When I was an undergraduate at Oberlin College, from 1949 until 1953, the reputation of Eugene O'Neill rested on rock bottom. The distinguished English faculty of that admirable college was pretty much persuaded that O'Neill's sun had finally set. He was generally considered, as I remember, an over-rated practitioner of a largely abandoned art form; who was finally getting critically what he deserved. The scorn engendered by O'Neill's awkward language, his newspaper tough-guy posturings, his lamentable tastes in Robert Service type poetry, his self-destructive life-style, his failure to lift melodramatic scenes into higher conflicts, and his constant crude preference for the elementary instead of the complex, was scorching.
As an eager student, trying to learn, I read the plays, noticed all these things, and agreed with my instructors.
I remember this faculty with affection and admiration, but the truth is, they were embarrassed by Eugene O'Neill. Some considered him a rube, New England style. An inept pretender. A glib poseur, whose sarcastic dramatic structures rested on bogs of sickening sentimentality. The only faculty member who had a good word to say about him was the teacher who skillfully and quietly directed the student plays, but the only O'Neill he did while I was there was one of the early sea plays, The Long Voyage Hone, hardly a daring voyage into O'Neill's waters. I am grateful to those teachers for an otherwise first-rate education in English Literature, but I have since always wondered why we came down on O'Neill quite so hard, and why, as time proved, we were so wrong. They were all good teachers, dedicated and fair as scholars, and as readers, sensitive and understanding. I was a sensible enough student. What was it that bothered us so much?
The flaws are obvious. He is not just melodramatic sometimes, he's corny. His characters often do have a preference for sentimental poetry you can't quite believe he didn't like, too, with the right whiskey. And so on and on. But no one else, before or since in the American theatre, has come close to his achievement, and you don't have to look very far to see how few American writers can match his life's work. It seems to me only Henry James and William Faulkner did so much so well.
There were superficial reasons for the decline in his reputation. He had been commercially successful, after all, during his lifetime, as playwrights' careers go. He was not, I gather, a very pleasant man, who did anybody favors, or made any attempt to attract scholars to his work. His dramatic subjects were grandiose to say the least--a modern Greek tragedy in Civil War dress; Marco Polo with the soul of Babbitt; Apollo and Dionysus as small town Americans; Lazarus, if you please, laughing. My goodness.
This all changed when Long Day's Journey Into Night appeared. I was a graduate student by that time, at Yale, and we all went to see Frederic March and his wife—with a young unknown named Robards—in this "last" play of Eugene O'Neill.
Frederic March was wonderful as the father, but when I saw him, he had not yet quite mastered his lines in the last act, and had to pound the table a lot to remember them. Florence Eldridge seemed a little muted to some of us. But Robards was perfect—the living proof that O'Neill's sardonic, arrested-development drunks, given an actor who understood them, were characters of measureless depth and sensitivity, ravaged and loving and raging and descended in a direct line from that tortured young man he portrayed as himself in the early sea plays.
There wasn't much analysis of that play when the curtain came down. Even the young and self-centered graduate students of the late 1950's, with our ambitions and illusions, felt the power of the event. We sat down to our beer with reverence.
Because the play was about the man's own family. Plainly. He had put his father on the stage, and called him a miser. He had put his brother on the stage, and called him murderous. He had put his mother on the stage, and called her a dope fiend.
And as if that weren't enough, he had put himself on the stage, a
loving victim of the other three.
I have never stopped marveling at this play, the greatest work of autobiographical art I know. I have never stopped wondering why the playwright my teachers disliked so much could write it.
I am not very good at suggesting categories, nor do I wish to be, since I distrust them all. But if I can say, and feel reasonably content about it, that the great writers of the past—Homer, Sophocles, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Molière, Tolstoy and Company—generally went about their work in what is called an objective manner, that is, by describing the world around them first, and injecting their personal experiences of life into it second, in disguise; and if I can say that many modern writers have found an alternative—that is, to place themselves at the center of their work, openly, and make no bones about it; then I can also say that O'Neill did both. He wrote like writers of the past, but while doing so, evolved into a writer of the present, perhaps of the future.
Someone no doubt will know better, but I can't think of any other writer who labored in fields so traditional, who then crowned his life's work with a masterpiece so utterly radical. Long Day's Journey Into Night moves into the territory of Kafka, Malcolm Lowry, Sylvia Plath, Jean Rhys and Company, and goes further. Only Strindberg, the author O'Neill so profoundly admired and learned from, attempted anything like it, but his autobiographical writings are marred by mental obsessions that kept him from O'Neill's achievement: the transformation of his most personal experiences into a single great work of art.
Who else did this successfully, after writing for so long in so different a manner? Ibsen? Chekhov? Shaw? The autobiography is there, as it is in the work of all writers, but classically hidden within the stories told. Will Miller? Williams? Albee? These living playwrights I admire almost as much as O'Neill, but in this area I can only hope that they will. Novelists? Poets? I can't name one.
Who, in other words, will transform the core of his life into a work entirely of our time, entirely worthy of Shakespeare, of Sophocles? And how did he do it?
Now perhaps my curiosity about my teachers and our verdicts can be satisfied. Because what bothered us most were those early spurts of awkward biography in the plays, those details O'Neill relished and would not give up. With everyone reading Camus and Sartre then, they seemed so clumsy and crude, so far from the polished shaping of life into objective artistic perception. In those days of the frozen fifties, of the objective correlative and the banishment of an artist's life from his work, my teachers and I were bothered by the stubborn remainders of adolescence in the plays, by the self-indulgence he clearly insisted on retaining, when we thought he must have known better.
And what is fascinating to me now is that those moments O'Neill insisted on preserving—and I mean the stuffing in of bad poems and the asides and too-slangy remarks, the stilted quotations and half-digested pseudo-philosophy--it is at those points I now consider him most wise, for he was keeping, in mature work, some parts of him adolescent. He was learning his lessons, but in that unique and individual way every great artist must, seeking the contradictory truth, looking past his own brilliant theatrical conventions and tours-de-force, searching for something else. What?
Instead of the dour, hateful man he no doubt could be, instead of the terrible parent and the dangerous husband, instead of that sad man he was burdened with, he sought in his work the man he most respected and wanted to be. That was indeed, absolutely, a man who was often still awkward, crude, a poseur, all those adolescent things, for in them lay powers he still had not attained. Slowly, in the long career, working out one sophisticated stage conception after another, he prepared himself, like a worker in darkness, to do some-thing else. Finally, he did. He moved suddenly toward stark autobiography. The sublimations of the one woman surrounded by the two or three men present in so many of the earlier plays, the taste for the exotic and the grandiose, resolved themselves into the reality of his childhood life. As he went from The Iceman Cometh to A Moon for the. Misbegotten to Long Day's Journey Into Night, he penetrated the core and mystery of his own being, and he could write, briefly but finally, as the great master and the great adolescent he always felt, at the same time, he was. He found himself.
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