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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. I, No. 2
September, 1977



(Professor Paul D. Voelker has devoted considerable energy during the last three years to a refutation of the traditional assertion that Professor Baker’s influence on his greatest playwriting student was either nonexistent or negative. Two major documents have resulted: a doctoral dissertation, “The Early Plays of Eugene O’Neill, 1913-1915” (University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1974); and a recent essay, “Eugene O’Neill and George Pierce Baker: a Reconsideration” (American Literature, May 1977). The following are Professor Voelker’s abstracts of (A) the recent essay and (B) the dissertation. The latter originally appeared in Dissertation Abstracts; the non-chronological presentation is the responsibility of the editor; and the hope is that readers will respond and join in the discussion.--Ed.)

A.  Eugene O’Neill’s year of study with Prof. George Pierce Baker has been a subject of interest among O’Neillians for virtually as long as O’Neill’s plays have been; yet from the 1920’s to the present decade, a great deal of the discussion on this topic has been concerned with minimizing Baker’s influence, even to characterizing it as very negative. The strongest, the most detailed, and the most recent criticism of Baker has appeared in Travis Bogard’s Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O’Neill (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1972), pp. 48-62. According to Bogard, as a result of Baker’s influence, O’Neill turned away from the “techniques, characters and themes he had begun to explore” at home in New London and, under Baker, wrote some of his very worst plays; also as a result of Baker, O’Neill further turned away from “all human necessities--self-exploration above all--that had caused him initially to write” (p. 62). Prof. Bogard’s book generally and his view of Baker in particular have been well received by reviewers. Yet, an analysis of Bogard’s argument and a consideration of all the evidence suggests that his view should not yet be taken as definitive. The nature of his argument and the evidence both leave room for a more positive view of Baker’s influence. In fact, it is possible to conclude--after a study of the actual chronology of O’Neill’s career, of his unpublished letters from Harvard to Beatrice Ashe, of Baker’s own views of the drama as revealed in Dramatic Technique (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1919), and of the surviving plays which O’Neill actually wrote in Baker’s class--that a truer picture of Baker’s influence on O’Neill may be exactly the opposite of that painted by Prof. Bogard.

B.  Between 1913 and 1915, O’Neill wrote some sixteen plays without having any produced. Thirteen have survived--ten one-acts and three long plays. A detailed analysis, based on the application of a critical schema derived from O’Neill’s public and private communications of the 1920’s and 1930’s, makes it possible to discern O’Neill’s development as a dramatist, both in terms of theme and technique, during the preproduction phase of his career. The application of certain biographical materials sheds further light on the work of this frequently autobiographical playwright, but the single most important critical observation is that from the beginning O’Neill perceived his artistic medium as a combination of the literary and the theatric; dialogue and stage directions are both important. Before this period was over, O’Neill would combine all his media into several effective one-acts, including Thirst, Warnings, Children of the Sea, Abortion, and The Sniper.

O’Neill’s first work was a one-act entitled A Wife for a Life. In the next several months he wrote five more--The Web, Thirst, Recklessness, Warnings, and Fog. (Thirst and Fog were in the expressionistic mode; the rest were realistic.) Along with A Wife, The Web and Thirst revealed O’Neill’s interest in both metaphysical and social themes. A Wife was too short to legitimately develop the theme of fate; The Web was flawed by a split between metaphysical and social underpinnings, though the latter were dominant. In Thirst, O’Neill successfully integrated the two by creating an ambiguous metaphysical context for his social action. In his next two plays, Recklessness and Warnings, metaphysical concerns were excluded, as O’Neill explored two different social strata, those of the rich and the working class, respectively. Then in Fog, O’Neill explored by means of his first “self-portrait” the possible implications of his commitment to social plays and arrived at an ambiguous conclusion which foreshadowed his turning away from plays like The Web and Warnings. He then completed his first long play, Bread and Butter, containing his second “self-portrait.” Here, O’Neill explored the responsibilities of the individual to himself and to others, showing by negative example the need for the individual (particularly the artist) to possess the requisite strength of will to prevail against adverse influences.

Shortly after this, O’Neill completed two more one-acts, Children of the Sea (the first version of Bound East for Cardiff) and Abortion, each of which reflected his new objective attitude toward the downtrodden even as it demonstrated O’Neill’s greater skill at characterization. In the summer of 1914, he wrote two comic plays--The Movie Man, a one-act satire; and Servitude, his second long play. The former revealed that O’Neill’s objective view of lower-class characters was accompanied by a skepticism regarding those who professed to work toward the improvement of the plight of the poor. The latter, containing his third “self-portrait” painted in a skeptical light, revealed why: the self-doubt revealed in Fog had turned into a skepticism regarding his own motives.

In the fall of 1915, O’Neill went to Harvard to study under George Pierce Baker. Two plays survive--The Sniper, in one act; and The Personal Equation, an unfinished long play. The results, by nature of their continuity with O’Neill’s previous work, suggest that Baker’s influence on O’Neill was not negative and may have been salutary. At the end of Baker’s course, O’Neill was on the verge of completing a four-act play with three characters endowed with considerable psychological depth and tragic potential. Throughout this period, O’Neill shows increased competence in the use of the various theatrical media--setting, lighting, sound effects, blocking--and in plot structure, pacing, and rhythm.

--Paul D. Voelker



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