EUGENE O'NEILL: AMERICA'S NATIONAL PLAYWRIGHT*
When one is called upon to say why a particular playwright should or should not be thought of as a national playwright, one is necessarily called upon to say something about what precisely a national playwright is. While that is really not possible to do, the appellation has been used a good deal, and it implies that the writer in question should be recognized as a spokesman for his culture--its dreams and its defects, its aspirations and its disappointments, its past and its conception of its future. So, in view of my topic, perhaps I should begin with a brief, very rough kind of definition.
In confronting a problem like this one, I ought to state first what a national playwright is not, and then proceed to the more difficult task of saying what one is. So, what is a national playwright not? A national playwright is not, first of all, a national apologist--that is to say, a writer who would explain away his country's defects and focus on the glories of its traditions in exaggerated fashion. America has certainly had many such playwrights, especially earlier in our history, but few are remembered today, or deserve to be.
At the same time, a national playwright is not one who has made a reputation as the representative of and spokesman for either a region, a socio-political outlook, or a minority race. America in the twentieth century has had some distinguished regional playwrights--the best known perhaps being the late Tennessee Williams, who was first and foremost a southern playwright. I am not saying that Williams did not through his southernness speak of national concerns and attitudes, but I am saying that he always spoke as a southerner and for a southern perspective in our country. He detested much about his region, and to some extent his plays may be viewed as exposés of the excesses and repressive attitudes of that region. But being an exposer of the flaws of a region does not make the writer any less a regional writer. In a similar way, I think, Clifford Odets spoke primarily for New York City, more specifically the struggles of people living in the great depression in that city. While his subjects were of national concern, it would be difficult to consider Odets a national playwright.
Similarly, there have been playwrights of greater or lesser success who have represented any number of "isms" in our country. But by the very nature of the question at hand, it is impossible to be a truly national playwright when one is basically concerned with an "ism" or a particular socio-political or philosophical outlook. A national playwright might well be concerned with these things, but he would not be primarily associated with any one of them.
What would a national playwright be? He would certainly be widely known, highly regarded by a broad cross-section of the population. He would speak with the voice of that broad cross-section in diction or dialect, or sets of dialects, that cut across race, region, religion, socio-economic class. He would sensitively probe both the positive and the negative aspects of his society in ways that reveal the previously unrevealed, and articulate that which has not been previously articulated. I also think that a truly national playwright would be one with a substantial international reputation, for if one is a spokesman for his country, he must necessarily be representing his people around the globe. By that measure, of course, the subject of today's talk is most certainly our national playwright. His international reputation is unquestioned. Only his national reputation seems somewhat unclear.
The dramatist whose reputation in many ways leads the way for Eugene O'Neill in this country is one who is considered by many the first modern dramatist--the great Norwegian national playwright Henrik Ibsen. One interesting thing about Ibsen is that in spite of the strong national reputation he possessed, there were many in his time who despised him, and to an extent there still are. Ibsen took a deeply critical look at his society and brought up subjects which many of his countrymen felt should be kept out of view. He explored what was for many a forbidden topic, the sexual mores of his time. He sought to expose hypocrisy of all kinds, especially that of men with regard to women. He sought to throw light on those hidden areas of the human make--up which were later dealt with more scientifically by the great pioneers of modern psychology. In ways I shall be suggesting, O'Neill was for America very much what Ibsen was for Norway.
What I have been saying about Ibsen also holds true for the several other late nineteenth and early twentieth century titans of the theater: August Strindberg in Sweden, Anton Chekhov in Russia, John Millington Synge and Sean O'Casey in Ireland, Bernard Shaw in England, Luigi Pirandello in Italy, Federico Garcia Lorca in Spain, and Bertolt Brecht in Germany. All are true national playwrights. None speaks in glowing terms about his culture, yet all speak deeply out of that culture: penetrating it, articulating its problems, focusing on its needs--speaking always out of a kind of love, even while their tone is scathing. And, of course, it is these playwrights who are performed most extensively around the world today. The arguments over their greatness are pretty much over; the studies and productions mount.
And so we come to
Eugene O'Neill, who is still not fully acclaimed as our national
playwright. I suppose most Americans would acknowledge that he
is, if anyone is. Nevertheless, not too many years ago, at a meeting
of the Modern Language Association in Chicago, Virginia Floyd set up
what she labeled an International Symposium on O'Neill's works. She
called upon leading O'Neill scholars from Europe and America to
assess the nature of the playwright's greatness. Anticipating a huge
turnout, she asked the MLA planning committee to reserve the grand
ballroom of the hotel for the occasion. I was there; so was my wife.
And so were, I think, no more than a dozen others, exclusive of the
several speakers. It was a surprise--perhaps; it was certainly a
disappointment. One of the speakers, the noted Finnish scholar Timo
Tiusanen, asked the question which is
If we look at the criteria I set up earlier regarding national playwrights, O'Neill comes out remarkably like Ibsen. Though a critic, at times bitter, of the social and moral attitudes of his countrymen, he wrote out of a deep knowledge of his culture born of background and experience. The plays on which O'Neill's reputation rested in the 1920's and early 1930's--his most popular period---suggest the great diversity of his subjects. At times there seems a kind of New England regionalism; at other times a dedication to one or another particular philosophical perspective; at other times still, a concern with a certain social or political cause. What we realize from these earlier works is that his interests were in fact constantly shifting. And we realize that his dramatic canon was always greater than the sum of its parts.
The first basis on which O'Neill's place as our national playwright stands is the great and continuing public awareness of his work. Throughout his career, O'Neill spoke seriously to and for a wide variety of Americans--from the city to the country, from farm and factory to the ivory tower. And that awareness is fostered by continuing productions of his plays on and off Broadway, in university and community theaters, and especially on film and television. I suppose I am really saying that the proverbial "man in the street" still knows the name Eugene O'Neill better than any other name in the American theatre. That is hardly the sole basis for the designation "national playwright," but it is a necessary starting point. I wonder if any of our current crop of younger playwrights will be able to say the same.
The deeper reasons for his national place are more complex but constitute the main reason I give this talk. And while I will allude from time to time to earlier plays, I would like to focus my discussion on his last plays. For me, that Eugene O'Neill finally is our national playwright rests on the great plays which ended his career: The Iceman Cometh, Long Day's Journey Into Night, A Moon for the Misbegotten, and Hughie.
The subject I am going to start with here. not surprisingly, is dialect. O'Neill's major characters in these plays tend to use general American diction, and they speak a general American, not a regional, dialect. Of course, if a character is specifically identified as Irish, or English, or South African, or urban American Black, or New England Yankee, he speaks appropriately. (O'Neill is well-known for his simulation of differing dialects.) But the major characters I refer to--Larry Slade and Hickey in The Iceman Cometh, all four Tyrones (despite the Irish-isms of Father Tyrone) in Long Day's Journey, and Jim Tyrone in A Moon for the Misbegotten--all use a broad American speech and vernacular. They employ a good deal of slang, of course; but despite the fact that their slang tends to be of the period immediately preceding and following the First World War, it feels only slightly dated to most modern audiences. It always has the ring of American speech.
If we consider some of
today's playwrights who stress colloquial language--Harold Pinter in
England, for example, or David Mamet in the U.S.--we hear very
special, remarkably unvarying qualities of diction. These
playwrights are successful in hearing a distinctly national speech,
but the speech they convey is really quite narrowly conceived. All
the characters in a play like Mamet's currently successful
Take Larry Slade in The Iceman Cometh as an example. Larry sounds at one moment like a member of the early 20th century American radical labor movement, at another like a foot-shuffling American stew-bum, at another like an American vaudeville stage actor, at another like a nihilistic American philosopher, at another like a despairing American adolescent, at another like a sympathetic Irish-American priest--yet at all times he is a very American amalgam known as Larry Slade. Despite the great variety of voices he uses, we never fail to recognize the integrity of this character. Larry is in the final analysis introverted and not as verbal as his alter ego in the play, Hickey, whose language is more quotable. But Larry makes my point most clearly, I think. That he is very much an American figure is obvious; and that he is convincingly multi-voiced makes his richness and depth as a character stand out sharply from the lesser characters in the play, and from the characters of more recent American dramatists.
Linked with language is the most complex phase of what I believe will be the enduring and increasing reputation of Eugene O'Neill as our national playwright--a quality which has already made him a classic in Scandinavia and other European countries but is still only grudgingly recognized as a quality of greatness at home. In approaching this phase of O'Neill's genius, I would like very briefly to juxtapose two names that I am willing to bet have never been juxtaposed before--for any reason: Frederick Jackson Turner, the American historian who proposed the famous theory of the frontier and systematically linked that phenomenon to a series of what he saw as uniquely American characteristics; and Sigmund Freud, who was almost an exact contemporary of Turner's. While O'Neill of course acknowledged being influenced by Freud, I doubt that he ever heard of Turner. But it is not influence I am concerned with here. I am simply suggesting that O'Neill's uniquely American art combines qualities we might very well associate with Turner and qualities we would very definitely associate with Freud.
In his great seminal essay of the 1890's, The Significance of the Frontier in American History (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1963), Turner draws attention to the idea that what characterizes Americans, as set apart from their old world ancestors, is their "coarseness and strength..., their restless, nervous energy..., their buoyancy and exuberance" (p. 57). Implicitly, we get from Turner a sense of the frontiersman's ready willingness to share feelings with others, yet always a sense too of his uncompromising individualism. Of course, Turner was talking about people living under semi-primitive conditions, highly dependent on one another for physical survival, living in an atmosphere in which traditional forms of education and entertainment were unavailable. People on the frontier needed to communicate as directly as possible with one another for their physical survival. Entertainment might be a tall story or a practical joke, but never comic persiflage and rarely the subtle effort to insult or harm others through indirect statement. Almost everything Turner associates with the frontier (i.e. the American spirit) represents the opposite of European subtlety, indirectness, superciliousness, or irony.
Freud, of course, would seem to be addressing something entirely different from Turner. He is primarily concerned with that whole realm of the unspoken within an individual, those fears and anxieties associated with a person's past which are buried so deep that the individual is unwilling or unable to acknowledge them. Freud is most concerned with unearthing that realm--with bringing the unspoken terrors into the light of day so that they might not seem so terrible. In an unexpected way, his theory is rather like Turner's in being directly concerned with honesty and personal courage--though Freud's concern is with honesty and courage with one's self, while Turner's is with honesty and courage in relation to others. Furthermore, Freud's concern is with essentially private confession, even if a therapist is listening. Turner's frontiersman is one who is always public. He is a social creature, almost totally oblivious of self.
Let me state very briefly, then, the idea I am experimenting with in terms of Eugene O'Neill's being our national playwright. O'Neill, in life and in his plays, was an instinctive, uncompromising Freudian. He would have been one had he never heard the name or theories of Sigmund Freud. His entire adult life, and the whole canon of his plays, was an unrelenting assault upon his unacknowledged realm--the world of his buried fears and anxieties. I do not really need to develop this idea here, because I have already done so elsewhere, as have O'Neill's biographers. But I would like to develop the thought that the style of O'Neill's assault upon his own sub-conscious is the public style of the frontier rather than the private style of the psychiatrist's office. As everything else uniquely American, Turner and other historians tell us, is an amalgam of the European and American, O'Neill's uniquely American dramatic art blends the European (Freud's theories) with the American.
Part of what was refreshing about Eugene O'Neill's plays from the start was the unrestrained directness of his characters. This quality is of course best reflected in his sea plays, written about men who lived in an atmosphere and under conditions which parallel those of the American frontier; but it is also evident in plays written about what might be called New York sophisticates. I think in particular of his Strange Interlude, which recently enjoyed a superb revival in New York with Glenda Jackson in the leading role. This play seems concerned with people who do not express their thoughts openly, directly, or especially courageously. Yet O'Neill's great innovation in the play--its interior monologues--results in the fact that the thoughts and feelings of its characters are quite directly presented to the audience. These monologues make characters who are subtle, indirect, and dishonest with one another direct and honest with us; and the overall effect is a play which is daring in the way it has people revealing their deepest feelings.
Increasingly in his last plays, O'Neill probes hidden areas of human nature in terms that are congruent with Turner's most identifiably American qualities: honesty, courage, directness, lack of restraint, idiomatic familiarity, and the willingness to express the deepest feelings in a communal setting. I would like, in the time remaining, to explore this idea through the characters of Hickey in The Iceman Cometh, Jamie Tyrone in Long Day's Journey, and Jim Tyrone in A Moon for the Misbegotten.
Hickey is different from Jamie in that he is obviously less well educated and is identified as an Indiana "Hoosier" rather than as a Broadway "Sport" (as Jamie is). But even someone unfamiliar with O'Neill can recognize that they are essentially similar. Both Hickey and Jamie richly enjoy the company of rowdy men in bars, they are extremely generous in providing the drinks on party occasions, they are obviously late-stage alcoholics, they seem utterly without cant or prejudice in their attitudes, they are equally at home with people of all social classes and backgrounds, and they are instinctively liked by the people they associate with. They fit the image of Turner's typical American in the broad-gauged honesty and hearty friendliness so often associated with that figure.
But this is only the surface of the Hickey--Jamie figures. What makes them so memorable is that their growth as characters is directly related to the great confessional speeches they make late in their plays. These speeches are all-out, irrepressible revelations of their deepest anxieties--Freudian in the depths they probe, Turner-like in the familiarity of their diction and the open friendliness of their manner. They live out these confessions, not just for a theatre audience as in Strange Interlude, but directly in front of central fellow characters. Hickey begins his well-known last-act confession in phrases which immediately call Turner's frontiersman to mind--open, a bit raucous. and utterly honest:
At the culmination of Hickey's long confession, he tells us of having murdered his wife on the insane assumption that he would in this way be saving her from having to believe that he would one day reform. What is most relevant in this final portion is that Hickey is here actually living through his wildly shifting emotions before his listeners as he expresses them. It is the most dramatic part of his confession, and, in the terms I have been suggesting, the most "American" as well. O'Neill's probing here is Freudian in that it goes so deeply into Hickey's "unconscious" motivation, that portion of him which he only becomes consciously aware of as he speaks--and distinctly American in the explosiveness, the unthinking familiarity, and total honesty of his chaotic reversals:
What has been revealed to us--with, in Turner's words, "the bonds of custom ... broken and unrestraint ... triumphant"--is that Hickey has what Freud would call a "bi-polar nature. His failure has not been in realizing that he hated his wife so much as it has been his failure to acknowledge that the hatred existed side-by-side with the love. In peculiarly American terms, we are reminded that man is an emotionally and psychologically divided creature. With all the "buoyancy and exuberance" of Turner's frontiersman. Hickey reveals his capacity for great, pent-up violence: but in the same terms, he also reveals his equally pent-up love.
As Hickey's American-ness is most evident in both his diction and his remarkable openness, so the two embodiments of Jamie Tyrone take us even closer to O'Neill's vision of an American hero. Like Hickey, these Jamie figures "face the ghosts in their own closets" with an all-out directness and an American "way with words" which take us to the very heart of their own natures, and of human nature as well. Jamie is educated and uses his education as a mighty resource in conveying his feelings. His very American diction is more far-reaching than Hickey's. In Jamie's speeches we hear the sounds of the tavern, the vaudeville stage, the legitimate theatre, the race track, the great poetry of the ages, and the college philosophy seminar. He is verbally the most versatile of O'Neill's characters, as he is the most flamboyant in both gesture and statement.
Like no other O'Neill character before him, Jamie Tyrone communicates the depths of his feelings with uncompromising honesty. At the same time, he is able to give himself unstintingly to the person he feels closest to. That person in Long Day's Journey is Edmund; and the oft-quoted, deeply confessional exchange between brothers late in Act Four reveals the full range of Jamie's feeling for his brother, from the lingering hatred born of their "sibling rivalry," to the desperate love born of an awesome feeling of loneliness should he lose him. Jamie faces the "dead part of himself" uncompromisingly, even exuberantly.
In thus saving "his brother from himself," Jamie is very literally yielding up his own stability, if not indeed his own life, in order that his brother may endure and succeed. Considering the probability that Jamie will indeed lose his brother as a result of this confession, it might fairly be said that no pioneer ever faced the wilderness with greater resolve than Jamie Tyrone faces that loss here. His plea that Edmund not "forget him" is the plea of a despairing man for whom the greatest gift he can give is the remains of his own battered ego.
Finally, there is the Jim Tyrone of A Moon for the Misbegotten. I shall not dwell here on the exchanges between Jim Tyrone and old Phil Hogan early in the play, though they are quite evocative of the comic exchanges of early 20th century American vaudeville. Rather, following the emphasis I have been using for the other characters, I shall look briefly at Jim's long, late-night conversation with Josie which culminates in the great confession of this play. Jim has been drinking most of the day when he comes to keep a 9 p.m. date with Josie at some time approaching midnight. And as he gets drunker and drunker, he begins to mistake Josie for someone he refers to as a "fat blonde pig on the train"--which leads to his great confession. the story about the death of his mother. Having been "on the wagon" for two years just before her death, he describes his return to drink following her fatal stroke:
Why is this uniquely American? The experience itself is not; it is one that could befall any individual in any time or place. So could the experiences central to Ibsen's very Norwegian plays. The point, of course, must come back first to the savagery of Jim's diction, coarsely rich with popular early twentieth--century phrases; to the imagery of the train and the drawing room, with its baggage car and its porter; to the special qualities of the call girl Jim so precisely describes--and even to the fact that we are throughout all this action crossing the American continent.
But more deeply, Jim has sinned in an all-out way, confessed in an all-out way, and been forgiven in an all-out way. And if we think for a moment of the unlikely juxtaposition of Turner and Freud I have been suggesting, that may be thought of as a uniquely American way. Jim's has been a public confession--for though it is made only to Josie, there is as much of the public pronouncement to it as there is to Hickey's confession in The Iceman Cometh--and it has been unsparing in the vividness of its detail. People in Europe grow impatient with Americans because we don't seem to be able to hold anything back--the excesses of our vices, the uninhibited nature of our responses, the frankness and openness of our admissions: what Henry James (in The American Scene) calls the "absence of forms" and the "eclipse of manners" in our responses. What this play's hero admits so fully and openly are things we might not want to look at (as Ibsen's audiences did not want to look at what he presented them); but Jim Tyrone speaks as an American to Americans, and there is something about him which is ourselves. I do not mean that we necessarily have his particular problems. I do mean that the voice he gives to his anxieties, because it is such a familiar voice, beckons our own from their depths.
And so I come to the end. These remarks were hardly needed to demonstrate that Eugene O'Neill is a powerful playwright, but I hope I have also suggested that he is a uniquely American playwright. His language is fascinating because it is so familiar an American diction while it probes so deep. He digs into the well-springs of human emotion in the fashion of the American frontiersman pushing into the wide openness of a new land. It is hard for a culture as diverse as ours to have a national playwright--but we are fortunate in that we do have one, and his name is Eugene O'Neill.
* An abridged version of the annual American Studies Lecture delivered at Baylor University on March 5, 1985.
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