixth International Conference of the Eugene O’Neill Society in Provincetown, Massachusetts in June, 2005.]



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