A WEALTH OF RICHES AND A CHALLENGE: A REVIEW
[Because of its great importance to all personal and library collections of O'Neilliana, Eugene O'Neill: A World View, ed. Virginia Floyd (New York: Ungar, 1979, ix + 309 pp., $14.50), deserves to be reviewed "up front" and at length, and not be relegated to a brief mention in the "Reviews and Abstracts" section. Hence the autonomy and placement of the following review-article by Professor Paul Voelker. --Ed.]
The newest collection of essays on Eugene O'Neill and his plays, Eugene O'Neill: A World View, edited by Professor Virginia Floyd of Bryant College, will be welcomed by all dedicated O'Neillians. The collection is a most positive contribution to O'Neill studies. It is to be hoped, however, that the book will reach a larger audience, for this collection is much more than the sum of its parts. It is, indeed, a challenge to the American cultural establishment to give O'Neill and his drama their due and to give both the American theatre they deserve.
The volume contains nineteen contributions, divided into three sections, each comprehensively introduced by the editor. The first of the three, entitled "A European Perspective," is itself worth the price of the volume. It is here that the cultural challenge is most strongly made--explicitly in Floyd's introduction and in an essay by Timo Tiusanen of Finland, and implicitly by the other eight essays. One thing immediately clear is the geographical breadth of O'Neill's appeal. Here we have contributions from Sweden, Finland, England, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, and the Soviet Union. (At that, one must regret that there are no contributions from the Orient; perhaps this exclusively Western world view can be expanded in later editions.)
More important than the range of the contributors' backgrounds, however, is the substance of their essays. The first, by Dr. Tom Olsson, "O'Neill and the Royal Dramatic," is a meticulous piece of theatre history, a valuable documentation of O'Neill on the Swedish stage, and an informative overview of the events which led to the world premieres in Sweden of O'Neill's late plays. It is followed by Tiusanen's invigorating essay, "O'Neill's Significance: A Scandinavian and European View." Those few who were fortunate enough to hear him deliver this address at the 1977 MLA convention in Chicago (where Dr. Olsson's paper was also delivered) will be glad of the chance to finally have their own copy. It is a remark-able and stirring testament to O'Neill's importance as a playwright and artist. In it, Professor Tiusanen reiterates his proposal for the establishment of an O'Neill theatre and institute for the recurrent, experimental production of all of O'Neill's plays. For Tiusanen, it is a commonplace that O'Neill established an original stage language and made significant statements in that language about the condition of modern man. Tiusanen also contends that such recurrent production will eventually destroy the canard about the weakness of O'Neill's dialogue.
Tiusanen's forward-looking observations are followed by the unfinished reminiscence of the late Clifford Leech, who recalls the initial impact O'Neill made in some quarters of England as a Naturalist in the tradition of Zola, Flaubert, and Ibsen, with remarkable insight into "how human beings behaved in relation to their ancestry, to each other, and to their immediate environment." As a result, says Leech, "we worshipped him."
In the next essay, Egil Tornqvist makes a persuasive case for Plato's Symposium as a major thematic source for Welded, a source which far outweighs the influence of Strindberg, who is usually mentioned. Tornqvist's case is strengthened by citations from both the dialogue and the stage directions, showing once again the power of this critical approach to O'Neill's plays. (The case is further strengthened by the presence of the Symposium in the portion of O'Neill's library at C. W. Post College.) Yet what is finally important about this essay is that it takes seriously an O'Neill play which is generally regarded as a failure and, in the process, finds critical gold which testifies to the broader significance of the play and reconfirms the belief that all that is needed for more than one of O'Neill's "misbegotten" scripts is the right, intelligent director.
The role of the director in building O'Neill's reputation is further treated in the next essay, Josef Jarb's "The Lasting Challenge of Eugene O'Neill: A Czechoslovak View," which points out that largely through the efforts of one man, Karl Hugo Hilar of the National Theatre, O'Neill has been considered a "major world dramatist" there since the 1920's. Jarab notes (among other telling observations) how important it is when producing an O'Neill play to allow it to expand to its full range of implications. If the characters are mistakenly conceived as stereotypes, the result is the restriction and confinement of the play's manifold richness of meaning.
The weakness of the alternative is brought out in the next essay, Marta Sienicka's "O'Neill in Poland," which notes that O'Neill is not yet fully appreciated or influential in that country largely as a result of inept translations delivered to imperceptive producing organizations. Improvement may yet take place, however, for as one Polish critic cited by Professor Sienicka has said, "There is in [O'Neill] the same kind of unruly greatness which the people of the French Enlightenment, with all their negation, had to acknowledge in Shakespeare." To some, coupling O'Neill with Shakespeare will seem literary heresy, but time after time the Europeans in this collection, uncontaminated by the Anglophilia which has constricted our national literature from the beginning, move easily from the plays of O'Neill to virtually all the masters of Western drama, both ancient and modern.
By way of illustration, the Hungarian scholar, Peter Egri, in the next essay (also read at the 1977 MLA Convention) makes a meticulous comparison of O'Neill and Chekhov as dramatists who blurred the generic boundaries of the drama and the fictional forms of novel and short story. Professor Egri thereby provides a corrective to the theoretical views of Gyorgy Lukacs and, in the process, makes some perceptive observations about Warnings and Hughie and presents a comprehensive treatment of O'Neill's relation to the short story and the novel, including the work of Joseph Conrad.
The following essay, "One Hundred Percent American Tragedy: A Soviet View" by Maya Koreneva, underlines, as one might expect, O'Neill's social criticism but, in addition, reminds us of O'Neill's important contributions to the maturation of American literature. Further, Koreneva records O'Neill's impact on the Russian theatre. Of greatest interest, however, is her tracing of O'Neill's development as a tragic playwright. Her genetic approach must be studied by all who are concerned about O'Neill and the tragic. All in all, Koreneva's is perhaps the richest single essay in the collection and an excellent starting place for the reader who is just dipping in.
Ironically (and dramatically), this portion of the collection closes with an essay by Horst Frenz of Indiana University, who proceeds to bring the section full circle with a convincing study of Georg Kaiser's influence on O'Neill, thereby reminding us once again that O'Neill's comments on influences are usually not to be taken at face value.
As the foregoing should suggest, the first and largest portion of Eugene O'Neill: A World View is almost an embarrassment of riches. These nine essays testify in a multiplicity of ways to Eugene O'Neill's importance as a major world dramatist and as a major American author; and, as the essays in Section Two ("An American Perspective") collectively demonstrate, much of O'Neill's greatness is the result of his breadth and inclusiveness. Like Whitman, O'Neill is large and contains multitudes. The six essays in this group (the 1976 MLA O'Neill session comprised four of them) range across as many different facets of O'Neill's vision--his Catholicism, his Irishness, his critique of puritanism, his mysticism, his humanism, and, in the last plays, his affinity to the absurdists.
In a marvel of scholarship, John Henry Raleigh, in the lead essay, traces the history of the Catholic confessional, which arose in the early Celtic church to displace the Roman form and which found its secular, dramatic culmination, as Raleigh persuasively argues, in A Moon for the Misbegotten. In the process, he dramatically recreates for us the emotional impact of the Catholic confessional on the young O'Neill. In the next essay, Raleigh finds a source for Josie Hogan in the Irish myth of the Celtic warrior woman.
From O'Neill's Irishness, it is a natural step to his critique of the Yankee puritanism in American culture which, as Professor Frederick Wilkins shows in his essay, "The Pressure of Puritanism in O'Neill's New England Plays," is not a critique of the original Puritan ideals, but of the desiccated legacy they left behind (and which we have yet to be rid of). In the following essay, Professor Albert Bermel recalls the mystic-poet O'Neill and suggests that O'Neill's plays have been done a disservice by too literal attention to his realism and that, in consequence, more imaginative productions of O'Neill must be undertaken. Presumably Bermel welcomes Tiusanen's call for an O'Neill institute; but one cannot help but wonder whether the employment of masks, in the mode of Mourning Becomes Electra, would genuinely improve Long Day's Journey Into Night. (Granted that what is needed is production of all O'Neill's plays, but what is to be hoped for initially are directors who will allow O'Neill's genius to operate unadulterated in those plays which have questionable status.)
In the following essay, Esther Jackson relates O'Neill's thematic concerns to the philosophical explorations, during the early decades of this century, of the New Humanists, Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More, a comparison which leads to the placement of O'Neill directly in the mainstream of Western tragedy. This placement is further clarified in J. Dennis Rich's new essay on the absurd in O'Neill's late plays. Section Two of the collection also comes full circle in Rich's skillful tracing of the parallels between O'Neill's vision in his last plays and the existentialism of Albert Camus.
The third and final section, "Performers on O'Neill," contains four pieces, three by Americans and one by a European; three by actresses and one by a director. Both American actresses--Florence Eldridge and Geraldine Fitzgerald--discuss their research on the character of Mary Tyrone. Both stress consultation with medical specialists and experts on drug addiction, and both conclude that Mary Tyrone must take a good deal of the blame for her wasted life. Of broader significance is Florence Eldridge's conclusion that O'Neill's repetitions in dialogue are part of his artistry and that to cut the play is therefore akin to leaving measures out of a symphony. In between, director Arvin Brown makes the important observation that O'Neill was more than a tortured hero; he was also a lover of fun and comedy, and a director should not foreclose on the possibilities for humor, especially in the late plays.
And it is here, with O'Neill the man, that the very last contribution becomes so valuable--a personal reminiscence by Ingrid Bergman (first heard at the 1978 MLA O'Neill session, as were the statements by Fitzgerald and Brown and Raleigh's second essay). Miss Bergman's account provides a first-hand description of O'Neill himself, glimpsed during an afternoon in 1941 at Tao House, still looking forward to the completion and eventual production of the Cycle and asking Miss Bergman for a three-year commitment to the production project.
It is indeed fitting, after the comprehensive commentaries on and criticisms of the plays, that O'Neill himself appear on stage at the close of the volume. And it is emphatically appropriate that, at the close of this marvelous collection, we are reminded of O'Neill's life-long desire for a theatre which would truly and effectively present his plays.
Professor Floyd (with Frederick Ungar) has performed a valuable service for all O'Neillians. Although many of these selections were first delivered as papers at various MLA sessions devoted to O'Neill in recent years, this is the first time full texts have been made generally available; and there are, of course, seven new essays. More important, however, is the potential impact of the entire collection. If the vision contained in this volume and the testimony found in the various essays are valid, then there can be no more important item on the American cultural agenda than the establishment of just the sort of theatre which Eugene O'Neill always hoped for, but never really found.
--Paul D. Voelker
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