Menu Bar

 

Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. V, No. 3
Winter, 1981


(IN THIS ISSUE)

EUGENE O'NEILL AT WORK: A REVIEW1

It is difficult to estimate the number of hours which must have gone into Virginia Floyd's work of transcribing, editing, analyzing and evaluating O'Neill's notes on work in progress and in prospect. To the problem of his tiny, cramped handwriting are added the difficulties of comparing the various versions in O'Neill's notes and scenarios with final, published plays, and reducing the descriptions of his developing ideas to a manageable succinctness. It is no mean task in itself to be familiar with the dialog and the exact plot sequences of all of O'Neill's work. How much more in the way of mental calculus is required to describe the differences in various versions of each play!

O'Neill himself, as he sought for many years to write play cycles encompassing generations of family histories, became bewildered by the task of fitting the plays together and of creating accurate characters and backgrounds of earlier eras. Although Floyd is not specifically concerned with the Possessors cycle (which Donald Gallup is working on), she is confronted with many of the complicated ideas for extensive treatment of characters and scenarios found in the notebooks in which O'Neill recorded his plans and accomplishments during the years 1918-1938. Granted the privilege by Curator Gallop in 1978 (twenty-five years after O'Neill's death) of viewing and editing the notebooks in the O'Neill collection of Yale University's Beinecke Library, Floyd accomplished a monumental task in getting the work in print this year.

The volume throws new light, especially, on O'Neill's never-completed plays; second, on the origination and revisions of his published work; and third--of biographical interest--on his political and social proclivities through twenty-five productive years.

One example of the many plays O'Neill never completed is "Career of Shih Huang Ti," concerning a despotic Chinese emperor of the second century B.C. who destroyed all books and records so that history might begin with him. Through nearly a decade (1925-1934), the playwright took notes and read historical accounts, planning to dramatize not only the public career of the emperor but the conflicts within his family, particularly with his mother, whom he banishes but is forced to have returned to the capital. An incestuous love for his mother makes him force his rival, his younger brother, to commit suicide. His aims of domination of China are opposed by scholars and local authorities, who represent a view of right conduct as taught by the sages through the centuries. Even so brief a summary gives evidence of both autobiographical and political-philosophical ideas which the scholar will recognize as O'Neill's.

Another, "The Life of Don Sturgo Nacimbin," begun after Days Without End, portrays a Christ-like figure in the wilderness of Lower California, who leaves wife and children to serve the isolated peoples of the area, fearing only snakes and loving the Lord above all. Others, suggested by books the playwright was reading, are "Germinal," his only attempt to dramatize a novel; "Runaway Slave Play," suggested by an incident in Thoreau's Journal; and "Robespierre," for which he read biographical and historical studies of the French Revolution.

Others, more autobiographical in origin, include "Silence," 1919, in which a man, having gone to the wilderness for five years to make his fortune, finds he cannot bear the noise of wife and child when he returns; "The Calms of Capricorn," one of the cycle plays planned to take place on a clipper ship bound for California; and "Love Play," in which a middle-aged couple must recognize that their youth is past. These and innumerable other starts indicate how constantly O'Neill was at some step of the task of playwriting during his productive years.

As one example illustrating the genesis and progress toward production of a completed play, the notes for Strange Interlude seem typical. O'Neill's first notes for the play, in 1923, were based on a story told him by a former aviator of the Lafayette Escadrille. In this version the heroine has been married to the downed aviator and in the first draft had had a child born dead. The general plot is similar to the final version, although a neurologist, Dr. Amos Aimsworth, eliminated from the cast in the final version, is the father of Nina Bayne's child, instead of doctor-scientist Ned Darrell, who fathers the son of Nina Leeds. Mrs. Amos Evans, Nina's mother-in-law, is added in the final version.

"Down in Flames," "Brought Down in Flames," "The Haunted and Hunted," and "This Strange Interlude": all of these titles appear at the beginning of the scenario. In the first version, Nina has several children by the doctor, all of whom hate him but love their "father." Consequently, after the death of Phil Adams (Sam Evans), when Nina and the doctor marry, the result is complete estrangement from the children and grandchildren. Originally in six acts, then in nine scenes, before the final version of nine acts, the play's characters, as described, are markedly different from those in the final version; and Charles Marsden, although listed in the cast, does not appear in any scene of the first scenario. In the 1925 scenario, O'Neill makes no mention of the stream-of-consciousness technique, but he adds a section labeled "Method" in 1926: "Start with soliloquy--perhaps have the whole thing nothing but a thinking aloud...." In the 1926 scenario, "New novelist character" Marsden is made to appear in each scene, a shift in emphasis which perhaps helped the playwright work out his subconscious-thought plan for the dialog. Floyd's book thus provides many details as to how O'Neill's plays grew from inception to completion--information which, for this play and others, she helpfully relates to his personal situation and location at the time of writing.

What also emerges from O'Neill's notes, Eric Bentley notwithstanding, is a picture of the playwright as thinker. The history plays--those already mentioned and others--are filled with the problems of man as evil and as good, as greedy and belligerent but also heroically altruistic, even though frustrated in good aims by the selfish. Politically and socially, the downtrodden have O'Neill's sympathy, even though he has no faith in panaceas. The belief that he was more interested in the esthetic than the moral and social purposes of drama is not borne out by the notes for his many plays.

A late one, for example, "The Visit of Malatesta," concerns the flight from Fascist Italy of the great anarchist Enrico (called Cesare by O'Neill) Malatesta to America, where he chides his old Italian friends, the jolly Daniello family, for their material-ism. Furthermore, la Hickey, he tries to reform them, detailing the evils of drink and moneymaking. Although the play is in the comic, almost farcical mode (Floyd thinks it might have been the great American comedy), it takes a serious look at questions of morality and politics.

From the time of "The Second Engineer" and The Hairy Ape, O'Neill speculated about anarchism and revolution. World War II made him ponder deeply the evils of Nazism and start a number of plays on related subjects. After the war he worked for many years on "The Last Conquest," questioning whether man would progress or be annihilated. In short, O'Neill's notes through the years reveal a man obsessed with social concerns.

To note a few criticisms of the book is not to deny its tremendous value to all students of O'Neill. The short bibliography consists of only twenty-eight items--eleven works cited by O'Neill, ranging from Thoreau's Journals to Josephson's The Robber Barons; and seventeen cited by Floyd, ranging from John Toland's Adolf Hitler to O'Neill's poem, "Fratricide." Although one might be wrong to expect a traditional O'Neill bibliography in what is essentially a work of transcription and description, this one seems rather incomplete and haphazard.

The title of the book is apt, but its subtitle, Newly Released Ideas for Plays, is less fortuitous, conveying as it does the publicity agent's hot-off-the-press hard sell. Although devising a better one is not easy, I would suggest that "From Notes to Printed Plays" or "Ideas for Plays from Formerly Restricted Notes" would be more accurate. It may go without saying that scholars will want to examine the available work diaries, notes, and scenarios for themselves, not expecting to get from Floyd's summaries all that is in the originals. I can offer a personal example. Out of interest in O'Neill's relationship to Emma Goldman, I hoped to find verification of what had been reported to me--that in a manuscript version of Iceman, anarchist Rosa Parritt is named Emma Parritt. Although she provides a helpful chart of actual persons and their various fictional names in Iceman, and provides a long footnote on O'Neill and Goldman, Floyd omits the name of Rosa Parritt from her chart of characters.

One wonders if the twenty-five-page introduction might not have been shortened, since some of the information is repeated in the later analyses of the plays. A glaring example is the repetition in the Introduction (p. xxxviii) and in the text (pp. 279-80) of a hundred-word reply to Lawrence Langner, which O'Neill made after recording on the Sound Scriber Larry Slade's "Let me live a little longer" speech. In both cases the citation is used to prove that O'Neill could not create through dictation and that he exorcised "ghosts" of people he had known in his lifetime by his play-writing. Once is really enough.

Since it is difficult to know just what details any scholar needs, or needs to be reminded of, in connection with any work, it is no doubt better for Floyd to have erred on the side of repetition rather than omitting pertinent data concerning the times, places and situations in which the playwright worked. All in all the faults are minor compared to the virtues of the book, which also includes a great many of the playwright's line drawings for his stage sets. O'Neill scholars must be grateful to Floyd for her careful and extensive editing of O'Neill's working notes in a volume which reveals new views of the man and his methods of creating plays.

--Winifred Frazer

1 Eugene O'Neill at Work: Newly Released Ideas for Plays, edited and annotated by Virginia Floyd. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1981. 448 pp. $25.00.

(IN THIS ISSUE)

 

Copyright 1999-2007 eOneill.com