BOOK REVIEWS, LONG AND SHORT
1. C.W.E. BIGSBY, A
CRITICAL INTRODUCTION TO TWENTIETH-CENTURY AMERICAN DRAMA.
VOLUME ONE: 1900-1940. Cambridge University Press, 1982. ix
+ 342 pp. $39.50 ($14.95 paperback). ISBN 0 521 24227 4 (0 521 27116
Two chapters will be of particular interest to O'Neillians. The first, "Province-town: the birth of twentieth-century American drama" (pp. 1-35), traces the rise and subsequent fall of the Provincetown Players, whose communal endeavors "established the theatre for the first time in America as a serious focus of artistic activity" (p. 20). Bigsby describes O'Neill's importance to the group but reserves his major attention (and praise) for the plays of Susan Glaspell (pp. 25-35), whose work he clearly prefers. One soon comes to expect the regular contrasts between Glaspell's greater "control," her "natural reticence which charges language and gesture with a significance the more powerful because of their subtlety" (p. 27), and O'Neill's "crude metaphysics" and melodramatic excesses, "a weakness which dogged [his] career" (p. 18). And the basis for the partiality eventually becomes apparent: "Susan Glaspell is less concerned with elemental battles between the self and its environment than with differing versions of the social ideal" (p. 29). Since Bigsby, too, prefers the social to the "elemental," Glaspell wins hands down. But it must be admitted that when O'Neill writes as Bigsby wishes--when he treats the theme of alienation and constriction--his power is acknowledged (e.g., p. 16); and the study of several of Glaspell's major plays supports the author's contention that "the success of the Provincetown Players owed almost as much to her as it did to O'Neill" (p. 35). He has done more than engage in a kind of trendy reverse discrimination, and it is to be hoped that his pages on Glaspell will aid in her rescue from the benign neglect she has suffered for so long.
The second chapter, "Eugene O'Neill" (pp. 36-119), is dense but rewarding--especially at second and third read. Bigsby relaxes his announced selectivity enough to make extended comments about four one acts and sixteen full-length plays. (Of the major long works, only Anna Christie, Marco Millions and Ah, Wilderness! are excluded from coverage.) And a number of the comments are telling, as in his denial of grandeur to Eben and Abbie at the end of Desire Under the Elms (p. 45):
And I would have accepted his deflation of the principals in Beyond the Horizon--
had I not recently read the essay by Shelly Regenbaum that appeared in the last issue of the Newsletter (Winter 1984, pp. 2-8), especially its paragraph (the second on page 6) in support of Robert Mayo.
Bigsby is fair enough to relinquish his predilection for social drama in assessing O'Neill's achievement, which earns about equal amounts of censure and praise. Among the weaknesses he cites are melodramatic excess, imaginative crudity, sentimentality, "an undisciplined intelligence" (p. 40), and the tendency, especially when under the influence of Freud, to spell out motives too fully. Among the saving virtues are the attention O'Neill paid to settings--especially in The Emperor Jones, whose mise en scène gave it "a dynamic force which no other American play had attempted" (p. 19); and in All God's Chillun, where "the mise en scène becomes an actor in the drama" (p. 58)--and his worthy goal of "discovering a way in which the human spirit could survive the rigours of a painful and disillusioning life" (p. 41). Sometimes an O'Neill trait becomes a virtue or a vice depending on the impetus behind it:
In the long-standing debate between champions of the early plays and those who prefer the later, Bigsby, as that last quotation might suggest, clearly sides with the second group. And he cites two points in the arc of O'Neill's career where improvement is most noticeable: Mourning Becomes Electra, which reveals an advance in method ("he has learned to subordinate theatrical devices [such as the mask, the aside, and the stylized soliloquy] to psychological needs"--p. 84); and The Iceman Cometh, where Bigsby finds a concomitant thematic advance--an answer to the problem of alienation that had previously eluded him:
Such generalizations abound, as they must when a major writer is to be assessed in 80-or-so pages. Sometimes the necessities of compression result in a density that defies comprehension (at least mine, even at fourth read), as in the following:
There, I fear, too many whiches spoiled the broth. But more often the generalizing remarks are as lucid as they are cogent.
Bigsby may overemphasize O'Neill's "absurdist vision" (e.g., pp. 42, 43, 45, 64, 88 and 115), but his discussion of Melville as "O'Neill's real ancestor" is very persuasive, as is his delineation of the effects of his "double inheritance" (p. 36)--the melodrama of his father's theatre, and "the naturalistic tradition of Crane, Zola and London."
Bigsby, given his preferences, cannot award consistently high marks to a self-conscious experimenter who lacked "lightness of touch" (p. 85) and "had no very clear social view" (p. 117). But he is fair enough to conclude by noting that Iceman and Long Day's Journey are "not merely two of O'Neill's best plays but two of the best plays to have emerged from America" (p. 119).
--Frederick C. Wilkins
2. JAMES J. MARTINE, ed., CRITICAL ESSAYS ON EUGENE O'NEILL. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1984. 214 pp. $28.50, cloth. ISBN 0 8161 8683 9. (A volume in Hall's "Critical Essays on American Literature" series, James Nagel, General Editor.)
Professor Martine's handsome volume is a worthy addition to the group of anthologies of O'Neill criticism listed on page 29 of the Summer-Fall 1984 issue of the Newsletter. It shares with Virginia Floyd's collection, Eugene O'Neill: A World View, a feature that makes it unique in the series of which it is a part: all of its contents are new. So purchasers need not fear any duplication of material they already have, and Professor Martine is to be congratulated for choosing essays of such consistently high quality. Very few deliver less than they promise; indeed, several offer considerably more than their titles suggest. (Since the entire table of contents was listed on page 47 of the Spring 1984 issue, I will not repeat all titles in the survey that follows.)
The book is essentially tripartite: an extensive bibliographical introduction by the editor (pp. 1-31); the first complete printing of O'Neill's letters and telegrams to Dudley Nichols (only two ephemeral cards are omitted), informatively introduced and scrupulously annotated by Jackson Bryer (pp. 33-55); and a baker's dozen of essays, fairly evenly divided between general subjects and studies of individual plays (pp. 55-206). The concluding index--a wise addition--permits one to locate widely scattered references to individual plays and persons. It does not include characters' names or general topics (like naturalism, romanticism, or language); but there is a limit to what one can demand, and the editor has performed his duties with thoroughness and care.
Professor Martine's introduction, a mini-survey of O'Neill publication and criticism, covers the high points (and low) in the critical record, and does so in such a jaunty way that the tour is a consistent delight. Omissions are inevitable, given the mass of material that has been published on O'Neill, but a tremendous amount is included and judiciously evaluated. He highlights major achievements, such as "Eugene O'Neill's Aesthetic of the Drama," in which "Paul Voelker has worked a wonder in piecing together from O'Neill's letters and interviews a coherent aesthetic of dramaturgy" (p. 19); and he is not averse to castigating the playwright's more cavalier detractors:
He wisely eschews any favoritism between the two major O'Neill biographies, rightly noting that "a giant of the proportions of O'Neill deserved two such comprehensive biographies" (p. 6). If one wishes for more, it is only to savor longer Professor Martine's company: he wears his erudition with panache.
O'Neill's nineteen epistles to Dudley Nichols, which appear here for the first time, were given by the latter to Yale University along with a three-page memoir, "Concerning Enclosed Eugene O'Neill Letters," which Nichols wrote two months before his death in January, 1960. O'Neill had been grateful for Nichols' favorable review of the 1928 Broadway production of Strange Interlude and his introduction to the Modern Library edition of The Emperor Jones and The Straw (also in 1928), though the two did not meet or correspond until much later--except for a brief introduction in 1927 that Nichols recalled but O'Neill had apparently forgotten. The letters, spanning the years 1932-1949, trace the growing warmth and intimacy in what Nichols called "the most important friendship of my life," highlighted by his work as screenwriter on two films of O'Neill's work, The Long Voyage Home and Mourning Becomes Electra (in 1940 and 1947 respectively). The letters are, as Bryer notes, "a valuable supplement to the biographies," as they "allow us to hear O'Neill in his own words on a variety of subjects" (p. 36).
Among those subjects, in addition to the film projects, are several that contributed to the somber mood of the playwright's last years. Not at first. The second letter (May 29, 1932), though it expresses bewilderment at "the broken rhythms of this time" (echoes of a more famous pronouncement), is optimistic about a more positive philosophic stance in future plays (O'Neill was then at work on Days Without End):
But by 1940, financial difficulties and America's steady drift toward involvement in the world war halted any hopes of optimism, either personal or philosophical. The money worries were comparatively minor, and the "Gaelic curse" he creates for the British with-holders of royalties is an incendiary delight (p. 40). But the "enraged despondency" he felt at the war news, which moved him to defer production of The Iceman Cometh, was dead serious and deep: "ever since the May  debacle started in Europe I have been in a thoroughly demoralized state of the bitterest pessimism" (p. 44). And after the war, the steady increase of his physical disability precluded any return to hopefulness. Witness the end of the last letter (March 20, 1949), which may be the last ever written in his own hand: "Well--I am no better--I am worse. No play is being written--and no play will be produced." A sad finale to a set of revealing letters that are, by themselves, worth the publisher's asking price. Like the volume of letters to Kenneth Macgowan, they whet one's appetite for the fuller collection of O'Neill's correspondence now being readied by Professor Bryer and Travis Bogard.
Five of the thirteen essays treat general subjects, although the dividing line is sometimes hard to draw. This is especially true of Lisa M. Schwert's "Blueprint for the Future: The Emperor Jones" (pp. 72-77), which begins with a diagram of that play's episodic structure (reproduced below) and then suggests how O'Neill later focused more thoroughly on the three levels of "interaction" (personal, social and impersonal) that are sketchily traversed in its eight scenes. Unfortunately, four pages are hardly enough to treat the one play in any depth, let alone say much in detail about six subsequent works, so the essay itself, by saying too little about too much, remains itself little more than a blueprint. The other four general essays are more thorough in their coverage. Frank R. Cunningham delineates the elements of "Romantic affirmation" in six early plays (1918-1924), refuting the traditional naturalistic interpretation of Beyond the Horizon, and offering the first extended analysis of O'Neill's adaptation of Coleridge's "Ancient Mariner." Carl E. Rollyson, Jr. traces the dramatic results of "O'Neill's preoccupation with self-transcendence, with the way to be himself and more than himself" (p. 124), a. concern that culminated in Lazarus Laughed, which receives extended and illuminating comment. B. S. Field, Jr., following the pioneering lead of Jean Chothia in the study of O'Neill's language, confronts and explains the O'Neillian penchant for vagueness, differentiates among the various kinds of vagueness (ambivalence vs. the expression of limitlessness, etc.), and shows how, in O'Neill's "struggle to achieve a style, vagueness was both an enemy against him and a weapon for him" (p. 189). (If some of his points remain elusive, I am sure the fault is mine: Field cannot be accused of vagueness!) And Susan Tack makes a detailed and persuasive case for O'Neill's "considerable influence" on the fiction of William Faulkner. There may be "no real 'proof' that Light in August was inspired by All God's Chillun, that The Sound and the Fury owed its technique to Strange Interlude, or that As I Lay Dying was written with The Emperor Jones in mind" (p. 205); but the relative dates of composition are extremely suggestive, and Professor Tuck draws the lines of influence with irrefutable precision.
The eight essays on individual plays comprise a marvelous demonstration of the myriad ways in which O'Neill's works can be approached and studied. Steven E. Colburn shows how, for all their surface differences, the four, Glencairn one-acts are united by a common theme--human illusion----and a common pattern, "the unsuccessful struggle of Man against the tragic mechanism of his fate" (p. 56)--that fate being, not the supernatural one of traditional tragedy, but the combination of material, psychological, social and natural forces. Peter Egri, in what is perhaps the finest essay in the volume, shows how the episodic structure of The Hairy Ape is held together by "a unifying principle ... the dramatic presentation of alienation" (p. 104). (Anyone who still believes that O'Neill was a failure at language need only read Professor Egri's analysis of some of that play's evocative stage directions--pp. 79 and 84-85, especially--to discover what a word master he really was.) June Schlueter and Arthur Lewis, tracing Ephraim Cabot's relationship to cows and stones, show how one of the major battles in Desire Under the Elms is within Cabot himself. Joseph S. Tedesco offers a Jungian interpretation of The Great God Brown, to counter the traditional Nietzschean one (the Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy) to which O'Neill's own explanations of the play gave rise; and Ellen Kimbel, doing the reverse with equal persuasiveness, defends O'Neill's own claims about Ah, Wilderness! against those who find it trivial and those others who find it reflective of the playwright's more tragic works.
Michael Manheim, in a study of The Iceman Cometh, continues his fruitful examination of O'Neill's ultimate transcendence of the melodrama that dominated his early plays despite his filial and dramaturgic antipathy to the genre. In Iceman, melodrama abounds in the characters' stories of their past lives--tales rife with melodrama's two staples, intrigue and "the simple polar opposition of good and evil" (p. 145)--but is transcended or "displaced" by ambiguity--the stories leave it unclear whether each was the protagonist or the antagonist of his own saga--and by contrast with the "unmelodramatized present" that they all share. The audience, like the characters, is left with "an image of existence in flux" (p. 157)--something far beyond the cozy simplicities of melodrama. Steven F. Bloom shows the clinical accuracy in O'Neill's picture of drug and alcohol dependence in Long Day's Journey Into Night, especially the contrast between the "romantic myth of intoxication" and "the realistic symptoms and effects of alcoholism" (p. 159), and "the hopeless cycle of guilt and blame that defines [the Tyrones'] collective and individual plights" (p. 169). The only flaw in an otherwise splendid study concerns the assertion that the play provides "sufficient evidence ... that the Tyrone men are alcoholics" (p. 167). This is shown to be true of James and Jamie, but is it also true of Edmund? The evidence may be there, but I couldn't find it. Laurin Roland Porter suggests that Hughie, a "condensed version" of The Iceman Cometh, is not as optimistic in its denouement as some have claimed; but to call the characters' symbiotic pipe dream "devastating" seems to me to be veering too far in the opposite direction. Still, her analysis is otherwise thorough and sound.
One could hardly ask for more in a book of 214 pages. Critical Essays on Eugene O'Neill offers many fresh insights and merits the attention of all O'Neillians.
--Frederick C. Wilkins
3. BEONGCHEON YU, THE GREAT CIRCLE: AMERICAN WRITERS AND THE ORIENT. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1983. 266 pp. $22.95, cloth. ISBN 0-8143-1737-5.
Professor Yu's book is a welcome addition to the burgeoninq study of American literary Orientalism--specifically, in this case, the influence on selected American writers from Emerson to the present of the great religio-philosophical traditions of India, China and Japan. The title is taken from Crèvecoeur's 1782 pronouncement that "Americans are the western pilgrims, who are carrying along with them that great mass of arts, sciences, vigour, and industry which began long since in the east; they will finish the great circle." And the book makes abundantly clear both the breadth and the depth of America's literary response to the Orient. The writers studied, in biographic and thematic detail, are Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Fenollosa, Hearn, Babbitt, O'Neill, Eliot, Pound, Salinger, Kerouac and Snyder. The biographical approach is particularly appropriate, as a number of the writers changed in attitude or direction during the course of their careers.
Of the three traditions, India's seems to have been the most pervasive, justifying Thoreau's memorable comment (quoted on p. 45),
But all three play their part in the exciting saga that Professor Yu limns--the compulsive, persistent drive of the Western mind to regain the completeness it has not had since the era of Plato, after which the "two halves of human experience" (p. 137) were divided between East and West. Writer after writer speaks of the two halves, though they label them differently (reason vs. emotion, action vs. contemplation, utility vs. beauty, etc.), and of the need for their symbiotic reunification. Babbitt, for instance, who suggests that "the half truth of the East may serve as a corrective to the half truth of the West, and may bring to pass that activity in repose which someone has defined as the classical ideal" (p. 133). And Fenolossa, who, a year earlier (1898), spoke of the fusion of the Western knowledge of means and the Eastern knowledge of ends as "a sacred issue for which Time has waited." This drive may have been particularly dominant in America because when Columbus discovered it he was searching for a route to the Orient. And the works that Professor Yu surveys are some of the literary contributions to (in his phrase) "America's collective endeavors to complete Columbus's passage to India" (p. 227), and thereby to "finish the great circle." Two circles, in fact: both geographic and psychic.
Sometimes, as with Whitman, it is difficult to draw the line between fortuitous parallels and direct influences; "Whitman's mysticism complicates his Orientalism" (p. 58) because of the "difficulty of detaching the Oriental from the shadowy depths of his psyche" (p. 62). And sometimes Professor Yu must prove, against authors' disclaimers, that they knew more about Eastern religion and philosophy than they would publicly admit: this is true of both Whitman and O'Neill. But the result is irrefutable proof of the pervasiveness of Orientalism in American thought and art.
As with many such books, the reader may learn more about figures outside his particular field of study than about those he knew already. I doubt that the student of O'Neill will gain much from Professor Yu's study of the Orientalism in seven plays--Beyond the Horizon, The Fountain, Marco Millions, Lazarus Laughed, Mourning Becomes Electra, Iceman and Long Day's Journey--that he had not already learned in previous studies by Alexander, Carpenter and Robinson, forerunners whose importance he rightly acknowledges. But the O'Neill chapter (pp. 141-158) has the dual values of showing O'Neill's place in the larger picture of American literary Orientalism and of reinforcing a number of earlier insights. Particularly valuable is the emphasis that Oriental influences continued to the end of O'Neill's career, even though "the Orient seems to disappear altogether" after Electra in 1931, when historical and autobiographical subjects supplant the philosophical and religious emphases of the earlier plays. The later O'Neill's "readiness to strip away any veil, any illusion" (p. 153) constitutes "a process of unmasking [that] can best be called ... Buddhistic" (p. 154), and that can suggest at least a mutedly affirmative note even at the end of Iceman:
Even more positive are the results of communal unmasking among the male Tyrones in Long Day's Journey--especially Edmund's remembered vision, which Professor Yu tellingly relates to similar visions, remembered or illusory, in The Hairy Ape, The Fountain and Mourning Becomes Electra.
Demonstrating a familiarity with all that has previously been written on his general subject, and writing with a lively and evocative style that makes the survey as entertaining as it is enlightening, Professor Yu has succeeded admirably in his chosen task of assimilation and amalgamation. His book proves the aptness of the ancient maxim Ex oriente lux to describe a major leitmotif in American letters.
--Frederick C. Wilkins
4. WINIFRED L. FRAZER, MABEL DODGE LUHAN. (Vol. 477 in the Twayne's United States Authors Series.) Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1984. x + 126 pp. $17.95, cloth. ISBN 0-8057-7418-1.
The past year has been a good one for Mabel Dodge Luhan (1879-1962). Her tempestuous affair with John Reed, semi-fictionalized in the one-acter "Constancy" by Neith Boyce, which had been part of the Provincetown Players' first bill in 1915, was brought back to the stage by the Provincetown Playhouse. Lois Palken Rudnick provided a full-scale biography, Mabel Dodge Luhan: New Woman, New Worlds (University of New Mexico Press, 384 pp., $19.95). And Professor Frazer has enriched the Twayne series with a more compact study in which Mrs. Luhan's adventurous experiences and important associations emerge from a chronological survey of her six volumes of memoirs. Devotees will doubt-less want the Rudnick work as well, but the casually curious will find more than enough in Professor Frazer's pages. For newcomers to the legendary hostess and enthusiast, this is an excellent place to begin. Between its helpful opening chronology and the informatively annotated eight-page bibliography with which it concludes, the path from Buffalo, New York, to Taos, New Mexico, is skillfully traced and studded with evocative passages from the four-volume Intimate Memories, Lorenzo in Taos and Winter in Taos.
To those who, knowing only the legend, wonder why Mabel Dodge merits inclusion in the Twayne series, Professor Frazer provides multiple answers. As a "collector of celebrities" (p. 26), she knew, encouraged and inspired many of this century's cultural leaders, who flocked to her salons in Florence, on Fifth Avenue and in the New Mexico desert. As Professor Frazer explains, "her ability to provide an atmosphere in which others could converse seems to have attracted the prominent and the interesting to her homes, wherever she lived" (p. 32). As a "collectible" in her own right, she figured prominently in the plays, stories, novels and memoirs of others--among them, Witter Bynner, Neith Boyce, Max Eastman, Arthur Rubinstein, Gertrude Stein, Carl Van Vechten and D. H. Lawrence. (She appears as a character in two novels and three stories by Lawrence.)
But it is of course achievement as an author, rather than as catalyst or model, that really earns one a place in the Twayne series; and Professor Frazer offers abundant evidence of her subject's literary skill. In Background (1933), the first volume of her Intimate Memories, Mrs. Luhan achieves a "skillful evocation of the past" (p. l)--her own well-to-do past as a girl in Victorian Buffalo--with a blend of involvement and detachment that brings a departed era "vividly to life" (p. 2): "irreverence, combined with her clear eye for details, makes Mabel an admirable commentator on the ways of the class in which she grew up" (p. 8). Later volumes bring the same gifts to bear on Europe, Manhattan, and finally the American southwest, when Mrs. Luhan describes the daily activities of herself and her fourth husband, Tony Luhan, and captures the changing seasons of her Taos environs. Of particular interest to contemporary readers is the ongoing story of "her remarkable struggle for selfhood as a woman" (p. 60).
Professor Frazer, who has written so valuably of Eugene O'Neill in the past, has here done the same for another important figure in the cultural life of earlier-twentieth-century America. She successfully emulates Mabel Luhan's role as catalyst--whetting one's appetite for the books she so effectively surveys.
--Frederick C. Wilkins
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