A HUMANITARIAN PLAYWRIGHT
Editor’s Foreword. In February of 1923, during his senior year at Bowdoin College, George H. Quinby won the Class of 1868 Prize Speaking award, which was then presented annually to the author of the best written and spoken oration in the senior class. His subject was Eugene O’Neill, and the early and affectionate understanding of the playwright that his speech reveals was later to enhance Quinby-directed productions of O’Neill both at Bowdoin (to which he later returned for a most distinguished career as Director of Dramatics) and in Iran, where (as readers of the September 1977 issue of the Newsletter are aware) he directed Ah, Wilderness!, Long Day’s Journey, and The Straw.
“The ‘impetus’ for writing my speech about O’Neill’s early plays,” he explained recently, in response to a query by the editor, “was certainly tied in with a predilection for the theatre, nurtured by many trips to the Castle Square Stock Co., the troupes headed by Henry Jewett and his rival E. E. Clive, and Saturday morning vaudeville attendance at the Orpheum while I was a student at Wellesley High School. As I recall, I saw O’Neill’s early plays at the old Park Square Theatre--The Emperor Jones from its second balcony, where I was surrounded by blacks (whose) reaction to the tom-tom drums certainly affected my own, and of course we all were much moved by the performance of the original lead, Charles Gilpin. I also saw Anna Christie, with Pauline Lord’s unforgettable voice, there.”
These are his retrospective thoughts on the speech itself: “It was, of course, an oratorical, rather than a literary appraisal of the plays, by an undergraduate rather than a scholar; but it came hard upon the production of the three plays after they’d been seen in their original performances. Perhaps some freshness of perception resulted.” The editor wholeheartedly agrees and, finding the freshness undiminished, is proud to share the text of Professor Quinby’s undergraduate speech with a wider audience on the fifty-fifth anniversary of its delivery. It is followed by an extra treat--a response to the “oration” by O’Neill himself. Sincere thanks to “Pat” Quinby for permission to reprint both.)
A Negro, driven crazy by superstitious terror; a wanton, drinking in a waterfront dive; a stoker in the furnace-room of an ocean liner:--these the main characters in serious plays! What man, professing to be a playwright, could choose the dregs of humanity as his heroes and heroines? And can it be that intelligent people can be lured away from the Prince of Denmark by the dramatic story of a coal heaver? Impossible! And yet it has occurred. Coming from such a play, a dramatic critic--supposed to be hardened to any emotional scene--has said, “We were limp at the end--a silent crowd of tear-stained faces!”
We are awed by the tragedies of Macbeth and Hamlet, realizing that here are noble figures, princes of mighty lands, whose ruin must involve many others and whose fall must be regarded as a national as well as a personal catastrophe. Since the time of Aristotle it has been a rule of the theater that a tragedy, to be truly noble--to evoke the purest emotions of sympathy, must have as its principal characters people of distinction in the world. The greatest of tragedies, those which have inspired the souls of playgoers from the time of Aeschylus to that of Drinkwater, have observed this rule. And now, beside the Agamemnon of Aeschylus, The Cid of Corneille, the Lear of Shakespeare, and the Lincoln of Drinkwater, must we place a superstitious, braggart Negro, a woman of the streets, and a human ape?
To one who has seen The Emperor Jones, Anna Christie, and The Hairy Ape of Eugene O’Neill, the answer is obvious. These plays raise us to such heights of tragic emotion that we are made to sympathize with the lowest strata of society--creatures usually considered the scum of the earth. Here is originality indeed; but to what end? Is it well that noble characters should be replaced by repulsive ones? Or is such a movement debasing the stage?
The time of kings is past. The individual is no longer of greatest importance. This is the age of the socialist; the man dealing with the masses is given the attentive ear. For over forty years there has been an ever-increasing tendency in the drama to make the object of moral censure society rather than the individual. Modern drama, be it fighting optimism as in the case of Ibsen or immobile pessimism as in the case of Andreyev, regards the social order as the real source of evil, and smites it in the name of the individual.
Eugene O’Neill has always desired to fight society in its conventional aspect. Having read Karl Marx and Nietzsche, he rebelled against a life ruled by the customs and traditions of society, and at the age of twenty started on a life of adventure on tramp steamers in order to meet people who were brutally themselves. His dancing was paid for five years later by six months of absolute rest in a tuberculosis infirmary. This half year was probably the most valuable in his life, for he had time to think. And having thought, he started to write plays, plays untrammeled by conventionality, and--such plays! Beyond the Horizon, The Emperor Jones, The Straw, Anna Christie, and The Hairy Ape followed each other in quick succession. They took New York by storm, and now the producers are clamoring for more.
Although O’Neill has in his turn fought society, he stands out from his predecessors in two ways,--in his emotionalism and in his choice of characters. The plays of Ibsen or of Galsworthy are often unpopular because of their intellectuality. They are written for people who wish to think rather than those who wish to feel. The intellect rather than the emotion is naturally appealed to in a socialistic play. An agility in mental acrobatics is necessary for full appreciation.
But the stage is not fundamentally cerebral--it is fundamentally emotional. And O’Neill is an extreme emotionalist. He seems to realize intuitively that to be dramatically effective he must appeal to the emotions. He uses every effect of technique or setting to assist him. The irregular, ever-quickening beat of the tom-tom in The Emperor Jones is the pulse of the play and sets the emotional tempo for the audience as well. And the tense third act of Anna Christie has made a critic-- not an enthusiastic youth, but a critic--want to climb up onto the stage and join in the argument. It is a masterpiece of emotional writing. And so O’Neill makes us sympathize with his characters, repulsive though they may be, by appealing to our emotions.
Summarizing the elements of O’Neill’s success, one of our most note worthy critics says of his plays, “They are invariably interesting from the standpoint of originality, picturesque vigor, and technique. In him there wrestle violently the fundamentals of a distinctly American playwright, one who has the stern ethics of a New Englander.” But how is it that O’Neill shows his originality, his vigor, and most of his technique? In his characters. And there is no doubt but that his Americanism, so refreshing after the past years of French bedroom farces and English problem plays, is due in large part to his choice of characters; they are democratic to an extreme.
They are also rather sordid at first sight. Some people of overfine sensibility are disgusted with them throughout the plays. But such a person is rare, as O’Neill’s emotional appeal is strong and far-reaching. The important point to note is the message the playwright attempts to convey in his unusual manner through these unusual characters. He seems to say, “Here are characters who fail to understand society, and what a tragedy it is when they collide with it!” His characters speak for him. Anna Christie says, “We’re all poor nuts and things happen, and we just get mixed in wrong.” These people are drawn from actual life--people O’Neill met in his five years of wandering. And they are a very large class, a class that we do not understand; they are repulsive to us because we have not lived with them and learned their point of view as O’Neill has. The fault for their repulsiveness lies not in themselves, but in society. If they cannot be taught to understand society, society must be taught to understand them. This is what O’Neill is trying to do.
The scene in which Yank, better known as the Hairy Ape, meets society on Fifth Avenue is one of the most significant in modern drama. He tries to understand the group of silk-hatted, frock-coated church-goers and cannot. “They don’t belong” is his eternal cry. Then he attempts to meet them with force and is repulsed again and again. Driven to the Zoo to find a fellow creature, he finally tells the gorilla--”I ain’t on oith and I ain’t in heaven, get me? I’m in de middle, tryin’ to separate ‘em, takin’ all de worst punches from bot’ of ‘em. Where do I fit in?”
And where does he fit in? Society, in the symbolic form of the imperturbable church-goers, pays absolutely no attention to the unintelligent creature. The people of organized society do not recognize him as a human being. They have no desire to understand him. But they must and shall by means of O’Neill’s wonderful art, playing on the very heartstrings of his audiences.
It is impossible to avoid his influence. Neither his power nor his originality is failing him. He is advancing steadily, and his plays cannot be neglected for a moment. He tells his purpose openly, saying: “In writing The Hairy Ape I wished to show that the missing thread, literally ‘the tie that binds’ is the understanding of one another.” His message is an old one, but it is expressed in a new and very effective manner, and it has a wider range than has ever been presented before, bringing the ape-like stoker into direct contact with Fifth Avenue society. In his delineation of unfortunate humanity, groping for comprehension of social relations, he is unique. He speaks for the souls of the largest class of people in the world today. His cry is the deepest humanitarian note ever struck in the dramatic world. “A distinctly American playwright, one who has the stern ethics of a New Englander.” And a friend of those in need; I give you--Eugene O’Neill.--George H. Quinby
© Copyright 1999-2007 eOneill.com