THE TRANSITIONAL NATURE OF ALL GOD'S CHILLUN GOT WINGS
All God's Chillun Got Wings, written in 1923, represents an interesting transition for O'Neill. Following The Fountain (1921-22), a rhapsodic epic embarrassing even to its author, and Welded (1922-23), a drastic reversion to Strindberg's early style of naturalism, All God's Chillun carries with it the double imprint of the works immediately preceding it. Characterization is developed with greater attention to detail, and there is a willingness on the part of O'Neill to temporize the inevitable while groping toward some new formulation of human development measured against the background of symbolic forces. However, O'Neill has not abandoned expressionism for social realism. Although the surface theme is miscegenation (treated with a sensitivity far in advance of its time), the interior action of the play is of a piece with The Emperor Jones and The Hairy Ape, dealing with the corruption of selfhood and destruction of vitality associated with a warped community. One theme implicit in the earlier plays is sounded here even more clearly: the violation of personal selfhood is one with the collective violation of the communal spirit.
In one sense we may consider Jim Harris's union with Ella Downey as an extension of the relationship between Yank and Mildred left undeveloped in The Hairy Ape. Significantly, this marriage of symbolic opposites results in madness and regression to a childhood past. Like Yank, Jim destroys his innate, positive vitality by attempting to define himself through Ella's eyes, which are those of a corrupt society. Like Mildred, Ella is the misguided agent of Jim's recognition. Together Jim and Ella succeed only in destroying one another, although at the play's end a fragile bond of love appears to remain intact.
A comparison with The Emperor Jones also proves revealing. Jim's error, like that of Jones, is a mistaken belief that freedom and selfhood may be acquired through the external trappings of status and success. Jones breaks from the community to play "white man" to the natives of his island empire. Jim leaves for Europe but returns demanding only to be accepted by the community at large. Yet Jim's desire is tainted also by his longing to "buy white," his drive to wear the white man's mask by which he hopes to be acknowledged. That dream corrupts his innocence, for "white" in the world of All God's Chillun (as defined by Ella) means the will to power: "I want the whole world to know you're the whitest of the white! I want you to climb and climb--and step on 'em, stamp right on their mean faces!"1 To achieve this end, Jim enslaves himself to a false image of white selfhood before which he bows down as to an idol.
One may go so far as to say that O'Neill has created for us here (with no trace of levity) "the son of Emperor Jones," a self-conscious Black no longer isolated on an island but struggling at the center of American society. Interestingly, a prominently displayed photograph of Jim's father suggests a portrait of the Emperor himself. Framed in gold, it reveals "an elderly Negro with an able, shrewd face but dressed in outlandish lodge regalia, a get-up adorned with medals, sashes, a cocked hat with frills--the whole effect as absurd to contemplate as one of Napoleon's Marshalls in full uniform" (II, ii, p. 112). Jim's father, we are told, made it "to de top," became the owner of a building and a business and died with lots of money in the bank. O'Neill's meaning is obvious: the illusions of the father are visited upon the son. But hanging opposite that portrait in the Harris home is "a Negro primitive mask from the Congo--a grotesque face, inspiring obscure, dim connotations in one's mind, but beautifully done, conceived in a true religious spirit" (Ibid.). For Jim as for Jones the mask is a symbol of projected identity and possibly communal expiation. But Jim's identity can be discovered only in the context of the present, and only through an acknowledgement of Ella's identity as well.
The form of the play is innovative and worthy of attention. O'Neill divides his play into two long acts--the first tracing the childhood, adolescence and eventual marriage of Jim and Ella; the second beginning with the couple's return from France, where they had fled to escape the pressures of American prejudice. The four scenes in Act I are filled with the "spirit of music"--White and Black choruses, solo singers, a Salvation Army Band, church bells, and an organ grinder. In the second act there is no music, but the sustaining presence of some vital force is suggested by Ella's madness and the expressionist distortion of objects which become symbolic dream images. It is worth noting that while there are four scenes in the first act (an afternoon, evening, night, and morning in the Spring of different years), there are but three scenes in the second (at morning, at twilight, and at night), suggesting a conscious lack of structural parallelism on O'Neill's part in keeping with his painful yet irresolute ending.
In other significant ways, too, the play's structure is unique. Song and sound effects are invested with thematic meaning, rooms and objects increase and diminish in size, and the whole stage is separated into geometric divisions. O'Neill's advanced concepts of production clearly are the result of Kenneth Macgowan and Robert Edmond Jones's influence, and in particular, the latter's notion of "group-beings." O'Neill himself would later write: "In All God's Chillun Got Wings, all save the seven leading characters [Jim, his mother, his sister Hattie, Ella, Shorty, Joe and Mickey] should be masked; for all the secondary figures are part and parcel of the Expressionist background of the play, a world at first indifferent, then cruelly hostile, against which the tragedy of Jim Harris is outlined."2
O'Neill's comment directs our attention to unspoken feelings in the play and to the symbolic objects on stage which are intended to express them. When the curtain goes up on the second act, the stage is dominated by a "queer clash" of incongruities characterizing the Harris parlor; in particular, the outlandish photograph of Jim's father fronting that great Congo mask which seems to have been "conceived in a true religious spirit." The mask is Jim's wedding present from his sister Hattie, a proud Black separatist. As a totemic link between Jim, his tribal roots, and the old collective unity between the tribe and nature, the mask, one expects, ought to exert a dynamic influence in the apartment. But the force symbolized by the mask, O'Neill tells us, has been perverted by its context. "In this room ... the mask acquires an arbitrary accentuation. It dominates by a diabolical quality that contrast imposes upon it" (II, i, p. 112).
The contradictions symbolized by the mask are representative of Jim and Ella's relationship at this juncture in the play. They have returned to America, Jim tells Hattie, "to come back and face it," hoping that "by being brave we'd free ourselves, and gain confidence and be really free inside" (II, i, p. 116). For in France they found it impossible to face themselves; their first year together they spent living "like a brother and a sister." Now they have no alternative but to face themselves, and the pressure proves overwhelming. Ella genuinely loves Jim, but she still cannot accept him without making him over in her image. And Jim continues to allow Ella to define the terms of his existence, although his motives now are somewhat purified, even selfless: "To hell with me!... I'm all she's got in the world! I got to prove I can be all to her! I've got to prove worthy! I've got to prove she can be proud of me! I've got to prove I'm the whitest of the white!" (II, ii, pp. 124-125).
Subconsciously Ella does everything in her power to undermine Jim's chances of passing the "Bar" in order to maintain her own self-image of superiority. But in her more rational moments she keeps pushing Jim to pass. These opposing motives constitute an inner conflict that eventually pushes her toward madness. In Act II, scene ii, the walls of the apartment "appear shrunken in, the ceiling lowered, so that the furniture, the portrait and the mask look unnaturally large and domineering" (p. 121). In a somnambulist trance, Ella tries to kill Jim with a carving knife while he is bent over his law books. When she regains her senses she has become a little girl again, attempting to find her way back to the world depicted at the opening of the play.
In the final scene ("the ceiling now seems barely to clear the people's heads") these contradictions are magnified and are disbursed in an explosion of symbolic violence. When Ella learns that Jim has failed in his last attempt to pass the bar, she enters into a wild dance, grabs the Congo mask from the wall, slashes it and pins it with her carving knife to the table. "You devil!" Jim cries out. "You white devil woman! (In a terrible roar, raising his fists above his head) You devil!" (II, iii, p. 131). But Ella argues that the devil was the mask: "It's all right, Jim! It's dead! The devil's dead! See! It couldn't live--unless you passed. If you'd passed it would have lived in you. Then I'd have had to kill you, Jim, don't you see?" (Ibid.) There is some truth in what Ella says here, but the ultimate meaning of her action is ambiguous. In "killing" the mask Ella has exorcised her own devil, perhaps, but what of Jim's? Although not entirely responsible for her actions, she has robbed Jim, it would appear, of the symbolic link to his original communal context. Yet the mask itself has always been a diabolical presence in their household--an image rather than a reality--and in purging her hatred by destroying it, she at least has made Jim's task easier. She is correct also in her belief that if Jim had passed the "Bar," had "bought white," the devil would have lived in him. Now that threat has ended.
Jim also senses this. When Ella asks him whether God will forgive her for what she has done, he replies: "Maybe He can forgive what you've done to me; and maybe He can forgive what I've done to you; but I don't see how He's going to forgive--Himself" (II, iii, p. 132). The speech is a close rewording of Zarathustra's message, "On the Pitying": "And if a friend does you evil, then say: 'I forgive you what you did to me; but that you have done it to yourself--how could I forgive that?' Thus speaks all great love: It overcomes even forgiveness and pity."3 Although Jim and Ella's union ultimately ends in infantile regression--"Be my little boy, Jim. Pretend you're Painty Face and I'm Jim Crow" (II, iii, p. 133)--a new kind of love is born to them which does indeed transcend both pity and forgiveness. It would seem that, instead of sacrificing the character to the mask (as in The Emperor Jones), O'Neill here sacrifices the mask to the character. The result is a vision of beatitude which Jim attains as the play draws to a close: "Forgive me, God, for blaspheming you! 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!" (Ibid.) Some aspects of that beatitude may seem perverse; yet T. S. Eliot called this ending of the play "magnificent."4 Jim does seem transfigured by an outside force. But the play's ending is disturbing.
In Desire Under the Elms, written in 1924, O'Neill is able to arrive at a more positive affirmation. The powerful ending of the play is a return to that of All God's Chillun, but in Desire the life force is genuinely exalted in the passionate love of Abbie and Eben, while Ephraim, god-like in his towering isolation, is left to "forgive himself" for a creation brought to abundance and then blighted by his own hand. This parallel points to another aspect of the transitional nature of All God's Chillun Got Wings and suggests again its importance to O'Neill's development in the twenties. After Beyond the Horizon (written in 1918), O'Neill completed eleven plays (including some one-acts) and worked on several others. But Chillun is his most successful effort to depict a psychologically complex relationship between a man and woman. In this respect it looks ahead to the great character explorations of the later plays as well as back to the dynamic symbolism of his apprenticeship.
1 Nine Plays by Eugene O'Neill (New York: Modern Library, 1954), Act II, scene i, p. 120. Additional references are identified parenthetically in the text.
2 From "Second Thoughts," printed in The American Spectator (December 1932); reprinted in Toby Cole, ed., Playwrights on Playwriting (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964), p. 68.
3 Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in The Portable Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Viking, 1954), Second Part, "On the Pitying," p. 202.
4 From a review of the play published in The Criterion of April, 1926; reprinted in O'Neill and His Plays: Four Decades of Criticism, ed. Oscar Cargill, N. Bryllion Fagin and William J. Fisher (New York: New York University Press, 1963), pp. 168-169.
© Copyright 1999-2007 eOneill.com