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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. II, No. 1
May, 1978


(IN THIS ISSUE)

CHRISTIANITY AND ALL GOD’S CHILLUN GOT WINGS

Commentators on Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings have always sharply contested the play’s conclusion, in which the black protagonist exhibits an “ecstasy of religious humility ” as he discerns God’s benevolent hand in the psychosis of his bigoted white wife.1 In one camp are critics like Edwin Engel, who claims that the ending unconvincingly abstracts the religious experience out of a play whose subjects are racism and madness.2 In the other camp are those who agree with Eugene Waith that intentional irony drenches the conclusion, that Jim Harris’ discovery of God is an instance “where utter defeat presents itself to him in the guise of victory,” and that his self-deception disqualifies him as a tragic hero.3 But Engel, Waith and their supporters have overlooked a decisive factor in this controversy--the role which religion plays throughout the play. Close inspection reveals that racism, madness and Christianity are closely connected in Act One, making the conclusion perfectly consistent with the play’s materials; and the attack on the Church also implicates the protagonist, who is trapped in a religious illusion that the play views as a subtle product of a racist society.

O’Neill’s hostility toward Christianity, indeed toward all organized religion, is apparent in his life and other works. Lapsing from Roman Catholicism at fifteen, the playwright searched for substitute faiths for much of his adult life; but neopaganism, Orientalism, Nietzsche’s gospel of the Superman, and Freud’s doctrine of the unconscious were certainly not conventional religions, and never gained his whole-hearted acceptance anyway. His one return to Christianity, coincidental with the composition of Days Without End (in which the autobiographical hero rediscovers Christ at the conclusion), was only temporary, and perhaps attempted more for the sake of Carlotta Monterey than himself.4 Finally, the O’Neill plays written around the same time as Chillun, in the. early Twenties, reveal either deliberate ignoring or debunking of the Church. The Baptist religion of Emperor Brutus Jones is no protection against his subconscious demons; Yank in The Hairy Ape never considers turning to Jehovah to replace the faith previously placed in steel; the Puritanism of Ephraim Cabot is cold and cruel; the ascetic Christian side of Dion Anthony tortures him, and only the pagan Cybel brings him peace. Thus, Chillun’s attack on Christianity as both social institution and shaper of values is consistent with O’Neill’s general attitude toward the Church revealed elsewhere.

The most obvious assault on Christianity occurs in the expressionistic setting of the wedding scene which concludes Act One. Throughout the act a corner in lower Manhattan, with blacks populating one street and whites another, has stood as an emblem of segregation and racial barriers. But when the scene shifts to a street before the church where Jim weds Ella, the setting comes to life to express the Church’s complicity in the racism of both races. Society’s hostility to the marriage is symbolized by opposing lines of whites and blacks, “ staring across at each other with bitter hostile eyes ” (319), and by similarly opposing tenements, with drawn shades which give “an effect of staring, brutal eyes that pry callously at human beings without acknowledging them ” (318). The Church, supposed to champion love, has surrendered to this hatred, for “ even the two tall, narrow church windows on either side of the arched door are blanked with dull green shades” (318). After the newlyweds emerge from the church, “the doors slam behind them like wooden lies of an idol that has spat them out”(319-20). Institutional Christianity thus offers no encouragement or even protection to the young couple; instead, it joins in the larger society’s hatred and distrust of those who cross racial lines.

But Christianity is not only externalized in the setting of Act One; it is internalized in the character of Jim. The connection of the Christian values of self-sacrifice and worship with a neurotic, self-defeating personality subtly broadens the attack on the Church. Even before the wedding, Jim’s mental unbalance appears: when Ella accepts his marriage proposal, he vows to be “your black slave that adores you as sacred” and “in a frenzy of self-abnegation, as he says the last words he beats his head on the flag-stones ” (318). After the ceremony, as he successfully guides her through the opposing racial lines, a “ hysteric quality of ecstasy breaks into his voice ” (320). Marriage to a demented woman who vacillates between childishness and maniacal racism, and repeated failures to pass his bar exam due to his racial inferiority complex, strain Jim enormously; and he hysterically embraces religion again after his final failure. In the last scene his earlier self-abnegation and ecstasy return as, raising “his shining eyes , his transfigured face ” to the sky, he shouts “Forgive me, God--and make me worthy! Now I hear Your voice! . . . Let this fire of burning suffering purify me of selfishness and make me worthy of the child You send me for the woman You take away!” (342) The play ends with Jim’s vow, in his “ecstasy of religious humility,” to “play right up to the gates of Heaven” with the infantile Ella (342). Jim’s religious ‘intensity at this point should hardly surprise any close reader of the play; and the portraying of Christian prayer and self-sacrifice as the desperate act of a neurotic, insecure man is a bitter, pointed comment on Christianity itself.

There is thus substantial internal evidence to support Waith’s assertion that Jim pathetically deludes himself at the conclusion. In addition, the ending reinforces the connection established earlier between racism and Christianity. For the white man has always found the Christian virtues of humility, passive obedience, and acceptance of suffering to be convenient instruments for persuading the black to accept his oppression. Jim, in accepting his final role as a slave to a white woman, appropriately calls on God to justify his position to himself. Ultimately duped by his own racism and religion into a childish posture similar to that of Ella, Jim is a tragicomic character who remains under his foolish illusions as the play ends. And the institution and precepts of Christianity, the play makes clear, bear some responsibility for his pitiful plight.

--James A. Robinson

1 The Plays of Eugene O’Neill, II (New York, 1933), p. 342.

2 The Haunted Heroes of Eugene O’Neill (Cambridge, Mass., 1953), p.125; see also Francis Fergusson, “Eugene O’Neill,” Hound and Horn, January 1930, rpt. in Oscar Cargill et al., eds., O’Neill and His Plays: Four Decades of Criticism (New York, 1961), p. 276.

3 ”An Exercise in Unmasking,” Educational Theatre Journal, 13 (October 1961), 187; see also Doris Falk, Eugene O’Neill and the Tragic Tension (New Brunswick, N.J., 1958), p. 90, and Frederic Carpenter, Eugene O’Neill (New York, 1964), p. 104

4 Travis Bogard notes that both O 'Neill and Carlotta acknowledged the play to be “more hers than his.” (Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O’Neill (New York, 1972), p. 305); not coincidentally, Carlotta desired that O’Neill return to the Catholic faith.

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