"ELECTRICITY IS GOD NOW": D. H. LAWRENCE AND O'NEILL
In most critical discussions of Dynamo, The Education of Henry Adams is cited as the probable source for O'Neill's play. Travis Bogard, Edwin Engel, John Henry Raleigh, and Louis Sheaffer all suggest that O'Neill was indebted to Adams.1 A more searching look for influences is an early newspaper article by Richard Watts, Jr., "Literary Ancestors of Dynamo." Watts discusses the ubiquitous Henry Adams, but also speculates that the Capeks' R.U.R. and John Howard Lawson's Processional were influential predecessors of O'Neill's play.2 As recounted by the Gelbs, O'Neill himself said that the idea for his play came from a visit to a hydroelectric plant in Connecticut: "He had stopped to visit the plant and had retained a vivid image of the dynamo, 'huge and black, with something of the massive female idol about it, the exciter set on the main structure like a head with blank, oblong eyes above a gross, rounded torso,' which he used in the setting of the last part of the play."3 I suggest, however, that a hitherto unexamined influence on Dynamo is D. H. Lawrence's Women in Love, particularly the chapter entitled "The Industrial Magnate."
That O'Neill read Lawrence's novel cannot be proved. Women in Love is not among the playwright's personal holdings in the Beinecke at Yale University or at C. W. Post Centre of Long Island University, but Mr. David Shoonover, Curator of Yale's Collection of American Literature, informed me that Carlotta owned a copy.4 Although O'Neill began "making notes" for Dynamo as early as 1924,5 he did not start to work in earnest on the play until after he and Carlotta sailed for Europe in 1928. It is quite possible that his future wife introduced him to Lawrence's book, although the dramatist would surely have had access to the volume because it was published in New York City in 1920. 6
O'Neill is rarely linked with D. H. Lawrence, although the English critic and playwright St. John Ervine does just that in a wryly pejorative fashion: "Mr. O'Neill is, in drama, very much what D. H. Lawrence is in the novel: force without direction. He lets off an immense amount of steam, but the train does not move: it still stands in the station from which it is supposed to be removing at the rate of seventy or eighty miles an hour."7 Eric Bentley also connects the two writers: "O'Neill is an acute case of what Lawrence called 'sex in the head.'"8
Whether O'Neill and Lawrence ever met has not, to my knowledge, been documented, although Sheaffer quotes from a letter that Bobby Jones sent to Mabel Dodge in Taos, New Mexico: "I hear you are planning to have the O'Neills and D. H. Lawrence and me all together. I warn you that won't work."9 Jones added that Agnes and Eugene "loathe the idea of Lawrence," although--tantalizingly--Jones does not go into any detail. O'Neill's name is not even mentioned in Lawrence's letters, nor is any meeting between the two writers recorded in Joseph Foster's D. H. Lawrence in Taos.10 Presumably, then, O'Neill and Lawrence never met. Neither is there any indication of Lawrence's opinion of O'Neill's work; the closest we come to what he might have thought is found in the novelist's statement that he didn't want to write like Ibsen or Strindberg.11 Since, however, Lawrence "hated" so many writers--he said Goethe, Kant, Rousseau, Byron, Baudelaire, Wilde and Proust were "all on the wrong track"12--we should not attach too much importance to his singling out for censure the two dramatists most important to O'Neill.
One wonders, though, why O'Neill would "loathe the idea of Lawrence"
because both writers shared many of the same concerns, especially the
belief that the modern world--be it England or America--was a vast,
decaying wasteland. In a letter to Constance Garnett, Lawrence wrote:
"I think there is no future for England, only a decline and fall. That
is the dreadful and unbearable part of it: to have been born into a
decadent era, a decline of life, a collapsing civilization."13
O'Neill's oft-quoted letter to George Jean Nathan about the genesis of
Dynamo is quite similar: "It is a symbolical and factual
biography of what is happening in a large section of the American
What, then, was to give meaning to life? What could man do to find his place, to belong? If God is dead--as Nietzsche said--what will fill the void? In the oldest religions, wrote Lawrence, "the whole life-effort of man was to get his life into direct contact with the elemental life of the cosmos...to come into immediate felt contact... sheer naked contact, without an intermediary or mediator."15 In their writings, both O'Neill and Lawrence try to convey this "elemental life" and attempt to give meaning to an otherwise meaningless universe. In this sense, both are religious writers. Lawrence declared, "[I am] a passionately religious man, and my novels must be written from the depths of my religious experience."16 And we must not forget O'Neill's comparable statement to Joseph Wood Krutch: "Most modern plays are concerned with the relation between man and man, but that does not interest me at all. I am interested only in the relation between man and God."17
In Dynamo and "The Industrial Magnate" chapter of Women in Love, Reuben Light and Gerald Crich attempt to understand this Godless world through the display of power found in electricity. Both embrace science in defiance of their fathers' beliefs. A wealthy mine owner, Thomas Crich had always tried to run his coal mines by Christian precepts:
Gerald was always antagonistic to his father--"[He] had feared and despised his father, and to a great extent had avoided him all through boyhood and young manhood" (210)--and was much closer to the mother who, in turn, worshipped him: "Only Gerald, the gleaming, had some existence for her" (210). Mrs. Crich is as non-Christian and pragmatic as her husband is humanitarian and idealistic. Theirs is an unhappy marriage of opposites, as is the Lights' union.
Like Gerald, Reuben rejects the beliefs of his father, a monomaniacally religious minister "who is the victim of an inner uncertainty that compensates itself by being boomingly over-assertive."19 His God is Ephraim Cabot's eye-for-an-eye, vengeful God of the Old Testament whose awesome strength is displayed in the crackling lightning which so terrifies Reverend Light. Rebelling against this tyrannical conception, Reuben--again like Gerald--feels much closer to his mother, whose "expression is one of virtuous resignation" and whose mouth is "rebellious ... determined and stubborn" (422). Reuben embraces science--electricity--after his mother "betrays" him to his father. He leaves home, berating Reverend Light's fundamentalist beliefs and focusing all his attention on the maternal, crooning figure of the dynamo. O'Neill endows his dynamo with feminine qualities in an attempt to show that man, bereft of God, has turned to science as a child turns to its mother: "It's like a great dark idol...like the old stone statues of gods people prayed to...only it's living and they were dead...that part on top is like a head... with eyes that see you without seeing you...and below it is like a body...not a man's... round like a woman's...as if it had breasts...but not like a girl...not like Ada...no, like a woman...like her mother...or mine...a great, dark mother!...that's what the dynamo is...that's what life is!..." (474)
Gerald is able to express his scorn for conventional Christianity when his father's illness puts him in charge of the mines. No Christian charity for Gerald: "Suddenly he had conceived the pure instrumentality of mankind. There had been so much humanitarian-ism, so much talk of sufferings and feelings. It was ridiculous. The sufferings and feelings of individuals did not matter in the least. They were mere conditions, like the weather. What mattered was the pure instrumentality of the individual. As a man as of a knife: does it cut well? Nothing else mattered" (215). No longer would the mines be run with a thought for the men, since, to Gerald, "[t]he whole Christian attitude of love and self-sacrifice was old hat" (219). He saw that "one must have perfect instruments in perfect organisation, a mechanism so subtle and harmonious in its workings that it represents the single mind of man, and by its relentless repetition of given movement will accomplish a purpose irresistibly, inhumanly. It was this inhuman principle in the mechanism that he wanted to construct that inspired Gerald with an almost religious exaltation" (220). Like Reuben's dynamo--whose "song is the hymn of eternal generation" (482)--Gerald's "great and perfect machine" (220) represents perfection to him, "one pure, complex, infinitely repeated motion, like the spinning of a wheel..." (220). And, as it does for Reuben, electricity becomes Gerald's new religion: "An enormous electric plant was installed, both for lighting and for haulage underground, and for power. The electricity was carried into every mine.... Gerald was [the workers'] high priest, he represented the religion they really felt" (223). Gerald thinks he can subjugate and dominate man and nature, but Lawrence clearly shows that he is worshipping, like Reuben, a false idol.
Substituting science for religion brings both Gerald and Reuben to insanity. Gerald thinks, "What he was doing seemed supreme, he was almost like a divinity. He was a pure and exalted activity" (224). But with the success at the mines, he realizes his own superfluousness: "He was afraid, in mortal dry fear, but he knew not what of. He looked at his own face. There it was, shapely and healthy and the same as ever, yet somehow, it was not real, it was a mask. He dared not touch it, for fear it should prove to be only a composition mask.... He was afraid that one day he would break down and be a purely meaningless bubble lapping round a darkness" (224-225). Reuben, too, is radically changed when he trades God the Father for Dynamo the Mother: "In contrast to his diffident, timid attitude of before, his manner is now consciously hard-boiled. The look on his face emphasizes the change in him. It is much older than his years, and it is apparent that he has not grown its defensive callousness without a desperate struggle to kill the shrinking boy in him. But it is in his eyes that the greatest change has come. Their soft gray-blue has become chilled and frozen, and yet they burn in their depths with a queer devouring intensity" (457). Embracing science brings destruction and self-loathing to both men.
Although "The Industrial Magnate" contains the most explicit expression of Gerald's obsession with science, Lawrence uses electricity as a metaphor throughout the novel to describe sexual attraction. For example, when Gerald is about to make a conquest: "He felt full of strength, able to give off a sort of electric power.... The electricity was turgid and voluptuously rich.... He would be able to destroy her utterly in the strength of his discharge" (57-58). And a few pages later: "Minette sat near to Gerald, and she seemed to become soft, subtly to infuse herself into his bones, as if she were passing into him in a black, electric flow. Her being suffused into his veins like a magnetic darkness.... And as she swung her head, her fine mane of hair just swept his face, and all his nerves were on fire, as with a subtle friction of electricity" (65-66). O'Neill does not use the language of electricity, but he does show that Reuben's conception of love changes radically after he rejects God:
Thus, both authors show that conceiving of male/female relationships in terms of science is destructive, inhuman; "love" becomes a mere manifestation of sexual currents, of animal attractions.
One of the problems with O'Neill's play is that Reuben is searching both for Belief and for Mother. He tries to shun his sexual feeling for Ada because he feels that it is a betrayal of his mother's pure love. After he sleeps with Ada, the only expiation he can offer is suicidal immolation: "There is a flash of bluish light about him and all the lights in the plant dim down until they are almost out and the noise of the dynamo dies until it is the faintest purring hum. Simultaneously Reuben's voice rises in a moan that is a mingling of pain and loving consummation, and this cry dies into a sound that is like the crooning of a baby and merges and is lost in the dynamo's hum" (488).
What is striking in both novel and play is the authors' suggestion that a mother figure is somehow the "answer" to the sterile perfection of the modern world which is symbolized by electricity. Lawrence does not emphasize--as O'Neill certainly does--the Oedipal relationship between Gerald and his mother, but it is significant that, after his father's death, Gerald sneaks into Gudrun's bedroom and finds a peculiarly maternal comfort in her bed: "Like a child at the breast, he cleaved intensely to her, and she could not put him away.... He was infinitely grateful, as to God, or as an infant is at its mother's breast" (338). "And she, she was the great bath of life, he worshipped her. Mother and substance of all life she was" (337). Unable to find fulfillment either in the perfectly run mines or in his relationship with Gudrun, Gerald--like Reuben--commits suicide, curling up (foetus-like) in the freezing snow.
The conclusion of Dynamo is not successful, as Travis Bogard and others have pointed out: "No view, Reuben's or that of any other character, has supremacy at the play's end. The confusion was fatal and the play ends in an unresolved suspension: does Reuben find God? or does his death demonstrate 'the general spiritual futility of the substitute-God search'?"20 Like Yank's fervent embrace of the gorilla at the end of The Hairy Ape, Reuben's convulsive grasping of the dynamo surely indicates defeat, a sense which is underlined by the accusations which the Earth Mother/ Mrs. Fife hurls at the throbbing--and quite impervious--machine: "What are you singing for? And I thought you was nice and loved us! You hateful old thing, you!" (489) Just as Yank's death is barely noticed, so Reuben's suicide is an infinitesimally small event in an uncaring universe: "The dynamo's purr has regained its accustomed pitch now. The lights in the plant are again at their full brightness. Everything is as before" (489; my italics). Reuben's ecstatic prophecy that the dynamo's "power houses are the new churches" (477) fails to be realized.
Early in Women in Love, Gerald is shaken by the views of a friend:
Realizing that there is no God, Gerald is indeed "hard put to
it," and turns first to science and then to love, but neither offers
him solace. How to "belong" in the modern world is the question posed
by Gerald and Reuben at the onset of their quests, and it remains
unanswered at the conclusion of the novel as well as the play.
1 Travis Bogard, Contour in Time (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), p. 319; Edwin Engel, The Haunted Heroes of Eugene O'Neill (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1953), pp. 232-234; John Henry Raleigh, The Plays of Eugene O'Neill (Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1965), pp. 246-248; Louis Sheaffer, O'Neill: Son and Artist (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1973), pp. 306-307.
2 New York Herald Tribune, 24 February 1929, VII, 5.
3 Arthur and Barbara Gelb, O'Neill (1962; rpt. New York: Harper & Row, 1973), pp. 675-676.
4 Personal letter from David Shoonover to Susan Tuck, 23 October 1980. The volume is inscribed: "Carlotta Monterey, Dec. 28th 1921."
5 Sheaffer, p. 147.
6 Lawrence had had considerable problems with censorship when he published The Rainbow and was faced with opposition when he tried to publish Women in Love: "[I]t seems the book will not find a publisher in England at all. Indeed, nobody will print me nowadays, the public taste is averse from me. It is a nasty quandary. The books I have don't sell, so it's a bad look-out" (The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, ed. Aldous Huxley [New York: Viking Press, 1936], p. 395). Lawrence chose to bring out the volume in the United States because the censors were less rigorous.
7 St. John Ervine, "At the Play," The Observer, 13 June 1937.
8 Eric Bentley, "Trying to Like O'Neill," 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, 1961), p. 344.
9 Sheaffer, pp. 96-97.
10 Joseph Foster, D. H. Lawrence in Taos (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1972).
11 Foster, p. 185.
12 Foster, p. 185.
13 The Collected Letters of D. H. Lawrence, ed. Harry T. Moore, 2 vols. (New York: Viking Press, 1962), I, 383.
14 The American Mercury, 16 (1929), 119.
15 "New Mexico," Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D. H. Lawrence, ed. Edward D. McDonald (New York: Viking Press, 1936), pp. 146-147.
16 The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, ed. Huxley, p. 192.
17 Joseph Wood Krutch, "Introduction," Nine Plays by Eugene O'Neill (New York: The Modern Library [Random House], 1954), p. xvii.
18 D. H. Lawrence, Women in Love (1920; rpt. New York: Viking Press, 1974), p. 207. Subsequent references will be included parenthetically within the text.
19 Eugene O'Neill, Plays (New York: Random House, 1954), p. 422. Subsequent references will be included parenthetically within the text.
20 Bogard, p. 321.
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