O'NEILL AND FRANK WEKEKIND (CONCLUSION)
[The first half of Ms. Tuck's essay appeared in the last issue of the Newsletter (Spring 1982) on pp. 29-35. Since this second half features a comparison of two major female characters--O'Neill's Nina Leeds (in Strange Interlude) and Wedekind's Lulu (in Erdgeist)--it forms an appropriate part of this special section on O'Neill's women. --Ed.]
While the possible influence of Wedekind's Frühlings Erwachen upon Ah, Wilderness! is largely thematic and general, the imprint of his Erdgeist on Strange Interlude is more clearly and specifically discernible. It is significant that in the first German study in book form of O'Neill,23 Otto Koischwitz devotes several paragraphs to the O'Neill-Wedekind relationship. He maintains that Lulu, Wedekind's fateful "woman-become-flesh" by whom man is destroyed, had made a strong impression on the American playwright. He interprets O'Neill's Nina as a civilized American Lulu to whom men of all ranks, professions and ages gravitate. Koischwitz sees in Nina "eine Banalisierung der Lulu" and concludes that she reminds him of the tame house pets of whom Wedekind makes fun in his prologue to Erdgeist. The American critic Edwin Engel has developed this idea when he maintains that both dramatists succeeded in creating "animals," except that "the jungle beasts have become cows; the Erdgeist, Lulu, emerges as the civilized and sophisticated Nina."24
Civilized or not, Nina nonetheless shares many qualities with Lulu. Most immediately discernible are their similar names, each composed of four letters, two syllables, and ending with a vowel. (In this respect, several other literary women come to mind, all fatal to men: Zola's Nana, Heinrich Mann's Lola, and Ibsen's Hedda.) Lulu and Nina are belle dames, modern-day Liliths who are forever untouchable, catalysts who elicit desire but never seem able to give any real affection in return. Neither Lulu nor Nina is capable of contentment; both are irresistible forces who draw men to them with unerring sureness.
For all their fatal allure, however, neither Lulu nor Nina is physically a voluptuous Earth Mother. Lulu is essentially a mythic character and therefore, in spite of the sexual responses she elicits, essentially bodiless. While we know precisely what Nina looks like at all the "stages" of her life, we never see Lulu. Her portrait--which features her mocking figure in the apparently irresistible Pierrot costume--produces a spellbinding effect on her male viewers, but we never know if her hair is long or short, if her eyes are (like Nina's) mysterious and alluringly large, if her mouth is voluptuously tempting or scornfully aloof. Unlike the sensuous Abbie Putnam in Desire Under the Elms or the earthy Cybel in The Great God Brown, Nina is more boyish than sexy: "tall with broad square shoulders, slim strong hips and long beautifully developed legs--a fine athletic girl of the swimmer, tennis player, golfer type."25 Neither Nina nor Lulu fits the standard belle dame requirements. We are never given a specific description of Lulu because she is simultaneously different things to various men. All Lulu's admirers make her into something different: to Gall she is Nelly; to Schwarz, Eve; to Schön, Mignon. Nina, however, is different things to various men at different times in her life. Hence O'Neill painstakingly describes her at various stages of womanhood: as Professor Leeds' daughter, as Gordon's almost-widow, as Sam's wife, as Ned's lover, as young Gordon's mother, and as Marsden's companion in old age.
Lulu's nature is dichotomous and ambiguous. Early in the play Schwarz says, "I have never painted anyone whose expression changed so continuously. I could hardly keep a single feature two days running."26 Alva and Escerny argue about which dress she should wear, yet neither can decide which Lulu she should be: rose makes her look "too animal," and white makes her appear too "child-like" (p. 187). Schön despairingly calls her a "destroying angel" (p. 211), and the oxymoron is apt. Yet Lulu herself is without illusions. She tells Schön, "You believe not only that I'm an ensnaring daughter of Eve; you believe, too, that I'm a very good-natured creature. I am neither the one nor the other. The bad think is that you think I am" (p. 192).
In a similar fashion, much of Strange Interlude is devoted to the "spoken thoughts" of Nina's men as they ask themselves over and over what Nina can possibly mean. They analyze her motives, dissect her comments, ponder over her actions. Nina's admirers, like Lulu's, are unaware of her true nature, and they all see her differently. Marsden, for example, refuses to acknowledge her sexual nature. Sam Evans, "timorously happy" (p. 535) to be married to her, radiates a "boyish adoration" which is totally incapable of comprehending her. Ned Darrell is able to resist his feelings for Nina and to remain "scientifically" detached for quite some time, just as Schön was able temporarily to withstand Lulu. But Darrell, like Schön, surrenders his self when he succumbs: "God, I'm licked!...no use fighting it...I've done my damnedest... work... booze... other women... no use...I love her!...always!...to hell with pride!..." (p. 606). To love Nina--or Lulu--means relinquishing one's very identity.
Unlike the more calculating Nina, Lulu seems essentially passive; she simply elicits the worst in men. From the beginning of Erdgeist to the violent conclusion of Die Büchse der Pandora, Lulu is more acted upon than acting. She is essentially self-sufficient, impervious, and curiously detached. Nina schemes, maneuvers, plots; Lulu just is.
And Lulu and Nina are quite different in the way they control their men. For example, Lulu states succinctly and rather indifferently, "Love at command, I can't" (p. 159). The men who pursue her are the ones who attempt to do the commanding. Gall dies trying to get her away from Schwarz's advances; Schwarz kills himself rather than admit that she is something different from his artistic idealizations of her; Schön, unable to kill her or himself, weakly begs her to commit suicide because he has strength enough to realize only that he is being devoured by her. Lulu's power is clear when Schön writes the letter to his fiancée and Lulu dictates his message: "For three years I have tried to tear myself free; I have not the strength. I am writing you at the side of the woman who commands me." Lulu even orders him to add a postscript: "Do not attempt to save me." Schön sums up his own future with her: "Now--comes the--execution" (p. 195).
Lulu does not exult about her power as does Nina, who revels in her strength and consciously, even joyfully, exerts it. Nina's moment of triumph at the end of Act VI is achieved because for one brief moment she has simultaneous control of all her men:
Sam, Ned, Marsden, little Gordon--each performs a specific function, rather like drones for the queen bee. It takes all of them to satisfy her.
Similarities between Erdgeist and Strange Interlude need not be based only on Nina and Lulu. When we examine the various male characters, more resemblances arise. For example, there is a marked likeness between the two artists, Alva and Marsden: they hold the same relative position in the constellation of males around the "heroine." In addition, they are ineffectual, somewhat sterile men; their "artistic" achievements are mediocre and strictly commercial. Marsden describes his novels as "long-winded fairy tales for grown-ups" and Darrell accurately sums them up as "well-written surface... has the talent but doesn't dare...afraid he'll meet himself somewhere...one of those poor devils who spend their lives trying not to discover which sex they belong to!" (p. 516). When Lulu asks Alva why his pieces are not "as interesting as life," he shrugs and replies, "if we did no man would believe us" (p. 179). The analogy between Alva and Marsden grows stronger when we remember that they both represent happy child-hood memories and that, moreover, they end up in possession of the woman because she has "nothing to fear" from them.
Just as Alva and Marsden serve the same function, so also do Doctor Goll and Professor Leeds, Walter Schwarz and Sam Evans, and Doctor Schön and Doctor Darrell. Goll, Lulu's first husband, and Leeds, Nina's father, are authority figures from whom the women break away as the plays open. The result?--death for both men. Goll and Leeds, unable to face old age, view Lulu and Nina as vehicles for sustaining their youth. Professor Leeds' nearly incestuous love for his daughter and the fact that Goll makes Lulu perform erotic dances for him intensify the artificiality, absurdity, even sordidness of the relationships.
The next men to enter the plays, Schwarz and Evans, are both forced on Lulu and Nina by the "real lovers," Schön and Darrell, who do so in an attempt to avoid the truth of their own love. Schwarz and Evans are shy, bashful, boyish, naive. Neither has any experience with women nor knows anything of her past promiscuity, and the wife's affair with the "real lover" becomes the central problem. Schwarz obligingly slits his throat when Schön discloses Lulu's past. Comparable information about Nina is kept from Evans in the fear that he would lose his mind if he learned the truth. Both Schwarz and Evans imagine their wives to be paragons of purity, ideal mates. They attain manhood on the sexual level and status in the social world from their marriages, and this new confidence stimulates them so much that they become successful and rich. That Schwarz paints only Lulu and that Evans can achieve success only when Nina bears him a child demonstrates their dependency on the women.
These will-less husbands contrast sharply with Schön and Darrell. Ambitious and highly intelligent, both are debilitated by a conflict between the love they helplessly feel and their ideal self-image. Both put their respectable professions above their emotions; love's weakness, they think, will not touch them. Schön and Darrell, journalist and scientist, regard their respective women as an experiment. Schön, for example, is very proud of the fact that he picked Lulu out of the gutter and made her what she is: "Twice I've married you off. You live in luxury. I've created a position for your husband" (p. 159). Darrell, too, is trying to form Nina's life according to his own dictates: she should have a husband and children, a home and a garden. In essence, he places himself in the role of psychoanalyst, although we should remember that his field is biology. He is performing a dangerous experiment indeed. In both men, the real love is repressed; only the possessiveness of love, rooted in sexual attraction, remains.
A juxtaposition of two scenes, the first with Schön and Lulu (p. 194), the second with Darrell and Nina (p. 579), illustrates the very similar nature of their relationships:
The common elements in the scenes are the reluctance of the man to submit to the woman, his eventual submission, and her triumphant attitude. Yet neither Wedekind nor O'Neill allows such female supremacy to triumph in the end. At the conclusion of Erdgeist, Lulu is literally forced by Schön to kill him; there is no sense of victory in her act, however, and she mourns over and over, "The one man I loved!" (p. 215). Her eventual fate, which we see in Die Büchse der Pandora, is slaughter at the hands of Jack the Ripper. Nina's end is not as dramatic or violent, but it is no less dismal. She gratefully and exhaustedly embraces Marsden; together they will "rot away in peace" (p. 679). Having seized what she wanted for so long, the Nina of Act Nine says she can "no longer imagine happiness" (p. 678), and the evening shadows, which close in on her sleeping form as the final curtain falls, seem as black as the end that Wedekind reserved for Lulu.
23 Otto Koischwitz, O'Neill (Berlin: Junker und Dunnhaupt Verlag, 1938).
24 Edwin Engel, The Haunted Heroes of Eugene O'Neill (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953), p. 84.
25 Eugene O'Neill, Strange Interlude, in Nine Plays (New York: Random House, 1954), p. 494. Subsequent quotations will be given parenthetically within the text.
26 Frank Wedekind, Tragedies of Sex, tr. Samuel Eliot, Jr. (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1914), p. 120. Subsequent quotations will be given parenthetically within the text.
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