EUGENE O'NEILL'S DAYS WITHOUT END AND THE TRADITION OF THE SPLIT CHARACTER IN MODERN AMERICAN AND BRITISH DRAMA
A hallmark of Eugene O'Neill's drama is his creation of dramatic characters with two clearly distinguishable sides to their personalities. The idea of an inner voice separate from the external self, from the face put on to meet the faces that you meet, is as old as the convention of the dramatic "aside." But asides and soliloquies like those of Hamlet are merely conventions and hardly adequate representations of the voice of the human psyche. In the nineteenth century, fiction and poetry found appropriate ways to render the psyche for their readers. Stream-of-consciousness fiction, such as Poe's, and interior or dramatic monologue poetry, such as Browning's, filled that need. But for drama, the means for presenting the inner voice of a character physically present onstage and engaged in the social situations generated by the plot remained a problem. For the most part, the devices for presenting the inner voice, the stream of consciousness, onstage were developed by the giants of expressionist drama: Bronnen, Sorge, Hasenclever, Kaiser and Toller. O'Neill surely knew or knew of their work and sought to forge his own means for conveying the inner voice and consciousness of a dramatic character to a theatre audience. The use of masks in The Great God Brown and of the interior monologues of Strange Interlude are probably his best-known experiments in this endeavor. But self-conscious devices like masks and audible thinking, useful as they are, are cumbersome devices and are not the sort that can be used over and over again by a playwright.
O'Neill eventually learned that for the presentation of the division between internal and external reality, for the presentation of the split character, the actor could be more effective than special effects. Thus, the rendering of the interior self or the split personality in A Touch of the Poet, Moon for the Misbegotten and The Iceman Cometh is more successful than in some of the earlier, more consciously experimental plays. Without O'Neill's pioneering experimentation, however, the dramatic technique of a play like Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, in which Willy Loman moves effortlessly from the world of his present failure to the memories of his past life, would be unthinkable. Like-wise, one feels the underpinnings of O'Neill's dramaturgical explorations in the directions to the actors in Angel City by the contemporary playwright Sam Shepard:
For the ability to present on stage inner and outer reality, the split or fractured personality, and two time periods simultaneously, contemporary American drama must forever be in debt to Eugene O'Neill.
Among O'Neill's experiments to help him find an adequate dramatic means for expressing the divided self is a much neglected, undervalued play, Days Without End. This is a drama that makes an important stride in bringing the Doppelgänger figure, a figure well known in prose fiction, to the stage. In Days Without End, O'Neill's central character, John Loving, is portrayed by two identically shaped, identically clad actors. The one plays John, the other Loving. The mitosis is not as simplistic as it may first appear, for the division between John and Loving—though it is one of the outer reality, John, versus the inner voice, Loving—is more than that. In the tradition of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, it is also the division between a respectable citizen and his satanic inner self. O'Neill's division shows, moreover, on the one hand, the human need for social coordinates—marriage, friends, family, social and economic status—and on the other hand, the counter-urge for individuality unfettered by obligation, classification or duty. John and Loving portray the eternal warfare between the creative and destructive impulses in man. And, as O'Neill conveys them, John and Loving reflect the corollary armageddon between belief and atheism, between the faith of Catholicism and a Satanic scorn toward God and religion. Obviously these splits are reminiscent of a whole galaxy of O'Neill characters, though John Loving comes closest perhaps to Dion Anthony in the dichotomy between the suffering Christian saint and the the sardonic mockery of a Dionysus or Mephistopheles.
What sets Days Without End apart from O'Neill's other plays of divided character is that John and Loving, since they are played by two different actors, can actually carry on with one another a dialogue as well as a dialectic. And through their bitter debates, O'Neill nicely conveys the way in which John Loving, the integrated character, is nearly obliterated by the disjunction of his two selves. And when, at the close of the play, John finally subdues Loving, a three dimensional John Loving emerges, transcending his caricatured personality divisions.
For the most part, reviewers like John Anderson and John Mason Brown or critics like Travis Bogard do not find Days Without End an inspired or inspiring play, for they see O'Neill's double casting as a hollow dramatic gimmick.2 Anderson, panning the 1934 production, wrote, "When John Loving is in the throes of spiritual agony their dialogue monkeyshines became a joint debate between the Gold Dust Twins, or as some irreverent wag remarked in the intermission, a session between Mr. Loving and his spiritual stooge."3
To be sure, O'Neill's Doppelgänger device is a gimmick that creates an often unrealistic psychomachia, a staged debate between John and Loving, the Apollonian and the Dionysiac, the Faustian and the Mephistophelian, the Christian and the Satanic, the ego and the alter ego, the outer self and the inner voice. Barrett H. Clark complained that, "As in a Medieval morality play, the characters are pure abstractions."4 It is, however, really only John and Loving who are abstract figures; and their cardboard qualities are italicized by the fact that they function within a dramatic world that is otherwise realistic and populated with characters who are not portrayed by two different actors, who are not divided. What seems to have been overlooked by both reviewers and critics is that John and Loving's two-dimensionality is precisely O'Neill's point; for as long as John Loving is divided, he cannot function as a human being, existing only as the caricatured, two-dimensional halves of a three dimensional person.
It is quite possible that O'Neill may have taken the idea for Days Without End from one of America's first practitioners of expressionism, Alice Gerstenberg. Her play Overtones, which was produced by the Washington Square Players in 1915, was likely not unknown to O'Neill. In Gerstenberg's one-acter, two characters, Harriet and Margaret, are portrayed by four actresses all on stage at the same time. One portrays Harriet; another Harriet's "primitive self," Hetty; a third Margaret; and a fourth Margaret's "primitive self," Maggie. As in Days Without End, the two sides of each character interact and maintain a dialogue; but in Gerstenberg's excellent though simpler play, the character division is limited to the dialectic of ego and id. Examining Days Without End in light of Overtones, one can quickly recognize that O'Neill deftly extends Gerstenberg's simple, psychological mitosis to encompass philosophical as well as psychological conflict, and to dramatize what was only stated some years earlier by Billy Brown in The Great God Brown: "Man is born broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue!"5
Although the double casting of Days Without End looks back to Gerstenberg's Overtones, it also looks ahead to some contemporary dramas that move beyond O'Neill's experiment. Whereas Days Without End was and is scorned by critics, the contemporary plays have nearly all been successful and praised for the sort of innovation for which O'Neill has been condemned. One can only wonder whether Days Without End would have been applauded had it been produced forty years later.
In many ways resembling O'Neill's play, Adrienne Kennedy's contemporary expressionist tragedy, Funnyhouse of a Negro, moves a step beyond Days Without End. Funnyhouse, which won an Obie Award in 1964, presents the fragmentation of a black woman, Sarah, through the tragic dilemma of being black, intelligent and sensitive in white America. The split between O'Neill's John and Loving is expanded in Funnyhouse, so that one actress plays Sarah, but four other players enact the various male and female selves into which Sarah is fragmented. Those selves include the Duchess of Hapsburg, Queen Victoria, Jesus, and Patrice Lumumba. Jesus, moreover, appears as a yellow-skinned, hunch-backed dwarf; and Lumumba is a black man whose head is split in two and who carries an ebony mask. As in so many O'Neill plays, the origin of the protagonist's problems in Kennedy's play is her parents. The problem of race and color combines with her feelings toward her parents to fragment Sarah, the main character of Funnyhouse, into her several irreconcilable, disparate personalities. The expressionistic techniques, the poetry and the presentation of Sarah and her four other selves in Funnyhouse make the character division and dramatic techniques of Days Without End seem like finger exercises. And whereas O'Neill's John and Loving become glued together into an integrated, whole character through John's rediscovered faith, Sarah the Negro cannot integrate her several selves, becomes psychologically unglued, and hangs herself during the final moments of Funnyhouse of a Negro.
With O'Neill's interest in the impact of the traumas and events of
childhood upon the
In 1977, Marsha Norman's Getting Out premiered at the Actor's Theatre in Louisville. It is almost as though Getting Out marries the psychological, spiritual and philosophical divisions explored by Gerstenberg, O'Neill and Kennedy with the chronological divisions presented by Leonard and Nichols. Getting Out is about the new start in life made by Arlene, a recently released convict in her late twenties. Throughout the play she is haunted and shadowed on stage by Arlie, her hip, delinquent, teenage self, played by a second actress. In her preface to Getting Out, Marsha Norman explains:
In Getting Out, Norman has Arlie and Arlene always on stage together but never interacting. On one level, the play is a memory play in which a reformed, mature Arlene confronts her former unregenerate, younger self. On another level, however, as with John and Loving, the two women represent contrary, conflicting impulses within the main character. When Carl, Arlie's former pimp, lover and the father of her illegitimate child, appears in Arlene's flat, Arlene is able to resist his attempt to reintroduce her to a world of vice because Arlie reenacts the sordid connection she has had with Carl a decade before. The struggle in Getting Out is Arlene's struggle to overcome her Arlie self. And to do so, she must learn to accept the fact that she once was Arlie, to make her peace with her earlier self, and recognize Arlie's positive as well as her anti-social qualities. At the end of Getting Out, Arlie and Arlene reminisce about a comic episode in their child-hood. At that moment, the two actresses come together and simultaneously speak the punch line of the anecdote. The play then concludes with the joint laughter of Arlie and Arlene. That moment of integration and laughter brings to mind the last line of Days Without End, in which the newly integrated John Loving exclaims, "Life laughs with God's love again! Life laughs with love!"9
Recently (January 8, 1981) a new play, Peter Nichols' Passion Play, opened in London. The resemblances between Days Without End and Passion Play are uncanny. Like O'Neill's play, Nichols' centers on both adultery and religion, as its punning title suggests. Like John Loving, James, the main character of Passion Play, becomes entangled in an adulterous affair with his wife's close friend, Kate. The necessity of keeping his liaison secret from his wife, Eleanor, splits James into two roles, the dutiful husband and the passionate adulterer. And these two separate roles become separate selves, James and Jim, portrayed by two different actors. Likewise, when Eleanor learns from a meddling acquaintance of her husband's marital infidelities, she, too, becomes divided into Eleanor and Nell, the stoically calm and the jealous and angry wife, played by two different actresses.
As in Days Without End, the divided self has something to do with the questioning of Christianity in Passion Play. Nichols' James is a restorer of art currently working on the restoration of a Victorian crucifixion painting. Eleanor is a musician actively engaged in singing Handel and Bach oratorios and the Mozart Requiem. Nichols neatly uses the juxtaposition of the Christian passion with contemporary, adulterous sexual passion to illustrate the shabbiness and tawdriness of his characters.10 The eternal sexual triangle can hardly withstand comparison to that other eternal triangle, the Trinity. In both O'Neill and Nichols, modern man disaffected from Christianity becomes divided, at war with himself, and shallow. In Days Without End, however, a play of unusual optimism in the O'Neill canon, John Loving rediscovers and reaffirms his Catholicism, enabling him to reclaim his integrity and humanity. Peter Nichols permits James-Jim and Eleanor-Nell no reclamation, no born-again Christianity. He closes his play instead with Christmas greetings ironically heralding no salvation for his characters. They remain forever divided.
Days Without End has always been looked upon as one of O'Neill's least successful endeavors. Looking at it anew, in terms of its place in a continuum of drama from Alice Gerstenberg's Overtones to Marsha Norman's Getting Out and Peter Nichols' Passion Play, one can see that it may merit more recognition and praise than it has received. As is so often the case with O'Neill's experiments, Days Without End shows O'Neill putting his finger on a technique that is only now being refined and successfully used. What reviewers in 1934 saw as a trick or gimmick, can now be viewed as a rich dramatic device, the potential of which O'Neill may have, at least in part, understood to a greater extent than has hitherto been acknowledged.
1 Sam Shepard, Angel City & Other Plays (New York: Urizen Books, n.d.), p. 6.
2 John Anderson, "Days Without End," Evening Journal (January 9, 1934), rpt. in O'Neill and His Plays, ed. Oscar Cargill, N. Bryllion Fagin and William J. Fisher (New York: New York University Press, 1961), pp. 200-202; John Mason Brown, "Days Without End," The New York Post (January 9, 1934), rpt. in Jordan Y. Miller, Playwright's Progress (Chicago: Scott Foresman, 1965), p. 80; Travis Bogard, Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O'Neill (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), pp. 326-329.
3 Anderson, p. 201.
4 Barrett H. Clark, Eugene O'Neill: The Man and His Plays (New York: Dover Publications, 1947), p. 141.
5 Eugene O'Neill, The Great God Brown, in Nine Plays by Eugene O'Neill (New York: Random House, 1954), p. 370.
6 Another recent American play, Romulus Linney's Childe Byron (1977) also uses two actors to allow the ghost of Lord Byron to view himself as a boy and as a young man. There is, however, no dialogue or interaction between Byron and his youthful self.
7 John Russell Taylor, The Second Wave (London: Methuen & Co., 1971), p. 32.
8 Marsha Norman, Getting Out (New York: Avon Books, 1980), p. 5.
9 Eugene O'Neill, Days Without End (New York: Random House, 1934), p. 157.
10 See especially the opening moments of the second act: Peter Nichols, Passion Play (London: Eyre Methuen, 1981), pp. 59-61.
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