When Eugene O'Neill's place in American drama is assessed by critics and literary historians, the comment most often made is that he "revolutionized" the American theatre, that serious American drama really began with him. If his work is to be accorded this status, the plays deserve to be examined for their implications as social documents as well as for their value as works of art. This essay attempts one part of that examination.
O'Neill's often quoted remark that he was interested, not in the "relation between man and man," but only in the "relation between man and God"1 shows us what his intentions were: to transcend the social role of his characters in order to examine their place in the universe, to look at the "impelling, inscrutable forces behind life."2 Though this attempt sometimes failed--especially in a play like All God's Chillun, where the social context was too powerful to be transcended--we can see O'Neill's major characters as "romantic idealists" trying to "clutch" their dream,3 trying to see beyond the horizon.
However, in his major plays, he had to root his characters in the real world, to provide some recognizable environment for them as a metaphor for the human condition as he saw it. Whatever their particular niche in society, whether humble of lofty, the protagonists have a starting place from which to begin their quest for the ideal. The seamen of the S.S. Glencairn frame their inexpressible longings against the eternal sea, which is both their work and their life. Yank, in The Hairy Ape, finds his identity and his self-worth in his work until that world is shattered. Even the more articulate protagonists define themselves by their professions, their place in the world. In The Great God Brown, the conflict between Brown and Anthony, businessman and architect, is a conflict between materialist and artist. In these instances, social roles define the characters' humanity and serve as foils for their aspirations.
The male characters, that is. The female characters, with few exceptions, are defined only by their biological roles--in other words, by their relationships to the men in their lives. Other than being daughters, wives, mothers, or lovers, the women have no significant careers, except for Eleanor Cape, an actress in Welded. Even then, she is her husband's creation, acting in plays he writes for her. The prostitutes, of whom there are many, obviously have a profession, but one which depends exclusively on the favors of men.
Despite this limitation, female characters can be, like the men, dreamers, searchers after some unrealized goal. Ruth Atkins Mayo, Abbie Putnam, Nina Leeds and Sara Melody, for example, all search for something beyond their present existence. However, in all these cases (and others) the search is a quest for the perfect marriage, the perfect love, the perfect son. The women's struggles may have ideological content, but their ultimate questions relate to personal relationships, like those in a marriage or a family. Christine Mannon's plaintive appeal, "Why can't all of us remain innocent and loving and trusting?"4 sounds much like Mary Tyrone's, "None of us can help the things life has done to us."5
Though male characters do sometimes share these aspirations, and though their struggles are often inextricably bound up with the women in their lives, they usually dream of things beyond the domestic sphere. Robert Mayo dies, dreaming, not of his marriage, but of what lies beyond the horizon. Con Melody dreams of castles in Ireland and past military glory. Dion Anthony--later, Billy (Dion) Brown--struggles with life's meaning in an indifferent, materialistic world. James Tyrone's deepest regret is the loss of his promise as a serious actor.
Though women do figure in the illusions of several male characters in The Iceman Cometh, Larry Slade and Hickey among them, these relationships do not constitute the sole cause of the despair afflicting the major characters. Other than Parritt's illusion, perhaps the bartender's is the most directly connected to women. These women, the only ones to appear in the play, are prostitutes, their profession the one most often represented for women in O'Neill's plays. Prostitutes play major or important roles in Anna Christie, All God's Chillun, The Great God Brown, Welded, Ah, Wilderness! and two one-act plays, "The Web" and "Moon of the Caribbees." And prostitutes are referred to in Desire Under the Elms, Moon for the Misbegotten, Long Day's Journey Into Night, and Hughie.
The prostitutes serve many functions in the plays, from providing escape for the Cabots and Jamie Tyrone to offering a kind of folk wisdom in Welded and The Great God Brown. John Henry Raleigh points out that, for the male characters, "the prostitute means two complementary but contrasting things: first, bawdy and therefore enjoyable conversation; and, second, guilt-ridden sexual intercourse."6 The men go to prostitutes to punish themselves for their guilt feelings toward the chaste women in their lives.
Anna Christie, as the protagonist of her play, has, of course, a more complex role than most of the other prostitutes. Though she has become free of her past, it will not leave her alone. When marriage is proposed to a prostitute, complications ensue, even though the proposer has a sexual past to match that of his prospective bride. Anna's protest to that effect is brief and easily passed over by both men in the play and by the author. Matt brings his pride as a seaman to this marriage; Anna has nothing to offer but a tarnished body.
Similarly, Abbie Putnam has nothing else to offer, so she must sell herself in marriage in order to stake a claim on the farm (her first real home) which father and son struggle over as a matter of right. Sara Melody ensures her marriage to Simon through seduction, and then, later in the marriage and at his request, she plays a strange role of harlot to her husband (More Stately Mansions).
The point of all this is that the male characters, at least a large number of them, operate from two dimensions: their work, which gives them a place in the larger world, and their relationship to the women in their lives. The female characters for the most part operate in a more limited sphere, fulfilling the traditional roles for women.
It is natural that critics, in their exploration of the deeper levels of meaning in O'Neill's plays, look for mythic qualities, for characters as archetypes.7 O'Neill himself declared his interest in the "impelling, inscrutable forces behind life," and in man's struggle "to make the Force express him instead of being, as an animal is, an infinitesimal incident in its expression" (Cargill, pp. 100, 125-126). Doris Falk finds both Freudian and Jungian concepts in O'Neill's plays--the Oedipus and Electra complexes providing a source of conflict for the characters, the Jungian male/female archetypes operating through O'Neill's men and women.8 The animus or male principle, Falk points out, is equivalent to the "Spiritual Principle" of the universe, the female to the "Physical Principle" (p. 76). This philosophy seems to be corroborated in the roles played by men and women in O'Neill's plays (indeed, in much of literature). Men seek the larger goals: the meaning of the universe and man's place in it; women pursue more personal goals--usually, fulfillment in love.
Characters in the plays reflect O'Neill's personal life as well, representing the various aspects of love, comfort, and support that he needed from women and perhaps found in his third wife. Carlotta Monterey revealed how O'Neill, during their courtship, never directly expressed his love for her, but rather his strong need of her.9
Even those female characters whom O'Neill gives symbolic qualities
seem to suggest these roles. Cybel, in The Great God Brown,
partakes of the nature of the Earth Mother, as her name implies.
Though O'Neill is borrowing from mythology, the implications of the
character are both Freudian and, for the author, personal. Cybel
functions at various levels for both Brown and Anthony. At the most
basic level, she offers escape and a placid, undemanding
companionship, a function which prostitutes similarly provide for
Michael Cape in Welded and for Jamie Tyrone. Though Brown needs
to possess Cybel sexually, Anthony finds in her a different kind of
love. "You're strong. You always give. You've given my weakness
strength to live."10 But both men need much more from Cybel;
they need the all-encompassing love of a mother, which becomes the
compassion of a goddess. Anthony addresses her as "Miss Earth" and
The male characters seem to be insatiable in their need for love of various kinds. Abbie Putnam and Josie Hogan, like Margaret Anthony, offer both maternal and sexual love. But sometimes the two kinds are separated. In Moon for the Misbegotten, Jim Tyrone rejects Josie's sexual love, needing to purge himself and to keep his mother's memory pure. Josie plays the role of confessor, then lets him go; her part in his life is ended. In More Stately Mansions, Simon's wife and mother struggle for sovereignty over him. Sara, who is both wife and harlot, wins because she is the stronger.
In those plays, then, where the relationship between the sexes is explored, the men look to the women, not as intellectual companions, but as lovers, mates, parents--all biological roles. Even in plays like Desire Under the Elms, Beyond the Horizon, Long Day's Journey Into Night, and Moon for the Misbegotten, which confine the action to domestic settings, there is the chance for the men to expand their horizons. Ephraim Cabot is tempted to leave the farm, as he had once before and as two of his sons have done. Andrew Mayo takes the adventurous trip his brother Robert dreamed about. Though the lives of the three male Tyrones are static at the time of Long Day's Journey, they all have more mobility than Mary Tyrone.11 And Josie Hogan remains on the farm as Jim Tyrone brings his world of troubles to her. In contrast, the women's roles--their experiences, whether literal or symbolic--are always filtered through their place in the domestic world.
This is true even of plays with female protagonists. Strange Interlude, which O'Neill called his "woman play," seems at first glance to reverse the pattern of some of the other plays. This time it is a woman, Nina Leeds, who needs four men to fulfill biological roles in her life: father, husband, lover, son. When Nina says at the end of Act Six,
she encapsulates the destiny of women in O'Neill's plays.
By making Nina the protagonist, O'Neill necessarily subordinates the men and their lives in the outside world to the main theme of the play--Nina's search for fulfillment and her ultimate acceptance of her diminished destiny. However, the men's occupations have significance in defining their characters. Nina's father, described as a "fugitive from reality," is, appropriately, a professor of classics, a believer in tradition, whose selfish reluctance to accept a change in his situation triggers the action that severely affects his daughter and colors all her subsequent behavior. Marsden, a writer of effete novels of manners, is also in retreat from life, content to be a spectator until the time comes for him to replace the professor in Nina's life. Not only does Nina complete her life cycle between these two men--from being the professor's daughter to becoming Marsden's wife/daughter--she gives up her rebellion, her search for fulfillment, as she returns to the security of life with a father figure, and thus to a passive existence with a passive man.
Her active life, the years of her rebellion and her quest, are associated with younger, more active men. The lost lover, a pilot downed in the war, takes on a glamor that can never be tarnished by the mundane world. Her son Gordon seems to embody all the talents of his spiritual father, a kind of reincarnation for Nina; hence her fierce possessiveness of him. Even though her husband, Sam Evans, seems as banal as any Sinclair Lewis character, he is financially successful and can therefore claim a certain status in the world. Ned Darrell, as a scientist, assumes his ability to remain detached in his and Nina's experiment, and is, consequently, trapped by his emotions as he becomes a bitter and frustrated man. Later, when he achieves a kind of acceptance of his fate, his profession does save him by providing meaning for his life.
Nina Leeds is certainly the strongest character in the play in the sense that she initiates action. She acts and the men react out of their need for her. Indeed, it is each man's need of her that makes him vulnerable. Her father earns her hatred through his machinations; Darrell runs away to avoid emotional bankruptcy; Marsden spends his life waiting, only to claim his reward when Nina is emotionally exhausted. Though Sam's lack of perception keeps him from too much unhappiness, his vulnerability becomes apparent in his work when Nina appears to be drifting away from him.
Nina is, of course, vulnerable too, in spite of her evident power over the men around her. She has not been able to control events and, after her son's marriage, is ready to accept a diminished life. Her resignation comes at the age of forty-five, a symbolic age for women and a further indication that O'Neill defines his women biologically. The stages in her life correspond to physical rather than intellectual changes. Even her concept of God suggests these roles: "God the Father," the "Boss," is "thoroughly comfortless." "God the Mother" offers peace to "Her children," whose life rhythm "beats from Her great heart, torn with the agony of love and birth" (pp. 524-525).
That is the dilemma of the play. Nina is the center of focus for four men, three of whom were her sexual partners; she is one of O'Neill's "romantic idealists" who spends her adult life trying to replace Gordon's love. But her horizons were inevitably limited by the nature of her goal. The cast of this play might very well read: Mr. Leeds--professor; Charlie Marsden--writer; Ned Darrell--scientist; Sam Evans--advertising man; and Nina Leeds--WOMAN. Suppose she had been a writer, a scientist, a professor. (At least, she would have had twenty more years before retirement.) What kind of play would that have been? Could O'Neill have written it? Or was his need for love and support so great that he had to view women only in their elemental nature? If so, the result was not necessarily misogyny, but certainly a somewhat limited view of half the human race.
1 ONeill's full statement, appearing originally in Joseph Wood Krutch's introduction to Nine Plays, is quoted in Oscar Cargill et al., eds., O'Neill and His Plays: Four Decades of Criticism (New York University Press, 1961), p. 115.
2 Cargill, p. 100 (from a letter written by O'Neill to Barrett Clark).
3 Cargill, p. 104 (from an article originally published in the New York Tribune, February 13, 1931).
4 Mourning Becomes Electra, in Nine Plays by Eugene O'Neill (New York: Modern Library, 1954), Act One of The Hunted, p. 759.
5 Long Day's Journey Into Night (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), Act Two, Scene two, p. 61.
6 John Henry Raleigh, The Plays of Eugene O'Neill (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1965), pp. 121-122.
7 Among these critics are Travis Bogard, Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O'Neill (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972); Edwin Engel, The Haunted Heroes of Eugene O'Neill (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1953); and Dhupaty Raghavcharyulu, Eugene O'Neill: A Study (Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1965). In these critics' analyses of the male/female principles in O'Neill's plays, the male is always assigned power, the female the supportive qualities.
8 Doris Falk, Eugene O'Neill and the Tragic Tension (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1958), p. 76.
9 Frederick Carpenter finds the pattern of O'Neill's emotional life reflected in his three successive marriages, a pattern which is also reflected in his professional life, as he moved from portraying the quest for ideal beauty, through despair, to an acceptance of reality. Frederick I. Carpenter, Eugene O'Neill, rev. ed. (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979), pp. 35-37.
10 The Great God Brown, in The Plays of Eugene O'Neill (New York: Random House, 1941), III (Act Two, Scene one), 48.
11 James Scrimgeour seems to miss the significance of this fact in Mary's life when he contrasts her with the rest of the family. Mary, Scrimgeour states, unlike the other Tyrones, "journeys into isolation from--rather than involvement with--other human beings." James R. Scrimgeour, "From Loving to the Misbegotten: Despair in the Drama of Eugene O'Neill," Modern Drama, 20 (1977), 50.
12 Strange Interlude, in Nine Plays by Eugene O'Neill, Second Part--Act Six, p. 616.
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